Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Butterflies




"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower."  ~Hans Christian Anderson

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Apricots


In Bearn, nobody grows apricots - this is not apricot country and yet the two trees I planted 4 years ago are thriving and laden with garlands of fruit. The only good reason I can find for their good health and abundance must be that both were planted where the cows used to come home to rest at night when Mailhos was still a working farm - its was once a veritable cow toilet.
The soil around this spot is crumbly like couscous and black as a crows feathers and whatever is planted their is happy as larry and grows like the devil. They are sheltered from the harsh winds of the north and west  and thrive in the morning sun. For the past few years I have had enough apricot jam to get us through the year and weeks of tarts, compotes and clafoutis.



Soft and tender like a babys bottom tasting of honey and almonds, the garden apricot tastes nothing like the oversized, yellowy, floury and sickly sweet fakes that we find in supermarkets. Mine are dotted with russet freckles and glow an intense orange when pinched apart.


The stronger the colour, the sweeter the taste...
The flowers were in bloom early this year and suffered a little from the cold nights but luckily we had new blossoms in March which have provided us with all we need.
Early mornings the fruit needs to be collected otherwise the thrushes and chicken make a good breakfast out of the first, early fall. Jean Francois and I sit under the tree on stifling days like today with just our toes in the sun, the rest in the shade gobbling up the days catch.
I love a good sauce of this fruit with a duck fillet instead of the usual orange. The acidity married to its sweetness makes it the perfect fruit for meat sauces. Sublime in a crumble and makes the best of jams but of course once picked off the ground they rarely make it to the kitchen...

Apricot Jam Ice-Cream

6 people

500g apricot jam
1 litre double cream
275ml fresh milk
9 organic egg yolks
200g cane sugar
100ml vin d'orange

In the thick-bottomed saucepan, combine the cream and milk. Heat gently and do not boil.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and thick.
Pour a ladleful of the hot cream  into the egg mixture to loosen it and then add this mixture back into the hot cream. Cook very gently stirring constantly to prevent curdling until thick. Pour into a bowl and cool.
Put this cool custard into an ice-cream machine and churn for 5-6 minutes until just about to freeze. Stir the vin d'orange into the jam and add half of this to the cream. Churn for another 6 minutes. Add the remaining jam and churn until ice-cream. Serve or freeze.

Apricot Sauce and Chocolate Soufflés

6 people

Sauce
400g pitted apricots cut into chunks
3tbsp cane sugar
Juice of a small orange
1 tbsp of vin d'orange (optional)

Soufflés
30g butter chopped into cubes
35g cane sugar
120g best quality dark chocolate broken into pieces
a pinch of salt
3 egg yolks
4 egg whites
1/2 tsp lemon juice

To make the sauce, put the apricots into a heavy based pan with the sugar and orange juice and over a moderate heat stir until the sugar is dissolved - no more than three minutes. Take off the heat, add the vin d'orange and puree with a food processor until smooth. Its important to keep the good apricot acidity and not add too much sugar but it all depends on how sugary your teeth are.
Preheat the oven to 190°/5 and butter 6 medium ramekins. Keep in the fridge until needed.
Place a heatproof pan over a pan of simmering water (the base of the pan should not touch the water) and melt the chocolate and butter together. Once melted leave to cool.
In  a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until light and thick. Fold carefully, with a spatula, into the melted chocolate/butter mixture.
In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy and then add the lemon juice until them form stiff peaks. Fold carefully and thoroughly  into the chocolate mixture. Divide between the six ramekins and clean off the edges with your thumb or a cloth. Place on a baking sheet and cook for 8 minutes.
The centre of the soufflé should be almost liquid.
Warm the sauce gently. Break into the soufflé with your spoon and pour a little sauce into the hole and gorge.


Thursday, 23 June 2011

Hay


Enaut Harispuru and his papa come every June or early July, at the latest, to cut the hay. 
We've spent the past few days checking the fields together, walking to and fro over our hilly terrain, making sure that no fawns have been left nesting and hidden by their mothers or the hen harrier couple have finished hatching their eggs near the boggy terrain to the east. Its lots of good exercise and important because once Enaut arrives nothing is safe from his big machine. 



The buzzards, kites and carrion crows will be content at last with the open fields exposing their prey and will leave my chickens in peace (Molly was taken by a hen harrier a few weeks ago) and my young vegetables to grow strong.


Once the hay is cut, the grass will grow back just enough to have a good forage in September for, maybe, 10 pregnant Blonde d'Aquitaine future mamma cows who Enaut will transport here for autumn feeding and to give birth in a zennish Mailhos atmosphere.


