Anthony Peregrine, The Daily Telegraph, September 30, 2014
Thank the Lord for autumn. I can now cover up the most unsightly limbs on this side of the Channel, drive around the south without mowing down slow-moving folk in beachwear and drink two large scotches a night on grounds of warming-the-cockles. (I drink two large scotches a night in summer too, but generally chuck in cucumber and call them fruit cocktails.) Beyond all that, though, the French are gifted at autumn. In other nations, the season reduces to mud, wellies, pumpkins and outbreaks of treacle toffee.
In France, the wine, olive and fig harvests supply a certain sensuality, along with back-ache. Early mornings see millions with baskets fanning out through forests in search of wild mushrooms, a national pursuit as popular - and occasionally as lethal - as adultery. There is the prospect of truffles and foie gras (spare me the moralising, I’ll spare you the food porn). Distillation is getting underway in Cognac, Calvados and, best of all, Armagnac. And fine men - and a few women - are out with guns, firing at anything furred or feathered, as the hunting season blasts off. You might join in but do so with care. Hunters round here are erratic enough already, without the added temptation of Britons to aim at.
All this, and more besides, resolves into an autumnal gastronomy which is France’s real seasonal strength. You can pack off salads, sorbets, foams and other stuff of negative impact. Now is the time for stews and simmering civets which, as the French say correctly, “stick to the sides”. These are the items which, as the French also say, their grandmothers used to make. (Of itself, that isn’t necessarily a strong recommendation: French grandmothers I’ve known have turned in some strikingly inedible dishes. We should therefore specify that, when we mention grandmothers, we mean grandmothers who can cook.)
I’d say that France has the world’s best collection of these jolly and substantial preparations. Here are some of my favourites:
Among the many honours bestowed upon me in a long and distinguished life (Cycling Proficiency, etc), the one of which I am proudest is the Taster’s Diploma (Diplome de Dégustateur) from the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet. This involved eating vast amounts of cassoulet - four in two days, in my case - while remaining visibly enthusiastic about the dish. It was at the outer limits of human endurance. They don’t hand out these diplomas lightly.
The corollary is that one must defend the dish against attack. This has proved unnecessary. Cassoulet is hefty. It is quite capable of defending itself. It explains why, in its homeland of south-west France, poets talk of autumn as “the season of mists and mellow meatfulness”. Then again, it’s “mellow” only up to a point. From Carcassonne to Toulouse arguments rage as to what should go into the dish. Beans, pork confit and sausage - OK. But do we allow mutton? Tomato? Duck or goose confit? It appears that one can bung in just about anything - including, within living memory, magpies. (French grandmothers, bless them.) Once that’s resolved, which it never is, one may fall out further on how many times the dish should be passed through the oven. Two? Three? Seven? I’d say “seven”. This fuses the flavours and gives a crispier topping - and, as we have already established, I am perhaps the only British person with a diploma to support such a judgement.
Gourmet tip: Four cassoulets in two days is for experts only. Novices end up with a digestive system like a set of bagpipes.
As I have said before, one may eat moderately and drink sparingly in Alsace, but it’s a lonely endeavour - especially in autumn, when Alsaciens express their dedication to hearth and home with alpine quantities of choucroute nouvelle. In English, that’s “this year’s fermented cabbage”. It is in Alsacien shops from around now. Moments before that, it’s in Krautergersheim, a small town 12 miles south of Strasbourg and self-styled 'capital of choucroute’. There is not, apparently, a huge amount of competition for this title. (“What do you do in your town?” “We ferment cabbage.” “Book me in!”)
The clincher with choucroute, as with sauerkraut across the border in Germany, is the festival of cardiac-arrest meats which top it: as many sorts of sausage as you can count, knuckle of pork plus anything else boasting an inch or more of fat. In their half-timbered, flower-laden villages, it is thus that Alsaciens take refuge from a hectic history that has seen them get a kicking whenever Europe falls out. As a result, choucroute is the quintessential dish of peace: eat a proper plateful and you can’t move, let alone fight.
Gourmet tip: Some restaurants put fish with choucroute. That’s like putting low-fat yoghurt with chips. It doesn’t work. You need sudden-death quantities of meat.
The fishiest fish stew in the world comes as a scrum of more seafood than most people eat in a life-time, the qualification for inclusion being extreme ugliness. (Have a close look at a scorpion fish.) This may cause alarm. I was once eating a bouillabaisse on a restaurant terrace on the Old Port in Marseille when a lady walked past, spied the heap of monsters of the deep, shrieked and fell into her companion’s arms. (He grinned his thanks, the b*****d.)
Bouillabaisse - once a way for Med fishermen to use up the fish they couldn’t sell - may now cost a fortune, at least for a good one. Some £50 a throw isn’t rare. But it also serves two other purposes: to highlight Marseille’s addiction to excess, and to allow Marseillais to get as much fish down in one go, before they get shot.
Gourmet tip: Ensure your bouillabaisse contains weever-fish. If you’ve been stung by one of the little blighters, this is the revenge you’re owed.
There are several hundred, maybe 10,000, ways of succumbing to food-lust in France (it happens to me wherever I am around 8pm, nightly) - but the surest is to approach Dijon’s central market. Inside, you know, there are quantities of meat, charcuterie, spices, cheese, fish, fruit and vegetables sufficient to delight your family forever. They will be laid out for maximum grab-me appeal. But the killer is outside, where great pans of beef bourguignon simmer giving off aromas - beef, wine, lardons, the whole lot together - that have you baring your teeth, even (especially) at 9am. You either retreat immediately, or give in and eat all day. That’s what Burgundians do (bourguignon = Burgundian, incidentally). They rarely leave one table unless assured of another nearby. That’s why they are so plumply replete and quietly self-satisfied.
Gourmet tip: Never plan to spend more than three days in Burgundy. If you do, they’ll need to take the wall down to get you out of the hotel.
And so many others: Pot-au-feu - beef boiled for hours with veg and herbs and unbeatable with strong mustard. Or tartiflette, a Savoyard tradition since the Romans? No: a marketing ploy to sell more Reblochon cheese in the 1980s - by melting the stuff over spuds, lardons and onions. The Romans missed out there. Or civet de chevreuil venison stew, which ennobles any autumn evening. Or garbure, truffade, daube de sanglier wild boar in wine or ... enough.
Gourmet tip: Get to work on all this right now. Autumn and winter don’t last eternally. Soon it will be spring again, and that means lettuce.
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This article was written by Anthony Peregrine from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.