A firm favourite

In our area, autumn is chestnut time, and there are several festivals to celebrate the chestnut harvest.  I’ve written about the festivals before.  You can find the posts here, here, and here.  This year, I went to the Chestnut Festivals in both Saint-Pons and Olargues – over the years they have become firm favourites of mine!

The weekend the festival took place in Saint-Pons, the area was experiencing a cold-snap:  temperatures plummeted to 6 Celsius, well below the seasonal average!!  The stall-holders were well wrapped up against the cold!  Below is a picture of a very warmly dressed Lex Page from Love la Foret!  Lex and her husband Andy specialise in dried mushrooms – I bought some delicious cep (porcini) mushroom powder from them a little while back, and I needed a top-up!

The festival in Saint-Pons always has a large number of exhibitors and I found many familiar stands!

I adore roasted chestnuts, so I made a beeline to the square where the chestnuts were being roasted over open fires!

The hot chestnuts were delicious AND they warmed my hands!!

Bands of roving musicians provided entertainment, and there was lots to see and taste.  Despite the cold weather this was a very enjoyable festival!

The Fete du Marron et du Vin Nouveau (the festival of chestnuts and new wine) took place in Olargues a week later.  The weather couldn’t have been more different – it was beautiful!  The sun was out and there was a marked difference in temperature – absolutely no need for thermal underwear!!

I had of course come for the roasted chestnuts!!  The set-up in Olargues is much smaller than it is in Saint-Pons, but the chestnuts were every bit as delicious!

On a recent visit to L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois, I tasted a tiramisu which had been made with creme de marron, a sweet chestnut puree made from broken pieces of marrons glacés.  This was a very delicious dessert and I have attempted to recreate the recipe for you below.  When you next visit L’Auberge de l’Ecole, you’ll be able to taste Brigitte’s authentic version!

Tiramisu with creme de marron

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A delicious tiramisu, with a special flavour of autumn. You can make this in individual serving dishes, or use one large dish.

Ingredients

  • 250g mascarpone (1 tub)
  • 3 eggs
  • 125g creme de marron (chestnut puree)
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 12 sponge fingers (also called ladyfingers or boudoir biscuits)
  • 200ml strong coffee
  • 2 Tbsp Rum

You will also need six to eight individual serving dishes (I used glass preserving jars), or a single serving dish, large enough to hold 6 sponge fingers in a single layer.

ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Directions


1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites.
2. In a medium-sized bowl beat the egg yolks with 1 Tbsp sugar until white and thick. Add the mascarpone and the creme de marron and mix until lump-free.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form.  Add the remaining 1 Tbsp sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
4. Fold one third of the beaten egg whites into the mascarpone mixture to ‘loosen’ it.  Then add the remaining beaten egg whites and fold in until the mixture is smooth.
5. Pour the cold coffee into a shallow bowl and add the rum.
6. To assemble the tiramisu, put some of the mascarpone mixture in the bottom of your dish (one third of the mixture if using one large dish).  Dip each sponge finger briefly into the coffee and arrange in a neat layer in your dish.  Top with another third of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the sponge fingers.  Finish with the last third of the mascarpone mixture and level with a spatula. If you are using individual serving dishes, break/cut the sponge fingers to make them fit.
7. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge to chill for four to six hours.

Before serving you may wish to dust the tiramisu with cocoa powder but try it without the cocoa powder first. I find that it can overpower the delicate flavour of the chestnut puree.

Note:  In her version, Brigitte uses chestnut brandy, which is pretty impossible to find.  I found rum to be reasonable substitute, but if you can find chestnut liqueur it would be even better.  Brigitte also omits the coffee and uses only alcohol to soak the biscuits in.  

 

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Back again!!

It’s been a long time since my last post – my apologies to all of you who have been wondering what had happened to me!!  To answer that in detail would take a long time (and might not be all that interesting), so I’ll keep it brief! 🙂 What I had thought of as a short summer break turned into a more prolonged vacation!  The summer in Saint-Chinian was busy, filled with visitors, endless days of hot and sunny weather, and lots of work in helping to organise the music festival in July.  As soon as the July festival was over, work started on another series of concerts in September.  The good weather continued until fairly recently, and with it the flow of visitors.

