Don't let the menus intimidate you. French and pseudo-French
restaurants that aspire to haut
standing in cuisine impress the world with sophisticated-sounding dishes. But
civets and ragouts are
just stews that twelve-year old farm girls make without a recipe. Those
satisfying dishes-that always begin with fat, garlic and onion in a big pot-have
been around for centuries. They were and are the foundations, and will outlast
tall food and plantain chips. When you start cooking, that's where you want to
by Steven Foster
These thoughts came to me while mopping up the sauce around my
oeufs en meurette with a piece of bread (a good peasant habit, acceptable at the
best places in France). Poached eggs in a red wine sauce-what could be easier to
make and tastier? And what could be more bourguignon? At the risk of
offending all French regions, I say that Burgundy put France on the culinary
map, with both the quality of its products and the wondrous ways it can bring
the best out of them. Beside many of the world's greatest wines, Burgundy
produces tender Charolais beef, flavourful poulet de Bresse (the world's only
chicken with appellation d'origine contrôlée and époisses, the no-nonsense
cheese that, according to the poet
Gautier, smells like the feet of God.
In a land blessed with ingredients like that, everybody cooks, eats well and
encourages everyone to do the same. Instead of "ah, monsieur, a proper matelote,
she requires the practice of a year," they insist on how easy it is. Boeuf à la
bourguignon? Throw it together and sleep while it simmers for eight hours.
Jambon persillé? Add water to cover the ham, the rest is even simpler. These
familiar Burgundy dishes conquered the world, but pain d'épice has stayed home.
I only encountered this honey cake-persistently misnamed as gingerbread,
although it has no ginger-in Dijon. Actually, its home was Flanders (now
Belgium), where a distant relative, the crisp spekuloos, still lives in Brussels.
In the 14th century, when Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy,
married Margaret of Flanders, the bride
brought this sweet present to her new subjects. Pain d'épice cannot be simpler
and more satisfying. Rye flour gives it body, sugar and honey the sweetness,
star anise, nutmeg, and cinnamon the flavour. The result is a brick of a sturdy,
brown, moist cake with all the comforting taste and smell of Christmas.
Of course, it couldn't stay that simple. People added candied fruit, orange
zest, coffee, chocolate, even tea to flavour it. Pastry chef Jean Herbert sells
pain d'épice in seven flavours. He provided the
following easy, basic version:
Bring 1 cup (235 ml) milk to boil; add 1 tsp ground star anise; remove
from heat. Stir 5 tbsp (150 g) sugar into 1/2 cup (150 g) honey and mix well.
Stir in milk. Let cool to lukewarm. Add 1 beaten egg. Mix 2 cups (300 g) rye
flour and 1 package dry yeast; add to batter and mix lightly until just smooth.
Pour into a 9x9" (23x23 cm) square pan and bake in a 300 F (150 C) oven for
60-70 minutes. Let
cool before slicing. (If any is left and dries out, mix the crumbs into the next
batch-up to a fifth of the volume of flour-to improve the texture.) Pain d'épice
goes well with a glass of Kir (dry white wine with a splash of cassis liqueur)
or sparkling wine. If you go to Dijon, find Chef Herbert's shop, Le Gourmet,
at 59, boul. Maréchal Joffre (tel. 03-8071-1024).