After reading Martin Walker’s The Body in the Castle Well, the 14th book in the series about Chief of Police Bruno Courrèges, I Googled real estate listings in the Périgord, known for its castles, caves, gastronomy and lush landscape of rolling hills, woods and vineyards. From Walker’s description, this region in southwestern France seems like an ideal place to live even if you have to deal with the type such skullduggery as truffle fraud, archaeological vandalism, arson, drugs and even terrorists Bruno encounters on a regular basis.
Besides, I always wanted to be Nancy Drew, even asking for a magnifying glass when I was ten so I could search for clues. Alas, I got the magnifying glass but where do you look for clues?
Since I won’t be moving to the Périgord any time soon—I can still channel the region by cooking like Bruno who not only solves crimes but is a gourmet cook. His recipes, insights and recommendations about wines, life in southwestern France and details about his cases are featured on his blog, brunochiefofpolice.com. Obviously, Walker and his wife, Julia Watson, both of whom write the blog, get into Bruno and French cooking in a big way. The couple split their time between Washington D.C. and Le Bugue, a small village in the Périgord where they own a 1698 farmhouse with several newer outbuildings, if you consider the 1700s new and in France they do.
When Walker, who served as bureau chief in Moscow and the U.S. and as European Editor for The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, isn’t busy writing mysteries or driving around the Périgord looking for the perfect place to plant bodies (for his books, of course), he and his wife spend much of their time in the kitchen. Walker and Watson also wrote Bruno’s Cookbook, which is a best seller in Germany where it’s sold 100,000 copies. But unless you read the language, don’t bother to order a copy as it’s not published in English though Walker encourages people to call his publisher and demand that it be.
Now many of the recipes in both are very French, calling for truffles, rabbit, foie gras and other ingredients not common in Southwest Michigan. Others are very easily made and those are the ones I’ve chosen to try.
Cheese and Walnut Sable Biscuits
1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup self-rising flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon chili powder or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 ounces butter
1 1⁄2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1⁄2 cup finely chopped walnuts or 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
2 -3 tablespoons beer or 2 -3 tablespoons milk
Pre-heat oven to 350°F.
Sift the flours, salt, pepper and chili powder or cayenne pepper into a bowl together and mix. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the cheese and walnuts and mix well. Then add the beer or milk; blend into a dough. Chill for 30 minutes.
Roll out on a floured board and cut into small rounds. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.
Sprinkle with seasoning salt or cayenne pepper if you wish. Cool on a wire rack and store in airtight tins.
Serve with cheese, cream cheese and savory fillings and dips, or just by themselves.
This is one of Bruno’s favorite meals, a variation of boeuf bourguignon, the classic dish of Burgundy which Bruno argues was named that in order to sell more Burgundy wine. It’s much like a beef stew, only with several types of wine added as ingredients.
2.2 pounds of good red meat cut into 1 to ½-inch cubes
1 large onion, chopped
2 generous tablespoons of flour
2 cups mushrooms, slices
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 bottle of red wine
1.1 pounds bacon, diced
1.1 pounds shallots, left whole
4 ounces madeira or ruby port
4 ounces beef stock (Bruno uses his house made duck stock so if you happen to have some on hand go ahead and use it though I’m guessing most of us will more likely go with the beef stock)
1 bay leaf
3 or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme, or a level teaspoon of dried thyme
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons of duck fat, or olive oil
Preheat oven to 300° F.
Pat the cubes of meat dry with a paper towel (or they will not brown easily) and fry them in the duck fat or olive oil until browned.
Remove the meat from the pan and fry the chopped onion in the remaining fat and juices.
When the onions are just turning brown, return the meat to the pan and start sprinkling the flour and stirring so that the beef becomes coated.
Once the flour is thoroughly mixed, transfer to a casserole and start adding the red wine, a glass at a time, so the dish stays hot. Add the bay leaf, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper.
Cook for two hours.
After two hours, fry bacon until much of the fat has been released, then add the small onions and finally the carrots and mushrooms. Once they are browned, add them to the casserole with the port or madeira and stock re-cover and cook for another hour.
The sauce is too thin if it drips too easily from a wooden spoon. If so, return the casserole to the oven without the lid for 10-15 minutes.
Bruno’s tip: Cook this dish the day before you want to eat it, and re-warm it at mealtime, bringing it to a simmering point for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. It always tastes better after a day or two. When he is cooking for himself, Bruno will add some small potatoes and carrots with the onions and mushrooms. It is no longer a classic dish but makes a very comforting stew.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 good farm chicken (but if you must, 4 chicken legs will do)
2 large onions, peeled and finely sliced
1 garlic clove (optional)
8 small carrots, topped and tailed only
9 ounces white wine
12 sprigs of fresh tarragon
3 tablespoons crème fraiche (can substitute an equivalent amount of sour cream)
Salt and pepper to taste, (preferably sea salt)
Preheat the oven to 400° F. While doing this, if you want roast potatoes (see below) put them on to boil in slightly salted water.
Heat the oil and butter in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan and over a medium heat sauté the onions and carrots till soft and beginning to turn gold. Drain and transfer to a dish set aside. Then add the chicken, with a little more oil if need be, and fry until browned all over.
Put the onions, carrots and chicken in a lidded casserole or baking dish and cover.
Pour out the fat from the frying pan and add the wine, scraping up the brown goop from the bottom while bringing the liquid to the boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper then add it to the chicken with the tarragon sprigs.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven, stir in the crème fraiche, adjust the seasoning if necessary, and return to the oven for 5 minutes, making sure the dish doesn’t come to the boil, then plate into a serving dish.
Serve with a green salad and boiled new potatoes or roasted potatoes.
For roasted potatoes:
Almost completely boil several peeled and quartered medium-sized potatoes, then drain and roll them in a pan that has been heated with a layer of oil in the oven to coat them and put the pan of potatoes in the oven for the 30 minutes that the chicken casserole is baking. They will roast in the oven till golden all over. If you can find duck fat, the key to Périgord cooking, then use it.