One of the highlights of our recent trip to Europe was the opportunity to spend time with friends.
In the Alsace region of France, we got to immerse ourselves in the area thanks to friends who hosted us.
While staying at their home, we also got to experience – and learn to cook – a couple of traditional local dishes.
I describe what we did as social cooking, because we sat around the table and all participated in the cooking, which was an opportunity for us to socialize. Our friends teased us that they hosted us and then made us cook our own meals! But instead of one person in the kitchen cooking while others sat and socialized, I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the traditional dishes while we all participated in cooking them.
First up was tarte flambée, an Alsatian and South German dish. In Germany it is known as flammkuchen. Many would look at it and think “pizza,” and while it is similar, it is not the same.
The crust is indeed dough rolled out very thin, and the traditional toppings are crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons (somewhat like large bacon pieces). It is then baked, not flambéed, traditionally in a wood-fired oven. It is one of the most famous specialties of the region. Variations include gratinée, with gruyère cheese, forestière, with mushrooms, and sweet or dessert versions.
According to our hosts – and Alsatian history – the creators of this dish were farmers who used to bake bread once a week. A tarte flambée would be used to test the heat of their wood-fired ovens. At the peak of its temperature, the oven would also have the ideal conditions in which to bake a tarte flambée in just minutes. It would be ready before the bread baked, so would serve as a meal while waiting for the bread.
At our host’s home, they have their own tradition – a bake-off. There were five crusts. Each of the four of us took turns making a tarte, with the fifth one serving as dessert. Once one was made, we would cook one, and share it. Then the next person made one. We could use whatever variations of toppings we wanted. The “winner” then made the dessert tarte.
In reality, each variation was delicious. Crème fraîche is delightful, and we had a variety of toppings of meat, mushrooms, onions, peppers and cheese. The tartes got tastier as we progressed, but that could have been the influence of the Alsatian wine.
Our host then made us a dessert tarte, with mangos, apples, and flambéed with liqueur.
Another social evening was participating in a raclette.
In Switzerland, we learned that raclette is a cheese that is fashioned into a wheel and is commonly used for melting. It is also a Swiss dish based on heating the cheese and scraping off the melted part.
But a raclette is also used to refer to the style of cooking in which people gather around a table-top grill and cook small dishes of food – using raclette cheese and other toppings that are cooked on the grill.
Our hosts made us cook again! This experience is similar to a fondue. We cooked toppings such as mushrooms, meat, and peppers, on the stone grill that forms the top of the raclette. The food then gets assembled into individual small pans, with raclette cheese placed on top, and then placed under the stone top to melt. It is served with small boiled potatoes, and often with dried meat and gherkins.
We were served raclette in Switzerland, but enjoyed this evening because – again – it involved sitting around the kitchen table, visiting, learning about the traditions, and breaking a few traditions with some crazy combinations in the raclette dishes.
We really enjoyed our opportunities for social cooking, and are thinking about getting our own raclette grill. It wouldn’t be the same at home, however, as it was in Alsace.