I’m in the Centre region today though most consider the historical Auvergne region to be the geographic heart of France. I bought a wonderful book about French Regional Food so I could read along on my kitchen tour of the country. What can I tell you about the Centre region?
There’s a cheese divide. North are cows milk cheeses and south goats cheeses like Selles sur Cher, Valençay and Sainte Maure de Touraine, which I encountered in Basic Cuisine. Offal and charcuterie are big here. Lots of pâtés, rillettes and rillons. The recipe for Beuchelle, a dish that contains sweetbreads, kidney, cream and morels, remains a closely guarded secret. Then there’s sausage like Andouille. I inadvertently tried this during a canoeing trip around France when I was in my 20s. I remember it being spicy and quite delicious, that is until I noticed the frilly bits inside. It’s a tripe banger. I was a bit more skittish back then. I like the sound of Pâté de Pommes de Terre. Yip. Potato pâte. Gotta try me some of that. Also, the dark honey from Sologne. What I’d really like to have a go making is the frangipane Pithivier, which is a pie made by baking 2 puff pastry disks with filling in between. A spiral is scored on the top, from the centre outwards. It looks brill.
On the menu is Chartreuse de Volaille aux Choux, which is a highly decorated, moulded chicken and cabbage concoction. It’s ridiculously impressive just how decorated these things can be. People are so imaginative. There are international competitions apparently—of course! Why am I surprised. This chartreuse is not to be confused with the booze.
What’s with the “choux” in the name? Well, choux is French for cabbage. Chef explained that choux pastry got its name because it looks like a little cabbage.
There’s a story behind this chartreuse dish. It originated with the Cormery monks. The monks were poor and meat was only eaten by the wealthy. But they liked a bit of meat, which they procured by trading their beer, wines and spirits. This was obviously against the rules so they had to hide their ill-gotten meaty gains within the cabbage. I’m sure the chicken mousse came along later and I doubt the monks were jazzing it up with elaborate patterns of colourful vegetables.
It’s an interesting cook.
A deep pan was lined with Savoy cabbage leaves. The heart of the cabbage was cut into smaller pieces and placed inside along with a slab of blanched bacon, muslin full of browned mirepoix, a bouquet garni, veal stock and brown chicken stock. Another leaf was placed on top, then the lid on. This bundle was braised for a good while.
With all that blipping going on in the pan, bâttonets were cut from carrot, turnip, courgette and green beans, then blanched and refreshed. Time to get creative in a buttered ramekin. On buttered baking parchment, I set out a herringbone pattern. This went into the bottom of the ramekin and would be the top of the chartreuse once turned out. The gaps were filled with a ring of peas. Sexy! Different colour bâttonets clung to the ramekin wall in a repeating order. Inevitably it was a finicky faff to get the last ones in to ensure the pattern repeated exactly. Well worth it though for the final effect.
A chicken mousse was made much like before, but without the herbs. In the ramekin, the mousse was frugally piped over the bottom and around the inner wall to act as glue. This was set with a few minutes in the oven.
The cabbage hearts and bacon were decanted and finely sliced, and the braising liquor or Braisage was passed through a chinois and reserved for service. Alternating layers of cabbage and bacon were built into the ramekin and topped off with more chicken mousse. This was then cooked in a Bain Marie in the oven.
My first taste was without the braisage. I thought “that’s a lot of effort for something that basically tastes of bacon”. And I love bacon. When I tried it with the braisage it was much more interesting. And tasty. Still a lot of effort though. I do like doing this kind of detail—like the dressed crab.
The demo kindly laid on dessert too. Win! Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin. This particular upside down apple tart was made with jumbo Braeburns, cut into halves and stood into caramel that has been “buttered up”, as chef put it. I wonder if that’s the origin of the common phrase to butter someone up with compliments so they’ll do what you want? I’ve never seen such a massive Tarte Tatin. Then, hey presto! It was gone. Not before I added some double cream. What have they done to me? Despite only 4 ingredients: apples, sugar, butter and puff pastry, this tart is tricky because it can easily catch and burn. You’ll only know this has happened when you smell it, which is too late to do anything about it. Fortunately, caramel can take some scorching before it tastes acrid.