Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Cauliflower


On Christmas night, when all tucked up in bed, we had our first freeze. Christmas day was spent huddled around the fireplace lined in layers of Patagonia fleece while we tried to get the wood stove working for the first time in a year. In the morning the interior of the house was edging towards a, just-about-livable 13°C downstairs and 9°C upstairs, in our bedroom and by 5pm and turkey time we had reached an almighty 15°. Bed doesn't really matter anyhow because we've got an electric blanket, two hot water bottles, a thick cashmere blanket, two bonnets and each other. 
When we first arrived in Mailhos, we installed a rudimentary heating system that we never used and as the years went by, we figured out we could easily rely on the fallen trees and wood stove to warm us in the winter and deinstalled the electric system. Wood stoves work very well, when you are prepared, and we have usually been braced for cold spells. I think that the fact that winter was so late this year, put us off our guard making us a little too cocksure and we were literally caught with our pants down or just off and its taking a long time to get the blood moving in our extremities again...
Mailhos is an old 18th century lady who we have respected and loved and nourished over the years. She is not fashioned for modernity nor luxury even though she is very comfortable and cozy in her own special way. She doesn't like too much change and is happy free from newfangled gimmicks such as central heating or double glazing. In order to please her gods, we have adapted to her needs and in return our lives our easier and our health is ruddier...
Despite the cold outside and inside, I have a dozen amethyst coloured cauliflowers thriving in the garden but ready to harvest soon as I'm not sure they will appreciate such a drop in external temperatures for long. For maybe a week now, I have also had nightly visits from some fine-hoofed neighbours who have razed my swiss chard and beetroot tops to the ground while leaving all else standing and I'm nervous they will now go searching for new tastes and gobble up the cabbage/cauli heads, young peas or broad beans



So I have to work quickly....
Like calabrese and broccoli, cauliflower is a brassica which stores its nutrients in the flesh just below the flowering buds or florets. The cauliflower is the guru of this technique and is overflowing with vitamins C and B6 and minerals yet despite all its lovely goodness, I was never a lover of such "brain" food. It was served to me as a child, soggy and pulpy with a smell of rotting cabbage and the memories have remained.
But I have grown cauliflower and today I love cauliflower. 
And the amethyst cauliflower is the one I love the best. With a quick 2 minute steam, they are delicious, as florets in a salad, with cress and rocket and a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.
They are far too fine and elegant for an indian curry, spicy chutney or cheesy gratin and demand only the simplest of adornments and cooking. A white, market-bought cauliflower will be roasted and toasted, served with a mustard vinaigrette or spiced up.



I never grow them over the summer months as they don't appreciate our hot sun, require too much watering and usually end up bolting on me,. In Autumn, I sow my amethyst "purple cape" for winter, in late summer its the time for romanesco which are just coming into flower and in spring  a few white varieties. Its my all year round vegetable and although not my most treasured, has gained my respect, growing my own and forgetting  the watery and transparent memories of yore.




Amethyst Cauliflower Couscous


4 people

I purple cape Cauliflower (or a small white if necessary)
80ml Olive Oil
Juice of one Lemon
2tbsp fresh chopped Chives
1tbsp fresh chopped Mint
Sea Salt and Pepper

Cut the cauliflower into florets and grate finely.
Boil some water with salt and add the cauliflower. Blanch for 1 minute the remove from the heat, drain and rinse in cold water. Dry in a clean tea towel.
Put the cauliflower grain in a salad bowl and add the olive oil, lemon juice, chives and mint. Season well.
Serve with chicken or fish.





