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How To Find The Flavor Du Jour In The Hills Of Provence

Illustration of green almonds. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Illustration of green almonds. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

High in the hills of Provence, France, in early summer, far from the crowds of the Cote d’Azur, when the lavender fields are in bloom and the mountains are fragrant with rosemary and thyme, the markets of the Vaucluse are filled with the products of the region. No one is more proud of their regional cooking than people in the communities of la France profonde — deep rural France. Even the huge hypermarkets are obliged to carry local produce and give space to local growers.

The villages, on the other hand, have been steadily depopulating since the end of World War II. In the 1990s, when I spent a full school year in the region with my family of four children, only the larger towns had any hope of filling classrooms.

Life is hard up in the mountains. Shepherding and subsistence farming were the old ways, and the children of the war years had no desire to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Thereafter, the drift to the towns appeared unstoppable until the arrival of les soixante-huitants, the 68ers, a wave of young escapees from the university cities, particularly Paris, after the brutal suppression of the student uprisings of 1968.

In Provence, small towns populated by those escaping city life

The young who fought the tear gas of former French President Charles de Gaulle’s riot police with Molotov cocktails retreated to the old communist strongholds — centers of resistance under German occupation — escaping from joblessness (then as now) and the demands of the consumer society. By the 1990s, a new age of disillusionment brought a fresh crop of escapees to join the teenage children of the original good-lifers.

Village schools reopened, area cafes reclaimed their clientele and young farming families began to replant the old subsistence crops and revive traditional crafts. Among these second-wave escapees was the redoubtable Annie Pacaut, innkeeper at Savoillans in the valley du Toulourenc, who collected old farmhouse recipes and acquired a local following for cuisine grandmere, hearty dishes served without pretension and not a Michelin star in sight. Under Pacaut’s patronage, the village acquired an artisan baker using locally milled flour and a butcher specializing in regional charcuterie.

A mountain village in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

A mountain village in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Her menu was strictly du jour, and she was open Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday for lunch. Main courses were either milk-fed kid with an almond-thickened sauce or shoulder of one of the small mountain lambs braised with epeautre, or spelt, an ancient strain of wheat that appreciates altitude and poor soil.

The hors d’oeuvre was a rough-textured pate-de-campagne with homegrown radishes and home-pickled cornichons. Wine and water came in jugs, and the cheese course was equally unpretentious: a hank of salad (endive or frisée) dressed with local olive oil and vinegar topped with a little disk of goat cheese on a round of toast blistered under the grill. Should you wish for dessert, the baker could oblige (if it wasn’t too late) with a buttery chausson de pommes — apple turnover — and you might care to pass by the butcher on the way home for his air-cured saucisson, a cured sausage, or a second helping of paté.

Roast Kid or Lamb With Almond Sauce

Annie Pacaut’s recipe is for a whole milk-fed kid to serve 30, so I have adapted it for leg of lamb, a lean meat that works well with a rich sauce. Serve with plenty of bread for mopping.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 pounds (1 kilogram) leg of lamb, chopped in thick steaks across the bone

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 ounces (200 grams) whole, unblanched almonds

1 whole garlic head, cloves separated but unskinned

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 cup white wine

1 cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Check over the lamb steaks and trim off any gristle.

2. Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a heavy casserole. Toast the almonds in the hot oil, remove and reserve.

3. Add the rest of the oil, reheat and fry the meat until it browns a little. Add the garlic cloves, parsley and wine and bubble to evaporate the alcohol.

4. Add the water and bubble up again.

5. Turn down the heat, cover and leave to simmer very gently for about 1½ hours, until the meat is tender enough to eat with a fork. (You may need to add a splash of boiling water if it looks like it is drying out.) You can also cook it in a low oven — 275 F (140 C or Gas 2) — for about 1½ hours.

6. When the meat is perfectly tender, pound the reserved almonds to a paste, dilute with a little of the lamb juices and stir the mixture back into the sauce to thicken it.

