A Noël Tale

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“A Noël Tale”

My last Christmas in France was 25 years ago, having since dedicated my life to my new found love: food and wine; from the kitchen first to specialized retail adventures. My point is, in the world of fine dining (I am trying real hard not to use the word “Gourmet” here), when the last few days before the climax of Christmas reach its peak, it’s all hands on deck to advise, suggest and supply the goods for all the gentle folks of a well tuned-in modern Ireland. Rushing to Dublin airport on the 24th to head back to France for a couple of days wasn’t somewhat appealing to me so I didn’t bother. And since I don’t fly and the Ferries are off duty, the choice was somewhat simple…

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December Crossing, early 1997

So there it was, Christmas eve 1993, I had arranged to meet with two of my friends at the town market, the Topic twin brothers (pronounced “Topitch”) Dan and Manu, much appreciated chefs of our seaside town. Getting up early was the hardest part; we had to be there for 7:30 am at the latest armed with wicker baskets which as a novice and being the youngest, I had the job to be carrying, the rules of kitchens hierarchy . What was about to follow, was an amazing ballet choreographed by two pros. The fish mall first, oysters, sea bass, and clams. Check. The cobblestones as starting blocks, it was 7:30 am, the damp and slightly warm smell of this old building had me filled with mixed emotions, the excitement, the brouhaha, the cacophony, the angst of missing out, this was a game, with rules, tough for the players, tougher for the spectators, fools who were poorly prepared…

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Vannes Fish Market
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Vannes Fish Market

We headed then towards the “meat” arcade, old building where boxing games used to be held on “Place des Lices”, to give you an idea of the size! Foie Gras, Poularde de Bresse (famous free range hen from the East of France). Done. A quick detour to one of the five “Cheesemongers in vans” on the square for a bit of Mont d’Or and Fourme d’Ambert before reaching our final market destination, the old André’s place on “Poissonnerie Square” the Caracoli wine shop and coffee “torrefacteur” ( beans roaster)….

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Vacherin Mont d’Or
Fourme d'Ambert half
Fourme d’Ambert

 

It was a bit like going to the doctor or in an old apothecary outlet I guess. You’d explain how and what you were cooking, even if the lads had a fairly good idea, André gave his final diagnosis and prescriptions.  For the oysters, a fresh and zingy Muscadet to get us started. For the farmhouse chicken, a nice Fronton, petite negrette grape should hit it. The Sea Bass and Clams? There is always the good old reliable Sancerre, but since the sauce contained a bit of butter (gentle euphemism if you ask me…) a Riesling from Alsace would be nice choice and it made the unanimity. I told André, while sipping on the beautiful wines, that it was the first time that I tasted Riesling, and that I liked it very much! I started to get tipsy, and it wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet! I thought out loud…

–  “I’ve never been to Alsace either!” Manu slapped me on in the back, in a brotherly manner…

– “Son, you are a typical Breton lad; you are only in your comfort zone within your borders and you are not wrong! So let me explain one thing to you! France, is a small country, wedged between Brittany and Alsace, you are both as stubborn as each other but you do great things!” Shouted André before bursting into one of his legendary laughs, and we all joined in while the giant roaster was still rotating and whispering, the smell of fresh toasted coffee beans was pleasantly soothing, the Riesling, gently intoxicating…

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Alsatian Riesling

Back in Manu’s place, an old refurbished fisherman’s shack, the ceremonial of Oyster opening started. “Perfect month to eat them and the last” was the advice I kept from my mentor as they are supposed to be eaten in months finishing by “er”. I was never a fan; my sister could guzzle 12 of them for starters, it took me 20 years and maybe the presence of my dear friend to feel confident enough to enjoy them.  A squeeze of lime juice, and sipping Muscadet by the fire started to make a lot of sense. I followed and executed the order that the Fronton should be opened and let to breeze as soon as possible; it’ll be a wile yet before we’ll get to try it, so no panic.

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Fronton from the South south West

Manu was at his craft, preparing the seafood, while Dan worked on the farmhouse chicken… The Riesling gentle acidity balanced to perfection the delicate flavours of the fish. Like the background rhythms of Chet Baker and John Coltrane, various delicacies followed, but that white wine from the East and my musician chef friend’s dab hand at preparing fish will stay with me forever…

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Fish dish from last year

Eleven months later I was on a ferry heading for my new life in Ireland. The strong family bounds here and the respect for traditions, the end of year’s celebrations made it lovely for me, I really mean that! And even if from year to year I try to re-enact some pieces of my own culture, they feel more like fading memories, yellowing pictures on a shelf. I don’t have much left from my friend Manu, as in in not a lot of pictures, souvenirs… The last time I saw him was during a short visit in my home town of Vannes, in 2003. We took this last photo of us while he was working as a cook in a Bar-Restaurant behind the fish market, his wonderful blue eyes and Bosnian heritage. He never judged me when I was lost and always held a proverbial hand towards what was going to become my life… Somewhere in a cottage nested in the middle of our old salt marshes and on Christmas eve, the writing was soon to be on the wall… Thank you for everything man and a very Merry Christmas to all of you!

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The Writing Will Soon be on the wall – UCD Dublin 1993

Until next time, Merry Christmas… And all that!

