Sunday, April 10, 2016

A bit of terroir

It's become quite apparent since we had Elfie that if you want to reach a whole new level of assimilation into life in Brittany, get yourself a Brittany spaniel.* Many older local friends glow with admiration at the sight of her, or love to hear about her, and tell me fond stories of all the dogs of her breed they have had or known, and complete strangers stop us to compliment her and talk at length in the same vein. I have the feeling we have adopted an emblem of regional pride as well as a dog. Not that this would have made any difference to our taking her of course, but I am rather enjoying basking in her reflected glory, and the increased contact and conversation I'm experiencing.

In fact, when a couple who had parked nearby at the supermarket and were admiring her through the car window, so I got her out to say hello and display her general wonderfulness, then the man opened his car door and she almost jumped in** and he chuckled that she was very welcome to come home with them, it made me think twice about making sure the car was securely locked when I parked outside the next supermarket; their appreciation, it seemed to me, was decidedly tinged with covetousness. They were quite rough-round-the-edges people, but clearly lovely; they couldn't believe she had been abandoned and in a refuge, had not long lost their last Brittany after keeping them, along with Labradors, for eighteen years, and weren't sure how long they could go on without another one. The woman praised us warmly for taking her, said that being such an intelligent dog she would know she had found a loving home with us, and that everything we gave she would give to us back again, we wouldn't regret it. However, not everyone who takes a fancy her might be so nice, and she is much too sweet and trusting not to let herself be led away.

Anyway, to celebrate our chienne de terroir, some cuisine de terroir, since she'll be keeping us at home rather more (though not entirely, we are quite hopeful of her adaptability, and her car habits and plans for appropriate equipment are coming on), and since all the walking is giving me a good appetite, one might as well make the most of some local food (apologies if this gets to sound a bit Peter Mayall...)


Côtelettes d'agneau pré-salé - salt marsh lamb chops

Just a few weeks ago, when Elfie was no more than a twinkle in our eyes, we went to the Mont St Michel area. I took lots of photos, as one always does there, and haven't got round to doing much with them, perhaps I will. Here is one from near the top though:

What you can see in the inland distance is salt marsh, pré-salé. That's where the sheep live, and one of the reasons I go there, frankly, is to eat them. We don't eat much red meat, and hardly ever lamb but this stuff is too good to resist, for me anyway. The hotel we stay at is in Pontorson, about five miles up the road from and with the nearest railway station to le Mont, but despite that the latter is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Pontorson is a rather scruffy, down-at-heel, undeveloped place, and the hotel is remarkably cheap, with rather good food, including the lamb. Breakfast is bread and jam, good coffee and lousy tea, and trying to save ourselves for our evening meal, we picnic on fruit and biscuits at lunchtime, once stopping out on the salt marsh to the east of the landmark, observing something of the life of the sheep.

They are very free range, grazing on sparse grass, herbs, samphire and the like, which gives the meat its excellent flavour. They grow slowly and don't have to travel far at the end of their lives. They help maintain the unique habitat and landscape, for other wildlife such as these shelduck.

As well as indulging while we were there, this time we looked into the butcher's on the high street in Pontorson, and bought some chops which I put in the freezer when we got home. The lamb's availability is confined to the very local area, I gather there's a butcher's in the indoor market at Rennes that sells it a couple of times a week, but that's the furthest afield you'll find it. Six chops, not large, cost €20, which is a lot, but I really feel this is the kind of meat we should be prepared to pay more for, less often, in terms of sustainability, animal welfare, and not least, taste.

When it comes to cooking it, you shouldn't really have to do much, since it's flavour and tenderness is such that, as Brillat-Savarin said, it should taste of itself, and not be buggered about with (Brillat-Savarin didn't say that last bit). That said, I rather feel grilled or roast lamb without garlic and rosemary isn't right, so I smushed up a bit of garlic, and laid a couple of sprigs of rosemary in the pan, and also rubbed a bit of lemon thyme over it, and some sea salt and black pepper, and splashed some rosé wine over it to moisten it... yes, OK, I did bugger about with it some. It tasted bloody amazing anyway.

