Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Persimmon




In France, as in Japan, we call them Kakis and down here in the South West they are very, very popular. I'm not very sure what they do with them, whether they make marmalade or compote or cakes but there is a tree in every garden turning russet red right now and lots of old ladies are on market stands are selling them among their wares for over a week. I'm waiting for our first frost to harvest ours but looking at the forecast for the next 2 weeks, it doesn't seem to bode well for winter weather. 
This is of course great news for Carol, Jean Francois and my cold hating chickens and bees but so many vegetables like brussels sprouts, winter kale and cavolo nero seem to improve after a good, cold night. Persimmons are no different! Rich in tannins, they need a good strong frost to break down the cellular wall to ripen the fruit. In order to jumpstart the ripening process,  Before using them, I'll just have stick them in the freezer for a night and imitate the "normal" weather cycle.
Arriving in Mailhos, we already had an ancient persimmon tree overlooking an eastern wall but the form of the tree, its leaves' autumn colours, not to mention the smooth, round fruit that dangles and shines like christmas decorations, encouraged us to buy another to plant nearer the main house.




Unfortunately the hachiya variety we bought must have been pumped and injected with fertilisers or botox in its previous life and reaching Mailhos went into resting mode,  because after 5 years in our naturally, rich and nourishing soil, it has not grown a centimetre and sits there in its optimal spot, protected from the winds, with a panoramic view of the Pyrennees and the blue sky overhead and just makes baskets and baskets of fruit which break its fragile branches and attracts plenty of mad, local hornets who go crazy on the spilt juice.



Ripe persimmons are good for you! Rich in vitamin C, minerals, antioxidants and betacarotene and can apparently save you from a heart attack and maybe even diabetes by revving up the bodies' metabolism.  For a flu or cold, a juice of persimmon with grated ginger will chase all bugs and bacteria and the Japanese, whose national fruit it is, use the leaves as a tisane to ease any digestive complaints. All in all a splendid addition to our garden and if needs be, I can always carve some golf club heads or billiard cues with the hard wood of the tree itself.... if it ever grows!
Until it ripens, the fruit is almost inedible. Its astringent and feels furry in the mouth. Its the high level of tannins that are so unpleasant and unpalatable before it is bletted or softened. although its firm texture is marvellous. Once ripe, I just need to remove the wavy calyx and  scoop out the flesh.



The fruit itself becomes a mini-juicebowl, apricoty in flavour but can be a little too jelly-like in texture.  From there on it is seasoned with lemon juice and added to salads, served in a salsa with crab and lobster or reduced to a puree and drizzled over foie gras, mixed into fruit bread and cakes or thrown into a smoothie or compote to tingle up a creamy dessert.

Coconut Panna Cotta with Persimmon and Ginger Puree

4 people

400ml tin of Coconut Milk
70g Cane Sugar
4 sheets of Gelatine
4 very ripe Persimmons
20g freshly grated Ginger
A few fresh Mint leaves

Soak the gelatine leaves in a bowl of cold water. Pour the tin of coconut milk into a small saucepan and add the sugar. Heat slowly, stirring constantly, until the coconut milk is well mixed and the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil and take off the heat. Add the gelatine leaves and stir well, until  melted, into the cream mixture. Pass the mixture through a sieve into 4 individual glasses or bowls and leave to cool.
Scrape out the flesh of the persimmons into a blender and add the grated ginger. Blend the mixture together.
Once the coconut cream is solid, spoon over the persimmon puree and serve with a few leaves of fresh mint and perhaps an almond florentine.






Thursday, 24 November 2011

Palombière





From mid-October to the end of November, every Autumn, its hard to find a plumber, electrician or mason. If your roof leaks, you will have to wait until december and, in the meantime, stick a bucket under the offending pipe or roof tile. If you expect the post to be delivered daily and on time, or the mayor to be found in his office during this period, you've chosen the wrong region to settle in because every bearnais, landais and basque male is high up a tree in a Palombière, waiting for wood pigeons to pass.



On the 18th October, the old saying goes "à la Saint Luc... le grand truc!" not only because its Saint Lukes day but also because the wood pigeons or the Palombes start arriving down south on their migration towards warmer climes and this is the "grand truc" or the big thing every local, male is waiting for. The men become feverish and can only be cured by climbing high into a dodgy, wood cabin in the trees, drink industrial rum and wait for these feathered flocks to pass by in their hundreds over the bearnais and basque forests and through the pyrenean mountain passes that they have used for centuries.
The wood pigeons finalise there summer holidays in northern Europe or Russia, fly south to North Africa making a few stops for acorn and corn breaks, between october and december. The basques like to stop them en route by imitating a hawk's attack, throwing "abataris", something like a table-tennis racket but painted white with chalk, at the weary birds who automatically dive lower and end up in a net at the centre of the pass. All very skillful and ambitious but not as intricate as the bearnais....
In front of Mailhos lies a deep forest of beech, oak and chestnut. The regular inhabitants of this dense undergrowth are the wild boars, hares, birds and deer but right now the voices of tipsy males can be heard echoing over the valley even though their nearest position is over a kilometre distance.


