Mont St. Michel, Normandy
This has been a rather tumultuous time for me. After finishing up the show I was working on, I drove back to Illinois to dispose of a house and its contents – vowing to take nothing home that wouldn’t fit in my little SUV.
It wasn’t just any house, but one I had known since I was 8 when my grandparents moved there from a larger house in another town to be closer to my mother. When my grandfather could no longer manage on his own, my parents sold their house and moved there where they remained until they died a few years ago. My brother was there after that.
Still, it wasn’t leaving the house that got to me –– it was leaving the history that was stored in the house. I just didn’t have room to take all the history. There were boxes and boxes of photos, dishes, hundreds of crocheted items, wool and silk ‘elephant ear’ and braided rugs that had all been made by hand as well as my grandfather’s Marshall Field roll-top desk and an empire dresser that had been made for my great grandfather among hundreds of other treasures. With no one to leave it to it all went to auction houses and a hastily arranged yard sale. All that family history was gone in a few days. I brought a few rugs, a few boxes of linens and photos with me and 4 boxes I sent back UPS, but the rest is gone. It made me think of how many houses’ collections I’ve rummaged through, trying to get the good bits for work or for myself. How many generations of things fly away, lost to the family forever?
Did the descendants feel as badly about letting it all go as I did? I felt like hundreds of years ended with me – that I sort of dropped the ball. When you think about it, it’s remarkable that any family collections stay together these days. We come and go, divorces, job changes – we just don’t stay put the way we used to or value these things the way we used to. We begin and end in just 2 generations. When was the last time you looked at your grandmother’s photo album?
We are all the sum of so many parts – yet our history is disappearing. We are losing our personal backstories.
One of the things that I found as I sifted through boxes was a small envelope with my grandfather’s family history scrawled on time-browned pages. There was mention of a Revolutionary War general and various family names that I’d remembered hearing about before. They had cities and towns named after them in upstate NY. Completely unplanned I had followed an ancient instinct and bought a country house right in the midst of their stomping ground (it wasn’t until I lived there a few years that I put together all the names with the places and my lost family history -- I had always heard a rather vague 'back East' when those ancestors were mentioned). The families were mostly English with a bit of German. One of the names, Gilbert, was my grandfather’s mother’s family name. It was also my grandfather and brother’s first name. It is a Norman-English name.
There was a line on the Gilbert area of the paper that said ‘Bryan de Bois Gilbert, 14th century’. The name seemed so familiar.
How funny memory is. I am sure my mother, and it was in my mother’s hand, had tried to put down all she remembered of the family history and inserted a literary character instead of the true name of her ancestor. I’ll never know who the real person was. It’s fair to say the Gilbert line began in Norman France and made its way to England 1000 years ago (as far as I know, they came to America in the 18th century).
This got me thinking, do we have a place memory in our genome? Do we long for flavors and scents and sights of our ancestors without knowing it?
I do know that I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the food of Normandy (and Mt St Michel). Something about cream (à la Normande is synonymous with a creamy sauce) and apples or cherries – well it always makes me feel like home.
In fact, this year I’ve been drawn to Calvados – specifically the need to MAKE Calvados-like apple brandy. I read up on the making of it, got a few gallons of cider and started fermenting. I used French Limousin charred oak soaked in old Madeira and cider – they way they do the casks at the great Calvados houses and distilled it after a month or so of fermentation. My first bottles were pretty darn good but need time to mature (even if the old Madeira adds years to a new spirit –– Calvados just gets drinkable at 3 years, 6 is better, old is best!). I guess Calvados making is in the few remaining Norman molecules of my blood.
Normandy is also famous for their Bresse chickens and their pré salé lamb and Rouan ducks as well as their famous cream producing cattle but the heady combination of cider, calvados, apples and cream is one I have used on everything from Cornish hens to omelettes to pork and loved it (the folks in Normandy even use the combination with mussels with great success).
My newly awakened Norman roots proved most helpful when my friends at D’Artagnan told me about a new cut of pork they were offering. The Norman part of me rose to the challenge of doing justice to great meat. Their New York Strip Chop of beautifully flavored heritage Berkshire Pork is tender and incredibly moist. Berobed in a rich, appled sauce, well, you will die from pleasure with each mouthful. I have been making a version of this for many years and it has always gotten ovations at the table (and threats to drink the sauce from the plate).
Pork Steaks with Calvados Apple Cream
salt and pepper to taste
4 T Calvados
1 c apple cider
3 T D’Artagnan demi-glace (or reduce 1 cup of stock to 3 T)
1 slice D’Artagnan applewood bacon diced
2 T butter
1 large gala apple, cored, peeled and sliced
1 sliced shallot
1 T Madeira (I use Rare Wine Company Madeira – Charleston would a good choice)
¼ c heavy cream
pinch of nutmeg
Rub the chops with 1 T calvados and season with salt and pepper. Put in the fridge for an hour or so.
Cook the apple cider on a slow heat till reduced to 2 T. and reserve. Sauté the bacon till crisp and reserve the bacon. Pour out most of the fat but leave a light coating in the pan.
Lightly brown the pork chops on both sides and remove from the pan. Tent and keep warm.
Add 1 T of the butter to the pan and quickly sauté the apples till lightly browned on both sides. Remove from the pan and add the other 1 T of butter. Sauté the shallots till softened.
Add 2 T of the Calvados and flame. When the fire subsides, add the reduced cider, the demi glace and the cream and nutmeg. Stir the pan, scraping up any brown bits in the pan. Return the apples and pork to the pan and cover. Cook for 5-6 minutes at a medium low heat until the pork is pink – about 135º. Plate the pork and apples, toss the remaining Calvados and Madeira into the pan and stir to blend. Taste for seasoning. Sprinkle with fresh sage and bacon. Pour the sauce over the chops and apples and serve.
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