Thursday, 3 December 2015


Out of all the plants lingering in my garden, the most feral and dangerous-looking is the cardoon. Since day one of Mailhos, gardening these wilder ancestors of the artichoke has been a pleasure for all the wrong reasons.

In early summer their 3m tall stalks totter under the weight of their lavish rosettes of purple/blue which provide pollen and nectar for generations of bees and bumblebees before dying back to a rotten, suppurating pile before re-seeding in early autumn.

Cardoon is like a wild, prickly rhubarb fed on steroids. Large, space-hogging and the perfect hideout for hunting grass snakes. Its certainly not the ideal plant for a small garden as just one plant steals the space of 6 cabbages or four tomatoes so of course its rarely found on smaller market stalls. Unlike the artichokes, whose immature flowers provide the most delicious of foods, cardoons are prized for their silvery leaves which demand open sun, root space, fertile soil and water to grow into the metre-long succulent stalks which have the delicate distinctiveness of their relative with a little more hassle to prepare.

Without such preparation, cardoon stalks are fibrous and bitter so like celery they need to be softened up for eating by blanching. This year we wrapped each plant in a few layers of wine-bottle cardboard boxes to keep the sunlight out, which is easier said than done as each leaf has many prickles and a pain in the ass to control. Jean Francois has to get underneath the plant (where the snakes hide) and with his gloved hands, lift the thorny leaves up while I`m left to tie the bastards with string before rolling the cardboard sheets around the stalks.

The tamed and mummified plant is left like this for at least a month before its ready to eat.

After cutting the base of the plant with a knife and carrying its heavy mass into the kitchen, the next hurdle is to remove its hard exterior fibres.

The leafy parts and prickles are snipped off with a scissors and the remaining stalk is peeled meticulously to remove all the dental-floss like strings, cut into edible sizes and soaked in a bowl of cold, acidulated water to prevent them from turning brown then boiled in salted water for at least 25 minutes to make them tender and it`s only then that a recipe can begin...

Simple Braised Cardoons

25g Butter
6 peeled Cardoon stalks
300ml warm Chicken Stock

Preheat oven to 230 degrees celsius. Butter a small baking dish long enough to fit your cardoons. Cut the cardoon stalks to the desired length and arrange in dish. Pour over the chicken stock and top with the chopped butter. Cover with foil and cook in the oven for 25 minutes. Serve with roast chicken or pork.

Elsewhere in Mailhos, winter is arriving. Broad beans, onions, chicory and garlic are already 30 cms high and hoping that the frost will not be too hard and their young and tender flesh. The last aubergines and peppers cling to their ageing branches while kale and brussels sprouts and persimmon anticipate the first frost which will send their sugar levels to diabetic sweetness.

Our young cows have been inseminated with the best of dead Bearnaise bulls as those that exist are too close genetically to take a risk. Babies expected in late July/August... Next year will be a good one!

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Harvest Prizes

Our vegetable garden, which is big enough on a bad year to feed a family of ten is, after a gracious summer, overflowing with enough food for double that number. Its nearly October and tomatoes are still ripening on healthy green stalks while peppers, aubergines and courgettes are growing firm and healthy as if it was still July. We have too much to eat already while kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts and leeks await their turn in the limelight.

My first prize of the year has to go to dear Rene who, with the help of my husband, tackled my mass of green manure in spring and dug it well into the soil to make the perfect setting for the healthy vegetables and fruit that have thrived.

My best tomato of 2015 has to be the Indigo Blue Apple  with it blackish-purple skin, a sparkling orange-fizz juiciness and intense sweetness that managed to resist sun-scald and cracking while clocking in four times as much lycopene and anthocyanins (blueberry antioxidants in simple terms) than the average beef steak tomato.

With aubergines, it just has to be the svelte and shimmering Imperial Black Beauty. As someone who prefers the thinner-skinned, paler versions for their white, digestible, acid-free flesh, this was a revelation. I didn`t even need to salt it to love it.

The hot, citrus-like Limon pepper makes a surprisingly fine raw harissa....

...while the Banana melon with its spicy-salmon flesh was,once again, so fragrant and delicious.

Delicata summer squash, tender and sweet like a sweet-potato, wins hands down because you don`t have to cut off your finger removing the skin before roasting as the skin is as delicious as the flesh...

Yellow Crookneck courgettes continue to be fine, creamy and insanely generous....

...while Pink Lipstick chard is as gorgeous as any garden flower with its hot-fuschsia stalks and glossy pine-coloured leaves that don`t fade when cooked.

