One of my favorite things to do while at La Borie, is cook. I probably cook more while on vacation in France than I do at home in the States. This is partially practical—I have more time—economical—it can be expensive for a family of five to eat out—but mostly my obsession with grocery shopping. There are so many ways to find good ingredients in the South of France, whether in the village street markets, roadside produce stands, the Carefour hypermarche, or the ubiquitous backyard orchard or garden. Our weekly menu remains varied and seasonal including, lamb, beef, duck, chicken, and veal (all raised within miles of home, or at most 150 miles).
However, when most Americans think of Provence, meat is surprisingly absent from the top of the list. There is the seasonal ratatouille, salty tapenade and pungent aioli, all delicious and vegetarian. Of course, there is the seaside bouillabaisse, with its ample portion of fish and crustaceans, and the beef daube stew, simmering the centuries-old family recipe in a beautifully colored clay pot. But most tour books these days are more likely to highlight the vegetarian and vegan eateries (truly hard to find in France a few years ago) than they are a meat lover’s itinerary.
So I was on a mission to find come of the more carnivorous menu items less well known outside of Provence, or even the errant Google search. With luck, I’ll visit a few of these locals in the coming week, and share my adventure.
Pieds et Paquets (Marseilles)
The pieds et paquets, once the quintessential Provençal dish on every family-owned restaurant menu, has become a bit of an endangered species as of late. This country cooking plate truly celebrates whole animal eating, with its lambs’ feet and beef tripe marinated in garlic, parsley, and salt pork. Simmered in white wine, tomato, and herbe de provence, the tripe “paquets” beautifully inflate under heat, as the lamb cartilage melts into a robust and unctuous sauce.
Typically not a dish enjoyed in the hot Mediterranean summer, pieds et paquets is becoming harder to find even in winter. Maybe Peter Mayle’s writings made it so eponymous with the region that locals are branching out, or should one blame the PBS travel maven, Rick Steves, who unwarrantedly cautions against even trying the dish. Whatever the reason, this Provencal plate has become a bit of a culinary yeti.
Sisteron Lamb (Sisteron)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that France takes the terroir of its animals as seriously as it does its wine and cheese. This agneau appellation originally came from the Luberon town of Sisteron, although the government has expanded the region to include the hills of the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes de Haute-Provence, as well as small parts of surrounding departments. The breeds are restricted to the local Mérinos d’Arles, Préalpes du Sud or Mourérous. The distinction is granted to lambs born and raised on the same farm, weened no earlier than 60 days, and finished exclusively on grassland. They must also be slaughtered in the same region, between three and five months, never weighing more than 40 pounds. Rumor has it that the secret ingredient to this award-winning lamb is the wild rosemary, thyme, and tarragon they feed on in the hills of this region. Every Ascension weekend, Sisteron organizes its Fête de l’Agneau to reinforce this place means business when it comes to sheep.
My last blog post illuminated my infatuation with saucisson and how prolific it is in Provençal markets. But even I was surprised to stumble upon the saucisson d’âne, cured salami made from the quixotic sidetick, the donkey. Saucisson d’âne comes from Arles, the bullfighting capital of France on the border of the Camargue region, where wild horses and French cowboys roam marshy grasslands. Made of equal parts pork and donkey meat, then salted, and hung to cure for 4-6 weeks, the saucisson d’âne is a bit leaner than I like my salami, but worth the try for sure. Although peculiar in the US, donkey domestication isn’t so unusual in France. In fact, not only are there donkey ranches, but you can also find the odd donkey dairy farm as well. Hospitals keep donkey milk on tap for infants that have difficulty with breast feeding. And in the 1800’s, chocolatiers preferred the stuff to cows milk for their milk chocolates.
Although the city of Arles is more famous for the best-preserved coliseum outside of Rome and hosting Van Gogh for some of his most prolific painting, more tour books should mention Arles’ most unique honor as home of the Donkey Sausage.
The moutounesse is probably the most mysterious of all Provençal cured meats. More commonly called fumeton, and roughly translated as “lamb ham,” this “sheep speck” is a real rarity. Made of deboned lamb (often leg, shoulder, or saddle) the moutounesse is salted, wrapped in lamb skin, trussed tightly and stored for up to a month to encourage the salt to penetrate the flesh. It is then untied and dried in the sun for a few more days, sometimes followed by a brining in salt, pepper, garlic and (of course) herbe de provence, before finally being smoked. The meat is then sliced thinly and eaten as an appetizer, or chopped into cubes to be added to mountain stews or raclette.
The product was originally derived as a “shepherd’s cure” should a lamb die unexpectedly in the mountainous pastures of the remote French/Italian border from where it originates. To this day, there is only a single producer in the far north east of Provence near the town of Barcelonette. Rest assured, I will be visiting the home of this charcuterie unicorn before I leave.
Caillette du Var
Caillette du Var is specific to the region of Bandol and Toulin just south east of Marseilles. Each butcher has their own recipe. This country terrine is made up of narrow strips of pork liver, fat back and sometimes sweat breads or other organ meats. Seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, nutmeg, and garlicky parsley—maybe a dash of marc (the locally distilled wine spirit)— it’s then trussed tightly wrapped in caul fat, and baked.
You can find caillette served in cold slices like headcheese, or heated and served with crusty bread and a milky pastis just as the sun goes down over the hills.
More often associated with Parisian bistros than the South of France, the French snail actually has deep and historic roots in Provence. The South of France is home to one of only two species of snail farmed in France, the Provence native, helix aspersa aspersa, and the other from Bourgogne (helix aspersa maxima). Even the name escargot comes from the Provençal escaragol, which might have roots as far back as the Egyptian scarab. And it’s not just the name that’s ancient.
Snail shells have been found in archaeological sites dating back almost 10,000 years, including snail farms, which might be some of the earliest evidence of agriculture in Europe! Snail consumption continued well into the Middle Ages, until it all but disappeared from Renaissance cook books.
Come speculate that the snail was rebranded “peasant food” like its distant cousin the Maine lobster or British oyster. But finally escargotcame back into fashion in the 1800’s, reappearing on the menus of Parisian bistros and tourist traps across France.
Until next week, à bientôt!
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