Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Views Were Worth It.

      Apart from the occasional saunter around by the chateau and back by the river, I'm ashamed to say it's a few months since I've been on a walk of any length. So when the e-mail came around saying that there would be a major hike today, I signed up, polished the boots and dug out the woolly socks. 
    We all met at the SuperU parking lot in Mirepoix, then headed along a stretch of the major trail that connects a number of local villages, partly along disused railway lines. 
     To say it was a glorious autumn day is understatement. It was just gorgeous. Dew sparkled on the grass. The sky was like an upturned cerulean blue bowl. And it got hot very quickly so that jackets and fleeces--what was I thinking when I put that on?--swiftly came off. 
     We climbed up and up, about 18 of us I think, with the occasional staggering view of the Pyrenees and the occasional staggering walker as all of us opted to climb to the crest (rather than take the tempting downhill trail back towards Mirepoix). The way was steep but when we got to the top, we felt like eagles with the tidy Ariège countryside spread out below us. 
   This was the general view. Moving closer you can see the village of La Bastide de Boussignac and the plane tree-lined road leading into it on the road that we take every time we drive to Mirepoix.
    A long restaurant table was waiting for us when we eventually made it back there after doing about 10 kilometres. The menu wasn't exactly as shown. Instead of soup, there was goat's cheese salad, and the dessert was iced nougat. I doubt that very much got done by any of us for the rest of the afternoon.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tidying the Garden for Winter

   Sunday was a mizzly sort of day, not heavy rain but a light persistent drizzle that would have soaked me in minutes so I abandoned any idea of working in the garden. Monday was sunny and dry so I put on my work boots and gloves, took spade, rake, hoe and trowel out of the shed and set to work. 
   First to come up were the two espelette pepper bushes, grown from seedlings that I bought months ago at the market. Espelettes are a type of chili, and a key ingredient in Basque cuisine. 
Because this is my first go at growing peppers, I don't have any experience in drying them so I'm trying two methods, suspending the whole bush, and threading individual peppers. Both are now hanging beside the fireplace. Any woodsmoke they inhale can only add to their flavour. 
    Next to come up were the tomato plants looking sad and dejected by now after last week's frost (night-time temperatures are now back to around 10 degrees but that one frigid night really did damage to plants). Lots of green tomatoes remained so I've gathered them and plan to fry them or maybe make a jar or two of chutney. 
     The verveine--lemon verbena--needed harvesting too. I cut all its leaves and have hung them below the bunch of lavender on one of the vertical supports in the living room.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pom, Pom, Pom, Pom....

   Last Sunday was one of those golden days that's good from start to finish. The sun shone, the Pyrenees were as sharply defined as a cardboard cutout and the trees on the road to Pamiers are beginning to show their autumn colours.
    The reason for going there, as it always is on a Sunday, was to prowl around the flea market. Out last visit was several weeks ago and I always maintain that the karma builds up the longer you leave it. 
   Sure enough, we were hardly in the square when Peter spotted the base of an old treadle sewing machine. We measured it--these days I never go anywhere without a tape measure in my handbag--and saw that it was exactly the right size to fit at the end of the island in the kitchen. The big dining table feels a little too big for the two of us sometimes. Besides, recently it's been covered with papers, projects and various other stuff. 
    The base was priced at 40 euros. We offered 30 and the deal was done. Later, after crèmes, pains aux raisins, and an hour's browsing, we lugged the sewing machine base along the street to the car park and shoehorned it into the trunk of the Clio.
Back home, we found that the chunk of butcher's block that's been following us around for years was exactly the right size for the table top.  Its grunginess disappeared under vigorous sand-papering and a coat of oil has turned it the same golden-brown as the cabinetry. 
    Last Sunday's other highlight was
Mirepoix's Apple Festival was the highlight of last weekend, the umpteenth one we've been to. Each year, there's a different theme. We've had boats, planes and, in 2009, it was music's turn. Hence the "pom, pom, pom" line on festival posters. 
   As always pommes were everywhere, , green, yellow, red, russet, streaked, strung from the 13th century beams, displayed in shop windows and, at their most magnificent, secured individually to wire bases to create giant bongos, guitar, pan pipes and musical notes.
    We milled around in the sunshine, deciding whethger the tarte sold at that stall was better than the one sold at this stall, and admiring the Corvette-red shine of the toffee apples.
    A group of men pressed apples in an old press to make the freshest possible juice. Musicians played old French songs. It was all quite splendid with the sun beating down and the outdoor cafés packed to bursting. We left with three kilos of apples, and a pie. 
     If you're wondering what happens to all those thousands and thousands of apples (each one attached by hand by volunteers) they're taken down and given to the Red Cross and to food banks.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

All Aboard for a Trip to Castelnaudary

  It's a long. long while since either of us has been on a bus trip. To be honest, I can't remember the last one so we signed up for an "Adventure in Castelnaudary" organized by Léran's Association de Culture et Patrimoine
   We all met up outside the old mairie and we were on the road a bit after 8:30 a.m. Doesn't the village church look handsome in the golden morning light? 
    I don't know what I'd been expecting, maybe a school bus, or something out of the 1950s but what picked us up was an elegant white motorcoach. Off we sped towards Castelnaudary like kids on a Sunday School treat. Because we were sitting higher than usual--certainly higher than a Renault Clio--meant we could see over hedges and actually glimpse the river in Mirepoix.
   The next shot is of us on the boat that cruised us along the Midi Canal for a couple of hours. First, we tootled around the grand bassin: like a large lake and, on this crystalline blue-skied day, looking its absolute postcard best. 
     A floating bouchon (traffic jam) in August, this time of year the Midi Canal is remarkably tranquil. A few boats were tied up, another followed us into a lock, but mostly, apart from flotillas of ducks, we had this wide bottle-green ribbon to ourselves. 
   The coach picked us up again as we disembarked and drove us a little way into the countryside to a restaurant we would never have found otherwise.
   We started of with a kir, then ploughed into a salade de gesiers, followed by, of course, cassoulet--an especially good version. Red wine, ice cream, coffee and back on the bus for a visit to a pottery. 
    More than a few us nodded off as we were driven home. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mon Potager

