Amazed in the Meuse, from dragées to dragons

June 23rd, 2008

A week in Lorraine – the Meuse and Moselle region of northeastern France – isn’t enough. What I had planned as a jaunt to visit Verdun, to taste and learn more about fine, artisanal sugared almonds turned out to be a revelation beyond candy-making. Wedged between Alsace and Champagne-Ardennes on the northern route to Luxembourg, the Lorraine region doesn’t get much ink in travelogues – or even in foodologues. The fact that Jeanne d’Arc lived here is an item tossed into guides and tourist pamphlets, as an aside to the glories of the Isle de France and the Loire valley. Since pre-Roman times, this cross roads has carried its history well, surviving invasions and changing rulers. In fact, it is amazing that so much remains after centuries of warfare.

After a day in Verdun, where Dragées Braquier have made sugared almonds since the eighteenth century (this is another, sweeter story!), we took a regional bus back to Metz, rolling through tranquil landscapes of pastures and river valleys from the Meuse to the Moselle. The city’s enormous central train station has a hulking stone presence, reflecting the neo-roman style popular in early twentieth century Germanic architcture (Metz was at the time under German rule).  I looked up at the modern fingers of light ringing the station plaza, and thought: these look like talons – or claws of a beast. We would meet the monster later, in the crypt of Cathedral St-Etienne.

We ambled up and down walking streets lined with shops on the way to the city’s central market. The best of Metz’ shopping streets is Rue Tête d’Or, where pastries and confections decorate windows, enticing me inside to inspect and to catch a whiff of raspberries and vanilla. I stopped to admire fanciful pastries as we passed Claude Bourguinon’s chocolate shop and tea room, just as a case of artisanal ice creams was temptingly rolled onto the street. We found the U-shaped Metz market hall facing the grand cathedral, which is still the hub of this vibrant city. Longer than the cathedrals of Bourges or Strasbourg, and nicknamed “God’s Lantern”, Metz’ cathedral is illuminated by 6,500 square meters of stained glass. Like many buildings in this historic center, St-Etienne is built of a luminous golden stone, pierre de Jaumont. With or without exterior illumination, these plazas and surrounding façades seem to glow from within. After a pause to study the cathedral looming over a café on the plaza, I was ready to scout for regional specialties in the market hall. June brings the melon season, berries and rhubarb for tartes, along with early green cabbage and flats of chantarelle mushrooms. Jars of Mirabelle plums are everywhere, but fresh Mirabelles will not be in the market until August. Then, the sweet, golden plum is cause for celebration in Metz, attracting thousands to its annual Mirabelle Fest.

Well past noon, a mounting hunger sent us in search of lunch à la Lorraine. The Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is a short walk, across two bridges, from the cathedral. We luckily found a table on their shaded terrace, an ideal spot to watch swans dipping into the river. I sipped a fruity white Moselle wine and awaited the arrival of a Tarte aux poireaux (Leek tart), then a Pintade au choux (Guinea fowl braised with cabbage) before tackling a Tarte aux groseilles à la crème d’amandes. The waitress, dressed in peasant skirt, cap and bodice, smiled when I rolled my eyes and took the last bite of the dark berry (currants and raspberries) tart with almond cream. My husband, Michel, didn’t look surprised and asked: More cream, eh? Well, a two-tart lunch doesn’t happen every day – only in Lorraine.

The crypt below St-Etienne cathedral holds artifacts of the city as well as religious documents and sculpture. And that is where I encountered a replica of the city’s legendary monster, the Graoully, suspended from the ceiling. St-Clement, the first bishop of Metz, was credited with destroying the menacing beast who was said to live in the old Roman arenas. It is a story reminiscent of St-George and the dragon, a familiar metaphor of Christian force crushing pagan beasts. In the third century, St-Clement founded the first chapel on the site of the Roman forum’s ruins. But tales of the Graoully are still told, in fact a literary award for science fiction writing, Le Graoully d’or (The golden Graoully) is awarded annually in Metz.

The famous Dragées de Verdun drew me to the Moselle, but there are many other reasons to return. The Mirabelle Festival in August, the huge monthly flea market – perhaps to find Madeleine molds or oval earthenware terrines – a gathering of brocante dealers second only in size to Paris’ noteworthy Marché St-Ouen, and the Marché de Noël would all be fun. Imagine stepping out of the monumental railway station into a frosty plaza filled with cabin-stalls chuck full of jams, pâtés, wines, novelties and preserved Mirabelles – all well lit by designer Philippe Starck’s narrow, pointed street lights. In any season, Metz is well worth the detour.

To view more images of Metz, tap the photo above. Then tap category “Bites of History” to return to the story.

Note: Take the TGV Est from Paris’ Gare de l’Est, about one hour’s train ride to Metz, via Nancy.

Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is at 1, rue du Pont St-Marcel in Metz. Open year round, reserving a table for dinner is advised : tel. 03 87 30 1229. Claude Bourguignon’s chocolate and pastry shop at 31, rue Tête d’Or, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:15 to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 8:30 to 12:30.

