Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Wild Fruit




What could be better than a vegetable garden - a garden where you don't have to dig, weed, water or kill slugs? A garden where food just grows without needing nurturing or care in a greenhouse or as a seed. Its all out there in the fields and forests that surround Mailhos - just like road kill but without the blood. Free and fresh berries, nuts and seeds that are dripping with vitamins and goodness and can be transformed into delicious delicacies. I've made a bet with Jean Francois that every day for two weeks, I will find a berry or fruit or nut among the hedgerows that we can eat without poisoning or killing ourselves and without turning into someone who knits their own yoghurt.
So far so good although the walnuts and hazels have yet to ripen but berries are plentiful and ripe.

Rose-hip comes first and although best after the first frost, which could be in December but by then the hoards of ravenous thrushes will have gobbled down every last one. The orange-reddish berries contain crowds of creamy white seeds protected by even more irritant hairs so they should never be eaten raw.
On Sunday I made some rose-hip syrup that will be our winter cold and flu, vitamin C syrup and is supposedly delicious over yoghurts, ice creams and pancakes....

Rosehip Syrup

1.5 litres

500g Rosehips
650g Cane Sugar

Pick over all the hips, removing stalks and old petals. Rinse well in cold water.
Bring 800ml of water to the boil. Chop the rosehips in a food processor. Add to the boiling water. Cover and boil again. Remove from the heat and allow to stand for 20 minutes. Pour through a muslin and leave to drip into a bowl for an hour or two. Keep the juice to the side.
Bring another 800ml of water to the boil and add the rosehip pulp again. Leave to stand again for 30 minutes and pour through the the muslin once again. Leave to drain overnight.
Combine both strained juices and throw the fruit pulp away. Measure the juice (you should have 1litre) and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar and heat slowly until sugar has dissolved. Boil for 3 minutes and pour immediately into warm, sterilised bottles and cork or close.
Use within 4 months.



and then yesterday it was the turn of the haw berry. The young leaves of the Hawthorn are delicious and nutty in a salad and a sauce of young leaves chopped with mustard, garlic, sorrel and a dressing of vinegar and brown sugar make a perfect accompaniment to roast lamb but right now the haw berries are the crimson glory of the hedges. Naturally peppery and lemony they make a perfect sauce for a venison or pork roast in winter. I made two bottles and Jean Francois likes it or loves it and might just replace the Heinz ketchup on his next burger.




Spicy Haw Ketchup


300ml bottle


500g Haw Berries
300ml Cider Vinegar
300ml Water
170g Cane Sugar
Half a teaspoon of salt
Black pepper

Pick over the haws and remove the stalks. Rinse well in cold water.
Boil the haws in a pan with the vinegar and water and then simmer for around 30 minutes or until the skins split and you see the yellow flesh inside. Remove from the heat and rub the mixture through a sieve or a mouli the remove the stones and skin.
Return the mixture to the saucepan and add the sugar and heat until dissolved. Boil for 5 minutes and then season with salt and pepper. Pour into a sterilised bottle with a vinegar-proof car and use within the year.




....and today its crab apple day. The forest below us in right now laden with fruit and as a pectin rich fruit is perfect for jelly with a little fresh herbs added. I'm think I'll be frugal and  make just a few jars as  I realise if I keep this foraging at this rate, along with the fruits from the orchard and my vegetable garden harvest, I'll be prepared for a 12 year underground nuclear war with the whole population or Salies de Bearn sleeping in our barn. Spring will arrive and I'll be feeding dried mushrooms to the chickens and forcing Jean Francois to eat a kilo of jam per day and when he becomes obese and diabetic, I'll feel truly guilty....





Crab Apple Jelly


1kg Crab Apples
450g Cane Sugar (for every 600ml of strained fruit juice)
3 Cloves
2 Cinnamon Sticks


Pick over fruit, removing stalks and leaves and rinse well in cold water.
Chop the apples up roughly and place in a saucepan with 600ml of water and the spices. Bring gently to a simmer and cook slowly until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Remove from the heat.
Pass the mixture through a muslim into a clean bowl and leave to drip overnight.
Measure the juice. Bring the juice slowly to the boil and for every 600ml, add 450g of sugar. Stir until dissolved. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes until setting point is reached. Skim the surface of the jelly and put into pots and seal. Keeps for 1 year.







Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Aubergine




An aubergine for me is vegetable meat!
I have started a love affair with aubergines since I started growing them myself. The discovery of italian thin skinned varieties saved me from sticking the aubergine into the rubbish bin of disappointing taste. An uncooked aubergine tastes like a fleecy-floury apple with a flesh that disintegrates into a slimy, soggy mush when cooked badly and a leathery skin with little to offer on the perfume stake. Its neither crunchy nor crispy but once roasted it bleeds tantalising perfumes and flavours and the flesh becomes a majestic caviar.
Harvesting the Bianca Rontonda Sfumata di Rosa, Violette de Firenze and Listada di Gandhia, three thin-skinned Italian varieties is the highlight of the gardening season. 




You need to have a hot, long summer and good, hummus-rich soil and weekly wettings of nettle and comfrey tea to get an aubergine to flower and fruit. My only worry with them this year is that a family of field mice have decided to make a mouse motorway through the roots of three of my best and most beautiful plants. The plants have started looking a little worse for wear since Jean Francois failed in his attempts to trap them with his new swiss-designed SUPER CAT underground mouse-trap but his idea to leave garlic cloves in the tunnels just might work. In any case ten other plants are growing wonderfully while looking very handsome.
Botanically speaking its a fruit (have you ever eaten an aubergine dessert?) but it seems to deserve the vegetable classification more than corn, beans or tomatoes. Like the tomato and potato, the leaves of the aubergine are horribly poisonous and the fruits contain a reasonable amount of nicotine but not enough to give a high. 


Nice to know it known as the Brown Jolly in the west indies ; a corruption of the indian/persian word Brinjal where its origins lie. 
After travelling from its homeland in India to Persia and onto the middle east where the arabs, turkish and the lebanese really made the best dishes from it; mouttabal (burnt aubergine with tahini), baba ganoush (aubergine caviar) and iman bayaldi (stuffed aubergine). The romans hated the fruit and called it the apple of insanity so it was left to the moors to bring it to Spain and from there it made it to Sicily and mainland southern Italy in the 14th century to give us Melanzane Parmigiana (layered tomato and aubergine gratin).
Most cookbooks advise salting the aubergines which is not that necessary with the cultivated and less bitter varieties grown today but it does break down the flesh a little and stops the fruit sponging up fearsome quantities of olive oil in the cooking.
I love them best cooked simply like most of my fresh vegetables; roasted with a brush of olive oil and topped with the sweetest of orange orange flavoured tomatoes, a pinch of grated parmesan and fresh basil...

Roast Aubergines with Orange Tomato 

4 people as a starter

2 large aubergines sliced into 2cm disks
8 orange tomatoes (red is just fine too) halved and squeezed of seeds and juice
100g grated parmesan
2 tbs torn basil leaves
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper

Preheat oven to 200°/6
Place the aubergines on kitchen paper and sprinkle with sea salt. Leave for 15 minutes, rinse well and pat dry.
Chop the tomatoes into small pieces and put them in a bowl with the parmesan and basil and season well. Stir in 1tbs of olive oil.

Brush a baking tray with olive oil. Place the aubergines on the tray in a single layer. Brush well with olive oil and season. Bake for 20 minutes. Turn over and spoon over the tomato mixture. Return to the oven for 15 minutes and serve warm with fresh bread.






Monday, 22 August 2011

Aubrac


Holiday time in fields of granite, among kohl rimmed cows and wild orchids.



Swimming in fathomless crater lakes of blue, lazing in the high grass and savouring Bras's Gargouillou of young vegetables or an aligot....




Monday, 15 August 2011

Sweet Corn



August is the month when France closes up shop. The streets of cities are bare and even the countryside seems quieter with the warmer weather which sends the small birds for shelter under the forest canopy to protect their soft plumage from the scorching sun and the insects to nest and hide from the same. 
The countryside is calm and quiet with the odd buzzing bee or dragonfly who love to take the shortcut through the house to the back garden.
Vegetables are in abundance and I have been scratching my head trying to figure out which of the many marvels I will announce here. The decision, of course, is aesthetic and is sweet corn.
First of all, most people who know me, know that one of my biggest nemesis is the corn plant. In the south west of France, its like all the lights went out in the farmers' brains and they woke up one morning with a single thought and image in their grey cells that said yellow-hybrid-cob-field-everywhere and that was it. The green revolution had arrived!


