I drove back from the UK last week, to find Provence experiencing the coldest weather I have ever known. I could feel the wind shaking the car as I passed Lyon, a sure indicator that the Mistral was blowing. The whole of France was below zero degrees centigrade, in fact the whole of Northern Europe, but the 90 mph wind added a bleakness I had rarely experienced before. I went to bed that night with all my clothes on and a scarf wrapped around my head. I wasn’t going to take any chances!
The next day I decided that I would have to fortify myself with some comfort food and so after breakfast went to see my local butcher to buy the ingredients for a pot au feu (beef stew or literal translation – pot on the fire).
As usual there was much merriment going on amongst the butchers and their customers, I felt I’d walked in on a Saturday morning WI meeting rather than a shop! I asked the butcher for a jarret de boeuf (beef shank), but he said he didn’t have any, but that a jumeau, (cut of shank without the bone) would do just as well with a couple of marrowbones thrown in. I asked if I should add an oxtail, and he said he didn’t have any left as everyone who had come into the shop that morning wanted meat for pot au feu and he’d sold out (it was only 10.30 in the morning) of oxtails. He then offered me a vealtail instead but I said I’d hold off and try and find one elsewhere, but he assured me I wouldn’t be able to find one anywhere, so I acquiesced and left the shop with my meat and instructions from the woman who mans (womans?) the till and who my butcher called ‘maman,’ on how to cook the stew.
Next I went to the green grocers and asked what vegetables I would need. The woman said carrots, leaks, celery, onions and turnips and a bouquet garni of thyme and bay leaves. She said that the meat was only there for the stock and she liked to eat just the vegetables cooked in the broth….well she would, she works in a vegetable shop!
With all my shopping done, I got out a big pot, put all the meat in it and covered it with cold water and brought it to a simmer, skimming the water every so often.
After about an hour and a half, I added an onion with cloves stuck into it, about 6 peppercorns and the bouquet garni and cooked this for half an hour. I then added the carrots left whole, the leeks quartered down the middle including the green leaves, the turnips quartered and a couple of sticks of celery and some salt.
I let this cook for about another hour until the vegetables were soft.
To eat the pot au feu, you spoon off the stock and eat this as the first course, you can boil it up with some pasta before eating, or pour it over some stale bread. The vegetables and meat are eaten for the main course with mustard and cornichons (pickled gherkins). Some people add potatoes and some add a cabbage cut into quarters, the whole thing is really quite fluid.
Soup for starters, meat for mains……
If you don’t eat it all in one sitting, you can heat it up again adding more vegetables each time. This one served for four meals for two people, we just never seemed to get to the end of it and that is how it should be!
My friend Nadine, whose family has lived in Provence for generations said it reminded her of her grandmother’s cooking, praise indeed!
Pot au Feu, Serves 4 with left-overs
- 700gms beef shank or something similar
- 1 oxtail
- 1 marrow bone
- 1 onion
- 2 cloves stuck into the onion
- 4 carrots, left whole or in large chunks
- 2 sticks of celery, cut into 10cm lengths
- 2 leeks including the leaves
- cut lenghtways into quarters about 10cms long
- 2 turnips cut into quarters
- A sprig of fresh thyme or a tsp. dried
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt to your taste
Rince the meat in cold water. Place in a large pot and cover with 5 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil and then turn down low to simmer, scooping off the foam from the surface. Simmer for at least one hour and a half
Add the bouquet garni, the onion with the cloves stuck in and cook for another half hour..
Peel the carrots, leave whole or cut into 10cm lengths. Clean the leeks, cut off just the end of the green leaves and quarter them lengthways and cut into 10cm. lengths. Cut the celery into 10cm lengths. Peel and cut the turnip into quarters. Add all the vegetables to the meat and cook for another hour.
Take off some of the stock and bring to boil in a separate saucepan and add small pasta shapes or pour the hot broth over some stale bread placed in each bowl. This is served as the first course
Serve the meat and the vegetables on a big platter and let everyone help themselves. Each person should have some meat, a piece of oxtail and some of each vegetable.