Dec 12, 2014

Spice of Life: Brebis au Piment d'Espelette


It's Faujita night at our house. That's not a typo: it's Faux-jitas. Fajitas, made in a Parisian kitchen with Parisian ingredients, that is. Not to toot my own horn, but I do a bang-up job, and it's one of our family's single favorite home-made meals. Especially here in France, where we are starved for spice.

If I were living in France twenty, maybe even ten years ago, the Faujitas would have been even more faux: crêpes instead of tortillas. White beans instead of black beans. Chopped tomatoes instead of salsa. And you could probably have just given up entirely on the idea of avocado or Tabasco sauce. But either French taste buds have evolved or, more likely, the number of foreigners living in France has increased, because the larger grocery stores generally carry at least a few pseudo-Mexican ingredients, along with some pseudo-Asian ingredients.

But the one thing they all have in common, with each other and with the rest of the grocery store, is that they are mild. Even when they claim to be spicy. The only people who could find them spicy are a) my dad, b) young children raised without access to spicy food, and c) the French. So when our children sometimes cry "Ça pique!" ("That's spicy", but more literally "That stings!"), Anthony and I look at each other searchingly: "Do you feel any heat?!" "No, do you?!"

And now, much to my chagrin, I have just discovered that the Monoprox has shrunk the shelf space for Mild El Paso brand salsa and replaced it with Extra Mild El Paso brand salsa, proudly advertising its complete and total lack of chili peppers and spice.

They boast its newness and show pictures of the ingredients: tomatoes and onions, basically. They call it "Dulce Salsa" -- "Sweet Salsa" and just in case all of this and the pictures of the crossed out chilis don't get the point across, they also describe it as a "sauce for appetizers made of cooked tomatoes, without spice." Basically, they've turned it into cold spaghetti sauce, or ketchup.

Thank Goodness I have found Tabasco at specialty shops, because it's the only way to put some zip back into the store-bought salsa. The canned black beans are an import-store item, though I can occasionally find dried black beans in French stores, if only I weren't generally too lazy or short-sighted to start soaking the beans the day before. For sour cream, we simply use crème fraiche or yogurt, and it tastes perfect.

If you're wondering what the hell this meal is, with this list of ingredients (I've just started putting sweet corn on the table, too), it's basically a make-your-own fajita/burrito thingy, with El Paso corn tortillas and a base of super-sautéed onions and peppers seasoned with lime and cumin. I usually sautée up chicken the same way, or sometimes tofu or tempeh. Having travelled a lot in Mexico, I can tell you that there is virtually nothing authentic tasting about these Faujitas (hence the Faux), but they are extremely delicious and vaguely reminiscent of Mexico in a sort of Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex, and now Pari-Mex way.

We just tried, for the first (and last?) time, a Mexican restaurant near us called Anahuacalli. On the Yelp reviews, one person who claims to be both authentically Mexican and a serious foodie describes it is some of the best and most authentic Mexican food he's ever had. After eating there ourselves, we're thinking he hasn't lived in Mexico for a reeeeeeaaaaally long time. Let's just put it this way: when Anthony asked me how my molé is, I reply "chocolaty". As in, they Frenchified the idea of it so that it's not a sauce with a hint of bitter cocoa, it's nearly melted chocolate fondue poured over my turkey. It isn't actually grotesque, but it's on the edge. The other dishes are similar: on the whole, they are mildly flavorful, sweeter than you'd expect, and not at all spicy. But not awful. Just not very Mexican.

Variety may be the spice of life, but the only variety the French seem to want is the non-spicy kind.

THE CHEESE: Brebis au Piment d'Espelette

The name says it all: Brebis au Piment d'Espelette -- sheep cheese with Espelette chili pepper. It's made from raw sheeps' milk, and of course pepper flakes.

I thank my lucky stars that the woman in the market gives me a sample of this orange-flecked cheese, because I find it verging on repulsive and am thrilled not to spend hard-earned money on a chunk that will be thrown away. This is third cheese I've tried flavored with Piment d'Espelette. It seems to be a regular gimmick here in France. That doesn't make it a good gimmick.

I've got a 66.66% failure rate going when it comes to piment espelette: I don't like this one, where the pepper flakes and flavor are evenly spread throughout the entire cheese, making each bite a combination of hard, nutty, salty sheep cheese and spicy, acidic, chili pepper. If I had to choose, however, I think I would still take this one over the Chèvre Piment Espelette, with it's layer of chili paste in the midst of stinky cows' milk cheese. But above both of these, I would take the Chèvre au Piment Espelette, which is a lovely goat cheese (clearly the best choice for combining with chili. Don't ask me why. It just is) coated with a very beautiful and appropriately mild version of the pepper. This is the only chili-cheese combo I would eat voluntarily, unless we're talking about a bowl of chili sprinkled with Cheddar....now that's how you mix chili and cheese, folks.


So, let me get this straight. French people cannot, in general, stand anything spicy, and every Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Mexican restaurant we visit is mild, mild, mild. The Monoprix has even downgraded the Mild El Paso brand salsa to Extra Mild, entirely and proudly 100% kick-free. And yet the French seem to put spicy espelette chilis quite readily in any kind of cheese, including dispersed throughout this hard sheep cheese. Cheese: the one food in which I would definitely prefer no chilis. Go figure.


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