Life is like riding a bicycle — in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.
~Albert Einstein

Never have these meant to be autobiographical musings, despite the medium. Hopefully it’s never read as self indulgent, indiscreet, insipid, smudge free, egocentric OMG! Zuckerbergish gibberish run amok. That social mediacrity with identity-indifferent-track-and-sell-persona greed as the true intent — razing individual privacy and autonomy with impunity.  Instead, these thoughts are meant as mere reflections, sometimes gentle and other times sharp edged, on food and culture.

Compared to previous years, I have been remiss with Tour de France coverage.   This year’s edition began in Liège, Belgium, swept toward northern Normandie then swung back to northeast region of Lorraine.  The peloton then  streaked southward down the eastern border of France through the Vosges, the Jura, the Alpes to the Mediterranean and then back westward toward the  Pyrénées when the riders finally turn north toward  Paris and the ChampsÉlysées.  Today was a relatively flat étape (stage), with one stage 3 and two stage 4 “little” climbs, that runs 158 km from Samatan to Pau in southwest France which just precedes a showdown in the Pyrénées.  In all, the riders cover 3,947 kilometers (2,452.55 miles) over three weeks this year — already 42 riders have retired.  Makes my lungs burn and my legs weary just typing.

While much of the Tour’s majesty and quirks have been noted in previous posts, a couple were brought to my attention from earlier stages.  Ahead of the riders on the course is a publicity caravan of advertising vehicles (le caravan publicitaire) while behind the peloton is a snarl of mulit-hued team little cars laden with components, parts, tools, equipment, bikes, spares, bottles, computers, radios, the directeur sportif (team manager), and the like.   Titanium, carbon fiber, and high tensile steel alloys galore.  Within this circus are officials’ vehicles, motorcycle cops, medical vans, and photographers hanging precariously off the back of even more motorcycles.  Ballet and mayhem meet.

A sticky bottle is when a cyclist receives a water bottle from inside the team car with both parties grasping the vessel as long as possible, towing the rider and giving a little pedal-less boost to launch his return to the peloton while saving precious energy.  A magic spanner usually occurs when a rider has just had a mechanical issue, a wheel change or outright crashed. Once again, while  being assisted, riders latch onto the mechanic or car which accelerates, slingshotting the rider back into the peloton.  Similarly, attending to minor medical needs like spraying a topical antibiotic on a rider while he  holds onto a speeding car is also rather common during races.

Article 7 of the Tour’s rules, entitled Race Offences sternly reads:  “(S)lipstreaming or being pulled along by a motor vehicle, whether from the front, back or side as well as any grasping-hold of the bicycle or vehicle is forbidden under all circumstances.”   As with most sports however, team tactics sometimes delve into gray to achieve those little boosts with an eye on that sometimes elusive, collective goal of victory.  Just a little help from their friends.

Other times though, the game is not worth the candle.  This year’s Giro d’Italia race jury pulled several sprinters from the race during its penultimate stage for holding onto team cars.   The incident happened on the 20th stage, the Giro’s  “queen stage,” which boasts five climbs, making it an exceptionally difficult stage for sprinters .   A jury communiqué called it a fatto grave or “serious fault.”

This distinctly French plate seemed à propos

POTATO, TURNIP & GREEN BEAN SALAD

1 lb medium Yukon Gold potatoes, washed
1 lb medium turnips, washed, with roots and tops trimmed
Sea salt
2 bay leaves
2 large thyme sprigs

3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed to a paste
1 T high quality anchovy filets, rinsed, dried and chopped
1 1/2 T fine capers, rinsed, dried and chopped
2 t Dijon mustard
4 T champagne or sherry vinegar
1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb fresh green beans (preferably haricots verts), ends trimmed off
4 large eggs, room temperature
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T parsley leaves, roughly chopped
2 T basil, roughly chopped

Bring a large pot of cold water with potatoes, bay leaf and thyme sprig to a boil and salt generously. Reduced heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the potatoes are firm but easily pierced with a paring knife, about 30 minutes. Remove, drain and let cool some.

