Food for free

In the UK, Richard Mabey’s the original, and still the best known proponent of foraging for good things to eat in the countryside.  Here in our patch of France, it’s Stéphane Martineau, and we spent yesterday afternoon with him, strolling down the lanes near Roquefort les Cascades, nibbling at petals, leaves and roots.

It was a free afternoon organised by Alptis, who provide us with the health insurance we need to complement the state-provided health service, and we enrolled as soon as the invitation came through the post.

Stéphane encouraged us to look carefully at each plant, at how it’s structured, what it feels like, what the crushed leaves smell like.  That afternoon, we found leaves that reminded us of mushroom, garlic, mint, cloves….

We began to understand how welcome the new spring growth must have been to villagers over the centuries.  After months and months of bland beans and turnips, the tasty bitterness of black bindweed, eaten raw or lightly cooked like asparagus must have been a real treat.  Its other name is l’asperge aux femmes battues – battered wives’ asparagus, because it’s also good at relieving bruising and swelling.

At this time of year, before many of the plants have flowered, and growth is young and fresh, there are so many tasty additions to the salad bowl.  Garlic mustard has both leaves and flowers to offer.  Hedge woundwort has nettle like leaves and a slight mushroomy odour.  Primula gives a pleasantly bitter taste so use it sparingly, and creeping Charlie  makes a lively addition to a salad, or an unusual addition to soup or lasagne.

Nettles are of course the kings of country flowers, packed with vitamins, minerals and even proteins.  They can be eaten raw (with a thick and tasty dressing) lightly cooked, or included in sauces and stews and baking.  Fermented, they make an all-round fertiliser, and gardeners dig them into the ground too, to enrich the soil.

We found plants to cure warts, substitutes for aspirin and for the cloves that we’re supposed to tuck next to a throbbing tooth.  We even learnt that horsetail, just as it first thrusts above the ground, makes a good mineral-tasting asparagus substitute. Failing that, once it’s matured, a big bunch tied together is a good pan scourer.

Just one plant was completely new to me: purple toothwort.  It’s a mauve parasitic plant, looking rather like a small clutch of rhodedendrons in bud, and modestly hidden under grasses at the foot of trees.

I’ve got pages of notes about plants I plan to look out for and try: using only a few specimens from each patch, of course, and just taking  a few of the very youngest leaves, as instructed.
Just before we all headed off home, we shared a foraged snack which Stéphane had prepared earlier.  Nettle blinis, Douglas fir cordial, various jams and jellies.  Good stuff, this food for free.

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Young, handsome male cat WLTM genuine loving family for possible long term relationship

It was about 10 days  ago.  When I left the house bright and early for the bread, there he was.  A slim, handsome, very black cat.  I came back.  He was still there, cowering under a drain cover whenever anybody passed.

He soon became the talk of the street, because as the hours and then the days passed, there he still was, nervous and uncertain, hungry too.  The drain cover had become his home. He seemed to crave human company, and to fear it too.  Gradually the story emerged.  Some new people on the street had turned him out.  They didn’t want him back.

We’re away too much to take him in ourselves, though his good looks and charming character made him a tempting proposition.  I advertised him instead on the local English-speaking internet  network.…and got a reply, from a couple we slightly know who were still in Britain and not back in the area till next week.  And because they know they need to go back to the UK in the autumn, if they took him, they would need his rabies jab done now, so he could have his pet passport in time.

Their neighbours rallied round.   Today they came and collected him.  They’ll take him to the vet and foster him for a week.  I’m miffed to report that having been so nervy and reluctant with me all these days, he went straight to them, straight to their cat basket, and uncomplainingly into their car.  The day we tried to foster him till his new owners returned to France, he struggled straight out of the house and over the garden fence.

His new name is, it seems, Rocquie.  He’s from Laroque you see.

This evening, when I popped out for something, there was another unknown black cat, a female this time, sitting eating the food that friendly neighbours have been leaving for ‘our’ cat.  What next I wonder?

The cat's home by the drain

Spring has sprung

All over Europe it seems, people are shedding their woolly pullies and revelling in the  balmy air, as plants unfurl new leaves and flowers, and animals mate and give birth.

This was the lac de Montbel at the very end of last week.We enjoyed the views.  The cows enjoyed the views.Though this mother preferred to keep her calf safe at her side.Dozens of lizards sunbathed on the newly warmed rocks.  Here’s one.And here’s some sloe blossom.  I’ll be back in the Autumn for the mouth-puckeringly sour fruits  to make sloe gin or vodka.There’s only one problem.  The warm weather has brought out all the biting insects.  They soon found me.

A Walk with the Pine Processionary Caterpillars

Out for a walk yesterday, we met about 600 caterpillars, also out for a walk.  Pine processionary caterpillars.  They’re extraordinary creatures, brown and hairy, that travel in long undulating lines, head to tail, looking for sandy earth to burrow into.  We saw 2 processions in as many minutes, each more than 6 metres long. It’s quite an impressive sight, and at first glance, looks exactly like a long, thin, sinuous snake.

A caterpillar that somehow becomes isolated from the one in front writhes about in agitation until it manages to absorb itself into the group again.  Something about these dependent creatures reminds me of those tragic World War One pictures of blinded soldiers advancing unsurely forward by hanging onto the shoulders of the man in front.

Don’t be seduced into thinking they’re rather sweet though.  They’re a real danger, especially if you’re a curious small child or dog.  When humans and our pets come into contact with the barbed and easily shed hairs, they can suffer reactions ranging from mild inflammation and irritation to severe anaphylactic shock.  Some victims have even died.

