Thursday, 31 March 2011

Asparagus


Spears of white asparagus have just begun poking their fine heads above the ground. Its spring at last!
After three years of patience, I've been rewarded with my first harvest. I never imagined when I sowed out my seeds three springs ago, I would still be here in Mailhos when they popped out of the ground.  I had almost forgotten where I had planted them and was starting to warn them that this year was their last chance to make an appearance, otherwise I was just going to cover them with carrots.

Asparagus likes sandy, poor soil and I have a rich, soggy, clay soil so I just assumed they would not be happy. But they were fed lots of compost, nettle tea and care and now I can just hope for 10 years of my own crop. They have spent all this time building a network of roots to store all the huge quantity of goodness needed to make a perfect asparagus spear. Patience such as this makes it one of the most nutritious vegatables to eat as it is brimming with vitamins, folic acid and is an excellent liver cleanser.  Even last year when they sent up some shoots, I had to hold myself back to not pick them as it would have weakened their roots so they just flowered into wild fronds as I watched from the side.
I suppose this is what makes the first asparagus of 2011 even more special than normal as through, an abnormal demand for patience, I have grown to love and respect this vegetable more than any other in the garden.
I feel now that I am really a genius for managing to grow such marvels.


Even though my small asparagus patch in the garden will produce enough for a few meals (10m2 asparagus gives back 5 kilos of food every year) we are lucky to have the Landes near us where, I believe, the best white asparagus in France is grown. It really needs to be grown locally as it loses it flavour and saveur so quickly. You almost need to have the water boiling before you go and harvest a couple of spears in order to appreciate the true sweetness of your own.
White asparagus demands a little more work from the green variety as the first spears need to be banked up with soil to deprive them of light and blanch them. These are the albino versions and over the border you find the spanish green ones that demand less respect in France.



My first asparagus was steamed before arriving through the door with the basket, served with slow melting butter and a leaf of two of tarragon  but there are so many wonderful ways of eating this sign of spring. I could eat it every day as long as the season lasts and I never get tired of the the way it stinks your pee!
The short six or seven weeks of asparagus time really need to be exploited.
The sprue or the earliest and thinnest spears are marvellous in salad. The thicker spears are good for dipping into a good hollandais sauce or salty butter and when they get really thick, a soup is called for....


Asparagus spears with Wasabi aioli

4 people

2 garlic cloves
S&P
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp lemon or lime juice
1 tbsp wasabi powder
220ml olive oil
800g asparagus

First make the aioli by crushing the garlic cloves with a pinch of salt in a food processor. Add the egg yolk, lemon juice and wasabi powder. Once this is all mixed, add the olive oil drop by drop until it starts to thicken and then start to trickle it in until its all used up. Once the aioli is ready, prepare the asparagus.
Take the spears and bend the lower end until they snap and peel a little of the skin at the base of each spear taking care not to break them further.
Boil until just tender in lots of salted water for about 3 minutes or a little less for the sprues. Serve

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Eggs



Introduction  to the gang of 16 – my egg layers and their two men.
Matron of the lot, Molly and her sisters, Rose and Aurore.



Their darker plumed children,- Elisabeth, Janet, Valerie, Hilary and Della.



Our two wierdos, Cathy and Stringer.



 Fish the blind and thick, Sylvette the greedy and the superstar Puddle.



The two boys but not yet (or never to be) men, Blue and Yaya.


At lastly but not least important my little Honeybee.


This fine family provides us both with over ten eggs a day. Small eggs but large yellow yolks and little whites which are firm and don’t spread all over the pan when fried. And they taste so good.
But why do people have problem with eggs. 
When Honeybee eats 760 dandelion leaves, 300 nettle buds and a mixture of worms, coléoptères and snails every day, how can we talk about cholestérol. Her eggs are 100% Omega 3.  Its only when you feed chickens, corn that you find problems and the yolks are more corn syrup and coca cola than good for you and your heart. There is nothing better than collecting a warm egg from Under Honeybee’s tummy and eating it five minutes later. Its the ultimate gift !
As soon as we arrived in Mailhos, one of our first priorities were to keep hens. I was given two little chicks from a neighbour and both grew up to be two roosters called Jean Jacques and Stewy so I had to begin again and this time, Molly, Aurore, Aleitha and Rose joined us. During their first few months here, they slept nightly in the giant oleander growing in the courtyard until the fox came to join them one night and left with Jean Jacques and Aleitha. We had to build a chicken house which took time but in the meantime, we set up an electric fence all around the oleander to keep the fox out but of course kept the chickens up the tree for over one week. The chicken house was completed and since then the family has grown with a loss of a family member from time to time but not through our interference, as they are strictly here for their eggs and the fun they provide.



