Coming to Auvergne for the first time was an otherworldly experience; the moment we passed the Bienvenue en Auvergne sign on the highway I sensed a change in the scenery: a higher altitude, snowy villages hugging the hillsides and riverbeds below as we crossed on suspension bridges, no more factories and advertisements that were so common around the periphery of Lyon. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the balcony of our hotel room when we first came for Adélaïde’s interview, the freshest air in the night sky making us shiver, gazing at the stars and the chaotic shapes of volcanoes around us. Coming was a crazy but plucky move, as life here was largely unknown to us, mainly imagined. Who would we meet? Would we be welcomed as newcomers in a community or would we be seen as strangers?
Verne, where we live, is really a blip in the universe. Even in the region it is barely known. When you take the road connecting Yssingeaux and Montfaucon (the two major towns close to our house), you pass by various lieu-dits (literally “said-places”, hamlets without street names) and villages like La Chapelette, Les Planchettes, Grazac, Lalèche, Treyches, Raucoules, etc… eventually you reach a sign marked “VERNE”, but if you don’t take a moment to slow down and look around, you may not even notice its existence. It is a typical little hamlet like so many others: a few stone houses, a monument honoring the veterans of the World Wars, signs for fresh goat cheese, scarecrows, chickens, and fields dotted with cows. Let’s just suppose that, feeling tired from a long drive, the afternoon sunlight inviting you to rest, you decide to stop and take a stroll. You would first notice the outsized church, too large to make sense today for such a small place, witness to a time of greater religious fervor. Exploring the small roads going into the fields you would see a variety of houses, some remarkable in their old stone, others not so much if they have been remodeled and “modernized” to fit contemporary tastes. A cat might be sitting in the middle of a field, quietly observing you. Or a puppy from a near-by farm may come by with her tongue out, eager to play with newcomers. To be sure, you will consistently see vast, flourishing vegetable patches. Neat little rows methodically lined up one after another, divided into sections of lettuce, chards, spinach, carrots, beetroots, potatoes, onions, garlic, and the list goes on…
At first we were somewhat shy about approaching our Auvergnat neighbors; being the foreigner with the Parisian wife living next door, I was keenly aware of the exotic presence we must make in the hamlet of Verne. We met a few of them thanks to our cats, who refused to be confined to the space of our garden. Climbing the wall to hop on the other side, Gaston and Frida acted as our feline ambassadors in the neighborhood. When we would come searching for them, the conversation would typically go like, “So you’re the owners of the chubby striped kitten and the three-pawed three-colored cat?” “Yes… we hope they haven’t been bothering you!” “Oh not at all, plus they keep the mice away from my orchard!” This began our first contacts, but the key to this cultural exchange came from Adélaïde’s pâtisseries.
There was no way we could keep up with the sheer amount of pastry that was being brought home every week: royal and black forest cakes, lemon tarts, passion-fruit chocolates, raspberry charlottes, and tartes Bourdaloue to name a few… so in order to avoid wasting and throwing perfectly delicious food away or risking obesity-in-Verne, we started giving cakes to our neighbors. It turns out that giving your neighbors éclairs, macarons, and Paris-Brest is a great way to make friends. Trading sugar for vegetables, it’s like living an ethnologist’s gift economy dream. By spring we were coming over for coffee or crème de cassis, being shown around their vast orchards, and getting planting advice: “If you plant your lettuce on May 4th, the night of the new moon, they’ll grow really fast”, our landlord, Monsieur Rabeyrin, raises both hands accompanied by the typical French onomatopoeic et HOP!, the rising pitch of his voice indicating the sudden sprouting of a new plant. And “make sure to use wood chips instead of plastic to cover your strawberries during winter, it’s more organic”. Another neighbor, Monsieur Robert, told us about the lettuce seeds he’s been cultivating his entire life — unlike most of those currently available on the market, which cannot regenerate year after year. They’re his seeds, and they’re over 70 years old, as he puts it. His father first started germinating them in 1944, protecting himself and his family from the war’s food shortages. And today, M. Robert’s children are growing them too. Lettuce is a family affair around here.
We started our own modest patch, but soon we were receiving baskets of fresh veggies from our neighbors every week in exchange for the “pastry fix”. In the late spring, we received potatoes, carrots, lettuce, green beans. Then summer came with juicy red tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, fragrant wild arugula, and swiss chard (which I had never tried before, but it’s quite similar to kale). Now that fall is here we have a new variety of vegetables to work with: pumpkins, squash & butternut of course, but also lots of cauliflower, beetroots, and celery. With all these available on our kitchen table, we always have great options when deciding what to make for lunch. We can’t really go wrong whether we choose to peel and slice a few ripe tomatoes and throw them in the pan to make sauce, or parboil some green beans to accompany a steak. This week we decided to make butternut squash & pecorino risotto, perfumed with fresh-cut rosemary from the garden and crispy bacon.
Fall butternut squash & pecorino risotto with crispy bacon
— risotto alla zucca | Serves 4
- 270g risotto rice
- 660g butternut squash, peeled and diced
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 1-1,5L chicken stock and / or white wine (we like to do half/half)
- 25g salted butter, diced and cold
- 45g pecorino cheese, grated (and some extra for serving)
- 8 thin slices streaky bacon
- a few rosemary sprigs
- toasted pumpkin seeds for serving
- virgin olive oil
- coarse salt (for boiling water)
- fleur de sel & black pepper
- Parboil the peeled and diced squash: cook in salted boiling water for app. 4 min and immediately cool in a bowl of iced water. Once cold, drain and reserve.
- Heat up a casserole with olive oil and add the thinly sliced onions. Cook until tender and slightly golden. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon for a couple of minutes until it turns translucent.
- Pour a small quantity of hot stock or room-temperature white wine. Make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan by stirring frequently.
- Once the liquid has completely evaporated, add a ladleful of stock/wine. Season with salt, a sprinkle of nutmeg & cinnamon and throw in the rosemary sprigs as well as half of the squash.
- Continue adding liquid gradually and stir frequently for app. 18 min (or a little less depending on the rice). 5-8 minutes before the rice is ready, add the rest of the squash. Check the consistency of the risotto (slightly liquid but the grains of rice should be firm) and turn off the heat. Depending on how fluid you like it, you can add a little more stock/wine.
- Off the heat, add the diced butter, grated pecorino and stir vigorously for about a minute. This step is called mantecare. It comes from the word manteca which in Italian means “butter” and will give the risotto its final creamy consistency. Cover.
- While the risotto rests for a couple of minutes, in a very hot pan without any oil added, sear the slices of streaky bacon until colored on each side.
- Serve the risotto in soup plates or bowls, adding the grilled bacon, a few toasted pumpkin seeds, freshly grated pecorino and a rosemary sprig.