My kinda Pastis

Fall is a time for festivals, and many of them have a harvest theme.  In St Nazaire de Ladarez the festival is called Fete de la Noisette, celebrating the hazelnuts which are locally grown.  A bit of history to start with:  during the winter of 1709 temperatures dropped very low, and the olive trees froze.  The farmers decided to diversify and planted hazel trees to provide a cash crop, and from 1722 organised the sale of the totality of their crop in one lot, in order to get the best price.  In 1833 a total of 137 farmers founded a company for the sale of their hazelnuts.

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Fast forward to today:  hazelnuts are no longer a cash crop, but there are still a good number of trees, and the Fete de la Noisette is keeping traditions alive – not least the tradition of the Pastis.  No, not the drink but a kind of cake, made of puff pastry and filled with hazelnuts.  Pastis is an Occitan word, meaning “mixture”, and in this case a secret mixture is sandwiched between two sheets of puff pastry.  Generally a Pastis was a cake prepared for special occasions and festivals, and different villages have their own recipes, all kept secret and usually passed from one generation to another.  In Thezan les Beziers the Pastis is prepared with almonds, in Laurens with walnuts, and in Pailhes with almonds and apples, but we are in St Nazaire, so it’s with hazelnuts.

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If you want to try your hand at it, my recommendation is to use a recipe along the lines of a Galette des Rois, substitute hazelnuts for almonds, and use less butter.  The top of the Pastis was brushed with something tasting of orange, or perhaps the sugar used for the dusting was orange flavoured.  In any case I’m sure you’ll have a delicious tasting cake!!

When I arrived at the fete, everyone was still in church for the blessing of the harvest and the Pastis of course.  Even so, a good many people were about and some of the stalls were doing brisk trade.

There was a fair amount of hazelnut related food, such as the hazelnut pastries made by one of the local associations.

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And there were chestnuts of course – freshly roasted, of course, and to be enjoyed with a glass of wine.

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Once everyone had left church I took a quick look – from the outside it looked rather austere, and I am guessing that it was re-built during a prosperous period in the 19th century.

The cafe Aux Acacias just across the road from the church was humming;  they had set up a bar outside and were selling drinks and plates of grilled sausages with fries.  Guess what I had for lunch?? 🙂  A band was entertaining us with jazz music and the sun was shining – what could be better?

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After lunch a walk around the village was called for and there were many interesting things to discover.  La Ruche du Midi was a cooperative society based in Beziers, which once operated 250+ grocery stores in the area.

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At some point St Nazaire must have been quite prosperous, judging by the beautiful ironwork on many facades.

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The tower is the best preserved part of the medieval castle of the village.

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I think I surprised kitty at first, but he/she was very patient with me!

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Back at the fete the children were entertained with rides around the village.

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Before heading back to the car I bought some apples from Mr Hortala, who has his orchards in Plaussenous (you try and pronounce that!!).  They were delicious!

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My car was parked just next door to the cemetery.  Whenever I have the time I will always have a look around a cemetery.  There’s always so much to discover, and the graveyard in St Nazaire was no exception.  It is arranged on several levels because of the hilly terrain, and there were beautiful flowers and some interesting monuments.

And just before I left I discovered this little creature.  It was sitting on a Chrysanthemum flower and had a kind of triumphant look on its face, or was that a look of relief? 😉

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Desperately seeking Madeleine

The quest for the perfect madeleine started a few years ago.  The children of friends, who have a holiday home in St Chinian, used to go to the bakery next door to buy bread each morning.  One day they brought back madeleines along with the bread, which were gorgeous, and the whole family got hooked!  On their next visit to St Chinian the madeleines made irregular appearances in the bakery, and by the following year they had disappeared altogether.  ‘Not enough demand’ said the baker, ‘people weren’t really buying them’, and so he stopped making them.

The children were bereft, but the gift shop across the road had a madeleine tin for sale, and so the testing began.  At a flea market I came across my own madeleine tin, so between us we were now able to bake a batch of 24 madeleines with ease.

