Daube Obsession: My first stew in my new clay pot.

‘Plus elle est demeuree sur le feu, meilleure elle est!

(The longer it stays on the fire, the better the daube is)

Daubes are very slow-cooked stews that are found all over rural France, though the best known are from southern France. Traditionally daubes are made with lamb or beef, though one does not need to travel too far to find pork daubes, bull daubes, rabbit daubes, and even octopus daubes. Classically they are cooked in the lingering embers of a wood fire in special potbellied pots called ‘daubieres’ which are mostly made from copper or clay.

The lengthy cooking time combined with the bulbous shape of the cooking vessel creates a convection action where heat from the bottom rises to the top in the form of steam, hits the cooler top, then rains back down over the simmering meat. This action allows the collagen found in braising meats to turn into gelatin and provide a silky mouthfeel to the finished dish.

Many cooks claim it is damn near impossible to make a proper daube without a daubiere, though begrudgingly some will admit it is possible.

I was one of those cooks.

PRECIOUS PIECES

For many years I resisted these facts and stubbornly braised my meat as slowly as possible in an oven to mediocre results. I searched for a vintage daubiere at French flea markets and even online in the States. The high cost and the thought of hand carrying a brand new fragile clay pot from France always dampened my enthusiasm. It could have been the repressed memory of being a child when my mother became enraptured by a 19th-century soup tureen she found at a flea market. I remember how tightly she held on to the tureen throughout the entire duration of an eight-hour drive to Charles de Gaulle airport from Marseille followed by a nine-hour flight back to Chicago. If I missed the flight I doubt she would have even noticed. A few months after that trip, I actually think I overheard my mother having a laughing conversation with the tureen and started to fear for her sanity.

The soup tureen which sits in a protected status on my bookshelf next to the 18th-century hand-painted Moustier plate pictured above with the lamb daube has only been pressed into service for a few ceremonious bouillabaisses in its life with us.

Side note: Two Moustier plates are all that remain from a complete service for 8. They were handed down in my family for over 200 years, along with all my forks, knives, and spoons. I strongly suspect a few have been buried with my descendants who, even in death, refused to let go of their precious pieces.

THE DAUBE OBSESSION

I admittedly come from a long line of food fanatics who go to what may seem to outsiders as erratic behavior when it concerns anything related to our stomachs. Whether it was the two-hour car rides searching for the perfect lunchtime baguette or slaughtering our pet rabbits to make a proper civet de lapin thickened with fresh rabbit blood — my family knew no end in the quest for food.

My wife willingly married into my family and deep into its food culture. I knew she had crossed the line when she sat me down the other day bouncing like an excited small child waiting for Christmas to start. We were anticipating a massive snowstorm to hit the Vancouver, Washington area dubbed by some as ‘snowmageddon’, that was projected to close schools for a full week leaving us with plenty of time to slow cook one last daube of the winter season.

TOURETTE SYNDROME AND MY BIRTHDAY DAUBIERE

Lisa excitedly stammered ‘Do, do you want your birthday gift now?’ This caught me off guard as she normally is quite reserved. You know, the type of person who buys presents months before then holds onto them till the 59th minute in the 11th hour before giving them away. Before I could answer, she repeated her question with her head jerking slightly coupled with a nervous eye twitch which led me to believe she was in the early stages of Tourette’s. ‘Do you want your birthday gift now?’ I could hardly believe the words as they left her mouth the second time. I have to be honest, I had a mixed feeling of fear and excitement as I replied yes while keeping a watchful eye on both my child and the front door in case a sudden departure was called for.

I half-expected an expensive Canon L series camera lens that I had been relentlessly whining about for three months till she came down the stairs from her hidden stash spot with an enormous box marked fragile and decked out with French postage stamps. I had absolutely no clue as my mind raced to all the comments about things I coveted during our vacation to France last year.

Tears welled in my eyes as I unwrapped the most beautiful, gigantic half-glazed daubiere in the entire world.

