Adissan wines

In addition to being fortunate in gaining an Italian-American family in the 1970’s, I also got a French one. My father’s second wife, Marianne, was from Normandy’s Caen in northern France.

They lived in an old mill in the country, surrounded by farms. They kept an apartment in Caen, and a small efficiency in Paris. Her father, Francois, would stay there when lecturing on the classics in Paris. I stayed there once or twice. By craning your neck out of a small kitchen window you could just catch the Eiffel Tower.

With the exception of Marianne, who is fluent in English, there was a bit of a language barrier with the rest of her family, unfortunately. But they always welcomed my brother and me to their house and treated us well.

I don’t really remember much about the food. I would have still been a fickle eater through my late teens, and wouldn’t have found much of it to my liking, probably. There would have been cheese—the soft, potent Camembert is produced locally. And wine, which I had no taste for until my early twenties.

My dad and Marianne live in France now, in the region of Languedoc. They avail themselves of local foods and always put out a delightful table, which Susan and I happily consume on semi-regular visits to the little village of Adissan.

Adissan wines are quite good. Like the better known wines of the nearby Rhone valley, the reds are primarily blends of grapes that flourish in hot, sunny, flinty stone: Syrah, Grenache and the like. However Adissan is also well known in France for its distinctive Clairette, a sweet white wine which, like Sauternes, pairs well with Roquefort and foie gras.

Locals repair to the local wine cooperative and purchase wine by the 5-litre jug. It is dispensed into these by a gas pump-like appendage. It is not romantic. But then wine is such a part of everyday life that this is not considered odd. My dad then takes this jug home and decants the wine into bottles and corks them to keep the wine fresh. It is meant to be consumed quickly. It’s decent drinking, nothing fancy, and helps the food down. It costs about a dollar a bottle when purchased in bulk.

Traditionally, Languedoc wines were inferior, inexpensive wines sold in bulk as plonk, the sort of wine included in a $10 prix fix dinner in cafes all over the country. Then they were undercut by the Algerians, who offered even cheaper wines. As their markets dropped out, the locals began making better wines and charging more for them. To me, most Languedoc wines are indistinguishable from those of the better known Rhone Valley now. A really good bottle will set you back $10-$15 there. And they are delicious, ripe, fruity, bold wines.

When we last visited in May of 2007 we walked through the village on a Friday evening. The locals had gathered to play bocce (it’s called petanque in France). They’d built a fire from old grape vine wood to grill sausages over and it seemed much of the village was there to play or observe the excitement. According to locals, old vines are fantastic for grilling. There are few things better than some good sausage grilled over hardwood and slapped into a piece of baguette. Merguez, the spicy north African lamb sausage, is particularly good.


More Finicky Memories

I have a vague memory of a 5-year old picking individual grains of rice out of a dish of food in Venice in 1968. It was probably a chilled salad with some seafood element, like canned tuna, and perhaps some peas mixed in. But only the rice would have been deemed edible by me.

The memory is 40 years old now, and I can no longer taste the disturbing elements of the dish that I objected to. I suppose they were mild in flavor. But it didn’t take a lot then. I would have turned my nose up at so many things, based on appearance alone, never mind smell. If I suspected too much flavor in a dish, I wouldn’t go near it.

I was finicky. Picky. Probably obnoxiously so, and most likely a burden to my parents. They must have been thankful for bread, one of the few things I would eat.

(What were we doing in Venice? The family was driving around Europe in an old Zephyr on holiday, staying in B & Bs. Europe was affordable enough back then for even families like ours. All-inclusive chartered holidays to places like Spain’s Costa del Sol were still a little while off. I’m eternally grateful that my parents had an interest in travel. Most did not.)

I wrote in my spaghetti al burro blog about my particular young eating habits recently. Moving to America with my mother, step-father and two brothers in late December 1973 exposed me to a whole New World of food to dislike. It would still be some years before I shed my choosy ways.

My first American food memory occurred not long after we arrived one cold, post-Christmas evening.

No, that’s not right.

My step-father Gene was in the American Air Force, stationed in Upper Heyford Air Force Base, near Oxford. A year before moving to the US, we moved near this base, following their marriage, which took place in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

We visited the base frequently to shop at the Base Exchange. There was much new candy to explore (a foreign word to me; we called them sweets). I was not finicky when it came to sweets. Although I quite liked American candy, I realized even then that they were inferior to our English sweets. American chocolate was waxy and tame, and Milk duds were very, very odd—though I still managed to choke down my share.

My last English Christmas was 1973. We spent it with my father and step-mother in South Norwood, far south in the greater London metropolitan region. I was 10, David had just turned twelve. I remember it as being particularly gift-filled that year. Good lord, how to get them all to America two days hence? I am sad that I have not had a British Christmas since. I’m not even sure how they were different. But they felt more Christmassy than the American kind to me. While I was teaching with a sizeable British expat population in Saudi Arabia in the mid-90’s it came close; we went to a pantomime produced by a local British school, and later went to a party where we sang carols like the very English “Jerusalem.” I suspect that the Christmassy feelings there were heightened by the fact that we were living in a strict fundamentalist Muslim nation.

