Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas in Provence



The other day, about a week before Christmas, the Artist and I took the dogs for a walk in the foothills of  Les Alpilles, a nearby mountain range.  We actually walked further than we meant to; it was a cold but sunny day with blue skies.  Suddenly we heard the sound of bells, I walked on ahead, with The Artist staying behind with the dogs.  There in front of me was a herd of dark brown goats with horns, about 100 or so, and to one side was the goatherd standing with two dogs that looked like scruffy black poodles.  There was also a huge dog, like a great dane, a real hound, pale in colour, who came lolloping up to me to check me out.  I put out my hand to stroke him, but he didn't want to be stroked, he just wanted to know who I was and whether or not I posed a threat.
I talked to the goatherd for a while. 
I said his was quite a different sort of job and he said different from what?  Well, you know, I said, from what most people do.  I asked him if he spent all his time in the hills and whether he lived nearby in a cabane, (a traditional stone cabin you see scattered throughout the hills) he said he did and gestured to somewhere ahead.  He asked me where I was from and made some quip about the rain in England.  He told me that the big dog was there to guard the goats from wolves, I asked him where the wolves were, and he said up in the mountains where they spend the summer and he told me the little dogs were there to herd the goats.  Actually, they hadn't done such a great job, because later we came across a goat on its own, looking rather lost.  
Dogs with Goats in background
On Christmas Eve I thought about the goatherd when I went to the local tourist office to find out which local Church performed a traditional Midnight Mass.  Apparently there are some still conducted in the old Provençal language and include a pastorale,  a living crèche, where people from the town are dressed as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and wise men etc. and Provençal carols are sung accompanied by the tambourine and flute.  Also, apparently, at certain churches, they have what is called the "Pastrage" when a shepherd brings in a new born lamb on a cart to be offered as a gift for Jesus, he is accompanied by other shepherds with their ewes.  I wondered if this might have included the goatherd I had encountered.  But I never did find out;  every year I have the intention of going to Midnight Mass but somehow by 11 o'clock, after a few glasses of wine and a few mince pies, I can't quite summon the energy to go out into the cold and I put it off until the next year.

Traditionally, on Christmas Eve families get together and eat Le gros souper, the big supper before going to Church. There is much symbolism attached to the this meal;  it begins with seven different meatless dishes which relate to the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary and finishes with les treizes desserts, the thirteen desserts relating to Jesus and his twelve Apostles.   The dishes are laid on three white table cloths (one on top of the other) between three candle sticks with white candles, symbolizing the Holy Trinity and hope.  I'm not sure how much of the traditions are adhered to, but it does seem that a lot of oysters and seafood are eaten on Christmas Eve and there are booths everywhere selling oysters by the dozen on the side of the road.  That was a tradition I did manage to partake in and jolly good they were too!

Things eaten traditionally on Christmas Eve
  • Soupe de Poisson – Fish Soup
  • Escargots – these can be bought prepared from your Butcher and heated up in the oven. 
  • Cardoon and anchovy gratin
  • Salt Cod with a tomato and wine sauce – Morue en Raito
  • Oysters
  • Green Salad with garlic croutons 
  • Cheese, including Goats cheese
Dessert – Les Treize Desserts -   This is a Provencal tradition, the following are laid out and left on the table to snack on during the festive period

  • Dried figs, almonds, walnuts and raisins, dates, these are known as les Mendiants
  • Two types of Nougat, one dark made with honey and almonds, one white from Montelimar
  • Oranges, tangerines, pears, apples, grapes. The fruit varies and sometimes quince or grape jelly substitute some of the fresh fruits.
  • La Pompe a L’huile – a type of Fougasse (a pastry usually savoury with olives or bacon) made with olive oil, orange flower water and brown sugar. Can be bought at your Boulangerie.
Provence Sunset


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Allouettes Sans Têtes, or Skylarks without Heads (not for Vegetarians)

La grande surface, or shopping centre outside of town, was long ago embraced and fully adopted by the French, emptying small towns of their shops, including ours which locals will tell you, was once a thriving metropolis, but is today full of boarded up shops, now used as garages or front rooms.   A few have none the less survived.  We have plenty of boulangeries-pâtiseries, bakeries, including one bio, organic, and a few Artisanals, which means they actually bake the bread and cakes themselves, rather than buying in the frozen dough and cooking it in one of those weird shelf ovens.  We also have two or three greengrocers, a couple of butchers, one inside the old town walls in the old shopping arcade (dating back to Medieval times) grandly called Les Halles and the other outside the walls  next to a Lidl.  There are also a few Halal butchers, which have the best and cheapest lamb, fresh harissa, various Moroccan groceries and a constant supply of parsley and coriander (cilantro). Yesterday, the fridge being somewhat empty as I had just got back from an extended stay in England, I decided to go to the butcher outside the town; we have some friends staying and I got them to drive as its just too far to walk (well, I’d just driven 1,200 kilometers).

I knew that this butcher was popular amongst the locals, as it sells good quality locally sourced meat, pas trop chère, but I didn’t realise how popular as I had never been there on a Friday evening before.  It was packed with an older, definitely French crowd from our town and environs. It looked like couples night out, as most of the women were accompanied by their husbands.  Buying meat for the weekend is obviously serious business!  There were 4 butchers serving, giving each customer their undivided attention and there was much laughing and joking going on besides the fetching, weighing and wrapping of meat.   No one was in a hurry and we stood in line and patiently waited our turn, passing the time looking at everything displayed behind the glass case.  There were vol au vonts overflowing with mushroom sauce, pastry cases with cheese sticking out of each end, pig trotters covered in a sauce, cow's tongues in a sauce, tripes de Caen, tripes a la provencal (one looked brown and the other red, personally I don’t like tripe, where ever it comes from!), pate en croute, all types of sausage, boudin, or blood sausage, merguez, spicy lamb sausages, Toulouse and plain pork.   There were also saussisons twisted round rails on the wall, presumably drying out, all the various cuts of meat, pork, lamb, beef, chickens, rabbits and a duck with its head on.


At the back of the shop a woman was preparing the specialty of the day, which my friend told me were called allouettes sans têtes, skylarks without heads.  I soon found myself singing the song we were taught as children in French class and which thanks to wikkipedia I am able to copy here:

Alouette, gentille Alouette   Skylark, nice skylark
Alouette, je te plumerai      Skylark, I shall pluck you
Je te plumerai la tête          I shall pluck your head
(Je te plumerai la tête)      (I shall pluck your head)
Et la tête                            And your head
(Et la tête) etc etc.              And your head, etc.etc


the song continues adding all the other bits of the little bird that will be plucked le bec, the beak, le cou, the neck, le dos, the back, les ailes, the wings, les pattes, the feet, et la queue, the tail. Each time a part of the bird is added, you repeat all the other parts, so it goes on and on,  presumably it was meant to teach us the French words for parts of the anatomy, and I remember our French teacher, Madame Gailleman patting the parts of her body that the song referred to whilst singing the song.  It is however only after all these years, that I have finally realised the true meaning of the words of the song, (and who knew that the verb plumer  - to pluck, would stand me in such good stead in later life?) 
It got me thinking how in England we have a completely different, more romantic notion of the skylark as portrayed in Ode to a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert -
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
                                                                       
And how interesting it was that two countries, geographically so close, could be so differently inspired by the same bird. 
Needless to say, after all this musing, I had to try the allouettes sans têtes, (to be referred to as just allouettes from now on) which were in fact thin slices of beef rolled up with meat stuffing.




When it was my turn to be served, I asked how best to cook them and got various replies from the butchers and the other customers; the gist of which was to fry them off with onions and garlic and then cover with wine, herbs and stock and cook for a couple of hours in the oven.  I also asked how many I would need for three people, the answers differed depending on the size of the person; the fat butcher said two would not be enough for him, one of the women customers agreed with him, which caused great hilarity; another thinner butcher said that two per person would be plenty, and so I decided to follow his advice and bought six for three people.  Meanwhile one of the butchers had started singing

"Tea for two, and two for tea" (italicised due to his French accent)

Apparently he had learnt it at school, (whilst we were learning how to pluck a skylark!) Soon the other butchers joined in and I found that I had become the centre of their singing attention.

Afterwards I went next door to the vegetable shop to buy a cabbage which I decided would go very well with the allouettes.  The only ones they had were enormous and it occurred to me that they would be perfect for making stuffed cabbage, carrying on with the theme.


So I went back into the butchers, it was less crowded now and the butchers on seeing me burst into song on cue,

“Tea for two and two for tea,“ 

It had become my theme and I was obviously going to hear it every time I stepped into their shop.  I bought some stuffing, fait a la maison and asked if I could have a bone for my dog, which the butcher went off to get from the cold room in the back.
When I got back and unwrapped the bone, I saw that it was bigger than my dog, Ralph’s, head, and as it was a very good veal bone, I decided to make stock with it.   When the Artist inquired as to what I was cooking, he suggested that it would be perfect for making a consomme for a Bullshot, a cocktail he used to drink at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair.  Personally I thought it would be perfect in my sauce for the allouettes!  Strange how one ingredient can inspire such different dishes in two people…

Photo by Neassa Grennan

Recipe for Veal Stock
You can also use beef bones
3k Veal Bones
1 Onion
Tops of 3 leeks or 1 whole leek
1 Celery Stick
1/2 head of Garlic
Tomato paste
10 Peppercorns
Bunch of Thyme
2 Bay Leaves

Preheat the oven to 200℃
Put the veal bones in a roasting tray.
Roast in the oven for approx. 30 mins, turn
ing once.  Then rub the tomato paste into the bones and add the coarsely chopped vegetables and roast for a further 20 mins.
Then put bones and vegetables into a large stock pot, along with the herbs and peppercorns.
Deglaze the roasting tray with boiling water and add to stock pot.  Cover the bones and vegetables with cold water and put on medium heat to simmer then turn down the heat and simmer slowly for between 4 and 12 hours.  I actually put it on a low heat overnight.  Skim the surface every now with a spoon to remove the scum.
When the stock has cooled.  Strain through a fine mesh strainer and put into the fridge to chill.  A layer of fat will form on top of the stock, remove this and either freeze for later or use for whatever recipe you want to make. 

Bullshot Cocktail
8 cl Consommé (made with beef or veal stock, eggs, eggshells, ground beef and tomatoes)
5 cl Vodka
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco
Salt and Pepper
Mix all the above with ice in a cocktail shaker, strain and serve in a tall glass.












Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Supper Club


Every Tuesday night a group of friends organised by Carole, a nurse living in our town, got together and dined at our local restaurant. They were all professional women, and included male partners as well, but were collectively called “Les Filles de Mardi,” (the Tuesday Girls). As the Artist and myself often dined in the same restaurant, we gradually became absorbed into the group; we didn’t have a lot of choice, they were very noisy and you either joined in or stayed away. At the end of the evening, the restaurant’s owner, Manou, played old French tunes and everyone got up and danced; her partner, Patrice, who was also the chef, would come out from his kitchen (where he spent the minimum amount of time) with his beret and Che Guevara t-shirt and joined in, usually railing against some con politician or policy of the day. It was always a social event and introduced us to all the people we know in our town.
Sadly Manou and Patrice hung up their aprons (well Patrice anyway) and they sold the restaurant. This left the Filles without a permanent meeting place. Other alternatives were tried, other restaurants, going to each other’s houses and bringing a dish, but no permanent solution was found until finally Carole asked if I would like to host the evenings chez moi. And that’s how the Tuesday Night Supper Club began.
Everyone pays a set fee.  Its mainly the same crowd, but I have also introduced new people into the group which has resulted in a little unintended match-making! Two couples have got together so far, Francoise and Laurent, who had gone to school together and lived in neighbouring towns, but whose paths had not crossed since, and Carole and Frank, who live in the same town in adjoining streets, but hadn’t met before.
Everyone is French and includes a teacher, a nurse, a judge, a fashion researcher, a chiropractor, a kitchen designer, two dental technicians, a tax inspector, an accountant, a builder, a children’s author, a physiotherapist and B&B proprietors!
Luckily, our local market happens to fall on the same day as the supper club and so I buy most of the produce in the market. I always do a fish and a meat main course, which takes care of most people’s dietary, needs (one eats no meat, one no pork, etc). I never know how many people are going to come. Carole calls up all her friends the night before to see if they’re coming and I send out emails with a menu, but I’ve since realised that French people aren’t tied to their computers as we are and rarely check on their mail. The other week Carole told me that not very many people were coming and as I hadn’t had any replies to my emails,  I extended the invitation further a field to people who hadn’t been before. As people knocked on the door, the Artist and I looked at each other with fear, as everyone who I thought wasn’t coming arrived! We were 16 in total sitting round our table!  Luckily we have a big table and luckily I had bought a huge piece of pork that I thought would last us through the week if it wasn’t eaten; it was, every last morsel!
The first guests arrive around 8 and the last around 9; this is the apero hour when the guests chat and mingle with a drink, usually a Kir, a Ricard or a glass of wine. They help themselves to various hors d’oeuvres, usually toasts with tapenade (olive paste) and parmasan, or home-made pate. Last week I served a bowl of Tellines, which I had bought in the market, they are tiny clams, raked up in the shallows of the nearby Camargue beaches and are sweet and succulent. You cook them for one minute, or until their shells open up and then dress them with olive oil, garlic and parsley.  Unfortunately, one of the shells fell on the floor and our dog, Ralph, pounced on it, feigning starvation as he does, and one of the guests, Anna, tried to take it off him,  fearing he might choke.  I was in the kitchen at the time and I heard an angry bark and then Anna came in holding her bloody hand.  Luckily she admitted it was her own fault.  (The Artist thinks the dogs should be locked up, or made to stay in the courtyard, but they give so much entertainment value it seems a shame to me).


Once everyone has arrived and is sitting down, the first course is served. Last week this was Soupe de tomate et basilic avec des chevre toasts (tomato and basil soup with pesto and goats cheese toasts); I then served Merlan au Fenouil – (whiting with roasted fennel) and a roti du Porc, (roast pork) with beans and potatoes cooked in the oven on a bed of salt (a suggestion from the market stall holder where I bought the potatoes, guess what, they were really salty!). For pudding I served a plum crumble with homemade ginger ice cream, (the French love le crumble!) then coffee accompanied by a delicious 10-year-old rum from Martinique that one of the guests had brought.
With dinner finished, the music is turned up and everyone has a dance.  Carole is doing Salsa classes so she shows us her moves as she dances to some Latin number.   Most people leave around mid-night (they all have to get up and work the next day) and I start to load the dishwasher.
Everyone is always very complimentary about my cooking, even though it doesn’t always go quite right (I’d left the goat cheese toasts too long in the oven, and they became more like chevre brulé). They seem to find it very amusing that I am English but cook Provençal dishes and they like that all my ingredients are fresh and not swamped in heavy sauces (they’re all perpetually on diets). One of the guests even said that my cooking was une chose perdu (forgotten art). Praise indeed!
I’m not going to make a fortune, (I just about break even as the wine and aperos etc, are all included)  but it pays for my habit, which is buying and cooking food and saves the Artist from having to eat it all by himself (all be it with a little help from Ralph!)

Le Menu
Apero Kir – Vin Blanc, Ricard, Vin Rouge
Tellines
Soupe de Tomates avec des Toasts de Pesto et Chêvre chaud
Rôti de Porc Florentine ou Merlan au Fenouil
Crumble aux Prunes avec Glace de Gingembre
Café
Le Vin – Domaine de Lansac Sauvignon Blanc,  Rosé,  Rouge Classique

Roast Tomato Soupe with Pesto and Goats Cheese Toasts This is a great soup to make at the end of summer when there is a glut of tomatoes and they are practically giving them away in the market.  I have adapted this from Nigel Slater’s recipe from The Kitchen Diaries, Harper Collins (he suggests you chill it, I like it served warm with the goats cheese toasts)
1 Kg Tomatoes
1 large red Pepper or 2 smaller Peppers
2 or 3 Cloves of garlic
3 tbs. Olive oil
1.5 litres of Stock, vegetable or chicken, whatever you have to hand
Small bunch of Basil, leaves taken off the stalks
Day old Baguette bread, sliced
Pesto, bought or homemade
Goats Cheese Log
Salt and freshly ground Pepper
Set the oven at 220℃.  Cut up the tomatoes into eight pieces (or six depending on size), de-seed the pepper and chop into 2 cm pieces (approx) and put into a roasting tin.  Slice the garlic and scatter over the tomatoes and peppers with some coarse sea salt (I like to use the coarse unbleached sel de mer) and black pepper and put into the pre-heated oven.  Cook for 45 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft and the skin starting to blacken lightly.
Add the stock (I like to use Marigold Organic Swiss Vegetable Bouillon) to the vegetables, swish it around with a wooden spoon and then transfer the lot into a large saucepan.  Add the basil leaves and bring to the boil, lower the heat and cook for a further minute or two and then take it off the heat and liquidise (Nigel’s recipe says to leave a couple of handfulls of tomatoes and red pepper behind and chop this finely by hand  for a more textured soup).
For the toasts, lightly toast the small rounds of French bread on both sides (and I mean lightly! Turn away for a minute and they will burn) spread one side with the pesto sauce and top with a round of goats cheese, drizzle with a little olive oil and put back under the grill until the cheese just starts to melt.
Serve the soup hot with the toasts floating on top.

