I rebel, therefore we exist.
~Albert Camus

Another resplendent sweet, sort of, well really, actually — a Middle Eastern snack made with phyllo and nuts and drenched throughout with a honey glaze. The textures and tastes are flat supreme.  It is opined by many that Baklava was first savored around the 8th century B.C.E. in northern Mesopotamia, when Assyrians layered thin pieces of dough with nuts, baked the pastries in wood burning ovens, and added honey for sweetness.

But, first let us briefly digress to World War I (1914-1918) الجزائر, Algeria, vast, diverse, luxuriant, and often stark lands in what is known as the Maghreb region of North Africa, somewhat west of today’s Egypt. For baklava has been and is relished in Algeria as well.

The French viewed Algeria (Algérie) as just another “decadent state,” given to sins such as slavery, piracy and tribal anarchy. So, the Code de l’indigénat was a “lawful” scheme creating an inferior legal status for natives of French colonies from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century – making discrimination legitimate and actually legally dispossessing natives. Denizens were never afforded rights as citizens of overseas departments and were assimilated so to create in the colonies integral parts of France.

The Code de l’indigénat has been at the center of now revised thinking about French policies — colonial “indirect” rule.

The loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871 led to pressure on the French government to make new land available in Algeria for thousands of Alsatian-Lorraine “refugees” or colons who were resettled there.  Pied noirs (“black foots”) they were called and later slaughtered likewise.

The colonial regime imposed greater taxes on Muslims than on Europeans yet the colons controlled the revenues which would be spent. As a result, colon towns had graceful buildings, paved avenues lined with trees, fountains and statues, while Algerian villages and rural areas benefited little. For an example, take a gander at Le Cathédrale du Sacré-Cœur d’Alger which towers over Algiers.

The school curricula were entirely French and afforded zero places for Arabic studies, which were deliberately downgraded even in Muslim schools. Within that generation, educated, gallicized Muslims, les évolués (the evolved ones), were created.

The colons who ran Algeria maintained a condescending dialogue only with the beni-oui-ouis (“yes men”). Later, they deliberately thwarted contact between the évolués and Muslim traditionalists on the one hand and between évolués and official circles in France on the other.  So, no genuine communication existed between the communities — probably only underlying, then direct enmity prevailed.

The first Code de l’indigénat was implemented by the Algerian senate on July 14, 1865 (on Juillet quatorze? in 1865?  Perhaps no one knew, right?). The first article stated:

The Muslim indigenous is French, however, he will continue to be subjected to Muslim law. He may be admitted to serve in the terrestrial and marine Army. He may be called to function and civil employment in Algeria. He may, on his demand, be admitted to enjoy the rights of a French citizen; in this case, he is subjected to the political and civil laws of France.

The Code distinguished two categories of citizens: French citizens (ethnic metropolitans) and French subjects, that is to say black Africans, Algerians, North Africans, et al., who lived there.

French subjects submitted to the Code de l’indigénat were deprived of much of their freedom and their political rights and only retained their personal statuses, religions or origins. As is too often the case, the colonialism practiced in Algeria resembled a kind of slavery of indigenous peoples as they were stripped of their identity.

The Code allowed Muslims to apply for full French citizenship, a measure that few took since it involved renouncing the right to be guided by sharia law in personal matters and was considered a kind of apostasy – a rejection of Islam. The Code de l’indigénat was a bitter anathema to Islamic tenets.

In a sense, World War I has never ended as many Arab peoples are still living its historical, religious, tribal and geographical consequences.  This is a short story, but there is some truth to it.  Blogs.

Baklava (Farsi for “many leaves”) consists of layers of phyllo filled with nuts and spices and drenched in a honey syrup.  Almost seems metaphorical.

BAKLAVA

2 C raw sugar
1 C honey
1 1/2 C water
2 T lemon juice
2 T light corn syrup
2 cinnamon sticks
4 cloves, whole
1 t cardamon, ground

1 lb pistachios and walnuts, in equal parts, finely chopped
1/4 C raw sugar
1 lb phyllo dough
1 C (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 F

Stir the sugar, water, lemon juice, corn syrup, cinnamon sticks, and cloves over low heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Halt stirring, then increase the heat to medium, and cook until the mixture is slightly syrupy, about 5 minutes. Discard the cinnamon sticks and whole cloves.  Allow to cool.

Combine all the nut and raw sugar ingredients.  Grease a 13″ x 9″ glass baking pan with a stick of butter.

