Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How Many Ducks Make Six?

Our neighbour and self-appointed mentor, Juliette, is 89. She went to school in Lauzerte and has lived within sight of it all her life. When she married Lucien she moved out of the town and across the valley to Poulet. Despite having lived most of her life within a five kilometre radius, Juliette likes travelling and happily takes any opportunity to venture forth. Lucien, who is now 97 ish, says he did enough travelling when he went to Stalag XO80 near Hanover in (I think) 1941. She looked after the farm while he was away and sent him the occasional picture to show him that all was well.

 


She is a forceful woman and while being every inch the local farmer’s wife, she is not typical. She paid attention at school and developed her love of travel after the war taking expeditions by coach around Europe.

When she went travelling, Lucien stayed home to look after the farm. Standing in their au-vent (veranda) looking over the valley towards Lauzerte he says “Why would I want to leave?”

 
Most of the farmers in France use chemical fertilisers, weed and insect killer, fungicides and God know’s what to wring more food out of their fields. We have not discussed Lucien's methods, but Juliette’s pottager, where she grows food for her family, is organic.

The pottager is on the right. The other thing is a Pigeonniere.

What she cannot grow she tends to buy from the local market. She bargains with the stall holders for the freshest local produce at the best price. “Formidable!” is how one of them sums her up when he discovers that we know her.

And she confits her own ducks. Well they do not start out as hers, she buys them from a friend who rears naturally-fed ducks - none of this force feeding for our Juliette. She is generous with her knowledge and in exchange for a couple of days slaving in the kitchen, she has divulged most of the secrets of confitting to Tricia. I get some of this intelligence second-hand, but I do get to eat the duck as Tricia does not eat birds.

Although Juliette buys her birds plucked these days, there is still the business of burning off the last bits of quill. Lucien holds the duck while Juliette trys to set fire to his jumper – it’s always a hoot chez Rech.

 
If you take ‘x’ ducks you will have ‘x’ heads, hearts, livers, geziers and the bits that stop the bird from fraying at the back end. In English it is the ‘parson’s nose’ – the French call it something similar as I discovered when I told Juliette  that we called it le nez du curée. I didn’t catch the words when she named the part in French, partly because she speaks too fast on occasion, and partly because she was sniggering – possibly le nez du curée has another meaning in French. But I digress. 


You will also have 2’x’ legs, wings, breasts and feet. There will be a number of other bony bits as well as some unidentifiable parts which will become detached in the cooking. Finally you will have a quantity of graisse (duck fat) and fritons (bits of skin which have been cut into 4mm cubes) and are fabulously delicious. The exact amount can only really be described accurately using a mathematical formula of immense complexity – locally it is translated as ‘a couple of jars’. The size of the jars is not defined.

It is quite normal for Juliette and Lucien to confit six  ducks at a time.

"This is not looking good, guys"
The kitchen workers disassemble the ducks into their constituent parts ready to go into the big bucket. 


The bucket is placed on a three-ring burner and the pieces are all cooked together in their own fat. The different pieces have different cooking times and there is a strict order in which the parts are put into, and removed from, the bucket. 

Neither Tricia nor I are privy to the sequence in which they are put into the bucket as this happens in the wee small hours of the morning. Juliette monitors their cooking progress and has a small crew on call to sort them out when they are done. 

Today I am to learn a little more of the confitters art. I have been told to expect a call “between ten to, and ten past, eleven”. The phone rings Juliette says: “C’est Juliette…” I say: “J’arrive…” This is the sort of phone call I can manage en Francais.

Five minutes later I am in the Rech-Cave, which has sub-caves big enough to accommodate a substantial RechMobile, but this beast is kept around the back in a tarpaulin lean-to (more on the Rech’s tractor in a future blog no doubt). Meanwhile, Juliette, Lucien and son, Alain, are doing ‘the witches’ thing from the Scottish play.

 

I am here to help with the evacuation of duck bits from the bucket. Legs and wings, with half a breast attached to each, are first out; the various bits of carcass and superstructure with succulent mouthfuls of breast and leg meat still attached, are next. Then come the de-billed heads, wing tips, necks and sundries. 

Alain is stirring the bucket of bits with a piece of wood that his great grandfather probably used to do the same job. If left to its own devices it would probably sprout feathers. He stirs, turns and lifts the contents, exposing the pieces in slow succession. 

