March 22, 2013 6:20 pm

The accidental aubergiste

In rural Auvergne, a former London chef is winning new fans with his bold and seasonal cuisine
Chef Harry Lester and wife Ali Johnson serve up dinner to their children and guests including Jojo Tulloh©Jason Lowe

Chef Harry Lester and wife Ali Johnson serve up dinner to their children and guests including Jojo Tulloh (left) at their home in the village of Chassignolles

A black iron cooking pot on a long chain hangs over a glowing fire. It is a sight to cheer a weary traveller’s heart and holds out the promise of good things as we enter the old stone house that chef Harry Lester shares with his wife Ali Johnson and two young children. For the past seven years Harry and Ali have lived here in the village of Chassignolles in the Auvergne, southeast France, where they run the Auberge de Chassignolles, a small hotel and restaurant. Eleven years ago Harry was one-third of the trio that opened the acclaimed gastropub, The Anchor & Hope in The Cut, near Waterloo station. Now the French have taken to his cooking with just as much gusto as London did.

As we sit down to bowls of velvety carrot soup followed by fried ceps and pork chops grilled over the fire, city life seems far removed. The woods that surround us are fairytale thick, with trees stretching out to infinity and toadstools gleaming in the shadows. Set almost a kilometre above sea level amid volcanic peaks, Chassignolles is just a few houses set around a 12th-century church. The auberge dates back to the 1930s when it was popular with holidaymakers from Paris and Marseille seeking pure air and peace and quiet. It’s a tall, dusty pink building with white shuttered windows, facing the square that slopes down to the gargoyled church with its erratically tolling bell.

Harry’s presence here is accidental, the result of a conversation he overheard between the film director Sally Potter and a shopkeeper in London. Potter had bought property in the village, the auberge was up for sale and she was wishing aloud that a talented chef would take it on. It turned out to be a lucky day for both of them. Harry’s robust, seasonal approach to cooking had already won him high praise in London but moving to France seems to have worked a kind of alchemy: the paper-table-clothed dining room is packed nightly with a happy mix of locals and visitors gobbling up the five-course, €25 menu.

Always a cook attracted by the best and boldest flavours in the seasonal larder, Harry learnt his trade at the London gastropub, The Eagle. But as he embraced the cuisine of the Auvergne, he reinvented his cooking. Little “bons” and “voilàs” also slip out while he bustles round the kitchen. “When I got here,” says Harry, “I cooked food I thought people wanted, then I cooked what I like. I made something different. You could say I found the new me.” He gives a little giggle at the sappiness of the thought.

It hasn’t all been easy. Locals pointed Harry towards the hypermarket when he first asked where they did their shopping. Over the years he has strived to build up a network of local suppliers with some vegetables grown to order by a market gardener. Harry and his staff scour the woods for ceps, morels and chanterelles, blackberries and bilberries in season and there is a field on the edge of the village where the family keep chickens for eggs, a few hives full of bees, some sheep and four fat geese.

I spent a week at the auberge last summer and this winter returned while it was shut to other visitors (it is open June to September), to spend a few days cooking, eating and drinking with Harry. (Some gentle foraging kept up our appetites.)

Frog’s legs pasta and the roasted guinea fowl©Jason Lowe

Frog’s legs pasta and the roasted guinea fowl

The morning after our arrival we are up early, eager to see what Harry is planning to make. The first thing I notice is the word “tripe” chalked up on a small blackboard above the kitchen counter. It’s a reminder to Harry to pick up four cow’s stomachs from the abattoir in the nearest market town, Brioude. The tripe, for a salon du vin the following weekend, will be boiled up in a giant cauldron once used to cook swedes for cattle. These wine fairs are “a really fun part of French culture, like raves for middle-aged people” says Harry, who also exports wine to the UK. His company, Gergovie Wines, sells mainly French wine through the 40 Maltby Street wine bar in Bermondsey in London. The wines are mostly what the French call vin nature, which means pure rather than natural, but indicates a lack of chemical interference. For Harry part of the appeal of vin nature comes in knowing that sometimes there will only be a few cases. “It is finite, and that scarcity gives it savour.”

Right now it’s too early for a drink so instead we concentrate on cooking. Harry has been shopping, and his bounty is laid out on the counter. There is a fattened duck, two guinea fowl with glassy eyes and a pike perch (zander). There are some leeks and some beetroot and in a large blue mixing bowl full of water floats a snowy white piece of salt cod. It is enough to feed us for days.

