Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another post-walk lunch at the café

   Walking however many clicks it was gives you a serious case of the growlies. We descended on the village café intent on ravaging and pillaging. Marek the owner was there, waiting with jugs of mulled wine. Shirley, his wife, was invisible until the end of lunch when she emerged from the kitchen. Over 30 of us sat down at one long table. 
    First up were bowls of mushroom soup passed from hand to hand. Next came lamb braised for five hours, with roasted vegetables, brussels sprouts, mint sauce, gravy--and lots of all of it. Pichets of rouge and rosé were emptied replenished. A chocolate roulade was dessert, then came mince-pies, coffee and digestifs. And games of cats' cradle with the ribbons that decorated the table.
    We left late in the afternoon, came home, napped and emerged for a very light supper around eight before collapsing into bed not long after. A day of huge, enormous fun.

A serious ????? kilometre walk.

   E-mails were flying back and forth over exactly how long the walk was that we went on last Tuesday. Somewhere around 11 km, or more, or less if you took the short-cut. 
    As usual, we met up outside the café, then headed off in cars, this time to the church at Laroque d'Olmes four kilometres away. Compared with most, this was an easy walk, mostly on the flat with only one fairly steep section. Enough snow to be pretty, cold but not too cold temperatures, magnificent views and lots of interesting stuff along the way: this will be a hard one to beat. 
   Thanks to Kate for the photography and, as always to Julian, who organized the whole thing--and us. 

Decorating for Christmas

  Our house standard Camembert is La Rustique which comes in the traditional round wood box with an inner wrap of red-and-white checked paper. I'd been squirreling away this paper for ages, smoothing it out and stacking it in a drawer. Here's what was at the back of my mind. The inside of the "gift" is a chunk of polystyrene. Kate did the work, wrapping each little white block, sealing it with tape and then trimming it with red ribbon. The evergreens are prunings from the garden. 
    When the checked paper ran out, she used leftover pages from an 19th century book that I've torn apart for its illustrations.

A Few Friends Over for Drinks

    We hadn't had a proper house-warming since we moved in, which was a gradual process over several weeks. But what with that and Christmas coming, it did seem a good idea to throw a party. French, English, Dutch, Irish, Indian, ages ranging from single digits to low eighties, it was a good mix. 
     Many friends brought food as is the custom around here. The whole salmon I cooked almost disappeared. Peter chopped off its head so it would fit in the oven. I stuffed it with lemon, parsley and bay leaves, sloshed a lot of white wine over it before closing its foil overcoat, and baked it for an hour. An hour at 190°C. When that came out, in went the porchetta.
    I've been wanting to make this ever since I first tasted it years ago in Florence, sliced off a huge roast and crammed into a bun. As well as selling whole pork legs to make into hams and sausages, the local supermarket has recently had pork loins on special. I bought one weighing a bit over three kilos and this is what I did:
    Two days before you want to eat it,  you remove all the string that the butcher has carefully tied it together with and slice the pork lengthwise so it opens like a book. Next, you make a paste of fennel seeds, rosemary and garlic, pounded together with a good glug of olive oil. Salt, pepper... That gets slathered inside the pork. Next, and this is the tricky part, you tie the pork back together into its original "log" shape. Cover it with foil, put it in the fridge and forget about it. 
     On the day you want to eat it (and remember this is best at room temperature) bring it out of the fridge a couple of hours before you mean to put it in the oven. Then bake it uncovered on a rack for an hour at 190° C. It seemed to me that it needed an unflinchingly bold sauce so I made a batch of salsa verde with parsley, cilantro, garlic and olive oil.
     As Jamie Oliver would say: easy-peasy. 
     Now, sadly, I forgot to take photos so I can't show you how pretty the salmon looked once I'd skinned it and arrange a line of lemon slices along it, or how tempting the pork was, browned and with a handful of rosemary sprigs chucked in its general direction. Fortunately, Kate did take photos of the party in progress. 

Beans meanz winter

The two weeks since I last posted have been hugely busy. First we were getting ready for Kate to arrive from Canada on December 9. Then came...well, I'll get to some of that in subsequent posts. The weather has turned truly cold. Checking Dashboard, the handy little computer gizmo that tells me the temperature, I see that it's minus four outside at 11 in the morning. By Tuesday, we'll be back to more normal daytime temperatures in the 9 to 13 degree range. 
   So, we split logs, light the fire, close the shutters, block the draughts and eat warming food which brings me to beans. This part of the Ariège is noted for its haricots blancs. Those of Lavelanet and Pamiers are noted for their flavour with everyone rushing to get their hands on the new crop. "Pour vos cassoulets" says this sign and I can't think of a more appropriate dish on a chilly night. Which reminds me, I have a chunk of salted poitrine in the freezer crying out to get snuggly with a kilo of beans and indecent amounts of garlic, onions and herbs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


