Last summer, we went to France. We ate our way through Paris, Lyon, the Camargue, and then western Provence. The final stop of our whirlwind tour was Chateauneuf du Pape. Our luggage was already too heavy with “souvenirs”, but we found room for a bottle of Domaine des Pères de L’Église Le Calice de Saint Pierre Heritage 2004. Bold and luscious, it tasted of blueberries and black currants.
When we got home, we put the bottle in the wine rack, and there it waited patiently for a special occasion. Until one day my husband said, “All I want for my birthday is a meal worthy of that wine.” A challenge.
The wine would be perfect with duck breasts. He didn’t want duck breasts. What about duck confit? He didn’t want duck confit. The negotiations continued for several weeks until two things were settled. The main course would be lamb, and we would have a salad with chicken gizzard confit, like the one we had in Arles. And there was a demand for a real dessert, birthday cake alone would not do.
How, how to fill out the menu? I agonized over this many days. I wanted it to be special, and I wanted it to be a surprise.
Finally it was time to open the wine.
For the first course, I put together a cheese plate. I selected Tomme de Savoie, Fleur d’Aunis, Lagioule, and Le Chevrot. After an exhaustive search, I managed to find an authentic saucisson sec, the dry cured pork sausage that’s ubiquitous in France, but frustratingly rare here, and his absolute favorite when we were traveling. Some niçoise and picholine olives, red grapes, and a baguette rounded it out.
Then came the aforementioned salad, rich and delicious.
For the main course, I marinated lamb ribs chops in olive oil, garlic, and herbes de Provence and grilled them medium-rare. For a side dish, I threw some hot Camargue red rice together with a bit of garlic, a couple of herbs from the garden, a drizzle of olive oil from Provence, and, because it was there, a spoonful of melted duck fat from the gizzard confit.
I made chocolate pot de crème for dessert.
The weather was beautiful, so we ate in the herb garden. The meal lasted for hours. In between courses we massaged our bellies. For that one evening, we were back in the French countryside, and everything was divine, worthy. Especially the rice, it was nutty and flavorful and crunchy. Of the entire meal, the rice was the best part.
The rice was the best part!
The rice was almost an afterthought! We went all the way to the Camargue and didn’t even bring any rice back with us. The windswept Camargue, with its marshes and flamingoes and swans and white horses and wild black bulls is famous for its rice and its sea salt. (In fact, Fleur de Sel de Camargue is one of my favorites, and we went all the way there just so I could see where it comes from.) But by the time we got there, I had already picked up two crêpe pans, two blini pans, a copper sugar pot, and forty tartlet molds, and guess who was carrying it all? I certainly couldn’t ask him to add a bag of rice to that load. It was only by chance that, several months after our trip, I stumbled upon a small bag of Camargue red rice at a discount store. I picked it up, figuring I better not miss my chance a second time.
Since that worthy birthday dinner, I’ve spread the word about the Camargue red rice. A few have managed to acquire some, and now they want my recipe.
Camargue Red Rice with Garlic & Herbs
1 cup Camargue red rice
2 quarts water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably from Provence
2 tablespoons rendered duck fat, melted
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
Fleur de Sel de Camargue
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the rice, water, and a generous pinch of kosher salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Drain. Stir in the oil, duck fat, garlic, thyme, and parsley. Season to taste with fleur de sel and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.
Serves 4 as a side dish. Look for Camargue red rice online. If you cannot find Camargue red rice, use any other variety of red rice that’s available. If you don’t have any duck fat, find some. If you can’t find some, look harder, you’ll be glad you did. If you still can’t find some, I suppose you can use unsalted butter.