Every morning when I open the chicken house, 16 chickens come flying out over my head and go straight to their feed of dandelion, nettle, wheat, oats and feverole, drink some water and then go in search of worms. There chosen terrain is about 1 hectare or a little over 2 acres. They have their limits. They never stray into the fields or forest but also never into my vegetable garden as they know the consequences of such an act. The day is generally spent attacking snails, worms, butterflies and sometimes Spider the cat or the dead mice he leaves lying around. That is quite horrible but chickens are not vegetarian and dream of blood.  They are very naughty, sneaky, kind and more intelligent than one might think. Each one has a personality so distinct from the others.  Yaya is sweet and thoughtful to his girls, while Blue is a bully but keeps a good eye out for buzzards flying overhead. Molly is calm and generous with food while Rose is a bitch and pecks all those competing for food. Puddle struts around with her chest out acting as if she was Brigitte Bardot in Le Mepris and Honeybee is just perfect !



by the way, its very difficult to photograph chickens...




Oeufs Meurette aux Poireaux or Poached Eggs in Red Wine Sauce with Leeks

4 people

8 eggs
50cl a good red wine (Bourgogne preferred)
15cl wine vinegar
2 leeks
2 shallots
1 tsp of tomato paste
40g butter
20g white flour
4 slices of thin white toasted bread
1 garlic clove
2 tbs finely chopped parsley
salt and pepper and sugar

Boil two litres of water in a saucepan, then add the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Break the eggs one by one in a cup and slide them into the boiling water. Leave them for 3 minutes and remove and drain them and keep them warm on a clean tea towel.
Clean the leeks well and slice the white parts into 1cm slices. Boil them in salted water for 5 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
In a separate saucepan, add the wine, a small bit of the green part of the leek, the tomato paste, the finely chopped shallot and a pinch of sugar. Boil to reduce by half.
Mix the butter together with the flower by hand until you get a large ball. Divide into four and incorporate the butter ball by ball into the liquid, whisking all the time. Taste the sauce and season.
Rub the garlic clove into the hot toasted bread.
Divide the cooked leaks between the four slices of toast. Place two poached eggs on top of the leeks and cover with a generous amount of the warm wine sauce. Sprinkle some parsley on top....





Thursday, 17 March 2011

Seeds


Seeds, of course, are the basis of everything that happens here in Mailhos. Without seeds we wouldn't have our vegetables, fruits, birds, wildflowers, grasses and of course, our chickens (what would they eat without my seeds that they steal?).
Since late february I've been sowing slow risers in my little lean-to greenhouse so that they are robust and strong enough when planted out in May.
Aubergines are always the first as they tend to have a hard time waking up from their seed stage. It takes nearly three weeks for the seeds to germinate and thats only when the temperature hits 20°. I've sown 12 plants of Listada de Gandia and Violette di Firenze which are lovely thin skinned varieties which are for some strange reason the only ones I can digest. I have a problem normally with aubergines.
Peppers and chillies are easier for me so therefore I tend to go a little crazy on their production.
I have sown 3 plants of 15 different varieties in late february and just like the aubergines, I am still waiting for the whole lot to pop out of their seed cases.



Mid march is when its all really starts though. Tomatoes needs to be sown so the plants are sturdy enough for the soil in late May. Flowers of all kinds are sown, along with rocket, lettuce, basil, parsley, celery, celeriac, beetroot, rue, basella, cabbage, leeks, onion, coriander, chervil, fennel, sorrel dill.... my list is endless and before I even begin thinking about tomatoes, I realise my greenhouse is already just about full.



