The secrets of Tarte Tatin – explained!

I first encountered Tarte Tatin when I went to London in 1987 to work at Le Merdien Hotel on Piccadilly.  In Germany apples are plentiful and grown all over, and I’d tried all sorts of apple cakes and tarts, but never that wonderful confection, which was “accidentally” invented by the Tatin sisters in the 19th century (see Wikipedia link at the end of this post).  I soon found out that whilst very delicious, Tarte Tatin is not one of the easiest dishes to prepare.  For starters you really need a very heavy tin, preferably copper or cast iron, which distributes the heat well, and which can go into the oven.

Corail apples used for Tarte TatinCorail apples

The ingredients are simple:  apples, butter, sugar and shortcrust pastry.  About an ounce and a half of butter goes into the tin.  You decide if you want to use softened butter and smear it evenly over the inside of the tin, or if you want to let it melt gently.  Next comes the sugar: six tablespoons of it and regular granulated will do fine;  sprinkle it in an even layer.  Finally, the apples: a question of choice and personal preference.  You want to use apples which don’t turn into mush on cooking, so Bramleys are out.  They should also not be too sweet nor too juicy.  Here in France I like to use Chantecler apples, which have a wonderful flavour when cooked.  At the Meridien hotel in London we used Golden Delicious apples, and I have used Reine de Renette and Corail (pictured ) with success. For my 9.5″ tin I used 11 medium-sized apples.

Tarte Tatin being prepared

apples fitted into tin for tarte tatin

Peel and core your apples then cut in half.  Stand the cut halves in the tin, cut side against the uncut side, fitting them in tightly.  Keep two or three extra halves, which you place on top – you’ll see why later.

Tarte Tatin ready to be cooked

Once your mould is prepared and filled you put it on medium low heat and start the cooking process.  To start with, you want to just see the apple juice beginning to run – take your time, your patience will be rewarded.  Altogether the cooking time on the top of the stove took an hour and 20 minutes, but this will depend on how juicy your apples are.

tarte tatin cooking on the stove

The cooking process is slow and as the apples soften you’ll be able to fit the extra pieces in here and there, use a table knife to help you slip them in.  That way the finished tart will not have any gaps and be nice and high.  Turn your oven on to 180 degrees.  You might have to turn the mould from time to time, to make sure that it is cooking evenly.  Keep an eye on it all the time.  Eventually the water will evaporate and the sugar will start to caramelise.  Don’t be tempted to speed up the cooking process by using higher heat, you want your apples to cook and absorb the sugar and butter mixture, and that will take time.

sugar starting to caramelise in tarte tatin cooking

Once the sugar starts to caramelize you have to watch like a hawk and make sure the heat is not too high.  I’ve burnt my fair share of Tarte Tatins at that stage and had to start all over again.  When it starts to go from a light butterscotch colour to a somewhat darker caramel you’re almost there.  Give it a few more minutes and make sure the colour of the caramel is even across the tin, you might have to move it around on the hob a little to make sure it’s done throughout.  When the colour is almost that of a chestnut remove the tin from the heat; you don’t want the caramel to be too dark as it will cook some more in the next step.  Now pop the tin in the oven.

PICT8410

the right caramel colour for tarte tatin

The idea now is to cook the tops of the apples which did not get cooked with the caramel.  The length of cooking depends on the type of apple you are using, a general guide is about 30 minutes, but test to check if the top of the apples are soft after 20 minutes.  Once done take out and leave to cool – you can leave it overnight in which case you can cover the tin with some foil and refrigerate it.

Tarte tatin ready for pastry topping

Make some shortcrust pastry with 175 flour, 100 butter and 3 tbsp water.  If you like you can add a tablespoon or two of sugar, but I find that’s not necessary.  Chill the pastry for at least half an hour or overnight.  Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees. Roll the pastry and cut a circle 1.5 – 2cm larger than the top of your tin.

pastry ready rolled for topping tarte tatin

Brush off any excess flour and then place the pastry disk over the apples in the tin.  The excess should be slipped down inside the tin, I use the back of a flat pastry brush to help with this.

pastry top on tarte tatin, ready for final bake

Once the pastry is all neatly tucked in bake for 25 minutes, or until the top of the pastry is golden.  Remove the tin from the oven and leave to cool for at least 10 minutes.  Invert a large plate over the tin and very carefully turn the tin and plate over in one swift movement – be very careful as there may be hot sugar syrup inside which could leak and burn you.  If everything has gone to plan the tart will slip out beautifully onto the plate, although you might have to give it a helping hand with a sharp downward movement, holding the tin on top of the plate.  Lift the tin off et voila.  Don’t worry if one piece has stuck to the inside of the tin.  Carefully take it out with the help of a palette knife or a table knife, place it in the gap in the tart and lightly smooth over with the side of the knife, nobody will know.  Serve your Tarte Tatin slightly warm, either with crème anglaise, crème fraiche or good vanilla ice cream, but of course it can also be eaten on its own.  Bonne degustation!