Bring another large pot of cold water with turnips, bay leaf and thyme sprig to a boil and salt generously. Reduce heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the turnips are firm but easily pierced with a paring knife, about 15-20 minutes. Remove, drain and let cool some.

While the potatoes and turnips are cooking, prepare a vinaigrette. In a medium glass bowl, whisk together the garlic, anchovy, capers, mustard and wine vinegar. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking vigorously. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside and whisk again before dressing.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and gently slice into pieces about 1/3″ thick. Likewise, peel and gently cut the turnips into 1/3″ slices. Put the slices in a large glass bowl, season lightly with salt and pepper and add half the vinaigrette. Using your hands, gently coat the potatoes and turnips with the vinaigrette, taking care not to break them. Set aside.

Put the green beans in a pot of boiling, salted water and simmer until just tender and crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Drain in a colander, then cool under running cold water and pat dry. Promptly plunge into ice cold water for a brief moment to halt cooking and retain the green hue. Promptly drain and dry on cloth or paper towel or the beans will become soggy. Set aside.

Gently place the eggs in a saucepan and add enough cold water to liberally cover the eggs. Bring to a boil over high and then immediately remove from heat and cover until done, about 12 minutes. Uncover and flush with cool running water and then briefly place in an ice bath to cease cooking. Dry promptly on paper towels and peel. Set aside.

To assemble: season the beans with salt and pepper, then dress lightly with with vinaigrette. Combine the dressed beans, potatoes and turnips, using hands to toss, and arrange on a platter or large flat bowl. Cut the eggs lengthwise, drizzle lightly with vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper. Arrange eggs over the top and sprinkle with chopped parsley and basil.

Serve standing alone or with grilled, sautéed, or roasted meat, poultry or fish.

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
~Edgar Degas

Several months after the fall of France in 1940, four teenagers and a dog, Robot, stumbled upon the now renowned Upper Paleolithic wall paintings in the Lascaux valley. With that chance find brought a wondrous era of knowing prehistoric art, touching our origins and realizing the awe of humanity and nature. The timing seemed ironic.

This complex of decorated limestone caves, La Grotte de Lascaux, is located in the Vézère river drainage basin in the département of the Dordogne. Magical messages from the depths of prehistory are encoded on these walls. Stunningly, there are nearly 2,000 painted figures, which can be grouped into three basic images: animals (bulls, bison, equines, stags, felines, et al.), human figures and abstract signs. Rooms include The Hall of the Bulls, the Passageway, the Shaft of the Dead Man, the Nave, the Apse, and the Chamber of Felines.

Many of the painted animals are depicted with multiple heads, legs or tails, which according to Marc Azéma of the University of Toulouse–Le Mirail and Florent Rivère, an artist based in Foix, intended to give life to and show beasts in action. Flickering torches and flames which passed over painted scenes would have heightened onlookers’ sense of seeing animated stories. The Lascaux cave has the greatest number of cases of split-action movement by the superimposition of successive images. These Stone Age images were likely the precursors to comic strips, motion picture cartoons, and modern animation — even cinema — according to their research which was published in the most recent issue of the journal, Antiquity. News of these findings has taken the art history world by storm. “Prehistoric man foreshadowed one of the fundamental characteristics of visual perception, retinal persistence,” noted Azéma and Rivère.

This is a canonical French potato dish originating in the gastronomically flush southwest (Le Sud-Ouest). Duck fat, a pantry staple in the Dordogne, imparts silkiness inside and golden crisp edges to the spuds.

POMMES DE TERRE SARLADAISES (POTATOES IN DUCK FAT)

1 lb fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise or Yukon Golds, sliced about 1/4″ thick

1/2 C rendered duck fat
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary

Fresh parsley leaves, chopped (optional)

Rinse potatoes whole under cold water, then dry thoroughly and slice. Heat a large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven (une cocotte) over medium high heat add the duck fat until just melted. Then add potatoes, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary. Toss together to coat well over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium and gently sauté, stirring occasionally, until fork tender, about 20-25 minutes. Remove and discard thyme and rosemary sprigs. Finish with optional chopped parsley.

Clam Chowder Without Winter?

