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.