Tarte Tatin

The above tart was cut into six generous pieces and gobbled up in record time!  You could also serve eight with it.  For more information about the history and/or legend of Tarte Tatin, have a look at the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarte_tatin .  Be warned – once you’ve tasted a piece of my version of Tarte Tatin you may find fault with many desserts routinely served under that name.  And of course there are the variations made with all sorts of other fruit and even vegetables and different types of pastry, but they are all just “in the style of” and are really upside down cakes or tartes!!

Falling over with colour

Autumn can be the most colourful time of year in Languedoc, and I’ve often wondered why it is that the colours can be so different from one year to the next – haven’t you?

In preparation for this post I decided to do some research, and found the answers.  In simple terms (I’m not very good at complicated), it appears that it works as follows:  in autumn the trees stop photosynthesis and the chlorophyll which gives the leaves their green colour is broken down into other components, to be absorbed and stored by the tree.  In some trees such as aspen and linden naturally yellow pigments are present in the leaves (carotenoids – also found in carrots), and they are usually masked by the chlorophyll.  So when that disappears the naturally yellow colour reappears.

Now for the reds:  red and purple leaves occur on trees where the yellow isn’t present, and the pigments responsible for that colour are called anthocyanins.  They are produced by the tree at the end of the summer, and from what I understand they protect the leaves from the sun while the tree absorbs all it can from the leaves – similar to sunscreen for us.

So that’s the basic science behind the colouring.  The articles I found were all about trees but I imagine that the same goes for the other plants whose leaves turn brilliant shades of red and yellow.  But I was still looking for more:  why can there be brilliant flares of orange and russet all over the countryside one year and the next year it just looks like dull shades of brown and ochre?

Apparently that’s all down to the weather!  The colours develop best if the days are warm and the nights cool and crisp but not freezing.  And then you need enough moisture but not too much, so all in all you can see why the colours can vary so very much from year to year.  Except for the yellow of course, which is always there. But there are other fall colours apart from the leaves 🙂

The olives turn from green to black, going through wonderful shades of purple – very well imitated in some of the olives made from chocolate!  Persimmons turn a beautiful shade of orange and every so often you’ll find a bunch of grapes left behind.  And then there are the strawberry trees, called arbousier in France (arbutus unedo), evergreen trees which grow wild all over the countryside.  They flower in late autumn, at the same time as the fruit from the previous flowering ripens.

If you get a chance to pick enough, the fruits can be turned into arbousier jelly.  Years ago Madeleine, who lived across the road, showed me how to make it.  The fruit is boiled with a little water until all is mush;  left to cool the mush is then strained, and Madeleine insisted that the best way to do this was through one of her sturdy tights (not laddered and washed of course!), and she was of course right!  It’s a little messy, but once the pulp is all in the top is knotted and then you just squeeze the whole thing gently with your hands until the strained pulp ends up in the bowl over which you are working.  Some of it will of course end up covering you!  The pulp is then weighed, the same amount of sugar added, along with a little lemon juice and then boiled to a set.  These days I use 2:1 jam sugar, making a jam/jelly which is less sweet.  Arbousier jelly has a very delicate flavour, reminiscent of apricot.

And there are other berries in all directions – though I’m not sure what those wonderfully red berries are called?

The two most helpful articles about leaf colour were found here and here

Carcassonne and Cassoulet

It’s been some time since I’ve been to La Cité in Carcassonne, I probably got a bit “Carcassonned-out” during the first few years, visiting with most of family and friends who came to stay.  So when I took family back to the airport at Carcassonne I decided to give it another go.  It was as beautiful as ever, and as you can see from the pictures the skies had that bright blue quality which is almost unreal.

The car park at the top, nearest the Porte Narbonnaise, appeared to be closed for works, but I’d managed to park further down the road, just across from this gorgeous timber-framed building, and the stroll up the hill just makes the ramparts that more impressive.  It was about 10.30am and the crowds were thronging already – it was French half term.

A little history about Carcassonne: the current fortress was built over an earlier Roman building and was besieged by Simon de Montfort during the Cathar crusades, and eventually taken in 1209.  That was because the Viscount of Toulouse, Raymond de Trencavel, was sheltering Cathars and refused to hand them over – something had to be done about that!.  The “new town” below La Cité was re-built as a bastide on the orders of Saint Louis in 1247, and then burnt down again by the black prince in 1355.  The fortress was a stronghold along the Franco-Spanish border until the treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when it lost its importance.  Economically, the chief commerce of Carcassonne was for centuries the production of woollen cloth. That market collapsed around 1780, but economic life of the town got a boost during the 19th century with new industries and wine growing.

