Monday, September 30, 2013

Monsieur Mizette's cassoulet

Here's a recipe for one of the signature dishes from the region Monsieur Mizette, the main character in the story from my previous blog post, might well have used. It's a family recipe--we are after all also from that same region, in beautiful south-western France!

It's made with goose or duck confit, which you can easily make as well. Or use pre-pepared if you like.

To make the confit: You need duck or goose pieces(breast and legs are best), a fair bit of coarse salt, duck fat, sprinkle dried thyme and bay leaf. Put the dry duck pieces in a glass dish, rub all over with the coarse salt(needs to be pretty thickly crusted). Add the herbs, cover and leave in fridge(or a cold pantry) for about 36 hours. After that, melt the duck fat--if you don't have enough, you can add melted pork lard to it too. Take out the duck/goose pieces, drain the liquid, wipe off the salt completely. Heat the fat in a saucepan, cook the meat in it. It needs to simmer for about an hour—if it's properly cooked, the juice will run yellow(test with a skewer.) Cool the meat, put in a jar with the fat on to-it must cover all the meat and a bit more-then cover jar with lid or greaseproof paper. The fat solidifies and preserves the meat. It can be preserved in the fridge or a cold pantry(only in the winter) for a few weeks or used within a day or two if you're in a hurry! You can also make pork or even chicken confit in the same way. But duck and goose are the most traditional.
Pieces of the confit are then used in the cassoulet itself.
For the cassoulet, you need the confit, haricot beans, Toulouse sausage(if none available use Italian sausages)olive oil, onions, garlic, herbs(rosemary, thyme, parsley), tomatoes(fresh or tinned), breadcrumbs, salt, pepper. You can also add some unsmoked bacon(such as pancetta) or pork belly pieces if you like. Proportions depend on how many you're cooking for, but for 6 people you'd need about 500 g beans, 2 garlic cloves, 2 onions, 2 or 3 tomatoes depending on size, ½-2/3 sausage per person, and if using pancetta or pork belly, a little for each person. To prepare the beans, either soak them overnight in cold water, or to do it more quickly, put them in a pan with cold water, without adding salt. Bring this to the boil and cook for 15 minutes. Do not salt the beans until at least half-way through this cooking time(salting them too early makes them harder to cook quickly). Drain the beans. Fry half the onion and garlic in the olive oil, add the beans, pepper, half the herbs, and if you like a little white wine, cover with a little stock or water, simmer till beans are tender. In a different pan fry the rest of onion and garlic, the sausage, pancetta or pork belly, rest of herbs, pepper, a little salt, and tomatoes. When beans are cooked, drain and add sausage mixture to it. Now take out the confit from its jar, heat through in a little of its own fat. Lay it in the bottom of a casserole dish, put the bean/sausage mixture on top. Cover with breadcrumbs, and sprinkle them with olive oil. Cook in oven or under grill till top has gone golden brown.
Serve with salad and a good red wine.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Monsieur Mizette and the Unexpected Guest: a short story

Something a bit different: a previously unpublished short story of mine set in the south-west of France, around a lonely old goose farmer who finds an unexpected friend. Enjoy!

