Simply food

MIXING MYSTERY WITH FOOD

Not only have I discovered that there is a sub-genre of detective stories devoted to the culinary exploits of the protagonist, but I’ve been served a wonderful helping of murder mixed with the cuisine of Périgord in the Dordogne.

Martin Walker with Pierrot Simonet, the police chief who was the model for Bruno (Photo courtesy Rebecca Marshall, The New York Times)

There’s a genre of detective stories or murder mysteries called ‘cosies’ in which sex and death usually occur off stage, the detective is an amateur sleuth and it all takes place in small community. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories are probably the best known. I enjoyed the TV series many years ago, but I’ve never read the books.

I had heard of, but ignored, the fact that another sub-genre was called ‘culinary cosies,’ where cooking, eating or talking about food shares the stage with the mystery. A lot of these cosies have dreadful punny titles: Toast Mortem, Butter off Dead, The Long Quiche Goodbye, Feta Attraction and The Crêpes of Wrath, to name a few. I kid you not.

I did enjoy reading the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stoute, which feature the amateur sleuth but take place in the less small community of New York. Wolfe weighed ‘a seventh of a ton’ and spends a lot of his time either eating or contemplating food. There’s even a Nero Wolfe cookbook.

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano, who featured in 28 books, several Italian films and a BBC TV series, delves into crimes in Sicily, where he naturally enjoys ARANCINI and SQUID INK PASTA, of which I have written here in the past. Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, who featured in 75 books, many films and several TV series, enjoys moules à la crème and choucroute, among many other delicacies.

Mystery writer MJ Carter, author of The Devil’s Feast, observes that it’s a peculiarity of these books that food and eating rarely progress the plot. Descriptions of eating or cooking are dropped into the action and suspend it. There’s a tradition in crime stories and thrillers that the book must rush to the crescendo with action upon action, she concludes. The popularity of these books shows that readers don’t seem to mind brief culinary digressions from the mayhem.

A good friend has introduced me to Martin Walker’s Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police in a town in the Dordogne, France, somewhere between Bergerac and Sarlat, where the author has a holiday home. The 20 novels depict the unconventional village policeman, a passionate cook and former soldier who never carries his official gun and who has ‘long since lost the key to his handcuffs.’

Prehistoric cave art in Lascaux

If you can’t quite place this region of France in your mental atlas, think of it as being about 200 km north of Toulouse. The town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, centres the region and the river Dordogne runs about 200 km due west to Bordeaux and the sea. Sarlat is a small medieval town nestled in the mountainous Périgord Noir. The region’s name is derived from the dark colour of its evergreen oak forests and the dark, fertile soil in the Sarladais, though not, apparently, from the abundant black truffles. As well as the aromatic fungus, the region is also known for foie gras, Bergerac wines, strawberries, walnuts, cep (porcini) mushrooms and sturgeon. The region is also famous for the multitude of ancient caves filled with the art of our prehistoric ancestors, especially those around Lascaux, about 25 km north of the town.

In his latest novel, To Kill a Troubadour (Knopf 2022), Bruno stops the plot dead to lovingly describe the details of preparing and roasting a boar for a communal feast or cooking a special omelette au fines herbes for a squad of Special Forces soldiers. Towards the end of the book, the action again halts briefly while Bruno observes several colleagues tucking into a plat du jour of rabbit served with pommes de terre Sarladaises and joins them for a leisurely lunch.

This reminds me of the many times I’ve enjoyed this version of garlic potatoes cooked in duck fat at Le Paradis restaurant, just steps from my Toronto home, which is where I buy my duck fat too. The dish is named after Sarlat, where cooking with duck fat is very common. The Sarladais is renowned for its duck-oriented cuisine, including cassoulet, a hearty slow-simmered casserole of sausage, duck confit, pork and white beans. That’s for another day.

POMMES DE TERRE SARLADAISES

Potatoes, double cooked in duck fat.

Shopping list

  • 4 large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into thin discs
  • ½ lemon, squeezed
  • 4 TBSP duck fat or clarified butter
  • 8 medium cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 1 cup water
  • sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

Garnish

  • ½ cup chopped parsley

Preparation and cooking

  1. In a large bowl filled with cold water, squeeze the juice of ½ lemon. Peel potatoes and slice thinly with a mandolin (about 5mm or less than ¼ in), or a sharp knife. Drop the slices in the water and leave to soak for 30 mins.
  2. Heat half the duck fat in a heavy or non-stick pan and melt at a medium heat. NOTE: If you are using butter, place slightly more than 4 TBSP in a small pan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and skim off the whey that forms. This is clarified butter, or ghee in Indian cooking.
  3. Drain the potatoes and rinse thoroughly in a colander. Pat very dry with a kitchen towel and add to the hot fat. Add salt and pepper and toss to coat. Cover the pan with a lid or foil and cook for about 10 mins until the potato coins are slightly soft. At this point you can take the pan off the heat and reserve the dish for finishing later.
  4. Remove the lid or foil and turn the heat up to medium high. Add the sliced garlic and remaining fat. Toss to coat and then cook without disturbing so the potatoes brown underneath. Raise or lower the heat to prevent burning but make sure they are nicely brown by lifting up a corner with a spatula. When they are browned to your liking, flip the whole lot with a spatula and brown the other side. Don’t worry of they break up. Cook for another 5 to 10 mins until they are browned enough and then serve immediately, garnished with parsley.

My colleagues Jim and David have both visited the Dordogne and I have vowed to put the region on my bucket list. During his long career as a wine agent, Jim had reason to travel to Bergerac, Sarlat-la-Canéda and many other gastronomic destinations. He relates their vinous adventures in three fun blogs: Real farmers don’t do tasting menus, Drinking in the Dordogne Part I, and Drinking in the Dordogne Part II. As you can tell from the titles, a great deal of wine and food was consumed, including the greatly under-rated wines of Bergerac and a surfeit of pâté de foie gras.

Featured image: Sarlat in Périgord Noir, France (Photo courtesy Mandy Offeringa)

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1 reply »

  1. Do your darndest to get there, Nigel. It is truly magical. But do watch out for the surfeit of pâté de foie gras. Cheers! Jim

    Like

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