IN THE DEPTHS OF FRANCE
Crow soup, Mamie's boys and potatoes
Before I start this post which is one month old, I just didn’t have the heart to put it up, I want to say how much kinder I have found people in these past weeks. Smiles on the bus, the train, a stop with a stranger, a slice of another’s life. This time of chaos is bringing some sense of community and togetherness. Have you found the same thing too?
Happy Noruz to all my Iranian friends - Happy New year. Here is my post from last year about the celebrations:
I have just checked recipes for French Crow Soup!
My momentary Crow obsession all began with what Mamie’s husband used to eat - often.
Eric, Mamie’s son, drives slower than a tractor as we move on to Beaumont-Saint-Cyr, a tiny village which used to be part of the Duchy belonging to Richard the Lionheart, just down the road, due east from Châtelleraut, France. Eric told us how his mother, Mamie would soak the crow in wine for a day before cooking it. I have an image of the crow on its back, beak and legs in the air. I try not to gag.
We get to Mamie’s house on the windy hill. I cannot get the idea of crow soup out of my mind. How can it be possible? I ring Ivan, my brother, the repository of the irrelevant and obscure. He reminds me of the 15th-century nursery rhythm:
`Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye, four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Now wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a king?
I am here to film Mamie’s potatoes – les patates - but now crows are obscuring my mind.
I admire crows, magpies - my favourite - and ravens; in fact all Corvids. I wish Eric hadn’t mentioned the soup, but he did, and as I am here to document life I will write about it. I secretly do a Google search for medieval cooking. Apparently Corsican blackbirds were highly prized by the French, arriving in Paris in wooden casks filled to the brim with pigs fat to preserve them. Then, to my surprise, I found this recipe for crow soup by Louis Eustache Ude/Audot, a writer, and the most famous and solicited chef in the whole of England working in many of the grandest hotels from 1837 - 1850. He was also the chef d'hôtel for Madame Mère, Napoleon’s mother. He gives the soup some sort of elegance; finally my mind is at peace and stops chattering.
Everyone knows that you can make very nourishing soups out of most birds, such as thrushes and larks, etc.; but there are rarely enough to make a soup and we prefer to eat them. Very few people, on the other hand, know how to make an excellent broth out of crows. It is only in Germany where they are not served roasted, and in general they are not present at the best of tables. They can however be made into an excellent soup: all you have to do it to pluck and empty them, and then to hang them until they are high*. Salt them sufficiently and then boil them until all their flavour has entered the water. The broth thus prepared is of the best quality and can be used for any soup you wish. * i.e., that the flesh has begun to decompose and thus become tenderised. La cuisinière de la campagne et de ville, Paris: Audot, 1818
Back to potatoes
We are in the heart of potato country, and I have come to film the Merlot family. Eric, Olivier, Mamie and Momo, the surrogate son who was born on the outskirts of Châtellerault in a bidonville wooden shack his father built. His father a Polish immigrant, his mother a Spanish gypsy whose father was shot trying to cross the Spanish frontier into France in 1935.
Momo collects families like some collect stamps. This is his new family, his favourite family, for now. The stacks of potatoes are in line – the heat of the winter stove is so hot the men are waist bare.
This is France Profound - Deep France - like the deep south. Inhabited by wilderness. It is wild country, no country for the faint-hearted. Here life is Cru – raw. Unlike my beloved village of Tuchan down south where even misery hides in the cracks when the sun comes out, which is most days.
Beaumont is cold, it rains, there is snow, wind, wild plains, and baking hot wood stoves.
Further back from the house on the hill there are forests of deer, boar, pheasants, fish the size of baby sharks, foxes, badgers, ferrets, even wolves have come back, and of course Crows.
Wild and raw.
Raw rubbed hands, wash the potatoes, Olivier sits here, Momo there, and Eric. When Jean was alive we had a large vegetable garden. We needed nothing else, just some chicken sometimes, eggs and milk from the farm next door. Today I only have potates and carrots. That’s my legacy.” Mamie says.
