Wisteria hysteria, flowers and restaurants

Last week I showed you a tantalizing picture of the wisteria buds, and felt a little bad that I included only the one photograph at the end of the post, so here are a few more, for all of you who enjoy the generous blooms of wisteria flowers.

Last sunday the weather was perfect for a wild flower walk, so off we set down Rue de la Digue (past La Digue) and the potagers along the road, and into the vineyards.  It’s a gentle walk, crossing the river over the ford, and past a grove of olive trees.  After a little while we decided to veer off the path and walk along the river, perhaps we’d find some wild asparagus?  No luck with the wild asparagus, but there was a discovery albeit not of the edible kind:  wild tulips!!  In all the years I’d never come across them perhaps I’d not been out at the right time, or maybe the weather had not been damp enough when it needed to be.  First there was just one lone tulip, the some still in bud, and finally there was a patch of them!  Utterly delightful!

There were other flowers too, and the Euphorbia in particular were looking very good.  The wild arum is the first one I’ve come across here too.  At the end of the walk there were a few interesting picture opportunities:

On Monday came the highlight of the week (so far): dinner at Restaurant Lo Cagarol in Aigne (we’re you can find Maison du Beaupre).  Stephanie and Christophe have been running the restaurant for the past eleven years (how time flies!) and Christophe’s touch with the food is very sure!  The four of us tried to have as many different dishes as possible, but there were firm favourites.  For starters there was Foie gras a l’ancienne, served with a jelly made from Muscat de St Jean de Minervois, Escalope de foie gras served with a creamy asparagus soup, and Gambas sauvage au curry rouge.  Both the foie gras dishes were perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the wild prawn was very tasty too!

Before the main dishes arrived, we had a Trou Occitan, a small glass of vodka with a scoop of sorbet made from Muscat de St Jean de Minervois – very much a palate cleanser and delicious!  For  main course we had Montgolfiere de St Jacques, a dish of scallops and prawns in a creamy sauce, topped with a puff pastry lid which sealed in all the flavours; Entrecote steak which was beautifully tender and cooked to perfection and Thon Albacore, which was the best tuna I’ve ever tasted, tender and succulent and in no way dry (!), the two served with mashed potatoes with olive oil and vegetable spaghetti.

Then came the cheese course, and with it something I’d not come across before:  A sorbet made with sheep’s milk (from a local farm), served with honey and crunchy nuts.  There was very little sweetness in it except for the honey, and just a hint of cheese.  Great idea!  The other   we tried was gorgonzola, served on a crouton over a puree of sun-dried tomatoes.

Dessert was obligatory, and when it’s as nice as at  Lo Cagarol one can always find room :-)!  I can’t quite remember the French names of the desserts, so here’s a description:  the first was a cigarre filled lime and cactus sorbet and fresh gariguette strawberries, topped with cream.  The second was a ganache made with Valrhona chocolate, served with fresh raspberries, and lastly there was Baba au rhum, which was served with the most divine banana ice cream – to my mind bananas and rum go really well together!
So there you have it – a fantastic meal!! If you want to try Lo Cagarol yourself be sure to book! You can find the restaurant on facebook here!  And here’s the picture gallery of all the photographs in this post.

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Spring is full of promises ….

very much a cliché but just look at the buds of this wisteria:  there really is promise in them, luxuriant flowers and a delicate scent, and the humming of bees. 

On Easter Monday I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time:  visit the poplar forest at Cabezac during green-up time.  For years and years this forest has held a lot of visual appeal for me.  Driving from Carcassonne towards Cabezac you can see the outline from afar, the rows uponrows of trunks with the leaves hovering over them like clouds.  To me it looks best at springtime when the leaves are just about coming out and form a  green haze above the silvery trunks.  Easter Monday was definitely the day for it, bright blue skies and nobody about.  Bordered at one end by the D607 and the river Cesse at the other, the forest has been planted following a strict grid pattern (on the Google aerial view you can more or less count each tree). 