Most of my seeds are kept from the year before (except melons and squash which have a tendency to cross-pollinate in my garden and produce odd and tasteless fruit the following year). This year I think I have 46 varieties of tomatoes to choose from and knowing me I'll sow them all. Whether I plant them out is a a question I will ask myself when I assess the space available. I still buy new seeds though because I love something new. I love to not know whats going to happen when the flower dies down and the fruit appears. I love the mystery of not knowing whats going to end up on my plate.
In France we are blessed with so many small, wonderful and brave seed companies who sell the most wild, wonderful, local and exotic and rare varieties of seeds. I can find anything I want and they are all organically produced, healthy and productive and most importantly I can harvest the seeds myself.
These days its a lot more difficult to find seeds that are not hybridised and once they produce a decent enough fruit or vegetable in one season are dead to existence. The grains are sterile.
Thats ok for me down here as I'm a sucker for any new discovery. If the Ferme de Ste Marthe write to me in November and tell me they have a Japanese Gouma plant for sale, a Peruvian Oca tuber available or even a seed from an Egyptien White Courgette, I'm the first in with my order. Every year I add varieties and every year I take away a few (but never enough).
Sometimes its just because they don't taste as good as I want them, sometimes because they aren't hardy enough and sometimes because they are just ugly.
The industrialisation of our agriculture has caused a huge erosion of our seed varieties. Agrobiodiversity is declining at an alarming rate because farmers have to rely more and more on purchased seeds and the dynamic process that produces and conserves biodiversity  has been suddenly interrupted. European seed marketing regulations have also contributed to this decline by imposing criteria for commercialisation of seed varieties that are rarely met by locally adapted varieties.

5 seed companies and their control of the world's seeds

The farmers, just like us "amateurs", are told that such and such a tomato has great yields and doesn't catch any mildew and who care if it tastes like pee pee and the plant is sterile and the seeds have to be bought every year and in the end the local variety fall into disuse and most importantly the knowledge of the farmer who sowed the seed.


Kokopelli, La Ferme de Ste Marthe, Biau Germe and Germinance (among many others) are all doing the opposite, sharing seeds and helping to subvert the power of the domination of the seed industry by the large seed companies. Here in the Bearn, everybody swaps their seeds, exchanges plants or just gives away what they don't need. We seed swappers now refer to the seed varieties that are not admitted in the official lists (which lists the varieties that can be sold) as "Outlaws".  I myself exchange my "Outlaws" for soap from Leanne over the valley.
Happy St Patricks day by the way!



Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Bee Pollen



First day of the pollen harvest.
We have 45 hives of iberian black honeybees which spend their year between our garden and forest and the pyrenean mountain heather. We are not the smartest of apiculturists so we are lucky to have the help of Angela who comes over once a week to check their progress and treat them with essential oils when they pass by a low point. In our first year, we lost everything to the varroa mite or some other murderous creature which killed off our 10 hives practically overnight. I remember waking one early spring morning and finding a thick layer of bee corpses floating on the surface of the swimming pool. Nobody could ever explain to me what exactly happened to them and why. Next year, Angela came to the rescue and we began all over again with 40 hives, new swarms and a little more knowledge.
That first winter, the hives were spending the colder months in the heather canopy of the Landes , when hurricane Klaus struck and destroyed more than half of the population. This time it was clear that falling pine trees were responsible but it was another huge setback.


The next spring arrived and I remember it didn't stop raining from the end of February till the first days of July and the poor blighters couldn't leave home to forage for food and had to be fed cane sugar just to keep them alive. Their next few summer months were spent, gathering enough nectar to be able to last the winter which meant another year of no harvest for Jean Francois and Carol.
In 2010, we had one or two deadly storms and few attacks from asian hornets but some honey pots got filled.
After four months of winter rest, our beehives have returned from the coastal mountains and heather to restart a new year in the rich and flowery forest life of Mailhos.  2011 is looking good so far. The usual downpours of spring haven't hit us just yet so the bees can pollinate all my fruit trees and provide us with pollen.
Bee pollen is super rich in living ferments, vitamins and endocrine stimulants. It also contains a wide range of minerals and amino acids. It gives such a boost to your system just after eating. Apparently it just helps you to digest well but it feels like you're taking a strong dose of vitamin C or a crazy drug.
The first flowers of the year are the hazel followed by the male willow which is just finishing its bloom. The apricots, peaches, almond and pear blossoms are just behind with a whole lot of dandelion mixed in. All these flowers provide us and the hives with marvellous pollen for the moment and when the acacia and lime trees begin to bloom in May, the honey season starts.
This morning we both donned our shiny new bee outfits and went collecting.
Armed with my Pollen detective  colour guide, I'm about to discover whats in bloom right now.


