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)….

Mont d'Or
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

 

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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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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Chili Sin Carne

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Vegetarian Chili

” You know what would be great lads? Let’s sail our 130 ships to invade England, but instead we will go by Scotland and we’ll take them by surprise by coming from the West of Ireland… It’s gonna be great, who’s in?”. And so I was amusing myself imagining the unlikely conversation between a Spaniard Captain and his crew somewhere in the 16th century while standing on Streedagh beach in Co. Sligo, just off Grange. A place where one can still see at low tide, a wreck of the Spanish Armada, some 430 years ago, quite humbling standing there really, 24 ships were lost in the campaign and around the coast of Ireland due to bad weather and treacherous shores, poorly mapped then and where the survivors at Streedagh met a very grim fate at the hands of the locals and some “Red Coats” joining the killing spree… It must have been quite a sight, and I was there, standing on the strand, taking it all in and thankful for more peaceful times, well at least here and for now.

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Roasted Cherry Toms and Pea Quiche

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Roasted cherry tomatoes, fresh peas and goat’s cheese quiche.

It was a funny day yesterday… I was enjoying my breakfast, a nice mug of breakfast tea in one hand, the other holding the left side of my face, elbow on the table while listening to the usual gobbledygook on the radio, bis repetita placent blabla that it becomes quite entertaining and then voosh! Lights and radio out, silence broken only by the cats purring somewhere under the table. I just cursed a bit but without real conviction, accepting while looking at the ESB reminder pinned on the “do not forget” board in front of me and for the past ten days. The skies were grey, raining and humid, it was going to be a long afternoon… No TV, no internet, too sad out to go for a walk or even a drive so I did what I do sometimes, sat in the hall of the cottage and went through six boxes of pictures, a life documented like many others, six boxes and something like 25 years in the making, moments I remembered a bit more than others, I couldn’t stop…

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Leaving Glenveagh and Saffron Scones

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Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, Ireland

I had my first real interview radio yesterday; not about work, just about me and my Hungry Breton Alter-Ego. It was quite fun, exciting and intriguing to have a producer and radio presenter interested about my life! During the pre-interview of the “Late Lunch with Gerry Kelly”, the lady asked me a few questions about myself and what caught their attention was my time I had spent in Glenveagh National park, summer of 1991, working on a clearance project of the cute but deadly Rhododendrons that has plagued Ireland since it had been introduced from Asia… Rhododendrons acidify the soil and create erosion as a consequence, as pretty as it may look, it is a curse for native species… If you want to hear my interview, click on the link, it starts at 32:50…

https://www.lmfm.ie/on-air/shows/late-lunch/late-lunch-podcasts-(1)/late-lunch-monday-september-3rd-2018/

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Fresh Fig with toasted St Tola and Aronia coulis

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St Tola goat’s cheese with fresh ripe fig and aronia coulis.

Not a lot of people know this, but I grew up in a school until I was ten years old. My Mother was a teacher and we had moved a fair bit by the time I reached the age of five. Questembert first, after I was born in the Sacred Heart Clinic in Vannes, just off Roosevelt avenue, then Belz, not too far from Auray where a Guineafowl kept on chasing and terrorising me, where my child minder used to call me “Figure de poire”, “Pear Face”, a nice lady though… Then finally Vannes. By the time I was five, I had lived in three schools. In France at the time, a teacher didn’t earn a lot of money, but one of the perks of the job came with a descent amount of holidays, and a “logement de fonction” ( work accommodation) for the whole family, until you were senior enough and with a reasonably comfortable income to get your own…

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