Monday, 28 September 2009

Tarte Tatin Tour de France

Bruno came to our hotel in the evening to apologise for making me cry all day. I was 9 years old, it was my first ski trip and my second day on the slopes - I had endured a day of steep black runs and black off piste runs all day. No blues, no reds - just blacks and then some. On one particular run I remember feeling that if I made one wrong turn, one misjudged side slip that I would shoot off the edge of the alps and fall forever more. It was a baptism not of fire but of hard ice and snow.

After such an introduction skiing somehow came to be my number one sport and to this day my father and I ski together each year, although we never did invite Bruno again.

It was during our annual ski trips that I was first introduced to mountain food: Roast pumpkin soup, Tartiflette, Steak Tartare et frites, Tomme de Savoie cheese, beaufort cheese, hearty Leek tarts and for dessert tarte aux myrtilles, tarte aux poires but for me it was always Tarte Tatin (pronounced 'tat-tan'.)

In my early adolescence my love affair with this sticky, caramelised upside down apple tart began. I am reasonably sure that there are only a handful of restaurants in the Savoie region of the French Alps where I have not sampled Tarte Tatin. Le Plagne, Courchevel, Meribel, St. Martin de Belleville, Champagny en Venoise, Flaine, Tignes, Val D'Isere - the great Tour de Tatin had begun and I was hooked. We would ski hard all morning, and by this time I had grown rather fond of black and far steeper off piste runs, and then by midday or early afternoon find a restaurant somewhere high up on the mountain side or down in some hidden valley for lunch. In the bright sunshine we would rest our burning legs on weather battered benches and unzip our ski jackets, steam rising rapidly in the crisp mountain air. I was thirsty and in my early teens my penchant was for beer mixed with pineapple juice - my palette was to undergo extensive re-modelling but at 13 it tasted good! Then maybe some paté de campagne with tiny cornichons and onion marmalade to start followed by Tartiflette or Roti de Porc to follow but it was always Tarte Tatin for dessert, always. In some restaurants the caramel was rich, dark and almost smoky in others light and blond. The caramel darkens the apples and mixes with the apple juices and butter oozing into the puff pastry creating a crisp and sticky base with meltingly soft apples sitting on top. My quest for the perfect Tatin was well underway and I was eager for the hunt. I scoured the alps and of course Normandy and even southern France for the holy grail of rustic desserts. Yet I was to eventually discover the ultimate Tarte Tatin several years later back in the French Alps. In a tucked away corner of an unattractive concrete shopping complex in La Plagne. The restaurant was called 'Le Grizzly' I do not know if it is still there today. It was owned by some people from Normandy and our ski guide who proudly took us there was also from Normandy. We went for dinner and seeing as this is perhaps 17 years ago I do not recall what I ate as a starter. However my main course was 'Gigot d'Agneau' roast leg of lamb simply cooked on a spit in front of an open fire in the middle of the restaurant, sensational. I had spotted Tarte Tatin on the menu and after the Gigot my expectations were on the up. It did not disappoint. Our host brought the whole tarte to our table and sliced four generous servings. Then in a pot came the crowning glory of Calvados (apple brandy) heated ready to be set on fire and deftly poured over each slice. The flambéed Tatin was accompanied with a single scoop of vanilla ice cream melting into rich pools of creamy, calvados infused, apple caramel bliss. The Calvados had added a level of sophistication that my young taste buds had yet to encounter (by this age I was off the pineapple/beer combo but it was still early days) and I knew then that my quest for Tatin perfection was complete.

These days I love to cook Tarte Tatin for family gatherings and each time it takes me back to 'Le Grizzly' in La Plagne। I serve it the same way with vanilla ice cream and flambée with Calvados. I caught the Missus' hair on fire on one occasion in a Calvados fuelled blaze, but that dear reader is another story.

Next posting: my Tarte tatin recipe.

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