I was driving down a familiar country road on Friday, after a visit to one of the high schools my daughter is considering.

I say familiar, because I drove my son down that road daily during his high school years, reveling (yes, reveling), in the small, stone villages, the brick farmhouses, the expanses of waving grain and blue-green leeks, the trim forest that disgorged, every now and then, a bulky wild boar.

As we approached the center of Martot, a small village, I looked forward to peering in the windows of an old-fashioned épicerie, or grocery that I had once visited.  It was truly a throwback, one of those dark little poorly lit spots that was also a café, and practically sat right in the farmer’s kitchen. To my dismay, it was closed. Oh, the winds of progress and time.

I stopped dead in my tracks at the next farmhouse, though, where I often bought Halloween pumpkins from a rickety old carriage that leaned against one of the farmhouse walls.  I remember carefully choosing my pumpkin then greeting the young farmer who emerged as if by magic from the house, to take my money.

This time, there was no carriage and no young farmer but, instead, tacked to the farmhouse wall, a sign reading: Distributeur de légumes frais, vending machine of fresh vegetables.

I parked and went inside the open door. I couldn’t believe my eyes.  On one whole wall were automat-like windows which revealed, inside, wooden crates filled with vegetables. In one crate were leeks, cabbage, and celery root; in another cauliflower and potatoes. In still another carrots, leeks and onions.  At the corner of each window was the price, ranging from 2€50 to 7€50.

Farm automat
Farm automat

I didn’t try to buy any vegetables – my larder was full. Instead, I stood there open-mouthed. Here we were in the miniscule hamlet of Martot, somewhere near Louviers, Rouen, Elbeuf, on a narrow country road where an enterprising farmer had figured out a different way to sell his wares.  “Clever,” I thought, surmising much. “No early morning markets, no employee charges, no change to make.”

I drove away.  “How do people decide which batch of vegetables to buy?” I wondered. It must depend on the menu.  That combination of cauliflower and potato would make one delicious gratin.

Yes, the winds of time and progress sweep away, but so they usher in.

Potato and Cauliflower Gratin

I didn’t buy any vegetables from the ‘farm-o-mat”, but if I had I would have chosen cauliflower and potatoes, and made this wonderful gratin.  Bon Appétit!

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 pounds (1kg) potatoes, such as Yukon gold, peeled and thinly sliced

1 small head cauliflower, stem trimmed, cut into thin slices

1 cup (250ml) milk

2 cups (500ml) heavy, non ultra-pasteurized cream

Fine sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Scant ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3 ounces (90g) Gruyère, grated

1.  Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).  Prepare a 17 x 7-inch baking dish by generously buttering it with the butter.

2. Place the potatoes and the cauliflower in a large bowl.

3.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk and the cream. Whisk in a generous amount of salt and pepper, then whisk in the nutmeg.   Pour the mixture over the potatoes and cauliflower.  Carefully mix the vegetables together until they are coated with the milk and cream mixture, then put them into the prepared baking dish.  Pour any residual milk mixture over all.

4.  Bake for 20 minutes, then carefully stir the vegetables. Sprinkle them with the cheese then continue baking until the potatoes are tender and the dish is golden on top, an additional 30 to 35 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 8 to 10



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