When I was 13 years old I spent three turbulent months spun about in a maelstrom of foreign language and culture during a student exchange in Strasbourg. At the best of times my life was a leaky boat, and I was manning an unresponsive helm that seemed pointed all the way opposite of adulthood. But this journey into waters I couldn’t recognise let alone understand was terrifying. The most excruciating hour of each long week came during my English class, when a foul-tempered and foul-smelling Alsatian bulldog of a woman would seize those sixty minutes to ritually mock my
rather prodigious vocabulary and accent. In my mother tongue. The melodious Canuck diphthong raising turned her normally beast-like demeanour into something far, far worse, to the point where she beckoned the entire class to “properly” pronounce words like “house” and “about” over and over again as I sat, aghast. This is why I take such wicked pleasure in the sacrilegious decoration of her beloved tarte flambée (or flammekueche) with anything other than the officially recognised toppings, onions and lardons. I would love to see that self-congratulatory French pit viper choke on one of these. Take that, eh!
This dish is a specialty of the Alsace region in France, and is quite simple in its preparation and adornments. In France, fromage blanc and/or crème fraiche are normally used as the basis of the pizza-like meal, but that can be a bit tough to find if you are living overseas. In Quebec we can find fromage frais (quark) that is almost exactly identical to fromage blanc. The only difference is whether the cheese carries live (fromage frais) or inactive (fromage blanc) bacterial cultures.
Tarte Flambée (Flammekueche) with Brandy Poached Pears
4 balls of pizza dough (such as the Belgian Beer-Based Pizza Dough)
250 g lardons (substitute for coarsely chopped bacon)
1 large white onion (finely sliced, lengthways)
500 g quark (fromage frais)
250 g crème fraiche
2 tsp icing sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
2 firm pears (such as Abate)
200 mL water
100 mL brandy
150 g white sugar
1/2 stick of vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp lemon juice
I wouldn’t imagine that your freezer is eternally stocked with a variety of ready-to-thaw balls of pizza dough, but in the off chance that it is you can save yourself some time by throwing one in the fridge the day before you plan to make the tarte flambée. If you aren’t one of these pizza-obsessed individuals (such as myself) then I leave it up to you to decide whether you want to try to make your own dough from scratch or find some suitable alternative. When I can’t be
assed troubled to prepare fresh pizza dough I often pick up some naan bread and use that instead. If you have never tried it you are in for a treat, because it works surprisingly well for this, and many other types of, pizza recipe. You end up with something thicker and spongier than the original, but by no means less delicious. I have heard of people substituting fromage frais for ricotta, but I can guarantee you right now you aren’t getting a similar product. Ricotta is a whey cheese made mainly from the milk proteins β-lactoglobulin and α-lactalbumin, while the overwhelming majority of cheeses are mostly comprised of milk casein. A much better substitute for fromage frais would be well blended cottage cheese or even high fat Greek yoghurt. Once you have decided upon your bread and cheese base you are ready to begin.
Start by combining the quark (or substitute), crème fraiche, olive oil, grated nutmeg, powdered sugar, salt, and pepper in a medium-sized bowl. Mix well and set aside, covered, at room temperature. Now slice the pears in half and place flesh-side down in a wide, deep saucepan with the water, lemon juice, white sugar, brandy, and vanilla. The lemon juice will help suppress enzymatic browning and keep the pears looking fresh. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer on low for 30 minutes. When done, remove from heat and place the pears in a deep plate, covered by the poaching liquid. Allow to cool to room temperature.
While the pears are poaching, cook the lardons in a large skillet on medium-high heat. The high heat will guarantee that the Maillard reaction is well underway, giving a delicious aroma and colour. When well browned, remove the meat with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl lined with paper towel that will soak up the excess fat. Not that we hate fat. Not at all, because we will now lower the heat to low-medium and slowly cook the finely sliced onions until translucent. Remove and set aside.
Prepare a working space with your pizza dough, naan bread, or other starchy disc. Carefully apply a coat of cheese mixture, taking care not to break the dough. This is much easier if you have left the cheese at room temperature and it has softened slightly. Finish with slices of poached pear, cooked onions, and lardons. If you are using pizza dough, then cook following the instructions on my post for the Belgian Beer-Based Pizza Dough. Otherwise, place on a middle rack of the oven at 400ºC for 5-8 minutes, or until just beginning to brown.
Is this an insult to the Gallic people, or a savvy take on a regional classic?