Thursday, 28 April 2011

Sheeps Yoghurt

Alain Domini comes from Toulouse where he was brought up in a urban middle class household. After studying law for 2 years, he dropped out to become a shepherd in the the Pyrenean Mountains. He bought himself a dog named Black, a 20 hectare farm in Beyrie sur Joyeuse and found a girlfriend who likes sheep.
Today at the age of 43, he owns 70 Manex Basco-Bearnaise sheep that he milks by hand every day because he thinks that machines destroy the taste of the milk as you have to clean a machine out with chemical products that destroy the natural bacteria and taste and also he says that the link between the animal and the farmer makes the milk better.

Every evening during the milking season on his farm down here in the valley, he spends up to three hours collecting the milk from the ewes while the rest of the day is spent converting this nectar into cheese and yoghurt. The season is short, as in June, he takes off with his animals to spend 3 months in the high mountains alone where he makes his tome de brebis. The girlfriend visits each week to bring him food and clean clothes and his parents probably wonder where they went wrong.
On Tuesday we went to see him to collect our first yoghurts of the season. They taste of wild flowers and honey and hazelnuts. They taste of his meadows. I eat them with pollen. Jean Francois eats 5 a day with jam and honey. I add them to soups and make them into sorbet. The 40 we bought is now down to 20 and we'll return soon to stock up again knowing that the season is too short and then there will be another year to wait.

Sheeps Yoghurt Sorbet

250ml sheeps yoghurt
Juice of 1 lemon
250ml sugar
350ml water

Squeeze the lemon. Make a thick sugar syrup with the sugar and water. Add the lemon juice. Add the yoghurt little by little, whisking all the time to make sure there are no lumps. Freeze in a shallow container, stirring every half and hour or so or churn in an ice cream maker.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Broad Beans

Broad beans are ready... 

Not very many just yet but enough for our first salad last night. 
I planted a Seville variety out early in October and for the first year I'm harvesting the same week as the professional guys without the need to cover everything with plastic. 
Its an easy and unfussy plant to grow. They are planted 3cm under, 10cm apart and grow without any bother. First, stems and leaves together unfurl from the ground to produce a perfectly formed plant and when the sun starts to warm the white, spring scented flowers bloom attracting bees and butterflies and bumblebees.

As the flowers die off, the baby pod forms and little by little you see the first beans forming inside. Its like watching the 4th series of Mad Men in slow motion and then you pop a fur lined pod and taste that first bean and you realise just why the aching back and dirty fingernails are worth it. 
The only great nemesis of the Fava bean is black fly and there presence is due to the hard determined ant. So how do you piss off determined ants? A magical fomula of diluted black soap and nettle tea, smothers all their spawn and gets those ants fuming. It easy enough to pinch off the tip where they like to hang out also but those ants will just lead their black babies elsewhere on the plant. Spray spray spray and smother the buggers.

Broad beans are at their best when young and small. You can eat them raw or cook them for a maximum of 30 seconds in boiling water before pouring over a little olive oil and fleur de sel. Once they get bigger, the skins get tougher and its worth popping them out of of their parchment skins to reveal the bright green bean below. At this stage they are perfect for a risotto of a salad. Once they get older and more floury tasting I just keep them for soup or make a puree to serve with roast meat.

Broad Bean and Red Radish Salad

4 people

500g fresh, young podded broad beans
9 small red radishs
1 small thinly sliced red onion or spring onion
3tbsp fresh chopped coriander
I slice of preserved lemon  finely chopped (see recipe)
Juice of half a lemon
4 tbsp olive oil
a small handful of radish sprouts (optional)

Place the broad beans in a pan and boiling salted water and simmer for 30 seconds. Drain them and rinse in plenty of cold water. Remove the skins by gently squeezing them between your fingertips.
Cut the radishes in thin wedges and mix with the bean, onions, coriander, lemon, lemon juice, sprouts and olive oil. Season to taste. SIMPLE

Herby Broad Bean Soup

4 people

1 heart of celery
1 medium and quartered onion
100ml olive oil
1 large carrot
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tbs fresh parsley
500g fresh podded broad beans
200g sheep's yoghurt
3 garlic cloves crushed
50g basmati white rice
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp chopped chervil
2 tbsp chopped dill
Zest of half a lemon

Make a vegetable stock by heating the olive oil in a large pan and adding the onion, celery and chopped carrot. Cook together for a few minutes until the vegetables are softened without browning them. Add the thyme, bay and parsley and 1.2 litres of water. Boil and then simmer for half and hour.
Boil some more water in a saucepan and add the broad beans. Cook for 1 minute. Drain and run them under cold water. Remove the skins.
When the stock is ready, pass the liquid through a sieve into another saucepan and discard the vegetables. Add the rice to the liquid and boil then simmer for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and add half the beans and some salt and pepper and blitz the soup until smooth.
Mix the yoghurt and garlic together in a large, heat proof bowl and add half the hot soup, little by little, so it doesn't separate the yoghurt with the change in temperature).
Pour the yoghurt mixture into the rest of the soup and warm while stirring constantly without boiling. Add the rest of the beans. Season.
Garnish in bowls with the lemon zest, dill and chervil and drizzle with a good olive oil.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011


