Friday night we gathered at Le Volant, a Basque restaurant in the fifteenth arrondissement not too far from the Eiffel Tower. Jack from Trufflepig arranged the fête, which began with drinks and copious charcuterie. Cathy welcomed everyone and introduced me, and I croaked out something incoherent about how happy and grateful I was for the experiences of the week. There was much chatter and merriment, and eventually we sat down to dinner.
La foire nationale à la brocante et aux jambons (the antiques and ham market) takes place every spring and fall out in the Parisian suburb of Chatou. It began in the middle ages, when during holy week vendors would gather to sell their hams right in front of Notre Dame. Over the ensuing centuries, the market was subsequently moved to various other spots in the city. Over time, other flea market-type vendors joined the market, and eventually, in 1970, it ended up in Chatou, right under the RER station (which makes getting there from Paris extremely easy).
As part of my grand prize, Toma The Antiques Diva gave me and Cathy a guided tour of the old Foire de la Brocante et aux Jambons outside of Paris in Chatou. The unlikely combination of ham and antiques turned out to be a winner, and because it was a glorious day and I averaged about 200 photos per day on the trip, I’m breaking it up into two sections. First, the antiques.
My high school French teacher left a comment on a recent post asking for a picture of a cassoulet if I happened to stumble across one in my travels. While it’s funny that she’s still giving me homework after over 25 years, it was also lucky; it gave me an excuse to ask Kate to make cassoulet so I could see the whole process up close. So she did. She has made it hundreds of times, and this version represents her easy three to four hour distillation of the essential process. You can read her complete recipe here.
Many recipes for cassoulet begin by saying that it takes three days to make properly, which Kate thinks is nonsense. Sure, if you need to begin by making duck confit, then that’s true, but the nature of the Gascon larder is that there are always various jars of confit in there for just such an occasion. So if you make confit as part of your regular or even occasional routine, save some to make cassoulet. The rest of the process is really not complicated at all.
While it would have been wonderful to have nothing but multi-star meals during this trip, the simple truth is that it’s not possible. Paris is expensive, and the weak dollar means that the whole country is steep, even down in the provinces. The challenge has been to eat well on a budget while still choosing meals that will make for good copy–since despite all snark I am trying to make this trip worth reading about for all you good people who voted for me–without running up an insane tab.
We began our day yesterday with a visit to the Wednesday market at Laverac, where vendors, including Dominique and Christiane, have tables set up displaying the best of the region and beyond. Besides stopping by to chat with the Chapolards–and so I could say thanks and goodbye to them–we also provisioned ourselves for lunch, dinner, and a final project: cassoulet.
Yesterday I spent all day in the expert hands of the Chapolard family. The four brothers and their wives (and now a couple of kids) all work together on the farm that their father started, raising pigs and turning them into superb meat and superlative charcuterie that supports all of them with a dignified living: true sustainability. The two kids have started a dairy on the property, with about fifty head of cattle, and they produce raw milk, yogurt, and some cheese. The rest of the operation is all pork, all the time, and I was honored to don a work smock, apron, and boots and spend a day learning from their expertise, passion, and hard work.
Château de la Grangerie was built in the twelfth century as a monastery. Today, three generations of the Langalerie family make Armagnac, Floc de Gascogne (Armagnac diluted with the unfermented grape juice that all such brandy begins as), and the prunes for which the region around Agen is rightly renowned. We swung by for a visit, since Kate loves their Floc and the site is beautiful.
Today was busy, and the sun arrived to make it truly splendid. We drove all over the area, covering a lot of ground and several subjects; Kate wanted to give me an overview of this place and a sense of the history and geography that have made it what it is culinarily. I have much to report, but for now here’s a quick look at what we had for lunch at a little épicerie that just opened last summer. The proprietor was an executive at Bausch & Lomb who got laid off and decided to follow his passion for food. The hill town of Lectoure should be happy that he did. The tower above is part of the Cathedral there; we visited a few gorgeous churches from my favorite period, Romanesque (though this one is actually early Gothic). The area has hundreds; it lies right at the confluence of two of the major Medieval pilgrimage routes to Santiago di Compostela.
Last night at dinner Jack mentioned that the big agriculture fair was happening down at the convention center at Porte de Versailles. This was doubly coincidental; not only did it accidentally correspond with my visit, but it was in the very same space where I used to install and deinstall copious quantities of contemporary art at the FIAC every October. That fair has moved back into the Grand Palais–it was relocated during extensive renovations–but this agriculture thing is freaking gigantic, using just about all the halls, which translates into acres upon acres of floor space dedicated to food and drink of every imaginable variety (provided it has something to do with France, or at least Europe). This here is the real Charcutepalooza.