Luckily we don't have the plains of the american mid-west surrounding us, but the fields are big and abundant enough to make sure this monotonous and leggy cereal blocks all views to the river, hills and sometimes even the clouds. One reason I live in the countryside is because of a chronic feeling of claustrophobia I get in the city but sometimes in August here, small back roads are just as distressing. Corn covers the land and makes lazy farmers lots of money, children very fat and offers absolutely little in terms of nutrients or goodness. Its just cheap and easy to plant in the ground with a few tons of chemical fertiliser, a spray or ten of pesticides and bobs your uncle - the cereal farmers are off to sit on the beach for the rest of the summer months. I wouldn't even feed my chickens this junk as cows supposedly nourished on corn pass wind enough to threathen our whole planet and climate and I don't want my chickens doing the same..... Anyway I'm sure I've plenty more to say on this subject at maize harvest time.
And back to sweet corn which takes pride in my garden. I grow Texas Honey, Martian Purple and Black Mexican  but unhelpfully they all seem to ripen in the same week so we are currently making up for the lack of corn syrup in our diet and catching up on lots of carbohydrate meals.


Sweet corn is not France's most popular food as there seems to be little you can do with it apart from boiling, barbequeing and chutney. It also seems its one of the few vegetables that you have to grow in your garden, as sweet corn starts converting it sugar into starch immediately after its picked. Of course modern sugar enhanced hybrids do no such thing and can last weeks in the fridge but I happen to have some fine, fragile and finicky varieties who deserve careful handling. If its not in the garden, it needs to bought locally and eaten almost straight away. The silk peeping out at the top need to be  almost sticky looking and the cob firm and plump and the kernels, shiny and healthy. A worm is not to be worried about too much as you are sure the pesticides are not too abundant.
Sweet Corn needs warm weather days, water and rich soil. This year the weather has been dicey but the downpour of a fortnight ago saved the crop from devastation. 
Yesterday at lunchtime, we ate some delicious black and honey coloured grilled cobs - the husks peeled back and the silk discarded, moistened with water before grilling for 7 minutes which helps keep them from burning over the hot rack. Served with butter and salt and a quarter of fresh lime.



Red Corn and Roasted Cherry Tomato Salsa

20 small red cherry tomatoes
1 sprig fresh thyme
2tbs olive oil
2 grilled corn cobs
Salt and Pepper

Preheat oven to 190°c. In a small baking dish, toss the tomatoes with the thyme and sage leaves and  a tablespoon of olive oil. Put the dish in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.
Scrape the corn kernels from the cob and toss together wit the remaining olive oil and tomatoes. Season to taste. Serve with grilled fish!


Thursday, 11 August 2011

Cucumber



These plants need plenty of space and a big garden is a necessity, considering how many plants you need to have as many varieties as I.
I'm not even a cucumber fan but I love the colours, textures and shapes. 


I just grow them because I can and sometimes I even eat them but I tend to forgo the pleasure. 
I have the baby pickling cucumbers growing up the teepee, my friend Sylvain constructed for us in lieu of a slap-up dinner and their fragile looking tendrils are busy covering the whole structure. These cuties are small, firm and have an exceptional flavour and are my favourite of all. 


The rest are lovely but make one fart...

Cucumber Gaspacho

6 people

1 small heart of celery
2 green peppers
1 large peeled and de-seeded cucumber
1 fresh green chilli (as hot as you deem necessary)
5 garlic cloves
1 small white onion
1tsp cane sugar
50g fresh walnuts
30g fresh basil
20g fresh parsley
150g fresh borage leaves, swiss chard or spinach
25ml Xeres vinegar
200ml olive oil
80g sheeps yoghurt 
400ml cold iced water
Salt and Pepper

Chop the celery, pepper, chilli, garlic, onion and cucumbers put them all into a blender. Add the rest of the ingredients and most of the water and blitz together. Season well and serve cold with ice cubes. Keep in the fridge until needed. Will keep well for 24 hours.




Marinated Cucumbers

I large cucumber or 20 small pickling cucumbers
25ml soya sauce
75ml sesame oil
25ml white wine vinegar
Salt and Pepper

Leaving the skin on, cut the cucumber in long strips (8cm) discarding any seeds (leave the small cucumbers whole. Place in a jar and add the soy sauce, sesame oil and white wine vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper and allow to marinate. Keep in the fridge until needed.  





