A leg of lamb– gigot d’agneau–is a firmFrench favourite for Easter. Stick it full of garlic slivers and rosemary leaves, cover with butter (yes) and roast on high heat until pink in the middle. But this year I’ve gone for something more complicated, in honour of the tender new vegetables just coming on to the market– a navarin d’agneau, lamb stew, but with class.
First, a trip to the market. Here are Claudie and Caroline at the wonderful market in Biarritz. They’re shopping for lamb to make a tagine, but the basic principle is the same. Forget your list and throw yourself on the mercy of He–or She–Who Knows Best…
“In spite of the early hour there was a bustle. Caroline felt her spirits lift as they stepped indoors. The tiny bars with their zinc counters were doing a brisk trade in strong espressos. A din came from the produce stalls, where the market sellers, on raised platforms, vaunted the quality of their wares interspersed with rapid-fire banter with the customers in a mixture of languages, French, English and Spanish.
‘Deux kilos de saucisse pour la belle dame à la robe rouge!’
‘Et vous Monsieur, qu’est-ce qu’il vous faut? Un bon pied de porc pour ce midi?’
A long queue had formed at one stall where three men in Basque berets were nimbly dodging and dancing past each other reaching for hams, duck legs and trays of charcuterie…
It took a good half hour for Claudie to drag Caroline to the stall which sold the lamb. Laid out behind the glass were different cuts of lamb chops, shoulders of lamb, gigots, racks of lamb, lamb sausages. Caroline tried to take it all in. Presiding over the proceedings was lady of a certain age with a regal bearing. Under her white apron she wore a fluffy angora top in Barbie pink. Rubies glittered in her ears, the same colour as her Chanel red lipstick. Her blonde hair was sprayed into an immaculate golden helmet.
Caroline nudged Claudie.
‘It’s Catherine Deneuve.’
‘That is la patronne. The owner’s wife. She has to keep up appearances. Look at that diamond, you can see it through her plastic gloves. Le patron is doing well.’
Madame, on her raised platform, was playing the crowd. She spread her arms theatrically and apologised graciously to the steadily growing queue.
‘They are busy with the orders,’ she said, indicating her husband and a team of assistants who were cutting, sawing and packing meat into Styrofoam boxes.
The way she imparted this information indicated the customers should be honoured there was any meat left for them at all. They nodded respectfully, an eye on her flashing knives.
Finally it was their turn.
Claudie began to order.
‘What are you making?’
‘A tagine.’ (NB: Or, for today’s dish ‘un navarin’ -Ed)
‘I will choose the meat,’ she said, putting away the cuts that Claudie had asked for. Her manicured hands in their plastic gloves hovered over a tray of shoulders. She paused, dived on one piece of meat and held it up for Claudie’s inspection, turning it from side to side like a jeweller showing a rare gem.
‘Perfect,’ said Claudie.
They watched as Madame selected a long thin knife and deftly removed the bone, holding that up for inspection too.
‘This will be good. For the flavour.’
She made a neat wax paper package.
Her eyes travelled over the other trays. ‘The fat.’
She chose three pieces of neck and weighed them.
‘Perhaps one more?’ ventured Claudie.
Madame complied graciously.
Caroline looked behind her at the waiting customers. They all had solemn expressions on their faces. No one moved or complained.
Five minutes later they had a basket full of packages and Claudie had handed over a lot of money.
‘Bon appétit,’ said the patronne. ‘And give my regards to your mother.’
She tilted her head in a nod of acknowledgement.
‘She knows the family,’ said Claudie under her breath, adding ‘Merci Madame. Bonne journée.’
‘Merveilleux, truly merveilleux,’ said Caroline as they left.
(Biarritz Passion: French Summer Novel #1)
After the lamb, a visit to the veg stall to buy the tenderest baby carrots and turnips, tiny onions, dwarf green beans, spring potatoes (grenailles) and peas. (OK, I cheated. The peas were frozen). All the vegetables must be lovingly prepared and added to the lamb for the last hour of cooking, then left overnight so that the flavours mingle. NB don’t forget to treat yourself to bouquet of spring flowers along with the dwarf beans.
For the recipe*, I use a combination of Julia Child’s classic and the inspiration du jour , but an essential thing to remember is that the lamb, as you are browning it, must be caramelised with sugar in order to acquire the beautiful amber colour typical of the dish.
For amateurs of the French Summer Novels, Caroline and Claudie will be at the market again, discussing life, love and the best olives in town in ‘Villa Julia’, the last book in the series, currently under, ahem, revision. Imagine a vast shapeless onesie with long arms and short legs being painstakingly unpicked, re-cut, tucked in here, let out there; add a few sequins, a flounce, a bow and with a bit of luck it might end up as a haute couture ballgown on next season’s catwalk…But while ‘Villa Julia’ is being cut to ribbons in the atelier, you can always hop over to the beautiful Basque country for less than a fiver! Let yourself be carried away to the Atlantic rollers via Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque . Go on, you’re worth it… 😉
*Julia Child’s recipe can be found here: