Category Archives: French

Madiran wine and unravelling

The production of Madiran wine is spread over three departments of southwestern France: Gers, Hautes Pyrénées and Pyrénées Atlantiques. We visited two chateaux in the region last week. At the first chateau, when I couldn’t face another gory detail of the ‘chatelain’s’ latest surgical procedure, I ended up with my head between my legs to stop myself fainting. I suspect his technique is to regale wine buyers with the minutiae of his latest operation, and when their defences are down (or they’ll do anything to escape), go in for the kill; we had planned to buy 18 bottles of his excellent 2012 and instead ended up with 36!

Our visit to the second chateau was after a very long, hot hike through the vineyards, and I think that we probably arrived looking a bit dishevelled (our sartorial baseline is iffy to begin with). There was an English couple tasting wine, and either they’d been there a while and had forgotten to swill and spit, or they didn’t realise I was English, because the lady rather loudly and randomly commented to her husband that we looked like ‘a rather eccentric French family who didn’t know how to tie their shoe laces’. I thought this was pretty rich coming from someone whose companion was sporting an garish yellow daisy-print sunhat!

Classic Madirans are robust, earthy and quite ‘tanniny’ (wine critics the world over will be blown away by my wine vocab.), which is just how I like my wine (and men) to be. And the very best are aged in oak.

The polyphenols found in red wine in general play a key role in its health benefits by acting as antioxidants. Grape skins have high concentrations of polyphenols and in particular, procyanidin. Studies show that regions of the world with the greatest longevity also correspond to those with the highest procyanidin content in their wines.

The highest procyanidin content of all is to be found in the wines in the Madiran region and, as it happens, they also have the highest concentration of resveratrol, which is a sort of a natural plant antibiotic. Resveratrol is part of the defense mechanism in vines, which fights against fungus and other diseases. In humans, studies have shown it has anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar lowering and other beneficial cardiovascular effects.

As Professor Roger Corder, author of ‘The Wine Diet’ explains: ‘One important advantage of choosing wines with a high procyanidin level is that less needs to be consumed to achieve the optimal health benefit. The best results I’ve had in my laboratory have been from Madiran wines. These have some of the highest procyanidin levels I’ve encountered, as a result of the local grape variety, Tannat, and the traditional long fermentation and maceration. In contrast, mass-produced, branded wines sold in many wine bars and pubs generally have disappointingly low levels of procyanidins.’

 

 

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Gascon garbure and how to put a hen to bed

We’ve had issues with foxes lately. When I say ‘issues’, obviously I mean that the vicious, gluttonous bastards have been mistaking our hens for chicken McNuggets and snacking on them before breakfast. The hens used to sleep in the barn, which worked well because horses and hens are natural companions. Both being prey animals, I suppose they have a mutual understanding of what it is to be persecuted all day; I always imagined them spending their evenings having a good old moan about ill intentioned predators and the day’s run-ins and close shaves. Anyway, the remaining hens, understandably traumatised by Nuggetgate, have since been transferred to enclosed premises: The old bread oven. Frankly, if I were a hen, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel about drifting off next to the gaping metal mouth of a huge oven. Luckily though, they’re not the brightest and seem happy enough in their new home.

After a week or so of ‘training’ which involved haphazardly running around the fields at dusk with spades and horsewhips (us), the hens now understand that they should put themselves to bed in their new quarters and no longer in the horses’ barn. All of them, that is, except one. At bedtime she comes to sit resolutely on the boot room table squawking VERY loudly until Luc succumbs and carries her to bed. Just leave it to us to either acquire or create a noisily needy, attention-seeking, high maintenance hen…

How worried should I be about Luc’s apparently blissful expression?

This hearty soup is a typical peasant dish from Southern Gascony. The vegetables used depend on the season, and in the old days the meat used would have depended on what was to hand. The most luxurious version is made with confit of duck, which is what I usually use, although you could too make it with chicken. I love the fact that there is a certain amount of fat in the soup, because it means that the nutrients from the vegetables are more readily absorbed.