Place a sheet of phyllo in the prepared pan and lightly brush with melted butter. Repeat the butter treatment with more sheets. Spread with half of the filling. Top with more sheets, again brushing each with butter.  Spread with the remaining nut mixture and end with a top layer of several sheets, continuing to brush each with butter. Trim any overhanging edges. Ne pas oublier la beurre!

Just before baking, lightly sprinkle the top of the pastry with cold water to inhibit the pastry from curving upwards. Bake for about 20 minutes. Then, reduce the heat to 300 F and bake until golden brown, for about 15 additional minutes.

Score to form diamond shapes, and then cut through the scored lines. Drizzle the cooled syrup slowly over the hot baklava and let cool for several hours, if not overnight.  Try with some strong coffee.

 

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All sorrows are less with bread.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

This late summer and early fall mark the centenary dawn (1914-2014) of The War To End All Wars. Well done, humanity — as a species, we have been in global conflict and slaughter almost continuously since then.  Strife upon strife.

So, perhaps a few words about French grub on or near the front lines during The Great War are in order.  Much like with latrines and other necessities, les générals and les officiers (generals and officers) always fared far better than les poilus and les soldats (infantrymen and soldiers).  Fine cognac and haute cuisine in opulent estates away from the Front prevailed for generals, while pinard or plonk  (a cheap, low class wine) and often inedible or even missing rations were issued to the regulars who daily lost their limbs, minds, and lives on the Front.

Some background is deserved. Early on, both sides dug a network of trenches on the Western Front that eventually extended for nearly 500 miles each from the North Sea to Switzerland. Each side dug labyrinthine lines of zig-zagging trenches for some 24,000 miles (nearly the circumference of the earth).  As few expected the war to last past Christmas, the first trenches were hurriedly made scrapes and shallow pits in the ground — mere hollows dug by soldiers to protect themselves from the rain of metal from the sky, machine gun barrages and incessant snipers. These hastily constructed defenses often flooded and folded. When the front line later stabilized, trenches became deeper and were more elaborately constructed shelters, which became the troops’ home away from home, often far, far away.  The conditions in soggy trenches remained deplorable with rampant cases of dysentary, trench foot, trench mouth, diseases, hunger, rats, vermin, and body lice mingling with the horrific stench of diseases, decaying bodies, open wounds, human filth and open sewage. The trench reek alone made it difficult for many to even eat.

Because France’s armed forces expanded dramatically from peacetime to the onset of war, the Ministry of War undertook a staggering juggling act to feed the troops. While relying upon a loosely drawn network of foreign suppliers, limited local production, and meager tithes from abroad, the French not only provided for their own troops, but for some allies, colonials, and foreign volunteers.

Among other things, French troops were provided at basic training with a bidon (canteen), musette (haversack), gamelle (mess kit), quart and utensiles (cup and utensils). The soldiers usually received two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. While there was no standard time for when the meals were scheduled while afield, breakfast (PDDMPetit Déjeuner Du Matin) was usually served around 8 or 9 am, with coffee or wine sometimes served a tad beforehand. Dinner normally was served sometime in the early evening depending on the day’s conflict. Sometimes, both meals were received in the morning, with half slipped into mess kits as reserves for later. Of course, conditions at the Front sometimes prohibited meals from either being prepared or even delivered to the men. It was not uncommon for a soldier to exhaust his reserves, in which case he simply went without until food supplies were replenished from the rear. Front line troops had to subsist on bread, fruit, wine and sausages. Sometimes, troops survived on some form of soup or stew (la soupe or rata), a morcel of greasy meat, hard dry biscuits, and perhaps a cup of coffee.

Major mess kitchens were set up near supply railheads and other rear echelon trappings, such as hospital posts, rest camps and training areas. Soldiers who were line infantrymen might also be cooks or food laborers, with fatigue details assigned on a rotating basis. The concept of mobile field kitchens ensued with meals prepared behind the lines, which would then be hauled to the trenches in large food transport tins with carrying frames similar to backpacks. These kitchens were dubbed roulantes (“rollers”), and they rendered certain camping implements superfluous. Stationed in the rear or in support or supply lines, rollers were staffed by cuistots (“cooks”) who stayed with the kitchens to prepare the meals.