Within the forest, the men have built these crazy cabins, 15m high in the tallest of trees accessible only by a rickety staircase, rising at an angle of 90°, hammered together with the barest of nails and wood and not for the faint-hearted, vertiginous lady that I am.







As a female of the species, my presence is not welcome in these boys cabins where they reimagine their childhood playing in huts and dens so Jean Francois visits each year the three palombieres that surround us to enjoy a few bottles of the local Jurançon early in the morning.




In Bearn the hunting principle is very different to their Basque neighbour and a little more fair to the birds. The principle here is that the dodgy cabin is high above the other trees, well-camouflaged, and facing north so the palombes can be seen arriving at a distance. The canopy of oaks surrounding the cabin have been shaved and snipped  by Jose who, over the past 4 months has climbed a few hundred oaks to cut the upper leaves so that visibility is perfect for the boys.




Once the palombes are seen arriving in the distance, the men manouver decoy birds, both false and live (their own pet wood-pigeons - trained for years in the art) with up to 20 metres lines, like puppets from the camouflaged cabin, to attract the passing flock and encourage it to land on the canopy, which they like to do for a little rest on such a long and difficult journey. The decoys or pet birds fly in the air and then settle back on the trees which passing palombes see as an invitation to imitate.








(for example the above bird's, only task is to go back and forth from one tree to another)
Once in sight of the cabin, the men become warriors and the birds are shot. 
Personally I have many problems with any hunting involving men, dogs and wild animals and birds and the palombes numbers have dropped from 8 million ten years ago to 2 million today but Jean Francois does insist that they shoot very few birds and if the hunters didn't exist maybe we wouldn't have any more forests.... Good point so lets sing in praise of hunters!




Every year I receive my present of 4 feathery palombes from hunterman Marcel and once Jean Francois has plucked and cleaned them enough to make them look like anonymous poultry, I cook them.
In France and particularly here in the Bearn, they love to cook them in wine sauces and mop this up with lots of bread as the meat is scarce. My recipe just has to be the simplest of all...






Spiced Wood Pigeon Breasts with Steamed Savoy Cabbage


4 people


4 Palombes/Wood Pigeons
1tbs Cognac
100g Butter
2cm of fresh Ginger
1tsp Aniseed
1tsp whole White Pepper grains
1tsp Coriander seeds
50g old White Bread
Salt and Pepper

Heat the oven to 220°/7 Pound the aniseed, coriander,  ginger, pepper and a tsp of salt together with a mortar and pestle. Mix the spice mixture into the butter with your fingers. Pound the bread separately into crumbs and mix into the butter mixture, again using just your fingers. Place the mixture between two layers of greaseproof paper and roll out thinly. Keep flat and in the fridge.
Gut the wood pigeons, keeping the livers. Spatchcock them both using the kitchen scissors a press them out flat with your hands. Season well.
Melt 80g of the butter in a small baking tray just big enough to hold the birds, skin side up.  Spoon a little of the butter over the pigeons and put in the oven for 12 minutes. Remove the birds and keep warm. Keep the butter and juice to the side.
Fry the livers in the rest of the butter and add the cognac and a little water. Stir until reduced by half and then pass through a strainer. Add the cooking juice and butter and stir until well integrated. Season and keep warm.
Once the pigeons have cooled down, remove the breast from the bones. Cut 4 pieces of the spiced bread mix and place on each of the breasts. Grill  a minute or two until golden.
 Serve on a bed of steamed and seasoned cabbage with the sauce poured over....




Saturday, 19 November 2011

Lemon Verbena




The french are partial to tisanes before bedtime. As most times, I forget to drink until I'm sitting down in the evening, following a good dinner. Its then that I remember my thirst and can then knock down a litre or two of herbal tea and end up peeing all night.
My favourites have to be lemon-balm in the spring and lemon verbena in the summer and autumn and I then have my dried verbena to get me through the winter months. 
Mailhos had a marvellous giant verbena bush in the courtyard when I first arrived and since then I have taken cutting each year and planted them out in the summer. They need warm southern walls, good, loose soil, rainy summers and mild winters, all which my home can provide.



