Tag Archives: life in France

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!

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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.

Buckwheat apple cake (gf) and a tale of two photos

First of all, I’d like to wish everyone a very happy new year. I know a number of people who had a tough 2017, so I wish them all the best for 2018. I have made only a couple of new year resolutions (it’s hard to improve on perfection): to be nicer to Java, and especially more understanding and tolerant of her limitations, which are apparently inexhaustible. And to make fewer catty (doggy?) comments about Bossy in my blog posts. Believe me when I say that it’s tough on both counts.

Bossy showed me these photographs this morning. The first photo shows (left to right) Wookie, Frank and Baby Cecil, and the second me and Java. Feel free to admire our handiwork.

Bossy said that Java and I came off very badly when the photos were compared, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves. She went on to add that at least Baby Cecil had the grace to look contrite, although as all we’re showing the camera is our bottoms it’s anyone’s guess as to our expressions. And the other two dogs, Wookie and Frank, look thoroughly shocked and disapproving, but in an indulgent, unpatronising way. She said this rather pointedly – I’m not sure what she was getting at.

Anyway, I think Bossy’s been confusing ‘contrite’ and ‘really pissed off at having been caught red-pawed’.  She said that Baby Cecil probably had the excuse that he was teething and asked me what our excuse for The Great Cushion Massacre was. She then started to rant about the fact that we take advantage of her good nature (disorganised sloppiness more like) and that, contrary to popular belief, she’s not running a dog borstal, which I thought was a bit far-fetched, even coming from her.

I don’t buy the ‘teething’ excuse for a moment; Baby Cecil looks like a bit of a tinker to me. An adorable tinker, but a tinker nonetheless. Wookie and Frank are wearing the most disapproving expressions I have ever seen on dogs. In fact, unless you’re in the habit of frequenting particularly uptight spinster librarians, you rarely even see such disapproving expressions on humans. One wonders if there isn’t a slight hint of hypocrisy. After all, they could have warned Baby Cecil that he ran the risk of forfeiting his flavour of the month badge.

And as for Java and me, we were simply trying to help sort the house out a bit. I recently read a very enlightening book about feng shui which said that, to achieve a good yin-yang balance, you shouldn’t have too many cushions lying around. Quite honestly, Bossy should have thanked us, not scolded us. She can be very short-sighted sometimes.

Thank you Hugo for your take on these revealing photos. And good luck with your ‘resolutions’ – it looks as if you’re off to a shaky start.

I got the recipe for this cake from the mother of a friend of Léo’s who made it for lunch after a volleyball match. It was meant to be for the whole team, but Léo devoured the lot in one fell swoop.

Ingredients (serves 8 normal people, or 1 greedy volleyball player)

3 eggs, beaten

100g olive oil

80g cane sugar

100g buckwheat flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

6 apples, peeled and diced.

Preheat the oven to 180°C and prepare a medium-sized loaf tin. Beat the eggs, olive oil and cane sugar together until thick and smooth. Gently fold in the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate soda. Finally stir in the diced apples vanilla essence and transfer the mixture to the greased tin. Bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer poked into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool before serving.

 

 

 

 

 

Carrot and cardamon cake (gf) and a barking competition

I was woken this morning to the sound of the dogs barking inside the house and Luc barking outside. Our land is a favourite haunt for hunters because apparently it’s ‘scenic’ and where the best game is to be found. Because of course game, when they’re looking for a place to hang out, always put beautiful surroundings above anything else… For some reason hunting involves, not only pretty scenery, but also lots of shouting. So there was Luc at the crack of dawn, wearing not very much and ranting about how we have to get up early every day of the week and the weekend is the only day we can lie in and why can’t they go and shout and be generally annoying elsewhere because it makes the dogs bark and wakes us up and then he has to come outside and shout at them when he could still be in bed. To be honest, falling leaves are enough to make our dogs bark, and the person making by far the most noise and waking everyone up was Luc. But whatever –  he seemed determined to shout himself hoarse.

I got up and made a piece of toast. We have a very small but fierce toaster with a powerful but woefully imprecise firing range and my toast was catapulted behind the fridge. Retrieving it involved rummaging through piles of crumbs, dust and a dead, flattened mouse. So far the morning was proving to be a real delight, further enhanced by the dogs who decided to embark on an energetic game of  ‘doors’. The principle of ‘doors’ is to ask to be let out by one door and then rush to a door on the opposite side of the house and scratch until your owners’ nerves are ripped to shreds. And repeat ad nauseum.

Christmas plans are off to a shaky start too: organised I am not. Due to a flu epidemic, we are not where we had planned to be, and there’s an ongoing controversy about whether maritime pines make for proper Christmas trees. Something to do with their needles being too long, amongst other sins according to Léo. Anyway, as it’s now 24th December and there are no trees with appropriate length needles left, we had to go and lop the top off a pine tree. Once the contentious ‘tree’ was in place, Léo’s arguments gained momentum, Hugo cocked his leg at it and Java took a flying leap and furiously attacked it with her little teeth. Also, most of the gifts I had bought to put under it are 1000kms away.  And to add insult to injury, Luc and I decided to go shopping together (something we very rarely do) and he forgot and left without me.

I had imagined a lovely photo of the dogs in front of the tree, gazing adoringly at each other. Ha! This is a Photoshop montage (thank you Léo), because they refused to be captured together in front of the non-regulation tree. Unfortunately, neither Photoshop nor camembert were able to make Hugo look at the camera. Happy Christmas everyone!

This cake contains copious amounts of cardamon, a spice that never fails to make everything alright. I’m currently mainlining it. It’s very fragrant and has a lovely, slightly crunchy texture. Delicious warm or cold, alone or accompanied by Greek yoghurt or ice-cream.