Back to present day Carcassonne though.  Once inside La Cité I took the street up to the Chateau Comtal and the inner ramparts.  I’d been told that the visit of the Chateau included access to the top of the walls now, but once inside the courtyard I quickly abandoned the idea – the queues were just too long.  I will go back some time when it’s not so busy to try that experience.

Instead I took the street to the left of the Chateau, and wandered down to the Porte d’Aude which gives access to the moat between the two rings of fortification.  Today the moat is all flat and dry 😉 and a great way to experience the sheer size of the fortifications.  There are also great views out over the Aude river and the Bastide St Louis.

Close to the Basilica Saint Nazaire there was another way into La Cité which might have been added later for the comfort of the more modern inhabitants – but I may be wrong.

Walking through the narrow streets I came to a square (Place Marcou) which was lined with restaurants pretty much all round, a bit like the food court you would find in a shopping mall, only outdoors and with a medieval feel to it.  I decided on La Bonne Demeure, mostly because it had tables in the sun and had an OK lunch.  I guess pretty much all the restaurants in Carcassonne will be serving average food, there’s just too much temptation to economise, too many customers and only so much in the way of competition.  Don’t be put off though, the food and service were prefectly OK, and I’m sure there are exceptions.  I’m going to look for those on my next visit.  And if you visit Carcassonne, don’t forget the “new” town below La Cité – it’s well worth a visit and almost as old!  What am I writing – if you visit Carcassonne?  No, it should be when you visit Carcassonne!!

Cassoulet is one of those dishes which has a long tradition in the area, and Castelnaudary claims the authentic recipe along with a host of other towns and villages.  When it comes to it though authenticity is not my yardstick – I rate a cassoulet by the way I enjoy it, and there’s one which I’ve enjoyed over and over:  Brigitte’s at the Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois.

I went with a group of people not long ago, and Brigitte had prepared a simple menu around the cassoulet for us all.  A simple salad of mixed leaves and goats cheese with pesto to start with, and Dame Blanche for dessert – ice cream with chocolate sauce.  For the couple of non-meat eaters in our group she’d prepared some salmon filet with a potato cake, but the cassoulet was just divine, brought to the table bubbling and fragrant!  Perhaps one of these days I may be able to persuade Brigitte to teach me how to make her version of Cassoulet…?

And here’s the gallery of all pictures in this post along with a lot which I’ve not inserted between the text – hope you enjoy this visit!

Feasting at Toussaint

I know I am a little late writing about the 1st of November – but here I am all the same.  November 1st is Toussaint better known to us as All Saint’s Day, and as in many catholic countries All Saint’s Day is a public holiday in France.  Tradition has it that the families visit the graves of their ancestors and decorate them with flowers, and the flowers most used today are chrysanthemums.  They are grown in all kinds of colours, shapes and sizes, and if you manage to pass by the field of a grower at just the right time (sorry, I didn’t this year!!) it is as pretty as a picture or a patchwork quilt.

The two pictures above were taken at Capestang and it’s interesting to see the mailbox outside the cemetery (?).  These wonderful flowers brighten the sometimes austere graveyards throughout the country until the first frost cuts them down.  I took a walk around the cemetery in St Chinian too and found some interesting tombs – they are not dated but I’m intrigued by the lettering and sculpted ornaments – Art Deco?The flowers were everywhere too and brightened up this somewhat sombre day.

Toussaint is also the re-opening (after vendanges and a brief rest) for a restaurant tucked away in the hills above Minerve.  The manor house of Le Bouys has belonged to the Poumeyrac family for many generations, and for some time now the family has run a restaurant on the property.  It’s a real experience, and a very pleasurable one at that!

On the business card it says Ferme Auberge and there is still a farm;  geese, ducks and chickens run around the courtyard, and there’s a stable for the goats.

There’s even a chapel, always immaculately decorated and kept.

The dining room is on the ground floor, in a room with massive vaulting – cozy and warm in the winter and cool in the summer!

On the way in we passed the kitchen door (always good) and next to it is the Rotisserie where the roast of the day was being cooked. Leg of lamb anyone?

There were a few of us, and the friend who had organised the meal had ordered Bouillabaisse for us all.  So we had the usual starters of pate and ham followed by salad (with home-made vinegar used for the dressing – always a delight) .

And then came the Bouillabaisse – an enormous dish of fish in a delicious broth.