Life has been hard. Life has not been kind nor gentle, yet life has been forgiving and Mamie sees life in the things that keep her grounded. Her sons, her home which has not changed since it was built in 1968, the pots she drinks coffee from which was her wedding present, the casseroles she uses, the knifes; are all part of her heritage. She says something which stirs me. To change all this like the boys want me to would be to wipe out my life history.
These are the people of the land. Here there is no fancy, no frills. It is corse and desolate, and the men drink sec - dry.
There is a home-made gastronomy in Mamies house. The table is laid with bread, home made pickles, snail pate and Sauterelle mushrooms. The fish is smoked in the small fumery, and slabs of Echiré butter melt slowly in the room’s heat. Here's something, Echiré is so rare, only 15% finds it way outside France. Mamie says the Royal family buy it, but I can not find proof of this. But I do find out that in Toyko, a shop which specalizes only in butter sells it from the barrel, £10 for 250g.
Potatoes needs lots of butter, lots and lots, says Mamie.
Mamie has never travelled further than Poitiers, and even now would rather just go to Châtellerault. She loves flowers. Each week she buys flowers, and has done for 50 years. This is the nearest she gets to travel as she loves the exotic colours and the smells.
Ricco works with a lad who has never taken a train, boat or plane. Olivier lives in a studio flat in Châtellerault near the live eel market but spends most of his time with Mamie in the country. He does not work as he has a light disability.
The potato has it’s day
In the middle ages, in France, everything that came from above the earth, or heaven, and therefore to God, was particularly sought after. The potato was the ungodly food from below. The farmers thought it was from the devil, causing leprosy and other diseases. For many years it was only given to the farm animals, even the poorest of the poor refused to eat it. In 1748 it was actually made illegal to eat the potato in France. This all changed when a Monsieur Auguste Parmentier was taken by the Prussians as prisoner in 1771. The only thing he and the other prisoners were given to eat was the potato. Not only did it kill no one, nor did it give any disease, it was delicious. After the war Parmentier began his crusade to populize the potato, dig it up metaphorically and bring it to the foods from above.
He showcased the potato all over Paris, creating incredible dishes to boast it’s flexibility and today many French dishes are named after Parmentier like the Hachis Parmentier which is a French casserole made with minced beef, several layers of mashed potatoes, and laced with cheese. A sort of Shepards Pie with a tiny bit more taste.
After 1772, it still took a hundred years for the potato to claim it’s stake in this neck of the woods. In a tiny village in the Vienne, Liniers, 30 minutes from Beaumont, an association - Les planteurs de patates - the potato planters, created, in 2008, an initiative to provide supplementary food to people in difficulty. This was the year UNESCO declared ‘The International Year of the Potato.’ The village plants 70 varieties which give about 10 tonnes per year. The production then is divided among the members. Mamie thinks her potatoes are the best which are the belle de Fontenay.
It it time to eat. I am excited. The fanfare and ritual and the stories make the potato the most mouth watering, exciting delicacy I have tasted for a very long time.
Mamie puts more wood in the stove as the skies prepare to tuck down darker to early night. I wander around the house then out to the courtyard. I stand by the window, watching into this world that has not changed and will not change while Mamie is alive. It is safe and secure and warm and full of cheer. I am happy here.
Nearby two magpies squabble then fly off to another tree further back. I really do love these birds. Mamie comes out with milk soaked bread and mashed potatoes. They wait you know, they wait, each night for their snack. The Magpie is cunning and clever. I want to ask her about Crow soup, but you know, for some reason I don’t dare mention it. I don’t know why, I just don’t have the nerve. She suddenly tells me. We used to have lots of crows too, my husband used to chase them. Since he died, they died with him. They have never come back!
Thank you so much for passing by. If you enjoy, please share this post.
Thank you all, and see you soon. Next Soap&Sagas I am going to invite a friend to talk about this painting I saw at the National Gallery with my granddaughter, Violette. I did not like the painting very much as I found it so twee. He explained the inner significance, and the historical context, and I saw it in a different light.
Jeanne, with love
If any of you are interested in film production go to my website at scatterflix where you will find tips for making your first documentary.
Coming soon a Udemy course in “how to get started making your first documentary EVER”