Forecast: Rain. Stiff Upper Lip Not Required

We’ve finally made it back to France, after 4 weeks of family, fun, and titivating our house there for marketing purposes.  When we arrived, stocking up with food was a problem.  The shop was closed: the baker’s was closed: holidays you see.  Then I remembered the evening market at La Bastide sur l’Hers.

Over the last few years, during July and August, evening markets have grown in popularity in the towns and villages in this part of the world.  Originally, the idea was to attract people in to spend a pleasant hour or two browsing at the stalls offering hand-crafted goods and bits of this and that.  Increasingly, they’ve become somewhere to come to have a night off cooking, and spend a cheerful hour or two eating or drinking with friends.  There are always plenty of food stalls: couscous, paella, oriental stir fries, pizzas, barbecued meats…..   Bring your own knives and forks, don’t forget the corkscrew, find a place at a communal table, sit down and enjoy!

Well, that was what we planned for yesterday.  Then it started to look grey. Soft warm raindrops slowly started to drop intermittently from the sky.  With no food in the house, we had to go anyway.  We knew we’d be alone.  The French seem to have no appetite, like we Brits, who are used to such things, for hiking in the rain, or market shopping in a storm.  In the past, we’ve been victim of the cancelled walks, we’ve seen the empty market squares.

This time, we were wrong.  We chose a spot at a table under a row of plane trees which sheltered us from the worst of the rain, bought our food, opened our wine, and tucked in as we got gradually damper and damper.  We people-watched: there were plenty of people to watch.  We saw others doing the same.  We saw families arrive with their cool boxes, determinedly striding through the puddles.  We saw chivalrous men standing with opened umbrellas protecting the rest of their party from the worst of the weather. We laughed and shared the fun with our neighbours at table as the rain got heavier and heavier.  Obé’s paella has never tasted better.

Some lucky people - including the musicians - kept dry under the shelter of the market hall

Himalayan Balsam: An Unlikely Enemy

If it hasn’t reached you yet, beware.  It will.  This invasive plant was introduced – from the Himalayas, obviously – as an attractive addition to the English garden in 1839, and now seems to be marching inexorably round the country, destroying all plants in its path – yes, ANY plant.  Even roughy-toughies like rosebay willow herb and brambles are powerless to stand against it.

The other day, I went with a friend on a favourite walk along the River Nidd.  It’s a gorgeous path, through typical English woodland, with the river rippling and tumbling  alongside.  Not any more, not where we were.  Himalayan balsam has invaded huge stretches of the walk – it prefers to be near water – and we found ourselves marching between shoulder-high sentinels of the wretched thing, unable any longer either to see the trees and undergrowth, nor enjoy either the riverside views or those of the meadows opposite.

And in town today, walking down a little ginnel where, when I was at work, I used to collect blackberries in my lunch hour to make into jellies and jams(how sad….but it made me happy) there was not a bramble bush in sight, just That Balsam.

If it’s planning an invasion near you, martial your forces.  This plant will fight, smother and strangle every bit of vegetation in its path, and conquer yard after yard of ground with every passing year. You must join battle against it the very first time you see some of its – quite attractive – pink flowers .  Or it will win the war and continue its despotic rule.

Tour de France: a Post Script

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.

Summer Fruit

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.

Apples:

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

Blackcurrants:

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

Gooseberries:

Gooseberries, white, red and blackcurrants

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.

Raspberries:

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.

Repeated pleasures:

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.

Summer pudding:

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

Summer Pudding

Ingredients

  • 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

Method

  • 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.

A Good Day for Simon de Montfort: Emily’s Degree Day

Emily and friendsReaders 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.

Emily

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.

Academic procession leaving the podium

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 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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