Bloomin’ marvellous

Spring can be the craziest time of year – things are sprouting everywhere, and nature is surprising me with new things every day.  And that’s before you count all the spring fetes and festivals which are seemingly everywhere!

This year we appear to be having unseasonably warm weather, and many plants are growing much faster than they normally would.  Look at the wisteria, it is out in full bloom!!  And the bees love it – there’s a variety of large black bees, with iridescent bluish-black wings, which seem to zip around the flowers like lunatics.

IMG_9495

IMG_9497

The kiwis are also sprouting a fair amount of leaves, as well as flower buds!

IMG_9490

IMG_9492

The California poppies have been flowering for over a week now, and there’s a lovely plant called Cerinthe Major “Purpurascens” growing next to one of the poppy plants.  The two of them seem to be having a bit of a cuddle :-)

IMG_9443

In my garden both plants are ridiculously easy to grow – I just leave a few of them to set seed, and forget all about them until the fall.  When the seeds sprout I weed out the ones I don’t want, et voila!

My Papa Meilland rose also started to bloom last week; it has the most beautiful old-fashioned rose scent – I wish you could smell it!

IMG_9429

And I’m very excited about my artichokes – I planted a row of five artichoke plants last year, tiny little plants, which were immediately attacked by all the slugs and snails in the garden.  Over the winter I managed to stop the damage to the plants (causing carnage amongst the snails and slugs :)), and they have grown into large silvery mounds of foliage.  And now the first flower buds have started to appear!!  If I’m lucky there will be so many that I will really be able to indulge – artichokes are one of my favourite vegetables!!  With the warm weather, I will soon be able to have an artichoke feast!

IMG_9453

And so, on to the spring fetes and fairs – lots of exciting stuff to go and see over the coming weeks!!

This past weekend, Chateau Perdiguier in Maraussan hosted the Journées Fleurs et Jardins for the 5th year running.

IMG_9486The Chateau is an incredibly impressive building, so it’s worth a visit to the fair just for a close-up look at the building.  According to the website, the Chateau got its name in the 14th century, when it was given to Jean Perdiguier by Charles V in 1375.  A few years later Perdiguier was assassinated in Montpellier, after introducing an extraordinary tax – modern-day politicians take heed??  Perdiguier didn’t have much time at his chateau, but at least he left his name behind.  Over the centuries, as the estate passed from one owner to the next, the building evolved into the impressive structure we see today.

The exhibitors of the “flower days” were spread out over a large area in front of the chateau, with stands selling all manner of flowers and other garden plants, including citrus trees, acers, and vegetable garden plants; there were decorations for the garden (some very colourful flower pots amongst them); and there was food!!  Tables and chairs were interspersed with the stalls, and the atmosphere was very festive and relaxed!

Today Chateau Perdiguier is a working winery, and part of the exhibitors were inside, in the big wine cellar.  The monumental casks are in reality made of cement, with the fronts made to look like traditional wooden casks.  There were also a number of wooden barrels (used to age wine) in the cellar, with the ends decorated with paintings.  To start off with I thought the pictures had been painted directly on to the barrel, but closer inspection revealed that pictures were detachable.

Upstairs from the cellar is a large function room, where there was an exhibition of paintings, as well as more painted barrels, and some painted wine bottles.

P1090194

 

P1090212

There’s definitely someone with an artistic bent living there!

So there you have it – Spring in Languedoc has started!!

Madeira, my dear?

The last get together of our cooking group had a Portuguese theme.  Our hosts had been to Madeira shortly before, and had returned full of enthusiasm, and with many ideas for Portuguese dishes for us to try out.

We arrived to find everything neatly organised – with a stack of printed recipes to guide our efforts.  The dishes we were to try were the following:

Caldo Verde – Portuguese Cabbage Soup
Bolo do Caco – Portuguese Flat Bread
Bacalhau A Gomes De Sa – Salt Cod, Onions and Potatoes
Peri Peri Roast Chicken – Spicy Roast Chicken
Pastel de Nata – Portuguese Custard Tarts

Quite easy – wouldn’t you think so??  We had some wonderful produce at our disposal – just look at that perfect cabbage!

