Les Burgers à la française

“Shock is the reaction of some people…who learn that real French people living in France eat hamburgers” wrote Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961. Not any more. Burgers are big hereabouts – according to a recent article in Business Insider, France is McDonald’s “most profitable country outside the US. Sales were up 4.8% through the first seven months of the year, and CEO Jean-Pierre Petit, who is rounding his 10th year as McDonald’s France’s CEO, has said 2014 will be its greatest absolute sales year ever. In 2013 sales reached 4.46 billion euros.”

That’s a heck a lot of burgers. But while McDo (as the French familiarly refer to it) is right up there on quantity, their burgers leave loads to be desired on quality (and don’t even get me started on those flabby, sweet buns, designed for folks with no teeth and no taste). For a quality burger, say the purists, you need to seek out one of those high-end jobs, of the kind sold out of trendy trucks on the streets of Paris.

Now I love a good burger better than the next woman, but it’s a bit far for me (even with the TGV) to travel from Alsace to Paris in search of a good’un. But – to my delight – I’m finding that more and more brasseries and bistros in our ‘hood are offering decent burgers – viz the admirable Piste du Rhin right on the river between Huningue and Village-Neuf (cool place in summer btw, when you can lounge on the bank on deckchairs, tuck into their super ice creams and watch the barges sliding past). A recent offering (below) featured succulent juicy meat (with provenance declared) trapped inside a seriously good, sesame-speckled bun (from the bakers in Huningue) with loads of pickly/crunchy/saucy stuff and a terrific salad besides.1-4-20150222_142705

[I’m also dying to sample the ones sold out of a jolly little caravan called Mrs Burger (I like that she’s a missus), which is parked outside the back entrance to Basel’s railway station and staffed by Charlotte and Julien. Watch this space – and if you get there before I do, please report.]

And then there’s always the home-made option. Whenever I feel a burger coming on, I trot down to our friendly neighbourhood butcher (yes, we still have one) and ask for boeuf haché (ground beef). Instead of proffering a plastic-wrapped, mechanically-shaped meat patty, the person behind the counter selects a juicy, recognisably beefy piece of meat for my inspection. Then they smack it on the counter, cut it in manageable pieces and post the pieces into the jaws of the chopping/grinding machine. Out onto a folded sheet of waxed paper comes a small mound of my own personally extruded ground meat, all set for burgerland. All I need now is a decent bun from the bakers (we still have those round here too) and I’m sorted.

Here’s how I do my burgers à la française – following Julia’s recipe, of course.

For 4 burgers

1 shallot, finely chopped
500g freshly ground beef
salt and pepper
a pinch of herbes de Provence
25g butter, cut in cubes and left out on the counter to soften 
1 egg, lightly beaten
25g butter + 1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tasty, flattish bread buns or baps
Garnishes: lettuce, onion rings, pickles, sliced tomatoes
Sauces: mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise…

  • Place the ground beef in a large bowl, season to taste with salt and pepper and add the herbs. Mix well with your hands, then add the softened butter and egg and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon till thoroughly mixed and you can’t see any flecks of butter.
  • Using wet hands, shape the beef into burgers of the desired size – I like to make 4 with this amount of meat – and set them on a plate. Cover with film and keep in the fridge till needed.
  • When you’re ready to cook the burgers, heat the second butter and oil in a heavy frying pan till sizzling, drop in the burgers and cook for about 4-5 minutes on each side. Flip them over and cook the second side. Lift them out onto a plate and let them rest for a few minutes.
  • Split the bread buns in half (you can toast them lightly if you want, but good, characterful buns shouldn’t need it), spread the bottom halves with mustard/mayonnaise/ketchup (whatever floats your boat), top with the burgers, finish with lettuce, pickles, sliced tomatoes, onion rings. Place the other halves of the buns on top and serve, with extra salad if wished.

Final note: opinions are sharply divided on whether burgers are better on the bbq or in the pan. There’s a strong current of opinion that favours pan-frying. If you cook burgers on the bbq you’ll get the great smoky flavour for sure, but the flat, even surface of a pan gives a better toasty crust and the burgers cook more evenly.Try them out both ways and suit yourself.




