Sunday, September 30, 2012

Comfort Food Sunday Lunch

   It was cold enough to light the fire last night and, again, this morning. So obviously a salad, however large, wasn't going to hit the spot. Something cosy was called for, for lunch.
    Winging it, I sliced a container of brown mushrooms, and put some dried ceps to soak in warm water. Next, I melted a large lump of butter in a frying pan, and threw in the fresh mushrooms and a chopped green onion. Lid on, maybe 20 minutes over very low heat.
    Saving the juice, I drained the ceps (through a fine-mesh tea strainer--those little fungi can be gritty), chopped them coarsely and added them to the mushroom mixture along with their juice. In went a squishy clove of roasted garlic--a fridge staple now I've discovered that, wrapped in foil, a head will keep for several weeks. In fact, I bake three or four at a time, usually throwing them in the oven together with the same number of foil-wrapped beetroot. No need to wash them as you're going to slide their skins off anyway.
     Cooked it down a little at the end so there was just enough juice to soak up. And that's what we ate: mushroom ragout, sliced tomato from the garden, toasted baguette. Sunday lunch taken care of.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Signs of Autumn in Southern France

   Recently, it's been really chilly at night to the point that last Sunday, after a terrific outdoor party, we walked home and made ourselves mugs of cocoa. As I write this, late on a Saturday afternoon, the hills are swathed in what looks like a thin layer of cotton wool but is actually rain, it's a cool 11 degrees outside, and we're talking about lighting a fire. Two cubic metres of 50 cm oak logs were delivered last week. We're ready.
   But even without all this, just by wandering around Lavelanet market, you'd still know that winter is looming. 

 For a start, all the cloches have been reduced in price.
    These are the invaluable folding covers that keep flies and other insects off food when you're eating outside. While there will be many days still when it's warm enough for pâté, salads and rosé in the garden, the long candle-lit dinners on the terrace are over for this year.
   But there are compensations. Like girolles and ceps to cook gently in butter with garlic and eat on toasted baguette, or to add to scrambled eggs or a risotto.

    Lucques is the name of a meaty and delicious olive that's grown mainly in the Languedoc. Green, with pointy ends, shaped a little like a half-moon, they're known as "Les Rolls Royces" of olives.
 And of course it's apple season...
 ...and quince season. Three euros for two kilos is a bargain.
 Best of all, this is the time when the grape growers bring their harvest to the market. Muscat grapes are dark, sweet, filled with sticky juice. Pressed and made into a sweet aperitif, muscat is the traditional tipple for madames while messieurs sip pastis. On their own, the grapes go beautifully with a little round of pungent white goat cheese, and the new season's walnuts.
There's always a queue at this producer's stall.
   You have to warm your outside too. All the flimsy cotton frocks, and tiny tops of summer have been marked down to five euros. Replacing them are long sleeves and warmer colours.

 Charentaises are the kind of cosy slipper worn by grandads in storybooks. It's easy enough to get romantic about tiled floors in the summer but the reality is that they're cold on the feet.
    Can you imagine how comforting it would be to slip your bare tootsies into these when you get out of bed on a chilly morning?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Flashback Thursdays: Tracking Family History--with a Will

   Because mine is a fairly unusual surname and because my ancestors didn't move around much (or at least not until the railway system was up and running) I know quite a bit about my father's side of the family. For instance, I know that, in 1525, in the reign of Henry V111, my multi-times great grandfather was born.
   I've been doing more and more research and, by pure fluke, found out that he made a will and that it rests in the archives of the Records Office in Bury St. Edmunds.
  Long story short but they brought it up from the depths of the building and delivered it directly into my hands. No plastic gloves, no anything, so I was, in effect, touching a document written by my direct ancestor when Elizabeth 1 was on the throne. Except that he couldn't write. That would have been done by a scribe. Instead what John Merrills left (the spelling changed over the years) was his mark and seal. The curator at the local museum says that that little rectangle was probably the mark of a weaver, which is what my ancestor was.
  I'm still trying to decipher it...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Thinking about making absinthe.

