Sunday, August 31, 2008

Original Chocolate Sin

Shouldn't it be called "faux gras"? This disk on the left is made of solid chocolate--chocolate ganache coated with white chocolate. Below, a troupe of drum majorettes wearing smart leather boots the pale green of new spring onions.

The link is that we saw both this morning in Pamiers, a town a half hour away. We knew about the foie gras made by this little chocolate shop. I visit its window frequently but have yet to get up the
nerve to go inside knowing that I would leave in a chocolate-induced coma. 

We weren't expecting the majorettes. Instead, we were geared up for the weekly Sunday morning flea market, mais non. Instead, tables and chairs filled the square and the stage at the end was bouncing with brass bands and majorettes. Either they had several costume changes--the common element being very short, twirly skirts and spangles--or there were several majorette troupes. 

Just your average Sunday morning in France...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lunch in the Garden

Friends Richard and Dorothy who live in St. Colombe sur l'Hers invited us over for lunch at noon. There went the afternoon. Because the mix of abundant sunshine, terrific food and a bunch of good people, turned it into a classic five-hour French dejeuner.

Richard and Dorothy's house is up a winding road with postcard views across the Hers valley to the treed hills beyond. Their garden is enormous: a vast undulating lawn, a bed of bright flowers, a lavender hedge, fruit trees, and in the top right-hand corner, a stand of tall bamboos. The term for a thicket of bambous is a bambouserie. One of those French words that sounds as though it should translate as something else. A riotous party or a rather clever scam perhaps.

We are the former. All of us English except Peter, the lone Canadian, so, in Brideshead Revisited style, we begin with tall glasses of Pimm's on the terrace. 

Here's what we eat: chive-garnished individual terrines of salt cod and seafood, cold roast pork with carnelian-pink quince jelly, salmon quiches, green salad with heavenly olive oil to drizzle over it, potatoes, tomatoes....a platter of cheeses, drippingly fresh melons and nectarines, and blackberry tartes with crème fraîche all punctuated by liberal pourings of rosé, white or red. Delicious cool dishes that couldn't have been better on an extremely hot day like today. Driving home, I thought "all we'll want for supper is maybe a little pasta. Maybe not even that." In the end, and quite late, we snacked on baguette, cheese and fruit.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Off to the Movies

Cinema Le Casino. This is our local picture palace in Lavelanet. Fairly splendiferous, non? The close-up photo is so you can a) admire its very impressive sponge-painted exterior, and b) note the name of the current movie: Batman: Le Chevalier Noir.

Peter had been panting to see this so off we went for the first showing, 4 p.m. on a weekday. Worldwide, this is the big film right now, I'd joked about having to join a lineup that went right back to the traffic island (which is just across from the cinema). In fact, we were the only people in the very sumptuous, red-velvet-seated auditorium initially. Then, a trio of teenage girls came in and sat some rows behind. 

This was the first French movie theatre I'd been in since I was seventeen and saw a James Bond --"Je m'appelle Pond. Chums Pond"--film in Paris. So...a few notes. No savagely overpriced popcorn and Coke stand. No previews. Just straight into the main feature. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pâte (not pâté): a French convenience food I've come to love.

Lately, I've been on a tarte kick. And not because I'm a whiz at making perfect pastry either. You need cool hands, ideally a marble surface, and time to do that. Here, in France, you just go the local supermarket where, in the cooler section, you find pastry all ready to--I was going to say "roll" but, forget that. All you do is open the packet, unroll the pre-rolled disk of dough and pat it into your pie pan.

I wish I could say that this shot is of a home-made tourte (just to distinguish between tartes and tourtestourtes have a top crust too). It's not. It's from last year's apple festival in Mirepoix. 

What I did make last week though was an evilly rich tarte of mushrooms, onions, crème fraîche, thick cream and eggs (plus an extra yolk to up the already stratospheric cholesterol content). Oh yes, it was good.