Thursday, 22 December 2011

Melon Pepino





Mysterious fruit n° 2
I think this is the last mysterious fruit that I will manage to ripen this year as the arrival of the big frost is announced for Saturday night, with Father Christmas. I'm busy cutting back datura, ginger and ceibos, packing up banana, mandarine and yuzu and finding space for my limes and lemons, among the bougainvilleain the already packed greenhouse. The pepino can overwinter in the garden at a temperature above -15° with the roots well protected, which is completely possible in this part of the world. In our 6 years in Mailhos, temperatures have never dipped lower than -5°so I can keep some citrus fruits in the ground and in the open and a lot of exotic plants that I've picked up on my travels over the years.
The pepino comes from somewhere down south in amerigo where it was cultivated and enjoyed, probably, by those fine Inca but is now grown everywhere where there is sun and farmers. This member of the nightshade family, with  cousins as diverse as tomatoes, potatoes,  chili-peppers and aubergines is sweet as a honeydew melon with a taste of pear. It is smooth-skinned, smelling sweet and as firm as a ripe plum. Its skin colouring is a pale-yellow with irregular purple slashes across the skin. The inner flesh is pale orange with soft edible seeds.



I have tried and failed to ripen this fruit in the garden for 5 long summers and this year I have succeeded, harvesting a fine basket of fruit. The reason for my perseverence, is the beauty of the plants, its flowers and lightly cream but unripe fruit dangling like freshly laid eggs. I never expected such a reward this year.





In this wide world of webbing, I have tried and failed to find someone who has discovered a fabulous way to serve a pepino, may alas no!
 I, myself, hate the idea of cooking them. They seem drab and tasteless when heated. In my opinion this is a fruit that should be served raw, similar to an apple, eating both skin and flesh or in a salad. They look so pleasant with a fine but fragile taste but not inspiring enough  to have me rush to the kitchen stove and start cooking. This morning I replaced my usual pear with  a raw and peeled pepino in the blender with oat milk, banana and raw almonds for a heartening breakfast - I still feel the energy circulating in my blood vessels. This is the way to go!
Otherwise why not a seasonal pepino cocktail...


Pepino Cocktail

4 people

2 large Melon Pepinos
1 large handful of Physalis peeled
50cl prosecco or sparkling White Wine
4 small Mint sprigs chopped
Juice of one Orange
Black Pepper


Peel and slice the pepinos thinly. Cut the physalis into quarters. Place the fruit in a bowl and with the mint and a good teaspoon of freshly milled black pepper. Pour over he orange juice and white wine and keep in the fridge a half an hour before serving.



Saturday, 17 December 2011

Wild Mushrooms





Mailhos mushrooms have been prolific this autumn and even entering winter, boletes, blewits and bad ones are still pushing their bulbous heads above the forests leaf carpet.





Every day, I like a good walk under the trees so why not bring a basket, my mushroom knife and leaf stick. Since, mid-october we collect and eat mushrooms almost daily but the hunters are beginning to wake up from a long deep sleep and are starting to invade the forests for their winter kill, so I think I'm going to stop my forays until Spring. I just heard on French radio that a hunter, who killed his wife while hunting in 2010, had his licence revoked for one year, no jail sentence and this year as the hunting season began, killed his best friend. Punishment likely to be a slap on the hand and no licence for 2 years. In France and probably elsewhere, if you want to get rid of someone, just get a hunters licence, hire a rifle and the deed is done - with little or no penalty! 
Once I hear those dogs bark, our mushrooming season will be over...


...but for the last few weeks we have arrived home daily with 2-3 kilos of ceps, those squat, brown-capped chubby ones. Most of them were sliced and fried in butter and the excess and older ones, dried above the aga or preserved in oil in jars.


The caesar mushrooms must be my favourite of all! In its youth, it looks like a large white egg until the yellow/orange oval cap breaks through its membrane, changing from a convex head  to a flat hat. The flesh is white with a slight hazelnut taste. Best sliced raw, as a carpaccio, with a trickle of the best olive oil and a scattering pepper and fleur de sel.





Wood blewits are never eaten raw, are used for pasta sauces, risottos or added to hearty winter stews. 


Pied de mouton or Hedgehog mushrooms are best harvested young, cooked in garlic and butter and served on toasted bread.