Perhaps to soften the blow of moving to a new country, we had two Christmases in 1973.

We were met by Gene’s father Enso and brother Mario at JFK and driven about two hours to their house in West Wyoming, near Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The tree was still up, surrounded by unopened presents (yes!), and the house was filled with new uncles, aunts, and cousins—even great grandparents, as Gene’s parents’ mothers were still alive. They spoke Italian and little English.

The house was also filled with an unpleasant smell. Kind of sour.

Lydia, Gene’s mother, was preparing the family specialty, something for which they were held in some esteem locally, their parents having run a small restaurant in the distant past.

Tripe was boiling away on the stove.

Thankfully, during the two weeks we spent there, prior to our long drive in our new station wagon to Gene’s next Air Force posting in Alamogordo, New Mexico, his brother Mario introduced us to McDonalds.

What else did I turn my nose up at in cold, snowy Pennsylvania on the cusp of 1974?

Capicola and prosciutto*, which hung rawly in Enso’s basement, waiting to be carved thinly. Olives (which I only recently learned to like). Pumpkin pie. Pizza (its tomato sauce would have been deemed too acidic). I’m sure I was an object of some bemusement by my new Italian family.

Lydia passed a few years ago, and I never did eat her tripe, though I came to love everything else she was kind enough to feed me. Chicken cacciatore. Porcetta. Ravioli, yes, from scratch. Gnocchi. A fantastic meat sauce.

About two years ago I was in New York with friends. Rod, our primary fun-monger, had secured us reservations at Babbo. Tripe was offered as an appetizer. As a nod towards Lydia’s wonderful memory, I ordered it. Like Lydia’s, it came with a tomato sauce.

It was a large portion and all took a bite. No one loved it. But that smell was there, and I was glad to finally get a belly full of cow belly, and a reminder of how grateful I am to be able to embrace food and travel, and to think again about the odd places where life sends you. From London, to New Mexico, to Pittsburgh, Saudi Arabia, Oman… eating all the way, with new family members to enjoy. Life's a trip.

* The first time I saw the word “capricola” written I wasn’t sure what it meant. It was only later that I learned it was how “gabagool” was really spelled. I figured that “prosciutto” had to be “prashoot.”


Coming up short

I wish I could say that every night is a feast at stately Cross Manor, but that’s far from the truth. I blew a couple of dishes recently—broiled scallops with a miso glaze and a pate.

I like to think of recipes as guideposts rather than instructions. I have a good enough grasp of basic cooking techniques that I’ll look at a recipe, close the book, adapt it (to whatever I want to eat, or to what I have available in the house), turn on the stove and go.

But I don’t really know a lot about Japanese cooking, and I have only made a miso glaze once (carefully following a recipe). It was easy (or so I thought)—mix some miso with some soy sauce, sugar… was there some water in there? Yeah, I think so…give it a stir....

I also attempted to broil, rather than sear, the scallops, and they both failed to brown sufficiently and cooked all the way through, rather than the “medium” I was hoping for. The dish tasted weak, and it seemed a shame to not get the best out of some decent scallops.

I was also disappointed with a pate, a simple pork one with pistachios and prunes.

I have made a few pates over the years, and felt confident to proceed without reviewing my recipes. I knew to use lots of salt—as chilling the cooked pate deadens the flavors, a healthy salting compensates.

Fortunately, some spicy Grey Poupon Dijon mustard helps mask the salty flavor of my over-seasoned pate—but I still wake up parched.

Next time I won’t forget a step. Prior to baking the pate, pinch some off and fry it up in a pan, and taste for seasoning. When it tastes correct, add a little more salt and bake away.


Spaghetti al Burro

Mark Bitten's blog today contains a recipe for pasta dressed with butter, sage, and cheese, the sort of dish I greatly enjoyed when I was a finicky boy back in swinging 1960's London.

Back then, food was about texture. It had to be soft, rather than hard. I didn't care for assertive, salty, acidic flavors—though oddly I loved the pickled onions you could get from the fish and chip shop, and of course I doused my chips in Sarson's malt vinegar. (English chips are usually of the soggy variety, unfortunately). I enjoyed bread and butter. I liked my mother’s coddle—an Irish (only Dublin, some insist) stew of bangers (sausages), rashers (bacon), potato and onion, simmered in water. (That is the entire dish, and it is still sensational.) I liked the goopy, saccharine sweet and sour chicken from the local Chinese place. I liked hamburgers when I could get them; often, they came from Wimpy, England’s answer to McDonald’s (named for a character from the Popeye cartoons). I loved them, in all their thin, greasy, fried onion-topped and sweet, non-Heinz ketchup glory . I liked my mother’s boiled onions—peeled onions, boiled for half an hour or so, tossed in melted butter. I liked fish fingers and beans on toast, but not cheese on toast. Something about that sharp, acidic kick that Cheddar gives the back of your throat frightened me. Pork pies were right out.