But back to the topic of pastry. You can buy the classic pâte brisée for straightforward quiches and so on. Pâte feuilletée--flaky pastry--is another option. Recipes using both of these in dozens of different ways are in a cookbook that came (for an extra 99 centimes) with this week's Femme Actuelle, which is said to be France's most popular women's magazine. 

Among the recipes are an onion tarte tatin, small individual pork pies, and a rustic tourte made with potatoes, fresh cheese, goat cheese, crème fraîche and garlic. Any of those plus a sharply-dressed green salad? Works for me. 

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Embroidery (and What to Do With a Dead Pig)

Another vide grenier (attic emptying) to take up most of a sunny Sunday morning. Today's was in La Bastide-de-Boussignac. It's not that large a village so we only expected a small event. Wrong. Streets, side streets... hundreds of people buying and selling.

It's not just the bargains that are the draw. It's just as much the opportunity to get an inside look at how life was in these parts in the past. Monogrammed linen is everywhere, evidence of the hard (needle) work put in by most young women in the early decades of the 20th century. Skills like these haven't disappeared. They've just been re-routed. The lady busily stitching away is responsible for all the work on display. 

The Ariège has always been a farming region, so you can often pick up old wood collars that once held bells for cattle and sheep. Something else easy to find are ox yokes, often riddled with woodworm. 

What on earth was the use for a length of baguette-shaped wood about 70 cm (27 inches) long with a piece of sturdy chain at its midpoint and a notch at either end? Turns out it was used to hang a newly slaughtered pig by its trotters. Its technical name is a porte-cochon.  I bought it, of course, and am picturing saucepans hanging from it instead.

Today was probably in the low thirties but winters can be icy in the Pyrenees.  Doug, a friend we ran into, asked about the long curved wood frames you often see for sale at vides-greniers. Inside is a little box and that, said the woman at the stall, held coals, and the curved frame kept the linen away from the heat. Yup, an ancient bed-warmer.  

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Vive l'amour...

The rain that fell last night must have put the local escargots in an amorous mood. This couple was at it in the garden around 10 this morning and, at 3 p.m., was still going strong. How long would it last? Googling "snail sex" reveals that snails are hermaphroditic, shoot "love darts" at each other and can enjoy l'amour for up to six hours. Now, that's slow love. 

But enough of romance and to matters gastronomic. This is the same type of snail that we downed in quantity at the cargolade a couple of weeks ago. I see them for sale at the market sometimes. Then again, there's something rather appealing about growing your own. 

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Paella in Carcassonne

A fountain and square? Definitely not the traditional view of Carcassonne. The usual shot of this town (about an hour to the north-east of us) shows imposing stone walls, battlements, turrets and a  fairytale silhouette. Right now, this undeniably picturesque spot is jammed solid. Someone told me the other night that friends of theirs, seeing the scrum inside, had abandoned hope before they'd even crossed the drawbridge. 

   I'll be the first to admit that the tiny streets and ancient beamed houses within la cité (as the old walled town is known) rocket you right back through time--out of season.  But, any time of year, the "new" Carcassonne is worth a visit. Dating back to the Middle Ages), it's a bastide town, i.e. built on a grid system. It's very easy to navigate although challenging to drive through as the streets are one-car wide and all one-way. Here's where we come for the day to shop (there's a Monoprix on the main street) and to hang out in the main square over a two-hour lunch. 

   More prosaically, today's mission was to hunt for tiles for the ground floor of the house we've just bought. We need 90, or maybe, 95 square metres. Quite a lot. Which is how we ended up in the industrial area of Carcassonne at a place called Carro Price, taking photos, trying to calculate the total sum and wondering if, in any case, as often happens in France, they only had one box of the sample of display--about enough to cover a coffee table--that they were teasing us with.

    But before that, there was considerable fun. Carcassonne is throwing a three day feria this weekend, a salute to Spain complete with bull fights, bandas and, inevitably, paella. We found ours on a street near the market. Once we had successfully nailed a table in the shade, Peter went off for servings (scooped out from a metre-wide pan) and glasses of rosé. Signs everywhere said that, in the interests of safety, all glasses used outside would be plastiques. Wise. Even at 1 p.m., people were already having a rollicking good time.