© Sophie Masson
Monsieur Mizette lived all alone on a little farm outside a southern French village called Lézac. His wife had died when she was young, leaving him to look after their only son Martin. But Martin had long since grown up and left the village to work in the city.
Monsieur Mizette's family had always lived on the farm and it made him sad that after him, perhaps no-one would. The Mizette farm was small, but very beautiful, with its tiny green fields, divided by stone walls, its large glassy pond, and its old farmhouse with walls covered in roses in the summer. Monsieur Mizette loved it there. He hardly ever left it, except to go to Lézac to do a bit of shopping. Once a year, in November, he went to the goose fair at the nearby market town of Saint-Romain, but he'd only once been to the big city where his son lived. He didn't like cities, with their noise and bustle. Not at all!
It was well-known that Monsieur Mizette raised the finest geese in the whole district. Every year, he would raise a new batch--fluffy little yellow things which would soon turn into plump, dignified creatures that Monsieur Mizette loved. Nothing was too good for his geese---the finest pasture, the most comfortable beds of straw, light, airy sheds, warm nesting-places, a gleaming pond. In the spring and summer, the geese would waddle around the farm, happily grazing, or swimming on the pond. In the autumn, the ones Monsieur Mizette had selected for sale would be driven into a special shed, with its own yard, and were pampered. Monsieur Mizette bought cobs of golden maize for them, and would spend hours mixing up the geese's maize porridge--a soft, golden mush, flavoured with olive oil. Monsieur Mizette would look at his greedy geese, throwing themselves on the porridge, with a tender tear in his eye."Ah, my pretty ones," he would say."Enjoy it while you can!" For though Monsieur Mizette loved his geese, he also depended on them for his living, and the day would come when he had to pack the fattest into crates, and take them squawking along to the goose fair to be sold.
When Monsieur Mizette was not working, in the evenings, he liked to listen to records. He had an enormous collection of old records, and an enormous old record-player to match.His son, Martin, had tried to buy him a more up-to-date machine, a beautiful combined CD and DVD player. He urged his father to get rid of his old records. But his father had shaken his head. "What would an old fool, like me want with that modern thing?" he said, his jaw set stubbornly. Martin tried to argue with him, but soon gave up.
What Monsieur Mizette loved best of all was jazz. He had hundreds of jazz records--from the most obscure to the most famous, from all corners of the world, but especially from New Orleans. His idea of heaven would have been to hear the great jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, in person. Ah, the angels themselves would dance at the sound of Louis' golden trumpet!
But the record always stopped, and Monsieur Mizette would open his eyes with a jerk. He was not in heaven, or in New Orleans in the 1920's (which he sometimes thought must be the same thing).He was on his farm, alone, the geese needed feeding in the morning, and in two weeks' time they would have to be prepared for the goose fair. Monsieur Mizette sighed.Much as he enjoyed the goose fair, he often wished he had someone to share it with. He thought of his dear wife Eulalie, dead so long ago, and went and fetched her photograph. He sat there looking at it, at the strong, smiling face staring out at him, the bright black eyes, so like Martin. Ah well Eulalie, he said to the photo, At my age, I should be getting used to it, shouldn't I? Eulalie smiled back at him, her face always young, always cheeky. She never got old..
The day of the goose fair came. Monsieur Remi Mizette dressed himself very carefully, and put on his best beret.He looked at himself in the mirror, once, and was about to go out to the shed to pack the geese into their crates, when the telephone rang.
"Papa," said Martin's voice at the other end of the line."Papa, I wonder if I can ask you.."
"What?" said Monsieur Mizette, cautiously and rather loudly. He didn't like the telephone much. He liked to be able to see people's thoughts in their eyes.
"You see, Papa, I have met a wonderful woman, Rosemarie, and we will get married soon."
"Oh?" said Monsieur Mizette, amazed but still cautious.Martin, even as a child, always liked to spring things on you at the last minute.
"Well, we..that is, I have to go to Paris for a few days, and I would like Rosemarie to come with me."
"Fancy--Paris!" said Monsieur Mizette, who had never had the slightest desire to go to that far-away place.
"Yes, wonderful," said Martin impatiently, "but the thing is.." He coughed."Rosemarie has a child. A little girl. And we can't really take her. We were wondering if.."
Monsieur Mizette said nothing for a while. He thought of the years he had raised Martin alone. How long ago that seemed! He grasped the telephone receiver hard.
"Yes, yes," he said softly, while Martin was still talking, excusing himself, explaining."Yes, yes."
Martin stopped talking. There was a short silence. Then, "Papa?" he said, rather uncertainly.
"Yes, I'll look after the child," said Monsieur Mizette, sighing."Though what a city child will think of my farm.."
"She'll love it," said Martin firmly."Animals and all that." Monsieur Mizette smiled to himself. Martin was still the same. Always too preoccupied by his books and his own affairs to really open his eyes to what was around him.
"We're sending her on the train, then," Martin said."Tomorrow."
Monsieur Mizette drove a bit quicker than usual, that day. The familiar road to Saint-Romain flew past him as he went,thinking hard about the child. Martin hadn't even told him her name! What would he do with her? She'd be bored in two minutes, a city child in the middle of the country.

