Monday, 17 March 2008

Of starch and cheese…

I arrived home weary one evening last week, after a long train journey from France, to find my lovely cousin Anna, fresh from ski-instructing in Austria, had let herself into the house armed with a spätzle hobel and her Auntie Anita’s recipe, to prepare a restorative repast for the travellers from the warm south – we were to succumb to the joys of Käsespatzle!

Spätzle are a form of short, fresh egg noodles and can be found anywhere from Alsace to the far reaches of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Combined with copious quantities of various mountain cheeses and topped with fried onions, they are a staple for any vegetarian attempting alpine winter sports – simply the best way to pile in the starch and protein you need to keep you warm and active, plus they always seem to be prepared without the ubiquitous bits of pig one finds lurking in every corner of an Austrian menu.

The hobel is an exciting utensil (you can make spätzle with a colander but it's very messy). It resembles a flat cheese grater mounted with a hopper which slides back and forth. The almost unworkable, moist dough falls happily through the holes as it is pushed back and forth in the hopper, towards its joyful fate in a large pan of boiling water.

Once the spätzle come to the surface, they are skimmed off with a slotted spoon or spider and deposited in a dish where they are layered with mountain cheeses (gruyère and emmenthal can be substituted – or for some proper Austrian gear, visit Kipferl, the lovely Austrian café/deli in Long Lane, London EC1

Sliced onions are dusted with flour and then fried quickly in very hot fat until brown and crispy, then sprinkled on top of the Käsespätzle.

A green salad is the traditional accompaniment – and don’t forget the white wine, which helps break down the cheese, preventing it from forming a big lump inside you (well, that’s my excuse). A nice crisp Grüner Veltliner perhaps?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Regional issues and haddock leanings

Today has been all about Brandade.

The word Brandade comes from the Provençal verb brandar, meaning to stir, (which activity I admit to relishing in all its guises). It is alleged to have originated in Nimes but is well travelled and some might say dreadfully bastardised; these accusations can as always be refuted by vague mumblings regarding regional variation. My brandade, I shall now assert, is Toulousain in origin due to the garlic content. Languedoc and Provence can whistle. On this occasion only, you understand.

Adolphe Thiers, 17th Prime Minister of France was known to receive illicit pots of the substance from his historian friend Mignet – these he ate furtively, and it is said exclusively in his library, where one might have assumed that his full attention would and should have been absorbed with affairs of state. There is no accounting for the rampant appeal of garlic and slightly rotten fish, it seems. Perhaps the Southern muck left him spent, and thus immune to other lascivious and risky entertainments that a man of his position ought avoid.

We’ve previously had brandade on our menu, but noted a slow sell, perhaps due to the word ‘salt’, and I recall substituting the salt cod for equally challenging smoked eel last summer, to mine and Camille’s (only) delight. Today’s brandade featured menu friendly smoked haddock and I therefore hope to see it ravaged by tomorrow morning. Not least because I’m experiencing a sudden resurgence in my fondness for smoked haddock and cannot reasonably subject my public to smoked haddock and bacon chowder, or smoked haddock and chard tart until the menu is again haddock free.