Saturday, January 7, 2012

How to cook duck magret.

       Since coming to France, we've become huge gluttons for magret de canard, the huge duck breasts that are a delicious by-product of the ducks raised for foie gras.
       In the summer, you can grill magrets outdoors. This time of year, I pan-fry them, scoring their fat first in a criss-cross pattern, and seasoning it with salt and pepper. Into a hot frypan, skin side down. After about six minutes, the magret will have released buckets of melted fat. Pour it off into a jar or, even easier, siphon it off with a turkey baster. Turn the magret over, cover the pan and let it keep cooking for another couple of minutes. About eight minutes in total gives you medium-rare results.
      Move it to a warm plate, and tent it with foil, then carve in thick slices. We find one magret is enough for the two of us. Trust me, it's better than steak.
     Magret is fantastic with sliced par-boiled potatoes fried in duck fat, or with a gutsily-dressed salad of roquette or frisée, with hunks of baguette as the starch component.
      The other night I cooked Puy lentils for 25 minutes, then mixed in chopped onion, garlic, carrot and celery that I'd sautéed till soft in butter.
     The sauce on the side is simply some homemade plum chutney warmed up in a pan. You need something to balance the richness of the duck.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An evil goat, red berries and other New Year snapshots.

    In The City of Falling Angels, his excellent book about Venice, author John Berendt describes how he once set out to take a photograph every minute as he walked around Venice and found he couldn't find anything that wasn't beautiful.  
    So, a few days ago on a sunny and warm-for-January afternoon, we set out for our usual little saunter along the river bank out to the edge of the village, along past the chateau, and back through the streets. Right, I thought, I'll see if I can do a Berendt, snap away and see what happens.
With those satanic slit eyes, goats look inherently evil. This one was. As soon as I'd got him perfectly framed, he stared straight at me, squatted, smiled (I swear) and I don't have to tell you what he did next. 

I don't know the correct botanical name but, when I was growing up in the UK, we used to call these "spindleberries."

I love the lines and proportions of this farmhouse. See that central archway? I imagine more than a few horses and carts have passed through it in their time.

A cathedral of plane trees, long late afternoon shadows and the prospect of a pot of tea and a slice of pain d'épice when we get home. Makes me happy.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Look back at 2011...September to December

    Because what was meant to be the final Marché Gourmand had been rained out, we got a bonus one at the start of September

 Here we all are trooping through the streets to the outskirts of the village... watch the fireworks.

    September is the beginning of the hunting, gathering and preserving season. Windfall pears and plums made a year's worth of chutney.
    This is probably the best month to visit--and we had friends around for almost the entire month. Lots of candle-lit dinners outside, much popping of corks, loads of fun, and many days out.
 On this particular day, we drove east to the Canal du Midi, and then on to the ancient village of Minerve, which was besieged by Simon de Montfort in 1210.

Some of our friends even timed their trip so they wouldn't miss the annual hazelnut festival in Lavelanet.
 The big lunch always takes place in the halles that are normally home to part of the Friday market.

And the first course is always an indecently large serving of foie gras.

Meanwhile, very large quantities of meat roast on a spit...

 Foie gras out of the way, you line up outside for your portion, return to your table (where you find big pots of the local version of cassoulet) and continue eating and drinking. Pace yourself. There's still cheese, dessert, bottles of bubbly and coffee to come.
A member of the confrérie in official garb. I'm a member too but, so far, all I have is a small scarf and a medallion.

   One week in Paris hadn't been enough so, in October, we went there for two, staying in a couple of different apartments.
 Here's the view from the first one we stayed in on the top floor. I suspect it had originally been a maid's room.

  And here's the elevator/lift that took us there. You know those spiral stairways that wind round and round and round (often seen in European films with someone chasing someone else down them)? Well, in this apartment building, there was just room--but only just--to retrofit the smallest elevator imaginable in between the banisters. I'm not exaggerating. All you could shoehorn into it was one person and one piece of modestly-sized luggage.
  Our first weekend in Paris coincided with the fête des vendanges in Montmartre, which celebrates the harvest of locally-grown grapes.

As with any festival, there was plenty to eat, and even more to drink.
 October can be a wicked month for weather. It was raining chats et chiens a few days later so we scuttled over to the Musée des Arts et Métiers, the closest place to escape the downpour.

What we hadn't anticipated were the incredibly beautiful scientific instruments on display.

 Back in Léran, we watched the transhumance, the movement of flocks or, in this case, a herd, from their summer pasturage in the mountains to lower ground, part of the village's first foire agriculturelle.

