Let it flow

A few months ago, I discovered an olive mill near Beziers.  Domaine Pradines le Bas is just a few kilometers from Beziers town centre, in the direction of Murviel-les-Beziers.  Francine Buesa has been planting olive trees on the estate for more than 15 years, and her trees are now in full production.

Olive grove at Domaine Pradines le Bas

I visited again last week to watch olive oil being pressed.  The olive harvest starts as early as at the end of August, when the olives destined for the table are being picked.  The harvest can continue into January.  Once the table olives are picked, the rest of the harvested olives are being processed for oil.  Green, purple and black olives come from the same tree, but are at different stages of ripeness.  As olives ripen, their oil content starts to increase.

Olives ready for pressing

Olives ready for pressing

At Pradines le Bas, the table olives are picked by hand, whereas the olives destined for olive oil are harvested mechanically.  A special harvesting machine is used – the machine spreads what looks like a giant upturned umbrella underneath the tree, and then gently vibrates the tree, shaking off the ripe olives.  The upturned umbrella catches them all!  The olives are then loaded into large crates and taken to the mill for processing.  Here’s a picture of the machine:

Olive harvesting machine

Olive harvesting machine

At the mill, the olives are loaded into a machine which separates the leaves from the olives, and washes the olives.

Starting the milling process

Starting the milling process – the cleaning machine

The black box on top of the machine takes care of the leaves, a bit like a giant vacuum cleaner, whilst the ‘washing machine’ is below.  Once the olives are washed, they are transported to the room next door.  Stepping into the room next door was great!  There was a wonderful scent in the air – difficult to describe – somewhat herby but definitely smelling of olive oil.

From the hopper, an Archimedes screw takes the olives to the mill unit, where they are pulped, stone and all!

Arrival of the cleaned olives

The olive pulp then goes into a malaxer, a machine, which slowly mixes the olive pulp for up to 45 minutes.  This mixing helps the extraction process later on.

Malaxer with the lid closed, to avoid oxidization

Here’s a video for you – unfortunately you don’t get the smell, but you’ll get an idea of the noise!! 🙂  (Note: e-mail subscribers, you may have to visit the website in order to be able to watch the video)

The olive pulp being mixed.

From the malaxer, the pulp gets pumped into the extractor, where the pulp is spun to separate the liquid from the solids.  The solids end up next door and are later spread out in the olive groves, nothing is wasted!

Extracting the juice from the olive pulp.

The yellowish olive juice runs through a sieve into a container, from where it is pumped to a centrifuge.

Olive juice!

The centrifuge separates the water from the oil.  The golden coloured olive oil runs from the spout in a thin but steady stream!

Freshly pressed olive oil

When freshly pressed, the olive oil has a cloudy appearance.  The oil is unfiltered, so tiny particles of olive pulp are still in suspension.

The pressing plant

Once pressed, the oil is transferred to stainless steel tanks, where, over time, the particles slowly drop to the bottom, leaving the oil perfectly clear and sparkling!

Over 900 litres of olive oil!!

The bottom of the stainless steel tanks are v-shaped, and that’s where the solids collect.  A tap at the bottom of the tank allows the solids to be drawn off.  That part is sent to a soap factory for processing into soaps and cosmetics.

Stainless steel storage tank

The oil is now ready to be bottled and sold!  The shop is right next door to the mill.  Large windows in the shop allow the visitors to see the equipment throughout the year.

In the shop you can find a variety of olive oils (you can taste them all!), tapenades, table olives and cosmetic products, as well as a selection of products from partners (vinegars, jams, etc.).  You can also buy via the on-line shop, but nothing beats tasting the oils before you buy!  When you buy olive oil, bear in mind that up to 10 kilos of olives are used to make a litre of olive oil.  At Pradines le Bas, all olive oil is cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.

Making olive oil is not the only activity at Pradines le Bas.  Up the stairs from the olive mill is a gallery for contemporary art.  Don’t miss it if you visit – the exhibitions change on a regular basis, and are always worth a look!!

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Aperitif anyone?

