Cranberries and Camembert: Culinary Tales from an Expatriate’s Kitchen in France – and across the Swiss border.
This column by Amelia Alexander explores the art of cooking from the American point of view in France and Switzerland. It also offers seasonal recipes based on available produce in the markets. See the Snow White and Rose Red Recipe at the end of this piece with Cranberry and Almond Spinach Salad followed by Seared Duck Breasts with Gewurztraminer and Winter Berry Glaze with Pomegranate Risotto, plus a desert of Chocolate Cinnamon Molten Cakes.
Cessy, France — For me, nothing quite tastes like France as smooth and creamy Camembert cheese. Spread on a crisp baguette and mellowed by a glass of a deep rich Bordeaux, within moments any lingering doubts about settling down in this far eastern corner of France in the Lake Geneva Region disappear and a warm sensation of “expat bliss” settles over me….
After nearly 25 years of living in France, first in Paris as a student, then a fledging journalist and now in the Pays de Gex as a UN technocrat, I have finally accepted that there is only the slimmest likelihood that I will ever return to live to my native United States. My home and friends are in France and Switzerland, and my children are surviving the gruelling French school system.
Most of the news from the States in the past years has been so distressing that we felt our only real option was to hunker down in our little corner of the Rhone-Alpes and stay firmly put. Then we realised we were extremely comfortable in our French bunker and even when the tide changed in the US, we didn’t feel an urgent need to pack up and return home. We were, in short, thousands of miles and mindsets apart from the countries where we grew up. We had become: full-fledged expatriates whose lives were mired in complex interwoven web of Anglo-American, French-Swiss culture and habits.
In theory, this multi-national approach to life should be flush with rewards, but the truth is slightly different. For example, my European-American husband and I have yet to sort out the all encompassing dilemma of whether our daughter’s hand belongs in her lap during meals as we insist in the States, or perched on the edge of the table, per European style of table etiquette. The countless arguments that have ensued over this seemingly trifling detail are testimony to our deeply entrenched need to pass on some critical elements of our own individual upbringings to our children.
More likely, however, they are the result of our argumentative natures that endure no matter which side of the Atlantic we find ourselves. Luckily, the one thing we have never had trouble agreeing upon is the happy marriage between French cuisine and our own Anglo-American culinary traditions. As true “foodies,” we have gladly adopted the French traditions of pairing every meal with its own specially chosen wine, while maintaining our own fabulous food customs, such as relishing in pancakes and bacon swimming in maple syrup on Sunday mornings.
In most parts of the vast Anglo-American world, no holiday feast boasting ham or turkey would neglect some form of cranberry side dish or compote- or better yet, a cranberry pie topped with whipped cream. It was only a few years ago that thanks to politically incorrect, (but in this case, wholly forgivable) trade globalisation, imported cranberries started to appear in French grocery stores and my general well-being as an American expatriate in Europe measurably improved.
This food column is called “Cranberries and Camembert” for the simple reason that they are two taste sensations that encapsulate my two worlds: where I grew up and where I live now. An almost visceral desire to have both of these gastronomic sensations-the adopted and the familiar- has resulted in years of experimenting with recipes and menus that combine the best of both.
My admiration for the elegant presentations, and sophisticated techniques of French cuisine have countered a natural homespun preference for the very basic meat and potato meals of my youth. Over the years, I believe a happy union has been found in my kitchen and the results of this union will be shared regularly in “Cranberries and Camembert”.
Recipe: Snow White and Rose Red
Cranberry and Almond Spinach Salad
Seared Duck Breasts
with Gewurztraminer & Winter Berry Glaze
Chocolate Cinnamon Molten Cakes
This Grimm’s fairy tale always fascinated me when I was a child. My enthralment was not because of the scary story of children being hounded by a wicked dwarf before being ultimately saved by a good bear, but rather because the pictures in my book depicted Snow White as a blond goddess and Rose Red as her raven-haired sister sultrily cloaked in a red shawl.
I fancied myself as Snow White (although my hair was more murky dishwater blond) while my sister Lisa was convinced she was the divine Ruby Red. With a reality check that only middle-age can bring, the terms snow white and rose red now bring to mind something completely different: a winter landscape when the ground is covered by frosty white snow, and speckled by red dotted fruiting shrubs and trees.
This week’s menu pays tribute to the ruby fruits of winter -crimson cranberries, mixed berries and the translucent pink seeds of the pomegranate.
When we lived in Pakistan, pomegranates could be found for a few cents in the local market called Khan square. We would simply slice the chunky fruit in half and eat the seeds with our spoons, scarlet juice dribbling down our chins. Only recently I learned that the proper way to prepare a pomegranate is to fill a sink with cool water and let all the seeds – actually the proper word is arils – sink to the bottom. The seeds will separate from the membrane coverings that will then float to the top, to be scooped out with a slotted spoon.
