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

 

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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The Fouace And The Trust

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Fouaces and salads

As the annual Dawn Chorus approaches, I remembered a lovely story from years gone by, a story of ornithology, environmental convictions and a rare bread that has now been almost lost. Once the pride of Vannes and its county ( or Department as we call them), I wanted to recreate this recipe from memory. Not an easy task… The action takes place in 1988 I think, I was 14 or 15, wishing to be 16 or 17, like we all once did. I was – since the age of 11- passionate about wildlife and especially ornithology, the study of birds ( please don’t start, I have heard all the jokes about it!)… One day, I got my first telescope, two years after my first pair of binoculars that lasted me nearly 20 years… Life was sweet!

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Harvey’s Borscht Ballad

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Borscht and Gort na mona goat’s cheese with buckwheat honey

I could start this little story – listening to the news I have now decided to turn off- with the words of Bob Dylan “Hard Rain”, how appropriate as another year is about to roll over this week for me, “The same old story” Billie would whisper, so hell with that I say, and decided to pay a little tribute to an old friend of mine, and how we ended up, my Mother, sister, Harvey his brother and I in a Russian restaurant on my last birthday in my “cosy-cushy” hometown of Vannes…

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The Canteen

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“The Canteen” 1987/ 1988

The great thing about schooling in France has to be the canteen. No lunch box here, I am talking proper refectory, with chefs, commis and a couple of lovely dinner ladies. Believe me; I have eaten in worse restaurants, with worse service! The head chef, Mr Raymond, was a big brash colourful character, quite partial to kids who acknowledged and complemented on his trade; as a reward, he would look at you with a doubtful pouting frown and a raised eyebrow, before topping your plate with extra sauce or roasted potatoes.

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The Sirens of “Jerry Cod”

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Cod Meuniere

Every Wednesday, and like a lot of towns around France, we were treated to an alert horn. An old tradition from the Second World War, when powerful sirens were tested at noon; the urban legend said that one was just a test, two an accident, three casualties and of course 10 or 12 meant nuclear fallout, post cold war obliging. The sirens were hooked on top of high non residential buildings, or water towers that coloured the urban landscape, in all their glorious ugliness, reminding  tax payers how much they were going to get screwed. If you think water charges is an Irish problem, you should ask a French family how much they are paying!

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Marie Lou’s Paupiettes

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Chicken Paupiette

My mother passed away in 1997 this month, only three years after I had moved to Ireland, an untimely and very quick November harvest as she was only three weeks in her 50th birthday. In these short years, I visited a couple of times, in the summer of 96 and April 97. I would always ring a couple of days before sailing, to build up the excitement on both sides I guess and the question from the Gallic side of the channel, and like a good French mother, was always the same: “ What would you like to eat?”… The answer came out bizarrely honest that it even surprised me: “Paupiettes please!” a dish made of sausage meat wrapped in a thin layer of veal or chicken escalope. It is stewed in a mushrooms, white wine and tomato sauce and served with rice. A comforting classic in our house; it wasn’t “cupboard love”, I was never that kind of a young lad, too proud maybe? But my friends, when your Ma asks you what do you want to eat, you better think fast and tell her nice, as I think in the 25 years we’ve known each other, she only popped the question twice…

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