Last year, one of these fine young ladies gave birth in a very cavernous part of the farmland, all alone. I was calmly reading my book by the pool when she approached the fence, mooing noisily. At first I thought she was just a little daft and waved to her condescendingly and then realised it was a serious matter and moved towards her. Once she saw that she had caught my attention, she led me to a desolate little spot, near  a brook where the soil tends to collapse in on itself due to the many underground water sources branching together. I looked around as she mooed impatiently and saw nothing out of the ordinary  but in one spot I noticed thousands of flies gathering. Coming closer, I caught sight of the back legs of a calf jutting out of a deep hole and saw they were moving. The poor baby had fallen  head first into a water hole and was either drowning or had broken bones. Mother cow continued her sad sobs, while I ran hollering to the house calling for Jean Francois and a rope. Jean Francois's initial reaction to his name being called out, is to shut the windows and ignore me so after his little theatre piece of disregarding his wife, he came equipped with rope and a few more muscles than I.
Mummy cow was very pleased to see us both arriving and after tying a rope around her baby and dragging him to safety, she completely ignored us and licked the calf clean while turning on us her evil eye to say 'your work is done, now move on". Baby was shaken but fine and I felt proud of my veterinary abilities and mother cow proved her wisdom when faced with danger. 
Enaut repays us for the hay, in friendship, good beef, some easter lamb and a good basque party with his family every September on the family farm in Ibarolle. The best of deals!




Sunday, 19 June 2011

Radish


When you're feeling miserable and have little appetite and are in no mood to cook, you can always eat a radish. They are almost not like food but are good for you. They grow from a grain to a radish in three weeks without much more care than a bit of weeding. I started in March and since then I've sown seeds every two weeks to make sure that I'm never without.
The Flamboyant is my usual choice and does very well in my soil and seems to survive the thrushes and slugs. Its got a soft heat,  is tender and firm with a little white cap below the soil line. The seeds are scattered here and there between other vegetables and fruit - all except the cabbage which has a certain dislike for their robustness.


Ready to pick and eat when their shoulders poke through the surface of the soil and are best eaten young and crisp with a cold butter mixed with their barely cooked peppery leaves and a little fleur of sea salt to dip in.
An instant aperitif to cleanse the palate and activate the appetite or served with any fatty meats is always a good idea.
The leaves are peppery and are the perfect replacement for watercress or rocket in a salad or stir fry.
I also sow the green and red meat variety as they are so beautiful to look at when sliced and impress any salad. They take a little more time to grow so they need their own space.


The Snake Radish is the weirdest of all but tastes quite delicious when young and fresh. A radish that grows from the flower on a bush into a fruit in the air and tastes like a radish without the soily taste. The pods grow to 20cm long and one bush produces prodigious quantities all summer long. Once they are a day or two old they become a fibrous and need to be pickled or left for the birds. Grow them near your carrots and they'll keep the carrot fly at bay.




Any suggestions of cooking a radish root should be ignored as the recipe writer is surely demented.
Slice them in a salad, mixed with mint, olive oil and lemon juice on a stifling hot summers day or when nothing seems to be right and you're missing the billy cat....

Radishes with Green Butter


1 bunch of radishes with their leaves still green and fresh
100g butter
A pinch of good sea salt
A pinch of Espelette chilli or just black pepper

Put the butter into a bowl and leave it in a warm place to soften.
Wash the radishes. Cut off the leaves 3cm above the radish and throw away all the yellowed or damaged ones. Trim the root ends.
Boil some water and dip the leaves into the hot water for literally 5 seconds. Rinse them in cold water and shake off all the water through a strainer. Chop very finely by hand or in a food processor. Strain again to remove all excess liquid.
Mix the butter with a wooden spoon and incorporate slowly the chopped leaves. Add the salt and chilli pepper. Keep the butter in the fridge until needed.
Serve with the radishes, a little fleur de sel and some good fresh bread.



Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Spider

An enormous chunk of our lives died yesterday of pulmonary complications. Spider, who shared in all our adventures in the last 12 years, who was the third member of our force, who was the smartest and funniest little creature, left us so suddenly that we are unable to understand why and how.
When we arrived in Mailhos, he was so happy to be far from the city and the restrictions of walls. His paws were made for the soft earth. He accompanied us our our mushroom hunts in the forest and long walks in the field. He understood time and 5pm was feeding hour and without fail he was in the vegetable garden to remind me of my duties. He was feared by field mice, respected by the chickens, laughed at by the birds, scorned by dog lovers but loved so much by us.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Teatime for Plants


A wonderful new recipe that is sticky, gluey and maggoty with a throat-closing stench and once it touches the human flesh, the smell takes many days and baths and essential oils to remove. Probably good to have a bio-hazard suit or failing that, some thick washing up gloves and rubber boots or else you could smell of road kill for a long time after. 
After compost, nettle tea has to be the best fertiliser around. Not only do the vegetables cry out for it once a week through the growing season, but the roses, fruit trees and vines love it too especially when flowering.  In France, the nettle has become a very controversial subject in country circles as the government or perhaps just the ministry with the connivance of the chemical companies wanted to forbid its commercialisation many years ago using the excuse that Nettle Tea sold in gardening centres, was not tested for safety and efficiency like all the other fertilisers and therefore was dangerous for its customers. Of course, their argument was so idiotic that we all laughed heartily and nettle tea is still sold commercially but why not just make it yourselves.
The recipe is simple - 1 kg of fresh nettles (before they flower) and 10 litres of water (preferably rainwater). In a large bucket steep both together for 10 days or until the smell is unbearable and the liquid turns syrupy. 



