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The politics of butter [Travel]

in Travel by

It’s true: travel does involve constant encounters with similarity and difference.

While such experiences often materialize in dramatically profound circumstances – surprise meetings at a local festival; deep exchanges at a local bar; life-changing communions with nature atop a volcano on a jungle-speckled island – other encounters are more subtle.

Such as those involving, for example, butter.

Culture and cuisine

While wandering through Europe this past summer, I realized just how profoundly regional cuisine reflects the…esprit de vie…of a locale. It’s an old theme, but for that very reason we tend to give it little heed. Lonely Planet tells us to eat the pickled mackerel here, the stewed beef there and the egg custard tarts from precisely this patisserie, and so we do. Fait accompli!

But it doesn’t actually work so easily. You might get to taste your smoked puffin and your fermented shark, but you don’t really get to experience it. Truly experiencing food while traveling means accepting a regional cuisine on its own terms. Not yours.

And the more involved a region’s cuisine, the more intricate the rituals involved with accessing that cuisine. It’s a reality with which I came to face to face in the picturesque town of Riquewihr, a small mediaeval walled town in the wine region of Alsace, France.

Riquewihr Sausages

The town is lovely, and I highly recommend visiting it. Nestled in a valley in the foothills of the Vosges mountains, it is surrounded by vineyards. It’s picturesque, and it knows it. Artists and artisans and craftspeople thrive here; the market bustles with wheels of cheese and even Germans come lugging their sausages and gemstones to barter. Long before borders were drawn between France and Germany – and fought over, and redrawn, and re-fought over (atop the town sits the Dolder Tower, which inspired the Japanese anime Howl’s Moving Castle, and within which is, unexpectedly, a Nazi torture museum) – this region was neither French nor German; it simply was.

Alsace.

Myself and my companions had already been sensitized to the complexity of eating from our first arrival in Alsace. In the regional capital of Colmar, we were lucky to have stumbled into the downtown core during what was apparently a very narrow window of dinner-time dining, and found ourselves at one of the town’s more liberal dining establishments (by liberal, I mean open to serving us food throughout much of the afternoon and evening, no questions asked). The waiter came for our order and I promptly ordered tarte flambee. I didn’t know what it was but it appeared to dominate the menu, so I assumed it was a local speciality.

How right I was.

Colmar Tarte Flambee
Colmar Tarte Flambee.

The tarte flambee is indeed an experience, but best experienced only once. It is the richest meal I have ever had; Italian pasta does not even come close. Essentially a pizza crust lathered in crème fraiche, lardons (aka pork fat), and with any of a variety of additional toppings on it – four or five cheeses, along with four or five sausages, and maybe a vegetable or perhaps some more cheese and a ham – it probably contains enough of your required daily cheese intake to last you for a week.

Or two.

Although a bit overwhelmed, I was pleased I had experienced the local speciality. I was now ready to move on to the next one.

Which, I quickly came to realize, was none other than another form of tarte flambee.

Indeed, the more we traveled in Alsace, the more we realized that tarte flambee was not only the local speciality; it was in many cases the only food to be had.

In Colmar this was not so much a problem. We could still order salad, bread, even stew – along with our tarte flambee. Colmar, being a regional capital, was flexible. Crepes? Sure, they’re not local, but they’re French: here you go. Croissants? Well, alright. We’d really prefer you have a tarte flambee, but if you’re willing to pay extra for a millefeuille, who are we to argue?

Such was not the case in the countryside, however.

Colmar
Colmar.

The contrast became sharply apparent in Riquewihr. On our first day there, we decided to forego the hotel breakfast buffet and find a bite to eat while strolling through town. This rapidly became a desperate quest for food – any food. Although there were plenty of patrons sitting on the outdoor terraces and street-level tables sipping wine or tall pints of beer (at 10 a.m. in the morning), we eventually came to the realization that nobody was eating. We asked at a few establishments, hopeful, whether they were serving food – any food. They all looked gravely at their watches, back at us, and very seriously shook their heads.

“No food,” they said. “Only drinks at this hour.”

I asked what hour they might be serving food. This was met with a vague wave of the hand and a smile. “Later.”

One spot did give us hope – the scent of food cooking drew us in – and we asked the waitress, who eagerly seated us, whether they were serving food (visions of breakfast still floating in our heads).

Riquewihr
Riquewihr.

“Only tarte flambees,” she replied. The idea of a giant pizza slathered in ham, cheese and crème fraiche was somehow not a suitable substitute for what we had in mind at this hour of the morning.

After finally finding a rogue bakery serving croissants, we took a stroll through the vineyards overlooking the town. It always amuses me when stereotypes live up to…stereotypes…but the small-town, French vineyard experience is every bit worth it. It’s hard to describe until you’ve experienced it. The atmosphere in many ways reflects the fact that meals are not served except at the proper hour: everything has its time, and space, and you must adjust yourself to it. The vineyards surrounding the ancient walled town have their own sense of time and space. You can stroll freely through the wide paths separating the vineyards; here and there, a worker will be pruning the bushes, their dog eagerly bounding over to smell you and then back to follow their master or mistress into the depths of the vines. You sit atop a crest amid the vines, looking out over the rolling hills, their distant stretches pockmarked with villages upon crests upon villages upon crests, until only the church-spires are visible amid distant wreaths of morning mist. Above, the clouds speed overhead with a piercing clarity that resembles a French painting, and you realize why the French painted: because with clouds and mists and vistas like this, it is impossible not to. Beauty this deep and natural and ancient must be shared.