Of course accompanied by croutons and rouillie the garlic/saffron mayonnaise.  We did try valiantly to do the dish justice, but there was only so much we could eat…  Then came cheese, and finally dessert, and that was really special:  Omelette Norvegienne better known as Baked Alaska.  Light egg whites encasing a block of ice cream covered in rum soaked sponge.  Need I write any more?  Except to say that you only get the Omelette Norvegienne  when you order the Bouillabaisse!  And of course if you want to go, be sure to book!

And here are a few more pictures.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

Each year in October the town of Saint Pons de Thomieres holds the Fete de la Chataigne or chestnut festival, which has become one of the most visited fetes in the region.  This year for the 35th time, the fete took place over two days this last weekend.  Despite the cold and damp weather I braved the trip to St Pons – I did not want to miss the roasted chestnuts!

Chestnuts were a way of life in the region for a long time – where the grapes would not grow the chestnut trees would thrive.  Its sobriquet was the bread tree as the dried chestnuts were nourishing the population through the winter months, being rich in both starch and protein. The fete in St Pons cherishes the tradition and each year a new theme is found to keep it fresh for participants and visitors alike.  This year it revolved around legends and fairy tales.  The Compagnie de la Source, a local amateur theatre group prepares a piece each year, which is played on a specially constructed stage over the river Jaur in the centre of town.

You can see that I got there just around lunch time – all of the actors were tucking in, and I can assure you that the food was real enough, no stage food here!  Preparations for the food are usually made on site, cooking in the old-fashioned way over open fires, the way grandmother or great-grandmother would have done, and often with antique implements and cauldrons.

Since I couldn’t participate in that meal, I looked around the Place du Foiralet for something to eat.  At one of the stands I spied truffade which is a delicious potato dish, just right for a cold day.  Sliced potatoes are cooked in lard (traditionally) or oil until they are tender, seasoned with salt and pepper and a little garlic, then cheese is added and all stirred until the cheese is melted and starts to pull strings.  Traditionally the cheese used is tome fraiche, a cow’s milk cheese from the Aubrac, but as that’s not always easy to find you could substitute Cantal or another mild firm cheese.

Did I say that there were sausages to go with this?  Very delicious!! Oh, and to finish there was a cake made with cooked & pureed chestnuts and orange flower water, prepared after grandmother’s recipe.  And that grandmother did know her stuff, the cake was divine!

Now suitably fortified it was time to wander around the market stalls where all kinds of things were for sale:  honey, chestnuts, ham, cheese, mohair (Jean Paul Dore from Sarrazo was there), wine, sweaters, chestnuts, tapenade, sweets, baskets, knives, nougat, crepes, sausages and oh, did I mention chestnuts?  I particularly liked the stall where the baskets were made from chestnut twigs.

In the former chapel of the penitent order the local patchwork club had an exhibition of beautiful quilts, lace and needlework.  And then I came across the clog dancers, Lous Castanhaires dal Soumal.  The group was founded in 1962 and has been preserving traditional music and dances ever since.  You can tell that they are enjoying themselves!

Now, back to the chestnuts!  For the fete in St Pons the chestnuts are roasted in great mesh drums over a brisk fire, and over the two days more than two tonnes will have been roasted and eaten.  I adore roast chestnuts and somehow they taste best when cooked in large quantities over an open fire.

The former cathedral in St Pons is an interesting church well worth a visit.  I was lucky – the choir, which is usually closed to the public was open so I could get a good look at the main altar with the organ above, and the beautiful choir stalls.

As I walked around, one of the ladies who was keeping an eye, tugged at my sleeve and whispered to me to be sure to visit the sacristy, by that little door over there.  So off I went and I am glad I did.  One of the particularities in St Pons is that the altar is at the wrong end of the church, generally it is at the eastern end but here it is at the western end of the building.  But strictly speaking it is not at the end of the building, as I found out as I went into the sacristy.  There’s quite a bit of the building left behind the altar.

The original romanesque church had a big gothic sanctuary with chapels all round added to it, but that part was destroyed by the Huguenots during the wars of the religion, leaving only the choir standing.  With money lacking to re-build the sanctuary, a new facade was built closing the church at its eastern end and the altar transferred to the western end.  In order to support the weight of the monumental altar (all made of local marble) and the organ, buttressing arches were built and part of former choir turned into the sacristy.  Here is where the beautifully embroidered liturgical garments are stored in specially built wardrobes.

Gold thread, and lots of it, making the most beautiful patterns.  I’m always amazed at the skill and time which has gone into these objects.

In a little strong room to one side is stored the Tresor the precious objects belong to the church such as the chalices and perhaps the odd reliquary or two, etc.

On one of the capitals in the sacristy I spied this strange representation of some poor sinners being devoured by leviathan.  I did not have a very thorough look around but this seemed to be the only figurative capital in the whole church.

On the way out there was another beautifully carved and gilt altar, and I’ll leave you with this.