Though the food was prepared in field kitchens, the task of transporting food to the Front fell to fatigue men quasi-organized into ration parties. Variously called cuistots, ravitailleurs or hommes-soupes, they brought up the rations on their backs to their waiting comrades. Bedecked with stew pots, mess pans, canvas buckets, sacks, loaves of bread and dozens of filled canteens, the ration parties would usually depart during the night to ensure enough time for them to return by morning. Cooked food was placed in Bouthéon stew pots, a label morphed to bouteillon (“bottle”) due to pronunciation proximity. A large camp mess pan called the plat-á-quatre (“plate for four”) could also be used to carry food to the Front. Loaves of bread were carried either by stringing the loaves together with twine to make a bandolier or by impaling them onto a stake and hoisting them over a shoulder (see above). Canned foods were carried either in haversacks or large canvas distribution sacks. Though the food was hot when it was in the rear, by the time it arrived at the front it had already turned lukewarm or usually cold. The beverages, such as pinard, coffee and water were brought up in individual canteens as well as in the bouteillons or canvas buckets. Not only were these journeys tedious, the hommes-soupes details were often considered more hazardous than combat, as ground covered by enemy artillery fire and machine guns had to be traversed while adroitly carrying bulky equipment making it difficult to seek cover.

Food that arrived at the Front was generally chilly, of dubious nutritional quality, often soiled, sometimes spoiled, usually overcooked, greasy, and nearly inedible. Bread was usually carried without wrappers, coffee (le jus), pinard, and soups or stews with beans or potatoes were transported in open cans and the like. The overall quality and invariance of diet was a constant source of complaint among soldiers. Fine dining it was not, far from a beatific merger with “the All.”  Most troops would have been flatly elated at a deep platter of warm cassoulet — a rustic, one-pot meal from southwestern France.  Afterwards, death would be more embraceable.

CASSOULET AU CANARD

1 lb. dried white beans, such as tarbais, Great Northern, or cannellini, soaked overnight and drained
4 oz slab bacon, cut into 4 pieces
12 or so C water

4 t whole black peppercorns
2 t whole cloves
8 sprigs thyme
6 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves

2 boneless duck breasts, with skin and gently, not deeply, scored in a crosshatch pattern
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 lb good quality duck or pork sausage

2 duck legs with drumsticks and thighs separated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 C duck or chicken stock
2 legs duck confit, skin and bones discarded and meat shredded
1 – 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, cut finely or puréed
3 T duck fat

1 C fresh bread crumbs (optional)

Baguette, sliced (and perhaps grilled or toasted)

Boil beans, bacon, and water in a heavy, large saucepan. Then place peppercorns, cloves, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves on a piece of cheesecloth, bundle with twine (bouquet garni) and add to pan. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, covered slightly, until beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Discard spice package and transfer beans and cooking liquid to a bowl. Cover loosely and set aside.

Season duck breasts with salt and lightly with pepper and place breasts, skin side down, in a sauté pan already heated over medium high. Cook, without flipping, until fat is rendered and skin is crisp, about 5–6 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter.

Cook sausage, turning once, until browned, about 3–4 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and slice 1/2″ thick on the bias.

Season the duck drumsticks and thighs with salt and pepper and working in batches and cook, turning as needed, until fat is rendered and the duck is nicely browned, about 5–7 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter. Add garlic cloves and onions to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 15 minutes. Now return the sausage, drumsticks, and thighs to the pan and add the stock, confit, tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until duck is tender, about 1–1 1/2 hours. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit to a glass bowl and reserve broth for later.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Rub a large, heavy Dutch oven with some, but not all, of the duck fat. Using a slotted spoon again, layer the beans, sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit and pour 1 cup of reserved broth over the top. Slice duck breasts 1/4″ thick on the bias and arrange over the top. Melt remaining duck fat in a small, heavy saucepan and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle optional bread crumb mixture over top of the dish and bake in the oven until the cassoulet begins to bubble, about 40 minutes (otherwise, just omit the bread crumbs). Increase oven heat to 450-500 F and cook until browned, about 3–5 minutes.

Let the cassoulet sit 10-20 minutes before serving with sliced bread. Bien mangé!

We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.
~Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Such fallible creatures we are, so driven to ignore precedent and repeat our errors. We live forwardly but stubbornly fail to capture retrospect for a greater comprehension of the present. It just seems that grand blunders and miscues tend to abound during times of human conflict as well. Which brings us to the otherwise pastoral Ardennes forest, a land of human flaws, trials and tragedies.

