I feel there is a reason pate is sold in such small slices. Organ meat – even a small amount – is a powerful thing. And somehow the French (or maybe Americans’ perception of French cuisine) have helped associate that strong flavor with luxury, despite pate’s humble origins. Pate began as a way to utilize all parts of France’s beloved pig – adding strong flavors like herbs and wine to enhance (or mask?) those of liver or other organ meat. The pate I have most often eaten is smooth or almost creamy – ground or processed into something associated with glasses of earthy wine and slivers of stinky cheese. When I think pate, I think fancy picnic or holiday cocktail party.
But I know these associations are very… American. And not at all in the spirit of why pate was created and eaten in the first place. So when I was choosing a recipe for this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge, I decided to go with a version of the original French country-style pate, or Pate de Campagne.
If Pate de Campagne had originated in the United States (and I would venture to guess that some version has been, or is, quite popular in certain regional cultures) it would be called meatloaf. For country-style pate is basically ground or rough chopped pork butt with a bit of liver, flavored with onion, garlic, herbs and wine. My “American” version of this is pretty similar, albeit sans liver, and makes a great Tuesday night dinner.
I consulted a few recipes, and decided to chop and then process about two pounds of fatty pork butt and a half pound of pork liver with homemade pate seasoning, an onion and a few garlic cloves. Instead of tossing in a few eggs and breadcrumbs a la Betty Crocker, I made a panade of eggs, heavy cream and red wine and then mixed the two together until I had a wet consistency that reminded me of some of my sausage-making efforts of the past few months. I lined a loaf pan with plastic wrap and poured in the meat, covered it with foil and then cooked in a water bath (or bain marie) for an hour and a half.
Of the recipes I consulted, one had called for chilling for a day before baking, another for weighting and chilling for a day afterward. A third, from this episode by Jacques and Julia, mention neither. In fact these two venerable chefs start with ground pork and add whole pieces of liver, ham and veal – which seems to be an even easier approach. And pate is supposed to be about ease, right? And rustic preparation? And simplicity?
After baking, I decided to just let my pate cool for a few hours, and then served it along with oil-packed tomatoes, saute-ed mushrooms, dark bread and a glass of cabernet. It was good and quite rich, despite the low liver-to-pork butt ratio. And it crumbled apart a bit – perhaps a finer grind of meat, chilling and/or weighting would have improved the presentation. But in the end I had created a gourmet-feeling meal… on a Tuesday.
Over the next week we picked at it and brought it to a friend’s house for dinner where a few people had a bite or two. “This is great!” everyone exclaimed. And, despite the lack-luster presentation, it was pretty tasty. But what the French have long known and I found out, two and a half pounds of pate is a lot. If this were a an American-style meatloaf it would be gone in days – a quarter pound or more eaten for lunch and dinner until it disappeared. The meat’s flavor – most likely beef and not pork – enhanced, or shall I say overtaken, by ketchup or salt or cheese. Is this version preferable to my French country-style pate sitting half uneaten in the fridge as I type?
In the end I might say that this was my greatest disappointment yet in my Year of Magical Meating, if measured by how quickly my dish was devoured or the likeliness that I might make it again. But in some ways my country pate has taught me the most: charcuterie is meant to be created with patience and skill – a day of chilling, or taking the time to grind the meat finer, might have made a significance difference in its texture and presentation. And perhaps these strong-flavored dishes are best enjoyed from the French approach of moderation, savoring the strong and earthy flavors of high quality ingredients while sharing with community, whether in jeans on a Tuesday or a cocktail dress on a Saturday. I realized that there are no rules for enjoying pate or any charcuterie – but that it is best done with others. From this perspective, perhaps this has been my greatest success.