WHETHER A trip is work or vacation is an irrelevant question to a food writer; the work seems like leisure-time activity to anybody else, Thus a three-week summer vacation in southwest France became, before the sun set twice, the gastronome's dream: the discovery of an unknown regional specialty. And the food writer's compulsion the search for its perfection.
First morning: the Sunday market in the tiny medieval village of Pujols, halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse, the marketplace itself not as large as the produce section of an American supermarket. A dozen or so tables set with baskets of strawberries, cans and jars of goose liver, a few goat cheeses and pastries -- large round pastries that looked like piles of lightly scorched parchment. On closer inspection they turned out to be apple and prune tarts perfumed with rum or armagnac, their dough fluffed-up layers of what we know as phyllo or strudel leaves. These fascinating-looking pastries were the most plentiful goods in the market; nearly every table had them for sale.
Even their name was a mystery. Or their three names. For this pastry is called something different from one town to another: croustad, which is more commonly known to be simply a filled pastry or bread case; tourtiere, which ordinarily denotes a pie dish, and pastis which is better known as an alcoholic drink or a cake. Whatever their local name, they were sold in bakeries, restaurants and cafes throughout the region.
In truth, to an outsider these pastries are more delectable to the eye than to he mouth. Unlike baklava or strudel, they have very little filling, or maybe no fruit at all. And the quantities of rum or armagnac might require that their sale be licensed in America.
But they were not to be dismissed. Shortly after that first discovery, Andre Daguin, proprietor-chef of the Hotel de France in Auch and widely known as the godfather of the mafia of chefs in that area, issued an invitation to the annual Concours de Pastis in Nogaro, a village little-known but much admired among chefs for the private armagnac museum of Mr. Dartigalongue. Eighteen judges gathered in the museum on a hot August day -- mostly chefs, plus French food critic Christian Millau and a last-minute draftee, this American food critic. After clearing the road dust from their throats with champagne and stilling the vibrations from breakneck drives through the countrysides to reach Nogaro, the chefs and guests climbed an ancient creaking staircase to pay tribute to similarly ancient armagnacs; just the chance to smell the barrels full of century-old aromas was considered an honor. Even their perfume animated the discussion. And what do chefs talk of on such a grand occasion? Tennis.
White jackets and toques were donned, turning the garrulity into formality; and like a flock of white geese the chefs paraded through the cobblestone streets, where tables were set with handmade crafts for sale, the most magnificent of them the pastis themselves. (For this day the pastries with fruit were officially designated pastis, those without, croustades.) First their presentation was evaluated: "Fluffy," approved chef Roger Duffour of one. "Too much juice around the apples, too flat, too black and too white," Daguin translated his criticisms of another into English. Onward they marched, finally into a garden behind a pottery shop, where the tasting began. Two winners were chosen, one in each category. And both, it was then learned, had been made by the same woman.
A first hurdle was passed, the leap to understanding; this untutored draftee had picked the winner's pastry and already directed a photograph of it.
The next task was to learn how the pastry is made.
For that, it took the services of Mme. Pochat in nearby Bourg-de-Visa -- a town that amounts to little but a bend in the road. She arranges cooking lessons in farmhouses of the region, in the winter the big draw being foie gras (the liver of fatted geese or ducks) and confits (salted goose or duck preserved in fat). She could arrange a day at a farm to learn to make tourtie re (this, of course, was another village with another culinary language). So one morning Mme. Mourie re undertook to teach, the first lesson being that tourtie re is a five-hour undertaking at best.
White-haired, with impishness in her smile and gravel in her voice, Mourie re was as facile with opinions as with dough. Her farmhouse was the soul of tradition, with its brick fireplace and tile floor. But Mouriere, 70 years old and the grandmother of 12, had accumulated a few modernities: a Tupperware cookbook, a salad spinner, a dishwasher.
Everything she did looked effortless, from mixing the sticky dough with one hand into a baby-smooth mass to tidying as quickly as she messed the kitchen. In her day, Mourie re has made an average of 240 tourtie res a year, though she has lately grown allergic to wheat.
"There is a war between men cooking and women cooking," she chattered as she kneaded the dough. "Women cook traditionally. Men are more creative." Women, for instance, cook goose liver for three hours; men cook it only 40 minutes, semi-cooked, in the "new style." "Daguin uses goose fat" in tourtie re, she explained; she uses corn oil in her dough.