Juliette is poised, fork in hand, to stab the desired bit and put it in the bowl I am holding. The bowl must be held at the right height and in the correct relationship to the bucket of bits which involves bending forward very slightly. This is horribly uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as trying to change the habits of generations of Rechs by suggesting they put the bowl down on a box/chair/stool next to the bucket. They would look at me as if I were deranged. I have been subjected to this look on a number if occasions, and a bit of back-ache is painless by comparison. L23 Guidance on Regulations (Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 - as amended). (Third edition) HSE Books 2004 ISBN 0 7176 2823 X , price £8.95. available from HSE Books  would definitely have something to say about this.

 
The gesiers, hearts, feet and aforementioned unidentifiable bits are next to leave the melée. The fritons are the last ones out.

The bits are counted out, each of us taking responsibility for a particular body part. Lucien does the wings, Juliette the heads, Alain the gesiers and hearts and I get the necks which have been cut into three. They count aloud, I count silently. I start counting in French but their counting disrupts my train of thought, so I swap to English repeating the numbers silently to myself so as not to be the one who loses count. 

Then Juliette asks how many bits of neck are still in the pot and I find myself translating sixteen into French, subtracting it from dix huit and coming up with two. Seize I say, meaning that we have 16 pieces, I should have said deux meaning there should be two pieces left. Juliette understands and seems pleased that I have not lost count. I am sure she was using the spare part of her brain, usually reserved for catching people out, to keep her own neck count just in case. This is serious business.

Towards the end the bits are harder to find among the litres of yellow fat. So the fishing expedition is interspersed with fat collecting which lowers the levels revealing new treasures - and provides some fat to put in the jars which are filled with the parts which have already been removed.


Juliette stabs a piece of neck but it drops off the fork and disappears into the yellow anonymity of the fat bucket.  ”Mer-credi” she says. Wednesday? I think, then realise that there was an almost indiscernible pause between ‘mer’ and ‘credi’. I realise that Juliette has left this pause for the native speaker to insert a ‘d’ sound. This is the French version of ‘Fiddlesticks’ or ‘Fer Christ’s sake’ where all the meaning is in the first sound or syllable. By the time I have worked through all this the moment has passed and the piece of neck has re-emerged. It is out of the merde. The last bit of neck and a gesier remain lost for some time - the exitement as we find them is tangible.

And suddenly it is all over. 

It is easy to forget that confitting is principally to conserve the duck for later when fresh food is not so easily available. This means I will have to wait to taste the fruit of our labours. Then I think: Hold on! It's the middle of bloody January, this is as bad as it gets... what's going on? But do not feel inclined to ask Juliette. Maybe some other time.

Besides, there is a bonus. 


I am sent home with a tray of assorted bits of carcass, two webbed feet and a heart. I think this is supposed to be lunch, but it will make several meals, and whet the appetitie for the best confit du canard on the planet.

It is some claim, but this is a genuine, free-range, organic, corn-fed duck. It has been cooked in its own fat (OK, and some of its mates' fat as well). The only additional ingredient is salt. The fat is salted prior to rendering to remove any remaining moisture. The duck is confitted by someone who has been doing this for longer than I have been alive. And the result is sublime. It is difficult to imagine how it could be improved.

SON: Dad, there's a man at the door with a bill.
DAD: Don't be silly son, it must be a duck with a hat on.

Laugh? I nearly did.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

An Old Canard?


France has something of a reputation for its food. No! Really. Apparently a lot of people think that along with its wine, food is the country’s defining feature. Personally, I cannot help but think that any cuisine which eschews the chilli and does not count curry among the culinary necessities is in need of some re-programming in the taste bud department. 

Having said that, our local supermarket has the Asian and English foods right next to each other.


There may be a little confusion but they mean well.
 

But the Francophile foodies have a point in the wider sense. Meal times are sacrosanct, the French build time into their day for eating. This does not include travelling to the table – they recognise that eating and driving are not the same thing. You seldom see a Frenchman eating in his car. This is something the rest of the world could learn from.

They eat more seasonally than most other ‘developed' or 'western’ countries. The shops are full of the current crop fresh from the farm, all at prices which reflect the plenty. There are seasons for wild asparagus, green beans, courgettes, tomatoes, melons, etc. When they are not available fresh, you cannot get them so easily in the average market. This is changing, but it is not necessarily a change for the better.

At a French meal there will be at least three courses, and often more. They eat slowly and enjoy the process. Sunday lunch and other family get-togethers take all this foodieness to new heights. It is discussed at some length in this laudable publication which makes Mrs Beaton look like a Victorian.