In some parts you can see how the wind shapes the trees – I did stand up straight and lined the camera up in that shot 🙂  Walking through the forest was magical, the cars were just a distant hum, but there was lots of birdsong.  At the river end, the edge was colonized by coronilla bushes, and the river banks were almost cliff like, as if someone had cut the earth with a huge knife.  It looked as though there might be some great swimming spots on the opposite bank! At the end of the walk, I thought I would clear what looked like a bit of mud off my shoes.  In the end it took a lot of scraping to get the soles cleaned, not from mud but from the husks that shield the buds on the trees.  As the leaves unfurl the husks drop to the ground and they are seriously sticky!!
On the way back to St Chinian I stopped at L’Appaloosa restaurant in Bize Minervois (home to Le Figuier and Les Remparts) for lunch.  Rachel and Jean-Marc are always very welcoming and friendly and their food is delicious.  Lunch was three courses, and we decided to have one each of the day’s specials to share.  Starters were a goats cheese salad with a pine nut and basil dressing, and an asian salad with prawns and mango and a sesame dressing.

For main course there was grilled chicken (very tender and juicy) served with vegetables and chunky fries (one of my vices!), and filet of dorade and prawns cooked in banana leaves and served with asian vegetables and sauce.  Both were very delicious and very different from one another.  I was so pleasantly replete that I could only manage a scoop of lime sorbet!

On the way home to Saint-Chinian there were a few more picture opportunities, including the fairly kitsch cherry blossom, the judas tree and a Banks rose.And for those who have read through all this, here is the picture which spring promised.  An amazing waterfall of wisteria!If any of this makes you want to visit St Chinian or the area please get in touch!

Fun with sausages

Some months ago a friend mooted the idea of a “cooking circle” – a bit like a sewing circle, but instead of stitch and bitch we’d try making food we’d not make on our own.  After a few phone calls we were ready for our first get together to see what everyone wanted to do and how it could work, and a date and venue was decided for the first cook-off in Narbonne, to make Bouillabaisse.  Unfortunately I was struck down with flu, so couldn’t go, but by all accounts (and photographs) everyone had great fun and delicious food.

This week was the second get together, under the banner of charcuterie and nothing was stopping me this time!!  Seven of us descended on La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois, the home of my friends who hosted the afternoon.  The plan of action had been prepared in advance:  Pork Rillettes, Terrine de Campagne (pork and liver pate), sausages, garlic mashed potatoes, onion gravy, salad and a soufflé to finish.  The recipes for rillettes and the terrine came from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, the sausage recipe from Jane Grigson’s Charcuterie, and the soufflé recipe from Keith Floyd’s Floyd on France.

The meat for the pate had been put to marinate earlier in the day with the requisite spices and some alcohol, and the rillettes were cooking away in the oven when we arrived.  My butcher had kindly sold me some sausage casings, and I had managed to get the sausage stuffing tubes for my KA food mixer, so there was nothing holding us back!!  We started with the terrine, as that would have to be boiled in the sterilizer for two hours.  The butcher had minced the meat, so it meant seasoning and adding the other ingredients, and then a little bit was cooked and tasted – very important!  More seasoning, another bit cooked and this time the taste was just perfect, so the mix went into the various kilner jars everyone had brought along.  Once the rims were cleaned, the rubber rings on, the jars snapped shut, they were stacked in the sterilizer, covered with water and brought to the boil, and then kept at a boil for two hours.

Next came the rillettes:  the limpid fat (to quote E.D.) was strained, and the meat shredded with the help of forks and, once the consistency was deemed right, the mix was put into jars, and the remaining fat strained over.  Not for the faint hearted who should avoid cholesterol!

