MAKE THE PERFECT...
There is no rushing this life-affirming seven-hour lamb recipe, so just enjoy!
Something I have learned since moving to France, and especially the south of France, is the value of not being in a hurry. Few dishes embody this better than gigot de sept heures, lamb cooked so slowly that it collapses at the touch of a spoon (hence its second name, gigot à la cuillère). Served with buttery potato purée, it is the kind of dish that makes me happy that the days are growing shorter and the nights chillier.
If young lamb benefits from being cooked until just pink inside to preserve its delicate flavour and texture, the seven-hour method suits the stronger autumn meat, tempering its more robust character. I had come across this dish in bistros for years, but first learned to cook it while on holiday in Lozère, a region of spectacular rocky landscapes that is famed for the quality of its lamb and beef. Here, the host of our chambre d’hôte, a natural and modest cook, taught me to rub a leg of lamb with fresh herbs, garlic and olive oil before wrapping it in several layers of foil and roasting it at low temperature for several hours. Once out of the oven, the package is bundled in layers of tea towel to retain the heat and juices until serving.
Her method, which works beautifully, is not one I have come across elsewhere: most recipes for seven-hour lamb call for it to be braised in a tightly sealed enamelled cast-iron pot. This allows for the addition of vegetables, wine and stock, which result in rich cooking juices that you can spoon over the mashed potatoes. Though lamb is the accepted meat for this dish, venison and wild boar also benefit from this gentle cooking style, which brings out their sweetness.
Probably dating from Roman times and adopted by the Gauls, this recipe gradually became associated with the Auvergne region, whose harsh winters lent themselves to dishes cooked in the embers of a fire. The seven hours in the title may have referred to the time between lunch and dinner, or an overnight cooking. Though the name has stuck, some chefs say that five hours, not seven, is the ideal cooking time for lamb. Others cook it for the full seven hours, but gradually lower the heat to achieve the perfect texture. In this case, they would cook it for one hour at 170°C/325°F, three hours at 150°C/300°F, and three hours at 120°C/250°F.
A definitive version of this recipe comes from chef Alain Ducasse, who has a soft spot for bistro cooking, even if he runs a number of Michelinstarred restaurants. The owner of the classic bistros Allard and Aux Lyonnais in Paris, he recommends braising the meat for seven hours at 130°C/265°F.
Whichever combination of temperatures and timing you choose, it is hard to go wrong with this forgiving recipe, which was clearly designed for the distracted cook.
THE PERFECT SEVEN-HOUR LAMB Though leg of lamb is the traditional meat for this dish, the more affordable shoulder makes a good substitute. This recipe is adapted from one by chef Alain Ducasse. The ideal cooking pot is made of enamelled cast-iron with a tight-fitting lid, but you can improvise with a roasting tin and layers of aluminium foil.
• 1 leg of lamb weighing about 2.5 kg/51/ 2lb,
deboned, trimmed of excess fat and tied • 1tbsp olive oil • 2 onions • 2 carrots • 5-6 slices unsmoked bacon • 1 bay leaf • 2 sprigs thyme • 1 head garlic • 1tbsp tomato purée • 50ml/ 1/4 cup dry white wine • 300ml/11/ 4 cups lamb or veal stock,
or water • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in an enamelled cast-iron pot and brown the lamb on all sides. Set it aside. 2. Cut the onions and carrots into small dice. Add to the pot and cook over medium heat until lightly browned. Set aside. 3. Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F. Line the bottom of the pot with the bacon slices and place the lamb on top. Add the vegetables, bay leaf, thyme, head of garlic cut in half horizontally, tomato purée, white wine and stock or water. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. 4. Bring to a boil on the stove. Cover with a tight-fitting lid or three layers of tightly wrapped foil, and place in the oven. (If the lid of your pot does not fit tightly, place a sheet of aluminium foil between the pot and the lid.) Lower the temperature to 130°C/265°F and cook for seven hours. 5. Remove the lamb from the pot and strain the cooking juices into a saucepan. Skim the fat off the surface of the juices using a small ladle. Bring to a boil over high heat and continue boiling until reduced by half. 6. Adjust the seasoning. Serve the lamb with buttery mashed potatoes and the cooking juices.
Food critic and cookbook author Rosa Jackson lives in Nice, where she runs the cookery school Les Petits Farcis and writes about food for publications worldwide.