Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Land of salt and butter

First published Canberra Times 11 May 2011

I was initiated into the butter, salt and cream culture back in the 1960’s when my migrant grandparents’ farm was the weekend gathering place for our large and noisy family. Some of my early food memories are big pans of chicken cooking in brown butter and the pan drippings then poured over bowls of boiled and shaken potatoes.

salt in the supermarket in France
These early food memories resonate sharply for me in France and it’s here that I can safely and proudly declare my love for pure unadulterated butter, salt, duck fat and cream. I add fleur-de- sel to most foods both savoury and sweet and I won’t compromise by using butter substitutes that contain colourings and synthetics to inadequately simulate the real thing.

Not only do I cook with butter, but I love slathering the fleur-de-sel butter liberally on crunchy, warm baguette. It’s even better when the butter’s slightly cold and the little salt crystals explode in your mouth. 

It's a subject that’s close to my heart and I’m sure my doctor would agree. However, my declaration causes no ripples here; I am in France. If a Frenchman is caught smearing margarine on his baguette, he is not considered worth his salt. 

One of my favourite dishes, that can be eaten warm or at room temperature, is potato dauphinoise that uses a combination of many of the quality products of France, including the small yellow potatoes, rich doux butter, fleur de sel, fresh cream and gruyere and not forgetting a dollop of duck fat.  

The French butter and salt passion has its roots in Brittany, where the blustery, cold Atlantic provides the nursery for the premium grade salt flowers. This is then added to the creamy butters of Normandy and Brittany to create the mind-boggling choices available not only in the best gourmet food stores, but even in the average supermarket. You can choose from unsalted butters; demi-sel, fleur-de-sel, doux and rouge, all defined within a range of appellations, quality and grades. It can also be bought in bulk slabs or by the gram at village markets.  

French cuisine without butter and salt is like a meat pie without tomato sauce. It can be as simple as peasant food or as complex as gastronomic creation, but all have in common the use of pure fundamentals such as butter, cream, salt and oil and fresh, seasonal ingredients. Making, serving and savouring food in France is a daily, living art. A glance in the window of any boucherie, charcuterie, patisserie or boulanger is all the evidence you need of this. 

The higher grade French salted butter is a gourmet treat, although it is used in many traditional dishes, and coveted for its delicious effect on everything from fine chocolates to buttery cakes. Salt is as important as sugar in many French dessert recipes, and provides a balance to the sweetness.  

salt mountain at Aigues-Morts, Provence
Trade in salt was of such importance to Rome that it was often used as currency. The Latin term “salarium argentum” (salt money) formed part of the payment made to every Roman soldier and is the root of the word “salary”.

When salt was farmed in medieval France, it was taxed at more than one hundred percent. The tax was known as “la gabelle” and the revenue became crucial to France’s survival. The repeal of the salt tax was a major goal of the revolutionaries of 1789, but Napoléon restored it as Emperor to pay for his foreign wars. It continued in various forms until 1945 when it was finally abolished.  

To further fuel my butter and salt obsession, while visiting the Camargue - the marshy delta of the Rhone River on the Mediterranean -we visit some salt farms for a first-hand look at this ancient industry. We see the methods of irrigation, draining, evaporation and skimming of the premium florets, and processing of the highly prized fleur-de-sel and the remaining lesser graded grey salt flakes. With more salt produced during dry seasons as evaporation levels increase, farmers tell us they are praying for the dry. 

The global food industry is slowly waking from its margarine-induced hibernation, reinvigorating both the salt and dairy industries. France resisted this chemical invasion because preparing and eating good food never stopped being a serious business. Their faithful producers are reaping the benefits.  

If the look of absolute contentment among cows lazily grazing in the verdant green fields overlooked by medieval chateaux and hilltop villages is any indication of the quality you will find in the local produce, then there is abundance here to be had.  

The light of the setting sun on the Camargue marshes, filled with graceful flocks of gorgeous pink flamingos, provides a backdrop for our gourmet picnic of foie, potato dauphinoise, rich and pungent cheeses, baguette and a fine white burgundy. The knowing smiles on the faces of passing locals who wish us “bon appétit” says it all. 

Potatoes dauphinoise

1kg small potatoes, Bintje or similar
½ clove garlic
4 tblsp softened butter
1 cup Gruyere cheese, grated
½ cup cream
¼ cup milk
nutmeg, freshly grated
dollop of duck fat (optional)
plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 210c
Peel the potatoes and slice them evenly, about ¼ centimetre thickness. Rub the baking dish with the cut garlic and smear the inside of the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
Layer the potatoes in the bottom of the gratin dish in an overlapping pattern and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the layer with some of the cheese, grate over some nutmeg and dot with some of the butter.
Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer, and continue layering with potato, cheese, nutmeg, butter, salt and pepper until all the potatoes are used. Finish with a sprinkle of cheese. Combine the milk and cream, and pour over the potatoes. If you wish, dollop the duck fat on the top. Place the baking dish in the upper third of the preheated oven. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender, the milk has been absorbed and the top is nicely browned.
Alternatively, you can divide this dish between 4 smaller gratin dishes using the same method and you will get a drier crunchier finish.
Recipe adapted from Marjorie Taylor of the Cook’s Atelier. Photos by Steve Shanahan