Chicken Tonight

Chicken is a bit of an occasional treat for us, but first….. source your hen.

Buying eggs - perhaps a chicken - at Lavelanet marketWe buy our eggs from a man with a stall in Lavelanet market. He’s a rather dour chap with a tendency to tell you off if you forget to bring an egg box for your purchases.  But our friend Mireille has seen all his chickens pottering about in their huge field in the countryside south of Toulouse.  She assures us they lead a thoroughly idyllic, bucolic existence, with nothing to do but feed, fossick for grubs and lay eggs for all the customers, until one fine day….  it’s all over, for one of them.  Killed, plucked, gutted, packed up, and brought into market for someone like me.  They’re only killed to order.  On one Friday, you’ll tell him what you’d like to have, and the following week, he brings it to market for you.

And the 11 euros or so we pay is such good value. His birds are so tasty, a little goes a long way: and once we’ve picked every scrap of flesh off, there’s all that wonderfully rich stock from the bones.

This is one of our very favourite recipes: and it’s easy too.  Good hot or cold, summer or winter

Moroccan Chicken with Preserved  Lemons and Olives

Serves 4

Ingredients

1.5kg Free-range chicken
1 Large onion, finely chopped in a food processor
4 Garlic cloves, crushed
100g Butter
1 tbsp Ground ginger
1 Cinnamon stick
¾ tsp Turmeric
¾ tsp Saffron strands
3 tbsp Lemon juice
100g Kalamata olives
100g Small preserved lemons, halved, flesh discarded
50g Chicken liver, chopped
10g Coriander, chopped
10g Flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped.

Method

  1. Put the chicken into a flameproof casserole, tagine or saucepan in which it will fit snugly. Add the onion, garlic, butter, ginger, cinnamon stick, turmeric and saffron; season. Pour in 700ml water, cover and bring to the boil over a medium-to-high heat. Reduce the heat and leave to simmer, spooning the sauce over the chicken and turning it over now and then until it is just cooked through – about 40 minutes. Lift the chicken onto a plate and cover with foil.
  2. Add the lemon juice to the casserole, increase the heat once more and simmer the sauce rapidly until reduced by about two-thirds. Return the chicken to the casserole with the olives and pieces of preserved lemon, cover with a well-fitting lid and simmer for a further 20–25 minutes until the chicken is tender. Lift the chicken onto a large, warmed platter.
  3. Add the chicken liver to the sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the herbs and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve.

    Happy Hen?

How we managed without Alan Titchmarsh and the ‘Ground Force’ Team

Back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, British TV had a bit of a love affair with makeover programmes ( ‘makeover’, in French, is ‘relooker’).  ‘Changing rooms’ made stars of Laurence Llewellyn Bowen and Linda Barker and the MDF industry. A little later gardens all over the UK started sprouting decking after their owners had watched a series or two of ‘Ground Force’, with Alan Titchmarsh and Tommy Walsh for the women, and the famously bra-less Charlie Dimmock attracting male viewers.

Since we bought this house, we’ve been busy ‘Changing Rooms’ too, but only more recently turned our attention to the back yard. And now that too has its own bit of decking, thanks to our ‘Ground Force’ of two + the demolition team back in April. It’s still a work in progress.  The awful oil tank has been ripped out (it’s found a new home in Belesta) and been replaced by a young olive tree.  We have to source garden soil for the raised bed that we’ll use for herbs and good timber to finish the top off as an impromptu seat.  There’s a pergola to build, for shade, and the knotty question of covering the concrete still remains.  It’s too deep to dig up, several builders assure us.

But we’re proud of our progress so far.  Watch the slide show and see what you think.

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Emergency – Ward 7

Well, on Tuesday I nearly claimed on Malcolm’s life insurance.  We had a very scary day at the end of which Mal was in intensive care in hospital in Toulouse:  so the first thing to say is that he’s now OK, in the sense of being back at home, functioning and cheerful, and no longer quite literally at death’s door.

He’d complained of feeling peculiar after breakfast, but put it down to a caffeine OD.  He worked like stink all morning, knocking mortar from an old wall, and much more difficult than it sounds, as it wasn’t so much mortar as ancient concrete.  So he was tired at lunchtime, but then complained of chest pains, and sweat poured from him.  I started checking up my fears on the internet, and rang 118, as well as some friends, who hurtled over immediately, even though it was the sacred French lunch break.  Though I’d been worried, I wasn’t unduly, but Francis later told me he was really scared at the concretey colour of Mal’s face and his description of his symptoms.