   Paellas vary hugely in what's in them and how good it is. Even though served from a roadside stand, this was one of the better versions, loaded with mussels, chewy cubes of octopus, fiery chorizo, and a chicken leg apiece that was tender enough to be cut with a plastic fork. All served on a chic black plastic plate. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I've got sloppier and sloppier about cleaning the wild mussels we buy here. Unlike the cultivated kind, these big roguish bivalves flaunt their marine origins. Cluster of barnacles like miniature pale grey volcanos, dark green hair-like seaweed, a strange white graffiti-like scribble like a fossilized worm...they ain't pretty but they're real.

At one time, I would spend hours scraping each one to smooth perfection. Not any more. Now it's off with anything large and non-clinging, a swift beard removal, a check that they're tightly closed. Any mussel that dares to gape is set aside on the edge of the sink and given a chance to shut up. 

I can't think of an easier dish to cook. You could probably just throw them into a dry pot, clamp on the lid and crank up the heat. I've never tried it. Usually, I simmer a couple of glugs of white wine or beer with chopped onion and garlic. This time I began with a sheen of olive oil. Not much. The onion and garlic went in and about 10 cm of roughly diced hot chorizo. All cooked for about five minutes. Then in with the mussels. Lid on. Seven minutes about or until they all opened. I chopped some chives from the garden over the top and we had them with bread for dipping and a green salad to follow.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Market Day in Mirepoix

August is a cruel month if you want to go to the Monday market in Mirepoix. Last year, the local newspaper reported that the French shop from 8 to 10 a.m., after that it's the turn of the English. True enough, except that this month you have to add in tourists from all over Europe. The earlier you get there, the leaner the crowd. Another reason to be up before cock crow (our local roosters are chronologically challenged anyway, usually performing around 4 p.m.) is that, no surprise, the best produce goes first.

So today we were on the road by 8:30 a.m., and in the market before 9 a.m. The drive is only 10 minutes but, rather than join the slow crawl through the streets, we usually park in the SuperU lot on the outskirts of town. 
A baby could sleep on that huge bread to the left. It's sold by weight (the bread not the baby) and is meant to last a week, in other words from one market to the next.

The man in the photo at the top of this post grinds knives, scissors, axes and any other blunt object you put in his way. We've taken our big Sabatier knife to him a number of times and it's been returned to us with a guillotine-sharp edge. 

Once you've done your shopping, it's time for a grand crème and a pain aux raisins. Café Castignolles (in the other photo) is one of several cafés under the arcades around the central square. All have their devotees. We go promiscuously from one to the other depending on where the free tables are. 

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Foix Spectacle

This event didn't start until 10 p.m. It was dark. The action was fast. To be honest, the few shots I took weren't that great. But this (i.e. those three towers) was the backdrop to Foix's annual spectacle. For more, go to and click on the poster. Next, click on the video screen to the right for a small taste of the music, sound, light and excitement.

Using a trio of "time explorers" the two-hour show covered the high spots of Ariège history between 1208 and the present. Cathars, French revolution, the Second World War (complete with a papier mâché airplane strung on wires that "flew" dramatically across the arena from somewhere high above us to crash into a forest in "flames")--all got a look in. Music ranged from Zorba the Greek (complete with Greek dancers) and Ave Maria to (huh?) "Money Makes the World Go Around" from Cabaret. Add in dancing wood sprites, a song by Fauré, who was born locally, and you had something for everyone.

A high spot for me (just call me paysanne) was a bucolic farmyard scene complete with dray horses, yoked oxen, donkeys and a woman the size of a barn shooshing along a flock of geese. 

The stage was several hundred feet wide, long enough for galloping horses and, covered with sand, safe enough when their riders deliberately fell off and were dragged along the ground. 

Lighting transformed the three towers of the chateau into different cities, and wrapped them in psychedelic effects. Fireworks showed it in all its stark beauty. 

