My son, Joe, is visiting from the U.S., spending more time here than usual as he writes his senior thesis. I’m enjoying watching him work, our conversations roiling around the vagaries of writing and inspiration, the beauty of fine sentences that all too often end up on the cutting room floor, born as they can be in the depths of night when the brain seems agile but is, in fact, coffee addled. Fiona is here from Utrecht and while she has no thesis to write yet, she’s busy with a dazzling array of projects and activities.
A Culinary Memory Lane
Joe and Fiona are gourmands. When they return to France they travel down a culinary memory lane. The other day Joe, procrastinating, asked “Mom, if you were to make us one Norman dish that said everything about Norman cuisine which would it be?” I answered without hesitation “Poulet Vallée d’Auge.”
Now this isn’t entirely representative of Norman cuisine. There is no shellfish in it, and everyone knows that the Normans have the best (sorry, Bretons). But it has all those amazing hallmarks of this verdant, rich, fertile, gentle region of which the Vallée d’Auge is the heart – crème fraîche, heavy cream, butter, Calvados, cider, onions, mushrooms and, of course, chicken. Those ingredients make up the fundament of Norman cuisine.
And so I made it. And it was delicious. And I enjoyed every second of putting it together.
Funny how working with ingredients that come from right outside the door (symbolically speaking – I raise very little in my town garden, but the farms and dairies I buy from are a stone’s throw away) is so satisfying. Following time-honored steps to get all the flavor from ingredients is too. I’ve spent more hours than I can count in farm kitchens with various French cooks of all sorts and sizes. I heard their collective voices as I made Poulet Vallée d’Auge, urging me to go slowly so the butter I used to brown the chicken didn’t burn, so the mushrooms cooked until they gave up their liquid then turned to gold, so the onions melted into sweetness.
The flames leapt as I added Calvados, and burned merrily until I heard those voices tell me to douse them with cider. They cautioned me not to add bay or thyme, reminding me that in this dish, the few ingredients it contains is all it needs for the flavor to be perfect – the sweetness of onions, the caramel from browning the chicken, the earthiness of the mushrooms, the apple edge from the Calvados and the roundness from the cider.
The Aroma of an Orchard
As the ingredients were cooking slowly together, the kitchen – the whole house – filled with the aroma of an apple orchard. It was almost uncanny, bringing the children down the stairs and into the kitchen. We’ve just had Christmas, but the looks on their now adult faces wasn’t dissimilar from those many Christmas mornings when so many delicious and surprising things were happening!
Just before the dish was done I added cream and let it simmer, then added a bit more cream whisked with an egg yolk, which turned the sauce into silk. Everything settled together over the pilot light while I sautéed apple slices in a bit more butter. They turned golden and soft, a perfect accompaniment to the dish. I love using fruit as a “vegetable,” common here, but always surprising.
Sitting down to our Poulet Vallée d’Auge, we clinked glasses then tasted this primordial Norman dish. Each ingredient spoke up, yet together they made the finest, most flavorful whole.
Poulet Vallée d’Auge is hardly a modern dish yet it could be, because it contains the simplest ingredients of the region, assembled and cooked with time, and that unquantifiable ingredient of love.