    At Mirepoix market, you can buy all kinds of plants. Winter salads, leeks, chard at this time of year but also rarer varieties. Under the old iron canopy in the market is where you find some of the smaller, more interesting producers. One guy there sells all kinds of hot and very hot peppers. At one side of his stall is a small selection of plants.
     My regular gardening books are strangely lacking in how to grow absinthe but a web-trawl revealed that it's commonly known as wormwood, is extremely bitter and is, indeed, the key ingredient in the drink that put the fin in fin de siècle.
     Artists, poets and writers all indulged in this seductive green drink, probably because it was said to make you more creative.
       Hmm. An on-line recipe calls for vodka and several herbs that are already growing in the garden. I find myself strangely attracted to the idea of an absinthe evening...especially now that I've learned the correct way to pour it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Flashback Thursdays: Back in Bury St. Edmunds

    For reasons that escape me, I haven't blogged about some of the trips we've done so far this year. So what I've decided to do is scribble away once a week until I'm caught up.  Say hello to "Flashback Thursdays." Now, if you're not interested in what we're doing outside the area, you'll know which day to skip. On the other hand, if you've had it up to here with French markets and food and our constant hunting for vintage, you know which day to check. What am I saying? Wherever we go, we still chase down markets, good things to eat and jumble sales, thrift shops and anywhere else you can find the interestingly pre-owned.
   Back in May, we flew to the UK for ten days with Ryanair. The name of this budget airline may not ring a bell for anyone outside Europe. Most of us have a love/hate relationship with it, loving its occasionally ludicrously cheap fares, but hating the hoops you have to jump through to make sure they don't charge you for extras. And hating, hating their Machiavellian web site where, in order not to buy insurance from them, you have to tick the box artfully hidden in a pull-down menu of destinations.
   Anyway, we got a good rate, booked one piece of luggage to go in the hold and very carefully weighed our hand luggage. Anything over 10 k and they come at you with sharp instruments.
   It turned out that seven of the 10 days we spent back in my homeland were some of the sunniest that the UK had all summer. There we were, in sweaters, sitting outside a pub near Cambridge, swigging shandies and chomping away at our chips, when suddenly one of us (me) said: "Bit hot, innit?" So hot in fact that I had to borrow a T-shirt that same day and, subsequently, spend a tenner on summery wear at the charity shops that now abound in Bury St. Edmunds. I mean, abound. There must be seven or eight of them.
    We had a gorgeous ten days with the family. The first Saturday we were there, we trotted off to the farmers' market held every week at Wyken Vineyards just outside Bury, returning with a fine haul of cheeses and chutneys.

   Homemade cakes straight from a kids' storybook. Don't you just love the one with the Smarties all over it? Made me all nostalgic for my Mum's coffee-and-walnut sponge.
    What my vegetarian sister ate one day when we went out to lunch. Wild mushroom stuffed tortellini with a topping of rocket/roquette/arugula. I seem to remember those brown spots are reduced balsamic.
     Some days later, we spent the day with my eldest niece Sarah who lives near, and sometimes works at, South Farm, which is among the UK's favourite places to hold wedding receptions. Here's South Farm:

 Guests can stay in the main house, or in one of these delightful caravans.
    I completely fell in love with this cozy interior. Just look at its little wood-burning stove and the Persian rug on the floor. Can you imagine how comfortable you would feel tucked up in here on a chill night?
 On another day, a local steam rally was a mix of old tractors...
 ....vintage fairground attractions...
 ... and this Punch and Judy show--hadn't seen one of these since I was little when, Neopolitan ice-cream dripping down our Aertex shirts, we used to watch them on the beach at the seaside.
   Bury St. Edmunds, where I was born is an ancient town going back to a time when dates were in three figures. Friends who live near Aldeburgh took us here, to Leiston Abbey which goes back to the 14th century.
      Having lived without them for so many years, I know I will never tire of seeing and touching old stones.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Modern Man Makes Perfect Porridge