Rôti de Porc Florentine This is taken from Anna del Conte’s book, The Classic Food of Northern Italy (Great Cooks). In France pork generally comes without the rind, so this has no crackling, if you are cooking it with the rind, remove it, put the rosemary and garlic mixture between the meat and the rind and replace the rind (she also says to remove it from the last 10 minutes of cooking).
1.5 k Loin of Pork
4 Garlic Cloves, Sliced
3 Fresh Sprigs of Rosemary
2 Cloves
3 Tbl Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Chop the garlic and rosemary together, adding 1/2 tsp or salt and freshly ground pepper.
Make small incisions into the meat pushing in the garlic and rosemary.  Stick the meat with the two cloves and rub with half the oilve oil and the rest of the garlic and rosemary.   Leave to marinate for a couple of hours or so.
When you’re ready to cook the meat, put the other half of  the oil into the roasting tin with the meat and cook in a oven pre-heated to 180℃.  Cook for two hours, basting and turning every 20 minutes.  After two hours turn the oven up to 220℃ and brown the meat for 10 minutes.  Then take the roast out of the oven and leave it to rest on a wooden board for 10 minutes or so.  Meanwhile, pour off the fat from the cooking liquid, add 4 tbls. of hot water and boil briskly on the hob for a few minutes stirring up the bits from the bottom of the tin.
Slice the pork and serve with the cooking juices.

This is very delicious and moist, perfect for an Autumn evening and is also delicious served cold on another day.

Whiting on a bed of Fennel 

1smallish Whiting per person
2 Fennel Bulbs with tops
Knob of butter
1 Garlic Clove
I lemon Zested and Sliced
Dash of Ricard - Pastis(optional)
Olive Oil
Parsley
Salt & Pepper 

Cut the fennel into thick slices, keeping their tops aside.   Melt the knob of butter with a dash of olive oil in a pan and put over a low heat, add the fennel slices and leave to carmalise slowly (30 - 40 mins)
Crush the garlic and mix with the lemons zest, salt and pepper and a tabls. of olive oil.
Scale and gut the whitting (the fish monger may already have done this for you) and cut diagonal slits into the fish, not too deep, about 5cms apart. 
Push the garlic and lemon zest into the slits and put the fennel tops along with the lemon slices inside the fish. Leave to infuse for an hour or so.
When you are ready to cook the fish.  Put the fennel into a baking tray and lay the whiting on top, drizzle with olive oil and a dash of Ricard and put into an oven at 180℃ for approx 30 minutes, depending on the size of the fish.
Sprinkle with chopped parley and serve.

I'm not going to give you a recipe for Plum Crumble, as desserts are not really my forte.  In fact if you have a good one, why not send it to me in comments.  Ginger Ice cream, is made by infusing warm milk with a thumb size of grated ginger for an hour, you then strain the milk, discarding the ginger and, as Elizabeth David used to say, then make the ice cream in the usual fashion!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Wedding in Provence

A Wedding in Provence

September seems to be the month for weddings, and a few weeks ago we were invited to our first French wedding.  Well it wasn't entirely French as the bride was Peruvian and the groom was half Norwegian, (half French) and the guests a mixture of all of the above including English (us, the Photographer and his Son who were staying with us).
The invitation stated that the dress code was to be 'tenue de soirée' (black tie or evening wear) which caused quite a lot of anxiety on the Artist's part.  Did he even own a dinner jacket and when was the last time he wore it?   Finally he managed to unearth it and inspected it for moth holes and stains from its last outing and checked that it still fitted him which luckily it did.  Meanwhile, I couldn't find the dress I had planned to wear anywhere!  Was its last foray that good?  I wondered.  I found something else to wear last minute, topped it with a hat, which a friend assured me was what people wore to French weddings (some friend!) and we set off in our finery into the hot midday sun.  It wasn't long before the Artist looked like he'd just come, fully dressed, out of the shower as he sweltered in his wool jacket more suited to English country weddings and I remained the only person wearing a hat besides the groom's mother, who was wearing a headpiece!
The wedding took place in a deconsecrated chapel, which dates back to the 12th century. 
The bride and groom sat in two armchairs facing the altar (or where the altar would have been) with the rest of us sitting behind them on chairs and benches which had been brought in for the occasion. The priest was from the Ivory Coast, and even though there were prayers and blessings, this was not your conventional French Catholic Service.  He encouraged audience participation, throwing questions to the congregation and encouraging clapping and cheering.   It did however go on for quite a long time, and we couldn't understand a word, which we put down to bad acoustics and our bad under standing (the groom's brother however later said he couldn't understand a thing either).  There was much relief, especially from the children who had already wondered out of the chapel, when the rings were exchanged and the register signed to the singing of Ave Maria by the woman soloist.
Everyone filed out of the cool chapel and onto the sun drenched courtyard set amongst the olive and pine trees.  The children threw rose petals over the married couple and everyone else cones of lavender that had been handed out earlier.  A table had been set up on one side of the courtyard and champagne was served whilst the couple posed for photographs and were congratulated with hugs and kisses.  Both the bride and groom were beaming with happiness. 
After half an hour or so, the couple set off in a MG Midget trailing tin cans, with the photographer and his son sitting on the back and all the guests driving behind through the hills of the Allpilles, horns blaring and lights flashing.   Cars driving towards the cavalcade slowed down and hooted back.  After taking the road to Les Baux, the 13th Century city perched on top of a hill, we turned onto the road to Paradou, where we parked our cars outside the family mas and walked through the gates and into the gardens.
We were greeted with champagne and draught beer.  There was a Cuban band playing to one side of the patio; appetisers were passed round, ceviche, prawn cocktail and octopus and the Peruvian cocktail, Pisco Sour.
In the late afternoon sun, with the olive groves to one side and the marquee sitting in the middle of the lawn, the lamb cooking on a spit over an open fire, the band, dressed in white playing their acoustic instruments and people dancing with children weaving in and out amongst them in party dresses, it looked a scene straight out of The Godfather.
As it was getting dark, the Cuban Band put down their instruments and a couple of Djs took over.  We were asked to find our seats under the awning of the marquee.  Once seated, we watched as the bride and groom danced to 'Time of my Life', from 'Dirty Dancing'.  Then a singer, well known in Denmark, apparently, sang Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World' and dinner was served.
It started with a selection of cold meats and foie gras and was followed by mechoui lamb, which is slow roasted with Moroccan spices and herbs over an open fire.
After eating, the speeches began. The best man gave a speech, the bride, the groom, mother of the groom and friends.  Then the father of the groom got up and started to make a speech in English about how he had eloped with the groom's mother when they were both 19, but as it was well into the evening by then, he wasn't making much sense and was dragged off by his ex-wife and daughter before he got to the end of the story.  He had however been telling it to everyone earlier, so most people had already heard it.
Next, just before midnight, we were each handed a silver mask that we were asked to put on as the Hora Loca, (Crazy Hour) was about to begin.  The Danish singer sang 'Wilkom, Bien Venue, Welcome' from Cabaret and then the groom's 5 year old nephew did a Michael Jackson routine to Billy Jean.  After this some more singing and 'Phantom of the Opera' was sung, accompanied by someone doing a routine with a mask on a stick and a long cape and someone in a bird costume encouraging everyone to come up and dance.  This was about when I snuggled down on a nice comfy armchair under the stars, the champagne, wine, good food and sun, having finally got the better of me.  My last memories were of the Artist and the Photographer waving their shirt-sleeved arms to Dancing Queen by ABBA.