Some of you will have read reports of the devastating floods which hit our area in Languedoc recently.  Saint-Chinian did get a huge amount of rain, but our river did not do any serious damage to the village.  Some of the gardens along the river were completely flattened, and the nursery downstream outside the village suffered some damage and loss to their plant stock, but that was pretty much it.

My heart went out to the people around Carcassonne who lost so much to this devastating flood, and I counted myself to have been very lucky.

Now that things have settled down, I am writing once more.  I thought I would start off with a food post.  I recently taught a couple of friends how to make chocolate mousse and i would like to share that with you.

Making chocolate mousse is not difficult and it requires very few ingredients: good chocolate, eggs, cream and water.  Depending on your taste, the chocolate can be dark, milk or white.  It needs to be of a good quality as the final result depends very much on the chocolate.  It goes without saying that the eggs should be very fresh.  (You’ll find a printable recipe at the end of this post.)

Ingredients for chocolate mousse

Ingredients for chocolate mousse

For my tutorial, I decided to use two different kinds of chocolate, white and dark.  The dark chocolate was 72% cocoa; white chocolate contains no cocoa solids at all.  This way, both of my friends could have some hands-on experience!  🙂

Preparing chcolate mousse - melting the chocolate

Preparing chocolate mousse – melting the chocolate

The chocolate pieces were melted in separate bowls set in bowls filled with hot water.  Melting chocolate takes very little effort – just give it a stir from time to time and wait until it is all melted.  The main thing is to not over-heat the chocolate, which can happen when it is melted in the microwave.  When melting the chocolate, be careful not to splash water into the melted chocolate, as this would cause the chocolate to “seize up” and become granular.

While the chocolate was melting, we separated the egg yolks from the whites.  Once the chocolate had melted, the egg yolks were stirred into the chocolate.  This was easier with white the chocolate than with the dark.  Don’t worry if the chocolate goes granular or gritty to begin with, just keep stirring/beating until it becomes a shiny mass or lump.

The water was added next.  In this recipe, the water is used to make the chocolate and egg yolk mixture a little less stiff, so that the whipped egg whites don’t deflate as you try to fold them in.  For the white chocolate only a very little water was required – about half a tablespoon was enough for 135g of white chocolate.  For the dark chocolate we added about 5 tablespoons to 135g of chocolate.  Every chocolate reacts differently, so you’ll need to use your own discretion with the water.  The finished mixture should have the consistency of softened butter.

All ready for folding in the egg whites

We first whipped the egg whites, taking care not to over-beat them, until they formed soft peaks when the (stationary) whisks were pulled out.  I added a tiny pinch of salt to the egg whites, which improved the flavour of the finished mousse.  Next, we whipped the cream to soft peaks – it remained somewhat “floppy”.

The egg whites being folded in

The whipped egg whites were divided between the two bowls, and folded in gently.  The reason that we added the egg whites first was that they would not have deflated if the chocolate mixture had still been a little warm.  The whipped cream would have gone runny had it been added to a warm mixture.

We added the whipped cream before the egg whites were completely blended in.  Further careful folding helped to keep the mixture as light as possible!

The finished mousse.

The white chocolate mousse turned out to be more runny than the dark, most likely due to the lack of cocoa solids in the white chocolate.  We filled eight bowls and ramekins with some of each colour mousse.

Ready to go in the fridge!

The filled bowls looked very pretty!!  Before they went into the fridge, each bowl was covered with cling film/plastic wrap.

Chocolate mousse needs a minimum of four hours in the fridge, so it is best made the day before you want to eat it, or in the morning if you want to serve it for dinner.

Delicious!!

We ate it the following evening – it was delicious!!

Chocolate Mousse

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A light and airy chocolate mousse, the perfect ending to a meal.

