“Un peu d’ail, un peu de persil” – keep it simple

Going to the market in France – especially here in the South West – involves taking a large basket and an equally large amount of patience. Things move slowly, people stop mid-order to ‘faire le bise’ to passing friends, stallholders exchange gossip, and quite often, both stallholder and buyer get involved in a serious discussion on how best to cook ‘les aiguillettes de canard’ or the ‘filet de bar’ or ‘ceps’. In which case, patience is essential!

When I first came here in 2005, I realised that asking how to cook something was a good way of striking up a conversation, but the answer I was invariably given was, “Dans la poêle, avec un peu d’ail, du persil, et un peu de l’huile,”  – in other words, “In the pan, with some garlic, parsley, and a little oil.” I thought that because they’d spotted my English accent, they’d assumed I couldn’t cook so were making it simple for me.

But I’ve since discovered that it really is a speciality of the region. The whole point of ‘un peu d’ail, un peu de persil’ is that you can use this combination for a host of dishes: sautéed potatoes, omelettes, mushrooms (especially ceps), even plain fried eggs are transformed with the addition of a few cloves of garlic and some fresh flat-leaf parsley. And simple becomes exceptional when your ingredients are really good. Here in the Tarn, we’re lucky to have what I think is probably the best garlic in the world – the pink garlic of Lautrec.

L'ail rose de Lautrec
L’ail rose de Lautrec

Accustomed to the small white heads of garlic from UK supermarkets which have a tendency to bitterness, I first discovered the large violet-pink heads of Lautrec garlic in 2003 at the  town’s annual Festival of Garlic. The Lautrec garlic is rich and round in taste, perfect for roasting whole and spreading like a tartine on a baguette. The festival is held every August to celebrate the new harvest; the cobbled streets of Lautrec are filled with the displays of local producers and the visiting crowds are served free garlic soup and a glass of rosé at midday.

Two Saturdays ago, I decided it was time for another visit to the garlic festival. It was a perfect sunny morning, and the drive to Lautrec took me through fields of sunflowers and roads shaded by avenues of plane trees. Sometimes, it just all looks so like a postcard that I have to pinch myself to realise I actually live here!

August sunflowers
August sunflowers

In the main market square there was a stand where the garlic growers were demonstrating how they made ‘tresses’ or plaits of garlic. I also discovered some other culinary delights, including ‘sirop de safran’ – saffron being another local product – and some excellent cold-pressed sunflower oil, grown and produced by the Fraysse family from Villeneuve-sur-Vere. Not surprisingly, I came back with a full basket of goodies, including a wonderful bunch of garlic woven into a plait.

The garlic festival
The garlic festival

The following Sunday, on my early morning visit to Albi market, Sandra gave me a big bunch of fresh parsley and I bought a breast of free-range ‘poulet’ from the market. I didn’t ask anyone how to cook the chicken – I knew the answer, “Dans la poêle, avec du l’ail, du persil, et un peu de l’huile,”  Keep it simple – chicken breast cooked with garlic, parsley, and some olive oil.

“The key here, especially in the UK, is to buy good quality, organic, free range chicken. They are expensive, but a chicken breast of this quality will often weigh in at over 200grams. I find this is too much protein for one person, so I slice the breast in half lengthways, making two portions. You can always add more vegetables if you need to bulk it out. The cooking time and cost will then be halved.- Judi”

Chicken with Garlic & Parsley for two. Preparation time 10 minutes, cooking time, 20 minutes.

Two breasts of free-range chicken
4 large cloves of Lautrec garlic
a large handful of flat-leaf parsley
grated zest of a lemon
olive oil
sea salt and crushed black peppercorns

Chop the garlic finely, do the same with the parsley, then half-fill a flat dish with enough olive oil in which to bathe the chicken breasts. Add the garlic and parsley to the oil along with some salt and some roughly crushed peppercorns. Grate the zest of the lemon into the oil, then add the chicken breasts to the oil. With your hands, turn the breasts round until they’re thoroughly covered in oil with a good distribution of garlic and parsley.

Now pour the oil mixture into the pan, reserving the breasts until the oil is hot enough to sear the meat. Add the meat and brown both sides briefly, before turning the heat down low so the chicken can cook more slowly. Too high a heat and the garlic burns and the meat dries. I used a frying pan lid to increase the overall heat but keep the meat moist. Turn the breasts over after about seven to ten minutes – they were really thick so I allowed ten minutes both sides, but reduce the time according to the size of the chicken breast.

To accompany the chicken, I steamed some green haricot beans – again, grown locally and picked that morning – and boiled some baby Ratte potatoes.

When the chicken was ready, I added a further sprinkling of fresh parsley and a good slathering of butter for the vegetables. It was a quick simple lunch and brought out the best of the flavours of good fresh local ingredients.

Lunch
Lunch

If you can’t track down pink garlic from Lautrec in the UK, you can order it online, direct from the producers in Lautrec. And if you want to know more about the history of garlic, I learned on this site that garlic is one of the oldest known food flavourings, and was domesticated from the wild plant during the Neolithic period. Plus it’s really good for you!

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