Earlier this year, I read an article about a Dutch study purporting to show that the greatest psychological benefit of vacation occurred in the planning phase, and not during the vacation itself. I’ve thought about this study a lot because the conclusion the authors reached seems ridiculous, science or no. How is it possible that spending endless hours trolling Expedia for low fares could compete with, say, lying on a beach in Guadeloupe, Carib beer in hand? It seemed unlikely.
The obvious antidote to this kind of skepticism is a vacation. Is it possible to remain dubious about academic research while quaffing cold rosé under the southern French sun? To find out, I booked two tickets to Barcelona, hired a car, and made arrangements to stay at a 16th century stone house in Languedoc-Roussillon near Andùze where we stayed last June. My husband and I were going to find out whether leaving our jobs behind for a couple of weeks would boost our happiness. We’re both big fans of scientific research.
According to our friend Jonathan, who owns a share of the property in Languedoc, the house on the property probably dates from the 1500s when the production of silk began in the area. One wing of the house constituted the “magnanerie” (silk loft) where silk worms feasted on mulberry tree branches. The closest town of significance, Andùze, was the center of the silk industry in this region, and home to a number of mills. “Produced in Andùze, delivered in Nȋmes, the silk went back to Lyon via the Rhône,” Jonathan informs us. Although the property bears few obvious traces of this industrial past, it boasts plenty of natural charm. A tributary of the Salindrenque River winds through the property, twisting at points to provide refreshing swimming holes. Fig trees grow alongside the house, luring butterflies (and bees). Wild boars rustle through the woods from time to time. Just out the front door, a thickening canopy of grape vines, climbing roses, and other greenery shades a brick wood-fired oven and a picnic table. Walking about the property, the scent of wild mint rises, crushed by your feet. In front, there’s a makeshift pétanque circle. The nearest neighbor is a five minute drive away down a narrow gravel road.
But the main attraction of the place – as far as I’m concerned, anyway – is that old brick oven and the opportunity to cook in a completely different setting. There’s no electricity or hot water, which adds another level of complexity. Last year, before we went, Jonathan sent me this e-mail:
“Serious question for you. If Justin and I kill a wild boar, will you know how to dress it and cook it for us? That would be memorable, and provide food for days, don’t you think?”
Answer: yes. It would have been memorable … had the men been able to follow through on their end of the deal. The killing end of the deal, as I like to think of it. We could have roasted the loin and shoulder in the brick oven, and made terrine from the offal and cheeks. But with all the day trips to Nȋmes and Avignon, and all the games of pétanque lubricated with wine from the cave cooperatif down the road, nothing as exotic as wild boar ever turned up in the kitchen.
This time, before we left, Nat turned to me and said, “you know what would be great? If we could get that brick oven going.” I nodded my agreement. On our trips to Vermont, we established a tradition of visiting American Flatbread, whose wood-fired pizzas are better by far than almost anything outside of New Haven. Each Flatbread outpost has its virtues, although we have our favorites. The bartender in Burlington possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of craft brewing and will offer up generous tastings of anything if you express an interest. In Middlebury, close to the family vacation home, the waits are never as long as at the Waitsfield flagship, and it’s often possible to get a seat in front of the domed brick oven. Nat has alluded to plans to build just such an oven in our back yard. “You can buy a kit for about two to four thousand dollars,” he enthused.
So our trip to France became a quest, among other things, to learn to use the brick oven. Sitting beneath the Pont du Gard, I noted my interest in steak. “Actually,” Nat interjected, “you know what I’m really in the mood for? A whole roast chicken. What we don’t finish tonight we can eat cold for lunch tomorrow.” It would be memorable, and provide food for days, don’t you think? Holding on to this thought during the drive to Uzès, I was both excited to try out the oven and a little anxious. One thing about a completely un-electrified property – once it gets dark, it’s really dark. Would I be able to tell when the chicken had cooked? What if, at eleven o’clock, I pulled out a charred poultry-shaped shell masking a bloody, raw interior? Unlike the States – where you can find an all-night grocery within driving distance of most towns – rural France hews to meaningful shopping and dining schedules. At the market in Uzès, we picked up some terrine de foie aux cèpes and a thick slice of pâté de tête with green peppercorn along with the chicken, to hedge our bets.
As the sun set, Nat stacked kindling sticks and logs inside the mouth of the oven, twisting bits of newspaper to stoke the fire, while I halved heritage plum tomatoes and “la ratte” potatoes, and rubbed butter on the famed poulet jaune de Landes, trussing it with butcher’s twine. By the time we slid two baking dishes into the oven – one with the chicken and potatoes, and another with the olive oil-dressed tomatoes – it was completely dark. We opened a bottle of local Syrah, sat down with a platter of terrine and cornichons to watch the fire, and leaned a forked branch against the oven wall.
The next 90 minutes were pretty interesting. To feed the fire, Nat gathered up a number of fallen tree branches and then started loading them into the oven. Most of the branches were far too long for the oven – having been cut for the fire pit or perhaps not at all – and I worried that one or the other of us would bump into a protruding branch, launching it from the oven and setting the old silk loft on fire. “There are saws in that armoire in the entryway,” I said, nervously regarding the orange flames.
