Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Garden (once again)


The garden has gone green again thanks to 24 hours of good heavy rain and bloody hell it was welcome. May and already it feels like August. I've mulched the whole garden and its working but the field mice and slugs like hiding deep beneath its layers and nibbling at my lettuce roots and leaves when I'm out of their vision. 
The whole garden is nearly planted out bar the odd brassica and leek which will go in once the last pea and broad bean is harvested. 
53 varieties of tomato and 53 plants.


15 different pumpkin and squash - Baby Boos, Connecticut Field, Butternut, Trompa d'Albenga, Chirimen....


14 varieties of hot peppers and 4 sweet ones. 
Yellow, Egyptian White and the classic Costato Romana courgettes.


Purple Dragon, Yellow Doubs, White Kuttingen and Orange carrots.
Chioggia striped, Golden and Crapaudine beetroot.
Green beans, Violetta beans, Borlotti, Spanish and Gout de Chataigne..


Long White, Sikkim, Lemon, Kiwana and hairy Carosella Barese cucumbers.
Patty pans, speckled snake gourds, purple okra, sweet ginger, spotted and striped aubergines, Annapurna and Elephant Head amaranthe, Banana melons, Azur Blue Kohlrabi, Romanesco fennel, Moon and Star watermelons, golden purslane the list continues until you reach the number of 164.


I myself don't know how I and him could eat all this in one year but there are always enough climate disasters, fat greedy crows and flea beetles throughout the year that make sure we just have enough to eat  or offer to friends. 
There are some vegetables that don't like me and the feeling is mutual when it comes to growing. Celery for example! Its needs too much water for my liking and usually grows 20cm and dies a fast death (but I'm still going to give it another go this year). 
Being Irish doesn't mean I know how to grow potatoes. Last year was our very last try and 40 plants gave us a grand harvest of 40 potatoes and they didn't even taste good. My mother was mortified on her last visit.  To think that Ray, my father, despite working 5 long days in the office every week, managed to provide our family of 9 with enough potatoes for the year and his daughter can barely fill a saucepan. He must be turning in his grave...


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Gooseberries


Gooseberries are really out of fashion!
Friends pass by my bushes and exclaim 'what's that?' to my sheer consternation. Doesn't anybody remember the gooseberry years?
For me at least, my childhood summer fruit was the gooseberry. I have memories of this rather sour and sometimes hairy fruit lasting through the early summer months. I think they grow better up north and therefore have a better reputation there, as when I respond to my french friends 'thats a groseillier à macquereaux' they look perplexed and confused.



Its true that the goosegog likes a lot more shade than I can provide down here but I've found a perfect spot for the bushes under the Indian Lilac where the evening sun just dapples light on them and they seem to be content as they are giving me heaps of scrumptious fruit.
Before using the fruit in crumbles and tarts, they need to be topped and tailed which takes time, energy and enthusiasm but once ready there is little to do but eat them raw or make relish!

Elderflower, Ginger and Gooseberry Relish

knob of ginger - peeled
1tsp mustard seeds
400g gooseberries (topped and tailed)
80g cane sugar
80ml elderflower cordial


Tip the cordial, sugar, mustard seeds and gooseberries into a heavy based saucepan.  Grate the ginger into the pot. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 1 hour. 
Take off the heat and pour into a jar and leave to cool. It will keep for two weeks in the fridge. Serve with roast pork or a nice oily fish.





Virgin


Nothing to do with gardening, chickens or food but I did have another life before soil and worms and one of those lives was rigid and catholic. This is an invitation to the signing of my book of photos on the Virgin Mary through my own selective eye in many different places in the world and a story I wrote of my childhood passed with the church and all its foibles, faults and failings. If any of you want to buy it, nicer to go through the editor that printed it rather than Amazon or Fnac ...

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Sauveterre Market



Every Saturday morning, on the Place de la Mairie, around 5 or 6 local producers gather to sell herbs, fruit, vegetables, cheese and soap. The perfect market for last minute shopping before general french close-down on Sundays and Mondays. 
Mr Erban and his son make a tasty little sheeps cheese and fresh ricotta in the early summer months. 


Annie and Paul provide the raspberries, that are just coming into season, aromatic herbs and fresh cut flowers. 




Leanne and Sylvain make the best organic, local soap which perfumes the whole village. 



While Mr Filhon provides the carrots and potatoes. 
Once the peaches ripen, we will have Mr Malégarie coming all the way from Monein with his sweet and succulent fruit and another lady who will arrive soon with her blueberries. 
We are blessed in this part of France with a market every day of the week in each of the surrounding villages. 

