Text & recipe by Trish Deseine
Winter suits the Sarthois landscape. The grey-green fields edged with lacy elm and oak silhouettes, cornered here and there with little butter-coloured hamlets, look so pretty in the cold light. There’s a special peace that descends on the countryside in this time of hibernation – and parked tractors ! – in stark contrast to the febrile spring and summer months as crops are grown and harvested non-stop. Winters here suit me, too. I lived for quite a while in wine country in the Languedoc, and the scorching summers had this Northern girl keeping vampire hours!
Right now, chilly weather and shorter days give us a sort of special license to spend more time in our French homes and kitchens, and the nourishing, warming qualities of our cooking seem somehow more vital. Which brings me, quite naturally, to cheese – and melted Alpine cheese in particular. This is pleine saison with shops and markets all over France piled high with Mont d’Or, Reblochon, Raclette and a multitude of choices for Fondue Savoyarde. Like the elegant simplicity of a seafood platter, the dishes and ways of serving these magnificent cheeses celebrate first and foremost their flavour. No need for elaborate recipes or accompaniments, their warm, unctuous deliciousness is all.
Perhaps the most famous French dish defined by its cheese is Tartiflette – Gratin Savoyard’s more interesting cousin. The sumptuous marriage of wine, onions, bacon, potatoes with soft, silky, gooey Reblochon cheese is, of course, Alpine skiers’ preferred fuel, but certainly not to be discounted even if you are not planning such intense physical activity (I find a crisp green salad will always go someway to alleviating any guilt which might, annoyingly, creep in).
Long before experiencing the gigantic tableside ski-resort restaurant contraptions, the ones which drip molten raclette, crisp crusts and all, directly on to your potato and Savoie ham laden plate, I had been introduced to the altogether more hands-on yet sedate, domestic machines à raclette. They seemed to exist in countless styles, colours and sizes, with added grills, hot stones or crêpe making attachments, some even with built-in fondue pots, and not one of them remotely attractive. They did make for extremely easy entertaining, with just a few potatoes to cook, a green salad to prepare and the cheese, cornichons and charcuterie set out in platters, and I admit they were often a Godsend with four hungry teenagers to feed, quickly and copiously. But for guests, any attempt at setting an attractive-looking table was doomed as soon as our multi-story electrical device was plonked in the middle. Thankfully, I have since found dinky, almost romantic, individual devices which work with candles for smaller gatherings, or, yes – I confess – for a night in with myself.
As well as stocking five types of Raclette cheese, including smoked and truffled, my local cheesemonger in Bellême makes up fresh portions of Fondue Savoyarde to order. Purists say the more varieties the better the flavour will be and will include up to five sorts of cheese in their melt. There is also a Fondue Normande movement, who melt Camembert, Pont L’Evêque and Livrarot into cider and Calvados liqueur instead of Savoie wine and Kirsch. Genius!
My sensible fromagère stops at three cheeses –a glorious combination of fruity Beaufort, nuttier Comté and silky Abondance, and, as temperatures drop this weekend, the stirring and swooshing will commence. For there’s no denying that if eating molten French cheese is an addictive pleasure, it is the law that we indulge in January and February, even if we are not deep in the mountains, rejoicing in the wonders of perfect, powdery snow.
Find my recipe for Tartiflette below!
1 ripe Reblochon cheese
1 kg potatoes, not too floury, peeled
3 or 4 onions, peeled and finely chopped
150ml white wine
Cook the potatoes in a large pot of salted, boiling water. Drain and reserve.
As the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a pan and sweat the onions gently. In a separate pan, cook the lardons over medium heat until they are golden and crisp.
Heat the oven to 180C.
When the onions have softened (around 3-4 minutes), pour in the wine, stir well, and let the onions cook gently in the liquid. When it has all evaporated, put half of the onions and the lardons in a gratin dish.
Slice the potatoes and set half onto the onions and lardons. Top with the rest of the sliced potatoes. Season with pepper (the lardons have enough salt). It’s probably cheese heresy, but I like to dot a little crème fraiche on the potatoes before adding the Reblochon!
Next, slice the cheese, leaving the crust on. Set the slices on top of the potatoes and cook in the oven for 30 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and starting to become golden in places.
Serve with a green salad.