Monday, 28 October 2013

Simmered not stirred

Beyond the vines, the Pyrenees                                            
The vendange is running late this year at Domaine Gayda in Languedoc Rousillon, thanks to the fluctuating weather. But the white grapes are now gathered in, and as we arrive at the end of September to celebrate the harvest with Carole and Anthony Record, the pickers are beginning on the Cabernet Franc and the Syrah.

There is a new addition to the poolside outdoor kitchen that promises to take Records’ reputation for warm hospitality to new heights. It is a very large firepit, made in India, imported by a specialist in England and then delivered to France for Anthony – who was brought up in South Africa.

Recycled energy: firepit hammered from an oil barrel
On our second evening, we gather around the glowing logs and watch a butterflied leg of lamb cook to succulent and fragrant pink perfection.  The next evening, after dining handsomely at Gayda’s restaurant, the firepit is lit again and six of us sit around the leaping flames, savouring a digestif,  listening to a tawny owl hooting close by, putting the world to rights and watching the night sky draped like a sequinned velvet shawl over the Pyrenees.

For our third evening, Anthony proposes a serious firepit feast. Amongst his batterie de cuisine  is a large South African potjie (pronounced poiky).  Made of cast iron, with three legs, it is just like the French marmite we bought in France many years ago and in which we sometimes cook pot au feu, suspended from a pothook over the open fire in Gloucestershire.  The history of the potjie started in Holland somewhere between 1566 to 1648 during the war between the Netherlands and Spain. During the siege of Leyden food was scarce and the townspeople contributed what meagre morsels they had into a large communal pot and cooked it all together. When the Dutch pioneers went to South Africa their potjies went too, slung under their wagons, ready to sit in the hot coals of the fire once they had set up camp. 

The challenge of potjie cooking in the open air for eight people is irresistible – especially when Anthony produces cookbooks and suggests that we cook potjie bread too.  He has a collection of mini potjkies just right for little loaves he says.....

A leg of lamb is put to marinade in spices and herbs and red wine and next morning Anthony and I go to Leclerc in Limoux to pick up yeast and couscous and other ingredients. Another temptation presents itself  – fresh sardines just crying out to be wrapped in fresh vine leaves (plenty of those around at Gayda) and grilled for the first course.

The fire is lit at 5.00pm. The bread is kneaded and left to rise. The lamb is turned again in its marinade. Tomatoes are peeled and chopped, carrots, courgettes and onions sliced. Pine nuts are toasted in a dry frying pan and sultanas set to swell in warm water ready to add to the couscous.  Boiling water is poured over the vine leaves to soften them before wrapping the fish. All seems under control - until I discover that the two dozen fat sardines need gutting. Time for a glass of Cremant de Limoux.
Some of the bread dough is shaped into two large rounds for baking in the electric oven in the pool kitchen (just in case cooking dough in mini witches' cauldrons doesn't come off) and attention turns to the main course. The meat is seared in the hot potjie and then set aside whilst sliced onions are added to the pot. When soft and coloured, a kilo of seeded and chopped tomatoes are added to the onions and the meat put back on top with enough of the spiced wine marinade to barely cover and the heavy iron lid put on. Like a pot au feu, the contents should barely simmer - which demands careful management of the fire and frequent re-positioning of the pot. It's tricky balancing the three legs of the heavy pot evenly on the grill. 

Further ingredients are added every half hour or so, in order of cooking time required, adding marinade when necessary,  and finishing with a generous quantity of dried apricots.  According to potjie tradition, stirring of the contents is strictly forbidden, so that each flavour develops separately and the vegetables steam. A pojtie is not a stew, the experts declare.

The mini potjies have been well greased, including the inside of the lids, before being half filled with bread dough and put to rise.  The grill is lifted from the firepit, and more in hope than expectation, I pop them all into the fire and cover their lids with hot embers.  The lamb potjie is wedged away from the direct heat and the fish put to grill. The sun disappears over the Pyrenees, candles are lit,  sardines in their crispy leaf wrappings are served and excellent wine poured and savoured.

And then the moment of truth.  The potjie bread, once extracted from its pots (cut into four, eased from the sides and then flipped out)  is delicious. Crispy all around and soft and steamy in the crumb.  As for the potjkie lamb, it is meltingly tender with vegetables that are cooked yet firm and clean tasting, and a sauce that is rich and intense.  "It tastes really gamey," says one diner, unaware of the recipe's claim that the lamb will taste like venison.  

I look around our group. We hail from England, Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands, the USA and South Africa. We discover that the Oxford importer of the firepit is the son of a very old engineering friend whom we resolve to contact after losing touch over the years. We have come together under the French night sky sharing food from the Rainbow nation and drinking wine pressed from the grapes harvested just a few yards away. A cultural melting potjie,  each element distinctive yet complementary. As Anthony declares, "We can go to a restaurant any time, but we will always remember this." And a shooting star streaks through the sky over our heads.

The morning after: sunrise over Domaine Gayda