In the dark kitchen…lightly.

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Waking on winter mornings, mild as they have been this year-2014, is a lesson in stealth. I come downstairs quietly to wake not sleeping sister nor snoring beast. The outside critters of Camont are still in the dark and so unless I flush the toilet, the cats remain cozied in the piggery. The chickens and ducks are still tucked inside their coop.

It’s only mid-January. It is too early to be awakened by singing birds, although I think this year Spring comes early. There are garden signs that point the way- those early daffodils by the gate, new kale sprouts taking hold, old garlic rooting. It won’t be long before the seeds, sprouted in the cold frame Jill made last year, will find their new home turf.

Jill came from heaven. It seemed so anyway. And in her time here endeared herself to all- butchery boys, spoiled cats, and especially me. A plan for a new potager grew in her head and materialized in a short 6 weeks. She kept notes, drew charts, made lists and worked; built, shoveled and moved a mountain of sand and gravel. When it is in full flower, leafy green and sprouting, you will see the genius of walking just outside the kitchen door to pluck a bowl of leaves for supper, seasoning a pot of soup from the pathway, or grazing a handful of berries from a bench under the almond tree.  Jill looked long and hard at Camont-how I work, where we live, and why the path needs to connect the purpose with the deed. The wood pile with the cheminée.

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So I wake in a dark kitchen, grateful for the hot embers that remain. Lighting the fire has been reduced from a chore to a magician’s trick. Heating with wood, eminently gratifying, can also be pain on cold stove mornings. I have now learned the rhythm of my stove and wood, bringing in two days worth to dry, really dry, before use so that the morning fumble, before the coffee rites (Morning Ritual #2) is done in silence. Another gift from Jill.

Once the stove is stoked and the coffee steeped, my small dark 18th Century cave joins a world awake by time zone measures around the internet globe: a young chef just getting off shift in Boston posts her favorite dishes of the night, a West Coast photographer sharing a visual journal of #gratitude, an editor in Australia reminding me that the moon rises and sets in opposition to side of the world. Our own French seasons will turn soon enough. Just now, the blue grey day backlights the curtain over the door. Sounds vibrate through old stone walls and creaky floors. Roosters crow, cats knock on the door and sleeping dogs snort. How can a day start better?

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Thank you Instagram!

 

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Gascony Souper Club

In Gascony, “souper” is the verb used to describe the act of eating. Supping. Having supper. Dining.

But when my good friend Vétou says, ‘ On soupe beaucoup ici“, she really means we eat a lot of soup here.  Lunch and dinner. Home, cafe, and restaurant. Even when the menu du jour  says 3-courses, it almost always includes a potage before the starter, main and dessert. Since the very act of supping-originally broth poured over bread or sopping, it’s not strayed far for that here in the rural kitchens of Gascony.

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If you’ve been followed my ham-centric ramblings in the Basque Country (check the #hamheaven link above or here on just look a the pretty pictures on Instagram) you will have seen lots of shots of soup. Basically at every meal that This Little Piggy and I ate. Like this garbure served above. Or this garbure served at the Taxidermy Cafe below.

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Soup is a state of mind and takes over my kitchen, not so much a function of the weather, rather as a way of bringing that happy still life of amazing good local produce together with salty bits of charcuterie, succulent confit de canard and handfuls of beans, rice or lentils.

My favorite Gascon way ‘to soup’ is to rub a warm toasted slice of sturdy pain au levain with a clove of raw garlic, then place it in the bottom of the soup plate. Ladle lots of broth and vegetables over, douse with some vinegar or even a splash of red wine, and then sip, sup, souper beaucoup.

We eat the beefy broth from Pot au Feu separately before the meat and vegetables, the golden bouillon from the Poule au Pot served with some dumpling or other, and the duck rich broth made with a carcass or two as my cassoulet beans are cooking. All these classic meals start with the soup.

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This homemade ham hock simmered with a few whole carrots, an onion and some thyme. Vetou and I didn’t need much else to make this a festive friendly lunch.  A glass of Cotes de Gascogne wine.

Want to know how I make good soup? Take a look at this picture below taken by Tim Clinch as we were shooting for our Cassoulet app.  It’s a table full of fresh winter produce straight from the farmers market. One can buy all the cookbooks and apps you want, but THIS is where real inspiration comes from.

