Thursday 20 November 2014

Poule Au Pot

It was the 16th C French King, Henri IV, aka Henri de Navarre who, I believe, said, "I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he cannot put a chicken in his pot every Sunday." It became a graphic measure of being above the poverty line and one that caught the popular imagination. Hardly surprising if you lived off the monotonous European peasant diet of dense, black bread and dried peas all the time. In fact Henri couldn't quite make good his promise but it stuck in the mindset of the French people as an aspiration worth hanging on to and by the time of the French Revolution, Henri's promise, and the delay to it becoming reality, had been turned into a little ditty, chanted as a political slogan:

Enfin la poule au pot va être mise.
On peut du moins le présumer
car depuis deux cents ans qu'elle nous est promise
on n'a cessé de la plumer!

(Finally the chicken's going to get put in the pot.
at least that's what we assume
because for the last two hundred years that it's been promised
it's been being plucked!)

Recipes for La Poule au Pot abound and I am sure many of them go back as far as Henri IV's day - it's the kind of cuisine rustique that is timeless.  Of course, we aren't talking about the kind of chicken we cook and eat today, with a lot of tender, white meat that cooks quickly and easily under a grill or even, is done to a turn as a roast, after an hour and a half in a hot oven; we're talking about a boiling fowl, probably several years old and past laying; a lean, scraggy bird, nearer to stringy than plump and, not to put too fine a point on it, probably pretty tough. Needing long, slow cooking for several hours, submerged in liquid with a few pot-herbs to flavour the broth and bulk out the meat. Traditionally these included onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, turnips, parsley, bay leaves, cloves. At the end of the cooking period the fragrant, intensely flavoured broth was served first and the meat and vegetables afterwards. Very simple, but very good. I make a version of this myself, in the winter

The nearest we can get to the kind of chicken a French 16th C peasant would have recognised and been pleased to see in his pot is pheasant. Gamier, leaner, rangier birds than modern chickens altogether. It's coming to the time of year when pheasant is again available and I am looking forward to that. Cautiously.

I love roast pheasant. I make pheasant soup with the carcase and any remaining fragments of meat. I've made pheasant risotto and even pheasant and bacon sausages in my time. But there's no doubt about it that eating pheasant is a bit different from eating chicken. These are basically wild birds and they are shot, not killed in an abattoir somewhere. And you don't necessarily get them oven-ready in plastic trays. I don't eat a great deal of meat but I am not a vegetarian and in all conscience, I think that if I am not a vegetarian I should face the reality of what that means. When the game season approaches, I feel it is time to gird myself for that. One year, a few years ago, a kind, local landowner offered me a couple of brace of pheasant from a shoot on his land, which I was delighted to accept. Especially as they hadn't been hung for too long because I don't like game that's too "high". Before handing them over, he looked at me and clearly thinking that I gave off feeble "townie vibes" offered to get them plucked and drawn for me. Feeling that to accept this was copping out, I thanked him but declined his offer and said I would do the job myself.

I came home with the four birds and laid them in their bright, iridescent plumage on the kitchen table. It was the Christmas holidays and H was at home. He came into the kitchen and I explained what I was going to do and suggested he might give me a hand. He took one look, went an interesting shade of pale green and disappeared faster than you could say "knife", let alone start wielding one. Left alone, the pheasants and I spent a long afternoon together .

Plucking poultry was not something I'd done before. Waitrose doesn't tend to sell its chicken breasts still "in feather". Two hours later and I had managed to pluck and draw one of the birds but still had three to go. It was messy, surprisingly hard work and about as earthy as it gets. I wasn't going to be beaten however, so I doggedly stuck at it, plucking and drawing another one in its entirety and skinning and jointing the remaining two until darkness fell and the kitchen looked like the aftermath of a particularly vicious pillow fight and I had four birds, more or less ready for the pot. I couldn't face cooking them immediately so they waited until the following day. It was a useful lesson in the realities of cooking and eating that I've never forgotten and it's made me much more selective about eating meat. I still do, and of course, I don't pluck and draw all that I cook, but I think about it more consciously and if I ever get to the point where I can't face the idea of doing it, I shall become a vegetarian.

If you are a proper countrywoman (which I am not) you take these things in your stride but if you're a more recent country-dweller, it's more of a challenge, I have to say.

Rather easier going was a little knitting project I came across a few weeks ago and which took altogether less stress to get "oven ready". Like to meet him?

Here he is!

He comes from Louise Walker's book Faux Taxidermy Knits and I love him! You can also buy the pheasant pattern on its own here as a download. He knits up pretty quick - uses chunky wool and 9mm knitting needles - so if you fancy a poule / faisan au pot yourself it's not a big project.

I love him extra much because he is entirely user-friendly - no plucking required and no giblets to face either!

As you can see, he has decided to take up residence in one of my large Le Creuset casseroles for the time being.

