25 October 2013

Suffritto di Pollastri—Renaissance Saffron Chicken

We promised you a recipe from De Arte Coquinaria, the famous cookbook written in the 1460’s by Maestro Martino da Como, chief cook to the Pope and many other nabobs of Renaissance Italy. I found one I liked but it’s had to wait until I could find a bottle of agresto, known as verjus here in France. They still make it nearby in Périgord, where some folks deglaze their pan-fried foie gras with it, but usually you can only find it in the fancy shops.

Here’s what Maestro Martino was cooking for the nabobs:

Per fare un suffritto de carne, o de pippioni,
 o de pollastri, o capretto.
In prima nectali molto bene et tagliali in quarti, o vero in pezzi 
piccholi, et poneli in una pignatta a frigere con bono lardo voltando 

spesse volte col cocchiaro. Et quando la carne è quasi cotta getta
fore la maiore parte del grasso de la pignatta. Et dapoi togli de
bono agresto, doi rosci d'ova, un pocho pocho de bono brodo et 
de bone spetie, et meschola queste cose inseme con tanto zafrano 
che siano gialle et ponile in la dicta pignatta inseme co la carne et
 lasciali bollire anchora un pocho tanto che tutte queste cose ti parano 
cotte. Dapoi togli un pocho pocho de petrosillo battuto menuto et
 ponilo insieme col ditto soffritto in un piattello et mandalo ad tavola. 
Et questo tale soffritto vole essere dolce o agro secundo il gusto 
comuno o del patrone.

(To make a soffrito of meat, or of pigeon, or of poultry, or kid

First clean them very well and cut them in quarters, or else in small pieces, and put them in a pan with some good lardo, turning them often with the spoon. And when the meat is almost cooked throw out most of the fat from the pan. And then take some good verjus, two egg yolks, a little bit of broth and some good spices; mix these things together with enough saffron to make it yellow and put them in the pan with the meat;  let it boil until they seem well cooked to you. Then take a little bit of chopped parsley and add it to this soffritto on a platter and send it to table. And this soffritto may be sweet or tart depending on common agreement, or the boss’s taste.)

Dead simple, and intriguing; we’ll try it with a chicken.  A soffrito, which now means frying a mix of onion, garlic, parsley etc to start a dish,  for Maestro Martino was just a technique of slow-frying. For lardo he would have meant rendered lard, or maybe something like bacon grease.  I’m going for duck fat.  Like everyone else here, I have a tub of it in the back of the fridge for frying potatoes (This is always part lard anyhow; they have to top up the duck fat to cover the confits. And it’s still the best stuff in the world)

The ‘good spices’? Martino doesn’t say so we’ll have to guess from the medieval repertoire.

But before I can get the recipe down, the computer tells me someone has already done it for me—an absolutely wonderful site called Medieval Cuisine, run by Euriol of Lothian (Cassandra Baldassano) and her friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism. You can see her interpretation of the recipe here; mine differs only slightly.

a chicken, cut in fourteen pieces
duck fat, or lard, or olive oil
two egg yolks
chicken broth (cube is fine)
1 dose saffron
ground cloves (6) and ground cardamon (seeds from a dozen pods); black pepper and 1T or more ginger

Fry the chicken on medium heat until it’s almost done, with some colour on the skin. Reduce the fat if you must. Mix the other ingredients and throw them in, turn the heat down low and finish. Garnish with the chopped parsley.

Fine-tune this to please your taste (or your boss’s). If you dust the chicken with just a tiny bit of flour first, you’ll get a thicker sauce. After frying, start with just a little chicken stock, and add more if it’s getting dry. As Martino hints in the last sentence, the quantity of verjus is critical. A quarter cup will make it tart indeed, a little like lemon chicken. If you don’t want that, use less, and perhaps add a bit more of the ‘good spices’. Or you might temper the verjus with a teaspoon of sugar; we might try that next time.

And there will be a next time, ‘cause this was a treat. Maestro Martino, grazie mille!

Ducking Down at La Serpt

There is a tiny hamlet with the curious snaky name of La Serpt, miles from anywhere (the closest town is Villefranche du Périgord), with a stone farmhouse, built in 1730. Actually it could just as well have been built in 1630 or 1870; things around here change pretty slowly. You realize that just in the getting there, over the meadows and through the woods; it's a journey back in time, to a sweet and peaceful place.