If my mother is reading this, she is sure to believe I am poisoning myself as my husband and all those in the vicinity, as the only mushrooms we ever dared collect with her  as children were flat field mushrooms or button whites - the cautious supermarket kind.
My mother is known as the "minister of danger" in our family circle. When we were children, we weren't allowed to look over a hillside, high wall or out a ground floor window without her crying out in fear. It was quite weird really, because besides her illogical fear for her children and heights, we were allowed to play freely in the countryside with no constraints until late in the evening even if I would return home with a wild baby rat in my arms or scrape the skin of my shin, climbing trees. Her fear of mushroom poisoning is also very illogical.

a real dangerous one!

We only eat those we know but collect (with gloves) or photograph every one we see to discover its name on our return. If we have the slightest doubt, the mushroom is rejected - better safe than sick.
There is a very wise forager's warning - 'you can eat any wild mushroom but some you will only eat once'.









Sunday, 11 December 2011

Medlar Fruit





Mysterious Fruit N° 1
Because the weather has been so mild and bizarre, many of the exotic fruit and vegetables I've grown for years, have had the chance to ripen this year as the pre-frost season has been so drawn out. Its like Spring has arrived before a proper autumn has begun. Yesterday on one of our long cycling trips over the hills from Mailhos to Burgaronne and Sauveterre, we saw sweet-chestnut in bud, narcissus in bloom and wild arums sprouting. I have my February camelias in flower, fresh strawberries to eat and pear in blossom. Its a bit too spooky for my liking. Bring on winter and a good flash of cold to bring us back to reality. Napoleon needed  a cold winter to halt his takeover of Europe and Russia and the same can be said for the nasty asian hornets and spanish pine processionary caterpillars who are having a field day thinking there will be no great freeze this year to stop their march northward to destroy bee colonies and pine trees.




Medlar is not a real mysterious or exotic fruit. Its common to all european countries and grows wild in the forests and hedges in France but despite its banality, few people know, harvest or appreciate them. Before arriving here in Mailhos, I had never noticed the tree but because of its proximity to the house, the delicacy of its flowers and the popularity of its fruit with the local birds, I was curious to find out what it was and behold it was a tree that probably grows just as commonly in Ireland as here and I probably passed by one of them on my way to school every day. 
The medlar wood is used to make the Makila or the elegant and unique walking sticks of the Basque people. I'm told that the stick was more a killing instrument, makilatu meaning to bludgeon in basque, than a support on long treks but the medlar tree is still cultivated in this part of the country especially for the production of these deadly weapons!


This ugly little fruit makes a delicious jelly and other sweet delicacies but before this is possible it needs to be bletted or rotted at home. It is harvested, usually after the first frost, before the birds gobble down every last one and brought inside. The word bletting was coined by Mr John Lindley in 1848 and is the process where cell walls are broken down, converting starch into sugar and decreasing the acids and tannins.  I think Jean Francois is the only human being that loves acids and tannins and can eat and appreciate the fruit when its hard like a marble. He calls it the "hairy arse" or the "cul poilu" in french, and  can gobble down a dozen or so a day without his stomach protesting...!



The medlar is bletted on a plate, "arse" side down until it turns dark brown, wrinkles up and is soft and mushy to the touch.
Once bletted and rotten they taste like sweet lemony custard and are delicious roasted and served with fresh cream or made into jelly, chutney or even cheese. Pull off the stalk end and squish out the fruit, taking care of the pips, mix its pulp with sugar, cream or just eat it plain. Once bletted they are impossible to transport as the flesh will burst  through its delicate papery skin with the slightest pressure so I can imagine this is the main reason why supermarkets don't stock them...



So the medlar remains a forgotten more than a 'mysterious' fruit but such a pity as the tree itself is so pretty with its twisted branches and large pinkish-white blooms crowned with dark leaves growing 6-7 meters tall. Ours has been here for so long and looks so happy, once we cleared the brambles that engulfed it, so it now feels the sun on its branches. I never feed it, prune or water it. Its a little gem in my garden of spoiled brats.