Ingredients (serves 12)

350g carrots, grated

50g raisins (pre-soaked in rum)

50g almonds, flaked

50g walnuts, chopped

5 tablespoons coconut oil, melted

80g cane sugar

3 eggs, whisked

100g almond flour

100g polenta

½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon cardamon powder

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Combine the carrots, raisins, almonds, walnuts, melted coconut oil and sugar in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the almond flour and polenta, bicarbonate of soda and cardamom to the whisked eggs and blend until homogenous. Add the flour/egg mixture to the carrot/nut mixture and combine well. Transfer to a greased medium-sized baking tin and bake for 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.

Spicy chicken and coral lentil soup and dog ASBOs

chickencorallentil

Every time I go to London I’m reminded of just how unruly our dogs are. Dogs in London parks amble around acknowledging each other politely, sometimes stopping for a chat or a bit of a play, then rejoining their owners as soon as they’re called. Our dogs? Not so much; if canine ASBOs were a thing, we would have an impressive collection. Hugo, in his labrador way, does have a certain amount of innate savour faire, but it doesn’t stop him and his 30 kilos from climbing onto unsuspecting visitor’s laps or availing himself of the driving seat of their cars. He also has a tendency to break into neighbour’s kitchens to relieve them of their baguettes.

Last time I visited the vet with Hugo, we were asked to leave by the back door because his arrival by the front door (the Door for Civilised Dogs) had created pandemonium (try to picture cats and small dogs splattered all over the walls). The following week when I visited with Java, I was allowed to leave by the Door for Civilised Dogs, which was a big mistake because she launched herself at a pony-sized Pyrenean sheep dog like a tiny heat-seeking missile. Luckily for her, enormous dogs tend to have impeccable manners and gentle dispositions and he shook her off like a rather annoying fly. With great shame I picked her up, seat-belted her into the back of the car and ignored her all the way home.

The dogs have outdone themselves this week though: Hugo got stuck in the car for nearly four hours and we only realised where he was when we heard the car horn tooting persistently. Java, not to be outdone, got herself stuck in the railings of the staircase. Between her wriggling, our giggling, and not knowing whether to push or pull, getting her out was quite a feat. In hindsight, we should have left her there because on our walk afterwards we met five seriously well-trained and hard-working English Setters with a hunter. (At least they were well-trained until Java intervened – I think she must have revealed a chink in their training armour.) She ran into the midst of the pack, her body quivering with high-spirited enthusiasm, despite her presumably bruised ribs from the staircase debacle, hysterically barking ‘PARTY TIME’ and after that there were six setter reprobates running around like maniacs. I’m off to lie down.

Ingredients (serves 6)

4 chicken thighs, skin removed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Dried rosemary

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon coconut oil

1 onion

1 celery stick, chopped

1 leek, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon curry powder

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 bay leaves

3 litres chicken stock

250g coral lentils

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Put the chicken thighs into a roasting tin coated in olive oil, dried rosemary and seasoning and roast for about 30 minutes, or until cooked through. Once cooked, cut or rip into pieces, removing from the bone and set aside. Melt the coconut oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion, celery, leek, carrots and garlic and fry until golden. Then add the seasoning and stock and bring to a simmer. Add the coral lentils and simmer for about 20 minutes (don’t cook the lentils too much or they’ll go mushy). Add the chicken pieces, warm through and serve.

Roast chicken with chanterelles and way TMI

I am about to embark on my final week of a three-week thermal cure in an attempt to relieve my knackered back. Handily, we live just half an hour away from one of the most renown and effective thermal resorts for my sort of problem in France. For two hours a day, I’m smothered in thick, sticky, mineral-rich mud, the texture of which is not dissimilar to melted chocolate, and then immersed in delicate champagne-like bubbles of pine and mineral-infused water. And then the really tough part: the relaxing therapeutic massage. Most of the other patrons, although fit enough to withstand the cure which is actually pretty tiring, have various medical complaints, details of which they are only too happy to divulge and contemplate. Yesterday the man in the massage booth next to mine spent a full 20 minutes waxing lyrical about his extensive collection of, frankly, alarming ailments. I was quickly on more familiar terms with his offal — or what was left of it — than I might ideally have liked. The thing that never ceases to amaze me about the French is the way they consider their maladies to be badges of honour and, as such, refer to them in, if not hushed nonetheless reverential tones. Unfortunately, the massage seemed to have a purging effect on him and the medical technicalities became increasingly gory and colourful. The overall, and in my case faint-making, effect was embellished by the fact that the masseur felt compelled to repeat everything he said REALLY LOUDLY, presumably on the grounds that she shouldn’t be the only one to benefit: ‘So you only have quarter of a kidney left on one side, half a liver and your entrails were scattered all over the operating table…’ I’m so glad I was lying down.

The combination of rain and sun that we’ve had recently means that chanterelle mushrooms are especially plentiful at the moment. Their delicate, slightly earthy flavour is a perfect complement to roast chicken and they are a surprisingly rich source of vitamin D, but also vitamin C and potassium.

Ingredients (serves 6)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 chicken, gutted

200g fresh chanterelles

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

a handful of fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

4 carrots, peeled and sliced

Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon piment d’espelette or paprika

200ml dry white wine

100ml chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Pour the olive oil into a large casserole dish (dutch oven) and add the chicken, chanterelles, shallots, garlic, herbs, carrots and seasoning. Gently brown the chicken on all sides over a medium heat and then add the wine and stock, which should be brought to a simmer. Put the lid on the dish and cook in the oven for just over an hour, or until the ‘sauce’ is beginning to caramelise slightly. You might want to remove the lid for the last ten minutes of cooking. I served with a potato and butternut squash purée and broccoli roasted with orange.

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.