30 October 2009

Life is Sweet

Just after we moved to Paris, we attended the Salon des Vins, a convention of independent vintners offering generous tastings of their products to thousands of patrons. Aside from the food poisoning, a good time, for sure.

So when, a couple of weeks ago, we saw a billboard in a metro station for something called the Salon du Chocolat, we were totally on board. Paris has a dizzying number of high-quality chocolatiers, selling everything from pastries to bars to exquisite morsels of caramel or fruit or nuts wrapped in high quality chocolate. And like so many things in Paris, the presentation is as amazing as the flavors. So it seemed a reasonable bet that a show dedicated to chocolate in Paris would be pretty over-the-top.

So we went on the last day, a Sunday afternoon, where we encountered about half of the population of Paris. Turns out the Salon du Chocolat is in its 15th year and is anything but an intimate gathering. We waited half an hour to get in, wondering what waited inside. If at the Salon des Vins you get a tasting glass with your entry fee, what tasting implement one would get at the Salon du Chocolat? Maybe white gloves? Wishful thinking. Though rumors that a more liberal tasting environment prevailed on Thursday and Friday, when the crowd was smaller, the Sunday mob did not see a plethora of samples. And those booths that did offer samples more resembled a shark-feeding demonstration than a chocolate shop.

Exhibitors ranged from groups representing growers of cacao to those who makers, blend, and ultimately use chocolate for nearly any use. There were chocolate bars, candies, truffles, jarred sauces, cakes, pastries, and even liqueurs, all of it for sale. Booth sizes ranged from relatively one- or two-person stands offering just a few products to stylish mini-pavilions from some of the big chocolatiers such as La Maison du Chocolat, Lenotre, Jeff de Bruges, and Pierre Marcolini. Exhibitors came mostly from France and its near neighbors, but also from further-flung places such as the US (Chocovision, a company that makes equipment for industrial chocolate production), Japan (Tokyo Chocolate Co, a chocolatier disappointingly offering tastes of cliched chocolates dusted in green tea powder), and Madagascar (Cinagra, whose website, the first I've ever typed with a .mg address, doesn't work). There was also a stage in the center of the hall for elaborate performances of native cultures from cacao-growing regions, demonstration areas for cooking with chocolate, lectures on everything from chocolate history to the science of its taste to chocolate myths and legends (Le chocolat est-il aphrodisiaque?), and this being Paris, a crowded hall of fashion, the clothes all made from chocolate.

We stuck to the eating. And whereas the sample rate was maybe 1 in 6 exhibitors, it's surprising how quickly a series of small chocolate tastings can overwhelm. We had a couple of opportunities to compare chocolate made from beans from different sources, and just like coffee or wine, the flavor differences were immense and fascinating. There were some superb dark chocolate-covered sauterne grapes: super-intense fruit, hard to identify even as grapes, with prominent mango- and tropical fruit flavors mingling with the chocolate. We had some delicious chocolate wafers filled with spiced caramels (ginger, cardamom, etc). And our favorite of the day was an intense classic truffle that just dissolved luxuriously on your tongue, made by Pascal Le Gac, a chocolatier in St Germain-en-Laye, a picturesque town on a hill top just outside of Paris.

Given the mob inside, we were shocked on our way out to see that the line was probably 10 times longer than when we waited to get in. That was hard to explain, since the event closed in just 90 min. Maybe the long line wasn't actually to get into the event-- maybe they were autograph seekers waiting to mob the chocolatiers when they exited. Or better yet, maybe the exhibitors stand on the balcony and toss the rest of their samples out to the crowds below. Kind of like trick-or-treating.

Speaking of which, it's nearly Halloween. I wasn't so surprised to see EuroDisney billboards with a Halloween theme in the metro in the past month. But on several rides in the countryside recently, I've seen Halloween-like decorations on fences and houses. What gives? Halloween isn't a traditional French holiday. A friend here recalled that when France Telecom bought the Orange brand for its mobile networks and internet about 8 years ago, they did a Halloween tie-in that kind of stuck. That perception meshes with a broader explanation here. Regardless, it seems it's celebrated by little kids, especially outside of Paris, and young adults looking for an excuse to party. No word on whether, given the French fondness for setting cars afire, they also celebrate Devil's Night. But just in case, I'm bringing a fire extinguisher to dinner tonight.

