A quick post this week, and more about food than wine. I’m in the middle of reading a French study on amounts of pesticides and fungicides in French wine, and I’ll be writing about it in the next month. But in the meantime, I’m also reading a book called Au Revoir to all That: Food, Wine, and the End of France by Michael Steinberger. Steinberger was the wine columnist for Slate magazine from 2002 to 2011 and also writes about economics, politics, food, and sports. Au Revoir was published in 2009.
The book’s premise is that the previously unsurpassed quality of meals in French restaurants has declined over the past few decades. Where you used to be guaranteed a great meal practically anyplace you went in France, that’s not the case anymore. And French wine, which also used to be of unassailable quality, has been outperformed by good, inexpensive wine from other countries. Steinberger tries to explain why this is happening in an examination of history, politics, economics, and (to some extent) the character of the people who make the food and wine.
Unfortunately, he devotes only one chapter to wine, and it’s a dense and rather difficult one. (Since Steinberger is a well-known wine writer, I had hoped it would be a little more readable, to tell you the truth. And this is coming from someone who normally revels in dense and difficult.) The majority of his criticisms focus on the workings of the French AOC system — the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée — that controls what wine gets made where, what goes into it, and what it’s called. Having had my own crash course in some of the positives and negatives of the AOC system earlier this year, I want to distill Steinberger’s take a bit more before I write about it. Also, to be fair, he appears to have done most of the research for this chapter in 2006 and 2007, and there have been some changes in the interim. So once I sort it all out I hope to be able to comment.
I’m not sure I feel qualified to examine every point Steinberger makes about French food culture since I’m neither an economist nor a historian. But there is one thing that caught my attention and I thought it was interesting enough to throw out there as a point of discussion.
Any non-cookbook writing about a country’s food has to have a discussion of its politics as well. Books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics examine how industrial food production has shaped the way we eat in the U.S. via agricultural policy. But Steinberger is talking about an overall sense of food culture and for that he goes straight to the top. The prosperity of the “30 glorious years” that came after France’s recovery from World War II produced memorable food and experimentation. But the subsequent series of economic crises could (and apparently should) have caused France to re-examine its policies toward business and entrepreneurship. The failure to do so, he says, is in large part responsible for the decline of French cuisine:
“The toxic stew that choked the economies of Britain and the United States — weak growth combined with rising inflation and unemployment — left France ailing. A second energy crisis, in 1979, deepened the pain for all three countries. That same year, frustrated British voters swept the Conservative Party to power, and its leader, Margaret Thatcher, who campaigned on a promise to revive the British economy, became prime minister. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, who also ran on a platform of economic renewal, was elected president of the United States in a landslide. A year later, French voters elected Mitterrand, who came to office pledging to institute an ambitious program of left-wing reforms. Which voters you think made the smarter choices depends on your politics, but insofar as the restaurant business was concerned, the United States and Britain unquestionably took the better route. What was true in the eighteenth century was no less true at the end of the twentieth: Chefs need prosperous patrons. Notwithstanding their other effects, the Reagan and Thatcher eras made the rich richer and spawned vast new wealth, money that bankrolled gastronomic revolutions in the United States and Britain. The French economy stagnated and French cuisine did likewise.”
I had to read that a few times to get the point. Is getting a world-class cuisine really as simple as having enough rich people to bankroll restaurants? People spend more money when they have more money, perhaps they feel more adventurous about trying new things, which also helps the drive for culinary innovation? Do we need to worry that the supposed constraints on entrepreneurship we hear about from our politicians will cut into our emerging pre-eminence on the world food scene? And does that also make the French system — with higher taxes but where everyone in the restaurant makes a living wage and gets state-run health care — less valuable?
I’m also not sure I’m on board with the premise. My first trip to France was in 2001, so I guess I missed the misty-eyed past that Steinberger goes on about. I have had plenty of excellent food in France, and some not-so-good food too. But on balance, the good has far outweighed the bad. I can’t say that the average level of cuisine I experience in American cities (at prices that normal humans can afford, that is) is better than the average level in France. So just when is this American culinary renaissance going to penetrate to the level where we feel its effects on our everyday meals, and not just special occasions?
Clearly questions I don’t have answers for, but they’re worth thinking about.
