The Wine Country Online

The third of four culinary adventures shared by Jack Burton in "Traditions," the quarterly newsletter of the Sonoma County Slow Food Convivium, as "Slowly Through Europe," taken from his travels abroad in the 1980s driving an old Renault with an old two-burner propoane stove aboard.

"Live and Learn"

One of us had spied the simple hand-lettered sign. We were on the road somewhere in Alsace and traveling aimlessly in the shadow of the Vosges. Our path had taken us through a little corner of Germany that seemed as French as the little French villages, with their darkly brooding churches seemed hauntingly Germanic.

The sign beckoned as we were motoring through a pretty river valley along a road crowded closely by a grand arch of trees. I pulled over and it was decided we had traveled enough for one day. The prospect of a little mid-summer stay on a French farm-hotel had us all thinking about washing up and preparing supper with a salad and vegetables right out of the garden.

Madame greeted us pleasantly and began her routine of showing us about. The farm was a typical European family arrangement with animals, and children, and chickens. There was a big kitchen garden. The gardens and pastures were particularly lush, and as our tour proceeded to the toilet facilities and cold water shower, Madame made a point of proudly showing off the property's ancient artesian well. The water flowed merrily out of a weather-beaten spring house into a pair of large stone cisterns. One of the receptacles was situated about a foot lower than the first so that the water cascaded through a low channel from one into the other.

Madame took great pains to explain that we were to take our drinking water from only the upper basin, and the lower basin was reserved for wash water and laundry. This all went down in Madame's work-a-day French, but seemed perfectly clear to me. I admired the simplicity of the system, the old stonework, and the fine little brook that formed from water flowing out of the lower basin to meander off through the pasture. The tiny sparkling brook put me in mind of trout, and fishing, and pan-crisp fried fish with cool, flinty Alsatian white wine . . . .

I do not know what my traveling companions were thinking about, but we would soon come to find out that one of them had not been paying much attention when Madame had been explaining the picturesque but archaic water system.

We spent a couple of days enjoying French farm life and the bounty of Madame's gardens. I discovered a way to fry the impeccably fresh local trout with bits of salt pork and tiny button mushrooms. We could have stayed on for days savoring this idyllic countryside as the local wines were delicious and the weather was lovely.

It all come abruptly to an end though as one of us fell quite dramatically ill. Our poor companion was at a loss to understand why it was only her in such a state when the three of us had all been eating the exact same meals. As the principal cook on our little expedition, I was nervously reviewing all the details of our encampment's kitchen setup and the ingredients I had been using. We all agreed the comfort of a good hotel and proximity to a doctor would be in our friend's best interest.

The cause of the illness might have forever remained a mystery had I not stopped to bid Monsieur adieu as we were driving off the property. The realization that she had misinterpreted Madame's drinking water instructions came to our friend with a small groan as she observed Monsieur at work in the lower stone water basin. He was energetically scrubbing the naked head of a recently slaughtered steer with a brush. Monsieur left the head to bob eerily in the lower basin as he came over to say goodbye. The clear water flowing from the upper basin caused the steer's head to do a lazy pirouette in the lower basin.

Our friend, who looked as if she was fixing to die in the back seat of our little Renault, did brighten somewhat at discovering the source of her intestinal distress.

"Live and learn," she said philosophically!

French Camping Trout
or Truites au Lard

1.  Clean and completely bone one small trout for each guest. Remove the dorsal fin but do not separate the filets and keep the head on (or not).
2.Prepare a nice pan of tiny button mushrooms sautéed in butter and seasoned simply with salt and black pepper.
3.Cut 2 oz. of salt pork per guest into small lardons and heat them gently in a large heavy pan until the fat runs.
4.Dust the trouts with flour, raise the heat and fry the fish with the bacon, perhaps 4 minutes per side, until they are nice and brown. (Add butter if the pan seems dry.)
5.Platter the trouts and scatter them with the lardons
6.Add 1 t. minced garlic per guest to the hot pan and sauté briefly but do not brown.
7.Remove the pan from the heat and add 2 t. red wine vinegar per guest. Give the pan a few good shakes while the vinegar sputters and pour it, foaming over the fish. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with the mushrooms, simple buttered potatoes or spaetzel and plenty of cool Riesling.
Bon appétit!