I think he's got wind of Saturday's pheasant shoot, on the estate down the road or may be he was listening to the news about bird 'flu on a duck farm in Yorkshire and has decided that keeping a low profile might be a good idea.

Either way, he's hunkering down and not coming out in a hurry!

Which may be a problem if I want to cook a real poule au pot at the weekend!

For the time being however he's making me and everyone else smile, without fail, on entering the kitchen, so I'm leaving him undisturbed!

And what's for supper, I hear you ask? I am chickening (sorry!) out and producing pasta with vegetarian tomato and red pepper sauce! Someone must move off the hob first though to avoid tomato sauce spattering his tail feathers!

Friday 14 November 2014

In Praise Of November

Do you know that slightly gloomy 19th C poem by Thomas Hood about November? It's one of those poems that I think I can remember quite well, but when I come to look it up, I find I haven't remembered it accurately at all. Some bits I've left out completely and I've added various lines that weren't in the original! So, for example, I was sure there was a line that went "No wind - no rain" but there isn't. The poem goes as follows

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
no dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day -
no sky - no earthly view -
no distance looking blue -
no road - no street - no "t'other side the way" -
no end to any Row -
no indications where the Crescents go -
no top to any steeple -
no recognitions of familiar people -
no courtesies for showing 'em -
no knowing 'em! -
no travelling at all - no locomotion,
no inkling of the way - no notion -
"no go" - by land or ocean -
no mail - no post -
no news from any foreign coast -
no Park - no Ring - no afternoon gentility -
no company - no nobility -
no warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
no comfortable feel in any member -
no shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
no fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, -

An awful lot of "noes", but nothing about no wind and rain.  Hardly surprising, of course, as there's usually a fair bit of wind and rain in November.

Anyway, having looked the poem up, it seemed to me even more nihilistic than I remembered.  And I thought, actually, despite the wind and rain and a rather manic work schedule, this November so far has been rather lovely, so here is a little "apologia novembris", mostly in pics. A kind of antidote to any nihilistic November leanings, should they creep up on me unexpectedly. They make me feel that, yes, this month has had quite a bit of cheerfulness and "healthful ease" and I rather like its shade, its shine, its fruit, flowers and leaves.

The shine of clear morning light on the water of a mill stream 
"Distance looking blue" behind medlars ready for picking and bletting*
*the process by which medlars ripen almost to rotting before they are deemed best to eat
Lime-gold leaves fluttering in a shaft of sun
Early morning mist smudging sky and "earthly view" softly together
A full, glowing moon windowed in evening clouds
Birthday cake brownies for "familiar people"
Lacy light and shade from a St Martin's Day lantern
(pattern here)
Martinmas horseshoes - snow-dusted with sugar,  shared in "company" for the first day of winter
Knitting needles and yarn; beads and bright threads ...
... cheerfulness and preparations for Christmas
Soup the colour of fog - "healthful ease"  in a bowl
The warmth and "comfortable feel" of a log fire ...
... and candles on a dark November evening.
Many more positives than negatives, I feel, Mr Hood.

Wishing you all a happy November weekend!

E x

Monday 3 November 2014

Life Stills

Firstly, thank you so very much for all your kind knitting encouragement comments on my last post - I haven't given up on the knit-sticks and, in fact, I've been picking them up more often than a crochet hook over the past fortnight. Partly because I am knitting dish-cloths for a local charity project and partly because my short-wooden-handled, round knitting needles are air-travel-friendly and I have been away. H has been In Italy on a school classics trip and I have snatched a few days in Holland where I've never been but have always wanted to go because it's home to some of the best still life paintings in the world. Dutch painting in the 17th C is a virtuoso affair on many fronts - Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Rubens etc. but the still life genre is my all-time favourite and The Netherlands are still home to many of the best works of the best artists - Pieter de Hooch, Johannes Vermeer, Adriaan Coorte, Jan De Heem, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Van Huysum, Clara Peeters, Willem Claesz etc. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, and I am sure other museums too, hold still life treasures in almost every room. Fabulous. As in FaBuLouS!

There is a poignancy about many 17th C still lifes. Many are painted of intentionally ephemeral objects - flowers, fruit, bread, even discarded book covers and broken, old musical instrument cases. Short-lived butterflies, moths or other insects hover among the bright petals of a pink rose...

Detail of "Vaas met bloemen" by Jan Davidsz. De Heem c1670
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
... or rest momentarily on the bloomy skin of a peach at the peak of ripeness.

"Vruchten" by Jan van Huysum 1682-1749
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
Translucent grapes, red currants or gooseberries, taut with juice, tantalise us; perfect opportunities to demonstrate the virtuosity of the painter and a reminder that perfection does not last - tomorrow, perhaps even later today, these fruits will be past their best and beginning to go over. 

You may well encounter other, more overt references to the inexorable passing of time in these paintings - the stark, unwelcome ugliness of a skull or an exquisitely complicated pocket-watch, open to reveal its intricate mechanism, housed in a gold case. 

