+44 (0)7831 626 767
Here we are back in le Roannais once again.
This time with my nearest and dearest – my wife, Lucy, and our son, Ellis.
Back to taste the delights of a fantastic region, with great friends.
Also, to continue the work on the gardens and swimming pool of Le Cuvage, our home in France.
It's not all work, though! Plenty of fun, gastronomic pleasures, great places and people to visit.
For starters! Or should I say main course- "TETE DE VEAU".
I knew that I was heading for a new gastronomic experience on my return to France, because my good friend, Fabrice, had cordially invited me to one of his 'all male club' get-togethers.
Now this was not some sleazy, erotic, chauvinistic opportunity. (More's the pity!!).
No,no!! This was typical Frenchmen enjoying an evenings gastronomic camaraderie over a dead calf's head !
Nothing wrong with that, albeit slightly chauvinistic ( in a traditional sense, of course.), and slightly macabre.
It was an invitation to a select party of friends to 'test' the infamous 'Tete de Veau' which, despite spending the last 10 years or so in and out of France, I had not tasted before.
I was honoured to be asked.
Several of my English friends in France had tried this traditonal dish, and I heard so many different comments and reactions about it, many of which were laced with almost a 'nod and a wink' attitude, as though it had been some grandiose 'rites du passage' that they had gone through in some secret society. There was 'myth' and 'legend' surrounding this dish, much like, I suppose, 'tripe and onions' in England or 'haggis' in Scotland. Just like many similar peasant dishes throughout the world!
Also, because it was the cooked head of a young cow there was something graphic, sinister, and a slightly distasteful quality about it, like 'sheeps eyes', 'pigs trotters', 'monkey brains', etc., etc.
Now, I don't want to exaggerate all this, but I must admit I was a little pensive.
Even some of my closest French friends would laugh and grimace occasionally at the thought of this particular dish – one of their own so-called traditional classics!
Just like many other traditional peasant-farmer recipes 'tete de veau' is clearly based upon utilising and maximising the whole animal in the days when food was scarce and precious.
Probably also used at a time of celebration for the new seasons of spring and early summer, and the plucking of a young, fresh, animal from the herd to symbolise the occasion.
Nevertheless, these traditional preparations and concoctions were turned into special delicacies, and, in modern times, often surrounded by ambient adoration, event, and a ritualised atmosphere. A celebration of rural history and the traditions of the past.
The re-living of a bygone age!
This was to be my new experience!
Fabrice's best friend, Marco (an excellent 'chef de cuisine'), was staging the event and doing all the cooking and catering. All ten, or more, of us gastronomes (with one 'crash test dummy' ) were having this celebratory dinner at his home.
I knew Marco, and had visited his home for an evening dinner before – great guy!
In fact, some of the other friends who would be there I had met previously at various 'eating and drinking' occasions.
Even so, I felt that I was pushing my boat out a little further than normal – it's good to stretch yourself, though, in order to experience, learn, and enjoy more!
This was actually a French 'Club'. In effect, a small, 10 year old Investment Club of friends and good acquaintances who met up at least once a month to enjoy good company and good food – whether at specially selected restaurants or at a special gastronomic event, or, as on this occasion, at Marco's. (The investment element was purely a side-line, and created a little interest at the beginning of the evening, but a small scale aside to the rest of the evenings highlights.)
No, the real reason was, as always, good food and wine, good friends, good conversation, and friendly banter!
So, Fabrice and I arrived, and I was sensitive to the aroma as I entered Marco's house.
I suppose I was expecting, (although I don't know why) a distasteful, slightly offally smell.
Instead, after the normal introductions and pleasantries, the lid of the very large pan was lifted for me, and the smell was extremely meaty and wholesome, and all looked well!
I was relieved. And there were no signs of any occult activity or masonic-like, ceremonial anauguration, or anybody scampering around like cows in a field with the entrails of a dead calf draped about their persons.(I'm sorry, I digress, and my imagination is getting me carried away).
