Tag Archives: butter

“Could they make do with cheaper substitutes, like margarine? Don’t even think about it.”

30 Oct


Now, unlike Confederate statues, or the children in Barcelona playing Risk, this is a real tragedy unfolding.  Butter shortages in France: France, Land of Croissants, Finds Butter Vanishing From Shelves“:

Could they make do with cheaper substitutes, like margarine? Don’t even think about it.

“There’s no comparison,” Mr. Labbé said. “If you want to preserve the quality of our products, you have to use butter — you can’t do anything else.”

Much of the attention over the shortages has focused on France’s butter bastion: Brittany, famous for its crepes and salted-butter caramel. A satirical short film released earlier this month by a collective of local artists imagined, almost presciently, what would happen if the butter ran out.

“Pénurie,” French for shortage, is a mock film about butter scarcity in Brittany. Video by La Mauvaise Graine

Most gratifying is that more and more people are understanding that butter — and fat generally — is not unhealthy:

Meanwhile, as butter has shed some of its unhealthy image, demand has risen worldwide, especially in the United States — where the fast-food chain McDonald’s promised to put butter back in its recipes last year — and in China.

Kind of surreal we’d be thanking McDonald’s for its ingredient choices; my kudos will only come when it starts making its fries in beef fat again, like it used to.

I’m engaged in a little mini-culture-war with many people here.  Most neurotic American malakies come here with a significant delay, and I’m running around saying repeatedly: “Americans, who taught you that butter is bad, are now past that stage; get over it quicker.” Hard going, especially when the supposed “Mediterranean diet”, one of those clichéd distortions of a culture by the West that then gets sold back to that culture, has everyone convinced that Greeks never cooked any-thing with butter.  “Ladera,” (λαδερά) or what Turks call zeytinyağlı dishes, comes from “zeytin” — olive — and “yağ” — fat or butter.  They refer to the essentially vegan dishes that are prepared with only olive oil; for Greeks the term has a religious connotation too, as these were foods appropriate for Lent and fast days; dunno if the Turkish categorization of such dishes into their own genre is a Christian-to-Muslim crossover.  It also means dishes that you can serve cold or at room temperature.  (To add to the general confusion, Turks are coming around to olive oil again, after decades of cooking with disgusting sunflower seed oil, which always reminds me of poor folks’ Soviet food.  Even Turks I know with sophisticated palates used to tell me that an eggplant dish like, say, imambayıldı, would be too “heavy” if it were cooked with real olive oil.)  They all were, are and should be made with only olive oil.

But every-thing else was cooked with butter.  (And not the hellish slop, Fytine…)  All stewed-meat type dishes and of course, börek and yufka-baked pastries.  (The only reason phyllo-based pastries in Greece are all so awful when compared to Turkey is that Greeks — at least commercial bakeries — make them with margarine!)  Everyone I say this to looks at me like I can’t be serious; actually scary how a public relations campaign re-packages your culture and gives it back to you, erasing your own memories.  But once again, the French come to the defense of real civilization on the things that matter.

Below, a gâteau breton, basically a couple of pounds of butter held together with some flour.  It’s richness is often overpowering, but when you cut into it your whole house smells delicious.gateu bretongateau breton slice

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Photo: Sarajevo gastra and börek…or Börek I