IMG_9245

And the Chicken was the way all chickens should be:  plump and giving the impression of having lived a full life!

IMG_9247

Once we had run through the recipes, everyone got their “dish” to prepare – I shared preparing the salt cod with one of our hosts.  The kitchen became a hive of activity as everyone started work on their dish, and as always we had a lot of fun!

The salt cod had been soaked, with the water changed numerous times, and poached, in advance.  The task of removing any skin and bones, and flaking the fish fell to me ;) – not the most pleasant of jobs, but someone had to do it.

IMG_9250

The dish also called for sliced and cooked potatoes, sautéed onions, hard-boiled eggs, chopped parsley, and lots of olive oil!

Once the cod was flaked, the potatoes cooked, and the onions sautéed, the dish was easy to assemble.  Half the sliced potatoes went into the bottom of the oven dish, then the cod and onions were layered (cod – onions – cod – onions) and topped with the remaining half of the potatoes.  I drizzled the top with a little olive oil, just enough to moisten the potatoes, but not as much as called for in the recipe.

Meanwhile my fellow cooks were busy with their recipes.  The Bolo do Caco flat bread dough is made with the addition of cooked and mashed sweet potato.  Once the dough is well risen, it is shaped and left to rise again, before being cooked on a griddle.

The Peri Peri Chicken starts life as a though it was going to be a regular roast chicken.  The transformation comes halfway through the cooking time, when it is liberally anointed with a wonderfully aromatic and spicy Peri Peri sauce.

Caldo Verde is simplicity in itself, using mostly ingredients which are to be found in almost every kitchen:  onions, garlic, potatoes, olive oil, bay leaf, cabbage or greens, and chicken stock.  Two important ingredients are a little less common:  Chorizo and smoked paprika.  The flavour of the soup stands or falls with the quality of the chorizo, and the smoked paprika gives it a flavour which makes you try and figure out just where that taste comes from.

The recipe for the Portuguese Custard Tarts was interesting.  It specified puff pastry to line the muffin tin with, but the puff pastry was rolled up, jelly roll fashion, cut into slices and then the slices placed cut side down and rolled into circles again.  After a bit of deliberating, we figured out that it was perfectly logical, as that way the puff pastry would rise sideways and not push the filling up out of the tin.  The custard filling was cooked on the stove, before pastry and filling were assembled in the tins and baked once more.

When all the cooking was well on the way and we were really just waiting for some things to finish, we had a well-earned glass of wine.  Keeping with the Portuguese theme we had some Mateus Rose – anyone out there remember that??  And the lamps that were made with the bottles??

The labelling might have been updated, but the bottle shape is still pretty much the same, and the wine is a very pleasant, slightly fizzy rose – great as an aperitif!

Soon it was time to sit down to lunch, and we started with Caldo Verde, accompanied by Bolo do Caco.

IMG_9257

Next up was Bacalhao A Gomes De Sa.  A note on that dish – we decided it looked rather dry, so added a little milk halfway through the cooking time.  The garnish of olives, hard-boiled eggs and parsley went on just before it was brought to the table.

IMG_9262

Pride of place went to the Peri Peri Chicken.  We skipped the vegetables specified in the recipe, as we had lots of food to eat apart from the chicken.  The chicken was tender and juicy, and everyone could adjust the spiciness by adding more or less gravy to their portion.  The chicken was served with a light salad.

P1080976All too soon, this was all that was left of the chicken :)

P1080985And finally, the custard tarts!  They really were divine, moist and with a lovely vanilla flavour.

All in all a great selection of recipes, and they have all made it into my recipe folder.  And the Caldo Verde has already been made a couple of times.  For individual recipes, here is a scan of the recipes in PDF format.

