Monday, July 26, 2010

Not So Little Lamb

"Today we sacrificed a lamb in honor of my firstborn son." I always hoped I would have a reason to write a sentence so thoroughly biblical. Except is wasn't today, or even yesterday - it was two and a half weeks ago, and this is literally the first chance I've had to sit down at the computer. My new life in Provence is getting the better of me. We left our childcare in Paris, so my days are spent between Augustin and his new blow up kiddie pool (love at first splash), sorting cartons and preparing meals with veggie baskets kindly brought over by the neighbors. (I swear, the photo below is not a mise en scene - it was just that pretty when Mr. C brought it over.) Back to the not-so-little lamb. No sooner had we stacked the cartons in our new house in Cereste then we were off to visit G.'s godparents in Brittany. When Augustin was born, G. asked them to host the traditional mechoui (a whole lamb roasted on a spit over an open fire). There was one when G. was born - and for every subsequent child in the family. Rumor has it, there exists an alarming photo of my late father-in-law, munching - Neanderthal style - on a leftover leg of lamb.

G.'s godfather, A., has been a cooking mentor to me. His recipes read like poems - not much more than a list of ingredients with a flourish of interpretation. I try to stick close to him in the kitchen - it's the only way. Precious bits of advice drop like pebbles that I sort and collect over time. A. and his wife live in a stone farmhouse that has been in her family for several generations.They've turned the old barns into a gallery. There are two resident tortoises, who eat very well.A. keeps a pair of binoculars handy, to show his grandchildren the foxes that sometimes sprint across the neighboring fields. When we arrived, the fire was already going in the old boulangerie attached to the main house. On it was a paella - a surprisingly ubiquitous dish in France.The rice was bubbling away in a saffron sauce, and A. added the raw shrimp as we arrived, which started to pink up immediately in preparation for the hungry crowd. Our aperitif, always champagne when my mother-in-law is around, was served on an old wheelbarrow. The day of the mechoui, G. was waiting eagerly at the door (with a surprising number of other people), for the Super U to open so he could fetch the lamb. For my first mechoui, several years back, A. bought the lamb from a local producer. He killed and prepared it himself - but restrictions were getting tighter on this sort of thing, he said. So he decided to order.

Prepping the lamb was quite the surgical adventure.
A. had been up since 6am roasting peppers, peeling tomatos and slicing onions for the stuffing. He asked me to fetch thyme from the garden and bay leaves from the tree at the front of the lawn - never quite sure if his favorite city girl will come back with the right thing...

I love this last photo - I think it looks like a Dutch still-life.

To keep everyone going until the main event, the mechoui always begins with brochettes of grilled lamb's liver - marinated briefly with a slick of olive oil, spicy red harissa pepper, salt and a good earthy dose of cumin. When A. butchered the lamb himself, he would save la voilette, the delicate, lace-like membrane of fat around the organs, to wrap the hunks of liver - and give it a bit of sizzle on the grill. Unfortunately, the supermarket butcher chose to throw this part away...
There's me in my shades, preparing brochettes - who knew liver could be so glam... Augustin, at 11 months, LOVED the liver, which is proof enough, I think, of his French nationality.

Meanwhile, the lamb was hoisted - not by me - into the flames. A.'s spit is a homemade affair, rigged with rusting bicycle gears.

The smoke in the boulangerie stung my eyes, but I made it in there a few times to baste. After several hours, I got the honor of the first piece of crackling. Take your diamonds, boys – just give me the skin. The finished lamb could bring out the carnivore in anyone - I had to resist the urge to pick my entire meal off the spit with my bare hands.

There were other traditions to attend to. There is a photo of 3 generations of G.'s family in front of the yellow cherry tree in the back pasture. We took a picture with Augustin to complete the album.

We ate our evening meal of merguez and baguette sandwiches with considerable relish -considering what we'd devoured at lunch. Our friend Anne had driven halfway across France with two cases of melons in her backseat, perfectly ripe and impossibly orange.I can't say this mechoui went as late as the one I remembered, with songs and wine, wine and songs, stretching into the night. The kids, the rare Brittany heat wave, and the good Bordeaux wore us out. We slept like little lambs - and woke up (if you can believe it) hungry.


  1. Whew! You have just up and dived into a totally new life, haven't you. I cracked up at the opening -- who would have ever thought that anyone in this day and age would be able to sacrifice a lamb for a firstborn son, lol! (Well, in somewhere like western Europe at any rate.)

    What absolutely beautiful rustic views you have presented. Sitting here in Paris, I feel I have been transported to a completely different time and place from reading and viewing the story here. Totally entrancing.

    And I have confirmed from reading this post that I probably can never go entirely vegetarian: the various meat dishes and the sight of that stuffed lamb has my mouth watering all over the place. Yum.

    You look fantastic in those shades up there -- relaxed and happy. It seems that your new provincial life is agreeing with you. :)

  2. I just finished your book and I absolutely loved it. Being a 20 year old just having moved out on my own, it encourages me to explore the world and cook too! Thank you.

  3. HMMMM Is that dress from H& M??? Cause I think I have the very same one.

  4. You bet - there's nothing like H&M when you risk having lamb juice running down your front all day. Cute - with minimal guilt for the inevitable stains!

  5. Great post-felt like I was there (and certainly WISHED I was!)Look forward to hearing more
    Tess in Oz

  6. You moved from one storybook stetting to another! Man, I wish my neighbors - or even my bio grocer - created such lovely paniers!

  7. I'm drooling over your description of the lamb and aching with homesickness for France. I'm not French but spent many years between Paris and Provence.

  8. I am totally in love with Provence and you are such a lucky woman to now live there. I was in Arles and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in March, but couldn't manage a trip this summer. Félicitations on the new home. I just discovered the writings of René Char- quelle coincidence. A friend who lives in Nîmes sent me a book of his poems, "Lettera amorosa." Keep blogging... I will just live vicariously through you until I can buy my own little cabanon in Provence and surround myself with lavender and sunflowers...

  9. Beautiful rural views of France and I love that little tortoise - I'm wondering if they are common in France, because I was dining at a farm restaurant in Provence and a little tortoise slowly walked across the floor - he was so cute.

  10. Your blog is gorgeous! I just finished reading your book - I couldn't put it down from the moment it arrived. I had to keep from laughing out loud so I wouldn't wake the little ones in the middle of the night! Thank you for a hilarous, touching, and fresh look at Paris - it took me back to when I lived there in 1997. Looking forward to trying some of the recipes, and to your next book!

  11. Ah that basket of fresh ingredients looks so good! You are lucky to have des voisins that are welcoming you so nicely. As for your life so far, well I'm still really jealous! The food (paella..oh yum..and that large lamb?!), the produce, and your French family - it just looks like what dreams are made of.

  12. Ps. Can't believe he liked liver at that age! Très français..

  13. Your best post ever! Fantastic pictures and a great narrative. I love mechoui and the way you brought it to life is making me want to get on a plane to Morocco tomorrow (although the Brittany version looks every bit as good). The scenes of family and the French countryside are lovely, too. You are clearly leading a full and happy life.

  14. Enjoyed your book, referred to others, but after reading this, you have lost my interest. Hope your kid enjoyed the kid!