2012-12-02 14.27.54My Soup de Camont in three easy steps:

  1. Fill a 4 liter/quart pan 3/4 full of peeled, chopped or whole fresh seasonal vegetables.
  2. Add a chunk of charcuterie, a few bones, or poultry carcass plus salt, pepper, bay, thyme, and parsley (lovage, celery, fennel, etc)
  3. Add just enough cold water to cover the vegetables. place over a medium high heat, cover, and cook for 1 hour.

For more inspiration from my Recipes link above:

http://kitchen-at-camont.com/2013/12/10/garbure-a-recipe-with-ham/

http://kitchen-at-camont.com/2011/08/27/hurricane-soup-dont-forget-your-duck-confit/

Make Soup Happen !

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What makes good Ham? Reflections on the Pig.

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Remember that old joke about the three legged pig? there are thousands of variations here, here and … here.

I can’t help but think of this peg-legged guy whenever I hear conversations about making charcuterie. Why eat a pig this good all at once? More like why eat a pig that’s not good at all? or not ready for the table.

Students come to my program in Southwest France to learn, refine, hone and expand their traditional butchery & charcuterie skills. The dense and chewy intensive four weeks of discovery has many different layers. Some of it is about the ‘foreignness’ of being in France- different language, different food, rhythms, continuity of the food arts, philosophies, etc. Southwest France is charmingly beautiful, old world rural landscapes and stone villages; a renaissance chateau here, a medieval fort there. Some of it is how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But most people (ok, almost all) fall in love with the friendly people they meet- the Chapolard family in particular. We work with them on the family farm as they turn their home grown pigs, 8 to 10 a week,  into amazingly delicious charcuterie. When our students/visitors/guests/friends leave to go home, I hope they also take this one extra souvenir with them. That three legged pig that was too good to eat… too soon.

Beyond the techniques, technical curing rooms,  family recipes, the amount of salt and pepper (14 grams salt + 2 grams peppers per kilo), no nitrates, a little smoke, a lot of black pepper, the old stone cheminées, the folklore, the romance (on a pig farm? mais oui!), the long delicious lunches, and the frenchness of it all, there is one basic thing that I will never stop reminding them about- that pig. That Big French Pig.

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The French call them porcs lourds or heavyweights. They weigh between 180-200 kilos (400 lbs +). They are 10-15 months old. They are adult pigs. The meat from these XL pigs is deep red, well-structured and flavorful. Some are rare breeds like the Black Gascon, the Basque Kintoa, or the standard farmer’s breed- Large white, Duroc and Pietrain. They eat well-balanced diets of wheat, barley, oats, corn and feverole. Some are pastured, some are forested and some are reared indoors. There are as many different details here as farmers just like in the US, UK or Australia. However there is ONE BIG difference.

Most pigs destined for good charcuterie-traditional, artisan, delicious charcuterie- are raised until they are a minimum of 10-11 months sometime as long as 15 months. These mature pigs produce a meat quite unlike their youngster cousins that are the standard ‘other white meat’ across the western world. By comparison the meat from pigs slaughtered at 5-6 months, no matter what their breed, diet or how they are ‘finished’, is a flimsy excuse for something our ancestors cured with salt, smoke and spices to get them through the year. I call this ‘veal pork’. It might taste good grilled, sautéed, or roasted, but it has no place in a curing cabinet. I have yet to meet an artisan charcutier here in France that slaughters pigs so young. That is reserved for the industrial side of meat handling.

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Charcuterie transforms fresh meat into a shelf stable product. It’s damn near impossible to do it with consistent results with pigs that are slaughtered too young. “A pig normally doesn’t reach maturity until it gets all its permanent teeth at 1 1/2 year  old*”. “Most pigs are fully grown by the time they are three years old, but some pigs will keep growing until they are four or five years old. Generally speaking, pigs live for about 10-15 years.’**   Following the industrial standards on a homesteader or artisan charcutier level seems a shame. This is where we have a chance to do it right and take the time to do it right.