When he got to the goose fair, which was held in the huge Saint Romain market hall, he set up his stand absent-mindedly. His neighbours on other stands, who sold live geese or ducks in crates, like him, or who displayed the beautiful waxy carcases of their ready-to-roast birds, asked him what was the matter. When he told them, they shook their heads and smiled."Children these days, they need a lot of entertaining," said one."Films, videos, new musical instruments, the best, most fashionable gear, computers," said another."Without those things, a modern child can't function," said yet another. Monsieur Mizette's mind was in a whirl .He had none of those things.And nor was he going to get them.
When he got home, he again took down the photo of his wife."Ah, Eulalie," he said, shaking his head at her smile, "what are we to do?"
He put on his favourite Louis Armstrong song to make him feel better."Everybody loves my baby," he sang in his cracked voice and bad American accent, along with the trumpeter, "But my baby don't love nobody but me!" Unaccountably, tears started in his eyes, as he thought of holding Eulalie in his arms while he sang. She'd laugh, tap him on the cheek. Ah--it was all so long ago, he told himself. So long ago--and now he was dreading the arrival of a child he didn't even know. Then he had a sudden thought. When he'd had to raise Martin, he'd played it by ear, most of the time. There were no rules, really. And that comforted him.

The next day, he was at the railway station in Saint Romain, in plenty of time for the train. It had felt strange, to come into town again, straight after the fair. Saint Romain was very quiet, as if the fair had exhausted the town, and only three people got off the train at the station. A tall thin man; a round blond lady; and a small thin child in jeans and short hair. Monsieur Mizette decided that must be the one, though you could hardly tell if it was boy or girl, with those clothes and that hair. His heart sank. A city child, through and through, you could tell. Then his eyes met the child's.
Both had a shock. In her thin face, the child's eyes were bright and black, a little wary, true, but also curious, and lively."My God, Eulalie," thought Monsieur Mizette, she's got your eyes!"
But the child saw a tall old man, with a great mop of white hair under his black beret, with eyes that she thought were unlike any adult's she'd met--green, dreamy, rather uncertain. She marched up to him.
"How are you," she said."You must be Monsieur Mizette.I am Mélodie Marchand."
"Mélodie," said Monsieur Mizette.
"Yes, it is a silly name, is it not? My mother is a musician," sighed Mélodie, arching her brows.
"Ah, a musician, of course!" said Monsieur Mizette."Well, well.." He rubbed his hands, and looked even more uncertain.
"I am sorry to bother you," Mélodie said suddenly."You see, Martin--I mean, your son, Monsieur Mizette, and Maman, they need time .." She was trying to sound adult and composed, but her voice was a little shaky, and Monsieur Mizette's heart was touched. He looked at Mélodie again and made up his mind."Come on, then, Mademoiselle Marchand," he said."Your carriage awaits you!"

Mélodie chatted all through the drive, about her life in the city, and her friends, and her school, and how she would have to wear a dress at her mother's wedding. But Monsieur Mizette saw how her eyes flickered constantly outside the window, at the road going past her, and he could see that she felt nervous, maybe even afraid. All at once he felt angry with Martin, and the girl's unknown mother, and even with himself. We expect children to always cope, he thought. We think they won't worry, won't understand. He said, interrupting Mélodie, "Do you like animals, Mélodie?"
Mélodie looked at him."Sometimes," she said.
"I have geese," he said.
"Oh,' said Mélodie, uncertainly. 'I—I don't think I know much about geese.'
They said nothing more till they got to the farm. When they arrived, Mélodie got out of the car and stood looking around her.
"Well, I know it's probably not what you're used to," said monsieur Mizette."There's not much to entertain a child here, and.."
But Mélodie wasn't listening to him. She was staring at a group of geese that had come waddling regally up from the bottom field, as if they were visiting royalty greeting the populace.
"They're so funny!" she said at last. She pranced up and down like the geese."They look just like they're important people, coming to town!" She put a hand on a hip."Oh well, madame Goose, oh yes, you see, it was all too too mortifying! There was mademoiselle Goose, and she had the same feathers as I! Oh, too much, my dear, too much!" She grinned at monsieur Mizette."Does that sound like the geese?"
A slow smile spread over Monsieur Mizette's face."You could be right, at that, you could be right!" he said. He made a sudden lunge at the geese, which, abandoning their dignity, scattered pell-mell towards the field again.
Mélodie laughed and laughed."Oh, oh," she said, "Imagine what they'll say to one another, down by the pond!"
"Yes, imagine," said monsieur Mizette, a little guiltily. He didn't quite know what had come over him, chasing his own geese like a ..child. He said, "Mélodie, you know what? It's time for goûter, for afternoon tea! What do you have, generally, at home?"
Mélodie made a face."Maman likes health food," she said."But oh--what I'd really like is bread and chocolate! Can I have four pieces of Poulain chocolate? Do you have Poulain? I love the little horse on the squares. I collect the wrappers."
"Don't tell my son," said Monsieur Mizette, "But my favourite snack of all is Poulain chocolate! Martin tells me it's bad for my teeth! As if I care, at my age!" He smiled broadly, showing his big strong square teeth.

