Tag Archives: French lifestyle

BBQ ribs and life in a haze

I was on the loose in town today sans glasses. I realised they weren’t on my nose as we were leaving, but Léo was driving so I didn’t think it would be too much of a problem. Also we were running late, and the whole ‘when and where did I last see them etc.’ thing would have been too boring and time-consuming. It would obviously be easier to wear them all the time, but as I’m short-sighted, shallow, vain and in denial, it’s never going to happen. Anyway, Léo is a 16-year-old know-all learner driver boy racer, so out-of-focus is definitely the way to go. Far less white-knuckle stress.

While Léo was having his French horn lesson, I went shopping. All things considered, I didn’t do too badly. I bought baby peppers instead of tomatoes, but you know, who cares?  And I had to ask the owner of the shop to tap in my credit card code but again, no big deal. I waved like a maniac across the shop at someone who didn’t know me from Adam, but she was very nice about it and we chatted for a bit. In hindsight I realise she maybe just felt sorry for me, but is hindsight always a good guide? Going in to the post office I misjudged the doorstep, which resulted in an expedient and slightly melodramatic head first entrance. I then ‘Madamed’ a Monsieur, although he didn’t seem too put out – he was obviously quite woke; it’s so last century to fixate on gender.

I went back to the car to wait for my chauffeur (I got into the right car after just one small blunder), and passed the time contemplating my seemingly smooth, almost Photoshopped, wrinkle-free forehead (I’m making myself sound like a simpleton/lunatic now). I concluded that forgetting your glasses is cheaper and more effective than botox, probably less painful too, although that might be open to debate, as my doorstubbed toe will attest. It can be quite comforting to not see things too clearly all the time – I’m not sure that an obsession for detail is necessarily healthy. Think big picture. All in all, blurred worked pretty well for me today.

These ribs are a bit time-consuming, but so worth it. I had given up making ribs because they didn’t seem to be available to buy. We have now found a great butcher who has them all the time. They’re really not particularly healthy, but in a way they are because they’re so delicious they make you happy. And anyway, moderation is the key.

Ingredients (serves 4)

For 4 racks of pork ribs (approx. 400g each)

For the marinade:

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 orange, juiced

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

Combine the ingredients to form a runny paste in a food processor.

For the BBQ sauce:

1 onion, peeled

2 cloves of garlic, peeled

1 chilli, seeds removed

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

1 tablespoon fresh coriander

1 teaspoon chilli powder

50g brown sugar

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

50ml tomato ketchup

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon mustard

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the ingredients to form a paste in a food processor.

Rub the marinade over the rib racks and leave in the fridge overnight. Preheat the oven to 125°C, place the ribs on a baking try and cook for 1½ hours. Remove from the oven and wrap the ribs in tin foil and cover with the sauce. Return to the oven for another hour. Open the tin foil wrapping and increase the oven temperature to 200°C for a further half hour.

 

 

 

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Oatcakes and small lazy animals

Bossy is currently embracing her inner sloth (her excuse is that she has the flu). I would like to say it makes for a peaceful house, but I’d be lying. She screamed at the Tallish One (you may remember I can’t call him The Tall One anymore because The Noisy One has overtaken him by 10cm) this morning to ‘call the  doctor and order him to get rid of this f**king bullshit virus’. So that was reasonable; silent, or even gracious, she is not. Apparently she has very low blood pressure (not that you notice, mind you), which gets worse when she’s ill, which amusingly enough means that when she tries to stand up she collapses. This has the advantage of shutting her up momentarily, although it doesn’t make her any less stroppy. I wouldn’t like for her to actually hurt herself collapsing (she has quite a lot of form with collapsing and broken bones), but needs must.

It is a well-known fact that when you’re ill, you need a sturdy dog to sit on your feet to keep you warm (and give you pins and needles and cramp). As I’m sure you’re all aware, I take my duties very seriously and carry out this role to the fullest, however time-consuming and unpleasant it may be. The trouble is, Java thinks it might be her duty too (when it suits her and when she’s not off doing things of little consequence). This means that we both end up sitting on Bossy who gets thoroughly overheated and panicky and red in the face and I have to throw Java off and we all end up in a growling, feverish heap on the floor. I’m absolutely wrung out; I hope we’re back to business as usual soon because this flu malarky is getting on my nerves.

Oats contain beta glucans which are very beneficial for the immune system (ha!)

Ingredients (makes about 12 oatcakes)

225g rolled oats

60g chickpea flour (or any other flour)

1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

60ml olive oil

Large pinch of salt

80ml hot water

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Combine the oats, flour, bicarbonate of soda, olive oil and salt well and then gradually add the hot water until you have a thick doughy mixture. Roll out the mixture and use a cookie cutter (or upturned glass) to make the cakes. Place the cakes on a greased baking tray and bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool.

Chicken soup and unruly hair

My hair is a free-for-all, to be chewed on, judged and discussed without compunction or reserve. I’m asked on a regular basis if it’s natural (because you think I would I chose it?), if it’s wet, if it’s dry, if it’s just been to the hairdresser and if it hasn’t. In some parts of the world, people come and stroke it like a strange woolly pet. A rather uncharming old lady who lives nearby actually uses the word ‘mop’ when referring to it, which she does every time I see her. And Luc said the other day ‘it just really suits you – it’s chaotic’. This was meant as a compliment (wtf?). The assistant in a posh haircare shop not long ago suggested, without a hint of irony, that I could ‘always try using a comb’ when I asked for advice on how to tame it. And to add insult to injury, Hugo chews on it in much the same way that he chews on Java’s ears.

A number of studies have been conducted on the usefulness of chicken soup (aka Jewish penicillin) in warding off and treating cold and flu viruses. It appears that the soup inhibits the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell that defends against infection. The theory is, that by inhibiting the migration of these infection-fighting cells in the body, chicken soup essentially helps reduce upper respiratory cold symptoms by reducing inflammation.

The researchers couldn’t identify the exact ingredient or ingredients in the soup that made it effective against colds but say it may be the combination of vegetables and chicken that work together.

Make what you will of the research, but at the very least, chicken soup with vegetables contains lots of healthy nutrients, is easy to digest, increases hydration and tastes delicious.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, peeled and chopped

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 leeks, washed and cut into rounds

1 fennel bulb, washed and cut

1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into cubes

4 carrots, peeled and cut

200g cabbage, shredded

1 red pepper or chilli pepper, cut into strips

2 sprigs of thyme

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

2 teaspoons turmeric

1.5 litres chicken stock

2 tablespoons Pernod (optional)

300g pre-roasted chicken, skin removed and shredded

100g frozen peas

2 serving of pre-cooked brown rice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently brown the onions, shallots, garlic and leeks in the olive oil in a large saucepan or casserole dish. Once browed, add the fennel, butternut squash, carrots, cabbage and chilli pepper and continue to cook for a few minutes. Add the thyme, ginger, turmeric, chicken stock and Pernod and bring to a simmer. Once the vegetables are almost cooked, add the chicken and frozen peas and continue to cook for another ten minutes. Add the brown rice towards the end of cooking, season with the salt and pepper and serve piping hot.

 

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.