When I first came to France, I came under the impression that everyone here would be an excellent cook and that I'd learn no end of things about cooking, especially cooking from scratch. I imagined that the French only ever bought their foodstuffs from the open-air farmers markets that were held once a week in small towns, and every day in the bigger cities.
This is and isn't exactly how it is. Most people can critique food, and most people can make an excellent vinaigrette or roast a chcken deliciously, or make up a nourishing and beautifully presented meal with simple ingredients...but many, especially the younger 'townie' ones, have never made pastry, cassoulet, or even a good sauce, from things found in their kitchen cupboards, but prefer, instead, to buy these things chilled or frozen at the nearest supermarket or delicatessen.
At first, I was disappointed, to say the least. I'd had visions of learning to make tiny appetizers, sumptious gateaux, and sauce by the panful...but no. Aperetifs that are served with before dinner drinks are usually run-of-the-mill peanuts, pretzels, olives, and imitation cheetos. Gateaux are bought in individual miniature form or by the slice or whole at the nearest patisserie, expensive but delicious. And, as far as I can tell, cassoulet is only available in cans or sometimes in the more fancy glass jars.
I couldn't understand what or why or how, in a country that did not have the aisles and aisles of convinience foods that I'd been used to in America, people purchased the things they did to eat, much less how they sought to prepare and serve what they bought. It took me ages to learn that the simplicity of a meal prepared with a few good ingredients, where each course had its own presentation, generally served on its own, individual, plate, was a world away from the patchwork platefuls of muliti-flavoured, heaped high, brimming abundance that I had been used to. Sometimes, less can be more.
Not that I have fogotten completely the ways in which I was brought up. For me, that's the beauty of it. I take what I know and present it in the French manner, and then find the appreciation in a dish. I adjust or 'tweak' a French recipe to perhaps take on a few of the tastes of where I've been before, and surprise myself. I'm forever going into the kitchens of the people I visit and lifting pot lids for a peek or tasting what's inside the casserole dishes, and I don't hesitate to ask for the recipes or find out the procedures for duplicating what I've found in a roasting pan on top of what is often a woodburning stove in an old farmhouse.
French women are generous with their cookery skills, and will almost always give me the recipes for what I'm after, or explain to me how to get there. I'll rummage in my backpack for a scrap of paper, and they'll go into the hall or over to the top of the chimney in order to find a pen with which to write it down. I used to reciprocate, and offer ideas on how we might alter or change or serve the dish in my own country...but they never want to know, and are laughingly scornful, or at best, politely dismissive.
Lunch is the big meal of the day in France, a time where everything stops for two hours or so, and workers go to restaurants and families get together for what is most often a meal that begins with a soup or an entree of vegetable salads and cold meats and sausages, continues with a morsel of meat or fish and something starchy or a vegetable dish (not usually both), a cheese presentation, sometimes served with a green salad tossed in homemade vinaigrette, and then a gateaux, yoghurt or a piece of fruit to finish. Coffee, served black and very strong in tiny cups, is never served until the table has been cleared, and the crumbs of the ever-present baguette have been swept off, and usually is joined at the table by the metal box that's perfectly shaped to fit the cardboard supermarket package of sugarcubes inside it.
It's a funny thing about those supermarket packages of sugarcubes. The pink and white boxes of the 'SugarDaddy' brand (I love this play on words), that can be found in every French supermarket, are all exactly the same fit-in-the-decorated-metal-box size, but the sugarcubes in them are not always the same size. When buying a box of sugarcubes, one has to be careful to get the size and shape of the cubes right, as they come in a range of assorted little blocks, from small squares to medium rectangles to very long rectangles. The trick is to note the printed code at the side of each box, which is the clue to the size of the sugarlumps within.
In France, there's never any question of 'one lump, or two?', when you happen to be lingering over a cup of coffee after a delicious lunch at a friends house, instead, you must look, first, into the metal box and then determine the sugarlump size and then plan accordingly...sometimes having no choice but to have oversweetened coffee, or unsweetened coffee, rather than impolitely breaking a too-big lump into two and leaving an uneven morsel lying haphazardly, like a wounded and mutilated battlefield victim, with the remaining lumps lined up in formation like good soldiers.
