Apples aplenty

I would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Nadine Holm, a dear friend who passed away on September 4, 2017.  She would have enjoyed our outing to this event tremendously!!

There are several villages by the name of Aigues Vives in France – I’ve counted eight of them on the ViaMichelin website!  So it’s important to pick the right village!  The one I visited recently is near Carcassonne, and the postcode is 11800, just so you know.  This village has been holding an apple, rice and wine fair for some time – this year was the 20th time!  Why I’ve never visited before is a mystery to me, but I’m glad I went this year!

Aigues Vives is located on the edge of the Etang Asseche de Marseillette, a drained marsh, where the apples, rice and wines for sale at the fair are grown.  More about the Etang a little later in this post.

The village was beautifully decorated for the occasion – the entrance arch to one of the streets was made from apples and rice straw.

In one of the squares, the iconic Citroen 2CV car had been recreated with apples:

Signs had been specially made to direct visitors:

The rock on which the church stands was decorated with strands of apples:

Near the entrance to the church stood a windmill decorated with apples – the thatch on top was made with rice straw, and the sails were turning!!

There was even a lady with an apple skirt:

Apples were for sale at almost every corner:

Other stalls sold a variety of delicious edible goodies:

In the village hall, a communal meal was served by a caterer – I didn’t go to that.  I did go to the village park, which had been set up as a “food village” with a number of food stalls and tables and chairs under the trees.  A group of musicians were providing entertainment!

Around the park, a number of signs had been put up.  The one below shows the names of all the apple growers in the Etang de Marseillette:

This sign gives the names of the wine, plum and rice growers:

A few sayings:

One grain of rice can tip the scale

Three apples a day – everlasting health

Wine gets better over time, and we get better with wine!

A cider press had been set up on a stage in the village.  The apples (granny smith, golden and gala) were first pulped:

The pulp was collected in buckets lined with large squares of fabric:

Once the buckets were full, the cloth was tied up and the bags were put into the press – soon the juice started to flow.

The apple juice was poured into plastic cups, and everyone could have as much as they wanted!  It was very delicious!!

In order for visitors to find out more about the Etang de Marseillette, a number of guided visits had been arranged.  Two “little trains” were taking groups of people on the guided visits.

The Etang de Marseillette is left over from the time when the Mediterranean sea covered large tracts of land about two million years ago.  When the water levels dropped and the sea receded, a number of lakes stayed behind, and one of them was at Marseillette.  In time this became a marshy salt lake, covering an area of around 2000 hectares (20 square kilometers or 7.2 square miles).  Three small streams fed the lake, and it was often deemed to be the reason for outbreaks of local epidemics.

In the Middle Ages, attempts were made to drain the lake, which were more or less successful, but the drains silted up and nature reclaimed the lake.  In 1804, Marie Anne Coppinger, the then owner of the Etang, carried out immense works and drained the lake, but the returns from the land were insufficient, and she bankrupted herself with the project.  The next owner carried on with improvements.  He built a tunnel to bring water for irrigation from the river Aude.  The tunnel is over 2 km long and in some places it is 60 metres below ground!  In 1852 the Etang was sold once more, and the new owners decided to divide the land and sell off smaller parcels.  With no overall owner, the maintenance of the irrigation and drainage canals was soon neglected again.

In 1901, Joseph Camman, an engineer, bought 800 hectares of land in the Etang and started a campaign to improve the irrigation.  One of the main problems is the fact that salt left in the soil will come to the surface if the land is not sufficiently irrigated.  Plants which grow there, produce only very shallow roots of about 35cm, partly because of the heavy clay soil and partly because of the salt.  Keeping the soil well hydrated is the key to successful cultivation!

Joseph Camman also built a hydroelectric power station, to harness the power of the water coming from the river Aude.  Unfortunately, the power station has long since been abandoned, and the building is in a very poor state of repair.

The pond on which the power station stands serves as a holding tank for the distribution of water to the three main irrigation channels.

In order to keep the canals from silting up, Joseph Camman designed “cleaning boats”, which increased the current in the canals as they travelled through and flushed the silt away.  These days, modern diggers are used.

As we travelled through the Etang, we saw orchards, vineyards and a rice field.  The rice had mostly been harvested, but a little bit had been left standing for us to see.  The apple trees were heavy with fruit, and of course all the fruit you saw earlier in this post was grown here.

