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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Old favourites...?

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jeudi 1er novembre 2007 - Army style International Cooking.

Just the other day somebody asked me if I knew how to make things called “Roestlis”.

Stupid question, I know how to make anything in the kitchen, the only problem is having open and easy access to the ingredients necessary!

In this case, not too difficult, because a “Roestli” is the Swiss German word given to a simple dish made from potatoes and with or without onions, eggs, salt and pepper, together with any form of spice or herb one wishes.

The famous, well known ones, are savoury, with onions, garlic (optional), fried in goose or duck fat preferably, although butter can be used, as a sort of “open omelette” and served traditionally with Apple puree.

It can also be made as a dessert, without the onions, and using Yams (sweet potatoes), some sugar and the spices used in sweet dishes – garnished with comfiture or honey or chocolate sauce etc..

In both cases, the method is the same:

Peel potatoes or yams, grate them, slice the onions (if used) finely, add your condiments, and fry them, in the fat chosen, until the potatoes are cooked. Put them to one side to cool down, and beat your eggs as for an omelette (at this moment, you can add whatever else you wish, bacon, ham etc.. and mix it into the beaten eggs).

Now heat up a little fat in a non-stick pan (or an omelette pan, if you have one specially-which every cuisine should have!) and put the desired amount of cooked potato mixture in, just to heat a little, then pour over the desired amount of egg mixture, swill it around the pan, as for an omelette, and when the one side is browned (about 3 minutes) throw it (like a pancake) to turn it over. Pick up the bits from the floor and brown the 2nd side as well!


To serve, slide the “Roestli” onto a plate, and serve (if wished) with some apple puree on the side, or in the middle.

For the sweet ones, with yams, you can do exactly the same, without the onions, of course, and before service, spread the jam or honey or chocolate sauce over the “Roestli” or serve it apart.

The real name for these things (which are also used to accompany dishes) is actually German – “Kartoffelnpuffern” – (you can understand why the Swiss changed the name) and this brings me to the title of this article!

MDF Units.

In the 60’s. the British Army in Germany had dealings with various “anomalies” dating from the end of the War.

One of these things was called “MDP” Units, (Military Displaced Persons) and consisted of Poles, Czechs, Ukrainian etc displaced after the war, and the take over of their countries by the Russian forces.

Not wishing to stay under USSR rules, or finding themselves already in so called “Free” countries, they were now obliged to find ID Papers, employment and all the other things of life.

Since most of them were of military origins, and since the various Armies (British, American, French etc) needed people of their ilk, as translators, drivers, simple workers, guards etc.. etc… and since ID Papers, accommodation, employment etc., could all be done very quickly, a lot of them ended up in these “MDF” Units.

Probably a large percentage were nothing other than “slid-in” spies, but they weren’t really employed in anything very security orientated, so it didn’t really matter. Another high percentage of them were German Military Displaced Persons, mainly those who had a Nazi history behind them, but not sufficiently serious to put them up at Nuremberg, or into prison.

German was, in fact, their language used within MDP Units, since few of them spoke English at the beginning.

These Units had existed from towards the end of the War onwards, and by the time I had anything to do with them, in the mid/end 60’s, and again in the 80’s, they were well organized, with their own bars, canteens and all the rest, within the British Army barracks.

Since I was able to speak German, I was a sort of natural choice to have liaisons with them, at first in my capacities as a British Soldier, and then (in the 80’s) as a Cook/Chef (civilian) working for the British Army.

I often went for a couple of weeks or months to work in their canteens, and I always used their bars in preference to the warm beer of the British Army NAAFI canteens! The prices were the same, if not cheaper, and they had the same access to the duty free spirits etc., with the added advantage that they could get French and German cigarettes duty free as well, and not just English ones.

Here it was, in one of their canteens in Dortmund, W. Germany, that I had my first brush with “Kartoffelnpuffern”!

For some weird reason, this had become their favourite dish, and although it was on the menu at least twice a week, it was never enough, so I put it on as a “special” at every meal. Their ability to swallow down at least a dozen of these things at each sitting (before going on to the main course) was amazing to see, and they could get a bit nasty if they didn’t think I had made enough! A bit of knife waving (with the largest knife in the kitchen) normally sorted them out – but still!

Now – as a sort of “semi-military” Unit, they all had their ranks, right up to Captains and Majors, but after that, it was regular British Army Officers who had command!

This led to all sorts of competitions between the MDP Officers to try and get something original to please their British Commanding Generals etc., and what better than “British” food, when the General came with his Staff on a visit?

Generally, this happened every Christmas period, when they thought it was good form to supply the highly important visitors with a “British Christmas meal” – problem was that they didn’t have access to the things needed, like large turkeys, Brussels, chipolatas, etc… etc…

Christmas pudding was out as well, and Christmas Cake, so – in general, the occasion was a farce!

This was when one of the brighter lads had the idea to call on the services of “that Scottish German fellow” – he must have access and knowledge to, and about, these mysteries!

Indeed he had, and – for a price – was prepared to share such information!

Little did they know that the General and His Command Staff had Turkey, Brussels, Stuffing, Pudding etc., coming out of their ears at that time of the year, and would much more prefer a real “Gulyash” (goulash-a brown stew with lots of paprika), cooked by the “Scottish German Fellow” who they thought to be an original Hungarian or Czech or Pole!

They stayed polite, however, and thanked their hosts profoundly and excessively, for their kind attention to “British Traditions” and how did they manage to find a Chef capable of cooking British Traditional Stuff within their ranks?

I invariably ended up being called into the ornate Dining Room, to receive their good wishes for the season, and their thanks for the meal.

I wasn’t polite for too long! After a couple of occasions, I suggested, in English, that they would probably prefer a Gulyash to another roast turkey, and they may want to give a sweet (or savoury) Roestli – Kartoffelnpuffern a try, this being the favourite dish of the MDP’s.

After the surprise of hearing English, with a slight Scottish accent, they did indeed think that the idea was a good one, and could I possibly put it into action the next time?

Of course I could – at a price – and so I did! It seemed to me that the British Command Teams came rather more often than was necessary for an “official visit” from then on!

And somebody asks me if I know how to make “Roestlis”!!

That was Army International Cuisine – a true novelty!

When I left, for Berlin, and for other things, I was presented with a “golden goulash gourd” (a sort of large spoon, gold plated) as thanks! I kept it for many years, but all the gold wore off, and was probably eaten in my many goulashes!

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