THE MAGIC OF THE FRENCH DAUBIERE

One of my favorite authors, Paula Wolfert, once penned an excellent piece that was recently republished entitled ‘The Magic of the French Daubiere‘ in which she quotes Bernard Duplessy who advises readers on how to choose an earthenware daubière: “The daube must always ‘breathe’ and so it’s best for a daubière to be only partially glazed, leaving the lower half of the belly and the inside of the lid untreated. Resistant clay has to be used, as a daubière must withstand the heat of an oven. However, Madame Daubière is still not ready. Once home, it must be filled with water or milk. Placed upon a diffuser over a gas burner, it is then brought to a boil. Then, with each use, it is wise to rub the daubière inside and out with a clove of garlic. A magical and tasty hint.”

No words were more carefully followed than those. For several days after my wife could find me crouched in a corner, tenderly massaging peeled purple garlic cloves into the interior and exterior of my daubiere muttering ‘my precious’. Every conversation started and stopped with something about my lovely handmade daubiere from Vallauris, France.

THE IRRATIONAL FEAR OF USING YOUR CLAY POT FOR COOKING THE FIRST TIME

Completely rationally I realize clay pot cooking is something as ancient as fire itself. I fully understand the long history of even my own foremothers who churned out numerous cassoulets and daubes in undoubtedly less sturdy clay pots than mine. Despite the factual evidence in front of me, there is something completely unsettling about using a cherished clay vessel the very first time.

Sidenote: I was far less concerned about a 1930s traditional clay cassole I once bought in Toulouse when I baked my first cassoulet in it two winters ago.

I must have looked like a fool to anyone watching as I donned protective gear. The path from my bookcase to the kitchen was lined with safety traffic cones instructing my eight-year-old which sections of the house were verboten and which would cause him to be forever banished to life without his beloved tablet for even the most minute violation.

I delicately carried the daubiere into the kitchen much the same way I held my newborn in the first seconds after his birth. Tears streamed from my eyes as the moment arrived when I knew I had to let go and apply the heat, however gentle, however diffused.

The time was here to connect to my ancestors through clay pot cooking.

MY FIRST DAUBE, A STEP BY STEP GUIDE

Over the years I have cooked and written countless recipes for daubes, but none included the very beginning of prepping a virgin piece of clay.

Here are all the steps involved — The recipe will be listed very last.

Step One: Marinate lamb cheeks and shanks for the daube I will cook tomorrow.

Step Two: I braced myself with alcohol as I soaked the daubiere in water overnight to prepare for first use. I worried if my heater broke during the night and a kamikaze bird crashed through my large window — could the pot of water freeze solid cracking my daubiere in the process?

Step Three: Relief, morning came and none of my fears materialized. I seared the meat in a separate pan because using the daubiere for that is way early to risk premature death.

Step Four: The moment of truth is here, this is why the pot was born, time to start the long, slow cook. For the full effect of this chapter please click this link. Let the sound play in the background as you read the next paragraph. Yes, I may have lost my mind but maybe this will help you understand me just a little better.

But I had never quite experienced this sound, it felt like the very heart of Provence came to life and was beating for the first time in my daubiere.

The moment has arrived, admittedly with an unsteady hand and perhaps a glass of vintage Calvados poured, I loaded my daubiere with the seared pieces of lamb cheek. I have always understood that cooking is an art which requires all of your senses. Tonight that thought manifested itself as I dropped the lamb cheeks one by one into the daubiere. Thump, thump, thump. There was the most satisfying, almost deep bass drum timbre as the meat fell into the pot. I have cooked professionally for thirty years and always been very attuned to the fact that sounds, like the different pitch a mixer makes when meringue is at its proper consistency, is an integral part of the cooking experience. But I had never quite experienced this sound, it felt like the very heart of Provence came to life and was beating for the first time in my daubiere.

I slowly brought the stew to a gentle simmer nestled high on a thick cast iron diffuser designed to protect any damage from the shock of my electric stove top. It took almost one full hour to get to barely a simmer. As it slowly heated, a small symphony of crackles could be heard as the piece settled into its new role as a cooking vessel rather than just an unused dining room showpiece.