A sparsely populated region, the Ardennes form part of la diagonale du vide (the diagonal of emptiness) a vast swath of land running from the French-Belgian border in the northeast to the Pyrénées in the southwest. Perched on a chalk plateau, the Ardennes are typified by steep valleys carved by swift rivers–the Seine, the Marne, the Asne, and the most prominent, the northward flowing Meuse. A bucolic region of dense verdant forests, rolling hills, deep valleys, ravines and ridges, the Ardennes are located primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg, but they also stretch into northern France.

The Ardennes were thought impenetrable by France’s top brass…unsuitable for grand military operations due to the redoubtable forest, challenging terrain, narrow and winding roads and frequently fragmented communications. Yet, the same Ardennes were the site of several military clashes rife with error.

August, 1914
The Battle of the Ardennes was a brutal conflict fought between German, French and British forces on the Western Front near the outset of World War I. One conflict was centered in the Ardennes forest and the other further north, at the village of Charleroi. The battle was provoked when outnumbered, brightly adorned French troops stumbled into German forces in thick fog in the lower Ardennes.

The French were to be reinforced on the battlefield by the British Expeditionary Force. But, an unexpected delay coupled with poor relations and communications between French and British commanders, caused the British to instead engage elsewhere in the Battle of the Mons while the French continued to fight alone. The combat was ferocious. “If you go into the death trap of the Ardennes, you will never come out,” lamented a French officer. In a single day of battle, some 27,000 French soldiers perished.

At Charleroi, with roads swollen with Belgian refugees, the French army began collapsing along their lines. His army pushed to its limits, the French general Charles Lanrezac ordered a full retreat without having consulted French headquarters. The scale of the French defeat was notable and losses were devastating. Though the command did not denounce Lanrezac’s decision thus tacitly authorizing it, he was later made a scapegoat for the failure of France’s offensive strategy during the Battle of the Ardennes. Many historians suspect this reprimand was likely due to his openly harsh criticism of his superiors’ shoddy field tactics.

The Maginot Line
France had suffered withering losses of life, limb and property in the Great War.
To deter future invasions from Germany, after World War I the French constructed a system of seemingly impregnable underground defensive positions. This almost surreal series of linked forts, vaults and domed turrets meant to protect the eastern frontier was called la Ligne Maginot. The forts were elaborate underground wonders that housed a half million French troops with protected fortresses, casements, electric trains, kitchens, bakeries, cinemas, air conditioning and the like. But they did not stretch the length of the border, stopping well short of the sea. Notably, the Ardennes was left virtually defenseless, manned only by a few poorly trained and weakly equipped divisions. While the French had earlier pioneered the use of armor and aviation in warfare, French military strategy had become shortsighted and devoted to the now obsolete static trench tactics of WW I. Few efforts were made to protect the homeland from concentrated armor, troop or air advances. Their armies had simply become anachronistic.

May, 1940
Europe had been at war some nine months. The armies of Britain and France, despite having declared war on Germany following Hitler’s attack on Poland, had seen little combat. This tense period, which came to be known as the “Phoney War,” met an abrupt end in early May, 1940, when Germany launched an invasion of France and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Even though reports had earlier poured into the French command that the Wermacht had been amassing troops and equipment just across the border of the Ardennes, they fell on deaf ears.

German armored units crossed the river Meuse and streamed through the Ardennes. They cut off and surrounded Allied units that had advanced into Belgium and The Netherlands. French divisions in the Ardennes were not prepared or equipped to deal with the major armored thrust and were incessantly hammered by the Luftwaffe’s air cover. German forces also outflanked the Maginot Line and advanced deeply across France. By the third week in June, German forces had reached the English Channel.

So, the vaunted Maginot Line was summarily defeated not by a frontal assault but by a massive German flanking maneuver by way of the so-called “impervious” and marginally defended Ardennes. The collapse of the French nation soon ensued.

The panicked French government fled to Bordeaux, refugees streamed out of Paris and the city was occupied. The recently appointed chief of state, Philippe Pétain publicly announced France would request an armistice with Germany. The armistice was signed in Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s same railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest used for the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Pétain would soon become head of the French collaborationist government at Vichy, and after French liberation was brought to trial and condemned to death. His sentence was commuted to solitary confinement for life, and he was imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died.

December, 1944 – January, 1945
As winter chilled across France, the Battle of the Bulge (aka the Ardennes Offensive or Von Rundstedt Offensive) took place near the close of World War II. Allied forces had rapidly advanced across France which led to a certain sense of complacency. They dicounted any chances that the Germans would seize the initiative to counterpunch and had forgotten those lessons of the 1940 blitzkreig through the Ardennes. So, those same impassable forests were left scantily clad again.

