Monday, July 23, 2007


Every decade or so, at least in Amerloque's experience, summertime temperatures in France take a dive. Unseasonable winds cause the clouds to scud rapidly across the skies and sometimes the same clouds deliver masses of unwanted rains in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, these make excellent excuses for remaining indoors a bit more than usual, doing things that must inevitably be done.

Old farmhouses - and their contents - require maintenance, for example. A traditional wood framed house, whether in Normandy or Alsace, needs to be carefully inspected every summer. Sometimes the torchis filling between the vertical timbers needs to be reworked and resealed with a layer of natural limestone-based plaster. Anti-termite and other anti-borer treatments must be applied to most timbers at regular intervals, too. Slate roofing tiles that have moved or shattered are to be replaced. Finally, the fireplace chimney needs to be swept - if for no other reason than to be in compliance with the typical French homeowner's insurance policy. Amerloque is content with leaving the roofs and chimneys to the professionals, while family members contribute to redoing the walls and applying various products in a safe, environmental fashion. In many cases, bad weather turns out to be an incitement to good maintenance - as long as the weather is not too bad, and as long as mealtimes are not given short shrift !

Interested as he is in food and cooking (ah ! the quality of life in France !), Amerloque a long time ago decided that if one is to be serious about cooking, one must be equally serious about the tools used. A good stove, as well as high-quality pots and pans and proper lighting, makes cooking a pleasure rather than a chore. Cookbooks and recipes must be chosen carefully, too. Yet it has been Amerloque's experience that amateur chefs – and Amerloque himself is no more than an amateur, make no mistake about it ! - frequently overlook one vitally necessary tool: cutlery - including the knives used in the kitchen.

In the Anglo-Saxon world he grew up in, there were two inescapably famous knifemaking centers in Europe: Sheffield and Solingen. Sheffield, in England, was already famed for the production of knives in the Middle Ages. It was even mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. By 1600 it had become the main centre of cutlery production in England. In Amerloque's youth, a good kitchen knife necessarily came from Sheffield. Sheffield's main competitor was always portrayed as being the German city of Solingen, where to this day something like 90% of German cutlery is produced. The town's fame dates from medieval times, too. During the second half of the 17th century, a group of swordsmiths from Solingen did break their guild oaths and take their sword-making secrets to County Durham in England, thus contributing to the rivalry between the two countries.

After coming to France, Amerloque continued to use Sheffield and Solingen blades in the kitchen, although his table coutellerie was French and, in some cases, American, since he had quite some of the family cutlery sent over bit by bit. As he learned about the realities of French life and became more a part of it, he discovered that a city named Thiers, in the massif central, has for over 500 years been the capital of French cutlery manufacture, with over one hundred companies producing fully over two thirds of French cutlery. He also found that the French town of Laguiole was well known for knives. So Amerloque motored down to Thiers one fine summer day during the 1970s and spent a week or so touring the town and the shops. He purchased several robust kitchen knives, which stood him in good stead for years and years. Generally stainless steel (inox), dishwasher safe, and fairly well-balanced, French kitchen knives from Thiers are readily available, at all prices, for individuals as well as for professional chefs.

As with automobile and small arms enthusiasts, people involved in the knife world tend to have strong opinions. After visiting Japan over a decade ago, Amerloque realized just why one of his acquaintances had been swearing (both literally and figuratively) by Japanese kitchen knives for years and years. In Kyoto, Amerloque was given the opportunity to try out several traditional knives, as well as several series of mass-produced Japanese knives, and was very, very impressed. As a matter of fact, he became a convert.

Apparently today’s Japanese knives are fashioned using techniques that were originally developed for making katana, traditional samurai swords. The change to knife-crafting began in the mid-nineteenth century, and, when after World War II General Douglas MacArthur banned Japanese sword-making nationwide, numbers of highly skilled craftsmen turned their skills and attention to kitchen knives. Dedicated sword craftsmen began studying the ambitious creations of creative chefs. Japanese knives soon attained universal renown - the "unforgettable sharpness" of the katana is still the identifying mark of the Japanese knife and distinguishes the inimitable Japanese blade from its Sheffield, Solingen, and Thiers counterparts.

