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.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Green Manure

Why green manure?
Because I have no choice!
All summer the ground stayed hard as marble under the straw mulch and in seven years I've never seen such meager results.
After 6 months of a winter/spring deluge, the sun burnt its way through my ten centimeters of protection and turned the usually rich and crumbly soil into a surface usually found on the Afghanistan highlands. Tomatoes somehow managed to survive the onslaught but elsewhere it was disastrous;
eight aubergines plants gave two fruit
24 hot pepper plants = 24 peppers
courgette and patty pans - 16 in all
one squash from each of the 15 plants
corn is just flowering
carrots vegetated
....the list is long and I've just had some evening visits from some hungry deers who ransacked the last tomatoes and pulled the precious beetroot from the soil.
In mid-August realising my incapacity to help, I left for Iceland to feast on some of my husbands freshly caught salmon and freeze my butt off in 2° temperatures with the odd flurry of snow. I could then return to Mailhos to learn to love its climate again.

Now in September, the soil is unusually stripped bare of most plants while  rye, vetch, oats and phacelia are germinating quickly in the first rains. These are the green manures that will revive the soil for next season.

Rye and oats will send their roots far down to air the sun hardened clay soil and dredge up some of the deeper minerals to the surface. Vetch will fix plenty of precious nitrogen from the air in a form ideal for future plants, while phacelia will feed the bees and control the weeds. Each will help the garden to recover from that crazy summer and will be pulled or cut and left to rot on the surface in Spring to nourish the soil before some new planting
 I'm leaving some space for spring and Pontoise cabbage, lambs lettuce, purple cauliflower,  roquette, coriander, chervil, peas, favas and onions while parsnips, brocolli and kale have survived enough to recover with the welcome change of weather.

Its funny how flowers thrived in such unseasonal dryness while figs, blackberries, apples and pears are having a record harvest.
The chickens are loving the ripe fruit fall and are indulging in daily sugar feasts.
No longer the spoiled and bourgeois chicks of mid-summer, as adolescents they have now moved to their newly renovated chicken shed equipped with steps to help Mary tackle the heights as his wings are too short for flight.

 And yes Mary will be my rooster and will forever have cross-gender issues dealing with his name.

Billy, Liam, Séan and Hurley seem to be girls and are exhibiting all the characteristics of soft femininity while Mary, my new king, is leading the pack.
Except she really hasn't figured out that chickens sleep on perches and not on an old box, huddled together like some lost irish immigrants ... during the famine!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Linden Tree Blossom

Chicken family is now complete with Mary, Hurley, Séan and Liam born into the lonely atmosphere of an incubator this week and now installed in an enclosure in the living room right under Jean Francois's desk.

They spend their time tweeting to each other angrily now that Billy, as first born, has the wings to fly from the enclosure and enjoy the independence of massacring horseflies alone.
Nobody is very impressed with my irish farmers' names but ...
Summer has arrived even hotter than ever with temperatures spilling over the 30° mark daily. The vegetables and fruit are well mulched but despite the precautions taken they just might need a good watering soon. After two weeks of such extreme temperatures, the soil beneath the straw is beginning to harden but hopefully their good roots have gone deep to find their nourishment.
Luckily weeds can't grow except the exceptional couch grass that could thrive in a bucket of sand. 
Hard to believe, I've been complaining about so much humidity and now I'm almost  tempted to complain about the contrary but that's what happens when you live in the countryside and try to grow your own food. You always blame the weather for the fact that your aubergines are a few centimeters shorter than the neighbors, your hot peppers have only started flowering or your tomatoes persist on remaining green. It's a gardeners prerogative to moan!
The hay has been cut by Bruno and at last the contours of the fields are once again visible. The fox, deer and boar are no longer concealed by the tall grass and make their appearance each evening to nibble on the new grass, drink from the field stream and be spied on from the living room windows...

Life is now lazier until some rain arrives and I can plant out a few brussels sprouts plants and more lettuce, chicory and winter radish. Meanwhile, the air is buzzing with thousands of our bees who are the slaves to the linden blossom nectar and its glorious perfume that fills the air. It normally almost impossible to harvest their flowers as their branches are always too high off the ground and I'd be taking an enormous risk to climb such a fragile tree whose branches crack with the slightest pressure but this year the they are so heavy with flowers and bee weight, they practically lean into my basket.

Linden or tilleul in France is the second most perfect sleepy tea after verbena but can also flavor a simple sirup for my greuil sorbet and peach salad tonight...

Linden Blossom Sirop
Makes about 1 liter

1.2 liters water
200g fresh linden blossom
500g cane sugar
10g citric acid

Pick through the flowers, removing any stray leaves. Boil the water and infuse the flowers in the water overnight. Strain the flowers for an hour. Add the sugar and citric acid to the juice. Boil for 5 minutes and bottle immediately.