While the dough rested in the refrigerator for two hours, Mourie re served lunch, which turned out to be an extraordinarily good cassoulet and brioche of similarly exceptional character, topped with pure'ed raw fresh fruit. That was after the melon with port, her own liver pa te', a salad with croutons and plenty of garlic and three local cheeses, plus local red wine her husband pressed on the guests, even the children.
Returning to the kitchen, Mourie re stacked the dishes, set the apples to stew for the filling and tackled the dough. The table -- large enough to seat her sizable family -- was covered with a white cloth, softened by years of tourtie re-making. The dough was placed in the center. Then Mourie re moved around and around the table, pulling the edge of the dough, first at one-foot intervals, and as the dough grew wider and thinner, inch by inch. After each pull she gave the dough a little lift and shake, as if pulling a sheet tight over a bed. Her shuffle around the table and quick tugs looked like a folk dance. The dough grew thin as parchment, thin as tissue, then thinner than tissue until it nearly disappeared into thin air. And she never broke either the dough or the rhythm of her chatter. "I think Daguin makes his less thin," she smiled puckishly. And she recited her recipes for cassoulet and brioche, which a chef had given her.
Now, anybody knows that with strudel or phyllo you must see the cloth through the stretched dough. With hers you could also feel the texture of the cloth through it.
Within 10 minutes -- you must work quickly, she explained -- the dough was thin and even, hanging over the edges of the table. She cut off the rough edges and saved them for a later use, then took her guests to sit under the trees while the dough dried for 45 minutes. She told of her recent 50th anniversary, for which she had roasted a whole lamb over wood to serve 25 family members. She pointed out the corn, sunflowers, grains, geese, chickens, ducks, and a few goats and cows they raise. She enumerated their fruit trees -- plums, apples, pears, cherries, nectarines -- that had provided the wherewithal for the pure'e at lunch.
The dough was dry and a little crinkly. She sprinkled it with oil and brushed it on with a goose feather. Then she cut the dough into circles to fit her 14-inch pan. The pan was brushed with butter, a dough circle fitted in and sprinkled with sugar and dark rum, then the process repeated, with the apples spooned over the fourth layer. More dough, sugar, rum until all were used, then the last layers fluffed and propped to look like breaking waves of dough. Baking was started in a cold oven, which was turned to 350 degrees, and continued until the tourtie re was very dark, just on the edge of burning.
Mourie re slid it out of the pan, sprinkled it with powdered sugar and wrapped it for the guests to take home.
Tourtiere could be filled with chicken and salsify, salmon or chicken livers instead of sugar, rum and apples, she instructed. It could be made in several small pans instead of one large one. It could be served hot or cold, but could not be reheated.
Throughout the vacation, tourtie res were dutifully tasted; none matched hers. And back at home, her recipe was tried. No brick fireplace or French tile floor. A tablecloth didn't provide the same time-worn softness of Mourie re's white cloth. And less-practiced fingers tore holes and left thickened blotches in the pulled dough. Back on American soil, children spurned rum and requested a substitute: rosewater or orange flower water or even less exotic vanilla.
Something is always lost in translation. But a thicker, tougher tourtie re pleases as much as a reminiscence of a pastry. And cassoulet made even with long-dried supermarket beans, store-bought sausage and Long Island duck evokes a vacation. Brioche may lack a pure'e tree-ripened fruit to accompany it, but no one turns it down.
TOURTIERE (Serves 8 to 10) 4 1/2 cups of flour, approximately 1 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup water 3 egg yolks 1/4 cup oil
Filling: 3 yellow delicious apples 1 cup sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum For assembly: 1/2 cup oil, approximately 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup dark rum, approximately 2 1/2 cups sugar, approximately Confectioners' sugar for decoration
Combine flour and salt, gradually adding water and kneading with one hand as it is added. Knead in egg yolks and 1/4 cup oil. Dough will be sticky; continue kneading for about 15 minutes until it becomes smooth and no longer sticks to your hand, adding more flour if necessary. Form into a ball and dust with flour. Rub with a few drops of oil, place in a bowl and cover. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
To prepare the filling, peel, core and thinly slice apples. Put in a small pot with 1 cup sugar and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until apples are softened. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons rum and set aside.