The next day we went back to the mas to pick up our car.  We joined other wedding guests sitting round the pool; everyone was very relaxed, out of their party gear and skinny dipping and splashing in the water.   Gossip was exchanged over draught beer and food form the night before.  Apparently the brother of the groom had had his way with the 17-year-old baby-sitter in the pool house, whilst she was meant to be minding the babies.  Meanwhile the mother of the babysitter, allegedly, had been playing footsy with the Photographer under the table!
The wedding had definitely been a good one and had all the ingredients of one the world over; love, joy, inebriation and bad behaviour!

Mechoui Lamb
1 whole lamb 20 - 25 kg
For the marinade
10-12 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin
3 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
5 tablespoons coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons finely ground pepper
1 bunch coriander leaves (cilantro) chopped
250 grams butter or olive oil.
Grind the coriander seeds in a pestle and morter or coffee grinder, mix with the other spices and add coriander seeds and buter or oil. Rub over the lamb.
Light a wood fire in a pit and burn for about 3 hours until it is reduced to hot glowing embers.   Tie the lamb to your spit and cook high above the embers, turning the spit handle and basting regularly with the remaining marinade and/or olive oil.
It should be cooked after about 3 hours.
Feeds 40 - 50 people.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Up-Market in September

It’s September.  The kids are back at school, the holidaymakers have gone home and French is once again the predominant language in the market place.  The sun is no longer burning quite so fiercely, the fiery heat of July and August has abated and everything seems to be a bit more mellow.  Even though the summer has not yet altogether gone, there is a sense that autumn will soon be here and we’ll be putting our duvets back onto our beds.   
Meanwhile, what can we do to prolong the tastes and smells of the summer months? It is with this in mind that I head off to the market, with my Scotty dog, Ralph.  
I go to my usual favourite stalls.  I talk to the man from St.Remy and he tells me that he still has plenty of tomatoes on the vine.  They will be good until about November.  I buy some of his large knobbly Tomates Russes. They are large and quite misshapen but absolutely delicious in a salad or even eaten on their own with a scattering of coarse Camargue sea salt, torn basil leaves and a good pouring of your best olive oil.  It may be my imagination, but I feel as though I have never tasted tomatoes as sweet and juicy as these.  I have become quite obsessed with them and serve them with just about every meal.  
I also buy a large quantity of his more traditionally shaped tomatoes.  I quite fancy making some tomato sauce and bottling it for the winter months.  It takes me back to when I was a teenager and spent my summer holidays learning French with a family who had an organic fruit and vegetable farm just outside Grasse.  Some time, towards the end of August, when they had a glut of tomatoes, they placed a huge black cauldron over a fire built in an open shed round the back of the house, next to the pig sty. They filled the cauldron with chopped tomatoes, basil, onions and garlic and let it slowly bubble for hours, if not days.  The wood fire added smokiness to the final taste and when it was finally ready, it was ladled into Kilner jars and stored in rows in the larder, to be used in the winter months when fresh tomatoes (then) were not available.  Even though tomatoes can now be bought all the year round, thanks to the acres of polytunnels all around us, I don’t believe they have as sweet or as full a flavour as those ripened by the sun. 
Of course, I have neither a cauldron, nor a backyard, but decide I will make a quantity of tomato sauce to put in the freezer. 
I buy my basil from another woman in the market who sells bunches of basil that she has grown herself.  The flavour is far more intense than the basil pots that you can buy all the year round.   The leaves are large and firm and the stalks straight and strong, they will last more than a week in a jug of water in the kitchen.  I also buy courgettes from her, red and green peppers and small purple aubergines.  Having written in a previous article, that I was looking for something to cook that was not ratatouille, I have discovered that cooking the same ingredients in the oven with plenty of olive oil and parsley creates a very useful standby dish.  It can be served as a meal, eaten hot over couscous with added chickpeas and harissa, or served cold as a side dish with salad or cold meat. 
I move on to the stall where the man is only selling figs.  He has got two cartons left, and almost before I have agreed to buy them, he is tipping them into a bag onto a fig leaf.  The artist has talked about wanting to make fig jam, but I am going to eat these just as they are, maybe with some Parma ham, but probably just on their own. 
Another stall is selling locally grown grapes, they are small and green, tinged with yellow and taste very sweet.  I am tempted to buy them just for the way they look, but instead I buy a paper bag full of Mirabelles, they look like perfectly formed yellow miniature plums, I decide that they will make up the top and final layer of my Rumtopf.  Next to these are some apples, small, red and perfectly formed.  The idea of biting into a crisp, tart apple after the past two months of eating soft, juicy peaches, apricots and melons, seems very tempting.  Maybe I am, after all, ready to move on with the seasons.
Ralph, for sure is ready to move on, he has seen a bitch he fancies over the other side of the market and is straining at his lead.  Carrying a large basket of food whilst trying to restrain a dog is not one of the easiest things to do and just as I am about to drop everything, I spot the Artist striding towards me. “Just in time,” I say as I hand over the bag and use both hands to reign in my dog.
The Artist is already carrying a small plastic bag with a baguette sticking out of it.
“What’s in there?”  I ask.
“I bought some roast pork.  I’m going to have sandwiches for lunch in the studio from now on.  I’ve decided that lunch just takes up too much time.”
I nod in agreement and we make our way to the Rallye bar where he orders a beer.

FIGS WITH PARMA HAM

3 figs per person
2 slices Parma ham per person
This makes a tasty starter or a light lunch.   The saltiness of the ham compliments the sweetness of the figs.   Just serve together on a plate as you  with a fresh crusty baguette.



ROASTED SUMMER VEGETABLES

2 large onions peeled and cut into thick wedges
1 large or two small aubergines, cut into cubes
1 large red pepper, deseeded and cut into cubes
3 courgettes cut into cubes
1 large handful of parsley leaves, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
6 tbsp olive oil
425g tinned tomato
Salt and pepper
These ingredients are really just a guide, I use whatever I have in the fridge that needs using up including fresh tomatoes.
Put all the vegetables onto a large baking dish, add the garlic and parsley and pour over the oil and tinned tomatoes.  Combine all, making sure that the vegetables are all coated with oil – I do this with my hands.
Put into an oven at 160c/325f/gas mark 3 and bake until cooked, approx 2 hrs.

Tomato Sauce

800g tomatoes, chopped
1/2 medium onion
1 garlic clove, crushed and chopped
1 small bunch of basil leaves, cut into strips
2 tablespoons of olive oil
salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil and add the garlic and onions.
Cook for a few minutes, until they are transparent, then add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook on a low heat for about 30 minutes.  Stir in the basil and cook for another five minutes.  Use immediately or leave it to cool and freeze in zip-lock bags or plastic containers.












Monday, August 23, 2010

Le Spectacle


Every town and village in France has its fête which takes place in the summer months.
Where we live, being near the Camargue, this usually includes bulls running through the streets; Guardiens (Camargue Cowboys) riding round the town on white horses in colourful shirts; a procession of children and adults dressed in Provencal costume and lots of eating and drinking and dancing to live music. Each town has its own theme; some more obscure than others; for instance Fête des Pois chiches, (chick peas) Fête du riz (rice) Fête de l'ail (garlic) and Fête
de la Vannerie (basket making).
In Tarason we have the Fête du Tarasque; the Tarasque being a legendary sea-monster, part beast, part fish, that lived in the Rhône River and terrorised the nearby towns and villages in times gone by. It was finally tamed and vanquished by Sainte Marthe.

Sainte Marthe, or Martha who, along with the three Mary's, Magdelene, Jacobé, and Salomé and various other apostles with their servant Sara, (the Black Madonna now venerated by the Gypsies) arrived at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, having been expelled and set adrift in a boat without sail or rudder, from Palestine. On arrival in Provence, they set about spreading the Word amongst the locals in the towns and villages and that's how Marthe ended up in Tarascon.  They were all deified in the Middle Ages when their relics were discovered in numerous locations and churches built in their honour.  I tell you, those Girls got around!

