Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Chez Poirier - be very hungry

Chez Poirier - ah, an experience. My friend Kathy M. is here from Tucson. Kathy is curious, energetic, incredibly good-hearted, she is bold and she loves food. She once made us a meal entirely based on Tequila - it was so good - we still think about her Tequila enchiladas and the Tequila bread pudding - yum! So, this to say that she is a great person to take to a restaurant where you need an appetite and where embracing new experience is an asset.

Monday morning: Chalais market. Chalais ( is in the Charente (the next door département)  and has a population of less than 2,000, four butchers, a lingerie shop, two grocers, several bar/restaurants, a bookshop/newsstand, five bakers, a large supermarket, DIY store, printer, antiques etc.etc. Market day is Monday, when half the town is closed to traffic, just so that you can buy anything from corsets (not the sexy kind) to foie gras (then you need the corset). We arrived late because we were planning to have lunch out. Chalais is famous for its veal raised outdoors, with the mother cow. Veal here is dark pink and tasty. Calves are never kept in crates. In our village, the small farmers earn their living by raising calves. Chalais also has a huge and rather ugly castle which was bequeathed to the town (a poisoned chalice), a lovely Romanesque church with cloisters and, like many small towns around here, a retirement home with a tremendous view.

The market is very different from that in Ribérac, partly because it takes place in the streets rather than in open spaces. Also it is a much more countrified affair - lots of elderly men wearing tweed caps and speaking patois. And it's in the Charente which is a foreign country. There were snails because the Charente is famous for its snails - I don't eat them myself but they sit stylishly in net bags gleaming in the sun! I met several friends and acquaintances, smelt the rotisserie chicken and we bought greengages for Kathy - the vendor kindly picked out a handful of ripe ones. Kathy has been racking up first tastes: fresh fig, many different phases of duck product, greengage, Roquefort, Pineau, Armagnac, Kir, orange tomatoes warm from the plant, ripe pears off the tree ...

Chez Poirier in Bardenac (population 232) is a traditional restaurant (which means lots of food) and unlike many restaurants around, it is open on Mondays - because of the market. It is often full to bursting, so we got there early. In rural France, working people eat promptly at 12 noon. You sit down and don't ask what's for lunch because you're going to get what's for lunch. And if you're lucky the waitress will tease you - I am very, very lucky. We sat in the warm on the terrace so that we could watch dogs sniffing one another and see who came in and out. Kathy M. took the photos because I still don't have a discreet camera with which to take photos of food and I am a bit reluctant to do it, so I forget. Rules for eating  at Chez Poirier - taste everything and pace yourself.

First Course: soup - carrot & potato with vermicelli and maybe some tomato. Kathy was so excited she forgot to take a picture

Second Course: roasted beetroot salad with couscous salad - looked gorgeous and tasted amazingly good. The beetroot had some raw onion in it and the couscous a light cider vinegar based dressing - so simple, so very moreish. We had to beg the nice lady to come and take it away.

 Third Course:  charcuterie. Andouille (intestines & tripe made into sausage) - I didn't even bother with this because I know I don't like it but KM ate it like a good sport, also the mortadella-like salami with olives - pallid and revolting and in any case I knew that the star of the show was the terrine. A home made pork terrine - so delicious it was difficult to stop eating it. Topped with ham and lovely yellow fat. The small pats of butter are there to eat with the nasty pale stuff, because one is allowed to have butter with certain kinds of charcuterie. The rules are abstruse.      

Fourth course: the nice lady came up and asked in a  whisper if we liked roast lamb. With lots of garlic. Oh yes. Perfectly cooked - and so much of it. We did not eat it all but we tried. With the lamb came beans. Fresh white beans - it's the season. Maman and the Blacksmith bought 20 kgs of beans in two large sacks - I had to load them into the car. These beans were cooked with savory, we think, and a little tomato and some carrot, possibly a little ham - so tasty and we ate relatively so few of them. But we wanted more, however...

Fifth course: green salad. In the Charente, salad is typically served wilted, i.e. dressed well ahead of serving, with a neutral oil such as sunflower and a white wine vinegar, so that it cooks slightly in the dressing. Then when it comes to table the cook slices a shallot into the salad bowl and mixes that in too.The result is fresh and delightful and you don't taste raw shallot all afternoon, which is surprising. We thought there was way too much salad in the bowl and we were wrong because the tradition in the Charente is to eat your salad with the...

Sixth course: cheese. In the Charente they care about cheese, unlike in the Dordogne. Milk production was something they came to after the dreaded Phylloxera decimated the vines of the Cognac region. The butter from the Charente is a protected trademark and it is very good. So there were many cheeses on offer - some industrial and some local. Amongst the good ones: a good Roquefort (all Roqueforts are not equal), a hard goat's cheese, a soft-rind goat's cheese, brie, local soft goat and a divine Brillat Savarin, so creamy and perfect with the salad that I had thirds and I was not alone, which is why there was almost not enough salad.

At this point there were still a couple of slices of bread left but we petitioned for the cheese to be removed forthwith and Kathy said it was probably the best restaurant meal she had ever had at that point. The lady said as there wasn't far to go now, there was a good chance it would turn out alright. I was frankly pessimistic that the dessert would live up to the rest but...

Seventh course: I was wrong!! I am not a huge fan of desserts but this Tiramisu was exceptional. A chocolate génoise (that's posh for sponge cake), a coffee cream that oozed caffeine and a top layer of cream beaten with egg whites, light and airy and hardly sweet at all. Kathy had to sit on her hands to stop herself snagging further portions as they wafted by the table. I left her some of my cream though. Then I had a coffee which is often disappointing and it was, except that it got Kathy excited again because it is served thus:

All this, my friends, and a bottle of wine, for 12.50 Euros on an ordinary sunny Monday lunchtime in rural France. We were full and we had left food on our plates. It is even better on Sunday lunchtime...

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