Thursday, 17 July 2014

More Roussanne Peaches

They are giant, juicy, ruby red and adored by bees, hornets, chickens and us. The competition is tough because as they ripen and fall, they are gobbled up by Mary rooster in less than 5 minutes and a dozen bees in 10. We have to be very vigilant or pick the fruit before they are ripe. Last week our local orchard delivered some to our AMAP, this week I have my own and next week I will have remnants and compote to remember them.

Despite nearly a month of heavy downpours, fruit is over-plentiful this summer. I don`t know what to do with all these peaches as I`m not a fan of jam but honey.  Plums are beginning to ripe and it looks like we`ll have enough to feed the american army.  The vegetable garden is in two minds about the weather with the squash celebrating every drop of rain, kale growing tall, beetroots juicing up but the tomatoes are terribly black and an hour has to be passed each day depriving them of the last of their leaves and fruit that have succumbed to this early and deadly mildew.

Billy the chicken severed her ties with three new chicks at five weeks old so I had to take over as she returned to Mary her man, egg making, walking sideways and being top chicken. She left these fluffy, barely feathered neophytes to the perils of nature and within 24 hours one of the sweetest was whisked off by a hawk  in full view of us all.  I`m now expected to spend my days teaching two lost babies how to find food, water and avoid snakes, birds and Lulu the cat.

We bought two new calves and the latest is sweeter than any peach possible. Jana is six months old, licks faces and polished toes and can knock you over with a hug.

 Isis is more reserved but plays protective older sister to her sibling which is essential when Granny is around. What used to be Maidelena is now just plain Granny, who rules the fields like Stalin once ruled Siberia - badly!

If we need to just pass through the field to go mushrooming we need to present a bucket of hay to the Granny or otherwise there is no passage. If another cow or calf is favoured, she will get a bruising from old grumpys` horns but then again she is the doyenne of the fields and is respected by all the others and even gets to be licked from head to toe by her minions each evening before sundown...

Roasted Peach and Almond Tart

250g homemade Puff Pastry
50g softened Butter
50g Cane Sugar
50g powdered Almonds
1 large Egg
2 tbsp fresh Cream
1 tsp Rum
6 fat Peaches
1 tsp Sugar

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Mix the butter, sugar, almonds, egg, rum and cream together. Keep in the fridge till needed. Cut the peaches into six parts. Roll out the puff pastry and place in a 30cm tart tin. Spread the almond paste over the pastry and position the peach pieces in a swirling pattern on top. Cook for 30 minutes and cool before serving.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Les Bearnaises

"a dinner of herbs is often better than a stall fed ox"
William M Thackeray

Our new girls arrived a few weeks back and since then have become a natural sight in our flower-rich meadows.
It's as if something important was missing in Mailhos and that was our new Bearnaise family of cows. We both spend time with them each day, talking and stroking their foreheads and have figured out that;
1 - cows are smart
2 - cows smell warm and sweet like homemade shortcrust pastry
3 - cows are affectionate and almost cuddly
4 - cows fertilise your fields for free
5 - cows will scare hunters as they look spooky to some

Unlike the local Blonde d'Aquitaine cow who was mixed together in a laboratory by some white-coated men from three fine, ancient breeds to make the perfect corn-consuming fillet steak, the Bearnaise, who existed for centuries in the Pyrenean valleys of the Bearn, is appreciated as an excellent milker and mother while the bulls usefully ploughed the fields. It is not for nothing that she is the medieval emblem of the Bearnaise though most locals wouldn`t even recognise her. She weighs less than the Blonde, is far prettier and has slim back legs that do not remind you of a rib of beef.

The race had almost disappeared but thanks to the perseverance and hard work of some great farmers, the Bearnaise has been saved and in 2013, we had over 200 beasts roaming our hills. 
Maidelena is our grumpy grandmother and the chief. She is paler than the others with the typical high tail of her breed and a slightly damaged horn from bullying some other cow around. She is joined by her two soft and sweet daughters, Atarabi and Amalur, who dote on their mother, stand aside to give her the tastiest clover and even let her feed from their udders.

Both are more typically wheat-coloured and have the most splendid lyre-shaped horns.

Ahatxe is Amalurs calf and is now 8 months old and overtly curious. She was still suckling her mother until the arrival of Ihizi last week

and they have now struck out together to investigate the dark forest, nibble young shoots and bend or break the odd, young oak tree in two.

None of our ladies will be served as a plate of beef. They will be milked for cream and cheese, when the time is right. They will have babies and those babies will begin new families in other farms until the Blonde d`Aquitaine is extinct and then they will live into retirement in perfect peace.