A Table Chez Marie, Hagenthal-le-Bas

1-20150122_132237As mentioned elsewhere on this site, there are loads of modest eateries in our frontier country of the Sundgau/Alsace and a handful of more ambitious ones farther afield, but all too few that occupy the middle ground – the kind that serve mildly aspirational food at approachable prices.

A Table chez Marie in Hagenthal-le-Bas is out there in that underpopulated middle ground. Though the restaurant’s address is Hagenthal-le-Bas, it’s actually about halfway between the village and Hegenheim. Remember the Hotel Jenny? The hotel no longer runs its own restaurant and has rented out the kitchen and dining rooms to the eponymous Marie, who in another life worked at the Au Violon brasserie in Basel. Continue reading

Unveiling the New Vintage of Vin Jaune

[A shorter version of this article appeared in FT Weekend, 14th February 2015]

The bishop of Saint Claude blesses the new season's vin jauneThe diocesan bishop of Saint-Claude in France’s Jura region stands facing his flock, which is packed sardine-style into the tiny twelfth-century church of Montigny-les-Arsures. Arrayed in a semi-circle behind him are members of the honourable company of Les Ambassadeurs des Vins Jaunes, resplendent in primrose-yellow robes and floppy fur-edged hats. In front of the altar sits a small wine barrel, awaiting benediction.

1-62-IMG_1385After a spirited sermon in which he draws elegant parallels between the qualities needed to make good wine and those required of a fine upstanding Christian, the bishop blesses the barrel. It is then hoisted onto the shoulders of some strapping young vignerons and carried through the streets to the chateau of Montigny, where beneath fluttering snowflakes a huge crowd huddled under hoods and umbrellas listens – with only occasional heckling – to a series of lengthy speeches. Finally the barrel is ceremonially broached, the wine bursts forth, glasses are waved wildly in the air and the festival is declared open. Continue reading

Carnival is in the Air (again)


Fasnachtskiechli or merveilles de carnaval

Around here in Basel, Alsace and Baden, Fasnacht or carnaval or Fasching (it all depends which country you’re in) is a big deal. You can tell carnival’s in the air when the houses sprout jolly carnivalesque figures on their roofs, and those gorgeous sugar-dusted, deep-fried wonders called Fasnachtskiechli or merveilles de Carnaval start popping up in the shops. Continue reading

February Bread & Pastry Workshops – Not One but Two

My bread and pastry workshop scheduled for Friday 13th February (my lucky day?) turned out to be such a hit that I’ve scheduled a second session, on Friday 20th February.  Let me know if you’d like to join us. We’ll start at 9.30 and finish at 1.30 on both days, and here’s how we’ll do it:
Bread dough can take any amount of pummelling, but pastry needs a light touch. In this workshop we’ll turn our hand[s] to both. First we’ll make bread dough and leave it to rise. Then we’ll get busy on shortcrust/pie crust and turn it into a range of pies and parcels. Finally we’ll shape and bake our daily bread. Lunch will be pastry-based goodies and there’ll be a home-baked loaf for all to take home.

Vin Jaune & Company – Exploring the Jura

[*a version of this article appears in the February 2015 issue of Decanter.]

Vineyards of Chateau-Chalon, Jura

Vineyards of Chateau-Chalon, home of vin jaune

If you’d asked anyone about France’s Jura region and its wines a couple of decades ago, chances are you’d have received a blank stare. A few enlightened souls might have muttered something about vin jaune, or dredged up memories of faded signs for Henri Maire’s vin fou, affixed to the sides of dilapidated barns in the remoter parts of rural France.