Roasted Medlars

400g bletted Medlars
50g salted Butter
75g Cane Sugar
1 Cinnamon Stick

Preheat the oven to 200°/6
Heat the butter in a baking tray and coat the medlars in the melted butter. Scatter with the sugar and add the cinnamon stick to the tray.
Roast for 15 minutes until the skin has split and the fruit is soft.
Serve with cream or ice...


Monday, 5 December 2011

Yacon




Mystery Vegetable N°1
At last I've got to taste the famous Yacon tubers that I ordered over the internet last February, kept alive in a closed, cold box in the wine cellar until May and then planted out in compost rich soil. I was convinced I had screwed-up somewhere as the plants took a good month before germinating but once they had established themselves, they grew over 2 metres high, were attacked by neither pest nor malady and filled out to such a width that they blocked my access to one side of the garden. They flowered from september onwards and its was only then that they started making their Yacons.



I had no idea what I was growing, except in French they call them Poire de Terre or ground pears, so I thought, as I had such a hard time growing them on my trees, I could try underground. Now, no matter what some french botanist has to say, I really do not think they taste of pears, more like a water chestnut-cum-apple-cum-watermelon. The texture is crunchy, almost crispy and juicy. The incas (who valued the Yacon) called it the "water root" as perhaps they used it as a thermos flask or juice bottle on long overland treks .
Like jerusalem artichokes, the Yacon shares the same family as sunflowers. The flowers are yellow, daisy-like and teeny and continue to flower despite the colder nights.



Most of my plants are still upright and green so my curiosity has forced me to bandicoot deep in the soil around the plant, stealing the odd root tuber or two - just to try! Like the jerusalem artichokes, the tubers are rich in that indigestible inulin sugar that is apparently fine for diabetics who take it in pill form and replace maple with its syrup and its without calories that surely makes it so popular in the US.
Once we have a frost and the leaves are withered by the cold, I'll harvest the whole lot.
Today, out of curiosity we pulled up one of 10 plants. We lifted the whole root out of the earth and harvested the bigger tubers for tonights dinner.



The smaller ones will be dried and stored away in damp peat to protect them from a potentially cold winter and serve as next years seeds.
My tubers are blushing pink with the tenderest of skins, weighing up to a kilo each. They taste delicious raw but apparently sweeten when left a day or two in the sun or as they are stored over winter.
I treat them as I would a winter radish, sliced paper-thinly on a mandoline and served as a snack. Tossed in lemon juice (to prevent them browning ) and added to a salad either grated or sliced or diced or julienned or just eaten as a pear or apple in the garden as I work.


I wouldn't dare cook them. They just look too fragile and would probably collapse if any heat was applied but right now when raw food is becoming rare in the garden, its a pleasure to have a yacon around...



Yacon Salad with Dried Blueberry Dressing

4 people

1 large Yacon (around 500g)
large bunch of Fennel leaves
50g dried Blueberries
Juice of one Lemon
60ml Olive Oil
1 grated Garlic Clove
Salt and Pepper

Whisk the garlic, lemon and olive oil together and then add the dried blueberries.  Leave to soak for 10 minutes until they soften. Season well.
Slice the Yacon super-thinly on a mandoline (without cutting your finger off like I've just done). Pour over the dressing and sprinkle some roughly chopped fennel leaves.



Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Persimmon




In France, as in Japan, we call them Kakis and down here in the South West they are very, very popular. I'm not very sure what they do with them, whether they make marmalade or compote or cakes but there is a tree in every garden turning russet red right now and lots of old ladies are on market stands are selling them among their wares for over a week. I'm waiting for our first frost to harvest ours but looking at the forecast for the next 2 weeks, it doesn't seem to bode well for winter weather. 
This is of course great news for Carol, Jean Francois and my cold hating chickens and bees but so many vegetables like brussels sprouts, winter kale and cavolo nero seem to improve after a good, cold night. Persimmons are no different! Rich in tannins, they need a good strong frost to break down the cellular wall to ripen the fruit. In order to jumpstart the ripening process,  Before using them, I'll just have stick them in the freezer for a night and imitate the "normal" weather cycle.
Arriving in Mailhos, we already had an ancient persimmon tree overlooking an eastern wall but the form of the tree, its leaves' autumn colours, not to mention the smooth, round fruit that dangles and shines like christmas decorations, encouraged us to buy another to plant nearer the main house.