The reason i am writing this is that I was dismayed to see in one discussion prompted on a facebook group of charcuterie fans that some folks thought it was okay to ‘practice’ on factory pork so you can make mistakes with a spending a fortune. I don’t get it. How does one learn to do anything well working with poor or inferior materials. I have witnessed the daily curing of thousands of pounds of pork over the last several years and there were no mistakes. No mistakes because classic techniques were followed carefully, respect for the raw material was foremost and the meat itself was of superior quality. The farmers didn’t raise a few sloppily fed and carelessly slaughtered pigs to practice on. It was the fruit of their hard labor for 28 months. This is how i want my students to learn. From good people raising good animals and making good charcuterie. The Chapolard farm is not a storybook farm; it is, however, a very sustainable, prosperous well-respected farm.

I still have a lot to learn. I am thinking these days a lot about the scale of pig farming and how it can be profitable for all the participants. There are many interesting good models out there. I am lucky working here with Dominique Chapolard and his brothers. I believe that for the home cook, weekend meat warrior or small holder it is worth trying to work with the best product you can find. I have great faith in small farms trying to create better raw material and not starve. 

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Having cured a lot of small goods over the years here at Camont, I only just made my first big commitment- a full air-cured (using salt only) traditional jambon- a whopping 20 pounds at finished weight having cured, dried and aged for a total of 12 months. It is a good ham. Would I have had such a good result with an inferior leg of pork? I doubt it. And then I would have had to eat the darn thing. Instead, I will slice my way through my  ‘Birthday Ham’ and share it happily with friends and students. It really is delicious.

So when the conversations come around to making charcuterie based on respect for the animal, how about we let the little teenagers mature a bit more and develop the flavor and structure needed to produce a superior traditional product. Now about those other three legs…

*http://ori.hhs.gov/education/products/ncstate/pig.htm   **http://www.kidcyber.com.au/topics/farmpiggies.htm

 

 

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flour+lard+sugar+eggs=biscotti

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If you haven’t figured it out glancing at these pages, I love the old ways. The simple, straight forward, traditional ways of cooking. Yes, I have a portable computer, iPhone, Mini-iPad, etc… but what anchors me to my 18th century kitchen is a wonderful full proof recipe pulled from the back corners of my brain- like my Grandmother’s Italian biscotti recipe.  The last time I saw my grandmother make these, she was proabaly my age. I was a curious kid and paid attention.

40 years on, I just baked these for our neighbors and friends. I wrote this down today for my nephews and nieces, great nephews and nieces…and anyone else who like a tender crisp biscotti. Maybe they will be making them in 40 years. Warning, these are not Vegan proof. The lard is essential! I remember it was what Julia DiPietrantonio would pull first from a box of groceries- the lard. I don’t really think I knew what it was. But the biscotti are delicious- not too sweet and toasty.

The basics of this and many of these traditional recipes are the same: for every egg, add 1 tablespoon sugar + 1 tablespoon lard + 1 cup flour ++. This is what I did.

Julia DiPietrantonio/Kate Hill’s Biscotti with lard.

  • 12 fresh eggs
  • 1 lb or 500 gr lard (or half butter/half lard)
  • 1 lb or 500 gr sugar
  • 2.5 lbs or 1 kilo flour (I added another + 200 gr)
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder
  • rum and anise flavoring plus anise seeds
  • Julia would use walnuts & maraschino cherries; I used almonds and dried cranberries
  1. Beat the lard with the sugar until well mixed
  2. Then add the eggs. mix well.
  3. Add the flour and baking powder to the wet mixture and mix well.
  4. Add flavorings.
  5. Knead lightly on a floured board and fold in the ferries and nuts if using.
  6. Divide into 8 pieces and form into  8 flat loaves- about a finger wide and a foot long. (10 cm x 30 cm).
  7. Place on baking trays on parchment paper and bake at 190’C or 375’F for 25-30 minutes until just done and light brown.
  8. Remove from oven, let cool for a few minutes, then slice each loaf into 1/2 in or 2 cm thick slices.
  9. Return to the oven and toast for 10+ minutes. remove and let cool.
  10. Now share with your friends and neighbors over a glass of vin santo, wine or… armagnac.

Happy Holidays! Kate

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What Goldilocks would have cooked… for 1, 2, 3.