16 October 2009

Less is more

Early in our marriage, I decided that despite the fact that I'd been told many times that my head was full of rocks, my experience with myself was consistent with my being a super-genius. And using the now-popular tactic that saying something often enough makes it true, I made sure I told Karen of my super-geniosity whenever it was convenient for me. Which was often.

All of that changed on an airline flight. I was flying alone in the pre-ipod era, and being a super-genius, I'd forgotten to bring anything productive, or even fun, to read. So I was left with the airline's in-flight magazine. Yadda yadda yadda "Kansas as the next great travel destination," yadda yadda yadda "amazing new kelp diet," yadda yadda yadda "are you a genius?", yadda yadda yadda... hold on there, "are you a genius?" Hell yeah, and I'd been looking for proof. All I had to do was take the 20-question test and add up the score. Piece of cake-- I've always tested well. It was a mix of logic questions and some deliberately seemingly-easy-but-there's-a-trick puzzle questions. I forget what the time limit on the test was (this was serious business), but I finished early. Looking good.

Found the answers in the back of the magazine and checked my score. Yup, yup, yup, got that one, yup, yup... I knew it was going to be a piece of cake. I was killing it. Until number 14. Got #14 wrong. Got it wrong by making a dumb mistake. That was the only one I missed.

And it cost me. If I'd gotten them all right, I'd have earned the title of super-genius. As it was, I was only a genius-plus-plus. I thought about the circumstances. I'd just made a silly careless error. A dumb mistake I'd have caught anywhere but on an airplane. I was sure of it. I may not be a super-genius, but I wasn't a cheater, either. It's one thing to be certain of being a super-genius with no evidence to the contrary, but to ignore the results of an airline publication-approved IQ test would be recklessly irresponsible, an insult to the publication and to real super-geniuses, alike.

It was hard to handle the disappointment. To have the bedrock of your entire belief system revealed as fraud is hard. To have it happen 30,000 feet in the air, without access to your emotional support network, is devastating. Somehow I made it to my destination. And being an honest not-super-genius, I told Karen right away. She tried to make me feel better: "genius-plus-plus is still pretty good." Yeah, but it doesn't roll off the tongue, does it.

I've moved on in the many years since then, aside from the occasional nightmare revisiting the flight, usually right around performance evaluation time. I think I've grown.

What does this have to do with Paris? Well, shortly before flying to Italy, I bought a bathroom scale. The airlines are so fussy about baggage weights these days, and the penalties are so high, especially if your bags have bikes in them and so switch from "personal luggage" category to the "sporting equipment" category if you're a gram over the limit, that we decided it was worth the 25 eurobucks to know exactly what could go in which bag. We did a superb job of packing. We were half a kilo under on each bag going and even managed to remember what went into which bag on returning. Even the evil check-in people were impressed.

As long as we had the scale, I decided to weigh myself. And to my surprise, after the most frustrating year of riding and by a wide margin the year of largest wine consumption in my life, my weight was down essentially to racing weight. Hmm. Returning from Italy, where we eat a lot, it was a kilo less, yet. Double hmm.

The weird thing is that I don't think I'm that skinny. I've been really lean before, and I'm definitely not race-lean. So if I'm not skinny but I weigh less, what's going on?

The answer is obvious-- I've gotten smarter. If my body isn't different, it must be my head that's lighter: my head has fewer rocks in it. And that loss of rocks must mean I'm smarter. Which can only mean, after all of these years, that I'm finally really a super-genius.

All I need it an airline publication IQ test to prove it.

Which is why I'm taking the train from now on.

14 October 2009

My new favorite food

First off, clearly the last post did not unclog the blog blockage. C'est comme ça (perhaps the most common phrase in Paris, expressing the inevitability of unpleasant things, like the dreadfulness of the coffee or dog poo all over the sidewalk-- "yeah, it's like that" or "what can you do?") Sorry about that.