Ingredients

  • 270g chocolate
  • 4 eggs
  • 200ml whipping cream
  • 100ml water

Directions

  1. Chop the chocolate or break it into small pieces.  Separate the egg yolks from the whites
  2. Melt the chocolate in a medium-sized bowl over hot water.
  3. Beat the egg yolks into the melted chocolate until the mixture is glossy and clears the sides of the bowl.
  4. Add water one tablespoon at a time, mixing it in until the chocolate mixture has the consistency of soft butter.  You may not need to add the full amount of water.
  5. Whip the egg whites with a tiny pinch of salt until soft peaks form.
  6. Whip the cream until soft peaks form.
  7. With a spatula or spoon, fold the whipped egg whites into the chocolate mixture, followed by the whipped cream.
  8. Divide the mixture between your individual serving bowls, or use one large serving bowl. Cover with film and refrigerate for a minimum of four hours before serving.

Quick ‘n easy!

The apricot season has started!!  Last Sunday I bought my first apricots of the season from one of the vendors in the market in Saint-Chinian.  Mr Cathala grows all kinds of fruit in Argeliers, not far from Saint-Chinian, and he sells his fruit at the market on Thursdays and Sundays!

I bought two different kinds of apricots from Mr Cathala.  I’m no longer sure what the names of the two varieties were – they were both delicious even though they were very different from one another!

The red ones were somewhat smaller than the apricot coloured ones, and their flesh was softer.  Both were juicy, with the apricot coloured ones tasting sweeter.

When I went last fall to visit Top Fruits, a pick-your-own farm also in Argeliers, I signed up to their mailing list.  With the fruit-picking season now under way, I receive weekly newsletters from Sarah Pearce at Top Fruits.  She always concludes her newsletter with a couple of recipes, and this week’s apricot recipe was perfectly timed for my purchases!

I decided to use the firmer apricots for Sarah’s Poele d’abricots aux pain d’epices, pan-fried apricots with gingerbread.  The ingredients are simply apricots, butter, and pain d’epices.

Sarah’s recipe called for 16 apricots, 15g butter and four slices of pain d’epices.  Since my apricots were on the large side, I decided to use only five (they were about double the size of a regular apricot), but kept the butter and pain d’epices quantities of the original recipe.

I cut the apricots in half, removed the stones and sliced the apricot halves thickly.  The pain d’epices was cut into small dice.

As my frying pan is on the small side, and since I didn’t want the apricot slices to be too crowded in the pan, I fried the apricots in two batches.  I heated the butter over high heat until it started to brown, then added the apricots.

After about a minute I gave the apricot slices a gentle stir.

After a further minute of cooking, it was time to add the diced pain d’epices.

Another gentle stir, and voila, dessert was ready!!

This was a wonderfully tangy dessert with great flavour!!  There was too much for two people, so we ate the leftovers on the following day.  It tasted even better, as the flavour of the  pain d’epices had had a chance to meld with the apricots!  Better still was the scoop of vanilla ice cream I had bought to go with the leftovers :)!!

How do you like your apricots??

It’s artichoke time!

The artichoke season is under way in my garden, and I am very fortunate with my crop this year!  I re-planted a row of artichokes last year – and I am reaping the rewards!! 🙂  Artichokes are a delicious vegetable that I never tire of!

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When I bought some new plants last year, I asked the vendor how far to space them.  He recommended a distance of 1 metre between plants, and added some advice: he told me to dig holes halfway between two plants and to bury a bucketful of compost.  The plants would  find the nutrients and take what they needed.  Good advice!!

What with the rain we had over the winter, and the compost, the artichoke plants are looking magnificent.  As a result of their lush growth, they have sent up many flower stalks and an impressive number of large, beautiful artichokes!!

I’ve not yet completely solved the problem of earwigs, which started a few years ago – they just seem to love squatting under the outer layer of leaves of the artichokes!!  I imagine that I could resort to insecticides, but that wouldn’t do!  I would rather live with the fact that I’ll have to shake them out of their hiding places!! 🙂

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One of my favourite recipes is called “Barcelona Grilled Artichokes” from Patricia Wells’ book, “Patricia Wells at home in Provence”. For this delicious dish the prepared artichokes are sliced, marinated in a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, and grilled – the result is totally yummy!

