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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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

Choice 1
“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”

Choice 11
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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Butcher Street

Choice 12
Beaujolais Nouveau Night

I can’t recall anything scarier than being twenty… Seriously, it has to be the most over rated age apart from the fact that you are pretty much completely free from any commitments, bills, jobs… You’re broke, but you’re free. You need to find a place to exercise this freedom, a place of paradox, where one can reflect on ideals, but yet requires the company of similar frightened comrades putting on a brave face, a safe house for your music gigs, a place to drink a few beers at the weekend, a waiting room to that big ugly world out there, and it’s you and your likes that will make a difference, that will change all of this, you know it… Just maybe not right now, perhaps after another coffee at the bar…

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Couscous Express

Couscous by Hungry Breton
Couscous by Hungry Breton

In my family, we had a funny tradition. For as long as I can remember, and almost religiously, Saturday night was “Couscous Night”; when 6pm came a ringing, my Dad would drive down town to his friend, proud owner of a “zinc” ( small French bar) in a corner of Marechal Leclerc Street. “The Duke’s Mill” if I remember well, with a Formica counter, a couple of tables and a pin ball machine near the toilets. Downstairs, right underneath the bar, was an impeccably dressed dining room only used at weekends, where Joel’s wife would cook only one dish: Couscous. When the days of take away food didn’t really exist yet, at least in my town – or so I thought – Dad would drop a big pot with its couscous steamer and collect it at the beginning of the evening, full to the bream.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Spaghetti

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Carbonara

September 1991, it was a beautiful morning over the Breton Capital. I had left behind the hills of Glenveagh National Park, my first real summer job, for another, scarier adventure: independence and freedom. So long mother and father, I am 18 now and your evil powers have no effect on me anymore… Cutting at last the proverbial umbilical cord, living the dream! I was meeting my olf friend “The Hero” in the Ozone Bar, two years older, kinda wiser too; he felt that it was his duty, as a big brother figure, to welcome and show me the ropes, places to hang out and other music venues to be part of. “You are staying with us until you get sorted, you hear?” His statement came as a relief, I hadn’t planned that far, and sure, I knew Rennes, very well even, but only as a child with the eyes of innocence. I was a man now see, free in the big city at last! I quickly finished my skinny glass of Maes Pils and followed my compadre toward the giant spaceship like building that was the Judiciary precinct; “Galion Street”, my new quarter, my new home… And how appropriately named for my new voyage!

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