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 begins here, with two good ingredients.
Ham- Eric Ospital’s Ibaiona brand from the Basque Country.
Asparagus- local, just picked and carried to the market so fresh it snaps.
This week, my Kitchen Godmother, Vétou Pompele, came by for weekend breakfast (a decidedly not French event) and asked me what I would make for her.
I grabbed a copy of my first cookbook that chronicled my early days sailing on the Julia Hoyt and said,
“Your Asparagus and Ham dish, of course”.
She had forgotten about what was long one of my favorite dishes. It’s easy. When you cook everyday, EVERY DAY, that’s a lot of recipes under the bridge. We have both forgotten half of the wonderful dishes we cooked together over years of sailing the canals and rivers of France on the Julia Hoyt. This was always one of my Spring favorites, because unlike my life BF (Before France), asparagus is a once a year event, a few scant weeks of spear-ful delight. Read More
- a place for making food to keep for the winter.
- an edible way of keeping traditions alive.
- a gathering then sharing of abundant harvest.
Over the years, I’ve referred to my French pantry, the way of keeping it stocked, and the very kitchen at Camont as the “Keeping Kitchen”. Within these stone walls at Camont, I have been keeping the traditions of Gascon cooking alive as well as adding to it with my own fresh take on authentic recipes- folding in a new good idea here, leaving out an old bad habit there but always keeping true to the spirit if not the actual letter of the laws of the kitchen.
Good friend and co-conspirator in Italy, Judy Witts- the DivinaCucina diva and I hatched the idea of another combined blog effort like the Going Whole Hog blog project we did a couple years ago. We wanted more than a way to keep tabs on each other’s gardens, kitchens, and lives in Tuscany and Gascony. We want to share our euro-view of what surrounds us as not-quite natives/not-quite-expats. Trends come strong and fast up the internet pipeline but from here they can actually be old world news. We decided to share our everyday cooking habits for stocking the Euro-Larder otherwise known here as the Keeping Kitchen.
I swim in a sea of charcuterie every week as I plow the waves of good food produced by the neighboring farms of the Lot-et-Garonne: salted hams, meaty saucisson, head cheese, terrines, patés, and other cured and confited parts of the fatted pig. As a cook, I began my sea trials in meat here as I discovered the extraordinary flavors of each cured piece of the pig. I started to learn my hind leg for jambon from my forward leg- shoulder for fresh saucisse de Toulouse. Then it was loins and chops, ribs and collar. Next came the innards…
Like all novices, I worked my way up and down the coast of liver, kidneys, brain, lung, and blood. I watched as pigs were slaughtered and butchered on family farms, one at a time, with care and respect for the ‘year of meat’ to come. Then I began to help- trimming meat, carrying ourt orders from the grand-mères as whole pigs were put up in jars- canned, sterilized in a water bath and stored, or salted, peppered, and hung to age in a corner of the barn. But it wasn’t until I barged into the life of a small pig farm that I learned the most important past of this ocean of charcuterie. It’s the pig. Just simply the PIG.
Imagine the first visit to the Chapolard farm in 1997 with my good friend Elaine Tin Nyo. She wanted to do a series of photographs and videos for one of her edibly inspired art exhibits. I had already begun cooking my way through the pig with the market advice of Marc Chapolard, who selling me a piece of pork a week talked me through the process of cooking boudin, salting a tail, or roasting a collar. There is an image of that first visit to Baradieu- Marc holding out his hands full of ground grains- grain that they grew on the farm to feed their pigs.
Oh, Pigs eat too. I want to know what I am eating eats. What? What do pigs eat?
My brain was moving slowly forward. These pigs eat wheat, barley, corn, oats, sunflowers, favabeans, soy… How big are they? Oh, big. Very big as these meat growing pigs are intended for charcuterie as well as fresh meat. Twelve months old, 400 lbs+ of solid red meat and firm flavorful fat. The Chapolards know that their mature pigs’ meat is fully developed in both flavor and structure. Here in Gascony, we believe that the best charcuterie is not just from certain types of breeds finished on fancy diets, but rather from a well balanced diet fed its entire life and a ‘grownup’, fully mature animal. Oh, this pork meat is like beef. Not veal. Can you imagine making corned veal, veal jerky, or veal bresaola? The meat cells must develop sufficiently to be able to cure properly both in flavor and in texture.
There are technical reasons behind all this, but for us amateurs of good meat our best chance to getting good pork is to ken your pork producer or artisan butcher and learn as much as you can, piece by piece. I have the luxury of, after 14 years, knowing the Chapolards well. Baradieu is not a pigshit-free showcase farm; but they raise their Large White/Pietrai/Duroc pigs with the sort of care over 12 months from birth to slaughter that produces delicious and tasty meat. Like this slab of pork belly I used for my ventrèche géante.
“THE PRESENCE OF A BUTCHER IN A DISTRICT SAYS AS MUCH FOR ITS INTELLIGENCE AS FOR ITS WEALTH. THE WORKER FEEDS HIMSELF, AND A MAN WHO FEEDS HIMSELF THINKS.”
H. De Balzac- “The Country Doctor”
The white blackboard read: Project- “dans le cochon tout est bon” . And so it was.
This week, twenty-four French lycée students between 16-20 years old and their professors M. Franck LAPIERRE and M. Jean Marc BOUILLY allowed three American kitchen-crashers to look over their shoulders as Dominique Chapolard, artisan butcher and pork producer, demonstrated in the expansive school kitchen that “in the pig, all is good!”
The attentive white-clad chefs-in-training crowded around as M. Chapolard reconstructed the whole pig carcass, piece by piece, organ by organ. Silence reigned as Dominique, our master butcher mentor here at Camont, explained what goes into making good pork from field to table.
Only when he split the skull to reveal the tiny brain did squeamish teenage yelps erupt. Quickly silenced by Chef Lapierre, he teased them that they see more blood on the horror films they watch. After the initial hour of dissection, as the muscle groups began to resemble familiar meat cuts, this next generation of France’s good cooks began to chop and grind, season and taste, while the scent of Gascony’s prized pork filled the kitchen. A hind leg became a Jambon, a shoulder a Roti de Porc. The large rib cage transformed into ventreche, poitrine and travers. Legs broke down into jarret and pied de porc while the caul fat was washed and leaf lard rendered out before grattons were drained and pressed into a terrine.
This fine piggy day was a part of “Cooking at the Source-Gascony“, a collaboration between Robert Reynold’s Chef’s Studio in Portland, Oregon and my own Kitchen-at-Camont. We spent the morning with our good friend and farmer/butcher Dominique Chapolard as he did a day long demonstration for the students of the Lycee Jacques-de-Romas in neraby Nerac. For upcoming Duck workshops in the U.S. and France consult our program pages.