Foods of a French Village
25 May 2006
report by Jeanine Avigdor,
On Thursday, 25 May 2006, members of the Culinary Historians of Canada and the Friends of Etobicoke's Heritage enjoyed an evening at Montgomery's Inn with Dr Pierre Laszlo, science writer and Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, who shared his love of French regional cooking with us. His lecture was illustrated with slides of many dishes, attractively presented. I won’t attempt to describe these photographs (the thousand-word cliché), but will state that I would be happy to find most of the plates in front of me at the dinner table.
Dr Laszlo lives in Sénergues, a village in the region of Aveyron. (I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is about 12 km from Conques, where I stayed overnight a few years ago.) This is the langue d'oc, a distinctive part of France where Occitan has been spoken for centuries. He began by giving a brief geographical and historical description of the region, noting that the Lot River runs by his village. As a tributary of the Garonne River, for centuries the Lot has afforded easy access to the Atlantic and the regions between, as well as being a food source.
In earlier times, river boats carrying coal, wood and other goods dragged bags of salt cod behind them. After this long soaking in fresh water, the cod on arrival was ready to be made into brandade, a traditional dish which varies from place to place, but is comprised of pieces of salt cod mixed with oil and cream. The name is derived from "estofado," Spanish for "stew"; the recipe was brought to the region by Dutch mariners during the 17 th century, when Spain ruled the Netherlands. Thus the river also served as a conduit for new ways of preparing foods.
We saw pictures of the handsome local cows, which have attractive lyre-shaped horns and a dark line around the eyes "like makeup." Above the river valley is a broad plateau where the cows are taken during the growing season to pasture on the rich grass. There, the herdsmen make the milk into cantal cheese, which is an ingredient in aligot (from Latin aliquod: something, i.e. something to eat). As Dr Laszlo explained, a weary traveler, having struggled over the plateau in the cold and rain, would need "something" to eat that was nourishing and hot. To make aligot, cream and butter are folded into mashed potatoes, then tomme de cantal (the drained, pressed and unripened cheese) is added. The serving I ate in Conques was delicious and satisfying.
Dr Laszlo sees aligot not primarily as a cheese dish, but as a tribute to the potato, the staple food which saved people from starvation in the lean years of the late 18th and 19th centuries. This was only one of several instances where he made reference to the social importance of food. One of the slides showed cheese streaming down into huge vats of the potato mixture, as large quantities of aligot were being prepared for a festival. At a special market of regional products near him, he observed that before the market opened, all the men (no women were present) were sitting together eating a breakfast of tripe au feu (tripe simmered in wine, with carrots, onions and herbs). For these merchants, the market was a social occasion. Because people of the region consider the flavour of chicken "not very interesting", chickens are kept mainly for eggs. Duck is the dominant fowl in cooking; and rendered duck fat is used not only where fat is needed, but also as a rich flavouring in many dishes. Confitde canard (pieces of duck meat cooked and potted in the fat) is one of the ingredients of cassoulet, a dish popular throughout the langue d’oc. Depending on the locality, cassoulet is made with either white beans or lentils, and includes sausage and slices of pork or mutton, as well as the confit. Duck foie gras is enjoyed along with a glass of port, another import from the west by way of the river. A popular alternative fowl is pintade, or guinea fowl. A slide illustrated pieces of the roasted meat served on slices of juniper-flavoured bread.
The most unusual picture was of a dessert cooked on a spit. As the spit slowly turns over the fire, batter is continuously poured over it, and baked until it is a crisp cake called gateau au broche.
We heard the story of a "wild boy" found long ago, who had survived for years in the woods by eating wild mushrooms, nuts and fruits. Such wild foods are in common use in food and drink preparation. Of the wild mushrooms, chanterelles are often pickled in vinegar, while cepes are dried to be used as flavouring for soups and a popular fricassee. Although chestnuts are considered "starvation food," walnuts are made into a wine using red wine as a base. The root of yellow gentian is made into a popular digestive, and blackberries into liqueur.
Dr Laszlo generously allowed me to copy his recipe for blackberry liqueur:
Crème de Mûr
1 kilo of fruit
Heat water and sugar in a saucepan until you have sirop au perlé, meaning a spoon covered with syrup will yield pearls of syrup in a glass of cold water (i.e., a heavy syrup). Pour the syrup over the cleaned blackberries, and let the extraction proceed overnight in the cold. Filter, add the spirits, and let rest for two or three months.
In the social time following the lecture, we enjoyed a sample of brandade de morue prepared by Fiona Lucas, served with black olives.
What a delicious way to spend an evening!
Brandade de Morue:
Joy of Cooking, NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975, p 405.
Suitable for serving hot as a main dish or cold as hors d'oeuvre, a brandade is in either case beaten to a mousselinelike consistency.
Please read about Salt Cod, [below].
Prepare for flaking and poach about 30 minutes in water to cover.
1 1/2 lb. freshened salt cod
2 cups freshly boiled, riced potatoes
Drain and flake the fish and combine it with:
1/3 cup warm olive oil
in which you have sautéed, then removed:
2 cloves garlic
1 cup warm milk or cream
Put the fish and oil mixture into a blender alternately with the potatoes and warm milk, and blend at moderate speed until it is smooth and fluffy. Serve it hot on a platter garnished with:
Grilled Tomatoes, 332, and
Buttered Croutons, 551
or chilled, garnished with
Parsley and black olives
Salt cod, often very tough, is pounded before desalting. To freshen salt cod, leave it under running water for 6 hours; or soak it up to 48 hours in several changes of water in a glass, enamel or stainless steel pan. Salt cold is most often used flaked. To prepare for flaking, put the desalted fish in cold unsalted Court Bouillon, 525, to cover, then bring it to a boil and simmer 20 to 30 minutes. Drain, skin, bone and flake it. One pound dried salt cod will yield about 2 cups cooked flaked fish.