In French, the word aperitif has several meanings.  At the base, an aperitif is an alcoholic beverage, taken before a meal.  The meaning also includes all the food and nibbles served with this drink, and it also means the convivial time spent with other people.    If you are invited for an aperitif (or apero) in France, there will be a selection of drinks of varying strengths:  whiskey, beer, pastis, vermouth, flavoured wines (more about those in a moment), kir (white wine with blackcurrant liqueur), straight wine, sparkling wine, muscat, cocktails – you name it!

Then there is the food, which can range from the simple – a few nuts and crisps – to the very elaborate aperitif dinatoire, which is a meal in itself.  I tend to go the middle road, below some pictures of aperitif tables laid out with a variety of food:  crisps, pate, cheese, sliced sausages, radishes, dips, crackers, cut up cucumbers and carrots, tapenade.

Last year, I was given a recipe for a  flavoured wine which is typically French: Vin d’Orange. Thank you Anne!!  This drink is made with Seville oranges, white or rose wine, clear spirit, sugar, vanilla beans and lemons.

The clear spirit is 40% alcohol and in France it is called Alcool pour Fruits. For the wine I used locally made chardonnay.  The oranges (also locally grown) and lemons were washed and cut up into quarters.

Gratuitous picture of cut-up Seville oranges 🙂

The wine, spirit and sugar were put into a large enough non-metallic receptacle, and the oranges and vanilla beans added.  The whole was given a good stir, covered and left to macerate for two months.  I gave it a stir from time to time – the aroma was heavenly!

After the two months, I fished out the oranges, strained the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth, and bottled it.  It is best served chilled!  Cheers!!

Below you’ll find the recipe in a printable format.  Please drink responsibly.

Vin d'Orange

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A slightly bitter orange flavoured wine, perfect for a summer aperitif.

Ingredients

  • 5 litres of white or rose wine
  • 1 litre of clear spirit (40% alcohol)
  • 1.5 kg sugar
  • 1 kg Seville oranges
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 2 vanilla beans

Directions

  1. Prepare a non-metallic recipient, large enough to hold all your ingredients.  It should be scrupulously clean and you should be able to cover it hermetically.
  2. Wash and quarter the oranges and lemons.
  3. Add the wine, alcohol and sugar to the recipient and stir to dissolve the sugar.
  4. Add the fruit and the vanilla beans, stir and cover.
  5. Leave to macerate for two months, stirring from time to time.
  6. After two months, remove the fruit and vanilla beans and strain the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth.  Bottle and cork.

Notes: As I prefer my drinks dry, I only used 500g of the sugar for my vin d’orange.  You could start with that quantity and add more sugar later if you prefer.  If you are unable to find Seville oranges, you can use regular oranges and add 20 g cinchona tree (quinine) bark.

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The spice of kings

The spice of kings is saffron – a spice as expensive, or sometimes more so, than gold.  The reason behind the high price is not its rarity, or a difficulty in growing the spice.  It is entirely down to the laborious process of harvesting!

The saffron crocus (crocus sativus) is an autumn flowering perennial.  The red “threads” (the stigmas and styles of the flower) will turn into the precious spice once dry.  I’ve been growing saffron in my garden for a number of years, with varying degrees of success.  Last year, none of the corms produced any flowers.  This year has been much better! 🙂

One day last week,  I was able to pick twelve flowers!!  Saffron flowers emerge shortly after the leaves appear, sometime in October.  The leaves persist until around May, when they dry out and the plants lie dormant over the summer.  Saffron  plants need free draining soil and a sunny position – apart from that they aren’t fussy.  I adore all the different colours in the saffron flowers, they are so vibrant and gorgeous!

The flowers should be picked as soon as they open.  The threads are then removed from the flowers and dried.  I like to keep the flowers in water until they wilt, they are so beautiful to look at!

Each flower has three threads and produces on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron.  About 150 flowers yield one gram of saffron!  Saffron flowers need to be hand picked, and the threads are also removed by hand, hence its very high price!!

Here’s what the threads above amount to after drying:

Not a great deal, but I’m hoping that my saffron harvest isn’t quite finished yet!!  🙂

The use of saffron dates back more than 3,500 years, and it has always been an expensive spice.  It’s been used as a fabric dye, for medicinal use, and for culinary purposes. Here are some dishes which wouldn’t be the same without saffron:  risotto milanese, paella, bouillabaisse, jewelled rice, and biriyani.  There are many other culinary preparations which use saffron – do you have any favourites??