I also think redcurrant jelly is something of a necessity with lamb, after the fact, not in the cooking. Mint sauce, however, is an abomination. The jar in the photo is labelled in French not because I am an insufferable Peter Mayall type who has to show how very assimilated I am, or some would-be cheffy type who thinks all food should be in French, but because I gave the rest of them to the ladies at Quessquitricote, who were very appreciative. In fact it's white currant jelly, I still don't really know what to do with all the white currants I grow, but at least I can make jelly and give it away.

Having gone relatively easy (by our standards) on the garlic in the cooking, I roasted a load more whole cloves with some sweet potato and pimento, and served them with these and some green pease pudding. I feel so sorry for people who can't eat garlic.

 There wasn't much left over.

Dogs mustn't have chop bones. Bugger it.


Chicken with Roscoff pink onions and pommeau de Bretagne (or Normandie)

Long time readers here will know about the Roscoff pink onions. Or you can type it into the dinky little search widget top right, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I don't have any photos to illustrate this one but here's a drawing.

I did it the other day, I've not drawn anything for ages, but set myself half an hour before Elfie's late afternoon walk (that being quite long enough to sit in front of a cut onion), got out the pastel paper and pastel pencils, no rubber, to see what happened; my hand is not in, but it was nice to do it. The appetite and motivation for certain things I had set aside seem to be returning a little, tentatively.

Roscoff pinks are known for their keeping quality, which is how the onion sellers were able to store, carry and sell them abroad, so there are still some about, including a couple from my own last year's crop. For this recipe, take a fair number of them and slice them as you like (I like top to bottom for most things), caramelise them for as long as you've time, and deglaze them with pommeau. Pommeau is the cider producing regions' (Brittany, Normandy) version of pineau de Charentes, that is, an aperitif made from the must, the fruit juice base, grape or apple, of wine or cider, mixed with the eau de vie distilled from the same production, cognac or Calvados or its equivalent. The fruit juice sweetens and lightens the spirit, the spirit stops the fruit juice fermenting. Both drinks are quite sweet, and about 16%. I guess you could just use some sweet apple juice (or what in the US is called cider, as opposed to hard cider) and some other alcohol, applejack if you've got it, or whatever.

Roscoff pinks are not unlike shallots in flavour, so perhaps banana shallots would substitute.

Put the onions into a slow cooker (or heavy pan in a low oven), slosh in a bit more pommeau and some chicken stock, which I do make myself, properly, but I am also a shameless user of chicken stock cubes, which I also add some of, then sauté a chopped up chicken breast or two , or any other chicken meat you like in the oniony pan; I am a leg woman myself and Tom is a breast man (I'm talking about chicken here, for shame!), and thus between the two of us we do the Jack Spratt thing, but you can't buy boned leg meat here so if I'm feeling lazy it has to be breast. I think I meant to chop up and sauté an apple and add that too but I forgot.

Leave it to cook and go out for the afternoon, perhaps peel some spuds for mash, which goes well. I think I was going to walk refuge dogs, a volunteer activity I started before we got Elfie, while we were still purportedly at the stage of thinking of getting another dog in a year or so, as a kind of preparation. However, now I'm sort of committed to it, and after an afternoon of having my arms nearly pulled out of their sockets by Tifou, Idyll, India, Olga or whichever old lag I've been walking (most French dogs have daft names, Elfie was a lucky exception, and many of these dogs are unlikely to see a life beyond the refuge, which isn't necessarily so bad for them) I am most appreciative of coming back to a hearty, tasty meal and to luxuriating on the sofa with our, clever, affectionate,(mostly) gentle medium-sized darling; even if I never dare let her off the lead, at least she doesn't pull me all over the countryside like a plough horse.

Terroir is one of those pretentious, snobby kind of words/ideas about food, like fusion, which is its antithesis. Yet there's something about putting things together from the same corner of the earth that often does work; sweet potatoes, pimentos, garlic, redcurrant and split peas with the lamb is clearly more like fusion, and they work too, but the simple combination of the pommeau and the pink onions really is spot on, you don't even specially need the chicken.


Finally, if that all seems a bit heavy on the meat and rich stuff, here's a bit of foraging fusion.