Several hours passed as my house filled with the most intoxicating aroma I have ever experienced. I imagine this is what my heaven will smell like: the sacred marriage of olives, dried orange, anchovies, lamb, robust wine, and tomatoes stewing together at a grandmotherly pace.

Sidenote: Never eat a daube the same day it is made (though by all means sneak a taste when you are confident no one is watching — not even your small son who thinks daddy is crazy but will rat him out to mommy). Let the stew mature, marry, and blossom into the work of art that humble peasant cooking is.

Daube of Lamb Cheeks

A sensational, tender French lamb stew. “Several hours passed as my house filled with the most intoxicating aroma I have ever experienced. I imagine this is what heaven will smell like: the sacred marriage of olives, dried orange, anchovies, lamb, robust wine, and tomatoes stewing at a grandmotherly pace.”

Ingredients

24 Hour Marinade

  • 5 pounds lamb cheek
  • 2 lamb hind shanks
  • 1 bottle Provencal red wine
  • 1 giant pinch herbes de Provence
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 2 grates black pepper
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 8 cloves garlic peeled, mashed
  • 1/4 cup Provencal olive oil
  • 1 cup Cognac
  • 1 strip dried orange peel

Daube-ifying

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 sweet onions peeled, chopped
  • 8 thin carrots peeled, sliced
  • 1 28 ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes hand crushed with all the juice
  • 1 cup green olives
  • 1 Tbsp chopped anchovy filet

Instructions

24 Hour Marinade

  1. I usually debone the lamb shanks and dice the meat first, then add both the meat and the bones to the marinade. Mix all the marinade ingredients together and let sit for 24 hours.

Daube-ifying

  1. Strain the meat out of the marinade, saving all the liquid. Heat the olive oil in a heavy gauge pan and brown the lamb pieces. Watch my lamb browning.
  2. Add the cheeks one by one to your daubiere followed by the chopped onions and sliced carrots. If you haven’t done so, squeeze the tomatoes in your hand, adding both the pulp and juice to the daubiere. Add the remaining ingredients and reserved marinade.
  3. Set the daubiere on some form of a diffuser. I used a cast iron skillet I bought for $19.95 at my grocery stores. Fill the cavity in the daubiere lid with water, or if you want to be like LuLu Peyraud (yes, that Lulu), pour wine into the lid. Cover with the top and turn the heat on so ridiculously low and let the daube come to temperature extremely slowly. This is about cooking low and slow. If you wanted a quicker recipe — go somewhere else. This is about connecting to the ancients. Here is my daube barely simmering after one hour.
  4. Let simmer gently for five hours. Yes, your house will be filled with incredible scents. Yes, you will want to eat it right away. Eat a tuna fish sandwich instead.
  5. Gently remove all the daubiere contents and let cool overnight. Richard Olney said to let cool at room temperature and eat the next day. I refrigerate mine because I tend to make more than necessary. Whatever cooling method you subscribe to, skim all the fat off before eating.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE DAUBE VARIATIONS:

I wanted to share three favorite daube recipes of mine that are all slightly different and two great sides for daube to cook in all the juices.

DAUBE OF PORK CHEEKS

DAUBE OF LAMB ‘GUI GEDDA’

DAUBE OF BEEF, A PROVENCAL BEEF STEW

TWO GREAT DAUBE SIDE DISHES:

FALL SQUASH GNOCCHI

RAMP PASTA MADE LIKE PATE NICOISE

If you enjoyed my story please subscribe to my blog Pistou and Pastis. Over the coming months we are expanding and offering everything from cool spice mixes we found in off the beaten track spice shops, weird kitchen finds in Provence’s antique markets, cookbooks, and even unique culinary adventures to hear the heartbeat of Provence hiding within the lavender fields.

Since posting, many have asked where to buy a daubiere. Check out Remember Provence for amazing Daubieres and other clay cooking pots from Vallauris.

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My earliest attempt at cookery began with the filleting of my sister's goldfish at age 2 and cooking my pet rabbits by age 7. Life has been downhill ever since.

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