I’m not a big fan of Christmas, but ever since I was a very small girl, I’ve loved cooking for Christmas – cakes, puddings and mincemeat: those things that have to be done well ahead, and squirreled away in some cool dark spot to mature and develop complex sweet rich flavours.
First there’s the shopping and preparation. All the vine fruits in their cellophane packages; bright crystallised cherries; whole candied peel with crunchy sugary crusts; packets of ivory coloured almonds, and smaller quantities of other fruits to add interest – warming crystallised ginger, emerald green angelica, pale rounds of candied pineapple. Spices too – whole nutmegs and cloves, powdered cinnamon, allspice, mace and mixed spice. Fresh butter, lemons, eggs and flour. Make sure that there’s enough dark and light muscovado sugar in the house. Line the cake tins and grease the pudding basins. Hunt out clean jars for mincemeat.
This year, I’ve rediscovered the pleasure in all this Christmas cooking by seeing it through the eyes of those French friends who’ve come and shared the job of making all these Christmas treats.
Sitting round the kitchen table with our pinnies on, we discussed the less familiar ingredients. Suet, muscovado sugar, treacle aren’t unknown here, but they’re not on every kitchen shelf. Cakes and puddings that need to be made well ahead, and fed with spoonsful of brandy in the weeks before Christmas – now that’s very different. I made my friends weigh everything out in pounds and ounces too – well, it’s what I do, and here are the pictures of how we all got on.
Sadly, they weren’t any longer in the house when the cakes, cooking at low temperatures over several hours, started to give off their warming Christmassy aromas. Which is a pity, because it’s the best bit of all.
This is one of the mincemeats we made. It’s one my mother taught me, and our favourite, with its bright lemon flavour.
6 large lemons
450g (1 lb.) sultanas
¼ pint brandy
225 g (8 oz.) mixed crystallised fruits – I always use crystallised lemons and oranges, perhaps limes too (all bought in large pieces and hand cut), and often cherries, ginger, pineapple, angelica – but it’s up to you.
75 g (2oz.) blanched almonds
800g (1 ½ lb.) golden caster sugar
225g (8oz.) suet
½ level tsp. each ground mace, cloves, nutmeg
Peel the lemons extremely thinly, so that you have the zest, rather than the pith.
Place the lemon peels in pan & cover with cold water, bring to boil.
Drain, re-cover with cold water, & repeat twice more.
Halve & squeeze juice from lemons.
Chop blanched lemon peel finely, and mix with the other finely chopped fruits.
Mix with sugar, suet, brandy.
And mince pies in our house always go down best when they’re made with the recipe my sister-in-law Fenella shared with me.
Pastry for mince pies
230 g (8 oz.) plain flour
40 g (1 ½ oz.) ground almonds
85 g. (3 oz.) icing sugar
170 g. (6 0z.) butter
1 medium egg yolk (you might need 2).
Sift the flour, almonds and icing sugar into a warmed bowl, and rub in the butter. Stir in the egg yolk and work gently to form a soft dough. Knead lightly, cover and chill for 30 minutes.
You’ll need 230 – 340 g (8 – 12 oz.) mincemeat to make this pastry into about 12 tarts. Bake at Gas mark 4, 180 degrees C. for 15 – 20 minutes
Well, I mentioned Patrimoine in my last blog. Yesterday we had Our Farming Heritage, an event organised by Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares. 20 or so of us turned up at a nearby village, Troye d’Ariège, to have a look round a traditionally run sheep farm.
The event was immediately hi-jacked by an unscheduled event – the birth of a lamb. Out in a field, a mother sheep heaved herself up, plonked herself down, then up again, baahing loudly, until suddenly, quite suddenly, there was the front half of a lamb hanging out of her. A bit more wriggling and fussing, and there was the lamb, out on the grass, while the mother flopped beside it. A few minutes later, both were standing again. No shelter, no farmer in attendance – no need to worry apparently. These sheep are Tarasconnais, ‘The 2 CV of the sheep world’ said the farmer: rough and ready sheep who can turn their hooves to anything – wool production, milk and meat production, surviving on their own: molly-coddling is not required. They even get on with delivering their lambs regularly all the year round, somehow producing between them a steady crop of young, without human intervention.
Over to the lambing sheds then, where the mothers, having delivered, come inside for a while with their lambs. The noise! Dozens of lambs constantly baahing in their high-pitched tones, while the mothers hit more melodious lower notes. Hopeless to try to follow all that the farmer, Marcel, was telling us.
Marcel runs his farm of 800 sheep by himself, helped only by an apprentice (who has to go to College in among, of course) and occasional visits from a retired farm hand.
He grows their feed – hay, beets & maize, keeps the animals fed and watered, dips them against insects monthly, de-parasites them every 3 months, regularly cuts 800 sets of hooves (he’s devised various metal narrow bus-shelter-style contraptions to make it easier to queue the animals up take their turns for these various procedures).