Of course, there are ways around this situation. For instance, it's perfectly acceptable, should you wish for sweetened coffee, but find the lump too large, to simply just not stir the coffee very much, so that a sugarsludge is left at the bottom of the cup. This is a common occurence, and the hostess knows that any hardened sugar dregs will have to be soaked in the sink before washing the cup properly, and accepts the situation as her lot in life.
Another solution is to drink the coffee down without sugar. While French coffee is rather strong, there is not a lot of it, as the small cups aren't able to hold more than a few delicate sips or a gulp or two, at the most. And there is no need to fear that you will be offered a second cup, as most hostesses will ask which of their guests want coffee before making it, and then measuring out exactly as much ground coffee into the filter, and exactly as much water, as required for one dainty cup for each guest, no more, no less.
It is considered impolite to stop and visit friends at lunchtime, although it's quite acceptable, and expected, to be asked to join the family for coffee after the meal. If you should happen to drop in during the repas, you will not be invited in, but asked to return later for coffee...or if very fortunate, for dessert, and then coffee. Suffice to say; come after lunch or better yet, call and arrange a time to present yourself.
All the same, I generally do not call ahead, mostly because if I should stop by, it's only because the kids and I have been out in the countryside, seeing the sights or running an errand, and find ourselves close to the house of one friend or another, and decide to pop in for a visit. I know better than to show up hungry for lunch, however, and prefer to drop in for the coffee part of the meal....plus, if it's just after lunchtime, whatever there was on the table or in the stove is still available for me to stick a spoon into, taste, poke with my finger, or lick and then get the recipe for, as I say my hellos and catch up on the lastest, while the coffee is being readied.
This is how I came to be at Amandine's farmhouse. Amandine and her family run the farm where I get the hay for my animals, and I had gone to pick up thirty-odd bales of hay. Usually it's Maurice, Amandine's husband, who delivers the hay for me, but, on that particular day, he and his sons were to take delivery of thirty new Blonde d'Aquitaine beef cattle, and had to be at home to do the last minute preparations while waiting for their new livestock to arrive. So I had called ahead and was, as I expected to be, asked to come after the noonday meal.
A business transaction on a French family farm is never simply an exchange of money and goods. There are rituals to uphold, both before and after the trading of the day. First of all, the buyer and the entire family of the seller goes into the house for a coffee or a digestive, which is usually a Ricard, the ever-present anise flavoured alcohol served with a glass of cold water with which to mix it in. If that's not to your taste, there's often a whiskey or a glass of Porto or fortified sherry. The children are offered a sweet syrup and water based drink, usually in mint or grenadine, bright green or red.
The conversation around the table begins with news of the town you've come from, and news of anyone in the town, should you be from not too far away, who is known or related to the seller. The talk goes from there to local and national politics, and then on to farm news, beginning with the farmers you are visiting and going on to local farming news, and then to regional or French-wide farm practices. European news about farming is studiously avoided. French farmers, from what I have seen, care not a hoot for what the European Commission has done for and to their livelihood, and certainl do not want to discuss, or even to think, about what those beurauocrats up in Brussels have done to forever ruin the French countryside and the French farming industry.
After a time, the business at hand is concluded with the exchange of monies and, if wished, a hand written bill of sale. The economy being what it is, not many participants in the deal want a documented bill of sale, most people around the table, both buyer and seller, prefer that the deal is not spoken of outside the room, and will sometimes make a veiled reference to this, should it not be already perfectly clear and understood. In France, this is called 'en noire', which translates to 'in black'. 'Under the table' being an English name for this type of transaction.
After the deal has been concluded, and things are visibly more relaxed, the actual taking delivery of the product happens. In my case, Maurice and his sons went over to the barn and began to load the haybales into the truck that I had come with, while I took a tour of Amandine's vegetable garden and cherry trees, and she and I, with he kids helping us, picked a big bowl of ripe, red cherries. Well, Amandine and I filled the bowl with the ones that we picked, and the kids filled their mouths with the ones that they did. Then it was back to the kitchen in order to write down a recipe or two for cherry clafoutis and cherries in eau de vie.
I, of course, went straight over to the woodstove to see what had been for lunch, and picked the meat off of the carcass of a roasted bird and popped it into my mouth for a taste. It was delicious, but with a very strange, almost exotic taste. Amandine was watching me from the sink, where she was rinsing the cherries, before packing them into a container for me to take home with me. She knew I was wondering just what it was that was in my mouth, but waited until I had swallowed and asked her to tell me.
