You know how they are in France about their cheese, right? A little obsessed. When I was studying there in college, for example, a friend of mine, who’d been dating a French guy for some time, was told by him that he loved her more than anything–except “the cheese from his region.” If memory serves correctly, he was from a region northeast of Paris, where we were living.
My friends and I took a bunch of jaunts out of Paris during our semester there, and the least exciting-sounding but perhaps most enjoyable one was to Strasbourg, a bit further north and west still from the French beau’s beloved region. While there, among the adventures and misadventures Roshni, Abby, Nick, and I had, I ate some cheese that I fell in love with. It was not just about the cheese, though. It was accompanied by potatoes and bacon and preceded by a few pints of beer. It was somewhere between a casserole and a gratin, and especially on a cold December night in eastern France, it blew my mind and won my heart. The cheese is called reblochon, the dish tartiflette.
The four of us had been wandering the city all day. We’d seen the quaintest Germanic houses you can imagine, visited the Christmas market, warmed ourselves with cups of spiced wine, climbed the steps of the church steeple, and, if I remember right, gone ice skating. In the early evening, we sat drinking pints at a bar that seemed less like a place a tourist would visit and more like a watering hole for locals. Naturally, this meant we had to play a round of “How many strangers can you get to talk to you in French?” The game is just what it sounds like. In our experience, French people tend to answer you in English, and you were triumphant if you could get them to carry on a conversation with you in French. One beer in, I was ready to be triumphant.
I wound up not just with one conversation but with four; within a few minutes, I was sitting at a table not far from the others, becoming fast friends with a bunch of French dudes, who, unlike some of the people we engaged in Paris, still thought Americans were kinda cute. They bought a round or two and included me. I don’t know when I had time to drink my beers as I jabbered away.
Roshni, Nick, and Abby watched from the other table. From the expressions on their faces I could tell they felt defeated and jealous. Or, just hungry. Pretty soon, they retrieved me and we went in search of dinner. Alsatian food is known for being heavier and more meat-and-potatoes centric than typical French food. The most famous dishes are choucroute garnie, flammeküeche, and riesling. I knew about all that from a report I’d done in French class the previous summer. But what I was about to discover, as we trekked across the city looking for an adequate restaurant, our beer buzz wearing off, our cold and hunger growing, was tartiflette.
We sat down, and I think everyone else ordered choucroute garnie, a mixed pot of meats and sauerkraut. I ordered tartiflette–potatoes and cheese sounded too good to resist. As I devoured it, I was teased a bit for my indulgent tastes in food. For the second time that night, though, I assured myself that the teasing was simply a product of jealousy.
From my kitchen, making friends and neighbors jealous since 2008, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
There really is no way to lighten tartiflette, so if you’re not ready to embrace a meal fully devoted to carbs and saturated fat, this recipe may not be for you. If you can’t find reblochon, ask your cheesemonger for something similar. If you don’t feel like doing that, substitute shredded gruyere between and on top of the potatoes; the dish will be different but still delicious.
½ pound reblochon
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
2 medium onions, diced
6 ounces bacon (about 4 good-sized slices), cut into strips
1/3 cup white wine
1/4 cup cream or chicken stock
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Boil the peeled potatoes until pierced easily with a knife. Don’t overcook them–remove them as soon as they’re cooked through. Remove, and let cool until you can handle them.
Over medium-high heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until it has rendered most of its fat but is not yet totally crispy. Remove and let drain on paper towels.
Pour out all but about 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat, and lower the heat to medium-low. Add the onions, and saute for about 8 minutes, until translucent. Add the wine, raise the heat to high, and let it cook off. Season the onions with salt and pepper.
Cut the reblochon into thirds. Take one third and dice it. Cut the remaining two thirds in half lengthwise, parallel to the rind.
Butter four 12-ounce mini casserole dishes or ramekins. You can also use 1 9×9-inch oven-safe casserole dish.
Distribute half the onions and half the bacon evenly among the baking dishes. Cut the potatoes into 1/8th-inch thick slices and arrange half of them on top. Sprinkle with salt. Evenly scatter the diced cheese among the four dishes, then put the rest of the onions and bacon on top of it. Cover with the remaining potato slices, then place 1 wedge of cheese on top of each dish. Drizzle the cream or chicken stock evenly over all 4 dishes.
Bake for 30 minutes, until bubbly, then put under the broiler for a minute until deeply golden brown. Remove from the oven, wait 5 minutes, then serve.