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.

Sunday, 12 April 2015


For Easter it was less a chocolate than a lamb celebration for us and Jean Lasalle provides the best at his farm near Hasparren. It must have been 40 years ago when this sprightly and handsome tarbais lad emigrated west to the Basque country and never went home. The Xasi Ardia or basque “bramble sheep" for centuries wandered the hills and mountains of our great pyrenean range and supplied delicious milk for cheese, fine woollen cloth and eventually a bit of mutton for the farmers until the race was replaced by the more productive, uglier and heavier "manech tĂȘte rousse" or red-headed John! in the mid 19th century. Once upon a time these red-headed Johns lived in Asia and were smuggled onto the european continent by the saracen hordes who left their mark centuries back on this part of the world and certainly today as these manechs litter the local hills, supplying their millions of litres of sheeps’ milk so that Ossau-Iraty cheese can be shipped to the far corners of the planet while the Xasi Ardia are now a rare breed. 
They were even harder to find when Jean Lasalle moved west but he was a determined young lad and went over the mountains where the southern basque, more industrialised than their northern neighbours, worked in the factories during the week days and kept a Xasi Ardia in the back yard for their own pleasure and table. Jean returned with a couple, found some communal fields and forest to rent on the top of a mountain and saved the race.

Of course, we go to visit Jean not just to admire these lovely ladies with their thick coats of wool, woven into ringlets and their delicate stick-thin legs, but because Jean makes them into great food.
Any lush green field will never satisfy the wild nature of the Xasi Ardia who need a rich thicket of fern or brambles (hence their name) acorns and wild rose buds to feed on, which accounts for the exquisite taste of their meat. 
You couldn`t call his farm a restaurant, yet we can reserve in advance, sit around a large farm table while Jean cooks you up a plate of 22 fluffy egg mimosas between four of us and as the chickens that laid them peck around our feet, they are devoured in no time. Our easter eggs are followed by plates of sizzling, grilled-rare lamb cutlets accompanied by duck fat-fried frites and a simple txakoli wine. Its wrong to say lamb as these cutlets and any meat that Jean serves, come from a three-year old sheep  that has lived a decently long and very satisfying life but we call it lamb because it doesn`t taste of mutton. The meat is fine, delicate and perfumed so why have chocolate!

photos - Jean François

Sunday, 15 March 2015


The sun is struggling through the thick mass of cloud above and promising Spring - at last. Growth is late this year after a wickedly, wet February that left our fields looking more like the Great Lakes than rolling pastures. Yellow Mimosa is flowering a month late while willow, the bees first pollen treat of the new year, is just appearing. It will take a little more than a few warm days to get the grass growing in the fields as it growth demands daily hours of light rather than heat and light hours in the day are still scarce. Our young bearnaise cows, after surviving a relatively long and miserable winter outside are looking chubby and healthy with gorgeous coats of thick hair that they are not ready to lose just yet. Before leaving for our winter break, we were convinced that like any other domestic animals they would need protection from the climatic perils of winter but convinced of their rusticity by a mountain-farmer friend and with the help of good neighbours and friends who fed them their generous daily ration of hay, they have proved their toughness. 
Later this week, Martin, our carpenter friend, will start the redecoration of the old wine storehouse so we can entice them inside from time to time which will be necessary if they are going to to have babies this year. They have not being inside since their arrival in Mailhos last year so they will need some delicious titbits to attract them inside.

Our pair of hen harriers are busy circling the open country for voles, mice and unfortunately chickens. The rooks are none to happy and are mobbing the male in a daily scramble, fearful that he will stalk out their already laid eggs. It seems almost cruel at first but Mr hen harrier is only biding his time and will eventually grab one of his persistant tormentors and down them to their death and that will be the end of his harassement.

On a happier note, the cranes began their return from the African north hoping to reach their summer breeding grounds up north before April. The first flight north on the 19th February, probably the only day when the rains abated was the best as we knew then that Spring was not too far ahead. Lifted by the thermals, they climb as high as 2000 meters, extending their wings  and assume a "V" formation gliding northward propelled by gravity and wind. Their voices can be heard in the distance even before we manage to spot them arriving from the pyrenees, calling to each other and their crane chicks, who fly close by. They are known to cover 800km in a day but more than often we can wake at the crack of dawn to find the front field littered with camping cranes waiting for the perfect conditions to take off.
Oh its so good to be back....


Friday, 10 October 2014


Enough bright and balmy days this October to make us believe that the slow slog of winter is not just around the corner.  Our cherry trees don`t understand either and are ignorantly sprouting buds while the cows are munching fresh clover and peppers plants are flowering in anticipation of a second spring.  Being realists, we`ve been busy preparing, by trying to build up our Bearnaise cows winter immunity with a powdered concoction of echinacea, thyme, inula, savory and cinnamon which I`m doing my best to convince them is better than that lovely late clover or freshly packed hay and barely succeeding as it smells pretty horrible. The buckets of plants are more than often tossed around on their horns or broken into pieces by Granny cow.

As I write, Martin is finishing the nicest sauna in existence, built from 15th century Aubrac roof lattices, recuperated oak panels from our own attic and even some of the latest Le Monde newspapers as an added insulation.

The blackthorn hedges hang heavy with particularly bluish, fat and juicy sloes and although its normal further north to wait until the first frost before their harvest, I cannot risk waiting for the sun to dry them to hard black bullets or the wild birds to make a feast of them.

Attractive as a sloe looks, its spines are vicious and are designed to attack rather than deter. I was often told that that they were long considered poisonous as the wounds they inflicted often refused to heal so Jean Francois is the chosen picker with his leathery palms that are impervious to all.

I remember as a child, we often dared each other to hold a crushed sloe as long as possible in the mouth. I never got further than a few mind-blowing seconds before the concentration of tannins and malic acid had furred up my mouth and was spat out. Eating sloes is only for the brave....
As with many winter-garden vegetables, alchemy is necessary for the sloe to become somewhat useful and a good frost is all thats needed to swell and soften its fruit and get its juice flowing but as we have little expectation of an early frost so far south, I`ve cheated and kept them in the freezer for a few days. Despite their mouth-numbing properties there are many delicious uses for sloes apart from jam and jelly and as I`m not much of a jam girl, preferring largely my own bees honey, its got to be alcohol. Locally they make a rather sweet Patxaran liquor by soaking sloes or prunelles in anisette with cinnamon and coffee beans but its a little too sticky and sickly for my taste so it will have to be plain old northern gin.
The longer the sloes soak the better the vintage as the gin needs time to extract the almondy essence from their stony hearts. 

Sloe Gin
makes about 1 litre

500g Sloes
400g Sugar
600ml Gin

Put the sloes in a large clean jar. Pour over the sugar followed by the gin. Close up the jar and shake well to mix everything together.  Over the following week, shake every now to prevent the sugar settling on the bottom then shake every week for a couple of months. It will be perfectly drinkable after this time but will be much improved if you can keep it for over a year. Take out the sloes after four months, remove the stones and dip in melted dark chocolate as a most desirable addition to an after-dinner dessert.