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Rabelaisian Pleasures

October 20, 1994|JACQUELINE FRIEDRICH | Friedrich, who lives in the Loire, is working on a book about the food of the region

LERNE, France — "I was born and raised in the garden of France, that is the Touraine," wrote Francois Rabelais, the author of "Gargantua and Pantagruel" and one of the fathers of the novel.

Rabelais set much of the action in his books in Touraine, an ancient province that straddles the Loire River about 150 miles southwest of Paris. Gargantua drank in Chinon's wine cellars; Panurge sought "the truth" in the clear waters of the fountain of the town's Caves Painctes, or painted cellars, and the Picrochole war was fought on its surrounding hills, between the "kingdoms" of Seuilly and Lerne--in reality, two farming villages.

Rabelais, born 500 years ago at La Deviniere, his family's country home just outside of Seuilly, was the complete Renaissance man. A Franciscan, then a Benedictine monk, he was also a doctor, a diplomat, a lecturer in Greek, an astrologer and, above all, a humanist.

And he was always in trouble. His books, thinly veiled satires of the pillars of society--from Sorbonne academics to Vatican clerics--were routinely censored (Calvin declared one "impious"), and Rabelais was occasionally exiled or imprisoned.

Yet when most of us think of Rabelais we think of bawdy feasting. A reliable chronicler of all things gastronomic, Rabelais describes meals with encyclopedic lists of dishes. What's surprising--as well as heartening for those of us with a gloom-and-doom outlook for French cooking--is that many of the regional foods described by Rabelais in the 16th Century are precisely the ones that figure most prominently in today's Sunday dinners in south-central France.

Despite wars and revolutions, not to mention the banalization of many French foods, the Ur -Touraine meal still includes the rillettes , chevre and matelote de lamproie (wine stew of lamprey) that Rabelais noted. And they are washed down with Vouvray or Chinon, direct descendants of the wines his characters guzzle so zestfully.

" Rillettes are as old as the pig itself," claims Jacques Hardouin, a leading Tourangeau charcutier . This rough-textured mash of pork conserved in its own fat is documented as early as the 11th Century. In his painting "Les Heures Peintes Pour Anne de Bretagne," a 15th-Century artist chose the slaughter of the pig to illustrate the month of December and depicted, among other things, stoneware pots for rillettes . Another renowned Tourangeau, Honore de Balzac, speaks of rillettes with relish, noting that this "(brown confiture) formed the principal element of a Tourangeaux midmorning snack."

Rillettes are a style of charcuterie born in the western Loire, between Touraine and Anjou-Maine, whence come the two varieties--the fine, burnished rillettes de Tours and the chunkier, fattier rillettes du Mans. To see how rillettes were made--if not in Rabelais' time, perhaps in Balzac's, 250 years later--I visited Marie Turpault on her farm in Anjou, some 20 minutes from Saumur, the town in which Balzac set his novel "Eugenie Grandet."

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Born in 1903, Turpault moved to her current home in 1923 and ever since has harvested its grapes and its wheat and tended its hens, cows, rabbits and pigs. While she no longer churns her own butter or grinds her own flour, Turpault is nearly as self-sufficient today as she was 50 years ago. Germain, her bachelor son, kills a pig a year. Turpault carves out cutlets, conserves the thigh in salt, puts it in a burlap sack and hangs it up the chimney where it will spend six weeks drying over the fire. From other morsels she makes boudins , andouilles and other sausages. Each pig also provides about 30 pounds of scraps and fatty parts, which Turpault puts in a cast-iron kettle with water and salt to cook before the fire for five or six hours to make rillettes. These rillettes are meaty and good and probably taste much as they did to Rabelais.

Of course, this kind of self-sufficiency is rare these days. As farming has become increasingly specialized since the end of World War II, farmers have focused on either wine or cheese making, cattle or cereal. At the same time, charcuterie has become ever more exclusively the business of the professional, a trend reinforced by European Community laws that regulate everything from feed to slaughter to the size of buildings, methods of manufacture, modes of sale and hygiene, hygiene, hygiene.

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