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  • Aine Dougherty

Best Bites from 2020 in France


Plate of Mediterranean food (hummus, falafel, cauliflower, fried chicken) and pink cocktail
Mid-mezze at Tzatzi in Strasbourg.

It may be March 2021, but it's never too late for a 2020 round-up (that's what I'm telling myself).


A year ago, France entered into a strict lockdown as COVID exploded all over the globe. I never could have imagined that my first year in France would consist of needing a signed paper to leave the house, or that I wouldn't be able to see my family for over a year (still haven't!). But this baker's dozen of best bites from 2020 represent the happy moments amidst all the chaos.



Stroopwafels | Lanskroon Bakery, Amsterdam


One of the advantages of the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), is that we have two weeks of vacation every six or so weeks (god bless the French school system). This is more exciting when there's not a pandemic ravaging the globe, but I certainly took advantage of the holiday last February, when I stepped on a plane for one of the last times. The wind blew me to Amsterdam, where I met up with old friends over hot coffee and crispy, stroopwafels from a 100+ year old bakery, a far cry from a tourist trap. They tasted like retrouvailles.


"Barbacoa" beef tacos | Homemade


It's near impossible to find good Mexican food in Alsace, and you can forget about finding the right ingredients to make a good barbacoa in a classic French supermarket... they're way too afraid of spice. Nonetheless, I braised the beef for hours, pickled some red onions, mixed up an attempt at "street corn" and smashed avocados for guacamole. The colorful Tex-Mex result tasted like pride – pride that I was able to cook something somewhat resembling one of my favorite cuisines for my French / British family. (Yes, they couldn't resist bringing out the Heinz ketchup bottle, but I'm trying not to make moral judgments on peoples' food choices.)


Carrot, feta and ricotta tart | Homemade


New York Times Cooking recipes rarely fail, and this carrot, ricotta and feta tart is the best, easiest appetizer. Store-bought puff pastry, a mix of ricotta and feta, thinly sliced carrots, olive oil, plenty of salt and pepper, and some herbs on top. (Plus, you can make this with any in-season veg that you want – I like asparagus, too.) Sun-drenched photos of my kitchen creations were one of the only things helping me through confinement, or lockdown, in France. The whole experience was overwhelming, and I often felt hopeless, but at least I could nourish myself and my French family.


Cinnamon rolls | Homemade


One of my biggest flaws? Not reading recipes before I start cooking or baking. In this case, that meant that I was awake, rolling out cinnamon roll dough at 12:30 a.m. on a Saturday night. But I didn't even mind, because the dough was the fluffiest and pillowiest I've ever worked with. Brunch is beloved in this household, and bringing Cinnabon vibes to France was a big hit, despite the typical French aversion to sickly sweet American pastries.


Potato soup | Markgräfler Winzerstube, Badenweiler, Germany


Alsace is a region rich in history, dragged back and forth between France and Germany like the rope in a particularly bloody tug-of-war. I was never interested in Deutschland like I am in France, but living just 15 minutes from the border has opened my eyes to new culinary discoveries. For instance, this cozy restaurant in the quaint town of Badenweiler, which I visited after a trip to the thermal baths nearby. I was nearly lulled to sleep by the spa, and although this potato soup didn't look like much, it stuck to my bones and lasted in my memory.


Rhubarb bars | Homemade


NYT Cooking strikes again. I wanted to make these delicate rhubarb custard bars because one of my first food memories was baking lemon bars for my Grandmom when I was young. I remember how happy I felt when she praised my baking skills back then, and the mélange of acidic and sweet notes in these revamped bars made me think of her.


Foie gras | Le 4, Mulhouse


I've had my share of foie gras over the past year, whether it be in restaurants or homemade, but this was one of the best I've tasted. This semi-gastro restaurant served the silky smooth appetizer alongside a tart rhubarb chutney and luscious toasted brioche. One of the tastiest and swankiest meals I've had, and among fellow profs, too – that sense of belonging only makes the food taste better.



Corsican feast | Bergerie Corse, Avignon


If I remember one sensation from this summer meal, it is the strong taste of garlic lingering on my tongue, washed down by a sip of Corsican beer. My salad, dripping with milky burrata and topped with fresh, bright tomatoes, paled in comparison to my boyfriend Ju's enormous charcuterie board and gooey, baked goat cheese. Over the summer holiday, French people forgot about COVID, and we fell into the same trap, embarking on a 3-week road trip all over the south of France. This Corsican feast in Avignon was just one of many breathtaking meals.


40-year-old St. Chinian wine | Domaine Jougla, Prades-sur-Vernazobre


It pays to have friends with wineries. During our road trip, we stopped by this vignoble and savored an exclusive tour of the premises, including a visit to the chapelle, which houses barrels of St. Chinian wine from the 1980s. Alain Jougla, the patron, brandished his pipette and served us dark amber glasses of one sweet barrel-aged wine after another. I can assure you that we crawled home after the one-of-a-kind boozy experience.


"Crispy salmon" | Les Violettes Hotel and Spa, Jungholtz


For Ju's birthday, I surprised him with a night at this hotel and spa in the Alsatian countryside, where we relished a stunning three-course meal, including this beautifully presented appetizer: salmon garnished with a lemon mousse tucked into a crunchy phyllo dough shell. The splurge was well worth it, and we shared a luxurious weekend eating, drinking and relaxing in the quaint, traditional atmosphere before summer break came to a close.


Butternut tarte tatin | Homemade


Only one finger was harmed in the making of this melt-in-your-mouth take on a traditional tarte tatin, which are usually made with apples and caramel. In this case, I paired the caramel with sweet and savory butternut squash, sage and Parmesan. However, the memory that sticks from this evening was blood spurting everywhere and Ju fainting after cutting the tip of his finger off while slicing the squash with a mandoline. Sorry for the gore – I promise the tart was not compromised amid the drama.


Pull-apart chive rolls | Homemade


This recipe by Claire Saffitz appeared on our French-British-American Thanksgiving table, dripping in butter and stuffed with cheese, after another midnight baking session by yours truly. Although I missed celebrating the food-lover's favorite holiday with my family back in Philadelphia, these flavorful dinner rolls almost – almost – made up for the homesickness.


Speculoos tiramisu | Homemade


And last but not least, we have a tradition in my family: The Dougherty / Scarazzini Holiday Bake-Off. For the past few years, each Christmas season, my wonderful aunt and I go head-to-head in the kitchen. Two years ago, gingerbread (hence my gingerbread Notre-Dame creation). Last year, bûches de Noël (feat. my winning lavender / milk chocolate gâteau). Finally, this year, we had to work out an online competition. The theme was tiramisu, to honor my Italian Grandmom, and each family on each side of the Atlantic tried their best to be fair with their grades. My speculoos variation won points for creativity, but my aunt's perfectly traditional tiramisu took the cake in the end. I can only hope that next year, we'll be in the same country (so I can gloat in-person when I win!).


Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for monthly Best Bites of 2021.

 

In 2020, I began a weekly series in my blog where I link to an important article about food that I believe everyone should read, and I'm going to continue sharing in my food blog posts in 2021. Getting educated is the first step (again, of many!) to making the food world a more equitable place. I welcome suggestions in the comments!


THIS WEEK'S READ:


This week's read is actually a listen – I recently discovered journalist Rokhaya Diallo and Grace Ly's Francophone podcast called Kiffe ta race, which aims to get French people talking about a subject that they're not too fond of recognizing: race and racism.


This episode is about food and prejudice, and it is absolutely worth a listen, as are all of the other episodes: Cuisine et préjugés: On continue de déguster

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