May day, may day

May has arrived and with it a slew of bank holidays.  May 1st is one of the holidays which are very strictly observed in France; hardly anything is open on Labour Day.  The next one is May 8th – VE day and again it falls on a Tuesday, which means that a lot of people take the “pont” and have Monday off.  On May 17th we celebrate Ascension, and finally May 28 is Pentecost Monday.  Then there are no more bank holidays until Bastille Day on July 14th!

The week really started well – a visit to Floralies in Florensac – a fete which was conceived entirely around plants and flowers. The blooms were fantastic and the local brass band was great at keeping us all entertained!

After that a quick trip to Marseillan for a light lunch – the sun was out and the terrace at the La Taverne du Port open – and yes, there was a table for two! A starter of Sardines en Escabeche, followed by gratinated oysters and mussels. Just perfect and oh so good!

The reason for the light lunch was that I had gotten a little carried away in the market that morning:  found some very young broad beans, wonderful fresh goat’s cheese, white asparagus and our butcher cut me two veal escalopes.  I cut the broad beans into finger long pieces and steamed them, dressed them with good olive oil and lemon juice, with a little salt and sugar, and left them to cool.  To serve I just spooned a little of the dressing over the beans and crumbled some of the goats cheese over.  I’d forgotten to pick some parsley in the garden – ho hum….  

White asparagus needs peeling, but to me it is well worth the effort.  It also takes a little longer to cook than the green stalks.  I decided to serve it with a veal escalope, simply pan fried, and some orange flavoured hollandaise sauce.  For that, two tablespoons of freshly squeezed orange juice and one tablespoon of apple vinegar were reduced to half and left to cool.  I then added the egg yolk, salt and butter cut into pieces and placed the pan in the simmering water, which was waiting for the asparagus.  Stir and stir until it is the right consistency et voila!  The veal was one of the tenderest pieces of meat I have ever eaten – I went back to the butcher to find out what cut it was and he told me it was Merlan, a small piece near the shoulder blade, and that it exists both in veal and beef.  I’ve put my name down for the beef version when he next gets it in.

May 1st saw me at a Vide Grenier in Olargues, where I found two bargains!  One was a stove top waffle iron, which I’d been thinking of for some time.  It looked in need of a good clean but that was easily achieved at home with soda crystals and hot water.  The other was an old linen sheet with a decorative hemstitch edge, which was still brand new.  After a few washes and being run through the mangle it is now on the bed, and just the right size too!   With all that exercise of walking around and bargaining lunch at the Fleurs d’Olargues restaurant was just the ticket.  Their food is very well prepared and beautifully served.  It was a little too cool to sit out on the terrace by the river, but I enjoy the dining room, which is airy and spacious without feeling as though you’re in an old garage workshop (which is what it was before it was converted into a restaurant some years ago).    The restaurant is owned and run by a Danish family, and in addition to great food they also offer fantastic bread, which is home made.  I always have to watch that I don’t have too much of that, so easy to eat…

It looks very much as though this is turning into a food blog, so I will have to make sure that those of you who would like to read about other things wont get short-changed!!

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The lamb that never was

Imagine Easter Sunday without lamb!  Well, it can happen and it did to me this year!!  Apparently this is the second year running that our butcher did not order enough lamb, and by Easter Sunday morning there was not a scrap of it left.  What to do?  Settle for mutton, that’s what!  Next thing was to find a recipe for the mutton chops I’d bought.  I was tempted to prepare a north African dish, like a tagine or couscous.  Then I logged onto my bookshelf on www.eatyourbooks.com (more about that site below) and did a recipe search for mutton.  In amongst the recipes on the list was Ballymaloe House Irish Stew;  I knew exactly where the book was, looked at the ingredients and decided that it was the perfect dish – it was somewhat chilly outside and a nice stew would be just the thing!   The stew was a doddle to prepare and wonderfully tasty; my misgivings about the potentially strong mutton flavour were totally unfounded!  The herbed goats cheese had sufficiently drained and matured and provided the cheese course, and for dessert I made a peach flan.  Brought back memories of my time in the pastry kitchen at the Meridien Piccadilly!   The flan is very delicious and very easy to make and proved to be the perfect dessert after the stew, not at all heavy (write if you want the recipe).

Now, about http://www.eatyourbooks.com :  I came across the site on a blog called www.larecettedujour.org and was intrigued by the idea, so read through it and decided to sign up.  The unlimited bookshelf is $25 for a year, with a free option of up to five books.  The idea is that you add all the cookbooks you own to your bookshelf, either by author/title search or by ISBN numbers.  Once the books are on your bookshelf you can search for recipes in the books which are indexed.  I found that I had a lot more cookery books than I thought, and by no means all of them are on the site’s bookshelf.  A lot of the older books and the French and German books are not in the library (despite 98,210 titles), and currently about 23% of my books are indexed (49 out of 214).  Considering that some of the titles are only on my bookshelf and others a bit “special interest” it’s perhaps not surprising, but it still gives me access to over 13,000 recipes.   Books are constantly being indexed, so that eventually be more of “my” books will become searchable.  A search for mutton on Easter Sunday brought up 63 results with a good selection of recipes from different books.  Fast, simple and easy, and a great way of using books which would otherwise languish unused, mainly because we all tend to use the same books and recipes over and over again.

