In the Land of Quiche Lorraine
January 1, 1970I’m in the land of onion soup and quiche Lorraine, in the tiny town of Pontlevoy, France, population 900. My husband is teaching two courses in English, to American college students, including some from the College of Charleston.
The eleventh century Abbey, where he teaches, is around the corner from home, and the boulangerie (bakery) is a block further. Nearby is one modest grocery shop, and five blocks further is a larger one, the size of Burbridge’s. The streets here make Charleston seem a city of wide streets and ample on-street parking.
It is a town where time has stood still. The boulangerie (bakery) has quiche Lorraine tartlets for sale, a good size for a lunch for one person when accompanied by a salad and a glass of the local wine. The boulangerie also sells apple tarts, beautifully constructed swirls of apple slices in a crust, baked until a tip of brown appears and glazed with strained apricot jam.
For lunch we – and the students – eat at Le Commerce, a tiny brasserie a short way from our house. A usual lunch might be chicken in red wine, or beef in a burgundy sauce--dishes that some in America think of as passé; it has been so long since we have seen them on our tables. There is something comforting about these timeless dishes, which seem in tune with the chill of the air, the intermittent sun, the grey-stone buildings that hold in the cold.
In America quiche Lorraine arrived with a whirl-wind in the early 1970’s, popularized by Julia Child. Within a few years American restaurants started changing quiches, from shallow pies to tall structures baked in spring-form pans. They started putting just about anything in quiches, junking them up with left-overs from the kitchen and calling them quiche of the day. Soon many Americans didn’t even know what a true quiche Lorraine was.
Even in France quiche Lorraines are not identical. The ones we’ve seen this trip were made with a mixture of lardoons of pork and bacon, eggs, cream and onion. What makes them so superior to those found in America is in part due to the ingredients. All the eggs sold in this town are just days old, all local. The cream is thick. The pork is locally bred and fed, and the bacon is cut differently. Only the mid-sized brown onion is the same we find in bags at the local grocery store in Charleston.
The only cookbook I brought with me was Richard Olney’s "Simple French Food". I sit and read it, and then try to make something similar. His coq au Vin recipe is like an ode to old chickens, and I’ve adapted it here. The quiche is a variation of his shrimp quiche recipe.
The apple tart recipe is my own, a not-too-sweet apple tart that glorifies apples, but could easily be made with pears as well. I had to delay making it here as the first night I cooked in our renovated centuries-old home I hadn’t noticed the hole in the oven mitt. The result? I dropped a steaming casserole pan holding a hot chicken on the opened oven-door. The door’s inner glass shattered into hundreds of gravel-sized, black and white shards.
I have never broken an oven door before. In fact, I thought they were invincible. I called the owner of the house in the U.S., and she was alarmed as much as I was, but gave me the name of someone in the nearby slightly larger town of Montrichard. She was afraid he would tell me the oven was too old to find a spare part and would have to be completely replaced. I called him and, as best I could in my pidgin-French, asked him to come check as I had broken the door of the oven. He arrived, a cheerful, bristle-bearded, mustached man with large matching black and grey eyebrows. He looked at the oven, made a few notes, and said he would be back in three days, as cheerful as when he arrived.
Sure enough, he called again yesterday and said he would be over. I didn’t know if he would bring back an oven, a whole door, or just the glass for the door. My French doesn’t go that far. He strode in with a flat box, not large enough for door or, thank goodness, a whole oven. He quickly removed loose bits of glass from the oven door’s cracks and crevices and quickly vacuumed them off the floor. A new glass was attached in less than ten minutes. Perhaps breaking one’s oven door happens frequently here, enough that the glass can be ordered and replaced in three days. No problem.
Tomorrow I shall make my apple tart.