For the sausages the meat and fat were cut into strips and ground using the mincer attachment.  The meat was given a good mix to distribute the fat evenly, and then we split it into one-third and two-thirds.  The two-thirds were turned into a herbed sausage, with sage, thyme, a little savory and parsley.  The other third was seasoned with finely chopped garlic chives, ground chilli pepper, Sichuan pepper, five spice, soya sauce, sesame oil and salt and pepper.  And then came the fun of getting the mixture in the casing!  Open one end and run some water through, was what the butcher had said.  Not too difficult, but then the casing had to be slipped on to the tube – to much hilarity of course!  And you try to tie a knot into it!  Anyhow, as you can see from the picture, the sausages turned out great, and I would certainly make them again!  There was a little of the “spicy” mix left once the casing was used up, so we turned that into meatballs.  Once done all the sausages went into the fridge to rest and firm up, and we took a little break and a well deserved glass of wine!  Hands had kept busy:  peeling potatoes and garlic cloves for the garlic mash (12 spuds and 12 cloves of garlic), preparing the salad for our first course, cooking the base for the soufflé and getting the BBQ ready for the sausages.

The salad was accompanied by the rillettes, which tasted sublime and had a far better texture than anything shop-bought – perfect with the salad!

The garlic mash was made with olive oil instead of butter and seasoned with parsley, salt and pepper.  A divine addition to the succulent pork sausages!  Everyone had brought their favourite chutney to go with the sausages, and I usually eat sausages as an excuse for having mustard, but I found their flavour needed no additions.  There were however some fantastic pickles and chutneys to be tasted on their own!

The orange soufflés turned out light as a feather and oh so tasty – a fantastic end to a great afternoon/evening.

The lamb that never was

Imagine Easter Sunday without lamb!  Well, it can happen and it did to me this year!!  Apparently this is the second year running that our butcher did not order enough lamb, and by Easter Sunday morning there was not a scrap of it left.  What to do?  Settle for mutton, that’s what!  Next thing was to find a recipe for the mutton chops I’d bought.  I was tempted to prepare a north African dish, like a tagine or couscous.  Then I logged onto my bookshelf on www.eatyourbooks.com (more about that site below) and did a recipe search for mutton.  In amongst the recipes on the list was Ballymaloe House Irish Stew;  I knew exactly where the book was, looked at the ingredients and decided that it was the perfect dish – it was somewhat chilly outside and a nice stew would be just the thing!   The stew was a doddle to prepare and wonderfully tasty; my misgivings about the potentially strong mutton flavour were totally unfounded!  The herbed goats cheese had sufficiently drained and matured and provided the cheese course, and for dessert I made a peach flan.  Brought back memories of my time in the pastry kitchen at the Meridien Piccadilly!   The flan is very delicious and very easy to make and proved to be the perfect dessert after the stew, not at all heavy (write if you want the recipe).

Now, about http://www.eatyourbooks.com :  I came across the site on a blog called www.larecettedujour.org and was intrigued by the idea, so read through it and decided to sign up.  The unlimited bookshelf is $25 for a year, with a free option of up to five books.  The idea is that you add all the cookbooks you own to your bookshelf, either by author/title search or by ISBN numbers.  Once the books are on your bookshelf you can search for recipes in the books which are indexed.  I found that I had a lot more cookery books than I thought, and by no means all of them are on the site’s bookshelf.  A lot of the older books and the French and German books are not in the library (despite 98,210 titles), and currently about 23% of my books are indexed (49 out of 214).  Considering that some of the titles are only on my bookshelf and others a bit “special interest” it’s perhaps not surprising, but it still gives me access to over 13,000 recipes.   Books are constantly being indexed, so that eventually be more of “my” books will become searchable.  A search for mutton on Easter Sunday brought up 63 results with a good selection of recipes from different books.  Fast, simple and easy, and a great way of using books which would otherwise languish unused, mainly because we all tend to use the same books and recipes over and over again.

Hot cross buns have been an Easter tradition for some years in my kitchen and this year I’ve subverted that tradition.  Not drastically though, but time available meant that baking the buns on Saturday night was not possible, and I didn’t want to get up super early to have them ready for breakfast on Easter Sunday.  A cunning plan had to be devised and here’s how!  Saturday lunchtime I mixed up my dough, using the spice mixture given by Elizabeth David in “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” (highly recommended), and loosely following a recipe by Jamie Oliver for the dough. 

