24 March 2013

No potato famine here

I don't know why my Anglo-Irish ancestors — named Willis, Daniels, Gaskins, Miller, etc. — crossed the Atlantic, but most of them were already in North America (or even North Carolina) by the time the great potato famine raged in the Old Country. They didn't have to live through that, and we aren't having any potato famine around here either.

Gratin dauphinois — scalloped potatoes with milk, cream, cheese, garlic, and nutmeg

Not since I bought that 10-kg bag of Caesar potatoes, especially. The Caesar potato was developed 20 years ago in the Netherlands, apparently (though the British might take credit too). Over the past week, we've had mashed potatoes and leek and potato soup, as well as a batch of pommes frites that Walt made while our friend Luke was visiting. The frites were some of the best we've ever made at home, I thought, and were served along some of my "pulled" turkey barbecue, N.C.-style.

Yesterday I made what is called in France « un gratin dauphinois » — scalloped potatoes cooked in milk and cream with garlic, nutmeg, and (optionally) cheese. The Caesar potatoes are not advertised as a good choice for a gratin (a casserole in Am. Eng.) but I can assure you they are delicious cooked that way. Because the potatoes, thinly sliced, don't get stirred during the cooking, they keep their shape and don't turn into puree. The milk and cream get absorbed and evaporate, leaving you with cheesy layers of good potato.

Dutch Caesar potatoes with French Comté cheese

I've blogged about gratin dauphinois before, so I won't repeat the recipe (click here). Some purists would say it shouldn't have any cheese in it. Cheese makes it into a gratin savoyard, they say, the Savoie being the region in the French Alps where a lot of cheeses are made. In the Dauphiné, next door, they don't make what we like to call "Swiss" cheeses. But never mind. Nearly all of the old French recipes, including Monique Maine's and Ginette Mathiot's, add cheese to the gratin dauphinois. Even the Larousse Gastronomique recipe calls for Gruyère cheese.

As the scalloped potato casserole was baking in the oven, releasing all those cheese and garlic smells into the kitchen, I happened to glance out the window. In a plum tree that's now covered in little white blossoms, I saw what looked like an apple on a branch. An apple? But then it moved, and I realized it was a bird. It turned out to be what is called « un bouvreuil pivoine » in French. Years ago, I lived on a street in Rouen (Normandy) called rampe Bouvreuil, and now I know what that street was named after.

Not a great photo, but at least I documented the appearance of our first bullfinch
Click or tap the picture to see it at a larger size.

At first, I thought it must be a European robin, which is a much smaller than the bird we call a robin in the U.S. The bird I was seeing was more the size of an American robin. I snapped a couple of pictures while Walt got out the bird books. In English, it's what we call a Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). We don't think we've ever seen one around here before. They're not uncommon in France, it seems, but they are certainly noticeable when you do see one.


  1. Ken, watch out for your fruit tree buds if you've got Bullfinches about... they used to devastate the Kentish orchards.

  2. Lovely bullfinch. I've only ever seen one from a distance.

    I notice that whenever I've seen daupinoise on the menu here it's been sans cheese. Either way it's a delicious way to have potatoes.

  3. We have bullfinches, chaffinches and green finches in our garden in the summer, they're such beautiful birds.
    We love dauphinois potatoes, the garlic and cream make them wonderful and I suspect the times we thought they were even more wonderful was because of the cheese.

  4. Jean and Susan, I can see why restaurants would make the gratin without cheese — it costs them less that way! Arguing over whether to put in cheese or not is like arguing over cheese in a quiche lorraine, or even lardons — I've known people from the Lorraine who swear only lard gras (fat meat) and not lean-meat lardons have a place in their quiches. And I think I shocked some people by putting carrots in my sauerkraut! Carrots in boeuf bourguignon or blanquette de veau are also controversial. First-world problems, I guess.

  5. Oh Tim, the bullfinch was in the neighbor's tree. His problem...

  6. Lol- first world problems!

    I would have loved to see a bullfinch like that one. I get pretty excited when I see a Tow hee in my yard. I don't mind sharing our figs with the birds when the time comes although taking the buds is sort of evil.

    Since we now have a Publix, I am going to splurge on some good cheese and try your recipe for dauphinois for Easter. I like the idea of starting it in the microwave to get it hot.

  7. Hello Ken,
    We also have a 10kg bag of Caesar's and were really impressed with their taste as 'frites' - I shall have to gratin dauphinois them next, thanks! The cheese debate - I do both, depending if we are have a monster plate of cheese after or not!!

  8. Anyway you cook it, that potato casserole would be delicious. :)

  9. Hi Ivan, I hope I'll be able to find Caesar potatoes again in the future. Take my word for it, they are good in a gratin. Cheese or not...

  10. I like the photo of the bird, but probably would have missed it entirely if you hadn't pointed it out.


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