Feasting at Toussaint

I know I am a little late writing about the 1st of November – but here I am all the same.  November 1st is Toussaint better known to us as All Saint’s Day, and as in many catholic countries All Saint’s Day is a public holiday in France.  Tradition has it that the families visit the graves of their ancestors and decorate them with flowers, and the flowers most used today are chrysanthemums.  They are grown in all kinds of colours, shapes and sizes, and if you manage to pass by the field of a grower at just the right time (sorry, I didn’t this year!!) it is as pretty as a picture or a patchwork quilt.

The two pictures above were taken at Capestang and it’s interesting to see the mailbox outside the cemetery (?).  These wonderful flowers brighten the sometimes austere graveyards throughout the country until the first frost cuts them down.  I took a walk around the cemetery in St Chinian too and found some interesting tombs – they are not dated but I’m intrigued by the lettering and sculpted ornaments – Art Deco?The flowers were everywhere too and brightened up this somewhat sombre day.

Toussaint is also the re-opening (after vendanges and a brief rest) for a restaurant tucked away in the hills above Minerve.  The manor house of Le Bouys has belonged to the Poumeyrac family for many generations, and for some time now the family has run a restaurant on the property.  It’s a real experience, and a very pleasurable one at that!

On the business card it says Ferme Auberge and there is still a farm;  geese, ducks and chickens run around the courtyard, and there’s a stable for the goats.

There’s even a chapel, always immaculately decorated and kept.

The dining room is on the ground floor, in a room with massive vaulting – cozy and warm in the winter and cool in the summer!

On the way in we passed the kitchen door (always good) and next to it is the Rotisserie where the roast of the day was being cooked. Leg of lamb anyone?

There were a few of us, and the friend who had organised the meal had ordered Bouillabaisse for us all.  So we had the usual starters of pate and ham followed by salad (with home-made vinegar used for the dressing – always a delight) .

And then came the Bouillabaisse – an enormous dish of fish in a delicious broth.

Of course accompanied by croutons and rouillie the garlic/saffron mayonnaise.  We did try valiantly to do the dish justice, but there was only so much we could eat…  Then came cheese, and finally dessert, and that was really special:  Omelette Norvegienne better known as Baked Alaska.  Light egg whites encasing a block of ice cream covered in rum soaked sponge.  Need I write any more?  Except to say that you only get the Omelette Norvegienne  when you order the Bouillabaisse!  And of course if you want to go, be sure to book!

And here are a few more pictures.

Lodeve continued…. (food, carpets and some gardening)

When I left you last week, I’d gotten to the point were we started to get hungry.  We’d spotted a restaurant at the start of our walk, and that’s where we headed now.  Le Petit Sommelier is a couple of doors down from the tourist office, and has a lovely terrace out the front on Place de la Republique.  Unfortunately, the weather was not right, so we had a cosy table indoors.  The choice of dishes looked good and on their midday menu they had options for two our three courses.

The four of us had four different starters:  thinly sliced mountain ham, terrine of goats cheese, salad with herring and potatoes, prawn and avocado cocktail.  We all enjoyed our choice and waited for the main course!

For main course there was rumpsteak with pepper sauce, lamb tagine, duck leg with orange sauce and cod fillet with chorizo.  Again we all very much enjoyed our choices and there were no leftovers!!  After all that wonderful food only two of us managed to have a little dessert (ice cream and pannacotta), but neither was very photogenic, so you’ll have to imagine those two.  Service was friendly and quietly efficient and the bill for the four of us came to 82 EUR including drinks.

After all that food we still had a little time before our visit to the Savonneries, so we went for another little walk around Lodeve, and found more “treasures”, amongst which a shop selling all sorts of Polish foods – unfortunately closed for lunch, and an English Library.  The turbaned fountain head was at the back of a house, glimpsed through an open front door.

Finally it was time to head off to the Savonneries – I’d been before and thought I’d remembered where it was, but ended up asking at a supermarket petrol station.  The lady explained that it was just behind the supermarket (which hadn’t been built when I last visited), and to leave the car in the car park and walk round.  Our guided visit was booked for 3.30pm and we started off with a film explaining the role of the Mobilier National which is both a holding collection of works of art, furniture and carpets and tapestries belonging to the French state, as well as number of specialised workshops, of which the Savonneries are part.  The Mobilier National furnishes all French Embassies as well as the “palaces” of the French government, and their stocks are built on the former royal collections, with each successive government adding new works.  The website for the Mobilier National is only in French but gives you a good idea of the scale and scope! Time for some pictures:

After the film our guide took us to the exhibition area, where several finished carpets were on display. One thing I must mention is that nothing here is for sale. The entire output of the workshop belongs to the state and goes into the collection of the Mobilier National, except for the rare pieces which might be given as gifts of state.  Savonnerie carpets are velour pile carpets, with the thread being knotted around the warp and looped at the front.  Once a row of knots is finished a linen thread is woven in, which forms the fabric and consolidates the structure of the carpet, and the loops are then cut to form the velour.  Depending on the size and pattern, one carpet can take up to 10 years to complete!  At that rate you do however have several people working on it at the same time, so in reality it only takes two people five years – oh the patience!!