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I belong to the Goldilocks school of cooking. It started when I got to be a tree in the second grade school play while someone with a paper bag with wood shavings glued on it for a wig got to be the naughty star. I’ve been looking for Goldilock’s secret sex appeal ever since. I think I finally get it now in the kitchen.

This year after a busy season of teaching 23 & 32 years olds to chop, salt and dry, I found myself in my little French kitchen alone. That cassoulet is too big to make this weekend. That modest little piece of cheese and ham is too sad tonight. Oh, but that bowl of hot hammy soup (ok, garbure.) is just right! I call it the Goldilock School of Cooking. 

The Three Laws of Goldilocks Cooking.

Too Big. First boredom with the too-many-times leftovers sets in followed by shameful waste.

Too Small! I feel mean-spirited in my kitchen and later deprived.

Just right… produces satisfied feeling of nailing the portions, having enough for one ‘pre-cooked’ meal the next day and feeling slightly smug with my savor-faire!

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Scaling down the kitchen to 2 people after three seasons of teaching cooking madness is… hard. Everyone knows that I am a ‘more is more’ sort of person. So when the students retreat to their own lives- salty charcuterie nuggets dancing in their heads- I always need a couple weeks of readjusting to winter days and dinner for two. Just two. Here are three well-honed tips on what I do:

  1. Pans. Figure out which size pan works for how many people. My favorite ‘small batch’ pan is a vintage (means I found it at a flea market for 2 euros) acid green, 4-liter Le Creuset casserole with lid.  All that sizing didn’t mean anything to me until I learned that 1 liter=1 kilo. So now when making jam I use 2 kilos of fruit plus sugar etc. it’s the right size for not boiling over. For soup, I add a layer of vegetables to the bottom, cover with 2 liters of water- eh voila enough soup for 2-4 people. Just enough.
  2. Shopping… is hard. Shopping at the market is my social life, my contribution to the local community of producers I support, and my weekly inspiration. It’s hard to shop for fresh when there are still leftovers in the refrigerator.  take a week off from shopping, use EVERYTHING in the fridge. Then shop with an eye like a 90 lb. French grand-mère. Buy a half chicken, a handful of endive, 4 carrots.  count your vegetables, just buy what you need. Think about what you are going to cook as you put the extra fun stuff in your basket.
  3. Cook with a light hand. Forget the big roasting pans, make a tight little braised dish of meat and vegetables. Using a small skillet or sauté pan (the 8 inch size) and use just enough food (your choice here- meat fish, veg…) to cover the bottom, then toss, cover, and steam until done. Serve on top of a salad. One perfect cheese and a some home grown honey is dessert. Dinner for one in ten minutes! Pour yourself a glass of wine. One glass.

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It might not seem the right time of year to talk about scaling down, but this just means you can do the Papa Bear portions for your big friends and family dinners and keep the kitchen in control the rest of the time.  I love me a little Holiday Fairytale… now where’s that blonde wig?

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Garbure: a recipe with ham

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Garbure is neither soup nor stew. It is a celebration of hot broth, salted pork and winter vegetables: turnips, carrots, leeks, potatoes, and a curly green Savoy cabbage. More vegetable than meat, this warming soup either gets a leg of duck confit stirred in at the end to enrich the broth or as below where I donate a heel of ham, a last slab of ham cut into chunks, or a handful of trimmed rind. Garbure is perfect to transform a handful of odds and ends into a starting soup for lunch or dinner or a main course. Serve garbure in a wide soup plate over a slice of rustic bread that has been rubbed generously with raw garlic. It will transport you straight to your grandmother’s kitchen… that is if your grandmother lives in Southwest France.

