Returning to Camont after a month away is usually bittersweet. Rainy days of April, warming spring days and a super fertile River valley terrain produces a growth spurt akin to Amazonian Rain Forest scale. While I love working my garden, growing enough vegetables, fruit and fresh herbs for our classes and sustain a small village, I don’t love the tall grass, weeds and invasive spirit of the French nettle world.
This year however, the house sprites have been busy. Thanks to Friendly Neighbor Olivier and Stephanie C.E.S. (Cinderella Extraordinaire Sister), I returned from a month of French Pig workshops to find Camont in abundant green garb and ready for action. And action we got!
New Butchery & Charcuterie students arriving hot on my heels were joined by a last minute Photo Crew from a major mag. Would Camont be suitably tamed for prime time viewing? Would the international photographer see the charm of the unruly calla lilies, the over abundant wysteria, the worn garden chairs? Would the new students taste the difference in our pure French Farmstead Charcuterie hanging from a beam in the laundry room/piggery?
At the end of this first day of the Spring season, I tumble into my bed, a tangle of yet unpacked clothes on one side, as a May nightingale lights up the evening with his song. Home.
Sweet Gascon Home.
Some times I see the progress, sometime I see the traces of work left as images that will be swept up, hauled away and buried.
The forensics of shoe prints and tracks that trace a thousand passes of the wheelbarrow.
That wheelbarrow arranged at the end of the day.
The saving grace of a green tarp and a brace.
I wonder who carved this newel at the end of the cow stalls?
The last trace of green tenaciously holds on to a shutter.
Souvenir of spring floods. March 1930
The recycled bags return to the recycling center.
Under the cement floor a jigsaw puzzle of hourdis.
Doesn’t it seem that the first month of 2013 is taking a long time to get done?
Time can be a funny thing and cheat its way around your life. It’s not unusual for me to miss a day here in the wilds of Gascony. If it wasn’t for the mid-week market at Lavardac and garbage pick up on Wednesday, I am sure I would skip a Thursday at least once a month. So I’m grateful for the calender reminders on my computer everyday. This end of January is especially welcome since Spring in Gascony is impatiently right on it’s heels. But some things can’t wait. This is a time challenged tale of how my Christmas, no wait, my New Year’s capon passed a pleasant but lonely 4 weeks in the orchard all by himself while the January clock ticked on.
The Chapon Fin
Called Coco by the farmer (I suppose shortened, along with the other important bits of a rooster, from coco-ri-co, the French rooster’s cock-a-doodle-do ), he was a golden-feathered handsome boy. I picked him out at the Agen Sunday Market before the holidays and brought him home to an empty, fox-scorched empty chicken yard. Resting in a coop, I thought I’d slaughter him in just a few days for a holiday feast with friends- truffles, chestnuts, cream & armagnac! All the trimmings.
Not that week. I caught the holiday bug that was passed around and fell into a two week couch and television stupor sipping tea and eating toast. By the time the festivities had passed at everyone else’s house, I was back on my feet but with no one to feed. A rather hefty 6+ kilo bird feeds a large group and I was loath to roast the bird and try to eat it on my own. I kept putting the kill off from day to day, and then week to week. Soon enough a quiet month had passed.
So this week, in between a break in a Skype meeting with Pableaux Johnson of Blue Crab Labs in NOLA for the Cassoulet app, I grabbed the little chicken sticking knife and walked out to the orchard yard. It was either feed Coco again, or do the deed. I wasn’t really sure until I got there. I did the deed. I was feeling bad about prolonging his stay in solitude confinement, bad enough that slaughter seemed the better option. It was his raison d’être after all. He was born a rooster but died a capon.
About Capons. The old practice called chaponnage or caponization dates to the Romans and was to fatten a cockerel who had been castrated (much like we do with steers, hogs and lambs). Raised on a grain and cereal rich diet that encourages a fattened bird, meat is full flavored in part because they are much older than an average roasting chicken. Coco was 7 months when I bought him instead of the usual 14-week supermarket roasters. Capons do not produce large combs or wattles, are sturdy meat producers and quite docile. I never hear him crow either, Mrs. Wheelbarrow. Prized at Christmas, cloaked in truffles for New Year’s, or smothered in cream and mushrooms, a chapon is one of the classic celebrations of French gastronomy. There are still dozens of restaurants, bistros and brasseries called Le Chapon Fin, although they are marked by the absence of capon on today’s menus.
So, I killed Coco in the orchard, let his blood drain into the compost, and quickly dry plucked him then and there. Bacon (the big dog at Camont) was giving me little yelps of encouragement and ate way too many feathers. I was less excited. I can dispatch a chicken now without physically flinching, but I always have to steel myself to remember better this than a factory farmed animal any day. It’s good to practice one’s own preaching.
