Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Harvest Prizes

Our vegetable garden, which is big enough on a bad year to feed a family of ten is, after a gracious summer, overflowing with enough food for double that number. Its nearly October and tomatoes are still ripening on healthy green stalks while peppers, aubergines and courgettes are growing firm and healthy as if it was still July. We have too much to eat already while kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts and leeks await their turn in the limelight.

My first prize of the year has to go to dear Rene who, with the help of my husband, tackled my mass of green manure in spring and dug it well into the soil to make the perfect setting for the healthy vegetables and fruit that have thrived.

My best tomato of 2015 has to be the Indigo Blue Apple  with it blackish-purple skin, a sparkling orange-fizz juiciness and intense sweetness that managed to resist sun-scald and cracking while clocking in four times as much lycopene and anthocyanins (blueberry antioxidants in simple terms) than the average beef steak tomato.

With aubergines, it just has to be the svelte and shimmering Imperial Black Beauty. As someone who prefers the thinner-skinned, paler versions for their white, digestible, acid-free flesh, this was a revelation. I didn`t even need to salt it to love it.

The hot, citrus-like Limon pepper makes a surprisingly fine raw harissa....

...while the Banana melon with its spicy-salmon flesh was,once again, so fragrant and delicious.

Delicata summer squash, tender and sweet like a sweet-potato, wins hands down because you don`t have to cut off your finger removing the skin before roasting as the skin is as delicious as the flesh...

Yellow Crookneck courgettes continue to be fine, creamy and insanely generous....

...while Pink Lipstick chard is as gorgeous as any garden flower with its hot-fuschsia stalks and glossy pine-coloured leaves that don`t fade when cooked.

Enough dreaming. There`s work to do.
As I write the first cinder cranes are animating the blue sky with their undulating flight southwards to a more clement winter,  accompanied by their unceasing "krou krou krou".
Summer is at its end....

Monday, 27 July 2015

Douce France

On a Thursday afternoon when temperatures top 34 degrees at 4pm, the air is unbreathable and no-one is to be seen on the streets of Bearn, there is plenty of fun going on in Araujuzon, a half-hour bicycle ride from  here. Once a week this dream team meets early afternoon and plays quilles de 9 or bearnaise bowling until sundown.

The meeting place or `plantier` tucked behind the village cafe of Monsieur Rey is where bowlers have been hitting balls off wooden poles for over five centuries and tradition continues.

So what is quilles de 9 - basically 9 carved, 3-kilo, skittles of beech that are positioned in a figure of 9, 2.15 metres apart, on a tightly packed clay floor.

The bowl is made from walnut wood and weighs a hefty 6.2 kilos and is used to hit the quille du main or first skittle which flies in the air, knocking two to three other skittles, while the bowl itself hits another skittle called a plomb which in turn knocks another skittle beyond it. Does this make sense?

Perhaps not.... Each player has to play 12 predefined figures where the ball is hit one way and the first skittle flies another way...

... knocking the maximum of skittles in the figure. A cross between chess and bowling... Each skittle falling is a point and points are added as the figures are played....

All sounds easy perhaps but I cannot even lift this ball of seasoned walnut wood. My well-used gardening muscles could not even raise this giant nut more than 20cm from the ground while Jean Francois found it almost impossible to hold it high enough to hit a single skittle, yet these players have an average age of 79 years and manage to throw this mass of wood high and precisely in the air. Its sobering to watch....

So once the effort has been spent it's aperatif time under the walnut-shaded terrace, chez Labat, where grandmother, two daughters and grand-daughter whisk up the most remarkable cepe or pepper omelettes with produce fresh from their neighbouring garden, served with addictive, french fries cooked to perfection in local duck fat and, of course, the local Lapeyre wine.

Once digestion sets in, it's usually cool enough to cycle back home....

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Epitaph for my Greek Voodoo Lily

Every year in spring, a light grey-green, marbly stalk grows up to a metre and a half high beside my greenhouse before forming two or three deep-green jagged leaves. 

The flower then begins to unfold revealing a long purple-black appendage in the centre surrounded by a giant `petal` in the same dark hue. 

To look at it is very attractive and spooky but depending on the year my greek voodoo lily spreads a nauseous, dungy, meaty odour or this year just the smell of rotting fish. Such an attractive scent attracts carrion flies and the occasional beetle which obviously help pollinate the flower. The smell worsens over a 48 hour period and then today it just died.... to return again in all its glory.
Vive la Grece!