If you’ve ever walked in the countryside here, you’ve almost certainly seen them, even if you’ve never come across a procession.  Those candy-floss balls of delicate spun silk in so many pine trees round here are their nests and their original home as they developed from eggs to caterpillars.

When they grow up, they’ll be harmless and rather dull moths.  You probably won’t even notice them.

SOS Air Ambulance

Poor Micheline.  Her pain, her distress was our Sunday Soap Opera.

We’d gone walking with our Rando del’Aubo friends, near Nébias again.  We’d yomped up a mountainside, 2 hours of it, and were looking forward to lunch in – oooh, maybe 10 minutes.  That’s when Micheline fell over a tree root.

It was bad.  Very bad. Broken ankle?  Knee? We still don’t know.  Anny, who has GPS, ran off to find some kind of reception for her mobile, so she could ring emergency services, and give them our exact reference.

Pretty quickly, it became exciting.  We were fairly inaccessible, though not as badly so as we might have been, considering we were almost at the top of a (smallish) mountain, because there was, for the first time that morning, open land nearby.  A bright red ambulance service 4×4 came into view, then an ambulance, tossing about on the rutted track.  The sapeurs pompiers had to walk down into the woods, carrying all their equipment and a stretcher, to see Micheline, who was now in quite a lot of pain.  Then – wow!  A helicopter air ambulance hovered overhead, looking for a landing spot.

The pictures show the efficient and organised crew (11 of them, sapeurs pompiers, nurses, pilot) doing what they had to do in muddy, dirty conditions to get Micheline sedated and sorted and ready to be air-lifted to Carcassonne Hospital.  They don’t show the 4×4 being ignominiously towed out of the mud by a local farmer.

Despite our compassion for Micheline and the acute pain and discomfort she was in, we were quietly excited to be part of such a drama, the first apparently, in Rando del’Aubo’s long history of weekend walks.  No news from Micheline yet:  but she won’t be at work tomorrow.

Carnival at Laroque

Lydia: our favourite Native American

But don’t get too excited.  It’s only dear old Laroque, and little old Laroque falls between two stools.  It’s not small enough to get every single person in the community involved in some way in this local festivity.  Nor is it big enough, or rich enough, to throw money at it.

Miriam atop a float

So the primary school is the key.  For several weeks the children have been focusing on the ‘Far West’, and making Native American costumes, cowboy outfits, totem poles and so on, and learning songs and music to fit in with the theme.

Today was the day they put it all on show.  They processed round town.  Tractors with floats trundled round the streets  and into the grounds of the Château.  The poor old cardboard cowboy on his horse the children had so painstakingly made became a sort of Guy Fawkes figure burning on a bonfire.  The schoolchildren sang their songs.  Grillades (a barbecue).  As darkness fell, everyone moved off to the MJC (Maison de Jeunes et Culture).  More grillades, more bands, dancing.  A concert featuring our Music Centre.  General merriment, a late night for the children.  A good time had by all.

The end of the road for this poor old cowboy

Nigel Slater arrives in France

He’s here now.  Not in person of course.  But his books, nearly all of them, arrived with the removal van that brought much of our stuff over from England.

I love Nigel Slater. As a cook, I mean.  He takes such pleasure in all the messier aspects of making and eating food, as I do. Greasy fingers from extracting those last little bits of chicken flesh from an already picked-clean carcass.  Sticky hands from rhythmically kneading and transforming dough from a tacky, gluey lump into barrel-shaped silken responsive mass.  Spoons and fingers to lick after a cake and biscuit-making session.  Weirdly, I even enjoy, if it’s not TOO bad, the burning eyes I get when I absent-mindedly rub them after I’ve been chopping chillies.

During this kind of cooking session, Malcolm and I look at each other with mutual incomprehension.  ‘Want to lick the bowl?’  I ask.  ‘Ergh, no. Shall I get you some rubber gloves so you can keep your hands clean?’  He thinks I’m facing up with commendable fortitude to jobs on a par with sorting out a couple of messy toddlers after a glue-and-paint session. I think he’s missing out.

In the end though, it’s Nigel’s recipes I come back to.  He rarely worries about precise quantities, tasting and adjusting as he goes till the dish seems right. But he does celebrate ingredients in their season.  Here’s what I made the other evening from the remnants of one of Is@’s chickens, and a bag full of the spinach included in our panier of vegetables:  I found the recipe in Tender: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch, Volume 1

Chicken Spinach and Pasta Pie.

Nigel reckons it serves 4.  I reckon 6 wouldn’t go hungry if they sat down to this lot.

spaghetti – 350g
cooked chicken – 500g (boned weight), roughly shredded
mushrooms – 300g
butter – a thick slice
olive oil – 3 tbs
double cream – 450ml
white wine – 2 glasses
spinach – 200g
parmesan – 140g + 50g

Cook the spaghetti in deep, generously salted boiling water. Drain and set aside. (A little olive oil will stop it sticking together.) Set the oven at 180C/gas 4.

Cut the mushrooms into quarters. Warm the oil and butter in a deep pan and add the mushrooms, letting them colour nicely here and there. Add the cooked chicken meat and then pour in the wine.

Bring to the boil, scraping away at the sticky remains at the bottom of the pan: they will add much flavour to the sauce.

Pour the cream into the pan, bring back to the boil and turn off the heat. Wash the spinach and put it, still wet from rinsing, into a pan with a tight-fitting lid. Let the spinach cook for a minute or 2 in its own steam, then drain it, squeeze it to remove excess water and chop it roughly.

Fold the cooked spaghetti, mushroom and chicken sauce and spinach together then stir in two-thirds of the grated parmesan and tip into a large baking dish. Scatter the remaining cheese on top and bake for 35 minutes until the top is crisp and golden.