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Bring home the pâté de campagne

December 4, 2010

Mousse truffée topped with aspic, pheasant terrine herbette, and duck paté with prunes and Armagnac can make an hors d’oeuvre tray sound like a tongue twister. Pâtés may intimidate, but they’re really just pies that have lost their crusts. Their pastry-enveloped cousins even made their way into nursery rhymes. And while four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie may sound unappetizing, a slice of pâté de campagne, attractively swaddled in bacon and studded with strips of ham, is nothing more than pig pie. And not hard to make, as it turns out.

Delicate, ethereal foie gras mousses are a bit tricky. But pâté de campagne, like the rural countryside (campagne) for which it’s named, is decidedly rustic. No precious duck livers here; just ground pork spruced up for flavor. With its rough-grain texture, it isn’t striving for refinement.

In medieval France, pigs were a vital—and ubiquitous—low-maintenance food source. Paris’s pig market (marché aux pourceaux) was a bustling square where over 30,000 creatures changed hands every year at the heart of the city. If we were living in 14th-century Paris, this would be pig-killing season, and even the humblest holiday meal would include pork in the form of a flavorful soup, if not pâté. Our word ‘bacon’ comes from the Old French for ham.

Pigs also represented real danger in medieval daily life. They caused traffic accidents (notably the fatal unhorsing of king Louis-le-Gros’s eldest son), trampled goods, and were even rumored to enter homes and gobble babies on occasion. But pigs were a livelihood. Laws against letting pigs roam the streets were ineffective, judging by the number of times they were issued and reissued. Authorities resigned themselves to requiring that the creatures wear bells. Nothing could stand between Parisians and their pigs, though when their rampages provoked legal action, owners made themselves scarce, and the pigs themselves bore the brunt of the (capital) punishment.

Though many pâtés are now called de campagne, the original version comes from Brittany. The Breton recipe calls for mixing the ground pork with sautéed onions, but shallots lend a more sophisticated, nuanced touch. Add port wine, a little cream, and plenty of black pepper and herbs for a pâté that, while humble in name and simple to make, is still fit for a king.
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Pâté de Campagne (adapted from Bon Appetit)

¾ cup of port
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup minced shallots
2 ½ lbs ground pork
12 oz finely chopped uncured bacon, plus 16 slices to line the baking pan

3 garlic cloves, pressed
2 ½ teaspoons salt
2 ½ teaspoons fresh thyme (or rosemary or sage, as preferred)
1 ½ teaspoons allspice
1 ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup cream
1 6-oz piece of ham, cut into small strips

Boil alcohol until reduced to ½ cup. Cool.
Sauté shallots in butter until translucent (about 8 minutes).
Combine ground pork and bacon in a large bowl. Mix in sauteed shallots, garlic, and seasonings. Add eggs, cream and reduced alcohol.
Line 9x5x3-inch pan with bacon slices, letting the ends hang over the side. Press half the ground meat mixture into pan; top with the ham strips; top with the remaining ground meat.
Fold the ends of the bacon slices over the top. Cover lightly with foil. Place in the oven in a  13x9x2-inch baking pan half-filled with boiling water. Bake at 350°F until center reaches 155°F (about 2 hours).
Once cool, refrigerate overnight with weights on top. To serve, invert onto a platter and wipe clean.

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