It's just that I exaggerate to make the point that my build up to this 'tasting' has, at least for me, been cloaked in mystery and myth by the strange recoiling reactions of friends who have been down this 'abattorial' road before.
There was a mix of people at Chez Marco's. Most from professional backgrounds – notaires, surgeons, doctors, property agents, government functionaires, business owners, and little ol' me!!
Very few seemed to speak any English, of course.
On these occasions I usually get by with my normal French and 'Franglais', and simple humorous retorts. It works, to a point. (The vision of the historical, English village idiot springs to mind! A 'Baldrick' type of character.)
After that, however, I am in a language quagmire where I realise very soon that I need to learn a lot more French in order to get even more out of these fantastic occasions.
I miss a lot of the subtleties, and the 'tres rapide' conversation doesn't help me at all.
Ah! well, c'est la vie !
My involvement in political discussion is also limited, not necessarily because of my knowledge or preparedness to engage, but totally due to my poor French, and this frustrates me greatly.
However, I jump into these situations gladly, and relish the opportunity and feel privileged to be invited and a part of something, I believe, to be a very rare experience. My French will undoubtedly improve because of it!
Anyway, we move on.
Excellent champagne was served as an aperitif, and drunk with the entrée- a superb homemade paté de campagne. The champagne was served with great gusto and enthusiasm by the proprietor of a local wine 'cave' in le Coteau. He had selected all the good wine for the evening, including a particularly remarkable white wine – Pouilly Fuissé, chilled to perfection, which was served with the first helpings of the 'tete de veau'.
The table was simply, but attractively set with plain white cloth and coloured candles.
A 'sauce gribiche' in several small silver dishes was placed around the table.(This sauce is attributed to Roman times, and although it can be served in a variety of forms with variations of ingredients it is generally prepared with eggs, vinegar, parsley, tarragon. chevil, capers, pickles, and seasoning,) In fact, a tartare sauce – style accompaniment. This was definitely the type of 'gribiche' we had.
visit www.cuisine-french.com for a 'sauce gribiche' recipe.
Back to the 'tete de veau'. Marco proudly served the first large assiette, and Fabrice plated me up. It consisted of long chunks of very fatty reddish meat with occasional dollops of fatty globules on the side. It did not look like a calf's head, although I certainly knew it had originated from one!
A big bowl of large boiled potatoes arrived, and after scooping a spoonful of the gribiche onto my plate I tucked in.
Well, I was pleasantly surprised. It was tender, and tasty. The piquante 'sauce gribiche' and the simply cooked, plain potatoes complemented the 'tete de veau' perfectly. I liked it.
I was hungry. I was determined to do it justice. I had the the British national reputation at stake here! The wine was flowing, and my French was holding out, it seemed, and I thought – 'this is yet another brilliant experience I've had in France!'
I felt further annointed into true local French cuisine!
I finished my first plate with almost a proud sense of achievement.
A second plateful was dished out (Everybody was eating well). I followed, but after a few more mouthfuls was certainly starting to feeling full, and I was becoming a little more conscious of the globules of mixed meat and fat on my plate.
The third helping was really the end of me, and I could not finish it.
Once the 'fromage blanc' arrived, followed by Marco's stupendous creme brulée avec chocolat dessert, it was quite a relief.
I was stuffed in body and mind!
The evening was a resounding success.
Marco and the wine-man were congratulated, and I was invited to be a member of their new club which starts next December (the investment clubs are only allowed by French law to last 10 years – presumably for tax purposes).
I'll join anything if there's a good excuse to experience new food, wine, and I can become an accepted part of a pretty close, local French community of good friends, and professional people.
It's a joy!
I look forward to some more 'tete de veau' in the future.
Check out the website: www.chefsimon.com. for information and techniques on the preparation of different international recipes, including 'tete de veau' – the photos are a bit grizzly and macabre, though.
I'm afraid they do have an horrific quality about them – à la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' or 'Hannibal the Cannibal.'
But interesting if you like that sort of thing.
Try the dish sometime afterwards if you dare! Bon chance!!