In my few visits to Poitou-Charentes I’ve always eaten well, enjoyed good wines and come away with new ideas. I also come away with a feeling they like to keep some things to themselves – for example, the remarkable Farce Poitevin, a mysterious terrine of dark green cabbage served cold with a hard boiled hen’s egg as an hors d’oeuvre.
I ate it in Chauvigny one December and was so taken with it, I brought near a kilo to bring home to London. My flight was cancelled due to appalling weather that had set in as we drove across country to the airport and so I had an unexpected night in a hotel where bailing, not drinking, all the miniatures from the minbar was my only route to ‘fridge rescue for my Farce Poitevin. I served it once back home and it scored high marks, as much for strangeness as for taste – one coujld say it was pure Blue Collar Gastronomy.
This Farce Poitevin was a gastronomic revelation and I have never seen it again – Google it and there’s nothing there. If anyone reading this has a genuine recipe source, please, I implore, do send it to me.
The Poitou-Charentes region has also brought us a very odd wedding cake – or better said, a cake traditionally served at weddings with apèritifs. The Tourteau Fromagé du Poitou is a charcoal black topped, moist yellow sponge made with fromage frais.
This love or loathe it cake is again claimed to have come about by accident – the young cook burnt the top, etc – an excuse as old as King Alfred himself and, in cooking, we’ve heard many times over. It’s a stock answer when folks actually have not a clue of origins.
Seen en-masse they make a grand sight – the better so if you know what to expect when the cake is cut open. A moist yellow sponge, traditionally cooked in a terracotta pot, made with fromage frais – traditionalists say the fromage frais must only be made with goat’s milk and I wouldn’t disagree.
At the Salon International d’Agricole in Paris this year I was guide for a day to an inquisitive chef who works now with one of the UK’s bigger food retailers. He’s well travelled and has an enviable CV as a chef. When he saw the Tourteau du Poitou piled high at the salon, he was dumbstruck. When he tasted it, he was awestruck. A quick conversion one might say. To prove my point, he went into even deeper heavenly space when I took him to Androuet’s cave du fromage on the Rue Mouffetard.
The true roots of the black topped Tourteau are certainly a few centuries ago, but no research I have done would tell me precisely where and when. The blackened top serves to add a charcoal note to the soft, cheesy inside – it also lengthens the life of the cake. Today the Poitevins are more relaxed about their Tourteau and have it served at breakfast, as an apero’ and even offered with ice creams and fruit coulis’.
‘Cake’ with such a savoury note is not unusual in France. In 1994, we were invited to the official illumination ceremony of Le Corbusier’s last great work – theChapelle de Notre-Dame en Haut, above the nonsuch town of Ronchamps in the Vosges – close to Belfort for your map referencing. The invitation, like the recipe for the Tourteau, came about by accident - the jolly couple who owned a café/bar near the village of Melissey had already befriended us over the 7-10 days we’d been installed locally in an old gite.
The building has been one of my absolute favourites since my ‘teens. It is constructed on a centuries’ old Christian crossing point and was always a place of worship even BC in Pagan times. Le Corbuser visited the site regularly for nearly two years before allowing himself to make even the most basic of first pencil drawings in his pocketbook. Born close by in Switzerland, ‘Corb’ understood mountains and their meaning in earlier civilisations. He left instructions that he wanted the building to be illuminated from dusk to dawn, but only when hidden cabling became a reality.
A few months short of 30 years after the great man’s passing, EDF made this a reality and we were there. More so, my partner was heavily pregnant so she was given a chair beside the ancient Abbé Marie-Alain Couturier – the same man, then in his 90s, who’d commisssioned Le Corbusier. Sometimes life, like cake, is very sweet indeed.
And sweet too was the ‘cake’ served with the chilled and local simple wine at the reception which followed. The Ronchamp’s cake was another very ‘damp’ sponge, quite heavy for being generously studded with smoked lardons. Quite remarkable, but so was the evening as we waited for the sun to drop and the South American pan pipes played in the dusk. That evening will stay with me forever.
Tourteau Poitou or ‘Cake’ – the French make it a simple delight. Maybe someone imports the Tourteau to England – I have never seen it. Whenever we’re in Leclerc we bring one back as it’s in Leclerc’s ‘Nos Regions on du Talent’ range – a marketing inspriation which spans every category in their stores and keeps alive many recipes that might otherwise be lost. or at best stay within their tiny region.
One’s enjoyment of an apèritif is leveraged many fold with a tasty bite – and sweet/savoury cake can be just that.