There is only one grower of rice active in the Etang.  He produces a number of different kinds: red, long grain, short grain etc.  I bought several different kinds of rice, and I have already tried the mix of red and white rice which was delicious!  And of course I also bought some apples!!

 

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Operation mincemeat

It’s this time of year, when I start to look forward to Christmas.  I try to keep Christmas firmly out of my mind until December has started, and I’m glad that the French have not yet fallen into the trap of starting to set out their Christmas merchandise as soon as August is over, or putting their Christmas decorations up at the beginning of November.  I know there are villages around here that never take down their Christmas lights, but at least they don’t turn them on until the appropriate moment.  I’m sure you can tell how I feel about timing in relation to Christmas, so I’ll stop the rant now!!  🙂

For me Christmas isn’t Christmas without some mince pies.  I was fortunate to be given a recipe for mincemeat by my dear friend Nadine Holm.  She has been using it for her mincemeat for a very long time, and I believe it’s a fairly old recipe.  Why?  Because for this recipe you actually add meat!  Wikipedia has a fascinating article on mincemeat here.  I was very interested to read that the mince in mincemeat and mince pie comes from the Latin minutia, which means smallness.  When we mince something we usually make it small, as in chopping, so that makes perfect sense.

Anyhow, I digress.  A few months ago I decided to try Nadine’s recipe, and I enlisted the help of a friend to prepare it with me, and to share the resulting mincemeat.  Preparing the mincemeat months before Christmas means that the flavours have time to develop (much as for fruitcake and Christmas pudding) and that it will be much tastier.  It also means that you have one less thing to think about in the run up to Christmas!!  Here is the recipe (you’ll find a scanned copy of the recipe at the end of this post):

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I assembled the various ingredients – not all that easy, as ready prepared suet is unknown in France, and brown sugar is fairly difficult to find.  But where there is a will…

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Weighing out the sugar, raisins, suet and citrus peel was the easiest part.  I prefer to use brown sugar for all the recipes which contain lots of dried fruit, such as Christmas puddings, fruit cake and the mincemeat.  I managed to get the suet from a supermarket that stocks British products, but I have in the past prepared it myself, buying beef fat from the butcher and grating it – somewhat laborious to say the least!  The cooked meat was put through the meat grinder, and the apples were peeled, cored and chopped finely.  I ground the spices by hand, the aroma was wonderful!

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Soon we had everything mixed and in the largest pot I have in my house – as you can see it was a tight fit!! IMG_9384

The smell when the pan came to a boil was beautiful – and very reminiscent of Christmas!  As it simmered, the quantity in the pan reduced, and the texture changed from very liquid to a more jam-like consistency. I know the colour isn’t very appetising, partly due to the yellow cast from the lighting – I’m sorry!!

Soon it was time to put the mincemeat into jars.  It looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

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Oops, that one got filled a little too much 😮

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And then we were done, and all the jars were stored on the shelf until we’re ready to make those delicious mince pies!  Roll on Christmas!!

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Nadine Holm's mincemeat recipe

The secrets of Tarte Tatin – explained!

I first encountered Tarte Tatin when I went to London in 1987 to work at Le Merdien Hotel on Piccadilly.  In Germany apples are plentiful and grown all over, and I’d tried all sorts of apple cakes and tarts, but never that wonderful confection, which was “accidentally” invented by the Tatin sisters in the 19th century (see Wikipedia link at the end of this post).  I soon found out that whilst very delicious, Tarte Tatin is not one of the easiest dishes to prepare.  For starters you really need a very heavy tin, preferably copper or cast iron, which distributes the heat well, and which can go into the oven.

Corail apples used for Tarte TatinCorail apples

The ingredients are simple:  apples, butter, sugar and shortcrust pastry.  About an ounce and a half of butter goes into the tin.  You decide if you want to use softened butter and smear it evenly over the inside of the tin, or if you want to let it melt gently.  Next comes the sugar: six tablespoons of it and regular granulated will do fine;  sprinkle it in an even layer.  Finally, the apples: a question of choice and personal preference.  You want to use apples which don’t turn into mush on cooking, so Bramleys are out.  They should also not be too sweet nor too juicy.  Here in France I like to use Chantecler apples, which have a wonderful flavour when cooked.  At the Meridien hotel in London we used Golden Delicious apples, and I have used Reine de Renette and Corail (pictured ) with success. For my 9.5″ tin I used 11 medium-sized apples.

