Wednesday, January 11, 2006

vacation in Brittany

My husband is half-French and we often spend vacations on the coast of Brittany where his family is in the process of restoring a beautiful old stone house facing the seaport of Roscoff.

The thing about French family vacations is that the entire day revolves around food: during breakfast there is already discussion of what we are going to eat that day, followed by an afternoon spent shopping and preparing, then the main event, dinner,which can keep you at table for up to six hours (I don't exagerate!) Unlike American meals the food is consumed in small portions and over many courses; unlike Japanese, everyone talks and talks, usually all at once. By the time the conversations dwindle down over a pot of tisane (delicious with butter biscuits, a regional specialty), clockhands are pointing to 2 or 3 and it's time to go to bed, only to get up some hours later to begin all over again.

Reveillon dinners, on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, begins late and lasts even longer than usual. On the menu: foie gras sprinkled with fleur du sel, local oysters in their shells -- their briny goodness offset by thick slices of onion bread spread with salty Breton butter, my mother-in-law's signature roast of lamb shoulder, an entire poached salmon served with potatoes, the obligatory buche de Noel and an early galette des rois (the traditional day to eat them is Jan.7)

To be honest, I adore this interminable dance around food. And one reason why it's enjoyable is that my mother-in-law not only is a phenomenal cook but has a keen sense of what to eat, when and how. What really stands out from this vacation is a simple poulet au pot that she prepared sometime between the two occasions described above. She procured a farm-raised chicken with properly lean and muscular thighs (from all the running around) and boiled it. Using some of the broth she cooked rice. With the rest she took vegetables you find in a classic pot-au feu -- quartered heads of cabbage, creamy white turnips, whole carrots and leeks -- and gently simmered each separately. All this she served simply on a big platter, with plenty of cornichons on the side. It was the very thing everyone craved after all the rich food. It cleansed our palates and our systems too, readying us for the next gastronomical event.

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