31 July 2010

Brandade de morue (salt cod and potatoes)

Walt and I keep a list, pinned to the side of the refrigerator by a magnet, of dishes we want to cook at some point in the future. Right now, some of the items on it are alouettes sans têtes (a.k.a. paupiettes de veau/dinde/porc) , steak and kidney pie (the British dish), quenelles de brochet (fish dumplings), and tourte lorraine (a meat pie from from the Lorraine region of France). Another dish that was on our list but can now be scratched off is called brandade de morue. Morue is salt cod, and brandade is made by de-salting, poaching, de-boning, and then mashing the fish into a kind of paste with olive oil, onions, and garlic. Surprisingly enough, brandade is a dish that comes from the south of France — Provence and the area around Nîmes — where salt cod is a staple of the traditional diet.
Salt cod — we bought a whole cod as well as a fillet — soaking in fresh water to leech out the excess salt
We made brandade de morue on Thursday morning for our lunch. It was a group effort, with CHM, Walt, and I working on different parts of it at different stages. Cooking the salt cod on Thursday required starting on Wednesday, however, because the first step in preparing salt cod is to soak the fish in cold water for 24 hours to get most of the salt out of it. Salt cod seems to be permanently available in the supermarkets in Saint-Aignan and Noyers.
Here's the fish after soaking — cut into medium-size pieces and in the pot to be poached in fresh water.
Soaking the cod means not just putting it in cold water for 24 hours, but also changing the water at least three or four times during that stretch of time. Evidently, the salt falls to the bottom — salt water is heavier than fresh water — so it's also good to put the fish on a rack to keep it from bathing in the saltiest water at the bottom of the container. Every few hours, then, pour off all the salty water and run new cold, fresh water in.
And here it is cooling on a baking sheet.
I was amazed at how good and fresh the soaking water and the fish smelled. Just a sniff of it took me back to my coastal North Carolina roots, when we ate fresh fish all the time. The de-salted cod doesn't smell fishy at all, but it smells like the sea — like fine, fresh fish. I found it very appetizing.
Walt mashed the poached codfish in a stone mortar with a heavy pestle. It looked and even smelled like good crabmeat at that point.
After the fish is soaked and de-salted, it plumps up slightly. The next step is to cut it into pieces, bones and all, and to poach it. Put the pieces of fish in a big pot of fresh, cold water, and bring it to the boil. As soon as the pot starts to bubble, pour off that first water and replace it with more cold, fresh water. That continues the desalination process. Bring the fish back to a simmer in the second water and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Then take the pieces of fish out with a slotted spoon and spread them out on a baking pan to cool.
Cook and mash a couple of pounds of potatoes. Don't add anything to them at this point.
There are two styles of brandade de morue. One is just the fish with olive oil, garlic, and onions. The other is the fish with those same ingredients, but mixed into mashed potatoes. That's the version we decided to make — a garden plot full of King Edward potatoes oblige. So while the fish is cooling, cook about an equal weight of peeled potatoes by putting them in a pot of cold water and bringing them to the boil. Adding a couple of bay leaves to the pot won't hurt anything. Don't add salt, though. When the potatoes are done, take them out of the water with a slotted spoon, put them in a bowl, and mash them with a fork or a potato masher.
"Sweat" some chopped onion and pressed garlic in a cup of olive oil on low heat. You just want to soften them, not brown them.
When the fish is cool enough to handle, carefully flake each piece with your hands, removing and discarding all the skin and bones. If you want to, you can put the fish in batches in a mortar and mash it with the pestle. Or you can just put the flaked fish in the pot as described below and mash it up with a heavy wooden spoon. This recipe assumes you have about a kilogram (2 to 2½ lbs.) of salt cod (weighed before soaking) and an equal quantity of potatoes. Altogether, you'll need about 2 cups of olive oil.
Stir the fish and the potatoes into the warm olive oil to make a paste. Add warm milk or cream as needed to get the right consistency.
In a big pot — the same pot will work for all the steps in the recipe, since things get cooked in stages — pour in about a cup of olive oil. In it, "sweat" three small onions, chopped, and six cloves of garlic, pressed (or crushed and chopped). Keep the heat low so the onions and garlic don't scorch, but just soften. When they're done, put the flaked or mashed fish into the pot, still on low heat, and start beating, stirring, and crushing it energetically with a heavy wooden spoon.
Pour the brandade into a baking dish. No need to oil the pan.
Once the fish is reduced to fine shreds, add the mashed potato flesh. Stir that in energetically and add the rest of the olive oil, gradually, carefully whipping it in so that the mixture thickens up and doesn't separate. If it looks too thick, add some warm whole milk (or cream) little by little, beating it in thoroughly, until you have a fairly thick paste.
Drizzle on some olive oil and bake the brandade de morue until it turns golden brown.
Taste the mixture for salt. Ours needed some at this point. Also grind in plenty of black pepper. Pour the brandade into a baking dish, smooth off the top with a spatula, and drizzle some olive oil over it. Set the dish in a fairly hot oven and let it cook for 15 or 20 minutes until the top is at least dried out, if not browned. Ours came out golden brown.
Serve brandade de morue with a green vegetable or a salad.
Once it's browned, it's ready to serve and eat. It is delicious — not fishy-tasting at all, but nutty and rich. Serve it with a green vegetable (we had fresh green beans) or a big green salad in a vinaigrette dressing. Don't forget the bread and wine. This recipe makes a lot of brandade de morue — it would easily serve 6 or even 8 as a main course. If there aren't that many of you, the leftovers will freeze well. Let the brandade cool and then cut it into squares for freezing.