The sapeurs pompiers came (ambulance and fire is a sort of joint service here.  As in English rural areas, it’s staffed by on-call volunteers), as did the local community constable, and they crashed around the living room making lots of noise and asking questions as they pulled out all their equipment and gave him oxygen.  I didn’t realise at the time they were doing anything really useful, but in fact they saved his life, and were much praised by the specialists in Toulouse who looked after him later.  All the same, in their zeal, they gave him a a bit of a slap in the kisser as they strapped him with great gusto into his stretcher, and, as I later discovered, carefully removed a (wide) door off its hinges in their efforts to manoeuvre him  outside the house.

Not Mal's ambulance: you didn't think I'd be out there taking photos, surely?

They were supposed to await the doctor and nurse coming from Foix, but decided to save time by getting him into the ambulance (bright red!) and starting off.  Luckily the doctor and nurse arrived just then, in gleaming white operating theatre type garb. It was the doctor’s job to decide where to send him, and I was a bit shocked when he decided not for our local hospital in Lavelanet, not even for the big departmental one in Foix, but for one in Toulouse, the Polyclinique du Parc.  After, I learnt that it is practice to go for the centre of excellence as first choice, rather than somewhere that may not prove to be quite state-of-the-art enough.  At the time, I found it a scary decision.

This team was with Mal throughout his journey.  Emergency siren blaring, driving at full speed, they nevertheless took their turn and joined quite a queue to get through the motorway toll – so French.

He was overwhelmed with specialist care on his arrival, and indeed throughout his stay.  He had a blood clot blocking a main artery, and so they operated immediately, removed the clot, scaping clean the artery walls and permanently enlarging the artery with a stent.  He was conscious throughout and watched with interest as they manoeuvred a tube inside his arm from his wrist to his chest.  The various sensations he experienced – hot, cold, discomfort, were never painful, he said.

Later, Francis and I got to see him in his rather luxurious quarters with en-suite bathroom (Room 07, in fact): he was wired up to all kinds of equipment, his body an artwork of electrodes and patches, but looking much more like his normal self. He remained like this, his body mechanisms monitored and tested every second of the day and night, until the moment he left on Thursday morning.  He wasn’t allowed to leave until he’d read two booklets and passed a test on whether he’d understood the contents.  All in French, of course.  Do you know the English for ‘infarctus du myocarde’?   No, thought not – put your hand down now Kalba.

The just-vacated hospital bed

So….it’s been a bit of an unlooked for insight into French health care.  It confirmed all the positive things we’d heard, apart from one thing.  The food was, how to put it gently, somewhat mediocre.  But he’s happy to return in September, to go through it all again with Artery Number Two.

Christmas Hooch

Young walnuts on the tree

Léonce has a walnut tree outside her house.  On the 24th June, she picked just 40 baby walnuts.

Why 24th June?  Well, it’s traditionally Midsummer Day, celebrated here by huge pagan bonfires, but named for John the Baptist whose birthday it’s said to be (le Feu de la St. Jean).  On this day, summer fruits are at their most perfect, and just asking to be picked.  So they say.

And why pick the nuts when they’re still green, the fruit within unformed? It’s to make a Christmas treat – vin de noix.  This year, Léonce asked me to come and be part of her select manufacturing team of two.

Spices at the ready

When I arrived at her house, with my demijohn (or bonbonne), red wine and eau de vie, her kitchen table was already crowded with all the other ingredients we needed:

Brown sugar cubes – Oranges – Star Anise – Vanilla – Cinnamon sticks

Cloves – Nutmeg – Peppercorns.

They don't look much like walnuts, do they?

I got the job of cutting the walnuts into four.  You need rubber gloves for this.  Without them, your fingers would be stained a vivid orangey yellow, like those of a lifelong heavy smoker.

These are the hands that cut the nuts.....

Meanwhile, Léonce sliced oranges, measured and crushed spices, and opened bottles of wine – we needed 4 litres each, and one litre of eau de vie.

Finally we were ready.  We pushed the walnut segments into our large jars, followed by chunks of orange, the sugar cubes, and then the spices.  All those bottles of wine, all that eau de vie glugged down to mix with everything else, and then all we had to do was cork our bonbonnes, and lug them to a dark cool storage room.

in goes the wine....

We’ll leave them there for 6 weeks for the flavours to blend and develop, then we’ll strain and bottle our concoctions, and leave them again to mature as long as possible.  Don’t do as I do.  Every time I pass, I uncork the bonbonne and have another quick sniff.  Quite wonderful.

You’re not expecting vin de noix from me in your Christmas stocking this year are you?  Oh no, sorry, that’s far too soon.  It’ll be Christmas 2011 at the earliest.  It takes a long time to produce a decent vin de noix.