Bean tops, sorrel and noodles

In the last couple of years, a number of the fields hereabouts have been planted with legumes - field beans, peas, vetches etc - as cover crops. They get ploughed in at some point and things like maize planted on top. This year, the ones with field beans - rather like small broad (fava) beans, and not bad eating, have been left fallow for the moment and begun to sprout from the old crop. Here's Elfie in such a field, with a view of Plémy in the background, looking every inch an emblem of rural Brittany, despite (or perhaps because of***) the rather orthopaedic looking harness:

I'll wait on this nice slack lead for as long as you say, but if you think I'm going to pay you any other attention just because you're pointing that thing at me you can think again****.
Broad bean tops are good eating as greens, if you can get to them before the blackfly, so I wondered if these would be. I picked a good bag full, along with some sorrel, and washed it in the salad spinner. 

I have a great appetite for the first wild and foraged greens at this time of year, one which Tom doesn't share. They seem very cleansing and refreshing. I heard somewhere that women's biology really does need and want vegetable matter rather more than men's, and we certainly seem to be more easily constipated. I'm not entirely convinced they aren't just mostly babies who never learned to like their greens, though. (She says, while Tom's cooking mushroom, pea and cashew curry.)

Soak some chow mein noodles. I've nothing against ramen, and eat them sometimes, but chow mein soaked for a bit longer is just as simple and really has a bit more texture and integrity. Sauté a shallot or two, in a wok or just a saucepan, then add some soy of some kind, I used a sachet or two of Japanese left over from sushi.

Then, and this is the important bit, throw all the raw greens and noodles in together, and stir it up. Serve, sprinkled with some of those crispy onion bits, my current favourite savoury topping.

An experiment, but really a very successful one. The bean tops stayed very chunky and substantial, unlike a lot of leafy greens which seem to dissolve and nearly disappear when heated, but they lost that rather nasty bitter, raw bean, leguminous taste. The wild sorrel melted, but the acidity of it offset the other ingredients very nicely. I must make it again before they plough the field up.


* or rather épagneul breton. According to those in the know,  épagneul derived from an old French word for a net, the original manner of bird hunting with such dogs, and 'spaniel' is a mistranslation, since that word originated in the fact that English spaniels were supposed to come from Spain, or something like that.

** an absent minded reflex common in dogs; an article I was reading the other day recommended if you are faced with a runaway dog, your own or someone else's, especially in dangerous traffic, a good ploy is to open your car door and they dog will often jump in without thinking about it.

*** Breton back or hip problems are well known, openly attributed to consanguinity.

**** I still wouldn't let her off. This field is full of skylarks, as well as partridges and pheasants which have survived the hunting season and gone on to breed another day, so that gives me another excuse for curbing her freedoms: even if I could get her back, there's no reason that all the spring wildlife should be rampaged all over. Also fox poo and other temptations.


Rouchswalwe said...

Oh, sweet Lucy, you made me chuckle (okay, okay laugh ... big belly laugh ... still laughing) with your "That's where the sheep live, and one of the reasons I go there, frankly, is to eat them." And I so needed that after a night of fire that hit a little too close to home. A post filled with wonderful photos and stories of Elfie and superb cuisine. Ahh. I feel better and I'm pumped now to cook my first lamb dish ever later this month.

Sending fur ruffles to Elfie!

Zhoen said...

Dogs are such wonderful social fixers. Elfie seems in the top ranks of the species. If you are so used to keeping her on lead at home, taking her on trips will be no different, would it? Once you are really used to it, of course.

Had a lamb leg steak the other week. Only salted ahead of time, broiled, nothing at all to add. Luscious.

the polish chick said...

never been a big fan of lamb, seeing as i hate gristle and all the non-meaty bits and lamb seems to be predominantly made up of those. then again, ground or chopped lamb is delightful, as is lamb prepared by someone who also hates gristle AND will put in the labour (like the chef/owner of my favourite ethiopian restaurant), as long s that someone doesn't have to be me.

people who don't eat garlic are living a sad existence, methinks, but i may be biased by my deep love of said vegetable (had to go look up to see if garlic is a vegetable or a herb and it turns out it's the former! who knew?)

lyse said...

