Sunday, 23 June 2013

For Nestor Roqueplan (1805 - 1870),

I don't speak French.

I've picked up a bit, from foreign films, mostly, and from half-baked attempts to speak the language of love with my French-speaking paramour. But I'm incredibly limited. I tend to end up speaking English, but lilting my pro-nun-ciah-cion* to make myself sound French, in a way that would lead any actual French person to quite justifiably speet* in my viz-arrrsh.*

Every so often I resolve to learn properly. I buy the CDs, download the podcasts, stock up on dictionaries... and then get distracted. I can't be alone in this. There must be thousands of Easy to Learn! guides for every one person who actually becomes fluent in a foreign language. Right? (Help me out here. Agree with me. Please.)

As part of my delusional and temporary efforts to learn French, I often pick up a novel written in French and have a flip through. At garage sales, in op shops, in library reading rooms, I pick up these things, full of good intentions and hazy understandings of language acquisition. Surely, just glancing at the words will imprint their meanings in my brain? I think I read something about language learning by ignorant osmosis. It's scientific.

Pictured: my learning philosophy.

And so I happened upon Monsiour Roqueplan's sketches of Paris in Parisine. Flipping through, the elegant gobbledegook entered my brain in a deep and incomprehensible process of subconscious learning. I even recognised the odd word. J'etais prrrroud* uf* moiself!* When it came to a description of fried potato, however, the whole sentence was instantly clear:

"La pomme de terre frite etait son reve."
"The fried potato was his dream."

I've never learned those words, but here they are in my head anyway.

And now, here the potato is in my frying pan. Actually, in a dream of fried potato, I looked up French potato delicacies and discovered my favourite version yet of fried potato: pavé. Granted, it's not a health food. When you start with potato, then add cream and butter, then fry it, you know you're working with a 'sometimes' food. But oh my god, what wonderful sometimes. 

Oh holy god of tubers, YES!
Add chicken, saffron-almond sauce, and warm vegetables, and you have a French feast fit for the finest dining. 

But oh, look. Yet again, I've gotten distracted. Je suis distractement* by le pomme de terre. Screw it. I may not speak French - still - but I know enough to order this bad boy in a Parisian restaurant. What more could I ever need?

*Not a real French word.

Potato Pavé

Makes 8-10 slices, to serve 3-5 people

4 large potatoes
1C cream
50g butter, finely grated
Salt, pepper, garlic granules, to taste (I used 1tsp of each)
2 tbsp olive oil
Thyme sprigs


Warning: this is quite labour-intensive, and you need to start the day before you serve. 

Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, grind the seasonings down into a fine powder. Add half of them to a large bowl with the cream, and reserve the other half for sprinkling later.

Wash and peel the potatoes. Trim them so that they are roughly rounded rectangles, ideally the length of your loaf tin's width. Set a mandoline over the bowl of seasoned cream. On the finest setting, slice the potatoes so that tissue-fine slices fall into the cream. (Use the finger guard or whatever protection came with your mandoline. I'm so serious about that. This is dangerous work.) Move the slices around so that they are all marinated in seasoned cream.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a loaf tin with baking paper, so that the paper comes up over the long edges. This is important as you'll need to lift your potato brick out later. Spray or grease the paper and any exposed surface inside the loaf tin.

Layer in the potato slices, one by one, forming (as far as you can) one neat layer at a time across the bottom of the loaf tin. After about one potato worth of slices have gone in, sprinkle over some grated butter and extra seasoning. Continue layering, adding butter and seasonings in three places within your potato 'brick.' This will take a while, you gotta just keep swimming. When you're done layering, you should have a pallid and disgusting-looking loaf tin full of pale, raw potato. 

Fold the baking paper over your potato brick, and cover the tin with foil. Bake for around (or just under) 2 hours, or until a skewer will go through the brick with no resistance. As the brick cools, find or make something to weigh down your brick. I used two cans on a piece of foil-wrapped cardboard. Using the baking paper to protect the potato, weigh down the brick and leave to cool. Once it's room temperature, remove the weights and refrigerate the tin for at least 6 hours or overnight. 

Use the baking paper to lift the brick out of the loaf tin, and trim the edges to get a nice rectangular shape. Slice the brick into 8-10 slices, as you would a loaf. The slices are delicate, and you should move them carefully using a fish slice or other tool that will support the whole slice. Don't use tongs like I did at first, and send all the delicate layers spraying into tangled ribbons.

Fry the slices on each side in olive oil and thyme until golden brown and heated through. Serve stacked with chicken, green beans, roasted cherry tomatoes, and sauce. (My sauce recipe given below.)

Saffron-Almond Sauce

1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
50g sliced almonds
Few threads saffron (I used 5, but work to taste)
1/2C white wine
1/2 C cream


Heat the oil on medium-high.  Soften the onions and garlic until fragrant but not brown. Add the almonds to toast lightly. Pour in the wine, and, when hot, add the saffron threads. Simmer until reduced down to 1/3 the original volume, then add the cream and simmer down again until thickened. Blend with a stick blender, and pour through a sieve into a warmed serving jug. 

Don't discard the oniony pulp that's left in the sieve - I ate mine on toasted bagel halves the next morning and it was frickin' unbelievable.

Bon appetit!


  1. So labour intensive but looks fabulous! Btw your blog has become my go to place for thesis procrastination/feel good moments.

    1. Thanks! My apologies to your thesis Bobby ;)

  2. Nice, article, I must try this technique with potatoes.

  3. Lovely work, Anaise! Would you be happy to link it in to the current Food on Friday which is all about French Food? This is the link . I do hope to see you there. There are already a lot of links for you to check out. Cheers

  4. So glad you stopped by to link in. Hope to see you again soon. Merci beaucoup

  5. Ps Just peeped at your profile and saw you were in Auckland too - good to meet another Kiwi blogger

  6. Hi again Anaise, today I'm collecting sauce recipes. Please drop me a line on if you are ok with me linking to your post. Cheers