    A month of walks and a day of remembrance.
 The start of one of the walks we take most often begins with this "cathedral" of plane trees that passes past the grounds of the chateau.
 Soon after, you get a fantastic view of the village--and a sense of how it's surrounded by green--and the mountains.
 This time of year, you're really conscious of the continuity of the seasons, of how new growth like this will be ploughed under come spring to feed next year's crops.
And how the remains of the harvest are also dug back into the earth to feed it. Cattle make their own contribution.
    Remembrance Day in France is marked with great solemnity in every community, and by everyone, however young they are.
 The littlest kids of Léran sang the Marseillaise and later laid their posies and bouquets on the war memorial,
 The firefighters from Laroque d'Olmes were there too.
Our mayor made a speech and then named every one of the 44 soldiers from the village who had died during the first World War, and those who had fallen in the second. After each name was read, an elderly former combatant intoned "mort pour la France" -- "died for France." Wreaths and posies were set around the memorial and then...
...courtesy of the mairie, kids, firefighters, everyone, we all trooped into the village hall for aperos and snacks.

Another walk, this time about half an hour's drive from Léran, just east of Lavelanet, at the village of Roquefixade, which is dominated by a vast cliff and a ruined chateau. 

    Scenery around here is jaw-droppingly magnificent with wave upon wave of mountains stretching to the horizon.
     Christmas was coming. Our village choir sang indoors in Mirepoix cathedral, and outside in one of the village's squares.
      Supermarkets were groaning with foie gras, oysters, champagne and all the other necessities for a traditional French Christmas. I really, truly, deeply loved this arc des oignons (and other alliums) in Carrefour in Pamiers.

Now we're into 2012. Hope this past year was as good as ours. A belated Happy New Year to everyone. May you live long and prosper. 

A look back at 2011...June to August


 A week in Paris to binge ourselves silly on art exhibits, people-watching-from-sidewalk-cafés and--the view I never get tired of--the rooftops.

 This giant head-and-hand sculpture is close to the Pompidou Centre--and to two of my favourite shops. Dehillerin is the go-to source for the best omelette pans you can find (and just about every other variety of pot and cooking tool). Have a browse at . (The English translation is as quirky as the store. I love it that they note they close on "off-days.") A minute away, La Droguerie carries its own line of knitting yarns in pure cashmere and alpaca, big glass jars of beads, embroidered ribbons, feathers, faux flowers, and much, much more.
Each time I go to Paris, I try to explore somewhere I've never been before. On this trip, it was the botanical gardens. Now, those are what I call greenhouses!

    Summer starts officially in Léran with the launch of the Marché Gourmand at the start of July. Every Friday until the end of August, the main street is blocked to traffic by 6 p.m. Instead, long wooden tables and benches stretch from one end to the other.

Set up each side of the street, food stalls sell escargots, cheese, baguettes, bottles of wine, Asian dishes, vegetarian Indian food, various salads, Nutella and other crèpes, and artisanal ice cream. 

    You can also choose a steak, a pork chop or merguez or Toulouse sausages from a butcher's truck and have it grilled to your taste over charcoal. Naturellement, you can buy frites, and serve yourself to ketchup and mayonnaise.
    Although the stall-holders do give you plastic dishes and forks, the experienced bring their own plates and cutlery. You squeeze in beside friends, neighbours or people you've never met until now, table-hop as the night grows dark and, once the wine really starts flowing, volunteer to sing in front of the karaoke screen--assuming this is a night for karaoke and not a professional band.

 July...when the markets are bursting with ripe red tomatoes...

...and every weekend, there's a different vide-grenier for browsing, bargaining and buying.

    Soon we were off to the annual Marionette Festival in Mirepoix. Now in its 23rd year, this is a big deal among string-pullers, drawing artistes from all over the world.
    Live shows take place in a number of venues with plenty of free entertainment on the streets.

I was completely beguiled by this quiet young performer who, with his understated gestures and black clothing, almost disappeared into the background. 

We weren't the only ones to feel the magic...
 It was a lively month. One Sunday, we drove over to the town of Esparaza and roamed around its hat museum.

A long lunch on a broiling day in the shade of a large barn.
The sunflowers in the garden grew taller and taller.

 Our friend, the hugely talented singer/songwriter Fraser Anderson gave an outdoor concert. His wife, Grace, often sings backup.  

 At some point in August, we drove off to Albi for the day. It's a city of rosy-red brick with the cathedral dominating everything. Religion rules, okay? That was the message it was meant to convey. 
Outside, the cathedral is like a fortress except for its entrance which is lacy and beautiful. If you take the péage, Albi is only a couple of hours from Léran. So we were there in time for a coffee in the square opposite the cathedral and a preliminary look at the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. That's the enormous building in front of the cathedral.

    Restoration continues on it making it less museum-y and more multimedia than it used to be. But, oh joy, they still have Toulouse-Lautrec's hollowed walking stick that he used to stash his absinthe in. At the entrance to each room, you can pick up a laminated information sheet in French, Spanish, English--s or Occitan, which used to be the everyday dialect around here.