Riquewihr, nestled in its valley.
Riquewihr, nestled in its valley.

A couple hours later, we decided to descend. It was now about 3 p.m. Surely, we felt, some of those spots that were earlier serving beer and wine might now have fired up their ovens.
Alas, it turned out we had in fact missed the lunch hour. Which, by our best estimations, couldn’t have lasted much more than an hour. Upon being informed that kitchens were now closed for lunch, we asked when they would be open for dinner.

“7 p.m.,” came the reply.

By seven we were starving, and more than ready for dinner. This time I was fortunate: in addition to tarte flambee, the menu also offered the local version of sauerkraut (which, in this region, was served with seven varieties of sausages). While delicious, the meal also came with its own unique regional quirks.

For instance, along with our variegated meals, a massive basket piled high with slices of bread was served. However, there was no butter.

Cognizant of our frail fortune in having finally come within striking range of a full meal, we were nervous to upset our bustling hosts by asking for butter. We wolfed down the first couple of slices ‘naked’, as they say. But eventually, emboldened by the comforting feel of food in our bellies, we decided to risk it. I caught the waitress’ eye after she had just delivered a few beers to a nearby table, and she came over.

“Est-ce que c’est possible d’avoir un peu de buerre?” I asked, tenuously, with the biggest smile I could muster. “Could we have some butter, please?”

She stared at me, eyes widening.

“Du buerre?” she repeated, in a high-pitched voice. I looked at my companions, then at the mountain of bread, and then back at her. I nodded, hesitantly.

“DU BUERRE?” she exploded, eyes widening even further. Then she spun around and disappeared. I wondered what I had done wrong. Moments later, she returned, and slammed onto the table a basket piled high with what must have been hundreds of butter packets.

“Du buerre!” she proclaimed, and spun on her heels and left.

Schnitzel & Spaetzel.
Schnitzel & Spaetzel.

Eventually, we became somewhat used to the idea of bread being served without butter. We even speculated on the possible logic behind it. The most likely explanation was that with almost no exception, all the meals being served involved heavy, greasy, gravy- or –sauce- or cream-smothered meals. The bread, we eventually realized, was not intended to be eaten by itself, or before the meal, but rather was simply a mechanism with which to absorb – and consume – even more of the creamy sauces. Each slice of bread was, in a sense, a piece of cutlery with which we were supposed to sop up the sauces.

On the other hand, this policy only seems to apply to dinner. Every morning at breakfast – yes, we finally realized the hotel breakfast was our best bet for being fed before 7 p.m., unless we were prepared to subsist on tarte flambees and pretzels – food was served with an absolutely endless mountain of butter (in sharp contrast to North American breakfasts, where it is difficult to obtain more than a packet or two of butter per basket of bread). How to resolve these contradictions? An endless supply of butter for breakfast, but none for lunch or dinner. That is the way of it in Alsace.

Enter the Germans

Contrast this with our bread-and-butter breakfast experience across the border in Germany. Our first German breakfast was taken at a small café. Our meals – omelettes (with seven varieties of sausages) – were quite delicious, but the by now ubiquitous – and mountainous – basket of bread beamed beckoningly.

However, no butter.

I awaited my chance. It didn’t come, so we sent our six-year-old dinner companion to request it. “Haben sie butter?” we instructed her to say. “Do you have butter?”

Nervously, she approached the bar. The waiter, absorbed in polishing wine glasses, eventually turned around. He leaned very solemnly down to her level.

“Butter?” she asked.

The waiter looked back at us – we sat watching our butter emissary intently – and then back down at her. His look was inscrutable.

“Very well,” he said, in a clipped German accent. “Sit. Butter will come.”

She resumed her seat, and the rest of us waited expectantly. From my vantage point, I could observe his actions. In an operation which took between 10 and 15 minutes, he retrieved a large, bread-pan-sized loaf of butter from behind the counter. He studied this intently for a few moments, and eventually selected a knife from the array hanging behind the counter. He studied his knife, and then looked down at the butter appraisingly. He nodded, satisfied.

When all else fails...
When all else fails…

He then approached the plate of butter warily. Gripping the knife, he proceeded to shave a small cube out of the centre of it. He set aside the remaining – bulk – butter cast-offs. Then he transferred the small cube of butter to another dish. He returned to his set of knives, and selected another one. Then he proceeded to shave the small cube of butter down further.

Although awed by the procedure, I was, by this point, also no longer giving it my full attention. I was caught up in conversation with my breakfast companions, and watching the activity in the square outside. Occasionally I glanced back at the waiter, still working with surgical precision upon his (perhaps someday ours?) square of butter. When it seemed impossible that he could still be reducing its size without causing it entirely to disappear into another (grated) dimension, I noticed his movements had now shifted.
He was garnishing it.

Yes, he was chopping – and then sprinkling – some form of green herb over what remained of the butter cubelet.

Awe-inspired, I had to look away, lest he take it as encouragement to deploy further artistic license upon our butter.

Finally, at long last, the waiter approached. Upon the small plate he carried lovingly in one arm, sat our tiny cube of butter (by this point no larger, really, than the little packets one receives at a restaurant). This little cubelet, however, was garnished with some green herb, and by a loose drizzle of some form of oil around the sides of the plate.

The waiter set down the butter in the centre of the table. He looked at the butter, and then – not quite speaking at us, but rather with a thoughtful and reflective sidelong glance – he proclaimed in a low and reverential tone of voice, and perhaps to no one in particular:

“Butter.”

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