Tuesday, 30 June 2015


My history with loganberries began when my parents decided, many years back, to send my older sister, Catherine, and I off to our Wexford cousins for a a long summer of farm training (that at least has rubbed off on one of us). Some of my few memories of this homesick holiday were the hours I spent crying as I listened to the grandmothers clock outside my bedroom door boom out the hour and then the half-hour, reminding me of the time I couldn`t sleeping, the early morning torture as my aunt tried to disentangle my mass of unruly hair with a wire brush more suitable for scrubbing stone floors and the games of hide and seek where I usually ended up shoved between four hay bales, head first down fighting for breathe until I pleaded for mercy. This was not a happy period for the scrawny, moody and more than likely, unbearable pre-adolescent that I was nor my many cousins who probably still hate me nor my poor sister who was acutely embarrassed by my bad behaviour. In retrospect, things cannot have been half as bad as it was the first time I tasted home-baked bread toasted on the Aga, slathered with salted farm bread and topped up with the sweetest blackberry jam and the first time I picked baskets full of loganberries which grew high on the kitchen wall and were served in the afternoon with warm cream that topped the morning milk.

Years later the eastern barn walls of Mailhos are carpeted with these elongated, atomic raspberries that I never expected to flourish considering the climate differences between southern Ireland and souther France. Each berry ripens from a pinkish-red to a deep-purple colour before releasing its juicy, sherbety-sweetness.  To complete the picture, we just have to start milking the Bearnaises....

The new addition to the family is a pigeon called Leopold. A Polish Strawberry Eye who will be joined by his girlfriend later in the week. Leopold and company will soon be serving as internet and post replacement between neighbours and a handy live drone system.... if needs be.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


My first artichoke was a present from France by my older au pair sister so many years back and I have fond memories of one large artichoke sitting in the middle of the kitchen table as we, seven siblings, mercilessly tore back the tough petals one by one, dipping their tender nugget of delicate flesh in melted Kerrygold butter and scraping the astringent, sweet flesh with our teeth. before arriving at the pale-green heart that was divided into slices like a birthday cake without candles.
I was always a picky eater but my first artichoke was the start of many artichokes and today I couldn`t imagine my garden without such a literal star. First of all you have the luxuriant, greyish-green foliage out of which appear the meaty stalks that support a plethora of deliciously immature flowers or chokes which then expand into mightier, fleshy chokes. When you don`t get around to eating them, they open into great, fragrant thistle heads of bluish-purple which every bee and bumblebee will adore.

Artichokes are always seen as an expensive gourmet food whether in the city or the countryside so years back, annoyed by the ridiculous price of individual plants, I bought a packet each of Violetta di Chioggio and Gros de Laon for 2.50 euros and everyone of these magical seeds germinated into a plant that is happy producing in Mailhos today after their initial assault of slugs and snails. They live for many generations producing up to ten chokes per plant in late Spring and depending on the mildness of autumn, another five or six. When they start to age, you can just detach the babies, root or no root, that grow from their base and start again. Its all very painless.
The Gros de Laon has to be my favourite with its plump heart and nutty flavour but unfortunately it is also the favourite of earwigs. I have to spend a good half and hour just shaking them out so these champions of the garden don`t get scalded to death.

The best thing about growing your own plants is that you can pick them small and eat them raw, dipped in a fruity olive oil and fleur de sel. Later they need simmering in salted water and served with a good salted butter or  grilled or barbecued over hot coals. Otherwise they demand patience as the time involved to scrape, peel and pull an artichoke into submission demands much composure and love. Certainly not for those in need of instant gratification....


Serves 4

6 small Artichokes
4 Spring Onions, roughly chopped
400g Broad Beans podded
300g Peas podded
3 Garlic cloves
a couple of sprigs of fresh Thyme
150ml White Wine
1tbs fresh Mint
1tbs fresh Tarragon
Olive Oil

Pull off the tough outer leaves of the artichokes and cut off the tough tips. Trim down to the pale green heart. Cut in half and remove any choke. Rub with olive oil and put to one side.
Heat a little olive oil in a heavy pan and soften the the spring onions for around 10 minutes. Add the artichoke halves and fry until lightly coloured. Add the broad beans, peas, garlic and thyme and stir until everything is coated in the oil. Add the wine and cover the pan. Cook for 20 minutes over a low heat or until all the vegetables are tender. Stir in the mint and tarragon. Season with salt and pepper and pour over 4 tbl of your best olive oil. Serve at room temperature.