That night, Monsieur Mizette was in the living room, while Mélodie was having a bath. He could hear her, in the bathroom, splashing, and singing, too, and he was listening with half an ear, looking at the photo of Eulalie. "You know what, Eulalie," he said."She's a lovely child, that one. Don't let anyone tell you about modern children up where you are, Eulalie. I reckon there are children--and children, no matter where and when.." Photo-Eulalie looked at him with her bright dark eyes, and he stroked her cheek."What a pity, what a shame, what a sorrow you never saw our Martin growing, Eulalie!" He was silent for a long while, so that he clearly heard Mélodie's cracked little voice singing, in a very much better accent than his own, "Everybody loves my baby, But my baby don't love nobody but me.."
A few minutes later, there she was at the door, in her pyjamas. "I've come to say goodnight, Pappy," she said. Then she put a hand over her mouth."Oh, sorry, that's what I call Maman's father, and.."
"Pappy will do fine," said monsieur Mizette, his voice shaking a little."Pappy will do just fine."
Mélodie smiled, and moved towards him."Oh, Pappy, who's that lady?"
Monsieur Mizette handed the photo of Eulalie to her."This lady was my wife, Martin's mother," he said."She died a long time ago."
Mélodie looked seriously at the picture."She looks alive," she said at last."And nice. Like she always saw the best in people."
"Oh yes," said monsieur Mizette."Oh yes." He hesitated. 'I heard you singing that Louis Armstrong song,' he said.
'Yes. I know it by heart. Of course.' But now the little girl's attention had turned to the bookshelf. Her eyes lit up. "Oh, Pappy, you've got Tintins!"
"They were Martin's," said monsieur Mizette absently."Why, 'of course', Mélodie?"
Mélodie, already engrossed in the first page of The Castafiore Emerald, looked up in surprise."Well, Maman is a jazz trumpeter, after all," she said.
Monsieur Mizette was surprised to hear himself say, quite casually, "Oh, is she? I didn't know that," while, inside his head and his heart, the emptiness slowly began to fill with something altogether unexpected.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Food for Thought: retrospective on A la mode frangourou

(This piece was first published in the writers' blog, Writer Unboxed,, and then in my collection of short pieces on writing, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for writers. I'm re-publishing it here as a bit of a retrospective on this blog.)

