Friday, 28 October 2011

Jurançon Wine

Charles Hours is a larger than life, ex-rugby player and teddy-bear man who makes some of the finest wine in the Jurançon.
Jurancon is an important wine region of France, half an hour by car from Mailhos, renowned for its honey-tasting wine made from the Petit Manseng grape and its dry wine from the Gros Manseng with a hint of the Courbu.
In 1983, Charles bought the vineyard, Clos Uroulat, and today he owns 7 hectares of vines and works 15 biodynamically. 

Clos Uroulat lies at the foot of the pyrennees and despite its continental distance, the weather is influenced by the oceanic climate of the coast. The rain is endless in the early spring, its relatively cool,  while the autumn is dry and hot. This is the period when the Foehn wind rises from the mountains to the south, to dry the grapes and concentrate the sugars and aromas. while the cold nights give the fruit their distinctive acidity. To avoid spring frost, the vines are raised 3 metres high from the ground on trellises. Monsantos Round-Up is nowhere to be found here, the grass grows freely between the vines while the grapes are cared for naturally!

His dry, Cuvee Marie is made up of gros manseng and a hint of the courbu grape grown on a 3 hectare site facing south-east. The soil here is made up of layers of chalk and clay mingled with river pebbles. The grapes are manually harvested, gently crushed and transferred to new oak barrels to make a fresh, exotic wine with all the essential acid. The queen of all is the pale, honey-yellow Uroulat, made from the thick-skinned petit manseng grape alone, harvested once they have partially dried on the vine. 

Once aged in both old and new oak barrels, the result is a noble and elegant wine worthy of a king.   
And this sweet Jurancon wine, once-upon-a-time, honoured the table of the great bearnais king of France, Henri IV of Navarre,  but dissapeared with him into obscurity until Colette called it sexy in the 20th century.  She is quoted as saying, in reference to the tipple, "when I was a young girl I met a passionate prince, an imperious traitor like any great seducer: the Jurançon".... Maybe she was just talking about Charles....

Last week, we called Charles to find out the harvesting dates for this year expecting him to say late November or even early december, as is normal, but times have changed and the grapes were ready just then, so we got in the car and sped over. He knows when the grapes are ready for harvest by the colour of the seeds inside. They must be brown!
As is well known in the local, wine-harvesting circles, we are better for our observation than our hard work, so arrived late in the morning when the harvest was well underway. We chatted over coffee and strolled and chatted and took photos and chatted, ate a ton of grapes and chatted while everyone else slaved away in the hot sun. 

The atmosphere way gay and happy and everybody giggled as they ate themselves drunk on the delicious fruit.
Charles is not only a teddy bear man, but a lover or food, tradition and his country, the Bearn. When he talks of the land, his eyes twinkle. When he talks of food his lips twinkle. He's smart and fun and his wine is a reflexion of this special person.

Once harvested, the raisins were brought to the chai for pressing and once we leave, they will be transferred to their barrels to wait 11 months before we ourselves will get a chance to taste a little of what we've seen today. 

We left with two cases to tide us over before the new cuvée will be ready. Today for lunch we will drink a bottle and raise our glasses to Charles while savouring both the Uroulat and the best of foie gras on a bed of steamed green cabbage ...

Aaaaahh ! 

Monday, 24 October 2011


Physalis or ground cherries or cape gooseberries are the last fruit of the season. They will survive the first frost but will no longer ripen and eventually die away over the winter months. It grows from seed in the greenhouse, planted out in april and by august the yellow blooms with their strange purplish spots have fallen to the ground to let fruit buds develop.

 The straw coloured husk matures enclosing a smooth, waxy, yellow-orange skinned fruit filled with juicy pulp and tiny yellowish seeds.

Once ripened the fruits fall to the ground and continue to mature until orange and sweet. At this stage its me versus the thousands of thrushes who have spied out the potential within the husk and are competing daily with our basket. 
The papery cape helps them stay fresh at room temperature once inside, for a couple of weeks. Sweet yet acidic, dipped in melted chocolate, cooked with apples and ginger, dried like raisins or as their pectin count is high, their jam is always a great success...
Twice as rich as lemon in vitamin C, they cure a sore throat, a bladder infection and even gout!

Physalis Clafoutis 

8 people

500g Physalis berries (without the husks)
8 eggs
20cl double cream
20g powdered almonds
150g cane sugar
200g sweet pastry

Heat the oven to 200°/6.
Roll out the pastry on a floured board and transfer to the buttered tin. Cover the pastry with a round of greaseproof pastry and toss a few dried beans over the paper. Cook in the oven for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar then pass the mixture through a sieve. Stir in the cream.
Remove the pastry from the oven and take away the paper and beans. Lower the oven heat to 135°/1. Scatter the powdered almonds over the pastry base and place the physalis berries evenly over the tart base. Pour over the egg mixture and return to the oven. Leave to bake for 25 minutes. Eat when cooled.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


The winter squash are already harvested and resting in the sechoir (my laze spot at the back of the barn). After growing vigorously over the summer, trailing their long-stemmed running vines and huge broad leaves and flowers of both sexes, they are now ready to hibernate inside for the winter. All those exotic shapes, colours and sizes to try out over the coming months.