Over the years Amerloque has found that Japanese blades simply are sharper and are able to cut thinner slices of various meats, fowl, vegetables and fruits. However, what the Japanese call kirenaga, the "duration of sharpness" factor, must invariably be factored in when dealing with Japanese knives: they do not hold their sharpness as long as might be desired. Although today's knives – especially chef's cutlery - are forged with methods similar to those used by traditional sword craftsmen, using "white steel" (shiro-ko) and "blue steel"(ao-ko), they still must be re-sharpened more frequently than Western blades.

Yes – there's the rub: Japanese knives are high maintenance tools. They are definitely not dishwasher safe – they require careful had washing and hand drying, to avoid rust (depending on the steel "sandwich", of course) and possible putrescence in the wooden handles. The traditional sharpening process is no mundane affair, either: three different sharpening stones are used: it took Amerloque quite a bit of practice to get the hang of it. Furthermore, he has found that one can expect to sharpen a Japanese knife … every one or two days when used intensively in a home cooking environment and that the necessarily fastidious, frequent sharpening takes up a lot of time.

Genuine traditional Japanese knives can be quite expensive, too. One can easily pay well over €250 (250 euros - say US$325/350) for one good santoku, an all-purpose chef's knife used for slicing, dicing and mincing meats and vegetables. Nevertheless, if one is serious about cooking, one can do worse than to invest in a top flight santoku. With proper care it will last a lifetime, although tying up that much capital in a knife might not be everyone's cup of tea - unless one is involved in cooking professionally, of course.

Amerloque decided some time ago that he would use both Western and Japanese blades in the kitchen, the latter more sparingly than the former. He has the normal range of relatively easy maintenance French kitchen knives – a Sabatier does the job quite nicely – and a cleaver from Solingen. (By the way, if one is interested in personally choosing French knives - and other serious kitchen utensils - nothing can beat a visit to La Bovida at 36 rue Montmartre, 75001 Paris. )

Given the maintenance required, the Japanese contingent of knives is reserved for more difficult tasks and special occasions: cutting very, very thin slices of beef for barbecued-beef sandwiches, for example, and perfect slices of turkey on Thanksgiving, goose at Christmas, and gigot d'agneau at Easter. They are also peerless for cutting virtually almost transparent slices of tomato and cucumber for salads. Finally, they come into play when the Amerloque family gathers round the hand operated meat mincer for one of its semiannual sausagemaking sessions (La Bovida sells sausage skins, too.).

Amerloque uses knives made by Hiromoto, who has been producing professional quality knives for some decades in Seki City, Japan. Seki City, in Gifu Prefecture, is today considered the home of modern Japanese kitchen cutlery, where state-of-the-art manufacturing and technology has updated ancient forging skills to produce a world class series of stainless and laminated steel kitchen knives famed throughout the world. Hiromoto's workmanlike knives (santoku, deba, and yanagi) are forged from high carbon steel, chromium and tungsten. They are advertised as being " easy to sharpen … durable … perfectly balanced … can hold a razor sharp edge". Amerloque has found this to be true and can recommend Hiromoto unreservedly. He finds them particularly well balanced and the price is right. He keeps a second, more upmarket Hiromoto santoku for truly special occasions.

So the currently miserable summer weather makes it a good time to do maintenance in the kitchen, too: cleaning and sharpening knives is a profitable way to spend one or more rainy afternoons … before finishing the day by curling up in front of a warm fire in the evening.

Amerloque would prefer normal summer weather, of course. However, one can't have everything !


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyrights reserved to copyright holders including Amerloque

Monday, July 09, 2007


The truly abysmal, unseasonably cold weather has continued: rainy and windy – some days are genuinely March-like, with high temperatures hovering around a chilly 18°C (64°F). Nevertheless, the summer holidays, whether in Paris or in the provinces, are an ideal time to meander through the outdoor food markets, fill one's shopping bag, and cook at home.