Tu nous fais saliver dis donc. L'agneau de prés salés: un délice

Catalyst said...

I've never been a big fan of lamb, finding it dry tasting, like liver. And there's so darned little of it on those chops that I don't think it could be worth the effort. Oh, one exception. I had some delicious lamb shank in a Greek restaurant in Detroit once although the big attraction was a plate of cheese the serving staff brought to the table, doused it in vodka and set it on fire. The ceiling of the restaurant bore scorch marks but it was a great show. And Elfie is as pretty as ever.

Avus said...

Dogs can be useful "socialisers". With a dog I can expect to get greeted and talked to by people who would otherwise pass me by without a nod. When my Australian daughter was over at Christmas she greeted everyone she met with either a "g'day" or "hullo" as is the Aussie way. She was quite amused by the surprised and shy responses. She said that many would avoid all eye contact. (she is an ex social worker and people watcher!)
I loathe garlic, but adore mint sauce - what does that imply, I wonder?

Julia said...

What a treat of a post, long and luscious and Mont St Michel too!

My falconer had Brittany spaniels, which sounds so posh a sentence I just had to use it! Translation: my falconer - the man who gave my daughter and I a half-day birds of prey experience last week:)

Meanwhile, do you still have lamb in the freezer? I ask because I will be over there at the end of the month and if you don't maybe we could have a day trip to the mount and partake of a dinner of lamb together? What do you think? Be nice to meet up at last, well for me at least. not sure if you'd think so Lucy!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

It all looks super-delicious, including Elfie (not to eat of course!). If you and Tom come back to visit me in London some time, I'll insist that you cook for me. And bring Elfie - what a delightful, gorgeous creature.

I too am eating less and less meat - am considering giving it up altogether - but the occasional chop or stew is nice. Am no expert chef but love improvising: today I made a lentil casserole, throwing in sauteed (in olive oil) carrots, onions, courgettes, garlic, ginger, an apple, cashews, almonds, cumin, coriander, turmeric, pepper, salt. Left it to simmer for about 2 hours. Ate it with some plain egg noodles to soak up the juices. Unbelievably scrumptious! Ate nearly the whole pot at once.

Roderick Robinson said...

Phew, there's a lot to go at here. But straight away I must speak out on behalf of the Welsh and, in particular, their lamb. It was one of those revelation days, soon after we moved here, and yet we were doing nothing more adventurous than strolling round Waitrose in Monmouth. It proclaimed itself as loin of lamb and it cost - anatomically appropriately - an arm and a leg. It may have been my birthday and I got the biggest hunk for which I am eternally grateful. Even lamb that's been hauled around halfway the world (sorry NZ) is reasonably flavoury, but in this instance flavour had progressed on a logarithmic scale - lambness to the power of n (where n is a humungous number). Since my Dad died I've rather gone off claret, not being able to afford the stuff he dished out, but here was lamb that would have complemented even a modest petit chateau, capable of suppressing a fairly high level of tannin. And the great thing is that almost all the Hereford supermarkets offer Welsh lamb because of its propinquity.

Not that this is intended as an assault on the cuisine of your adopted homeland. Exactly the reverse happened when I discovered - probably in St Nazaire - that chicken was not necessarily a specific for invalids, provided one was prepared to pay over the odds. But too pricey for Hereford.

How aristocratic Elfie looks in the last photo - the harness implying cuisses and greaves (which I had heard of) and even vambraces and poleyns (which I had not). You say Elfie's admirers at the supermarket were rough-round-the-edges which I take to be quite different from down-at-heel. Perhaps they were the final residue of some noble family which escaped the guillotine and whose blood is now indistinguisable from that of the average PSG supporter. Perhaps Elfie reminded them of family anecdotes born of happier times when great-great-grandparents frolicked with MA's dolls house.

Nostalgia is sidling up on me. We were only recently married when VR prepared a leg of lamb studded with mini-bullets of garlic, my first: your photo reminded me. It must have been NZ then, because we were terribly poor and briefly I imagined I'd shifted a peg or two up the class ladder. I see you prepared four chops: was the subsequent division even-Stephen or was Tom entitled to three? I think I know the answer to that one. Must break off, my voice-box demands exercise.