Like many traditional farms here, this one here has always raised ducks, and for over two decades at least, it has also functioned as a farm restaurant, a ferme auberge. When we first moved here, there were four pretty good ones in easy driving distance; now there is only one, Aux Délices de la Serpt (although everyone just calls it La Serpt) but it’s exceptional, the Ritz of ferme auberges.

Like La Terrasse, it’s small (with only 30 covers or so) and you have to book. Only at La Serpt there is no guessing about what’s on the menu. But that’s just how their clients like it. Everyone who likes duck, that is. If you don’t, stop reading now!

We recently went with first-timers Betsy, Susanna, Nancy, and Harvey, and locals Marianne, Laurence and Tom. Only two decisions are required: basically, agonizing between the foie gras (on the €25 menu) or other ducky treats (on the €23 menu) for your starter, and then, the confit de canard (duck leg and thigh, preserved in its own fat) or magret de canard (the steak-like duck breast) for the main course. There is also duck sausage, which is also delicious, but the confits and magrets are so amazing that 99% of the customers choose one of those.

Wine and coffee are included, as is the apéro—a fénelon. In the 17th century, the erudite François Fénelon from Périgord was archbishop of Cambrai, poet, writer and tutor of the son of the king of France, but just how his name became attached to Quercy’s traditional aperitif (equal parts vin de Cahors, walnut liqueur and crème de cassis) is a mystery. Maybe he guzzled them when he was a student at the long-gone University of Cahors?  The Fénelons had one of the great châteaux of Périgord. It’s only about a half-hour away, east of Sarlat; you could visit before lunch.

For those who have been to the Serpt before and know what’s coming, the apéro is the gastric equivalent of the opening da da da dum of Beethoven’s Fifth. First comes the  tourin, La Serpt’s take on the local garlic and duck fat soup, filled with country bread and molten cheese. This is truly the stuff soup dreams are made of, and the first dish Michael learned to synthesize at home after we moved here (it’s also an excellent hangover cure!). When you get to the bottom, it’s time to faire chabrol (sloshing the dregs of soup around with a splash of red wine); if you don’t perform the ritual they’ll think you’re a Parisian or worse.

Next comes a generous serving of the rich foie gras made on the farm, or (on the €23 menu) pâté with foie gras, or a salad made with warm gésiers (gizzards, preserved in duck fat. like the confits), or my favourite, the salade fermière, with gésiers and thin slices of smoked magret along with  fritons de canard (fried skin and fat—a bit like duck porkies or pork rinds, I guess, but a gourmet treat).

Then in a waft of heavenly aroma the main event on big platters: golden crisp confits or succulent magrets grilled and topped with a light cream sauce. Gorgeous potatoes sautéed in duck fat and garlic, with nice brown crispy bits everyone digs into. Plates are wiped clean, belts are adjusted out a notch.

It is useful at this point to recall the so called French Paradox (first theorized in 1819 by Dr Samuel Black of Ireland, long before 1991 when  60 Minutes introduced it to the United States) and remember that duck fat, garlic and red wine, combined together, are good for you!

Next, cheese. More bread. More wine.  Somehow we manage to squeeze in nibbles of fresh, tangy Rocamadour cabecou (the local AOC goat cheese) or Cantal entre deux (the local hard yellow cheese).

Orders are taken for dessert: here too there is a choice and all are of the comfort homemade variety. Our daughter Lily always talks about her ‘dessert’ compartment, which has nothing to do with the rest of her stomach, and I think most of us must possess one because we somehow managed to polish off the chocolate and pear bavarois, the fig tart and crème caramel, without bursting.

Those who would not be returning for a while bought tins of foie gras and confits in the Serpt’s little shop to take home. If you like, you can have a peek in the barn and pick out a duck for next time (as if you could tell one from the other).

You’ll be lucky to get out in less than three hours; you’ll be lucky if you can still walk. There’s a good reason why you have to book a Sunday at the Serpt long in advance—because after all this delicious food and wine, the rest of the day tends to be a total write off, devoted mainly to naps.

I forgot the camera again, but Harvey and Marianne were better prepared: thanks to them for sharing their photos.

                                                                      —Tennessee girl learns to faire chabrol

La Serpt, tel 05 65 36 66 15
How to get there: La Serpt is on the D28 between Puy-L'Évêque and Villefranche-du-Périgord. There are directions on its website (rather endearingly the menu here is still in francs—they haven't had one printed for years!) 

