Sunday, October 30, 2011

Life without Foie Gras? Non!

Back in 2003, some friends on their way back to Ireland from Provence, detoured across to the Ariège Pyrenees to visit us. Here, they enjoyed some locally produced Foie Gras and bought some to take back with them. Their family and friends tasted it at the Christmas revels and voila, orders began to arrive.

It gets bigger each year and in October or early November, in our house in the Couseran Hills, I pack it up & drive north to the Bordeaux area with the order and pass it over to my friends as they head north to take the ferry Ireland for the winter.

Here is a product so luxurious, so deluxe, that people in other countries consider to be exotic, a fabulous, once a year treat. But in the Grand Sud, Foie Gras is everywhere, a perfectly ordinary food. It appears on all the great occasions of course, but equally it can and does make an appearance at an everyday lunch. As I became immersed in French life, shopped and cooked using local produce, I fell into the French way of thinking about Foie Gras. Like the mountains, it’s just there.

In most of the farmhouses Foie Gras is made much as apple compote is. Life without it would be unimaginable. Nationally, it is considered a very important product and like so many foodstuffs ­­­- the French take these things very seriously - it is protected by law. Legislation designated Foie Gras as part of the officially protected, cultural and gastronomic patrimony of the country. France produces 83% of the world's Foie Gras and apparently eats more than 90% of it.

I place the large order for our friends with David Lemasson who, here in the department of Ariège Pyrénées, produces a superb range of hand-crafted, natural products, without conservatives or dyes. The Lemasson team produce a vast range of highest quality duck produce, including the luscious Foie Gras. Rich, buttery and delicate, packed with calories. A small piece is a feast. On a bed of salad leaves, with red winter berries, or in summer, tiny cherry tomatoes, it is pure indulgence.

This love of Foie Gras is not universal and several American states put pressure on people to stop eating it. Banned in 2006 by the city of Chicago, the product acquired a ritzy glamour, a new appeal. Demand became high with stories of people enjoying it in ‘Foie Gras speakeasies’. In May 2008 the City Council repealed the controversial ban; back it went on the menus and those who chose to eat it, did so.

Arguments continue with stories of birds in distress because of the practice of force feeding with breeders insisting that the birds simply get used to the process and are not in any great distress. People have been practising the ‘gavage’ as far back as 2500 BC, when the ancient Egyptians kept birds for food, deliberately fattening them by force feeding. Opinions may be divided elsewhere, but here, in the duck producing area of a country obsessed with quality food, where people have grown up with the stuff being made in their kitchens, the lobby against Foie Gras ‘n'existe pas’.

Many people in this area live largely from the produce of a smallholding and while they are kind and extremely generous, there is little sentimentality about rearing stock for eating. Memories are long and these people and their ancestors saw hard times during two world wars. The notion of not having Foie Gras because of discomfort to a duck or goose is an alien concept.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Meet Madame Morere

Our first house in France was in St Lizier, a tiny medieval village in the Ariège Pyrénées. On the first floor, the two rooms facing onto the street had floor to ceiling windows, heavy wooden shutters and small, wrought iron, mock balconies. Although the views of the Pyrénées (from the little room at the top) announced that the Spanish border was not far away, to me the little house had the look and feel of a small Paris apartment.

From the street of course it looked modest, as French village houses do. One of our earliest visitors, a very rich Irish person from a then very rich Ireland put it bluntly; “it looks poor". But then another Irish visitor, a wonderful woman, an artist with lots of imagination, thoughtfully said, "Well, well, who ever knows what splendours lie behind these old French front doors?"

As well as having beautiful windows, both rooms on our first floor had typical, sleek, French panelled doors. In one room was a fabulous black and white veined marble fireplace. This became our elegant dining room, with the walls and window frame painted entirely in white, a massive mirror hung over the mantelpiece and a splendid, multicoloured centre ceiling light fitting. A typically French, fussy piece; a large ornate thing that works so well and looks absolutely correct in French houses, but is ridiculous, over the top and out of place anywhere else. A table and chairs of rich, dark oak completed the room.

All I needed was a curtain for the long, elegant, Paris style window. But not just any curtain. Not for this window. We were, after all, living in a 'Plus Beau' village (one of the most beautiful villages in the country) and the room looked out onto the street. I had in my mind a vision of how the finished room should look. Masses of translucent, creamy white flowing fabric hanging from a black pole, just touching the floor and when hooked gracefully back to one side, creating a graceful, stylish look. My very own little bit of Parisian chic.