30 July 2010

Wildlife and geese at La Corroirie

Here are some more pictures of La Corroirie, the fortified medieval religious/farming complex located about 15 minutes' drive southwest of Saint-Aignan, near Montrésor and Loches. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, we were there on a sunny, warm afternoon, and we saw a lot of animals, both wild and domestic.

The man named Jeff de Mareüil who lives at La Corroirie — and now operates it as a B&B — told us that he had the land all around his property classified as a « zone humide » — a wetland — a few years ago. He now seems to have some regrets about having taking that step, because wetlands are subject to very strict controls when it comes to building and renovation projects. But it's too late to change the property's status now.

The main tower at La Corroirie is a fortification.

And that piece of land has always been a wetland, actually. As Susan described on Days on the Claise the other day, La Corroirie sits in a little valley that was once marshy and swampy. It still is, really, but the land has been drained and there's a small artificial lake across the road.

A frog in the streambed in front of that fortified tower

A stream runs right in front of the main building, which is a fortifed farmhouse. It served as a kind of moat, back in the days when moats were effective and necessary. It also is home to frogs, lizards, birds, and a lot of insects, including many dragonflies and butterflies.

A butterfly on a loosestrife plant at La Corroirie

Being a farm, La Corroirie also is home to barnyard animals, especially chickens and geese. There used to be a beautiful rooster. Jeff de Mareüil says the rooster is still there, but he is confined to a coop nowadays because he kept attacking visitors. Roosters will be roosters — they are aggressive. We didn't see le coq when we were there on Tuesday.

The main religious building at La Corroirie

We did, however, see the geese — les oies [lay-zwah]. They are highly agressive too. They're penned in, so there isn't any danger to tourists like us. Geese make a lot of noise, though. They honk loud enough to deafen any adversary, and they hiss like snakes, showing intruders the big fat pink tongue that they have inside their bills.

Corroirie geese, honking and hissing

Okay, enough reminiscing about a nice afternoon at La Corroirie. Today, CHM and I are off to see the châteaux and other monuments at Luynes, Champchevrier, Cinq-Mars-la-Pile, and Langeais — and probably others (Ussé and Azay-le-Rideau are close by). All these are on the west side of Tours, a good hour's drive from Saint-Aignan. We are also — I am also, I should say — planning a couple of stops chez des viticulteurs in Restigné and Bourgueil to buy some nice red wine.

29 July 2010

Prolific potato plants

Yesterday I dug up two more potato plants. There are still 18 or 20 plants left. I gave the dozen or so potatoes from one plant to a couple of friends who had stopped by for an afternoon visit.

