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Monday, August 14, 2017

Homburg: What is it about flea markets?

As soon as my eldest son was housebroken and had small change in his pocket, I took him to garage sales.  His eyes sparkled when he spied old plastic Super Heroes and Pokemon cards.  An early lesson in economics and decision-making.  He wanted everything, but could afford little.  Heartbreaking choices followed, but his heart didn’t break.

He comes by his early passion honestly.   I think it’s in the human genome to shop and bargain.  Name a great flea market of the world and I’ve probably been there.  Souks in Turkey and Morocco.  The happy street markets of Paris.  The famous El Rastro of Madrid.  The almost overpowering expanse of the Metz, France indoor flea market.  They all contain the same elements of hopeful buyers and equally hopeful sellers of random goods.

In southwest Germany, buyers and sellers will find one of the best flea markets around: the Homburg flea market, or as the Germans call it, Flohmarkt.  It’s a wondrous playground for ideas, inspiration, and bargains.

See, that’s a ma-velous thing about flea markets, both the wares and the prices float from day to day, month to month. Trash and treasures intermingle. Hopes and dreams soar.  And if the treasure of your life has just been purchased by someone with a quicker, sharper eye, in Germany you can battle grief with Beer and Wurst, as you stroll to the next array and find something even better.  Keep in mind I’m still talking about a flea markets and not Friday night’s happy hour.

Homburg’s rendition is close to the city government offices, the tall, expansive conglomerate office building Germans call the Rathaus, city hall, with Rat translated as advice. When you think of government offices, you may find you use a different translation.  But having visited several Rathauses here, I’ve found the public servants to be spontaneously polite and almost embarrassingly helpful.  Different culture.  Different expectations.  Lucky Germans.

Homburg Rathaus

Ok, so you’ve found the general area.  Noise, people lugging away brass lamps, tables, chairs, and even musical instruments point the way to the treasure trove.  In this case, tents mark the spot. A wide range of tents spread across the land like a Bedouin encampment, lacking only camels, ferocious heat and blowing sand.

 The tents serve an important purpose.  I’ve visited this flea market when a downpour struck like an angry Greek god.  Even with my lighting-like reflexes and a switchblade umbrella, I was soon soaked from the knees down and sloshing about in sloppy shoes.  Not so the vendors.  With the practiced art of a well trained Indianapolis pit crew, the treasures were quickly protected, but still viewable by those buyers whose lives no longer mattered to them without the thrill of the hunt.

How often? My now entranced readers ask.  The first Saturday of every month, but there are exceptions, so be sure to ask around, or confer with Mr. Google, the sage of the age.

Ok, time for some flea market counseling.  You do not truly love the objects you see and desire. (There may be other situations where that advice is valuable.)  These flea market objects are simply metal, wooden, glass, plastic and paper ornaments.  You didn’t know about them until you saw them and may not yet know WTF they are.  You didn’t need them until they popped into your line of view.  You’ve kept other things a secret from your wife/husband/insignificant other and your severe disappointment in losing the object of desire can be a secret, too.  See addend above.

Bad form to shed tears in front of a vendor, who only just now mistook you for someone he wished to speak with, but who now wishes with all his heart to avoid.

When a vendor takes the object of your desire and smashes it against the hood of his car, you know your casual, low-ball bid disturbed him.

But the best advice is to remember, there is always next month, with another first Saturday.  The Beer will be cold and the Wurst hot from the grill.

Note some small red circles on the daggers?  They cover Nazi symbols, which are illegal to show openly.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Chocolate in Provence

Found Chocolaterie Castelain in Chateauneuf du Pape, deep in the heart of Provence, France.  Ok, I lied a little, but doesn’t everybody.  Not about the Provence part, but the finding it part.  Actually, a friend found it and managed to sober up a group of choco-holics enough to get us to chocolate land.

Came as a surprise.  Not the sobering up part.  Unintended, but it happens.

The chocolate and France part. After all, where do you think of when you think of chocolate?  Belgium?  Yes.  Switzerland?  Yes.  Germany?  Of course.  Which country produces the most chocolate?  Pennsylvanians know the answer and I can explain it with one word: Hersey.

But France?  Mais oui!  A chocolate paradise in Provence.  Should have expected it in this bastion of creativity.  Van Gogh country.  Cézanne country.  A wonderland of olives and cheeses and especially wines.  What?  You don’t count making cheeses and wine creative?  Every wine and cheese is different, with different flavors. Or olives?  Just try curing them yourself without swearing and smashing crockery on the kitchen wall.

Chocolate is just one more form of creativity, with endless variations.  It’s one of the most complicated of foods.  Start with the Cocoa beans, most of which are grown in West Africa.  Picture men and women hacking pods off trees with machetes.  Picture people barely making a living….wait a sec.  A large Swiss corporation, Nestle formed the World Cocoa Foundation to see that farmers get properly paid for their labor and to ensure healthy farming practices that mean your grandchildren will still be biting into chocolate bars. Next time you take a bite, give Nestle a shout out.

Ok, you’re saying, but what’s the big deal?  The cocoa beans are squashed and then you have chocolate, right?   Think so?  Check my simple (I know my readers) synopsis of the bean to bar process:

Pods are harvested with machetes sharp enough to shave your beard, and the beans and pulp are scooped out. Just as with wine, climate and soil have a lot to do with the flavor of the final product.