14 October 2013

La Terrasse in Grézels

Writing travel guides, one of the first things we learned is not to bang on about how wonderful/authentic/full-of-character places were when we first wrote about them and how crowded/homogenized/regimented they had become. It’s true, of course, but who wants to hear it? If people weren’t lucky enough to visit Venice’s San Marco when you could just wander in and spend hours there, it’s not their fault, is it?

Recently, one of our most reliable local restaurants, La Poule au Pot in Goujounac, was suddenly shut down. It was a duck ferme auberge, famous for heaving quantities of hedonistically delicious food and the best sautéed potatoes on the planet. Howls still reverberate down the Lot Valley: Où sont les patates d’antan?

But two superb wonderful/authentic/full of character local restaurants are still going strong and it’s time to toot their horns for them because we don’t want to ever say: ‘Oh you should have been here when they were open.”  Of course we hope they endure forever, but of course nothing does. Go now. Their Internet presence is minimal, and as we know all too well, people don’t buy guidebooks anymore. They mostly rely on word of mouth.

The first is La Terrasse in Grezels. We went last week but forgot to take our camera, so all these photos are by our dear friend Marianne, who went the next week.

Grezels on the river Lot is a Brigadoonish sort of place. Any good village in the Lot will have a medieval castle or château, vineyards, a brocante (antique shop), and a B&B or two, and Grezels ticks all the boxes. And it has La Terrasse, where time has stood still, at least since 1989 when we first went. The only concession to the 21st century is having the menu in euros instead of francs.

‘Terrasse’  is something of a misnomer. There is a terrace but it only has space for a couple of tables and it is only used for apéros before lunch. Lunch, in fact, is all they do, in the old rural tradition that you are famished after slogging away in the fields all morning, and need to camel up for more of the same in the afternoon.

The best we manage to do is not eat any breakfast and make the 4km walk there from Puy l’Evêque.

The couple who own it are two of our favourite people, but we know next to nothing about them, not even their names. Madame has a very sweet voice, takes the bookings (reservations are essential) and does the cooking. No one we know has ever seen her, behind her wooden kitchen door, but I imagine she must be a serene and happy soul. There are never any bells and whistles: foam? nitrogen? sous-vide? Quoi? Her style is what the French call ‘bonne femme’—literally ‘good wife’ but what it really means is comfort food, simple, honest, fresh French home cooking, which very few restaurants seem to do anymore. Certainly none as good as La Terrasse.

Monsieur, who has the physique of someone who played rugby in his youth (like every other red blooded male in this region) is in charge in the stone-walled dining room, adorned, Lot style, with a stuffed weasel, a mounted deer head, and a giant wooden fork. After years of practice he can single-handedly keep the dozen or so tables turning over like clockwork. It helps that there’s no need to take orders, because although the menu changes every day, there is no choice; one gets what Madame has been inspired to cook. This of course is ideal for those of us who like everything and hate making decisions.  But Monsieur has an eagle eye; if he spots someone not eating a course, a substitute may well appear. The last thing he wants is anyone to go away hungry.

When you sit down, there will be a carafe of local red wine (very quaffable version of our local puts-hairs-on-your chest Vin de Cahors, immediately refilled when you empty it) and a basket of crusty brown country bread. Soon a tureen of delicious homemade soup will appear; a rich tomato soup with noodles, or perhaps a traditional chickeny stock with bread and cheese. Portions are generous, and there’s usually enough for more.

If you’re not a regular, Monsieur will come around as you finish and splash some wine in your bowl to remind you to faire chabrol—drink the last spoonfuls of soup mixed with the wine directly from the bowl, as one does in these parts. It’s especially good if there are some stringy gooey bits of melted cheese on the bottom. Soup bowls around here have no rims, so you usually don’t slobber it all down your chin and shirt.

The hors d’oeuvres that follow is no dainty little piece of pineapple and cheese on toothpick affair. It might be an omelet laden with cheese or cèpes, or a quiche lorraine.

This is when the uninitiated begin to panic: this is where a normal lunch at home stops.