The Auberge de Chassignolles©Jason Lowe

The Auberge de Chassignolles

First, the duck. Harry whips out its guts, then forcefully but carefully pulls the enlarged blond liver out of the body cavity. Next comes the heart and a handful of undigested corn. The gravel sack is cut out of the gizzard and the testicles are fried up as a pre-lunch snack (actually very tasty). Harry slices off the breasts for “duck hams” (see recipe) and these are salted in an aromatic mix of herbs and spices and set aside until the next day. The carcass and joints are also salted for confiting.

The duck dealt with for now, our attention turns to the salt cod, which Harry is preparing for lunch with parsley, potato and eggs (see recipe). It’s a large piece from the top of the fillet, and it is less heavily salted and petrified-looking than typical salt cod. It is also ideal for this dish as you end up with pieces of fish almost as big as the slices of the potato it combines with. We sit around an old wooden table bought from a local flea market.

A light Beaujolais slips down joyfully as we tuck into the garlicky parsley-coated pieces of fish and potato glossy with olive oil. The large open kitchen is a converted barn, made light by glass doors and warmed by an enormous wood burning stove. Nora, the family’s Pyrenean mountain dog, sleeps on the lawn outside.

. . .

During high season at the auberge, the day starts very early. Ali drives for 25 minutes to pick up the croissants and bread for the auberge’s breakfast table of home-made jams, small green plums, home-made saucisson and local cheeses. Harry spends his mornings sourcing ingredients and wine and the afternoon and evening cooking. Work begins in earnest after a staff lunch eaten on the terrace with Ali and the children. Today, however, Harry is at leisure and wants to hunt for fungi. We spend an hour searching in the glorious quiet of the pine forest and come back carrying a kilo or so of chanterelles and some wood sorrel. These will be cooked and served with the roast guinea fowl. Later Harry cuts the head and wings off the birds and puts them in large skillet to simmer into gravy. “You don’t need to do much to the birds,” he says, “just salt them really well.” In the front of the house is a large stone hearth, with a blackened soot-sticky bread oven, and it is over this fire that the birds are slowly roasted using a mechanical spit.

Lester foraging for mushrooms©Jason Lowe

Foraging for mushrooms

Over the next couple of days our slow feasting continues: zander is transformed into quenelles (dumplings) and served in a densely flavoured, brick-coloured sauce made from rascasses, or rockfishes; frog’s legs are boned and poached and turned into a filling for pasta, anchovies are melted down into an unctuous cream. A bright-yellow dough is spun out silkily between rollers and dexterously formed into half-moon pasta parcels to be cooked and eaten before the guinea fowl. There is bottle after bottle of delicious and unusual wine. We have eaten so many different things but somehow it’s the thing we haven’t eaten, the duck, that seems most important.

Though we have spent much time laboriously breaking this bird down, it will be saved for a meal eaten after we have gone home. In the era of the deep freeze there is no longer any need to preserve foods in fat, but we do it to “recapture a glimpse of a world apart” in the words of the late American food writer Richard Olney, one of Harry’s biggest influences. We continue the tradition because there is in Olney’s view “no other way to an empathetic comprehension of the soul of cooking throughout the entire lower left hand corner of the map of the France”. The same applies to this southeast corner of the Auvergne, and an “empathetic comprehension” seems like a great way to sum up Harry’s approach. Eating at the auberge is exciting because it feels like the rediscovery of something that was lost, a broken link reforged. Proof that sometimes it is enough for food to really taste of what it is.

Jojo Tulloh is author of ‘The Modern Peasant’, to be published by Chatto & Windus in May. www.aubergedechassignolles.com

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Harry Lester wine‑tasting©Jason Lowe

Harry Lester wine‑tasting

Duck ham

Makes 2 duck hams

Confit salt

Thinly pared peel of an orange and a lemon

300g sel de Guérande

150g sugar

3 bay leaves

A couple of sprigs of thyme and rosemary

5 cloves of garlic

10 peppercorns

1 dsp coriander seeds

● Using a food mixer blitz together all the ingredients except the sugar. When the mixture is finely chopped tip it out in a bowl and mix in the sugar. Reserve to use in both the confit and the duck ham recipes.

For the ham

1 farmyard-reared fattened duck, approx 6kg (also for use in the rillettes recipe)

4 tbsp confit salt (see above)

Slice the breasts from the carcass and trim off any excess fat (reserve this to render fat for the rillettes).

Rub the breasts with a small amount of the confit salt (about a tablespoon on each side). Leave it in a dish in the fridge for at least 24-48 hours. Rub off the salt. Wrap up in clean muslin and hang up in a suitably cold room (it should also be dry and airy).

The “hams” should be ready in about a month. If you do not have a cold room you could hang them in a big empty fridge. Otherwise wait until it is really cold, and hang them in a garage or attic. It is the beginning part of the process that’s important so it’s crucial that the first 10 days are really cold – take a look at the weather forecast and plan from there.

