Springtime pleasures revisited

It’s the time of year when the blooms on the elder bushes are out in profusion and I thought I would share this post with you again – it’s been six years since I wrote it, but the recipes are still as good as they were then!!


One of the many pleasures of spring can be found growing all over the countryside – in hedgerows, along streams, sometimes in a garden, but more often growing wild.  It is a large shrub, which bears many heads (panicles) of creamy white flowers, followed by black berries in late summer.  The flowers have a delicate perfume, reminiscent of muscat grapes.  The name of this plant is Sambucus – have you guessed yet what the common name of this plant may be?

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It’s Elder – often overlooked and neglected, and rarely used these days.  But elderflowers can be used to make a number of delicious comestibles, and I am going to tell you about two of them today. The flower heads are made up of many tiny flowers in a complex branching structure, which is fascinating to examine at close range.  The season for the flowers is relatively short; in the South of France it starts in late April/early May and lasts about three weeks at the most.  In more temperate climes you may find elderflowers as late as June.

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The first recipe is for elderflower cordial, which captures the wonderful flavour of the flowers, and allows me to enjoy it whenever I want to throughout the year.  Using elderflowers is something of a tradition in my family – when I grew up there was the most enormous elder bush – well more of a tree, really – in our garden.  Making the syrup is very simple, you just need sugar, lemon, citric acid, and elderflowers.  As so often, timing is everything as the elderflowers should be at their peak when you make this.

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Elderflower Cordial

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

900g sugar
30 heads of elderflower
2 lemons, sliced
80g citric acid
1 litre boiling water

Shake the elderflowers to remove any stray bugs and dust, then set aside.  Put the sugar, citric acid and lemon slices into a heatproof bowl (I used a large stainless-steel casserole) and pour the boiling water over them.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved.  With a pair of scissors snip the flowers off the stalks.  The aim is to include as little as possible of the green stalks. Stir the flowers into the syrup.  Cover the bowl and put it in a cool place to macerate for four days, stirring at least once a day.

After four days strain the syrup through a fine sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth, then bottle and cork.  Because of the high sugar content, the cordial will keep for some time if stored in a cool and dark place.  It is ready to be used immediately – mix it with sparkling water for a delicious elderflower lemonade.

Note: For a tangier taste you could squeeze the lemons and use the juice, instead of the lemon slices.

Elderflowers also make wonderful fritters, and I try to make them at least once each year, while the flowers are about.

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The following recipe requires a minimum of effort for a great result.  It is best to harvest the elderflowers just before you make the fritters;  if you need to keep them for a few hours, put them into a plastic bag and keep them in the fridge.

Elderflower Fritters

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

100g flour
1 egg, separated
pinch of salt
pinch of baking powder
125ml white wine (I use half muscat wine and half water)
6 – 8 heads of elderflower, depending on size
Oil for frying
1 tbsp icing sugar

Shake the elderflowers, inspect for bugs and set aside.  In a bowl mix the flour, salt and baking powder.  Add the egg yolk and wine and stir to just combine – stirring the batter too much will result in tough fritters. In another bowl beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the batter.  The batter should be the consistency of heavy cream.  If necessary, add a tablespoon or more of water to thin it to the right consistency.

Heat some oil in a frying pan (I prefer to use peanut oil) over medium heat, until hot but not smoking.  Holding the elderflowers by the long stalk dip them into the batter until all the flowers are well covered, and then place them in the frying pan.  The number of fritters you are able to cook at the same time will depend on the size of your frying pan and the size of the flowers.  Once the fritters are cooking, snip off the thick stalks with scissors.

Turn the fritters over when bubbles begin to show around the edges.  You may need to add some more oil after turning them.   Cook until golden brown on both sides, remove, and put on a piece of kitchen paper to drain.  Continue with the remaining flowers.  Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.

Apologies for the green-ish cast on some of the pictures!!  The fritter recipe is very easy to multiply; I doubled it, but feel free to multiply it even more and invite all your friends over for this springtime treat!

Virtual reality

Please join me on a virtual visit of Saint-Chinian and some of the surrounding area!  I’ve found a number of videos on youtube, which I think will give you a great taste of Saint-Chinian and its surroundings!

To start with, a walk that takes in the countryside surrounding the village:

Next, a couple of videos which show Saint-Chinian from the air:

I found several videos about virtual wine tastings of AOC Saint-Chinian wines.  The following video is about the wines of Chateau Pech Menel, whose wines I have enjoyed a great deal!

Fréderic Revilla of Restaurant Le Faitout in Berlou participated in a programme about wine and food pairing.  The video is in French only, but you’ll get the idea – just don’t watch it when you are hungry, the food looks delicious!