Beans and pulp are put in a vat to ferment. (with lots of hands-on help from the farmers)

Next step is drying, then roasting.

Winnowing separates the beans from their shells.

After fine grinding and conching (surface scraping and coco-butter separation) you get chocolate liquor, with the solids being chocolate and the liquid being cocoa butter.  Here’s where the quality comes in.  First class producers will add some cocoa butter back into their chocolate to smooth it out.  Eat some Belgian chocolate and you’ll see what I mean about smooth. Cheap producers will add lesser oils.  Hint:  read the list of ingredients.

Now that you’re an expert on Chocolate, let’s head to a fabulous chocolate maker in Provence.  You’ll learn all I’ve written and more importantly, get to make your own, plus gobble chocolate until your blood sugar level goes in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The chef and his assistant led us down the chocolate road.  First thing to remember is there are essentially three types of chocolate:  dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate, the latter being only coco butter, milk and sugar.  So is white chocolate really chocolate?  The other two you can figure out yourself.  Dark  chocolate has a million variations, depending on where the beans came from and how much sugar is added.  The most chocolate of chocolates is 99% chocolate, with the percentage printed on the wrapper displaying how much coco bean (by weight) is in the bar. As the percentage of chocolate decreases, of course the amount of sugar and coco butter increases.

There’s nothing like hands-on to teach you how difficult a skill…any skill…is.  We poured chocolate into molds to create hollow hearts, plastic pastry bags to make chocolate drops, and dipped fruits and caramels.   The chef made it look exceedingly easy and I suppose if you make it your life’s work to get good at something it does get easy. For me it was messy work, but we had a great instructor and came away with bags of chocolate.

Here’s a pairing tip for you:  Dark chocolate goes well with Guinness.  I know that will come in handy.  It did for me, as I reconciled alcohol and gluttony.

Tip number two:  If you bring bags of chocolate home, you will eat them, especially if they come from Chocolaterie Cstalain..  Be warned and stand by to loosen your belt, or just switch to the chocolate- Guinness fitness diet.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tortilla Español

Ah, the glory of a tapas bar

Tortilla Español

 Here's a recipe that'll amaze your friends and confuse your enemies.  A Spanish tortilla.  Oh, yeah.  Delicious.  Impressive, but easy.  Of course, as you know I don't do difficult recipes.

One of the unexpected pleasures of dropping into a Tosca (tapas bar) in Spain is having the barkeep plunk down a tasty nibble along with your wine or beer.  You don’t have to ask.  You only have to eat, drink, and chat until it’s time to get a refill.  Often the tidbit accompanying your drink is a small square of tortilla Español.

No my friends, it’s not a tortilla of corn or flour you get at your fav Mexican eatery, it’s a potato filled omelet, usually served at room temp.  I can hear those wheels grinding.  Omelet with beer or wine in the early evening?  The simple answer is: YES!  Served warm or cold, it’s delicious and filling, but not so filling you have to stop drinking, which we all know was your real reason for stopping in and gripping the bar with both hands.

Look at it this way, you can buy a lady a drink and feed her at the same time, which was the other reason you stopped in, with the top two buttons on your linen shirt undone and a look as hopeful as your dog when he meets you at the front door.

Now is the time for me to impart some expert advice on how to properly and quickly pick up women.  But, first I need to find an expert...

Guess you’ll just have to be satisfied with my superb recipe that improves on the original.  The original tortilla has just potatoes inside.  I add a few tasties. All you have to do after you make it is buy a bottle of wine and invite some women.  Hungry women, if you know what I mean.

Tortilla Español

9 Eggs
¼ Cup milk
3 medium sized potatoes, peeled and thin sliced
4 inch piece of Spanish chorizo, casing removed, cut into thin slices and quartered
1 onion, peeled, cut in quarters and thin sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Begin by putting a slosh of olive oil in a high-sided skillet, and frying the potato and onion slices until they are cooked through, but not browned. Add the chorizo slices and toss, just enough to warm the chorizo up.

Set the mixture aside while you put the eggs and milk in a bowl and scramble until you have a uniform color.

Add another slosh of olive oil to the frying pan, pour in the eggs mix and let it cook for a minute or two on low heat. Add the potato/onion/chorizo mix to the omelet and spread the potatoes out evenly.  Make sure you’re using low heat or the bottom will burn.  Cook until the omelet is set, about 30 minutes.  I cover the pan to speed the process.

Here’s another way I differ from the original.  Spanish cooks flip the omelet into another skillet to brown the other side.  This is fine for Spanish cooks and the world’s greatest magicians.  For common folk with the hand eye coordination of blinded mules, I suggest instead foregoing the slight of hand required to flip a semi-cooked omelet from one hot skillet to another without screaming in pain. Simply and quietly slide the skillet about 8 inches under your oven broiler and let the other side turn brown.  No flip or flopping or messing about.

Here’s another hint:  The thickness of the omelet is solely determined by the size of the skillet you’re using.  Thick omelet = smaller pan.  I used a mid-sized pan, as you can tell by the thickness of the tortilla Español in my photo.

Still another hint?  Oh, you bet.  Make your tortilla several hours, or even a day ahead.  That way, when the ladies arrive, you can pour wine and chat, while the ladies bat their eyes and do all those other things ladies do to get you to make a fool of yourself.  Yes, men, we are fools, but fools can make a damn fine Tortilla Español!