It turns out that they'd had pintade, or guineafowl, for lunch. I'd eaten pintade before...usually at Christmas Eve dinner, where it is as popular as turkey or ham might be, back in America...but I'd never tasted anything like the meat from the carcass on top of the stove. The meat from the bird that had been served for lunch had an almost fruity taste, and left an interesting aftertaste in the mouth. I must have had a funny look on my, for Amandine was laughing as she told me her secret.
The secret to the delicious roasted pintade was in the way that the bird was slaughtered. It had to be slaughtered by being drowned in a glass of armagnac. Amandine said that if there was no armagnac available, then cognac would do, or, at a pinch, whiskey. I'll admit to being somewhat shocked. I had heard of this way of slaughter, but had always imagined it to be an old way of doing things, and no longer in practice. In spite of myself, I asked her to describe how it was done.
And so, I'll repeat it here, for those who might be curious enough to want to know how it was done, as I was. As morbid as it might seem. Please understand, even though I may not condone or understand or even imagine to try some of the things that I have seen done in various French culinary, gastronomic, and animal husbandry practices, they do exist. Right or wrong, ethical or unethical, some of the things that I've seen done or described have been in pracice for centuries, like it or agree with it or support it, or not.
To recreate the recipe, you'll need one live guineahen, preferably farm raised, one cage, a big glass of armagnac in a somewhat wide glass, such as a whiskey tumbler, a length of strong string, a sharp knife, one roasting pan, a bit of olive oil, three or four slices of streaky bacon, a peeled clove of garlic, and some salt and pepper.
The procedure begins two days before the fowl is wanted for the table. Put the guineahen into the cage, without food or water, and leave her for twenty four hours. This will work to clease the intestinal tract and make the job of gutting the bird easier. leave the bird in a quiet place, so as not to alarm or stress it any more than needed.
The next day, fill the tumbler with armagnac and stick the bird's head into it. Be sure that you have got a good grip on the animal and on the glass, or you will merely have wasted good drink and have a very angry bird on your hands. If done in the correct manner, the bird will have breathed in most of the alcohol in the glass, and have drowned itself. Amandine didn't say what happens if the bird is not dead and the armagnac is used up, but I suppose you could have another go, so keep the unopened bottle handy nearby. Or wring the half-drowned bird's neck as a last resort. Then tie the feet of the bird with the string and hang it up to age in a cool, dimly-lit place, far from flies.
There may even be some alcohol left in the glass after the evil deed is done. If it were me, I'd drink any left-over armagnac myself, both from what's in the glass after the bird was finished with it, and from the bottle, in order to calm any loose nerves. 'Waste not, want not', as I've always said. I never asked Amandine what she did about that part of the recipe.
On the morning of the eating, pluck and draw the guineahen, saving the heart and the gizzard, and place it in the roasting pan breast side up, having first rubbed the bird all over with salt and pepper, and stuck the peeled but still whole garlic cloves into the body cavity. Open and wash out whatever might still be stuck in the gizzard, and then put it in with the heart into the roasting pan. Drizzle olive oil over the fowl, and lay the bacon slices on the breast of the bird.
Put the pan, with the prepared bird in it, into a cold oven, and then turn the oven on to 200°c (400°f). After about 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 190°c (375°f), and roast until done, which will be about an hour and a quarter or an hour an a half, depending on the size of the guineahen. During the roasting, be sure to baste the guineahen often with the cooking juices in the pan. If you want an extra-crispy skin to enjoy, then add a bit of salted water to the basting juices, some ten minutes before the roasted bird is done, and baste once or twice more.
When the bird is done, turn off the oven and let the bird sit for about five or ten minutes, in the oven with the oven door slighty ajar, before presenting it at the table. You might want to remove the bird from the roasting pan and put it onto the serving platter while it sits in the oven, and then you can spend a few moments making the delicious sauce to serve with the meal, as follows..
Place the roasting pan onto a burner on the top of the stove, turned to medium high. Tip the pan slightly and spoon out most, but not all, of the top layer of oil and fat that's floating on the basting liquid. Cook the remaining jus, adding a bit of water if needed, and scraping up any burnt bits from the bottom of the pan. Perhaps a splash of armagnac, added at this point, would be an affront to the bird?...use your own judgement. Serve this simple sauce with the pintade, au jus.