Serves: 6 people

Time: 30 minutes to chop and prepare; 1.5 hours to cook. Total about 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • Ham- 200-400gr /7- 14 ounces cut into large chunks about 3cm/1 in. wide.
  • Leeks- 2 cut in knuckle sized pieces
  • Carrots-2 peeled and cut into big chunks
  • Onions- 2 large chopped coarsely
  • Turnips-2 peeled and chopped
  • Garlic- 4 cloves peeled and chopped up
  • White beans-100gr/ 4 ounces dried beans, soaked overnight or 200gr/8 ounces fresh or pre-cooked beans
  • Potatoes- 4 large, peeled and cubed
  • Savoy cabbage- 1 whole cabbage, cored, halved, and cut into strips
  • Bouquet garni- the usual suspects: bay laurel, lovage, parsley stems, thyme
  • Sea Salt and whole peppercorns
  • Bread- pain de campagne or other rustic loaf; one thick slice per serving
  • Optional * duck confit

Instructions:

  1. Place the ham, leeks, carrots, onions, turnips, garlic, beans, potatoes and cabbage in a soup pot and cover with 2 liters/2 quarts of fresh water. Add the bouquet garni and a tablespoonful of salt and a dozen peppercorns.
  2. Cover, cook over a high heat, and bring to a boil. Once it has come to a boil, reduce the heat to slow setting and let simmer for about 1.5 hours.
  3. The longer this cooks, the sweeter and more melting the vegetable become. The next day it’s always better.
  4. Toast the bread and then rub them with raw garlic. Place in a wide soup bowl. Ladle the soup over the bread. Or you can place all the bread in a large wide oven-proof bowl, ladle the soup and vegetables over it, and sprinkle a hard grating cheese. Place in a hot oven until brown.

* adding a leg of confit de canard and a little of the duck fat and continue cooking raises the stakes to making this a main dish soup. Cured pork belly or ventrêche is another alternative. 

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Back at the Taxidermy Café… on real cooking and how to find it in France.

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Now that I have your attention… let me tell you about just one of the good meals that Elaine and I encountered on the last ‘This Little Piggy’ research road trip to Basquelandia. We ate homemade garbure at every meal, drank tart basque cider and local Irouleguy wine, and best of all, sat in cozy unpretentious restaurants whose only aim is to feed their customers good honest food—everyday. This menu documents one such very good meal of many at what I call ‘The Taxidermy Cafe’.

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I did what I often do, followed my nose along a small road. Away from the pilgrim tourist traps of St. Jean Pied de Port, we headed out of town. “There, near the vineyards. We’ll find a place where the winery workers eat.” We passed Maison Brana- the leading vignoble in the Irouleguy AOC and I knew we had taken the right road. When have you not eaten well where the wines are made? Past memories of lunches in the Medoc, St. Emilion, Cote de Gascogne, Armagnac sprung to mind and propelled me to this table. This was twenty-plus years of training showing off.

A wall of lace curtains framed in wood panels and a massive double door indicated the entrance. When we walked in, three things hit me at once: the smell of soup singing in the background, a dozen male heads turning to see who was walking in, and a stuffed zoo of game animals watching crowding an old piano. Welcome to The Taxidermy Cafe… with Ham.

What we had for lunch:

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 Garbure

In my France, the Southwest, all good meals start with soup. Vétou Pompèle told me years ago, “On souper beaucoup ici.”  As we turned toward the steep slopes, a cluster of white-washed, red-shuttered buildings huddled together, a Basque village at the foot of the wine growing slopes- Ispoure. The houses draped like freshly laundered linen down one main street and there, in the middle of the grouping, was a public house- the bar, cafe, restaurant. A restaurant that would surely serve not just soup first, but garbure- the classic cabbage, potato or bean, ham or confit soup.

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Omelette Basquaise

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with Ham Bits

Since this was a ham fact finding mission trip for Elaine’s This Little Piggy project (please go look at her project site for more information here) and since I am focusing on ‘ham-in-cooking’ recipes, I was delighted to find that after the great garbure, homemade and silky with long-cooked cabbage and ham bits, the second course was a perfectly cooked omelette- a la Basquaise.  In the diners and coffee shops of California, this would be called a western omelet- onions and enough salty ham to offset sweet green peppers.

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 Lomo & Lentilles

 When we walked in, I was so dumbstruck by the gallery of glass eyes staring at us from that piano that I didn’t even hear what was the plat du jour. I didn’t need to. Elaine and I eat anything; that is why we are friends. And I am happy for a home cooked meal anytime and it was already one o’clock- dangerously late to be looking for lunch in rural France. So I was delighted when this platter of lentilles et lomo (pork loin) appeared. The lentils were cooked like the omelet- perfectly, dressed with a bit of vinegar, and studded with sweet carrots. The loin slices were porky and tasty. It’s hard to resist this sort of dish served in a platter with enough for a second helping. Groaning when Madame returned to ask “Dessert?”, gourmandise fever took over and although we had eaten well and copiously, when the choice was offered simple as “Flan“, we said “Oui.”

