One day I came back home to find one of my best friends sitting in the kitchen, grinning at me as if he had just pulled the prank of the year. I hadn’t seen Harley in a long time. On a hot June day of the canicule, he flew in from New York without telling us, to make a surprise. Since we live in a lieu-dit, a place without street names nor house numbers, all he had was a picture and the name of our hamlet, Verne, that he showed to the bewildered but sprite young taxi driver at the train station in Saint-Etienne. Finding it difficult to locate the appropriate stone farmhouse — knocking door to door and asking in rusty French if they knew of a Brazilian-American guy and his pastry chef wife didn’t seem to work (one person got really suspicious of his harlequinesque appearance, repeating to him in French “I don’t want to buy anything, I don’t want to buy anything!”) — he finally found our house by consulting with the Lapte Mairie or Town Hall for precise directions.
Only Adélaïde was at home so when I came back I was in total shock, like I had just seen a ghost. There he was, wearing a baby blue linen suit, trying out our jams on our wooden farm table in the kitchen, staring back at me and desperately trying to contain his mirth when I entered. He told me that our homemade brioche & jam was the best thing he had ever eaten.
A couple of days later, after Harley went back to the U.S., the Rabeyrin’s, our landlords and friends, were scratching their heads at how somebody could come from so far away and stay for such a short period of time. I’m not sure if they have ever met an American before (besides me), let alone an exuberant New Yorker with a flair for extravagant surprises.
This led me to think about how little I have moved around this year, in contrast to other times in my life. We stayed put in Haute-Loire, occasionally taking the car to Marseille and Paris to visit family (which is already a lot of moving around for some standards). Naturally, we stayed close to home and explored the region. In the end, we discovered that there was such a world of villages and sights to see in our immediate surroundings that the excitement of rural exploration made us feel like there was no need to go far away to discover an interesting place.
It will soon be one year since we’ve moved to Auvergne, one year of cooking almost every day, of taking the small roads. We know Grazac and its snowy trails, the best boucherie in St.-Agrève, a majestic cathedral where a medieval pope is buried in La-Chaise-Dieu, Crapponne-sur-Arzon, a virtually unknown gem of a village that stands frozen in time, and le Chambon-sur-Lignon with its antiquity and book stores & its Saturday market bringing together the greatest regional goat cheese producers in the space of a few stands. We climbed volcanoes for the views, combed forests for mushrooms, and in the process explored neighborhoods of leaves and moss and the infinitely minute populations living in a square foot of earth.
Walter Benjamin examined and exalted the figure of the flâneur: the quintessential observer of modern life who dallied about Paris at the turn of the century, strolling through its arcades full of shops and fashionable people — but who nevertheless remained somewhat distant from the object he was observing, removed in his thoughts. Balzac called flânerie “the gastronomy of the eye”. It would be facile and probably incorrect to say we were rural flâneurs, because after so many cups of tea with our neighbors, walking and photographing the roads and trails surrounding our house, after so many hours in our garden getting our hands full of dirt and plants or having meals with friends in the warm months, we mingled with and imbibed a good gulp of life in the country.
Next month we will move to Marseille. We will continue our posts, but they will look and feel different. There will be seafood, sun, bazaars, and another pace of life. We will surely continue to write about Auvergne, as this year has marked us deeply and the stream of memories, stories, and images that we have to share from here is far from running out.
Roasted fennel & lemon feuilleté + poppy seeds | Serves 4-6
The puff pastry:
This is the classic French puff pastry recipe. It is time-consuming — mainly because of the necessary resting time between the different steps — but so delicious! You could also buy it ready-made, frozen or fresh, from a supermarket or your local bakery.
- 220g all-purpose flour
- 5g salt
- 35g unsalted butter
- 110g water
- 135g special layering butter or regular butter, as “dry” as possible
- 2g white vinegar (optional)
- In a bowl, work the flour, salt and 35g butter until crumbly. Add the water and vinegar and knead until homogenous. If you have a stand-mixer, mix all the ingredients together until homogenous using the hook. Make sure you don’t over-knead the dough as to not give it too much “body” which would make it too elastic. Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate.
- Place the layering butter on half of a polypropylene sheet or parchment paper and fold the other half of the sheet over it. Using a rolling pin, start flattening the butter down and fold the paper around it like an envelope so that the butter doesn’t escape. Roll out evenly into a 15×15 cm square (app. 5 mm thick). Leave it wrapped in the paper and refrigerate for at least 30 min. It is important the butter is quite hard and cold when you use it next to get the best result!
- On a clean work surface, roll out the dough into a 15×30 cm rectangle. Dust your work surface with a little flour to make sure it doesn’t stick. Unwrap the butter and place it in the middle of the rectangle. Fold as shown in the drawing below and rotate by a quarter of a turn.
- On the sides of your square, make an incision with a knife as shown below. This will allow the butter to spread out more evenly. Keeping the same width, roll out the rectangle until it’s app. 45-50 cm long. Make sure you don’t flatten the dough too much or else the butter will be incorporated and you won’t get the final “thousand leaves” effect. You can trim both edges with a knife.
- Fold in three as shown below (folding the #1 side first and then the #2 side over the others). This is a “simple fold”, tour simple in French. Roll out again and perform a second fold in the same way. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
- Redo step 5 twice (fold twice and refrigerate an hour; then fold twice again).
Note: as a slightly faster alternative, instead of preparing the layering butter separately, you could knead it directly in your dough. Use the same quantities of flour, salt and water and cut 200g unsalted butter into small cubes (app. 1 cm), frozen for 10 minutes. Roughly knead all the ingredients together, by hand or using the hook in a stand-mixer (the butter shouldn’t be quite incorporated to the flour), shape into a rectangle and leave it to rest for 5 minutes. Fold the dough by itself as explained above 6 times and roll out into a 40x35cm rectangle.
The fennel & lemon filling:
- 1 large fennel
- 2 tbsp crème fraîche
- the juice & zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 tbsp poppy seeds
- 1-2 tbsp pistachio oil
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar or glaze
- fleur de sel & black pepper
- Slice the fennel and lay it out evenly on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil & some of the pistachio oil as well as a little bit of lemon juice, salt & pepper. Roast in a preheated oven at 190°C for app. 15 min or until it starts getting soft and slightly golden.
- In a bowl, combine the crème fraîche, remaining lemon juice and pistachio oil, the lemon zest, most of the grated parmesan cheese and season to taste. Mix until homogenous.
- Roll out the dough to app. 3-4mm thick into a rectangle and lay it out on a lined baking sheet. Be careful! Once rolled out or trimmed, this type of dough cannot be kneaded and rolled out again like regular pastry because of the folding process. Poke holes on the whole surface of the dough with a fork. Don’t throw away the trimmings! They’re delicious baked by themselves too… You can twist them to give them a nice shape and sprinkle them with poppy seeds and/or parmesan cheese. They will bake more quickly than the feuilleté so take them out of the oven after app 10-15 min or until nicely golden.
- Pour the crème fraîche preparation over the rolled out dough and spread evenly, leaving an app. 2cm border. Lay out the roasted fennel over the cream, sprinkle with poppy seeds & the remaining parmesan cheese. Drizzle with balsamic glaze.
- With a fork or knife, imprint or cut the border of the dough into decorative shapes. This will prevent the puff pastry from rising too much while baking.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 190°C for app. 20-25 min or until the puff pastry is nice & golden.