Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Normandy Lamb With Mint

I've been rereading 'Flaubert’s Parrot' by Julian Barnes, which is a funny, sad, literary novel from the 1980s and in my lightweight view is one of the finest written during my lifetime. Mr Barnes refers to the Normandy travels of the Reverend George Musgrave Musgrave (that's his name, not an accidental duplicate word) and, in particular, a conversation he reports in his 1855 book 'A Ramble Through Normandy'. The Reverend Musgrave amuses himself by questioning  'a thriving merchant of Rouen' who, despite being 'upwards of sixty years old', had never heard of mint sauce! Of course, the Reverend 'advised him to take up a new set of notions on English cookery'. It isn't what the Reverend intended but I was reminded of this dish from Normandy.

Some French people (well, Parisians, at least) can still be very dismissive of British food. In my experience, if you try to defend British cooking to them, then you might well get the response, ‘But you serve lamb with a sauce made from mint.’ (The word ‘mint’ should be accompanied by a truly disgusted but slightly pitying look.)

I've never really understood this because the French are not entirely averse to serving lamb with mint themselves, as in this dish. You can find some excellent lamb in Normandy, especially the lamb raised on the salt marshes. Most Normandy salt-marsh lamb, it seems, never leaves Normandy but Welsh salt-marsh lamb is also excellent if you can find it. The local crème fraîche d'Isigny is justifiably famous too if you can get some but another crème fraîche would be fine as a stand-in. This is old-school Normandy cooking and I must admit that the aromas drifting from a classic Normandy kitchen are pretty much guaranteed to transport me to a very happy place. Presumably that was also true for the Reverend Musgrave not to mention Flaubert; although I can't say the same for his parrot since it appears that it was stuffed.

Normandy Lamb With Mint
I'm a bit of a fan of lamb neck fillet – it's an adaptable cut that's generally not too expensive. It's excellent for slower cooking, but good quality neck fillet responds well to more rapid cooking too. You do need to take a bit of care to ensure that the sinews are trimmed off, though. I used 2 small fillets weighing just over 200 g each, which should comfortably serve 2 people. If the fillets are larger, you may need to adjust the cooking times a little.

1 large shallot, peeled and finely chopped
A little butter for frying and finishing the sauce
300 ml cider, preferably dry but not too dry
2 or 3 sprigs of mint, plus a few extra leaves
2 lamb neck fillets
A generous dash of calvados (or a little more cider if you don't have any to hand)
3 – 4 tbsp thick crème fraîche

Melt a little butter in an ovenproof frying pan. Soften the shallot in the butter over a gentle heat without allowing it to colour. If you're really gentle, then this will probably take around 15 minutes. Add the cider to the pan, bring to the boil and continue boiling until the cider is reduced by about half. Lower the heat and add the sprigs of mint to the pan (keep the few extra leaves aside for later). Simmer for another minute, then pour the contents of the pan into a jug and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Give the pan a quick wipe, put it back on the heat and melt a little more butter. Season the lamb, place in the pan and fry until it's lightly brown on all sides. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast for 5 or 6 minutes. This will be fine for small fillets, but if they're larger or you just like well-done lamb, then leave them in the oven for 2 or 3 minutes longer.

Put the lamb fillets aside somewhere warm to rest while you finish the sauce. Pour off any excess fat from the pan (remember the pan will be hot from the oven – I've been known to forget). Put the pan back on the heat and deglaze with the calvados. Remove the mint sprigs from the cider mixture and pour it back into the pan. Bring up to simmering point and stir in the crème fraîche. Adjust the seasoning, stir in a small knob of butter and keep the sauce warm while you slice the lamb and chop the remaining mint leaves. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve and stir in the chopped mint. Arrange the lamb slices on warmed plates and pour over the sauce. Serve immediately.

I think some simple new potatoes and green beans sit nicely alongside this dish but something like a potato rösti would work pretty well too.
Normandy Salt Marsh
I'm submitting this to the latest Novel Food event hosted by Simona Carini at briciole with apologies that the connection between the novel and this dish is just about as obtuse as is usual for me. I'd recommend ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ to anyone who wants to read an excellent, literary novel but if you're ever inclined to read ‘A Ramble Through Normandy’ then I feel I should warn you that the Reverend Musgrave could never be accused of breviloquence and it might be quicker to go for a ramble through Normandy for yourself.

While I'm on the subject of Julian Barnes I would also strongly recommend his collection of essays ‘The Pedant In The Kitchen’, especially if you've ever tried to write down a recipe for others to read.