Saturday, 6 August 2011

French Beans



I usually call them green beans but my beans are not all green; the purple coloured Cosse Violette, the buttery-yellow Or de Rhin, the flat and green Chevrier Vert and the small and curly comma  Crochu d'Ete bean to be more precise. 
Each variety is curling their way up the twine strings, attached as a wigwam to a central pole and held to the soil with tents pegs and holding well despite the southern winds that they have been hitting the garden over the past few days. The ivory, violette and creamy flowers shine intensely among their dark green leaves. 


Some are in flower, others in bud but lots are ready to eat. I've grown four different varieties, four different colours this year. Two are dwarf and two climb to the sky and they all have been planted at different times so I'll have enough fresh beans to get me through the autumn months.


I can grow beans early here as they just need a soil warmer than 12°C to get them germinating. By May they are sending out their first climbing tentacles but don't produce flowers and beans until July when they go barmy. Surrounded by cucumber plants, who keep the soil mulched and moist and sometimes join forces on the wigwam so I can have a precious and fragile looking bean growing up the same string as a big showy Sikkim cucumber competing for space and light.


I love growing them because they are not only scrumptious and beautiful but also such fun to search for the dangling pods among the flowers and leaves. Pick them when young and not too formed and follow the advice of my mother in-law, Madame Simone Gaillard and add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to the cooking water to keep the pods a vivid green. 
I had a problem with green beans in my first years in France as my earliest memories of eating them were boiled to smithereens in a cocotte minute and served on a plate in tatters, over-salted to compensate for the lack of matter remaining.
Even though a bean needs to be cooked, there is so much to be said for a plate of freshly picked, lightly steamed butter-yellow beans tossed and glistening with melted butter, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. The perfect bean should have some bite to it but if its fresh will not need more than three minutes cooking. The purple varieties turn green once cooked so they just resemble the rest on the plate but impress in the garden.
For green beans I think of butter, roast garlic and onions, tarragon and chervil served with grilled fish, meat and very little imagination....

Roasted Red Onion and Bean Salad

2 large red onions
4 large handfuls of trimmed french beans
2 tsps grainy dijon mustard
2 tbsp brown rice vinegar
8 tbsp olive oil
1 large clove of garlic finely grated
2 tsps on finely chopped tarragon
Salt and pepper

Preheat the over to 220°/7. Leaving the skins intact, wrap the onions in foil and bake in the oven for one hours until soft.
Make the french dressing by whisking the mustard, vinegar and olive oil together in a bowl. Season and add the garlic.
When the onions are ready, unwrap them and peel off the skin. While still warm, cut them in quarters and separate their layers and add them to the dressing.
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Add the beans with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda and cook for 3 minutes. When ready, drain in a colander and when still warm toss with the onions in  the dressing and sprinkle with the tarragon.


Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Garden again...


The vegetable garden is flourishing and suffering at the same time and the worst that can happen to a vegetable gardener has happened to us. My tomato plants have been infected by the mildew/blight virus and no matter how much love and care and encouraging chats they get, they are just not pulling through. Out of 60 plants, I had to pull up 12 after the fortnight of rain and chilly nights that left the soil sodden and hindered any growth. Since then I'm fighting against the elements, spraying with bordeaux mix and trying not to as the copper within will perhaps kill the beast but also kill us when we eat the fruits. I'm alternately feeding them tisanes of nettles and horsehair and hoping they will build up enough strength and immunity to survive until the tomatoes ripen and then they can wither away and fall down dead. 
Mildew is the nastiest of the gardeners foes.


It starts with a little brown spot on the leaves that could be a burn from a drop of water after a hot day and the following day the spot has turned into a splotch and then the splotch turns into a dead tomato branch and then the dead tomato branch becomes a big brown patch on the stem this big brown patch moves further down the stem to the roots and rots the whole plant browning the fruit as it descends. 


I haven't any photos of infected fruit so far and fingers crossed that it will stay that way but my optimism is limited and all wonderful hopes for a tomato harvest this summer will come to an end!
But I also mentioned flourishing and apart from melons, grapes and tomatoes that have all taken a blast from the extreme weather conditions of the past weeks, the aubergines


swiss chard


pumpkins


 chilli peppers


and much more, look gorgeous and juicy and hopeful. But how can one possibly replace the tomato....?