Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Artichokes



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....





Frittedda

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

Mutton


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

March


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

Sloes


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. 





Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Apples


The first apple tree we planted in Mailhos was a Vedette de Bearn, more than eight years ago. This Vedette has decided for the first time to give us fruit but the delay is completely due to my own simple ignorance. When looking up the catalogue of ancient and local fruit tree varieties, I loved the description of the Vigoureux plants without ever questioning its true meaning.



To me Vigoureux was vigourous. Vigoureux would grow fast and strong and give mountains of fruit... fast! We bought over fifty examples  of ancient-variety, Vigoureux fruit trees; plums, peaches, pears, cherries and of course apples and we`re still waiting for some to flower in Spring.  I only began to understand last winter, when ordering another batch of young trees, that Vigoureux just means that they will thrive in poor, measly soils where not even a dandelion would bear to take root. No mention of a bounty! So here in Mailhos in the extra humus-rich, clay soil I`ve ended up with 6 metre tall and leafy plum trees that have been ignorantly fed tons of horse poo every winter which only added metres more to their height, a profusion of green leaves and not a fruit in sight.


But this year, wonder of wonders, I had spring blossoms and then despite scab, canker and mildew, I had my very first apples!



Every morning before breakfast I`m gathering windfalls in my pyjamas pockets before the chickens wake but after such a long delay I have forgotten which varieties I planted where. All I know is that the mossy-green variety in front of the greenhouse are sweet, foamy and uninteresting, while the apples on the trees furthest west are aromatic and crunchy. To the east they are golden and astringent yet sugary and those on the driveway are the sweetest and crispiest and taste of nutmeg.



Over the month of September I have spent days studying veterinary homeopathy in the Basque country to eventually cure our Bearnaise of any chronic ailments. Granny cow will be treated for behavioural issues this week which include making too free use of her large horns. Iffy will receive a dose of Phosphorous 15ch to counter her irrational fear of me while Isis a  needs a little Aloe Socortrina 9ch to ease a sore tummy from too much nitrogen rich grass. The results of my alchemy will soon be revealed....


Meanwhile my apples accompanied a soft hand-made and generously seasoned black pudding for lunch...

Black Pudding and Sage Caramelised Apples

Enough for 2

2 french Black Pudding or Boudin
2 sharp and sweet Apples
50g Butter
1 tsp Sugar
10 Sage leaves
2 tbsps Creme Fraiche
100ml Calvados
Zest of one Lemon
Freshly ground Pepper

Fry the black puddings separately over a medium heat for 10 minutes on each side.
Core the apples and cut into 8 pieces leaving the skin on,  Melt the butter in a thick based frying pan and add the sugar. Once the butter is foaming, add the apple pieces and cook until golden and caramelised on each side. Remove and keep warm,
Add the sage leaves to the butter and fry until crispy, Remove and keep warm, Pour in the calvados and scrape any delicious brown bits from the base of the pan with a wooden spoon, Stir in the creme fraiche and lemon zest and remove from the heat.
Arrange the apples on a plate, pouring the sauce over them. Top with the crispy sage leaves and the black pudding.






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....