   Although the cloud is thinning now to show promising areas of blue, we woke to a chilly grey morning that called for porridge instead of the usual yoghurt/fruit/granola.
   About a month ago, I mixed up a batch of ingredients to make granola but never got round to toasting it. By mistake, it was used to make porridge--really exceptional porridge it turned out.
    We can never remember the proportions so Peter (who volunteered to make it this morning) looked up a recipe on his iPad.
     For two people, he says, mix together a cup of porridge oats with one-and-a-third cups of water and two-thirds of a cup of skimmed milk. Bring to a slow boil, and simmer for ten minutes, stirring constantly. Turn off the heat, cover the saucepan, let it stand for five minutes and serve with brown sugar (me) or maple syrup (him) and milk.
    This is no ordinary porridge. Because it's basically uncooked granola, it's got sunflower seeds and flax seeds in it. I like to add raisins and he likes to add goji berries too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Food So Good You Follow Your Nose

  Even before you see this stall in Mirepoix, you can smell what it sells from the great heady, indescribably good waft that lures you on, so tempting that it makes your stomach gurgle. Walk round the corner and you see this. Beyond it--and I'll post on this separately sometime soon--is the stall where we buy almost all our vegetables.

 In the foreground, what you get with your couscous (out of frame, in an equally large pan to the right).

  "La Part" means a serving. Parmentier de carnard is shepherd's pie made with duck.
A paella. Get there early enough and you can watch the stallholders building it from scratch.
 Mussels in cream sauce. Also available: moules marinières. Send a comment and let me know what you would order.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Celebrating the vendange.

  It's grape-harvesting season again, which in our region--or any other region in France--means an excuse for a party. Last Friday, I read in La Dépêche, the local newspaper, that the town of Mazères was hosting a fête des vendanges this weekend.
  Mornings this time of year are glorious, mysterious and misty when you wake up, the mist quickly burning off to reveal a flawlessly blue sky. We were on the road around 9:30 a.m. and, less than an hour later, drove into Mazères, the last few kilometres finding ourselves behind chugging vintage tractors. Old tractors are an integral part of any fête around here.
We parked under some handy plane trees and walked into the town, noting how some of the houses are built from the same pink-red bricks you see in Toulouse and Albi. 
 And, wouldn't you know it, there was a vide-grenier to slow us down too. But this was no ordinaire event.
 For a start, an accordionist wandered through the crowd...

 A fenced enclosure on a side street was home to chickens, ducks, rabbits, this impressive turkey...
And a donkey that periodically sent the chickens into a fluster of feathers. 
 No home should be without one of these sad-eyed kids. Fortunately ours is.
   I was briefly tempted by the thought of a pink flamingo tapestry for my friend Jill's Florida Room. But all (!) I bought in the end was a vintage coffee tin with nasturtiums printed on it, an old blue enamel coffee pot, and 20 Michelin maps of various parts of France for a project I want to do.
      Meanwhile, one street over, in the square beside the church, you could buy crusty bread, knobbly saucisses made from duck, or with whole hazelnuts inside, local cheeses, fruit trees, balloons and those little remote-controlled puppies that yap so annoyingly you want to kick them.

And you could gaze at the line-up of tractors. This is just a sample.
  My favourite was undoubtedly this one, because of its lavishly upholstered seat.
 Not far away was the raison d'être--or should that be the raisin d'être--of the day.
 Being pressed into turbid-looking juice...
 And poured out for sampling. This grape juice is sweet and sharp at the same time.
  Across the square, apples were being crushed into apple juice.
 Our region is famous for its dried white beans. Here's what they look like when they're first harvested.
   They're fed into machines like these which separates the shells from the beans.
 Not completely. The last stage is done by hand. This trio of ladies sat around picking out each last little piece of husk.
 Finally, they were packed into bags and ready for sale. Next step, cassoulet.
 (PS: To return to the Nutella theme of the previous post, the little café where we stopped for sandwiches also sold pizza topped with bananas, Nutella and whipped cream, as well as Nutella-and-banana paninis.)