What a delightful time I spent with this, my second in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. This is also the first book I have completed in 2017, although I had two others going simultaneously: a book of short stories and a nonfiction. This story completely captured me from the first paragraph. Penny initially gives the reader an intimate peek of Gamache at work before we know what that work is, and how he came to be doing it. I’d love to know how the author constructed this plot, because I suspect that a graphic of it might look like a spiral, or a mobius strip, or DNA curling its way around the characters, with connections the reader only understands at the end. I’m slowly getting to know Armand. He is a poet-quoting philosopher and historian, regularly including Machiavelli and Marcus Aurelius in his teaching and conversation. He is a devoted family man, husband to Reine-Marie, father to Daniel and Annie, grandfather to Honore. He is an ethical law enforcement investigator who genuinely, not only wants to make the world a better place, but believes he has the power to exact change. There’s so much wisdom in this book. A sampling:
“Don’t believe everything you think.”- a Buddhist nun
“Give bad news swiftly, and spread out the good news.” – Machiavelli
“Oddities eat up time and energy in an investigation.”
And my favorite, spoken by Michel, Gamache’s childhood friend and colleague. Substitute any name you like for the one in parentheses:
“(Serge LeDuc) was a stupid man. A man driven by an infected ego. But he was also a powerful man, I’ll give him that. A charismatic personality. A dangerous combination, as we’ve found out many times, eh, Armand? Especially for anyone young and vulnerable. He’d have made a good cult leader…”
At the beginning of the story, Armand and Reine-Marie visit Michel at his home on the Gaspe Peninsula, where “the edge of Quebec met salt water.” The area is described as desolate and treeless, but with a view of Perce Rock, a huge sheer limestone rock formation in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, Canada, off Percé Bay. It appears from a distance like a ship under sail. The 49 foot tall arch was name by Samuel de Champlain in 1607.
A companionable exchange between Jean-Guy and Isabelle revealed a tradition in the early spring/late winter when the maple sap runs. Families visit “cabane a sucre,” maple sugar shacks to partake of a sweet treat called “tire d’erable,” or maple taffy. I found a recipe using just 2 cups of pure maple sugar, 1 teaspoon butter and 3 1/2 quarts of crushed ice or snow. Now all I have to do is raid one of the neighbor’s sap buckets on one of my runs!
The recipe I chose was the grilled sandwich that Armand made for Deputy Commissioner Gelinas, of fresh bread, Brome Lake duck, Brie and fig confit. Upon further investigation, I found that Brome Lake lies over the border of Vermont, and there’s an annual Duck Festival there in September that we’re going to have to attend.
Grilled Duck Breast, Brie, and Fig Jam Sandwich
Servings:Three ½-Pint Jars
2 lbs. green or purple figs, stemmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup plus 2 T fresh lemon juice
½ cup water
In a large, nonreactive saucepan, toss the fig pieces with the sugar and let stand, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the sugar is mostly dissolved and the figs are juicy.
Add the lemon juice and water and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Simmer the fig jam over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is soft and the liquid runs off the side of a spoon in thick, heavy drops, about 20 minutes.
Spoon the jam into three½-pint jars, leaving ¼ inch of space at the top. Close the jars and let cool to room temperature. Store the jam in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
(Full disclosure: failing to find fresh figs on a grocery run, I used “Bonne Maman Fig Preserves” instead, and it earned the husband seal of approval.)
Variation: Substitute ½ cup of white port for the water and add one 4-inch sprig of rosemary with the lemon juice; discard the rosemary before jarring.
1 boneless, skin-on duck breast
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices rustic bread
2 tsp softened butter
¼ C baby arugula
¼ C Kalamata olives, pitted coarsely chopped
2 ounces Brie cheese, sliced
Sear the duck breast: Rinse the duck breast thoroughly under cool water and pat dry with a paper towel. Place the meat on a cutting board with the skin side facing up. Use a sharp to knife score the skin and underlying fat in a checkerboard pattern, being careful not to cut all the way though to the meat. This will help ensure that the fat can render out properly and render the skin perfectly crisp. Season all sides thoroughly with salt and black pepper.
Set a large, heavy skillet over high heat and allow it get very hot before placing the duck breast in the center, skin side down. Turn down the heat to medium and allow the meat to cook undisturbed for 8 – 10 minutes, to ensure an even sear. Use tongs to carefully flip the meat, cooking for an additional 5 – 6 minutes on the opposite side. Once crisp and golden all over, remove the meat from the pan, letting rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing thinly. The meat should remain light pink inside. (Full disclosure: I used a supermarket rotisserie chicken breast since I couldn’t find duck breast.)
Warm panini maker. Spread ½ teaspoon butter each on 2 slices of bread. With the buttered sides down, top with an even layer of fig confit, Brie, olives, arugula, and sliced duck. Divide the remaining butter between the two remaining slices of bread, placing the butter sides facing up. Once assembled, place sandwiches in panini maker until grill marks appear and cheese is melted, according to your appliance’s instructions. Or you can grill the sandwiches in a heavy, cast-iron pan on the stove until the cheese is melted and the bread is lightly browned.
Slice and serve. Yum!
(More full disclosure: I didn’t feel that the chicken breast stood up as well to the other ingredients as duck might have, and will try using seared duck breast, which, according to my husband who loves duck, has more flavor. I will write an update once I try it.)