February 20, 2012

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
~Andrew Wyeth

Waiting for a frigid, stark white night to savor some chowder seems futile this winter. The weather has bordered on the absurd here. In the lower 48, temperatures have been freakishly warm particularly from the plains to the east coast, confusing flora and fauna and upending snow resort life. This week was no different with another balmy February stretch and no end in sight to the warmer than usual temps. Cold refused to settle in this year, and a measly percentage of the land has been blanketed in snow. Even rainfall has been lacking.

Besides drought, there are downsides to this t-shirt and shorts weather. Our friendly mosquitoes, flies, fleas and ticks may emerge earlier and if the temps remain moderate, and they are given a longer times to reproduce, pest populations could be noticeably larger this summer. Yet another danger looms as plants, tree and shrubs start to grow sooner in response to warmer temperatures and longer periods of sunlight. If fooled by these warmer periods they may begin to bud, shedding their winter coats. Should freezing temperatures arrive, it can prove fatal to some.

Some of this aberrant winter weather has been caused by the Arctic Oscillation, a pressure system that drives where the jet stream divides warm and cold air masses across the country. This year, cold northern air was fenced off at higher latitudes than usual which helps explain our warmth and why Alaska has been enduring such a raw, arctic winter. Others have also credited the mild conditions to the La Niña climate pattern, a system in which low pressure systems pull warm air north from the equator.

Chowder is a generic name for seafood or vegetable stews and thickened soups, often finished with milk or cream although others prefer briny or tomato based. Debate rages on whose is better. The English word “chowder” was coined in the mid 18th century, apparently from the cooking pot called a chaudière (12th century term from fishing villages along the Atlantic coast of France), traced from the Late Latin caldaria (a place for warming things). The word and technique were introduced in Newfoundland by Breton fishermen and cooks, then later spread to New England. Others claim that the word derived from the old English word jowter (fish monger).

CLAM CHOWDER

8 ozs thick sliced bacon, cut into 1/2 ” lardons
Extra virgin olive oil

2 T unsalted butter
2 C leeks, white and green parts, clean and coarsely chopped
2 C yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 C celery, finely chopped
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, lightly smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 C all purpose flour
3 C whole milk
3 C heavy whipping cream
2 bay leaves

2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
Tied cheesecloth with thyme, oregano, and parsley
Sea salt
Water

4 C clams, chopped, strained with juice reserved
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chives, chopped

Drizzle a slight amount of olive oil in a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the bacon first to a cool pan, then heat to medium, and let render for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan and strew on a paper towel covered plate to drain. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of bacon fat.

Return pan to stove and add 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the leeks, onions, celery and garlic to the pan and stir to coat with the bacon fat and butter. Season with salt and pepper, and cook slowly over medium until the vegetables are translucent and tender, about 15 minutes. Remove and discard garlics. Add 3 more tablespoons of butter and when melted, stir in the flour to coat the vegetables and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cream, add bay leaves, season some with salt and pepper, and bring to a low simmer. Slowly stir in some reserved clam juice to taste.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes, cheesecloth with herbs, and salt in a pot or large saucepan, add cold water to cover, bring to a lively simmer, and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and spread potatoes on a pan to cool and discard the bag with herbs.

Remove and discard bay leaves from the chowder. Again season with salt and pepper to your liking. Gently add the potatoes, reserved lardons and then the clams, and simmer about 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish with chives.

Pommes Anna (Potatoes Anna)

February 5, 2012

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.
~Albert Einstein

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon III), nephew of Napoléon I, was ruler of the imperial Second French Empire. He was the last monarch of France, ruling as emperor from the day he ascended to the throne in 1852 until overthrown in 1870 promptly after the disastrous French loss at the Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War. This defeat resulted in the cessation of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire.

Napoléon III was known for expansionist foreign policies, radical industrialization, building the French railway network, rebuilding Paris, lording over a thoroughly undemocratic regime, and his profuse womanizing. He once remarked, “(i)t is usually the man who attacks. As for me, I defend myself, and I often capitulate.”