17 comments:

  1. Phil, I've never heard of that book. Adding it to my reading list. Though I did post my rather excellent lamb shanks some time ago, I only made them for friends, not myself. I'm not a lamb fan, even though I grew up with a mother who cooked it beautifully and with a mint sauce. I can eat it to be polite, but … I agree, a potato rösti would go very nicely with this dish. You've taught me another new word with this sentence: "that the Reverend Musgrave could never be accused of breviloquence and it might be quicker to go for a ramble through Normandy for yourself."

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    1. I must admit that I'm a big fan of lamb, although I eat it less often these days. Actually, I don't often eat it with mint sauce but that certainly doesn't mean I don't approve of mint sauce. In my advanced years I worry that my vocabulary might be getting as wayward and random as my behaviour and so I apologise for any obscure words that might litter this blog.

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  2. I love your vocabulary, Phil, and it's great to learn a new word! I love lamb with mint sauce, but sadly rarely get the chance to cook a joint of lamb as my children don't like it! Haven't read the book, but it's on my reading list now.

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    1. I seem to have picked up a few obscure words here and there probably due to my attempts to solve too many crosswords over the years. I've read that lamb has become much less popular in recent times and I don't know if this is due to cost or fat content or maybe the popularity of Shaun the Sheep. Although I have nothing but respect for Shaun, I'm afraid I still love the taste of lamb.

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  3. Not only did I have to google breviloquence, but also some of the words given in the explanation! New words are a joy to learn - remembering to use them when it's appropriate is more of a challenge.
    A ramble through Normandy seems like a lovely way to pass some time. In fact it's something we often intend to do but we usually find ourselves hurtling through on the way to or from the Loire. One day.
    However, I have two nice lamb steaks in the fridge, obtained from the butcher in the village. I have no idea what cut they are but they might just do for this recipe....

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    1. I confess that I do love coming across new words but sometimes I do forget that I can be confusing as a result. My word of the week this week (again, inspired by a crossword) is 'notabilia' but so far I've failed to work it into a conversation. Many people only see the bits of Normandy that surround the major roads but, as you might have gathered, I love the place. If you ever do get to ramble in Normandy then I'd recommend the Cotentin peninsula and the lovely Côte d’Albâtre passing through enchanting places like Veules-les-Roses.

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  4. My husband and I both like lamb and would certainly enjoy it prepared your way along with the sides you suggested.

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    1. Although I'd go for simple steamed or boiled potatoes I think a lot of the folks from Normandy that I've met would probably prefer them fried.

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  5. It is always a pleasure to read your posts, Phil, and this is no exception. I didn't know Parisians had a problem with lamb served with mint. Granted, mint should be used with caution, I think, as overdoing is a possibility, but it is a great herb and one that is also easy to grow (in fact, it should be confined to avoid invasion). Thank you for your choice of book, which reminded me I have a copy of it on my to-read list, and thank you for your recipe, now added to my to-try list. Thank you for contributing to Novel Food :)

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    1. I think it's fair to say that the French liked to look down on British food as unsophisticated for many years, although you see that less often these days. But if anyone is going to be rude about the food of other countries, then it would probably be the Parisians. I once heard a man from the south of France say that he didn't get on with all the foreigners moving to his village. When asked if he meant the British he said no, they were fine, it was the Parisians he didn't like.

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  6. Yes. I am totally interested in this novel and have not heard of this writer. Thank you for the recommendation.

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    1. I've admired his writing since I read Flaubert's Parrot when it was first published and he has published many other fine books since.

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  7. I do love lamb, and prepared some loin chops last night with a very nice, tangy preserved lemon and mint sauce from Nigella Lawson. Wondering though where you find lamb neck fillets. A specialty butcher?

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    1. If you want salt-marsh lamb then you'll need to find a butcher that buys it in. I recently bought some Welsh salt-marsh lamb that was lovely but, not surprisingly, quite expensive. But Snowy is right, you should be able to find neck fillets in most larger supermarkets. They're often very good quality for not a lot of money.

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  8. Claudia, I bought lamb neck fillets in Morrisons last week, so should be in most supermarkets?

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  9. I'm a sucker for historical books set in the French countryside, so will have to look up your suggestions. Nothing like getting lost in another world and time on a long plane flight (of which I have one coming up soon). For myself, I love lamb, but my husband does not, so my opportunities to enjoy it are mostly limited to restaurants. Will keep your recipe on stand-by in case I get the chance at home

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    1. I'm not sure that Flaubert's Parrot could truly be called historical, even though it deals with Flaubert. It has more to do perhaps with how the past impacts on the present and a contemporary character's fascination or maybe obsession with the past and its literature. This book is absorbing but, in a sense, it has more to do with our world than an earlier time.

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Sorry but I've had to switch word verification on due to a vast amount of very depressing spam.