Friday, November 7, 2008

French Treats

The bed in our spare room is beginning to resemble the village epicerie.In anticipation of our trip back to the UK I'm starting a collection of French specialities to enliven our Christmas celebrations. I've even gone to the lengths of paying for hold luggage to transport them all. As Daughter-Turned-New-Mum said when I told her of yet another gourmet item I'd added to the list, 'Are you actually bringing any clothes?'

Eldest-and-Wisest-Daughter kicked off the campaign by reminding me that she was very partial to marrons glacés and would I be bringing any? As that was early October there were none in the shops then, but lo, like the Star in the East, they appeared in the supermarket last week. One box went in the shopping trolley along with a vacuum pack of smoked duck breast. Now I'm dithering as to whether I should buy another packet of smoked many will there be for Christmas lunch? I intend to prepare a 'Gascon' starter of paper-thin slices of duck and foie gras with caramelised apple or fresh figs if I can lay my hands on any fairly easily. I know foie gras is an emotive subject, but it is delicious, a statement which won't win me any brownie points with those who are dead against the production of it.

Proper Gascon salad should have gesiers in it as well, but they're an acquired taste, one which I haven't acquired but The Captain is very enamoured of them. Gesiers are basically gizzards which have been slow cooked (or confit-ed) in duck or goose fat. They're then sliced and together with the smoked duck scattered over a bed of mixed salad leaves. Sometimes lightly fried chicken livers are added as well.I try to avoid the genuine Salade de Gascogne when I see it on a menu.They are served at many of our village lunches (where there's no menu) and are very popular with everyone except me, who tries to flick the (to me) unappetising offal over to The Captains plate without anyone seeing. I can't imagine gizzard salad going down very well at our family lunch, and I may have to go easy on the foie gras so's not to offend any Christmas guests who might be a little more sensitive than my lot.

Confit of duck is always welcome in our family, so tins of that have already been sent back via friends. As the tins usually weigh around a kilo each I'm not dragging them back in a suitcase. Gascony and the Haute Garonne is the spiritual home of the duck and the goose so the shops are bursting with all things duck/goose orientated all year round, but its in November that it really comes into it's own, with supermarket offers on legs, breasts, livers, gizzards and even carcasses, to confit for the winter. Both daughters would like some jars of goose fat, but they'll have to wait until someone comes down with a car. I'm not paying for excess baggage just so they can have crispy roast potatoes, although spuds roasted in duck or goose fat are to die for!

If I had the weight to spare I'd rather take some tins of cassoulet. That's a real winter warmer and a signature dish of Southwest France. The inhabitants of Castelnaudery (between Toulouse and Carcassonne) lay claim to the vrai cassoulet. Anything else is a pale imitation, they say. There are many variations to the dish but the undeniable essential is dried haricot beans...purists would say they must be lingots and hail from Tarbes, but again there's argument about that. But then, the French love a good argument, especially if it concerns food.

Castelnaudery is a pleasant but unremarkable little town on the Canal de Midi notable for being the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion (a trivial piece of information, but one that might stand you in good stead at the next pub quiz night )as well as producing a stonking good cassoulet. Castlnaudery insist on having masses of pork in duck, just big chunks of belly and /or loin, couennes (thin strips of pork rind)and sausage of course. No self -respecting cassoulet can be served without really thick porky sausage. In Toulouse they add some neck of lamb and a piece or two of duck confit, and the sausage has to be the Toulouse variety...packed with pure,lean pork and capable of withstanding several hours of cooking. Carcassonne prefers to use leg of lamb - just to get one up on Toulouse probably!
The recipe for cassoulet is not complicated, it's only a bean casserole after all, but the list of ingredients is endless so I'll devote a separate blog to that later.

But back to the spare bed. I'd like to take some glacé fruits, oh.... and I'll be taking some Agen prunes as a joke 'pressie' for a friend. If you need to eat prunes at least make the experience enjoyable by eating the king of dried plums from the Agen orchards. They're big, fat and totally scrumptious. To be consumed in moderation, as they say on bottles of wine...which no-one takes any notice of.

There is also a small, but growing pile of baby clothes on the bed as well. What ever can they be for ?

photo of marrons by curtesy of : passamanrie/

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