Sunday, 3 April 2016

Sprouting Broccoli

Sprouting broccoli is a garden life-raft when you can no longer stand another leathery leek, rubbery parsnip nor sulphurous brussels sprout. On our return from our winter travels in early February, we were welcomed by the first florets but the cold nights had rendered the stems a little too tough and scarce. Now that spring is firmly established, the florets have their natural sugary and tender earthiness and are bursting with character.

Each little floret is made up of thousands of unopened flower buds that if unharvested, will bloom into yellow flowers adored by all bumble and honeybees who have suffered a similar winter food deprivation as us. 

The first floret is equivalent in pleasure to the first pea, asparagus spear or broad bean. Its the best reminder that nature has turned full circle and spring is here because just yesterday I sowed 20 pots of the same sprouting broccoli that will germinate, vegetate as finger-sized plants over summer and spurt into life during the cooler months of mid-autumn to sprout and surprise me again at the same time next march.

I have often been guilty of cooking sprouting broccoli to a sulphurous pulp through a 10-second lack of attention moment. Within an hour of harvest, the florets are still bursting with their natural sugars and their tender florets need no more than 2 minutes sauna so as not to drown their tender buds. They need to be brilliant green not grey green. They need to have bite - the stems crunching between your teeth, the leaves conserving a little tartness while the flower-heads melt in the mouth. And then they need little more than a trickle of fruity olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt but can cope well with more vigorous flavours such as anchovies, chilli pepper and parmesan cheese but eat quickly  on a warm plate as, for some strange reason,, broccoli florets go cold very very fast.

Polenta with Sprounting Broccoli
6 people

2 litres Water
150g Grated Parmesan
150g Butter
Sea Salt and Pepper

1.5kg Sprouting Broccoli
Olive Oil
7 Garlic Cloves sliced
300g finely sliced Bacon or Pancetta
2 dried Chillies, crumbled (depending on their spiciness of course)
Sea Salt and Pepper

Bring the water to the boil with a teaspoon of salt in a thick-bottomed saucepan. Pour in the polenta while whisking to prevent lumps forming and until the mixture is smooth. Lower the heat and cook for 45 minutes or until the polenta falls away from the sides of the pan.
Discard the thick stems of the broccoli and divide into smaller florets guarding the leaves.
Bring to the boil, a large saucepan of salted water and blanch the broccoli for a minute. Drain well.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a large frying pan and add the pancetta. Cook until it starts to colour and then add the garlic and chilli. Once the garlic is golden add the broccoli leaves and flowers and mix together to combine the flavours. Season.
Add the butter and 100g of parmesan to the polenta and season with salt and pepper.
Divide the polenta between plates and spoon over the broccoli. Drizzle with a good olive oil and a little grated parmesan.

On a more Easterly note....
Its hard to fathom that there are male hunters out there lurking in the woods with brains so big that they actually went to the trouble of crossing a wild `Garenne` rabbit with an easter bunny to create a monster, immune to myxomatosis that stalk the countryside, ravaging young plants and tree bark. These monsters were liberated years back in the local forests and a little by little hopped their way through the surrounding countryside wiping out generations of fresh green vegetables and beetroot greens.
Last year on our way home late at night, I remember Jean Francois noting how many of these mutant lepordiae that froze in our headlights, twitching their cute little noses before their fluffy white cotton tails disappeared into the nearest hedge, lived far from Mailhos. We almost found it funny that our nearest neighbours were enduring late night rabbit, rave parties wile Mailhos was quiet. This was just the calm before the storm!
By October the late lettuce leaves and swiss chard leaves began to dissapear overnight. Celeriac were nibbled down to a vessel of hardened skin in a few hours, parsley munched to the root, young onions halved in their prime while young fruit trees had their bark gnawed to the core. War was declared on fluffy bunnies!
Lulu is first in line, killing en masse the newest generation of babies. Jean Francois covers bunny nests with 10 kilo rocks while I spray juniper essential oil on wooden posts and hardened tree trunks to repel the bastards but they still come back.

I read on the net that the Foundation for a Rabbit-Free Australia advocates blowing up warrens with dynamite while we are considering less violent methods like borrowing a lurcher and lamping them frozen before setting the dog on them, attaching a hosepipe to the car`s exhaust piper and running it down the burrows, investing in a ferret or just shooting them with a .22 long rifle. Then again, Marcel our neighbour did say that using such killing techniques we can probably wipe out 80% of the population but the other 20% will breed so prolifically that in less than a year they`ll be back in force.
Perhaps I`ll just stick with killer Lulu, cat litter deterrent, peeing in the garden and a little meditation....!

Thursday, 3 December 2015


Out of all the plants lingering in my garden, the most feral and dangerous-looking is the cardoon. Since day one of Mailhos, gardening these wilder ancestors of the artichoke has been a pleasure for all the wrong reasons.

In early summer their 3m tall stalks totter under the weight of their lavish rosettes of purple/blue which provide pollen and nectar for generations of bees and bumblebees before dying back to a rotten, suppurating pile before re-seeding in early autumn.

Cardoon is like a wild, prickly rhubarb fed on steroids. Large, space-hogging and the perfect hideout for hunting grass snakes. Its certainly not the ideal plant for a small garden as just one plant steals the space of 6 cabbages or four tomatoes so of course its rarely found on smaller market stalls. Unlike the artichokes, whose immature flowers provide the most delicious of foods, cardoons are prized for their silvery leaves which demand open sun, root space, fertile soil and water to grow into the metre-long succulent stalks which have the delicate distinctiveness of their relative with a little more hassle to prepare.

Without such preparation, cardoon stalks are fibrous and bitter so like celery they need to be softened up for eating by blanching. This year we wrapped each plant in a few layers of wine-bottle cardboard boxes to keep the sunlight out, which is easier said than done as each leaf has many prickles and a pain in the ass to control. Jean Francois has to get underneath the plant (where the snakes hide) and with his gloved hands, lift the thorny leaves up while I`m left to tie the bastards with string before rolling the cardboard sheets around the stalks.

The tamed and mummified plant is left like this for at least a month before its ready to eat.

After cutting the base of the plant with a knife and carrying its heavy mass into the kitchen, the next hurdle is to remove its hard exterior fibres.

The leafy parts and prickles are snipped off with a scissors and the remaining stalk is peeled meticulously to remove all the dental-floss like strings, cut into edible sizes and soaked in a bowl of cold, acidulated water to prevent them from turning brown then boiled in salted water for at least 25 minutes to make them tender and it`s only then that a recipe can begin...

Simple Braised Cardoons

25g Butter
6 peeled Cardoon stalks
300ml warm Chicken Stock

Preheat oven to 230 degrees celsius. Butter a small baking dish long enough to fit your cardoons. Cut the cardoon stalks to the desired length and arrange in dish. Pour over the chicken stock and top with the chopped butter. Cover with foil and cook in the oven for 25 minutes. Serve with roast chicken or pork.

Elsewhere in Mailhos, winter is arriving. Broad beans, onions, chicory and garlic are already 30 cms high and hoping that the frost will not be too hard and their young and tender flesh. The last aubergines and peppers cling to their ageing branches while kale and brussels sprouts and persimmon anticipate the first frost which will send their sugar levels to diabetic sweetness.

Our young cows have been inseminated with the best of dead Bearnaise bulls as those that exist are too close genetically to take a risk. Babies expected in late July/August... Next year will be a good one!

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....