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!

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A delicious day trip

I took a trip with friends recently – we went to visit La Pepiniere du Bosca specialist plant nursery near Lodeve.  Since it is a little way away, we decided to make a day of it.  The nursery has a very interesting selection of plants – we were all keen to buy some plants before the nursery closed for the season at the end of April.  We all found more or less what we wanted.  I bought some raspberry and gooseberry plants for my garden, along with a kaki tree (diospyros kaki or persimmon), which are all planted in my garden now.  🙂

Here are a couple of unusual insect hotels, which were for sale at the nursery:

We had timed our visit to the nursery so that we could have lunch at La Petite Fringale in Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquiere.  The name of the restaurant translates (very loosely) to: “slightly peckish” or “snack attack”.

We found a shady spot for the car – the plants didn’t want to get too hot – and walked to the restaurant.  On the way, we saw a somewhat unusual steeple – I had never seen one with a kind of ‘hat’ over the bell!

The steeple belonged to a romanesque church.  The doors were unfortunately locked, perhaps because it was lunchtime? 🙂

As the day was beautiful and sunny, the tables had been set on the terrace.  We had a lovely view from our table!  And no, before you ask – I did not use a filter, nor did I play with the colour saturation – the sky really was that blue!!

The restaurant is run by two energetic young men, Laurent and Antoine, who took the restaurant over in early 2017.  Here’s what we had to eat – starters first:

Chickpea fritters

Chickpea fritters

Spinach cream soup with poutargue (dried mullet roe)

Spinach cream soup with poutargue (dried mullet roe)

Gratinated asparagus

Gratinated asparagus

These were our main courses:

Slow braised pork belly

Slow-braised pork belly

Hamburger

Hamburger

Oxtail ballotine on butternut squash puree

Oxtail ballotine (parcel) on butternut squash puree

Chicken breast stuffed with salt cod puree

Chicken breast stuffed with salt cod puree

And finally, desserts:

Pavlova with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis

Pavlova with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis

Pannacotta with strawberries

Pannacotta with strawberries

The food was absolutely delicious and the service was friendly and relaxed.  The restaurant does not have a fixed price menu, but our three courses came to 20 Euros per head – I felt that was very good value!  If you are planning to eat at La Petite Fringale, make sure you book – it does get very busy and seating capacity is limited.

After that wonderful lunch, we went to visit the priory of Saint-Michel-de Grandmont – I’ll tell you about that next week! 🙂

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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Bamboo collection

You may remember my trip to Uzes last fall, if you’ve been reading this blog for a little while.  After my visit to the Witches’ Market in Saint-Chaptes, I stopped off at La Bambouseraie, near the town of Anduze.  La Bambouseraie is a botanical garden, dedicated – no prizes for guessing – to bamboo.  It had been on my list of places to visit for many years, so it was quite exciting to finally be able to get there!!

As it was out of season and not long before the garden closed for the winter, there were few visitors, which suited me fine! 🙂

Right from the entrance gate, bamboo was in evidence everywhere, from stands of enormously tall bamboo, to the fence made from bamboo poles.

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The history of the garden dates back to 1856, when Eugene Mazel, a passionate botanist, started to plant his exotic garden.  Following the death of Mazel, Gaston Negre bought the estate in 1902 and continued Eugene Mazel’s work.  The estate still belongs to the Negre family – it is now run by Gaston Negre’s granddaughter, Muriel.

Today the part of the estate which is open to the public covers 15 hectares (about 37 acres).  Another 19 hectares (47 acres) are given over to a nursery where bamboo is grown for sale.  I would describe the visit of the garden as ‘spectacular’ – I was absolutely amazed by the beauty and sheer size of the bamboo plantations!!  There were so many different types!

The self-guided visit, where an audio commentary was available at certain points, was highly informative!

The stalk of giant bamboo (phyllostachys bambusoïdes) in the picture below is 20.8 metres long!!