24 Aug

Börek gastra Sarajevo


These are börek in Sarajevo being baked in a gastra, a strange piece of High Ottoman technology that is still used in much of northern Greece, especially Epiros and the rest of the Balkans, particularly the western parts: Albania, Montenegro (where uniquely in the Serb-speaking world, they call börek pitta like in Greek), Kosovo and southern Serbia — regions, interestingly enough, where börek is a particularly strong regional identity marker and the object of a powerful cult of affection and snobbery.  Every and each börek in these parts is subjected to intense scrutiny; is there too much filling (major demerit points because you’re obviously trying to make up for the poor quality of your phyllo/yufka); is each layer fine enough, but able to both absorb serious quantities of butter and not get soggy, like a good croissant or a good paratha.  Finally, that you use real — and good — butter, which makes almost all commercially sold varieties not worth trying, since using good butter on a commercial scale would make a börek that is prohibitively expensive, and especially in a country of culinary philistines like Greece, store-bought versions are almost inedible, as is most product in Turkey these days too, Turkish street food having suffered a marked decline in quality even as the tourist literature on the country continues to rave about it.  But I have had good börek in Macedonia, in Mavrovo, and in Montenegro, in Žabljak, where the hotel made us a great cheese and a great cabbage one for a hike we went on.  And in a high-end restaurant in Jiannena too; but next to me was an Albanian woman, who first smelled it, pricked at it with her fork, counting the layers of pastry, and then after a few minutes of just staring at it, pushed it away in disgust.  Like I said, it’s an object of great snobbery.  And forget Old Greece.  It’s a standard rule of thumb that the further away in place and time a region of Greece is from the Ottoman experience, the exponentially worse the food gets.  No one south of Larissa can bake a pitta to save their lives, or make a decent plate of pilav for that matter.  Epiros is probably the only place you can still get a nice buttery mound of pilav — like the kind Turks make — with good yogurt.  Southern Greeks seem allergic to rice, and have friggin’ potatoes with almost every meal.  Maybe It’s a Bavarian thing — I dunno.

some really good borek

Reaaally good stuff, in Mavrovo, Macedonia (click)  (See post: Macedonia: Mavrovo, Dimitri and the Two Falcons)

But everything baked tastes better in a gastra, the same root as the word for “womb” in Greek (or “gastritis”): rice and lamb, even zeytinyağlı vegetable dishes.  It’s just incredibly tedious — and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing — to use.  It’s a cast-iron dome, suspended with a very complicated chain mechanism over a stone platform.  You first lift the dome and light your charcoal fire underneath it on the stone platform.  When the fire has been reduced to hot embers, and the cast-iron dome has also gotten nice and hot, you brush the embers aside, position your tepsi of food, lower the hot cast-iron dome, and then pile the still glowing embers on top of the dome.  Usually when they’ve cooled down completely the dish is done.  The picture above shows gastras at all steps in the process.

I dunno really.  Does it make that much of a difference?  Everything is better when it tastes slightly smokey or when a little bit of ash has fallen into it — like Turkish coffee made in hot ashes.  But it’s a ton of work and really impractical.  If, for example, the embers go out completely and you raise the dome and the food isn’t done yet, you have to start the whole process from the beginning.  Arthur Schwatrz, in his ever-best cookbook on Neapolitan food, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania — which, like most good cookbooks these days, is as fantastic a source of history, anthropology and ethnography as it is of good recipes — says that a lot of foods legendary for how long you had to cook them for them to be the “real” article, like a Neapolitan ragù (pronounce with a double “r” and a “g” that sounds like a light Greek “gamma” – “γ”) that should take at least half a day to simmer or no self-respecting Neapolitan would eat it, were never really cooked that long.  Rather, they were cooked on wood fires and braziers, which were constantly going out, had to be relit, while the sauce cooled off and took time to reheat, etc.  Of course, for certain sauces and stews, and the fatty, sinewy cuts of meat we like in “our parts,” this kind of cooking is ideal.  And not just the slow, long heat, but the cooling off and reheating especially.

Naples at Table

Ottoman mangal


It’s like that other piece of Ottoman high-tech (I don’t mean to make fun, but it wasn’t exactly their strong suit), the mangal home-heater or charcoal brazier. (above)  You’d pile charcoal into it; leave it out in the street until the carbon monoxide burned off, then cover the embers with the lid and bring the whole incredibly dangerous, glowing — and often very large — brass behemoth inside to warm the house, or one hermetically sealed room really.  Then, as my mother used to describe it, you’d get under the blankets or flokates, facing the mangal, so your face would turn all red and sweaty while your back was freezing, and hope you had fallen asleep before it started cooling off or that you had generated enough body heat under the blankets to last till morning.  There were countless stories about families being found dead in the morning, because in the rush to bring this silly contraption into the freezing house, the carbon monoxide often hadn’t burnt off entirely and people would die from poisoning in their sleep.  I can only imagine that their use was required because it was probably tricky to build chimneys in mostly wooden Ottoman urban housing — my mother only remembered them from Jiannena; in her village where the house was stone, there were regular stone fireplaces where you could keep adding wood because the chimney would let the smoke and gas escape — and I’m sure that many of the massive fires that consumed whole mahallades of Ottoman cities over the centuries and killed thousands on certain occasions, were probably caused by one accidentally knocked over mangal somewhere.