The second plant that I pulled out was amazing. You can tell from the picture below: it produced just over 30 potatoes, many of them pretty hefty. I just put them on the scale and they weighed in at a little more than three kilos — nearly seven pounds. From one plant!

Three+ kilos — nearly seven pounds — of
King Edward potatoes from one plant!

If all the other 18 plants produce only two kilos of potatoes each, that will be 36 kilos, or nearly 80 pounds. And if they produce more... well, it's incredible. It is time to start giving them away to friends and neighbors.

Golden, oven-roasted King Edward potatoes

Last Sunday I roasted some garden-grown potatoes in the oven, to accompany a spit-roasted chicken. They were beautiful — golden and crispy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside. You can't ask for better than that.

Here's the chicken: a free-range chicken raised
on a farm near Orléans. I bought it fresh at
the abattoir (the processing plant) near Blois.

I think I'll be able to figure out how to store all these potatoes, so that we can continue enjoying them over the winter. Downstairs in the back of our utility room, we have a cellier — a pantry — with a dirt floor. It has no windows, so it's pitch dark in there. Maybe the potatoes will enjoy that environment and last for a while.

To go with chicken and potatoes, a dish of cooked Swiss chard
from the garden, with a sauce of cream and Dijon mustard.

The potatoes I planted are the King Edwards that Jean (A Very Grand Pressigny) and Nick brought us from England last April, all “chitted” — sprouted — and ready to go in the ground. They are mealy (floury) potatoes that are good oven-roasted. I imagine they'd be good French-fried, in a soup, or mashed — made into a puree.

Sunday dinner

I'll find that out today. We are making a dish called brandade de morue this morning. It's a specialty of the South of France, and it's rehydrated and desalted salt cod poached and flaked, and then mixed into mashed potatoes. You make it with a lot of garlic and olive oil, and a little cream or milk. More about that later.

28 July 2010

An afternoon in the sun at La Corroirie

Yesterday CHM and I drove down to Preuilly-sur-Claise to spend the day with Susan and Simon of Days on the Claise. We wanted to take a look at all the renovation and restoration work S+S have been doing at their place.

The church and farm buildings at La Corroirie

We also had on our schedule an afternoon trip to visit and meet the owner of a fortified medieval farm/church complex called La Corroirie, which is located on the road between Loches and Montrésor. I've posted about La Corroirie before, here and here. La Corroirie [kor-wah-REE] now operates as a bed and breakfast.

La Corroirie, a medieval fortified farm and church complex
on the road between Montrésor and Loches

We spent a while looking around at S&S's place. Then we drove up to Loches — or, to be more accurate, the adjoining town of Beaulieu-lès-Loches — to have lunch in a little restaurant called L'Estaminet. It's on a place — a square — right next to the old abbey church and the town hall — la mairie. CHM and I, in the Peugeot, followed behind S+S, in Célestine, for the 30-minute drive.

CHM, Susan, and Ken with Célestine
in front of the café called L'Estaminet
Thanks to Simon for taking a picture of us with my camera

Lunch was served on the terrace, in the shade of a big awning, on a hot and sunny afternoon. It was a very pleasant hour or two. Simon and I each had a tartine campagnarde as our main course — a kind of French bruschetta, in other words, a slice of toasted bread with a piece of ham and some melted cheese on top. It came with a big lettuce and tomato salad. Susan and CHM each had aiguillettes de canard — strips of duck tenderloin — in a red wine sauce, with mixed vegetables and a puree of potato and carrot.

Simon in the archway of the fortified tower at La Corroirie

At La Corroirie, we met the owner, Jeff de Mareüil, and he took us on a tour of the dining room, living room, and two bedrooms that he rents out by the day to guests. The rooms are magnificent — decorated by local artists, with period furniture. It was all very comfortable- and authentic-looking, in character with the beautiful exteriors of the buildings.

