Préfou: new garlic & Charente butter

August 21st, 2009

Did the vagabond expect to munch on divine garlic bread in western France?  No, but why not – then again, the egg-rich Brioche Vendéen bread is so much better known.  The cuisine of the Poitou Charente and Vendée regions seldom is given more than passing mention in guidebooks.  Usually it is the stuffed vegetables of the Poitou, the slick and mellow Charente butter, or matelote (eels cooked in wine with herbs – don’t ask), mojette beans, and melon cubes dripping with Pineau des Charentes that make up a short list of  regional specialties.  References to préfou are rare, even on menus posted outside cafés; no recipes are found on the net or in old, reliable cookbooks.  But there they were, a few crisp strips of garlic-soaked toast on my Salade Maraîchier plate in the charming Charente village of Arçais.  So very good, so easy to replicate, it seemed.  Back in my kitchen on the hill, the urge to try making a batch of préfou was too hard to resist.

In days gone by, before baking many loaves in the four à pain, a lump of dough was pinched off, patted flat and popped into the oven to test the temperature.  Préfour (four is oven in French) then would be pre-baking, as my best guess at the etymology for préfou. In the lower Vendée, along the Charente border, the custom was to rub the warm bread with a clove of  garlic and spread it with freshly churned butter. A glass of the crisp, local white wine or a sip of eau de vie would go down nicely with this humble treat, as one could imagine.

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A wedge of fresh butter, plump garlic, and bread ready for préfou!

The bread for the simple garlic and butter-soaked wonder begins with a basic  fougasse dough (for this batch, I used 500 ml/2 cups potato water seasoned with a bay leaf, 450 g./4 cups bread flour (spoon flour into cup, tap and level), a pinch of salt and 1/2 tsp. dry yeast, and oiled hands to shape the dough – use directions in the (12 June 2009) fougasse post – and let it rise overnight).  Instead of an oval or leaf, shape it in a rectangle on a baking sheet and slit at 2 inch intervals, making the préfou fingers easier to separate after baking. The above proportions make enough dough for 1 préfou and 1 small loaf of bread. You may need more flour, depending on the humidity of the day and type of flour used. Sprinkle fine cornmeal under the  préfou and a little over the top. Heat the oven to 220°c./425°f., place the pans in the oven and spray with spritzes of water, then turn the heat down to 200°c/400°f. and bake for 12 minutes.  The following day, slice the préfou horizontally, separate the fingers of bread, spread each piece with a mixture of crushed, juicy new garlic mixed with soft butter, and put the fingers back together. Wrap in foil, and at this point, let it rest for a couple of hours or overnight, then heat it in a warm oven (or over the coals of a grill) to melt the butter. Clearly, this is best made ahead of time. Tradition says:  serve with apéritifs. But préfou goes well with a green salad or cold soup on blisteringly hot summer days.  After my  first encounter with préfou, I anticipate serving it as a garlicky side with a dish of mojettes jambon …..as the season turns – and September, the moment for shelling mojettes, is just around the corner.

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