A German Christmas

Yes, I admit – I was not in France for Christmas!!  For the first time in several years, I spent the holidays in Bavaria with my family.  I travelled early enough to be able to catch some of the Christmas markets which close well ahead of Christmas, and to have as much time to spend with family and friends as possible.  The first stop on my Christmas market marathon was Schloss Tuessling, a small Renaissance castle, where the Christmas market takes place over four December weekends each year.  The stalls are varied with a good mix of crafts and food/drinks, and spread around the grounds of the castle, and through some of the outbuildings.  There was still snow on the ground to make it all look lovely and wintry, and I was glad to have brought a hat and gloves!  A walk through former grain silos (I think 12 in total) took me on an adventure in Christmas decoration, and at the end was a staircase up into the granary, where there were stalls under the most amazing roof construction!  The walk continued through a wing which had formerly been staff accommodation and then an old people’s home, and which had a kind of “Marie Celeste” feeling to it.  The stalls in that section had been carefully chosen to fit in with the ambience and sold a mixture of old and new, and some beautiful jewellery.  And then there was the stall with the cinnamon stars – imagine fresh doughnuts but in the shape of a star, and rolled in cinnamon sugar.  They got eaten so quickly that I never did manage to get a photograph!

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My second Christmas market that day was at Burg Burghausen – the longest castle in the world.  I’ve often visited the castle over the years, but never for a Christmas market, so I was very excited to see the halls which were used to house the artists and craftspeople selling their wares.  Out in the courtyard were the food stalls, and some artisans such as the blacksmith and the wood-carver.  A bonus was that a visit to the State Gallery in part of the castle was included in the admission to the market.  The rooms are magnificent as are most of the paintings exhibited, but the highlight was the viewing platform on the roof.  Not for the faint hearted, I warn you, as the drop is vertiginous (but the railings solid) – but oh what a view!!  On the way in was another stall selling cinnamon stars, so that was number 2 and a little bit better than the one I’d had earlier that day!

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A day trip to Munich was another opportunity to visit Christmas markets.  I don’t remember just how many there are, but I managed to visit three.  But first I went to visit Villa Stuck to see the Gunter Sachs exhibition, with wide variety of works, from Max Ernst to Andy Warhol.  Villa Stuck was the palatial home of Franz von Stuck, at his time a celebrated and successful artist.  Unfortunately the website seems to be only available in German.

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On to the Christmas markets though.  My first stop was at the mediaeval market at Wittelsbacher Platz.  The name implies the theme and it was very well done.  All the stallholders were in costume, and the booths were imaginatively built, each one different from the next.  There was some wonderful food here (wish I’d known in advance, I’d had a light lunch at Villa Stuck) and I had the best apple fritters I can remember eating.

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My next stop was the Christmas village in the Emperor’s court of the Residenz palace – a beautiful courtyard filled with a great variety of stalls with a focus on crafts.On the way there, across Odeonsplatz I spied a group of musicians just outside the Hofgarten.  They were playing beautiful classical music and must have been frozen.  I wonder how the instruments managed to stay in tune!  Outside the Residenz “Santa” had taken up residence with a small fair organ, entertaining the passers by.

Inside the courtyard, food and especially Gluehwein played a prominent place, and those stalls were busiest wherever I went at whatever time of day!  There was also an area for children, with animated displays and Christmas songs.

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To warm up a little I visited the Cuvillies theatre, the theatre of the Residence palace, a heady confection of white and gold roccoco.  If you are ever in Munich don’t miss this gem.

On to the market in front of Munich’s gothic town hall on Marienplatz.  This market had been changed around somewhat since I’d last visited and there were more food stalls and fewer stalls selling the beautiful decorations of a few years ago.  The market selling Christmas creches and nativity scenes had been moved from Rindermarkt to be strung out along Neuhauser Strasse and had lost much of its charm in the process.  Still, there were some nice decorations and a few very good stalls.  I finished the day by visiting a friend who lives in walking distance to the centre, before making my way back to my parents’ home.

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And then there was one final Christmas market, just a few days before Christmas, in Burgkirchen – a small market only on for a few days and very much designed to bring local people together.  They had fire baskets to keep warm, and lots of food and gluehwein.  This is where I had my third Cinnamon star, but the one in Burghausen remained the best of them all.

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In the run up to Christmas eve I kept busy, and even managed to build a gingerbread house.  Christmas eve afternoon I went for another visit to Burghausen and had the castle almost all to myself.  From the town below the sounds of a brass band playing Christmas carols drifted up, and as the sun started to set the lights began to twinkle in the distance.  A magical start to the festive season!

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I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas too, and wishing you all the very best for 2013.