In commemoration of the slaying of the Tarasque, we have a fête every year, when a model of the monster with its lion's face and turtle body is hauled around town by eight men dressed in white frilly shirts, feathered hats and pink knickerbockers; last year they were a bit too enthusiastic going round a roundabout and the poor monster ended up on his back having lost a wheel, its headlamp eyes
flashing in distress!

The three day festival culminates with a dinner and a Spectacle (cabaret). Tables and chairs are laid out in rows under the stars in front of a big stage; food is served, usually something local like paella, taureau or aioli, and after that the live music and dancing begins.
This year, the Spectacle, was provided by L'Orchestre Cocktail de Nuit et ses Danceurs and they came on at 10.30 and played until 2 in the morning. There was a full live band, with male and female singers and dancers; at any given time, there were between 12 and 18 performers on stage.  They played a repertoire of hits from the Beatles, James Brown, Prince, Motown, Ray Charles, Queen and Lady Gaga, with a few French Chansons thrown in along the way. The songs were tightly choreographed with different themes and costume changes; long fish-netted legs in thigh-high boots or heels kicked their way through an array of sequins, satin and feathers accessorized with hats, wigs, masks and gloves. During the course of the song, pieces of clothing were discarded, leaving the dancers flashing their buttocks and cleavages in ruffled knickers and bustiers.
The male singers also had numerous costume changes with different coloured satin trousers, shiny shirts undone to the waist or buttoned up with ties, jackets, waistcoats tophats and trilbys, bits of which were also discarded to reveal a bare chest or thigh.
So depending on your preferences, there was something for everyone!
We went along thinking we would stand on the sidelines and have a giggle at the campness of it all, but the sheer energy and professionalism of the show meant I was soon singing and dancing at the front with the rest of them.  France, of course, has a long tradition of cabaret and they know how to do it!
And thinking about it, it wasn't that different from what Madonna, Kylie, Britney etc. do, except that it was completely free, laid on by the Marie for the whole town to enjoy, young, old and middle aged.


 And here's a picture of the Plat we had at the Mausanne  Fête last week, Snails, boiled potatoes, boiled carrots, beans, hard boiled egg, salt cod and the all important Aioli, (garlic mayonnaise) its not to everyone's liking, but the taste seems to grow on you when you live down here.  Included with the meal was 1/2 bottle of Rosé, a bottle of water (which the locals seemed to think was for chucking at each other), a piece of camembert and a peach! All for €20!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Finding your Culinary Path


I read an article the other day about English people living in France and buying their food at Asda on the internet and getting it delivered cross-channel and that even with the 15% surcharge, they're still better off than if they shopped in a supermarket in France.
Now I'm not disputing the value of euro to pounds; the surge of the euro over the last few years, has left those living in the euro zone and reliant on sterling, a lot poorer than they were before, (ourselves included); but it struck me as being rather sad that you should move to another country and send home for all your groceries.
If you really miss your sausages and bacon that much, maybe you're not the sort of person that should be living in a foreign country. I can understand relishing the odd treat; I myself always have a jar of Marmite and home made marmalade on the go, and always travel back with a large box of Yorkshire Tea and Nairn's Oatcakes; but surely part of the joys of living in another country is exploring it's un-known culinary paths?
Well, it is for me anyway, and one of those paths takes me to the village of Flaux, which is near Uzes. To get there I drive down a narrow twisting road in la Garrigue, (gently rolling scrubland) with its scents of wild thyme, sage and rosemary and, if the myriad of chasseurs seen on a winter's evening dressed in their camouflage outfits are anything to go by, teaming with sangliers (wild boar). Once every two weeks, M.Elena, a retired chef, gives a cookery class in the old Mairie (town hall), a grand decaying building in a large gravel courtyard with shady trees and iron railings, telling of a richer past. He has converted one of the upstairs rooms into a kitchen, complete with two cookers, a fridge a sink and a store cupboard, with two long tables and chairs.
There are 10 people in total with Chef, 6 women and 4 men. The average age is 60+ (which is of course radically reduced when myself and another English woman, who told me about the class, attend!) Whilst laying out the ingredients onto the tables M.Elena tells us what we are going to cook tonight. Everyone takes part in the cleaning and chopping of vegetables, cleaning pans etc. as well as the cooking process itself and all are local, bar myself and a Dutch man. I suspect that the evening is more about having a social soirée away from their spouses than learning how to cook. The women spend most of the time swapping recipes and discussing where to get the best tomatoes, the freshest fish or the best knives. When not sharing gossip about who has had a stroke and is in hospital in Montpelier, or who has tragically died from some rare disease, they are telling lewd jokes and falling about in fits of giggles (why does the female courgette flower have the tail, and not the male? Rocks of laughter!).
The class is from 5.30 - 9 and once everything is cooked we sit down at the dinner table; the wine is poured (organic rosé from the region) and the food is passed around. First we have lettuce and rocket from Chef's own garden, served with Panisse de Nice, which are deep fried batons made from chickpea flour (might not bother with that one at home) followed by courgette flowers stuffed with cod and egg white, a coulis of red and yellow pepper and quick fried grated courgettes with garlic and parsley. As we pass the food round for seconds, more tales are told of family secrets, (seems everyone has one, either a sister or aunt who was born out of wedlock, or a father who is not their real father etc.) and Chef tells us tales about when he had his restaurant. Finally the last of the courgette flowers and coulis are mopped up with the tasty bread (everything is bought locally and bio, organic, where possible) and the plates collected. The women get stuck into the dish-washing and drying, to which the men make no attempt to join in; learning to cook is one thing, but doing the washing-up is obviously going a step too far.
When all is cleared and put away and M.Elena's bags packed with his various saucepans and cooking accoutrements, we each pay him €10, the fee for the evening's lesson, food and wine. Now that's what I call value for money in any currency and way more entertaining than eating bangers and chips with tomato ketchup at home.
Just imagine what our English cuisine would be like today if Elizabeth David had traveled all those years ago through France with a suitcase of tins of baked beans, sliced bread, and sausages.

Now, I have always been of the mind that life is too short for stuffing courgette flowers, but having now tried it, I have changed my mind and though undeniably fiddly, I found them quite satisfying to make. You would not want to cook them for a dinner party for 10, but for a romantic dinner a deux, three flowers each, it is quite do-able and very impressive.
You will need:
6 Courgette flowers, the best and freshest you can find. The males have no courgette attached and the females may have a small courgette attached, you can use either.
150g of cod or white fish (sustainably fished)
1 egg white
100g cream
Salt and pepper.
First whip the egg-white until it is stiff.
Mix the fish and the cream, salt and pepper
Fold the egg-white into the fish mixture.
You will need a large saucepan with a steamer, M Elena used a couscous steamer!
Cut off the stalks of the courgette flowers to about 2cms and take carefully take out the pistil (had to look that one up!)
Then carefully spread open the flower, gently separating the petals.
Spoon in 2 1/2 teaspoons of the fish mixture and then close the leaves around the filling, twisting at the top like a sweet wrapper.
If you have a female flower with a small courgette flower attached, slice this into three so that it will fan out.
When you have filled all six flowers (there may be stuffing left over, if so, you can roll it into balls and cook alongside the flowers) place the flowers in the top of a steamer.
Put a large saucepan of water on to boil and when it is boiling put the steamer over the water and steam the courgettes for approximately 6 - 8 minutes.
To make a pepper coulis boil two red peppers and two yellow peppers for about 45 minutes. They take them out of the water and peel them and whiz in the liquidiser with salt and pepper, the red peppers in one batch and the yellow in another. Then put them in separate saucepan and heat up when the flowers are ready and serve each one on the plate alongside the flowers.

Oh and another topic of conversation was on erotic cooking......