Unfortunately the hachiya variety we bought must have been pumped and injected with fertilisers or botox in its previous life and reaching Mailhos went into resting mode,  because after 5 years in our naturally, rich and nourishing soil, it has not grown a centimetre and sits there in its optimal spot, protected from the winds, with a panoramic view of the Pyrennees and the blue sky overhead and just makes baskets and baskets of fruit which break its fragile branches and attracts plenty of mad, local hornets who go crazy on the spilt juice.



Ripe persimmons are good for you! Rich in vitamin C, minerals, antioxidants and betacarotene and can apparently save you from a heart attack and maybe even diabetes by revving up the bodies' metabolism.  For a flu or cold, a juice of persimmon with grated ginger will chase all bugs and bacteria and the Japanese, whose national fruit it is, use the leaves as a tisane to ease any digestive complaints. All in all a splendid addition to our garden and if needs be, I can always carve some golf club heads or billiard cues with the hard wood of the tree itself.... if it ever grows!
Until it ripens, the fruit is almost inedible. Its astringent and feels furry in the mouth. Its the high level of tannins that are so unpleasant and unpalatable before it is bletted or softened. although its firm texture is marvellous. Once ripe, I just need to remove the wavy calyx and  scoop out the flesh.



The fruit itself becomes a mini-juicebowl, apricoty in flavour but can be a little too jelly-like in texture.  From there on it is seasoned with lemon juice and added to salads, served in a salsa with crab and lobster or reduced to a puree and drizzled over foie gras, mixed into fruit bread and cakes or thrown into a smoothie or compote to tingle up a creamy dessert.

Coconut Panna Cotta with Persimmon and Ginger Puree

4 people

400ml tin of Coconut Milk
70g Cane Sugar
4 sheets of Gelatine
4 very ripe Persimmons
20g freshly grated Ginger
A few fresh Mint leaves

Soak the gelatine leaves in a bowl of cold water. Pour the tin of coconut milk into a small saucepan and add the sugar. Heat slowly, stirring constantly, until the coconut milk is well mixed and the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil and take off the heat. Add the gelatine leaves and stir well, until  melted, into the cream mixture. Pass the mixture through a sieve into 4 individual glasses or bowls and leave to cool.
Scrape out the flesh of the persimmons into a blender and add the grated ginger. Blend the mixture together.
Once the coconut cream is solid, spoon over the persimmon puree and serve with a few leaves of fresh mint and perhaps an almond florentine.






Thursday, 24 November 2011

Palombière





From mid-October to the end of November, every Autumn, its hard to find a plumber, electrician or mason. If your roof leaks, you will have to wait until december and, in the meantime, stick a bucket under the offending pipe or roof tile. If you expect the post to be delivered daily and on time, or the mayor to be found in his office during this period, you've chosen the wrong region to settle in because every bearnais, landais and basque male is high up a tree in a Palombière, waiting for wood pigeons to pass.



On the 18th October, the old saying goes "à la Saint Luc... le grand truc!" not only because its Saint Lukes day but also because the wood pigeons or the Palombes start arriving down south on their migration towards warmer climes and this is the "grand truc" or the big thing every local, male is waiting for. The men become feverish and can only be cured by climbing high into a dodgy, wood cabin in the trees, drink industrial rum and wait for these feathered flocks to pass by in their hundreds over the bearnais and basque forests and through the pyrenean mountain passes that they have used for centuries.
The wood pigeons finalise there summer holidays in northern Europe or Russia, fly south to North Africa making a few stops for acorn and corn breaks, between october and december. The basques like to stop them en route by imitating a hawk's attack, throwing "abataris", something like a table-tennis racket but painted white with chalk, at the weary birds who automatically dive lower and end up in a net at the centre of the pass. All very skillful and ambitious but not as intricate as the bearnais....
In front of Mailhos lies a deep forest of beech, oak and chestnut. The regular inhabitants of this dense undergrowth are the wild boars, hares, birds and deer but right now the voices of tipsy males can be heard echoing over the valley even though their nearest position is over a kilometre distance.