Here is another aerial video showing the landscape around Saint-Chinian – it will give you a good idea of the vast and varied terrain of the area.

Domaine des Pradels is in a little hamlet just outside Saint-Chinian, nestled in a little valley. The wines are very good, so add it to your list of wineries to visit next time you are in the area!

And to end our virtual visit, here is a video of the Saint-Chinian jazz festival 2019!

I hope you have enjoyed our virtual visit!!

Locked in

We’re into week five of the lockdown – at least I think we are, I sometimes lose track of time! 🙂  Last Monday, we had some good news – sort of.  Emmanuel Macron announced that France should gradually come out of the lockdown from May 11th onwards.  There were no indications as to how it could work, but no doubt the details will follow.  Of course, that means that we’re in for a little more than three weeks of staying at home!!  😉

Last Sunday being Easter Sunday, I had planned ahead and bought a piece of saddle of lamb from Boucherie Gerard, my local butcher.  Along with most food shops, Corinne and Nicolas Gerard have stayed open throughout the confinement.  They’ve been incredibly cheerful, and it’s always been a joy to shop there!

I wanted to roast the lamb, but as the joint was relatively small (700 g) I figured that a traditional roast would be somewhat tricky to pull off successfully.  I briefly considered cooking it at a low temperature (80 degrees Centigrade) for many hours but I dismissed that idea too.  In the end, I hit upon cooking the lamb saddle in a salt crust.  I’ve  cooked things in salt crusts a number of times, and it has always worked well for me.  In fact, I’ve previously written about that way of cooking here.  In an old copy of House Beautiful I came across an article by Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune restaurant in Manhattan, in which she gives directions for cooking beef tenderloin in a salt crust.  I used that as my inspiration!

To begin with, I browned the joint all over in a frying pan.  I started in a ‘dry’ frying pan, i.e. without any fat, and I placed the joint with the skin side in contact with the hot iron first.  It soon started to give up some fat, and that was all I needed to help brown the rest of the meat.  It was quite smoky, so I was glad to have an efficient extract fan above my cooker!

While the meat was browning, I prepared my salt crust.  In a large bowl, I beat an egg white until it was foaming, then I added two kilos of coarse sea salt (kosher salt) and a little water.  The texture was that of sand that’s damp enough to build a sandcastle with.  Below is a picture of the lamb nearing completion of the browning:

I placed a layer of the damp salt mixture on a baking sheet, and put the lamb on top of that:

I then encased the lamb with the remaining salt mixture:

Once it was all covered, I put it in the oven, which I had pre-heated to 130 degrees Centigrade.  Gabrielle Hamilton gave the roasting time for her tenderloin as 45 minutes and I stuck with that.

Here’s what the lamb looked like when it came out of the oven: not all that different to when it went in!! 🙂

I left the meat rest for about 15 minutes, before I cracked open the crust.  It had set very hard, but a sharp blow with the blunt edge of the cleaver soon made it crack!

There was a fair amount of salt clinging to the meat, so I used a pastry brush to get it all off!

I had prepared some mashed potatoes, pan roasted vegetables and mint sauce while the meat was cooking, so I was ready to carve and dish up as soon as the meat had been ‘liberated’ from the crust!

The lamb was wonderfully tender, with just a hint of pink all the way through, and a great savoury flavour. No salt is needed with this method of cooking, the salt crust takes care of all the seasoning!

Best of all, after this wonderful meal there were enough leftovers for lunch the next day!! 🙂

Since it was Easter Sunday, there was a little dessert to end the meal.  I cut a few slices from the lamb-shaped sponge cake I had made, and topped them with a little rumtopf, fruit which had been macerating in rum and sugar for some months!  Simple and oh so delicious!!

How was your Easter meal – did you have any special treats??

Full of flavour

From time to time I hear of a restaurant or a chef and make a mental note to go and eat there one day.  I’ve been meaning to try the Bistrot Saveurs in Castres for some time now and I finally managed to eat there last week, when I went on a day out with friends!!

Castres is about one and a half hours by car from Saint-Chinian –  a beautiful drive through lush countryside!  It’s a town that once was very prosperous through its textile, paper and tannery industries.  A walk around the town will have you enthralled by the beautiful buildings along the river Agout and the renaissance mansions of the rich and nobles of bygone days.  All that is for another post – the prime purpose of my recent visit was food! 🙂

The Bistrot Saveur is close to the centre of Castres.  Actually, most things are close to the town centre – Castres is eminently walkable!