Vegetables are growing, fruits are ripening and all before time. Spring is passing us by so fast, that its difficult to appreciate the changes in colour and growth. The temperatures are high and more suited to the Bearn in July than one could imagine in April. 
According to our local newspaper, Sud Ouest, we have received less than half the normal rainfall since the beginning of the year and its showing. Its difficult to sow seeds as the ground is too dry and I would need to be standing over them day and night with a watering can in order to get them to sprout. As I've never needed to even think like this before, all my ideas of gardening are upside down and I'm considering growing palm trees instead of turnips. 
This spring or early summer there have been practically no mushrooms. Normally we find a good quantity of small morels by the rivers edge in the sandy and mossy soil but this year we've found nothing and even the mousserons or St George mushrooms, which are usually so plentiful in the fields, are impossible to find due to the height of the fast growing grass. 
So.... no mushrooms and everythings upside down but the bees are happy and are filling up their hives with fresh honey like I've never seen them before but all these changes in weather bode badly for summer. The beauty of the south west has always been its balance of sun and rain but suddenly its looking more like Andalousia or southern Mauritania. What to do???? 

Saturday, 16 April 2011


Lemons are really a winter fruit as its seems like the vitamin C of the cold months and even though their taste speaks of summer and sunshine. I have two harvests a year on my small collection of potted trees. My Japanese Yuzu is the only one that can be left outside in the soil as one says that it can survive up to -15° temperatures even though it has never been tested. The Yuzu, the lime and the four season lemons are in flower and will be in fruit in mid-summer.

Visually they are beautiful trees and to pick your own citrus when needed throughout the year is a newly discovered luxury. I still have a large box of lemons left over from the autumn which are now a little more thin skinned than they were when fresh but are excellent for juice and cooking. I also have a friend over the border in Navarre who has made citrus fruits a hobby and as she lives alone, always has a crate or two of lemons to give me just when I need them.
Apart from starting the day with a fresh lemon juice in warm water, Lemons are essential in my kitchen for lemonade, salad dressing, drizzling over fish, to cut a mayonnaise or aioli and for its zest.
Of course, such exotic fruit have never been part of my culture as I seem to remember, the first real lemon fruit to enter our house in Ireland was around my 12th birthday, and I'm sure that is only because one of my sisters had brought one back from abroad (perhaps around the same time as our first artichoke). Up to this moment, lemon was a squeezy, lemon shaped plastic JIF bottle tasting of something sharp and acid. Needless to say, the real thing was a revelation.

Today I'm using up six of these marvels to make some confit de citron or preserved lemon which goes wonderfully well with meats, fish and salads. I chop it over pasta, stuff a chicken or a fresh sea bass, chop it over a beef tagine or some roast vegetables ...

Confit de Citron or Preserved Lemon

6 yellow yellow lemons
200g cane sugar
1 tsp lightly roasted cumin
1 cinnamon stick
75ml water

Rince the lemons well in cold water and cut into thin slices. Lay them out individually in a baking tray.
In a large saucepan, boil the sugar, cumin, cinnamon and water. Once the sugar is dissolved, pour this mixture over the lemons and cook in an oven at 140° (4-5) for 30 minutes. Leave it to cool before pouring it into a jar and sealing it. Keeps in the fridge for over a month.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Wild Garlic

I went down to woods today and had a big surprise! Wild garlic had flowered and the woodlands were carpeted in its lush growth. It was Jean-Francois who returned from fly fishing yesterday evening to announce that he had spent the afternoon smelling garlic blossom aroma in a magical, leafy gorge on the Saison River. We arrived there early this morning and breakfasted on thermos coffee and raw wild garlic flower and fresh bread before Jean Francois made another try at the giant salmon he missed last evening and succeeded catching today (more on that later).

Wild garlic, Ramsons or Ail des Ours in french is a real sign that spring has arrived and blooms between April and June. For me it is one of the most beautiful sights of nature equal in splendour to woodland bluebells in May. Its easy to recognise and the smell makes sure no mistakes are made.

The leaves are slender and shaped like a spear and the flowers are like a posy of delicate star-shape white blossoms but the giveaway sign is the strong, pungent garlicky smell  that hits you perhaps even before you see the plant. Once the plant flowers, the leaves lose their pungency and become tough but all in all the Ramson is much milder than the bulb variety but the flavour is far more interesting and complex.