Food For Thought
In an idle moment a couple of years ago, when I was between novels and feeling at something of a loose end, I finally got around to doing something I'd been thinking about for a while: start my own blog on food and all sorts of culinary matters, with a French-Australian slant. I wanted it to be much more than a mere collection of recipes or restaurant reviews or anything like that. This was to be a space for memoir, for musings, for dipping into literary culinary classics, for showcasing the seasons in our very productive vegetable garden and orchard, for culinary travel, for giving tips, shortcuts, and yes, recipes, my own, my family's, and those I'd gleaned from all kinds of weird and wonderful sources. And so A la mode frangourou was born. 
Being from a French background, I imbibed with my mother's milk the notion that food was not only necessary to life, but an expression of culture, a sensual pleasure, and a real art. For centuries, great cooks and chefs have been ennobled by French kings and fêted by French society, and great writers have written about it, but it's not just an upper-class thing. The whole culture of food, from the growing of it to the preparation and partaking of meals is part of the glue that holds French society together. One of the reasons why French food is so good is that just about everyone cares, from rich to poor and in between, peasant to nobleman, factory worker to banker, people consider it a serious matter worthy of the highest respect. And the amazing regional diversity of the country makes for a gloriously diverse cuisine as well. But my other country is Australia, the country that has become my home, and though in the past Australian cuisine left a lot to be desired, today it's vibrant, exciting, imaginative and fresh. There's still a good long way to go as regards some things, especially the quality of vegetables available in supermarkets which in contrast to French supermarkets focus on size and unbruisability rather than taste. But thanks not only to the injection of immigrant cultures such as Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Asian, but also such programs as Master Chef and so on, Australians of all backgrounds have discovered the joys of good food in greater and greater numbers. And that's also spurred on a bigger and bigger interest in food writing as well, and now the shelves are groaning with cookbooks and musings on food, newspapers and magazines have regular columns on it, and of course there's been a huge proliferation of food blogs.
I'd written food pieces myself before I started the blog. In fact my very first professional published piece of work ever was on Basque cooking in the now-defunct Vogue Living magazine, published when I was 22. My mother's family is part Basque and many's the summer we'd spent in the Basque country, so my piece was part memoir, part travel, part recipes. After that whilst writing short stories and novels(most of which featured at least some descriptions of meals, much as I'd carefully noted down my childhood meals in my diary since I was little!) I also dashed off articles for newspapers on various aspects of French food, on markets, on regional cooking of all sorts, and I sold some of my own original recipes to women's magazines. So writing about it wasn't new to me, and it seemed a natural step to create the blog. And why 'a la mode frangourou'? Well, 'a la mode' can mean both 'in the style of' and 'fashionable' in French, and 'frangourou' (or 'frangaroo' if you're leaning more to English) is my own coined word for the hybrid I am, a mixture of French and Australian, evoking Australia's most well-known animal.
It's been a lot of fun, and a learning process too. One thing I learned was that you get a lot more traction from a food blog than any other kind I've ever created for myself(Writer Unboxed is different!) Though my blog doesn't have a lot of official 'followers', the stat counter I installed showed me that this is multiplied sometimes up to ten-fold or more when you're looking at the number of visitors to the site. And what's more, even though of course I'm writing the blog for free, within just a few months, thanks directly to the blog, I scored a dream gig: I was asked to be one of the paid reviewers for an annual restaurant guidebook published by one of Australia's biggest media organisations. Pretty cool!
I'd like to pass on a few tips here if you're thinking of creating your own food/cooking blog:
1/Have a definite and original focus. Of course this is so in all blogging, but it is especially so with a food blog. What is it about your cooking or outlook on food that really sets it apart from other people's? It doesn't have to be rooted in a cultural thing, like mine, but should be personally quirky in some way.
2/Range widely within your focus but don't get too distracted
3/Don't blog too often: once or twice a week is enough(I did heaps more at the beginning, but have now learned my lesson.) People need time to digest what you've written, as it were, and to try out your tips and recipes
4/Make sure your recipes work! I only ever write up ones I've tried myself and know are goers.
5/Think about the beauty of your words and images as well. Your food blog should be a feast for the eyes and ears and the imagination as well as the salivary glands!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Asparagus time

The winter's ended rather abruptly here in New England(NSW) and the weather's mild already, making the garden wake up from its brassica and root vegetable slumbers and think about producing spring vegetables. And here, springing out of the ground indeed, come the asparagus, a bit early in the season and all the more welcome for that!
I can never get enough of asparagus--such a fine flavour, so easy to cook and use. Whether hot and served with butter, or cold and served with vinaigrette, blended into soup or made into yummy quiches and pies(they go really well with seafood--smoked salmon and asparagus quiche or salmon and scallop pie being particularly good), they are always delightful. And straight out of the garden too, they are just bursting with flavour. here's one of the simplest and nicest way to eat them, as a delicious entree, with vinaigrette--I use a mix of extra virgin olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard, shaken together. Not even any need for salt and pepper, as the mustard provides that edge.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Marrickville markets, Sydney

Had a lovely morning exploring Marrickville Markets the other day--looking at, and tasting, and buying some lovely produce, including the fabulous charcuterie made by one French providore! Here are some photos from there.