He’s not organic, but many of his practices are, and he certainly usually chooses, for example, organic treatments if his beasts fall ill, believing them to be better.
Every summer, about 400 of his sheep go off to the mountains with a shepherd, following the ancient tradition of transhumance. The old, the young and the weak remain behind.
As the sun went down, it got colder and colder. Time for the next part of the evening, an Apéritif dinatoire. What this meant was that everyone from the farm walk and most of the village inhabitants got together to choose and share plates of local sausage, hams, pâtés, cheeses, bread, wine, apple croustades and fruit, mainly sourced from no more than 10 miles away.
The atmosphere got merrier and merrier, and yet, come half past eight, the tables were cleared, and we all sat down for a lecture (this is Saturday evening we’re talking about…..).
Eric Fabre, a university lecturer specialising in the farming history of our area painted a picture of 19th century life in which most people farmed tiny patches of land: only the Church and a very few landowners had substantial holdings. People grew what they and their few animals needed, and the sheep they had were valued for the manure they produced, and secondly for their wool. The meat got eaten, of course, but it only became a marketable product following urbanisation, when town based workers no longer had land of their own. The farmers listening to all this were even more interested then we were, and question time was lively. But it was late and we were tired, and in the end, we were glad to go. 11 o’clock seems well past bedtime when you’ve had a day down on the farm.
Accent –local: If standard French is a challenge, how much more so is the local accent? Remember school French, and being told that usually you don’t pronounce the final letter? Doesn’t apply here. ‘Pain’ is ‘peng’, ‘loin’ is ‘lueng’, and so on. ‘G’s happen a lot – ‘tous ensemble’ becomes ‘tous angsamble’
L’Apero, l’heure de: Great custom
Bio: – organic. Buying organic food is ‘normale’ here, especially at the markets.
Bountiful free food: The hoarding season’s pretty much past its best now. We’ve been out looking for walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, rosehips, apples, sloes and coming home with the kind of quantities that will see us through the year. It’s a full time job.
Butterflies: So many varieties, and seen everywhere, almost all the year round. Even yesterday, November 22nd.
Courtesy: Walking down the street here, it’s normal to offer greetings to everyone you meet. ‘Bonjour Madame!’ With anyone you actually know, you shake hands, maybe exchange bises on both cheeks. Small children greet you, surly teenagers greet you. It’s one of the real pleasures of small town life.
Cheeses: Cows, goats, sheep, all busily producing milk for dozens of varieties of (preferably non pasteurised) cheese: soft, hard, creamy, runny, mild, stinky.
Dépêche du Midi (La): It’s the local daily. We don’t often buy it, as world events seem to pass it by in favour of the marriage of the local lass in La Bastide de Bousignac.
En cas où…….. Out walking, we always have a spare bag stuffed in a pocket. En cas où we find some mushrooms, a handful of berries, some windfalls, a log for the fire. Everybody does it.
Fêtes Festivals and Fun: No weekend is complete without its fête, or festival, somewhere nearby. The other weekend saw the Fête de la Transhumance at le Sautel, with cows and sheep returning to the lowlands. There was a food market, a vide grenier (see below), films, dancing, a barbary organ, a big communal meal on Sunday. Le Sautel is a hamlet rather than a village, but it hasn’t stopped it running a right good show. Recently, there have been la Fête de la Noisette at Lavelanet, la Fête de la Figue at Mas d’Azil…. and in among, there are small local fêtes in nearby villages. No need to get bored at weekends, ever.
Gallic shrugs and gestures. I’ve posted about this before, and do you know, I don’t think my accent’s getting any better. I’m rubbish (shakes left hand vigorously with floppy movement from wrist)
History: I love it that so many people, especially older people, seem to know so much about the history of the region. They’re proud to tell you stories of times past, farming traditions and customs.
Ingenuity: The sort of make-do-and-mend that is such a feature of English allotment life is even more commonplace here. Our garden shed is made of several old doors, a redundant polystyrene fish box, random bits of corrugated iron and plastic screwed together, ancient bits of wire netting and bits of string. To our knowledge it’s been standing 20 years or more, and it’s not about to fall down.
Junk: Freecycle may not exist here – yet – but one person’s junk is another person’s lucky find. We take our household rubbish to central collection points – no dustbin collections here. On Sunday evenings, lots of people (including us, naturally) will be hovering to walk off with and make use of discarded pans, empty packaging, toys, plant pots….
Kilometres and Kilometres of space….. North Yorkshire, which always seems spacious by English standards, has a population density of 74 people per square km. The Ariège has 28. So there’s plenty of room
Lizards: Our garden companions on any sunny day
Lunar calendar: Planting by the phases of the moon is completely mainstream here. Gardening magazines carry free lunar calendars early every spring, and anybody you talk to will give you unsolicited advice on which day the moon dictates you get those spuds into the ground
Markets: The best and happiest way to shop for fresh seasonal food. Don’t be in a hurry though.