On the German end, the Luftwaffe had been effectively grounded, leaving little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. Hitler unrealistically assumed his armies may be able to defend Germany if they could neutralize and divide the Allies. Senior German military officers doubted whether these goals could be attained with this counter-offensive. Their concerns went unheeded by an irrational Führer who desperately wanted to stage a repeat of the 1940 campaign which preceded France’s sudden fall.

So, hidden from air surveillance, a formidable Nazi force assembled in the narrow, mist-shrouded valleys and thick forests of the German Eifel hills on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. There were glaring drawbacks facing them: a somewhat depleted, often elderly reserve troop force and a dramatic shortage of fuel. The Germans planned to remedy the latter by capturing American fuel depots as they advanced.

The attack proceeded apace at night in mid December 1944, along a 70-mile front of the Ardennes. Tactical surprise against this weakly defended sector was achieved during heavy overcast weather, which impeded the Allies’ superior air forces. The cloudy night skies of the dark forest were illuminated by German searchlights, flares, tracers, and the bursts of artillery fire. The noise of artillery shells, tanks and small arms fire was deafening. German fired artillery volleys at the trees which not only dropped molten metal on soldiers, but also sent large wooden splinters and treetops downwards. At first, there was nearly blind panic behind the American lines. Mayhem. Scattered bands of troops wandered about frigid, wintry forests, digging foxholes, and randomly skirmishing with any Germans they encountered. The combat was chaotic, confused and fierce in cold, snowy conditions. A bulge emerged and deepened into the Allied lines.

Dogged resistance though — particularly around Elsenborn Ridge and the pivotal towns of Bastogne and St. Vith — threw the Germans well behind schedule and denied them vital roadways. Many exhausted, young Americans displayed resolute heroism through numerous firefights while almost devoid of food, supplies and ammunition. The 101st Airborne Division, surrounded and besieged in Bastogne, was holding the town precariously. Lacking fuel though, the advancing German armored divisions finally came to a halt in the Ardennes before even reaching the river Meuse and then (when air spaces cleared) were constantly hampered by merciless air attacks. The Allies finally went on the offensive closing the last escape routes and securing victory.

The Battle of the Bulge inflicted horrendous casualties on both sides (some 185,000). In the wake of defeat, German units were left severely depleted as survivors retreated to their final death dance along the Siegfried Line. Shortly after Hitler’s suicide, Germany signed terms of an unconditional surrender.

February, 2012
The Champagne-Ardennes is a part of champagne land–that luscious, nutty, fruity, floral, ample, bright, elegant, flinty, musty, oakey, structured, toasty, woody, yeasty, and supple bubbly we so covet.

Located in France’s northeast, the Champagne-Ardennes is comprised of the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haute-Marne. However, the “region” designated for the production of Champagne, also includes parts of the adjoining départements of Yonne, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne and Meuse. The old French province of Champagne roughly comprised this same area.

An amalgam of art and science, méthode champenoise champagnes are tediously crafted from the cuvées of selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Pure varietals such as Chardonnay (blanc de blanc), Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (blanc de noirs) are created exclusively from those grapes. The slight reddish tint imparted to some champagnes results from using blanc de noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker the red.

Next, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire elixir, called the tirage, is poured into a thick glass bottle and sealed with a secure crown cap. The tirage is placed in a cool cellar and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, producing that cherished effervescence…those “stars” that the monk Dom Pérignon captured and savored centuries ago.

After several months, yeast cells die and the fermentation process is completed. The champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in those toasted yeasty traits. While aging here, the yeast cells split open and spill into the wine which imparts these complex aromas and flavors.

Then, in a laborious process, the dead yeast cells (lees) are removed through a process known as riddling (le remuage). The bottle is placed partially upside down in a rack at a 75° angle. Each day, the riddler turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while maintaining its downward angled postion. This forces the dead yeast cells into the narrow neck of the bottle where they are finally removed via disgorging. The bottle is kept angled downward while the neck is frozen in a bath which forms a plug of frozen wine containing those dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is removed and the carbon dioxide pressure forces the frozen plug out leaving behind champagne. At this stage, un dosage of white wine, brandy, and sugar is added to adjust sweetness levels. The bottle is meticulously closed with the cork wired down to secure the internal pressure of the carbon dioxide.

