Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas in Provence

The other day, about a week before Christmas, the Artist and I took the dogs for a walk in the foothills of  Les Alpilles, a nearby mountain range.  We actually walked further than we meant to; it was a cold but sunny day with blue skies.  Suddenly we heard the sound of bells, I walked on ahead, with The Artist staying behind with the dogs.  There in front of me was a herd of dark brown goats with horns, about 100 or so, and to one side was the goatherd standing with two dogs that looked like scruffy black poodles.  There was also a huge dog, like a great dane, a real hound, pale in colour, who came lolloping up to me to check me out.  I put out my hand to stroke him, but he didn't want to be stroked, he just wanted to know who I was and whether or not I posed a threat.
I talked to the goatherd for a while. 
I said his was quite a different sort of job and he said different from what?  Well, you know, I said, from what most people do.  I asked him if he spent all his time in the hills and whether he lived nearby in a cabane, (a traditional stone cabin you see scattered throughout the hills) he said he did and gestured to somewhere ahead.  He asked me where I was from and made some quip about the rain in England.  He told me that the big dog was there to guard the goats from wolves, I asked him where the wolves were, and he said up in the mountains where they spend the summer and he told me the little dogs were there to herd the goats.  Actually, they hadn't done such a great job, because later we came across a goat on its own, looking rather lost.  
Dogs with Goats in background
On Christmas Eve I thought about the goatherd when I went to the local tourist office to find out which local Church performed a traditional Midnight Mass.  Apparently there are some still conducted in the old Provençal language and include a pastorale,  a living crèche, where people from the town are dressed as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and wise men etc. and Provençal carols are sung accompanied by the tambourine and flute.  Also, apparently, at certain churches, they have what is called the "Pastrage" when a shepherd brings in a new born lamb on a cart to be offered as a gift for Jesus, he is accompanied by other shepherds with their ewes.  I wondered if this might have included the goatherd I had encountered.  But I never did find out;  every year I have the intention of going to Midnight Mass but somehow by 11 o'clock, after a few glasses of wine and a few mince pies, I can't quite summon the energy to go out into the cold and I put it off until the next year.

Traditionally, on Christmas Eve families get together and eat Le gros souper, the big supper before going to Church. There is much symbolism attached to the this meal;  it begins with seven different meatless dishes which relate to the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary and finishes with les treizes desserts, the thirteen desserts relating to Jesus and his twelve Apostles.   The dishes are laid on three white table cloths (one on top of the other) between three candle sticks with white candles, symbolizing the Holy Trinity and hope.  I'm not sure how much of the traditions are adhered to, but it does seem that a lot of oysters and seafood are eaten on Christmas Eve and there are booths everywhere selling oysters by the dozen on the side of the road.  That was a tradition I did manage to partake in and jolly good they were too!

Things eaten traditionally on Christmas Eve
  • Soupe de Poisson – Fish Soup
  • Escargots – these can be bought prepared from your Butcher and heated up in the oven. 
  • Cardoon and anchovy gratin
  • Salt Cod with a tomato and wine sauce – Morue en Raito
  • Oysters
  • Green Salad with garlic croutons 
  • Cheese, including Goats cheese
Dessert – Les Treize Desserts -   This is a Provencal tradition, the following are laid out and left on the table to snack on during the festive period

  • Dried figs, almonds, walnuts and raisins, dates, these are known as les Mendiants
  • Two types of Nougat, one dark made with honey and almonds, one white from Montelimar
  • Oranges, tangerines, pears, apples, grapes. The fruit varies and sometimes quince or grape jelly substitute some of the fresh fruits.
  • La Pompe a L’huile – a type of Fougasse (a pastry usually savoury with olives or bacon) made with olive oil, orange flower water and brown sugar. Can be bought at your Boulangerie.
Provence Sunset

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Allouettes Sans Têtes, or Skylarks without Heads (not for Vegetarians)

La grande surface, or shopping centre outside of town, was long ago embraced and fully adopted by the French, emptying small towns of their shops, including ours which locals will tell you, was once a thriving metropolis, but is today full of boarded up shops, now used as garages or front rooms.   A few have none the less survived.  We have plenty of boulangeries-pâtiseries, bakeries, including one bio, organic, and a few Artisanals, which means they actually bake the bread and cakes themselves, rather than buying in the frozen dough and cooking it in one of those weird shelf ovens.  We also have two or three greengrocers, a couple of butchers, one inside the old town walls in the old shopping arcade (dating back to Medieval times) grandly called Les Halles and the other outside the walls  next to a Lidl.  There are also a few Halal butchers, which have the best and cheapest lamb, fresh harissa, various Moroccan groceries and a constant supply of parsley and coriander (cilantro). Yesterday, the fridge being somewhat empty as I had just got back from an extended stay in England, I decided to go to the butcher outside the town; we have some friends staying and I got them to drive as its just too far to walk (well, I’d just driven 1,200 kilometers).

