Wednesday, 4th January 2012
Just at that moment when the Christmas street decorations begin to outstay their welcome, the gallettes des Rois start appearing in French bakery windows. A disk of buttery pastry filled with almond cream, the festive cakes that are served to family and friends on Twelfth Night contain a hidden ceramic charm. Whichever guest finds the charm in their slice of cake becomes Epiphany king, just for that day. With their stolid combination of thick almond paste and pastry, the gallettes have no claim as the lightest cakes in France, but a baker in Arras, Northern France, has come up with a juicier version, one that makes good use of a local winter vegetable. Along with the frangipane inside of Pascal Duforest’s Epiphany cakes is a generous helping of a juicy jam made with orchard fruit and white chicory, slowly cooked together until sweet.
In Arras they call chicory the pearl of the north. It’s an honorary title for a vegetable that has an unusual story. You have to put it in context of where it is grown. Arras is the capital of Artois in the Nord, the region of France closest to Belgium. The Nord does not have the elegant rolling landscape, the orchards and misty woods of Normandy or the dramatic hills and rivers of the Dordogne. Much of it is bleak, the fields endless and hedgeless; many towns and villages were bombed flat in the course of World War I and the bodies of 300,000 soldiers are buried close to Arras. English tourists hurl through it in their cars on their way to the Dordogne, the Lot or Provence, barely glancing at the landscape. The region’s weather is much like ours; there’s little of France’s famous dazzling light, particularly at this time of year.
But in Arras there is virtue in darkness which is essential to the successful cultivationof chicory. The plant must be ‘forced,’ growing without any light to be tender and sweet. Beneath the town lie three storeys of boves, or quarries hollowed out of the of the chalk under the town in the course of its 1000 year history. Traditionally growers took the chicory plants down into the boves beneath their houses to force them in the humid darkness, creating a winter time subterraneous potager. Now the local farmers and smallholders keep the plants outside, burying them under layers of straw, compost and canvas inside warm tunnels.
Five kilometres outside Arras, farmer Frederique Havet pulls back a sheet of dense black canvas to show off his perfectly cultivated chicory. “I do this work with passion,” he says. “It is a love story for me.” While that may be a statement veering somewhat over the top, chicory farming is certainly labour intensive. Havet uses the traditional technique, growing the plants outdoors throughout the summer, then moving them inside. “This is the artisinal method, only about ten per cent of chicory in France is grown this way. Industrial chicory is cultivated from beginning to end indoors, but it has a less agreeable flavour.
“We start them off in a field in April-May. The leaves that grow on the plants outside are tough and bitter flavoured, so we cut them off. We harvest the racine, or roots, then put them upside down in boxes. We then invert the boxes into beds under the canvas and straw, heat the tunnels to 17c and force the plants to grow for about 25 days.” Havet’s chicory is recognisably different to the more commercially farmed type. Its leaves are looser packed around the core. “You must pick them ripe, when the roots break easily away from the leaf section,” he says.
On a stall in Arras’ Saturday market, a farmer is selling the roots along with the chicory. The racine has a secondary use as faux coffee, with a bitter, refreshing flavour enjoyed by the French and tolerated by the British during wartime trade moratoriums. The market occupies both of Arras’ central squares each flanked by tall, cheerful Flemish baroque houses with galleried shopping arcades at ground level. Linking the two squares is the enormous town hall and bell tower, known as the Beffroi. But looking closer at the buildings, they are much younger than the three hundred years that history dictates. Arras was rebuilt in the 1920’s, after heavy bombardment during World War One. Again, the town’s underground honeycomb of boves had come in useful, this time to conceal 24,000 allied troops, most of them from Canada, New Zealand and Australia. It was one of the war’s best kept secret plans. For six months the soldiers dug further down to create more accommodation; and outwards underground towards German lines. When the troops surfaced en masse behind enemy lines in 1917, it was enough of a surprise to change the course of the war. The Allies pushed the line forward six miles. But the town took the brunt of the bombs, suffering catastrophic damage and trauma.