Earlier, with friends Bea and David, we'd stoked up on steak-frites but still found it cold as the evening wore on. As we left, the crowd a swarming mass, the cast lined the exit pathway (as they did in Léran last Sunday) to applaud us. 

Our Local Lake

If we drive about 90 minutes, we come to the Mediterranean. If we amble a kilometre along a country road, we're here, at Lac Montbel. 

Rivers around here are notorious for their violence. (Several centuries ago, the nearby towns of Limoux and Mirepoix were completely washed away.) The river that trickles through Léran may look like a harmless, sparkly little thing on a summer day but a rainstorm transform it. In fact, its name, Le Touyre, is Occitan for "torrent."

Sometime in the 1980s, dams were built and excess water diverted into a valley forming this lake. When the water drops, you can see the stumps of trees that once grew here. No mere pond, the lake is over 500 hectares, and the Tour du Lac, the hiking trail around its perimeter, is about 16 km. Forest-lined, and with the Pyrenees on the horizon, it's a peaceful place to be. 

Sand was trucked in to create a small beach. You can bask in your bikini, swim, take a pedalo out, row a boat, or paddle a kayak. Trout fishing: you can do that too in a leisurely way. To everyone's joy, motorboats are forbidden.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How to Stuff a Courgette

I've fallen hard for the perfectly round courgettes (zucchini) that are the size of small melons--and in season right now. 

As well as courgettes, market stalls these days are also  banked high with stout, glossy purple or white aubergines (eggplants), shiny red peppers and branches of fat tomatoes. 

One hugely popular way to turn any, or all of these, into a main course is to combine their innards with seasoned meat. 

Tidily lined up in store windows, markets and supermarkets: you see légumes farcis everywhere across the south of France at this time of year. 

I began with the small packet of fresh sausage meat that I bought the other day from the travelling butcher (relax, health police, I'd kept it in the freezer).

Normally, when I cook ground meat of any kind, I have to siphon off a bucketload of fat. Not this time. In fact, there was so little grease I didn't even bother to get rid of it. To the meat mixture, I added chopped onion and garlic, then seasoned it all with herbes de Provence, salt and pepper. 

I sliced off the little "hats" of the courgettes, and scooped out their insides leaving a shell thin enough to cook but substantial enough to hold the contents. Coarsely chopped, the filling went into the pan. It released quite a lot of water so I simmered the mixture for a few minutes to thicken it. The final addition was some leftover croutons which I bashed into medium-sized crumbs. 

I spooned the mixture into the courgettes, drizzled a little olive oil over the top and popped each one into a small earthware soufflé dish just big enough to hold it. Technical details: a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes--the timing will vary with the size of the courgette. Cook the "shell" till you can pierce it with a fork but not so much that it collapses.

P.S. That "sauce" on the side is simply a chopped up Green Zebra tomato mixed with a little vinaigrette.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Platters for the Barbecue

It's good to know exactly where your meat comes from. This sign stands outside a butcher's shop in a shopping mall in Pamiers. It tells potential customers that the steaks, chops and roasts are all from local animals. Here are their photos and their owners' names--Mr. Fauré and Mr. Soula--to prove it. 

Some of the cuts sold here will be ideal à griller. French people are as nuts about cooking hunks of protein over charcoal as any other culture. It took Peter a while to get the knack of using French charcoal which he now uses along with vine clippings, either bought or from our own vine. 

Tonight, a friend who lives near Beziers is staying with us. Earlier today, we bought a "plateau" of meats: a mix of merguez, Toulouse sausage, pre-impaled pork kebabs and slices of pork belly. Included with the meat was a little sachet of mixed herbs to sprinkle over the meats before they went on the grill. 

