It’s All In Your Head
I finally decided to break down and buy some poultry, which is hideously expensive here. A pintade, or guinea hen, caught my eye with her blue face and long eyelashes. I’m not accustomed to poultry having eyelashes, but I asked the market vendor if one added the head to soup, or why it was included, tucked under the bird’s wing in a truly touching way.
“Just for presentation” he replied, “but if you’re making soup I’ll give you a carcass I have here.” He didn’t mention that the extra carcass would also have a head, leaving me with two heads to spare and not a thought in either of them. So he gave me two heads and I thanked him very much and carted them home, but while my heart smiled at the thought of a gift my head fretted over the reality. Those eyelashes really got to me.
Yesterday I asked our neighbor Jean-Claude about the gift of sardines that I mentioned a few days ago, and he said “you don’t buy fish from that guy, do you?” He went on to say that even though the fish guy is his pal he would never buy fish from him because its freshness is worse than suspect. Although personally I’ve never had any issues with the fish, I’m thinking that I should trust Jean-Claude on this one. The tales he told would curl every hair on your head, mine already being curly beyond further revision. And worse, the six mackerel in the fridge, heads still on, are reproaching me from downstairs even now. Will I overcome my doubts and use them wisely, or toss them, heads and all?
Jean-Claude also brought me a bag of quinces from his tree when I said I like to make quince paste every autumn. Wow, what a nice favor, a huge pile of quinces grown just over the wall from here. We did get into a small argument about the best way to make quince paste but hey, we can have these differences between neighbors and life can still be peachy, right?
You know how when you’re in a foreign country at first it all seems impossibly strange? And then after a while you start to think “hey, they’re just like us.” And then as time passes and you know more about how things really work you start to realize that a 7 year old kid not only speaks the language better than you do but is way more clued in to all the subtle nuances of everyday life than you’ll be for some years to come. And following that realization you can either sit at the bar, head in hands, downing endless shots of the local tranquilizer, or you can start cooking.
In my case it was a bit of both, but the cooking is a better subject for public consumption. The pintade was delicious when roasted like a chicken, which it very nearly is. I served it with a gratin made according to the directions of the guy who sold me the main ingredient. He was a very young man who spent 5 minutes explaining to me how best to cook my 1 Euro purchase of a small potimarron. Although it’s usually translated as pumpkin, it’s really more what we’d call a winter squash, kind of like a kuri squash. He had me peel and slice it thinly, set in a gratin dish with an equal amount of thin slices of potatoes, then cover it with cream beaten with a couple of eggs. I added a good handful of shallots and a thick dusting of grated Comté, and it was luscious. Normally Shel wouldn’t eat a pumpkin to save his life, but he loved this gratin. Try it yourself, it’s a major treat for cool weather.
The quinces were more problematic. Usually I bake them whole before peeling, but Jean-Claude had insisted they should be peeled and cut up first. I soon saw why, as each one contained either a small animal like an ant or a centipede, or the remains of animal incursions. After way too much cutting and peeling I produced a pot of chutney with quince, ginger, hot pepper, and shallots cooked in some cidre du Normandie as well as a vinegar made from that same cider and cassonade, the delicious raw golden sugar.
But what shall I say to Jean-Claude about the quince paste I promised to make, and why I’m probably going to make it from somebody else’s quinces, some anonymous fruit that I’ll have to pay for but will be critter-free? What shall I say to the fish guy about why I’m suddently not buying his fish anymore? What shall I say to the mackerel who gave their fishy lives only to face a possible fling in the trash? Those gift horses are talking back inside my head.
At least I used both pintade carcasses to make this soup for lunch on the first cool day of the month.
And I did use the necks, which meant that I had to decapitate them. I know what you’re thinking so I’ll just come out and say it. No, the eyelashes, the pale blue eyelids, the once and forever brainless heads, did not find their way into my soup.
And just now Shel came in saying he’d brought me a gift. Oh dear.