Meanwhile the greenhouse is boiling over with healthy plants but nights are still not clement enough to risk their fragile stems and leaves. I'm holding out as long as I can or as long as the greenhouse provides space.

12kg Lulu has also arrived on long-term holidays from her bourgeois appartement life in Paris and has a specific job of trapping vermin and being cat-like and cuddly on the sofa. He is learning fast and after a week of torturing too many innocent lizards has understood that mice are more of a challenge and perhaps tastier....

Monday, 14 April 2014


Returned to the soil after three months resting our jaded bones and for the past month there has been no time to write or even download a photo as the vegetable garden is being shaved of green manure and planted out. Our calves are arriving soon. Our new cat is on his way... 

The chickens have returned from their part time babysitter, Tante Janice, and we have planted a vine.

You`d think we`d have enough to do than start another venture but I suppose its just a way of making life exciting and testing our back muscles to see how much youth remains.
The soil in Mailhos, at least outside of my venerated garden, is a heavy clay and sandy soil, rich in nutrients but so hard to work after the previous years of of incessant rain and a few tractors passing through but over 40 years ago, wine was grown on its rolling hills. We have a 17th century chai big enough for industrial production to prove it and many barrels that once stocked a probably decent enough fermenting juice.

I`m sure there was plenty of the red "tannat" grape growing here and though I love wine, I have a difficult time with this very masculine variety so we have started off with sixty plants of  "petit manseng" and "courbu", two local white varieties that can deal with our special soil and hopefully give us many years of delicious juice. The plants were found in the basque country where a couple of young guys are visiting all the old vineyards, both private and commercial and grafting ancient vine ceps to save the rare and tougher varieties that once abounded in our valleys.

Of course it will take a year or two before the grapes will be decent enough for wine making but in the meantime we can drink grape juice, eat the fruit and feed the wild birds
Emmanuel, our dear neighbour, and Jean Francois did the dirty work and dug each hole separately, drove in a pole and before planting, dipped each root in a praline of cow shit and clay. 

No other fertilisation was needed and the soil was crumbled as crumbly as possible to cover the precious roots that will soon go searching for the best of minerals and give us the fruit to make our first Mailhos wine....

Saturday, 26 October 2013


An exceptional year for chestnuts as the forest floor is littered with their bigger than average fruits. As the leaves fall so do the nuts and they need to be harvested almost immediately, at least before the squirrels relieve us of such a marvellous burden.
The native Castanea Sativa grows almost everywhere within the forest producing its sweet and dainty nuts while a few japanese immigrants of Castanea Crenata brought into the area by two intrepid basque monks, grow their larger and flourier fruit further to the east.
You need a good pair or gloves to sort the chestnuts from their leafy blanket, a good rub of a boot to split an unopened hedgehog-like husk and again the gloves to extract that precious nut inside. 
Once in the basket, they have to be dealt with as soon as possible as their water level is super-high making them perish quickly. 

As I have a husband who loves eating chestnuts more than anything else in the natural world, his enthusiasm has no bounds. He can spend endless hours making himself adorable by knicking or cutting that sacred cross through the outer skin, boiling or roasting them for a couple of minutes before burning any traces of print from his fingertips, peeling them. 

His cousins have come visiting from Aubrac where forests of chestnuts thrive and I've watched in envy as they peel chestnuts faster than carrots. 
There as here, where chestnuts are so bountiful and were once such a core part of local life, a common insult for the poor is "un castanier" or chestnut eater. Its always the way with food that is plentiful. Nobody was ever insulted for eating other precious harvests like a fine porcini or morel mushroom.
I myself grew up with only its distant relative, the horse chestnut which has little to commend itself except as a most damaging weapon called the "conker" for pre-pubic boys with shifting testosterone levels.

In comparison the real chestnut is so versatile whether savoury or sweet making some of the best soups, stuffings, game stews and the more decadent cakes and marron glacé and in Mailhos, what would be do without its honey....

Chestnut and Chorizo Gnocchi
for 4

Potato Gnocci
500g Desiree or other floury Potatoes
1 large Egg Yolk
75g Plain Flour
50g Semolina

Chesnut Sauce
400g cooked and peeled Chestnuts
40g Butter
100g spicy Chorizo
1 medium red Onion, chopped
2 Garlic cloves, sliced
1 fresh hot Chili, finely sliced
2 tablespoons of finely chopped Sage
75ml Red Wine
200g fresh, chopped Tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground Pepper

To serve
12 whole Sage leaves
Olive Oil

Cook the potatoes in a large pan of boiling, salted water. Drain and peel when warm. Put the potatoes through a mouli or mash with a potato masher. Fold in the egg yolk, flour and semolina and season to taste. Work together with your hands to obtain a dough. Divide into 5 pieces and roll out each piece to the diameter of your finger and cut into lengths of 2cm. Indent each piece with the back of a fork so they will pick up the sauce better.