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Deep in the bamboo forest, I found a cluster of buildings, all constructed from bamboo!  The buildings below are typical of the houses of Lao people, who live in the Mekong river plain.  Built on stilts, the houses are in three parts:  the main living quarters, the kitchen, which is joined to the living quarters, and the rice store, which is set a little apart.

The ‘shop’ is another building on stilts, and one of the meeting points for the village.  The shopkeeper lives in the shop!  All the items on the shelves are made from bamboo too!

A charming enclosure was home to some little black pigs! 🙂

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Phlyllostachys bambusoïdes is the star plant at La Bambouseraie – it is as strong as steel, and can be used to reinforce concrete in place of steel.  It also has an incredibly fast growth rate – at the garden they have measured a growth of over 1 metre in the space of 24 hours!!  In the picture below, you can see the root system at the base of a stalk.

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The name bamboo covers a variety of plants – all of them belonging to the family of grasses!  Of the nineteen bamboo poles below, 18 belong to the phyllostachys species, while the second from right is a chimonobambusa quadrangularis.

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Apart from bamboo, the garden is host to many other plants.  The planting below looked spectacular at the time of my visit!

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In 2000, a Japanese garden called ‘The Valley of the Dragon’ was opened.  The fall colours were absolutely perfect when I visited!

Another bamboo tunnel opened to a small clearing, where the house of the park’s guardian stood.

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In front of the house there were some stands of smaller bamboo – I could almost see the one on the left in my garden! 🙂

A path led from there to an area which was dedicated to aquatic plants.  The basins were planted with water lillies, papyrus, lotus and many more plants whose names I was not familiar with!

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A giant wisteria covered a most beautiful pergola.  I’m sure that would look spectacular when in bloom!

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Below is a stand of phyllostachys sulfureus with some yellow maple leaves.

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And this was the entrance to the bamboo maze!!  It was great!!! I did get a bit lost in there!!  🙂

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The way out led through a tunnel made from bamboo, and into the garden centre, where all kinds of bamboo were available to be bought.

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I am so pleased that I finally got to visit this amazing garden – it is only two hours from Saint-Chinian by car!

La Bambouseraie is open from March until mid November and you’ll need half a day to visit all of the garden.  Have a look at the website for more details.

 

Relishing summer

I have heard that there are places where, in summer, people dare not leave the windows in their parked car open, or their screen doors unlocked, for fear that someone might drop off a bag of courgettes (zucchini if you are from North America!).  Of course that’s a joke, but I’m sure there are people out there who are inundated with courgettes and can’t give them away!!

This has been a year when there was definitely a glut of courgettes in my garden – it didn’t last very long, but it was fun while it lasted!! 🙂

The courgette plants got a little out of hand, and at one point I missed picking one of the dark green courgettes.  Wouldn’t you know that by the time I spotted it, the courgette had turned into a rather monstrous looking thing??

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Is it a cricket bat?  Is it a club?  No, it’s a courgette!!  I didn’t weigh it, but it was pretty heavy!!  Just a few days before the discovery, friends from Georgia (USA) had been telling me about their recipe for courgette relish. I called on them right away, and begged for a copy of the recipe.  Better still, I told them, come on over and help me make it.  They graciously agreed, and we’all got stuck in, peeling and chopping!

Here are the main ingredients – onions, carrots, red peppers, sugar, and cider vinegar:

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We also used mustard seeds, dill seeds, red chillies and all spice.  You’ll see, at the end of this post, that the recipe calls for celery seeds, which I could not find in Saint-Chinian.  The lady who sells spices in Saint-Chinian’s market on Sundays had dill seeds instead, and they were a very good substitute.  I also added chillies and allspice, neither of which was called for in the recipe.

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Dill and mustard seeds and allspice berries

We made two batches of relish since the courgette was rather large.  One batch was made with red peppers and the other with carrots.  The courgette pieces were chopped in the food processor – it took no time at all!!

Here are all the ingredients chopped and grated:

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Once the vegetables had been assembled in their respective bowls, we added salt, mixed it all well and covered the vegetables with cold water.

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Chopped courgettes and onions, grated carrots and salt, before mixing.