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Searching for a low stress-life


It's a fact, according to today's newspaper, that if you live in the country you will live on average two years longer than your city counterparts. We already know that drinking wine in moderation is good for you along with eating plenty of fruit and veg.; we can go back to eating eggs now and using olive oil rather than butter, eating plenty of fish and exercising moderately is all good; but the real clincher to living a long and happy life, is to minimise the amount of stress you have. Or in the words of that great 90's songster, Bobby McFerrin, "Don't Worry be Happy!"
Living in France, definitely gives you a heads up on the healthy bit; lots of wine, easily accessible fresh produce, sunshine and plenty of open spaces to roam. But living a low stress life? I wondered how I might find that.
Last Monday I went to the yearly fete of the Transhumance in St Remy. This is when the sheep are paraded around the town before heading off into the mountains to cooler pastures where they spend the summer months (throughout the year, most things are paraded round the towns in France, bulls, horses, cyclists, brass bands, veteran cars, paintings etc.).
The fete is very picturesque, pastoral even; the shepherds are dressed in Provencal costume, faded printed shirts, waistcoats and old-fashioned button and braces trousers and wearing hats. At the head of the procession are a couple of donkeys which no doubt originally carried provisions for the shepherds during their 6 month sojourn in the hills, (helicopters have now taken their place, apologies for killing the Romance) these are followed by women in Provencal dress carrying baskets (sandwiches for the journey perhaps?) and then behind them come the sheep; a sea of sheep, or rather a river of sheep, snaking its way around the town, I don't think I've ever seen so many sheep in one place before, it is quite a sight to behold. Interspersed amongst the sheep are billy goats with horns and bells around their necks and keeping them all in order are sheep dogs, which look like smaller versions of the Dulux dog.
As they passed by I got to thinking about the life of the shepherd living half the year in the open countryside with little more to worry about than whether a sheep has got a stone in its hoof or been at the clover again (sharp stab to the stomach apparently). They have their basic needs catered for and presumably have few cares about the state of the stock market. They don't have possessions to worry about and have all the time in the World to sit and think or meditate. (For all I know they live in Winnebagos with satellite phones and Internet access and watch the World News every night). Of course you would have to be OK with your own company as you'd be spending half the year on your own and I guess you'd have to like sheep quite a lot. But in terms of living a stress free life, I think it must rank quite far up there.
I wondered what other professions might be good for a stress free life. Before the sheep parade, a couple of municipal police circled the town on motorbikes, and I thought that maybe their job might be a good one. Whenever there is a fete you see them on the street corner, chatting with their mates giving the bises to acquaintances that they no doubt went to school with. Other times they drive round the town in cars, stopping occasionally to pass the time with people they know. I remember once, when we used to drink in a certain bar (before our life of healthy moderation) and we saw a police car pull up outside. We asked the owner of the bar what he had done to deserve a visit from the police, was he being booked for something?
"Not at all," he said, "He's my cousin and was dropping off my brother".
They do have to direct traffic from time to time and give the odd traffic ticket, and they sometimes do spot checks on cars after lunch, but they probably earn reasonably well and get lots of free coffee and don't have to pay for their petrol and they get a free uniform which already takes the stress out of what to wear every morning!
Next, as the street cleaners arrived to clear up the mess left behind by the sheep, I got to thinking about their job.
I am always amazed how quickly and efficiently they clean up the streets after any fete or market. As the last white van pulls away from the Place du Marché, the street cleaners are already hard at work. They work swiftly and as a team. Some chucking the cardboard boxes into a refuse truck, others sweeping the rubbish, bits of rejected fruit and vegetables into the path of the little van, which sucks it all up with its brushes. In about 20 minutes the square is absolutely spick and span with no signs of the bustling market that was there half an hour earlier. Other times they drive round the town in their trucks picking up bits of rubbish. They are always friendly and helpful and seem to be happy in their work. Could this be a contender for most stress free job I wondered?
But then the other day, the Artist and I were having lunch in the pretty town of Mausannne in the Alpilles when I noticed a small truck come by carrying a large water tank. Every now and then, the man driving the truck would stop and get out of his truck, disconnect a hose from the side of the tank and water the plants at the side of the street.
I jumped out of my seat, "That's the best job," I said pointing with excitement.
Imagine spending the day watering plants and being paid for it, receiving six weeks holidays a year, or whatever it is they get, full healthcare, job security and a pension to boot! And if you got too hot at any time, working in the noonday sun, you could always give yourself a quick dousing with the water hose! The Artist agreed with me and it was decided that this was the crème de la crème of stressfree jobs.

Its the Asparagus season right now and I buy them with abandon, but it always upsets me to throw away half the stalk and so I decided to experiment and was excited to find out that they make a delicious soup. Heres what I did.
Ingredients
The discarded stalks from approx. 500 gms of Asparagus
A small onion chopped.
A clove of garlic.
A pat of butter
A small slug of olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 a litre of stock, vegetable or chicken

Melt the butter and add a bit of oil, as this will stop the butter from burning.
Add the onions and garlic and cook gently for about 10 minutes, when they should be soft and translucent. Meanwhile peel the Asparagus stalks (not entirely necessary, but will lessen the amount of woody fibre you have to deal with later) and add them to the onions. Let them soften for a few minutes and then add the hot stock. Stir, then cover and simmer for about 25 minutes. Then whiz the soup up with a hand whiz and then push it through a sieve. This will remove the woody outer layer (of which there will be less if you peeled the stalks).
Either serve hot with some lovely crusty baguette, or leave to cool and refrigerate and eat on a hot summers day with some chopped chives sprinkled on top. The soup tastes surprisingly creamy, even though no cream has been added. My sister Sabrina suggested adding the rind of that old piece of Parmesan that has been lurking in the depths of the fridge.
This is my version of making the most of what you've got and the beginning to low stress living!

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Dinner Party

The other day, as I was feeling sorry for myself that I didn't have a social life, there was a ping in my inbox and an invitation to dinner forced me to abandon my sulk.
Sylvie, a friend of ours from 'les filles de Mardi' was having a dinner party on Easter Sunday. Les filles de Mardi is a group of women who used to meet every Tuesday night at the Theatre Restaurant and who we befriended over time, gradually moving from our table for two to join their table and eventually becoming fully integrated into the group.
It got me thinking about how different a dinner party in France is to a dinner party in England. For a start, you are rarely invited to dinner in a French house, this is normally reserved for family celebrations. Maybe that is why a French dinner party resembles that of a family table. There is little small talk, people don't do one to one chit chat with the person sitting next to them; one person holds forth with their point of view and everyone else comments, agrees, disagrees or takes over the baton for their say. It’s very competitive and is often down to he or she who shouts loudest. If you're not up for the game, or feel self-conscious about your French speaking skills or your ability to shout loud enough, you will find yourself out in the cold, conversationally speaking.
To begin the evening there is always the apero! This is the most important drink of the day, and is either pastis or whisky, but more often than not whiskey.
The French love whiskey, Scottish, American, Irish, blended or single malt, it makes no difference. They usually drink it with coke or neat with ice; I've never seen it served with water, though someone told me that they had recently had it with Schweppes (I presume tonic) and it was quite good! Well you learn something new every day.
Aperos can go on for quite a long time and are always generous (none of your stingy English pub measures), so by the time everyone sits down to eat, everyone is more than merry.
Sylvie's party was much the same. We had picked up Papou and Fabrice at the agreed time of just after 8 from the quay where they keep their boat in Beaucaire. We then drove up to Sylvie’s house, a villa in a lottissement (posh housing estate) above Beaucaire. The French like to live in these new purpose built houses, leaving the old crumbling stone buildings to immigrants like us. When we got there we were the first. The TV was on and there was an identified boy lounging on the sofa watching an old Zorro film. The rest of the guests didn’t arrive for another hour and a half, by then we had had quite a few drinks and numerous olives and peanuts. We were 15 altogether and Sylvie had a chair crises, so various people arrived carrying chairs, which was quite convenient, as they could sit down on their own chairs as soon as they arrived.
Sylvie thought a little ambient music might go down well, but one of her friends, D, a tax inspector (always good to know one!) told her to turn it off as it clashed with the TV which was still on. As more aperos were poured, the Artist and I (sticking to white wine) were wondering if we were ever going to eat.
‘I can’t see any sign of cooking’ he whispered sotto voce to me.
Finally around 10.30 we sat down. After singing Happy Birthday (in English; it was Sylvie's birthday, though she had omitted to tell us so) and done various hip hip horray's (in French) the first course was unveiled; two whole poached salmon garnished with watercress, Blinis spread with Brondade a la Mourue, tomatoes, radishes and a Salad Russe, (tinned vegetables in mayonnaise),and two types of mayonnaise, and bread, of course.
The conversation started with the evils of mass consumerism, then moved on to Le Canard the French sytirical weekly paper and apparently the only dependable source for political information, to politics in general and how everyone in the government is a 'con'.
Then came the main course, frankly I was already quite full from the first course, (not to mention apero nibbles).
Two large plates of pommes dauphinois, two legs of lamb and their 'jus' and a large portion of aubergines were placed on the table. As soon as everyone was served, the discussions continued. Every now and then Fabrice, who seemed to be doing most of the talking would aplogise to me and the Artists for talking too fast, adding that we wouldn’t be able to understand or follow the conversation. After a couple of these announcements, I pointed out that it wasn't because we didn't understand what he was saying, but rather that it was difficult to get a word in edgeways - (sadly there isn't such a wonderfully descriptive word as edgeways). So he then asked me what I thought about the Iraq Enquiry, I was about to answer, when the conversation moved on to the ‘special’ relationship between Blair and Bush, and I hadn’t even opened my mouth!
For dessert there was a tart of strawberries and cream, (I was pleased to note that the pastry 'fait a la maison' was no better than mine, I loath making pastry and have recently served up various inedible pastry dishes in an attempt to master it, don't ask me why, you can buy perfectly decent ready made pastry in every supermarket and most french cooks do!)
Then someone put on 'Hotel California' at full blast. D immediately got up to turn it down and in so doing turned it off.
Papou turned it back on again, at a lower volume and half the diners got up and danced.
At around 12.30 the Artist and I got up from the table and said it was time for us to go.
Cries, of 'pourquoi,' and the party's only just begun and we must have a dance before we go, regaled us, as we took our leave.
When we did the rounds of bisous, our friend apologised for not giving us any one on one attention and hoped we hadn't been bored, 'Of course not,' we said.
We drove back home.
“Well that was very French,” I said as we drove down the hill back to Tarascon.
"And you say you don't have a social life," the Artist replied.
“O.K.” I conceded, “it’s just a different kind of social life.”