Good vibrations

Last week a friend from St Chinian called with an invitation.  There was a concert at the Guinguette Le Tournebelle that evening, and she would be happy for me to come along.  I had driven past the Guinguette, on my way from Narbonne to Gruissan, a couple of times, but had never actually stopped there.  A quick look on the internet showed that the music would be right up my street, so I gladly accepted the invitation.

CCI250314

Guinguette translates as tavern, and the tavern at Tournebelle is right by the Canal de la Robine, just past the Mandirac lock, outside of Narbonne.  If you plan to go, make sure you look at a map first; it’s easy to take a wrong turn.

We arrived in time to eat dinner, before the concert, and my friend had booked a table for the four of us.  The Guinguette Le Tournebelle is basically one large room, possibly a former barn, with a raised stage at one end, and a bar at the opposite end.  Along the outside of the building, and overlooking the canal, a covered pergola has been added, with the open sides closed in with see-through plastic for the winter months.  I imagine that it will be a perfect spot for sitting out, as soon as it gets warm enough.  Inside though, a number of people were already at their tables, amongst them the musicians for the evening, and the mood was relaxed and friendly.

P1090028

Dinner that night was a three course fixed menu, all freshly prepared, with the dishes selected by the chef.  The starter was a creamy soup made with sweet potato and coconut milk, subtly spiced, and accompanied by a gratinated salmon toast.

P1090008

The main course was delicious too: slices of filet of pork which had been covered in a hazelnut and breadcrumb coating and fried, served on a bed of sweet red cabbage. Alongside was a little mound of truffle flavoured whipped cream, a cherry tomato roasted with balsamic vinegar, and some roasted potato wedges.

P1090009

Dessert arrived just as the concert was about to start and the lights were dimmed, so I’m sorry there is no picture.  It was a delicious and refreshing tiramisu, where the usual sponge had been replaced with speculoos, spiced shortcrust biscuits.

The musicians for the evening were Jorge Rossy from Barcelona, Gabrielle Koehlhoeffer and Joel Allouche, both from Montpellier.  They had met at a festival the previous year, and decided that they should play a gig together, since Barcelona and Montpellier are not that far away from one another.  We were privileged to be in the audience for that gig!

Jorge Rossy, who headlined the evening, is a very talented musician, well-known as having been the drummer for the Brad Mehldau Trio.  He has also studied trumpet and piano, and this evening he was playing piano and vibraphone.  Gabrielle Koehlhoeffer, on double bass, is a passionate musician with a doctorate in pharmacy, who came to playing jazz when she was 15 and has enjoyed herself ever since.  Joel Allouche is a mover and shaker in the regional music scene, as well as a composer, and a very good drummer!  I hope you’ll enjoy the video below.

The Guinguette Le Tournebelle is open for lunch throughout the year Tuesday to Sunday.  Live music is played every Friday night, and if you want to go for dinner on a concert night I would strongly recommend that you book your table in advance.

Hello Ducky

Warning – this post contains images, some of which may upset sensitive souls!

Many of you will remember my post about the Circuit Court market in Agel, where the consumers can buy directly from the producers.  If you didn’t see the post then you can read it here.  A couple of weeks ago I had an e-mail from one of the organisers, to say that a poultry farmer would be offering fattened ducks on March 20, and would anyone interested please order.  So I jumped in with both feet!!

I ordered one whole duck (without the fat liver), and six duck legs, thinking that it would be a good idea to try my hand at making Confit de Canard, a speciality of south west France, where the duck is simmered very slowly in its own fat.  Confit is served in many restaurants in our area, almost always with French fries or fried potatoes, and I’ve never been disappointed by the melting soft texture of the duck.

