Growing up it was hard not to learn to love all things French. My father’s family come from Guernsey, an island that is approximately forty-three miles from the French coast, and double that from the UK mainland. Their lineage goes back to the Norman conquest in 1066 and I can only presume that my ancestors gave up halfway across the Channel and decided to set up shop on this small and verdant isle, rather than conquer Albion. My grandparent’s first language was Guernésiais, or patois as it is more commonly known, a mix of Normandy French with influences from Old Norse and English. It’s unintelligible to many French speakers but also to those from the neighbouring island of Jersey.
The French connection was made stronger in the 2nd World War when the Channel Islands were invaded. My maternal grandmother and mother, not being island born, managed to leave on the last boat out. But my paternal grandparents spent five years under a comparatively gentle German rule, surviving with only the smallest attempts at resistance by listening to English broadcasts on their short-wave radio secreted under the piles of hoarded tobacco in the attic. Their three competitive sons, though, rushed to join the services – all different ones of course. My father and his fallen arches made it into the army, initially to train troops in India then take them onto Burma, whilst one of his brothers joined the airforce to fly Lancaster bombers, and the other, joined the merchant navy to ferry critical supplies across the Atlantic.
Growing up after the war I don’t remember a house full of anti-German feeling but more of, ‘We never want to go to war again, so let us all be Europeans‘. My parents’ love for all things French, including De Gaulle, was further enhanced by my father managing a small airline company in Guernsey, ferrying both people and goods across the Channel. A very young Petula Clark was a favourite passenger and, much to my mother’s annoyance, her sentimental songs in both English and French were played frequently on the gramophone.
By the time food became an increasingly important part of my life, we were living in rural Essex. Although my grandmother was an excellent plain English cook, she used no more than salt and pepper – the white ground kind with a bit of parsley for decoration – for spices. It was my mother, when cooking for special occasions, who tried to recreate the dishes she tasted in France.
Mrs. Beeton competed therefore with Elizabeth David on the pantry bookshelf. When we had guests, the kitchen smelt like a different place, as garlic, olive oil, butter, cream, wine and ‘herbs de Provence’ were judiciously thrown and splashed into the pots bubbling on the Raeburn. Sometimes I was allowed to taste the foreignness of boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, and daringly tripe a la mode de Caen, but leftovers never made it to our supper table as they were considered too rich for our childish stomachs. Crates of French wine must have also come over in the plane’s hold, as in my mind, I remember going to sleep to the sounds of much laughter and dancing seeping up through the floorboards.
Behind the house was a lawn bordered by flower beds which led onto the vegetable garden with its lines of beds regimented right up against the back hedge. For the main part, their contents were very English, with herbs limited to tubers of horseradish for the roast beef, a patch of mint to accompany the lamb, and a trough of parsley. Garlic, therefore, came across from France draped in long strings across the handlebars of a beret-wearing cyclist who presumably had pedalled all the way from Normandy.
I, therefore, love most things French. Not a year goes by without us spending two or three or more weeks there. Often we pack the car with a tent and Dog and follow the sun, coming back laden with saucisson, pate and of course wine. There are very few dishes that I cook that don’t contain garlic, and I always have a selection of fresh herbs growing somewhere, however small a space I have at my disposal.
Currently, in my shade-ridden urban patch I have thyme, mint, bay, and my oldest and most venerable plant, an eight year old sage, which has travelled across Europe with me and now sprawls across the garden path. But I don’t use sage that much. I know it goes well with the lighter meats, but chicken seems to me to be wedded to tarragon and thyme. Pork – well to be honest, pork doesn’t seem to feature greatly on our menu, partly due to having eaten an overload in Germany, and partly because I think it’s one of the most uninteresting meats.
So, when we returned from a week’s holiday in the foothills of the Alps, I thought I would make what had become a mainstay of our French lunchtimes, a ‘terrine’. Coarser than a pate, it cuts and keeps well, and is wonderful spread on slices of warm baguette or just simply eaten with a salad. You can, of course, buy a number of patés and terrines in many supermarkets, but I think they always look rather fusty and dusty sitting in the chill compartment, as if nobody has bought any for weeks on end.
My mother used to make a terrine de campagne. Stretching the bacon to line the dish was definitely one of my jobs as a child. As I haven’t attempted one for decades, I turned to a recipe in the Readers Digest’s ‘The Cookery Year’ – my 1980s go-to as a guide, but as always, I couldn’t resist tweaking it a bit here and there.
Terrine de Campagne – with herbs and walnuts
Preparation time 20mins. Cooking Time 2hrs. Will feed a hungry 6 – 8 people.
340 grams thin rashers smoked streaky bacon, rind removed
340 grams calves liver – coarsely minced
680 grams minced veal
1 large onion – finely chopped
3 cloves garlic – crushed
1 heaped tsp tomato puree
1 heaped chopped fresh sage
1 heaped chopped fresh oregano
112 grams chopped walnuts
85 grams butter
70 mls red wine – dry
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350F.
As you will probably have to ask your butcher for veal mince and calves liver, do ask him to mince the liver for you. It’s a messy business at the best of times if you do it yourself. Also get him to remove the rind and thin slice the bacon as this makes it easier to stretch it thinly using the blunt side of a knife. Line a 2 pint terrine dish (this makes for a thin terrine) or a 2 pint loaf tin or a 2 pint soufflé dish – for a deeper slice.
Then it’s just a case of mixing everything together. First mix the liver, onion and veal in a large bowl. I use a wooden spoon, taking time to break up the veal mince. Sprinkle the crushed garlic over the mix and stir it in well with the tomato puree, walnuts, sage and oregano. The stirring get easier as it progresses. Melt the butter and add that with a splash or two of wine. The end mixture needs to be moist but not wet.
Spoon the mixture into the bacon-lined dish, decorate with bay leaves – I went a bit over the top – and then fold any ends of bacon over – you can’t do this with a wider terrine. Cover with a lid or a double thickness tightly fitting foil cover. Bake on the middle shelf for 1.5hrs for the terrine and 2hrs for the deeper dishes.
When cooked, remove the foil, fold it so it fits the top exactly but doesn’t go over edge. Place a flat board on top. I used the bottom of a strong cardboard punnet that had contained fresh strawberries. On top of this place a heavy weight and leave to press overnight.
Serve slices directly from the terrine or dish, with a green salad, asparagus or even broccoli spears and crusty bread. This does freeze well.