The legendary Gascony-born chef tells Clare Hargreaves how the hearty country cooking of his homeland comes into its own in the colder months
At La Tante Claire, Koffmann’s cooking style was in the elaborate Michelin style, but at the Berkeley – where I met him – dishes are unashamedly simple, a delicious celebration of cuisine du terroir. His most famous – and possibly infamous – dish is the pig’s trotters stuffed with sweetbreads and morel mushrooms. “It’s going to be written on my gravestone,” he laughs. When I put pig’s trotter on the menu in 1977, no one else did it, so it became a talking point. Then everyone started to copy it.”
Glance down the Berkeley’s menu and you will find flavoursome stews and confits, maybe a cassoulet or a daube, virtually all using four magic Gascon ingredients: duck or goose fat, garlic, parsley and red wine.
No season shows off the gutsy flavours of Gascon country cooking better than winter. Escaping his home town of Tarbes at the foot of the Pyr�n�es, Koffmann would spend the school holidays with his maternal grandparents; peasant farmers in the village of Saint-Puy in the Gers d�partement. Inside the warm kitchen the boy watched in fascination as his grandmother Camille prepared hearty dishes using whatever farm or wild produce was available at that time of year; ingredients bought from a shop were considered unnecessarily extravagant. As he describes in his re-published classic, Memories of Gascony, winter was a time of tasty game roasts, comforting stews and a series of feasts with their own particular dishes.
Koffmann recalls the cold, blue-skied mornings when his grandfather Marcel would leave the farm with his gun and his dog in search of snipe, woodcock and wild duck. Camille would roast the duck, then serve it with orange segments and a sauce made from the juices, a dash of white wine and the juice of Seville oranges which were just coming into season.
Woodcock would be hung by their beaks for around a week, then plucked and roasted over the open fire, beaks in the air. The intestines were chopped and mixed with shallots, garlic and a little Armagnac, and eaten on bread along with the meat.
On other days, the family ate Camille’s meat confits, or the bottled fruit and vegetables that she had preserved in late summer and autumn. On days when Camille killed her fattened ducks for their foie gras, lunches often included traditional dishes made from some of the ducks. It might be a magret (breast), which she would grill over a handful of vine branches and serve with some of the dried haricots she had dried in the autumn. “Best of all, as a special treat, my grandmother might cut some slices from one of the livers, and we would have foie gras with eggs,” says Koffmann.
On other crisp winter days, the family would eat cr�pinettes (faggots) made from oxtails and ox cheeks cooked in duck fat until meltingly soft, then wrapped in squares of pig’s caul (stomach lining). As with Koffmann’s pig’s trotters, dishes using cheek have become highly fashionable in the UK. “Cheek is a trend, everyone’s doing it,” he tells me. “But when I first started using cheek at La Tante Claire in 1977 it was hell to find – we had to order it from France or Ireland. It’s the best cut for a stew – you get the delicious gelatine from the bones.”
In the Gascony of Koffmann’s childhood, the first important winter feast came long before Christmas, on 4 December, the F�te de la Sainte-Barbara. She is the patron saint of firefighters, and villagers in Saint-Puy held a parade and firemen’s banquet at midday, followed by a fair and a bal des pompiers in the evening. As Koffmann’s grandfather was one of the 12 firefighters, this feast was an important occasion for the family and the local restaurant was hired for the celebration. Oddly, despite Sainte Barbara’s gender, the feast was a strictly all-male affair.
Over the decades, the banquet menu had become fixed in stone. It started with melon, washed down with floc, the local Armagnac-based ap�ritif. The soup was always mutton and chestnut, and the fish course a brandade of salt cod (the sea was far away so in the days before refrigeration seawater fish had to be preserved by salting). The main course was a civet de li�vre (hare in red wine) with its dark, flavoursome sauce laden with garlic and pearl (button) onions. Dessert would be a tart such as a tarte aux pruneaux, made from the succulent prunes of nearby Agen.
Christmas celebrations revolved around a big family lunch on the day itself. “We never had the usual French r�veillon on Christmas Eve,” says Koffmann. “[This was] largely I think because Marcel, with his deep antipathy towards the Church, always refused to go to midnight mass, and therefore all our fun started as early as possible on Christmas morning.”
The lunch was not dissimilar to what we might be eating in Britain: soup, followed by roast turkey with a chestnut stuffing. The only differences, apart from the fact that Camille would have reared the bird herself, were the accompaniments – not bread sauce and Brussels sprouts, but salsify fritters. This was followed by a salad of conserved artichokes combined with foie gras. Dessert was not a pudding of dried fruit, but g�teau � la broche, made by pouring a sweet batter mixture over a wooden cone as it revolves on a spit above an open fire. If you want to ‘go Gascon’ this might not be the dish to begin with: in his book, Koffmann translates this as stalagmite cake and warns that it’s not easy to make in a modern kitchen.
Epiphany on 6 January brought the round, crown-shaped galette des rois (cake of the three kings). Koffmann recalls how it contained a dried broad bean that entitled its finder to crown the king or queen of their choice. However, in Saint-Puy the highlight of winter was the pig kill in January. The pig killer would arrive on a specified day to dispatch Marcel’s two pigs, one of which was always named after the President of the Republic. “It took six very strong men to kill each pig,” says Koffmann.
The details are gory; suffice to say that there was a lot of blood involved, which was immediately turned into a boudin noir (black pudding) that Camille served with a potato puree flavoured with duck fat.
Every scrap of the pigs would be used. The day after the kill was devoted to making charcuterie, when the pieces of ham were mixed with herbs and spices, and sometimes a little Armagnac, to produce p�t�s, sausages, hams, confits and rillettes that would keep the household going for the rest of the year.
Such rituals made the budding chef familiar with the humbler parts of animals that are still little-known today (with the possible exception of pork belly). It’s not just the pig’s trotter that Koffmann has ennobled. Over the years he has championed all manner of cheap cuts and the slippery inner workings of animals.
I asked him for his personal offal favourite. “Calves’ brains, especially when they’re crispy on the outside so you get a slight crunch – they melt in the mouth,” he replies enthusiastically. “We quite often put them on the � la carte menu.
“I love tripe too. At Saint-Puy we always ate it on a Saturday. The butcher slaughtered a calf every Friday night and the next morning the tripe was in his shop. Camille fried the tripe gently in a pan until it started to caramelise, then turned it into a delicious fricass�e de veau. Sadly tripe is very hard to find in Gers today.”
Koffmann leant towards me and lowered his voice as if imparting a secret. “Calves’ testicles – another dish my grandmother prepared – are jolly good too. If you give them to someone and don’t tell them what they are, they love them. If you told them, they would probably say no. People have fixed ideas about things.”
Throughout his culinary journey, Koffmann has been guided by his grandmother. “I think of Camille nearly every day. I do something in the kitchen, and suddenly I get flashes in my brain and I’m back in Gascony – I see my grandmother, the farm, the fields, the ducks. It’s a very special place.”
Koffmann’s at the Berkeley Hotel, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7RL
Tel: 020 7235 1010, www.koffmanns.co.uk
Recipes for all the dishes mentioned above are in Memories of Gascony by Pierre Koffmann, published by Mitchell Beazley, �30 hardback. FRANCE Magazine readers can buy copies for �22.50, including post & packing, by calling 01903 828503 and quoting code MB530.