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La daube provençal - so very, very good

"I have executed, with loyal respect, printed formulas for daubes in the interest of analysis and comparison but, left to my own devices a daube is never twice the same." Richard Olney

Yesterday was Sunday and I suddenly had a desire for Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding, so on Saturday night I rummaged in my freezer looking for a suitable piece of beef and found none - all the pieces I had were far too big for two people. But I did find a piece of brisket. At first I thought I would roast this - probably with a spice rub of some kind, but I rapidly saw that really it's better for stews, and so I thought - La Daube Provençale. We haven't had that for a very long time.

Above is the finished result. As you can see I cooked the carrots and the beans separately - mostly I think because I prefer carrots just cooked with some butter in a saucepan. The potatoes, however, were cooked in with the meat. And I didn't actually follow a recipe although I checked out a few for ideas. Fundamentally though I just marinaded the meat in red wine, olive oil, red wine vinegar, rosemary and thyme, garlic and onions, salt and pepper. I now realise I left out the one ingredient that would have made it truly provençal - a strip of orange rind. Well olives too I guess, and I did consider those, but David is not a real fan. Tomatoes too, although I don't think these are used quite as often. I marinaded the meat for the morning, and slow-cooked in the oven for about three hours. Done. So easy. So good.

And so, so nostalgic - but not of France really. More of my early Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier cooking days. In this case more Elizabeth David than Robert Carrier I think. And just to demonstrate Richard Olney's theory about no two daubes ever being the same, she has several recipes for daube in her books - sometimes not quite called daube but fundamentally the same thing. Sometimes the meat is left whole, sometimes it is cut into pieces. This is the version from Jill Norman's compilation of her recipes - At Elizabeth David's Table - before it goes into the oven that is. And as you can see it's pretty simple.

I do not remember my French family hostesses cooking a daube, but I do remember the glorious black olive studded versions that my au pair employer's cook used to make in the family country home. And I never wrote down any of her recipes even though I watched her make these absolutely delicious and classic dishes. This is one of the biggest regrets of my life. But Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier did compensate for that loss. So I think I have made each and every one of their versions.

This one is Robert Carrier's cooked over an open flame. In his Feasts of Provence book he claims that he often cooks a daube actually in the fire.

Flipping through my French cookbooks made me very nostalgic for all those dishes that I used to make quite often and now do no longer. They have gone out of fashion haven't they? None of my favourite modern cooks has a recipe for one. Well not that I could find easily anyway. Not even Delia. We have moved to slow-cooked, shoulders, and bellies, tagines and ragùs. Not daubes. Indeed French cooking itself seems to have lost a lot of interest. Perhaps the reputation of the complicated haute cuisine has put us off. It shouldn't, because most of those famous French dishes are peasant dishes and are astoundingly simple. It has lost ground to all of those other cuisines - Italian, Middle-Eastern, Asian, Mexican ...

Shannon Bennett however has a recipe from the months he spent in Provence with his family - shown here. Not Stephanie though - she prefers the Dordogne I think.

I am not however, linking to any recipes because it's a completely moveable feast. However, I am including Richard Olney's story of making it up with what you have got, because it does indeed demonstrate the principles/method.

"One of the best I've ever made ... consisted of several pounds of entrecôte and rump-steak parings and a leftover roast put to marinate in half-dozen ends of bottles (some flat Champagne, remainders of Brane-Cantenac, Beaujolais, Bandol rosé and a local white wine) for a morning, then hastily assembled at lunchtime with leftover roasting juices, a remnant of demi-glace, a handful of herbs scattered at random through the layers of meat along with dried cèpes, soaked, rinsed and chopped, and the usual aromatic vegetables The daube was left at a murmur for an afternoon, skimmed of its fat the following morning, gently reheated and escorted by the inevitable table macoranade; the sumptuous luxury of the slap-dash thing astonished my guests, wary of the results of such methods." Richard Olney

I'm sure my made-up version was not astoundingly good, but it was certainly good enough to make me wonder why I didn't cook it more often, and it made me so nostalgic for la belle France.

This picture is from my Provence the Beautiful Cookbook. You cannot quite see the daube because it is served in the traditional daubière - an earthenware pot with a lid that has a depression in which you place some water to keep the cooking meat moist. I actually have a Le Creuset casserole with that feature - and it does work. Indeed although the gurus do go on about the daubière they also admit that a Le Creuset pot will do. Last night I just used a recent Aldi purchase of a non-stick small casserole, which I recommend. I'm showing this photograph too because of the backdrop. So very Provençale - the town is Gordes - tourist town. We have visited. But it is indeed very beautiful and your first glance of it when you turn a corner in the road is breathtaking. The dish is also shown with a dish of pasta - macaroni I think - which is what the French favour as an accompaniment to the daube. That's the macoranade that Richard Olney refers to above.

Daube is Old French. According to the various online dictionaries I checked it comes from the Latin - dealbare - de meaning thoroughly and albare - to whiten. The Old French dauber means to whitewash or plaster. None of which is very relevant is it? Somebody else thought it came from an old Italian word that is no longer used - dobba which is a marinade. The English have daub - which most probably does come from the same Latin/Old French roots and which amongst other things means to splash stuff - mostly paint - around in an unorganised way. It's a pejorative term and somebody did surmise that the connection was therefore 'mess'. Actually the French still have the verb dauber I think, which I also think means the same as our daub.

Richard Olney ascribes the same sort of meaning to the word, but in a much less pejorative way:

"The soul of a daube resides in pervasive unity - the perfect fusion or transformation of individual qualities into a single character" Richard Olney

And did you know Provence was the first non Italian province for the Romans? Provincia Romana. Which is how it got its name.

Anyway - next time you want to make a kind of stew make a daube. Rick Stein chose it as his favourite Elizabeth David recipe for a Guardian article. You can find the recipe, as printed in her book there.

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