P1090052

Back to the making of Confit de Canard – I had a chat with Nadia Bourgne from Domaine la Madura some time ago, and knew that she participates in a big Confit-making session with friends every year.  I asked her advice on how to prepare the Confit, and it all sounded very simple and straightforward.  Come last Thursday, I headed to Agel to collect “my” duck. The two bags weighed very heavily, and when I glanced into the bigger of the bags, I could tell that the head was still on the duck!  I had planned to cut the animal up myself, but in the end I chickened out :) – I didn’t want to spoil a perfectly good duck by making a hash of it.  So I plucked up courage and asked Jean-Pierre Peyras, of Boucherie Peyras in St Chinian if he would agree to help.  Thankfully he was more than happy to show me how to dissect the duck, and he had just the right tools for the job too!

IMG_9269

Before you wonder, the two small birds are pigeons, which Jean-Pierre was in the process of preparing.  My duck was enormous – I don’t know the exact weight but it was well over 5kg!  First, Jean-Pierre removed the head and the neck, followed by the wing tips, and then the legs were trimmed off the carcass.  The wings were next and finally he removed the breasts, so in the end there were various pieces of duck, and the bones.  The fat was neatly trimmed off and put to one side, and the skin on the two duck breasts (magret de canard) was scored in a diamond pattern.  Now I know just how to do it next time – if there is a next time.  Thank you, Jean-Pierre!!

 

This all happened on Saturday morning.  Once I got everything home I prepared the rest of the ingredients:   thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, and sea salt.

IMG_9299

I trimmed some fat off the duck legs, which I had bought in addition to the whole bird, and then I cut all the fat into half inch squares, so I could render it over very low heat.  Half a glass of water went into the bottom of the pan, to stop the fat from overheating and burning.

IMG_9302

The neck, wing tips and the rest of the carcass went into another pot, along with a shallot, some peppercorns, a bay leaf, a little rosemary and thyme, and some salt.  Covered with water, I brought it all to a simmer and left it on very low heat, with the lid on, for about an hour.

IMG_9305

That done, I prepared the salt mixture to season my duck pieces with.  I stripped the leaves from some rosemary and thyme sprigs (more thyme, less rosemary), and tore the bay leaf into small pieces, then ground all together in the spice mill.  I then added coarse sea salt and gave it another whirl – it looked great and smelled divine!!

IMG_9307

Meantime the fat was melting slowly – you can just about see the liquid fat appearing!

IMG_9306

Every piece of duck was sprinkled with a bit of the salt mixture, and I massaged it in a little.

The duck pieces were then covered with a clean tea towel, and were left to marinate overnight in a cool place.  In my case, the cool place was the guest bedroom :), but the fridge will be fine too.  On the stove, the fat was coming along nicely, gently bubbling away.

Soon it was time to strain the fat, leaving behind the pieces of skin which had given up most of the fat.

IMG_9326

And that was it for the first day!!  Not too difficult after all :)

The following day (Sunday), I set to work around midday, after voting in the municipal elections and going to the market.  The seasoned duck pieces were quickly rinsed, to remove any excess salt, and patted dry.  The fat I had rendered the day before went into the largest casserole pan I possess, along with a glass of water and some additional duck fat (I always have a few jars of duck or goose fat in my larder!).  Once the fat had melted I added the duck legs and wings, and slowly brought the pan to a simmer.

Meantime I set to work on the pieces of the carcass which had been boiled the previous day, and left to cool in the stock.  I picked all the remaining meat off the bones;  that meat would go into making Rillettes de Canard, a kind of pate.

IMG_9340

Next came the duck breasts, which Jean-Pierre had prepared so nicely the day before.  I had invited friends to dinner for Sunday night, and decided that the duck breasts would make a perfect roast.  The two breasts (which had also been given the salt treatment the day before) were laid atop one another with the skin side out, and then tied with string, to make a neat shape.

IMG_9341

That done, I started on the Fritons de Canard – remember the bits of skin left behind the previous day when I strained the rendered duck fat?  They went into a dry saute pan over medium heat and cooked gently, to give up every last bit of fat.

