The spirit of revolution is still alive in rural France and takes the form of the buffet dinatoire. This is a new-old way of coming to table in the farmhouses of France’s Massif Centrale, which allows the cook to join the guests, something of breakthrough for the usually formal French hostess, reports Jo Mills, my neighbor in the remote uplands of west Wales.
Mills was born and raised in the wilds of Lorraine, a region where the frontiers drift back and forth, depending on whether France or Germany has the political upper hand. Politics make little difference to the way the country people live, Mills says. As a child, she and her siblings did what French countryfolk have always done: gathered what can be defined as small game from the wild. While the adults hunted deer and boar — her husband, Terry, is a keen huntsman like her father — the children were in charge of snails and frogs.
Buffet dinatoire a more casual approach
Mills and her family, including grandchildren, spend the post-Christmas boar-hunting season in the uplands of southern France, at their forested property on the edge of the Massif Central. This year she reports a change in the way people eat, at least in rural regions. “They call it a ‘buffet dinatoire,’ dining buffet.” This means, she says, that rather than the usual procession of savory and sweet courses — or worse, fancy restaurant-style plating — all the dishes are placed on the table at the beginning of the meal for people to help themselves. As with tapas or meze, this new-old way of family-style eating allows the hostess to relax and enjoy the company of her guests, Mills says.
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While gleanings such as snails and frogs are no longer permissible in France, at least by commercial gatherers — not that country people are inclined to follow rules — Mills’ memories of childhood include night hunts for frogs with torches. “It was easy. You shone the torch down the stream bank and you could see their eyes and the shapes where they were. They didn’t move, and all you had to do was pick them up and pop them in a canvas bucket and take them home.”
Preparation thereafter was simple. “Maman picked up the frogs one by one and whacked their heads on the kitchen table, so that was the end of that. Then papa snipped off the legs just below the waist and pulled off the skin. Like this they were left in pairs and salted and left overnight to shrink and firm. Then we cooked them in two different ways. For the adults, they were dusted through flour, fried in butter and finished with white wine and cream, which is what we do in Lorraine. For the children, they were fried in the same way but finished in an omelet — whisked-up egg poured into the pan and allowed to set like a pancake.
“We children took all our meals with the grownups and we had to know how to behave at table,” she added. “You had to make sure you didn’t take too much of anything. And my mother always transferred the food to serving dishes which were handed round from person to person. This is more formal than the buffet dinatoire, when everything is on the table, and if you’ve cooked a daube, it’s permissible to serve it in its cooking pot.”
During the hunting season, when Mills’ table is always crowded, she serves the products of la chasse, mostly wild boar – or marcassin – scourge of the farmer’s crops. A single well-grown boar will feed a large household for a month, so Mills fills the freezer with slow-cooked casseroles, the perfect centerpiece of the buffet dinatoire.
Whether this way of eating is a revival of the laden tables of the old formal tradition of service a la française — replaced mid-19th century by the labor-intensive service a la russe, which demands that each course be presented separately — or a new tradition designed to challenge the restaurant-dictated tyranny of art-on-a-plate served in a succession of tiny courses, an informal way of serving ensures the cook has a chance to enjoy the meal in the company of the guests.
A return to conviviality at table is long overdue. Roll on the buffet dinatoire — you have nothing to lose but your toque.
Marcassin en Daube
The boar meat can be replaced with venison or anything else from the hunter’s bag. The only unusual ingredient is serpolet, a particularly fragrant mountain thyme favored with wild meat in France.
Serves 4 to 6
About 3 pounds wild boar or venison, cubed
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
5 to 6 garlic cloves, unskinned
8 ounces pork-belly or fat-back bacon, diced
1 bottle of robust red wine
1 to 2 ounces dried cepes or other dried mushrooms, roughly torn
1 curl of dried or fresh orange zest
1 to 2 sprigs serpolet (or ordinary thyme)
2 to 3 cloves
A short length of cinnamon or cassia bark
½ teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
3 to 4 anchovy fillets
1 to 2 tablespoons black olives, stoned or not (as you please)
1. Dust the meat with a little flour seasoned with salt and pepper and fry in the olive oil until it browns a little. Wild meat is drier and firmer than farmed, so it takes less time to caramelize. Remove and reserve.
2. Add the garlic and diced pork to the pan drippings and fry for a few minutes. Add the reserved meat and wine and bubble up to evaporate the alcohol.
3. Turn down the heat, add the mushrooms and aromatics — orange zest, thyme, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns — and enough water to just submerge the meat. Bubble up again, cover tightly and leave to simmer gently for at least an hour, or as long as it takes for the meat to be tender enough to cut with a spoon. Add more boiling water if it looks as if it’s drying out.
4. When you’re ready to serve, mash the anchovies and olives into a spoonful of the hot juices and stir this into the daube. Taste and add salt if necessary and serve in its cooking pot. Serve with a potato gratin and a salad of bitter leaves — endive, chicory, dandelion — and set bread and cheese and an apple tart on the table and let the good times roll.
Top illustration: A French dinner party. Credit: Elisabeth Luard