Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas in Mirepoix

     We plan our weeks around trips to our two favourite local markets and we're especially delighted when a visit from friends includes a Monday--and we can take them over to Mirepoix.
    Because last Monday was the day after Christmas, stalls were fewer than usual but there was still plenty going on, the cafés were filled with people warming up with crèmes or hot chocolate, and inside the cathedral...

    The sun is low in the sky at this time of year, low enough to shine through the stained glass and fling all those ruby reds, sapphires, greens, amethysts and other gum-drop colours on to the ancient stone. God's Christmas slide slow. The effect was quite magical.

Christmas Wrap-Up

       The carcass of the chapon is in the big green enamel pot burbling away into soup. The Brussels sprouts, parsnip purée, roast potatoes, stuffing--the chopped celery and onion mixed in with lots of leftover baguette plus sage, rosemary and thyme from the garden--and gravy are all gone, reheated for a last dinner with Karen and Rob, our friends who stayed here for Christmas. The last of the bûche de Noël went while we watched Love, Actually, an annual tradition guaranteed to leave you teary-eyed.

     Here we are getting into the spirit on Christmas morning with glasses of bubbly before we sat down to scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. 
      Brunch over, it was time to start peeling, chopping and mixing--and discovering "oh, ****, the chapon still has its head on." I hadn't thought to check but at least the innards were gone. What we needed was a chicken guillotine. Instead, Peter used our huge Asian cleaver. Stuffing into the bird. Bird into the oven. It all gradually came together. 
      More friends arrived at 3:30 p..m., the foie gras and more bubbly came out, and then the bird and all its trimmings. 

    Next came cheeses from Spain, and some considerable time later found Isabelle in the kitchen adding a little dusting of icing sugar to the individual desserts she'd made.

   In fact, she'd brought along two desserts. Even though we didn't think we could, we all managed a slice of her luscious chestnut-cream bûche de Noël

   Most friends left a bit after 11 p.m. and then the rest of us snuggled in to the sofas, threw another log on the fire, and caught the AbFab Christmas special on BBC. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

...And it's almost Christmas....

    I'm not going to waffle on about the long silence between blog posts. Just know that my New Year's resolution is to post more often. It's late afternoon on Christmas Eve, there's a cup of tea at hand, a nap in the offing, friends coming for aperos at 6:30 p.m., a table booked at the café for an hour later--and all the ingredients for the Christmas feast in the fridge, or in the making.
    I'm in the middle of foie gras preparation. It's been deveined, sprinkled with salt, pepper and some of Alain's legendary eau de vie. This morning, I wrapped it into a roll, and wrapped it in plastic. Next, I'll wrap it in cloth, poach it for 90 seconds, chill it, and rewrap it even more tightly with a second layer of cloth. This is the "torchon" method as spelled out by Michael Ruhlman.
     Yesterday, we were on the road before 9 a.m. and at Lavelanet market soon after. What a magical drive there with thick mist covering the fields, and steaming away into invisibility as we watched.

   With the mist gone, the sky was as blue as heaven.
The town was bustling, everyone in a convivial mood as they went about collecting their Christmas orders. I'd ordered a chapon--a capon--from the butcher's so we picked that up first and took it back to the car after the moment of terror when the butcher ran his finger down the hand-written list of names and couldn't find mine...

A corner of the butcher's shop. Note the silver  Christmas candelabra on the counter, and the row of cups awarded to "best butcher..." on the top of the sausage display case. Carcasses hang behind the wooden doors to the left.
   Chapon out of the way, it was time to whizz down the length of the market to the halles--and my favourite produce stall.
    The family who run this have a farm about half an hour away. Everything they sell, they grow. Can you make out the bright pink and red stalks of the chard? We got through a few kilos of that at a meal with friends earlier this week.
    No chard needed today but Brussels sprouts, parsnips, parsley, carrots, leeks, shallots, onions and garlic...the bags were getting heavy by now. I walked back outside on this bitingly cold day, and spotted Peter queueing to buy oysters which, like foie gras, are traditional at Christmas.

    While he waits patiently, I want to tell you about the profusion of seafood at this time of year. Earlier this week, we drove over to Pamiers where, among other places, we trawled the Carrefour supermarket. As well as the usual fish counter, pretty impressive at any time of year, there were two huge displays of oysters in wooden boxes, and a central table covered in seaweed, and heaped with live lobsters, crabs, langoustines, mussels and clams. (Next to it was a cooler the size of a bus filled with foie gras in various forms: pale beige lobes, vacuum-packed to be prepared at home, tins of different dimensions, slices...a colossal amount.)
    The other essentials in the Christmas triumvirate are champagne and Sauternes (or some other sweet wine) to sip with your foie gras.
     A bûche de Noël --a Christmas log--is the traditional dessert. So what's it to be? The Black Forest version? The "white lady" kind with vanilla and chocolate? Or a Norwegian omelette which, for reasons unknown, is the French name for Baked Alaska. Our friend Isabelle is bringing dessert so I can't tell you what we'll be eating....
    Merry Christmas to all--and to all a good night.