Barcelona grilled artichokes

Talking to other people about food and cooking is always rewarding and interesting.  One of my neighbours told me to braise artichokes with potatoes – I tried that, but the result didn’t taste exceptional.  The same neighbour also gave me the idea of adding tomatoes, so I tried cooking the artichokes with smoked bacon and tomato, which worked wonderfully well!

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In Claudia Roden’s “Middle Eastern Cookbook” I found two recipes I enjoyed. The first used honey, lemon juice and preserved lemons, the second paired the artichokes with broad beans and almonds. Both produced delicious dishes and I’ll be preparing them again.

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My overall favorite dish was the artichokes cooked with bacon and tomato and I will attempt to give you the recipe below.  Pictures of the progress are at the end of the recipe.

Artichokes with bacon and tomato

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

5 globe artichokes
200g smoked bacon
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
1 large clove of garlic
1 tin chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp chopped parsley (optional)
1 lemon, juiced

Prepare the artichokes:  Pour the lemon juice into a bowl large enough to hold all the artichokes and add enough cold water to submerge the trimmed artichokes in.  Trim the artichokes by snapping off the leaves, starting at the base and working your way up.  Once in a while dip the artichoke into the acidulated water – the newly exposed flesh can turn brown very quickly.  Once the leaves remaining on the artichoke start to look yellow-ish you can stop snapping.

Trim the top with a sharp knife.

You will probably be able to see the choke now – a mass of fine white hairs at the centre of the artichoke.  I imagine that they would make you choke and hence the name?

Remove the choke with the aid of a teaspoon, and keep the trimmed artichoke bottoms in the bowl of water.

Cut each artichoke bottom into eight wedges.

Chop the onion and bacon into small dice and cook gently in the olive oil until the onion is softened.

Add the garlic (chopped finely or pushed through a garlic press) and cook for a minute longer.  Turn up the heat and add the drained artichoke pieces.

Fry, stirring from time to time until the artichokes start to brown around the edges, then add the chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes until the artichokes are tender and the sauce is reduced.

Serve hot on their own as a vegetable course, or allow to cool, dress with a little olive oil and lemon juice and serve as tapas or an appetizer.

Note: you can of course use frozen artichoke bottoms for this recipe, which will reduce the preparation time and will produce very similar results!

Let’s meat again!

At the end of February, I got together with friends to explore the making of terrines and pates.  Some were to be for the store cupboard and others were to be eaten right away.

A recipe for rabbit terrine came from Simon Hopkinson’s book Roast Chicken and Other Stories; the recipe for perfect smoked mackerel pate came from Felicity Cloake; and from Jamie Oliver’s website came a recipe for pork rillons.

We started our cooking session with the rillons, which we had planned to eat for our lunch.  The pork belly had been cut up and salted the night before.  After being rinsed and dried, the pieces went into a frying pan with a little lard, to be browned all over.

The smell of the sizzling pork was wonderful!!

The remaining ingredients for this dish had already been prepared.

The browned pork cubes were put into an oven-proof dish, along with the herbs, the garlic, some lard and white wine.  The dish went into the oven for an hour and a half!

With the rillons out of the way, we started on the rabbit terrine.  The recipe called for a small rabbit, pork back fat, skinless belly pork, pork fillet, bacon rashers, onion, garlic, butter, egg, herbs, breadcrumbs, cognac, salt and pepper – quite a list!!

The butcher had already boned the rabbit, which was incredibly helpful!  In his introduction to the recipe, Simon Hopkinson calls for all ingredients to be chopped by hand, as the resultingtexture is nicer.  We chopped everything into small pieces, but the results were still a little too coarse for our liking.

We chopped some of the meat using two very sharp knives – that worked fairly well!

The hand-chopping took a lot of time and elbow-grease, so we put some of the meat through an old-fashioned meat grinder.

The remaining ingredients were mixed with the chopped meat..

… and then we packed the mixture into terrine jars – the kind that seal with a clip and a rubber band.

The terrines were put in a deep baking dish.  Hot water was added to come halfway up the jars, and then the dish went into the oven for just over an hour.