Timings were detailed on the label. A little longer for the kebabs, a little less for the pork belly, the sausages somewhere in the middle. While Peter was grilling, I heated up some duck fat, chopped a garlic clove into it and browned some potatoes I'd steamed this afternoon. For a salad, I sliced the last of the heirloom tomatoes. Dark crimson inside, this one was big enough to do the three of us. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Aperos a.k.a. cocktails

Going to someone's house just for a drink feels like a retro thing to do. Here, it's a normal part of entertaining which can range from very simple spur-of-the-moment to a session around the table that starts anywhere between 6 and 7 p.m. and ends long past the usual hour for dinner. 

Tonight's was with our friend Mark from Scotland who we've known since the mid 1990s. He and wife, Cath, own an enormous barn in Treziers, a village about 9 km away. (Walking distance, actually. That's where the mechanic who cared for and nurtured our previous voiture lives. When the car needed work, we'd walk over or walk back.)

The traditional drinks for apero hour are pastis for the men and muscat or wine for the ladies. The accompaniments can be as uncomplicated as a bowl of chips/crisps or peanuts or olives, or include little plates of charcuterie.
Mark, a journalist, just returned from near Bordeaux where he was working on a story. He had brought back a bottle of Sauternes which he said went well with the hunk of Roquefort he set out. Sweet wine, salty cheese... Ham from Spain, nuts, other cheeses, it all meant that we only needed a small plate of pasta when we got home. 

The sauce was the leftover peperonata from last night, thinned with water and with chunks of leftover fish folded in. Nice. 

Monday, August 11, 2008

Heirloom Tomatoes, Peaches and Nectarines

If ever there was proof that buying the best ingredients makes cooking easy, here's the first course I made for supper tonight. Don't the colours of these heirloom tomatoes knock your socks off? Bought on Friday at the market and probably picked that morning, at most, the night before, so even days after I bought them, they're still in prime shape.  

Friends over for the evening. She's vegetarian but eats fish so I pan-fried cod fillets in olive oil, piled them on a plate and sprinkled fresh rosemary over the top. 

That afternoon, I'd made polenta and poured it into a round dish. Neat quarter-circles for browning and crisping in more olive oil. Leftover peperonata from the other day provided vivid colour and good flavours.

Right, the peaches and nectarines. Now in drippy, juicy, messy abundance at the markets. Following a recipe in Georgeanne Brennan's The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence, I made a gratin. Peeled, stoned and quartered fruit, a batter poured over, a "crumble" of chopped almonds, sugar and dried lavender on top. Fifteen minutes in the oven. The batter doesn't seem to add much so, next time, I'll skip it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Léran Spectacle

Accent on the "tacle", the spectacle is our village's annual historical pageant held, this year, in the grounds of the chateau de Léran. Crammed with snails from the cargolade earlier that evening, we lacked the energy to take in the Saturday night son et lumière version. Instead, today, we ambled down to the show scheduled for 5 p.m.

Banked seats were set up in the shade. In front of us was the large meadow where sheep occasionally graze. Beyond it was a row of enormously tall trees and behind those, hidden by leaves at this time of year, is the chateau. 

Called "Léran-cestral" the 90 minute show was a quick whip through village history. Vignettes of peasants going about their daily sowing, laundering and threshing gave way to a Saracen attack. I think. My understanding of French went awry at this point. Anyway, a sequence featuring nubile, be-sequinned and filmily attired dancing girls. 

Highlights were the horse that galloped in towing a large blazing ball, jousting, a trio of fire-eaters, and the Black Death with the tiniest members of the cast costumed as Disney-ish rats. 

Special applause for the costumes which the village ladies spend much of the year making. 

A Vide Grenier in Chalabre

The term literally means "attic emptying". Call it the French version of a swap meet, car-boot sale or community yard sale...

This one kicked off at 7 a.m. but it was well past 9:30 by the time we arrived in Chalabre, a large village about 15 minutes away. One of the main streets was clogged with traffic, the other closed off and lined with stalls with more stalls shoehorned into the narrow side streets. 

A kit for slicing and serving foie gras. Monogrammed linen sheets, never used. Enough plastic toys and kids clothes to delight and outfit half the smaller residents of southern France. Paperbacks, record albums, posters, plates...