This is the sparkling season

I mean of course the season of sparkling lights, twinkling away in trees and elsewhere.  Here in France pretty much every village has its own Christmas lights, although in some of the smaller villages it might be just a couple of stars across the street – but still.

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Last week I ventured to Montpellier to visit Les Hivernales, the annual Christmas market.  This year a beautifully lit archway formed the entrance to the market, which is on Esplande Charles de Gaulle just off the Place de la Comedie, and there were about 100 stalls, selling everything from gifts to clothes to food!

As night fell the atmosphere became magical – there were stalls selling mulled wine and the smell of spices was wafting around.  One stand offered a kind of raclette – toasted cheese over either bread or cooked potatoes, whilst another was cooking Tartiflette, potatoes cooked with Reblochon cheese, and yet someone else was cooking Seiche a la Setoise, a well-known local speciality made with cuttlefish.  All of Montpellier was dressed up with beautiful lights, and the Christmas tree near the Opera Comedie was beautifully trimmed.

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Saint Chinian also has some nice Christmas lights, and the tree inside the Mairie is as ever very beautiful.

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At the recent Christmas market, the abbatiale was filled with stands which spilled out into the cloisters and out in front of the Mairie. It gave me a chance to get a good picture of the beautifully vaulted roof of the abbatiale, which was once the church of the abbey.

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The Polygone shopping centre in Béziers also trimmed itself up nicely for Christmas, although the fountains on the top floor dance all year round.

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At the Capestang christmas market there was a stall selling foie gras and ducks for making confit.  Those of you of a sensitive disposition don’t look too closely.  I was fascinated (and a little repulsed at the same time) by the way the butcher opened up the carcasses almost tenderly, to extract the fatty livers.

For those of you interested, I give you below a method of preparing foie gras as given to me by Monique, one of my neighbours in St Chinian.

Allow the livers to come to room temperature.  Separate the lobes and remove all veins with the help of the point of a sharp knife.  Take your time and be thorough, the end result will be better.  Put the livers in a bowl of cold salted water and leave approx. half an hour to disgorge any blood remaining.  Remove and pat dry carefully.  Season with 17g salt and 3g pepper per kilo of liver – this is best done in a roasting tin or bowl where the livers can be turned.  The pepper should be freshly and coarsely ground.  Mix with 1 – 2 tbsp Armagnac or Cognac and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.  During that time prepare your kilner jars.  Fill up the jars, fitting the pieces of liver so there are no gaps.  Clean the rims to remove any trace of grease and close the jars and put them in your sterilizing pan.  Fill to the top of the jars with lukewarm water, the bring the water slowly to a temperature of 75 degrees (use a thermometer) then keep at that temperature for 30 minutes.  Remove at the end of the cooking time and leave to cool.  Two tips from Monique:  smaller livers are better than very large ones, ideal weight is 450 to 500g;  the livers should be very fresh, as older livers have a tendency to render more fat as do larger livers.

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Cooking with friends – a round up of recent months

I would like to dedicate this post to my dear friend Monica Hodson, who lost her battle with cancer last Monday – I will miss her!

Losing Monica has been a shock to the system, having seen her battle and rally always left me with a vague hope that she might yet pull through, but alas it was not to be.  It’s made me supremely aware that friends are very important to my life and all too often I don’t spend enough time with them, as our lives get increasingly busy.  It was one of the reasons behind our cooking group – to get together on a regular basis, and to share food and good times.  And we’ve been doing this ever since it all started back in March.

I’ve not been keeping you abreast of what we’ve been cooking (and eating :-)) so here’s a run-down of the last three occasions;  I’ll start with the most recent first!

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Hand-raised pies – typically British food and very traditional.  In Britain they can be bought in almost any shop, and when they are good they are very good.  But who would go to the bother of making them at home?  Well, in France the only equivalent is pate en croute, so we decided to give them a try.  Ingredients are simple – the pastry is a hot water crust, made with flour, lard, egg, salt and water.  The filling has varying ingredients, but most seem to call for pork.  We decided to make three different kinds:  “pork, apple and elderberry pie”, where we substituted cranberries for the elderberries which are out of season,  “chicken and bacon pie” and “small pork pies with quails’ eggs”.   The pork, apple and elderberry pie was made in a raised pie mould, to be eaten hot for our dinner.  The other pies were topped up with jellied stock after cooking and left to mature in the fridge for a day or two before being eaten.

The verdict:  The pastry was very soft and not easy to work with.  We tied a strip of grease-proof paper around the outside of the raised pies to stop them collapsing, which worked great, but this instruction was missing from the recipes we were using.  All three pies tasted delicious and were well worth the effort.  Would I make them again?  Yes!!