Fast-forward twenty years and the name Jura is on many lips. The wines are enjoying cult status on both sides of the Atlantic – marginally more so in the US than in the UK. Wine educator Wink Lorch, with impeccable timing, recently devoted a whole book to them entitled Jura Wine, which has received critical acclaim. Continue reading

Comfort Food – Toad in the Hole

1-8-IMG_0370A good toad-in-the-hole is perfect comfort food for the depths of winter. A soothing dish of sausages baked in batter — the same as for Yorkshire puddings — it’s a distant cousin of pigs in a blanket, only that the sausages, instead of being tightly swathed in a blanket of pastry, are reclining in a delicious duvet of batter, which billows up agreeably around them. Get the full story here, on Zester Daily.

Eating Out 2014 – Highs and Lows

IMG_5818When I’m faced with the choice of whether to eat in or out, it’s usually eating in that wins. I love poring over books, planning a meal (maybe testing out something for an upcoming workshop), buying it (especially if this includes a visit to Saint Louis or Loerrach market), cooking it up in my azure-blue Alsace kitchen and enjoying it in the comfort of my own home – with wines selected from our own cellar. I even have a SO who takes care of the bits of washing up that won’t go in the dishwasher. What’s not to like? Continue reading

Workshops for 2015

The autumn schedule took us from Sicily in September to the Middle East in October and then back closer to home again in November with a foretaste of new recipes to be featured in the possible re-edition of my book A Taste of Switzerland.

Time now to look forward to the 2015 schedule, which I’ve had fun putting together with loads of help and input/requests from regular customers (thanks to all!):

Friday 13 February – Bread and Pastry, 9.30 – 1.30
breadclass3Bread dough can take any amount of pummelling, but pastry needs a light touch. In this workshop we’ll turn our hand[s] to both. First we’ll make bread dough and leave it to rise. Then we’ll get busy on shortcrust/pie crust and turn it into a range of pies and parcels. Finally we’ll shape and bake our daily bread. Lunch will be pastry-based goodies and there’ll be a home-baked loaf for all to take home.

Spring vegetables in an Italian marketThursday 16 April – Vegetable Fusion, 9.30 – 1.30
In this all-veggie workshop we’ll look to both Asia and Latin America for our inspiration, but the raw materials for our menu of light, bright, flavour-packed starters, main courses and sides will be seasonal and local with a definite spring (ahem) in their step.


Thursday 7 May – Fishy Fix, 9.30 – 1.30
1-3-20140901_114325Stumped for what to buy when faced with an array of fish and seafood, and fearful of what to do with it when you get it home? This workshop takes us to the fish counter of a supermarket in France on Wednesday 6 May (venue to be communicated) to see, select and buy. On Thursday 7 May we’ll fix a fish and seafood menu with spring vegetables.

IMG_2921Thursday 4 June – Summer Sharing Buffet, 9.30 – 1.30
Tapas, raciones, buffet riche, apéro dinatoire, sharing plates…whatever you call this kind of food, the grazing, mix ‘n match model is all the rage. For our summer workshop we’ll cruise around the Mediterranean selecting an eclectic bunch of delicious morsels to share on your buffet table.

All workshops take place in my kitchen just across the border from Basel in Alsace/France. Seasonal, sustainable, creative, eclectic and hands-on, they culminate in a shared meal (table d’hote) around the dining room table (or on the terrace, weather permitting) with wines to match.

Full details on my Workshops page.

Seeya in 2015!

Kugelhopf Bread & Butter Pudding with Dark Chocolate and Marmalade

1-8-IMG_1330Anyone got a panettone, kugelhopf or any other soft, slightly sweet, yeasty bread hanging around at home awaiting its post-Christmas moment? A few weeks ago Jamie Oliver wheeled out a wicked-looking bread and butter pudding featuring panettone, dark chocolate, marmalade, cream, butter, milk and loads of brown sugar. I’m not much good on rich, calorie-laden nursery puddings but – as ever – he made the dish sound completely irresistible and mildly bonkers (his title is in fact Bonkers Bread & Butter Panettone Pudding). I filed away the idea for a snowy day.

Yesterday, after a fabulously frosty/sunny New Year’s Day walk, its moment came. I tried a version using kugelhopf, broadly similar to panettone but less sweet – and also easier to find here in Alsace. Continue reading