Within the forest, the men have built these crazy cabins, 15m high in the tallest of trees accessible only by a rickety staircase, rising at an angle of 90°, hammered together with the barest of nails and wood and not for the faint-hearted, vertiginous lady that I am.







As a female of the species, my presence is not welcome in these boys cabins where they reimagine their childhood playing in huts and dens so Jean Francois visits each year the three palombieres that surround us to enjoy a few bottles of the local Jurançon early in the morning.




In Bearn the hunting principle is very different to their Basque neighbour and a little more fair to the birds. The principle here is that the dodgy cabin is high above the other trees, well-camouflaged, and facing north so the palombes can be seen arriving at a distance. The canopy of oaks surrounding the cabin have been shaved and snipped  by Jose who, over the past 4 months has climbed a few hundred oaks to cut the upper leaves so that visibility is perfect for the boys.




Once the palombes are seen arriving in the distance, the men manouver decoy birds, both false and live (their own pet wood-pigeons - trained for years in the art) with up to 20 metres lines, like puppets from the camouflaged cabin, to attract the passing flock and encourage it to land on the canopy, which they like to do for a little rest on such a long and difficult journey. The decoys or pet birds fly in the air and then settle back on the trees which passing palombes see as an invitation to imitate.








(for example the above bird's, only task is to go back and forth from one tree to another)
Once in sight of the cabin, the men become warriors and the birds are shot. 
Personally I have many problems with any hunting involving men, dogs and wild animals and birds and the palombes numbers have dropped from 8 million ten years ago to 2 million today but Jean Francois does insist that they shoot very few birds and if the hunters didn't exist maybe we wouldn't have any more forests.... Good point so lets sing in praise of hunters!




Every year I receive my present of 4 feathery palombes from hunterman Marcel and once Jean Francois has plucked and cleaned them enough to make them look like anonymous poultry, I cook them.
In France and particularly here in the Bearn, they love to cook them in wine sauces and mop this up with lots of bread as the meat is scarce. My recipe just has to be the simplest of all...






Spiced Wood Pigeon Breasts with Steamed Savoy Cabbage


4 people


4 Palombes/Wood Pigeons
1tbs Cognac
100g Butter
2cm of fresh Ginger
1tsp Aniseed
1tsp whole White Pepper grains
1tsp Coriander seeds
50g old White Bread
Salt and Pepper

Heat the oven to 220°/7 Pound the aniseed, coriander,  ginger, pepper and a tsp of salt together with a mortar and pestle. Mix the spice mixture into the butter with your fingers. Pound the bread separately into crumbs and mix into the butter mixture, again using just your fingers. Place the mixture between two layers of greaseproof paper and roll out thinly. Keep flat and in the fridge.
Gut the wood pigeons, keeping the livers. Spatchcock them both using the kitchen scissors a press them out flat with your hands. Season well.
Melt 80g of the butter in a small baking tray just big enough to hold the birds, skin side up.  Spoon a little of the butter over the pigeons and put in the oven for 12 minutes. Remove the birds and keep warm. Keep the butter and juice to the side.
Fry the livers in the rest of the butter and add the cognac and a little water. Stir until reduced by half and then pass through a strainer. Add the cooking juice and butter and stir until well integrated. Season and keep warm.
Once the pigeons have cooled down, remove the breast from the bones. Cut 4 pieces of the spiced bread mix and place on each of the breasts. Grill  a minute or two until golden.
 Serve on a bed of steamed and seasoned cabbage with the sauce poured over....