Eric Bergeson: Tuile, madeira, lutefisk — accidents happen
You know how when you bake a pizza and some of the cheese falls off and gets burnt to the tray and how if you scrape the burnt cheese off it is the best part?
Well, French chefs create that burnt cheese deliberately.
They sprinkle grated cheese on a pan with a little butter and take a propane torch to it until it gets nice and burnt.
Then they scrape the burnt stuff off in the form of hard little crackers which they use to garnish other dishes.
The result is “tuile,” (pronounced “tweel”) which is a French word for “shingle.”
I first experienced tuile last week at the HoDo restaurant in Fargo when I ordered carrot cake.
In this case, the cake came with what looked like a piece of crumpled cellophane on top.
When I sampled the cellophane, it brought back a memory of childhood, a memory so specific that I had to sit there and look at the ceiling for a while to identify it.
The tuile was made of sugar burnt by a torch and scraped off in crinkled little caramelized chips.
And it brought back a memory, if only I could think of what memory.
Was it of the burnt sugar on the edge of the pan when neighbor Mildred made caramel rolls? I was getting close, but that wasn’t it.
Neighbors. Childhood. Burnt sugar. It was a pleasant memory. In the fall. A special event or something.
I sat at the HoDo bar, ignoring the carrot cake, savoring the tuile, staring at the ceiling, paging through the folds of my brain.
Boom! I had it. The tuile was the exact flavor of neighbor Mabel Nelson’s popcorn balls, which she made only for Halloween.
Last time I ate one was Halloween of 1976, a few months before Mabel passed away.
Every now and then as you worked your way through Mabel’s popcorn balls, you would come across a spot of burnt sugar and that was the highlight of the whole thing.
I can imagine the blank stare I would have gotten from dear old Mabel if I had told her I liked her tuile.
If I watched those food shows on cable, I probably would have known all about tuile already.
As it was, I called the pastry chef out at the HoDo and asked her how she made the tuile.
Armed with the correct spelling, I took out my phone and looked tuile up on Wikipedia.
Mabel Nelson did not invent tuile, nor did she get credit for her popcorn balls, but it was good to know that I sampled tuile 37 years before it appeared at the HoDo.
Many great foods are the product of accidents, which somebody tasted and liked enough to recreate the accident.
Thomas Jefferson’s favorite libation, madeira, was discovered after several casks of wine sat in the hold of a Portuguese ship for well over a year as the ship trolled the tropics.
When the ship got back into port, somebody actually tasted the wine, which should have been destroyed by the heat of the tropics, and found that, wow, it had a unique flavor. And a bit of a kick!
So, a wine maker on the Madeira Islands went about recreating the process without putting the wine in the hold of a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies.
The casks spent a few months out in the sun, which isn’t where casks of wine are supposed to be, and got swished around on a daily basis, as they would on a ship.
The result was pleasing, at least to Thomas Jefferson, who ordered case after case of the stuff.
People who eat tuile, drink madeira and enjoy the stories behind them are called “foodies” today.
They watch those food shows on cable TV, shows I can’t stand because you can’t taste what they make.
What’s worse, they turn these food shows into a competition where some poor girl gets mocked to tears if her tuile isn’t just right. I can’t stand it!
Mabel Nelson wasn’t a foodie, and neither is the college student who goes after the cheese that fell off the late night frozen pizza and got burnt.
But that’s how most gourmet foods get invented: Accidents deliberately repeated.
The results don’t always serve the public good.
That Norwegian king somebody tried to poison by putting lye in his cod fish? He should have just died.
Instead, he loved the stuff and now we have vats of codfish rotting throughout the Upper Midwest, getting smellier and slimier just in time for fall church dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Uff da. I’ll take the tuile.