 
Most noticeably the French do not snack. You will be hard pressed to find a packet of crisps in a French bar. Nor, in my experience, do they take tea-breaks during the working day.  This may have something to do with the length of the working day. I will leave it to others to speculate on this.

There is a common belief among the English that the French dress really well. However careful examination of people on the high street will reveal the same spread of clothing both in terms of quality and style as one might see in the UK. You will see the a mix of expensive smart, all sorts of casual, and down-market catalogue tat. Yet somehow they look better in their clothes. My theory is that this is because there are fewer obese specimens. Classy tailoring hides a multitude of calorie sins which cheap cuts have more trouble concealing. When people look OK in catalogue clothes it may be because their clothes have less work to do. Not being obese is a good start. And not snacking is a good start to not being obese.

And the food thing starts young. Next time you are in France, check out a primary school. If it has a notice board you may find the weeks menus on display. You will be amazed. School meals are similar to the meals their elders will be eating at exactly the same time - including a cheese course – though I have yet to see wine on the kid’s menu.

Click on this menu to fully digest the splendid
culinary experience that are French school meals
If you find another primary school with menus on display see if they are the same. I have not done this but suspect that the menus are centrally devised, possibly with local variations.

While most of us are aware of the blah-blah about the French culinary arts, many are less aware of how constrained local cuisine can be. Outside of the big cities or posh restaurants the menus are quite limited. There tend to be some national staples and the local speciality dishes. You go out to eat at an average restaurant in the provinces for a change, you go out because your guests want to repay your hospitality, you go out for quality, you go out for a seasonal food special, you go out for freshness, you go because you can’t be arsed to cook. You do not go out for variety.

Every region has its specialities. Ours is duck. Of course there are other bits and pieces, we have great lamb, industrial quantities of apples, melons and prueaux, and a lot of grapes (natch), sunflowers and corn on the cob abound (corn is too good for humans and is reserved for cattle), but what you see on just about every menu is confit du canard - the signifier of our locality.  

We have home made examples tinned at home with home made labels and sold by the maker in the market.



There are artisan duck merchants who use glass jars and better quality labels.

 
And there are the full blown commercial producers supplying supermarkets with racks of the stuff in all its variety.

 
There is also foie gras, the duck and goose liver which is the object of much debate and anger. Most people will recognise the picture of the bird grasped between stout thighs having corn rammed down its throat to make the liver unnaturally large, a distressing and cruel process.

I always thought that fois gras was a paté made from duck or goose livers. It turns out that they are in fact whole livers. C’est tout. Your get your duck, ensure it is dead, rip out its liver, split it into two lobes, remove the veins with tweezers, sear it very quickly and stuff it in a jar.

 
Of course it is not necessary to force-feed ducks. Some say it is only done for financial gain – like so many processes undertaken by humans. Other claim it is in order to conform to the EU regulation about the minimum size and fat content of a genuine foie gras. As with line-caught tuna and veal from free range calves, it is possible to buy naturally-fed ducks with smaller, and possibly less fatty, but nonetheless delicious livers.

So it is against this background that Tricia, and to a much lesser extent I, become enmeshed in some local confitting. 

Watch this space… meanwhile here is an old canard

 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Trees Company

Imagine a triangle with all its sides the same length. At one corner is Cahors, where the rich, black/red wine comes from. Moving clockwise on the map, at the next corner is Montatuban where I get my cement. At the third corner is Agen, after which the prunes are named (for those of you who have failed to make the leap, these would be the famed, Agen Prunes – or Pruneaux d’Agen).

These are not to be confused with the teeth-breaking bullets found at the back of a low shelf in Tesco.
Or the Californian variety with the paraffin gloss, mammoth marketing budget and pitiful pun 'Sun Maid' (TM).

Come round here with your shriven plums and
your ‘look at me, I'm so pruny’ sloganising.

Compare the grossly exploited Sun Maid, sent out in all weathers to sell dried fruit from a basket in order to line the pockets of the California plum barons, with the Prune Girls of the Old South West. Here they are just back from the round up.

