Monday: Castles and Casseroles

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Carcassone, I was told, attracted a million visitors a year so I decided to add myself to the millions and see what all the fuss was about. The day started bright and crisp and the GPS dutifully sent me hurtling towards my destination. Halfway through, I stopped at a nice bright boulangerie and discovered that croque monsieur was even better than previously experienced.



I found the centre of Carcassone without too much fuss, parked in a nice underground facility and walked about for a bit. There were the usual narrow lanes, the usual medieval buildings, the usual largish church. I found a nice fountain to photograph and a bar full of locals to have a coffee in. I was, to tell you the truth, a little bit disappointed; nothing here seemed worth the millions any more than a hundred other European towns. It was all a bit puzzling. I settled down with a coffee and set out to write an article on technology for a magazine. Wait and see, maybe Cinderella would appear at noon and start dancing, or something.





Next door was a brasserie where I, like all the others in the bar seemed to go for lunch, so I did too. And dutifully ordered what I had been told was THE thing to have - cassoulet. I thought the waitress gave the faintest of shrugs, but I stuck to my guns and eventually a large pot of the stuff did indeed grace my table. I knew it to be a white bean stew, and indeed that is what came, covered with breadcrumbs and baked to a crust. Inside was a leg of duck, a sausage and a piece of pork. I dutifully dug in, and discovered that I had stumbled upon the rarest of French experiences - a boring meal.



It was amazing how dull the cassoulet was. The right ingredients were all in - beans, duck leg, sausage, fatty chunk of pork rib - only the excitement had been left out. This was the top of the line version; you can get one sans confit - no duck, no sausage, I wonder why that exists at all. If anything it reminded me of discount cans of chilli-con-carne from an American supermarket - lots of promise on the label, bland, sweet and unending once you start.

This was turning out to be a bit of a strange day; neither sights nor tastes seem to have gone the way I expected. Scratching my head, I turned to Wikipedia for help, and was immediately informed that the town is, in fact, not the Carcassone I had come to see. That was a fort outside the city, a monstrosity of towers and walls that I had somehow failed to see on the way in. Armed with this insight, I made short work of locating it, and spent the rest of the afternoon walking the ramparts.



There is no myth in the million-tourist story; even the chilly depths of a cold wave on a Monday in October had not kept the hordes out. After days of having places pretty much to myself, I was finally faced with competition for views, photo angles, restrooms. The castle was quite worth the effort, thoug - very imposing, massive even by Indian standards and extremely well preserved. Unlike other places I had seen in France, Carcassone was a true monument - no one actually lived in the castle any more. It was full of restaurants, patissiers, cholocatiers, creperies, trinket shops...and lots of cassoulet.

This struck me first as odd, then increasingly as very wierd. For something I had just compared to gloop in a can, the French seemed to take it very seriously. Cassoulet seemed a bit of religion here; every other eatery advertised it prominently, indeed made quite a fuss about how great their version was. Whole restaurants where pegging their reputations on cassoulet, advertising awards for cassoulet, even displaying a route cassoulet (which seemed to imply pilgrimages of the stuff). Either the French had visited mickey mouse once too often or, again, I was missing something.

One word that seemed repeatedly to attach itself to cassoulet was Castelnaudary. I first thought it was something to do with the castle (an impression helped along by the innumerable signs for the stuff inside the castle) but I was wrong. It was, the road signs told me, actually a town - and obviously cassoulet from there was a really big deal because even the road sign showed a steaming bowl. Where other towns had drawings of churches, castles or mountains, Castelnaudary was firmly about the stew. Curious about the fame of the stuff, I steered off the highway and was immediately greeted by a McDonalds fighting with not one but two huge cassoulet signs - you certainly could not mistake the belle of the ball here. Six or seven more signs (and many promises of traditionelle later) I was in the centre of town. The shortest of walks from the parking lot got me to Maison du Cassoulet (cuisine de bistrot & specialites, six branches nearby).



This time, the dish did redeem itself. Still beans, leg of duck, sausage and fatty pork rib but this was not sweet, tasteless gloop. And everyone, including the people reading French newspapers and rolling the merci effortlessly off the tongue was ordering it (six of the nine people at that restaurant certainly, in what seemed the only open place in town). Unlike the mush I had previously been subjected to, these beans had some actual flavour. It wasn't sweet, it wasn't gluey, it was, in fact, quite nice.

Here's my verdict on the matter - yes it is indeed quite nice. The beans are soft, whole tiny bites infused generously with flavour. The duck and the pork, soaking in starch, are juicy, and melting. When in Castelnaudary there is absolutely no reason not to order it again. If the cassoulet were to tap me on the shoulder and say hello, I would greet it warmly - I would not, however, be standing under any windows hoping for a glimpse.