Quickly, feather covered, I went back to publishing and printing and other internaut work. I left the big bird, no longer called anything but meat, in the sink to eviscerate later as it cooled slightly. Not my favorite part. So while thinking about how I would actually cook the bird, I happily returned to twitter and facebook and saw a quick message from Marc-Frederic, the Frenchiest- English butcher I know. He clearly knows his birds as he suggested I roasted the ‘crown’ and confit the legs. Clever lad!
Duly inspired, I cleaned, gutted, and removed any excess fat, nearly a kilo! I used my duck butchery techniques to separate the carcass along the side where the front meets the back at the ribs. I removed the legs and thighs, each a hearty portion on it’s own and set them aside to salt. Then just a quick seasoning with salt and pepper all over the breast inside and out and placed into a deep cast iron pot leaving the lid off. I roasted the breast and wings on the bone in a very hot oven for 40 minutes and then turned it down low for another 40 minutes, at which point I put the lid on the pot and turned it down further. Not in a hurry, this bird could take the heat. Twenty minutes before I was ready to remove the roast from the oven, I started some braised endives with thin slices of Spanish Bellota ham. I carved the capon, placed it on top of the endive and ham. It made a delicious dinner which I shared with Marek and crew as they finished up the barnworks for the day. Another good supper from the farms of Gascony.
And all that chicken fat? Tomorrow, in between the ebb and flow of working from home, close to the wood stove, I’ll render the kilo of fat I removed from the capon’s cavity and gently poach the legs and thighs until they are tender enough for a broom straw to pierce them. I’ll pop them in a little jar , cover with fat and let them sit in the refrigerator until ready to eat. In the meantime, I’ll read Michael and Donna Ruhlman’s new ebook- Schmaltz and marry that lost use of chicken fat with my own knowledge of the fatted duck here in Gascony. Then we’ll see what fun we’ll have when the first Charcuterie students of 2013 arrive early next month. I’m already inventing new recipes based on old traditions.
So was Coco really the last rooster of Camont? I think not. (Sorry, worker bees.) Rather, I see how turning that spring brood of noisy cockerels into chapons in training might endear me to my light-sleeping visiting friends and help preserve the holiday traditions.
It’s not all confit and ham at Camont. The beautiful tables laden with great food, the bustling markets of over flowing tables of local food, the smiling mustachioed face of friendly farmers selling and teaching their wares are a part of my life. A big part. But sometimes it is just hard labor of the non-virtual kind.
Today I am inside, warm by the fire, and writing a book on charcuterie. But outside in the clear but cold winter day, the team of masons and builders are working at turning my ‘funny idea’ into a reality. We are all apart of the team. The Architect, the Builder and the Men. Me? I’m the Lady. I think they add Crazy in front of that. I look at magazines and websites and beautiful images of finished spaces, but what I actually am thinking, are we putting enough plugs, ceiling lights, wifi access, plumbing, windows? More, more, MORE!
The Men are very nice; they come from Poland to work in France, legally. While they be living and working in France, they are insulating the barn for Polish weather- double walled and triple glazed windows. We will be warm next year and I will make Polish sausage in this space to honor them. Working from the Architect’s good plan, we make changes daily. Flexibility is important for me; the future use of the barn hangs in the air. I am shocked at how fast the walls are going up, straight, strong and insulated. They are working with the same basic materials these barns were built 300 years ago- cut stone, rubble, and I Can barely keep up.
In the future, when Tim Clinch takes wonderful interiors that some style magazine or lifestyle website will use, they won’t know what went on or did what or how the walls leaned in dangerously on one side and leaned out even more on the other. They won’t know that the roof beams were drilled with insect holes and rot. They won;t know that the floor was 300 eyars of cow manure and straw. But I will. And I will know, too, that I hid a little time capsule of memories of Camont from it’s first three hundred years: a copy of my book, a photograph of old Monsieur Dupuy, a letter to the next owners… What else should I include?
The electronic shoe box is full.
Photographs and snapshots are spread across several files and hard drives, on the internet and in the clouds.
I love the quick e-snaps that remind me of a good time, what we cooked for dinner that late summer night, or even the process of baking a loaf of sourdough with a dear baker friend. What I don’t love is the random crowded e-closet where I stash all these good times. So I posted some of my fondest 2012 memories on Kitchen-at-Camont facebook page here.
Of all the shots I took as people gathered around the big round table on the kitchen terrace, the one thing they all share is a common smile- pushed back from the table, with a glass of cold wine, a group of like-minded hungry spirits. These bites of colorful pixels make me remember the laughter and storytelling that went late into the night. The Night Markets of Gascony show up again and again. as does the kitchen table, overloaded with good food, vegetables and fruit that we gleaned from our own gardens, and local markets.
Souvenirs, meant to remind us of an event or a place, are often chucked into a box and stuffed in an attic for later garage sale content. However, I keep these edible souvenirs of 2012 close at hand while cooking the memories of the seasons as they roll from one good meal to the next.
Thanks all who showed up at Camont’s Kitchen Table in 2012!