There are many recipes for garbure, but I adapted this one from Jeanne Strang’s recipe in ‘Goose Fat and Garlic’.

Ingredients (serves 6)

2 small leeks

250g potatoes

125g celery

4 carrots

125g turnips

1 large onion

4 cloves of garlic

250g white haricot beans (previously soaked if using dried)

250g salt belly of pork

1.25 litres water

0.5 litre white wine

bouquet garni

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 teaspoon piment d’Espelette (or paprika)

1 Savoy cabbage

6 pieces of confit de canard

Chop all of the vegetables except the cabbage and dice the pork. Place the chopped vegetables, beans and pork in a large pot or casserole dish, cover with the water and wine and bring to the boil, then skim and add the bouquet garni and seasoning. You will need to adjust the salt depending on what meats you are using. Simmer over a low heat for two hours, then shred the cabbage and add to the pot along with the confit de canard. Cook for a further 30 minutes and serve with French bread. Bon appétit!

Asparagus: The great spring cleaner

It’s asparagus season which, for me, results in really bizarre, almost psychedelic dreams. Every Spring I hope this will be the year I can eat asparagus to my heart’s content without the added bonus of technicolour horror films. I suppose it could be related to its powerful detoxifying properties. I would be interested to hear if anyone else suffers from this.

Consuming seasonal produce provides unequalled support for our health. And at this time of year, when we need to be detoxified and invigorated after a winter of excesses and heavy, rich food, asparagus is unrivalled.

White asparagus, reputedly cultivated in France since the renaissance, was dubbed the ‘food of kings’ by Louis XIV, aka the Sun King, who grew asparagus year-round in hothouses at Versailles and ate them dipped in a soft boiled egg. Ironically enough, white asparagus must be covered with soil and protected from the sun at all times or it produces chlorophyll which makes it turn green or purple. White asparagus is particularly delicate and well-suited to the light, mineral-rich, sandy soils of this region, the Landes, in southwestern France.

Asparagus is nutrient-dense and high in vitamins A,  B, C ,E and K, as well as potassium, iodine, chromium and zinc. It is also an excellent source of rutin, a flavonoid that prevents small blood vessels from rupturing. It should be noted that the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) should be eaten with healthy fats to be efficiently absorbed, which is why asparagus is best eaten with melted butter, vinaigrette or dipped into an egg yolk like the Sun King.

Asparagus also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which may help reduce chronic health problems such as type II diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The antioxidant glutathione has been shown to slow the ageing process and break down free radicals, protecting your skin from sun damage and pollution. Glutathione also plays a pivotal role in immune function.

With its high levels of the amino acid asparagine, asparagus also acts as a natural diuretic, ridding the body of excess salt and fluid, which is very beneficial for people with oedema and high blood pressure. Researchers have also discovered that asparagus is useful in the treatment of urinary tract infections by reducing pain and swelling.

The high inulin content of asparagus feeds and promotes the healthy gut bacteria that are responsible for better nutrient absorption and better digestive, immune and mental health. Finally, asparagus is an extremely good source of fibre, which moves through the digestive tract trapping excess fat, sugars, bacteria and toxins to remove them from the body.

Salt cod brandade and ask a silly question…

I’m so glad Bossy doesn’t have my mobile ‘phone number; it’s the only way I’ve found to avoid being the irritated recipient of one of her inane texts. Earlier this week she was fretting about whether Noisy had caught the right bus home. Admittedly his grasp of logistics and time management are, at best, very shaky. But, despite spending much of his time with his head in the clouds, he is still a 15-year-old with an above-average IQ who can usually remember where he lives. Last school year, he was lucky enough to find a very efficient PA who took up the organisational slack and kept him on track. This year, he and the friend are no longer in the same class, hence Bossy’s fretting.