And to finish this post, here’s a tip which came from the grower I bought my corms from.  He told me never to add the saffron threads directly to a dish.  He recommended that the threads be soaked in a some warm water for a little while, strained out and dried.  They could then be used up to three times, much like a vanilla bean.  Using saffron that way makes it a lot less expensive!

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A taste of autumn

Until not all that long ago, chestnuts used to be very much a part of everyday life in Southern France.  For the people in the more remote hillside areas, chestnuts were a staple of their diet – they would add chestnuts to stews, make them into soups, use them for making breads and pancakes and much more.

Chestnuts are high in protein and carbohydrates, but they have a very short shelf-life when fresh.  To be able to eat them year round, they had to be dried in a secadou, a two-story building, roofed with slate.  The floor between the two stories would be made from closely spaced iron rods or wooden batons.  On the ground floor a smoldering fire would be lit, and the chestnuts would be spread out on the floor above.

The secadou is on the very right of the picture

The heat and smoke rose up through the floor and cured and dried the fresh chestnuts, turning them into chataignons.  The outer shell and inner skin had to be stripped off the ‘nut’, partly with a machine and partly by hand,  Once all that was done, the chataignons had a very long shelf life.  They could be ground into flour, or rehydrated as required.

Today’s recipe is a very simple and delicious one.  For each person you need five chataignons, a good handful of lambs lettuce (mache), and a heaped tablespoon of lardons.  If you are unable to get chataignons, you can also use fresh chestnuts for this recipe.

Chataignons – dried chestnuts

If you use chataignons they need to be soaked, brought to the boil and simmered until tender.  The cooking time will depend on the age of the chataignons.  They should be just cooked and still hold their shape. Mine took one hour.

“Chataignons” cooked on the left, dried on the right.

Blanch the lardons by dropping them into boiling water.  Let the water come to the boil again, then strain, and rinse the lardons with cold water.  Drain them and set aside.

Raw lardons on the left, blanched lardons on the right

Wash the lambs lettuce (mache) and dry it well with the help of a salad spinner or a tea towel.

When you are ready to serve the salad, heat a frying pan on medium heat.  The pan should be large enough to hold all the ingredients in a single layer.  Add a little olive oil, then add the drained chataignons and lardons.  Cook slowly, gently turning the lardons and chataignons from time to time, until they are golden.

Can you hear the bacon pieces sizzling??

Arrange the lettuce on individual serving plates, and distribute the chataignons and lardons evenly between the plates.  Add a splash of red wine vinegar to the frying pan to “deglaze” it, then pour the juices from the frying pan over the lettuce.  Serve immediately.  Bon Appetit!!

I bought my chataignons from Fritz and Almuth Schwaan of Ferme de Dausse, near Saint Etienne d’Albagnan.  You may also find chataignons at the Fete de la Chataigne in Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres on November October 28 and 29, 2017.

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Garden fresh

During my recent blogging holiday, I had many delicious meals: at home, with friends, in restaurants, and at festivals …

On a day out with friends in Perpignan, I went to Restaurant La Galinette, following the recommendation of one of my guests (thank you, Tove!!).  Christophe Comes, the chef proprietor of the restaurant, has a potager of 3 hectares which he cultivates with the help of his father.  The produce from this vegetable garden plays a starring role on the menu!

La Galinette has a star in the Guide Michelin – my friends and I decided to order the tasting menu!  Without further ado, here are the food pictures – :

Salmonejo de tomates “Green Zebra”, basilic pourpre, feta.

For the Salmonejo, a cold tomato soup was poured into the plate – it was so tempting to eat that I totally forgot to take another picture!! 🙂

Collection de nos tomates anciennes; huile de l’hort et condiments

The collection of heritage tomatoes included Black Krim and Ananas, and the plate was as pretty as a picture!  It also tasted divine.

It still looked like a (modern art) picture when there was nothing left!!

Saumon sauvage a peine cuit, oseille de Belleville, concombre epineux et pain noir.

Wild salmon served on a sorrel puree, spiny cucumber and black bread.

Vive sauvage de Mediterranee, fine brandade de morue, jus de piperade au chorizo.