IMG_9342

When the fat started to run I added a clove of garlic, cut in half, to add a bit of flavour; once the fritons had turned a pale brown colour they were strained in a sieve and drained on kitchen paper.  I was amazed to see that the kitchen paper remained more or less fat free.  The Fritons received a light sprinkling of fleur de sel and they were ready to be eaten with our aperitif later on.

IMG_9346

The duck pieces had by now simmered away for an hour and a half, and it was time to remove them from their pan.  You can see how they had shrunk a little.

IMG_9343

And here they are:

IMG_9345

In the old days, Confit de Canard would have been kept in stoneware crocks, the pieces buried deep in fat, and the crocks kept in a cool larder over the winter.  As our modern homes don’t really allow for cool places any more, you can either keep your confit in the fridge for 10 days to two weeks, or you can put the pieces of duck into jars and sterilise it.  Since there was way more confit than I would want to eat in the immediate future I opted for the latter.  Two legs went into each 1-litre jar, which was then filled two thirds high with strained fat.  The wings got a jar of their own.  With the jars securely closed they were processed in boiling water for an hour and a half.

Once the boiling was finished, the jars were removed immediately from the hot water, to stop cooking.  I noticed that the legs had given up some more fat, the levels seemed higher after boiling!

And this is what the jars looked like on Monday morning, once everything had solidified.

I’m not going to open these jars for a little while, so that the flavours will have time to mingle and develop.  Watch this space for when I do serve my homemade Confit de Canard.

For those of you who are wondering about the roast duck breast, I’m sorry I didn’t photograph the end result – I blame it on the aperitif!   I started the cooking by putting the roast into a cold frying pan and cooking it on medium heat for five minutes on each side.  The roast then went into the pre-heated oven at 200 degrees Centigrade for 30 minutes, and, once removed from the oven, rested for another 30 minutes, before being carved.   It turned out perfectly pink, juicy and flavoursome, served with roast potatoes (made of course with duck fat) and braised savoy cabbage.  Try it out, it’s delicious!!

Note:  the two duck breasts weighed in at 1.3kg.  For a smaller roast you would have to adjust the cooking time somewhat unless you like your duck less pink.

Spring in your step

This week’s post has been kindly written by Anne Roberts, who owns Aurelie in St Chinian with her husband.  Thank you, Anne, for sharing this lovely walk with everyone!

————- o o o  ————-

Today the sky was endlessly blue and the temperature must have been around 19 degrees in the afternoon, not bad for the 9th of March in Languedoc-Roussillon.  Every year when we return to ”Aurelie”, our home for five months in the south of France, one of the things that we look forward to very much is enjoying the wonderful walks in and around  St. Chinian and its neighbouring villages. The afternoon is perfect for a walk in the hills with friends, and we choose to do a walk starting at Cruzy, a village about 15 minutes by car from St. Chinian.

This walk is a particular favourite since the countryside is varied as we make our way along the marked route arriving back at the car about two and a half hours later.

Many wonderful old houses are to be found in and around Cruzy and more can be learned of the village from a former post on the blog.

P1080816

The walk begins at the Panneau de Depart (outlining the route) in the parking lot behind the church.  As we start to leave the village, we pass the public “lavoir” where the household laundry was washed in days long gone.  I hope that the social contact more than made up for the obvious hard work that this must have entailed!  Old lavoirs can be found in most of the villages around here.

IMG_9115

The route takes us along a country road for a short while  before we turn off to the left up into the hills and through the vines.  This walk is called “Montplo” as we will see the hamlet of that name from various points as we walk along. It’s a steady climb up into the vines which are quite bare at the moment and show absolutely no hint of their bounteous harvest to come later in the year. The vineyard workers have been out for many weeks pruning them hard back. After climbing a little further through the vineyards, we can look back and have a good view of Cruzy .