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I started my search for recipes on my bookshelf on http://www.eatyourbooks.com, and found that six of my books listed a recipe for madeleines.  I checked a few other books on my bookshelves at home, and in the end I turned up 10 recipes altogether.  I then made a comparative table for all the recipes.  Of course there were differences, both in method and in quantities, but the basic ingredients remained constant:  eggs, butter, flour, and sugar. There were various additions such as orange flower water, almonds, vanilla, rum, salt, baking powder, and lemon in various proportions and combinations.

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For seven of the 10 recipes the preparation was done by the “Genoise” method, where the whole eggs are beaten with the sugar (sometimes over hot water) until very thick and creamy, then the flour is folded in and lastly the melted butter.  This method is supposed to produce a light and moist sponge cake, used in high class patisseries for their cream cakes.

The other three recipes each used a different method: one was the traditional “creaming” method, where butter and sugar are beaten together until light, the eggs added by degrees and finally the flour (The Penguin Cookery Book); another mixed sugar and flour, added the eggs and finally the butter (The Very Best of Baking); the last was the only one of the recipes where the eggs are separated (Cooking with Pomiane). To the yolks are added the flour, sugar, baking powder and orange flower water, and a little water is added to loosen the resulting stiff paste. Next the melted butter is added and finally the beaten egg whites.   I decided to try two recipes:  the one from Cooking with Pomiane and the one from Rick Stein’s French Odyssey.

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Cooking with Pomiane is one of my favourite cookery books, both for the writing and the recipes. I have just discovered that it was last published by Serif in 2009 (the original was first published in French in the 1930’s), and is still available from the usual booksellers.

In his book, Pomiane recounts in a charming story how madeleines came into being.  Apparently there once was a baker with a very pretty young wife, who took up with a lover when her husband went away on a trip.  When the baker returned unexpectedly the wife told a story of having had to hire help.  The disbelieving baker gave the lover the challenge of producing 18 cakes immediately, or he would kill him and his wife.  The distraught lover, knowing nothing whatsoever about baking, started to pray to St Mary Magdalene, who dutifully appeared and prepared the cakes.  She did apparently make him promise to mend his ways before she disappeared.  The baker returned, the lover presented him with the cakes which he christened madeleines, and the errant wife and her lover were spared.  Wouldn’t you agree that this is a lovely story??  Pomiane writes that he read the story in a book by Charles Nicolle (a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine) called Le Patissier de Bellonne.

The Larousse Gastronomique would have us believe that Avice, the pastry cook to Prince Talleyrand, invented the madeleine when he baked a pound cake mix in aspic moulds.  I’m not sure which of the two stories is the more likely!?

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Quantities for the Pomiane recipe are 4 oz each of flour, sugar and butter to two eggs.  Additions are 1 tbsp orange flower water, 2 tbsp water and 1tsp baking powder (the recipe in the Penguin Cookery Book gives identical quantities, with the baking powder omitted).  The first batch released easily from the tin and showed a good imprint and a nice bump on top.  With the second batch I mixed in a little matcha, Japanese green tea powder – I had it to hand and had been meaning to try using it in baking for far too long.  The bumps on the batch with matcha added showed even better, but I think I cooked them a little too long.  For this recipe the temperature was specified as 220 degrees centigrade, and cooking time as 9 – 10 minutes.

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The Pomiane recipe produced wonderful madeleines, with slightly crunchy edges and a great texture.

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The second recipe I tried came from Rick Stein’s French Odyssey.  Proportions are 100g each of flour, butter and sugar, and three eggs.  Also the zest of 1 lemon, 1 tbsp honey and 1 tsp baking powder.  Once the paste was prepared it was left to stand 15 minutes in the fridge. Oven temperature was 190 degrees centigrade, and cooking time 10 minutes.

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The resulting madeleines were difficult to release from the tin, totally flat on top and unevenly browned.  The second half of the paste was baked at 220 degrees centigrade, released more successfully and formed the characteristic bump on top.  They were somewhat floppy and too light, but with a good flavour.

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So perhaps this is a quest to be continued?  Do you have your own favourite madeleine recipe you’d like to share?