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#Flan

The simple four letter word FLAN can conceal either a nightmare of culinary distress or the prefect marriage of egg and milk, sugar and …?  The cook’s secret was the mysteryflavorquestionmark in this well prepared home-made flan, golden yolked, and not too creamy flan. When asked, the cook/owner, from his post at the bar around the corner from the dining room, shared - a splash of Ricard. That popular anise and herb-infused aperitif floated a subtle counterpoint to the eggy custard and confirmed my well-honed suspicions that we were eating real food in a house of a real cook. This would be the first of many hashtag flans, but the one that remains most fondly in my memory.

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le Café

A solitary strong coffee (not espresso) completed ‘the proper drug mix’ of soup, starter, main, and dessert- the ubiquitous four-course routier lunch served in hundreds of village cafes across France for 11-13 euros including wine, coffee usually extra. By 1:45 the room emptied of our dining companions- wine makers drinking from the house carafe, painters in red-splattered white overalls, and a couple of businessmen lingering over an armagnac. Our waitress reset their tables for tomorrow’s lunch while we plotted the afternoon adventures with pigs.

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At last, we were alone with our cameras, Instagram and the furry set. Elaine met her porcine match lurking back by the toilettes while I reflected about how easy it is to cook well and please people- everyday. No more thought is needed than what goes into buying a new computer, learning to use a smartphone, or figuring out a new app. And yet, I am always surprised by the thoughtlessness that goes into most daily meals- at home or in restaurants.

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People come to Camont to cook, to learn to cook, to celebrate cooking. And while stirring, salting, and tasting, we talk about the demise of good cooking, about finding real and honest homemade food made from scratch. It’s the number one topic in my Kitchen, on my Facebook feed and over the tweets.

It’s been big news in all the French print media recently as well as several prime time TV exposés directed at famous restaurant kitchens that feed local and tourists alike a very ‘faux cuisine.’ These scandalous reports have documented pre-cooked and pre-assembled food masquerading as haute cuisine in restaurant kitchens, frozen Tarte Tatins and crème brûlées from industrial bakeries dubbed fait maison, and imported frozen duck breast from Bulgarian factory farms dished up as local fresh artisan-produced magrets. All too common in this age of ‘foodie-ism’ where the weight on marketing and garnishing overshadows the raw materials— their provenance and intrinsic quality, both nutritive and gustative. How do tell the real thing from the faux tables? I listen to my friends, people I trust,  a good guide, and follow my well-trained nose.

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Here, in a small Basque town of less than 600 people, we ate well. Good café-cooked, simple, delicious real food from the original raw ingredients- eggs, cabbage, ham, lentils, pork, milk. The Bar Restaurant de L’Arradoy served 14 people that lunchtime. Maybe there would be another dozen customers in the evening. A few more glasses of Ricard, a vin rouge,  a couple glasses of cider for the working boys, multiple coffees over the afternoon and a tisane for one grand-mère.  Sunday lunches will be busier, more village folk, a few from St. Jean Pied de Port. They are open everyday from Jan 2- Dec 24- cooking good food. Merci et Milesker to M. Chevalier for making our day.

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RESTAURANT DE L’ARRADOY
Olivier CHEVALIER- Owner Chef
Bourg
#05 59 37 06 01

P.S. Here’s my basix Garbure with Ham Recipe…http://kitchen-at-camont.com/2013/12/10/garbure-a-recipe-with-ham/

 

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#HamHeaven No.1: Terroir

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Ham Heaven. It’s what I started calling this part France- the space below Gascony and above Spain- over a year ago as I stumbled my way around looking for salty bits of Basque goodness still on the bone, hanging from tall rafters, inspiring delicious dinners in small Basque cafes. Over a winter of ruminating about the delicious hams and their charming makers, I began to plan bringing my serious Butchery & Charcuterie students with me. I wanted them to experience another side of French farmhouse charcuterie traditions after spending nearly four weeks working alongside the lovely Chapolard family. I wanted to open their eyes wider. And learn about the big hams, other breeds, and expand their playing field. I wanted to expose them to another element we often talk about in France- terroir.