   First of all, I've been a bad blogger recently. Sorry, really. One excuse is that I've been trying to get the garden in shape for the winter. Some days ago that meant spending hours and hours hacking away at the bamboo patch with a pair of secateurs (borrowed from a neighbour) that were powerful enough to chop through canes as thick as your thumb, sometimes thicker. You think I'm exaggerating. Some of these are massive, I'm guessing seven metres high at their tallest. Once they've crashed to the ground, or on to the arbour or into the nettles, each one has to be chopped into small sections, then bundled and tied with string. I've called the office in Mirepoix and the nice people at the Communauté des Communes will add us to their list on October 26 when they send their colossal fork-lift truck around. 
    Also on the "to do" list is moving plants around. Sometimes I do stupid things. One, earlier this year, was to plant herbs midway down the garden instead of close to the kitchen door--and to plant the vegetable plot even further. Fine in mid-Summer. Not so good on a rainy day in March. 
    Our friend Dave who built our spiffy new terrace--two in fact plus a small semi-circular one custom-made for drinking Pimms under the arbour--suggested a potager at the rear of the main terrace. It's not huge but it's surprising how much it holds, and how well it feeds us.
    The verveine, thymes, rosemary, sage and oregano have all found new homes there. In front, I'm growing chives, Bright Lights chard (that's the kind with the almost fluorescent pink, yellow and orange stems)and roquette/rocket/arugula. The front row is made up of frisée plants interspersed with red-leaved lettuce with little patches of mâche tucked here and there. I buy the plants at the market, 80 centimes for six (although you often get seven or eight).    Everything is deliberately crammed together to allow scant room for weeds. When the frisée or lettuce gets so big that it threatens to leave the mâche in the shade, I simply break off the offending leaves for the salad bowl.
    Another day in the garden is earmarked for the planting of 80 narcissus and 60 crocus bulbs. A friend gave us a package as a housewarming gift which inspired me to buy more. On top of that, there are ten Hidcote lavender plants still in the car.  I'd been looking for this variety for some time and there they were in Bricomarché this morning when we drove over to buy screw to hold the new handles on the kitchen cabinets--so I grabbed all they had. 
     And then there's garlic to plant.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Well, hello Dali!!

   For the past few days I'd been researching a story in the Pyrenees. Now it was time to come home via the town of Bisbal where we hoped to find tiles for the kitchen counters. 
   I won't get into details except to say that we had a really pleasant stay in Palomas on the coast and an unsuccessful tile-hunt the following morning. We trudged from store to store, and made our way into a factory where a pleasant lady showed us around a semi-dark interior piled high with cartons. Even in the semi-dark, we could see that we didn't like any of the contents.
   So we climbed in the car, stopped at a mercato for bread, cheese and grapes, and picniced by the side of the autoroute. Not far north is the town of Figueros, famous for its Dali museum. We missed the turnoff. (It gave me great pleasure later, in the gift shop, when a survey-taker asked my my impressions to say "inadequate signage".)
   This is Salvador Dali's museum and burial place so, of course, the whole place is gloriously over the top from the exterior covered with sculpted bread rolls and crowned with enormous eggs to the interior. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Market Think

    I've been known to go to a weekly market--Mirepoix's on Monday, Lavelanet's on Friday--with a long shopping list and arrive home to find I never once even looked at it. 
    Recent random thoughts in Mirepoix:
    1) Do the stallholders selling vegetables deliberately price aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes all the same to make it faster to put for customers to assemble all the veggies they need for ratatouille? Except that I've noticed that this particular shot breaks this particular rule. But trust me on this, normally they're all priced the same.
    2) Aren't these organic heirloom tomatoes jaw-droppingly beautiful? Just look at those scarlets, sharp yellows and oranges, and all the different shapes and sizes. I can't count the number of times recently that I've bought a kilo and simply arranged them, sliced or not, depending on size, on a dark green plate, and simply poured a little olive oil over them. Check out that price too--three euros a kilo. Canadian readers: that's roughly $2.12 a pound. 
    3) Why is it essential to sit down at the St. Maurice café for a crème and a pain aux raisins with loaded baskets or else it doesn't feel like a "proper" market visit?

Confit of a Different Kind.

  A hunk of confit doesn't just mean a duck leg? The word translates as "preserved" so technically it applies to anything put up for the long-term. 
    Like pork. 
    Lately, we've been going to the butcher at the corner of the square in Mirepoix for a rambunctious pâté de campagne and a luxuriously silky mousse de canard that's almost as rich as foie gras. Last time I was there, I noticed confit de porc, bought enough for two, and listened carefully to the lady-behind-the-counter's advice on how to cook it. 
    Later, here's what I did. First came a softening of chopped onion, carrot and lots of garlic in olive oil in the big frypan. Once they were golden and gooey, I added a big can of drained white beans (keeping the liquid on one side), a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a bay leaf and some chopped tomatoes.
   Everything went into the little cassole (the slant-sided pottery dish purpose-built for cassoulet) with the chunks of pork confit on top. A lid of foil. about 40 minutes in the oven and we had a poor man's cassoulet for our supper. 
   The pork fat melts away into the bean and vegetable mixture, making it the ideal dish for a cold winter's night. It was good on a warm autumn night too.