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Books used:

Edouard de Pomiane:  Cooking with Pomiane
Ken Hom:  East meets West Cuisine
Andre Domine:  Culinaria France
Paula Peck:  The Art of Fine Baking
Margaret Fulton: Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery
Rick Stein:  French Odyssey
Anne Willan: Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Cookery
Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume: The Constance Spry Cookery Book
Bee Nilsson: The Penguin Cookery Book
Christian Teubner and Annette Wolter: Best of Baking

Nuts for patchwork

Perhaps you’re wondering where this post will go after you have read the title – if you are concerned please be reassured, all will be fine!!

Patchwork always plays a role in the Fete de la Chataigne in St Pons, and this year was no exception.  Past tense because the Fete took place on the weekend of October 26/27, 2013.  As ever the Fete de la Chataigne was worth a visit, if for no other reasons than for the sheer variety of stands and the entertainment on offer.  Let me start with the patchwork though.  The exhibition is always held in the Chapelle des Penitents, a former chapel which is now used as a community space.

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The stone walls provide a good backdrop for the quilts and embroideries, which have been lovingly stitched by the 20 or so members of L’Atelier Picoutaille. Every two years a new exhibition sees the light of day, and this year’s new show had ‘the home’ as its theme. The variety of works is amazing and I hesitate to hazard a guess as to how many hours must have gone into the combined works – perhaps too many to count.

Pieces ranged from large bed-cover-sized to much smaller works.

There was also a display case of old boutis work, where the relief is produced by padding with cotton wool.  Exquisite to look at, but I’m sure not very easy to produce!

Some of the ladies of the Atelier Picoutaille were working away as we got there, mostly on small things such as pincushions, which were sold on the spot.

Maisons de Campagne, a haberdasher’s shop from Montpellier, had a stand next to the ladies and their projects, selling a beautiful selection of patchwork fabrics and embroidery patterns, and everything in between.   I find that this exhibition is usually a great stop for small christmas presents!!

As for the rest of the fete, there were many wonderful stalls – a good few of them selling food of course,

…and baskets of many kinds.

This year the entertainment was a re-enactment of the visit of the bishop of St Pons to the building site of the cathedral, during the early 18th century.  The local theater group, La Compagnie de la Source, had set the scene outside the cathedral, with a big stage to one side and a squirrel wheel (or treadmill crane) on the other.  The squirrel wheel has people inside, walking back or forward to raise or descend heavy loads.  The rope winds around the axle so even a relatively light person can lift heavy stones.  Next to the squirrel wheel was a stonemason, who was working on a cross vault.

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There was also a machine for making rope, and I managed to take a video for you of how it works.  Note to e-mail subscribers:  please go to the website for the blog to see the videos.

The soundtrack in the background is of the stonemason chipping away at his stone and chatting with the onlookers.  Right at the end of the video you can hear the little band of soldiers singing Alouette, a popular children’s song, as they march towards the square.

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The soldiers and the capitan were very amusing and entertained the crowd before the main show started.

The costumes for this year’s show were amazing, and it seemed as though a good part of the town was participating!

And then there was the band – Pescaluna – playing traditional and mediaeval music.

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To escape the drizzle I visited the cathedral – amazing what can be found in some churches!  I seem to have photographed a lot of grotesque faces which are carved in the wooden panelling!

The sacristy was open, and I couldn’t resist a look.  The structure alone is impressive, and the items on display are beautiful.

The embroidery is incredible and some of the metal objects are amazing – I’m glad I don’t have to polish any of them :-)!

Then there was a corner of seemingly abandoned things.  The statue looked rather sad and left out, and the tabernacle had definitely seen better days!

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IMG_8658But hey, I almost forgot!  We are here to celebrate the chestnut harvest!!  So here you are, enjoy your cornet of hot, roasted chestnuts!  And remember to come back again next year.

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A starry mollusc

Did you know that the octopus is part of the mollusc family??  I didn’t, but I am glad that I learn something each time I write a post!  Octopus is the name of  a restaurant in Beziers, and it’s located in the centre of town, on rue Boieldieu; as you can imagine it took me a little while to learn to pronounce the name of the street!

