Elizabeth David's Carbonnade Nîmoise

is it 'authentic' or did she make it up?

On Saturday we finally ate Carbonnade Nîmoise - a very old favourite recipe of Elizabeth David's, that I used to make on a fairly regular basis but have ignored in recent times. I say finally because, I have had every intention of making this for a couple of weeks now, ever since I was given some home-grown fennel by my friend Monika. But I kept being thwarted by all manner of trivial incidents, the final coup de grâce being, that I had finally got around to it, put it in the oven and then the power went out - until, it turned out, around midnight. The outage had been caused by a massive tree falling over in a neighbouring street, bringing down the power lines as it fell. It was one of those very wet days, and the poor electricity guys must have been labouring for hours. They have now removed most of the tree, but the pretty massive roots remain.

It was not a major problem for my Carbonnade as it turns out because it's a slow-cooked dish, and so the next day I just cooked it some more. Stupidly I forgot to take pictures - the photo at the top of the page is Darina Allen's take on the Original recipe.

I say stupidly because this was one of the most delicious things that I have cooked in some time. This is another version of the same picture at the top of the page. So what is it and why do I think she may have made it up? Here is Elizabeth David's introduction to the recipe which is from her French Provincial Cooking book.

"Carbonnade is a name usually associated with a Flemish dish of beef cooking in the local Belgian beer. A carbonnade of mutton is also a traditional dish from Nimes in the Languedoc, home also of the famous brandade de morue, the Friday dish of salt cod found all over southern France."

Ok - slight digression here to brandade de morue, which, I have to say, seems to be the only dish that is given the honour of being a Nïmes speciality. It is a sort of dip textured dish of salt cod and deserves a post of its own, so I'll just give you two pictures and a reference to a modernised version from Rick Stein that you could try. The other picture is from Robert Carrier who says of the dish:

"Legend has it that it was a Nîmoise housewife who was the first to pound the flesh of the pre-soaked salt-dried fish with milk and olive oil to make the creamy emulation that we know today. But legend does not tell who was the first to accompany the creamy brandade with its golden snippets of crisp-fried bread, or who added the first finely chopped black truffles or black olives to the majestic dish that is now served in the world's greatest restaurants." Robert Carrier

But back to the other Nîmoise 'speciality' - Carbonnade Nîmoise and Elizabeth David:

"The Nimois carbonnade is one of those slow-cooked dishes of meat and vegetables which is still, in places where household ovens are rare, sent to cook at the local bakery. Put in as soon as the bread is taken out, while the oven is still very hot, it is left 3 or 4 hours and, by the time the oven is cool, the meat is so tender that it could be eaten with a spoon. This form of cookery is obviously the most convenient for people who have Aga or similar cookers, or for anybody who wants to leave the food to look after itself while they are out." Elizabeth David

It is truly one of the simplest dishes you will ever find anywhere and also one of the very, very best. The trickiest thing in the whole process is larding your pieces of lamb with slivers of garlic and bacon. Which means you pierce your lamb with a sharp knife here and there, and force little pieces of garlic and bacon into it. Then you heat a little olive oil - and I mean a little, put more bacon pieces all over the base of your baking dish, put your meat on top and surround with potatoes, and herbs. Cook in a hot oven for 20 minutes and then turn it down to a low temperature - I chose to go with 160ºC but it could be lower. Cook for 3-4 hours with the lid on. Because of my delayed meal mine may well have cooked for more than 4 hours in the end. I don't think it would matter all that much.

"By the time it is cooked most of the fat will have been absorbed by the potatoes, and the whole dish will have a typical southern flavour and smell. sometimes other vegetables: onions, artichoke hearts, a tomato or two, fennel cut in quarters, carrots or aubergines, unpeeled, but cut into small squares, are added with the potatoes." Elizabeth David

And there you have two of the most wonderful things about this recipe. The fact that the fat is absorbed by the potatoes - one cook therefore recommended that you use waxy potatoes rather than floury ones which might disintegrate with that long a cook - is the first thing. Admittedly it was a fairly fatty dish but I hadn't cut any of the fat off of my meat. I could have cut off some of it. The other great thing is its adaptability - those vegetables that you can add. As I said, I had fennel, so that went in - as did an onion cut into wedges, a carrot in chunks and two tomatoes also in large chunks. Plus a bit more garlic. And lots of herbs. I used thyme and rosemary but you could use all manner of different herbs. It's a dish you can truly make your own.

The recipe suggests slices cut from a leg of lamb. Well I had a boned leg of lamb which I cut into very wide slices so that they looked a bit like small steaks I guess. I saw that one cook had used chops, and another lamb shanks. Honestly I don't think it matters all that much. You could even do it with a whole shoulder or leg. And she is right - you could eat it with a spoon. It was luscious. And so simple that I think I shall be using it for one of my grandmother cooking lessons.

But did she make it up? I have found no reference anywhere to this dish as a speciality of Nîmes. That is the brandade, as I mentioned above. Carbonnade is indeed the Flemish dish of beef cooked in beer. Also worth revisiting by the way. In fact the only meat dish that I saw mentioned as having any connection with Nîmes was Gardiane de boeuf. Which is a red wine beef stew. Nîmes, of course, is on the edge of the Camargues where bulls are raised for the local bullfights. (without swords I believe). If she made it up - well - well done Elizabeth and you should take credit. But then again, maybe it is indeed the sort of dish that any housewife, anywhere in France, in fact would have concocted to make use of the baker's oven. And maybe she just tasted a particular Nîmes housewife's version of that kind of dish. Honestly though, I cannot recommend enough making it. You just need to set aside the time - make sure your meat has been taken out of the freezer overnight - if that's where it was - and put aside some time around midday to put it all together so that it will be ready for dinner. Then you don't have to do anything until it's ready to serve. With a green salad I think.

I cannot leave this without an exhortation to visit Nîmes some time when you can again. It is one of our favourite French cities. It's glory is, of course, Les Arènes, the largely intact mini - well not that mini - Roman Coloseum in the centre of the town. But there is so much more to Nîmes - beautiful narrow streets filled with elegant shops to stroll through, a shaded canal, small surprises everywhere - modern statues, modern statues that integrate Roman remains into them, Roman remains, leafy squares, cafés galore, and even, if you are lucky as we were - a bullfight (no swords) - a display for groups of schoolchildren. And close by that other magnificent Roman monument the Pont du Gard which was built to supply the town with water. Enjoy some of my photos below:

And cook that dish.


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