Dough balls in Parthenay

Due to my brother Henry’s interest in history and archeology, we always look for sites of historic interest when we go on holiday en famille. While in France this year, we wandered through the cobbled streets of Parthenay, a small, fortified town in the West of the country. After exploring the town centre and climbing the castle walls, we came across a novel French food experience.

Not far from the steep stone walls of the medieval keep, we found a little eatery called Aut’ Foueé, its doors invitingly open and a period decor visible through its large windows. Set into one wall is a wood-fired oven with glowing embers of hardwood at the back. The ceiling is supported by large black beams, under which worn wooden tables are laid with smart slate place settings and flanked by vintage cutlery. The jolly, pink-faced proprietor welcomes us inside, her medieval costume and warm, smiley face completing the scene.

Before the French revolution in France there was no such thing as a restaurant. In a restaurant you can sit at a table and choose from a list of different starters, main courses and deserts. You can even select which drink you fancy from a usually large selection of chilled beers and white wines, room temperature red wines and a number of soft drinks. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, someone who wasn’t of noble birth paying a chef to cook something that they themselves had selected was an alien concept. Instead, the inns and food halls all over Europe would serve one big pot of some stew or soup – the ‘plat du jour’.

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Which is why the food served at Aut’ Foueé adheres perfectly to the Medieval theme established by the traditional cooking methods and the period décor. We are served the one option on offer accompanied by a regional red wine or a cool local apple juice, served from terracotta jugs. Small flat breads are filled with an assortment of blood sausage, pork rillette, soft geo-rind goat cheese and home-made jams; all of which are brought to the table in kilner jars so that you can help yourself.

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While our host prepared the dough balls, she explained that in the past these morsels would be thrown into the oven to test the temperature, before the real business of baking bread could commence. Though less precise than the laser thermometer used at mum and dad’s bakery, this would be essential to prevent burning or undercooking the bread.

20140718_112552Quirky hand sink in the toilets

With full bellys and the last few flat-breads filled for the road, we were ready for the next drive; down to Ile de Ré on the West coast. As a new business in Parthenay, Aut’ Foueé is setting out on a brave venture. It is challenging people to sit down and eat without the customary element of choice. With the delicious home-made food they are serving and the fun novelty factor, I hope they achieve every success.

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Buried Treasure

View from Deborah and Robbie's house

View from Deborah and Robbie’s House

Over the summer I went on a family holiday to stay with friends in the Ardèche. Its no surprise that the south of France is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe; hot sunshine, steep wooded hillsides descending to sparkling rivers and bustling provincial farmers markets selling saucisson, crusty pain au levain (sourdough) and sweet juicy nectarines. For a food lover this is the perfect holiday. You spend your mornings sourcing ingredients and exploring the nearby historic towns, then its back up to the gîte for lunch, stopping off at the local wine co-operative on the way. In the late afternoon the only thing alluring enough to tempt you from the hot rocks on the river-bank is the thought of cold white wine and a fridge full of good produce for dinner.

When we arrived, after saying hello and discussing the cricket score, Robbie tells me with a grin on his face that he has a little project for me. My immediate assumption was that it would involve moving wood or mixing cement, but the task he had in mind turned out to be far more exciting. He had recently been given 100g of black truffle, sniffed out by a neighbour’s dog under an oak tree, and I was to make a meal out of it.

Slicing the truffle

Slicing the truffle

Black truffle, though less expensive than its white counterpart, is considered one of the most delicious foods around. A kind of fungus found using either a pig or a trained dog, it is often used diffused in olive oil or shaved on top of dishes. There are pros and cons to which animal you use; though the pig has an innate ability to sniff the truffles out, it is also inclined to scoff the lot before you can pull her off. Dogs are easier to control, though they do have to be trained. Its hard to blame the pig really; along with mushrooms, fermented fish sauces and meat broths, truffles contain umami – a savoury and very moorish ‘fifth taste’. I decided to make some fresh tagliatelle with a creamy mushroom sauce, and to garnish with shavings of the truffle.

For the pasta, I mixed 4 free range eggs with 400g of pasta flour into a dough, then put it in the fridge for a few hours. Deborah and I extruded the dough through the pasta machine, using all four of our hands to feed lumps of dough in the top, turn the handle and gently ease the pasta sheets out the other side. The sheets then went through again on the linguini setting, before resting on the back of just about all of the kitchen chairs covered in clean tea-towels.

For the mushroom sauce I finely diced an onion and sautéed it with some crushed garlic, plenty of chopped mushrooms a little cream, and some salt and pepper. While dad shaved the truffle with a razor-sharp knife, the pasta cooked in a few minutes in salted water and then the meal was ready. Tagliatelle with mushrooms and black truffle

Tagliatelle with mushrooms and black truffle

The tagliatelle was fantastic, the mushroom sauce a umami hit and to top it all off, the truffle was… tasteless. All the truffle shavings added to the meal was a grainy texture and some stray grit that had escaped our not-so-scrupulous cleaning of the outside of the fungus. After all the hype we were disappointed with the black truffle. However, home-made pasta is always a treat, and the meal was not a complete disaster. Hopefully I’ll try a better specimen some day – I can’t help feeling there must be a reason the pigs go so crazy over these black fungal nuggets!