Brandade de Morue

Cream of Salt Cod

My memory of Nîmes seems to be stored in my limbs, heavy and sated with the sun, as I sit in the Jardins de Luxembourg gazing at a butterfly that flits over the floating stage of one of the loveliest theatres in Europe. Every afternoon Nîmois with time to spare come to these gardens built on the site of the Roman baths. Groups of middle-aged ladies sit in the shade; they crochet or embroider and discuss the goings-on of other middle-aged ladies not yet ready for these activities. Children play slowly and men, young and old, sit motionless in the overpowering heat. My torpor is increased by the unforgettably delicious lunch of brandade de morue. It was served in the cool, mirrored almost empty dining-room at Le Cheval Blanc overlooking the arena; somewhere in the background a Duke Ellington tape played quietly. I ate slowly and resolved to return some day, for the jazz festival and the morue.

A few days later I recreated this famous dish in the kitchen at Le Presbytère. It was, perhaps, even more delicious, creamy and fat with an amazing blend of the flavours of fish and olive oil, a dish of the south. Mme Marquet is astounded that I have attempted it in the sparsely equipped kitchen: ‘You need an electric mixer to make a brandade, borrow mine,’ she remarked. I grinned and showed her the recipe I’d used from Le Cuisinier Durand, by the famous nineteenth-century chef of Nîmes, and she laughed at my enjoyment and smiled benignly, perhaps pondering this strange Englishwoman who wanted to cook in the style of her grandmother.

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Ingredients

  • 450 g(1 lb) morue or salt cod – choose a thick fillet, not too dry
  • 150–300 ml(¼–½ pt) fruity olive oil
  • 150–300 ml(¼–½ pt) milk
  • 1 lemon
  • 1–2 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)
  • triangles of bread, lightly toasted
  • a little butter
  • finely chopped parsley

Method

Soak the morue in cold water overnight; change the water several times if the fish is very salty. Drain and cover with cold water in a pan. Slowly bring almost to the boil. Add a glass of cold water and remove from the heat. Cover and leave for 15–20 minutes. Lift out the fish and carefully remove all the skin and every trace of bone. Flake the fish and return it to a heavy-based pan.

Gently bring the oil and milk up to blood heat in small separate pans, and keep both warm, on heat-spreading mats if necessary.

Beat the fish with the lemon juice over very low heat using a wooden spoon and add, alternately, a dash of oil and a dash of milk, beating well after each addition. At a certain point the mixture will thicken and turn into a buttery mass as when making mayonnaise. To avoid separation take care not to overheat.

How much oil and milk you add is a matter of judgement – at a certain point, somehow, one knows that adding more of either will not improve the taste or consistency. The brandade should be creamy in texture and have a gentle balance of flavour between the fish and the olive oil. If you care to, add a little garlic. In the past truffles and ground anchovies and even orange sauce were added to the brandade, but that, to my mind, would impair the beautiful simplicity of the dish. Bought brandade de morue often contains mashed potato, hence its dismal grey tone. Home-made brandade glows pale yellow due to the olive oil.

Butter the corners of the toasted bread and dip each corner in the parsley. Turn the brandade on to a warm serving dish and surround with the green-cornered triangles.

Don’t reckon to be energetic afterwards – this dish is very rich.

Should you have any brandade de morue left over divide it between some small oven dishes, place one or two poached eggs on top, warm through in the oven and spoon a little hollandaise sauce on top to make oeufs bénédictine. Brandade de morue is also excellent as the filling in small puff-pastry turnovers or chaussons, served hot.

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