Cooking in South West France- for the tourist!
Nowhere in France is the so-called French Paradox more evident than in the Dordogne, or Perigord area of France. Two-hour lunch-breaks and leisurely dinners washed down with copious quantities of red wine result in some of the longest living Europeans. Some would claim that it’s down to the Perigordian attitude to time (the slow moving tortoise lives a lot longer than the hysterically active hummingbird); I would rather believe it’s down to their food and their attitude to eating.
Thousands of holiday makers visit this part of France every year, most on a self-catering basis, and all return home with tales of good-value, excellent quality restaurant experiences. Most families however, especially those with children, won’t eat every meal out, and with the wealth of easily prepared local food on offer in both supermarkets and town markets, it seems a shame to fall back on your old reliables when you eat in.
Duck breasts (magrets de canard)are a mainstay of perigordian cuisine. Although we might look at the fat under the skin and run screaming towards the coronary care unit, the French maintain that duck fat is much healthier than animal fats, and is high in mono-unsaturates.
Duck with Perigordian potatoes – serve with salad or fine French beans
4 duck breasts (or 2 from the large “fattened” ducks in France).
Season the duck breasts on both sides, then fry them skin side down for 3-4 mins on a hot, dry (preferably non-stick) pan. The skin should be golden brown but not burnt.
Drain off excess fat and keep to one side. Brown the other side of the duck breasts, then either finish cooking in a medium oven (about 18 mins for small breasts, 22-25 mins large breasts will give you a little pink) or lower the heat on the pan and continue cooking over a medium heat, turning frequently. (Pan cooking is smokier, but may be the only option in a mobile home or tent!)
Leave to stand in a warm place 2-3 mins before slicing into thick slices.
500g waxy potatoes, cut into cubes, then steamed or boiled until cooked but firm (in France you can buy these ready cooked in vacuum packs)
1small packet of lightly smoked, uncooked, bacon bits (lardons-available in all supermarkets in France)
4 shallots or 2 onions finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped (or crushed)
A few sprigs of fresh thyme and a small bunch of parsley (preferably flat-leaved)
Duck fat (from above) or (olive oil- if you must!)
Salt and Pepper.
Fry the shallots and bacon together in the duck fat. Allow them to brown gently, then turn down the heat, add the garlic and cook until onion is soft. Add the potato cubes, and thyme leaves and increase the heat. Keep stirring- the aim is to heat the potatoes through and crisp them slightly. If the mixture begins to stick too much, add more fat.
Season to taste (this will depend on saltiness of bacon), and decorate with torn parsley leaves.
Other easy meals.
Don’t be put off cooking duck confit (confit de canard) It may look scary – (a tin, jar or vacuum pack of what looks like duck fat with only a tiny bit of duck) but once you’ve tried it, you’ll realise it’s the ultimate in convenience food.
Remove the duck pieces, (legs or wings are easiest to start with) and scrape off most of the fat. Then fry on a hot pan until the skin is crispy, turn down and keep frying, turning frequently, until heated through. Season if needed.
(Delicious served with very potatoes above – especially as you can use some of the ready-flavoured duck-fat for frying)
Look out for large jars or tins of ‘Cassoulet’- a typical southern stew, made with beans, vegetables and meat such as sausages, game or duck (again). Heat gently and serve with a side salad and thick slices of a crispy baguette (a whole article could be written on choosing bread in France!). If you hide the tin you’ll be convinced you’re eating in that lovely roadside bistro.
A salad at lunch time, can be livened up with a huge range of dried, smoked and preserved meats, from the chiller section in even the smallest village shop. Or a take small whole goats cheese (crotin de chevre), warm it under a grill and drizzle it with walnut oil, then add walnuts to give a salad with a Perigordian feel.
Never leave a French supermarket, or market without a visit to the cheese counter or at least two or three cheese stalls. In the markets, there are two types of stall, the general fromagier, who sells a bewildering selection of cheeses from all over France, and the local producer, who will have at most four or five cheeses produced on the farm. If you’re not sure what to buy, ask to taste. (No French? Learn a few words, look helpless and hungry, and you’ll be helped out).
You can’t leave France without at least once buying and cooking fish for yourself. Most whole fish (make sure it’s cleaned out) can be barbecued by wrapping in foil with a bit of onion, garlic, and seasoning, and in the markets, the stall holder will usually be delighted to give you cooking advice to help make a sale. (If you’re not sure what to buy, stand back and see what everyone else is buying – it’s usually a reliable indicator of value and what’s really good that day).
(extracts of this piece appeared in Vanessa Berman's column in the Sunday Business Post)