It’s been a few days since I returned from Ham Heaven and I can’t think of anything but paté grandmere. There is a lot to say for travel, particularly if you have a job that demands creativity. Nothing kills new ideas like the same old same old. And nothing lights a fire under the creative soup pot like seeing, tasting, breathing, and engaging in a new place. I thought a lot about eating while in France. About how the French eat, and how we eat, how I eat. There really is no snacking. You sit down to eat three meals a day.
At the market, shoppers gather fresh foods as well as all sorts of preserved foods — charcuterie, cheeses, fresh dairy and yogurt. There is a wide range of poultry, all plump and yellow skinned from their excellent diet of foraged bugs and plenty of corn. The birds are older, raised for many more weeks than we grow our birds in the US, with more flavor and, dare I say it, more texture. Many farms sell cans or jars of their confit or rillettes, or they offer platters of patés and cured meats. Shopping the French markets is a sweeping sampling of the region’s agriculture and animal husbandry, and the artistry of les metiers, the quintessentially French cheesemaking and charcuterie skills.
We’re getting closer to that ideal here. Our farmers’ markets are filled with “artisan” options, but it’s not quite the same. I’m pretty sure that’s because our base product, the meats, the dairy, are not the same. We don’t have as much terroir. Perhaps that’s the difference in land cultivated for 800 years versus our lands, cultivated for a couple of centuries. I can’t put my finger on it except to say that as we drove through the Pyrenees, through the hills where the pigs are pasture raised and forest finished and the Bayonne ham is air dried by the foehn wind, a distinct combination of sea and mountain breezes, as we picnic-ed along the side of streams, the water was crystal clear and the air smelled fresh and green. It did not smell like an area that processed pigs. The land was lush and fertile and not overused. Everywhere was evidence of respectful agriculture. They’re doing something right over there, and have been since the 12th century. It was very thought provoking, especially in light of this new pig virus. We went to the Nerac market. It stretches across and around the main square. I’ve been before and recognized several vendors. Not much changes, nor should it. The food was absolutely beautiful and, to my mind, affordable.
There were two women selling from one farm with a case full of poultry – I was mesmerized by the choices, from guinea hen (which we had for dinner) to squab, chicken, capon, quail, partridge. The birds are sold with head and feet attached, the liver, heart and gizzard intact.
The same women sold a few patés, displayed on serving platters, each sold by the gram. It was possible to buy just a slice of this and a slice of that. Most were poultry based patés, and there was a rabbit version, and several with grattons (cracklins). Kate said we must try the paté grandmère and the foie, and she was (of course) so right.
Our lunch hour was highlighted by spectacular beverages. Kate’s friend Greg brought a selection of Basque wines for some pre-travel, very welcome, education du vin.
Kate cut the patés into bite-sized cubes lined them up next to salty porky coins of Chapolard saucisson. These divine foods were passed around on rough wooden cutting boards and we tore off pieces of crusty bread and dug in. (I know. I. Am. So. Lucky.) The next day for lunch we enjoyed a salade fermier. A farm salad. These are traditional, hearty, meaty midday meals, simultaneously umami satisfying and crunchy-healthy. Glorious fresh salad greens, cubed remains of patés and foie, some pickled peppers, toasted pumpkin seeds. And bread, always glorious, crusty fresh bread.
Kate’s modest paté purchases fed six of us before lunch one day and four of us the next. It was a good reminder to think about portion size.
Since returning home I have been obsessed with the idea of paté. It was such a good taste, so well made and delicious. I want to eat salade fermier. I want to have paté to serve guests. I want to make bahn mi. I want to see how it holds up to freezing (because I cannot possibly eat all of it). I want to share it. (If you live in DC, send me a message. I have a lot of paté.) There are three things to know about pate. First you need a meat or meat blend for the base. I used a fat-capped pork shoulder. With leaner pork, add fatback or bacon (or pancetta). I added ventreche for the slightly smoky flavor and the additional fat. Some people add veal or duck.Second, the meat needs a binder. A paté needs to be firm, smooth textured, without air pockets. Air is the enemy to freshness. The paté is weighted as it cools, which compacts the loaf but to get the proteins to emulsify, to create a velvety, not crumbly, texture, create a flavorful bread or potato based binder and stir until the mixture is sticky. The liver is essential to the texture and binding, so do not omit it.
Finally, the art in a paté is in the garnishes. In honor of the cracklin’s in the Nerac paté, I folded in crisped bacon. Hindsight being the greatest teacher, I now wish I had minced it into smaller pieces. I added hazelnuts as an homage to the insanely good chocolate covered hazelnuts from Laia txocolaterie in Saint Jean Pied de Port. Every paté needs a good belt of booze and I opted for Armagnac, an homage to Gascony.
