Monday, 25 July 2016

Blueberries and more...

The sky is clear with barely an airplane trail in view. A warm winter, a cool spring and then a blast of hot summer have created the best conditions for berries. We have been inundated with loganberries and raspberries  and even had some blueberries which normally hate my limey soil and have refused consistently to make fruit despite being planted under a nice acid-bearing, cedar tree and carefully mulched with pine needles for oh so many years. Best of all berries have to the the raspberry but next in line is the dusky-blue blueberry which has managed to produce enough to fill two large bowls; enough to remind me of that enigmatic, tarty-sweet taste of wild, Irish bilberries.
All berries have a short window of perfection and of course, fruit at the same time so the freezer is packed solid.

Its also the first year that the goji, blue honeysuckle, ragouminier and goumi, after a long wait, have flowered and fruited.
Most of these plants produce just enought for a raw-graze but both the goumi and ragouminier are not for the soft-palated.

The ragouminier is very tarty but tastier than a red-currant but with a big, hard nt that needs to be removed in order to reduce expensive dental bills. I have to cook them gently until the pulp is soft enough to be pushed through a fine, mesh sieve and served with some sweet spices as a perfect sauce for a duck fillet.

The goumi is another story. Higher in lycopane than the reddest tomato, a powerhouse of vitamins A and E, classed as a legume because it creates its own nitrogen but still possesses and unfortunate astringency that just might work with jam or a torturous medicine.
In order to feed an excessive need for blueberries, I`m obliged to order another 15 kilos through our local Epicerie Sans Fin so they`ll be enough for a few cakes or tarts but raw is almost always better....

Buttermilk and Blueberry Muffins
(makes 15)
200g fresh Blueberries
240g wholemeal Flour
1tsp Baking Powder
1tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
a pinch of Salt
120g softened Butter
180g Cane Sugar
1 beaten Egg
240ml Buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 200c/Gas 5.
Line your muffin tin with 15 papers.
Beat the butter until very soft and light. Beat in the sugar followed by the egg and combine well.
Crush half the blueberries with a fork and add to the butter mixture.
Sift the flour with the baking powder, salt and the bicarbonate of soda and mix well together.
Fold this mixture, little by little, into the butter mixture, alternating with a little buttermilk until finished. Stir in the rest of the blueberries without crushing them.
Spoon the mixture into the papers and bake for 25 minutes or until golden. Cool before serving but eat quickly, as they are at their best.

Cows are happy, although our dear granny cow, Urta, is suffering from the effects of a post-partum infection, an ovarian cyst and a possible kidney defect which I am trying to treat, one by one, once it was sure that antibiotics were almost ineffective. She is eating, drinking and acting a little bossier while gaining weight so our fingers are crossed for a full recovery. Three of the young bearnaises are due to give birth for their first time this autumn, so its important that the `wise one` is around and in full form to educate them in baby-rearing.

Chimney swallows established five nests in both barns in late march and are on their third set of fledglings that scan the fields for insects and skim the swimming pool to quench their thirst. In our ten years of Mailhos, I`ve never seen so many nesting birds. There are at least ten black redstart families nesting in the sauna and barns, robins galore, an architecturally  inept wren that needed by help to gather up her bald babies and reinforce a sagging home.

Thrushes are plentiful. A hen harrier couple have nested in the large prairie, while a goshawk was probably doing something similar as he came to feed on one of my chick.
And as for chickens, there is fresh blood in the family....

(and just for those who are plagued by mildew .... I found this incredible recipe in Terre Vivante that has worked wonders and is tastier than a copper spray.
Mix 6 drops of each of the following essential oils - wild thyme, savory, tea tree, clove, sweet orange with 10ml of rapeseed oil. Add 3ml of black soap or organic liquid soap. Mix with 1 litre of rainwater or normal water acidified with a little vinegar. Shake vigourously and serve.... It works marvellously)

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....