   At some point over the past couple of weeks (this being the season when The Duck takes precedence) I picked up a package of aiguillettes. These are fillets cut from the breast of a duck and I got eight in this particular packet for about 2.50€. 
  Aiguillettes are incredibly simple to cook. All you do is fry them in hot melted butter--not too long because you want them pink in the middle. Once they were cooked, I put them on a warmed plate, tented with foil. Then I deglazed the pan with a slosh of Armagnac, reduced that down and whisked in some crème fraîche to make a sauce. Butter, booze, cream. Got that? With them we had rice cooked with herbs and onion, and leeks braised in butter and a slug of Picpoul de Pinet (got to use up all those odds and ends of wine). The apples are there because the plate needed tarting up if it was going to appear on a blog.

A Satisfying Morning.

   Rain, wind and cold temperatures have been the norm for the past few days. Tant pis. (All-purpose French expression with many possibly translations depending on the context.)
   Yesterday, I was writing all day so what happened outdoors didn't concern me. Today, I had an enormous list of chores. Not as bad as it sounds as most were food-related. 
   Backing up a bit, last Friday I bought two kilos of beef at Lavelanet market. I can't remember what cut it was but it was deep red, muscular and obviously meant for braising. It had been sitting in the fridge for 24 hours (at least) imbibing the better part of a bottle of Libertin, a wine from Fronton near Toulouse, one of those big reds, along with Madiran and Buzet, that we start to drink a lot of as winter approaches. So, the meat and the wine and some bay leaves and garlic had been the base for a daube which I cooked very, very slowly for several hours yesterday in between word-tinkering. 
    Also in there was half a packet of lardons whose fat, I knew, would rise to the top of the daube if left overnight. It did, I got rid of it, and froze the daube for future cold nights. That was one job this morning.
   The next was to peel and chop a large number of onions to freeze. Almost every recipe uses chopped onions and, purists might disagree, but I've discovered it makes very little difference if you use frozen or fresh onions in your mirepoix
   I also made apple sauce. My English neighbour, Bea, gave us a large bag of apples some weeks ago. Our French neighbours, Jeannine and Jean-Louis keep us supplied with walnuts they find when they're out foraging. (Great quote from Jean-Louis: "I don't use the Internet. I go for walks in the forest.") So I cooked those plus the apples, and some raisins, and it's all destined to go on our breakfast yogurts. Not quite porridge season yet. 
   The final dish I made was soup for lunch. A bag of carrots was losing its sprightliness so I looked up recipes (on the Internet) and found one on the BBC web site for carrot and coriander soup. You hardly need a recipe because all you do is chop a pound of carrots, slice an onion and soften both in a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add a teaspoon of ground coriander seeds, salt and pepper. Pour in, well, the recipe said vegetable stock but I didn't have any so I used plain old tap water. Cook until the vegetables are soft, whizz with a handheld blender, and, just before you dish it up, mix in a good handful of chopped fresh coriander. Delicious. 
   I also prepped ingredients for supper tonight but I'll save that for another post.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Anyone Remember Angélique?

  Around the age of 14, I was spellbound, as were my friends, by a series of novels about a young Française called Angélique. We keenly followed her love life which got off to a rousing start when she was 16 with a forced marriage to a nobleman. I can't remember if it was before, or after, he was burned at the stake (probably after, Angélique tended to serial monogamy) that she cut a swathe through the court of Louis-the-Something. She next headed for the Middle East and a life in the harem. At some point, her thought-dead-but-wasn't comte reappeared and off they sailed for the New World and on and on she went. 
  I may have got some of the details wrong but what I did remember came flooding back at this morning's vide-grenier in Lavelanet where, at one stall, someone was ditching what looked like the entire Angélique series.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

'Tis the season

   We must have already taken last week's supply of "pub"--the printed publicité that shows up in our mail-box--to the dechetterie, otherwise I would have photographed and posted the front page of the Intermarché flyer which shows an almost life-size foie gras.
   Foie gras and other duck parts are everywhere in the run-up to Christmas. The butcher in the marché couvert at Lavelanet had a fine stock on Friday along with duck gizzards, big white fat-laden duck legs for making confit, duck necks to stuff, duck wings, and duck carcasses (I keep meaning to buy a supply of these for stock-making purposes). 
   Also displayed was what looked like an enormous sausage. We asked about it and, as well as explaining what it was--the duck carcass deboned, stuffed, rolled and stitched with stout black thread--the butcher cut us a slice to taste. Good stuff indeed, essence of duck. It can also be sliced thickly and seared in a pan, he said. There's no name for this seasonal "sausage" so I expect it's a dish he invented.
   On the way home, we stopped at the supermarket for basics. The first item that greeted us was a sale on champagne--another sign that Christmas is on its way.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Beautiful Walk on a Beautiful Day.