At that point, we were ready for a little aperitif!!

After a few sips of vin d’orange, we made the perfect smoked mackerel pate.  The recipe was very simple.  Smoked mackerel fillets were skinned (and any remaining bones removed), then pureed in a food processor with cream cheese, creme fraiche, and horseradish.  A few grinds of black pepper, some lemon juice and some chopped dill were folded in, and that was it!

I had dug up a horseradish root from my garden – somehow it looked a little like a sea creature, don’t you think?? 🙂

We ate the smoked mackerel pate with some toast – it was absolutely delicious and a perfect start to our meal!!

The rillons were our main course.  They had been filling the kitchen with the most delicious aromas for far too long!!

We served them very simply, with a salad of ‘bitter’ leaves and blood oranges.  The ‘bitter’ leaves were endive, chicory and radicchio.  It was the perfect accompaniment to the rich taste of the pork.

At the end of that delicious meal, our terrines were ready to come out of the oven:

They were looking very good! Of course the jars would have to cool completely before the clips could be taken off, and then they would have to stand for a week or two for the flavour to develop fully.

Prior to writing this, I opened a jar to taste it.  The pate is absolutely delicious – well worth the effort, and definitely one to make again!

Lunch in Mirepoix

At the end of last week’s post, I promised that I would tell you about my visit to Mirepoix and my lunch there.  We had chosen Monday as a day to visit because that is when there is a market in Mirepoix, and also because the restaurant at Relais de Mirepoix was open.

The market was as delightful as I remembered from my last visit (see my post from a while back).  The stalls were set up in the square, some in front of ancient timber-framed houses, and others under the arcades.  There were all kinds of wonderful things for sale – woven baskets, vegetables, carpets, cheeses, incense, bread, shoes, and not forgetting the dried chillies!

After a bit of retail therapy, we set off to find the hotel and restaurant, Relais de Mirepoix, where we had booked a table for lunch.  My friend Lynn had heard a lot about the Relais de Mirepoix from her friends, so we were all eager to experience it for ourselves! The cold light of a grey and chilly winter day is never ideal for taking pictures, but the building shone with an elegance that had witnessed several centuries

We had a very warm welcome from Emma Lashford, who has been running the hotel with her husband Karl for just over a year.  Karl had worked at the hotel a few years ago for the previous owners, which was when Lynn’s friends met him.  When the hotel closed down and the 400 year old building came up for sale, Lynn’s friends decided to buy it, and they put Emma and Karl in charge of running the business!

After taking our coats, Emma showed us some of the rooms on the ground floor.  They had turned one of the rooms into a very cosy bar!

The former kitchen of the mansion can be used as a private dining or sitting room for groups. The kitchen for the restaurant is at the opposite end of the building, in case you are wondering.

There’s a wine cellar behind the iron grille!

I’m very interested in old floor tiles – here are three different patterns from the hallway, the bar, and the former kitchen:

In the elegant dining room, the tables were beautifully set!

Below is my place setting, with a glass of ginger beer!!  Because I was driving, I wanted a non-alcoholic drink to start with, and that ginger beer just hit the spot perfectly! 😀

The food was delicious, nicely presented and expertly served!  Have a look at our menu.

A creamy root celery soup, topped with toasted almonds, chopped egg and parsley.

Perfectly scrambled eggs with smoked salmon

Rigatoni pasta with salmon, sea bream and prawns, and a very delicious shellfish sauce

A skewer of roasted quail, presented on a bed of quinoa and wheat berries.

Crispy almond and pear frangipane tart with mini raspberry pannacotta

Pineapple carpaccio with coconut sorbet, topped with a crispy biscuit.

We finished that wonderful and memorable lunch with coffee, after which Emma offered to show us some of the suites and bedrooms upstairs from the restaurant.  The rooms we saw were very spacious, and there were some beautiful orignal features such as the hand-made terracotta tiles, the doors and the marble fireplaces.  I didn’t take any photographs, you’ll be able to get an idea of the accommodation on the website of Relais de Mirepoix under the heading hotel!

Thanks to Emma and Karl for such a warm welcome – I’ll be back!

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