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!