Tarte Tatin being prepared

apples fitted into tin for tarte tatin

Peel and core your apples then cut in half.  Stand the cut halves in the tin, cut side against the uncut side, fitting them in tightly.  Keep two or three extra halves, which you place on top – you’ll see why later.

Tarte Tatin ready to be cooked

Once your mould is prepared and filled you put it on medium low heat and start the cooking process.  To start with, you want to just see the apple juice beginning to run – take your time, your patience will be rewarded.  Altogether the cooking time on the top of the stove took an hour and 20 minutes, but this will depend on how juicy your apples are.

tarte tatin cooking on the stove

The cooking process is slow and as the apples soften you’ll be able to fit the extra pieces in here and there, use a table knife to help you slip them in.  That way the finished tart will not have any gaps and be nice and high.  Turn your oven on to 180 degrees.  You might have to turn the mould from time to time, to make sure that it is cooking evenly.  Keep an eye on it all the time.  Eventually the water will evaporate and the sugar will start to caramelise.  Don’t be tempted to speed up the cooking process by using higher heat, you want your apples to cook and absorb the sugar and butter mixture, and that will take time.

sugar starting to caramelise in tarte tatin cooking

Once the sugar starts to caramelize you have to watch like a hawk and make sure the heat is not too high.  I’ve burnt my fair share of Tarte Tatins at that stage and had to start all over again.  When it starts to go from a light butterscotch colour to a somewhat darker caramel you’re almost there.  Give it a few more minutes and make sure the colour of the caramel is even across the tin, you might have to move it around on the hob a little to make sure it’s done throughout.  When the colour is almost that of a chestnut remove the tin from the heat; you don’t want the caramel to be too dark as it will cook some more in the next step.  Now pop the tin in the oven.

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the right caramel colour for tarte tatin

The idea now is to cook the tops of the apples which did not get cooked with the caramel.  The length of cooking depends on the type of apple you are using, a general guide is about 30 minutes, but test to check if the top of the apples are soft after 20 minutes.  Once done take out and leave to cool – you can leave it overnight in which case you can cover the tin with some foil and refrigerate it.

Tarte tatin ready for pastry topping

Make some shortcrust pastry with 175 flour, 100 butter and 3 tbsp water.  If you like you can add a tablespoon or two of sugar, but I find that’s not necessary.  Chill the pastry for at least half an hour or overnight.  Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees. Roll the pastry and cut a circle 1.5 – 2cm larger than the top of your tin.

pastry ready rolled for topping tarte tatin

Brush off any excess flour and then place the pastry disk over the apples in the tin.  The excess should be slipped down inside the tin, I use the back of a flat pastry brush to help with this.

pastry top on tarte tatin, ready for final bake

Once the pastry is all neatly tucked in bake for 25 minutes, or until the top of the pastry is golden.  Remove the tin from the oven and leave to cool for at least 10 minutes.  Invert a large plate over the tin and very carefully turn the tin and plate over in one swift movement – be very careful as there may be hot sugar syrup inside which could leak and burn you.  If everything has gone to plan the tart will slip out beautifully onto the plate, although you might have to give it a helping hand with a sharp downward movement, holding the tin on top of the plate.  Lift the tin off et voila.  Don’t worry if one piece has stuck to the inside of the tin.  Carefully take it out with the help of a palette knife or a table knife, place it in the gap in the tart and lightly smooth over with the side of the knife, nobody will know.  Serve your Tarte Tatin slightly warm, either with crème anglaise, crème fraiche or good vanilla ice cream, but of course it can also be eaten on its own.  Bonne degustation!

Tarte Tatin

The above tart was cut into six generous pieces and gobbled up in record time!  You could also serve eight with it.  For more information about the history and/or legend of Tarte Tatin, have a look at the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarte_tatin .  Be warned – once you’ve tasted a piece of my version of Tarte Tatin you may find fault with many desserts routinely served under that name.  And of course there are the variations made with all sorts of other fruit and even vegetables and different types of pastry, but they are all just “in the style of” and are really upside down cakes or tartes!!