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Terroir quite simply is about a sense of place… in your mouth. And Ham Heaven is where the terroir of premium Jambon de Bayonne, Ibaiona and Kintoa hams is born. Ham Heaven is a very real geographic place. It is located here:

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The salt laden breezes of the Port of Bayonne flow inland to small valleys and pocket-sized micro-climates tempering the air under the Gulf Stream influence. In fact, I saw my first Jambon de Bayonne hanging in a fishing boat shed along the Adour River over 20 years ago. I was looking for barge mooring lines. I found ham. Today, this early December morning, the temperatures are warm under brilliant blue skies (it’ll hit around 60’F by mid-afternoon). This is a gift of Le Foehn- the winds that swoop up over the Pyrenees from the South and, having dumped their rain-charged load on the Spanish side, race down the French leeward slopes warmer and drier. Perfect ham aging conditions.

Now, Elaine and I are standing on an historical footpath that crosses the Pyrenees here at Roncevaux. I wanted to start at the top and show her the lay of the land, the backside of Josette’s mountain, the valley where the piglets are born, the road leading to the Larre farm and on to Eric’s charcuterie. The Moors arrived from the South to conquer France; Charlemagne’s son, Roland, pushed them back-late 700’s. The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello crosses here as hundreds of thousands of two-legged sinners tramp ‘The Way’ to Western Spain in its medieval heyday- the 11th-12th Century. Even off-season there is a lone pilgrim striding uphill. Giant ‘V’s” of migratory birds soar through this pass back and forth, spring and fall: cranes, geese and those tasty palombes. The Basques remain to farm their sheep, cows and pigs.

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From here, my back toward Spain, I can look across the snow dusted peaks and on to a Basque flag of red and white farms, green fields and sheep, sheep and more sheep.

On Scouting

This week was the second scouting for Elaine’s This Little Piggy Project*. The goal was to meet the breeder for the piglet that would become the ham, Eric Ospital’s Ibaiona ham, and meet the Larre family on their farm near St. Etienne where the pig will be raised until it is slaughter weight- 180 kg. The First Scouting in September was a preliminary visit for Elaine to meet charcutier Eric Ospital at his workplace and ham aging rooms at Hasparren. We also met up with fellow Californian Josette Arrayat who produces the Basque Pig- or Kintoa near St Jean Pied de Port. Josette is an educated goldmine of local porcine lore and has become a good friend. Talking to Josette is like having a direct line to all the esoteric as well as practical information … in English, American English. You see, scouting isn’t really about choosing beautiful locations, which restaurants to eat in, or where to find warmer socks. It’s about finding and meet the people who will open their doors to you. Ultimately, they are the reason I do any of this. Meeting passionate, committed people living a full life is daily inspiration.

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Why Ham Heaven?

As I become privy to a mine of good information on ham, I want to share it with my former students, my fellow cooks and charcutiers, my Meat Grrls, and you. So first meet this place and meet the players. I’ll take questions to ask on the comments below.

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Josette Arrayat- Pig Breeder and Farmer at Anhaux

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Jean Guenard- Pig Breeder at Lasse

Eric Ospital- Ibaiona

Eric Ospital- Charcutier

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Elaine Tin Nyo- Artistpigville Spring snow

Vallée of Les Aldudes

aldudes pig walk

A typical Pig Park in the mountains.Ibaiona ham & piment espelette (1)

The Ibaiona Ham

 Follow along on Instagram and Twitter as katedecamont, hashtag #hamheaven, and on Facebook at the Kitchen-at-Camont page or here under the Ham Heaven tab above here

http://about.me/katehill

* I am working with Emerging Fields Artist Elaine Tin Nyo as ground coordinator and scout for the French Pig for her ‘This Little Piggy’ Project, a Creative Capital funded project. 

 

 

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On Birthdays, Clay Pots and Why We Cook Cassoulet.

