“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, where you can enjoy the huge terrace and tuck into their super ice creams while you watch the barges slide past). A recent offering (pictured) 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. Recently spotted too on the menu of the Café Littéraire in Saint Louis (just added them to my Eating Out Alsace/Basel/Baden page): the chef’s burger made from prime Angus beef.
And then there’s always the DIY 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, a human bean behind the counter selects a juicy, recognisably beefy piece of meat for my inspection. Then she smacks it on the counter, cuts it in manageable pieces and posts 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, or 4 slices sourdough bread
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. [You could do this in a food processor, but use the plastic blade not the metal one, which will reduce the meat to a purée.]
- Using wet hands, shape the beef into burgers of the desired size – I like to make 4 with this amount of meat. Keep them good and plump (if you want mean little thin ones, you know where to go), around 1.5cm thick and about 9 cms in diameter. Set them on a plate, cover with clingfilm 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 3-4 minutes on each side – watch the sides of the burgers and you can see how the cooking is progressing. Flip them over and cook the second side. Lift them out onto a plate and let them rest for a few minutes.
- Split bread buns in half – you can toast them lightly if you want, but good, characterful buns probably won’t need it. Spread the bottom halves, or the sourdough slices, 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.