"Bloemstilleven met horloge" by Willem van Aelst 1663
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
You do not need to see the watch-face, half-hidden in the folds of blue, silk ribbon from which the wearer suspended the piece in his pocket, to know what time it is telling. The painted mechanism is soundless in all its detail and yet ticks loudly across the silence of the intervening centuries. Now is what we have. Make the most of it. As Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher put it, "Everything is in flux." "Nothing stands still." Life doesn't; we don't.

As I get older, I find this harder to accommodate - there are lots of ways I would like time not to move on but to stand quite still, so although I love these paintings almost more than any other genre of art, I find some of them quite emotionally disturbing.

The genre was all the rage in Holland in the 17th C and provided artists with perfect canvases (forgive the pun!) to showcase their ability to paint intricate objects and, above all, to paint light - light reflected off a polished, metal dish or caressing a chased, silver cup; light lingering on a scratched and worn pewter plate or dancing in the depths of a wine-glass, half filled with pale, white wine; light playing in the water around the stalks of flowers in a blue glass vase or catching the raised swirls on the belly of a slender-spouted, glass jug; light bouncing from the bobbles that decorate the wide stems of many 17th C wine glasses. 

"Stillleven met verguide bokaal" by Willem Claesz 1635
(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Many of these paintings feature expensive objects - elaborate silver or pewter-ware, perilously thin, gilded glasses and jugs, fine table linen - beautiful things making beautiful paintings. My favourite paintings of all are those that are slightly less grand. Look at this painting of bread and cheeses by Clara Peeters, for example, with figs, dates and almonds in a Delft-ware dish. Although the slender-stemmed, glass goblet is expensively fine, the glazed, pottery wine-jug and blue and white dish that rest on the table, whose edge is badly chipped, are more homely. I especially love the way the rough-hewn cuts in the cheese are painted and the marks on the bread roll where it has been separated from the batch in which it was baked. These things too, are poignant - the simple meal is immortalised here in Clara Peeter's outstanding brushwork and through her perceptive eyes but the eater - where is he or she? Who was he or she? Clara Peeters herself - where and who is she? Women painters were highly unusual in the 17th C - I found myself intrigued by how she came to paint at all, let alone masterpieces like this and wondering what her life might have been like, as well as dearly wishing to lift one of those shavings of cheese off the plate and taste it, along with one of the dried figs or dates or a milky almond.

"Stillleven met kazen, amandelen en krakelingen" by Clara Peeters c1615
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
And alongside that wish, is the wish to look at what is not painted, but real, and to taste that too in the way that one might savour the crystalline sharpness of a sliver of mature cheese or the stickiness of a few dried dates. Now is what we have. I must make the most of it.

Anyway, deeper reflection aside, if you've never been to Amsterdam, I recommend it - go and steep yourself in art - the Van Gogh Museum as well as the Rijksmuseum; take a train from "Amsterdam Centraal" to Den Haag to visit the Mauritshuis; and in between, wander beside the "grachten" (canals) in the autumn sunlight; 

travel on a tram (very user-friendly, even for nervous bus-users like Mrs T) ...

... or may be hire a bicycle and join the Amsterdamers who all seem to travel on two wheels for preference.

Enjoy the characterful canal houses and the enchanting little plaques which originally identified each house in a street, in the way that today we use numbers or names.

Sample the local speciality of "jenever" a distilled spirit that is a bit like gin, flavoured (as gin is) with juniper and other aromatics but with a character all its own.

I don't drink spirits much, especially neat, but visiting the ancient distillery "Wynand Fockink" established in 1679 in the heart of Amsterdam is an experience all its own. Go easy on the "Oude Jenever" (Old Jenever) even if just tasting a tiny amount - it's nearly 50% proof!

Have a wander through "de negen straatjes" - "the nine streets" - that criss-cross the three main canals running parallel to the Singel, for delightful shopping and eating - Dutch baking is full of the heritage of the Dutch East India Company - think cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cocoa - and the Dutch make soup and sourdough bread to die for as well as fabulous chocolate.

And as a souvenir, buy yourself a bunch of painted wooden tulips to cheer up dark autumn days back home - not as beautiful as real tulips, of course, but less ephemeral and that just now suits me wanting to still life down a bit.

Along with my wooden tulips, I am savouring life's still moments, as and when they offer themselves, with my new little porcelain Amsterdam canal house. It houses a nightlight and shines comfortingly and unblinkingly from its tiny windows in the autumn gloaming, while I take time out to sip Dutch-style  peppermint tea, brewed with fresh leaves in a glass - you get it like this everywhere in Holland it seems, even at airport cafés, which is pretty civilised, I think. Not  a "still life" in the way that the beautiful paintings I've talked about above are, but life stilled just for a moment with echoes of wanting to appreciate something of the same beauty inherent in transient, domestic things, however fleetingly.

Wishing you too some still moments in life's flux and flow
E x