Music: So important here. Concerts of every kind, cheap or free, in public buildings, market halls and squares, and churches everywhere. Choirs (introduced to a large extent by the English apparently) in most communes – I belong to two. Bands and singers at fêtes. Even small towns like ours have their own music centres. And lots of bars are home to groups of local musicians too.
Non! Protest comes naturally to the French. We’ve even been on a ‘manif’ ourselves, protesting at teacher cuts. But you won’t travel too far in France before you see signs painted, very large, across the road. ‘Non à l’ours’ (bears are being reintroduced to the Pyrénées, to the disgust of the farmers). ‘Non à la déchetterie!’ (tip), ‘Non aux aeoliennes !’ (wind farms)
Occitan: The everyday language of south western France until well into the 20th century, the Lenga d’òc is little spoken now, thanks to the systematic imposition of the French language in the early years of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, we do hear the elderly speaking it from time to time. It’s once again taught as an option in schools, and in adult education classes. I love passing through the many places that celebrate their Occitan heritage by having town and street names expressed in Occitan as well as French – Autariba rather than Auterive for example.
Patrimoine in the Pays d’Olmes et Pyrénées: ‘Patrimoine’ translates I suppose as ‘heritage’, but it’s not quite as chintzy and twee as that word suggests. Everyone here is proud of their history, and there’s so much going on to celebrate it – talks, walks, conferences, often with a meal thrown in. Just join the party!
Queuing. Don’t let anyone tell you that only the English queue. It’s part of life in neighbourhood shops and markets here. But it’s not a problem. It’s an opportunity to chat with friends and strangers, exchanging local gossip, recipes, scandals. If it’s our cheese man in Lavelanet market, he’ll join in too, and you’ll never get away
Restaurants: I’m not thinking of the elegant once-in-a-blue-moon meal out. I’m thinking of the ‘formule’ at midday, when to a large extent you get what you’re given, in copious and well cooked quantities. Take today, when we went to a fairly down-at-heel looking brasserie on a busy street corner at the wrong end of town. Great salad, followed by tender tasty magret de canard and wonderfully creamy dauphinoise potatoes, a home made concoction of fromage blanc and crème chantilly, coffee, wine, all for 12 euros. We shan’t be eating again today….
Shopping-centre-free-zone. Bliss. Also, though this has recently been partially undermined, almost no Sunday shopping. AND shops usually close for between 2 and 4 hours at midday
Temperatures: Proper seasons here. Summers are hot, winters cold. Autumn, warm, is a time of glorious colour and food for free. Spring, warm, is a treat for its flowers
Underwear. If you want to be disabused of the notion that the French are chic, that haute couture rules, go to any market stall selling women’s undies. Turquoise knickers, orange bras, lime green or luridly lavender matching sets….. And while you’re there, check out those lovely pinafore dresses so beloved of French women of a certain age. Wonder when I’ll be old enough to wear one?
Vélo . Cycling’s big here. Any cyclist, old or young, is kitted out in skin tight lycra, and may well own a bike costing several thousand euros. There’s a cycling club here that meets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Its runs are routinely 120 km. or more (and it’s very hilly). The wimps manage some 80 km., but only ‘les ancêtres’ can get away with a mere 40 km or so
Vide Greniers; People here empty their attics instead of filling their car boots. Any Sunday in spring, summer or autumn some commune or another nearby will have a Vide Grenier organized. One of the larger streets, and probably a few more besides, will have been taken over by the sellers, who display their goods from early morning till supper time,. It’s the same mixture as an English car boot sale, with the addition of all kinds of rusting tools and junk that really HAS come out of the attic. Nobody will buy it. It’ll just appear at the next sale
Walking: so many walks, so much variety. We love learning about new places to explore from books, from maps, from talking to friends, from walking groups. We’ll never run out of fresh walks to try, ever.
Wood-burning stoves: So cosy, we really looked forward to November chill. As for foraging for wood, see ‘en cas où ’, above
Xmas. In early September, a friend over from the UK said that Christmas had already started in the shops. We’re happy to report that nothing at all will happen here until the first week of December at the earliest. Wonderful.
You: Here, there’s the whole tricky business of ‘tu’ or ‘vous’, and it’s a minefield. Children and your friends are of course ‘tu’. The shopkeeper, the bank manager and those adults you really don’t know, are obviously ‘vous’. But there’s a whole grey area in between. Fellow randonneurs and choir members generally settle for ‘tu’ from Day 1, on the grounds we’re all in this together. But not necessarily. Last year at Choir, I sat between 2 women, both more or less my age, both chatty and friendly. To one I was routinely ‘tu’, to the other. ‘vous’. And I was supposed to pick the bones out of that??
Zero Neuf: 09, the Ariège, our department. We love the space, the huge variety of scenery. There’s gently rolling countryside that wouldn’t be out of place in Shropshire with its orchards and winding lanes, oak and beech forests, gentle foothills with grey Gascon cattle, and stunning, awe-inspiring mountains with craggy outcrops and peaks. And all within easy reach of our house.