“When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-litre jar containing a single black Perigord truffle, large as a tennis ball and suspended in sunflower oil, which, when uncorked, still releases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor.”
Joanne Harris has three novels that make up a "trilogy of food": Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, and Five Quarters of the Orange.
Chocolat is the most famous, but Five Quarters of the Orange is my favorite, a dark, compelling tale of war, family, and the sly ways in which the past returns to haunt the present. I've chosen it as my inspiration for the Autumn 2008 edition of Novel Food.
Five Quarters of the Orange is narrated by Framboise, the youngest daughter of Mirabelle Dartigan, who has returned to the village of Les Laveuses decades after her family abruptly departed. Framboise lives under an assumed name, runs a small but popular crêperie, and keeps to herself.
Unfortunately, history is not content to remain forgotten, and gradually, Framboise reveals the truth of the events that occurred in Les Laveuses during the summer of 1942, and how they led to tragedy the following autumn.
Mirabelle is not an affectionate mother. Her temper is quick, her tongue sharp. She humors Cassis, the eldest, and spoils Reinette, the village beauty, but she is always finding fault with nine year-old Framboise. In turn, Framboise is sullen and rebellious. She learns her mother's weaknesses and uses them against her. (The title of the story hints at one of her major weapons.) The kitchen is their only neutral ground, and cooking, the only activity they share.
“My mother marked the events of her life with recipes, dishes of her own invention or interpretations of old favourites. Food was her nostalgia, her celebration, its nurture and preparation the sole outlet for her creativity.”
Mirabelle's album is part recipe book, part diary, and various excerpts are scattered throughout Framboise's narrative, which has no shortage of recipes itself. I drew on both elements for the meal I served: a fish stew based on a meal Framboise mentions, followed by an apple-and-dried-apricot clafoutis from Mirabelle's album.
Framboise describes a stew of fish scraps with red onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and whole shallots, seasoned with garlic, herbs, and white wine. The dish is probably a version of cotriade, a stew from Mirabelle's native region of Brittany.
Something about the combination of tomatoes, fish, and potatoes didn't quite appeal to me, so borrowing from a Provençale fish stew called bourride, I left out the potatoes and substituted fennel. Bourride also uses orange peel as a flavoring agent, which worked out rather nicely - given the major role that oranges play in the plot, I thought it only fair to incorporate them somehow.
Judging by the list of flavorings - garlic, thyme, fennel and orange peel - you'd probably guess that this is a bold, aggressive stew. Surprisingly, it's not. In fact, it tastes bland when you first assemble everything, so much so that you might wonder if you did something wrong. Give it an hour over very low heat, however, and the flavors gradually develop. The end result is fish in a wonderfully subtle tomato broth, aromatic with hints of garlic, anise, and citrus.
Fish Stew with Tomatoes, Fennel, and Orange
Any firm, white-fleshed fish can be used. You can use just one kind of fish, or several different varieties.
(Serves one, with leftovers.)
Heat a generous quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or stove-safe casserole dish over medium heat. Add one sliced small red onion. When the onion is translucent, throw in two minced cloves of garlic, several sprigs of thyme, and a generous splash of dry white wine.
When the alcohol fumes have burned off and you can smell the garlic and thyme, add two or three large ripe tomatoes, cut into rough dice, and turn down the heat. Cook until the tomatoes have started to collapse and release their liquid.
Add half a fennel bulb, cut into thin slices. If there doesn't seem to be much liquid in the pan, add a little water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the fennel has lost its crunch. Season the mixture with salt. Don't be worried if it doesn't taste like much at this point.
Remove the lid and gently add two fillets of white fish, cut into one-inch pieces. Add a little more water if the fish isn't completely covered. Cut the zest from half an orange (you can do this with a knife if you're careful, but a grater also works) and drop it in the pot.
When the fish pieces have turned white, lower the heat to the barest simmer. You want the occasional bubble to break through the surface, but nothing more. Cook the stew for at least an hour, stirring occasionally, until the fish pieces have broken up into smaller chunks.
Remove from heat, and ladle into big bowls. Serve with rice or crusty bread, accompanied by a green salad. Clafoutis makes a good dessert to follow.