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

R - hope you are calmer now after your local dramas, and that you enjoy the lamb!

z - that's rather what I'm thinking, and looking forward to travelling a bit with her. Mmm, lamb leg steaks...

PC - Tom is another loather of fat and gristle, yet ate just about every morsel on these chops, Elfie got a tiny bit of trimmed fat from mine, that was all, since I am the eater of rarer meat, his were crisper and every scrap consumed, which is unusual. As to garlic, I am a firm believer that, like onion, it should be eaten as a vegetable, in substantial, distinct portions, not seem merely as a flavouring. In fact, whole cloves, or even bulbs, roasted are milder eating than when it is crushed and mixed in, which garlic haters fail to recognise.

lyse - C'est vrai, j'adore!

Cat - ah, I am a liver lover too. The chops weren't huge, it's true, though bigger than most we can get here, since the lambs are allowed to grow bigger for longer, but they are so succulent and substantial somehow that the experience of eating them seems to be intensified. The inflammable cheese sounds most entertaining, I've not heard of that I must say, though I have had Camembert cooked in its funny little wooden box directly on a barbecue then eaten with a spoon, pretty good.

Avus - my Australian brother (he's been there for nearly 50 years now) is similarly outgoing. Often I have observed him chatting away to someone and assumed it was some old acquaintance only to find it was a complete stranger, and the mooted six degrees of separation seem often to be reduced to just one or two with him, since he invariably seems to find himself chatting away to someone somewhere in the world whom he turns out to have some amazingly serendipitous connection to, mostly because he just talks to a lot of people, I think. I suppose I also find that being a foreigner and non-French speaker actually here gives me some freedom to be a bit more chatty and not worry too much if I'm getting it right or not, once there's a pretext for conversation, which of course the dog provides. Elfie's attractiveness and good manners help with this.

Julia - only two chops! Brittanies are popular falconers' dogs, I gather, not quite sure why since I don't really know much about what hunting/gun dogs actually do, but being a very old breed I imagine they were adapted for older forms of catching thing like that. I'm interested to learn more about your falconry afternoon; was it here or in the UK? Not sure we can do Mt St Michel again so soon, but you're right, it would be very nice to meet up, I'll look out your e-mail address and write!

Natalie - Having just had to persuade the gorgeous Elfie to drop a poor little vole she had just found and summarily murdered in the roadside verge - being on a lead doesn't stop her doing this any more than rolling in fox poo - I am thinking of training her to be a vegetarian too. We love things with lentils in, your improvised potage sounds delectable!

Lucy said...

Robbie - Comment limit overrun. I remember Welsh lamb well, a long section of hind quarter hanging in a butcher's stall in Cardiff indoor market, the butcher himself squeezing it fondly and saying it wasn't quite ready, not having hung long enough. At the time I was rather too hung up myself on frugality, confining myself mostly to shoulder if I did buy lamb, and to batches of chicken wings which I'd rub with spices, or to teaching myself fish at the excellent fish stall there. As you said of yourself, that really was a different person; Marlow's 'but that was in another country, beside, the wench is dead' as much as your LP Hartley truism. Good lamb certainly would like good claret, but we too find that a hard thing to find these days, not sure what we're doing wrong, despite an embarrassment of choice. In fact I'm happy to drink a nice rosé with it, as I am with many things. Elfie's admirers may have been descended from a scion of some grand Breton parliamentarian family turned counter-Revolutionary chouans I suppose; whatever, they were decidedly nicotine stained which she wasn't too impressed with, but she was polite as ever anyway. There's a museum dedicated to the épagneul breton in Callac, it seems, not sure if I want to visit it.

No way Tom was getting more chops than I was! He had the slightly darker crisper ones.

Roderick Robinson said...

If you spend less than €25 a bottle on Bordeaux you are guaranteed disappointment. Recently, hearing time's wingèd chariot, etc, I've, intermittently, been spending much more and still often ending up with a mouthful of tannin. Rule of thumb: it's got be at least eight years old and decanting for two hours minimum is essential.

