Sunday, April 20, 2014

L'agneau pascal est immolé

... and it was delicious.

I went to Easter service at the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Gurmençon, a modern building (dating only back to the mid-19th century) with a young and earnest priest with a nice chanting voice. He didn't deliver a sermon, really, just went back over the Gospel reading. I missed the talks that Rev. Dennis j. gives, which always provide food for thought. But then, I was thinking about food; I'd only had coffee with soy milk and a bowl of strawberries for breakfast, in anticipation of the Easter feast ahead, and by the end of the service I was hungry.

The extended Bergeras clan gathered from Bayonne and Tarbes and Oloron and Agnos around two long tables at Françoise's house, and I got to meet the newest member, Eliza, just a few months old. I want a pink beret now. She slept while we started nibbling on nuts and crackers while sipping sweet white Jurançon (pastis for the men at the other end of the table talking rugby) and unwrapping little squares of processed cheese food that I saw to my horror were flavored with things like pesto (somewhat acceptable) and roasted chicken (NOT AT ALL acceptable). I'm sorry, but even though fromage à pâte fondue is a recognized category of cheeses, there are limits. Florence said that the chorizo-flavored cubes weren't very good. Quelle surprise ...

But the soup was very good, a fish soup from a small company whose name I didn't note, made from a mix of Mediterranean fish and thickened with carrageenan; they also sell rouille, the saffron-and-garlic mayonnaise that's a traditional accompaniment, smeared on toasts and floated in the thick broth. Gluten-free baguettes work just fine for this, I was happy to find.

And for holding slices of foie gras as well. I will miss foie gras. I took a second helping, to compensate for the future loss, and savored the silken richness.

Les yeux de Chanteau s’allumèrent. Du foie gras! du fruit défendu! une friandise adorée que son médecin lui interdisait absolument! ... Il avait saisi la terrine, il se servait d’une main tremblante. Souvent, de terribles combats se livraient ainsi entre sa terreur d’un accès et la violence de sa gourmandise; et, presque toujours, la gourmandise était la plus forte. Tant pis! c’était trop bon, il souffrirait!
                  - Émile Zola, "La Joie de vivre" (1884)

Florence makes andouille according to her grandmother's recipe, slicing a well-washed pig stomach in a spiral pattern and coating it with salt and pepper and dried garlic, and then looping the long strip onto itself, tied with a bit of string and then stuffed into a very very well-washed section of the pig's large intestine. It's aged and dried for several months, and then wrapped up in muslin and string and boiled. It's very salty, and very rich. We ate thin-sliced ham and slices of saucisson, and opened the bottles of red wine, and realized that we probably shouldn't have spent all that time on the nibbles and drinks because there was much, much more to come.

We ate macédoine, diced vegetables (carrots, flageolets, peas, green beans, turnips maybe?) in a light mayonnaise sauce, with sliced avocados and tomatoes. We ate the Easter lamb, braised for hours in a spicy tomato sauce with carrots and potatoes until it melted in the mouth. We ate salad, which came to the table with the cheese platter - a local sheep's-milk cheese, a gruyère français (the French version has holes, the Swiss version doesn't), and some industrial Roquefort. I used the approved method and scraped off a half-teaspoonful or so of blue cheese to top my last bit of baguette, and wished for an Easter miracle that would reorganize my digestive system. But as I explained to one of my fellow students last week, who found himself baffled by the fact that I want to make cheese and yet can't eat it, when I'm making cheese I don't feel the need to eat it, really. I breathe it in, I absorb it through my skin, I immerse myself in the process, and that's enough.

Hour four of the feast, and we all sat back in our chairs, toying with half-glasses of wine. The strawberries are starting to appear in the market, the long Gariguette variety; I'm going to keep an eye out for the Mara des bois that I bought so many of in Tours, because they're absolutely incredible, though fragile, so if there isn't a local producer I might not find any here. Spanish strawberries are much cheaper, but I suspect for the same reasons that Mexican strawberries are cheaper in the US: poorly paid workers and lots of chemicals. We ate sliced strawberries tossed with sugar and topped (or not, for me) with whipped cream, as a sort of introduction to the actual dessert course.

There was homemade chocolate cake, and homemade butter cake topped with pastel sprinkles, but Florence said that I needed to try at least a bite of the local specialty called le Russe, which has been made by Pâtisserie Artigarrède in Oloron-Sainte-Marie since 1925. According to the bakery's website, it's "Russian" because the almonds in the pastry layer were imported from Crimea at that time. The pastry is made from two thin sheets of an egg white/sugar/ground almond mixture (essentially a flat macaron) and inside is a crème au praliné, a buttercream mixed with more ground almonds and sugar. Very tasty.

The longer we sat at table, the more things appeared to drink and eat. I believe I overheard Françoise say that she had forgotten to bring out one of the dishes she'd prepared, but I can't imagine that we would have been able to eat it anyway. However, almost everyone had a little bit of room left for a final bit of richness, prunes in Armagnac spooned out of their tall jar. And maybe a bit of sparkling wine, just to clear the palate. Then coffee, and herb tea, and conversation, and girls running around upstairs fueled by sugar and a boy running around downstairs trying to stay ahead of his fatigue and a baby looking around with puzzled eyes, wondering why we were still all sitting at the table six hours later.

Tomorrow I need to work on my school projects. I'm determined to get my personal project written up tomorrow, if not translated (I write in English and then in French), because I need to have it done before the next classes start, and there's going to be lots going on in the next few weeks: work at the butchery for the most part, but I also have a free medical checkup and more doctor-related things that will take up an entire day the first week of May; on May 1st there's a cheese festival in Oloron and I will spend the morning there interviewing cheesemakers and handing out copies of my CV; and if the weather and all other circumstances cooperate, a two-day trip to Spain is on the schedule. It's a good thing I work better under pressure. And dark chocolate eggs sweeten the process. Happy Easter!

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