Not surprisingly, the dense Ardennes forest is also magically teeming with champignons (mushrooms) — chanterelles, boletes, morels, hens of the woods (Coquilles En Bouquet, Pieds De Griffon, Polypores)…

MUSHROOM-GRUYERE TOASTS & FRISEE WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

Wild Mushroom-Gruyère Toasts

3 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 3/4 lbs mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, cèpes, morels, oysters), gently cleaned and cut into halves or thirds depending on size
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C fresh thyme leaves, stemmed and chopped
1/4 C fresh chives, chopped
Pince of sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 C Gruyère, shredded
Fresh quality artisanal bread, cut into 4″ squares, crusts removed

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high until the oil is shimmering. The butter should turn just a light golden hue, but not burn. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the liquid has evaporated, about 5-6 minutes. Add the shallots, thyme, chives, salt and pepper and cook about 1 minute more.

Meanwhile, toast the slices of bread strewn with some Gruyère in a broiler. Cook on one side some, then turn over and toast very little before adding the Gruyère. Please resist the temptation to overload the bread with cheese. The mushrooms are the star attraction, the rest play bit roles.

Spoon the mushroom mixture on top of the toasts and serve with the frisée salad.

Frisée & Champagne Vinaigrette

1-2 heads frisée, torn into large bite size pieces

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with the frisée.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss greens with champagne vinaigrette.

Armistice Day & Soup

November 12, 2011

There never was a good war, or a bad peace.
~Benjamin Franklin

11.11.11.11.11—it turned 11:11am on November 11, 2011. The War To End All Wars, World War I, ended 93 years ago yesterday.

The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest on November 11, 1918 near 5:00am, but was not effective until 11:00am that same day, allowing commanders to spread the word along the fronts. The inglorious eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The Armistice was executed in a carriage of Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s private train, CIWL #2419 (Le Wagon de l’Armistice), and terms addressed such issues as the prompt cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German troops to behind their borders, prisoner exchanges, promises of reparations, the internment of the German fleet, and the surrender of munitions. A fragile peace had been reached.

By the time the Armistice had been signed, military and civilian casualties stood at some 35 million. The French countryside had been decimated—buildings, homes, farms even entire villages were leveled; armies would soon leave behind devastated factories, bridges, roads, railroads; shell craters punctured pastures as far as the eye could see with unexploded munitions scattered everywhere; solitary torn, burnt trees strained to rise above the rubble; stiff horse and livestock carcasses lay motionless far and wide; wrecked tanks, gnarled helmets, barbed wire, twisted scrap iron in all shapes were surreally strewn on barren land; and abandonned trenches after trenches were bizarrely carved into once fertile fields. A post-apocalyptic, almost lunar landscape.

And sadly, the final day of World War I still produced nearly 11,000 troop casualties; more than those amassed on D-Day, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of occupied Normandy less than three decades later.

Precious young life and limb was lost on this last half-day when some field commanders, knowing that an Armistice had already been signed, insisted on forging ahead in battle. Major General William Wright, of the 89th American Division, was one such culprit. Having received word that there were bathing facilities in the nearby village of Stenay, he ordered his men to storm the town just so his exhausted, filthy troops could refresh themselves. The town would have been peaceably handed over to these forces in a matter of hours. Wright’s lunacy cost some 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for reasons beyond comprehension.

That same day in the nearby Argonne region, American private Henry Gunther was part of a pointless, inexplicable charge against astonished German troops who knew the Armistice was about to occur. Ironically of German descent, he was shot dead less than a minute before 11:00am on that day. Pvt. Gunther carries the infamous label as the last soldier to be killed in action in World War I…and senselessly so.

It is a somber day. While vets should doubtless be honored for their sacrifices and losses, it should also be remembered that the predominant victims of modern warfare are civilians, not soldiers. World War I began that inexorable trend toward considerably more innocent men, women and children dying in war than combatants (without even taking into account the untold civilian displacement, disease, destitution, and famine). Those disregarded, soon forgotten and collaterally caught in the crossfire tend to suffer most.

How to rise from such gloom? Breaking bread is a start. Food nags us at times of both celebration and sorrow. A simple meal is sustenance, ritual, comfort, even quiet joy…a gentle, peaceful kiss. So, please share some primordial fare.

MUSHROOM & ROOT SOUP

2 T dried mushrooms (porcini, morels or shitakes)
1/2 C chicken stock + 1/2 C water, heated

3 T butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, trimmed and roughly chopped
2 medium parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium celeriac, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
3 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 C chicken broth

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lb wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Pinch of dried thyme

Fresh chives
Crème fraîche

Soak the dried mushrooms in the warm stock and water about 20 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed. Reserve the soaking liquid as well.