Second, this should probably be called my newest favorite food, because there's a missing blog before this one naming cauliflower as my new favorite food. Well, maybe new favorite ingredient. Whichever, it's very passé, now. (OK, it's not passé, as cauliflower still really rocks. Surprised? If you want to make creamy vegetable dishes, cauliflower purees to ethereal lightness and richness but still with flavor-- it's a secret ingredient for sure. My dad may think it looks like paste (a hint at his childhood eating preferences?), but you can't have too much of a super-creamy, tasty vegetable-- gratins, timbales/sformazas/custards, etc are wonderful.)

So what is my newest favorite food? Guanciale.

OK, so not exactly something in everybody's supermarket. But it should be. We should all petition whoever it is who fills aisles with 15 varieties of baked beans and stale coffee to fill them instead with guanciale, because, well, pardon the expression, but it's just the shit.

I'd been hunting the elusive guanciale for awhile here in Paris at Italian specialty shops, where the vendors speak Italian as their first language, and I'd gotten a lot of, "huh?" Not encouraging. One guy even asked me if that was an English word. Yikes.

Guanciale is a cured pig meat that isn't bacon. And by "isn't bacon," I mean both isn't bacon and yet is still in theory a lot like bacon. Whereas bacon and pancetta (and French poitrine) comes from the belly of the pig, with various curing and smoking protocols for preservation, guanciale is made from the jowl of the pig and is never smoked. I like bacon. I love pancetta and use it abundantly. But what I'd read about guanciale suggested that many feel it is a porkier flavor than bacon or pancetta. It's a staple in several regions of Italy. You can't make an authentic pasta (usually bucatini) all'amatriciana (guanciale, onion, garlic, pepper flakes, cheese, with or without tomato, depending on whether you're a fan of the pre- or post-Columbus version) or cabonnara without guanciale. I've made several poser versions with pancetta that I thought were pretty darned good. But I really wanted to find guanciale to explore further. Maybe it would be different, maybe not.

Lucky for me, we were in Italy the last couple of weeks riding our bikes.

[A brief interlude for some gratuitous photos of Italy. Look away if it's raining and cold where you are... ]

Anghiari, near the confluence of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and Emiglia-Romagna. Our apartment was in the city wall.

Misty morning view from our apartment window.

It was an usually hot summer in Italy and uncharacteristically warm for October. The flowers were digging it.

Karen, having earned lunch.

The Parisians have their ill-tempered little dogs ("pets and their owners..."). The Tuscans have their cats.

I've got a little bit of a thing for Alfa-Romeos. So when Avis graciously offered me this 159 sportwagon to drive, I was suave enough to kill the engine not once, but 3 times while trying to pull out of the parking lot. Karen called it the Batmobile.

The Tiber river, from a 9-mile long climb.

Typical hilltop town.

Sheep are always a highlight of any ride for Karen. Sometimes I feel kinda like sheep paparazzi.

More of Anghiari.

Emilia-Romagna, near the national forest.

Monastic village in the national forest, just on the Tuscany side. Silenzio required.

The view out our kitchen window.

Stage 16 of the 2009 Giro d'Italia covered some very challenging terrain in Umbria, earning the comment from Lance Armstrong that it was the hardest day he's had on the bike (helped by the fact that it was stupid-hot). There's a joke in Italy that the only way to get a road paved is to run the Giro on it. This road led into the first categorized climb of the day, and though still marked as gravel on the maps, we knew it would be silky smooth. 12 km of sensory overload on magic carpet black top.

Karen on top of the world.

[Back to our regularly scheduled program...]

Unfortunately for me, none of the 4 provinces we were in or near was one where guanciale is a staple. And so I looked in a lot of places for it: butchers, norcerias (Norcia is a town in Umbria famous for its salumi, or cured meats, and so places that specialize in such things are sometimes known as norcerias), alimentari, enoteccas. No dice. But there's one specialty place in Monteverdi we were introduced to some 8 years ago, Mucci, that does an amazing array of pecorinos and cured meats. We left our apt for the airport an hour early so we could drive out of the way to stop in.

Mucci. They pretty much have whatever you need.

Aging prosciuttos, an olfactory symphony.