Enough dreaming. There`s work to do.
As I write the first cinder cranes are animating the blue sky with their undulating flight southwards to a more clement winter,  accompanied by their unceasing "krou krou krou".
Summer is at its end....

Monday, 27 July 2015

Douce France

On a Thursday afternoon when temperatures top 34 degrees at 4pm, the air is unbreathable and no-one is to be seen on the streets of Bearn, there is plenty of fun going on in Araujuzon, a half-hour bicycle ride from  here. Once a week this dream team meets early afternoon and plays quilles de 9 or bearnaise bowling until sundown.

The meeting place or `plantier` tucked behind the village cafe of Monsieur Rey is where bowlers have been hitting balls off wooden poles for over five centuries and tradition continues.

So what is quilles de 9 - basically 9 carved, 3-kilo, skittles of beech that are positioned in a figure of 9, 2.15 metres apart, on a tightly packed clay floor.

The bowl is made from walnut wood and weighs a hefty 6.2 kilos and is used to hit the quille du main or first skittle which flies in the air, knocking two to three other skittles, while the bowl itself hits another skittle called a plomb which in turn knocks another skittle beyond it. Does this make sense?

Perhaps not.... Each player has to play 12 predefined figures where the ball is hit one way and the first skittle flies another way...

... knocking the maximum of skittles in the figure. A cross between chess and bowling... Each skittle falling is a point and points are added as the figures are played....

All sounds easy perhaps but I cannot even lift this ball of seasoned walnut wood. My well-used gardening muscles could not even raise this giant nut more than 20cm from the ground while Jean Francois found it almost impossible to hold it high enough to hit a single skittle, yet these players have an average age of 79 years and manage to throw this mass of wood high and precisely in the air. Its sobering to watch....

So once the effort has been spent it's aperatif time under the walnut-shaded terrace, chez Labat, where grandmother, two daughters and grand-daughter whisk up the most remarkable cepe or pepper omelettes with produce fresh from their neighbouring garden, served with addictive, french fries cooked to perfection in local duck fat and, of course, the local Lapeyre wine.

Once digestion sets in, it's usually cool enough to cycle back home....

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Epitaph for my Greek Voodoo Lily

Every year in spring, a light grey-green, marbly stalk grows up to a metre and a half high beside my greenhouse before forming two or three deep-green jagged leaves. 

The flower then begins to unfold revealing a long purple-black appendage in the centre surrounded by a giant `petal` in the same dark hue. 

To look at it is very attractive and spooky but depending on the year my greek voodoo lily spreads a nauseous, dungy, meaty odour or this year just the smell of rotting fish. Such an attractive scent attracts carrion flies and the occasional beetle which obviously help pollinate the flower. The smell worsens over a 48 hour period and then today it just died.... to return again in all its glory.
Vive la Grece!

Tuesday, 30 June 2015


My history with loganberries began when my parents decided, many years back, to send my older sister, Catherine, and I off to our Wexford cousins for a a long summer of farm training (that at least has rubbed off on one of us). Some of my few memories of this homesick holiday were the hours I spent crying as I listened to the grandmothers clock outside my bedroom door boom out the hour and then the half-hour, reminding me of the time I couldn`t sleeping, the early morning torture as my aunt tried to disentangle my mass of unruly hair with a wire brush more suitable for scrubbing stone floors and the games of hide and seek where I usually ended up shoved between four hay bales, head first down fighting for breathe until I pleaded for mercy. This was not a happy period for the scrawny, moody and more than likely, unbearable pre-adolescent that I was nor my many cousins who probably still hate me nor my poor sister who was acutely embarrassed by my bad behaviour. In retrospect, things cannot have been half as bad as it was the first time I tasted home-baked bread toasted on the Aga, slathered with salted farm bread and topped up with the sweetest blackberry jam and the first time I picked baskets full of loganberries which grew high on the kitchen wall and were served in the afternoon with warm cream that topped the morning milk.

Years later the eastern barn walls of Mailhos are carpeted with these elongated, atomic raspberries that I never expected to flourish considering the climate differences between southern Ireland and souther France. Each berry ripens from a pinkish-red to a deep-purple colour before releasing its juicy, sherbety-sweetness.  To complete the picture, we just have to start milking the Bearnaises....

The new addition to the family is a pigeon called Leopold. A Polish Strawberry Eye who will be joined by his girlfriend later in the week. Leopold and company will soon be serving as internet and post replacement between neighbours and a handy live drone system.... if needs be.