And whole neighborhoods would burn down and then be rebuilt in wood again, something I comment on in another post — Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski“:

This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).

More on the symbolics of börek and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the next post.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“The Nasty Bits”

28 Feb

I guess I’ve already missed the end of pre-Lenten meat-eating by a week, but I thought, as my last day in Paris coincides with the last day of Apokries, I’d take the opportunity to volley a few more visual missiles at my Vegan-Anti-Offal enemies’ positions.

These are from my new favorite place in the city.  One very cool development in France lately has been the proliferation of almost Spanish-style tapas bars, where you can try lots of different dishes instead of having to sit through the traditional three-piece suite.  I hope that will always be available in all its ritualized confidence, but this meze phenomenon is a welcome break.  And except for the absence of ankle-deep garbage on the floor, this place is as chaotic as any place in Spain and makes me mindful of the French’s own anarchic impulses.  You only get half the things you ask for; you have to scream for them over a counter that’s packed three-people deep; the check is always wrong; people are eating out of your plates and vice-versa, but the flavors there are nothing short of miraculous.

My favorites:


The kidneys in a quick onion and vinegar sautee


Their boudin, (coagulated pig’s blood — just a reminder…) which they don’t put into a casing but make into a loaf, kind of like a Penn-Dutch scrapple if the analogy isn’t too weird, served with a very hot green pepper and roasted apples


A soft-fried egg dish swimming in butter and buttery croutons that’s made with some mushroom that has all the foot-like smell of truffle but none of its subtlety; they wouldn’t tell me what it’s called: “Il n’y en a pas là-bas…”  (I think) “You don’t have them over there…” was all I managed to get from them, irrespective of where “over there” was.

Pig's ears

The pig’s ears, slimy and gummy on the outside with the cartilage-crunch core, sauteed in a Basque-like red pepper combo


The most delicious cheesey, slightly sour butter on earth, always sitting on the counter sweating, with bits of other people’s food always stuck in it (“eeeeewww…” a definite “C” rating from Bloomberg) and served with bread that’s leagues beyond the Poilaine stuff that’s everywhere and is so not great that I’m beginning to think is a gigantic hoax.

Finally, the pig cheeks — yep, hog maw — (see: “Hog maw, cornbread and chitterlin” ) braised in lentils:

pig cheeks

…which really reminded me of how much great food, especially great French food is based on the slow, laborious breaking down of animal collagens, something I tried to capture in this second pic a little better (forgive the quality — yes, yes, I’ll buy an IPhone; click on these for a better view in the meantime); it’s the secret to the perfect texture of good mageiritsa too, though everyone thinks it’s the augolemono.

pig cheeks 2

Why such conspicuous animus to the anti-offalers?  επειδή μου σπαν’ τα νεύρα….  Because they irritate me.  And I wouldn’t be so irritated by just their bad taste and limited palates and squeamish, plasticked alienation from the realities and depth of good food, if they would just shut up about it: it’s what in one of this blog’s first posts — “Chitterlings…and mageiritsa” — (the Jadde started just before Easter 2011) I call their “anthropology tes poutsas” that drives me mad: the rationalization that poverty made people eat this food and that now we’re beyond that.  (See also:  “What I managed to put away in a day-and-a-half in Paris and some thoughts on the “crise;” or, “…the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.” )  Believe me; none of the people who eat here are poor.  It’s not in an impoverished southern village: they don’t exist anymore, are either depopulated or bought up by ex-pat Brits; it’s not in a dying northern industrial city; it’s not in a destitute banlieue.  It’s dead in the center of chic-as-you-can-get St. Germain (there’s an argument to be made that this food’s appeal is about reverse snobbery — an argument I’ll listen to), right down the road from the Odeon and around the bend from the Luxembourg.  If you even hover around the edges of New York foodie-dom you’ve heard about this place, but, sorry, as a matter of blog policy, I don’t give out names.  You’ll have to dig up its delights yourself.

The rest of you can have the salmon.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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