‘Is there anything more useless than a tea towel that doesn’t dry the dishes?’ asked my husband recently. ‘Here I am, playing my role as kitchen helper and I cannot even dry up.’
‘Is it the workman’s technique or is he blaming the tools?’ I responded knowingly looking at the tea towel with its beautiful print. ‘The screen print paint prevents the linen absorbing the water.’
I handed him one of my wonderful French torchons and then laughed at his response.
‘Sad to be so excited about such a simple thing as an absorbent tea towel.’
No it isn’t.
Torchons are the French equivalent of the Australian tea towel. In the early 19th century, a French girl was expected to have enough torchons in her dowry to last 30 years. That gives you an indication of just how long a good linen torchon would last. Plus, because she appreciated their usefulness she often embroidered her initials on them—starting with her first initial, and then adding the initial of her new surname after she got married. Sometimes you will find a small loop has been sewn for securing the torchon to a hook.
Of course torchons are designed for the practical rather than decorative purpose. Traditionally made from linen, the newer slightly tougher torchon was perfect for drying large cooking pots and as it wore a little thinner and became softer with use and washing they became the preferred fabric for drying and polishing glassware and silver.
And although we never hear about the flies and midges in France, believe me they exist in numbers that rival outback Australia and the older lighter torchons are perfect for protecting food from these insects.
Torchons also play many traditional roles in cooking in the French household. When dusted heavily with flour, a large piece of linen is used to cradle and shape bread dough during the final rising. The porosity of the fabric allows air movement around the loaf allowing a lovely crust to form when baked.
Old torchons are a great substitute for cheesecloth and can be used to roll food into a sausage shape before poaching it. Apart from the traditional Foie Gras Torchon that is a challenge in Australia which doesn’t produce foie gras I also use the torchon to wrap my Italian Rotolo before poaching it. This delicious dish is a roll of pasta around a seasoned filling such as ricotta and spinach or pumpkin and duck.
Dampened torchons were often used to seal an oven dish in which a beef daub would cook. Luke Barr in Provence 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste writes of Richard Olney cooking the daube sealed with a strip of previously dampened torchon. He describes the moment when the seal is broken allowing a rush of steam laden with the fragrance of a rich mouthwatering beef daube. It is enough to send me scurrying into the kitchen with one of my torchons to try his recipe. How I wish I had a daubière to cook it in.
Caring for a torchon is so easy as they can be washed in cold or hot water and spun at low speed before air drying. Linen is a fabulous material because it absorbs an enormous amount of moisture even when damp. Sometimes you will see ‘slubs’ which are the small knots in the fabric. They don’t impede the strength of the fabric but have been associated with low quality linen not used for clothing. More recently they are considered decorative.
In the kitchen where functionality rules supreme it is lovely to see a torchon adding a touch of practicality blended with tradition. French chic combined with function.
What do you give to your hostess as a thank you for a beautiful dinner or a week-end invitation to stay with them at their holiday house? Flowers and wine are okay but they are not a lasting memento of the occasion. I would prefer to receive a torchon, which lasts for ages and brings with it memories of the person who gave it and the occasion for which it was given.
Here is my recipe for a Spinach and Ricotta Rotolo.
A rotolo is just a roll of pasta around a filling. You can use butternut pumpkin, pre-roasted in the oven, spinach or silver beet, nuts, cheese. Whatever comes to your mind. Here is a suggestion. It is a lovely light vegetarian meal that looks and tastes good enough to serve to guests either as a light dinner or lunch with a salad. Serves about 6-8 people. It is also just a delicious served the following day. Because it is pasta it is also a great meal for hungry children.
- 200gm flour
- 2 eggs
- 1 large bunch of spinach or beetroot leaves, silverbeet etc.
- 350gm fresh ricotta
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- A large handful of chopped herbs: parsley, oregano, thyme
- Salt and pepper
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, smashed
- 50gm grated parmesan,
Making the Rotolo…
Make the pasta by mixing the eggs and flour in a food processor until fine crumbs come together and start to form a ball. Knead lightly for a minute then wrap pasta dough in plastic and rest for 30 minutes. Roll the pasta through the rollers of the pasta machine until about the level 6. Any thinner and it starts to tear.
Place 30 cm lengths on top of each other to form a shape that will fit into your cooking implement. I tend to use three lengths slightly overlapping. Stick the sheets of pasta together with lightly beaten egg white.
If using beetroot of English spinach, wash then blanche for 30 secs, if using Silverbeet, wash and cook lightly for a few minutes. Remove from the heat, squeeze out the excess water, then chop finely.
Sauté the onion until translucent, then add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a large bowl. Add the spinach, the chopped herbs and nutmeg, salt and pepper, the parmesan and the ricotta. Blend thoroughly.
Spread the mixture over the laid out pasta sheets leaving a 2cm edge on the ends and 5 cm on the furthest edge. Press the mixture down, then roll the sheet of pasta around the filling, doing this quite firmly. Wipe the long edge with eggwhite and press down to seal. Seal the short ends with egg white and tuck the ends under themselves to form a tight roll. Wrap the rotolo in a tea towel, and tie the ends with kitchen string so that it looks like a Christmas cracker.
Place a rack or tea towel in a fish steamer, or large baking dish and fill with hot water. Bring the water to a gentle simmer. Place the rotolo into the water, tuck under the ends of the tea towel, I cover the dish to keep the moisture in, and cook for 40 – 60 minutes.
Remove from the water bath, unwrap the rotolo, taking care as it is hot and steamy, then slice to serve.
Serve with browned butter, sage and pine nuts, or with a tomato sauce flavoured with herbs.