 

Day One in France - Lunch

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Having begun at the border of France, my first action was to step across the border and avoid bankruptcy by getting myself a local SIM. Ninety minutes later, I was locally simmed and the proud owner also of the ethylotest - breath analysers. French law insists every car has one. Obviously they take their drinking seriously, even when driving.

My target for the day was a tour through Alsace ending at tomorrow's target - Burgundy. Three of France's officially prettiest villages were on the list, but I greatly underestimated travel times in my quest to avoid highways. The drives were unquestionably more scenic, but also took forever. What with delays at St. Avold and the non-cancel reservation in Burgundy, I ended up with less time than I thought. It was going to have to be only one village; I chose Eguisheim, the centre of the Alsace wine trail.

But first, of course, was the serious business of lunch. I stopped at a village that happened to pass by around noon, with the somewhat improbable name of Puttelange-aux-Lacs. Between munches on an amazing baba au rum I asked the local patissiere what my lunch options were, and thus found my way to Chez Pierette.



It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered - a bright, cheerful cafe filled with locals (in any case, this is not tourist season so few people other than locals are around). The people were cheerfully tolerant of my inability to speak anything resembling French; the waitress gave me plenty of advice that I failed completely to understand. I went with seafood salad (how can that go wrong in the corner of France furthest from the sea) and the lapin (which I knew to be rabbit) in what turned out to be a roulade.



Two perfect mini gooey chocolate cakes followed, whipped cream on one end, vanilla ice cream on the other.



Pierette was a lively, friendly cafe bustling with locals who all knew the bartender and flirted with the sole waitress. Few people looked at the menu. The food, as I had been told to expect, was very nice - fresh enough to be alive, filling, tasty and comfortable stuff I could eat every day. Some simple touches - a kind of grated marinated carrot in the seafood salad, for instance - were unexpectedly lovely. Also, I love rabbit, and hardly ever see it on menus in India.




Wines and beers were everywhere but scared by all that ethylotesting, I stuck to that other French drinks - sparkling water.

 

Day One in France - Dinner

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Fortified by a perfectly local lunch, I headed towards more tourism - the Alsace-Lorraine, a region I knew little of except that it had some of the best Rieslings in France and a very popular eponymous quiche. The drive was littered with trees ablaze with the brightest reds and flashiest yellows. Dark, freshly tilled fields interspersed with green patches of rolling hills, striped rows of vineyards and occasional clumps of trees added contrast. Beautiful sunshine, stretches of fall-hued forests, postcard towns and winding, roller-coaster roads made for a wonderful journey.





I had planned for three villages, but time eventually forced me to choose only one, and I chose the one closest to my exit route to Burgundy. The chosen one - Eguisheim - was indeed devastatingly pretty. Half-timbered houses painted the colours of a pastel rainbow, standing slightly crookedly along narrow, winding cobblestone streets; It was as advertised, a fairytale museum-piece of a medieval town. Indeed, I should have planned for much more time in Alsace - it was just deliciously picture perfect.





Though the village had no shortage of wineries offering tastings, ethyloscared me left the wines alone with great regret. Indeed, the place was a gastronomic disaster; I arrived too late for lunch and way too early for dinner. Alsacce specialiten boards abounded, only to point to closed doors. The only thing I did manage were some regional sausages and a reasonably unexciting local variant of brioche made with almonds and raisins. Even the quiche lorraine was sold out.



Dinner was a long drive back west, to Burgundy. I had chosen, somewhat at random, a two-coquette Hotel-restaurant de La Paix in Tournos fronted by chef David Gider. I must admit I had no idea what two coquettes meant, but figured two was better than one and certainly better than none at all. I was not disappointed. Starting with the aperitif, a local drink with fizz and peaches, a four course tale of an amazing the prix-fixe dinner unfolded.



I spent a bit of time debating the first course. There was chicken, rabbit choices, but snails were apparently **the** thing in Burgundy; I finally went with the snails - and immediately regretted it. I've had snails a few times before and never quite got the point of them. To me they've always felt like an excuse to lap up loads of garlic butter than anything of intrinsic merit. They do, however, have tick-mark value. Nothing was wrong with the dish tonight, tender snails drowned in liquid herb-garlic butter as good as I've had anywhere, so I dutifully ticked.



The wine, of course, was a burgundy. The waitress suggested a demi of Ruilly 2010, grown not more than fifty kilometres away; it was indeed a lovely wine.

Second course was duck breast with raisins, white beans and mushrooms in a local Ratafia wine sauce. The dish made me weep with joy, bless the French and sing praises of the wine gods. The tender, juicy duck with a thin, crisped skin combined with the sharply sweet raisins and the soft, buttery beans in wonderful ways. I marvelled over how even the beans, usually classified with something such as humble or tender, were in this dish worth the effort. In short - before adjective overload happens - it was very very good.