Pommes Anna is thought to have been created during the time of Napoléon III by the chef Adolphe Dugléré, a pupil of Carême who was the doyen of French grande cuisine. Dugléré reputedly named the dish for one of the grandes cocottes of the era who frequented his restaurant, Café Anglais. Opinions diverge about which lavished mistress, of charmingly doubtful virtue, the dish was named after — the actress Dame Judic (Anna Damiens), Anna Deslions, or Anna Untel.

A crusty, golden, butter doused and layered potato cake. Merit your attention?

POMMES ANNA (POTATOES ANNA)

2 1/2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 F

Clarify the butter (see below).

If you are concerned about browning, place the potatoes in a bowl of cold water as they are sliced. When done slicing, rinse and gently dry them with a towel. Otherwise, simply peel and wash the potatoes, then dry and slice. It is strongly urged that you use a mandolin or slicer for speed and uniformity.

Brush the bottom and sides of 10″ nonstick cake pan with butter. Arrange potato slices, overlapping in a single layer. Brush with butter, then season with salt and pepper. Repeat this layering-buttering-seasoning process until all of the potatoes and butter have been used. Occasionally press the layers down with the back of a spatula.

Place a piece of foil cut to fit on top of the potatoes. Although to some this is optional: take a slightly smaller pan with a flat bottom and press down to compress the potatoes into a cake.

Place a baking sheet covered in foil in the bottom rack of the oven, below the rack holding the potatoes (to catch drippings). Place the potatoes in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the smaller pan and foil, place back in the oven and continue baking until the potatoes are golden, about 25-30 minutes.

Run a small knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen, then invert onto a large round platter. Cut into wedges and serve.

Clarified butter
Clarified butter simply means to purify it so the milk solids and water have been removed from the butter. Naturally, butter has a high water content and a small amount of nonfatty substances. This purifying process removes the water and nonfatty goodies, leaving pure butter. This allows the butter to be heated at higher temperatures without burning.

Use unsalted butter and melt it slowly in a saucepan over low heat without stirring. Let the heated butter sit still so that the milk solids and water separate from the butter fat. Skim the foam from the surface. Remove from the heat and let stand a few minutes until the milk solids settle to the bottom. Carefully pour the clear yellow liquid (the clarified butter) into a container, leaving the milk solids in the bottom of the saucepan.

Pourboire: for a little twist, sprinkle some parmigiano-reggiano or a little Gruyère between the layers as you build the cake.

Repeat that again…for it has the distinct ring of a pleonasm. A word excess that resonates from screens across the country during NFL Inc.’s couch potato dance. After each disputed or scoring play this distracting phrase echoes over and over again.

Pleonasm: (pli:ənæzəm), n, the use of more words than necessary to express an idea; redundancy. In English, it appeared first during the late 16th century, and was derived from Late Latin pleonasmus, from Greek pleonasmós (“too much”), from pleonazein (“to be more than enough”), from pleon (“more”), comp. of polys (“much”). Neoplasms are antonyms of oxymora. A few examples–advance reservations, basic fundamentals, commute back and forth, consensus of opinion, join together, advance warning, surrounded on all sides, regular routine, merge together, unexpected surprise, wept tears, various and sundry, proactive planning, ATM machine.

Because Thanksgiving is more a culinary celebration and is not quite so mired down in religious overtones or lavish shopping odysseys, it is my favored holiday. Although there is that deserved guilt associated with decimating, exploiting and transforming an entire Native American culture…extinguishing entire indigenous populations across millions of square miles of land. A shameless conquest of epic proportions that has been buried in our history texts and banished from our collective conscience. Anglophilic revisionism again perseveres.

Consider serving this side dish of gratitude as part of your T-Day feast.

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS WITH POTATOES, CELERIAC & LEEKS

1-2 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
Butter, unsalted

2 large leeks, cut lengthwise, cleaned thoroughly, white and pale green parts sliced thinly crosswise
2 T unsalted butter
1 t dried thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 lbs baking potatoes, preferably russets, peeled and very thinly sliced crosswise
1 celery root, peeled and very thinly sliced crosswise

2+ C grated gruyère cheese
1+ C heavy cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 F

Melt butter 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced leeks, thyme, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender and translucent, about 8 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Set leeks aside in a bowl.