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Rillettes with foie gras

Makes one terrine

(should be more than enough for 8-10 servings)

1 x liver from the duck

The carcass, wings and giblets

3 tbsp sea salt

7g sea salt

3g sugar

½ tsp quatre epices

Eau de vie

Gut the duck and then gently pull out the liver. Take 3 litres of cold water and add 3 tbsp of sea salt. Put the liver in to soak and to draw out the blood for 2-3 hours. Take out and pat dry. Make a mixture of 7g sea salt, 3g sugar and 1/2 tsp quatre epices and rub this into the two lobes of the liver. Reform the lobes and rub with a splash of eau de vie. Wrap up in cling film and return to the fridge. Leave overnight.

Cut the carcass into 4 pieces, taking off the legs to confit separately (using the confit salt or put them in the freezer for another day’s stew).

Take the remaining pieces of the carcass, the wing tips and rib cage split into two, gizzard and heart. Rub all the pieces with the confit salt (not too much). Press them down into a large roasting tray. Cover with cling film and refrigerate.

The next day brush off the salt and herbs and put into a large roasting tray with the fat trimmings and a little water. Preheat the oven to 150C and cook the duck very slowly so that more fat is rendered as you go.

Halfway through turn the meat over. Make sure the meat is falling off the bone – there should be no resistance. This should take about 3 hours. When you are satisfied take the meat out.

When cool enough to handle pick the meat off the bone and strain the fat. Set the skin aside.

In a long loaf or pate tin pack down half the rillette meat picked from the carcass. Unwrap the liver and brush off the salt and sugar, rub it with a little eau de vie and place it on top of the rillette meat. Push the liver down firmly (pressure helps to eliminate pockets of air that might lead to putrification) and then put the rest of the rillette meat on top.

Chef Harry Lester and wife Ali Johnson©Jason Lowe

Lester and his wife

Cover the gratin dish with foil and place it inside another larger dish. Boil the kettle and fill the outer dish with water. Cook the liver for 50 minutes to an hour at 120C depending on size. The temperature of the water surrounding the liver should be a uniform 70C when you take it out.

Allow the terrine to cool. Heat some duck fat until it is liquid and then pour it over the surface of the terrine. For a really good seal you may like to do this in two layers, topping up the fat with a second layer when the first has hardened. You can use any remaining fat to confit the duck legs.

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Grattons

Use the leftover skin from the rillette process to make these salty, greasy little snacks.

Cut the skin up into rough squares and fry in a heavy pan until crisp. There is no need to add extra fat as the skin holds enough. Serve with a cold beer (we drank Loirette, an aromatic local pale ale).

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Salt cod with parsley, potato and eggs

Salt cod with potato, parsley and eggs©Jason Lowe

Salt cod with potato, parsley and eggs

Serves 4-6

This is suitable as a standalone dish for lunch or a light supper.

750g salt cod

A small bunch of thyme

1 tbsp olive oil

4 bay leaves

4 eggs, gently hard-boiled so that the yolk is still squidgy, peeled and chopped (7 minutes in boiling water)

A small bunch of parsley, leaves only, finely chopped

2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed in a mortar

240ml olive oil

1kg waxy potatoes, peeled, halved and boiled until just tender

Soak the salt cod in water for at least 24 hours, changing the water several times.

Put the cod in a large pan, cover with cold water and add the aromatics (thyme, olive oil, bay leaves). Bring the pan up very gently to a near boil and reduce heat to a minimum the moment the water shows signs of movement. Cook for about 10 minutes. Test for resistance with the tip of a sharp knife. Lift the fish out of the pan and remove the skin and bones.

Mix the egg, garlic and parsley together with half the olive oil so that it is very well amalgamated.

Flake the fish and slice the potatoes into fat coins. In a large frying pan heat the rest of the oil over a medium heat, toss the potato with the cod flakes and stir in the parsley mixture. Flick and voilà! Grind over plenty of black pepper. Carry straight to the table. Serve.

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Leek vinaigrette with warm anchovy cream, beetroot and a soft-boiled egg

Leek vinaigrette with warm anchovy cream, beetroot and a soft-boiled egg©Jason Lowe

Serves 4

While we were foraging for chanterelles we came across the delicate little wood sorrel, standing out as a slightly darker green against the moss. A small handful were collected and carefully transported home.

4 large to medium or 2 small leeks per person

1kg raw beetroot

Salt

A wine glass full of red wine vinegar

4 eggs

For the anchovy cream

2 big cloves of garlic (peeled and minced)

A wine glass full of olive oil

2 little tins of anchovies

Wine glass full of double cream

To serve

A few sprigs of wood sorrel. This native woodland plant in both France and England has a delicate stalk and is lobed like a four-leaf clover. Use ordinary sorrel cut into thin ribbons if unavailable.