I knew that this butcher was popular amongst the locals, as it sells good quality locally sourced meat, pas trop chère, but I didn’t realise how popular as I had never been there on a Friday evening before.  It was packed with an older, definitely French crowd from our town and environs. It looked like couples night out, as most of the women were accompanied by their husbands.  Buying meat for the weekend is obviously serious business!  There were 4 butchers serving, giving each customer their undivided attention and there was much laughing and joking going on besides the fetching, weighing and wrapping of meat.   No one was in a hurry and we stood in line and patiently waited our turn, passing the time looking at everything displayed behind the glass case.  There were vol au vonts overflowing with mushroom sauce, pastry cases with cheese sticking out of each end, pig trotters covered in a sauce, cow's tongues in a sauce, tripes de Caen, tripes a la provencal (one looked brown and the other red, personally I don’t like tripe, where ever it comes from!), pate en croute, all types of sausage, boudin, or blood sausage, merguez, spicy lamb sausages, Toulouse and plain pork.   There were also saussisons twisted round rails on the wall, presumably drying out, all the various cuts of meat, pork, lamb, beef, chickens, rabbits and a duck with its head on.

At the back of the shop a woman was preparing the specialty of the day, which my friend told me were called allouettes sans têtes, skylarks without heads.  I soon found myself singing the song we were taught as children in French class and which thanks to wikkipedia I am able to copy here:

Alouette, gentille Alouette   Skylark, nice skylark
Alouette, je te plumerai      Skylark, I shall pluck you
Je te plumerai la tête          I shall pluck your head
(Je te plumerai la tête)      (I shall pluck your head)
Et la tête                            And your head
(Et la tête) etc etc.              And your head, etc.etc

the song continues adding all the other bits of the little bird that will be plucked le bec, the beak, le cou, the neck, le dos, the back, les ailes, the wings, les pattes, the feet, et la queue, the tail. Each time a part of the bird is added, you repeat all the other parts, so it goes on and on,  presumably it was meant to teach us the French words for parts of the anatomy, and I remember our French teacher, Madame Gailleman patting the parts of her body that the song referred to whilst singing the song.  It is however only after all these years, that I have finally realised the true meaning of the words of the song, (and who knew that the verb plumer  - to pluck, would stand me in such good stead in later life?) 
It got me thinking how in England we have a completely different, more romantic notion of the skylark as portrayed in Ode to a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert -
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
And how interesting it was that two countries, geographically so close, could be so differently inspired by the same bird. 
Needless to say, after all this musing, I had to try the allouettes sans têtes, (to be referred to as just allouettes from now on) which were in fact thin slices of beef rolled up with meat stuffing.

When it was my turn to be served, I asked how best to cook them and got various replies from the butchers and the other customers; the gist of which was to fry them off with onions and garlic and then cover with wine, herbs and stock and cook for a couple of hours in the oven.  I also asked how many I would need for three people, the answers differed depending on the size of the person; the fat butcher said two would not be enough for him, one of the women customers agreed with him, which caused great hilarity; another thinner butcher said that two per person would be plenty, and so I decided to follow his advice and bought six for three people.  Meanwhile one of the butchers had started singing

"Tea for two, and two for tea" (italicised due to his French accent)

Apparently he had learnt it at school, (whilst we were learning how to pluck a skylark!) Soon the other butchers joined in and I found that I had become the centre of their singing attention.

Afterwards I went next door to the vegetable shop to buy a cabbage which I decided would go very well with the allouettes.  The only ones they had were enormous and it occurred to me that they would be perfect for making stuffed cabbage, carrying on with the theme.

So I went back into the butchers, it was less crowded now and the butchers on seeing me burst into song on cue,

“Tea for two and two for tea,“ 

It had become my theme and I was obviously going to hear it every time I stepped into their shop.  I bought some stuffing, fait a la maison and asked if I could have a bone for my dog, which the butcher went off to get from the cold room in the back.
When I got back and unwrapped the bone, I saw that it was bigger than my dog, Ralph’s, head, and as it was a very good veal bone, I decided to make stock with it.   When the Artist inquired as to what I was cooking, he suggested that it would be perfect for making a consomme for a Bullshot, a cocktail he used to drink at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair.  Personally I thought it would be perfect in my sauce for the allouettes!  Strange how one ingredient can inspire such different dishes in two people…

Photo by Neassa Grennan

Recipe for Veal Stock
You can also use beef bones
3k Veal Bones
1 Onion
Tops of 3 leeks or 1 whole leek
1 Celery Stick
1/2 head of Garlic
Tomato paste
10 Peppercorns
Bunch of Thyme
2 Bay Leaves

Preheat the oven to 200℃
Put the veal bones in a roasting tray.
Roast in the oven for approx. 30 mins, turn
ing once.  Then rub the tomato paste into the bones and add the coarsely chopped vegetables and roast for a further 20 mins.
Then put bones and vegetables into a large stock pot, along with the herbs and peppercorns.
Deglaze the roasting tray with boiling water and add to stock pot.  Cover the bones and vegetables with cold water and put on medium heat to simmer then turn down the heat and simmer slowly for between 4 and 12 hours.  I actually put it on a low heat overnight.  Skim the surface every now with a spoon to remove the scum.
When the stock has cooled.  Strain through a fine mesh strainer and put into the fridge to chill.  A layer of fat will form on top of the stock, remove this and either freeze for later or use for whatever recipe you want to make. 

Bullshot Cocktail
8 cl Consommé (made with beef or veal stock, eggs, eggshells, ground beef and tomatoes)
5 cl Vodka
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco
Salt and Pepper
Mix all the above with ice in a cocktail shaker, strain and serve in a tall glass.