Gaul is subdued.
~Julius Caesar writing the Roman Senate on his victory over Vercingetorix

A sumptuous stick-to-the-ribs speciality of the Auvergne region in south central France, a bucolic land of abrupt volcanic plateaus, plunging cascades, verdant meadows (and carbo-loading potato dishes). Audrey Tautou, who played the winsome and waifish Amélie Poulain in the acclaimed film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie), was born and raised in Auvergne. In France, many consider her as the typical Occitan Auvergnate.

Auvergne was also home to Vercingetorix, the renowned chieftain of the Arverni who united otherwise diverse Gallic tribes in a relentless revolt against Roman armies during the last phase of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. An astute warrior, he defeated Caesar in several skirmishes including the battle of Gergovia and adopted a scorched earth policy—retreating to heavy, natural fortifications while burning hamlets behind to prevent Roman soldiers from using their abandonded lands and shelter. Vastly outnumbered though, Vercingetorix finally relented and surrendered to Caesar after being defeated at the famed, lengthy siege of Alesia (near present day Dijon) in 51 B.C. He was imprisoned and tortured in the Tullianum for five miserable years, was paraded through the streets of Rome and then summarily executed.

Millennia later, shamefully brutal rituals still perservere in some self proclaimed noble and civilized societies. Profoundly sad to say.

Vercingetorix is often hailed as a notable progenitor of French pride, passion, resilience and resolve.

Suit your mood…the first aligote version is a touch more rustic and textural, the second elegant and smooth. Yet both have that celestial courtship of earthy potatoes and nutty, buttery cheese with a salaciously molten finish.

SMASHED POTATOES ALIGOTE

3 lbs russet potatoes, halfway peeled and quartered
Sea salt, for water

2 T sea salt
2 T freshly ground pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 t white pepper
1 stick+ (8 T) butter, room temperature

3/4 C heavy cream
1/2 C milk

12 ozs Tomme, Gruyère, Cantal or Comté cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes

Chives, minced (optional)

Warm cream and milk either in microwave or in a pan on the stove.

Put potatoes into a pot with liberally salted cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat some and gently boil about 15-20 minutes, or until tender—a fork should easily pierce the kids. Undercooked potatoes do not mash properly. Drain water from potatoes in a colander and return to still warm pot. The additional time in the pot dries them a bit so they absorb the fats better.

In stages, add cream and milk, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and white pepper. Use a potato masher to smash the potatoes, and then a strong spoon or dough hook to beat further, adding more milk and cream if necessary to achieve a coarse consistency, being careful to leave in some lumps. Whether coarsely smashed or mashed smooth, do not overzealously beat the potatoes or they will become like glue or paste.

Remove from the heat, add the cheese, and stir until it melts (if the cheese is not especially ripe, you might have to return the pan to the stove over very low heat). Season to taste and serve.

Top with minced chives, should you so please.

PUREED POTATOES ALIGOTE

3 lbs Russet potatoes, washed and scrubbed
1 1/2 to 2 C whole milk
3 to 4 (24-32 T) sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pads
Sea salt
Freshly ground white and black peppers

12 ozs Tomme, Gruyère, Cantal or Compté cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes

Place the potatoes in a large heavy pot of salted water. Simmer over medium high heat until a fork easily pierces them, around 30 minutes. Drain in a colander.

In a heavy saucepan, heat milk until just about to boil. Remove from stove.

Peel the potatoes, then pass them through a finely gridded food mill. Place the potatoes in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon, stir the potatoes thoroughly in order to dry them some. Add the butter, a couple of tablespoons at a time, still stirring vigorously, until butter is entirely incorporated. Slowly add most of the milk while stirring, reserving some for later if needed.

Again pass through the finest grid of the food mill into another large, heavy saucepan. Stir vigorously throughout, adjust the amounts of milk and butter to your preferrence. The texture should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from the heat, add the cheese, and stir until it melts (if the cheese is not especially ripe, you might have to return the pan to the stove over very low heat). Season to taste and serve.

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My youngest son just arrived in southern France (Languedoc-Roussillon) for a mystical summer sojourn in the country. The ancient regional language, Occitan, is still heard in parts of Languedoc. Occitan first began to appear in writing during the 10th century and was used particularly to write the poetry of the troubadours. When France became a unified country in the 15th century, the language of the Parisian court, langue d’oïl, was favored over Occitan and other regional languages, which fell into decline…langue d’oil slowly morphed into modern French.

During the 19th century, Occitan experienced a revival, largely thanks to the efforts of a Provençal literary group called the Félibre which included the Nobel laureate poet and wordsmith, Frédéric Mistral, who worked to standardize written Occitan. Their efforts have been rewarded as today there is one weekly newspaper La Setmana and magazines written entirely in Occitan and some regional newspapers, such as La Dépêche du Midi occasionally publishing columns in Occitan.

The word Languedoc means, literally, the language that uses “oc” which means “yes.” In contrast, “langue d’oïl,” means the language that uses “oïl”—an early form of “oui“—for the affirmative.

My son is particularly pumped, because tomorrow is lunch at his favorite pizza venue where he gets to feast al fresco on some just straightout awesome pie. No doubt some fine jambon et fromage will be visiting the yeasty, crisp dough on his plate. Most pizzerias in France feature a bottle of fiery oil known as pili pili, which is a combination of herbs, hot chili peppers, and oil that has its roots in central Africa. Just wondering whether his table sports a bottle which he can drizzle on a slice…but look forward to finding out soon enough.

Bon appetit ou Bon apetís, mon fils!

PILI PILI

1 fresh, plump garlic clove, peeled and minced finely
3 red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced finely
1 T oregano
2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1 t fennel seeds
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 bay leaves

1-2 C olive oil

Place the first 8 ingredients in a freshly cleansed bottle, then cover with oil. Close securely and let rest for several days. Not only reserved for pizzas, pili pili is delicious on grilled meats and vegetables.