The time before it was my turn to host the get-together, and the theme was Autumn Food.  I drew on all kinds of influences and came up with a menu of pumpkin and chestnut soup for starter, goulash with bread dumplings, and apple strudel.  A fair bit of work but we had three extra pairs of hands, and it all worked beautifully.   As the goulash took the longest to cook we started that first, only onions, beef, paprika, with some garlic, caraway seeds and some tomato paste – no water added!  We made our own strudel paste and tried to pull it as thin as possible – the idea is that one should be able to read the paper through it!  My grandmother was able to do that, but I think it comes with practice 🙂 – she made it practically once a week when there were apples around.  It still turned out very nicely though and tasted delicious!  The bread dumplings use up stale French bread, which gets moistened with some boiling milk and left to steam.  Eggs are added along with chopped parsley, finely chopped sweated onions and seasoning, and then the paste is formed into mandarin sized balls which are simmered in salted water for about 20 minutes.  The pumpkin and chestnut soup was delicious and simple.  Chopped onions, carrots, celery and leeks are sweated in olive oil to develop the flavour, the pumpkin and chestnuts added and brought to a boil with some vegetable or chicken stock.  When everything is tender the soup is blended to a smooth texture, and served with a dollop of creme fraiche and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil.

The verdict:  I would make all of it again, and have actually made the pumpkin soup twice since.  The goulash takes fairly long to cook as the onions need to be cooked slowly until very soft, and the meat is added only at that point, and needs some cooking time itself, so not a dish for a speedy supper!

The time before our theme was Lebanese food and we had some very delicious food on our plates.  On the menu we had kibbet aadas (lentil fingers); stuffed vine leaves; filo parcels (brik); yoghurt cheese (labneh);  Kibbeh & salad for main course and for dessert there was cardamom yoghurt mousse with orange compote.

The verdict:  All of it was delicious, and some of it was very simple and easy to prepare.  I would definitely make the yoghurt cheese balls, lentil fingers and filo parcels again.  The tahini dip was simplicity in itself and very yummy.  The vine leaves tasted delicious but were a lot of work and the kibbet was good but a little dry.  The yoghurt mousse and orange compote were very good too and I’ve kept that recipe in my file.

Christmas markets, and how one thing leads to another…

Last Sunday I set out to visit the Christmas market in Argeliers, a village not far from Saint-Chinian.  I’d found it on a listing of Christmas markets for the area, and since Argeliers is a fairly good size I assumed that the Christmas market would be too.  Now I know one should not assume and in this case my assumptions were entirely wrong.

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Got to Argeliers, drove into the centre, thinking I would find signs or lots of people and/or stands, only to be driving round a deserted village.  Drove out to the main street, came back in again and spied a little sign by the side of the road, with the correct date on it.  OK, so it’s today, but where?  Then I saw a lady emptying trash and asked her.  Just by the cooperative winery, she said.  So round again, and sure enough there were a good many cars – looks promising I thought!  Eventually I found the entrance to the hall (large, spacious,well-lit AND heated!), but the cars must have all belonged to the stallholders!!  It took me less than ten minutes to go round.  I felt very much like an intruder, the few customers who were there chatted with the stallholder as if they were old friends, and that, along with what was for sale made me think that it was by the village for the village.  Nothing wrong with that!

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Still, the day was sunny and the weather reasonably good, so I decided to explore the village.  And I’m glad I did.  There’s a lot of history there and some beautiful buildings!  The vigneron’s revolt in 1907 started from there and the cafe owned at the time by Marcelin Albert, one of the instigators, proudly sports a plaque in his memory.

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There’s another old cafe on this square (unfortunately both closed down), which looks impossibly grand.  Two old advertising plaques still adorn the walls, albeit somewhat damaged.  This one is for Secrestat Bitters, a drink long since disappeared from view and no longer produced.

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On my wanders I found the old core of the village, with narrow mediaeval lanes, and a bit of tower, which seems to be leftover from the old château.

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As it was Sunday afternoon everything including the church was closed, but there was still plenty to see!

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I ended up back by the cooperative winery, where I had left the car.  There are in fact two – La Vigneronne was the first one, founded in 1932 and right opposite La Languedocienne founded a year later in 1933.  It looks as though only La Languedocienne is still operating, but on a very large scale and with some very nice modern stainless steel tanks!

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This leads me nicely to the latest about wine making at Domaine La Madura:  the emptying out of the tanks and pressing of the must, and the mise en barrique!  Once fermentation is complete the wine is drawn off the tanks for storage and maturing.  And once the tanks are empty, what’s left behind are all the grape skins and pips.  The tanks are emptied by hand, and the residual matter pressed.  Some of the wine spends a year in oak barrels, and once the vinification is complete the wine is transferred right away.  I’ll not do a blow-by-blow account but will just leave you with a gallery of pictures.