“…south in the early September weather and through the new countryside. He took at once to the quiet landscapes, orcharded and harvested, precise and pollarded, self-concentrated, exhaling a spent fertility.”
I love books. All kinds of books (so long as they’re fiction kinds), yet it’s rare when I find something very good that caters exactly to my personal tastes, not so much because the things that I love are rare and unique, but because they aren’t, they are common to the point of cliché – rambling European manses, decadent bohemians, fervent discussions about art and love and writing. The problem is how to render these things well, and to find a way to present them as fun and ludicrous as… well… they often really are.
Ken Russell’s 1969 production of Women in Love does it. Brideshead Revisited does it, and so does Virginia Woolf in her way. The Ebony Tower, by John Fowles, certainly does it. Set in early autumn in Burgundy, in a countryside manor owned by a grizzled and grouchy painter, the novella offers everything I really love, the decadence of old money with the fuck it all attitudes of the bohemians—and food, lots of food.
“The food itself helped; the quenelles of pike in a beurre blanc sauce that was a new gastronomic experience to him, the pré-salé lamb.”
David Williams is a fairly well-regarded abstract artist and part-time art critic on assignment to interview Henry Breasley, a cranky English painter, exiled to this French estate where he lives with two art students, young women he’s named the Freak, and the Mouse. We learn quickly that Henry hates abstract painting, that he’s mostly bluster and bravado, and that he’s much more reliant on the two girls then one would originally suppose.
David, on the other hand, deftly fills the part of the true Fowlsian hero, charming, self-absorbed, amorous, self-absorbed, intelligent, and self-absorbed. Discussions of art and life ensue, relationships are explored and tested, age and the curse of a raging genius slowly fading are all dealt with in this novella through the lens of an accomplished and yet-in-many-ways unformed man, who treats his relationship with his wife—at home with his sick child—and the Mouse—who turns out to be quite the talented artist herself, and who David feels more enraptured with by day—as if they themselves are art pieces, delivered to him for his enjoyment, interpretation, and judgment. This is devolving into feminist rant, which is fine, because it is, and—if you’ve read enough Fowles—you’d know he’d probably like it that way.
My reading of The Ebony Tower happily coincided with a bit of gastro-literary twitter drama—Jeanette Winterson’s rabbit. For those of you that don’t avidly follow all-things-Winterson, the author basically got fed up (pun!) by a rabbit that was devouring her garden, and so expertly killed, butchered, and ate it, feeding the entrails to the cat and cataloging the entire experience on twitter, pictures and all. “Rabbit ate my parsley,” she wrote. “I am eating the rabbit.” The result was a heated discussion ranging from the ethics of killing for food to the pest problem in England. Personally, I was concerned with how the thing should be prepared.
Winterson cooked the rabbit in cider, which sounds quite good, but I’ve always preferred to serve rabbit with Dijon sauce (one of the many things I like to serve with Dijon sauce) as I believe all things are better with mustard and cream. And so I bought my Whole Foods organic rabbit (not quite fresh caught in the garden but as close as I can get in Boston) and jointed it via this fabulous rolling pin method, and before you could say Beatrix Potter, M and I were feasting on Lapin à la Moutarde, small roasted potatoes, and artichoke heats with oil and garlic—decadent things, done the way I love.
Rabbit with Dijon Sauce
1 rabbit, jointed into 8 pieces
5 tbsp Dijon mustard
3 tbsp olive oil
4 ounces of diced pancetta
1 small yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp crème fraiche
1 cup chicken stock
1 small handful fresh thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
Mix 4 tbsp of the mustard with a bit of salt and pepper (sea salt is great if you have it) and slather it over the rabbit pieces. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator overnight – or at least 4 hours. When it’s time to cook, take the rabbit out and let it come to room temperature.
Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add rabbit pieces and brown well on either side. Set aside. Add the pancetta, and once it’s started to brown, throw in the onion. Once the pancetta has browned and has started to crisp and the onions are soft, add the wine, scraping the browned bits from the pan as it bubbles up. Add the crème fraiche and chicken stock, let it reduce slightly, then turn down the heat, add the rabbit back to the pan, along with the herbs, and stir well, coating the rabbit with the sauce. Cover the pan and simmer over low heat for about an hour, or until the rabbit is cooked through. Remove the rabbit from the pan, but keep it warm, and whisk the remaining tbsp of mustard into the sauce. Allow the sauce to reduce slightly, then pour over the rabbit and serve.
Drink: a white Burgundy