Spring is back upon us, but with a couple snowfalls in March, and my days off set back to culinary-based explorations in local food and home experiments, a need and craving for something more winter-ish came to craving. I still have quite a lot of dishes to work on in my list (I know I know, I had a rough period, I’m getting back into the foodie stuff again now!), including a notable amount of the heavy, soul-satisfying stuff, but it didn’t take too long to narrow my options down to Tartiflette for this occasion. I only had a day to plan this time, so something simple like this Provencial Potato Gratin fit the bill quite perfectly, not to mention I’ve been wanting to do something ooey and cheesy from this list for a good while now.
Originally based on the old potato dish ‘Pela,’ its adjustment into the now-famously-named version of Tartiflette was, if all stories are to be believed, actually a much more recent one. Though as the orginal dish Pela, a simple potato casserole with onions and bacon cooked in a long-handled pan called a ‘pelagic’ (meaning ‘shovel’), the recent twist into tartiflette didn’t occur until the 1980’s! The Union Interprofessional Reblochon, at that time, decided to develop a recipe using their famous cheese so as to promote the product, which they named after the Savoyard/Franco-Provencal word for potato, ‘tartifles/a,’ and apparently it worked. After only thirty years people seemed to have completely forgotten the original dish in favor of this adjusted, cheesy variety; only proof that history and food culture is still being made every day.
Though I wonder if there’s not some twist to the real story in this. Firstly, there’s supposedly an account of the term tartiflette being mentioned in a 1705 book called Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois. Secondly, I find it interesting that every recipe for regular Pela I looked up actually does include the use of reblochon… so either the ‘inclusion’ wasn’t as novel as the Union thought it was, or was SO strong that it’s affect all recent online-added recipes.
Oh, I haven’t gone into the full composition yet. Potatoes, cut thick, with the traditional bacon-onion duo of the French alpine regions (this IS a mountainy-Savoy dish afterall), wine for cooking, cheese, baked until crispy-gooey and served with some sort of pickles on the side. Now, onto the long, intense breakdown I’m sure most of you will skip over (I don’t blame you).
Potatoes: recipes HAVE varied, from red to brown to mix, sliced thin or kept chunky. I’ve already tried the mix thing with my Gratin Dauphinoise, so thought I’d go for the full potato on this occasion. And as I’ve mentioned (I think) in past scenarios, or at least seen, the red potato seems to be more indicative to French preferences. So I found a bag of nice organic ones at my local co-op (cuz it was on my way home and I was too lazy to go somewhere else for them, yay me?).
Plus I just kept getting a craving on thinking about the recipes that cut it chunky, roasted fully… instead of the super-soft russets. Speaking of chunky, yes that is indeed where I’m going with it; what’s the point of slicing it thin like any other random gratin? We’re making TARTIFLETTE here people, this is MOUNTAIN food, the kind you eat in a cabin during a deep snow. It’s big, chunky, sits in the stomach like a gooey potato brick. And it has BACON. My reasoning is sound this time.
Skins: Now, do we leave the skins on or not? Is it actually an issue? Apparently, I’ve read many recipes, for this and other French potato dishes, that stress using peeled potatoes for service, while many blogger make the noted statement of leaving them on with purpose for the flavor. Which, if I were making any random potato dish (besides super smooth mashers or the crispiest, crunchiest roasts), I fully agree. I love the flavor of the skins.
That said, the true experience with many of these gratins is skin-off before going into the oven. Reasons? Probably to keep the potatoes soft, not having pieces of skin break off and float around (finesse aspect)/visual appeal, refined flavors, better chance of getting that golden crust on top, who knows. Either way, this is where I went.
But that’s not important, as is most of the things I say. What IS important is to make sure to leave the skins on while boiling (and yes, you’ll want to stick with boiling as the main cooking method before the overall bake), peel after. This actually helps the potatoes to retain moisture and other things so they don’t ‘dry out’ after cooking (believe me, I’ve done peeled potatoes before, served simply cut afterwards, they can get all tacky and odd if not done absolutely perfect).