CHM leaning on Célectine to get a good picture
of the fortified farmhouse

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the grounds and into the old church and farm buildings. We saw frogs, dragonflies, geese, butterflies, and a lot of flowers. There's a big organic vegetable garden on the grounds, and an old hemp oven. It was a pretty nice day.

27 July 2010

L'Eglise Saint-Ouen in Rouen

I spent last Thursday afternoon in Rouen. The mission was a visit to the curator of the Musée des Beaux Arts there with CHM, who was donating his grandfather's drawing of Jeanne d'Arc to the collections there.

A picture of the Eglise Saint-Ouen that I took when
Walt and I were in Rouen in June 2003.

As a side benefit, the curator gave us passes to attend the current special Impressionist exhibit at the museum — it is dozens of impressionist paintings depicting the city of Rouen. They've been brought in from all over the world. It was very crowded, but worth the effort to see these paintings displayed together.

The Saint-Ouen church in Rouen (Normandy) has the
dimensions and proportions of the great Gothic cathedrals.

Afterward, we decided to go visit one of Rouen's great churches. There are three: the cathedral, painted many times in different seasons and at different times of day by Claude Monet; the Eglise Saint-Maclou, a flamboyant Gothic gem built between 1437 and 1517; and the Eglise Saint-Ouen, built starting in the early 1300s and as grand as many of France's cathedrals (even though it is not a cathedral). The last is the one we went to have a look at. Currently, there's an art exhibit in the Saint-Ouen church.

The Eglise Saint-Ouen in Rouen

Even after walking around with CHM in six or eight grand churches over the previous few days, including the cathedral in Amiens (one of France's largest, and an archetype of gothic architecture), Saint-Ouen was impressive. Maybe because there is almost no seating — no pews, just a few chairs — in the church now, it seems even bigger than it really is. You can see the scale of it in at least one of my pictures, because there are people standing next to the pillars that hold up the vaulted ceilings. They are dwarfed by the building.

The people in this picture give you a sense
of the scale of the building.

As I've said many times on this blog, I lived in Rouen in 1972-73, when I worked as an English-language teaching assistant in one of the city's high schools, the Lycée Corneille. It was a formative year for me — my second trip to France, and longer than the first one. It was the trip during which I made friends with several French students and their families, and during which I really started to become fluent in French.

The stained glass in the Saint-Ouen church dates back to the 1500s.

Rouen is called the Ville-Musée — the whole city, which is a lively port town with a vibrant street life, is an art and architecture museum. It's much smaller than Paris, but with a lot of major monuments, museums, restaurants, cafés, and markets crammed into a very small space. It's only an hour and a half by train from Paris, and it's really worth the journey. It's also been called "the town with 100 steeples" because it has so many old churches. It's history goes back to Roman times.

Eglise Saint-Ouen

I'm posting a few pictures here that I took inside the Eglise Saint-Ouen last week. Only the first photo is older than that. I've been lucky to be able to go back to Rouen and see its attractions and sights many times over the past 35 years. The city never disappoints me.

25 July 2010

Pâtissons farcis au riz et à l'ail

More about artwork and travels in the north tomorrow and the following days. Yesterday we spent a quiet but busy day in Saint-Aignan. We all needed and deserved the rest, and that includes Walt, who sanded the walls upstairs, mowed the lawn, walked the dog twice a day, and tended the garden all by himself while I was on the road.

Hollow out the steamed patty-pan squash and
peel, seed, and dice a tomato.

We got two big patty-pan squashes out of the garden over the last couple of days. They were begging to be cooked, and they looked like a kind of squash that could be farci (stuffed) with a good result. Walt said he had eaten one earlier in the week that he cooked by steaming it, and that sounded like a good idea — so I did it too.

Patty-pan squashes stuffed with the squash flesh (seeds and all),
cooked rice, diced tomato, shallots, garlic, and herbs,
with grated parmesan cheese

A closer view

The two squashes just barely fit in the steamer basket (une marguerite in French, because it has a shape like a daisy) in the bottom of our biggest stock pot. They steamed for 15 or 20 minutes, until they were soft enough for me to be able to cut out the center and scoop out the flesh. It would be better to let them cool first, but I didn't have time. I burned my fingers.