The amount of juice that can be squeezed from a pomegranate is pretty meagre – it takes about six pomegranates to get three cups of pomegranate juice. This can then be sweetened with a tablespoon of sugar and boiled until it becomes thick syrup. For real enthusiasts, the syrup can be boiled further to result in pomegranate molasses, a fascinating concoction that transfers a simple chicken into an exotic voyage to ancient Persia.
This menu features pomegranate in a delicious risotto which I first experienced in a Viennese restaurant one bitterly cold February night. The only other time I had heard of pomegranate risotto was when the dreaded British chef, Gordon Ramsey, pummelled some poor contestant on a television show, for having dared served the risotto to the irascible, know-it-all Ramsey. The exact term he used to describe the risotto can’t be used here, but suffice it to say that I doubt anyone who ever watched Ramsey that day will ever think of a pomegranate with complete innocence again.
The main dish dances around fragrant spices and showcases winter’s best berries and better yet, is ready in just under 30 minutes. Roast duck breast can be fatty so searing the skin is important not only to release the meat of excess grease but also the render the skin extra crispy. I had to prepare this recipe three times before the duck breast was crispy enough for my husband (although I have to say he didn’t have problem finishing off the first two attempts….)
With such rich main dishes, the starter and desserts are simple- yet still demonstrate how the addition of a handful of sweet, tart berries can make the blandest, and most boring dish into a fairy tale of its own.
Cranberry and Almond Spinach Salad
1 tsp. butter
½ cup (75 grams) slivered almonds
1 pound (400 grams) fresh spinach, torn into pieces
½ cup (75 grams) dried cranberries
¼ cup honey
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 tbsp. diced red onion
¼ raspberry vinegar
½ cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
In a small skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Cook and stir almonds in butter until lightly toasted. Remove from heat, and let cool. In a salad bowl, combine the spinach with the toasted almonds and cranberries.
To make the dressing whisk together the honey, onion, paprika, raspberry vinegar, and vegetable oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper and toss with spinach just before serving.
Seared Duck Breasts with a Gewurztraminer Winter Berry Glaze
2 thick duck breasts
1 cup (125 grams) of Gewurztaminer or another fruity wine
2 cups (250 grams) of winter berries (blueberries, raspberries, myrtilles, etc.) frozen or fresh
Pre-heat oven to 220. Mix berries (fresh or frozen) with 1 cup of white wine and heat in a saucepan until boiling. Using a potato masher, make a thick pulp of the fruit- you may need to add more wine so the sauce is not too thick. Slash slits in the duck breast skins and rub crushed sea slat into fat scores. Heat a skillet until very hot and sear the duck breasts skin side down for about ten minutes until fat is rendered and the skin is crispy. Pour off the fat from the pan and reserve 1 tablespoons which you add to berry glaze. Turn the breast over, spoon the fruit glaze over the breasts and roast for 10 minutes. Slice the duck breasts thinly, fan onto plates, and serve with sauce.
2 cups short-grained rice
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1.5 liters chicken broth
1 quart or beef broth
4 tbsp lemon juice
1cup dry white wine, warmed of chicken
Salt and pepper to taste
Seed the pomegranate and squeeze the juice, reserving a few seeds. In another bown, combine the lemon juice with the chicken broth. Chop finely the shallots and sauté them in butter and olive oil in a large sauce pan. Sauté the rice in the drippings until the grains become translucent for about five minutes, then stir in the warmed wine and cook, stirring, until it has evaporated. Next, begin to add the broth, a ladle at a time, stirring gently and adding more as it is absorbed. This will take at least a half an hour and should be seen as a complete labor of love.
Shortly before the rice is done, add the pomegranate juice and seeds and season to taste with salt and pepper. Divvy the risotto up into individual portions and decorate them with the reserved pomegranate seeds.
Chocolate Cinnamon Molten Cakes
5 ounces (150 grams) dark chocolate with 70% cacao
6 tbsp. butter
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ cup flour
Whipped cream and a few fresh raspberries
Preheat oven to 180 degrees (celcius) or 400 degrees F. Lightly grease four ramekins and sprinkle bottom with sugar and dash of cinnamon. Slowly melt chocolate and butter. Stir in sugar with cinnamon.
In a small bowl, lightly beat eggs. Let chocolate mixture cool slightly. Carefully, stir egg mixture into chocolate mixture. Add flour and combine completely. Add batter to ramekins.
Place on baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Run small knife around sides of ramekins. Invert ramekins on individual serving plates, and let pause a few minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream.
Amelia Alexander is a writer living in a small village in France, but works in Geneva.