Ciara Kenny

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Calvados, scallops and a turkey fresh from the farm

Preparing for the Christmas feast in Normandy is a little different to shopping in Tesco, writes Liz Ryan, in an extract from her book French Leave.

Sat, Dec 24, 2011, 06:00


Preparing for the Christmas feast in Normandy is a little different to shopping in Tesco, writes Liz Ryan, in an extract from her book French Leave.

Once again Christmas is approaching. I have been to visit my neighbour with a crate of empty bottles, and his fat sheep, scattered like toys around the orchard, have paused in their munching to watch him fill them with the fiery calvados he makes from his own apples, to sell on the side to one or two friends. He siphons it from a keg into a funnel, and thence into the bottle, with the practised hand of decades, and not a trickle, not one drop of the apple brandy is lost.

Yes, of course you can buy official calvados in the supermarket, properly bottled and labelled, and it’s very good; it just doesn’t have quite that same tang of autumn mist mixed with apple pips and blades of grass and stray leaves, it doesn’t have that same hint of wood and wool. It doesn’t carve quite the same dramatic canyon in your tummy midway through a ten-course meal, which is what calvados is designed to do. The trou normand, knocked back in one gulp, works on the scorched-earth principle, clearing everything in its path, leaving the committed gourmet ready and raring to tackle the second half of his or her humungous Christmas meal (often eaten on Christmas eve) with revived gusto.

However, before we get that far, the meal must start somewhere. Traditionally, it starts with plump tangy oysters from Concale, Arcachon or St Vaast – lemon juice or shallot vinaigrette being the only desirable dressings, ask for tabasco and you might well be asked for your papers – but we have decided to blaze a new trail. With radical daring, we foreigners are going to start in the Norman tradition, with scallops.

And so I pack up my crate of moonshine calvados (it makes an ideal Christmas gift apart from flaming the pud), get in the car and drive on to the home of M’sieu le Pêcheur. Very possibly, he has some other real name, surely it can’t actually be Mr Fisher, but I have never been able to ask him, because whenever I come to collect my scallops he is – logically enough – away at sea. I first heard of Mr Fisher from a neighbour who works on the cross-channel ferry, who told me scandalised about tonnes of scallops being dumped into the English channel because nobody wanted them, whereupon I leaped up, hand in air, shouting that I wanted them, I would take them all! Well then, he said, go see Mr Fisher, he will procure you some straight off his boat, fresh out of the ocean and out of their shells too, he even does all the preparation for his little circle of cash-paying customers.

Terrific. Terrible. And so I have since visited the Fisher home many times, as again today, to pick up my sack of cushiony scallops and pat the heads of the five little Fishers, who line up to say ‘allo m’dame’ in chorus, each one precisely a head taller than the next. (I suspect they sleep Russian doll-style at night, the smaller ones tucked into the larger). Despite his perpetual absence, Mr Fisher must get home now and again, because the eldest of these steps-of-stairs is only six, while the baby is barely teething and Madame is pregnant, eh oui! once again.

After due banter about impending baby Fisher, and an appreciative nod at the scarlet sunset behind farmer Marcel’s pigeonnier (dovecote) in the nearby field, the booty is duly produced. Two kilos of silvery scallops are slipped to me (I feel as if I’m buying cocaine) and even in the dusk I can see that many have their sacs of orange coral still attached…which may explain why scallops taste so good with a certain orange sauce that is, alas, particularly difficult to make. My own method, less dramatic but nonetheless delicious, involves Noilly Prat and crème fraiche; but not yet. Not yet.

First, the glistening scallops are to be chilled and rested overnight. ‘Shake them’ advises the perpetually-harassed albeit kindly Mrs Fisher, ‘in a drop of milk. They keep better and they fill out, plus the flavour is enhanced’.