Melt the butter and olive oil in a deep heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leek, parsnips, celeriac, carrot, thyme and bay leaf. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks are soft, translucent and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Then, add the broth and the soaked dried mushrooms. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to a quiet simmer.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a large, heavy skillet. When the oil is shimmering and hot, add the wild mushrooms, stirring with a wooden spoon, and allow to just lightly brown. Season with salt and pepper, then turn the heat to medium and sauté 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms are just soft and cooked through. Add the garlic and thyme and cook 1 minute more.

Add the sautéed mushrooms to the soup and allow to simmer until the parsnips, celeriac and carrot are tender, about 15 minutes or so.

Discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Purée the soup in a food processor fitted with a steel knife, a blender or even an immersion stick. Correct the seasoning and thin with the mushroom soaking liquid and/or broth, if necessary.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls. Garnish with chives and a drizzle of crème fraîche. Serve with toasted baguette slices.

Bocage country could be a nightmare, you could only see as far as the next field and in the lanes, only as far as the next bend.
Harvey Smith, of the Royal Engineers

Maybe part upbringing, pinches of observing, or just a zeal for history…but, I am still “studying” that abhorrent human endeavor called war. Although ever coveting peace and diplomacy, always innately inquisitive about conflict, strategy and the human suffering inflicted by wars. Probably a little incongruous. So, please bear with me, as this chapter came to mind when posting about Calvados.

Intimate documentary footage has recently emerged on the home screen depicting the battle for Normandie. Beginning with an amphibious invasion in early June, 1944, the campaign did not end on the heavily fortified beachheads, but raged into late August. Several days after the sand was secured, the Allies moved inland in several directions, including toward St Lo and the lethal bocage—where German 7th Army garrisons and SS Panzer divisions lay in mortal wait.

On peaceful days, the Norman bocage was a pastoral checkerboard of lush meadows dotted with apple orchards from which the local brandy, Calvados, was crafted. Each rectangular meadow was surrounded by thick hedgerows to block the winds from verdant pastures and plump cattle.

During war though, the bocage formed a lethal labyrinth of defensive barriers. Some hedges were eye level bushes while others were densely matted walls of earth and briery hedge, some 10 feet high and stippled with trees. Many were impassable for tanks, and communication between troops in the fields was limited. Slender lanes, crisscrossing and bending throughout, created ambush points and access to fields far away from regular routes.

The bocage concealed pockets of elite German infantry, including the vaunted 3rd Parachute Division. The hedgerows nested snipers, shielded point blank machine gun ambushes and concealed small arms fire…with only the entrenched defenders intimately acquainted with the lay of the land. Oncoming troops often found themselves exposed, naked in the open field. Close combat raged in thickly vegetated mazes bordering open space and replete with deadly incoming from concealed Tigers, the feared 88mm and mortars.

Typical tactics were ineffectual in the bocage. Hemmed in by hedgerows, platoons lost their sense of direction during skirmishes. Confusion and disorientation reigned. Agonizing missions rampant with carnage. Some of the fiercest fighting in the war took place in the bocage whose hedgerows and lanes formed killing zones not unlike those devised by trenches in World War I. As with the Great War, left behind were battlefields rife with dead and ruin. Shattered farmhouses and villages slumped as memorials to abolition. Tangled wire littered the fields and hedges, all barren of life but teeming with the stench and waste of war. Broken guns, downed tanks, bits of clothing, empty helmets, spent shells, and the sad remains of life.

And that was the abridged digression. Sorry, but seems such short shrift to me.

Calvados, a French apple brandy which is labeled for the terroir of the same name. Calvados, a notable apple and cider producing region, is located in Basse-Normandie in north France which borders the English Channel. The brandy is made from carefully culled apples, and it is not unusual for a producer to use over 100 different varieties in crafting this velvety hooch.

Like other chosen French food and drink, Calvados is governed by appellation contrôlée regulations. Calvados Pays d’Auge (AOC) is made through a two-step process called double distillation. Using a traditional alembic pot still, apple cider is heated causing the alcohol vapor to rise and collect and then ultimately course down through a coil and drip into a cold tank. On coming into contact with the coolant, the vapors condense into a liquid. The vapors at the beginning and end of first distillation process (heads and tails) which are and will be redistilled with the next cider, are eliminated to obtain the petite eau (small water). The heads, too high in alcohol, and the tails, lacking harmony, are carefully removed and distilled over again to perfection. Then a second heating occurs to further distill this petit eau. As before, the heads and tails are again separated off to preserve only the heart of distillation called the bonne chauffe. This staged process imparts complexity and concentrates the most delicate aromas and bouquet of the spirit, retaining only the finest components and eliminating the mediocre.