And they didn't disappoint. They had guanciale, but I had to buy an entire one. No biggie-- it's a pig's cheek. I've eaten beef, veal, and goat cheeks in restaurants. They're pretty small. I've seen real live pigs on the family farms. Big stinky animals, but I didn't notice any grotesquely humungous cheeks. But the guanciale the guy at Mucci's brought out was the size of my entire thigh. Either that's not a real guanciale, or that was a very, very large pig.

I suspect it was the latter, because when he did bring out a smaller one, it still weighed just shy of 3 pounds, and it was clearly a single piece of pig. I was a bit wary, since buying the whole thing was more than I'd bargained for, but 3 pounds of pig for 15 euro-bucks is an insane deal. My Fritalian specialty stores in Paris charge about 3 times that for run of the mill pancetta. Umm, I am not stupid. I bought the guanciale.

About 1.5 lbs remaining of the 3 lbs of guanciale.

Well, I bought it and a big slab of locally cured prosciutto, a piece of cured filet of cinghiale (the wild boar that roams those forests), several links of cured sausage made from cinghiale, a big bag of gorgeous dried porcini (the fresh ones won't be around forever, you know), and 2 panini made with local prosciutto for the flight home to Paris. Yeah, he worked us pretty good. "I'll buy the whole 3-pound guaniciale" kind of marks one as ready to buy. But every bit of it was delicious. And since we were flying within the EU, there was no concern about arbitrary and moronic fears of transporting cured meats or raw cheeses. I'm looking at you, USA. Karen got stopped at security in the Italy airport to go through the big bag of meat, and the security guy laughed pretty hard by the time he got to the panini. We didn't laugh when we got home and found that our cinghiale sausages were missing. The security guy took 'em, I know it!

So I got the guanciale home and decided to make spaghetti all'amatriciana. With tomato, since it was Columbus Day. Wow-- there's a lot of fat in this stuff as you slice it. But once you cook it, the fat melts away unlike anything I've worked with. And both the flavor and the texture of the melted fat are amazing. So much meatier and mellow in flavor than what comes off of bacon, and sooo silky. If, as one annoying Food Network chef maintains, "Pork fat rules," guanciale fat is emperor of the universe. The remaining meat is similarly exquisite. Building the sauce by cooking the onions, garlic, and chili in the fat, then the tomatoes, leads to a final combination that my pancetta versions don't come close to-- so velvety, sweet, mellow. Wow.

One of my favorite dishes is radicchio with pancetta. Done it a bunch of ways (raw radicchio with rendered (sometimes glazed) pancetta over the top, cooked radicchio with pancetta and peas in a little cream with pasta, etc), but however it's done, there's something about the bitter crunch of radicchio and the sweet goodness of pork fat that sings. Last night I rendered the guanciale, cut into lardons, then cooked the radicchio with a little sliced garlic in the fat and once wilted, added some chopped fresh rosemary, a little verjus (another recent score, this one from France-- the juice of unripe grapes, which in earlier centuries was mixed with sugar, booze, and vinegar as a condiment and cooking ingredient), and a ladle of just-made chicken stock, then served that over polenta enriched with the rest of the rendered guanciale fat. Oh my. I'm in love.

Creamy polenta with radicchio and guanciale.

Tonight's use was in a lasagna. Rendered full slices of guanciale, then cooked onions in the fat over low heat for several hours to build deep caramelization, and layered them with fromage blanc, herbs, and a bechamel (well, kind of a bechamel, since some of the fat was guanciale fat instead of butter, and some of the liquid was dried porcini soaking liquid cooked dry and then deglazed with milk). Not traditional, but I'd make it again in a heartbeat. Then again, almost any lasagna made with homemade pasta is worth making again.

Guanciale lasagna, with porcini sauce and slow-cooked onions.

Now I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to get a whole lot more of this stuff here and back in the States, or how I'm going to get my hands on raw pig jowls so I can cure my own. Going without simply isn't an option. If you can find it, I highly recommend working with it. And let me know what you do with it, because I think we've got enough that we'll have to eat it pretty much every day for the next month. Which isn't a bad thing at all.

I'm pretty sure there's a cauliflower-and-guanciale meal in our very near future.

02 October 2009

Annapolis- just like home!

Brick sidewalks everywhere- just like Philadelphia!
Dog poo- just like Paris!