The predominant mustard-yellow colour is all dandelion.  The first plum trees have a darker, browner colour, like the almond trees. We've got a little lemony coloured plantain pellet or two. The Christmas rose is a little darker. The greeny-grey colour seems to be pear pollen and the darker orange could be crocus.
As the season progresses we start to see blue, purple, pink, dark green and even black pollen. The spanish bluebell has a pollen of eggshell blue that is as pretty as its flower.



Isn't it amazing to think that one pellet of this pollen contains 2 million grains and each of those grains is capable of pollinating a tree or flower.
The only recipe necessary for this one is "eat it fresh"...  and in huge quantities....


Friday, 4 March 2011

Dandelion


The dandelion is beginning its invasion!
 If I don't react now the seeds will have covered my garden and vegetable plot within the week. Its true that they are a sunny delight spread across the fields and they are tenacious - flowering from February through to November. The delicate orbs of seed heads are the harbinger of first frosts, the smell of autumnal smoke, spider silk drifting through the air and some birds just love them.
But once they seed and you see the flat rosettes of leaves in the vegetable plot, they become hugely irritating. The taproots grow deep and are twisted and brittle and snap off as you dig them up and like in some horror movie, they start to regenerate from a fragment left in the soil. All the better to eat the little blighters...

Honey and Yaya appreciate their diuretic properties

The word dandelion comes from the french or italian, dent de lion or dente di leone and refers to the green toothed leaves. In french they are also called pissenlit and in Ireland they can also be called piss-the-bed too, as the leaves have diuretic properties.
It seems the first medicinal use of the plant was in 10th century england where dandelions milky sap was used to cure warts. Today, the plants are used to treat liver and kidney problems as well as digestive disorders. The plants are a rich sources of vitamin A, B, C and D and minerals such as iron, potassium, zinc and manganese.
Every bit of the plant is edible: collect the leaves for salad in the early spring, when they are the tastiest and before the flowers appear and again in the autumn, after the first frost, when the bitterness disappears. In summer you can sauté the leaves like spinach with capers, chilli and garlic. The flowers can be used to make jelly or a risotto of petals or even wine. The flower buds used as capers, The root is also edible but far too medicinal  for my taste.
Today I collect my first flowers and leaves to remind me of springs arrival...


Dandelion Flower Jelly or Cramaillote

400 flower heads
1.5 litres (2.6 pints) water
2 oranges
2 lemons
700g (1.5lbs) cane sugar

Petals

First prepare your dandelion petals, Wash the flowers head in cold water to get rid of the tiny insects hiding within the petals. Cut off the end an peel back the green sepals like a hula skirt, freeing the petals.
Keep only the yellow part of the flower.

Fingers once the work is finished

Leave them dry for a few hours in the sun or in a warm room to develop the aromas.
Put all the flower heads, water and thinly sliced citrus fruit (pips and all)  into a large pan. Cook over a moderate heat for a good hour while making sure the flower heads are immersed in the water. You can start smelling the pollen at this stage...
Take off the heat and leave to strain through a muslin cloth overnight. Add the sugar. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Boil the mixture until the jelly is set which usually takes around 20 minutes. Test the set on a cold porcelain saucer. When ready put the jelly in clean and sterilised pots.




Dandelion, Feta and Walnut Salad

A large handful of young dandelion leaves
100g (3.5 oz) fresh feta
70g (2.5 oz) shelled walnuts

Dressing
4tbsp olive oil
1tbsp walnut oil
1tsp lemon juice
1tsp balsamic di Modena
S&P


Wash  the  dandelion leaves well in cold water. Roast the walnuts in a moderate oven until lightly golden. Break into pieces by hand. Crumble the feta into large pieces and mix together with the leaves without breaking the feta further or damaging the leaves. Whisk all the dressing ingredients together and add to the leaves with the walnuts. Toss gently.