© Susan Herrmann Loomis
April 7, 2012
You will read this when temperatures, we hope, have risen. Right now we in France are frozen in a whirl of Siberian winter. Temperatures hover at-9° C (16° F), which is cold for us. The wind that seems to come from the steppes doesn’t help—it lowers the temperature significantly.
I write about this because it affects everything we all do at the moment. The sun may well be brilliantly shining, but cold seeps in everywhere. At the outdoor market this morning, a great many vendors were absent. One who did show up, Luciano, picked up a mushroom from his stand and tapped it on the table. “It’s frozen,” he said. “Everything is frozen, even our machines.”
Baptiste, a farmer friend you’ve read about before, had rigged up a little environment for himself, his sales people and, most importantly, his vegetables, to protect them from the cold. His truck was parked near the curb, its sliding doors wide open. His tables stood in front of the open door, and a sturdy plastic tent was set up over everything. He had installed a heater behind the tables for the staff, and one in front for customers. The fragile vegetables were all in the “anteroom” inside the truck; hardier ones were outside on the table. It was cute, like the start of a new little village, right in our town square.
Other farmers hadn’t gone that far to protect their wares. The amount of frozen Brussels sprouts perched on tables was amazing. “They’ll thaw and be just fine,” one farmer said. He was right; they thaw to perfection.
Sweet fat scallops
At these temperatures, it doesn’t pay to linger anywhere, so marketing was quick. I had gone with a list in my head; as always, it changed. I got some mâche, that gorgeous, violet-flavored salad green that grows only in winter. I also got shallots, some unfrozen Brussels sprouts and a Savoy cabbage. Seafood was tempting, and so—surprise!—I got my favorites, the beautiful scallops that are so sweet and fat right now. One of the fishmongers was holding her cold hands right up to the gas heater near her; clients were screeching about chilblains, but this woman is made of steel. “I know my hands, nothing hurts them,” she said, as we all ached for them.
The cheese truck was present, with its bevy of vendeuses, or saleswomen, all shivering as they hefted hunks of cheese about, valiantly slicing through them. With the cold, cheese solidifies more than usual, making it tricky to cut because it tends to crumble or even break. I picked up some 30-month-aged Comté and a chunk of farm-fresh butter and went on my way. Next on the list were clementines, the vitamin C balls of winter. We go through kilos per week because they’re so refreshing—and they’re not apples or pears. I’m usually religious about eating locally and seasonally, but I have to admit that around about February or March, a brazen import (from Morocco—it’s fairly close) tastes soooo good.
Aromas at the market include richly flavored and bubbling hot choucroute, with its panoply of pork products, from smoked pork belly to jellied pigs’ foot and skinny little saucisses de Strasbourg. There is also—and this one is a killer—the crisp, caramelized scent of roast chicken. You know it. I rarely cave into it, but this chilly morning I made a beeline for the poultry farmer, who stands with his back to a wall rack of spit-roasting chicken. He’s the lucky one in winter (and the sufferer in summer) as he carries his own giant heater around with him. I hesitated a moment among the crisply roasted rabbit, the juicy loin of pork, and the squab, but settled on a chicken (because I know the vendor raises them himself) and made my way home, my basket laden, lunch planned.
Market lunches are a meal apart. They share a simplicity and freshness, and a certain festive air. The first step towards today’s was washing the mâche. This sounds like nothing, but anyone who has ever done it knows what is involved. Mâche grows out of the ground in a whorl; each plant is tiny, and intended to stay whole. Down inside its heart rests soil, lots of it. When I was a cooking apprentice, the chef insisted we wash mâche seven times. This is still my rule of thumb. I wash until there isn’t a piece of grit to be seen anywhere. This was the toughest part of our market lunch prep.
I made a quick vinaigrette with one of the shallots, lemon juice, olive oil and sea salt. Mâche is so delicately flavored that I never add anything else. I peeled and cut some fresh, frigid carrots, while my twelve-year-old daughter dissected the still-warm chicken. (I didn’t know she knew how; now I can rest easy, she’ll always be able to find a job.) We would have cheese with fresh, crusty baguette afterwards; that chunk of Comté was begging to be sliced.
This was a well-rounded market lunch, with warm and cold offerings. There are those days when cheese, bread, wine and fruit do the job; for a lunch like that, though, the backdrop must be warmer than -9° C, the air a caress instead of a slice. Today’s lunch, enjoyed by the heat of the fire, was a big success. I’ve lived here more than twenty years, but I never, ever get over the flavor that comes with a morning at the market. If you cannot buy a farmer’s chicken spit-roasted at your market, fear not. Here is a simple recipe.
ROAST CHICKEN / POULET ROTI
1 roasting chicken, with giblets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, halved
2 imported bay leaves
1. Preheat the oven to 450° F (230° C). Rinse the chicken and pat it dry all over with paper towels. Remove the giblets from the cavity of the chicken, generously salt and pepper the cavity, and return the giblets. Squeeze the lemon into the cavity, then add the lemon itself, pushing in each half gently.
2. Slip 1 bay leaf between the skin and the meat on each side of the breast, gradually working your fingers under the skin to gently loosen it so it doesn’t tear.
3. Truss the chicken and place it breast side up, on a rack if you like, in a large baking pan. Roast in the center of the oven until the bird is golden on the outside and the leg joint moves easily when you rotate it, about 1 hour.
4. Remove the chicken from the oven, and salt and pepper it generously all over. Flip the bird onto the breast side and let it rest, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes and as long as 30.
5. Carve the chicken and arrange it on a warmed serving platter. Cut the giblets into thin slices and arrange them on the platter. If a substantial amount of cooking juices remain in the baking pan, place it over medium heat and bring to a boil. Scrape up any browned bits, stir in ½ cup (125 ml) water, and pour the juice over the chicken.
4 to 6 servings
Susan Herrmann Loomis teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris. www.onruetatin.com.
Find her cookbooks in the France Today Bookstore.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of France Today
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