  Some of our home furnishings were finds at vide greniers but this time, no luck.We looked longingly at a 1940s sideboard, all curves and carved flowers and only 50 euros. No space for it at the moment. A green-painted art nouveau stove, the same. Both are now in other people's homes or, possibly, have moved up the secondhand social scale to a brocante where they will sell for double the price. 

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Snails + Fire = Cargolade

Friday, on the way back from Lavelanet market, we noticed a sign. Painted in white on the black plastic wrapping a bale of hay, the sign advertised a Saturday night cargolade in Lagarde. 

I've wanted to be at a real cargolade from the first time I heard about it. The nearest I came to it was a dish served in a restaurant in Perpignan several years ago. 

We had the date right and assumed things would get underway around seven. But it was eight before we found where it was. Not in the village square where we parked the car. Not in the chateau grounds, several minutes away, but down a track through the woods in a large barn with bales of straw stacked at one side. 

The butcher's truck was there selling steaks, chops and sausages as well as tinned pâté cut in quarters and various little cakes and tartes

Cargolade is snails cooked over charcoal. A wheelbarrow full of escargots in net bags stood near the grill. Before long, the grillmasters (including Christian, the man in the middle in the photo, who cooks every Friday night at the marché nocturne in Léran) had tipped the snails onto large rectangular grills and were cooking them directly over the coals. If you're squeamish,  stop right here. 

The snails waved their horned heads around and juices bubbled out but there was no escape. When we went back and lined up about 15 minutes later, they were all deceased, or at least very still. Thoughts of Cathar martyrs came to mind. At this point, Christian took a lardoir--imagine a funnel with a long handle--packed a piece of very fatty pork skin into it and held it over the flames until the fat started to run. He dripped this over the snails while his colleague sprinkled them liberally with salt. 

Nutritionists had better not read any further either. The rest of our meal comprised frites, beers, and a baguette. 

Cooking escargots in bulk isn't easy. Then again, ask me if I'd rather eat an overdone snail than a semi-raw one and no prizes for guessing the answer. The trouble is that overcooked snails stick. Peter compared it to pulling weeds in the garden. In both cases, you have to go very gently or they snap in half. Occasionally, we experienced a small triumph when one of us coerced a complete snail out of its shell. A whole curl of snail, I should add, isn't remotely like the small dark rubbery things that come out of tins. 

Great minds... I said: next time, we should bring nut crackers. Peter decided to use his teeth instead. Snail shells are thin so there's no danger to dental work, and it definitely let us get every last little morsel out. The taste of wild snails is dark and gamy, a bit fungal, and--at a cargolade--charcoal-y. The aioli that came with them was store-bought mayonnaise stiff with garlic chips. Meanwhile, the woman beside ate a huge steak. Raw. 

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lavelanet's Friday Market

About a ten-minute drive away, Lavelanet is not an especially beautiful town which means it doesn't get the attention that glamorous medieval Mirepoix does (ten minutes in the other direction). But perhaps because of this, I think its market is better in terms of choice, and it's definitely less geared to tourists. You don't, for instance, find anyone here selling garlic graters shaped like sunflowers. Once, according to local legend, a man did show up with a truckload of yellow jugs, pots and bowls emblazoned with olives and sprigs of lavender but he was never seen again. At least not in Lavelanet.

The town lacks a market square but it does have a small triangle near the church, an indoor halles across the road from it (that also functions as concert hall and indoor games stadium) and a long, skinny car park. All are called into use for the Friday market. 

We usually end up parking at the northern end of the market, making our way down past the cinema through a throng of clothing stalls. You want a tangerine coloured bra size 44D? It's here. Underwear, sparkly tops and combat pants eventually give way to the food stalls. At least three sell paella. You can also buy roasted chickens and quail, moules, Chinese food like nems (egg rolls) and dishes that take well to reheating like chicken basquaise and Hungarian goulash spooned out from large simmering cast iron pans. 

