Every now and then I’ll sit through one of those “secrets of the ancient world” shows on the History Channel. You know, the ones in which they have modern experts try to “decode” how the pyramids or the hanging gardens of Babylon were constructed using graphics that make you feel like you’re watching B-roll from The Da Vinci Code, and where, before every commercial break, there’s some sort of cliff-hanger like “Coming up, how this building ought never to have stood!”
So it was this past week, when shortly after the birth of our son, I was rocking him gently to sleep with one eye on a TV show about how Europe’s gothic cathedrals were built. Focusing on the massive limestone spires of the cathedrals of Notre-Dame d’Amiens, St. Pierre de Beauvais and Notre-Dame de Paris, this show was among the more interesting of its genre as not only did it deal directly with how modern architects are trying to prevent these houses of God from collapsing under their own weight, but it also brought back memories of our trip earlier this year to the Picardy region of northern France when we visited the first of these.
While the nave of St. Pierre de Beauvais did in fact collapse because of architectural over-reach, which its foreshortened and incomplete appearance reflects, Notre-Dame d’Amiens stands perilously intact as among the largest of its kind in the world. Sitting on the highest point in town, it can be seen, as was intended, from miles around. At night, it is so illuminated by floodlights that the visitor might be forgiven for thinking it is heralding an alien invasion.
When these giants of devotional architecture were being erected, they were in competition with one another for the title of the grandest monument in the country, but if competitive historic structural design isn’t your exactly bag, there is plenty else to appreciate about Amiens, including a feat of construction every bit as daring, but much more toothsome, than those stonemasons of yore managed. For Amiens, as Picardy in general, is famous for its duck products, and in particular for a fascinating multi-meat confection of duck, rabbit, pork and chicken livers all sealed-up crustily in a layer of savory pastry.
In truth, this was my train of thought. Fatigued as I was by several sleepless nights and hungry for something corporeally rewarding, the enduring might of colossal 13th-century cathedrals was far less intriguing than Jane Grigson’s recipe for pâté en croûte d’Amiens. Moreover, I was even more drawn to it because its preparation seemed to be easy enough for my addled senses to follow. Even after butchering and stripping the duck and rabbit carcasses, it didn’t feel like a lot of work, nor did the very basic pastry recipe cause any pain, persuading me, momentarily, that perhaps this parenting lark isn’t so tough after all.
However, pulling the rich, golden-brown terrine from the oven, and hearing my mother-in-law comment that in spite of the recent arrival of our firstborn I was willing to waste time preparing such a dish in place of a easy greasy take-away dinner, I snapped at her rather meanly, that given the level of the strain I was under, and some fried crap in a tray just wouldn’t cut it. I subsequently apologized, and had my nerves not been so frayed by weariness, I would have replied much more civilly, perhaps saying that in this pâté en croûte, I, like the structural engineers on the History Channel, had found a temporary solution to crushing gravity.
(from Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson)
For the pâté:
- 1 duck with its liver
- 2-3oz foie gras or chicken livers
- 1/2lb rabbit meat
- 1/2lb lean ground pork
- 4oz meat stock
- 1/2 teaspoon flavorless gelatin/aspic
- 4oz Madeira
- 4oz brandy or eau de vie
- 2 medium eggs
- salt, black pepper, thyme and bay
- 1/2lb mushrooms (optional)
- enough pork fat to cover the bottom of the terrine (optional)
For the pastry:
- 8oz plain flour
- 2oz lard +2oz butter or
- 4oz butter at room temperature
- cold water
- large pinch salt
- Bone the duck and the rabbit, or have the butcher do it for you.
- Make the short crust pastry by sifting the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl and then rubbing the fat into it until crumbs fall.
- Add enough water to bring the dough together to make a smooth dough. Knead lightly and place under plastic in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes
- In a large bowl mix the duck, rabbit, livers and pork with the seasonings (salt, pepper, bay, thyme) together. (test seasoning by sauteing a pinch of the mixture and tasting)
- Heat the brandy in a saucepan and set alight (careful!) before pouring it over meat mixture.
- Add eggs, Madeira wine and half the warmed meat stock mixed with half the gelatin.
- You may put the meat mixture through a meat grinder at this point, but I left it chunky because I prefer it that way.
- (Optional) Line the terrine or baking dish with strips of pork fat and then pack in the rest of the meat.
- Add the pastry lid, brush well with a beaten egg and make one or two holes before baking in a 300F/150C oven for an hour and a half.
- Mix the remaining warmed meat stock with 1/4 teaspoon gelatin
- Allow pâté to cool completely before using a funnel inserted into the holes you made prior to baking to pour in the meat stock/gelatin mixture.
- Allow gelatin/aspic to set up for at least two hours before serving.
- Enjoy with crusty bread, cornichons, salad, and Dijon mustard, and wash down with red, white or pink wine, or even a sparkling cider from Normandy.