It wasn’t really love at first sight – in fact, had I not been in a particular situation where I had to eat it out of politeness, I would probably never have touched it. Only a tender 15 years of age and on my first trip abroad without the family, I found myself in the heart of Brittany with my French host family and the situations where I had to eat something completely new which didn’t really sound very appetising (rabbit stew, oysters, horse meat, to name but a few) were many.
My parents had sent me to improve my French, I guess, but I secretly had great expectations of eating stunning food all day long: it was the second leg of the exchange, and shy as she may have been, my “corres” Manuela had spent three weeks going on about how they always had 4 courses for lunch and dinner, rather than the measly offering at our place – don’t get me wrong, she didn’t outwardly complain, but she let a remark drop every so often that made my Mum feel like she wasn’t doing a good enough job of it and trying to starve the poor girl.
So there I went, expecting Michelin-starred food for every meal (not that I even knew what Michelin stars were at the time, but you catch my drift) – and what did I get? French home cooking. Which does not necessarily equal restaurant or even bistro food – and in this particular case definitely wasn’t more elaborate than what I knew from home. No lobster bisque, coq au vin, cheese platter and crème brulée by candle light… four courses they were allright, but the succession of dishes was nothing more than supermarket-bought cold meats for a starter, a main course of usually some meat (more often than not steak haché, aka a very plain, unseasonsed burger, again bought, rather than made fresh) or another form of protein with some carbs on the side, salad counted as a separate dish as it was served not with, but after the main course, and a pot of yoghurt or a piece of fruit for dessert.
I did come to like the starters very much, though. The thick slices of cooked ham aside (I like my ham sliced super-thinly, much to the disgruntlement of the staff at my local supermarkets), I learnt to love the patés, even though this particular family usually only bought the very plain Brussels type, enjoyed with crusty baguette (bought fresh for every meal, there was no question of finishing off the remaining bread from lunch at dinner) and some incredibly crunchy and vinegary gherkins. And then I came across rillettes: at first, it didn’t whet my appetite at all, a thick paste of what looked like pure pork fat a few tiny pices of meat inside, reminding me of left-overs from a Sunday roast, topped with a thick layer of white fat and spooned out of a massive bowl onto a sheet of wax paper at the supermarket counter.
Now, back then, I was one of those people who’d thoroughly inspect every single piece of meat on their plate to meticulously remove any fat they encounter – be it a pork roast, a cutlet from the barbecue, a slice of ham or bacon… if it had any sort of fat, I’d find it and cut it off without fail. Apart from home, where I trusted my Mum to apply the same stringent quality criteria as I had myself, I would never, ever touch meat that came cut up or drowned in sauce, simply because I then wouldn’t be able to spot the fat and end up chewing on the revolting substance I so dreaded.
So the mere thought of eating something that consisted almost entirely of graisse was making me shiver – but being where I was, in a culture that was new to me, at the mercy of a family that had taken it upon them to feed me and entertain me for three weeks, I knew I couldn’t refuse to at least give it a try. Especially since they heralded it as the best thing since sliced bread (hang on, I don’t think I saw sliced bread at all during my stay there, they always bought baguettes, which were simply broken into manageable pieces)… so try it I did. Once I had gotten over the fact that you couldn’t possibly eat anything more calorific (which is a terrifying thought for anybody who actively trains ballet like I did then) and that they weren’t necessarily going to limit the ingredients to the best cuts of meat available, it actually tasted ok. The second time I had it, realising that it didn’t cause me to break out inconvulsions or put on three kilos with every bite, I fell in love with it.
Rich and cholesterol-laden as it may be, it is also incredibly tasty, the meat scrappings (more often than not pork, duck, goose or a mixture of the three, although you can also sometimes find rillettes of fish or game) are incredibly tender after weeks of curing and cooking in the fat, more like shredded confit de canard than mere pickings of left-overs from a pork leg, and strongly seasoned with salt and generous amounts spices, mainly pepper – consumed with moderation, it is one of the most delicious things I know.
Unfortunately, an effort by Sainsbury’s to introduce it to British supermarket shelves hasn’t been very successful – I have seen people pick it up from the chiller cabinet, read through the ingredients and put it back with disgust – and even my own family isn’t too keen on joining in when I bring some home. I found some at the French stall at the Borough Market the other week and my local Waitrose also has a bowl of it every once in a while – if you ever come across it, buy a tiny amount of it, toast some French rye bread (Poilâne country loaf is now widely available at Waitrose) and spread some of the rillettes on it – enjoy with some proper French cornichons (gherkins) which are made with very strong vinegar for a reason, as their will cut through the fat perfectly…