Thoroughly rub a shallow gratin or baking dish with a crushed garlic clove, and then lightly butter the dish with the end of a stick of butter. Arrange one half of the sliced potatoes and celeriac slightly overlapped in a single alternating layer. Strew half of the cooked leeks over the potatoes and celeriac. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then evenly douse with half of the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange a second layer of potatoes and celeriac followed by the remaining leeks. Top again with the remaining leeks, cheese, cream and season with salt and pepper. Lightly grate some fresh nutmeg on the top layer to finish.

Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake until crisp and golden, about 1 hour. Should the top begin to brown too rapidly, simply cover with aluminum foil. Check for doneness with a fork. Remove from oven, let rest for at least 10 minutes, and then serve.

Gnocchi Mañana

September 6, 2011

Language is the dress of thought.
~Samuel Johnson

Those ethereal pillows, gnocchi, derive from the Italian word nocchio, (a knot in wood or gnarl) or even perhaps from nocca (knuckle). In the Venetian dialect, nocchio became gnoco and from there it transitioned to gnocco and its plural gnocchi.

The phonetics are sometimes mistreated. The palatal nasal “gn” phoneme which introduces the word, is transcribed as ɲ and does not really exist in English. It more approximates the Spanish sound ñ as in cañon or mañana. The consonantal sound ɲ can be produced by obstructing airflow in the vocal tract and articulated with the middle or back part of the tongue raised against the hard palate. Air is allowed to escape from the nose while vibrating the vocal cords during delivery.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol for this “gn” phoneme is ɲ with a notably leftward directed tail protruding from the bottom of the left stem of the letter. Cf n and ɲ. This symbol ɲ should also not be confused with ɳ, the symbol for the retroflex nasal sound, which has a rightward directed hook extending from the bottom of the right stem or with ŋ, the symbol for the velar nasal sound, which has a leftward directed hook extending from the bottom of the right stem.

The open-mid back rounded IPA vowel symbol ɔ sounds similar to the English vowels in “thought.” The ch sounds like k and the i is pronounced like a long e.

So just say it aloud, gnocchi [‘ɲɔkki], cook with aplomb, and savor these airy gems.

GNOCCHI WITH LEEKS & SERRANO

3 lbs. russet potatoes

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 extra large egg or 2 medium eggs
1-2 C all-purpose flour, as needed

1/2 lb. leeks, greens discarded, halved lengthwise, cut thinly into half moons
8 T (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 C chicken stock
1/2 T fennel seeds, toasted then finely ground

1/4 C serrano ham, diced
3 t fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated

Put the potatoes a large pot or saucepan of water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 35-40 minutes. Drain well. When still warm yet cool enough to handle, peel. Pass the flesh through a ricer or food mill and then spread onto a work surface.

Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a large pot, then season liberally with salt.

Season the cooled potatoes with salt and pepper. On the work surface, form the potatoes into a mound and make a well in the center. Sprinkle with the flour. Put the egg(s) into the well and use your fingers to blend into the potato until well incorporated. Using your hands, gently and gradually knead until the mixture forms a dough. Overkneading may make the dough tougher, so keep it to the minimum needed to obtain a uniform consistency, dusting extra flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface. Gather the dough into a ball. Do not overwork the dough or the end result will be tough. It should be firm and fairly dry to the touch.

Divide the dough into six balls, then roll each orb into long cylinders, each about 3/4″ in diameter. Use a paring knife to cut the ropes into 1″ pieces. Roll each piece along the back of a fork using the tines to form ridges in whose nooks and crannies the sauce finds refuge.

Ready an ice bath.

Drop gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until they float to the surface, about 1-2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon and fish them out to the waiting ice bath. Drain well and transfer to a bowl for later.

In a large, heavy skillet, melt a half stick of the butter over low heat. Add the leeks and garlic and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Stir in the chicken stock, fennel, and the remaining butter. Cook over medium heat until reduced by half, about 7-9 minutes. Stir in the leeks, serrano, and parsley.

Add the gnocchi to sillet and coalesce with the remaining ingredients. Season with salt, pepper, and grated parmigiano-reggiano. Serve promptly.