All these garnishes may be changed up or omitted altogether. Equally lovely – diced ham, pistachios, porcini mushroom, braised or pickled lamb or pig tongue or ears. Swap in Cognac, bourbon, fig brandy, kirsch, orange liqueur, Applejack. Paté is a concept, the individual elements are very accommodating. I ordered pork shoulder, pork liver and caul fat from Pam the Butcher and went to work. If you don’t have access to things like pork liver and caul fat, don’t worry. You can substitute chicken livers and good, streaky bacon. I realize this process may seem onerous, but it’s not. Making paté will take a few minutes here and there over several days. After all, it’s a grandmotherly recipe made in farmhouse kitchens, not a fussy, chef-y thing. I hope you’ll give this project a go. It’s a fantastic start to summer picnic season.
Gascogne Paté Grandmère
Makes one large loaf, about 2 quarts
Serves 24 portions
Active Time: About an hour
Total Time: About a week
2 1/4 pounds (950 g) pork shoulder
1/2 pound (200g) pork liver (substitute chicken liver)
Kosher salt at 3% of the weight of the meat and liver
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
4 bay leaves, fresh or dried
1/2 pound (200g) ventreche, diced (substitute smoked bacon)
2 large shallots, peeled and rough chopped
2 or 3 garlic cloves, peeled and the root trimmed
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon quatre épices*
1/2 cup Armagnac, brandy, or other liqueur
1 large egg, beaten well
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs or 1/2 cup cooked, mashed potato
1/4 pound (100g) crisp bacon, finely chopped
1/2 cup (3 ounces) toasted, skinned hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Caul fat or 4 slices of bacon.
1. Cube the pork shoulder. Weigh the meat and calculate and add the salt. Mix well. Refrigerate overnight. Cube and weigh the liver, calculate the salt, add, mix well and cover. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Spread out the meat on a parchment lined baking sheet. Add the ventreche and put the baking sheet in the freezer for one hour. Freeze the meat grinding equipment at the same time. *(For detailed information about grinding meat at home, reference this article from the Charcutepalooza days.)
3. While the meat is freezing, prepare the binder. Place all ingredients except the egg, cream and bread or potato in the food processor. Process until smooth. In a small bowl, beat the egg and cream together. Stir in the bread or potato and set aside.
4. Slide a large, deep baking dish filled halfway with water into the oven. Heat the oven to 325°F. Grind the meat, liver and ventreche through the medium grinding disk into the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir in the binder and the egg, cream and bread mixture and stir well with a wooden spoon (or with the mixer’s paddle attachment). Continue to stir steadily until the mixture is emulsified and sticky, pulling away from the side of the bowl. Fold in the garnishes.
5. Line a large, glass baking pan (two quart capacity) in caul fat or slices of bacon. Add the paté in layers, packing the baking pan firmly, removing air pockets as you go. Fold the caul fat over the top, then place a piece of parchment and a piece of foil to cover and seal the paté. Lower the baking dish into a the water bath in the oven. Cook about one hour, then remove the parchment and foil and cook another 30 minutes, or until a thermometer plunged into the center of the paté measures 155°F.
6. Immediately remove the paté and waterbath from the oven. Cover the paté with plastic wrap to seal in the heat and the get the fats reabsorbed into the meat loaf. (I know it’s horrifying to think about pressing plastic wrap on this meat, but this is the best trick I know to make a moist, perfect paté. I learned this from Christiane Chapolard and it is the best way to avoid dry and crumbly paté.)
7. When the paté comes to room temperature, place it, still inside its baking dish, on a pan or a plate. Place another pan or plate on top of the paté, then add a two pound weight. This will compress the paté and keep it moist and cohesive. Refrigerate overnight.
8. Remove the paté from the refrigerator. Fill the sink with two inches of very hot water. Warm the bottom of the baking dish in the sink for about 10 minutes. Invert the baking dish over a flat board or platter.
9. Wrap the paté snugly in plastic wrap and then in foil. Place in the refrigerator for three days. It needs to rest and the flavors need to develop. Serve with mustard, cornichons and crusty bread. The paté will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, particularly if well wrapped and not sliced. Slice it as you need it. I have vacuum sealed and frozen several slices, each about 1-inch thick. I’ll let you know how the great freezer experiment goes.
*Make your own quatre epices. Mix together one teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and black or white pepper. Use it as a rub on grilled chicken or pork or tofu.