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FRANCE, NORTHERN

white wine and baking them slowly for several hours with sliced potatoes and onions in a special earthenware ter- rine. Even sauerkraut is prepared so differently here— braised in Alsatian white wine with smoked, salted, and fresh cuts of pork and served with additional Strasbourg sausages and liver dumplings—that Germans cross the river in droves to enjoy choucroute à l’alsacienne as a spe- cial treat.

The great cheese of Alsace is Muenster, a French- style soft, creamy cheese, albeit served with a decidedly un-French accompaniment of caraway seeds (called cumin here). Alsace is also the home of foie gras, a quintessen- tially French specialty that, curiously enough, appears to have been introduced by the large Jewish population that settled here. Over the centuries, the Jews perfected the art of force-feeding geese to increase the quantity of fat, to be used for cooking since pork fat was prohibited by their religion. The enlarged, buttery livers or foie gras, a by-product of this operation, had become a highly sought-after specialty by the eighteenth century. Unlike southwestern France (the site of Jewish immigration from Spain), where foie gras is most often baked simply in a terrine, the livers are traditionally baked in a pastry shell in Alsace.

Baba and Quiche

The Germanic influence is much less evident in neighbor- ing Lorraine, where specialties more closely resemble those encountered elsewhere in France. One could name the potée lorraine, a poached salt pork and vegetable dinner very sim- ilar to the ubiquitous beef-based pot-au-feu, the macarons from Nancy, or the madeleines from Commercy. Another product specific to Lorraine, and the emblem of the region, is the mirabelle, a small yellow plum that is enjoyed eaten on its own, distilled to produce an aromatic brandy, made into preserves, or baked into a tart.

Lorraine is also the home of one the best known spe- cialties in all of France—quiche. Mentioned as early as the sixteenth century and initially made with a simple filling of eggs and cream, it was prepared only in the region un- til the nineteenth century, then started to spread to the rest of country. Today the word, and the pastry, can be found around the world with a bacon-studded filling, an early-twentieth-century variant on the original, meatless filling rarely encountered today.

Like French Flanders and Alsace, Lorraine is beer- drinking country, where many pastries are made with egg- and yeast-rich doughs. The most famous of these is the baba, a light, raised cake with raisins. It is derived from a cake of the same name that was introduced in the eighteenth century by the exiled Polish king, Stanislas Leszczynsky, whose daughter, Marie, married King Louis XV of France. As Duke of Lorraine, Stanislas held court in Nancy, where local bakers adopted and perfected the baba. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, its fame had spread to Paris, where a pastry chef named Stohrer (whom many believe was from Lorraine) added the final

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touch of making individual babas and dousing them with rum.

Smoked Meats and Hefty Cheeses

Directly south of Lorraine is the mountainous region of Franche-Comté, sandwiched between Switzerland and Burgundy. It is a land of hilly, green pastures that pro- duce some of the finest cheeses and meat products in all of France as well as some of the country’s most unusual wines. The mountain cheeses, made from the milk of the local Montbéliard cow, range from the creamy vacherin of the Mont-d’or, encircled with a strip of spruce wood, to large, hard-pressed wheels of comté, the French ver- sion of gruyere. Every bit as fruity as its more familiar Swiss cousin, comté improves with age. Another cheese peculiar to the region is cancoillotte, made in the valleys. After skimming off all the cream to make butter, the milk is allowed to curdle naturally, the curds are dried, and the resulting metton, as it is called, is broken up and aged until it has become yellow and waxy. To make cancoillotte, a piece of metton is melted with butter and water and sea- soned with garlic or caraway. Definitely an acquired taste, the creamy, pungent cancoillotte is a favorite local topping for baked or steamed potatoes, or scrambled eggs.

Unlike their treatment in most of France, meat prod- ucts are traditionally smoked here, rather than simply salted and dried. This preference is related to the struc- ture of the typical farmhouse of the area, built around a large central chimney called a tuyé. The ham from the Haut-Doubs, the sausages from the towns of Morteau and Montbéliard, and an unusual smoked beef tenderloin known as bresi—to name only these few—are among the finest charcuterie in France.

As for the wines, the most striking are the whites, made with a local grape variety, the savagnin. Their al- most sherrylike taste is surprising at first but perfect with the charcuterie, cheeses, and cream-based dishes from the region, especially those garnished with morel and chanterelle mushrooms from the Jura mountains. The most astonishing is the “yellow wine” (vin jaune) pro- duced near the village of Château Chalon. Always served at room temperature, it can be aged for up to a hundred years, and its particular fruit and walnut flavors are unique.

Snails, Wine, and Aperitifs

To the west of Franche-Comté lies Burgundy. The most famous dish associated with the region, boeuf bourguignon, combines wine and beef, two of Burgundy’s most valued resources. Though wine comes immediately to mind when Burgundy is mentioned, there are few vineyards in the southern part of the region where equally famous white cattle are raised on small farms near the town of Charolles. A very large breed with tender, lean meat es- pecially well suited to grilling and roasting, Charolais beef has few rivals in France, and the breed is now raised in some seventy countries worldwide.

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