Slice the chorizo into 1cm slices. Melt the butter in a thick bottomed saucepan and fry the chorizo until lightly browned. Remove the chorizo and keep warm. Add the onion, garlic, chili and chopped sage to the pan. Cook gently for 20 minutes until the onions are soft. Pour in the wine and raise the heat. Cook until all the wine has evaporated. Add the tomatoes and the chestnuts and cook over a low heat for another 20 minutes. Add the chorizo and cook for another 10 minutes. Taste and season.

Meanwhile fry the sage leaves in olive oil and drain on some kitchen paper. Cook the gnocchi in batches in a generous amount of boiling, salted water. Serve with the sauce and parmesan and sage leaves.

(pour les Bearnais, je serai au Salon du Livre à Pau le 9 novembre à partir de 14h pour signer mon livre...)

Sunday, 6 October 2013


An unusually intense sun mixed with a warm September rainfall has ensured us a plentiful supply of mushrooms this autumn and Ovoli, Oronge or Amanita Caesarea has to be the best mushroom in existence.
As the latin name might suggest, Julius Caesar loved them but didn't die from eating them but he just might have if he got one mixed up with a hallucinogenic fly agaric or the putrid devil's bolete which can resemble it when young. 
Every year at the same period in Autumn, we are so happy to find maybe one or two  growing under the same oak tree in the same part of our forest but this year our private crop has been bountiful beyond expectations. 

First we found their closed white and fluffy coat peeping from the ground, which needed to be covered by heaps of dead leaves to hide it from the "kickers" (mushroom hunters who trample or destroy every mushroom that is not a perfect porcini) before returning the following day to discover the perfect orange-capped ovoli, the size of a chicken's egg peaking through its fluffy protection.  Its really only worth picking at this stage as the mushroom within hasn't even formed properly in the first 24 hours and it's best just then for serving raw when the texture is firm. Leave it another day or two and it blooms into a marvellous, safron-coloured cap with feathered lemon-yellow gills but by then its fragile and has lost a lot of flavour but does well sauteed with heaps of garlic and chopped parsley.

With so much to harvest within the confines of Mailhos throughout the summer and autumn, we forget the existence of meat. I haven't eaten beef for probably six months as it's so hard to find decent grass fed herbivores. 
The local blonde d'aquitaine was invented in the early 60's by some nuts in a laboratory to eat little but the local hybrid corn that pollutes the marvellous local valleys. Those scientists took a garonnais, a quercy and a blonde des pyrenees and mixed them all together, twiddling a few genes along the way to produce the perfect consumer of high protein maize. Of course, the meat of this poor creature looks attractive and marbled but has little taste and is lacking in omega 3 which is found of course in a healthy grass. Stupid as I am, I still believe that cows should eat grass and grass alone and a blonde d'aquitaine can only be unhappy and unhealthy living on such a starchy and protein-based diet. 
Locally, town fairs and tourist brochures celebrate that poor Blonde as the cow of the Bearn but the true holder of the title is the Bearnaise, whose image adorned their money and insignia and flags for centuries and the powerful seed companies and farmers unions have successfully wiped from the collective memory.

This Bearnaise with its elegant wheat-coloured coat, lyre shaped horns and strong and agile body is handsome, hardy, intelligent, an excellent mother and its meat is reputed for its finesse. Unfortunately there are fewer than 300 animals left locally. We have so far, visited over ten different farmers in the hills of the Pyrenees south from here and  hopefully by next year we will have a couple of pregnant ladies feeding from our 10 hectares of grassland.
I have absolutely no intention of tasting their meat and will continue to collect ovoli and porcini from the forest and fruit and vegetables from the garden but we will just try to make sure that this magnificent animal will not be forgotten and perhaps, one day, we can help re-populate the fertile fields of the Gave d'Oloron with lovely Bearnaise instead of corn.

Raw Ovoli Salad
(for 4 as a starter)

5 ovoli mushrooms
salt and pepper
30g a parmesan shavings
the best olive oil

Peel the mushrooms of their white coat and wipe the caps with a damp cloth.
Cut away the bulbous lower stem.
Using a sharp mandoline or knife, slice the mushrooms very finely through the caps and stems. Lay the slices on a plate and scatter over the parmesan shavings, the salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizle with olive oil and serve.