Those needing this substitute need ask their local cheese shop purveyor about their Washed Rind selection, particularly the soft, runnier varieties with a bit of that pungent nose, similar to Taleggio (though I would NOT go for that cheese. I love it, but not here). They should have at least one or two options from the Alps (ask for cheese from Jura or Savoie) or Burgundy, such as Epoisses, Le Delice de Jura, or St. Soleil. Though I don’t know what reblochon tastes like exactly, I suggest going for a cheese with a lighter pungency, with more of that creamy fresh dairy flavors (I was tempted by that Delice, fit great, but it also has these odd extra grassy and other flavors to it that felt like it wouldn’t mesh how I wanted); but don’t go for a brie, please, that’s more moldy than funk, it’s just not right. Whatever you do though, try to get a whole wheel, the more attractive top the better; you’ll see why in a bit.
Another note on the cheese focused on how it’s based; there’s a reason to use a whole (small) wheel of it for the dish. Whereas the middle layer of this stacked potato, bacon, and cheese casserole can be sliced or scooped on however, the TOP layer is very often applied in one particular fashion (except by those deviating from the norm, bastards!). Sliced horizontally in half, the whole top of the cheese circle is placed right in the middle of the potatoes, skin up, left to seep down below, the skin getting crusty as the exposed potatoes around it also brown; which is why I got one with such a pretty cross-hatch pattern!
Oh, yeah, one LAST thing; chill the cheese before slicing. My god this thing got so much softer and runnier than I ever imagined it would, looked like an idiot trying to slice it! Ended up having to spoon half of it into the middle layer (since the top is in the very middle, I kept THAT cheese on the outer edges, keeping it even).
Bacon: During some of my brief readings this time, I came to find a post that made mention that proper French ‘lardon’ bacon is actually only cured, not smoked. Whether this is true or not I can’t ascertain 100% at this time (too lazy for extra research), but I couldn’t find any proper substitute in stores, besides maybe trying prosciutto, speck, or other similarly cured pork product (try to find ones based off the SIDE of the pig, not the ham/leg like Serrano). But even those aren’t perfect, since they’re also air-dried. So I just stuck with bacon, the good home-made kind from my local deli. They keep it in slabs so I was able to get a single thick-ass piece! Now I can finally cut them into actual big chunks to get some proper fried pieces like we keep seeing in restaurants… so num.
Garniture: Traditionally, this sort of dish IS served with tart sides, like cornichon and other pickled, maybe some fresh onions or who knows what. Of course, I had some ready, and forgot to serve them once out of the oven…. Durnit. Well I tried some with leftovers the next day, was tasty.
2 ½ lb Potatoes of Choice
½ lb Slab Bacon
1 medium-sized Onion
1 Tb Butter
½ cup White Wine, French
1 clove Garlic
8oz/1 small wheel Reblochon Cheese or Substitute, chilled
Salt and Pepper
- Separate potatoes into those of similar size, only cutting in half those that one absolutely needs to
- Place in pot with generous helping of salt, covering with 1” cold water
- Move to stove and heat, covered, until it reaches boil. Turn heat down to low, letting simmer 20-30 minutes or until MOSTLY cooked (a toothpick will go in easily but meet resistance mostly through)
- Drain and peel by hand before cutting into large chunks
- On the side, dice Bacon and Onion into big cubes
- Heat pan to Medi-Hi, add Butter and bacon, sautéing until golden and crispy all over
- Transfer bacon, pouring out (and reserving) all but 1-2 Tb of rendered fat. Toss in onions, stirring often while they cook
- When soft and golden-brown colored, add Wine, letting simmer 1 minute before taking off heat, stir in bacon
- Turn oven to 400F
- Crush garlic clove, rubbing it around a casserole dish
- Pile half of the potatoes inside, topping with half the bacon-onion-wine mix
- Slice cheese horizontally, so one still has two discs, arranging slices or sections of one half as evenly over the first layer as possible. Sprinkle with pepper
- Top with the latter half of potatoes, bacon, and onions. Carefully place the whole other circle of cheese directly in the center
- Brush the cheese and potatoes with reserved bacon and move into oven
- Bake 20-30 minutes, until cheese is melted, the sides bubble, and the potatoes and reblochon ‘skin’ is turning golden
- Remove, let sit at least 5-10 minutes
- Scoop into big bowl, serve with homemade pickles and other garniture as desired