At the market this week they were selling a large bunch of chard for €1! I was shown how to make this Tarte aux Blettes (Chard tart) by an ex restaurateur who gives cookery classes in the Marie in Flaux, a tiny village near Uzes. I particularly like this pastry which is made with olive oil.

For the pastry:
250g flour (I like wholemeal)
1 glass of cold water
5 tbls. Olive Oil
1 pinch salt
A sprig of rosemary

For the filling:
1 kilo Chard
2 eggs
2 tbls. single cream
Salt and Pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180 c.
Wash and cut the stalks of the chard and cook together with the leaves in a small amout of water for 20 minutes, then drain and leave to cool.
To make the pastry: mix the flour with the salt and chopped rosemary, oil and water. I do this in my ancient Robot Chef, but you can also do it by hand. When the pastry forms into a ball, put it onto a floured board and roll out to line your tart tin (you can also leave it to rest, wrapped in clingfilm in the fridge for 40 mins which makes it less sticky).
Bake blind for 10 mins. the fill with the chard
Meanwhile whisk the eggs with the cream (or milk) and add salt and pepper, pour this over the chard.
Bake for about 45 minutes. Can be eaten hot or cold!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Snow and Corruption


I am told, for a successful blog, you need to send out posts on a regular basis. Something, which I have failed to do, as my followers will know (I have 13 to date, which is one more than You know Who, but I need more!). My excuse is that I have been away for all of February and the beginning of March and being a stickler for the truth; I cannot pretend to be in France when I’m not.
On my return to Provence in early March, I was hoping to see bright skies and brilliant sunshine, but instead what I saw on landing at Nimes airport was a blanket of snow! There had been blizzards the night before. In Provence? In March? My friend who was supposed to pick me up was snowed-in and I had to make my own chilly way from Nimes airport to Tarascon (navette from the airport to Nimes and then train to Tarascon FYI). When I finally got home, the gas boiler had gone out, and the house was freezing cold and the two trees in our courtyard had split in half due to the weight of the snow (actually I was quite happy about that, I never really liked them and now I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about being a tree murderer!) I’ve never heard so much blamed on the weight of the snow before, but maybe trees are less robust here. .
Also on everyone's lips, on my return, was the demise of our Mayor. It seems that whilst I was away, he had been held for questioning at Marseilles Police Headquarters on allegations of corruption for 24 hours! Our Mayor, who always looks so chic with his chapeau and silk tie, always friendly with a smile and a bonjour; always present at any function, ready with a speech and a toast and always obliging for any photo-op.
When I first heard the story, I had a ‘lost in translation’ moment and understood that he had been arrested on charges of accepting backhanders from the market holders, ‘sur les conditions d’attribution du marché public…’ Well, I thought to myself, how lucrative could that be? Taking a few euros from each stallholder in the Tuesday Market to guarantee them a good spot? Certainly not enough to risk your job and reputation? Then I actually read up on it and realised that it concerned allegations that the €4 million contract to transform the old military base of Tarascon into the new Law Courts had gone to a company favoured by the Mayor. A little more profitable, I’m sure if the allegations were true. Of course it is the company that didn't get the job that has made the allegations and the local regional elections at which the Mayor was going to stand were coming up.
We once visited the old Barracks, the Marie had invited us to a vernissage – (art opening) there of equestrian paintings. It was held in a huge 19th Century hall, which used to be the stables for the barracks for which, besides the book Le Tartarin de Tarascon, which apparently every school child in France has read, Tarascon is best known. Before the end of conscription (2001), huge numbers of young men passed through the barracks of Tarascon. All the buildings now lie empty like a ghost town within a town (or on the edge of town to be precise). Anyway, it turned out that besides being there to view the equestrian paintings, we were also going to be treated to the spectacle of performing horses, as the hall was now going to be their home. There were six white horses and six black horses, they were very beautiful and groomed to a shine with patent leather harnesses and they did all sorts of clever things around the ring, galloping round one way, then the other, then passing each other in a figure of eight and walking backwards out of the ring. All the while the ringmaster stood in the middle coolly cracking a long whip every now and then to make them go faster or slow down. He was dressed in black evening suit with a white shirt, you could almost imagine a Gauloise hanging from his lips he looked so cool. With the grand finale each horse reared on its hind legs and pawed at the air. One horse actually walked on its hind legs and then did a sort of curtsy. Now, as fun as it was to watch a horse balance on two legs, there was part of me that couldn't help think that it wasn't all together natural or necessary.
However the evening got us thinking about what the Marie was going to do with all those empty buildings and as the Artist is always on the look out for a studio space, he decided to ask someone at the Marie if they had any empty buildings to rent . Anyway, they said they didn’t know of any, which we thought strange at the time as we were standing in a whole enclave of empty buildings. But now I realise that they were all already allocated – that or we’re just not good enough friends with the Mayor!
During my research on this story, I found that the two Mayors previous to the one we have now had been arrested, jailed and or fined. Seems getting arrested for being Mayor comes with the territory, or rather the job.
I was musing on this whole affair as I walked past the present Law Courts, which are still in the centre of town, on my way to the weekly market. As I saw them huddled outside having a smoke, (I’m talking about the barristers in their black gowns, clutching their wigs) I thought about how I was going to miss them being there. They give the town a sense of drama. Sometimes you see a police car arriving at the back of the courts with a prisoner under guard, and the large iron gates clanking shut behind them and you wonder what the person is being accused of. A few years ago a film about the life of Camus came to town, they were doubling our Law Courts for one in Algeria, I don’t know if it was because the building is typical of a French municipal building of that time, or because of the easy availability of Algerian and Moroccans to work as extras.
The market this week was rather a desultory affair, the man from St Remy told me that the snow had ruined much of his produce and that the vegetable season was at least 3 weeks behind because of the cold weather. All he had for sale were leeks, cabbages and cauliflowers along with dandelion leaves, which I wasn’t in the mood to experiment with or get exited about. Instead I bought a big bag of carrots and oranges and called it a day.
Luckily we had covered up our lemon tree, which I had bought the year before for the Artist’s birthday and so I picked these and made confit de citrons, to be used in later dishes of chicken and couscous.