GNOCCHI WITH GORGONZOLA & WALNUTS (GNOCCHI GORGONZOLA e NOCI)

3 T gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
3 T butter
6 T heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Grating of nutmeg
1/2 C walnuts, toasted roughly chopped

1 T fresh oregano leaves, julienned
Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add gorgonzola, butter, cream and walnuts with a pinch of black pepper and nutmeg. Mix together until the cheese is melted and the sauce becomes silky. Then add the walnuts and toss some further.

Cook gnocchi as above and toss into the gorgonzola sauce.

Sprinkle with parmigiano-reggiano and oregano.

In Paris, they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.
~Mark Twain

The peloton is now squarely in Bretagne. The narrow, winding 4th stage began in the sportive town of Lorient and finished on the summit of the Mûr-de-Bretagne, at the end of a challenging 2 km straightaway ascent. This so-called L’Alpe-d’Huez of Bretagne will sow the seeds of many helmeted doubts.

The Tour began with 198 riders on 22 teams. Unfortunately, some 20-25% of the riders are forced to abandon the race before the finish often due to injury or illness (and banned substances).

The three time defending Tour champion, and a narrow second in today’s stage, Alberto Contador, has been riding amid controversy. Apparently, he tested positive for the banned muscle enhancer clenbuterol during the Tour last year, but has denied any wrongdoing. Contador claims that the lab findings were miniscule, and that the clenbuterol found in his blood was the result of innocently ingesting tainted meat.Even though the Spanish cycling federation cleared Contador and allowed him to compete this year, he could still be stripped of his latest crown if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules against him next month. So, even if Contador ascends the podium in Paris, he still may be ordered to disgorge his titles for the past two years.

Language and culture are so tightly interlaced. In the early 20th century, France remained a pastiche of isolated pays, autonomous tribes, clans and hamlets. Each valley was a little world which often differed from its neighbors by language, custom, governance and opinion. Cultures and dialects were distinctly separated by mountains, rivers, gorges, plateaus and forests. While French was the language of civilized Europe, it was spoken by a minority at home. When the Third Republic (1870-1940) was formed, Parisian politicians amassed legions to wage war against local languages, attempting to colonially eradicate those which least resembled the homeland tongue, e.g., Breton, Provençale, Flemish, Basque, Catalonian, Corsican. Linguisitic homogeneity was in full swing.

The Breton (Ar Brezhoneg) language, closely related to Irish and Welsh and reflecting the deep rooted Celtic heritage in Bretagne, was one such cultural target. Bretons were labelled as remote and romantic separatists, prone to cultural rebellion against the state. Patois was banned and standard French was strictly imposed in schools, railways, newspapers, magazines and even popular tunes. Children were force fed approved French and told to discard their cradle language under threat of punishment and humiliation. It was a complicated social conscription as are many drafts. But, some even assert that the life of this provincial dialect was prolonged by promoting “proper French”…and many now say that without Breton, the identity of Bretagne would be lost.

On to a Breton fave, pommes de terres primeurs. Symbolic of the vegetable rich coastal areas and gentle climate of Bretagne, these hand harvested new potatoes have thin, delicate skins. They owe their subtly sweet flavor and melt in your mouth texture to very early harvesting and immediate marketing. This preserves the sugars before they are converted into starch.

It is unlikely that you will find these Breton gems around town, so just forage for new potatoes from locals at farmers’ markets. While this presentation may seem overly primitive, fine new potatoes need little embellishing. Kalon digor!

NEW POTATOES & HERBS

25 or so smaller new potatoes
Cold water and whole milk, in equal parts
Sea salt

3-4 T unsalted butter
2 T combined fresh thyme, parsley and sage leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently wash, scrub potatoes so as not to mar the skins. Place in a heavy pot, add water and milk to cover and season generously with salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat to a gentle roll and cook, partially covered, until tender. Cooking time varies depending on potato diameter, so be poised with fork nearby to pierce for doneness.

Using the cover, carefully drain well and return pot to burner over low heat. Gently shake pot just until the remaining liquid has evaporated. Then add the butter to lightly coat potatoes, again swirling the pot some. In stages, add fresh herbs and salt and pepper to taste in so that the potatoes are nicely coated.