The cheese course came in the form of fromage blanc - a fresh white cheese that people in these parts are very fond of; sprinkle a generous dollop of sugar on it and off you go. It tasted very like a childhood favourite of mine - fresh homemade paneer, similarly eaten with sprinkled sugar. This was a creamier, fancier version, and I loved it. Dessert was the final thing on the menu - a souffle made from some local liquor. I expected an airy cheesy thing; what landed up seemed identical to ice-cream with a strong liquor flavour.



I'm still dreaming of the duck.

 

Starting Off

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A windmill, flaming trees, some bucolic cows and a long drive later, I rest on a bed at at the edge of France.



Landhaus Warndtwald happens to be chosen for no particular reason other than it matched the price and distance criteria I had set, but the region seems of some interest. Apparently the Saar tossed back and forth between France and Germany multiple times, even being an independent country for bit before finally settling into German hands. It's known for, of all things, potatoes; Dibbelappes (potato hash) and gefillte (potato dumplings) are apparently the hot local things to have - we shall see what they make of it tomorrow before venturing into some of France's most picturesque villages (there are three nearby). One of them will feed me lunch.



Dutch Treat

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Here I am, in Amsterdam, preparing to run half a marathon so eating myself silly is not one of the options on the table. I did, however, begin the day with a pate and hazelnut sandwich out of a grocery store that got me thinking about how great bread, great meats and great cheeses give Europeans an unfair advantage on the sandwich front. Even a supermarket counter managed to impress a fussy foodie.

My first real bite of Dutch came at an airy, stylish modern Fitch & Shui Brasserie. All glass and metal tube, it offered on its menu an intriguing option - Hollands bitterballen. Since it was the only certified authentic dutch item on the menu (the others had names like Tallegio and tonno plastered all over) I had little choice but to order it. The waitress tried, with very limited success to explain what it was; all I gathered was that it was very good. And here's what landed up.

Bitterballen, it seems is the thing that foodies dream of in their dreams - popular in Holland but rarely found anywhere that Dutchmen fear to tread. With a crunchy shell hiding a squishy innard with bits of meat, it is indeed quite nice. Not I-want-to-get-on-the-next-plane nice, but certainly nice enough to be my first Dutch treat.

Shorshe Bhapa Chingri

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Stranded in New York far from ingredients and helpers, I learned to make quite a few Bengali dishes on the quick, none more successful than bhapa mach – this translates to the somewhat pedestrian "steamed fish" Its got a short ingredient list, quick prep and (horror of horrors) can be made in a microwave without any side effects and looks, as you can see, quite spectacular – one can easily imagine it the fruit of long labour and extensive technique.

Yesterday, I needed to produce something to compete with Sunanda's world-class tiramisu, feed friends and impress people, so this was resurrected, adjusted to frozen prawns (chingri) rather than fresh fish, and voila! Shorshe Bhapa Chingri, double quick.

The process is pretty much the same as bhapa fish – an old blog post I strongly encourage you to read. Its got all the theory, I'll just describe the twists that got me to this one.

Ingredients

  1. Prawns: super-jumbo-tail-on, why not
  2. Mustard: Colman's English Mustard Powder, with a bit of the local variety added in for effect
  3. Coconut: helpfully grated by helper Susheela
  4. Coconut cream: from a can
  5. Green chillies: slit and deseeded
  6. Kalonji: tossed in oil as tadka
  7. A pinch each of haldi and jeera powders, for colour
  8. Encouraging looks from Sunanda (optional)

Mix it all up, put into a microwaveable container with a sealed lid, and microwave. Usually six minutes does the trick, but depending on your microwave and the number of super-jumbos involved, more or less may be needed. Since I was serving guests, I zapped for three minutes in the afternoon, then put it in the fridge. The last three came minutes before serving it, all steaming hot and all.

Prep (discounting the coconut grating bit) about five minutes (two of which went into locating the mustard powder can).  Cooking time, six minutes. Taste test, you say? Flying colours.

Haleem

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A conference took me to Hyderabad in the month of Ramadan; and it was clearly a city obsessed with haleem.

Its a city I had not seen in a while. The last time I was here, the ISB was just a gleam in Rajat Gupta's eye, the old airport was still called new and Saikat Dey (now father of two) was still an unmarried hunter-gatherer of biriyani. In those days we thrilled over Shadab, sneered at Paradise and felt reasonable satisfied with the corner chacha's stall, focused entirely on that magic b-word (biriyani – not those other x-rated alternatives your dirty dirty minds are pushing forward).