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L’Octopus took its present form in January 2005, with Fabien Lefebvre in charge of the kitchen, Rachel Lefebvre looking after the wine cellar, and Laurent Montillard the maitre d’hotel.  The three had all previously worked at the Hotel Bristol in Paris, and you can tell that they make a great team from the moment you walk into the restaurant.  I’d been to L’Octopus previously, but only ever for lunch, so dinner was a new experience.  The whole restaurant had been given a makeover in September, and it was a joy to see the stylish result.  There are three dining rooms, two at the back overlooking the large courtyard patio, and one at the front, next to the cozy bar/lounge. We were the first guests to be seated in the dining room at the front, and to begin with it felt a little awkward, but soon the tables around us started to fill up, and as the noise level rose the ambiance warmed up.

Dinner had been a present from friends and so the heavy task of choosing what to have did not have to be accomplished!  A glass of champagne arrived, followed shortly afterwards by a “mise en bouche”, a little something to get the gastric juices flowing.  I can feel myself salivating as I am writing this, and you may possibly be salivating too as you are reading.  Three delicious morsels to get us in the mood:  a marinated anchovy fillet seasoned with sansho pepper, a Japanese spice; acras made with salt cod and served with a delicately light sweet-and-sour sauce; and kromeskies (small croquettes) made from pigs head, crispy on the outside and juicy inside, served with a mustard and yoghurt dip.

After a brief pause the starter arrived – a beautiful picture to behold, with the most divine smell!  I’m sorry that this is not “scratch and sniff”!  Everything had been beautifully placed, down to the last delicate leaf.

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At the centre of the dish is a piece of lobster, and in the two corners are slices of tuna.  The slices had been cut from a slab which had only just been seared on the outside. Behind the yellow carrot slice is a maki roll, raw tuna wrapped in a sheet of nori (algue) with a stick of raw cucumber at its centre.  The sauces were made with miso and the whole seasoned with gomasio, a mixture of sesame seeds and salt.  So by now you might be able to imagine the smell, and I can assure you that it tasted every bit as good as it looked.  To accompany there was a generous glass of white wine, Domaine Les Hautes Terres from Limoux, a 100% chardonnay which was a perfect match!!

The first of the main courses was fish, a fillet of red mullet.  The fillet was perched on a ring of puree made from potatoes and coco beans (a white haricot bean, Coco de Paimpol), and the ring contained a most delicious stock made from red mullet bones and saffron.  Also perched on the ring were pieces of grilled squid, and the decoration was made from squid ink.

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The “pearls” on the ring were made from potato and the tiny sprigs of fennel were wonderfully refreshing.  Outside the ring, and just under the fillet was a little bit of pureed red mullet liver, which provided a good kick of iodine.

By now I was wondering how this could be followed.  Our waiter laid the table with a fork, a spoon and a sharp knife, and replenished the bread (excellent bread rolls, nice and crispy with very good flavour).  The whole menu was decided by the chef, so when the second main course came to the table it was a very nice surprise!

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The most beautifully pink lamb chop arrived in a deep plate, surrounded by lamb stock and vegetables, and tucked under the leaf on the left was a delicate ravioli filled with goat’s cheese.  The rose shaped item was a bit of lamb kidney, and the pale yellow strip in the top right corner is a piece of candied citrus peel, from a fruit called Buddah’s hand (see the fourth picture of “oranges-and-lemons” for what that looks like), by way of a condiment.  I can’t ever remember eating lamb this tender or tasty – my guess is that the meat was cooked by the low temperature method, and it was 100% successful in this case.  The knife just slipped through the meat like butter, but not cold butter out the fridge!  The chop was nice and thick, the vegetables just perfect and the stock a delight.  I’m no fan of kidneys, so I gave that a miss – and perhaps I missed something, but I was worried about spoiling the rest of the dish by trying it.  With the lamb came a glass of Corbieres red wine from Domaine Ledogar, another great match.

