Friday, June 24, 2005

Caramel-icious in Any Language!

The city of Honfleur, in France's Normandy region, is known for its picturesque charm. A fishing town, port and former shipbuilding center, its wooden buildings cluster around a sparkling basin in its center. Even the fascinating historic church is constructed of wood and resembles the upside-down hull of a ship.

As we followed our tour guide, Marina (in retrospect, I realized what an appropriate name she had for that location), through narrow streets, we peered into shop windows, anxious to catch glimpses of treasures soon to be unearthed. “As you stroll around on your own later, you may want to come back to this shop,” she said, eyes twinkling. “They sell milk jam here!”

The anticipated twitter of tourist voices greeted that remark. “Milk jam?” we chorused. Some of us, especially the lactose-inclined, purred, “mmmm, that sounds lovely.” Others, simply more skeptical, or perhaps less lactic by nature, wrinkled their sunburned noses and said “ewwwww” in response.

Marina assured us that this mysterious product, a specialty of the Normandy region, was a highly-cherished condiment in the area. Those same Norman cows that produced rich, flavorful milk for delectable cheeses also produced rich, flavorful milk for this jam. We were already deeply in love with the cheeses, so she knew that she had scored a hit with that description.

This Ingredient Sleuth, of course, was fascinated and looked forward anxiously to the designated shopping time later in the day’s “jam-packed” (I can hear you groaning!) agenda. The small shop, just as Marina had said, was filled with compelling items. A quick scan, upon entry, confirmed that a floor-to-ceiling shelf, at the back of the shop, contained the special item. CONFITURE DE LAIT – milk jam!

CONFITURE is the French word for “jam” and LAIT is the French word for “milk.” Yes, this was it. But then, another puzzle developed. Not only was there milk jam, there was milk jam of many descriptions – all in French, of course. The Ingredient Sleuth does speak a fair amount of French, so interpreting the contents of each variety was not a problem. The problem resided, rather, in that tastebud-wrenching decision of the single variety upon which to confer the honor of consuming valuable suitcase space!

Eyes scanned pretty glass jars, each with a large, descriptive label. And from each description, a different flavor beckoned: hazelnut (noisette), vanilla (vanille), apple (pomme), rum (rhum), orange (orange – sometimes language is kind!), cinnamon (cannelle) and many more. My forehead produced those furrows that so characteristically accompany culinary decision-making. Clearly, I was troubled.

“Bonjour, Madame. Do you speak English?” I turned to meet the friendly smile of a young man in his early twenties. He quickly explained that he was a customer, not a clerk, but that he noticed my interest in the milk jams and wanted to be sure that I found what I wanted. He reiterated Marina’s statements about local pride in this Norman specialty. He lived in Normandy and was eager to explain that milk jam is simply a cooking-reduced combination of milk and sugar, sometimes with additional flavoring ingredients, sometimes plain. The light bulb went off in my brain. Of course everyone loved this. Essentially, we were talking about milk-based caramel!

My selection, after much musing and several reconsiderations, was the hazelnut variety. The considerate young man seemed to favor that one and it was a pleasure to see his face light up when I made that choice. I could easily have caved in and bought others, undoubtedly, but just at that stage, the wide-ranging local-honeys display caught my eye and suitcase considerations prevailed!

The single jar of hazelnut milk jam accomplished its mission, though. I now adore milk jam and consider Normandy a region of exquisite culinary delights. The words that I had heard about Norman cows feeding on particularly-sweet, organic grasses, thus producing particularly-flavorful milk products, rang true.

Like many dessert and sweet items in France, confiture de lait is less highly-sweetened than similar North American treats. The full-bodied flavor of the milk itself seems to demand less sweetening. The milk jam’s consistency is firm enough to allow a teaspoon to stand upright in the jar but creamy enough to allow for creative dipping.

The list of contents is short and wonderful: whole milk, sugar and other natural flavors. Absent from the list are thickening agents, preservatives and coloring agents. The milk’s protein and calcium, as well as natural mineral salts, constitute the nutritional profile. Nutritious and delicious -- with a rich, golden color straight from nature's color palette!

People in Normandy typically eat milk jam as a topping for ice cream, pancakes, toasted bread, yogurt or even young cheese. I tried those, and they were all excellent. Throwing caution to the wind, I quickly progressed to the use of walnut halves, apple slices and pretzel sticks as dipping items. And then, of course, there WAS the day that the dark chocolate squares found their way to the milk jam jar …….. That was the day that the jar was emptied!

Milk jam cam be purchased throughout Normandy and, of course, in Paris (which wisely offers and employs the very best of ingredients from all of France's regions). After a fair number of perusals of U.S. markets and specialty stores, I have not yet found French-style, all-natural, milk jam available. Reluctant to turn to Internet sources on this ingredient (those jam-filled jars ARE quite heavy, as a shipping item), and not yet completely confident that I have found a good, equivalent recipe for milk jam, I have discovered one item that is similar.

Dulce de Leche (Spanish for candy of milk!) is a thick, caramel paste that can be found in the foreign-foods or baking-ingredients aisles of some supermarkets (particularly in areas which have significant Hispanic populations). The Spanish, like the French, knew a good thing when they created it and caramel, in any geography, is a winner.

This canned version of dulce de leche (the one pictured above is made in Chile) seems to be available only in the basic, caramel flavor. It is made with milk, sugar and agar (a seaweed-derived thickening agent) and contains preservative agents. Slightly thicker, and significantly sweeter than confiture de lait, this dulce de leche nevertheless satisfies those cravings for a convenient topping that will be similarly caramel-icious in any language!

Bon appetit – and buen apetito!


kristi said...

This sounds delicious! Mom is determined to find a recipe and we will let you know if she comes up with something good!

marc said...

So THAT'S why dulche de leche ice cream tastes to much like carmel!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful to read about Normandy and its special milk products and it's pretty towns ... The weather is very hot in Europe right now and Normandy always brings cooler thoughts ... Thinking of it's fresh & green meadows ... I buy some confiture de lait every time that I visit. Gabriella

carolyn said...

Milk jam sounds lovely. If it is at all like the cheeses from Normandy it HAS TO BE GOOD!!!!

marc&terri said...

We heard about milk jam when we were in Normandy too. Saw it at an outdoor market, probably in Louvier, and were tempted to buy it and then didn't. Now we wish that we would have, after reading what you have to say about it. Next time! It sounds great.

Pat R said...

I thought that I'd tried every jam known to man but this is one I missed ..... And it sounds very delicious so I'm sure I'd like it ..... Thx!

Auntie M in Paris said...

Confiture de lait is absolutely delicious -- on fruit, on bread. It's a wonderful find. In fact, it took me two years of living in France before I found this wonderful food item. Thanks for the great post on this great spread

bill said...

My mouth is watering already! WE are planning a trip to Paris, Provence and Normandy in late summer and we now have a must-find item on our shopping list!!!! Thanks for the great info, as always. Bill

Anonymous said...

Loving the idea of a lower-sugar version of dulce de leche! Wouldn't you just know that the French had it all along? I think I'd even be happy to pay for expensive shipping rates!!!

marianne said...

I think that I might have had this as a filling for a crepe in Paris ... it was delicious ... glad to know what it is.