Peppered Lamb Shoulder With Spelt

Pearl barley is a possible substitute for the hard-grain spelt, Pacaut says. The secret to the flavor is an unreasonable amount of white pepper — white peppercorns are fierier though less aromatic than black. The result should be as hot as chili sauce.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1 small bone-in lamb shoulder

8 ounces (250 grams) spelt or barley grains

2 pounds (1 kilogram) fresh or canned tomatoes

12 garlic cloves

2 ounces (50 grams) unsalted butter

2 to 3 heaping tablespoons ground white pepper

Salt

Directions

1. Wipe the meat and rinse the grains through cold water, leaving them damp.

2. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C or Gas 7).

3. Spread the tomatoes (skinned and roughly chopped if fresh) in a roomy roasting tin. Settle the lamb joint on top, and spoon the grains over the tomatoes.

4. Sprinkle with the garlic cloves, and drop a knob of butter in each corner.

5. Pour a glass of water over the grains to ensure they have enough liquid to swell.

6. Dust the meat with the pepper. Cover tightly with foil so the steam doesn’t escape.

7. Roast in the heated oven for half an hour, then prick the meat so the juices run and add more boiling water if the grains are beginning to dry out. Replace the foil, reduce the oven heat to 350 F (180 C or Gas 4) for 1½ to 2½ hours, depending on the size of the shoulder, until the meat is so tender it can be pulled apart with a fork.

Main illustration: Green almonds. Credit: Elisabeth Luard



Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.

3 COMMENTS
  • Bill Flodin 5·16·14

    I enjoyed and identified with your ” Flavor in the Hills of Provence” article. You mentioned
    the pate compagne associated with with Provence; however, you did offer a recipe. Do you
    have one that you think is typical of the area? I have tried several and I am still searching
    for the best one. Please help………….

  • bill flodin 5·30·14

    You did not offer a recipe in your article; I am still hoping you will let me hear from you with a
    recipe for pate compagne.

  • Elisabeth Luard 7·2·14

    UK measurements – sorry Country paté

    A paté, strictly speaking, is a pie, a description which indicates a pie-crust. However, such refinements don’t apply in the rural kitchen, where a jacket of finely sliced salt-cured pork-belly – petit-salé – or bacon serves to keep the mixture moist, the main purpose of the crust. You can replace the lean pork with the same volume of chicken or game, but don’t omit the fat-pork – wild meat needs something rich and fatty to balance its balance its natural dryness.
    Serves 6-8

    1k (2lb) boned, lean shoulder-pork, cubed
    500g (8 oz) pork belly, skinned and cubed
    (optional) 1 tablespoon white brandy or calvados (apple brandy)
    1 garlic clove, roughly crushed
    1 teaspoon chopped thyme
    1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
    1 teaspoon crushed juniper berries
    100ml (scant 1/4 pint) white wine
    1 egg, forked to blend
    1 teaspoon ground allspice
    (optional) 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 level teaspoon crushed black pepper
    To finish
    1175g (6 oz) fine-cut petit-salé or streaky bacon
    2-3 bayleaves

    For a gamey flavour, start the day before and marinate the meat overnight in the brandy or calvados with the crushed garlic and a pinch of crushed thyme, rosemary and juniper.
    Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas4.
    Chop half the lean pork with half the belly-pork either with a sharp knife or briefly in the processor. Mince the remainder. Fork up the eggs with the wine and work well with the meat, garlic, herbs, spices, salt and pepper (if these have not been included in an overnight marinade) and mix in the breadcrumbs.
    Line a 500g (1lb) loaf-tin with bacon-rashers, leaving flaps to fold over the top, and pack in the minced meats. The mixture should reach about two thirds of the way up. Top with the bayleaves and cover with foil, pleated down the middle to allow room for expansion. Set the tin in a bain-marie – a roasting-tin into which you have poured enough boiling water to come half-way up the sides of the tin. Bake for about an hour, until perfectly firm and well-shrunk from the sides. Test with a skewer thrust deep into the middle, when the juices should run clear. Leave to cool, cover with a clean cloth and set a weighted board on top. Leave to rest and firm overnight – this process is important or the paté will not hold together. Serve with a bunch of little rosy radishes, black olives (or a tapenade, the more elegant alternative), and chunks of freshly baked baguette – a paté without bread is unthinkable.

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