Friday, March 6, 2009

A Recipe for a Cold Winter's Day

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

There's a recipe I learned from Erick way back when I first arrived in Arles that quickly became a favorite. In fact, I attribute the good health I maintained throughout my pregnancies, and thus the health of my boys, to eating lots of it! It is the Carbonade de Mouton. It also has the distinction of being a recipe that could only be destroyed if you added either veal stock or crème fraîche. It is a recipe built up slowly with layers of flavors that come together just marvelously. I never thicken the juices either, as it is one of the best soups I've ever eaten. As it is very nourishing, eating bread alongside would just weigh you down, but do have a large spoon.

This recipe has a story and a reason for existing, as many of Erick's do.

Once upon a time, there was a city, known by its Celtic name meaning city amidst the marshes (Arles) on a major river going north from the Mediterranean into Europe. It was a city with an immense market of wares and foodstuffs coming from all over the Mediterranean (and further away), to be then sold and redistributed across the continent. Many men worked on the multi-ton barges that needed to be physically pulled up the river to the northern cities of Avignon and Lyon. It was rough going bringing these barges up a river flowing in the opposite direction. In ancient time, teams of men (no doubt slaves) pulled the boats. Over time, the system shifted to horses, 80 of them. The Rhône river looks like a many branched tree from above. Many tributaries flow into it from the East and the West. Thus, those 80 horses couldn't just pull the barge up to Lyon in one simple trip. They had to be transferred from one side of the Rhône to the other over a dozen times. And these tributaries could be a source of flash floods, in which case the horses had to quickly be released from their harnesses and ropes, and the anchors thrown overboard to slow the movement of the heavy barge, and limit its backward flow. At all times, a couple men on the barge had axes to hand to slice the cords attaching the horses. The fastest trip recorded for one of these barges is about three weeks, Arles to Lyon. But the slowest was over three months. Ten kilometers a day was considered a decent pace. And, to accommodate these hungry and hard-working men and their horses, there were inns located every ten kilometers along the Rhône. At one of these inns, this recipe (or a variation of it) was a house-favorite for restoring these river-men. It made use of the plentiful and inexpensive local mutton (the region has had huge herds of sheep flowing across the dry flat former river beds since Roman times at least), fall and winter root vegetables, and inexpensive pinard.

Preparation time : 30 minutes ; cooking time : 2-3 hours


One kilo leg or shoulder of lamb (2.2 lbs) (or about this much stew meat)
3 tablespoons olive oil (enough to cover the bottom of your pot)
2 slices bacon chopped in small pieces
one onion quartered
2 tomatoes quartered (not an authentic ingredient, but, it does add color and a tiny tang)
2 carrots cut in bite size pieces
1 large turnip quartered/eighthed
heart of celery quartered and chopped coarsely (a small celery root is fun to add in as well).
3 cups dry white wine (I just pour in a bottle)
300 grams dry white beans (10 oz) (soaked in water overnight -- and pre-cooked till somewhat tender) -- If you have fresh beans, such as cranberry beans, these are great and don't need pre-cooking.
100 grams of black olives (4 oz) (i.e. a nice handful)
3 bay leaves
a pinch of nutmeg
3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
water to cover
salt and pepper to taste

De-bone and cut your meat into large cubes, (or alternatively ask the butcher to do this for you).

In a large deep dish frying pan, heat the olive oil, add the bits of bacon stir till lightly browned, add the meat and brown quickly over a high flame till nicely caramelized. This step is best done in batches. If your meat renders lots of liquid, just suction it out and set aside to add back in later. You really want the meat nicely browned, this will add lots of flavor. When the meat is good, drizzle in a bit more olive oil and add in the onions, sautée till sweated (translucent) and then add the tomatoes, the carrots the turnip, the celery heart, the white beans, the garlic, the olives, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour in the white wine. Top off with water and cook either over a very low flame for 2 hours (or till the meat is very tender, an extra hour never hurts), or in the oven at 150C/300F for the same length of time.


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