    Books need to be stacked and measured so we can make or buy more shelves. Work needs doing in the garden. A deadline for a story is fast approaching. But....on this glorious, unseasonably warm day, who could stay indoors. 
    It's been 17 degrees today and we weren't the only ones tempted outside. As we started along the back road to Laroque d'Olmes we ran into friends returing from a bike ride. A few steps on, a young woman was searching for a missing white dog. A jogger went past with two black-and-white dogs loping along behind him. But as soon as we cut across the fields, we had the rumpled green and brown quilt of the countryside to ourselves. 
   What I love about the land around here is its accessibility. You can wander off tracks up steep grassy slopes to see what's on the other side, and find filigree nets of cobweb zig-zagging across your path. The only fences are the thin electric ones that keep cattle from wandering off. On the way back, we had a good view of the chateau and our stubby-towered church. Fields are plowed over, the colour of milk chocolate, or sprouting winter crops that will be plowed into the ground as fertilizer next spring. 
    One house we pass on this walk is surrounded by a high evergreen hedge with a small area carved into it to hold the post-box. Coming back through the village, Peter noticed the shadows of the plane trees. Don't they look exactly as though they're fighting each other?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Night in the village

Coming home tonight, I walked across the place in front of the post office. Everything was dark except for the hairdresser's (yes, we have a hairdresser's as well as a post office and a boulangerie). 

The Choir Drinks Champagne

Some weeks ago, our village choir performed in the church in La Bastide sur l'Hers. As a "thankyou," the curé gave us a case of champagne (the real thing). Peter suggested our house might be a good place to drink it--and hold a rehearsal. 
   So, on Wednesday, we rolled up the carpet, and pushed the big dining table back towards the wall. Our good friend John delivered 18 blue plastic chairs, borrowed from the Salle de Tilleuls where the choir usually practices. 
   I made a few dips, and everyone brought something to eat--and drink. It was quite the feast. Blinis with smoked salmon, chips, snacks, peanuts, three big bowls of nachos, and an enormous croustade from Valérie. 
   Coats went on the chaise longue as everyone arrived. Corks popped and champagne flowed into the 36 plastic flutes we'd been lent by the troisième âge society, the local equivalent of a seniors' group. Time for rehearsal with the repertoire now expanding to include more Christmas carols. We have two gigs booked in December, one in another church, the other at the village night market. 
   Sopranos, altos and tenors sat in tidy rows. Basses stood near the kitchen--and the champagne bottles. More eating and drinking and then another rehearsal of Ding Dong Merrily on High which nearly blew the roof off. 

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Road to Carcassonne

     Snow lies on the peaks of the Pyrennees, the first sign that winter is on its way. But it was a textbook autumn day a couple of weeks ago when a friend and I set off on a shoe-buying jaunt to Carcassonne. (Don't ask--but a subsequent day in Toulouse was more successful, for her, not me.)
    But back to the road to Carcassonne which, once you've passed through the village of Fanjeaux, winds across the plain of the Laurageais. Here's where they used to grow woad. Today, it's maize, sunflowers and vines, now crimson, tawny and yellow stripes across the hillsides, like a corduroy patchwork quilt. I love love these avenues of trees. 
    That tower on the horizon is in the village of Montréal--one of seven Montréals in France.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Fashion Moment at Mirepoix Market

     The foie gras, the bottles of Fitou, the endlessly sunny days of summer, the ravishing countryside, the continual sense of  history, I could go on. But one little known (or little written about) joy of living in the deep south of France is being able to wear exactly what you want. Dress codes may exist around here but, if they do, I've yet to come across them. If you feel like channeling the entire chorus of Les Miserables in peasant skirts and shawls, you can do that (and believe me, I do). Jeans and T-shirts are fine too. Black and bling? Why not.
   Mirepoix has only a handful of clothing stores but high fashion percolates down to the Monday market with remarkable speed. So, like everywhere else at the moment, racks right now are gloomily stocked with black, greige, prunes and purples. Just what we need in a recession, right? 
    Mirepoix market also has more than its share of brightly coloured ethnic/hippie embroidered and patchwork jackets, velvet vests and layered skirts. The friperie stall seems to have disappeared but, in Lavelanet, there's an enormous four-sided stall piled with secondhand clothing, usually three euros an item or two for five. I've dropped a few euros there...
     That's one side of the picture. The other is that if you do want to dress up, you don't have to look far. Check the astounding array of hats.  A shop in Carcassonne sells chapeaux gorgeous and elaborate enough for Ascot. Local festivals often bring out hat sellers who specialize in more casual, but still smart, things to put on your head. But an edible hat? That's a first. I was so beguiled by this Mirepoix stall-holder's leaf-bedecked headgear that my hands shook. So excuse me if the shot is a little bit out of focus.