During our recent visit to Cantal, we had the opportunity to taste again a dish that is traditional to northern Aveyron/southern Cantal: pounti. Before we first visited that area, 25 years ago, I had never come across this dish, not even in other parts of France. But, like many other traditional French recipes, it excites no small controversy among devotees, who argue about the correct way of making it.
My series about French flavours has leapt about a bit, and I certainly haven’t kept to my original plan of listing dishes from A to Z. But I’ll come back to some of the other dishes as I go along. What interests me is not only the recipe itself, but also the history and origins of these dishes. Many of them have their roots in the robust peasant food that is the hallmark of French provincial cooking.
Robust peasant dish
What is pounti? It’s a kind of rustic pâté made from chopped meat mixed with various greens and baked in the oven. It also includes Agen prunes for reasons that no one can quite fathom, but which give the pâté a certain sweetness that saves it from being too rich. In the Rouergat language (not far from Occitan) pounti is called Picoücèl or Picoussel.
Making pounti was a good way of using up leftover meat and leafy vegetables. This is the sort of hearty food that farmers could take into the fields for a snack. Just what you need after a hard morning tramping the hillsides. Pounti is firmer than a normal pâté and so keeps its shape well after slicing.
Interestingly, Elizabeth David doesn’t mention pounti in French Provincial Cooking. However, Jeanne Strang gives a recipe in her excellent Goose Fat and Garlic, which is a well-researched and fascinating compilation of recipes from SW France. Jeanne Strang also says that pounti would have been made on bread-baking day, which occurred once every 10 days or so, to take full advantage of the bread oven.
Cooks disagree about several points. First, some use bread soaked in milk to bind the pounti; others make a kind of pancake batter with buckwheat or plain flour. Second, purists say the meat should be chopped with a knife and not in a mincer and that the mixture should be combined by hand and not in a food processor. If you want to make it at home, it’s quicker, frankly, to buy ready-prepared sausage meat than to deal with belly pork and ham, which require prior soaking, but this would be sacrilege to some. I give the easier recipe below, but Jeanne Strang includes the full recipe in her book.
Ingredients (serves 8)
600 g sausage meat
300 g flour
1.25 litres milk
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bunch chives, chopped
2 bunches Swiss chard, chopped after removing the spine (or spinach)
1 large onion, chopped
150 g prunes (or to taste)
- In a bowl, mix the meat, onion and greens.
- Make a separate batter with the flour, milk and eggs, beating until it achieves the consistency of pancake batter.
- Mix the batter with the other ingredients with a spatula to form a uniform consistency.
- Grease a terrine dish or gratin dish and pour in the mixture.
- Press the prunes into the mixture so that they are evenly distributed.
- Bake, covered, in a preheated oven (160 C) for 30 minutes. Increase the temperature to 190 C, remove the lid and bake for a further 15 minutes. It should have a golden crust.
Slice and serve warm with salad as a starter. It should keep well in the fridge for a few days and you can fry the pounti, sliced.
This dish is traditionally served with an Auvergne white wine, such as Saint-Pourçain.
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