After distillation, the end product is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. As with many things in life, the longer it is aged, the smoother the end product.

VEAL SCALLOPS WITH CALVADOS & APPLES

3 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2″ slices
5 T lemon juice

10-12 veal scallops (1/2″ thick)
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dried sage
2 C flour

2 T butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C tablespoons calvados
1 1/2 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 170 F

Place apples in a bowl, add lemon juice, mix thoroughly so apples are thoroughly coated. Set aside.

Season veal scalloops with salt, pepper and a few pinches of sage. Then dip in the flour on a deep plate or dish, shaking off any excess. Heat butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. When hot and shimmering, add veal, spaced well, and saute until lightly brown on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. You should cook the veal in batches so it is not crowded and do not overcook or they will become shoe leather. Err on the low side of doneness. When the veal is cooked, arrange on a platter, loosely tent and place in the warm oven.

Add apples with lemon juice and Calvados to the pan. Scrape up all pan encrustations & cook over medium heat to deglaze for about 3-4 minutes. Add cream and continue cooking until the sauce has reduced by half and coats a spoon, about 8-10 minutes. Adjust seasoning to your liking with salt and pepper. Plate the scallops with apples artfully adjoining, spoon sauce over and serve immediately.

Yes, life has many onions.
~Skip Coryell

While tartes aux oignons are considered a specialty of the formerly embattled northeast border region of Alsace, they are found throughout the country — so it is a recipe that bodes well in any département.

Passed back and forth between tribes, royalty, governments and churches over centuries, Alsace-Lorraine (Ger: Elsass-Lothringen) eventually evolved into a region shaped by both French and German cultures. Space does not permit me to adequately recount its strife-ridden, treaty-rent past. Suffice it to say despite its beauty Alsace-Lorraine was partially born of a dolorous recipe with unsavory ingredients: men, liberally seasoned with lands, boundaries, intolerance, suppression and religion. Sound familiar?

Even an aperçu of modern times reflects these geo-political vacillations. Following the Franco-Prussian War, the area was annexed by the German Empire in 1871 via the Treaty of Frankfurt and became a Reichsland. At the conclusion of World War I, the province reverted to France under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. Nazi Germany then again occupied the territory during World War II, beginning in 1940, but the end of the war placed Alsace-Lorraine back in French hands where it has remained since.  With each war, inhabitants of this fair land were made to overhaul their allegiances, citizenship, language, and the like to appease the conquering forces.

In more recent history, efforts have been made to embrace Alsace-Lorraine’s duel Gaullic and Germanic personalities. The cuisine of both cultures have retained their individual identities yet have also remained intertwined — bäeckeofe, foie gras, sauerkraut (choucroute), quiche lorraine, sausages, smoked pork, and so on, all cohabitate peacefully.

ONION TART (TARTE AUX OIGNONS)

1 recipe pâte brisée*

3 slices bacon or pancetta
2 C yellow onions, peeled and very thinly sliced
1/4 C chives, chopped
Pinch of dried thyme

3 large organic, free range eggs
2-3 C heavy cream
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
Grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out the pâte brisée on a floured board, and line a 9” removable-bottom tart shell with it. Flute the edge of the pastry. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator while making the filling.

Cut the bacon into lardons and fry in a heavy skillet until crispy brown. Set aside and drain on paper towels.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onions, stirring regularly, until they are tender and just beginning to caramelize. Stir in the bacon, chives and thyme until well mixed. Remove the skillet from the heat.

In a small bowl, beat the egg and cream together. Add a pinch or two of salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Add this to the onions, stirring to combine.

Pour the onion and egg mixture into the pastry shell. Bake tart for about 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the custard is firm. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Serve warm or room temperature.

*Pâte Brisée

1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
6 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 T lard or shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 T ice water

Place all the ingredients except the water, in a large bowl. Add the water mash and work with your hands and fingers so that is assembled into a solid, smooth ball. If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Makes for rich but delicate fare when paired with a simple green salad, a crusty baguette, and a crisp Alsatian white or Provençal rosé