Put the "caps" back on over the stuffing and
drizzle on some olive oil before baking.

The stuffing was improvised. Chop up a shallot or a small onion and sauté it in some olive oil. Add the scooped-out squash flesh, a diced tomato, and five cloves of garlic, pressed or finely chopped. Let all that cook together until it dries out and begins to stick to the pan. At the last minute, add a cupful of cooked rice, some salt and pepper, a little (smoked) paprika, and a big bunch of herbs, chopped. Parsley and basil are good but other herbs could be good too.

Here's one fresh out of the oven, in a serving dish.

Take the stuffing off the heat and when it has cooled slightly, mix in a half a cup or more of finely grated parmesan (or other) cheese. Spoon the stuffing into the hollowed-out patty-pan squash shells. It doesn't matter much, by the way, if in the scooping-out process you end up making a hole in the bottom of the squash. The stuffing is not liquid and it will hold together.

Sliced into wedges, it's ready to eat.
Don't forget the grated cheese.

Put the "caps" back on the stuffed squashes. Drizzle some olive oil over them, and grind some black pepper over them if you want. Set them side by side in a big baking dish and put them in the oven at 400ºF/200ºC for 15 or 20 minutes until they look done. Everything is already cooked, so they won't take too long. If you've let the stuffed squashes cool completely before putting them in the oven, bake them longer at a lower temperature so that they will heat through without scorching.

Stuffed squash with a turkey sausage
and some whole-grain bread

That's it. Cut each squash into four or even six wedges and serve. We had ours with grilled boudins blancs (white poultry sausages in this case) that contained chopped ceps (cèpes in French, Boletus edulis in Latin), which are also called porcini mushrooms in some countries.

The stuffed squash and sausages were a good combo, but serve the stuffed patty-pans with whatever you want, or have them as a main course. the patty-pan squash tastes a little bit like an artichoke.

24 July 2010

CHM's grandfather's paintings

CHM's grandfather was a painter who lived in the 1800s. His name was Charles-Henri Michel and he was born in a little village in Picardy, just a few miles north of the town of Péronne. That's where CHM and I went last Tuesday afternoon.

This is the church in the village called Fins, north of Péronne.

Actually, there are two villages right next to each other — Fins and Sorel. The Michels were originally from Sorel, but moved to Fins early on. The house in Fins where the painter C.-H. Michel lived has a plaque on it. As I said the other day, it's not actually the same house because the original one was destroyed in World War I. Another house was built later on the site, and that newer house has the plaque on it.

In the church hangs this painting by Charles-Henri Michel
called La Madone des anges (1859).

C.-H. Michel was born in 1817 and died in 1905. He lived most of his life in Paris. CHM's father, a doctor, was born in 1860 in Paris — and CHM was born in Paris too. But when CHM first contacted his Picardy cousin, the village mayor, by e-mail, the cousin wrote back and said: "I'm intrigued by your name. Would you by any chance be related to ‘our painter’ — notre peintre ?" He and CHM had never met before.

Ecce Homo, by Charles-Henri Michel, dates from 1904,
when the painter was 87 years old.

In the church in Fins there are three paintings by CHM's grandfather. CHM's distant cousin — they trace their lineage back to a common ancestor, Fiacre Michel, in the 1600s — is the mayor of Sorel but he was able to get the key to the church in Fins so that we could go see and take pictures of the grandfather's paintings. The mayor of Fins, a farmer, was busy harvesting his crops and not available to greet us.

This painting is titled
Vision de sainte Thérèse d'Avila (ca. 1900).

The old church in Fins was also destroyed during the Great War of 1914-18 and a new church was built subsequently. Péronne and the surrounding villages and countryside were in the middle of the battlefields. The area is the valley of the Somme River. The Germans invaded, and French, British, and Australian forces tried to push them back, or at least defend the rest of France from invasion. The Americans arrived later. Australian forces were the ones who actually "liberated" the Péronne area toward the end of the war.