There is of course another solution, alas not immediately available to you. Try cab. sauv. (yes I know 50% of contemporary claret is now merlot) from some other area especially the Antipodes and/or Chile. The US if you can afford it. Should I get you membership of The Wine Society? They do have an outlet at Montreuil and I hate to imagine the pair of you deprived in any way.

Of course the Marlowe is superior; I love the way the last half-dozen words are spat out. But Hartley's adaptation fits the prissiness of the narrator who is the corrupted child, now adult, and horribly shrunken. A tiny cameo for Michael Redgrave, probably not long before he died.

Lucy said...

Robbie, thanks for the return!

Tom's son once described an unsatisfactory glass as 'like sucking vinegar off a plank', though at the time he was only just getting used to the taste of wine at all, even so, the words return to me more and more often. In fact I drink not so much red wine these days, when I do I tend to be happy with Cotes du Rhone or even Ventoux, whereas Tom always comes back to Saumur Champigny; once when we had a bottle of each on the go I accidentally mixed the glasses up, we both took a sip and said 'bleugh!' in unison before swapping them back, which goes to show there's no accounting. Though I still make the caveat that my palate really is not as fine as yours; I routinely drink and enjoy boxed wine, and Gascony Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet d'Anjou, remember, and if a white is too rough I'll happily make it into kir (though not to drink with meals). So I think Wine Society membership would probably be wasted on us! But thank you for the thought.

Oh for a choice of New World cab sav! Or any non-French wine really. An occasional Yellowtail or similar from Australia is all, and the only US bottles one regularly comes by are Gallo Brothers', which are OK but somehow I always feel like I'm drinking something composed in a lab to a formula. Lately made an excursion with a friend to pick up some NZ white which I remembered enjoying at her house, but forgot was really quite sweet and flowery, and made the mistake of serving it with home-made coquillages farcies, a fairly horrible experience which had me reaching for the muscadet. (Not gros plant though, I don't even use that for the cooking mussels in.)

I fancy watching that film again now. It's connected with a childhood memory of my own, of coming home to an empty house, almost unheard of, and getting slightly fretful until my mum appeared, having taken herself off alone to see an afternoon showing of it at the cinema, the only time I can ever recall her doing such a thing.

Jeff said...

Just curious: is that a particularly Breton breed of sheep? I've been reading up on North American and European sheep for a forthcoming project, and shepherds seem particularly happy with low-maintenance types that can fend for themselves. (And it's been my experience that they are indeed the most delicious...)

Lucy said...

Hi Jeff! No, it appears they are of no one special breed, but crosses between half a dozen or so, mostly indigenous to western France but also including the English Suffolk. It's not the breed but the terroir that makes it pre-salé, with very specific vegetation and climatic conditions, and lots of walking about to get their food! Also very stringent abattoir conditions, with everything done as quick and clean as possible. There's a great long document in French specifying the terms and conditions of the appellation which I only skipped through, but a surprising number of communes here are registered as producing it, some of which are nowhere near any salt marshes, but I suppose that might just be the business addresses of the producers.

I've not heard anything about wool from these sheep, so it's probably not of any interest, maybe a bit rough and hard, though there's a society called les torsons bretons (Breton fleeces) which might have something about it!

Jeff said...

Interesting! Over here, shepherds have traditionally had a hard time establishing flocks along the seashores of the Mid-Atlantic, but there's at least one breed that prospered under harsh conditions by foraging for marsh grasses and such on a barrier island off the coast of Virginia. The breed has now been dispersed inshore, so I suppose we'll never know if it had a unique flavor.

I'm fond of lamb, but nearly all of it we get here in the U.S. comes from Australia, and I can't imagine they're sending us their best. Now that I lived in an agricultural reserve, though, I suppose it's time to find a local source...

marly youmans said...

I mostly don't eat lamb, except at home--Michael being such a good cook that I will eat most things he makes. Just not a big meat eater... But that looks and sounds lovely. And was just talking about what grand wine we had in Chile last fall.

My husband almost got a Brittany for his last dog, but ended up with a hunting lab, very slim and sleek and chocolate. She was very sweet and lasted a good long time.