While the greatest drama of underground Arras is over, the caves and tunnels remain in use. Tourist can explore areas of them and under some buildings student bars pulse late at night when everything else is shut. On the appropriately named Place des Heros, there’s a surprise under les Fromager des Arcades, a shop selling the region’s hand made cheeses. Following Isabelle Joly down a spiral staircase into a basement, we crawl through a tiny door and climb down to another level. Stacked on freestanding shelves are row upon row of cheeses, maturing beautifully in the cool humid air of the caves. “It is the very best conditions for an affineur to mature and store his cheese,” she says. The region’s cheeses match beautifully with the chicory, which itself makes frequent appearances in the local cookery. Typically it is served braised with butter to caramel sweetness or wrapped in ham and baked with a creamy cheese sauce. Its pink tinged cousin, Rossa de Verona, also grown in the area, is sweet enough to eat raw, dressed with mustard vinaigrette.
But there has been a lull in chicory’s popularity. Perpetual summer, the presence of colourful Mediterranean ripened produce in shops all year round, has sidelined the pale northern European winter vegetables. It’s a scenario all too familiar to British supermarket shoppers, but in France a threat to local produce and growers is taken very seriously. It was enough to provoke the Nord-born baker Pascal Duforest, passionate about chicory, to bring it into his baking and chocolate making. When his wife Veronique made friends with a concerned director of the chicory growers’ confrerie – yes, chicory has a brotherhood – Duforest made chicory shaped chocolates for his shop. “If they do not want to eat chicory, they can eat chocolate chicory and not forget it,” he says. After that came the chicory jams in over a dozen flavours: from strawberry and raspberry to rhubarb and a delicious version with made with apples, prunes, fresh plums and spices that he spreads inside the Epiphany cakes. “I just wanted to innovate – but it is having a good effect. In Arras they no longer see chicory as an old fashioned flavour but talk about it in a positive way.” He hands a small spoon across the counter filled with jam made from lemon and chicory, piquant with a dash of vinegar. “This might be good with fish, do you think?” He has been down in the deep basement of the bakery, experimenting in his kitchen. Once again the Arras boves come into play, this time in a new role; not a dark place with a war-torn history, but an optimistic cradle of invention, a place to revive good food.
Braised chicory with butter and lemon juice
You will need a wide, heavy based pan with a lid for this dish that is good with fried fish, roast poultry or lamb.
60g/2oz unsalted butter
4 chicory, split lengthways
soft crystal sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
a few thyme leaves
the juice of 1 lemon
Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat. Lay the chicory, cut side down in the pan, season with salt and pepper and add the thyme leaves. Cook for a few minutes, add the lemon juice and cover. Continue cooking for about twenty minutes over a low heat. Keep an eye on them, they should brown underneath but not burn. Turn the endives carefully in the pan, and serve warm.
Creamed chicory soup with, pink pepper, parsley oil and soft boiled egg
A light thin soup with an intense bitter sweet chicory taste, to eat as a robust winter starter of main course
60g/2oz unsalted butter
2 medium onions
5 chicory, roughly chopped, the inner core removed
600ml chicken stock
60ml double cream (optional)
2 teaspoons red peppercorns (baie roses)
For the parsley oil:
8 springs tender parsley, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
pinch sea salt
Melt the butter, add the onions and chicory and cook for about 15 minutes over a low heat until the vegetables are translucent and soft. Add the milk and stock and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook for another ten minutes. Liquidise or blend until smooth in a food processor and season with salt.
Crush the red peppercorns using a pestle and mortar, a pepper grinder or put them in a strong plastic bag and bash them with a rolling pin. Prick the rounded end of each egg shell with a pin so it does not crack during cooking, put in a pan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and count four minutes from boiling point. Flush under cold water until you can handle them and peel, being careful to leave the egg whole.
Blend the parsley, oil and salt in a pestle and mortar or a food processor to a smooth, thick oil. (If using a food processor you may have to make more to get the right effect but parsley oil is also delicious with pasta, fish and grilled meat.) Serve the soup piping hot, with the egg in the centre, and a trail of parsley oil across the top. Scatter a large pinch of crushed pink pepper over each, and remember to put plenty of bread on the table.
Author: Rose Prince