Wild sting fish (greater weever), served with salt cod puree and piperade sauce (made with sweet bell peppers and chorizo).

Epaule d’agneau catalan confite, pulpe d’aubergines “di Fierenze”

Slow-cooked shoulder of Catalan lamb, surrounded by various preparations made with aubergines: roasted, deep-fried in panko crust, braised, and puréed.

Pasteque rafraichie d’agastache anisee, sorbet melon “piel de sapo”

A generous slice of watermelon topped with candied melon and melon sorbet – very refreshing!

Peches “duras” d’Ille sur Tet, idee d’une melba

A take on peach melba, made with “duras” peaches from Ile sur Tet, with raspberry sauce and peach and vanilla sorbets.  The berries at the front of the picture are sugar frosted redcurrants.

This was a very memorable meal, every course as delicious as the previous/next!  If you are in Perpignan you should definitely try this restaurant!  If you are not already there, perhaps you want to plan a visit – it’s a wonderful town to explore!  The lunch menu is priced at €25 for three courses, the tasting menus are €48 for six courses and €54 for eight courses, served for lunch or dinner.  La Galinette is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.  Reservations are recommended!

I leave you with a few random pictures taken in Perpignan:

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Food and wine

Back in January, I attended a tutored wine tasting with food pairing at the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian (see post here).  Since then, I seem to have developed a bit of a fancy for this kind of event.  When the Maison des Vins announced a series of food and wine pairing dinners in collaboration with the restaurant Le Village in Saint-Chinian, I did not hesitate to make a reservation for the first one.  There are four more of these dinners – follow this link to see the list of dates!

The formula is simple – three courses and three wines, the whole for 25 Euros.

Menu soiree vigneronne – a food and wine pairing dinner.

The wines were presented by Elisabeth Poux from Domaine Pech Menel.  The meal started with steamed green asparagus and half a grilled artichoke heart, served with mountain ham and a mousseline sauce.   The mousseline sauce was made like a hollandaise sauce, using the Blanc de Pech Menel 2015 wine, which was served with this course.  Whipped cream was added to the hollandaise sauce just before serving it, to give it a mousse-like texture.  Mme Poux explained that the white wine was made with a blend of grenache, rolle (also called vermentino), roussanne and viognier grapes.  It was delightfully dry and crisp, with hints of honey and dried fruits.  This was the first time I had tasted the wines from Domaine Pech Menel, and I was impressed!

A starter of steamed asparagus, mountain ham and grilled artichoke heart, served with mousseline sauce and accompanied by Blanc de Pech Menel white wine.

After a little pause, to allow us to finish our wine, the main course arrived, accompanied by a different wine.  The wine was Chateau Vallouvieres-Pech Menel 2009, a full-bodied, deeply coloured red wine, made from 70% mourvedre grapes; carignan and grenache grapes made up the rest of the blend.  This wine was a wonderful accompaniment to the slow cooked lamb, which was served with home-made fries and a medley of vegetables.  The lamb was tender and succulent, the fries were lovely and crisp, and my only criticism could be the colour of the plate the dish was served on! 🙂  Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but on the whole I prefer food to be served on white plates.

Slow-cooked lamb with home-made fries and a vegetable medley, accompanied by Chateau Vallouvieres-Pech Menel red wine.

The dessert was all chocolate – perfect for me!!  On the plate in front of me were three different kinds of chocolate desserts: in the picture below from left to right – moelleux au chocolat, a kind of moist chocolate cake; mousse au chocolat, chocolate mousse; and crumble a la banane au chocolat, banana and chocolate crumble.  All three were delicious, but my favourite was the banana and chocolate crumble!  To accompany this dessert, Mme Poux had chosen a red wine called No Name.  This was a fairly young red wine, a 2013 vintage, made from a blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and cinsault grapes.  It was a fresh tasting wine with a hint of smokiness, and it had a slight petillance, very different from the wine we drank with the main course, but a perfect foil to the richness of the chocolate.  No Name could be a wine for every day drinking, and could be perfect for an aperitif if served slightly chilled.

It was a great evening, spent with good food, good wine and good friends!!  Having discovered the wines of Domaine Pech Menel, I’m looking forward to visiting the winery and tasting their other wines.