Most time I've succeeded in getting something growing from the cuttings but it can be a difficult plant to take off. If the winters are too hard, they can die of cold so its worth putting one in a pot inside just in case (although the leaves stay small)....! 
Wonderful to drink when you have a blocked nose, cannot sleep or suffer from a little indigestion although drinking too much and every day can, too often, cause stomach irritation.
No frost yet but I have to cut back the verbena bushes before the cold arrives and rip my hands apart stripping the fresh leaf from the branch - a job never made easier by nosy chickens.


Its then dried on the cooler side of the Aga overnight and stocked in a linen bag.



The fresh leaves are clean and lemony scented - perhaps more citronella than fruity and make a sublime sorbet when the weather is warmer than today, brightens up a chicken or white fish or infuses a vinegar or jelly. Once dried the aroma can be even stronger but better as a calming tea than used in cooking.





Verbena Chicken

6 people

One large local organic chicken cut into 8 pieces
A large bouquet of fresh verbena
A large bunch of small, fresh young carrots - scrubbed and trimmed
One Lime cut into 4 quarters
Sea salt and pepper
Olive Oil 

Put the chicken pieces in  a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Cook over a gentle heat. When warm add the verbena, the lime quarters and the whole carrots. Season with salt and cook over a moderate heat for one hour without the water boiling. Lay out a chicken piece (or two) with a few  carrots in six different, flat soup-plates. Pour over a little of the verbena water with some of the leaves and sprinkle with some fine sea salt, pepper and a little olive oil. Serve warm.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

Walnuts







When we first arrived in Mailhos, we had no idea that we were surrounded by a small forest of Juglans Regia or walnut. Each of the huge trees were disguised by curtains of brambles and wild hazel and after the end of a few weeks we had revealed their knotty trunks and ivy covered branches and were rewarded with a fine harvest that very autumn. Walnuts for an irishwoman are exotic. My mother used to buy them at a the local L&N supermarket in handful size bags at loony prices and served them to us as caviar sweets when our behaviour was correct...  I now could harvest enough walnuts to stock an irish supermarket.





I remember many years ago, reading Roger Deakins book, Wildwoods, who travelled to the Ferghana Valley in Kyrgyztan to witness the unforgettable national harvest of the native walnut in early autumn. His description of 15 metre high walnut trees high on the mountain slopes, branches drooping with the their fruit weight  in such vast, wild forests make my copse of trees seem more like a bonsai garden.

In late September, early October every year, the green hulls begin split open to let the first walnuts  fall to the ground. At this early stage the nut is young and milky coloured with a oilier, richer, more intense and almost sweet flavour. If we are not careful and dawdle for a day or two, the teams of squirrels, who have been eying this bounty for many months, will have razed the forest of nuts and we will be left with little more than a few cracked-nut samplers. This year I realised my tardiness, when on sowing out some radish seeds, I discovered in the soil, a stock of fresh walnuts that had probably been buried hours before. The race was on - harvest time had begun!



We collected the nuts in their decaying brown husks, stained our fingers brown with the tannins and dried them out on latticed wood trays for a few weeks before rinsing them down and storing them for the winter. 


They are mainly used as a naked nut, crackered from a bowl on the kitchen dining table when waiting for a meal with a few glasses of local wine. Otherwise, they are toasted with sea-salt and added to watercress and rocket salads, served with a hard mountain cheese, baked in bread and  chocolate cakes or when young and green make a great pasta sauce. They last throughout the year, well until the next harvest but tend to become a little bitter in those final months and at this stage its wise to soak them in boiling water for a few minutes before using in any recipe.  


Spelt and Walnut Bread

Makes 2 loaves

1 kg wholemeal Spelt Flour
20g Sea Salt
20g Fresh Yeast or 2 x 7g packets of Dried Yeast
500ml tepid Water
15g runny Honey 
200g roughly chopped Walnuts

Put the wholemeal spelt flour into a bowl and mix in the salt. Make a well in the centre
Combine the yeast with the honey in a small bowl and mix together well. Add a heaped spoonful of the mixed flour from the large bowl and 100ml of lukewarm water. Leave for at least 20 minutes, until bubbles develop, then pour into the bowl with the flour.
Add a further 400ml water and mix to a wet dough. Knead until smooth and elastic.
Work the walnuts into the dough. Leave to rise in the bowl for an hour or until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 220C/ 7. 
Knock the air out of the dough, shape into two loaves and place on a baking sheet. Scatter over some loose spelt flour and score the surface of the loaf with a knife.
Leave to prove for 30 minutes until well risen, then bake for about 35 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the base.