August means figs. Sunday means lunch. And lolling about doing nothing. The temperature’s a balmy 26° with a warm breeze, the terrace beckons…
The solution is an all-in-one Sunday lunch such as braised Guinea fowl with figs, sweet potatoes, shallots and garlic, put on to cook slowly while the chef enjoys a coffee or three with her feet up.
First, shoot your Guinea fowl (vegetarians stop reading HERE), or, like me, order one from the butcher, a free-range beauty with a red beak and black feet from the Gers, home of France’s finest poultry (OK, there’s those chickens from Bresse…).
Second, pick your figs, making sure to stamp feet loudly when approaching tree at bottom of field to warn sleeping snakes. Third, prepare the bird. In my case this means shouting ‘au secours’ to the Maître de Maison to come and remove head, feet and entrails. I have not yet got my Elizabeth David qualification in Close Encounters with Scaly Claws, Coxcombs and Gizzards, but in any case it’s the rational division of labour, the Maître de Maison having one branch of the family hailing directly from the Périgord and thus being genetically programmed to deal with the slaughter of woolly mammoths. A small bird poses no problem.
Today, though, he is grumpy as I have interrupted his artistic pursuits painting the shutters. So far he’s only done the undercoat; I’m half-expecting a frieze of leaping antelopes for the final version in sage green.
Once the bird is looking more presentable (your butcher will do this for you in advance if no Perigordians handy), salt and pepper the insides. Prepare the vegetables: peel sweet potatoes and chop into largish chunks, leave garlic and shallots in their ‘robe des champs’, their ‘field-dress’, i.e. with their skins on. For years I misheard this expression and imagined them cooking slowly in their dressing-gowns (robe de chambre). Throw giblets into saucepan to be eaten separately/used to supplement sauce and simmer till cooked.
Get your cast-iron casserole heating on stove with a small amount of olive oil and brown the bird on all sides. Ditto the veg, but hold the figs. Season with salt, pepper and sprig of thyme. Slosh in a dollop of something sweet, fruity and alcoholic and boil off alcohol over high heat for about two minutes. I used port this time, but have also tried with Madeira or sweet sherry. In French Country Cooking (1950) Elizabeth David* says ‘there is no French cooking without wine’ and her recipe for Duck with Figs begins: ‘Put 16 fresh figs to marinate in a half bottle of sauternes for 24 hours…’
After the alcohol has boiled off, stir in a cupful of water, put lid on casserole and place into a pre-heated 210° fan oven. After 10 minutes, take out, have a look, add a bit more water if necessary and put everything back again, this time at 180°. Cooking time will depend on the weight of the bird, use an oven-thermometer or, as a rough guess, 20 minutes to the pound and 20 minutes over. Mine weighed in at 2 kg and was ready in 2 ¼ hours. Check on progress every 30 minutes, turning the bird, adding water if necessary. Throw in figs for the last 30 minutes to allow to keep their shape and a bit of crunch.
Go and sit in garden and enjoy your coffee.
To serve: remove bird and veg onto warm serving platter, reduce sauce if necessary on top of stove, skimming off fat (these birds are quite fatty) and adding some of water from giblets. Serve sauce separately or ladle over meat. The sweet potatoes will have miraculously transformed themselves into a sort of chunky orange mash, flavoured with garlic, and the shallots will be deliciously tender inside their field-dress. Serve with a good red wine (we opened a Côte de Nuits).
NB: Before carving, you may want to fortify yourself with a Kir Royal.
Well, it is Sunday. Santé!