And this week’s recipe is something to chew on while we chew on those issues. It’s Fougasse Vigneronne, a French version of focaccia that’s traditionally shaped like a leaf. In Provence, the fougasse is sort of a platform for toppings like pizza, often with olives or anchovies. The “Vigneronne” part comes from putting grapes on it celebrating the wine grape harvest. Some also have wine in the dough.
I had seen lots of versions of this bread before, including an Italian one with grapes and fennel seeds. But recently, a French acquaintance sent out a recipe that the winery she works for is promoting in conjunction with an oven manufacturer. It looks mighty tasty. The ingredients and directions call for a fancy oven with a dough-rising setting and steam injection. Since most of us don’t have that kind of equipment, I thought I’d modify it so we professional-oven-deprived people can make it at home.
The French version I got uses Muscat grapes, which are small and extremely sweet — since I can’t find them here I substituted seedless red grapes cut in half and put a tiny bit of sugar in the dough. I also found I needed more liquid than the recipe called for, since American flour has more protein than French flour and absorbs more liquid (if the dough is too dry it’s more difficult to shape). You can skip the steam-injection and just bake it without any problems, you’ll get a nice chewy result that’s just the same if you brush a little olive oil on top before baking instead.
The key to making the fougasse without spending all day on it is the rising. You have to keep it warm and moist, or the dough can take a couple of hours to rise. I like to put the dough in a covered bowl on top of a heating pad set on low, or put the bowl on top of a towel sitting on one of our giant radiators if the heat is on in the house. You can have nicely-risen dough in about 40 minutes. Then turn on the oven, punch the dough down, shape it, put on the toppings, and by the time the oven is preheated the bread will have puffed a little and be ready for baking. The red wine and the rye flour in the recipe contribute flavor that ordinarily you’d have to give a very slow rise to develop.
Using cut grapes means you have to eat the fougasse within a couple of days but that’s not really a problem. First, have some with dinner. Since the recipe calls for red wine, have some of that same wine with it (like Cave la Romaine Côtes du Ventoux Volupté, a $12 bottle that’s perfect inside and outside the bread). Then have the rest for breakfast. It’s a great accompaniment to the morning paper, especially if you’re pondering how the economy of the future will impact French and American cuisine.
Makes 8 good-sized bread servings
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour (measured by spooning the flour into dry-measure cups and leveling off the tops), plus a little more if necessary
7 tablespoons rye flour (I use medium rye flour)
3/4 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F)
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 scant tablespoon of yeast (active dry yeast or instant yeast or bread machine yeast)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon olive oil (plus extra for oiling the bowl, the pan, and the bread dough)
1 teaspoon salt
12 seedless red grapes, cut in half
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
Note: If you’re using the active dry yeast from the packet, stir the yeast into the warm water with the sugar and let dissolve for about five minutes, it will start to puff a little. If you’re using instant or bread machine yeast, you can mix it in with the dry ingredients, these are the directions below.
Put the all-purpose flour, the rye flour, and the sugar, salt, and yeast into the food processor and blend for 10 seconds to combine. Pour in the water, the olive oil and the red wine, and process until the mixture makes a ball that travels around the food processor bowl and cleans the sides. If it won’t come together, add another tablespoon of water. Stop the processor and feel the dough. If it feels more than just a little sticky, add a tablespoon or two of flour and process until it’s mixed in.
Lightly grease a medium-sized bowl with olive oil and scrape the dough ball into the bowl. Turn it over to coat the dough with a little oil, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Put the bowl in a warm place (like the top of a radiator with a towel underneath the bowl, or on a heating pad set on low) and let it rise until it’s nearly doubled, about 40 minutes. It will take longer if the temperature isn’t warm enough, but it will still rise.
When the dough has doubled, start heating the oven to 425 degrees F. Brush a baking sheet with some olive oil, then punch down the dough and spread and pat it out into an oval shape on the oiled pan with your hands. Make 4 diagonal cuts all the way through the dough starting at the center, two to the right and two to the left, alternating right and left and going nearly to the edge of the dough. They should look like veins in a leaf. Using your hands, pull the dough gently to enlarge the openings. Lightly brush the dough with olive oil, then press the grapes into the fougasse, cut side down, and then press the walnut pieces in as well.
When the oven is heated, bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the fougasse is lightly browned on top. Let it cool for a half hour, then serve.