47310 Ste.Colombe-en Bruilhois
The weekly Marché at Agen’s Place du Pin (tucked behind the MacDo’s now) waits for no sleepy heads, and after last night’s Duck Fest, the troopeaux are a little slow to move. Promise of a café au lait at the village bar rouses the FCI Four and we are out the door and shopping! Crayon colored umbrellas make neat rows across the parking area and under the covered structure.
Look at what we find and buy:
raw beets with their greens
coco beans in their pods
fresh shallots, onions and garlic tied in ribboned bouquets
mild red, yellow and orange peppers
savory/sweet Muscat grapes
extra virgin honey in its waxy comb
late harvest strawberries- Mara des Bois
home-made vanilla and coffee yoghurts
a sampling of excellent goat cheeses
Our baskets strain with the kilo weights and heavy plastic bags cut into fingers but where’s the beef?
We abandoned the vegetable and fruit stalls and artisan producers for a cross-town jaunt to the Marché couvert or covered hall just off the main drag in Agen. The Pineau Butcher brothers greet us in tidy, green pinstriped shirts and those sexy one-shouldered aprons. In this glass-front refrigerated case hang half-carcasses of veal, beef and lamb. I consider veal tendrons or veal bacon (les parisiennes we call them) to cook with onions and those colorful peppers. Maybe some saucisse d’Agenaise- their special 80% beef and 20% pork sausages to grill rosy until medium rare. Turning to my chicks, I notice everyone is at the other end of the counter.
In that glass-front refrigerated case hang half-carcasses of another four-legged animal. Big. Large muscled. Dark meated. Lean. Erik was the instigator. “Can we buy chevaline?”
Gulp. If you’re thinking Cold War and secret British missiles, go to the back of the butchery class. Think Chivalry, Chevalier and finally Cheval itself. Horse. Never before has a group of foodies, let alone a dedicated, educated group of FCI alumni requested horseflesh. Pourquoi pas?
Horsemeat. Steeped in culinary lore and mythology (a quick look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevaline dispels the notion that only the French eat horse!) horse meat is, in fact, high in protein and iron, low in fat and, in France, just as expensive as prime beef. No one in France eats horse because it is a cheap substitute. Instead it is a deliberate decision based on taste or health issues. Chevaline has long been fed to invalids to speed recovery, either raw as in tartare or cooked in a soup to enrich the broth. But here in Gascony, I always just hear about how good it tastes. By law, a French butcher must separately seperately from beef and chevaline shops were often topped with a statue or picture of the horse's head so as not to be led astray.
Ok, before I get too embroiled in a potentially sensitive issue, let me say that we purchased a sort of skirt steak that begged to be grilled for the pure education of it all. I, who have eaten snake, scarab bugs, grasshoppers, ants and caviar, was going to balk at a little horse steak? No way!
Salted, peppered and thrown over hot coals, Gary grilled and I served everyone a modest 2-inch slice. it got quiet before the usual yummy noises escalated to a happy hum. There was also the braised veal tendrons with meltingly sweet onions and red peppers; a grated raw beet salad made with walnuts, garlic and parsley; Magic coco beans cooked with the beet greens and lardons; Muscat grapes with goat's cheese and honey; a very American strawberry shortcake.
The cheval would just be an experiment, a gustatory amusement, a fleeting taste of the wicked and wild. WRONG. It was delicious. Utterly, meltingly delicious. A taste was not enough. everyone wished for more. Not a morsel left. A smattering of vinaigrette-soaked shallots married with the juices were mopped up with slices of good bread. Thank God for Erik’s CoCo beans that melted in our mouths in garlicky creaminess fullness and sated the tongue as well as the belly. And although Wednesday was for BEEF, it became memorable in our "Week in Gascony" for a little bit of Mr. Ed.
Earlier in the day, our afternoon visit to the Sabadini farm at the corner (my neighborhood “grocery store”) yielded a basket of eggs for a crème anglaise that never materialized (too much food!) and sweet plums destined for confiture des prunes. The working Blondes of Aquitaine (http://www.blondecattle.org/ for more info in English) were gathered around a muscular bull like so many filles in a harem pasture; a few long-legged calves tottered on new pins; the handsome young son of prize-winning Naomi, Apollon, eyed his future happiness through the barn pen. Chickens strutted, geese and ducks danced around the willow tree and the daily life of a contemporary French family farm lay exposed before us as simply as a board game.
Roll a pair of hens and move two steps forward, gather eggs; score a seven, miss a turn and clean the pig pens; a winning roll and a new calf is born with no help; score double noughts and it’s back to cleaning- the chicken coop this time, the rabbit pens next; wait a turn and harvest the three rows of grapes for daily wine; fix the Massey-Ferguson tractor and only then, when the game’s day is over, slide out of your boots, into your slippers and sit at the kitchen table for a meal of your own making. Like most farmers, the Sabadini’s eat the small bits- pork, chicken, rabbit, duck, saving the tender tasty Beef as their cash crop. The work is never ever done in this daily game of Family Farm, but we all win. Good food created by caring people in the Field to Plate, Farm to Table, Full-Circle Life of my Gascon neighbors, the people who turn dirt into food.