Cover a large table with a cloth. Put dough in center and stretch the dough as you would strudel dough, gently pulling the edges as you move around the table, and lifting the dough with each pull to loosen it from the cloth. This is the difficult part. Dough may also be stretched with the backs of your hands under the dough, as pizza dough is stretched. Ideally, the dough should cover an area about the size of a single bed, and be as thin as paper. If it tears or refuses to pull so thinly, it will still work, but will produce a more dry and tough crust. The pulling should be done as quickly as possible, within about 10 minutes. Cut off thick edges and let the dough rest about 45 minutes, until it feels dry and begins to pucker slightly. Brush with a light film of oil.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush in a large pie pan, or any pan approximately that shape. This dough will make 1 tourtie re 14 inches in diameter or several smaller ones. Cut the dough into circles to fit the pan or pans. Put one circle in the pan and sprinkle lightly with sugar and rum. Repeat with 3 more layers, fitting in broken pieces of dough if necessary. Sprinkle fourth layer with 1/4 cup oil and spread with the apple filling, more sugar and rum. Continue to layer the dough, sprinkling each layer with sugar and rum and sprinkling a little oil over every couple of layers. For the top layer, prop up pieces of dough to make the tourtie re look fluffy. Put in a cold oven and turn the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 45 minutes until very dark brown at the edges, turning the pan occasionally if the tourtie re is browning unevenly. Remove from oven and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. Serve in the pan or slide it out of the pan. It can be served hot or cold but not reheated.
MME. MOURIERE'S CASSOULET (Serves 6 to 8) 1 1/2 pounds white navy beans 1 carrot, diced 1 onion stuck with 1 clove 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon thyme 3 cloves garlic, mashed 1 to 1 1/2 pounds sausages, either country links or Italian 1 duck confit (see accompanying story) or freshly cooked duck or 2 pounds lamb and/or pork, roasted or saute'ed and cubed
% tablespoons fat (preferably duck fat) 1 onion, diced 4 large tomatoes, diced 1/4 teaspoon thyme Pinch of sugar
For assembling: 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs 1/4 cup fat, preferably duck fat Soak beans overnight in 5 quarts water. Drain beans, put in a large pot with water to cover, simmer for 2 minutes and drain again. Return to pot with fresh water to cover, along with carrot, onion, bay leaf, thyme and garlic. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until beans are thoroughly tender but not mushy.
In the meantime, thoroughly brown the sausages in a skillet, cut the duck into boneless cubes or prepare the lamb and/or pork. Any combinations of these meats can be used.
Prepare the tomato sauce: Saute' diced onions in 2 tablespoons fat until transparent. Add tomatoes and 1/4 teaspoon thyme, and simmer 15 minutes. Add a pinch of sugar.
When beans are soft, drain them, remove the onion and clove. Layer the beans, tomato sauce and meats in a large casserole, ending with a layer of beans. Sprinkle on the bread crumbs, then 1/4 cup fat. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or until casserole is well heated and bread crumbs are lightly browned.
MME. MOURIERE'S BROICHE (Makes 3 loaves) 3 tablespoons cold milk 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 5 cups flour 1 package dry yeast 6 eggs 1 pound unsalted butter, softened 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water
Stir sugar and salt into milk in a large bowl; stir in flour. Let rest for 3 hours. Dissolve yeast in 1 1/2 tablespoons warm -- not hot -- water and mix into flour mixture. Beat in eggs one at a time, then knead for 15 minutes. Knead in butter bit by bit (this is a messy process, best achieved by a dough hook on a heavy mixer). Continue kneading until dough is smooth and springy. Form into a ball and place in a clean bowl, cover and let rise at room temperature for 1 1/2 hours. Punch down and knead slightly, return to the bowl and refrigerate for 3 hours. Punch down again and return to the refrigerator overnight.
Divide dough into 3 parts, knead slightly and form into loaves, and put into buttered bread pans. Let rise 2 or 3 hours, until doubled in bulk. Brush tops with 1 egg yolk mixed with water. Slash the top of each loaf 3 times. Let rest for 15 minutes while the oven preheats. Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes, until golden brown and firm. Remove from pans and let cool on a rack.