Sunday, February 26, 2006

chez les Nordiques, pt. 1

icicles, Mount Royal

With not one but two tests currently underway at " endless banquet" it's starting to be like Canada's Test Kitchen around here or something. Okay, not exactly, but this time of year that's the rhythm a lot of us get into in this part of the world: a lot more experimentation in the kitchen, a lot more staying in and reading--that kind of thing.

Now, speaking of northern climes and life in the Hyperborean Metropolis--as Montreal used to proudly hail itself--coverage of Montreal often focuses attention on how "European" Montreal is. Gourmet's new special issue on Montreal, with one of its coverlines boldly proclaiming that Montreal is "North America's Most European City," is just the latest and most high-profile example. Oftentimes, however, such descriptions of Montreal and its European-ness are merely an almost knee-jerk reaction to things like the city's linguistic landscape, its overwhelmingly Catholic past, what remains of its stone architecture in the vicinity of the Old Port, and its high proportion of French restaurants, and what people fail to see is just how profoundly North American Montreal is. Of course, people have tended to have a similar reaction to New Orleans over the years, and in both cases this sense of European-ness is based on a failure to understand that the history of New France wasn't exactly a simple blip on the North American timeline. Montreal does have a lot of French restaurants--that's obvious--but as Gourmet rightly pointed out, the best of the lot draw from a vision that is at once global in outlook and passionately local, a vision certainly inspired by France, but one that is proudly North American (with an emphasis on the "North," perhaps). They're not museum pieces, they're not French restaurants in the generic sense (although there are certainly plenty of those around here as there are in most cities of the size and "sophistication" of Montreal), they're restaurants that are very much alive and are contributing to an ever-expanding sense of what cuisine--both French and North American--might mean. And while Gourmet didn't exactly dwell on Montreal's winters--it's pretty clear that the issue was drawn up and produced in the summer and fall of last year--its "Let it Snow" feature managed to capture the region's essentially Nordic character, something that profiles of the city generally overlook or elide (depending on whether they're produced by out-of-towners or locals). If the notion of terroir is crucial to understanding a region's cuisine, as the French certainly believe, than the Montreal region's unique terroir helps one understand how and why the culture here is distinctive, and why it's so different from that of France. In other words, Montreal's most European qualities might not actually be where people see them.

A case in point: gravlax.

gravlax with roasted potatoes at Reservoir

As Alan Davidson has outlined, gravlax originated in Sweden in medieval times. The first references to the dish come in the way of surnames and are based on the Scandinavian custom of naming someone according to their profession or métier. The name itself combines the Swedish word for salmon with a word signifying burial, indicating the traditional manner used in the production of gravlax. Thus, records for one Olafuer Gravlax who lived in Jämtland back in 1348 suggest that gravlax was being manufactured in that region according to tradition--which involved burying the salmon, or other fish, in barrels or in holes in the ground, then letting it ferment--at least as far back as the mid-14th century. There were essentially two varieties of gravlax--one which was allowed to ferment for a matter of days, while the other was cured for months. The terms gravlax and surlax appear to have been interchangeable for both types, although "sour salmon" appears to have been the more appropriate descriptor for the long-cured variety. Of course, the modern process for making gravlax is much simpler and much less involved than either the short-cure or long-cure versions that were traditional--burial is unnecessary, and you need only cold-cure the salmon, or other fish, for 24-36 hours to get a good result.

Now, the fact that gravlax has become a featured item on menus around town [the photo above features a gravlax plate I recently had at Reservoir that consisted of Zubrowka-cured salmon, roasted potatoes, fresh greens, and Zubrowka-laced sour cream, just one of the many reasons we feel Reservoir is the city's best brunch spot at the moment], is not exactly unprecedented within the current North American dining scene. Gravlax has been having a bit of a revival among North America's top chefs in recent years, largely because of the freedom the dish affords--as the website for the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C. puts it, somewhat stiffly, "Gravlax... gives plenty of choices to follow your own preference of flavors... Have fun with it." The difference here is that salmon is native to the region and has been a staple ever since the region was first settled (in fact, salmon is certainly one of the reasons the region was settled in the first place), and that, similarly, the curing of salmon has been an important part of the culture here for hundreds and hundreds of years, long before Cartier charted the St. Lawrence. In other words, gravlax may not be native to the region--although, who knows, the Iroquois Nation may very well have had their own version of gravlax in addition to the smoked and wind-dried forms of curing they were using--but it fits in well with the local culture for exactly the same reasons that it took hold in the Scandinavian world. What makes things interesting is that this parallel culture of salmon fishing and salmon curing was first developed through the interaction (I'm being diplomatic) of non-Northern Europeans with indigenous peoples.

With all of this mind, I set about starting to experiment with gravlax myself just the other day. Inspired by my friend Caro's father's gravlax, and by Davidson's claim that "the preparation of gravlax is customarily one of the household duties allocated to men," I'd been wanting to try my hand at making some for quite some time. I also wanted to develop a recipe that would finally make good my Maldon salt promise. The results? You'll just have to be patient. I'm working on a 48-60 hour curing period.


Note: the icicles photograph at the top wasn't taken this weekend, but it could have been.

1 comment:

Pudding Chômeur said...


I really like your blog. I have one of my own in french called "Pudding Chômeur".

Check it out !

We should do a meeting of food blogger sometime in Montreal !