Tuesday, December 28, 2010

For the Birds

To be honest I am quite tired of eating birds. All varieties and in their many guises; thick slices of their fattened livers served on toasted fig bread, shredded and spread on white American bread, stuffed with more bird parts and mystery berries and simply roasted. I honestly never thought I'd eat so much bird. I'm not a huge fan of the turkey anyway and roast chickens are a weekday meal. Me, I much prefer the ham.
Oh, ham where have you gone? I'd give a hundred blocks of foie gras for one good spiral cut honey-baked ham right now. I tried to make my own but all I could find was a shank of pork (jarret de porc) which I had to google translate in the grocery store to figure out what it was. It looked kinda like a ham in that it had a bone in the middle and a big cover of fat perfect for scoring and studding with cloves. I bought one to practice with and got sidetracked by a recipe for pork shank with lentils. It was delicious but not really 'hammy'. I'll post the recipe here for you soon. I pushed my doubts aside, bought another one and decided to follow a recipe that recommended brining the pork shank and then roasting with a glaze to serve alongside the duckling for the Christmas meal.
I let it sit in salty, brown sugary water for 24 hours, roasted it, basting with brown sugar and apple cider vinegar glaze every 20 minutes. And it still wasn't the real deal. Instead of being hammy pink it was dull brown. More like a pork tenderloin that had been soaked in water than a ham. All that brine and baste action turned out to be a waste of time.
Can someone please send  me an idea on where to find a proper cut of ham? I will cook that bad boy in Cherry Coke in no time flat and be in hog heaven.

 Because of this culinary disappointment and longing for familiar foods I've been dissatisfied food-wise lately. I know I'm surrounded by all this genius, gastronomic beauty and tastebud tingling perfection and that's wonderful. Fine and good; a discovery and enjoyment all its own. But I've been looking for something I know. Tastes from home and not the junk food that we all make fun of either. The real things you can only find regionally like Christmas tamales, homemade with love and celebration in Mexican-American kitchens, bbq brisket with tangy sauce poured over it and served with warm potato salad and coleslaw from The Salt Lick, and yes,of course, ham; a big one. Along with cranberries, pecans, cornbread, cheddar cheese, jalapeno peppers, bagels, evaporated milk for baking, Karo syrup and pumpkin all nice and handy from a can.

 It was with these cravings and the need to redeem my sad excuse for Christmas ham that I decided to make a brisket. And so began my search. I googled translation for brisket to French and found that yes, it is a cut here and it's called poitrine de boeuf. On a side note, did you know that bacon as we know it is also called poitrine?  So far so good. I went to the butcher, they were closed. I went to one grocery store and all they had was what looked like beef short ribs. I went to another, bigger grocery store with a butcher counter (it was closed) and had a look through their meat section ignoring the cheval. I was rewarded with a pack of meat called 'poitrine de boeuf a pot au feu'. It was a selection of one piece of smallish brisket looking meat and two big chunks that had bones and were some kind of shank. Again with the shank.
So, I bought the pack and went home to slow cook my faux brisket.
I knew I couldn't do it Texas bbq style because Liquid Smoke does not exist here and really it's a bit scary in a way isn't it? Leave that to the professionals with smoke pits for the authentic hit of pungent, woody flavor.
My goal was simply to make a slow-cooked, well-seasoned beef stew of sorts. A balm for all this rich, fatty bird spiked with fruit and booze we've been eating. And this is what it evolved into. Pot au feu a l'Americaine, if you will. Meat with carrots, onions, celery and bay leaves cooked for 4 hours with a bit of red wine and tomato paste. It was good. The family loved it and it was nice to have something homey to sop up the white thick-cut bread that you can find here.
And if this makes you think that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food then you'd be correct. We've got to eat. It should be delicious, satisfying and scratch the itch of craving if at all possible.
My ham bone is itching something fierce.


  1. Ah Aidan, I know what you mean. I'm starting to miss lots of home foods too. We make do, but it's not quite the same, is it? I use Gloria brand evaporated milk - have you tried it? It comes in full and demi creme.
    I miss good thai food (too mild here), real bacon, good lamb and low fat/skim dairy products (especially cottage cheese). I'm not looking forward to going back to Australia's puny excuse for a cheese aisle though.

  2. Dear Aidan,
    my friend Elaine who comes from Saint Louis and has been living in Florence for the last 30 and something years, prepares a delicious glazed ham stud with cloves by using a 'prosciutto di Praga' or, your charcutier would say,'jambon de Prague'.
    I do not know if it is the 'real thing' but it certainly is amazing.
    Do not lose hope!

  3. Kirsty,
    I'll look for the Gloria brand milk. And you're so right about Thai food. Paul really misses Indian because it was so good in Ireland. It's funny because I've gotten used to being without so many things and it's only sometimes and esp the specialty items that can't be sent over that I miss the most. We have lamb from New Zealand at our hyper u and i love cottage cheese too. i'm sure we could come up with a big long list.
    I hope you had a nice Christmas.

    I finally know your name! yay! I'll look for the jambon. have a wonderful new year. I cant' wait to see how firenza celebrates. i went there with my two tx girlfriends last year and we loved it so much.

    xo aidan

  4. Sorry, I thought that you knew my name! Have a wonderful new year you too.
    I hope that you will be back in Firenze soon so that I can show you around.

  5. I've often wondered what might correspond to a ham here, but have never seen anything similar. I've just given up.
    Hope you find something interesting.

  6. Aidan,

    We've experienced some of the same since our arrival in Castres (81 Tarn) this summer. We call Boulder, CO home but are originally from Austin/Houston. I did find black beans last week but am still searching for a good substitute for green chilies and tomatillos to make my green enchilada sauce. Also, the corn tortillas sold here are not the same and make a sloppy mess. It's not a huge concern, I have so many new recipes to explore here!

    Also wanted to make a more general comment that I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and can relate to so many of your discoveries/challenges. We also have had a very positive experience with our children (9 & 6) in the French school system and delight in the fact they are learning a new language.

    One last thing, have you been to the Aquarium in Montpellier? would you recommend?

    Bonne FĂȘte and Happy New Year!

    C. Weaver

  7. Dedene,
    That's not good news..you've been here a long time haven't you? I'm going to find it, I am, and when I do I'll let you know!

    Hi! Thanks for the kind comments and for writing me. I love hearing from readers, esp ones from Texas. How many of us are there do you think?
    There's a world food market near me where I've found salsa verde for the green chiles, no tomatillos though. the owner is very nice and tries to order things if he can. It's the Mondial Market on the Rte de Nimes north of Mpl.
    Is your oldest a girl by any chance? Our big kids are the same ages.
    And yes, the aquarium in montpellier is fantastic. I much preferred it to the one in grau de roi. I actually wrote a blog about it back in March titled (incorrectly cause i didn't put the article) mer bleue if you'd like to read it!
    All the best,

  8. I have a nine year old son and 6 year old daughter. I will have to try the market when we are in town and the aquarium as well. I think we are a little over 2 hours from Montpellier but I think we have plans to be there in May for a triathlon. It's nice to hear about someone going through similar experiences...and an Austinite as well. My family would love for me to have such a blog but since my not so stellar performance in "Rhetoric and Composition" at UT I have steered away from writing:) Castres is wonderful but we have yet to meet anyone living here from North America! We are definitely getting the total immersion experience! If you are ever in our area and would like to get together for coffee, you can e-mail me.


It makes my day to read your comments. They're an answer to my floating words in blogland.