IMG_5209If you love France, read on. If you love Cassoulet, read on. If you are reading this and don’t love either, then let me talk to you about why I do. France + Cassoulet = my long obsession with understanding French cuisine. You probably already know that how we grow, prepare, cook, serve, share, and enjoy French food is a big part of my work and pleasure. But my big obsession is ‘Why we do this?’.

Look at that photo above. What do you see? Yes, the oversized helping of Cassoulet on a well set table- linens, silver, glassware, wine. And there are some postcards on the table promoting a national Tripe campaign (more on that another time). But the slightly skewed view out the table side window, down the hilltop village slopes, across the golden shorn corn fields of the Lauragais plain, and off to the hazy Montagne Noire is the defining factor of the ‘Why’ behind Cassoulet.

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To celebrate my birthday this week, Stephanie, Elaine and I drove the arrow straight A62 From Agen to Avignonet du Lauragais and on to St. Felix du Lauragais to dine on cassoulet at the Auberge du Poids Public. In 25 years of haunting the Canal du Midi and its cuisine, I have never made it here. It seemed like the right occasion- the launching of the Camp Cassoulet Roadshow, both French and US editions.

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 Lunch came from this page of the menu.

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We were not alone on this blue sky Lanquedocienne day. This table of 5 were being served a Lievre Royale prepared by chef Claude Tafferello. Arriving with all it’s pomp and silver cloches, the hare—having been marinated four days in a wine/port/cognac sauce then stuffed with foie gras—was much appreciated before they moved on to cigars and armagnac in the bar.

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Our starter was simpler. An elegant and generous portion of foie gras served in its duck jus with a slice of toasted brioche and one perfect savory macaron.

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Next came the Cassoulet and a Confit Gesier Raviolo.

IMG_5214The individual bowls were dressed with a perfect small leg of confit de canard, piece of sausage de Toulouse and a pork spare rib.

IMG_5220One helping was enough, however we ate two.

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Dessert was wonderfully silly, too much and totally unnecessary. But it was a birthday after all.

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Then we rolled down and out the doors on a post prandial excursion that was my real gift to myself. And the celebration of 25 years of cruising past this archetypal beacon of tradition on the Canal du Midi- The Poterie NOT at Mas Saintes Puelles near Castelnaudary.

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The ‘Why’ behind Cassoulet is written on the bottom of a clay bowl, spun into baked gold terra-cotta, glazed with the colors of the south and fired in a hot oven. I make Cassoulet because 25 years ago, I met these friendly clay-encrusted souls, sitting at their wheels and quietly, doggedly, spinning cassole after cassole. Two Brothers, then two sons. I bought a bowl; I bought two.

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Over the years I have bought, and shared with friends, these special cassoles and cassoulets on many occasions. I have cooked this signature dish of beans and charcuterie and told my stories of a Long Village in Southwest France as bottles of good red wine were passed.

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We cook cassoulet because it warms the hearth, warms the spirit, and nourishes the body to keep the core warm agains the infernal Tramontana winds. I cook cassoulet to teach the basics of how to cook something simply but perfectly: beans, broth, meat. And how to make charcuterie, of course.

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I cook cassoulet to gather a large group around a noisy table at Camont. To clean the dining area, light the fire in the wood stove, pick some flowers and put candles around. I cook cassoulet to Make November a more special month and drive off the dark nights a little longer. I cook cassoulet to welcome the festive sprites of the holidays and give small gifts of bean sized goodness to my friends.

I cook cassoulet all winter because it makes me feel like I mastered something special over the years, like the NOT Frères mastered the clay arts, and I learned to define a regional dish, adding my own finishing touches. I mostly cook cassoulet because I am a show off and I think it is one of the best I have ever tasted.

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It began with a bowl, a simple clay pot, and thus cassoulet and its cassoles became the leitmotif for my learning about the Cooking of Southwest France over 25 years of crawling these backroads. If you want to learn how I make cassoulet, or just share the table with me, then watch for the Camp Cassoulet App and pre-Launch Roadshow Calendar coming soon!

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Merci to my Soul Sister Elaine Tin Nyo for my official Birthday Portrait, some of her photographs at the Not brothers, and her porcine-centric project here: http://www.thispiglet.com. 

 

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