The kitchen is presided over by Simon Scott, who has worked in prestigious London establishments such as the Ritz Hotel, where he was sous chef, and the Savoy Hotel, where he was head chef!  The dining room reflects the food which is contemporary and elegant.

Here’s a look at one of the menus:

And here is some of the food – the nibbles that accompanied our drinks:

The lollipops were made with parmesan and spices, the little dishes contained marinated fish with citrus fruit and pomegranate seeds, and the macarons were filled with a black curry cream.  All really yummy and a hint of what was to come.

All four of us ordered the Menu Saveurs, which is the restaurant’s lunchtime menu.  Since there were two choices for each course, we did manage to have all the dishes on the menu brought to our table 🙂

Here’s one of the starters – Pollack prepared like gravadlax, served on a bed of spinach mousse and accompanied by crispy vegetables and leaves and raz-el-hanout sorbet.  Raz-el-hanout is a North African spice blend and it gave a wonderful flavour to the sorbet.

The second starter was equally delicious – it was very much inspired by local ingredients.  If the first starter was mer (as in sea), the second starter was decidedly terre (as in land)!  Beautifully cooked puy lentils, topped with a samosa filled with black pudding, an egg cooked at 63 degrees Centigrade, and ice cream made with fresh goat’s cheese.

For my main course, I ordered the puff pastry topped chicken and mushroom, which was served with a puree of topinambour (Jerusalem artichokes), as well as a mixture of delicious winter vegetables (carrots, Brussel sprouts, Chinese artichoke, baby potatoes).  The portion size was absolutely perfect and the flavours were amazing!

The second main course on the menu was grilled sea bass filet on a sweet potato puree, served with chick peas, cooked ‘red meat’ radishes, and a shellfish reduction.  I only had a little bite to taste but I would have been just as happy having this dish for my main course as the chicken – I can’t really say which I preferred, both were delicious!

I opted for cheese to finish my meal – a selection of Mr Marty’s sheep’s cheeses, accompanied by walnuts and quince pate.  I don’t know who Mr Marty is, but his cheeses were very tasty!!

My dining companions all opted for the chef’s take on tarte tatin: beautifully caramelised apples atop a crispy speculoos (gingerbread) crust, topped with raspberry sorbet.

We ended this great meal with coffee and some wonderful pistachio financier cakes (they were very small), which were still warm from the oven!

The menu, including a glass of wine and coffee was absolutely fantastic value at 25 Euros per person.  I feel that I’ll be going to Castres again before too long and I’ll make sure to take more photographs of the town then, for another blog post!

If you want to eat at Bistrot Saveurs, be sure to book a table – the restaurant gets very busy.  You can find the website here.

Truffle time again!!

I’m sure you have eaten truffles – but did you eat chocolate truffles or black truffles? 🙂

The black truffle, also called Perigord truffle, French black truffle, or, to give the Latin name, tuber melanosporum, is a native European truffle, and it ranks very high on the list of the most expensive foods!

It’s been prized for its flavour since antiquity, and it was regularly served on the tables of princes, kings and emperors.  Towards the end of the 19th century, France produced up to 1000 tonnes of black truffles per year.  Prices were much lower then than they are now, and black truffles were used in great quantities in classic French cooking at that time.

Since the end of the 19th century, France’s truffle output has fallen dramatically – at times it has been as low as 20 tonnes a year!  A variety of causes have contributed to this fall in production: destruction during the 1st and 2nd world wars, deforestation, acid rain, general pollution, changes in farming methods, changes in climate…

For a very long time, the way truffles grew was not very well understood, but by the early 1970s a technique had been developed which allowed hazelnut and oak saplings to be inoculated with truffle spores.  The resulting trees could produce truffles four to eight years after planting, but the success still depends on many factors such as soil type, amount of rainfall, temperatures, etc.

Lucky for us, a good many of the truffle orchards which were planted in Southern France are now producing truffles.  If you visit Languedoc at this time of year, you are in for a treat, as truffle markets in the area take place throughout the winter months.  I’ve visited several of these markets over the years, and I have written about one of these visits here.

Below, I give you a list of the forthcoming markets in the area.  Even if you don’t buy any truffles, these markets are well worth visiting, I promise you!

