The Pot on the Fire
Winter can make me sentimental and romantic when I cook, especially on a blustery, grey day. As part of my work to cook one new recipe a week, I have been perusing my cookbook collection. I’ve also been reminiscing about some of my best food memories, and many of those are in France. No small wonder, then, that this recipe came to mind as one to share. “Pot au Feu”, or in English, “pot on the fire”; it’s a classic recipe that seems to go back to the 17th century. One could say it’s just beef stew, but it’s so much more than that. Chef Raymond Blanc, a Michelin-starred chef who is in England but well known for his French heritage, once said that pot au feu was
“the quintessence of French family cuisine, it is the most celebrated dish in France. It honours the tables of the rich and poor alike.”
The recipe below is one I wrote out for an entry in the first of two cookbooks I compiled, quite proudly I might add. That cookbook was all recipes translated from their original French (many of them from books written hundreds of years earlier). it was a project I undertook as part of my year living in France. To me, this recipe personifies the French culture: its poetic nature that embodies a love of “the good life” – that appreciation of quality time with friends, especially when it involves food and drink.
I include the original text below:; the actual recipe I cooked this week is in the link for Pot au Feu.
“Take 2 pounds of good honest beef, and tie these two pounds lovingly with an untreated string.
Place this generous parcel of meat in a paunchy clay stock pot. Add 6 litres of cold clear water. From your antique wooden salt box, take a large handful of coarse, crunchy salt. Let this salt also fall into your stock pot.
In the company of the beef, place a cute morsel of lamb breast or a nice pork spleen. This will give the juice in which the meats cook a better texture.
Put your clay stock pot on Mr. Fire. Make sure the latter is good and hot. A whitish foam will form on the surface of the stock. Skim it off without pity, as soon as it forms. Continuing until only half the original volume of stock is left. Then, put carefully beside the beef 3 tender leeks, which you have cut into pieces the length of your finger, or thereabouts. Bind them, vagabonds that they are, wandering left and right in the tonic that encircles the cooking beef. Add 2 healthy carrots, a small morsel of parsnip, an unsuspecting turnip, a glorious bay leaf, and a pot-bellied onion. On the rounded surface of the onion, just like 3 assassinated flies, should be stuck 3 black cloves. As soon as all these delectable vegetables are in your stock pot, stir up the Fire so as to awaken the bouillon.
You must let 6 hours of the clock pass by with the pot on the Fire. The whole pot should boil gently, grumbling satisfactorily.
Sacrifice a few small onions, burning them shamelessly and throwing them with confidence into the pot. They will act as painters, endearing the stock with a lovely brown colour.
Skim the fat from the stock and purée it as smoothly as possible.
Serve the beautiful and tender beef on a sturdy platter, surrounded by the loyal vegetables which cooked in its company. There should be proud steam and delicious odour escaping from all.
Mustard from Bordeaux may add in the digestion of these foods. For the wine, a red wine will do nicely, not noble but strong; rather thick, full-bodied, and having spent at least 6 months in a secure cellar.
Condiments for the meal: Rustic flowers on the table, around which should be the bright and happy faces of women, the familiar face of an old friend, the attentive eyes of a loving dog (who also loves human food), the triangular muzzle (deceivingly indifferent and disdainful) of the cat, who asks for nothing but watches nevertheless; a hearty stomach, happiness, good health and the absence of thought for anything which is not part of the dinner.
Outside should be the fairy scene of sparkling Parisian lights or the touching charm of a country garden.
Without these essential condiments, alas! The most exquisite meal will seem bland.”
Need I mention that not only the poetic method of cooking but also the accoutrements create a beautiful balance for an enjoyable meal? Down to the presence of the pets, this atmosphere seemed to me to be the perfect blend for a memorable meal. I have used it as a template ever since. I hope it provides you with some inspiration of your own.