Chapter 12: Week 9: Vacuum-packed

Pancakes up first today. Well, crêpes really; French people generally disdain ‘pancakes’ as overly-thick American creations (as in MacDo breakfasts) suitable only for use as fire blankets and airplane wheel chocks.

So, crêpes are lace-thin pancakes, as you probably already know. And, as most of us in class are either French or cooks or both, most of us have already made the odd one or two in our lives. So today’s competition is to see who can make the most crêpes with the half-litre of mixture we make up. I get 24, Eric – who makes these damned things every day (note I’m getting my defence in early) – managed 30. but they weren’t all complete, and didn’t taste as nice as mine anyway. So there.

We use them to make ‘Aumonières Normandes’, small parcels with butter-fried diced apples inside. Very yummy and, for once, we get to eat them as we take them over to the self-service cafeteria where some of us eat every week.

The quality of food in the cafeteria is, as I may have mentioned before, variable. This week’s it’s edible, though, veal chops with mixed vegetables. The veg look very regularly diced into a lovely brunoise from a distance, and tasting confirms that they’ve come out of a tin. Our class doesn’t get to do TPs (Travails Pratiques, practical work sessions) in the caféteria kitchen, but the youngsters doing the same course as us but full-time over two years get regular sessions there. Some, it’s obvious, like it more than others.

There’s a big debate going on in the French catering industry that this qualification, the CAP (Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnel) should be more oriented towards opening cans and microwaving vacuum-packed mush. A debate led, of course, by Big Business, the sort that have large chains of restaurants where economies of scale (the scale economy of employing low-talent droids to push microwave buttons instead of people who know how to prepare fresh veg) are important. The small businesses want cooks who can cook, of course, but lots of little voices are drowned out by the few big, loud ones.

Me, I’m happy to be getting a classical French cooking training in the heart of Provence from a great school chef and an excellent restaurant chef. I count my blessings daily, knowing that French cuisine is slowly changing and not for the better.

Or at least my weekly blessings. Not during, for example, our ‘Droit’ class, which we have this afternoon. Today we learn about “business partners” – clients, suppliers, “l’état et les organimsmes sociaux” financial partners, banks, investors, you name it.

And then, just for fun, we do a household budget – work out that, if Monsieur Marsaud spends X on electricity, Y on food and Z on his mobile phone bill then he has only 38 cents a month left to live on. Or something like that. Perhaps he can eat microwaved meals in a local chain restaurant.

This afternoon we do Carré de porc poélé ‘Choisy’ – Choisy in this case meaning ‘containing lettuce’. Our lettuce is first poached in hot water (départ à chaud) – I’m learning about what vegetables to cook in hot water or cold water, and how important it is to refresh in iced water immediately after cooking to preserve the vitamin and mineral content, enhance the colour and halt the cooking process before it turns to the sort of mush you get from microwaving vacuum-packed rubbish…(OK, I promise to stop going on about this. Can you tell my Chef has been indoctrinating me? Although we use sous-vide – vacuum-packing – a lot in the restaurant, he hates the microwave and doesn’t actually have one in his home kitchen. The one at work is used for defrosting breadcrumbs.

Then we have to form the lettuces into a ‘fuseau’ which is either a spindle, or one leg of a pair of ski pants, so I’m going for ski pants and achieve the required effect (if you wear huge, baggy ski pants like I do). This is then cut in two lengthways and braised in the oven at the same time as the Carré de porc, the section of pork ribs we each have to de-bone and cook.

We were going to have a run of four ribs to de-bone and cook whole and my restaurant chef has been ordering them in all week for me to practise on. Which, as it turns out, means I’ll be the only person doing such a thing this week since our school ones arrive frozen and already sliced into individual chops. We do get to cut one of the bones off each chop, but it’s no real challenge.

We do try following the rest of the recipe (cooking the pork in the oven with a regular GA, garniture aromatique of onions, carrots and a bouquet garni) but it seems slightly futile to try and re-assemble the chops into a joint at the end. So we don’t do that.

The lettuce is very good, though, I’d never really thought of using them as a cooked vegetable. Like radishes, which we also cook at the restaurant.



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