There are wonderful vistas with almost panoramic views as we walk the paths through the vines, and now we see right across to Villespassans.

P1080830

It’s lovely up here with a fresh breeze blowing, vines everywhere and olive groves (needing attention, it seems, this year). We step aside at one point for a rider and her dog and soon spot some other aspects of countryside living.   

Eventually we make our way down to the country road again. Shortly, we cut down through more vines toward Montplo, passing behind it and then out onto another quiet country road for a hundred metres or so before turning off once more to the left, but this time, into the woods.

IMG_9157

The woods have a secret. Not far in, there is a very large tomb of the Fau family set into the back edge of a field backing onto the woodland path and overlooking land which was once covered in vines.

The view from the tomb is over lovely countryside (probably much loved in the past by the occupants).  On the other side of the woodland path are the ruins of an old house.  We speculate that this might have been the summer house of the family before they moved into their more permanent residence across the path!

P1080846

The walk takes us on through the woods and finally more into open countryside passing by well-kept olive groves and more vines as we approach the village again from another side with its more modern houses.

I don’t know how many times we have done this walk but it never ceases to delight us. Pleasantly weary, we return to the house to enjoy a cup of tea and the delicious goodies baked for us by our friend and neighbour.

Sit and stay awhile

Looking through my recent posts, I realised that I had neglected the food side of things a little – the restaurant food side of things that is!!  So here is a little round up of restaurants.

As spring seems to be on the way, many restaurants are getting their tables and chairs out, in preparation for sunny days and warmer weather.  The last few days have been glorious, and one could very easily have eaten lunch outside, without wearing layers and layers of clothes.

So without further ado, here is a rather summery meal from Restaurant Les Platanes in Poilhes, very close to the Canal du Midi.

P1030605

The starters tasted every bit as good as they look in the pictures!!  There was half a roasted pepper, served with anchovies and rocket leaves; a goats cheese enveloped in mountain ham; and a little pot of brandade de morue, a rich puree made with salt cod.

And can you guess which main course I had??  I’ll give you a little hint:  round and lemon.

When it was time for dessert, the light was fading and my camera did not capture the colours all that well!!  The dessert pictured is a twist on Kir Royal – blackcurrant sorbet with sparkling wine!

P1030627

Another memorable meal was at Auberge Saint Martin in Beaufort, to celebrate a friend’s 70th birthday, one sunny Sunday!  Christophe and Mylene, the proprietors of the restaurant, always serve delicious food, and this meal lived up to our expectations!

The main courses were beautifully presented; the Lamb leg steak was cooked to perfection and the fish was done just so!

A big, log shaped coconut mousse was brought to our table, decorated with candles, which the birthday girl had to blow out!  Afterwards the chef divided the mousse into individual portions, which were beautifully decorated, and served to each diner.

And since all good things come in threes, here is one more restaurant – La Caleche in Saint Chinian!  The starters were yummy:  pan-fried Foie Gras on a puff pastry apple tart; Salade Gourmande with Foie Gras, gizzards and walnuts; gratinated mussels; and the most delicious wafer thin ham on country bread.

For  the main course there were scallops in a filo pastry basket, steak with three pepper seasoning, and duck breast with red wine sauce, all expertly cooked and presented.

We did have room for dessert, but only one each!! :-)

Think about including one of these restaurants on the itinerary for your next visit, and if you don’t have any plans for a “next visit”, start making them! :-)

Blossom time

Last Friday I had to head toToulouse airport, for a flight to England.  The occasion was a sad one:  my father-in-law’s funeral.  All along the way I passed trees, enveloped in clouds of blooms, white and pink, and shades in between!

DCP03828

The sight of the these trees lifted my heart and spirits.  Nature has such wonderful things in store for us, and the first blossoms are one of my all-time favourites – harbingers of spring and longer days!

I hope you’ll not be cross with me for keeping this post rather short!  I’ll be back with another story next week, I promise!! :-)