Hyderabad has changed beyond recognition. The scrappy, dusty city of my memories seems to have been replaced by some magic teleporter to a developed country. The expressway transporting me to ISB (Chinese infrastructure in a Sholay set is the best I can describe it) had posted speed signs of 120kmph - that's 75mph, you slow American commuters. The infrastructure was, frankly, nauseatingly well planned; almost treacherously un-Indian, certainly more Guangzhou than Gurgaon. And this seems everywhere in the city – roads narrowed only when we were inches away from the Charminar.

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But back to matters of the stomach. While marvelling at a gleaming new airport I could hardly faul to notice the large flex announcing that haleem was now available at the food court. Pista House, a name I had first heard only a week ago (and not in the context of the nut) was the proud originator of the flex - promising 207 awards and the world's largest haleem-selling operation.

An auto ride through the city reinforced the h-word (haleem– oh you dirty minds) as king of the hill. The hoardings were everywhere; even those feel-good airtel billboards sulked a little at all the fuss. Irani origins were firmly established and purity seemed to be a very important part of haleeming - pure ghee, pure meat, even the odd pure veg. Poorer-cousin harees grabbed the silver, chicken seemed to be nearly as popular as mutton and beef rated the occasional mention. The odd Udipi chipped in with vegetarian promises; I even saw mention of a Chinese haleem (you decide if it was fusion food or a missed comma).

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The auto, of course, was headed to Charminar. My experience has usually been that the old city is the best bet for traditional food; on the way auto-driver turned gourmet guide Ahmedbhai pointed out the city's most famous options. I passed Pista House and Shah Ghouse staring each other down across the usually wide Hyderabadi street, Paradise making its brash presence felt (twice). Bilal declaring ice cream love from a quaint English building and then suddenly, one odd turn here and there and I was in crowded old city teeming with hawkers and hawkees.

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Surprisingly enough, the Charminar area turned out to be relatively sparse on food. This was no Minara Masjid jammed like sardines with temporary barbecue kingdoms; indeed the focus seemed to be trinkets and shoes and very (lets call it) cheerful fashion than food. There were stalls, of course, and many offers of haleem, but far less than I expected. Indeed, the primary foods on offer were fruits – hundreds of stalls in a fifty-sixty metre stretch offering pomegranates, apples, pineapples, watermelons, every kind of fruit there is. I quickly escaped that part of town. There were also a large number of dahi vada stalls and even two white capped muslims selling regular dosas. The dahi vada, in particular, was worth a mention; unlike the cold, uncooked dahi that is used everywhere else, the Hyderabadi version is more like a kadhi - slowcooked with a mustard and chilli tadka. Also no chutney on top, neither red nor green. It made for a nice twist.

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Back in more meaty sections, street vendors seemed to be selling two main things out of carts – seekh kakabs that looked very like boti, bheja on a tava, a bread-egg production that we could call french toast, a soup that looked – well – like a soup but they called boti, and of course - haleem and harees.

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Distractions out of the way, I finally settled down to the serious business of haleem. Lets be brutal here; you're not going to get a "best haleem" recommendation from me - that would take years, a mountain of calories and more than a few frequent auto miles. I discovered rather quickly, however, that best isn't that important – haleem in Hyderabad seems to all be very good (you could probably write home about finding a bad one). The average street food did not impress much, but the haleem is a decent number of notches above the other feeble attempts I've had elsewhere.

My first haleem was at the Charminar, chosen for nothing more than because it happened to be where the auto stopped. I'd never heard of Fiesta Green Bawarchi, there weren't any crowds lining up and those huge colour pictures of chickens and sheep did nothing much to whet the appetite. I figured, lets try the chicken here, leave the mutton for better places; the three eager servers promptly set out to make me the perfect plate. A huge dollop of white, sticky, pasty stuff was dug out of the ground, ladled into a bowl, topped with deep fried onions, chopped pudina, dhania, a handful of cashews, a squeeze of lime and finally a generous dollop of the ghee the meat was cooked in.

Chicken or not, it was delicious.

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I promptly got ambitious. At 60% more expensive, mutton was clearly the haleem to have; a few delicious spoonfuls of the chicken later, I told him to pack it up and hand me a mutton version. It was indeed a little bit better but not by much; I can die reasonably happy even with the chicken version. The mutton version had a darker, deeper flavour, but the Green Bawarchi version had small, irritating bones too.

Next stop, a harees shop a few steps away. Harees is only wheat and meat - haleem without the dal. A little smoother, a little less complex, served with the same garnishings, still utterly delicious. Next stop was the giant in haleems in the city – Pista House. We went to the more convenient outlet in the Toli Chowki area rather than to the original old city outlet. This one was a stripped down outlet, serving only haleem in bowls, takeaway and even huge paint-can sized fifteen-kilo family packs. The haleem, as usual, was great – this time a little more polished without all those irritating bone fragments.

Bottom line, haleem is worth putting ass for. Obsess over where if you like, its all very good.

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