So, I’ve been trying to eat better nowadays, mostly based off of portion control and all that (obviously I still eat ‘splurge foods’, like hell I’m keeping myself away from the food I want to eat, just not often), that night in particular I knew I needed to hold back… and I went back to the dish. I mean, for the love of god, it’s baked potatoes, with cheese, and bacon and other goodness, and I’m from MINNESOTA. This is the good stuff, and it’s no wonder it has become so loved as mountain food. And it was really fun having a cliché potato-bacon-cheese dish using something besides cheddar or gruyere; the funkiness and quality of this cheese is what really made it different and stand out in the aching bites. Not to mention the thrill of sneaking myself as much of that crusty skin whenever I got the chance…
That said, there are some notable things that stood out on the not-so-amazing side. First off, as much as I do love red potatoes, and big chunks of starchy deliciousness, I DO wish I had chosen russets instead, or at least done a mix of the two. Waxy is certainly great for good roasts and mashers, but in this use their notable firmness (even when fully cooked) was not what I desired most; maybe if cut smaller, but again I don’t want small pieces in this particular gratin. Secondly, I did love the bacon, finally I got the kind of big caramelized chunks I desire, but I feel the particular strength of the funky cheese I grabbed ended up JUST covering up their flavor; so note, really keep to reblochon or substitutes that are LIGHTLY pungent. Oh, and unlike my recipe suggest, I did NOT wait five minutes after taking from the oven, haha; oh well, a shame for me, not being able to see that stringy cheese, instead getting more of the saucy element. Still nummy though.
Primary Pairing – Southern French/Provence White
The dish may hail from Savoie, and they have some AMAZINGLY fun and refreshing options to go with it, but I only have one bottle of them on my shelf and I’m saving it for Fondue. So then, looking a little further abroad, it’s nice to explore the hotter regions of the south of France. And, if you can find one crafted well enough (stay away from the cheap-cheap ‘bargain wines’), this originally mass-producing region of the country has started putting out some nicely balanced wines that can easily be appreciated in their own ways. In terms of going with cheesy potato casserole, they’re almost perfect. The warmer climate makes for whites with MUCH bigger bodies than normally found in some of the finer areas, which is a necessity for such a big-bodied, chunky potato dish such as this. Though bacon and cheese are noted elements, their overall effect here isn’t TOO imposing, so finding any white with at least an average quality acidity can work to balance that out. And finally, there’s little need to drink something super deep and complex; it should be tasty, maybe a little fleshy, have some character in the mouth-feel and some strong aspects to stick through the pungent flavors in the food, but this is not a dish to REALLY sit down and think about every little flavor molecule. Drink the wine, eat the food, be happy and nommy as you ignore the snow outside, and you’re good; and that’s what a lot of whites from this region can happily fulfill (like a nice Vinho Verde, only bigger and bolder instead of tart and refreshing).
Some Mulled White Wine might not be out of the question either…
Okay, I’ll admit, the empty bottle has already been tossed and I forgot what actual grapes went into this blend! I think Grenache Blanc was one of them, maybe rolle or something else with an r… who knows. What I do know is that I’m glad I grabbed this guy from the shelf as my last-minute go-to. The alcohol content got to 14.5%, high for a white and perfectly balancing the heavy potatoes. It was floral, pear-y, with an almost nutty/yeasty uniqueness in flavor that went absolutely awesome with this hot cheesy, onion-y mess. Sipping found a few nice delights while gulping refreshed and washed down the rich food beautifully, making what to me at least was a great complementary experience. Of course they tasted well in mouth together.
Secondary Pairing – Bourbon
Beer feels too easy (and I already did it with the other Gratin), sake and cider don’t really pull at me in this situation, though of course one could easily find some amazing options to accompany this food in each category. But right now, thinking about eating this guy in deep snow, maybe in a log cabin or something, I simply feel like I want a nice glass of delicious, soul-firing spirit. Something to help digest and break down all that heavy food sitting in the gut, not to mention an intense flavor and alcohol content to cut through the rich, fatty bacon and cheese. So a lot of them will do, now we just pick the kind of booze, and bourbon seems to taunt my palate ever more right now. Just thinking of the intense smoky, toasty barrel and sweet corn flavors matched with the bacon and pungent cheese… and those sorta caramel-oxidative notes from a GOOD aged Bourbon along with the crusty potatoes… I’m not the only one salivating here right?
On second thought, a Marc (French Grappa) from Burgundy could be a really tasty regional match too…