Three Prune Girls
Sporty Prune, Stoned Prune and Baby Prune

There’s simply no comparison. When the Prune Girls get home there’s fun to be had. None of that ‘goody-two-prunes’ nonsense. These girls put the raisin in ‘raison-d’etre’. Well that’s what it says on the Prune Girls 2007 calendar…

We are the Pune Girls, Agen bound are we
We take a pride in our fine lingerie
They're our big pruny panties, which we don't try to hide
Always on show and worn on the outside
(there's more but you really don't want to know)


Pruneaux d’Agen are what plums were made for. With the exception of Reine Claude (more about these later), plums are interesting for a moment, but soon lose their appeal. The same cannot be said of the noble prune. The butt of many a  scatological put-down, prunes are simply sublime – and we are lucky enough to live in the prune capital of the world.


To the south and west, Poulet is hemmed in by plum orchards. The amount of blossom in April is enough to make you sick. 

 

All around is vapid whiteness contrasting with an overwhelming fragrance. But I managed to drag myself down there last year and bang off a few shots for your benefit before being overcome by the rampant fecundity of it all.

‘Never mind’ I thought, ‘it’s all in a good cause.’

Mmm...

The man who used to own the plum orchards, and tried to convert them into a golf course, got his just deserts and has moved on to fresh pastures. 

The new owner is a young chap who is really going for it and has already cut out the dead wood from last year and planted replacements for the trees that just fell over due to the weight of plums (honest!).

We, too, have planted some fruit trees, admittedly on a more modest scale. We dug up some fig tree stringers a planted them a few years ago and had our first figs least year. We have two variety of apple and pears, a peach tree, and an apricot tree.

We did plant some plum trees, though these were the little orange Mirabelles and the world’s best plum, the Reine Claude. In the UK we call them greengages and they should not be judged on the ghastly greengage jam we had to suffer as children. They are simply delicious and we await the first crop with some anticipation.

But Queen Claude… doesn’t sound right.

Queen Claude
Duchess of Brittany

Not much to look at either.

We decided not to plant any cherry trees as Juliette had half a dozen, including early and late varieties. These fruited over a five week season at the end of which we could not look another cherry in the face. Then she sold the field to the plum-man and the bugger grubbed up all the cherry trees to grow EU subsidies. 

Anyway… the reason I started all this was because we also have three noisette (hazel) trees. They grow so vigorously that they threaten to obscure the view of Lauzerte and most of the sky if we do not keep them under control. Following our neighbour's lead, earlier on this afternoon I was out on the estate with a pair of secateurs on a very long pole, trying to beat them into submission.

Suitably submissive noisette

Looking down the hill I could see the plum orchard, and as I trimmed away a thought of such profundity came upon me that I felt obliged to share it with you. 

I thought: I’d rather be pruning a nut tree than nutting a prune tree.

Thank you, and goodnight…

Friday, January 14, 2011

Barn Storming

We bought our barn at the end of 2001. The following summer we spent six weeks living in the woods with a lot of family and friends and started work on the pile of rubble which was the collapsed roof.

 
 
One day while out foraging for forage we passed a large barn on a hill and went for a closer look. It was a magnificent construction, several times the size of ours, and felt more like a church.

 
Although we recognised that it would be a much bigger project than we were prepared to take on, we thought it would make a wonderful home, workshop, gallery, cinema (etc).

Meanwhile back at the ranch we installed a caravan, tidied up the timber...


...removed old stones and broken tiles...

 
...and generally cleared up.


We decided to level the floor by digging out a little bit of sand piled up in the corner.

This amounted to several cubic metres of the damn stuff and moving it took three days. It also proved to be the ground on which the walls are built... so we did some underpinning.

(lousy pic of underpinning taken at night - trust me on this)

By the beginning of September the place looked much better and we could (just) imagine what it might look like with a roof, doors and windows. We went back to UK to decide what we were going to do next. 

Over the winter, gravity, which had been waiting patiently for some help, took its toll. All that was needed was a bit of bad weather.
 

Fortunately, all this would have had to come down anyway - the elements had just reduced the cost. This was the only time we managed that particular feat.

Earlier this year I was passing the BIG barn and went to see how it was getting on. It wasn’t. Someone had started to do some work, they had moved in a caravan, done some tidying up, cleared timber and stones...
  

and the thing had damn nearly collapsed.

 

I could have told them that.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cool It

We have a nuclear power station about 20 miles down the road. They hide it behind trees, but everyone knows it's there.

Looking down the valley from Lauzerte we can see the steam rising from the cooling towers. On very still days the steam just goes striaght up. If there are no clouds it looks like racing stripes in the blue sky.



