Saturday, November 14, 2015

Personal History, Norman Roots and Pork with Calvados Apple Cream

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.

I wasn’t always fond of the place. The house was a disappointment after my grandparent’s quirky Victorian with a turret, many parlors, a 2-story hall and a rose garden. My grandparent’s new house was built in the Craftsman style that was so popular in the teens and 1920’s in the Chicago area (it was built in ’22). Sears even sold kits to build Craftsman houses but this one was architect designed by a man named Eugene Malmer with lots of fun details. The Craftsman was a more manageable size for older people (even if it wasn’t as fun for kids with active imaginations). I never lived there, but the house grew on me during my visits -- it had an Arts and Crafts warmth to it.

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.

I looked it up and there it was, a character in Ivanhoe! Bryan de Bois Gilbert was the Templar knight who tormented poor Ivanhoe in Walter Scott’s famous novel! 

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

2 D’Artagnan Berkshire Pork NY Strip steaks or 2 large pork chops
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
fresh sage

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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Diane said...

What an interesting post and I know the feeling going through a house that has to be sold. I was lucky that Mum and I did it mostly together after my father passed on and she came to live with us. Then of course there was a much smaller amount for me to go though after she so suddenly departed. Our family seems to have some connection with the Black Prince but I have never confirmed exactly what it was! As for the recipe it sounds delicious. Keep well Diane

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I was glad to have my sister still living to help sort through my mother's and my childhood home. Now that my sister has passed away there is nothing to bring me past that house and its new inhabitants now. It is sad when we lose that connection. I still crave a Kringle and frikadellars. I'd love to taste your homemade Calvados and those pork NY strips look amazing!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I know how you feel. I'll never have kids (and at this rate neither will my brother). After having my floors redone in my condo (which meant having to pack up everything i own) I came to the decisions of getting rid of a lot of family furniture. what am I holding onto it for? I don't even like it. If I saw it in a store i'd just walk on by. Is this anything new though? With the exception of grand old country estates (and even they have sales!) where they have tons of room to spare to squirrel things away (and thats truly a 1%) - do families pass along masses of belongings? I'm thinking not really other than one or two items. So i Have those 1 or 2 items and I've come to terms that I don't need to keep it ALL. Don't guilt yourself!! It's your life so you should live it the way you see fit without being beholden to others.

Marjie said...

At least you got to rummage through your family history before it was sold off. When my grandmother died in 1990, I asked my mother for a small number of items - a settee, a butcher's block, a pepper mill - and she responded that everything in my grandmother's house was too shaky for actual use and she had given it all to an auctioneer, and it was all gone. Well, crap! If you wanted money for the items, why didn't you at least have the common courtesy to tell me, so I could come buy them from you? Pathetic. When my mother died a couple of years back, I was pleased to find a small number of family photos and artifacts, but I didn't find much. I"m afraid I could not have exercised your restraint; I'd have rented a POD to drag the lovely furniture items and photos and records home....

Your pork looks delicious; I"m glad you were inspired!

Erik Von Norden said...

I was particularly interested in the part about Mount St. Michel. One of my favorite movies, Mindwalk - an indie film which was seen by all of about three hundred people - was filmed almost entirely there. If you ever get the chance, download it. And, keep up the good work!

Deana Sidney said...

I'VE SEEN IT!! Count me among the 300... I love it too. This was a personal post, not as much history as usual but I will write about Mont St.Michel one of these days... Have you ever seen St Michael's Mount in England? Fun bookend building on the other side of the channel..

Frank said...

Memory is a funny thing. I try to keep part of our family history alive through my blog, dedicated as you may remember to my grandmother's cooking. The thing is, apart from some signature dishes, we are constantly arguing about what dishes she made and how she made them—whether she made her ajo e ojo with red pepper or black, or how she stuffed her peppers or artichokes, etc., etc. Sometime I wonder how these memories can be so tenuous, yet so profound. Like you, we've kept a few keepsakes of her life—some dishes, one or two porcelain figurines, some old serving platters and an early electric toaster, the kind you need to operate manually... The rest has been spread to the winds. It's heartbreaking to me.

Painting the hamptons said...

So sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing.