A little piece of village life: George Vassal’s Pot-au-feu in Cotignac
BY Susana Iwase Hanson
I had been dying to meet George Vassal – ever since first reading about him in an article featuring him hunting his own food in a New Zealand magazine called the Wellington Guide. To me, he was one of Cotignac’s minor celebrities, keeping a low profile while giving birth to stunning pieces of art outside his front porch, sharing it for all to see on the path to les grottes, delighting tourists on their circuit just after passing through the tunnel under the medieval clock tower.
George is a talented artist/sculptor, whose iron and multi-media work (pictured below) can be seen decorating the gardens and pathways just under the cliffs and near my village house a few steps from the place de la Mairie.
And, like the article in the magazine confirms, he’s also something of an accomplished cook– he has won numerous regional soup competitions recently. George hunts his own crayfish, mushrooms and truffles. So when he invited my husband and I over for dinner one night, asking us to judge his pot-au-feu against another neighbour’s, I could not resist. When George Vassal invites you to dine on his cuisine, a foodie like me lets nothing stand in the way of attending the occasion. And my instincts were well-rewarded; I had no idea pot-au-feu was anything to write home about but on that occasion I was blown away with the discovery of what meat-in-broth could do to the senses. That parochial dish could have been awarded a medal.
George (pictured above) had invited other Cotignacéens to the dinner too. One couple, whose family had been here for generations, talked about the great landslide of the 1920s which happened again in the ’60s. They refuted the more popular belief that tens of people were killed when their homes were swept down the hill from the part of the cliff that fell after heavy rains. Apparently, the villagers were given plenty of warning in the form of hours of the grumbling and trembling earth underground and everyone – including livestock – were evacuated in time before their homes were destroyed. What they came back to, however, was years of clean-up and more often than not, the acceptance of their homes being no longer habitable and therefore needing covering up or leaving as is. Some of their entrances can still be seen just above stone walls that have been built to block doorways. Other building remains can be seen in the form of half-destroyed walls, stairs, or windows. They are a scary reminder of how the power of nature and inevitable passing of time can destroy the ephemeral beauty of landscapes no matter how well they may be looked after.
Cotignac’s cliffs are actually a troglodyte mass of passages that have grown out of hundreds of thousands of years of limescale and stalactite formations. Between the 1500s and late 1800s these cliffs provided caves (pictured below) that housed most of the village’s habitants. During the dinner I found out that we knew the neighbours living in the house that was featured in the top 10 “most original houses in France” (local channel M6’s programme that aired 22nd November of 2010).
The home featured on the television show was built directly onto the cliff. The couple who own it took great care in refurbishing and decorating the interior, keeping to tradition but using colourful, Moroccan accents to curtains, cushions, etc. The mix works particularly well with dark wood – seen mostly in beams that are used to support floors and roofs in this area.
Although George’s home was a more modest version of a maison de village in its cosier spaces, it was still old-style charming and decorated with his art and hand-tiled tables. The eight of us squashed ourselves into a large table that took up almost the entire space of the kitchen floor. But it didn’t matter – everyone was in a jolly mood, filling tummies up with the hearty, blissful pot of beef and copious amounts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
George deliberately separated the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and shallots) to make a confit, reduced further from the broth which concentrated the flavour of the meat by taking the soupy part out of it and taking its sweetness from the starchy legumes. The beef itself (various parts of the animal not consumed as normal cuts for grilling or pan-frying) had been lovingly cooked over such a long period of time it literally melted off the bones as well as in the mouth. The other pot (his competition), of meat and veg was certainly good enough to eat…but it wasn’t exceptional.
What was George’s secret, I wondered. He wouldn’t tell me but I will find a way to bribe him one day. I must learn to make pot-au-feu like George did – it’s such a terrific way to feed the family – or even exigent guests – on a budget while feeling rich at the same time. And when I do, I’ll share it with you!
Newsflash: George can sometimes be available as a personal chef (chef-a-domicile) for anyone who would like to try his cooking in the area. This is great news for anyone too lazy to cook for a dinner party but still wants to really impress the guests with locally-sourced-cuisine. Contact us for more info.