The leaves can be used young in a salad (before the flowers bloom) or later braised in a little butter or olive oil as a substitute for spinach or just chopped up like chives to add flavour to gratin, sauces and soup and even an aioli. The flowers taste stronger and are great in salad or braised in butter and served on toasted bread or just cooked in a simple omelette - sublime.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Garden

My potager. The geographic centre around which all my life revolves.
Fifth year of sowing, planting, composting, weeding and expanding the garden size and varieties. Its true that each species has become a member of my exclusive club as I keep the grains each year and the offspring of the year before become the plants and food of the new year.
April is the the first month when I really start to plant out whats grown in the greenhouse or sow seeds. I could perhaps start earlier but I really don't think anything is gained until the earth has warmed and with our  heavy, soggy clay the heating process is a little slower than elsewhere.
The ground has been grelinetted using our Grelinette made exclusively by Mr Andre Grelin. This marvellous contraption with its double handles and four teeth is used just to air the earth and not to dig because we certainly do not want to chop any of those hard working worms in two with a sharp spade and also the earth shouldn't be moved. There are two many creatures who have established their lives in every spadeful and they do not appreciate having their world turned upside down.
So I have nearly grelinetted the whole 600m2 of garden after cutting down my autumn plantation of Phacelia and oats which served as a useful weed controller and aired the soil over the wet winter months.
Jean Francois is carrying wheelbarrows of compost to the beds and mulching them over with straw.
So far I've planted out some Cima di Rapa or Rapini, Rocket, Spring Onions, Detroit, Chioggia and Golden Beetroot, Green Brocolli, Snake Radish, Fava Bean, Sweet Provence Peas, Cardoons, Sorrel and Yellow Doubs, Chantenay and Purple Dragon Carrots and thats only the tiniest proportion of whats to come. My greenhouse is bursting with pots and my 134 varieties of plants are ready to be sown or developing, with the aid of nettle tea and hot sunshine, lovely strong roots.

Its been such a strange start to the year here in the south west of France. Normally we have a cold January followed by a wet and mild early spring but this year, apart from a week of below zero temperatures, we've had continual warm days with little rain and today the thermometer is hitting 32° and summer is a long way off.  The ground has not frozen since early january and unless there will be some tsunami hitting the basque or the gulf stream turns off, I really cannot imagine another cold night ahead of us but of course nature works in the strangest ways and I could be caught out like I was last year and have my whole plantation of cucumbers frozen to pulp in one evening.
I've made a rough plan of where everything will be planted out which doesn't account for varieties and specific members of each family like a cabbage can mean Kohlrabi, Broccoli, Kale, Red Cabbage, Swede or Cauliflower and a carrot is not just an long orange vegetable but six different colors and forms. Radish can be anything from the simple 15 day Sezanne to the slow growing Green Meat variety that resembles a green kaleidoscope...

Its all so exciting but perhaps not for Jean Francois who is sacrificing good fly fishing hours to work for me in the heat ....

Monday, 4 April 2011

Goats Cheese

Anita Duhau loves her goats. She loves her two Brune des Alpes cows, "Nomade" and "Truite".
On her 10 hectare, horseshoe shaped farm deep in the Basque countryside, she grows her wheat grains and straw to feed and bed her animals who provide her with milk and affection, just the right recipe for making a wonderful cheese.
Anita started her organic farm in 2000 and it would be in her own words, impossible to do otherwise. The goats are from the old Pyrenean race. There are less than 2000 left in the Bearn or the Basque country and Anita cares for 45 of them.

This beautiful goat has long black or brown hair, comes from high in the mountains of the Pyrennees or Cantabria and is reputed for its rich milk and good meat which of course doesn't concern us here. The local people used to take these animals to Paris or the beach resorts to milk the the animals in front of their clients. Apparently in 1900 there were 1500 of these goats hanging out in the streets of Paris but of course dissapeared soon after the introduction of the car and packaged milk.

These sweet, playful and curious animals are milked twice a day by Anitas' loving hands. The milking of 45 goats takes 4 hours a day and the cows 1 hour so she has plenty of work when you think of how long it takes to make a good cheese.
The goats milk is kept at 10° C for 24 hours before the curd is placed in pots to drain. 1 litre of milk makes 1 little cheese!
The cows cheese is made in exactly the same way but needs to spend a longer period resting before becoming a good strong tomme.

The young kids are fed by their mother before being cut and then fed Nomade's and Truite's milk which  avoid the need for powdered milk. The two pigs are fed the cheese whey before becoming pate and sausage in the winter. In the courtyard, you meet her chickens, cats and the dog Dana who probably find their own reward in the form of a cheese crust or two. A wonderful medley of company and the result is a cheese so heavenly.

I have to admit that I'm a very great lover of goats cheese which means I'm deprived of its calcium source for over 4 months of the year.  Jean Francois is more of a cow man, which is probably linked to his auvergnat ancestors, and can eat a 4 kilo cheese in one week despite my nagging.
This goats cheese tastes of cardamine de prés and hazelnut and new grass. Its rich but light and is at its very best after a week in storage. Its creamy and sublime and I can eat at least one at each sitting.... so I suppose I'm just as naughty as Jean Francois.