The invites were sent long before anyone knew that it would be the night the XV de France would face the ferocious All Backs during the Rugby World Cup. By 9:45 pm, the hostess was flummoxed as she surveyed her buffet table loaded with whole poached salmon with an anchoïade sauce, rosy beef tenderloin crusted with herbs, and assorted fall salads while most of her guests were jammed into the tiny TV room cheering the French team. It reminded me of all the Super Bowl parties I had read about but never attended.
To make her feel better, I offered “you know, in the US, parties around sport events are quite popular. And, they can be very elegant affairs.” I expected the mocking comment I have heard so often in the past few years “les Americains sont des sauvages” (Americans have no manners). Instead, she looked amused and quite pleased with herself — she was now hosting the coolest party around. She just sat back and poured another round of chardonnay 2006 Domaine de la Commanderie de St Jean.
The mushroom season is late this year. Since September, forager friends have made few runs to their favorite secret spots in the Haut-Languedoc and came back empty handed. Then one day in Beziers, in the middle of the very crowded Friday market, I spotted them – the first cèpes of the season. Although due to the scarcity, this year’s prices are high, as a former New Yorker shopping at Dean & Delucas, Fairway or Union Square’s Farmer’s Market, the 23 € a kilo tag didn’t faze me, for I planned to pick up just enough for a main course for two. I was carefully making my selection when the stall keeper pointed to a stash on the side, and casually mentioned that since it was almost 1pm, closing time, and these cèpes wouldn’t keep longer than a day, I could have them for 10 € as long as I promise to consume them right away. Was he kidding? I came home with about 2 kg.
That evening, in order to sample the pure flavors and textures of this year’s harvest, I prepared half of them very simply — en persillade. Cut lengthwise into thick slices and seared in olive oil (duck fat is also excellent), then cooked until golden for 15 to 20 minutes over gentle heat and showered with a good amount of minced garlic and parsley in the last few minutes of cooking. The following day, I prepared one of my favorite dishes, daube de cèpes, a recipe I learned from André Daguin while working on our book, “Foie Gras, Magret and other Good Food from Gascony.” It is an amazing dish with great depth of flavors and character, and is often served as an accompaniment to a roast. I can make a meal of it on its own, followed by a garlicky frisée salad, some semi-aged goat cheese and fresh walnuts.
Daube de Cèpes
- 3 pounds fresh firm cèpes
- 3 tablespoons duck fat
- Salt to taste
- 1/4 lb pancetta, finely chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ½ cup finely chopped parsley
- 1 ½ cups dry white wine
- 1 cup hot water
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat the duck fat in a heavy pot over medium heat. Place the cèpes caps upside down in the pot and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Remove from the pot and season with salt.
Finely chop the mushroom stems and add them to the pot with the pancetta, garlic, and parsley along with a pinch of salt. Stir well and sauté over medium-high heat until the mixture starts to turn golden. Add the wine to the pot and season with salt and lightly with pepper. When the wine starts to boil, add the hot water. Carefully arrange the caps in the pan and cook, covered, over low heat for 1½ hours. The mixture should not be too dry. Add some hot water to the pan, if necessary, to moisten it and prevent from burning.