Anyway, Bossy’s irrational folly got the better of her and she sent a short text to check he was travelling in the right direction. As the bus doesn’t stop, I really didn’t understand the point; either he was going in the right direction, in which case the text was an annoying waste of time, or he wasn’t in which case it was too late anyway. So I can only commend his reply:  ‘No. Peruvian mutant turtles, having made a lucky escape from a Congolese fruit salad, recruited me for the Norwegian-Chinese mafia. I am currently in a underwater aeroplane with subatomic engines, carrying out biochemical experiments on hamster volunteers. Don’t worry: the Montparnasse tower is not in any immediate danger, and I should manage to finish digging the Dax-Rion tunnel with my Christmas tree. I will be in touch again once I’m within 15 lightyears of your town of residence.’

Obviously his reply begs the question: ‘what does she sprinkle on his breakfast cereal?’, but still: Kudos. Maybe she’ll think twice before sending silly texts again, although somehow I doubt it…

Ingredients (serves 4)

200g salt cod

2 bay leaves

1 onion, peeled and sliced

500ml milk

250g potatoes, peeled and boiled

2 cloves garlic

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

4 tablespoons olive oil

Freshly grated parmesan for topping

Soak the salt cod in cold water for 24 hours, changing the water once or twice. Drain and place in a pan with the bay leaves, onion and 500ml of milk. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for five minutes and then drain, removing any bones and skin and breaking the flesh into coarse shreds. Reserve some of the milk for the purée. Cook the potatoes until soft then drain and purée together with the cod, garlic and seasoning in a food processor, adding the olive oil to create a soft consistency (you may need to add a little of the reserved milk to achieve the desired consistency). Place the purée in an oven-proof dish and sprinkle with parmesan. Put in an oven preheated to 180°C for about 20 minutes until golden brown.

This is sometimes served as a dip with toast. I like it as a standalone dish with a crispy green salad. Hugo likes to lick the bowl, although he pretends otherwise.

Beef bourguignon and a god complex

boeufbourg

Most dogs have beds; Hugo has a throne. He recently spent considerable time and energy trying to relay to us the fact that it’s wholly inappropriate for a dog of his stature to sleep on the floor. He dug his paws in and refused to sleep on his bed, creating temporary accommodation in other places such as the shower, sofas and on piles of dirty laundry. I could tell that he was getting increasingly irate with us for not understanding his problem and poor Java was very confused by the whole affair. And then I had an epiphany: Hugo doesn’t see himself as a common or garden ‘floor’ animal and thinks his bed should be raised accordingly. To him it is incomprehensible that he should sleep at the same level as Java. Complicated measures were taken (the facial expressions when I explained that my dog needed a bed at least 50cm from the ground were a sight to behold), and he now deigns to sleep in his bed again. I’m hoping that his delusions of grandeur aren’t going to be incremental or he’ll soon need a stepladder and the thought of explaining that to the man in the pet shop brings me out in a cold sweat.

hugothrone

Beef Bourguignon is an iconic French dish. Ideally it should be made with Charolais beef and Burgundy wine, although I make it using Bordeaux as that is local to us. It’s best made a day or two before you’re going to eat it to tenderise the meat and bring out the flavours more fully.

Ingredients (serves 4)

800g beef brisket, cut into large cubes

1 litre of full-bodied red wine

2 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves

4 garlic cloves, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 red onions, peeled and sliced

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

100g mushrooms, peeled and sliced

100g pancetta, diced

2 tablespoons flour (I used chickpea flour but plain will do)

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Mix the beef, wine, thyme, bay leaves and garlic in a deep dish and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight. Preheat the oven to 150°C, scoop out the meat and set the marinade aside. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole dish and add the onions, shallots, mushrooms and pancetta. Toss the meat in the flour and add to the dish, gently browning. Add the stock and red wine marinade and bring to the boil. Add the carrots and seasoning and cook for about two hours. Delicious served with creamy mashed potatoes.

