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Thursday, August 18, 2011

French Travel Tales: Mr. Turbot and the Chateau Kitchen

A few summers ago, picture the esteemed and aristocratic Loire Valley and a very old spectacular Chateau, Chateau du Pin, where my colleague and fabric artist, Peg Gignoux, teaches Making Art in France Workshops. We were here to launch a week of cooking and culinary excursions called Cabbages and Kings with a group of C'est si Bon! Teen-Chefs. Once we set foot on the grounds we quelled rumours, but just barely so, of the Chateau's back staircase being haunted. The mouths of six very excited Teen-Chefs gaped at the thought. But the lovely kitchen presided calmly over our first evening meal. We rested that night and got ready for the week. 

Even with three chaperones/assistantes/instructors we didn't want to bite off more than we could comfortable  smear across a crusty baguette. We aimed the itinerary, our menus and offerings at simplicity. And Butter.  Because this was the Loire for Heaven's sake. 

And so, the week began. While we were at Willie's, the butcher in nearby Champtocé-sur-Loire, we ordered our fish, le Sandre, for Thursday's menu. What a perfect fish. Legendary, delicious and with a flavor so delicate the fish would practically jump out of the Loire River and cook itself. Wouldn't it? It would rejoice and embrace the prodigious amounts of Beurre Blanc it would swim through, and quite literally glide onto our spoons. Spoons that we would raise, praising butter and the Loire and plop the morsels like worms into eager baby bird's, er, Teen-Chefs, mouths. 

The Courtyard at Chateau du Pin

We left the butcher's shop and busied ourselves with a marvelous Mushroom Pilgrimage to the caves in a far flung village and came home (a Chateau can be a HOME!) to find a rather unapologetic box in the refrigerator. It was full of a strange triangular salty being. The label said simply, Tourbout. One student who knew a bit of Latin said it came from Turbo, which meant - you won't ever guess - spinning top. Great. Once we opened the box, I had to agree. Dinner was a spinning top. And for trepidation's sake, I give you a fitting poem. 

Upstairs in the Chateau

The Emperor’s Fish - An Ancient Ode to the Turbot

Back when the last Flavian was ripping up a half-dead
world – and Roma slaved for a bald Nero –
in sight of the shrine of Venus, which Doric Ancona upholds,
the marvelous expanse of an Adriatic turbot appeared,
and filled the nets. 

This fish, this spinning top, certainly filled our nets and the Box before us. If I can read between the lines of the poem, "The council of state is called to deal with the crisis of how to cook it, where the fish can neither be cooked by conventional means due to its size, nor can it be cut into pieces."

Such a fish was so prodigious that it was fit for the emperor alone. 

So we called in our council and assistante, Harriet Hoover, who looked it up on google and gave us a diagram to follow in its dissection. Once we tipped it out of the box, and picked it up from the floor it felt like leather strapped bones. Sharp Chateau knives, perfect for le Sandre, a gentle fish, bounced off its skin. 

By far the best instructions were found in Le Guide Culinaire. They illustrate how even the esteemed Escoffier knew the Turbot was a tough nut to crack, and how chefs also, more so in the past than now, knew enough to be Surgeons. Or Murderers.

Mr. Turbot, Before the Incident

On page 238 of Le Guide there is a telling passage. And I quote. "Before commencing to cook a whole turbot especially if it is very fresh, it is advisable to partially detach the two fillets from the centre bone on the black skin side. Fold the fish over on itself and press hard to break the spine in two or three places."  

Fold a fish in half? Ca va. Chef Escoffier continues his bizarre instructions. "Then, cut the fish in half down the center of the spine and across into pieces of the required size."

What? Of course, Chef. We took turns jumping and folding and finally popped out the fillets. Methinks being a Courtesan in the Emperor's Court was easier, by far. At dinner there was rejoicing, and we drowned the pleasant fish in lots of Beurre Blanc. Oh. Yes. And the table laughter drowned out the sound of footsteps on the back staircase. At least for the moment. 

The Front Door.

 The Chapel.

One of Many Staircases.

Beurre Blanc

Tradition tells us that this is a "nantaise" specialty. People from Nantes attribute its creation to Mère Clémence (a restaurant on the levee called the "divatte"). Its reputation grew quickly and it began to be served at all the fine tables in Anjou, Tours and all the way to Orléans.

Beurre blanc accompanies pike, sole, salmon, turbot, and even scallops marvelously. The sauce is an emulsion of melted salted butter thickened with a reduction of shallots and wine (muscadet for purists).

1 to 2 shallots, chopped fine
8 ounces white wine
2 ounces lemon juice
1 tablespoon heavy cream
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed
salt and white pepper, to taste

Combine the shallots, white wine, and lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan over high heat and reduce to 2 tablespoons.

Add the cream to the reduction. Once the liquid bubbles, reduce the heat to low.
Then, add the butter, one cube at a time, whisking first on the heat and then off the heat. Continue whisking butter into the reduction until the mixture is fully emulsified and has reached a rich sauce consistency. Season with salt and white pepper.

Serve over the Turbot.

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