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Franckie Hungry Breton and Manu Topic

Keep Well and Eat Happy

Slán Tamall

Franck

 

Potato and Mont d’Or Vacherin Tart

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Mont d’Or and Potato Tart

My Aunt is a very beautiful woman; she married a beautiful man and they had three beautiful children. This is the perfect start to a Fairy Tale and I am going to leave it like that, as all I have from them are just good memories. One day, we got invited ( or we invited ourselves, not sure) in the remote parts of “La Creuse”, an unfortunately named region of France wedged between Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand, near the Auvergne. Translated in English, it basically means “The Dig”. They unsuccessfully tried to change the name of the the “County” or department as we call them in the hexagon, but with no luck. Yes, we got invited by Mrs Gillet, the old lady on the right of the picture, mother of Bernard, father of my beautiful cousins who always smelled nice of some softener and after shave. She invited us to spend a bit of time, us Bretons – because we loved her son like our own. She made a local recipe that day, while my sister, my cousins and I  entertained the soon to be dinner rabbits in the cage outside; a potato tart! What? It was so good that my mother spoke about it on a regular basis for at least 20 years after that!!! But never tried to recreate it… I craved for many years, this simple and humble recipe. So today, as the fairy tale of December is on its way, I decided to make my own version… My December recipe perfect for this rainy week!

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Veggie Shawarma

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Veggie Shawarma

This little recipe is just a follow up of my awesome story “The Con Artist”. I hope you read it, because the following recipe is going to make a lot of sense; well, at least, I hope so. You see, when we grew up in the unforgiving world of Rock’n’Roll fueled, penny less like many in the city of Rennes, administrative Capital of Brittany ( we all know Quimper is the real one!), we young Bretons had to treat each other once in a while. As I am writing these words, I noticed that a little red zig-zag appeared underneath the noun; this aggravates me greatly! Anyhow, it also appear to happen for the word “Zigzag” … Sigh! We drank bear during concerts and gigs and yet, we didn’t go to the temptation of “Mr Mc”… If we were lucky enough to have a few credits left, we went to the Lebanese, the Turks or even the Greeks for a soaking Shawarma. There was many different names for it, especially on St Anne’s square, our hunting ground, but we didn’t care… Our left wing upbringing made us all friends… 22 Francs for a Shawarma or a Djeros? Big money then for the poor, but we valued what was good to us!

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The Con Artist

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Young Hungry Breton in fashion mode

You know, when you have to survive, one has to do some pretty crazy things. Well, when I mean survive, I really mean having enough money to have a bite to eat and most importantly, a few bob for a beer or two with your friends. It was in November 1991, and the autumnal air was brisk in Rennes, the Breton Capital. I had recently joined my comrades from secondary school and their rogue theater company called “The Smoking Dogs”, a “troop” made of former students from the college (Lycée) Alain-Renée Lesage, conveniently named after the Breton born playwright from the 17th/18th century. Funny really, the irony, knowing that he was born in Sarzeau, the birth place of our theatrical mutiny, where the father of my friend “ The Hero” had a country restaurant, HQ of our young lucubration. We moved to Rennes, Breton Mecca for students of all kinds: Law, psychology, history of art to just name a few and an absolute magnet for late teenagers and young adults who had a thirst for identity, music and art in general. The City allowed us to be us, yet to feed the need to be unknown again. We were broke but we managed with our few gigs here and there, chipping in when the going was good. I wasn’t an actor in the company, but a musician; Tom, our friend and director had had a vision and he wanted the dark concept of our plays to mix circus themes and live music on stage. I was happy to get the job, accompanying the talented Ronan on guitar with my tin whistles and sometimes playing riffs of bass to the performing actors. “The Hero” and Sergio were in charge of the lights, especially the pursuit projector following the every moves of the comedians, not an easy task!

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Fore God Sake, A Polpette Recipe

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Fore, County Westmeath, Ireland. October 2018

Just down the road from where I live, there lies quite a magical place. Fore in County Westmeath is better known for its 7th century Franciscan Abbey, hard to believe that 2000 monks used to live there at some stage, most coming from France… 1,300 years ago; humbling, I know…

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Butternut Squash Gnocchi

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Butternut Squash Gnocchi with mushroom and whiskey sauce

You know, when it comes to legends and superstitions – or rather popular beliefs- Brittany is not too far off Ireland in that department. Hollsent is our Hallowe’en, when we celebrate the dead, the departed to another world but the rules don’t always start and end in October! Oh no! We have a whole lot of characters that most of us take very seriously, oh yeah! We have of course An Ankoù, from the old Celtic God of Death Ankouvos, the tall, skinny and lanky valet of Death, patrolling our beautiful country at night to collect the passed over souls with his horse, as meager as him,  his squeaky carriage for the lift. If you are unfortunate enough to cross his path at night, well, it was nice to meet you as you are probably on the list and I think it’s too late I am afraid… If you hear the creaking of his cart’s axle, the tip is to run away in the other direction, home will do, hide under the duvet and keep singing “lalalalalala…” and you might have a chance to live for another year!

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Chocolate and Banana Tart

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Banana and Chocolate Tart

I don’t really go back home to Brittany often and if I do it is in September, sometimes in May, but most likely in September. Nine years ago, we went in October, almost to the date and around my sister’s birthday. The weather was amazing and my Father drove all of us to the North Western coast of the Celtic peninsula, an area I have always been a bit less familiar with, yet with breathtaking beauty, giant boulders of granite,  cute villages and lonely lighthouses…

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