"a province unharmed by too many visitors in spite of the reputation of Georges Sand, Alain Fournier and Bourges Cathedral - and of the flinty wines of Sancerre." Jane Grigson
Very unfair when you consider that, just for starters it is home to the beautiful town of Sancerre, which produces an even more beautiful wine. Possibly my very favourite French wine. Well it is sauvignon blanc.
We stopped the night there once a long time ago now, when the hotel we were hoping to stay in (without booking in advance) was not actually open for overnight guests, and besides was full of day-trippers. We had stayed there a year or so before, in this lovely, but modest hotel on a lake in La France Profonde. I cannot even remember the name of the place. It was beautiful and it was quiet. And we had had possibly the most delicious gratin dauphinois ever in the local restaurant. But when we turned up the place had changed - as they so often do. And so, reasonably late in the day we had to move on.
Out came the red Michelin and eventually we found a room in Sancerre. Whose wine we did not know at the time. Our hotel was perched on the very far edge of the town in that photograph above, with our room looking out over all those vineyards. Serendipity. Lovely hotel, excellent dinner, beautiful town and a new wine to fall in love with.
Sancerre is actually on the edge of the region of Berry as you can see from this foodie map which I found in my aging copy of Larousse Gastronomique. It is more or less slap bang in the middle of France, just south of Orléans and my old stomping ground. So a bit north of the real centre I suppose. A tranquil place whose main town is Bourges which has a UNESCO listed cathedral, also some marshes which are neatly divided into little vegetable growing plots.
But why on earth am I talking about the Berry? Well this week I'm supposed to make a dish from one of my early gurus' books, and this week it's Jane Grigson. I picked her Good Things to choose from with nothing more in mind than cooking something for David and I one night. Since then, however, I have invited some long lost friends to lunch on Sunday, and so I thought I would kill two birds with one stone as it were and cook something from the book for that lunch, and after a bit of a browse I have settled on a dish she calls Poulet fricassée à la Berrichonne. A website called The Nosey Chef has a very similar recipe - indeed it is probably her recipe, but there is no acknowledgement of that fact.
I'm pretty sure I have made it in the past, maybe even more than once, because it's such a simple and beautiful dish. Basically it's chicken braised with carrots, in stock and wine, and finished off with cream, egg yolks and vinegar. And I have a lot of carrots.
I think Jane cuts up her carrots but anyway you get the idea.
Apparently the Larousse has a couple of recipes too, and this is a somewhat less attractive looking version of the same dish. So less attractive that you could actually be put off. I think the reason I have made this a few times is that I often have a lot of carrots and it's one of the few recipes I have found that ticks boxes for me - lots of parsley, carrots, chicken, wine, cream - I mean what more could you want? Why haven't more people had a go?
However, when I looked at what else Berry offered in the way of regional specialities, the chicken with carrots was not really mentioned. And Elizabeth David in her French Provincial Cooking doesn't really mention Berry at all. It's certainly not one of the regions she lists and talks about at the beginning of her book. I think there might be a mention of Sancerre and that's it. Why is this?
In a way the whole of central France, of which Berry is the northernmost part, is a kind of black hole - and yet it is stunningly beautiful. We have travelled through it on several occasions, but never spent a whole week there. On one trip I flew from the south of France to England, in the earlyish evening. It was dark and flying over the centre there were very few lights. There are wolves and wild boar down there.
And cheese - there is always cheese - anywhere in France. And Berry's most famous cheese is, I think, this one Les Pyramides de Valençay which also produces a famous wine and has a beautiful chateau. There are lots of beautiful chateaux in the area because, I suppose, of the good hunting for the aristocrats.
According to a website called Cook's Info.com:
"À la berrichonne is a French term meaning served with braised cabbage, chestnuts, onion and lean bacon."
None of which appear in Jane Grigson's dish. Not even the onion. She goes for shallots instead. So I tried to find out from the source as it were - the region of Berry - what they considered to be their specialities. Well there were a few but I'll just mention three:
Pâté Berrichon from the Berry Province site, is this sausage meat pie, or pasty shown on the right. It's one that Jane Grigson mentions as well and for which she has a recipe, very similar to the one shown here. She tells the story of buying this in Paris one time, with a friend, because they were hungry and poor:
"It was obviously just sausage meat in pastry, but it was cheap and we were hard up. Wandering into the Palais Royal nearby to see where Colette had lived, we started chewing unenthusiastically. We took time to appreciate how delicious that pie was. Ever since I've had much respect for food from Berry."
In Berry it's called Easter pie, but of course it is available all year round.
Then there is Galette de pommes de terre which is a kind of potato pancake I think, although I'm not altogether sure. I also found another recipe for potatoes on a website called Insightful Flavour for Potatoes à la Berrichonne which were a kind of a mix of braised and roasted potatoes with onions and bacon, and which looked pretty delicious, so I think I'm going to go for these as my carbohydrate accompaniment. I think they are probably compatible, and certainly easy.
What about dessert? Well there's a pumpkin pie, but that is very wintry and something I have never fancied, but there is also Le Poirat du Berry cooked by a lady called Louise Denisot. It's claim to difference is that the pears are sprinkled quite heavily with ground black pepper and also some pear liqueur - brandy if you haven't got any of that. Pears, although available year round, are also a bit wintry, and I'm not really convinced at the moment. It did look pretty nice, and I enjoyed a few minutes watching a video of Louise demonstrating the dish (in French) in the town of Chateauroux, which seems to have a soccer team called La Berrichonne de Chateauroux. In fact if you google Berrichonne, that's mostly what you get.
As for an entrée - I really haven't found anything. Still thinking about that.
Really though I was mostly a little bit surprised that this beautiful part of France, which produces fine wine, cheese, lamb and many other things, should not be more lauded. How does this happen? It's a bit like the outer and ordinary suburbs of Melbourne - well any city really - being totally ignored by most restaurant critics, when they often have as many worthy cafés and other eating places as the trendy inner suburbs. I gather witches are another historical feature of Berry. Maybe that's why it's ignored. None of my other French cookbooks really mentioned it.
"The Berry, lying between Touraine and Burgundy, and partly enclosed by a great sweep of the Loire, is not so famous for food as it's two illustrious neighbours. Which is unfair." Jane Grigson