Trim the leeks top and bottom. Slash them vertically starting at the green end, making about six cuts per leek and stopping halfway down. Place in a bowl of cold water to soak (this eliminates the chance of any grit).

Cook the beetroot in a small pan, covered with water and the glassful of vinegar. Simmer until soft. Lift out and push off the skin with your hands (use paper towel if you don’t want red hands). Quarter and set aside.

Put the minced garlic in a small pan and cover with the olive oil and simmer gently over a low heat, then add the anchovies. Allow the mixture to melt slowly together (about half an hour) before adding the cream and cooking very slowly for another half an hour. You should have a smooth, creamy salt emulsion.

When you are ready to eat, simmer the leeks in a large pan of salted water until tender. Drain them and put on a platter, dress with olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Bring a separate pan of water (no salt!) with a splash of vinegar in it to the boil, swirl the water round and crack in an egg. After a minute gently flip the egg over before removing with a slotted spoon. Poach all four eggs in this way.

Place a leek, an egg and a halved beetroot on each plate, then season and sprinkle with wood sorrel. Allow guests to help themselves to the anchovy cream.

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Guinea fowl©Jason Lowe

Guinea fowl

Roasted guinea fowl with braised chicory and ceps

Serves 4

In Chassignolles we ate guinea fowl served with foraged chanterelles. But at this time of year they are out of season so braised chicory and dried ceps are a good alternative.

2 guinea fowl, plucked and gutted, necks and wings cut off and reserved

1 lemon

A sprig of thyme

A little softened butter

For the gravy

Guinea fowl giblets, neck and wings

Half an onion

Carrot

A stick of celery

A few aromatic herbs: thyme, bay, winter savoury

A glass or two of wine

Before you start roasting the guinea fowl get the gravy started. Brown the giblets in a little fat in a skillet until nicely coloured, then add the vegetables, roughly chopped, and the aromatic herbs. Let them cook together for a minute or two then add a glass of wine (red or white or both). Allow it to come to a simmer then add enough water to cover it all. Leave this to simmer while the guinea fowl are roasting (topping up with water as you see fit).

Preheat the oven to 220C-230C. Season the fowl inside and out and pop half a squeezed lemon and a sprig of thyme into the cavity. Reserve the lemon juice for your chicory. Smear the fowl all over with butter. Pop them into the oven and turn every 10 minutes or so until they are well browned. Turn the heat down to about 150C and let them roast slowly, basting occasionally. How long they take will depends on how old the guinea fowl are but it won’t take more than a couple of hours.

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Braised chicory with ceps

Serves 4

4 chicory bulbs

Butter

Sea salt

1 tsp sugar (optional)

About 5g-10g of dried ceps

Juice of one lemon

Remove any tired-looking outer leaves and give the chicory a quick wipe with a clean tea towel. Cut in half vertically. Soak the ceps in about 100ml of tepid water.

Thickly butter a heavy pan with a tightfitting lid. The chicory should fit snugly into the pan. Brown the chicory well on both sides then pour over the lemon juice, add the ceps and their strained soaking liquor. Season with salt and the sugar (if desired). Put on the lid and cook slowly. Keep checking to make sure the chicory bulbs don’t cook dry. After about 20 minutes turn them over. Test the chicories with the point of a knife – they are ready when they are tender all the way through.

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Baked apples with a Muscat sabayon

Baked apples©Jason Lowe

This simple pudding of baked apples is served with a sabayon sauce (the French cousin of zabaglione). A mixture of whisked egg, sugar and white wine, it elevates the apples into something a little out of the ordinary.

Serves 6

6 apples (cored). A Golden Reinette would be perfect but a Cox’s Orange Pippin would do nicely too.

50g butter

3 tbsp brown sugar

Small handful of raisins

Slug of Muscat (for an English version use cider)

Core the apples and place them in a bowl of water (squeeze in the juice of half a lemon to stop them going brown) while you prepare the filling.

Warm the raisins in a small pan with the wine. Allow to cool, then mix together with the butter and brown sugar. Push a tablespoon of this mixture down inside the apples (it should not spill out too much).

Place the apples snugly side by side in a gratin dish and bake under foil at 180C for half an hour. Reduce the liquid around the apples to a caramel by taking the foil off for the last 10 minutes.

Sabayon

1/2 cup sugar

3 egg yolks

250ml white wine (you can use Sauternes or Champagne or another white)

Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a bowl or saucepan that will fit inside another pan filled with nearly boiling water. Allow for the fact that the sauce will double in volume. Whisk continually until thickened and serve warm. This sauce is ideally made just before pudding is served.

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