But I am useless, totally and utterly hopeless, at this kind of thing. I never finished the wretched sock we knitted in junior school back in the dark ages in Ireland and I loathed the stupid things those boring, time wasting classes suggested we make during early teens.

I wanted this curtain to be exactly right, not some makeshift, sad little job of mine. So, ready to murder the French language yet again - hardly anybody here speaks English - I crossed the little street, went up some flower bedecked steps and rang a highly polished brass bell.

Taking a big, big breath, I enlisted the help of Madame Morere, a lady who knows every single thing there is to know about the organisation, running and decoration of residences, whether apartments or houses, town or country. She lives in Paris for most of the time, coming to her house in St Lizier a few times each year.

Ancient Cathedrale & Former Bishops Palace, St Lizier
An expert on French chic, she understood exactly what I had in mind, curtain wise, for my little house. She came over, looked at the room, and said yes, yes, but of course, that was just what was needed. Together we would see to it, and quickly. There seemed to be no problem. It appeared it could all be arranged and the curtain would be up in a trice. She knew the very place to go to arrange everything.

In double quick time I found myself sitting in Madame’s large comfortable car being briskly driven north to the town of St Goudens to her favourite fabric shop. She had taken the measurements of the window herself, using her very special old wooden ruler and had carefully written everything down in her notebook.

I quickly got the hang of things and was soon turning over massive bales of fabrics, thinking, and more importantly, talking Parisian drapes. I found exactly what I had in mind, a white gauzy, delicate fabric with a shimmering silver panel. Madame agreed it was a splendid choice and she confidently ordered the amount needed, assuring me that yes, there would be plenty of folds and that yes, the silver panel would be in just the right place.

I paid for the stuff and then, obviously losing the plot somewhat, I asked the sales lady approximately how long it would be before my wonderful white and silver curtain would be ready. Madame Morere looked at me as if I had taken complete leave of my senses and, using extremely rapid French, I got the gist of it as she told the sales lady that naturally she was the person who would be making up the curtain.

We shook hands all round, were wished Bon Apres Midi by the sales lady, left the shop delighted with life and went for a glass of wine at a small cafe next door, where we discussed house style. I sat back in the afternoon sun of southern France, stretched my arms and legs in the heat and smiled as I remembered the appalling, dire existence in this country that had been predicted for me by some Irish friends who seemed to know such a lot about French living. Life among all those frosty people with their endless rules, who would enjoy making everything so very difficult for me. Ah, yes.

Madame took the delicate material away and the work began. In a few days she called to say everything was now ready. She asked had we put the curtain pole up yet? Yes Madame, we had. Had we an iron? Yes Madame, we had. "I am on my way" replied the great lady.

Our elmwood staircase, as well as all the floors were wooden. Larry had done fantastic work bringing them back to their original splendour and they were quite beautiful, the different coloured grains of the ancient wood now visible after his endless cleaning, sanding and varnishing. Madame, a true respecter of peoples’ homes and the work they put into them, arrived with her ladder. Tied around each of the four steel ‘feet’ was a little white towelling shower glove.

Larry naturally tried to take the curtain from her, intending to go up the ladder and attach it to the hooks; they were quite high up. He received a very gentle movement indicating that he should step back. Up the steps of the ladder Madame flew and, having expertly attached the curtain to the hooks, hopped down and proceeded to arrange and re-arrange the fabric so that it fell absolutely correctly. Then she stood and looked at it for ages, head on one side, head on the other side, eventually deciding it did not quite touch the floor in the way she wanted it to. Up the ladder once again flew the sprightly ‘seventy-something’ year old, where she proceeded to re-do the whole process.

Madame then asked about the iron. The fabric was incredibly delicate. I would never have attempted ironing it. I thought it was fine and said so. I might as well not have spoken. She asked me to set up the ironing board and iron. But oh dear. She looked first at the board, the cover torn in a few places. She then picked up my rather basic iron, examined it, said “oh, non, non, non,” and asked me if I actually used this? “Well, yes,” I said, “I do,” adding “but in fact, I very rarely iron anything.”

Putting both her hands up, palms upwards, she gave a little sort of shiver and, shaking her head, hurried down the stairs and out the front door. She arrived back carrying her own board and a huge, almost industrial, impressive looking iron, both items naturally in perfect nick, and without a word, began the laborious and skilful task of working with that frighteningly delicate fabric. I left her to it.

"Voila, Jane!" she called out.

The splendid Madame Morere, with her vast expertise and that peculiar French attention to detail, had indeed brought, just as I had wanted, a true touch of Parisian chic to our delightful - if poor looking from the outside - village house.