Leek and potato soup with mushrooms and repeat offenders

leekpotatomushsoup

After a busy week for tumbles — my husband fell backwards off his horse and frontwards off his bike — we had planned to go the beach for lunch on Sunday. Léo however had other plans; he performed a forward somersault off his bike and landed on his already twice-fractured arm.

Emergency departments are never a pretty sight, but even less so on Sunday mornings when they’re full of bloody rugby players (I don’t have anything against rugby players, but they always seem to have blood spouting from somewhere), and the dregs of Saturday night. As they fast track young children, I told Léo to make himself look little, which, as he’s over 6ft now, made me sound a bit insane.

The receptionist greeted us like old friends and commented more than once on the fact that our family’s records took up a substantial amount of room on her database. As this was potentially his fourth broken arm (he once very efficiently broke them both at the same time), she wondered if he might have any deficiencies. I said that yes, I was convinced he had a number of deficiencies: fear and common sense to name but two. She looked at me strangely and said that she had be thinking more along the lines of calcium or vitamin D. In the end, it turned out that his arm wasn’t broken, just badly dented, which didn’t really sound much better to me, but I suppose it made for a change. For some reason, on our way out I felt compelled to shout over to the receptionist like a madwoman that his arm wasn’t properly broken this time. I felt the need to justify as she’d made me feel like a repeat offender. I suppose she might have a point…

Leeks are an extremely rich source of  vitamin K which is surprisingly important for bone health. Mind you, so is avoiding falling off your horse or bike. Vitamin K has repeatedly been shown to help avoid bone fractures. Leeks also contain substantial quantities of vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus and are a rich source of allicin, a sulphur-containing compound with anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties.

Ingredients (serves 6)

45g butter

6 small leeks, rinsed and diced

2 large potatoes, peeling and diced

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

1 thyme sprig

2 bay leaves

500ml chicken stock  (or vegetable if you prefer)

1 teaspoon paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons crème fraîche

85g mushrooms, sliced

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the leeks, potatoes, garlic, shallots and thyme and cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add the stock and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Remove the thyme and bay leaves. Blend the soup until smooth and add the crème fraîche. Fry the mushroom in a little butter until golden brown, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add a spoonful of mushrooms to each bowl of soup and serve.

Garlic mayonnaise and tractor-shaped puff pastry

mayonnaise

Never judge a book by its cover, or a mechanic by his trade. My husband’s beloved tractor broke down this weekend, which is always something of an emotional upheaval. When we first moved here and people came to visit for the first time, he would always show them his shiny red tractor before the house or grounds, which he seemed to consider to be of secondary importance.

tractor

Upon his much-anticipated arrival, Repairman and Husband started talking in earnest, and I scathingly thought to myself that this was a conversation I would rather gnaw my own arm off than listen to. How wrong was I? It was actually a conversation that taught me an awful lot – and not about tractor entrails either – about the trials and tribulations of puff pastry! Thinking about it, I suppose the two are not that dissimilar; they both involve oil, sweat, swearing and tears and even then, with so many uncontrolled parameters involved, the results are decidedly unpredictable.

Mayonnaise, like puff pastry and tractors, is also temperamental. If the bowl is too cold, the air too hot or your mood too irascible, you WILL screw it up. Earlier in the year, I made a wonderful batch to go with a seafood platter, only for it to end up splattered over the floor, interspersed with broken glass. I tried again to no avail – my cool, calm, collected demeanour had deserted me and we had to eat seafood sans mayonnaise.

Ingredients (roughly 12 servings)

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

150ml olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Squeeze of lemon juice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon paprika

Beat the egg yolks and mustard together. Add the olive oil, little by little all the time whisking well in order to obtain the right consistency. Ad the garlic, lemon and seasoning, whisking continuously. The result should be glossy and luscious. Be careful to refrigerate before dropping on the floor! Must be kept in the fridge and served cold.