The Vision of Piers Plowman’s Lunch — otherwise known as tartiflette

 

It’s nearly three dec­ades since I stud­ied medi­ev­al lit­er­at­ure at uni­ver­sity. This after­noon I searched out my cop­ies of The Vis­ion of Piers Plow­man, Le Morte Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to give to my son who’s about to go to uni­ver­sity to study Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure him­self. It’s a sober­ing remind­er of time’s pas­sage. Or, to put it more bru­tally, a sure way for a moth­er to feel 103.

You prob­ably wouldn’t thank me for a full ana­lys­is of Wil­li­am Langland’s The Vis­ion of Piers Plow­man. But, in a game of medi­ev­al roul­ette, I closed my eyes and slapped my fore­finger down on a ran­dom line in the book, to see if I could still make sense of it:

And Mede is manered after hym, right as [asketh kynde]:

Qual­is pater, tal­is fili­us. Bona arbor bonum fructum facit

A good tree pro­duces good fruit? Much as I love Piers Plow­man, I have to argue, if only in defence of the abom­in­able-look­ing plum tree in my garden. It’s mis­shapen, wonky, stun­ted, ugly and has snapped branches — and yet it’s the pro­du­cer of the most deli­cious fruit you could ask for. Even our dog takes a detour round the tree at this time of year to grab a quick snack.

Plum tree with broken branch

Its neigh­bour, the green­gage tree, is twice as tall and is serenely eleg­ant …and the fruit is a dis­aster. If Lang­land had ever dropped by and tasted both plums and green­gages, Pas­sus II, line 27 of his poem could have been totally dif­fer­ent: ‘A bad tree can pro­duce real belters. A good tree can lie through its teeth’.

Langland’s poem argues trenchantly in favour of sim­pli­city and against desire. Which puts me in a tricky pos­i­tion yet again. What would he have made of today’s lunch of tar­tiflette? It was oh-so simple and yet oh-so desir­able. There’s prob­ably some Aris­totelean eth­ic­al defence for those who indulge in both sim­pli­city and lux­ury at the same time, but I don’t know what it is.

Tar­tiflette is a word that could have come straight from a medi­ev­al dic­tion­ary, although, sadly, it doesn’t. It’s a vari­ation on a French region­al word for pota­toes and the dish is an extra­vag­ant advert­ise­ment for reb­lo­chon cheese. I’ll give you the clas­sic ver­sion here, but it’s just as nice made with oth­er cheeses. Last week I made it with a com­bin­a­tion of brie, pecorino and Ched­dar and if that’s not an edible argu­ment for the European Uni­on, I don’t know what is.

TARTIFLETTE

  • Half a reb­lo­chon cheese — some recipes spe­cify a whole cheese, but it has a very strong fla­vour. We’re look­ing for a for­ti­fy­ing breath of hearty, moun­tain air here, not a full-scale roll in the farm­yard
  • 140g Char­lotte pota­toes — or anoth­er waxy vari­ety
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 200g smoked, streaky bacon
  • 2 onions, sliced finely into rounds
  • 200 ml double or heavy cream
  • 200ml veget­able stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Hand­ful fresh thyme leaves

Cook the pota­toes in salted water until just, only just, cooked. Drain and leave to cool. Snip the bacon into 2 cen­ti­metre pieces and fry — there’s no need to add any extra oil — until crisp. (Many recipes sug­gest that you use lar­dons, but their plump, squat chew­iness seems all wrong to me.) Add the onion slices, thyme leaves and bay leaves and con­tin­ue to cook until the onions are soft, but not too col­oured. Add the white wine and reduce until only a little remains. Take off the heat.

Slice the pota­toes into rounds about half a cen­ti­metre thick and divide roughly into three piles. Line the cas­ser­ole dish with one lay­er of potato, then spoon over half the bacon and onion mix­ture. Barely trickle some cream over this — only enough for a miser to think it gen­er­ous. Grind black pep­per over and then repeat the potato/bacon/cream routine. (I don’t add salt because it’s so easy to overdo it, but simply add it at the table if neces­sary.) Finally, put the last lay­er of pota­toes on top and add the last trickle of cream. Pour the stock over the whole lot and add anoth­er grind of black pep­per.

Take your half-moon shaped slab of reb­lo­chon and, instead of cut­ting down­wards, slice it hori­zont­ally, so that  your knife is par­al­lel with the work sur­face. Then, open up the cheese to form a per­fect circle. Lay this circle on top of the pota­toes, so that the rind is upper­most, and cook in the oven for twenty minutes. Finally, place under the grill for anoth­er five. It’s often sug­ges­ted that a green salad goes well with it, which it does, but I like it just as much with spin­ach and a little grated lem­on zest.

In truth, there’s no place in The Vis­ion of Piers Plow­man for tar­tiflette. But, con­tinu­ing to pull my old texts from the shelves, I found the per­fect cus­tom­er for my lunch of rich cheese, salty bacon and hearty pota­toes: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:

Bould was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.

Bold, hearty, hand­some and rosy cheeked — the Wife of Bath and tar­tiflette could have been made for each oth­er.

 

 

 

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