Now we had some time to while away – the vegetables were supposed to stand for two hours.  To make the time pass more quickly, I whipped up a batch of scones.  Once we had cleaned the table, we sat down to a rather decadent afternoon tea, complete with the warm, freshly-baked scones, home-made preserves, cream and Earl Grey tea!!

Here are the vegetables, rinsed and drained:

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Vegetables after draining

The cooking was very easy and quick.  Vinegar, sugar and spices were brought to the boil, the vegetables added, and once it boiled again the mixture was simmered for 10 minutes.

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The cooked relish

We potted the relish up right at the end of the cooking time, while it was still boiling hot.  Twist-off jars are great for this – the lids were screwed on right away, and the heat of the relish sterilised the remaining air inside the jar and created a vacuum.


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What didn’t fit into the jars is in the two bowls above – it was great to taste the results of our labours!!  This is a very delicious recipe and a great way to use up courgettes.  I can see that this recipe is going to be a keeper!  Thank you, Jane and Ham!!

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Courgette Relish

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 2 cups chopped courgettes
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped red peppers or grated/chopped carrots
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp celery seeds
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 cup cider vinegar

Method

Combine the vegetables, sprinkle with salt, mix well and cover with cold water. Leave to stand for 2 hours. Strain, rinse thoroughly and leave to drain in a colander. Combine the sugar, celery seed, mustard seed and cider vinegar in large saucepan. Bring to the boil and add the drained vegetables. When it comes to the boil again, turn the heat low and simmer the mixture for 10 minutes. At the end of the cooking time, immediately pot the hot relish in twist-off jars and screw on the lid.  Leave to cool, label, and store in a cool, dry place.

This is a delicious relish which can be eaten right away and goes very well with all kinds of food:  cold meat, cream cheese on crackers, goats cheese . . .

What would you eat it with?

This recipe is modified from the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.

Flower power

This week’s post is going to be a short one, and it will rely heavily on photographs! 😉  The reason is that right now I am spending most of my spare time in the garden, where everything seems to be happening at once!!

At this time of year, a lot of plants are in full flower or starting to flower, such as the thyme, campanula, and Papa Meilland rose in the picture below.

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Other plants, such as the salvias and lavenders, which I cut back not all that long ago, are producing lots of lush new growth.

 

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There’s a patch of weeds in my garden, which has been heavily invaded by escholtzia, the Californian poppy.  Such a cheery sight!  Eventually the weeds and the escholtzias will be weeded out, and some vegetables be planted in their place.  But fear not, there will always be weeds and escholtzias somewhere in the garden…

 

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The bees are having a wonderful time on the borage…

 

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… and on the thyme!  It’s hard to beat thyme when it’s in full flower – the generosity of the blossom is astounding.

 

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The potatoes are up and out, and after some hoeing the patch is more or less weed free. 🙂

 

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The broad beans, which I sowed last November, are producing a very good crop right now!

 

 

The artichokes have just started to put up flower buds – I think I’ll be enjoying some of those lovely globes for supper tonight.

 

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I’m growing a few spare plants for a charity sale, which will take place in Saint-Chinian on June 21st, 2015.  There’ll be garlic chives, two kinds of mint, gaillardia, and a plant whose name I cannot remember, but it has white furry leaves 🙂 .  Of course there will be a lot of other plants too!

 

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The tomato forest is ready for planting out – one of my chores this week!

 

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The wisteria has all but finished flowering, but there may be some more flowers later in the summer!

 

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The bearded iris are also in full flower right now.  If you look carefully at the pictures you’ll be able to tell why it is called “bearded” 🙂

 

 

The flower buds on the kiwi plants are looking good, another week and they should be open and ready for business – or should that be beesiness?!

 

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These seedlings and plants need to be pricked out or planted very soon!

 

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Here’s a medley of flowers: escholtzia, allium, roses, heuchera, wallflowers, gaillardia, gerbera, salvia and bulbine frutescens.  All of them are blooming in my garden right now.  This really is a fabulous time of the year in Languedoc!

 

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