Sauveterre de Bearn is our nearest urban centre if a population of 1350 farmers and towns-people can be seen as urban... The town has apparently been around since the 11th century and is very pretty. Apart from the market, we have two pharmacists, a butcher, two newsagents, a droguerie (sells paint tins and sweeping brushes but not drugs) and a café. 
In 1732 the Gave d'Oloron flooded and carried away the only bridge linking the village to civilisation and whats left is a piece of this fortified structure which was later used for throwing young ladies 15 metres into the river below to test their goodness. If they died - good riddance, as they were proved witches, and if they lived they were feted like the virgin mary for their goodness. Great Bearnaise justice!


Better to act witchy in the summer months as the Gave tends to cool down somewhat in the winter. 

There is a church dating from the 13th century with a rich interior of sculptures representing "lies and cupidity", a door into the church meant only for the small, untouchable people called the Cagot who once existed and perhaps still exist within this small community and were kept at a distance from the fine people of the village who had so much to teach us about justice.


Apart from many other admirable vestiges from the middle ages there is also a defunct shop window display that has fascinated me since our arrival...



Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Strawberries



Strawberries are ripening at a super-fast speed and despite the 3000 thrushes and countless slugs living in my garden, I am managing a good crop this year. Our soil is alcaline and strawberries seem to prefer acid so for four summers I've tried and failed but this year, I had a cunning idea of mulching the plants with pine bark pieces and I can fill a basket every day. It seems that the slugs don't like the smell or physical contact with  pine and the birds....? I refuse to put a net over the fruit as in my first year I found a young dead sparrow caught in it and since then I've just accepted that birds love strawberries just as much as we do.


Strawberries bring back so many childhood memories. I remember my father's strawberries dipped in sweetened double cream or served with a chewy, mouth-melting meringue. I'm not sure people appreciate the strawberry as much as we did then, as they are now available all year round and taste of nothing and air. There are no "Prousts Madelaine" moments in a strawberry from Chilli in December.
I found my plants at the Conservatoire Vegetal Regional d'Aquitaine which stocks a marvellous collection of local varieties. I planted the Ananas Blanche, the Vicomtess Héricard de Thury and most importantly the perfumed, sweet and sherbet flavoured St Geniez d'Olt (that tastes and looks like the real wild strawberry). All these varieties are no longer grown commercially as big business prefers a more resilient variety that will stand a few knocks when travelling and last longer on the shop shelf. 
The St Geniez d'Olt was the favourite of Jean Francois's grandfather  in the 60's. He planted the whole back garden of their house in the Aubrac with just this variety of berry and for years this was the only fruit Jean Francois knew of. 
But even a commercial, robust variety made for travelling hundreds of kilometres will taste perfect if  let to ripen naturally. The mara de bois that I also grow in the garden as they re-fruit in the late summer, develop a true sweetness when picked and eaten when red and juicy as the sugars have had time to develop. The strawberry is sweetest when the sun is not too hot as the fruit should develop and ripen slowly which intensifies the taste. I've planted mine in the shade of my towering old rose bush that protects them from the hottest sun of the day and slows down strawberry growing process.
I was never a huge fan of the fruit until I started tasting my own. Their scent of honey and the crunchiness of the seeds put them right up their with raspberries, gooseberries and blueberries as my now favourite fruit.
When ripe and juicy, I eat them with a drop or two of lemon juice and sugar and dipped in a bowl of thick double cream, churned into a sorbet or ice-cream or simmered into jam. 



Don't keep in the fridge, don't wash them and don't cook them (too much)....

Strawberries infused with Hibiscus Flowers

4 people

500g ripe, red and juicy strawberries
zest of one orange
zest of one lemon
half a vanilla pod
3 black peppercorns
150g cane sugar
1litre water
80g hibiscus flowers

In a heavy saucepan, bring the water and sugar to the boil. Add the orange and lemons zest, pepper and vanilla. Boil until you get a syrup. Take off the heat and add the hibiscus flowers. Return to the heat and bring the mixture to the boil again. Take off the heat and allow to cool in the fridge.
Hull the strawberries and cut into quarters. Place in 4 individual bowls. Pour over the syrup through a strainer which will soak the strawberries and serve.


Strawberry Shortbread

110g softened unsalted butter
55g cane sugar
110g fine plain flour
55g rice flour 
200g Double Cream lightly whipped
100g ripe and juicy Strawberries 

Preheat oven to 180°/350°/6. Put the butter, sugar flour and rice flour into a large bowl and knead together into a dough. Roll out into a until 1cm thick and cut with a 10cm cookie cutter (or flour edged cup) into rounds. 
Slide onto a well buttered tin and prick lightly with a fork. Bake for 15-20 minute or until pale biscuit colour.
Remove from the tin when cool and leave to cool further. Cut the strawberries into quarters and whip the cream lightly. Arrange the cream and then the strawberries on top and eat them all (add some sugar if the strawberries are not sweet enough).






