Allyson Gofton in France: The butcher
French manners dictate that, to be accepted in the village on arrival, you must introduce yourself or be introduced by a friend to the artisans, who are not — as the name suggests — artists with paint brush in hand but tradespeople. For me, a cook, that’s the butcher, baker and all the market producers.
My butcher, Serge, and his right-hand man, Yannick, (photographed above) were delighted we had returned, but not as much as I was. Buying meat at Serge’s is like going to a live performance where the actors — the butchers — flirt outrageously with the Mesdames, argue the rugby scores with the Messieurs and make faces at the little ones clutching their grandmere’s hand. There will not be a rush; every customer requires the same attention regardless of whether you buy one steak or 20 steaks. It doesn’t matter how long the queue is and it is regularly out the door. They will chat along while you write out the cheque and open the door for you when you leave — and only then will they move to the next person in line.
Working hours suit the customers’ needs, the day beginning around 6.30am. The door will not be locked until sometime after 7pm, when the road is quiet of traffic and everyone is home. In the long summer hours, closing time is even later.
Serge attends the stock sales himself and does not buy his meats through a middleman. At the sales, he will select his preferred animal. Once the carcass — beef, veal, lamb or pork — has been dressed, it will be delivered whole, hanging on a hook, not pre-cut, not pre-packaged. There’s no option to order, as our butchers do, meat by the side or quarter or, indeed, by certain cuts. Serge must take the whole animal and work out how best to sell all the cuts, not just prime ones but cheeks, shin, liver, lungs, all offal and the bones which, with their generous amounts of marrow, are such a treat.
As Serge knows the farmers from whom he has selected the animals, hanging on the wall will be certificates from the farm attesting to the animals’ provenance, including weight, age, farm details and photos of animal on the hoof.
Here, no housewife — a word that implies dreariness at home but here suggests an astute manager of all things maison — would ever buy meat if she could not confirm its provenance. As a cook, I love this strict requirement for provenance and can only wonder how some New Zealanders would cope in Serge’s butcher shop where calf and sheep heads, offal and bones accompany the beautiful selection of meat displayed in the chiller.
Veal (in France milk-fed bovine under six months, in New Zealand mixed-diet and under 12 months) is considered a luxury meat, but nonetheless Serge’s locals are willing to pay handsomely for a steak or cutlet from the Flintstone-sized pieces that adorn the servery. For my axoa de veau, a spicy Basque stew (pronounced ash-wah) Serge cuts totally lean veal into chunks — all the while imparting his secrets for the dish. At home, I will season it liberally with piment d’espelette, a fiery red chilli with its own AOP, and simmer with onion, capsicums, (loads of) green chillies and, of course, garlic … after all, this is France.
This casserole was our family’s favourite in France and when I cannot get white veal in New Zealand, I prepare it with pork or lamb. Often axoa will be prepared from coarsely minced veal, making a bolognaise-like casserole. Either way, mashed potatoes are a great partner.