Grenoble (Isère)-Méribel (Isère), 09/16/2020
Tough mountain stages
Considered as the toughest stage of this year's Tour, the racers arrived in a new spot specially built for cycling. As cars are not allowed to drive there, the rules that normally apply to a " normal" road were not observed. The result was road laces much steeper and much more twisting that the traditional mountain roads. The Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez won the stage a few seconds ahead of the two Slovenian racers, compensation for the failure of his more famous countrymates, Bernal (who abandoned) and Quintana.
After almost three weeks of this food chronicle following the route of Tour de France, I have realized that, like for the racers, the mountain stages are the most difficult. If you set aside the brandies and the cheeses produced in the many, and beautiful, monasteries and chartreuses nested in the valleys, local specialities mostly include fruit pies and potato/cheese dishes. No exception here with this tartiflette, with a little twist yet!
A not so “traditional” dish…
Tartiflette (pronunce [taʁtiˈflɛt]) is a dish from the region of Savoy in the French Alps, basically made with potatoes, bacon, onions and gratinéed Reblochon cheese.
The origins of the tartiflette are a bit confused. Etymologically, it is said to derive from the local dialect word for potato, tartiflâ. Since potato is the principal ingredient of the recipe, it makes sense. It gets more complicated to determine when this dish was created. Although English language websites mention that this dish was featured in a 1705 book, Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois, written by François Massialot, this was not the Tartiflette, at least as it is now known. This was probably referring to a local dish, a gratin of potatoes and onions, without cheese, named péla after the long-handled pan in which it was cooked, looking like a shovel. Péla is similar to the French pelle or to the Italian pala (before being sold to, or annexed by the French second Empire, depending on the viewpoint, Savoy was an Italian Province), which both mean “shovel”.
But the Tartiflette as it is now known, including bacon or cured ham and reblochon cheese, is very recent and appears to be a totally marketing-created dish. This proves, if need be, that marketing may sometimes have some virtues. It was in fact invented in the 1950’s by a reblochon producer who was encountering difficulties to sell his cheeses. The paradox is that the old Savoyards first heard of tartiflette when it began to appear on the menus of restaurants in the ski stations, conveying an image of authenticity and mountain terroir.
Another version is that tartiflette was developed in the 1980's by the Reblochon professional association with the same objective of promoting the Reblochon sales. Having had tartiflette in the late 70’s when skiing in the Alps, I can testify that this version is not correct although it was disclosed by the Gault-Millau Guide.
...reinvented by 3-star chef
The recipe I follow here was created/reinvented by the 3 Michelin star chef Emmanuel Renaut of the restaurant Flocons de Sel in Mégève, an upper end ski resort in the Alps 50 miles in the North of Méribel. A totally decadent dish that I doubt is served in Renaut’s flagship restaurant. That said, this potato pulp cooked in a salt and hay-crust, mixed with caramelized onions, diced local cured ham and crème fraiche, served in the salt crust shell and topped with gratinéed reblochon looked so good as soon as I saw it on a video, I wanted to (try to) replicate it immediately… with the ingredients available in my fridge. I feature below my circumstance-improvised version of this dish and, when appropriate, mention into brackets the ingredients of the original recipe by Emmamuel Renaut. For instance, I used raclette cheese instead of reblochon, which is not an aberration since raclette cheese is (normally) originated from Savoy. There are versions of the tartiflette using morbier (the morbiflette), a cheese from the Jura area, or using maroilles, a cheese from the North of France. Comté, goat cheese, etc. are also good options. I can only urge you to try it, all the more so as it is not complicated, the main difficulty being the time to cook the potatoes, depending on their size.
* During the Tour de France, combining two of my passions, biking and cooking, I will try to present (almost) every day a recipe from the route followed by the peloton.
Level of difficulty
For the crust:
§ 2 cups of strained AP flour
§ 1 cup of coarse sea salt
§ 1 handful of hay, cut in small pieces*
§ Few stems of fresh thyme
§ 1 stem of fresh rosemary
§ 1 egg white
§ 1/1.5 cup of lukewarm water
* Renaut uses hay too, as well as juniper, but you can improvise based on the flavoring ingredients you have or you like. For instance, Renaut suggests using coffee, or sea weed!
For the dish itself:
§ 2 big size/compact Russet potatoes (Bintje)
§ 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced (white onion)
§ 2 slices of thick smoked bacon, cut in “lardons” (diced local cured ham)
§ 1 generous tsp. of sugar
§ 2 generous tbsp. of crème fraîche
§ 6 oz of raclette cheese (instead of the traditional reblochon), 50% finely diced without the rind for the filling, and 50% thinly sliced with the rind to top the potato
§ Espelette and pink pepper corns
§ And a lettuce as a side
1 Preparation of the crust
§ Mix the flour, the salt, the hay, the herbs (or whichever flavoring ingredients you choose to use) together, at low speed in a mixer.
§ Add the egg white
§ Add 1 cup of water, then, if necessary, add progressively more water till reaching the wished texture. You want a dough that is relatively supple, but strong enough to wrap the potatoes without breaking or falling.
§ Finish mixing the dough by hand and roll it with a pastry pin to obtain an approx.. 4/5 mm thick sheet.
§ Cut it in two equal parts likely to wrap one potato each
2 Cooking of the potatoes
§ Wash and brush carefully each potato skin, and pat them dry
§ Place each potato on the dough sheet and wrap it entirely, placing the joint on the bottom, pressing and rolling it to weld the sides together, and flattening it to keep the crust stable
§ Bake the potatoes in a 375F preheated oven for around 75/90 minutes. The time will depend on the size, and also the type, of the potatoes. Those were big Russet potatoes. I advise you to test regularly with a needle or a tooth pick to check if the inside of the potatoes is cooked
§ When the potatoes are cooked, take them out of the oven. Using first a bread knife, then a normal knife, cut and remove the top of the crust (see picture)
3 Preparation of the tartiflette
§ While the potatoes are baking, cook the bacon lardon in a pan, on medium
§ When the bacon starts to render fat, add the onion, the sugar, mix together and let gently simmer (low-medium), till the onions take a nice light brown color and get caramelized
§ With a table spoon (and using a heat resistant glove or pot holder), scoop out the pulp out of the crust, leaving the potato skin inside, and reserve it in a pot
§ Add the diced cheese, the caramelized onions and bacon, the crème fraîche to the potato pulp, and mix the whole together
§ Fill the scooped salt crust with this mixture, generously so that to form a dome on the top
§ Dispose the raclette slices to cover this dome
§ Place the potato crust under a 500F broil for 5 minutes till nicely gratinéed on top (I advise you to set for 3 minutes first, then by tranches of 1 minute).
§ Remove the potatoes from the oven, spread some pink pepper corns on top
§ Present the potatoes on a hay covered dish, and serve with a lettuce.