Saturday, 14 May 2011

Atlantic Salmon


He caught a salmon at last !

The arrival...
the victim...

She is a 5.1 kilo silver beauty and was brought home this morning after a 2 hour fishing outing in the Gave d’Oloron.  She is now gutted and filleted and safetly packed away in the freezer for many meals to come.
The Gave is our fishing, walking and swimming haunt and one of the few rivers on the continent where the Atlantic Salmon still come home to. After spending their youth in the river of their birth, the Salmo Salar migrate to the Greenland seas to grow before returning to spawn in their river of origin.  On their return, they have to deal with bigger nastier and hungrier fish who gobble them up,  sea fishing boats, drift nets, sewage , corn farmers nitrates and Jean Francois et al.
I really believe its terribly cruel to catch such marvellous creatures and eat them but Jean Francois has caught and released two salmon already this year and the rest of the time he just misses, so one a year on the plate is the pre-season deal we made and here she is. 





Grilled Salmon with Sorrel Pesto

Pesto
30g Pine Nuts
2 cloves of Garlic
50g of young Sorrel leaves
A small bunch of flat leafed Parsley (stalks removed)
30g hard Goats Cheese or Pecorino
Olive Oil
Sea Salt

2 large Salmon Fillets on the skin

Put the pine nuts, cheese and garlic into a food processor and pulse until chopped and combined. Add the sorrel, parsley and combine once more. Slowly add the olive oil until pesto has the right consistency for you.
Spoon into a jar and cover with a slick of olive oil (it will keep for a week in the fridge).
Slide the fillets skin side down on the heat (plancha, grill, frying pan) with a little oil or fat. I use a little duck fat... The oil or fat should sizzle around the margins of the fillet.
The skin takes the worst of the heat, which is slowly conducted through the flesh to cook it slowly and gently. 
When the skin side is well and truly brown - anything less and it will not be crunchy and the flesh has lost its raw colour up to around three quarters of its depth from the skin. Flip the fillets and cook on the other side for one minute. Serve with the sorrel pesto and one or two boiled new potatoes on the side or a little boiled samphire with lemon.


 

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Peas


Peas are better than sweets.
Imagine there are people who exist that don't like peas. There are actually people who are pea-phobic - suffer from a pea phobia. I have some compassion for people who have spider phobias but peas are beyond my comprehension. Fear of a small green round ball coming in their direction ....
Well I'm the opposite - a peaphile...
In November I sow the little scary green balls and guard them like a hawk until they germinate.  The giant crows and jackdaws that live in the canopy of oak forest 50m due west are eyeing them greedily and if I'm not on standby at 8am on every november morning, I'm going to lose perhaps half them. This year I wasn't quite vigilant enough and they poked out every second seed pea which makes their crime look less obvious but my peas are little less dense than other years. I grow early because I can. Down here there is little heavy frost and the seeds germinate easily on a sunny, december day and then stay still until the days begin to warm up again in February. By then the roots are well installed which means my pea plants will be strong, healthy and their fruit delicious. I plant another plot at the beginning of spring so that I can spread out the harvest but once the sun starts to shine, they all seem to catch up on each other. 



They're really easy peasy to grow. They just require some good fertile soil, moisture, a strong trellis and as the days warm up a little bit of shade. 
It begins to get too hot for peas here after June. The season is short so I eat them for breakfast on my porridge, raw for  lunch and cooked for dinner and by the time the last pea is plucked in June, I no longer appreciate them and can hold out for another year. 
Once frizzled, dry and dead, they continue feeding the earth with nitrogen and just need to be turned into the soil, roots and all to provide a nice nourishing breakfast for the tomatoes or courgettes that follow.
As soon as the pea is picked, the sugars turn to starch, so the sweetest peas are the freshest peas - small, bright green and firm. We eat them straight from the pod as the spring garden is grelinetted and planted out and they prove to be the perfect sustenance. Once they get to the kitchen, they are dropped in boiling salted water for 15 seconds and no longer, just to warm them through, and served with a sprinkling of fleur de sel. 
As the season advances the peas become mealy, starchy but make an excellent soup or puree with mint, garlic or both. Lettuce, lemon and mint love them, as do pork chops, risotto and fresh sheep cheese....