Occasionally we’d find ourselves in an Italian café near Cambridge Circus, near enough the heart of London, not far from Leicester Square, Piccadilly, Soho, and Oxford Street.

Back then, these cafes were the only place to get decent coffee in Britain, a nation of tea drinkers. Not that I cared then, because I didn’t drink it. But they all had beautiful espresso machines, and I learned to love cappuccino in Italian cafes a couple of decades on.

We didn’t have money. My dad worked the markets, and my mom (I suppose mum, for this reminiscence, would be more appropriate) cleaned houses. Italian cafes would have been an inexpensive meal out for us.

My older brother David, with is enormous, catholic appetite would tuck into his plate of flavorful spaghetti Bolognese. Not so me. Too much flavor. Too strong. For me there was only spaghetti al burro: spaghetti, butter and downy parmesan cheese.

The butter was sweetly spectacular, artfully carved, pulled into rolls from the top of a log of butter so that it sat as gentle scrolls atop the pasta. The cheese was light and sweet too, not forceful like our Cheddar.

When we moved to the States in 1974, I was almost eleven. My tastes started to change, and though still picky I began to eat dishes I’d earlier have shunned. This was helped along by my stepfather’s mother, Lydia, an accomplished Italian-American cook. My mother became a better cook (partly with some tutelage from Lydia). Food being more abundant here than in the UK, I took to pot roasts, meaty, ragu/bolognese-type dishes, chili con carne…

Summer vacation visits to London also brought new tastes—Dad, always an adventurous eater, married a French woman. Not that I was ready to embrace the salty, royal Roquefort just yet, or wine.

But I never returned to the Italian Café until some years later, when I was 19 or 20, contemplating a move back to London (to do what, I don’t know. Oh yes, I remember, I was going to be a rock star).

I’d meet a new friend, Michael Lock there, for a still cheap dinner before a night in the pubs. And I’d have Bolognese, not butter, on my spaghetti. And a great cappuccino, prior to a few pints of Abbot Ale, most likely at the Glassblowers off Piccadilly, or the Sherlock Holmes, nearer Trafalgar Square. Followed by a long train ride back to London’s edge, where most nights I’d manage to keep my dinner down.

I eat less pasta today, but I managed to melt some butter and toss some pasta in it one chilly evening a few months ago, showering it with some parmesan, and because I’m at least chronologically a grown up, a sprinkle of pepper. It’s still good.


Chawan mushi

I wrote in my Vietnam travel blog that we were fortunate to have a long enough layover in Japan to explore Narita, the delicate, spotless town that serves Tokyo. We witnessed a Buddhist ceremony in a beautiful old temple. And then we got to eat.

We had lunch twice in Narita, grilled eel with white rice, followed by sushi.

The sushi was accompanied by a few pickled items, common enough, but also a savory custard, something I've not yet experienced in the US.
Reading Frank Bruni's review of Momofuku Ko in today's New York Times, I've learned that the custard is called chawan mushi. I browsed for online recipes and reviewed a couple.

The gently beaten eggs are thinned with chicken, fish, or dashi stock and flavored with soy sauce. They might contain small pieces of cooked chicken or vegetables. The mixture is placed in small bowls or tea cups, covered, and steamed for 12-18 minutes. The goal is a smooth, creamy, light, runny custard, with no bubbles (hence the gentle mixing earlier).

It was an odd, but appreciated addition to a fine sushi lunch-- which was a reasonable $10-$12.

The Sushi lunch:

The "odd" accompaniments. The charan mushi has the red spoon protruding from it.


Oatmeal and Yanni

Steel cut oats taste better than rolled oats, which themselves taste better than “instant” oats, which themselves taste better than the little packets of flavored instant oats.

Steel cut oats take much longer to cook—but large batches can be cooked and then stored for use over the next few days. If you can boil water, you can make a steel cut oats. The stove does all the work while you read the paper.

I store it in Tupperware-like containers and scoop out portions as needed. I add 3 chopped prunes, a little brown sugar, and heat it in the microwave. A splash of milk rounds it out. It could easily be greatly improved by adding butter or cream, waistline allowing.

It is a quick, inexpensive, healthy, filling, and, most importantly, tasty way to “greet the day” as a freakish ex co-worker of mine used to say. He was from California. While this is itself not enough to condemn him, nor is it enough to redeem him. He sealed his fate when he confessed to liking Yanni. It’s not that he liked Yanni, but that he didn’t have the sense to keep this to himself.