How they could possibly fill out much further without bursting, or how flavour can be much better than ocean-fresh, I do not know, but I take her word for it. The scallops will be cuddled and cossetted and given every possible care en route from this world to the next. After all, they do cost sixty per cent of what they cost in the supermarket; even in France there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

And now it’s almost dark, and it’s time to meet up with my English neighbour Tim, who has requested my assistance on a little mission. While his wife is away in England working for a week or two – after all, somebody’s got to earn a crust somewhere – he has been issued with instructions to procure a turkey. Like the calvados, turkeys are available in the supermarket, packed and prepared, but he and his wife have decided that they will have a proper local beast, fresh from the farm, and we have already sourced it at a farmer’s stall in our local market earlier in the week. Now, it is ready for collection; the only pépin might be the directions to the farmhouse, because he’s not sure he quite understood Mrs Farmer’s crunchy accent. Something about a crucifix, apparently, something in patois that entirely defeats his satnav.

So armed with our mobile phones we drive off into the Stygian night, only to discover that it’s rush hour in farmland. There is a car coming not only at us, but a tractor a few hundred metres behind as well. Good Lord, don’t things get busy round here at Christmas – next thing it’ll be road rage!

No matter. Soon we shake off all this traffic and slew up a road – well, muddy track – to the left. We know it isn’t far to the farm, but still there’s no sign of it…on and on we drive, only to eventually arrive baffled at the crossroads of a main road. No. Definitely not. We must have passed the turning somewhere without realising it, not a difficult feat in this comprehensive, all-enveloping darkness. At night in Normandy, all is pitch black, and the sky is shimmering with stars.

‘Ring madame’ Tim finally concedes, ‘or we could be going round in circles till Christmas’.

So I ring her, and she says, what did I tell you, you turn left at the calvaire, it’s in a grotto, you can’t miss it (you fools)…while I relate this to Tim he reverses, and hey presto, yes, there’s the crucifix! Now we’re motoring. A few hundred metres on up a dirt boreen we spot the battered old car which is our next landmark, and we’re home and dry on turkey turf, madame’s husband waiting to meet us at the door with a hefty child in his arms, nodding sleepily off over his shoulder.

No. On closer inspection, it’s not a child, actually. It’s the newly-deceased turkey. The biggest, sturdiest turkey imaginable, its paws dangling down the farmer’s chest and its wrung neck dangling down the farmer’s back, its beak agape in shock, a beady eye fixing us reproachfully as if to say ‘I was running round this farm only five minutes ago, you know, until you ordered my execution, how can you have done this to me’.

Once again, a rumpled wad of cash is fetched up from the depths of a grimy pocket, and Tim staggers as the turkey is transferred to his grasp. It is enormous, and its very integrity is a problem for him. Briefly he wrestles with the prospect of trying to say something in French, but then he chickens out and turns to me. “Would you ask m’sieu here if there’s any chance he might chop off its head for me? I, uh, I don’t like to be the one to do it…”

So I ask Mr Farmer, who rather unexpectedly says no, no chance. He doesn’t like to be the one to do it either, he adds with a touch of asperity, after all this creature was a friend of the family up to five minutes ago. Here’s your bird, thanks for your custom, and now goodnight. Goodbye. Firmly, the door closes.

So we clump to the car, Tim heaves the bird into the boot, wrestles the lid down over its boulder-size chest and we head for home, wondering how exactly you brace yourself to chop a…uh, maybe a little shot of that calvados might help?

Scarcely is he home when his wife rings from London to know whether the proper, authentic, corn-fed, free-range organic turkey has been got?

‘Yes’ affirms Tim, a little crisply after his somewhat traumatic odyssey to turkey mecca, ‘it has. It’s out in the garden. I’ve tied it up on a long rope and it seems quite happy. When you get back, dear, you’ll only need to sharpen the axe and kill it’.

Yes. Well. This kind of Christmas shopping makes a refreshing change from Tesco. Now all that’s left is the monks, who should have our cheese ready and waiting for us over at the moonlit abbey, its rind washed by their very own gnarled hand. Rumour has it they give it a good flaying with their rosary beads at Christmas to get the bumps out and maintain the religious aspect of things…and then there’s the lady who hand-stuffs her squawking geese to make the foie gras, but maybe you don’t want to hear about that. Not unless George is standing by with a stretcher.

Liz Ryan is the author of seven novels and a freelance journalist. This story is an extract from her book French Leave, which she wrote about her experiences as an Irishwoman in Normandy, where she has lived since 2001.