Carrot and lentil with Coriander Soup
Its still cold enough to warrant a warming soup, and here’s one to make you feel really toasty!
1 kilo Carrots
1 stick celery
I onion
Tops of 2 leeks, removing the tough outer leaves
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, roughly ground in a pestle and mortar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teapson chilli flakes
1 cup of lentils (any type just make sure they don’t need pre soaking)
1.5 litres of stock, made with powdered bouillon
handful of fresh coriander
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons of oil or butter
Heat the oil or butter in a large pot and add the onions and garlic. Then add the chilli flakes ground coriander seeds, and the cumin powder. Stir this around until the onions are soft and the gentle aroma of the spices reach the nostrils of your loved one in the next room. Then add the rest of the vegetables and the lentils, stirring from time to time so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan, over a gentle flame for ten minutes or until they are soft. Lastly add the stock made with boiling water and add salt and pepper, to taste. Remember that some of the stocks have quite a lot of salt in them, so maybe taste before you salt. Cook for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are cooked. Then liquidise and add the chopped fresh coriander and serve.
This makes quite a large amount of soup and I often freeze some for a later day. You could also halve the quantities.

Carrot and Orange salad
This is very yummy and will last a couple of days. Its best made a few hours before you want to eat it so the juices of the carrots mix with the orange juice.
500g/ carrots, peeled and coarsely gratedk
1 oranged, unsprayed, juice and zest
1/2 juice of lemon
2 tbsp Moroccan Argon Oil, Olive Oil is fine if you don’t have any
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp poppy or mustard seeds, toasted in a frying pan until the pop
1 tsp. Mustard
Chopped fresh coriander or parsley
Chopped endive (optional)
Grate the carrots and the orange peel.
Stir the mustard into the orange and lemon juice. Add the oil, salt and pepper and whisk together and pour over the carrots. Add the poppy seeds (I sometimes use mustard seeds for a stronger sharper flavour), the endive, if using, and chopped coriander. Serve!

Confit de Citron
Ok this one is for my L.A. friends with lemon trees – if you’re stealing them from your neighbour, make sure you don’t get caught or make extra as a peace offering
As many lemons as you can fit into a jar (use a large jar)
Rock salt.
First cut off the stems, then cut the lemons vertically, without cutting all the way through. Then cut from the other side, stopping before you get to the end. Then fill each cut with a tablespoon of salt, or as much as you can cram in, then put it in the jar. When you have filled the jar, shake it and put the lid on. The salt will extract the juice from the lemons. And after a day or two of turning the jar, top up with water and leave with the lid on. They will be ready to use in about 3 weeks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Truffles



It’s January, the month deemed to be the most depressing of the year. The Christmas lights have finally come down, but Spring is not yet here, we’re still in the throes of winter and everyone is broke. What to do to cheer ourselves up?

Luckily there is la Fete des Truffes in Uzes, which celebrates the Joy of the Truffle. Uzes is about 1/2 an hour away. It is Sunday and with nothing better to do, we pile the dogs into the car and head off. It’s a glorious day, the sky, clear and blue, and the sun bright enough to warrant sunglasses. The road takes us through vineyards on either side of the road, the vines brown and twisted, some pruned, some waiting to be pruned. The roads are empty but when we get to Uzes there is nowhere to park, every single space is taken; on a Sunday in winter? Truffles are obviously big business.

I get out the car near the town square and the Artist drives on in search of far flung car parks with the dogs. I did suggest that I could take the dogs, but as Ralph fights with everything and Molly is scared of crowds, the Artist thought it a bad idea. But as I walk towards the square with my new sunglasses perched on my nose, I think that a couple of Scottie dogs in matching red collars and leads trotting along beside me would just put the finishing touches to my look; this is France after all and if dogs aren’t for posing then what are they good for?

There is a large crowd in the square and there is a procession of men and women dressed up in what I presume to be traditional Uzesian costumes of long purple and grey robes with turbans on their heads. On closer inspection I see that a woman at the head of the procession is carrying a basket with an enormous truffle in it, They seem to be heading towards the church, where the truffle no doubt will be blessed.

An area in the square has been cordoned off with iron railings (those railings really get their full use) and sand laid down with oak and pine saplings strategically planted here and there, to recreate a typical truffle-fecund paysage. Nothing is happening yet, but people are already standing around the railings, ensuring their places for when the specatacle begins. Suspense is in the air. Cameras are poised. At the far end of the ‘truffle field’ is a van parked with it’s side door open with a PA system inside it and a man with a microphone standing in front of it, whipping up the audience with the times of the pig and dog-truffle hunting demonstrations. He also reminds us to buy tickets for a plate of truffle omelette for which they will be using 3,000 eggs and a 1,000 gram truffle, the same that was making its way into the Church? He then plays “I’m walking on Sunshine” and chats to his mates who are standing around the van, drinking wine. I notice they all have wine glass holders round their necks, like people have for their specs, but with a ring which their glass sits in enabling them to go hands free whilst keeping hold of their glass.

As I am musing about how I need to get one for the next party I go to, I hear a voice behind me, I turn around, it’s the Artist.

I see you got a ringside seat then, he says.

After a few more tunes, the man on the PA picks up his banter, and the crowd claps and cheers as a man in a green jacket comes into the enclosure leading a white spotted pig wearing a collar and lead. He’s quite a handsome pig as far as pigs go. He’s definitely had a bit of a bath and a brush-up since leaving the pig-sty this morning, The man leads him into the ring and encourages him to sniff at one of the miniature saplings; as soon as the pig gets a whiff of the truffle scent, he’s off. After a few seconds of feverish digging with his snout, his head comes up victoriously with a truffle held daintily in his mouth. Quick as a flash, the man has taken the truffle from the pig, shown it to the audience and put it in his pocket giving the pig a treat in its place. A truffle flavoured chocolate drop perhaps? The crowd claps and cheers, cameras flash and for those who can’t see, there is a running commentary from the compare. The man and pig are now off to another bush where the whole process is repeated, until he has gone right round the ring and unearthed every truffle under every sapling. Its all over after about ten minutes and the man and pig leave the ring with a wave to great cheers. We later learn from some friends that a few years ago a pig actually attacked his owner when he tried to retrieve the truffle from his mouth and the man had to be rushed to hospital!

People start to wander off and the compare tells us to come back in half an hour to see the dog truffle hunting demonstration.

Now thats something I want to see, I tell the Artist.

A crowd is gathering in another part of the square and we go to investigate. There we see a huge metal pan being held over a smouldering wood fire by a tractor. There are about 6 men standing around the pan wearing white chef jackets and aprons, they each have a wooden paddle with which they are pushing back and forth the largest amount of eggs you have ever seen. This must be the 3,000 egg omelette.

Omelette, the Artist says as we walk away, more like scrambled eggs. I must admit, I’m not very tempted.

We then squeeze our way through the crowd under the arches. Here there are local producers selling truffles along with all sorts of truffle infused produce. There is truffle oil, truffle vinegar, truffle salt, truffle rice, truffle pasta, truffle sausage, even truffle chocolate, which is in my opinion, is a truffle too far. You can also buy little oak saplings with truffle spores to grow in your garden and there are recipe books dedicated to the truffle. I never knew the truffle was so versatile!

I ask a man the price of a large truffle that he has in a basket it is about the size of a cauliflower. He weighs it and says €350. He has another one for €12 which is about the size of half a conker. I decide to buy that one. It is black and hard with a slightly textured skin. I have a brief conversation with the man about how best to cook the truffle. He tells me it can be stored for about a week with some moistened kitchen towel in a jar in the fridge. If I put an egg in with it, whole and in its shell, the truffle will flavour the egg; I can do the same with rice. When I am ready to use it, he tells me to clean it with a damp cloth and grate it finely over eggs, pasta or risotto. It is also very good in pommes dauphinois, he adds. I hand over my money, thank him and move on.

We pass a stall where they are selling bottles of truffle liquor. The man tells us you can drink it as an aperitif or use it to flavour sauces. He gives us a little sip in a plastic cup and I am almost convinced, thinking maybe I need a bottle, but luckily come to my senses in time. All the same I cannot help but admire the French and their culinary ingenuity of turning everything and anything into a drink

All around the square the restaurants are laying out tables and chairs and advertising their truffle menus. Everywhere is packed and the menus are twice or three times what they normally are. We manage to find somewhere round the back of the square and after 1/2 an hours wait, order the dishes of the day, Pizza a la Truffe and Pasta a la Truffe.

The truffle is good business!

Later as we are driving home in the car, past woods with oak and pine trees, I think about all the truffles that are probably lurking just below the surface of the ground and all the money that could be made if only we knew how to find them. I turn round and see Molly and Ralph lying lazily on the back seat and think about how they never really DO anything.

How hard do you think it is to train a dog to find truffles? I ask.