This is a mixed market with French, Spanish and North African people all shopping together. You might hear the occasional word of English at this time of year but it's rare. 

My favourite area, the halles houses local producers. Here's where you find folk selling glass jars of foie gras and slices of dried duck breast made, literally, within a couple of kilometres. Lately, I've been buying my lettuces (called salades) from the old lady whose table is beside the old man whose vegetables are already always sold by the time we get there.

Outside, on the triangle near the church, the longest queue is at one of the bio (organic) stalls run by a man who farms up the hill from Camon. This week we couldn't resist his heirloom tomatoes: mixed baskets at a reasonable 2.50 euros a kilo.  

The Friday Night Market in Léran

People swarm into Léran any July or August Friday. If you live here, you don't plan on doing anything else. I'm talking about the marché gourmand, also known as the marché nocturne. A barrier stops traffic from entering the main street. Beyond it are people at stalls and tables selling all you need to put supper together.

Think of it as one enormous communal dinner party. Long tables covered with paper cloths run the end of the street. Everyone grabs a green-painted metal folding chair and squeezes in beside their neighbours and friends. I've never counted heads but easily over a hundred sit down and break bread together. (The village boulangerie brings baguettes and fougasses including a Roquefort version). A local wine-maker opens bottles of red or rosé--it's not sold by the glass--but when the price is four euros a bottle...

Tonight, not for the first time, we line up for strips of grilled magret (duck breast) cooked over charcoal, and frites. On top goes a big spoonful of persillade--garlic and parsley chopped together--pungent enough to make your eyes water. If you want to make it yourself, try equal proportions.

Precisely Planned Chutney & Impromptu Duck Confit

Food shows up everywhere in France. Last week I picked up a crafts magazine, its pages filled with dauntingly ambitious projects, its front cover sporting a small book of recipes for jams and chutneys.

Chutney de courgettes (zucchini) sounded intriguing so, Monday, I assembled all the ingredients at Mirepoix market and at SuperU (the local supermarket which had courgettes on special: two kilos for 1.95 euros). I couldn't find a bird's eye chili so I bought a Spanish one instead, as scarlet and glossy as a tart's patent leather shoes.

The only mistake I made, I think, was the vinaigre blanc. Bottom shelf stuff, it came in the same kind of plastic bottle that you find turpentine and bleach in and, when I unscrewed the cap, it gave off such an eye-watering whiff that I used white wine vinegar instead. The recipe filled five Bonne Maman jam jars (which tells you something about our confiture consumption) with a bit left over.

At about 10 a.m. yesterday morning, I heard the toot-toot of the butcher's truck announcing that it had arrived at the end of Impasse de l'église. Some of the village's older residents were already there when I arrived, buying little packages of this and that from the young woman behind the counter.

I asked her if she had any of the meat mixture used for stuffing vegetables at this time of year. Peppers, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes... Yes, she said, pointing to a fat coil of homemade sausages. I bought a length, and she carefully sliced it open and packaged the contents to make my life easier. Speaking of making life easier: right now, she also sells sausage-stuffed quail wrapped in bacon, all ready to go in the oven.

Later, the same day. Plans easily go awry here. Having a big glass of red with friends in their garden meant it was 7:30 p.m. before we walked in the door. Possibly later Anyway, too late to start faffing around with stuffing courgettes. 

A staple in our pantry is a big tin of duck confit. Peter opened it (the peculiarities of French can openers are a whole other separate post, as is their curious take on plastic wrap) and two legs went into the frypan to warm through and crisp. 

Meanwhile, I boiled some potatoes. Most of the duck fat that melted off the confit went into a small jar, to be stored in the fridge. That way, the duck skin could get golden and crunchy. Around the duck, I arranged cooked potato wedges so they could do the same. The new chutney de courgettes was very good with it all in a sweet/duck à l'orange sort of way, and a green salad added a bit of desirable edge to all that richness.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cascades, Pork Chops and Peperonata

The heatwave was still going strong on Wednesday so we took ourselves off to Roquefort-les-Cascades. Not a drippy blue-veined cheese, which is what it sounds like, but a small pretty village not far from Laroque d'Olmes. Just so you know, that's an ancient little town on a hill 5 km from the village of Léran where we live.  