Traditionally, French people who take their holidays during the summer months are divided into two waves: the juilletistes, who take the entire month of July (and not just a portion of it), and the aoûtiens, who – quite logically – take off all the month of August. The end of July is most definitely not a time to be on the roads or in the train stations and airports, with literally millions upon millions of people on the move. This is when the rested homecoming juilletistes meet the impatiently departing aoûtiens; the French have called it the grand chassé-croisé de l'été. In the past several years, with the advent of the five-week paid vacation for all, many French people – especially families - have been taking the month between July 14th (Bastille Day) and August 15th (Assumption). The days of the dyed-in-the-wool, purist juilletistes and aoûtiens appear to be definitely numbered; seasonal vacation rentals by the week are becoming more and more frequent, as opposed to the more traditional monthly house and apartment rentals, for example. There doesn't seem to be a nickname yet for this new breed of vacationer.

The annual kickoff to the summer holidays, even though school is still is session, is the Feast of Saint John, on June 24th. Known colloquially as Saint-Jean and Saint-Jean d'Eté (Saint John of the Summer as opposed to Saint John of the Winter: Saint-Jean d'Hiver, i.e., Saint John the Apostle on December 27th), it is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of Saint John the Baptist. (French-Canadians also have a special place for Saint John.) In many French villages, large bonfires are laid in a field during the week preceding Saint-Jean and on the evening of Saint Jean d'Eté, they are lit as the watching people, especially the children, applaud, oohh and aahh. When the ashes and charcoal remains have cooled, members of the crowd collect bits of the charred faggots and take them home - they are thought to bring good luck to hearth and household during the coming year.

Amerloque has appreciated the marvelous, ever-changing experience of strolling through the food markets for many years. In the summer there is far more time to do so, even if the weather is bad. Produce stall after produce stall overflows with luscious fruits and vegetables; farmers sell their production directly to marketgoers. Various middlemen, who have themselves stocked up at a wholesale market, do the same in similar stalls alongside. There is a government-established network (marché d'intérêt national) of such wholesale markets: in the Paris region the one at Rungis, which replaced Les Halles in the center of Paris, is the most famous, of course.

M and Mme Amerloque make a point of purchasing directly from the French farmer/grower as much as they can all year round, for two major reasons.

The first is simply to support French farmers and growers, and more particularly the small local ones. Crushed by insane European Union regulations designed to "help" them and by greedy hypermarket distributors, French farmers and farmworkers are disappearing at an alarming rate. From something like 3.8 million in 1970, their number had dropped to 1.1 million by the year 2005. Farms are vanishing, too: in 2000 there remained but 664,000 of the million counted in 1988. Overall, the population has risen, naturally: there are now about 63 million people in France, many of whom are perfectly happy to trundle weekly down to their local megastore and mechanically load up on imported industrially-produced fruits and vegetables, at prices subsidized by the intellectually dishonest European Union. Usually the cheap tomatoes, artichokes, melons and nectarines one sees are imported from Spain. It is not unusual at all for one to find oranges from Morocco, Chile and South Africa, avocados and oranges from Israel, and apples from New Zealand.

The French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) reports that in 2003 the French spent 17.4% of their disposable income on food, a figure substantially down from the 31.5% in 1960. According to one of the main farmers' professional organizations, over the past 40 years the amount spent by French people on fruits and vegetables produced in France has dropped by almost 30%. Given these figures, one does not have to be a whiz at math to visualize what the future holds for the small farmer - unless he and she are supported by both the government and the consumer.

The second reason that the Amerloque family always purchases from the farmer/grower is the quality. The principal reason that Amerloque has chosen to live in France is the quality of life, which for the vast majority of French citizens and residents is far, far better than that offered in the USA at equal levels of income - at least to Amerloque's way of thinking. In the case of fruits and vegetables, it's an open and shut case. There is no comparison – at least in his mind and tastebuds ! – between the industrial fruits and veggies available in the hypermarkets and those that the farmers/growers lovingly offer for sale, from their own well-tended farms. Certainly the latter cost a bit more, and are sometimes not as beautifully attractive and shiny and squeaky-clean as their industrial counterparts, but the bottom line is that they taste better. Nor are they waterlogged, or dyed, or covered in insecticides and preservatives, or underripe, or overripe, as are so many fruits and vegetables in the hypermarkets.

