Making friends in France over a baking session with neighbours is excellent fun and it doesn’t matter if your French is not perfect says Evelyn Jackson, an expat in the Midi-Pyrénées…
As autumn arrives, in cities, towns, and villages all over France, people are beginning to think about the first weekend in December. And the annual Telethon!
The December Telethon is the fund-raising event for neuromuscular disease treatment and research here in France. Even the tiniest villages pride themselves in participating and raising money for this worthwhile cause. My village of 150 souls is no exception. People donate craft items to sell. There is always tombola with great prizes. My neighbour, André, builds beautiful little cazelles (shepherd’s huts) from clay that are snapped up quickly. The men hold a whole day of baking bread in the old outdoor stone ovens scattered throughout the village. The big round loaves sell quickly.
But the biggest draw is the pastis. My only contact with pastis in the past had been in the drinking of it, so I was surprised to discover that pastis here in the Lot is actually a dessert specialty of the region…a lovely, flakey pastry sprinkled with fruit and flavored with homemade marc – a liqueur made from grapes.
Pastis is a speciality of the Midi-Pyrenees area. Each region has its own recipe and method of making the pastry. Different liqueurs may be used or different techniques of construction. In common, though, is the very thin, delicate pastry containing fruit and flavoring and made with crisp, browned peaks of dough crowning the creation. Pastis-makers are known as croustadieres, and an expert can produce a pastry that is as ‘thin as a bridal veil.’ It’s thought that the pastry was first brought to the Gers area of southwest France by the invading Moors and spread from there to the rest of the Midi-Pyrénées.
Mouths begin to water at the mere mention of it, and it disappears quickly when Telethon-goers start buying.
The first year I lived here, the women of the village invited me to come and participate in the making of the pastis. I was delighted!
Armed with a little background knowledge about the pastis, I looked forward to seeing the rest of the process unfold. The session began on Thursday evening before the Saturday afternoon Telethon event. Eight of us met up at the Salle de Fetes, donned aprons and began. First, we gathered ingredients, and Christiane produced the recipe. Here it is:
Flour, a pinch of salt, eggs, a slurp of water and a soupcon of oil.
My friends laughingly swore me to secrecy about the amounts of each ingredient, like many old recipes, this one is a closely guarded secret!
We measured and mixed and then we began kneading…and kneading….and kneading. At least 15 minutes worth of kneading the dough. These women worked like a well-oiled team; they obviously had done this many times before. They seemed to know intuitively when to stop kneading and ‘sack’ the dough. And even though I understood only a little of the lively conversation, measuring, mixing and kneading are part of the universal language of cooks…we communicated perfectly! We laughed and gossiped and flung flour everywhere.
In all, we made fourteen dough balls in the hour that we worked together. More would be made the next day for a total of thirty pastis. Then the hard work would begin. It would involve chopping and folding and sprinkling. And two bottles of homemade marc that Auguste dropped off as we were leaving…
When I arrived next morning, work on the pastis had already begun. Several long tables were set out and covered with sheets dusted in flour. The balls of dough we had made the night before were on the tables and some had already been ‘worked.’ Working the dough means gently pulling and stretching it until it covers the entire table and is almost thin enough to read through. Because the day was damp and foggy, fans had been set up to assist in drying the stretched dough.
It takes expert hands and delicate fingertips to properly pull and stretch the dough without putting holes in it. Trust me…I know! My friends were gracious enough to let me try. Let’s just say I’m best at cutting and trimming the ragged edges of the dough.
While we gently stretched and pulled each dough ball into the required size, several women were busy in the kitchen peeling, coring and dicing boxes of apples and pears. Several pounds of butter were melting on the stove and even more dough balls were being made.
Once the thin, delicate sheets of dough were dry, building the pastis began. Diced apples and pears were scattered on it, melted butter drizzled over the fruit, and sugar dusted everything. Then a little marc was sprinkled over the entire surface. Very carefully the dough was folded over on itself and the process was repeated and then repeated again and again.
Eventually there was one long strip of filled pastry dough which was then gently gathered into a circle shape. A parchment paper-lined pan brushed with melted butter sat ready to receive the pastry.
Gathering the circle of pastry up in hands and forearms, my friend placed it daintily in the awaiting pan.
And sprinkled it again with marc. Can’t have too much marc!
From there, the pastis went directly into the oven to bake until crispy and brown on top, oozing and sweet and fruity inside. I wish I could send you the fragrance of those lovely pastries. It was heavenly!
We sold every single one of those golden pastis at the Telethon. And my little village of 150 people brought in over 2,400 euros that night to donate to an excellent cause.
By Evelyn Jackson