We carelessly missed the local excitement of the Tour this year, by having to leave for England the very day it passed within 4 km. of our house. But we didn’t miss it ALL. Speeding northwards through the outskirts of Pamiers, a ville d’étape this year, we met these front-runners, all made from flowers, on a roundabout. So if you’re having Tour withdrawal symptoms, now it’s been over for a fortnight or more, here’s a small souvenir.
With a house to sell in England, we’re still here in the UK. So let’s make the most of it, particularly at mealtimes. Here’s how.
With any luck, Discovery, the very first apples of the season will appear any day now. I love their bright red skin, their crisp white crunchy flesh. They’re hopeless keepers, but for just a very few weeks, their bright fresh flavour presents a real contrast to the departing soft summer fruits.
And when they’re over? Well, there are James Grieves, Laxton Supreme, Laxton Superb, Worcester Pearmain, Lord Lambourne, Cox’s Orange Pippin and so many others to look forward to…if you can find them. And of course Bramley Seedlings too, so wonderful to cook with.
I was brought up to anticipate and celebrate the heady variety of taste, texture and appearance of all our English apples. These days I mourn the uniformity of the standard few varieties that stock the supermarket shelves, year in, year out. Often as not, they’re imported from New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, and France, while our own traditional varieties have become heritage items whose very existence is protected by Reading University’s National Fruit Collection at Brogdale
I KNOW they’re available in France, but when we got back this time, we discovered a small blackcurrant bush had been secretly prospering in a forgotten corner of the garden. And there it was, laden with big dark purple berries, over a kilo of them, just asking to picked and enjoyed
Hardly seen in France, I love their crisp sour flesh, and eat them any way I can. Gooseberry fool is best of all: gently stewed fruit folded in with equal portions of good custard and double cream.
They DO exist in France, but can’t compete with the big, juicy, tasty berries we have here: the best ones come from the garden of our friends Richard and Jonet here in Harrogate (and the best jam too). The rest come from Scotland.
Back in southern France, broad beans are long over. Here they’re at their best, so I’ve had two goes this year at my almost-favourite vegetable. OK, not a fruit. But very good anyway.
Surely the quintessential English pud? Gently cooked quantities of soft summer fruits, spooned into a basin that’s been lined with pappy English sliced bread, left for the flavours to mingle before turning out and serving with cream doesn’t sound too exciting maybe. But it is. Summer in England really isn’t summer until you’ve had your first helping. And as many helpings as you can manage before the season’s over
- 1kg (2lb) mixed berries (use a combination
- of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, redcurrants or blackcurrants)
- 160g (5½oz) caster sugar
- 10 thin slices stale white bread, crusts removed
- Place the berries, sugar and 60ml (2fl oz) of water in a saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer on a low heat and cook, stirring to dissolve the sugar, for 3-4 minutes, or until the fruit has softened and produced lots of juice. Set aside to cool.
- Pour the juice into a flat dish, reserving the fruit.
- Cut one slice of bread into a circle small enough to fit the base of a 1.5l (48 fl oz) pudding basin, and another large enough to fit the top. Cut the remaining slices into triangles. Dip both sides of the smaller circle of bread quickly into the juice and place it in the bottom of the pudding basin. Dip both sides of each triangle of bread into the juice, then line the inside of the basin with the juice-soaked bread, overlapping them slightly to make sure there are no gaps.
- Fill the bread-lined basin with berries, drizzle with any remaining juice and top with the larger circle of bread, trimming it to fit if necessary.
- Cover the top of the pudding with clingfilm, then place a saucer or small plate that just fits inside the rim of the basin on top. Press the plate in, then weigh it down with a heavy can or two. Place the basin in a shallow dish to catch any juice that might overflow, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
- To serve, run a thin knife around the inside of the basin and invert the pudding on to a serving plate. Cut into wedges and serve accompanied with plenty of thick cream.
Readers in southern France might be astonished to learn that here in the UK, we have a university named after Simon de Montfort. Although back in13th century England he called the first directly elected parliament in medieval Europe; was Earl of Leicester and de facto ruler of the kingdom, in France, he was an all-round Bad Guy, a crucial part of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, and responsible for the deaths of 1000s.
Our daughter Emily has just graduated from the university in Leicester that bears his name, De Montfort University. Here’s a record of her special day. For us, it was a chance to meet her friends, her friends’ parents, and to celebrate with them the award of their degrees after 3 years’ work.
Emily’s is one of the newer universities, and yet the ceremony was as traditional as those in the much older institutions attended by my other two children. Well, why not? Each graduand is part of a tradition of education stretching back to the early middle ages – well before the time of Simon de Montfort. Their colourful robes – and the even more splendid costumes of those with PhDs, reflect that long tradition. They’re rightly proud to wear them. And I’m so proud of all three of my children, and of what they’ve achieved.
Chicken is a bit of an occasional treat for us, but first….. source your hen.
We 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
1.5kg Free-range chicken
1 Large onion, finely chopped in a food processor
4 Garlic cloves, crushed
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
40 green walnuts, each chopped into 4
40 brown sugar cubes
1 orange, chopped into chunks, peel and all
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.