Mais non! Time for the main course–a heaving platter of sliced duck breasts and beignets de courgette, or perhaps tender beef and carrots and golden roast potatoes. It’s excellent home cooking although not many of us were lucky enough to have such talented parents. Afterwards, a green salad to ‘lighten’ the stomach.

Then the fromage— a choice of five or six, including the soft white cabecou de Rocamadour, our local goat cheese. More wine is required. And then dessert—a home baked tart, or rich chocolate mousse. Coffee is included.

For Sunday lunch, when you’ll need to book a table early, there’s even more: after the soup there’s a seafood course, with a glass of white wine; followed by an entrée (generally something rich and stewed) followed by the main course. It costs a bit more than the weekday €18, but no one has ever complained.

Afterwards, it’s traditional to peruse the antiques in the shop across the street, and if it’s nice, take a pretty postprandial waddle down to the river, past the house with the tower down to the spot where the Ruisseau de Saint-Matré  flows into the Lot by an old mill. Maybe we’ll walk home to settle it all down. 4km will just about do it. 

La Terrasse, Grezels 46700 (on the Lot, south of Puy-L'Évêque), tel 05 65 21 34 03

Franco-Italian (con)Fusion: Tagliatelle al Confit de Canard

When we had written about every square inch of Italy, we were ordered by our publisher to leave Umbria for southwest France, where there were several surprises, starting with the price of truffles. In Umbria’s Valnerina, where we lived, even impecunious travel writers could occasionally splurge on spaghetti al tartufo nero in a trattoria; in the Lot, even though we live a mere 45 minutes from the big truffle market in Lalbenque, they are a pricey indulgence reserved for times when someone else is paying.

What compensated for the paucity of truffles was the omnipresence of duck, and to a lesser extent goose. Fatted duck, to be precise, to make foie gras, and along with the foie gras come numerous duck by-products, most importantly the maigret, or breast (usually grilled like a steak), and the thighs (cuisses) and gizzards (gésiers), which are put up in jars or tins and slowly cooked in their own fat and preserved as confits de canard; the gizzards end up in a salade quercynoise with lettuce and walnut oil, and maybe some smoked duck breast or ham.

Even the duck carcasses, curiously known as demoiselles, are preserved, and barbecued in the summer by the locals at the ferme auberges, restaurants run by farm families—in the southwest, they’re nearly always on duck farms.

Jewish communities in Venice introduced a similar dish to the Veneto. Oca in onto (goose preserved in fat) is pretty much the same thing as confit d’oie; the onto of course, being a tasty substitute for forbidden lard in soups, sauces and other dishes. The Jews also make elaborate dishes such as frisinsal de tagiadele: tagliatelle cooked in a rich chicken stock, with goose salame or meatballs, or even shredded roast chicken, pine nuts and sultanas, all baked in the oven in the shape of a ring (more or less; recipes vary widely).

My own recipe that is much simpler, invented one day when there were four for dinner, but only two confits in the fridge. The solution: put them on pasta. Eccoci qua! Voilà!

Proportions are to your own taste but in general what you need for four servings are:

4 cloves of garlic, chopped
400 gr mushrooms, thickly sliced. Even better if you have shitakes or porcini
A few big spoonfuls of duck fat (remember this is the ‘other olive oil’ and good for you!)
Two duck confits
Big handful of parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
Truffle oil (if you want to be fancy)
A small carton of thick cream (roughly 20cl, or 6-7 fluid ounces)
Tagliatelle for four

If your confits are in a tin, open it and place on a low flame until you can extract the meat from the liquified fat. Take off the fatty skin and give it to the cat (if they are a French cat like our Brutus, they will insist on it!). Shred the meat from the bone, which is easiest done with your fingers, but really greasy.  Half way through this, the phone will inevitably ring…

Meanwhile, boil the water for the pasta, as the sauce takes about ten minutes.

Use some of the duck fat to sauté the garlic. Store the rest of the fat in the fridge in a sealed container to sauté potatoes.

When the garlic is soft, add the mushrooms and fry until soft. If they seem too dry, throw in a knob of butter.

Add the shredded confits to the mushrooms. Remember they they're already cooked so only need to be heated through; when warm, add the cream, then salt. Keep warm until the pasta is al dente. Toss in a few spoonfuls of the cream from the sauce, then top with the confits and mushrooms and a twist or two of the pepper mill, chopped parsley, and if you like, drizzle with truffle oil, to remind yourself of the good old days in Umbria.