“Really?” said Nat, raising an eyebrow. He left the table with a flashlight and returned with two flimsy saws, neither of which seemed likely to cut anything harder than butter. I regretted my suggestion almost immediately – one of the saws failed to grip the wood all that well but instead made a comical twanging sort of mouth-harp sound, and the other broke. Making matters worse, the forked branch we were using to latch onto the handle of the baking dish was disintegrating in the oven’s heat with each use, and after about 45 minutes, I found myself panicking when, trying to turn the chicken, I wound up pushing it so far into the oven I was pretty sure we’d be eating the headcheese for dinner and retrieving the charred carcass from the oven the next day. But cooking is the same whether you’re at home or in front of a brick oven in the south of France – when you run into trouble, you find a way to work it out. Trying to think cool thoughts – Vermont in winter, the unheated shower I took just that morning – I stepped closer to the fire and leaned in with the branch, pulling the chicken toward me.
At home we often joke about our Eurotrashy dining habits. The fact is that we commute from Washington, DC to Baltimore every day, and rarely eat before 9:30pm, around the time some of our early-rising friends are nodding off during Real Housewives, remote in hand. I regarded our trip to France as a time to gain some normalcy – not because we’d be eating any earlier, you see, but because everyone eats later. This certainly was true in Spain, anyway, where we deflected well-meaning restaurant efforts to seat us at 9pm, the American hour, with the statement that we often eat around 10 at home. And true to form, we pulled the tomatoes, bubbling and caramelized, and the chicken, with its crisp, golden skin, from the oven just before 10pm.
“The moment of truth,” Nat said, pouring more Syrah into my glass. I probably looked worried. I am not known for my culinary failures – a strange incident involving some sablefish in 2001 stands out as the sole example in the past ten years – and the chicken looked like a roasted chicken is supposed to look. Then again, the sablefish looked right too. Would this be the Great Sablefish Incident of 2010? One of the thighs had come loose from when I flipped the bird over with the branch to roast the underside. Nat reached out and tore off the bit of dark meat dangling from the cavity, and popped it into his mouth. “Perfect.”
Brick oven roast chicken and potatoes
Here’s the thing about cooking in a brick oven. It’s just like cooking in any other oven, except for two things. The heat isn’t even throughout – it’s unbearably hot right beside the fire, and gets cooler as you move away – so you need to take advantage of the zones. And another thing – at its hottest, it’s far hotter than any home oven.
Our chicken emerged looking pretty good, although it was a little ragged from our efforts to move it around the oven, and the fact that we cooked the meal entirely in the dark. For best results, use something other than a fallen tree branch to drag your pan around the oven.
One whole roasting chicken
1 1/2 lb yellow-flesh potatoes, like la ratte, Yellow Finn, or Yukon Gold,
1/8 lb or about 60g (4 tbsp) unsalted butter
one lemon, halved
one small onion, quartered
4 sprigs of thyme
Giant pile of firewood and brick oven (optional)
If using the brick oven, begin about two hours before you intend to roast your chicken. Build a fire inside the mouth of the oven, immediately to the right, against the interior wall. Avoid resinous woods like pine; instead, select hardwoods. Have additional kindling, tinder, and logs on hand, as you will need to feed the fire.
If using a conventional oven, 450F/230C.
Season the chicken inside and out with salt and stuff the cavity with half a lemon, two onion quarters, and they thyme. Rub the chicken with 3 tbsp butter. Place in the center of an ovensafe roasting pan (if you can, place the chicken on a rack within the pan). If using the brick oven, your roasting pan of choice should be enameled cast iron, cast iron, or earthenware. Do not use any nonstick items if using a brick oven (including the rack) as the coating may not survive the heat.
Halve the potatoes lengthwise, arrange around the chicken, and dot with butter. Arrange around the chicken (if using a rack, place the potatoes directly in the pan and set the rack above them.
Once your oven of choice is hot, load the roasting pan into the oven. Begin by placing the pan near the heat source – within about 6 inches – so the skin begins to turn golden. Turn the pan 180 degrees to brown the other side. Once the chicken has begun to turn an even gold, push it back to a cooler section of the oven. I found that about 14-16 inches sufficed. If you are using a conventional oven, turn the heat down to 300F/150C.
Turn the chicken as necessary to ensure even cooking. After about 40 minutes, pull out the chicken and test for doneness – juices from the cavity should run clear and the thigh should move easily in its socket. If using a thermometer, at its thickest point the temperature should read not less than 165F/75C (and, to be appetizing, probably should read about 175F/80C). Let the chicken rest for about 15-20 minutes before carving. Season with salt and pepper.
I hesitate to call this a confit, because the tomatoes are not actually poached in fat, at least not initially. Maybe oil-roasting is a better term. Once the tomatoes soften and begin giving up liquid, they collapse into the poaching oil. The tops will bubble and blacken a bit, and the tomatoes will become thick and sweet. Even a somewhat substandard tomato will gain great flavor using this cooking method.
6-8 plum tomatoes, like San Marzano, or Amish Paste (or the more commonly available Roma)
six thyme branches
salt and pepper
If using a conventional oven, 450F/230C.
Halve the tomatoes lengthwise, place in a baking dish (follow the tips above if using a brick oven), and season with salt and pepper. Place the thyme branches on top and add several good glugs of olive oil on top and around the tomatoes.
If using a brick oven, load the pan into the oven about 8 inches from the heat source. Once the tomatoes begin to collapse and give up some of their juice, move the pan to a spot about 12 inches from the heat. If using a conventional oven, place the pan in the oven and roast until the tomatoes have collapsed, are bubbling, and have the occasional blackened spot on top.