By this time we had struck up a conversation with the couple at the next table, who were staying overnight in Beziers on their way to Spain. They had been to the restaurant in its previous incarnation 20 years earlier and were very pleasantly surprised by the wonderful food.  Their meal continued with cheese, and a magnificent cheese trolley was brought round, carrying a beautiful selection of cheeses.

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For us it was time for dessert – another gorgeous creation on a plate!

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The black figs had somehow been cooked without getting mushy, and sprinkled with pieces of home-made speculoos, a spiced shortbread biscuit.  In between the figs sat a scoop of yoghurt ice cream, on a bed of blackberry compote, and right at the end sat a wisp of meringue.  Cooked figs can be cloying and uninteresting, but this dessert was perfection in every sense, with contrasting flavours and textures and just enough sugar.

A meal like that is a little like climbing a mountain and coming back down again, the art is to come back gently and slowly.  You reach the peak and on your way down you want to keep the feeling of exhilaration for as long as possible.  Continuing with coffee, or in my case a lavender infusion, is a good way to go.  Eau de vie or a brandy would be good if home can be reached on foot.

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The petit fours which accompanied the coffee and herbal tea were lovely too, and part of the gentle winding down.  The beautiful lacquer box held a marshmallow knot, a tiny cake made with red berries, and a lemon tart with a hint of mango for each of us.

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Service throughout the meal was absolutely impeccable – attentive without being intrusive and friendly without being familiar.  All the staff were happy to try their English for the benefit of our fellow diners on the table next to ours, and had a sense of humour when they got stuck with their translations.  If you are in Beziers and are looking for somewhere to have lunch, don’t think twice.  And if you’re looking for a somewhere for a special night out, L’Octopus is the place to go!!

Thank you P&S for a fantastic evening!

Fall on foot

Autumn is a perfect time of year to go for walks – the weather is usually very good but not too hot, and there is plenty to catch your eye, from the first leaves turning colour to interesting critters, and more.  I went for a 9km hike with friends recently, starting from St Chinian, and thought I’d share this with you.

We started off along the D612, heading out of St Chinian in the direction of St Pons.

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I imagine that the circle near the top of the gate must have held someone’s initials at some point!  Soon we left the main road and walked along the D176E7, and at Pierre Morte we left the road altogether, and followed a track through the vineyards.

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The grapes in some vineyards had not been harvested yet, and they tasted deliciously sweet!  In some gardens the tomato plants were still in fine fettle too…

P1050022…and it wasn’t too long before I found my first “interesting critter”.

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We kept walking towards Bouldoux, and just before you reach the village there is a little hut, with a bench alongside.  I’d come prepared: in my rucksack I had a thermos of tea, some plastic cups and a few biscuits.  Perfection, sipping a cup of tea whilst basking in the sun!  On we went after our brief rest, and there followed a bit of a climb, crossing the main road (D612) and up a little farther.

Another critter picture – this is the caterpillar of a swallowtail butterfly.  I have not been able to find out exactly what kind of swallowtail butterfly it will turn into, but I am sure that it will be beautiful!

After the climb the vegetation changed completely.  Whereas before we had been surrounded by vineyards almost as far as the eye coud see, we were now in more rugged terrain, with lots of brush and some woodland.  And here’s a little surprise:

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According to my friends, the toaster has been there for some time and it just stands there all by itself.  Why, I thought, but then decided not to pursue that line of thinking :-).

The roses had produced a good crop of hips, and the olives were hanging heavy on the trees.  Around the next bend there was a large kennel, where hunting dogs are being kept.  They all started to howl as we came past, but none of them seemed vicious or hell-bent on chasing us.  They were safely behind fences and we kept a respectful distance.  Not long after we had to make a decision as the path forked.  We took the turn to the right, and I’m glad we did.

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And we came upon this quirky “potager” in the middle of nowhere.  Someone had lovingly created a vegetable garden in the wilderness, and decorated it with upturned terracotta pots.

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All too soon we were approaching St Chinian, but not before we went through a grove of trees where the lichen were growing abundantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any as luxuriant or large as these.

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And then it was home and time for a drink and some rest!