It should be noted that Amerloque is not necessarily speaking of bio products - what in the USA are called organic foodstuffs. He is simply speaking of the normal agricultural produce in France produced by small farmers and growers, who may or may not be bio.

Last year, from August to December, M and Mme Amerloque belonged to an Association pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne, an AMAP. In the USA, the movement is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A CSA organization is a contractual partnership of mutual commitment between an individual farm or grower and a stable community of supporters. The paid-up members of a CSA/AMAP community cover a portion of a country farm's annual or semi-annual operating budget by purchasing shares of the season's harvest in advance. In return for this financing, the farm provides a healthy supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season. The CSA/AMAP group members receive a weekly or monthly basket of produce, flowers, fruits, eggs, milk, cheese, or even a selection of different farm products.

During the first two weeks of their membership in the AMAP specialized in fruit-and-veg (an Association 1901), M and Mme Amerloque received two different baskets containing strawberries, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, early squash, shallots, various heads of lettuce and chou chinois, a variety of cabbage. All of them were very high quality; some were even 100% "bio"; the cost per kilo was about the same as at a stall in a top-flight Parisian open-air market. Alas, from the fourth week, both the quality and quantity started declining somewhat precipitously. Since M and Mme Amerloque were primarily interested in quality, they decided to pull out of the AMAP, which by that time had turned into a real Parisian "bobo show", with more a m'as-tu vu ? ambiance than an honest effort to obtain tasty fruits and vegs.

Earlier this year, after taking the time to visit quite a few places and carefully sample the produce, exactly as one would taste wines before purchasing, M and Mme Amerloque worked out an arrangement with a maraicher bio (organic market gardener) just outside town, to the west of Paris, who brings in his paniers bio to a distribution point once a week. Since the beginning of his season in April, the maraicher has supplied tomatoes (beefsteak, plum, cherry), lettuce, green asparagus, carrots, cucumbers (Noa), radishes, onions (new, scallions), artichokes, Zucchini (long, round), eggplant, beets (cooked and uncooked), potatoes (new, Anais, Fuji ) strawberries, raspberries, melons (cantaloupe), and rhubarb. The farmers also make their own juices: apple, pear, and apple/raspberry.

Here are two typical weekly baskets.

- un kilo de courgettes rondes
- une aubergine
- 900g de tomates
- une botte de carottes nouvelles
- une botte de radis
- deux barquettes de framboises
- un concombre
- deux artichauts


- un kilo de courgettes vertes
- une aubergine
- un kilo de tomates olivette
- une botte de carottes nouvelles
- une botte de radis
- deux barquettes de framboises
- une botte d'oignons
- une bettrave rouge cuite
- un melon

The taste of each and every vegetable and fruit is out of this world and bears little relationship to the imported Spanish, Dutch and Moroccan stuff in the hypermarkets. Each basket is €15, by subscription. That might sound a bit high, especially when compared to hypermarket prices, but M and Mme Amerloque are in Paris, which is in the Ile de France, after all. The quantities are decent (well-filled barquettes of raspberries, for example) and the produce fresh: picked that very morning or, at worst, on the previous day. What more could one ask ?

When writing about Les Halles many, many years ago, Waverly Root, who discoursed so admirably and lovingly about French and Italian foods, stated:

... in the 1920s most of the vehicles were horse-drawn farm carts, driven by the same men who had raised the produce and picked it that very morning before daylight so that Paris could have fresh food from the market gardens that encircled it - white beans from Noyon, asparagus from Argenteuil, peas from Clamart, string beans from Bagnolet, cauliflowers from Arpajon, carrots from Crécy. The fields where they grew are buried now under the dormitory suburbs of Paris.

Root was right. Yet there are still maraichers to be found around Paris, not too far away at all, if one looks hard enough: women and men and their families who have made a commitment toward quality and not quantity, toward authentic, tasteful tradition and not ersatz, tasteless modernity.

They merit the support and commitment of those who care about such things and who are unwilling to be brainwashed into believing in the supposed virtues of industrialized food consumerism.


Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyrights reserved to copyright holders including Amerloque