The rustic clafoutis dresses up

June 13th, 2008

Some call it “homely”, others say: “just a simple pudding” – whatever its reputation as a provincial dessert, the cherry clafoutis of the Limousin has wide appeal as an adaptible, versatile treat. James Villas, one of my favorite oracles on French cooking, calls it a Cherry Flan. And around Limoges, cherries are the classic fruit (always with the pits – for flavor) to be used. But when my black currant bush was loaded with berries this year, and juicy nectarines from the market called out to be included, the “simple pudding” took on a new identity. With a penchant for including almonds (in most everything), I reached for a small bar of almond paste to be grated into the mix. The nectarines are washed, not peeled – for color – and a sprinkling of flaked almonds toasts on top as it bakes. Bring the clafoutis to the table warm while the nectarines have puffed to the top, or let it cool and enjoy the custard chilled. This recipe is adapted from two sources, given below, and serves four or five. Try your own variations, even as a savory starter with cherry tomatoes by adding some salt (or chopped anchovies?), omitting the sugar, steeping a bay leaf in the hot milk, and scattering grated parmesan over it all. Salty or sweet, pour this batter into a baked pie crust, to be dressed up for the fête. Allow an hour for the batter to rest, and about 30 minutes to bake.

1 cup milk + 1 T. butter

2 large eggs

1/3 cup vanilla sugar + pinch of salt

2 T. grated almond paste

1 tsp. almond extract

3/4 cup sifted flour, or half flour and half ground almonds (almond flour)

2 large nectarines, sliced

1/2 cup fresh, stemmed black or red currants

1/3 cup of flaked almonds + 1 T. sugar

In a small saucepan, heat the milk and let the butter melt in it – do not scald – and let cool before adding it to the eggs. Whisk the eggs until foamy, then add the sugar, flour, and then stir in the grated (soft) almond paste: then stir in the milk and extract. Allow this batter to rest an hour. (This makes a firm flan – use less flour for softer consistency.) Meanwhile, slice the peaches, butter a 9 inch baking dish (I use a glass pyrex pie plate), and pick (and stem!) the fresh currants. Don’t forget to chill the wine. Preheat the oven to 375°f/191°c. Arrange the nectarine slices in a radial pattern, scatter the berries in the middle and a few around the edges, the pour the batter over all. Scatter flaked almonds on top, then sprinkle a little sugar over all. Bake for 30 minutes or until toasty and golden. Pour chilled sparkling Vouvray into flutes with a few black currants, or serve with a cool Saussignac sweet wine from Clos d’Yvigne.

This clafoutis is adapted from: Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Supper at Luques, Knopf, 2005. My copy falls open to her recipe for Cranberry-Walnut Clafoutis with Bourbon Whipped Cream. Inspired. And for a larger, more classic clafoutis (for 8), refer to James Villas’ French Country Kitchen, Bantam Books 1992, his superb collection of basics.

Thank you, thousands !

June 9th, 2008

Mid June – can it be two years already? This week vagabondgourmand celebrates its second year, and I want to thank the thousands of visitors, readers, those who have “dipped in” and many who return regularly to this site. We have covered a lot of ground together, from Greek almond groves in the spring of 2007 to Catalonian markets, not to forget Vézelay, Paris and Arles. Your comments and queries are so appreciated on whatever subjects turn up on these pages. And what is around the bend for the vagabondgourmand? This week, the Clafoutis du Jour will be a blend of nectarines, almonds and black currants – the recipe to be posted on Friday for the weekend. This summer, we head north to visit markets in Metz and Verdun, then south to the Vaucluse to talk with an almond grower about green almonds and to linger in Apt’s market. Yes, almondology is an on-going theme, whatever the season. In July, watch for notes on the Cognac country, where we will talk with a vintner about Pineau des Charente and ramble through Angoulême’s hilltop market. July will also be the month to romance a French heirloom, with stories about the Marmande tomato. There will be notes from this garden about Edible Borders as well as comments on local produce as the seasons change. So, more wine talk (has been requested) and more on vegetables, from the roots up will be posted. Again, thanks – wherever and whoever you are – Merci mille fois….grazie mille !

What wine goes with clafoutis?

June 2nd, 2008

In the midst of cherry season, getting ready for plum/red currant/apricot season, is the time to be ready to whip up an anything-goes pudding. While book shopping recently, I flipped through a cookbook (no, I cannot resist another book on food and wine), a page illustrating “Apple, Grape, and Madeira Clafoutis” got my attention. Now this does reach into the realm of improvisation, I thought, and bought The Wine Lover Cooks with Wine: Great Recipes for the Essential Ingredient. Not only did this luscious book keep me awake during a long journey, but it has informed and inspired me in the kitchen. The author, Sid Goldstein, has very clearly set out the rules of the game in seven chapters focused on technique. Sauces, steaming, simmering, marinating and braising are the basics, to which he adds a few choice side dishes, then concludes with desserts and drinks. This Chronicle book, published in 2004, is one of the most practical sources on wine cuisine that I have used in several years. I’m hoping he will expand in a sequel. Meanwhile, I’ll sip a glass of Muscat de Frontignan with this crusty clafoutis….a little more, please.