We drove through the village, silent and dozy in the sun and rife with fiery red geraniums and followed a rough narrow road towards the waterfalls that give Roquefort-les-Cascades its name. But they weren't much in evidence today although the woman in charge of the tourism hut said they were spectacular between January and early spring. We followed a nartrail up through the forest past rock and fallen logs covered with thick velvety moss of an almost fluorescent green. Like all official trails in France, the paths are identified by yellow horizontal strokes or Xs to reassure you that you're going--or not going-- in the right direction.

Driving back through Lavelanet, we stopped for lunch. "Non merci" to a three-course menu on a day this hot but a salad with "tick off the boxes" ingredients hit the spot. 

It was definitely a night for the barbecue. I thawed a couple of pork chops, marinated them with chopped garlic, olive oil and a splash of passionfruit vinegar, abandoned them for an hour or so and Peter tossed them on the grill. Chops here are exceptionally juicy. I wonder if French pigs are allowed to produce fatter meat? A bowl of the peperonata I made yesterday from the recipe in Mark Strausman's The Campagna Table and baguette filled the other two thirds of our plates. 

A Sicilian dish, peperonata is basically a ratatouille-style stew of red and green peppers, canned crushed tomatoes, garlic, onion and anchovies, seasoned with oregano. Also a dash of hot chili flakes but, as I didn't have any, I used cayenne pepper instead. Like ratatouille, peperonata is one of those dishes that is endlessly useful. Sort of a "little black dress" of summer cooking. Straight off the stove, at room temperature, or chilled, it gets along happily with whatever protein you put it with. I could imagine spreading it on toasted baguette as an apero snack too, or dolloped on pasta or spooned over pan-fried wedges of polenta. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lardons and Croutons


When the temperature is in the high 20s and low 30s (Celsius), I try to do any cooking in the early morning with the shutters closed and Radio Montaillou playing its engaging mix of vintage North American songs, French hits and--read very slowly--the weather in English. 

     A couple of days ago, I started by making croutons to use up the tag ends of baguette. A smidge of olive oil in the big non-stick pan, then the bread cubes tossed in, crumbs and all. I had vague plans for the toasted breadcrumbs. Maybe an ingredient in the stuffed round courgettes I plan to make later this week? But absent-mindedly (while singing along with Charles Aznavour) threw them out. 

    Croutons done, it was a short mental leap to dealing with the package of lardons that has been sitting in the fridge for the past week (or two) and is fast approaching its "best before" date. 

     Even though they are really only little strips of bacon, there's something about the geometric precision of lardons that elevates them to a higher culinary sphere. Once they were crisped, I drained them on paper towel, and poured the melted bacon fat into a little jar. Maybe I'll make a British variation on croutons by cooking the next batch of stale baguette cubes in it.
     Monday, at Mirepoix market, we bought a huge, frizzly-leaved frisée. These lettuces, unlike all the others, the sucrines, the feuille de chène, and others are sold by weight. On this already simmering day, I didn't think we'd want anything heavy for supper so the classic French bistro salad seemed the perfect idea. 

     Traditional recipes call for lardons to be cooked à la minute and the still-warm fat to be poured over the greens. Too heavy for me. I also deviated from the classic recipe by adding thin rounds of green onion to the torn frisée. All I had to do at the last minute was poach a couple of eggs, also bought at yesterday's market from the elderly lady who sits near the wine truck selling them out of a basket. Fresh? Unlike the city eggs I'm used to, these didn't fall apart into vaporous swirls of white, but stayed round, plump and all in one piece. 

     The salad tossed, the croutons and lardons sprinkled on, the egg on top...à table. As we broke into the soft eggs, the yolk combined with the dressing, a glorious mouth-mix of oil, sharpness, and bitter green leaves. There are good reasons it's a classic.