Each carpet is a work of art, both in the design and the execution. Generally the Mobilier National commissions the design from artists, who then work very closely with the weavers to translate their design into a finished carpet. Currently there are some very beautiful modern carpets on the looms in Lodeve, and new techniques are constantly explored, such as the raised discs for the “lobster”  carpet.

Traditional Savonnerie patterns are often very involved and have a high knot per square centimetre ratio, in order to bring out the complicated detail.  On the carpet below over 50 different colour yarns are used, and the detail and finesse of the work is staggering.  It’s been worked on for three years, and will be on the loom for about another three years.

With another recent carpet the weavers were challenged to translate the design of Julian Gardair into reality – not an easy task by all accounts, but the result is spectacular.  You can see the design and work in progress here.  The final photograph is a of Savonnerie carpet to a traditional design, in this case two torches.  Not my favourite, but still very impressive!

In my garden this last week the grapes were flowering – the blossoms are so insignificant you can hardly see them.  On the same plant further along the vine some bunches had flowered a little earlier and the little grapes were developing well already. The little furry things are kiwis, which have also set well this year, and the dahlias have started flowering also.  I always think of them as autumn flowers, but in St Chinian they usually start blooming at the beginning of summer.  The tomato plants continue to shoot up, and this week the Linden (lime) trees are in full bloom – I adore their heady perfume, which wafts around the village!  And lastly the raspberries have started ripening – I hope I’m not going to make you jealous when I tell you that I’ll have some for breakfast most mornings until the end of the season.

Fun with sausages

Some months ago a friend mooted the idea of a “cooking circle” – a bit like a sewing circle, but instead of stitch and bitch we’d try making food we’d not make on our own.  After a few phone calls we were ready for our first get together to see what everyone wanted to do and how it could work, and a date and venue was decided for the first cook-off in Narbonne, to make Bouillabaisse.  Unfortunately I was struck down with flu, so couldn’t go, but by all accounts (and photographs) everyone had great fun and delicious food.

This week was the second get together, under the banner of charcuterie and nothing was stopping me this time!!  Seven of us descended on La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois, the home of my friends who hosted the afternoon.  The plan of action had been prepared in advance:  Pork Rillettes, Terrine de Campagne (pork and liver pate), sausages, garlic mashed potatoes, onion gravy, salad and a soufflé to finish.  The recipes for rillettes and the terrine came from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, the sausage recipe from Jane Grigson’s Charcuterie, and the soufflé recipe from Keith Floyd’s Floyd on France.

The meat for the pate had been put to marinate earlier in the day with the requisite spices and some alcohol, and the rillettes were cooking away in the oven when we arrived.  My butcher had kindly sold me some sausage casings, and I had managed to get the sausage stuffing tubes for my KA food mixer, so there was nothing holding us back!!  We started with the terrine, as that would have to be boiled in the sterilizer for two hours.  The butcher had minced the meat, so it meant seasoning and adding the other ingredients, and then a little bit was cooked and tasted – very important!  More seasoning, another bit cooked and this time the taste was just perfect, so the mix went into the various kilner jars everyone had brought along.  Once the rims were cleaned, the rubber rings on, the jars snapped shut, they were stacked in the sterilizer, covered with water and brought to the boil, and then kept at a boil for two hours.

Next came the rillettes:  the limpid fat (to quote E.D.) was strained, and the meat shredded with the help of forks and, once the consistency was deemed right, the mix was put into jars, and the remaining fat strained over.  Not for the faint hearted who should avoid cholesterol!

For the sausages the meat and fat were cut into strips and ground using the mincer attachment.  The meat was given a good mix to distribute the fat evenly, and then we split it into one-third and two-thirds.  The two-thirds were turned into a herbed sausage, with sage, thyme, a little savory and parsley.  The other third was seasoned with finely chopped garlic chives, ground chilli pepper, Sichuan pepper, five spice, soya sauce, sesame oil and salt and pepper.  And then came the fun of getting the mixture in the casing!  Open one end and run some water through, was what the butcher had said.  Not too difficult, but then the casing had to be slipped on to the tube – to much hilarity of course!  And you try to tie a knot into it!  Anyhow, as you can see from the picture, the sausages turned out great, and I would certainly make them again!  There was a little of the “spicy” mix left once the casing was used up, so we turned that into meatballs.  Once done all the sausages went into the fridge to rest and firm up, and we took a little break and a well deserved glass of wine!  Hands had kept busy:  peeling potatoes and garlic cloves for the garlic mash (12 spuds and 12 cloves of garlic), preparing the salad for our first course, cooking the base for the soufflé and getting the BBQ ready for the sausages.

The salad was accompanied by the rillettes, which tasted sublime and had a far better texture than anything shop-bought – perfect with the salad!

The garlic mash was made with olive oil instead of butter and seasoned with parsley, salt and pepper.  A divine addition to the succulent pork sausages!  Everyone had brought their favourite chutney to go with the sausages, and I usually eat sausages as an excuse for having mustard, but I found their flavour needed no additions.  There were however some fantastic pickles and chutneys to be tasted on their own!

The orange soufflés turned out light as a feather and oh so tasty – a fantastic end to a great afternoon/evening.