Letter to a Lactose-Loving Exploress
Words by Claire Burkitt
You’re leaving behind your world for the first time, a world full of family, friends, and food that you know and love. You don’t realize yet how lonely you’ll be or how hard it will be to speak that foreign language amongst native speakers. You are young, and you are adventure-bound.
Amid the constant strain to understand and be understood, amid the new landscapes, new people, and new adventures, you’re going to fall in love. You will fall in love with the way a leaf lies on the asphalt and wooden beams of an old building. You’ll fall in love with someone’s laugh, and learn the value of an intimate whisper.
Most of all, though, you will fall in love with aligot (pronounced ah-li-go).
First you will note the ceremony behind this regional French dish; the pomp that goes into its preparation; the circumstance when it is served from a massive cauldron on a long, wooden paddle.
Your first bite will be magic. This is not just the cheesy mashed potatoes of your childhood. This is art. The cheese is added when the potatoes are at a certain temperature, so that it doesn’t fully melt. In this in-between stage, and combined with the mashed potatoes, aligot behaves like chewing gum. It has such a high viscosity, that it becomes difficult to separate out smaller portions
Thus, one or two men are required to carry the large pot while another two are required for serving the massive blob of cheesy potatoes. There is a great ceremony of folding and stretching in order to separate a manageable portion of aligot onto a plate. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon to receive massive portions.
And oh, the entertainment!
Most recipes call for garlic, and the tomme de savoie has a nutty flavor to it. Trying to eat it is just as entertaining as trying to serve it. The dish sticks to itself, and you will find yourself rolling your knife and fork over and over to get a piece free. But the garlic, nutty, creamy, potato-y glob will be exhilarating. It will stick to your ribs and fills you up, regrettably so, because you’ll feel as though you could eat aligot forever.
You’ll fall in love with it, because it is so weird and new, a scientific marvel, a culinary masterpiece. Whenever someone suggests aligot for dinner, you will wholeheartedly agree. What in the world could be better than viscous mashed potatoes? How divine. How fun. How delightful.
Back in America you will resent the impostor aligots of so-called French restaurants. Nothing will parallel the glee you feel upon seeing it on the menu of an untested restaurant. And nothing will console you from the devastation when it is merely mashed potatoes and cheese.
“This is NOT aligot,” you will declare to your friends who cannot conceptualize the splendor of the genuine experience. They will try to support you, but you will still feel like a snob.
Then one day, Exploress, you will regain hope. You will find the recipe that for years has evaded you. You will stumble upon the perfect cheese, and you will, scientifically and meticulously, recreate the dish from your travels.
Serves four generously
800 grams of potatoes (about a dozen medium)
600 grams of tome de savoie cheese (or any tomme cheese)
1 clove of garlic
50 grams butter
a heaping tablespoon of creme fraiche or 2 Tbs cream
salt to taste
Boil your potatoes in salted water until tender. While they are cooking, cut the cheese in small sticks or cubes. Drain the potatoes and either mash them or - even better - put them through a potato ricer. Return the potatoes to the pan you used to boil them and put them over a very low flame. Stir in the butter, pressed garlic clove and cream. Gradually add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon as you go. According to the more traditional recipes I've seen, you are supposed to make figure eights in the pot, but your pot might not be big enough for this to be effective. (I've heard the same thing said about stirring a fondue and take it with the same grain of salt!) Stir it. Draw the spoon up every once in a while to admire the long strings you are making.
Once you have incorporated all the cheese, taste for salt and pepper and serve immediately.
A few things to note: it is essential to keep the flame under the potatoes as low as possible while adding the cheese so that it will not separate. This did not happen to me, but I read this advice in several of the recipes I consulted and it sounds intelligent. You need some heat to keep the potatoes warm enough to melt the cheese, but you should not be "cooking" anything at this point.
I would also play with adding an extra clove of garlic next time. I am always leary of overdoing the garlic when it is raw, but the potatoes are bland enough that you have some room for play here.