The interior of the church in Fins

CHM has now donated hundreds of drawings, engravings, and paintings to the museum of the little city of Péronne nearby, where his grandfather and other family members are buried. Many are the work of his grandfather, and many others the work of his uncle — his father's brother — who was a pastelist. In going through all the things stored in his apartment in Paris, which the family has lived in since the late 1880s, he also discovered other documents that the museum was excited about having.

Ecce Homo hangs over the altar in the church

There was, for example, a photo of a 19th-century Picard writer, Hector Crinon, who was known for his efforts to resuscitate the Picard language — only one other such photo of the man of letters is known to exist. Crinon was to Picardy what Frédéric Mistral was to Provence. CHM also found many letters that his grandfather exchanged with other painters, including one of his mentors, Auguste Dehaussy.

CHM told me he feels a sense of relief and satisfaction knowing that his grandfather's and uncle's artwork is "in good hands" — in museums, in other words, and no longer in storage in his apartment. The family heritage will be preserved and the historical record augmented.

23 July 2010

More about Normandy Neufchâtel cheese

They say Neufchâtel is one of the oldest cheeses in Normandy. That's what I read in a blurb in the brochure the hotel leaves in every room. It says Neufchâtel cheese has been made since at least 1035. It was granted the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlé (A.O.C.) label in 1969.

After checking out of the hotel Thursday morning and having a look around in the town's church, CHM and I drove out to the edge of Neufchâtel to buy some cheese at the Monnier farm. It is just up a gravel road off the highway that leads to the town called Forges-les-Eaux, across the road from a SuperU supermarket.

Florence and Philippe Monnier make cheese
on their farm outside Neufchâtel-en-Bray.

There are cows grazing in a pasture between the road and the farm complex, which is made up of two long buildings on either side of a kind of courtyard, with flowers and some greenery. At the far end of the courtyard there's a white sheet-metal building where the cheese is made and aged. Madame Monnier (I presume it was her) was working in there, in a white lab coat and a hairnet, and she was happy to sell me some cheeses.

The best-known Neufchâtel cheese is this heart-shaped one.

We went into the back room, where there were hundreds of cheeses drying on stainless steel racks. The Monniers make two styles of Neufchâtel: briquettes (flat rectangular shapes) and cœurs (the better-known heart shape). It's the same cheese. The Neufchâtel cheeses I can buy in Saint-Aignan are the cœurs.

This is the shape that Florence Monnier called a briquette.

I bought three Neufchâtel cheeses to bring back to Paris (and take back to Saint-Aignan this afternoon). Madame Monnier charged me three euros for the three cheeses. CHM and I cut into one of the briquettes for dinner last night, and it was really good. CHM said he thought in was better than the cheese we had at the Brasserie Chez Jean-Pierre in Neufchâtel Wednesday evening. It was fresher and creamier.

This is the Monnier farm's courtyard. I think the building
on the left must be the barn. On the right is the farmhouse.

We spent yesterday afternoon in Rouen, where CHM met with the curator of the city's Musée des Beaux Arts and donated to the museum's collections a pen-and-ink drawing of Joan of Arc that his grandfather did in 1899. The curator, a man I would estimate to be 40 or maybe 45 years old, was very impressed with the work. He examined it carefully and said it was magnificent.

Here's the blurb about Neufchâtel and the cheese
from the hotel brochure. There are lot of mistakes
in the French, but tant pis.

Then the curator took us over to the Tour Jeanne d'Arc, which is supposed by many to be the place where Joan was held prisoner before being burned at the stake in Rouen's main marketplace in 1431. Up in the tower hangs a painting of Joan of Arc that CHM's grandfather did before he died in 1905. Last year I posted a photo of one of CHM's grandfather's paintings that hangs in the chapel at the Château de Blois.

I have many pictures from our afternoon in Rouen, and I'll try to post some over the next few weeks. I always enjoy going back there. I lived in Rouen for nine months in 1972-73, when I worked as an English-language teaching assistant at the Lycée Corneille there. Before going to the museum, we had lunch in a brasserie next to the cathedral with my friend Marie, who lives in Rouen and is an English teacher.

Like the rest of the trip, the day was a big success.