Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Baked Potatoes and Cream

We worked hard in France as we have finally commenced decoration of the house there - that was never going to be a quick process. Most days we ate out for lunch - when in France...! In the deeply engrained tradition of that country everyone stops at midday, eats together and returns again at 2pm. The relais in Montréal du Gers serves a four course lunch with bread and wine and water for E11.50 cooked daily by the woman who owns the place. Start with soup - possibly creamed vegetable or a delicate meaty broth, follow with a selection of salads and eggs either boiled and topped with mayonnaise or still warm as an omelette with a little ham or mushrooms, then a hot main course - roasted pork perhaps or thinly sliced steak very very rare topped with melted shallots and a side dish of sauté potatoes and ratatouille, then your choice of desserts, magnificent crème brulée or tarte au citron or flan normande. She caters to 20 or 30 people a day, truck drivers, businessman, family groups and sometimes ten firemen at a table tucking in with gusto. Everybody does lunch.

Evenings, exhausted, we mostly had bread and cheese and salads, easy stuff. Towards the end of the fortnight I had some soft cheese and some crème d'Isigny to use up because I couldn't bear to throw it out. Crème d'Isigny is a wonder of the dairy world. Since 1986 it has worn the AOC - Controlled Label of origin, the only cream to do so. For hundreds of years Isigny has been recognized for the very high quality of butter and the cream. From the 18th century butter made using this fabulous cream was exported round the known world. This cream is a greedy gift of nature, its taste of hazel nut and acidulous end note make it really irresistible, its texture a caress on the palate.

Simple is best with such ingredients and so I bought some ratte potatoes and began to experiment. Always use waxy potatoes to cook in gratin style dishes - floury ones will fall apart to create a pale puddle. Unappetising. Cream and nutmeg and garlic are a no-brainer really - the individual flavours weave around each other and together create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The thyme leaves in the second layer just add tiny spikes of freshness and a little change in texture in an occasional mouthful, a subtle variety. The cheese softens and melts to give an even greater depth of flavour, though the dish would work very well without. Being sometimes frugal I didn't want to have to throw it away just because we were leaving so in it went as well. Potatoes are deeply comforting in all their guises - served this way they restored our energies after a hard day up a ladder stripping wallpaper.

Baked Potatoes and Cream

250g ratte potatoes, or other waxy varieties like pink fir apple or charlottes
100g crème d'Isigny
100g soft cheese like a camembert or pie d'angeloy
Nutmeg freshly grated
4 sprigs of thyme
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
Salt and fresh black pepper
3 tbspns water or stock

Without peeling, thinly slice the potatoes. Butter a small casserole dish then cover the base with a layer of potato. Sprinkle with some chopped garlic, grate some nutmeg over, season generously then dollop cream and cheese on top. Repeat with a second layer of potatoes this time sprinkling with thyme leaves not nutmeg before adding cream and cheese. Top with a final layer of sliced potatoes dot with small pieces of cream and cheese then add the liquid. Bake in a moderate oven - 200C - for 50 - 60 minutes. Allow to settle briefly before serving with a crisp green salad.

A decadent reward at the end of a hard day.

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