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.