I mixed flour, sugar, spice, instant yeast and raisins in a mixing bowl.  Warmed the milk/water mixture very slightly and mixed with the egg and melted butter.  Made a well in the flour mix and added all liquid, then stirred with a wooden spoon until the dough was formed.  It was soft but not overly sticky.  I put a lid on the bowl and left it in the kitchen (unheated at the time).  This was at lunchtime.  When I got back home, about 11pm, I turned the dough out on to the work surface, kneaded it for a very short time, shaped it into a loaf and placed it in a loaf tin (lined with a bit of baking parchment).  I put the pan in the oven, set to 200 Celsius, and programmed it to switch on at 6.10 am on Sunday morning, and to end at 7am.  When the alarm clock rang so did the timer on the oven, and there was a lovely smell coming up to the bedroom!  I went downstairs to check on the bread and it was just perfect.  Once cooled enough I sliced the loaf and spread it with clotted cream from Cornwall and some home made strawberry and apricot jam – yummy!!  And of course what wasn’t eaten on Sunday made lovely toast!

Starting bread in a cold oven can turn out very good results, and in this case it worked very well as the kitchen was fairly cool and the dough did not over-proof.  You could probably bake the dough straight from the fridge and still get what’s called good “oven spring”.

And since it’s spring, here’s a picture of coronilla, flowering everywhere right now, scenting the air and feeding bees.  Anyone looking for a spring break?  Le Figuier in Bize Minervois is currently available for April 21 to May 19, 2012 at 10% off.  See other special offers here

Springtime treats

Asparagus

One of the joys of spring is the arrival of seasonal produce.  Living in St Chinian we are spoilt for choice at the twice weekly market (which to my mind is one of the crowning glories of St Chinian!).  Today was the first visit of the asparagus producer from Salleles d’Aude – the asparagus had been a bit “shy” this year, as he expressed it.  Apparently the lack of rain played its part as did the cold snap we had earlier this year.  But all is well now , and I came away with a nice bundle of thick green spears, which I’ll be cooking tonight.  I used to snap off the stalks from the bottom up where they would break, but of late I have reverted to peeling the lower ends to keep as much of the juicy stems as possible!  I always prepare the first of the seasons’ crop as simply as possible, a bit of butter, a few splashes of lemon juice and some freshly milled black pepper is all there’ll be .  Later on there’ll be variations and of course at some point or other I’ll be making sauce hollandaise to go with it. I’ll also buy some of the thin “sprue” for asparagus soup, but on the whole I prefer the juicy and thick stalks. From the same grower I can also get white asparagus which is a very different kind to the green.  For a start white asparagus never sees the light of day during the growing cycle, and the spears are cut underground.  The whole stem has to be carefully peeled, and the cooking takes longer than for green.  The flavour is altogether different, more subtle, and it lends itself to being combined with other foods:  a slice of good Jambon de Paris from the butcher, a veal chop, with new potatoes, etc.  I also find that it makes better soup.

Another spring-time treat is goats cheese.  The goats start milking as soon as the kids are born from January/February onwards.  We have a goat farm at Combebelle, just the other side of Villespassans, and our local butcher stocks their cheeses.  Visiting the farm is great, especially with children.  Anne took over the farm from her parents a few years ago, together with her husband Heiner.  They have continued farming along the same lines, expanding the herd a little and making improvements to the stables and dairy.  Their cheeses have won a number of awards, and I know why – their fresh goats cheese has a wonderful clean and mild flavour, possibly because their goats are outside a lot and feed of herbs and grass.  If you visit the farm at the right time, you’ll be able to see the goats getting milked and sliding down a ramp at the end of it (I swear they are having fun doing that!), before visiting the dairy in the main farm building.

Boucherie Peyras in Saint Chinian stocks the Combebelle cheeses and I can buy what is called “faiselle”, which are the curds still in the process of draining.  I transform that into a herbed cheese by mixing the curds with a whole bunch of finely chopped herbs – today’s mixture included the following:  chives, garlic chives, mint, basil, lemon balm, tarragon and lovage.  A couple of tablespoons each of cream and milk, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, the whole mixed up and put back into the draining baskets and in the fridge.  In a few days it’ll be the most delicious treat!