04 January 2009

a breathtaking sight

We were in France this spring, in the Perigord region near Domme, to be precise. It is one of the most beautiful places I have been to on earth so far, and it is not only because of the food.

Looking down from the market place of Domme onto the valley of the Dordogne, especially at dusk, is such a breathtaking sight that I wonder every time if maybe this was what God's plan for our planet had originally looked like.

But this year, there was another sight I will probably remember fondly for a very long time: It was early afternoon, and market day in Domme. We were strolling around on the market as I noticed a bunch of stall holders (local students, by the looks of them) gathering for a 'casse-croûte'.
A casse-croûte, literally 'breaking the crust', is a 'very simple meal', as the french wikipedia has it. But, being in France, this wasn't a bunch of sandwiches from the store and a bottle of 'coca' - no, these guys in all earnestnes pulled out a bottle of red wine, bought a loaf of bread from one of the neighbouring stalls, some cheese and a jar of rillettes, and just looked like having the greatest of all times.

It wasn't the admittedly picturesque scenery that made the moment so magical - for me, it was a reminder that great food wasn't something dreamed up by some foodies in their ivory towers, but something very down to earth, real and entirely charming - and happening every day out there, and not only in carefully orchestrated environments. For me, it was a moment to hold on to.

Alas, I can't take that place or the occasion with me, but what I can do is work on the food.

Lately, I have begun making my own rillettes, a simple greasy spread of long-cooked meat. Nothing for those counting their calorie-intake, and much less for anyone who isn't a convinced carnivore. It doesn't even look like much.

But it is a great, simple dish and makes a lovely gift. And most importantly, it goes perfectly with some cheese and a glass of wine, which in my eyes is as close to a perfectly french casse-croûte without actually being in France.

(makes four to six medium jars)

2 goose legs (appr. 1kg)
400g porc belly
200g lard (porc or goose)

3/4 l water
5 juniper berries
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons salt
1 clove

more lard [Edit: You will most probably need about 200g+]
bay leaves for decoration

Clean the goose legs, but leave bones and skin. Cut the porc in rough cubes.

Put the meat and the lard in a heavy, ovenproof pot and sear the meat (especially the goose skin) until it takes colour.
I usually take my heavy, cast-iron pots for this. Though roasting the meat is not particular necessary, it adds a nice flavor and my wife loves it.

When the meat is nicely browned, add the water and the spices.
If possible, put the spices in something that helps getting them out again - like a cloth sack or a tea egg or similar. In this particular case, it really helps saving a lot of time.

Cover with the lid and put in the oven to simmer at approximately 150°C for 6-8 hours(!). The rilletes is ready when the meat falls apart at a touch and all eventual cartilage has dissolved.
There is hardly any way to overcook a rillettes, so if you have an oven you can trust, it's perfectly fine to put it in before you got to bed and switch it off in the morning - that is, if you don't mind a night saturated with dreams of delicious, greasy meat, as you whole place will smell of it.
On the other hand, it the lid doesn't close neatly or the oven temperature varies strongly, you might want to keep an eye on the pot to see if there is still enough liquid. If necessary, refill with some more water.

Leave to cool.

When the rillettes has cooled, take out the spices and all remaining bones and skin. Crush remaining chunks with your hands until everything is smooth and nicely spreadable.

Reheat one last time. Once it has boiled, turn off the heat and leave to settle for a moment.
Depending on how greasy your porc belly was, you'll have more or less fat floating on top of the meat. Normally, you'll want to have about a centimeter of surplus fat, as it will form a lid on your meat that'll keep it preserved.
Add more lard if necessary. This year, I was lucky enough to have kept the surplus lard from our annual goose roast in the freezer. I prefer goose lard to porc or vegetative fats as it is smoother and keeps the rillettes spreadable, but both would be fine in an emergency.

Fill the rilletes into wide-rimmed, screw-lid glass jars and cool.
If you want, you can put a single bay leave on top of each portion for decoration.

The rillettes keeps several months in the fridge, but even in the larder it'll stay perfectly fine for several weeks.

Enjoy as a spread on fresh, crispy bread, or even on a cracker as a truly indulgent snack.

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