January 26, 2020 : 21es “Ampélofolies du Cabardès” à Moussoulens
January 26, 2020 : 4e Fête de la Truffe” à Béziers (pourtour des halles)
January 31 to February 2, 2020 : 14e “Fête de la truffe et des produits du terroir” à Nîmes, Place du Marché
February 1, 2020 : “Truffes en fête” à Talairan
February 8, 2020 : Marché aux Truffes” et 15e “Nuit de la Truffe” à Villeneuve-Minervois
February 9, 2020 : 25e Journée Paysanne” à Saint-Jean de Buèges
February 14, 2020 : “Marché aux Truffes de la Saint Valentin” à Narbonne, place de l’Hôtel de Ville de 9h à 13h.
February 16, 2020 : Marché aux truffes” à Castelnaudary
February 16, 2020 : 12e Fête de la Truffe et du terroir” à Claret
February 23, 2020 : 4e Carnaval des saveurs et de la truffe” à La Digne d’Aval
March 8, 2020 : “Truffe et patrimoine” à Trassanel

 

So cheesy!!

Do you remember the time when fondue was all the rage??  It must have been in the dim and distant 70’s and 80’s when fondue seemed to be so sophisticated and entertaining!  And then somehow fondue fell from favour, and all those fondue sets and special plates were put at the back of some cupboard and more or less forgotten about.  That was pretty much everywhere except in Switzerland, where cheese fondue is very much part of the national identity!!

I’ve just had friends from Switzerland staying in Saint-Chinian, and we had a cheese fondue one evening.  It brought back many happy memories, so I thought you might enjoy reading about it.  In the French language, the word fundu means melted, so that is where cheese fondue got its name from.

For those of you who have never encountered fondue or a fondue set, there is a stand with a small spirit burner, on which is set the fondue pot.  There is an almost infinite variation of possible combinations as to shape and size, and these days electric fondue sets are also available!

Here are the ingredients we used for our cheese fondue:

We had to have Swiss gruyere and Swiss Emmental cheeses – the French versions of these cheeses were not an option for my Swiss friends!!  Luckily, the cheeses were easily found in the area!  We also used a dry white wine (Riesling in this case), Kirsch eau de vie, and corn starch.

To accompany the fondue, we had carrots, broccoli, small new potatoes, apples, pears, and bread – all for dipping into the melted cheese.  And we also had a mixed salad to accompany the fondue.

The cheese was cut into manageable chunks and then grated on the big holes of a box grater.

The carrots and the broccoli were lightly steamed, the potatoes boiled until just cooked, and the bread, apples and pears cut into bite-size chunks.

The stand for the fondue pot was set up in the centre of the table.  The stand would usually sit on a metal tray to protect the table, but my metal tray appears to have gone astray – perhaps it is at the back of some cupboard, somewhere??  The ceramic dish was a good substitute.

To make the fondue, the wine was heated in a casserole with some sliced garlic.

Once it reached boiling point, the cheese was added a handful at a time, whilst constantly stirring.

The cheese soon started to melt – to begin with it looked a bit lumpy!

Before too long it started to come together into a smooth and creamy cheese and wine stew!

At that point a mixture of corn starch and kirsch eau de vie (mixed until there were no lumps) was added to homogenise it further, and to add flavour.  After another couple of minutes the mixture was ready to be transferred to the fondue pot, which had been warmed with boiling water (otherwise the cheese would have cooled too much).  Note: fondue is normally cooked in the pot that it is served in.  Unfortunately, my fondue pot was not compatible with the cooker, so the fondue had to be transferred.

Below is the fondue in the pot, ready to be brought to the table.  The top was sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg!

We were all set to go!!

Everyone put a selection of goodies on their plates, and then we were ready to dip and enjoy the fondue!

It was absolutely delicious!!  Thank you to Thekla, Jean and Ueli for sharing this with me!!

Here’s the printable recipe:

Cheese Fondue

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

400 g Swiss Emmental cheese
200 g Swiss gruyere cheese (Greyezer)
400 ml dry white wine
1 – 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 teasp corn starch
2 tbsp kirsch eau de vie
freshly grated nutmeg

For dipping, prepare all or some of the following:
French bread (preferably day old), cut into bite-size cubes, each cube with some crust
Small new potatoes, carrots, broccoli, steamed/cooked until just tender
Apples and pears, etc. cut into bite-size pieces

Grate the cheese.  Mix the corn starch and the kirsch until there are no lumps. Heat wine and garlic in your fondue pot and when at boiling point add cheese a handful at a time whilst stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.  When the cheese is completely melted and the mixture starts to bubble add the corn starch and kirsch mixture, stir well for a couple of minutes, then bring to the table and put on your fondue stand.  

When dipping, make sure that you keep the cheese mixture moving!

Note: If possible, use a heat diffuser mat under your fondue pot once it is on the stand.  That way the cheese mixture is less likely to scorch at the bottom of the pot.

Winter is a perfect time for eating cheese fondue – what are you waiting for??