Time Warp Portal
Behind this door lies the secret of several generations of French cooking lore and savoir-faire. How fitting that my friend Greg Orr neither knocked nor rang the sonnette, but boldly walked in thorugh the heavy tapestry curtains and called out "Catou! France! We're here!" And so we were, here at the Chateau de Gayrac for a Fat Duck weekend with les Soeurs Mazet. But in which century?
Catou and France weave a magic spell over all who enter their treasure house domain, whether they arrive to scout the antiques and brocante at the barn and stable shops or come in friendship to share their convivial hospitality at the oversized kitchen table. Today, a small band of visitors and local residents descended to 'help' in their annual fat duck weekend and I came as part reproter, part culinary spy, eager student and grateful guest.
I reveled in being in company with gastro-friends and these timeless cooks. We were just seven of us, wearing wonderful homemade butchers' aprons to butcher, trim and cook the seven fatted ducks supplied by a neighbor. But I knew I was in the presence of generations of excellence in this kitchen: a butcher father, a frugal grand-mere, a great-grandfather who was a chef in a renowned Paris restaurant. The room was crowded with history and kitchen lore as if these smoky yellow walls who had witnessed centuries of recipes and trucs or tips were inspiring us.
Catou demonstrated her sure hand, warned us not to sacrifice the foie gras, and made the rounds of the table conjoling, correcting and scolding us in turn. We took our work seriously. After all, this would be their food for the year. Instructions were delivered brief, fast and with barely a heartbeat between breaking down the neck, breasts, legs, wings before 'birthing' the ivory firm liver each weighing in just under a pound. Hearts, gesiers or gizzards all got salted and added to the growing pile of meat. The carcasses themselves were quartered as we fought, caressed, and jointed the 15-pound birds with knives, secateurs and bare hands.
Leaving the meat to rest overnight in a cold pantry under a veil of delicate salt and wrapped in a pristine linen sheet, we retired to Greg's own medieval Manoir d'Orr in Lauzerte for a Saturday supper of sweet potato soup, Boeuf Caducienne cooked slowly in Cahor's delicious black wine, a pair of perfect cheeses and a perfect pear almond tart.
11:00- fat trimmings and half glass of water go into a large aluminum caldron over a very low flame protected by a cast iron hob.
11;15- the duck legs are added 4 at a time to the barely melting fat so that they, too, can render their fat to the cauldron. They are placed upside down into the pan so that the fat forms an insulative cushion from the heat.
11;40- all the legs are now in the pan and slowly cooking over the lowest heat...it's not even simmering.
11:45- the manchons or wings are now added.
STIR CONTINUALLY lifting the meat off the bottom so it doesn't stick.
12:00- add gesiers or gizzards
12:15- seven hearts are added
12:30- the fat is only just now starting to simmer
12:45- begin to add the carcasses cut into quarters along with the wing tips
1:00- stir, stir, stir
1:15- begin to remove the legs if done and drain
1:30- continue to cook and stir all pieces until completely cooked.
So what did I learn working with these experts in their own French kitchen?
Seven things I learned to share with you:
- SLOW and even slower then I ever cook, the confit barely simmers for over 2 hours which results in a much more tender confit right away.
- STIR continually not just so the meat or skin doesn't stick to the bottom but to also help regulate the heat so all pieces are cooked evenly.
- CLIP the knob end of the leg bone off with a garden shears before storing.
- SALT the carcasses, too, after cutting into quarters and then confit. Eat the meat off the bone with the help of a little paring knife to scarpe off all the good bits. these flavorful quarters can also be added to soups, bean and lentille vertes.
- COOK the hearts and gesiers together, not forgetting to trim the gesiers of the scaly yellow tough skin on the inside surface.
- SOAK the foie gras in salted cold water to which a couple of tablespoons of vinegar as been added.
- SHARE this knowledge, these trucs, the traditions and table willingly. Preserve the information, make better cooks and educate a hungry audience for your own French Kitchen Table.
and from all of us...
Merci Sept Foie... Catou et France!