When ready, sieve the whole lot into a 10 litre dark or at least opaque  petrol canister (that never held petrol before of course). 


The nettle tea should not be exposed to the light, otherwise it lose its magical properties. Dilute at 1:5 and feed the plants. Tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cabbage, courgette and pumpkins love it. You can almost see the plants grow 10cm as you spray. Onions and turnips and radishes don't seem to appreciate its odour but they are not fertiliser mad anyway. 
One good tip: do not spray the same day you plan to eat as your veg or fruit will stink .
Another good tip: Spray the leaves in the morning and the roots in the evening
And another good tip: add a little liquid black soap to the spray to help the tea stick a little to the leaves
And one more good tip: Along with the leaves and plants, steep the roots of the nettles and you will give the tea some fungicide properties. 
But of course the best fungicide to fight against mildew and leaf curl is Horsetail tea and as you can see, we've got enough to start a factory.




Rich in silica and many trace minerals, a decoction of horsehair is a wonderful tonic for the more fragile plants like the tomato. Used in prevention on a weekly basis (associated with the nettle tea) I notice I am probably the last garden to be affected by mildew at the end of the season and manage to still have a green tomato harvest in November. Either steep 1kg in 10 litres of water for 2 weeks or boil I kg in a big saucepan with 10 litres of water for one hour and take off the heat, leave for 24 hours before sieving into an opaque canister, just like the nettles. 
Ferns can be steeped just like above for 10 days and used as an insecticide. They should all be diluted at 20%.

It manages to keep the white cabbage butterfly at a distance and can kill a wireworm in one go and also a great mulch for all brassicas.
THe list of plants growing around us, that can replace chemical pesticides, nitrates and fungicides is long and the season has just started. Comfrey is also a tomato tonic and they love a few leaves at their roots. Wormwood, ivy, calendula, garlic, dock leaves, sage and tansy all have some magical properties that stimulate and cure and now that I'm getting to understand the seasons of the south-west, I know that I will need each one of them to help me out at some stage during the coming months. Our home is going to smell just lovely.

Fascinating facts about nettles
1.   Nettles are responsible for rearing armies of  those cute little ladybirds in our gardens, preparing them to march on the aphids attacking crop plants later in the season
2.  Use nettle leaves to pack apples and pears etc for storage using the winter months - the nettle prevents moulds forming.
3.  Use fresh nettles as a compost activator as their natural nitrogen provide fuel for the bacteria to break down the more woody or carbon material in the heap.
4.  Hold your breath when picking nettles and you won't get stung.
5.  If your husband suffers from arthritis, whip him daily with a bunch of nettle plants and he'll  stop complaining and work harder in the garden.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Blackcurrants



Grew my blackcurrant bushes because my father grew them and secondly because I had a childhood addiction to Ribena cordial and lemonade.



Back in the old days, blackcurrants were treated almost like a medecine. They cured everything from sore throuts to tummy ache and more besides. I know a doctor in Paris, who, when he heard I was off to the countryside to grow vegetables and fruit was insistant that I grew blackcurrant bushes as for him it has the highest Vitamin C count of any fruit and is filled with antioxidants and in our isolation could cure us of all our ailments.
In Ireland the blackcurrants took months to ripen but it was still a fruit that flourished in our colder climate and lasted throughout the summer months. You see they love dampness and Ireland has a quantity of just that. The blackcurrant bush enjoys a good frost to kick start it in the early spring. My bushes certainly had none of that but they still seem to be flourishing.



After the weekend rain, I have bunches of plump and almost sweet fruit tumbling from branches and  its time to do something with them.
Most people seem to think that a blackcurrant has to be cooked to be of interest. I tend to disagree as I spend my afternoons in the vegetable garden feeding on handfuls of raw berries. After that there's compote and crumble, jam and tarts, jelly and summer pudding or, my favourite, just whisked in a food mixture with your own sugar requirement and served with fresh cream. Easy to freeze them too and I usually have too many all at once as my season here is short but bounteous and use them in the coldest winter months cooked with a roast loin of venison or wood pigeon or in a crumble with autumn blackberries.

Creme de Cassis


1kg blackcurrants
15 fresh blackcurrant leaves
2 litres light red wine (12°)
as much sugar as you have juice...

In a food mixer, crush the berries and then put the wine, leaves and fruit into a large bowl. Mix well, cover and leave to macerate in a cool place for a couple of days.
Pass the juice through sieve or a tea cloth into a large saucepan. (You can always use a pair of nylon tights which works just as well as long as they are clean).
Add the same weight of the juice in sugar and bring to the boil for 3 minutes stirring all the time to dissolve the sugar. Leave to cool and bottle and seal. Keep for at least 3 months before using.
Pour few drops of cassis in a glass and top up with white wine - and drink!