Shitake mushrooms and furtive barbarians


It will soon be mushroom season, although for the moment it’s still too hot and dry here; Luc is on damp ground watch like a crazy Frenchman. Oh, hang on… I did find a lone, perfect cep yesterday though, which was grabbed from my hand and in a frying pan asphyxiating in olive oil and garlic before I was through the door. I never go foraging without my vicious, spiky walking poles, ostensibly to move away leaves without having to bend down, although really to maim greedy cep-stealing fingers. There’s something about looking for mushrooms (mushrooming?) that turns people into furtive barbarians. Bump into someone who is blatantly foraging and they become incredibly defensive: ‘Me? Mushrooms? Can’t stand the mouldy bastards! I’m just hanging out in the middle of the woods, catching a few rays and bonding with the slugs’.

Even armed with my lethal walking stick, I won’t be finding any shitake mushrooms around here; they grow wild in mountainous regions of Asia and absolutely nowhere else. Scientists have discovered a possible correlation between typhoon wind patterns and the scattering of shitake spores dispersed from one country to the other. The medicinal properties of shiitake mushrooms have been studied since the Ming Dynasty when Chinese elders considered the shitake to be the ‘elixir of the life’.

Shitakes are unique because they contain all eight essential amino acids. They are also a rich source of vitamin D, B vitamins and selenium and other minerals. They also contain linoleic acid which aids weight loss and builds muscle. It also has bone-building benefits, improves digestion, and reduces food allergies and sensitivities.

Shitake mushrooms contain beta-glucan, an immune booster and soluble dietary fibre that’s also found in barley, rye and oats. The lentinan they contain strengthens the immune system and helps to fight off disease and infection. Research suggests that shiitake mushrooms may help fight cancer cells and also help heal damage caused by anticancer treatments. The mushrooms have also been shown to induce apoptosis, the process of cell death. They also contain L-ergothioneine, a potent antioxidant with unique cell-protective properties.

Lastly, these wonderful mushrooms have been shown to have anti-vital, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, effective against a wide range of mould, yeasts, and fungi. It would appear that they even have the ability to kill off the dangerous organisms without affecting the healthy organisms.

Advertisements

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.’

 

 

Tropical storms and a tribute

Sadly my beloved father died in the middle of June. At 83, he was far too young to die; he was supposed to live to 99 like my grandmother.

This is Léo’s tribute to his grandfather: Andante by Mozart, my father’s favourite composer; Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for his belief in Europe; and from The Planet Suite by Holst, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, because that is exactly what he did.

Perhaps as a nod to my father’s exciting but sometimes extremely perilous life in Africa as Foreign Correspondent, on our return to France at the beginning of July we were catapulted into the deepest, darkest tropics. The mother of all storms caused steam to rise from the grass and the phone lines inside and outside the house to catch fire. It also forced the dogs to take refuge in the shower and brought with it a flourishing tribe of the most noisy, ill-tempered mosquitos I’ve ever experienced.

Getting anything fixed in France during the ‘Grandes Vacances’ is challenging at any time, but even more so when it involves replacing a kilometre of phone cable that serves just one house stuck in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, the upshot was that I spent the month of July bereft, incommunicado, and covered in grotesque insect bites. And to add insult to injury, my Instagram account was hacked by Russian spies.

I hope you are all having a nice Summer. Normal service will be resumed in September (I hope!). xx

Tian’amen Square, 1972

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.

Trout with almonds and an eight-kilo water baby

As a discerning Frenchman-in-the-making, Léo has strong opinions about the taste, quality and provenance of the water he drinks. At lycée, he often plays football at lunchtime with his classmates and, after playing on Friday, they were thirsty and nipped to the supermarket where he spotted an eight-litre bottle of his preferred water on special offer. Although they were due back in class, he couldn’t resist, and he and his friends had to haul this vast bottle back over almost a kilometre and up several flights of stairs. The vat was treated like a new class member and given its own desk and chair and became quite the talking point, much to the teacher’s exasperation. Over the next couple of days, it accompanied them everywhere, including the canteen at lunchtime where it had its own place at the table. When Léo was telling me this story, I was reminded of an experiment where men were asked to carry a five-kilo bag of flour around with them all day, pretending it was a baby. They had to feed it, change its nappy, put it down to sleep and generally do their best not to kill it. So now I feel like the grandmother of a giant blue, intellectually precocious water baby called Volvic…

In other news, I think that Java, who couldn’t be accused of intellectual precociousness,  might need reading glasses. Either that or she’s wilfully disobedient, which I’m sure can’t be the case. Léo says a lobotomy is the only answer, but in view of the whole big blue water baby paternity thing, I’m not sure his opinion’s valid.

We are eating more trout and less salmon these days because, although I love wild salmon, it’s not always easy to find and is also expensive. Farmed salmon has three times more fat than the wild variety and a large proportion of this fat is the pro-inflammatory Omega 6, as opposed to the more beneficial Omega 3 fatty acid . It is the couch potato of fish and the quality of its fat speaks volumes.

Ingredients (serves 2)

100g salted butter

2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 whole trout, cleaned and gutted

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

80g flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Melt half of the butter and combine with the fresh herbs and lemon juice. Cover the trout generously and then set into a baking dish and add the seasoning. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the fish crumbles when prodded with a fork. Melt the remains of the butter and gently fry the flaked almonds until golden brown. Pour over the cooked fish and serve.

In memory of Isabelle

A month ago a very old friend of mine lost her 18-year-old daughter, Isabelle, to EHE (epithelioid hemangioendothelioma) after a long and very brave fight. EHE is little-known, rare and vastly underfunded form of cancer, and my friend and her family are now determined to raise both awareness and funds to perhaps help prevent others from suffering a similar tragedy. So this is for Claire-Anne, OJ and Sebastian; in memory of your beautiful daughter and twin sister, Isabelle.

This is their story:

As some of you know, 12 months ago our world was blown apart when our 17 year old daughter Isabelle, following two years of increasing neck pain, was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (EHE for short). Instead of enjoying friendships, worrying about end of school exams and planning her future life after school, she was thrust into a world of hospitals, IV drips, pain and fear.

In March 2017 she underwent major surgery to her neck and spine. From May-July she received radiation and proton treatment which removed the cancer but left her virtually unable to swallow. In August she started having agonising chest pain, only to then be told the cancer was now in her left lung. As a result in September she started receiving aggressive chemo, which led her to spend weeks in hospital due to the side effects and numerous complications. In short, to quote Isabelle, ‘life sucks’.

EHE is a rare vascular tumour that arises from the lining of blood vessels. It can appear almost anywhere in the body, but common sites include the liver, lungs, and bones. The cause of EHE is presently unknown, and no proven treatments exist. EHE tumours can behave differently from one patient to the next, with some being stable for years while others progress quickly. The cancer often metastases throughout the body and possesses the ability to transform into an extremely aggressive state with little or no warning. In short, EHE is an unpredictable disease.

The EHE Rare Cancer Charity is fighting back by funding research into finding a cure and provides invaluable support and information to patients and families like us, whose lives are affected by this devastating disease. Sadly however, very rare cancer research gets no funding from governments, none from the pharmaceutical companies, and almost zero even from the big cancer charities. Companies and foundations will help but only if we continue to show that we are raising funds too.

Donating through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell them on or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to the charity. So it’s the most efficient way to donate – saving time and cutting costs for the charity.

Thank you Claire-Anne, OJ and Sebastian.

Please click here to donate