It’s school vacation, again. Every six weeks French students have a two week break, and parents adjust. I used to think this was insane but I’ve come around. When I see how hard students work, a two week vacation every six weeks begins to make sense. Most French families I know pack up their bags and go somewhere for vacation, and this time we did too. Our destination? Peyrenègre and the Dubois family farm.
The Dubois’ raise geese and walnuts; they produce the world’s best foie gras, confit, rillettes and a host of other products, and their walnuts taste, quite simply, like heaven. We’ve been friends for more than thirty years, and if you’ve read my books, you’ve met the inimitable Danie and her husband, Guy. Now their son, Gilles, runs the farm though Danie and Guy are still hard at work.
Fiona has absorbed my love for this family and their ancient surround. She loves wandering the forest trails around Peyrenègre, taking care of the rabbits and helping out in the kitchen. She loves the multitude of stars at night, the clear, fresh mornings, the dogs who come when they’re called and frisk from dawn to dusk. Most of the old farm buildings have been renovated or replaced, but there is still an old-world feel about the farm with its layers of family and friends who all, it seems, make an appearance when we are there.
Danie cooks with the ease of someone who grew up in the kitchen. This visit, she was making mique, a big ball of yeast dough that is traditionally boiled in a broth flavored with vegetables and salt pork. Mique is an old-world dish and almost forgotten. Danie was making it because her 89-year-old clock repairman was coming ,and as part of his fee he’d requested she make mique for lunch. “He wants a taste of his childhood,” she said as she kneaded the dough. “I could only say yes.”
Mique is easy to make, it just takes time and needs a crowd. When I was first on the farm thirty years ago she made it regularly for meals where we were rarely less than ten at table. Then, she boiled it according to tradition. Now, she steams it. “You’ll see,” she said. “It’s just as good and it doesn’t fall apart if we don’t eat it right away.”
We sat down for lunch with the bulbous, yeasty-smelling mique on the plate, hot from the steamer, and civet d’oie, a dark goose stew whose carrot and onion-studded sauce is thickened with goose blood. I watched Bertrand, the clock repair-man take his first taste. His eyes closed, then he looked at Danie. “Danie, this is it, merci beaucoup.”
We meandered our way through lunch and listened to stories of life when mique was served once a week, the war was on, times were tough but villagers pulled together and kept food on the table. Mique is just a dish, but it was also memories brought to life. And once the civet was gone, mique became dessert, slathered with butter and Danie’s home made raspberry jam.
When we got home I immediately made mique before I forgot Danie’s recipe and gestures. I have a vegetarian daughter so there was no civet d’oie, but rather a vegetable stew. It was perfect, a big, soft reminder of our days on the farm.
1 cup (250ml) lukewarm milk
2 packages active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
3 large eggs
1 shy tablespoon sea salt
4 1/2 to 4-3/4 cups (650-690g) all-purpose ,unbleached flour
- Place the milk, the yeast, and the sugar into a large bowl, stir, and let sit until the yeast bubbles to the top of the milk. Add the eggs, beating until they are incorporated into the liquid, then stir in the salt. Gradually add the flour, 1 cup at a time, until you have a soft dough that doesn’t stick to your fingers. Knead the dough right in the bowl until all of the flour is thoroughly incorporated into it, about ten times.
- Line a colander, the top of a steamer or couscoussier, with a linen towel. Turn the dough into it, and fold the towel lightly over the dough, and let rise in a warm spot (about 75F;24C) until the dough is nearly doubled in bulk, which will take at least 1 hour.
- When the dough is risen, fill to two thirds the bottom of a large pot, a steamer, or a couscoussier with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Set the colander/steamer over the steaming water, fold the towel lightly over the dough and partially cover. Steam until the dough feels firm, for about 30 minutes. Turn the dough out onto a plate and slide it back into the steamer on the opposite side, lightly fold the cloth over it and cover partially. Continue to steam until the dough feels firm, an additional 30 minutes. Check the water from time to time to be sure there is enough; if you need to add water, make sure it is hot to boiling, so the steaming process isn’t interrupted.
- When the mique is cooked, serve immediately while it is still warm,with the stew or soup (or anything) of your choice. Danie makes sure there is butter on the table, to complement her mique.
As many servings as there are guests…