The view from the new desk.
Bonjour, ca va? Je ne comprends pas. Although my French vocab extends beyond the former, trying to dig it out from the recess of my brain has been tough. I do apologize for the lack of radio contact of late, but I have (I think) a good enough excuse: I have been locked away in a small room by my publishers turning six months of treehouse shenanigans into a book. So here I am in the South of France, about 50ft from the pounding surf of Hossegor beach…its loud, very loud and yet really quite soothing at the same time. I came out with surfboard in tow expecting to get stuck into a nice wedge of Atlantic surf, turns out the waves pack a little more of a punch to the mellow rollers of Cornwall: Double overhead is a bit out of my league…looks like the only wedge I’ll be getting stuck into will be on a cracker with a stick of celery and a few grapes to hand.
The fiancée is now working in France which is where I will be based for the next few weeks, I have noticed the odd comment welcoming me back to London…thanks! But there will be little chance of anything more than a day trip to that place. I got to France a few days ago and have enjoyed kicking back a touch, meeting some new folk and eyeing up the supermarket aisles.
The supermarkets here have got some interesting shit…don’t even get me started on the butchers!
In this country, it would appear, they eat absolutely anything. Their stomachs are as fickle as a Frenchman’s fidelity (which is, I understand, sometimes mistaken for romance). Every type of offal from every type of animal is packaged up and on show: hearts, tongues, tails, stomach and even brain are just a few of the meaty treats on offer. So with a few weeks in France, what better chance will I get to try out some interesting culinary treasures from the home of fine gastronomy?
The next few weeks are going to be dedicated to trying out a few unfamiliar morsels and posting them up here for all to see. I have already started putting out feelers in my stumbling French to see if I can get in on some of the local action when it comes to hunting and gathering. The only catch is, Clare’s Flat is perhaps not best equipped for a gastronomic adventure…she has two hobs and that’s about it. But when have I been one to turn down a challenge? The treehouse didn’t have any hobs!
Bayonne...where the ham comes from.
Being in a French bubble is even more extreme than a treehouse one, I have no idea what is going on back at home, and I quite like it. Most of the people I have met, well the English ones at least, say it is one of the best things about being out here: no doom, gloom or depressing statistics. The only ball ache is the rate of exchange. Things are expensive to the sterling-toting stranger, weirdly enough; wine is perhaps the cheapest thing. Even the good stuff will set you back about three quid, I bought a fine bottle of Bordeaux the other day and was shocked to find out it cost the same as the small bottle of Tabasco…heathen behaviour of the highest degree!
The cost of wine certainly reflects the French ‘habit’ of drinking the stuff at every possible opportunity, yet they are not foolish about it: having been weaned on vino from an early age, the French attitude to alcohol is how it should be. Not like England…have a couple of glasses a day and you’re branded an alcoholic.
It would be easy to kick off my French fetish food journey with the obvious: Snails, but I have covered that in the past with some of the slimy critters that were raiding my London vegetable patch (to see it click here). On Friday, I saw something in the butchers that caught my eye.
‘Ah Bonjour monsieur, Je voudrais un Coeur de canard, s’il vous plait?’ said I to the butcher.
‘Coeur du canard?’
The questioning tone in his voice and the fact I had an unshakable British pronunciation said it all. He must have been thinking: what does this Roast beef-guzzling imbecile want with a pack of duck hearts? Oh yes, xenophobia seems to be as alive and well over here as it is at home…
A raw duck heart ready for action...
Duck hearts are slightly bigger than chicken hearts, a delicacy I was introduced to by Tom, The Hungry Cyclist, (have a look at his latest mission up the Mekong in search of the perfect meal- looks tasty!) I thoroughly enjoyed them; they tasted like chicken with a frankfurter-style texture. He showed me how to have them the Mexican way: Pan-fried, then drizzled with lemon juice and Tabasco, they were delicious.
I assumed duck hearts would taste like duck and they did, but also with a slight hint of ‘Liveriness’ about them. I treated them to the Mexican way, although you could go for a swanky reduction or stewing of some sort, I wanted to enjoy it at face value in a way I knew worked.
Cooking Duck hearts:
First of all trim off any excess fat from the top end and slice the hearts in half lengthways.
Heat up a pan on the hob and drop in a knob of butter and a small drizzle of olive oil.
Season the duck hearts well with salt and pepper and drop into a hot pan. They need no more than 3-4 minutes on each side, just until browned. Too long and you will be left with small chunks of rubber.
Once they are cooked, chop them into small slivers and place in a bowl. At this point try them to see what you think, to be honest they are great on their own, but if you are feeling exotic: add a generous splash of Tabasco and the juice of half a lemon before giving them a vigorous stir.
They make a tasty snack to say the least, but are equally at home as the starring role in a starter: duck heart salad is quite popular stateside these days.
Pan-fried Duck hearts on a bed of 'Rampon' with a glass of rose, eaten off a surf board. Nice!
You would be hard pressed to find hearts in your local butchers off the cuff, they could probably have to order them in for you. Your best off visiting a Halal buthchers (don’t ask for pork…I tried it once and got chased out by a man wielding a cleaver), where their customers tend to value such random cuts, I asked everywhere in Borough Market for chicken hearts and came out empty handed.
I have always found that a country’s food outlets can tell you a lot about its inhabitants. The French seem open to most things, not fussy and traditional in their approach to cooking. I can’t stand tripe, but it was great to see it on the shelves.
Beyond liver and kidneys, what an earth happened to offal in Britain? Its not that we don’t like it, otherwise Fergus Henderson wouldn’t be doing quite so well. I’ve seen an Ox Tongue for sale in Waitrose but it was bloody expensive, I suppose we are trying…sort of. How can the French have it so right and Britain so very, very wrong?
I know of one man who takes his offal seriously, he is certainly setting a fine example of how to make the best out of less desirable cuts at home, something we should all be doing. So, I will point you in the direction of Alex Rushmer’s blog: Just cook it, for some offaly good inspiration, I must warn you, he does have a minor obsession with Pig’s heads….
Next on the menu: Frog’s legs. Would probably go well with the beer I made a while back…Weston’s Hopping mad!
La Nord 43° 28’ 0 N, 3° 55’ 0 W, Hossegor, going off grand temps outside the bedroom window.