Posted March 8, 2013 at 6:10 pm
Fats – or should I say oils, butter and their brethren – have an unfortunate moniker. The word brings to mind something we in America spend a lot of time, money and energy trying not to be. At least that’s how I saw it as a teenage girl. I remember going over to friends’ homes and watching their mothers cook beautiful chicken soups and stews and refusing to eat them because the dishes had the sheen of oil on them. You couldn’t make me sit down to the most delicious plate of meatballs for all the hockey trophies in Minnesota! I don’t know where this phobia came from. My parents were healthy eaters, and though they usually cooked foods without tons of heavy sauces or butter, they never once brought up weight, looks, dieting or calories to us. Kudos to them – how wonderful not to be made self-conscious at such an impressionable age! I love my parents for that. Nonetheless, I still became the kid that only ate air-popped popcorn for dinner and drank diet soda (no M&M’s!) at friends’ sleepovers.
Ultimately, what I learned (thank goodness!) was that fats can be your friend and they can change your life. While at college in the city, I became friends with a young man who had already graduated and had taken a year off and studied at La Varenne cooking school in France. Back in New York, he spent most weekends cooking for his colleagues (and his several protégés), practicing over and over the incredible dishes he had learned abroad. I remember our first trip to Broadway’s Fairway Market one Saturday where I watched with eyes filled with shock and amazement as he selected only the best ingredients – French butter, wild morels — and paid (what seemed to me) astronomical sums of money for them. Fifty or seventy-five dollars for one bag of groceries seemed downright criminal during my college days where I survived on a regular diet of bagels, black coffee and (you guessed it) air-popped popcorn – around seventy dollars a week. During my last two years in school, I began to warm to the idea of spending a little extra for something special, especially if it meant that I would not be eating alone – that I could cook something surprising and enticing for friends. When I’d first arrived in New York, I remember thinking how sophisticated and international my new classmates were – so completely my opposite — but when we sat down over a spectacular goat cheese or a sweet arugula salad, we experienced a sort of fraternity I’d always dreamed of being a part of. Sometimes it was their first time trying a dish or ingredient, and I took such pleasure in seeing their faces light up in surprise.
I first became acquainted with real olive oil a few years after college. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that tasting it was like meeting the knight on horseback – a fairy tale – something that just couldn’t be true (lesson: don’t let anything allow you to become a cynic — the food world will happily cure you of that!). I was in Italy, at the home of Faith Heller Willinger, and she had – to my initial horror – poured a good couple tablespoons of syrupy green oil into my palm. This brought back all sort of high school nightmares – not only was the fat near me, it was actually on me! Talk about no escape. Were it not for the fellow foodies standing around me in the kitchen, I would have done what any true fat-phobe would have and discreetly washed it down the sink, perhaps washing down my name as a neophyte food writer as well.
So I jumped in – thinking, well, I’ll just consider these calories my breakfast. Suffice it to say that one taste was not enough. I asked Faith for more, then a little more, until it got to the point where I might have been outwearing my welcome. I would have gladly just eaten the oil – dunked in some Tuscan bread – for the next three days, breakfast, lunch and dinner. In that moment, my entire attitude, my gastronomic alliances shifted one hundred eighty degrees, and I never thought about calories or fat (in the “bad” way) again. This oil – perhaps pressed from Faith’s trees or from one of her neighbor’s – was like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was food, by God! Something essential, something beautiful. A gift. These days, it is common to hear words like complex, herbaceous, peppery, and green tossed around when describing good olive oil. But think back to when you experienced the real thing for the first time. Was it in Italy or the country of the oil’s origin? I hope so. If you’re anything like me, the flavor and experience rendered you speechless, the words used to describe them only coming later, simply a device through which to share the delicious memory.
Butter – real butter – and I met while abroad as well. I don’t know what it is exactly about eating these things in a foreign country, but it’s as if everything you thought you knew about them falls away and is reborn in the new experience. Perhaps it’s that if you taste something within its proper context, in the world in which it was created, a secret door is opened and you catch a gustatory glimpse of something original and true. These moments, at least for me, are utterly symphonic.
Not long after the Willinger experience, I found myself in Reims, France, at Chateau Les Crayeres where Gerard Boyer was chef. Our mission, along with my then writing partner, was to write a piece on an induction event at Vueve Clicquot, the nearby Champagne maker. We had flown overnight into Paris, arrived around 6 am, then jumped a train to Reims, arriving at the hotel an hour later. Needless to say, I was exhausted and in desperate need of a shower. Much about my arrival that morning is a blur now, but I will never forget stepping out of the bath covered in towels and answering an unexpected knock on the door. The hotel staff had taken the liberty of sending up some room service for my arrival. It was a simple breakfast of warm baguettes, croissants, jam, butter and some soft goat cheese, all of which – I was told — had been made on the premises. By that time, my feelings about fat had softened, thankfully, for I could actually smell the freshly churned gold in its little ramekin as it was wheeled in on a trolley. In fact, in that moment, it didn’t seem like butter to me at all. It was a thing I’d never known before. I stood like the humbled Grinch at the end of Seuss’s Christmas tale – in complete awe and, well, disbelief. How could I have been so mistaken about a thing? How long I have been missing out!
If ever there was a celestial moment in life, this was surely it for me: freshly bathed and cozying in a warm robe, sitting just inside a stone terrace overlooking spectacular English-style gardens, the sounds of morning coming alive all around, and holding closely, reverently, a piece of warm baguette layered with fresh butter, young goat cheese and the morning’s strawberry jam. Looking back, it seems the perfect Hollywood storyline: enemies who eventually become great lovers.
Nothing truer could be said of my relationship with these cornerstones of gastronomy. Consider trying a few simple tastings of great product as those mentioned here, or indulge in the following recipes. I defy anyone not to madly, truly, deeply fall in love with all that is oily, greasy, smear-y, delectable – once and for all.