In the summer we consumed the Baby Boos, Delicata, Golden Apple, Yugoslavian Finger and Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato  when small and thin-skinned in a salad raw or  to replace a courgette while the hard-skinned Waltham Butternut, the Chirimen, Longue de Nice, the Galeaux d'Eysines, Hungarian Blue, the Hubbard Golden Delicious, Kaboscha ooze sweetness and are kept for cold evening and warm dishes. 

The Connecticut Field is just a big bastard grown to remind me how unfortunate I was as a child to have to use field turnips to make halloween lanterns and not to have real american hollywood version. I'll have to find some children in the neighbourhood who might just appreciate my 25kg witchy monstrosities... 

Squash are the greediest plants in the garden and are meant to grow in the compost tip itself rather than in plain fertile soil. I grew them this year where oats and phacelia had loosened and nourished the soil over the winter months and heaps of fresh compost were dug into the earth in early march, mulched with straw and let to sit until the worms had finished their job. The small, greenhouse plants were then sown out in mid-may. From then on they will adore you if you feed them  litres of nettle tea and mulch them to keep their bed humid over the hot weeks of fruiting season. 

The male flowers are more delicate than their cousins, the courgette flowers but if picked fresh can make just as good a  frito misto and the tips of the young trailing vines are used as a green vegetable while the seeds are roasted in the over and tossed into all sorts of dishes. 
The signs that tell you they are ready for harvest and are when the fruit stalks turns dry, woody and fibrous, the fruit sounds hollow to the touch, the skin hardens to rock quality, the seeds inside are well-developed and they are heavy with goodness.  Cut from their blackened and withering plants, I leave them sunbathe a few days longer on the garden wall so they will store for longer over the winter and as our winters our mild, I can keep in the sechoir on latted trays to air them, keep them dry and stop the rot.

 Last year I had enough squash to get me through to March and this year I might just beat the record although by that time I'll be dying for broad beans and peas and loathing the look the last dried out and coarse, old butternut. Stuffed with vitamins of all types and minerals galore, its good to remember that the oranger the flesh, the healthier they are and the better they taste.
My favourite has to be the Hungarian blue whose flesh is the firmest and deepest of oranges.
Once I manage to skin the fruit they are pureed and served with duck confit, spicy sausages  or roasted guinea fowl, curried with chickpeas and coconut milk or just simply sliced, seasoned well with pepper, rosemary, thyme or spices like fennel, chilli and jamaican allspice to concentrate the flavour before using them in soups, salads, ravioli and risotto. 

Whole Roasted Golden Apple

6 people

6 Golden apple squash or other smaller varieties
2 tsp of freshly roasted coriander seeds
2 dried chillies
2tsp dried oregano
12 sundried tomatoes
Large handful of fresh watercress leaves
a few drops of the best balsamic vinegar
Olive oil 
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°/4. Slice the top off each of the squash and scoop out the seeds, guarding the lid. Grind the coriander seeds, oregano and chillies with a pestle and mortar or spice grinder until a fine powder. Chop the tomatoes into thin slices. Oil the inside of the squash and season well. Mix the tomatoes with the spice mixture and add to the squash. Put the lids back on the squash and space them out well on a baking tray lined with parchement paper. 
Cook in the oven for 1 hour or until the flesh is well cooked and soft. Serve with a simple salad of watercress dressed with a little balsamic and olive oil.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Fennel and Dill

Green Fennel is another feathery friend growing for years in my garden, feeding the Papilio machaon or swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. 

We are in competition for the leaves, as these ethereal little creatures can eat through a whole plant in a day or two and as I usually let the fennel grow among my carrots and parsley, they will move onto their leaves once the fennel devastation is terminated. So by the end of the summer my carrots  and parsley are also bald.  
Dill plants that grow wild are known as dillweed and are a little more weed than dill so in other parts of the garden I have to plant out the true dill from my own seeds. If mistreated when young they will bolt straight to the seed stage avoiding leaves.  I also have to try and keep them far away from fennel and coriander as they  will cross-polinate and their flavours will become muddled but dill prefers a moist, wind-protected, shaded spot with not too much compost and should be sowed out at different times all through summer so there is a constant supply of leaves.  Unfortunately the swallowtail is also a great fan.
Fennel leaf loves the sun and fertile soil and no great attention while dill needs love and care.
The seed-heads of both are cut when still unripe and green and tied up in a paper bag to be kept in a warm space. The seeds are then so easy to remove from the husk when rubbed in the palm of your hand.

We use the dill seed for flavouring fish and pickling cucumbers  or cauliflowers. 

The fresh flowers are added to salads and the leaves can faultlessly aromatize rice. Its an excellent digestive and makes the ideal after-heavy-dinner, nightime tisane.  Cures an upset stomach, insomnia, flatulence and hiccups … A marvel !
Fennel is best when nibbled at in the garden like a bonbon. Its aniseedy, sweet taste is to die for, especially when green and juicy. 

When dry they are rubbed into the flesh of pork with crushed garlic and dried chili flakes or used to marinate a fresh loin of tuna,  the leaves in salads or in the dressing and as a tisane at night to aid a tummy.