Pea and Mint Sformato

4 people

2 kilos of peas, podded
50g unsalted butter
100g finely grated parmesan
200g finely chopped spring onions
2tbs fresh chopped mint
2tbs fresh chopped basil
200g ricotta or fresh sheep cheese
2tbsp sheeps yoghurt
2 large fresh eggs
Olive oil
S&P

Preheat oven to 190°/375°/5. Butter a 20cm spring release  tin generously and sprinkle with a little of the grated parmesan.
Melt the remaining butter in a medium saucepan, add the onion and fry gently until soft. Add half the mint, basil and 100ml of boiling water. Add the peas (if older) and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Put half the mixture in the food processor with the yoghurt and ricotta. Blend to mix briefly. Add the eggs one at a time.
Put the mixture in a large bowl with the remaining pea mixture, s&p, herbs and half the remaining parmesan. Pour into the prepared tin. Drizzle over and little olive oil and sprinkle on the remaining cheese. Bake for 30 minutes until the sformato has risen and is crisp and brown on top. Its ready when it is firm and pulling away from the sides. Remove from the oven. Rest for 5 minutes and remove from the tin onto a serving plate. Cut into wedges and serve warm with some fresh, grilled ventreche or a pork cutlet....



Saturday, 7 May 2011

Elderflower Cordial


It may seem that I'm a little obsessed with flowers just now but both the acacia and elder are blooming at just about the same time and both are such important flowers in nature as they are in my kitchen.
Elderflower cordial is an essential ingredient for me. I use it in crumbles, jellies, sorbets and iced with sparkling water on a blistering, hot august afternoon. The elderflower goes so well with all those tart fruit; rhubarb and gooseberry to name just two. Their harsh astringency is scented and softened by the elderflower and with sugar to sweeten - its unbeatable.
Right now the their white flowers are hanging thickly from the trees and the air is filled with wafts of their musky, lemon, meadow scent.





When in Paris the other day, I went looking for Elderflower essential oil or some sort of elderflower natural fragrance but it just doesn't exist. The day I begin using perfume is the day someone smart finds a way of extracting its essence.  
Elder trees grow like dandelions in this part of the countryside but in urban areas, they are just as abundant and accessible in parks and wasteland and are worth a dawn raid. In Paris, I see them in every park, on the motorways leading into Paris, and even at the airport. I'm sure its not so great to use the carbon monoxide flavoured variety, but there must be so many places where this tree grows safely.
I mentioned dawn raid, as apparently the best moment to collect the flowers is 2 hours after sunrise as they are then at their most fragrant. 
The next thing you need, is a tall, strong man with a fine long stick, a pair of scissors and a basket. The mans shoulders should be broad and muscular and will help you reach the most exposed blossoms high up in the upper branches. The stick will help steady the man or pull the blossoms closer and then clip clip and into the basket.







The ideal flower heads are those that are freshly opened, not spent - look for those "sprays" in which a few of the tiny flowers are still in bud.


Elderflower Cordial

Makes 2.5 litres

1.2kg cane sugar
1.8 litres water
30 large elderflower heads
50g citric acid
2 sliced oranges
2 sliced lemons

Dissolve the sugar in a large saucepan of water over a moderate heat stirring all the time. Leave to cool slightly. Pick over the flower heads for any dead leaves or insects and remove as much of the thick stalk as possible (which can spoil the flavour). Put the flower heads, fruit slices and citric acid into a large bowl and pour over the syrup. Leave to infuse for 24 hours in a cool place, stirring from time to time.

Sterilise some bottles and lids by washing and rinsing them and keeping in an oven at 140° for 15 minutes. Strain the cordial through a muslin (or tea towel) lined sieve into the bottles. Seal and leave to cool. Can be kept for a fortnight in the fridge or decant into plastic bottles and freeze for later use.

(Lots of recipes suggest pouring boiling water over the blossoms but I think cooler water freshens the flavour. Citric acid can be found at the chemists. Its usually used by heroin addicts so don't mind the strange looks you may get)



Monday, 2 May 2011

Acacia Flowers





No time to waste!


The short season of Acacia is just nearing its end but there are still some flowers left on the trees facing north and bloody hell, a beignet of this fragrant, nectar-rich bloom with a dollop of sheeps yoghurt sorbet is the ambrosia of desserts.

Acacia Beignets


4 people


20 heads of freshly picked Acacia flowers



200g plain flour
1 beaten egg
300ml cold sparkling water
A good glug of grappa 
Light oil for frying
Icing sugar for dusting


Sift the flour into a bowl and make a well in the middle. Put the egg into the well and mixing with a wooden spoon, start incorporating the egg into the flour. Gradually add the water, mixing all the time until the batter is thin, like double cream, and smooth. Finally mix in the grappa. Leave the batter to rest in the fridge for 15 minutes or so. Heat the oil in a deep pan, it needs to come at least 3cm up the sides. Test the heat by dropping in a teaspoonful of batter, it should bubble and start to turn golden quickly. One at a time, dip the flowers into the batter. Shake off the excess and lower them carefully into the hot oil, holding onto the stalk. Cook them for a few seconds on each side or until the batter turns golden.
Remove and lay on kitchen roll to absorb any excess oil.
When they are all cooked, dust with icing sugar and serve hot with a dollop of sheeps yoghurt sorbet and a glass of sweet Jurancon doux.