On the GR 34As an inveterate hiker, I think any season is a good one for taking to the trails, particularly as a break from intense work, when the mind needs a flush of fresh air, the body a period of intense activity. Which is probably all of the time for most of us…
So last week we took to the “sentier des douaniers” on the Cotes d’Armour of Brittany. We’ve had endless summer, the trail is empty now because the French vacations are long gone, and this wonderful pathway – also called the GR34 – lines the entire, wildly beautiful coast of Brittany. It was built in the early 20th century for customs agents, who walked it searching for contraband. As they surveyed the crashing waves below, they saw everything, in every port and inlet.
We followed their footsteps, smug under the incredibly blue sky, the sight of turquoise water, the perfect comfortable temperature when, as though someone flipped a switch, all hell broke loose. The skies darkened turning the water steely grey; the exhilarating wind turned tornadic, the clouds open to disburse rain that wasn’t rain at all but hail which, when it falls on your cheeks, feels like needles inserted into your skin. The cold of the hail mitigates real pain, but still…
This proves a Breton axiom which goes something like this – if you don’t like the weather, wait an hour and it will change. And change it did, again, though it was more like two hours by which time we were soaked to the skin. So we did what any hiker does, took shelter and had lunch…and all was forgotten when the sun returned, the high wind dried us out, and we continued on our way. Waves turned to gentle rolls against the dark rocks below us; the rays of sun glinted off the black sandy beaches, gulls and little hawks hovered in air currents like children playing.
What was lunch? Well, when it comes to gastronomy Brittany is the land of buckwheat flour galettes filled with everything from curried chicken to an over-easy egg.
In winter there is the hearty “potée” or pork stew called Kig Ha Farz, with its buckwheat dumpling.
There are scallops and mussels fresh from the boat, lobster and mackerel, and the memory of cod, we learned as we happened upon the little port town of Binic. It was THE capitol of the cod fleet in the 1700’s, whose intrepid fishermen left their families for months on end to sail to Newfoundland, where stocks of cod were plentiful. They returned with their holds full of salt cod, which was then transported throughout the continent.
Brittany is also home to the Rose de Roskoff onion which I had on my plate cooked traditionally into a marmalade, the natural sugars in the onion making the condiment so sweet it wouldn’t be displaced on morning toast with butter.
And speaking of butter, it’s always salted in Brittany. Why? Because the Bretons know how to live, and live they do, with their rich salted butter pastries like Kouign Aman and gâteau Breton, their galettes which always get a brush of melted butter before any filling goes in them, and their gorgeous dessert crêpes, my favorite being painted with butter, sprinkled with sugar, and drizzled with fresh lemon juice.
As if the joys of hiking in Brittany weren’t enough, there is the reward after a long day on the trail of all these fine dishes to choose from, washed down with local hard cider, served in “bolées,” or coffee cup-like bowls.
What follows here is a tried and true (and delicious) recipe for Kig Ha Farz, for your winter dining pleasure, à la Bretagne!
KIG HA FARZ- BRETON PORK STEW
This hearty dish is pure, simple, delicious, like the Breton region itself, with its endless coastlines, verdant rolling hills, and sea spray air.
Prepare the farz: Whisk together the eggs, milk, and melted butter in a medium-sized bowl. Using a wooden spoon, slowly add the flour and the salt, stirring until thoroughly combined. Place the mixture in the center of a clean, dampened piece of cotton cloth that measures at least 24 inches (60cm) square. Gather the corners of the cloth together and secure them tightly with kitchen string, leaving room for the farz to expand by about one third. Set it aside.
Make the stew: Combine the carrots, leeks, potatoes, bouquet garni, pork hock, bacon and salt and pepper to taste in a large stock pot. Add water to cover by 2-inches (5cm). Add the farz bundle, gently pushing it under the surface so it is moist all over.
Cover the pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Then, remove the cover and reduce the heat to medium so the liquid is simmering merrily, and cook the stew until the until the farz is nearly firm to the touch, and the vegetables are tender but still have some texture, about 1 hour. The farz will tend to float in the liquid as the stew cooks, which is fine. Occasionally turn the bundle so it cooks evenly, and skim off any fat that rises to the surface of the stew.
While the farz is cooking, cook the kielbasa: Place the sausages in a medium-size saucepan, cover them with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat so the water is boiling gently and cook, partially covered, until the sausages are done, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat, leaving the kielbasa in the water to stay warm.
When the farz is cooked, remove the bundle from the stew and set it, still in its cotton cover, in a sieve placed over a shallow bowl. Let it drain for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, add the artichoke hearts to the simmering soup and cook until they and the other vegetables are completely tender, which will take about 20 minutes.
Transfer the farz, in its cotton wrapping, to a work surface and roll it back and forth, applying pressure gently but firmly. At first the farz will feel hard and rubbery, but it will gradually crumble into small bits. Keep rolling the bundle until most of the farz is in small bits (it should resemble couscous). Some stubborn pieces will remain large and somewhat hard, but don’t be concerned as they are delicious too.Carefully open the cotton bag and pour the farz onto a large warmed serving platter. Remove the artichokes from the cooking liquid and cut them into quarters. Slice the m eat from the pork hock and cut or slice the slab bacon into serving size pieces. Do the same with the kielbasa. Arrange the vegetable and the meats over and around the farz. Fill a warmed pitcher with the cooking juices and serve it separately to drizzle, not pour, over the farz.
Note: If the farz seems dry, do as the Bretons do, and drizzle it with the cooking juices. Not too much or the farz will turn to mush.