It is in a town calld Golfech. In the high street there is a restaurant called The Goldfish.... my, how we laughed.

There is a lake next to the towers. It has to be kept full (ish) so that there is always enough water to cool the reactors. We have had at least average rainfall recently but for some reason 'they' have drained the canal which runs through Golfech on its way from Bordeaux to the Med.


Half our local conspiracy theorists think that the lake is leaking into the canal so the canal has been drained to stop the radioactive water leaking into the Med, the others half think the canal has been drained into the lake because the reactor is overheating.

It's all nonsense on course... isn't it... you can never really be sure, can you...?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Some of My Favourite Things

Don’t you just hate those questions so beloved of the tossers who design on-line security systems that ask for you favourite something or other?. The ubiquitous question that no one else was supposed to be able to answer was What is your mother’s maiden name? Although it survived into the Internet age, I think this has  finally had it’s day.

Now we get ‘favourites’. What is your favourite movie (not film you notice, but movie), name, team, song, band etc. These are the sort of questions that six-year olds could probably answer but after the age of about 14 most people start to recognise that it is possible to have, for example, two best friends (one male and one female, springs to mind), and the exclusivity of ‘best’ loses some of its power - and with it goes the difficulty of remembering which one you filled in on the form.

I have a secret system for answering these questions as they are unavoidable if you want to use the Internet, but I can’t tell you what it is as that would render the whole damn exercise completely pointless.

Having thought about it for a while I realise that I do also have some real favourites. They are few in number and although I think they are absolute, sod’s law says that some of them are likely to change. Regardless I think it is fair to say none of the on-line security-toss questions have ever asked for any of them. 

I have a favourite beer and a favourite back-up beer in case the first one is off. I have a favourite vehicle and I have a favourite building. Manchester Town Hall.

 
I first visited it in 19blah-de-blah when I didn't really notice it, it was just 'there'. I went back with the Zap Club on Tour in 1985 ish and got to wander around the place at will. This included much-roaming-on-the-roof which is a truly fantastic space and should be required visiting for anyone who likes going where they shouldn’t.

Neil being where he shouldn't.
Having said that, if I was asked to choose between Manchester Town Hall and St Pancras Station (including the hotel which is the most visible bit) I would be hard pressed to answer. Probably just as well this is not going to happen.



By a strange coincidence another of my favourites is also in Manchester. I have visited Jamie and Sarah there a couple of times in the last few years. On both occasions we have trawled the 'best' bars which include a pub with the biggest selection of single malts since the last one to make the same claim. Another had been a public toilet.


and The Deaf Institute

 

My mum always had areas of blue and white style wallpaper and fabric scattered around the house. It was a classic style featuring 17th century rustic French scenes. One was usually a young girl on a swing flashing her ankles at a young man on a horse who was obviously thinking about swapping his mount. They looked a bit like this:


Another version had a shepherdesses and some other young man looking at each other.Well, let’s face it, there’s not much to do in the French countryside today, let alone in the 17th century before the joys of the Internet. Suffice to say that this attempt at some sort of Marie-Antoinette / Sun-King culture has always rankled, partly because it's so crass and partly because it's complete crap.

So it was with some surprise that I discovered that the Deaf Institute has the very same wallpaper. Well not quite the same, rather than blue this was in pink but otherwise identical. This is what I saw:


What was going on? This was a young person's dive. A chilled (and very pricey) bar downstairs, and a pumping live music venue with proscenium arched stage above. Very c-o-o-l flyers and posters advertised gigs that would probably not let me in on grounds of letting the side down. So what were they doing with my mother’s wallpaper?

Closer inspection revealed that I had merely imagined the sample illustrated above. Their version was a London-themed pastiche. 

Out, were the swings, shepherdesses, pony carts and young men in panting breeches. In, was an old man in a turban getting his breath back on a park bench


Cool dudes, coolly dude-ing next to what I think might be a small tower-clock on the Harrow Road and Ladbroke Grove’s Trellick Tower in the background.

.


A woman with a trolley, St Paul's and a Gherkin being ignored by a striding man on a mobile

 
Rapper style gun-crime (with cones)


Street-drinking-on-Thames 


And rather more bizarrely, a young black kid riding bike with training-wheels in a tree (at lease, I thinks it's a black kid and I think he's in a tree)


I never realised that I had a favourite wallpaper, but I am beginning to suspect that this might be it - not that I'd want to live with it, but I'm quite happy to visit it occasionally.