So here’s the recipe…

Vin de noix

The recipe: french version

40 green walnuts, each chopped into 4

40 brown sugar cubes

1 orange, chopped into chunks, peel and all

4 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

½ tsp. black pepper

½ tsp. vanilla essence, or a small vanilla pod

2 star anise, crushed

4 litres of red wine (13 – 14%)

1 litre eau de vie de fruits (40%)

Put the lots into a demi-john and leave for 40 days.  Filter and bottle and leave to mature for at least a year.  The older the better.

A table full of good things and ready for action

Spice

Yesterday, it was the last day of term at Clé des Chants, one of the choirs I belong to.  As usual, we finished the year with a shared meal.

In the course of the evening, I was chatting to Bernard and Pierrot, mildly teasing them that as usual, the women had cooked food to bring, while the men had brought the wine.  After they’d defended themselves with some vigour, they asked me about English food.

I always find this question quite difficult to respond to, now that we English are more likely to sit down to spaghetti Bolognese, a Chinese-style stir-fry, or a pungent curry, than steak and kidney pudding with two veg. followed by jam roly-poly and custard.  So I talked about the English love affair with curry, and said how we liked ’em spicy.

Bernard: ‘Oh, cooked with saffron – that sort of thing’

Me: ‘No – chillies, cumin, turmeric, ginger – that sort of thing’

Bernard: ‘In that case, I had a curry once, chilli con carne I think it was called.  Didn’t like it.’

Which is, in one way, surprising. The French colonial heritage means that the warm, rich flavours Morocco, Algeria & Tunisia – tagines and couscous are now a standard and much appreciated part of French cuisine.

Still, you couldn’t call these dishes mouth-burningly hot.  Any more than the curries served in this part of France are,  to the English palate. ‘Careful! It’s lethal’, you’ll be warned, as a tempting plate is set before you.  ‘Erm, thanks.  This is a jolly nice stew’ is not the correct response.

PS, and nothing to do with spices at all.  If the French have not embraced curries, they have fallen in love with ‘le crumble’, and whole recipe books are devoted to the subject.  We were delighted to pass a pâtisserie in Agen the other day, with lots on display. They were helpfully labelled ‘Grumble’.

Emily, Sophie and the Crapahut Experience

Sophie & Emily at Puivert

Emily (that’s our daughter, the 21 year old) and her friend Sophie have been to stay.  After all that cold, rain and gloom, they brought the sunshine with them, and a holiday mood.  They quite rightly wanted sightseeing, markets to mooch round, and sunbathing opportunities.  Most afternoons, we finished off with a swim at either Montbel or Puivert.

Emily starts off

Yesterday was their last day, and they wanted Action, with a capital A. We’d seen the publicity for something new: CRAPAHUT PARC AVENTURE – a sort of mile-high adventure playground in the forest at Fontestorbes, near Belesta.

It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder why on earth you’d pay to be scared witless.  It involved serious safety harnesses, and a training session on clipping karabiners onto safety wires so you were secured at all times.

…and the journey begins

Malcolm and I watched from below.  Often, the two were so high up in the tree canopy we could barely see what they were up to.  Whizzing through the forest on zip wires seemed to be the pay-off for challenges such as rope bridges, swaying wooden fences with equally swaying footholds.  High up on the wooden security platform between each section, they had time to contemplate the scariness of the next challenge whilst unclipping and reclipping their karabiners.  Sadly, my camera battery gave out after they’d gone round the first of three sections – the ‘easiest’ one, so I can’t show you the scariest bits of all: such as swinging on a rope, Tarzan-like, to a large vertically strung net, which you have to climb along, crab-like, to reach the next point of safety.

A zip-wire experience

Or the longest zip wire of all, so much higher than the others, which sent them screaming through the trees, across a river, through more quite dense forest, before they disappeared from view.  They came back into view as they returned across the river via precarious rope bridges and swinging platforms

Emily walks the not-so-tight rope

It was fun and a challenge for them.  But it was fun for us too, the two wimps left below.  We wandered through the forest following their progress and astonished at their courage: being safe isn’t the same as feeling safe.

Watch out.  If you come to stay, we may send you there.  Malcolm and I will be watching from below again

Emily strides from tree to tree

A Chimney Falls

Martine won that medal of hers – see my last-but-one posting – for producing 6 children. Where would we be without that family?  She, Francis, and 3 of her children were responsible for getting rid of our garden sheds for us a couple of months ago.  Last week, Francis and yet another of her sons were responsible for demolishing the monstrously heavy & ugly asbestos chimney that emerged onto our roof terrace as the outlet for the now demolished central heating.  Malcolm sawed it up the next day: even the six pieces he made of it are horribly heavy. Now they’re safely wrapped up, and the whole thing’s at the tip.  Another job done.  Thanks, team!