Hot cross buns have been an Easter tradition for some years in my kitchen and this year I’ve subverted that tradition.  Not drastically though, but time available meant that baking the buns on Saturday night was not possible, and I didn’t want to get up super early to have them ready for breakfast on Easter Sunday.  A cunning plan had to be devised and here’s how!  Saturday lunchtime I mixed up my dough, using the spice mixture given by Elizabeth David in “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” (highly recommended), and loosely following a recipe by Jamie Oliver for the dough. 

I mixed flour, sugar, spice, instant yeast and raisins in a mixing bowl.  Warmed the milk/water mixture very slightly and mixed with the egg and melted butter.  Made a well in the flour mix and added all liquid, then stirred with a wooden spoon until the dough was formed.  It was soft but not overly sticky.  I put a lid on the bowl and left it in the kitchen (unheated at the time).  This was at lunchtime.  When I got back home, about 11pm, I turned the dough out on to the work surface, kneaded it for a very short time, shaped it into a loaf and placed it in a loaf tin (lined with a bit of baking parchment).  I put the pan in the oven, set to 200 Celsius, and programmed it to switch on at 6.10 am on Sunday morning, and to end at 7am.  When the alarm clock rang so did the timer on the oven, and there was a lovely smell coming up to the bedroom!  I went downstairs to check on the bread and it was just perfect.  Once cooled enough I sliced the loaf and spread it with clotted cream from Cornwall and some home made strawberry and apricot jam – yummy!!  And of course what wasn’t eaten on Sunday made lovely toast!

Starting bread in a cold oven can turn out very good results, and in this case it worked very well as the kitchen was fairly cool and the dough did not over-proof.  You could probably bake the dough straight from the fridge and still get what’s called good “oven spring”.

And since it’s spring, here’s a picture of coronilla, flowering everywhere right now, scenting the air and feeding bees.  Anyone looking for a spring break?  Le Figuier in Bize Minervois is currently available for April 21 to May 19, 2012 at 10% off.  See other special offers here

Springtime treats

Asparagus

One of the joys of spring is the arrival of seasonal produce.  Living in St Chinian we are spoilt for choice at the twice weekly market (which to my mind is one of the crowning glories of St Chinian!).  Today was the first visit of the asparagus producer from Salleles d’Aude – the asparagus had been a bit “shy” this year, as he expressed it.  Apparently the lack of rain played its part as did the cold snap we had earlier this year.  But all is well now , and I came away with a nice bundle of thick green spears, which I’ll be cooking tonight.  I used to snap off the stalks from the bottom up where they would break, but of late I have reverted to peeling the lower ends to keep as much of the juicy stems as possible!  I always prepare the first of the seasons’ crop as simply as possible, a bit of butter, a few splashes of lemon juice and some freshly milled black pepper is all there’ll be .  Later on there’ll be variations and of course at some point or other I’ll be making sauce hollandaise to go with it. I’ll also buy some of the thin “sprue” for asparagus soup, but on the whole I prefer the juicy and thick stalks. From the same grower I can also get white asparagus which is a very different kind to the green.  For a start white asparagus never sees the light of day during the growing cycle, and the spears are cut underground.  The whole stem has to be carefully peeled, and the cooking takes longer than for green.  The flavour is altogether different, more subtle, and it lends itself to being combined with other foods:  a slice of good Jambon de Paris from the butcher, a veal chop, with new potatoes, etc.  I also find that it makes better soup.

Another spring-time treat is goats cheese.  The goats start milking as soon as the kids are born from January/February onwards.  We have a goat farm at Combebelle, just the other side of Villespassans, and our local butcher stocks their cheeses.  Visiting the farm is great, especially with children.  Anne took over the farm from her parents a few years ago, together with her husband Heiner.  They have continued farming along the same lines, expanding the herd a little and making improvements to the stables and dairy.  Their cheeses have won a number of awards, and I know why – their fresh goats cheese has a wonderful clean and mild flavour, possibly because their goats are outside a lot and feed of herbs and grass.  If you visit the farm at the right time, you’ll be able to see the goats getting milked and sliding down a ramp at the end of it (I swear they are having fun doing that!), before visiting the dairy in the main farm building.

Boucherie Peyras in Saint Chinian stocks the Combebelle cheeses and I can buy what is called “faiselle”, which are the curds still in the process of draining.  I transform that into a herbed cheese by mixing the curds with a whole bunch of finely chopped herbs – today’s mixture included the following:  chives, garlic chives, mint, basil, lemon balm, tarragon and lovage.  A couple of tablespoons each of cream and milk, a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, the whole mixed up and put back into the draining baskets and in the fridge.  In a few days it’ll be the most delicious treat!