A few weeks ago – only just found time to write about it – I attended the launch of a new edition of Goose Fat and Garlic, a book about the cooking and recipes of SW France. Jeanne Strang, who has had a house in Aveyron for more than 50 years, held her signing session at La Ferme Carlès in Monteils, near Villefranche-de-Rouergue. It was a good choice, since the eponymous Jacky Carlès makes traditional products, prepared according to old-style recipes.
Before going any further, I know that not everyone eats meat and most of the products at La Ferme Carlès and a lot of the recipes in Jeanne’s book will not appeal to vegetarians. However, peasant cooking in SW France is not just about meat. Leafing through my copy of Goose Fat and Garlic, I noted a number of recipes involving only vegetables and staples such as flour or lentils and/or cheese, e.g. crêpes au Roquefort (Roquefort pancakes) or les châtaignes en salade (chestnut salad). Okay, they are often cooked in animal fat but olive oil or other vegetable fats are good substitutes.
Jeanne has drawn on her substantial personal experience of this region of France but she has also done a lot of research. Her book was first published in 1991, thirty years after they bought their house. As she points out in her preface, the standard of living has improved markedly since 1961, when local farmers were still ploughing with oxen. Paradoxically, this has led to the increase in popularity of traditional peasant dishes, which are now well known far outside the region. She gives the examples of aligot (potato, garlic and cheese purée) and cassoulet (bean, pork and duck/goose stew). She devotes a chapter to the latter.
The 21 chapters are organised mainly by type of ingredient, e.g. le cochon, l’ail, les fromages, les noix. The introduction to each chapter describes the history of the ingredient and its production and includes anecdotes from Jeanne’s experience, such as illegally fishing for écrevisses (crayfish) with neighbours in a local stream. Jeanne’s style is sometimes reminiscent of Elizabeth David’s but not so acerbic.
An independent press called Kyle Books publishes Goose Fat and Garlic. They specialise in books about cookery, gardening, lifestyle and reference. Life is full of odd coincidences. Kyle Cathie, who founded and runs Kyle Books, was at the launch. She seemed strangely familiar. Then we realised that we had coincided at the publishers Macmillan back in the 1980s, although we worked in different locations. We had to come to SW France to meet again.
La Ferme Carlès claims to be the most-visited food-related attraction in the Aveyron Département after the Caves du Roquefort. Coachloads of visitors turn up for guided tours, followed by a slap-up lunch based on their products. I sometimes wonder how authentic such meals really are or if they were served only on high days and holidays. From my reading of romans du terroir and social histories of France, the typical peasant diet seems to have been rather more mundane. However, Carlès is one of the bastions against the rising tide of mass production and globalisation, which the South West seems to have resisted better than some regions.
I’m looking forward to trying some of Jeanne’s recipes.
Goose Fat and Garlic: Country Recipes from South West France, Jeanne Strang (Kyle Books, £14.99).
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