Marmalade factory

View from our bedroom window, today and every day this week
View from our bedroom window, today and every day this week

This is getting beyond a joke.  For a week now, with the exception of last Tuesday, it’s rained.  Sometimes it’s just drizzled.  Sometimes it’s rained good and proper.  Sometimes it’s poured.  Walks are cancelled, and the market’s a dismal affair with few stallholders and even fewer customers.

But I had to go yesterday, whatever the weather.  I’d been promised Seville oranges.  ‘Will you have any more next week?’ I asked anxiously.  ‘Oh yes, I’m bound to.’  ‘For we English types, I guess?’  ‘No.  Not at all.  I adore Sevilles.  I make tons of marmalade.  So do my neighbours.’

Well, that did surprise me.  Listen to this recipe from a French neighbour, a lovely woman whom I know to be a keen cook. (Sorry, Sharon, you’ve heard this tale.  Bear with me).

‘Take ordinary oranges.  Squeeze the juice, and then take the peel and boil it in plenty of water.  Throw away the water.  Repeat three times until you’ve got rid of the bitterness.  Chop the peel finely…..’  By then she’d lost me.  I didn’t really listen to the end of the recipe.  I felt that on the subject of good gutsy marmalade, this woman and I had nothing to say to one another.

Seville oranges waiting for the chop.
Seville oranges waiting for the chop.

Anyway, tired of downsizing for the time being, we’ve applied ourselves to the business of our marmalade factory.  We have our own needs to satisfy, and those of all our French friends, who profess themselves rather keen on our bright and bitter conserve.  This year, I’ve chosen Dan Leppard’s recipe.  I’ve got a variation on the go, as well as one version where I follow him to the letter.  Instead of using the whole peel in the finished product, I’m using only the thinly peeled zesty part, though of course all the pith will be boiled up with the pips before being discarded.

Chopped Seville oranges waiting for the pot.
Chopped Seville oranges waiting for the pot.

We’ve been scrubbing, squeezing and chopping half the morning, and now the two varieties are sitting waiting for tomorrow , when we can boil each of them to setting point, get out a crusty loaf, butter, and apply ourselves to the serious business of a taste-test.

A Kings’ cake and a poor man’s feast

Epiphany, 6th January.  Today’s the day when here in France we’re supposed to eat Galette des Rois – Kings’ Cake, because this is the day when, according to tradition, the three kings arrived to visit the baby Jesus.

When I went down to the baker’s this morning, I found there were two sorts on offer.  Should  I chose the yeasted brioche style more popular down here?  Or should I go for the layers of puff pastry filled with almond cream?  I couldn’t help thinking that Madame was nudging me towards the puff-pastry option, and that suited me fine.

A galette, a cardboard crown, a fève.... and just a few buttery crumbs
A galette, a cardboard crown, a fève…. and just a few buttery crumbs

As you share it out, one of you will find yourself with a fève in your portion.  This used to be a bean, but these days it’s usually a little china trinket.  And there he was, in the very first slice I had on my plate, a little yellow-uniformed fellow on a plinth inscribed  ‘le pompier japonais’ – the Japanese fireman.  Lucky me.  I got to wear the cardboard golden crown supplied at the baker’s and proclaimed myself King For The Day.  Which was fine as far as it went.  I’m still waiting to be dressed in fine robes and whisked off in a sparkling limousine to some red carpet event.  It’s getting on for bedtime, and so far…. nothing.

I did get to commune with a kitchen full of odds and ends however.  I found half a stale ‘bio’ baguette, and half a Livarot cheese that was uncharacteristically disappointing from the very first mouthful. Though it wouldn’t find a place on the menu of any Royal banquet, I decided on a version of an austerity dish that’s always popular in this house.

Savoury bread and butter pudding

Ooops!  I almost left it too late to take a snap of a crunchy crust of baguette nestling in its  cheesy, eggy blanket.
Ooops! I almost left it too late to take a snap of a crunchy crust of baguette nestling in its cheesy, eggy blanket.

(serves 2)

  • Butter the base of a shallowish baking dish
  • Cut and butter thick slices from a baguette or other loaf .  I usually find 2 slices per person is enough.
  • Grate or slice some cheese you’re trying to get rid of and use it to top the bread and butter.  Usually I use a hard cheese like cheddar, but the Livarot worked just fine .
  • Arrange in the bottom of the baking dish.
  • Beat together 2 eggs, about 150 ml. milk, or milk and cream, or milk and plain yoghurt (this really is about emptying out your cupboards and the fridge), and season.  Today I added a teaspoonful of grainy mustard and a handful of chopped parsley, but it could have been chopped chives, chopped chilli, some crisply fried bacon pieces…..
  • Pour the eggy milk over the bread and cheese and – this is important – leave for at least half an hour for the bread to absorb the liquid.
  • Bake in a hot oven (170 degrees fan oven) for about half an hour till puffy, risen, and with a rich golden crust.  Eat immediately, with an astringent salad of bitter leaves to counteract the richness of the dish.

Actually, it’s not remotely sophisticated, but I don’t think those three kings would have turned up their noses at this meal after all those days and nights trekking across the desert to find a baby in a stable.  But we still have a slice or two of Galette des Rois if they’d prefer.

Cauliflower please.

25011-cauliflower-picture-materialThose cauliflowers with their crisp, bright creamy curds look so enticing on the market stall at this time of year.  They beg to be bought and transformed into something both appetising and full of goodness.

So often they disappoint .  That bright white face displayed among all the cheery autumn colours of carrots and pumpkins, and the deep forest green of spinach and cabbage turns a sullen shade of oatmeal the second it’s introduced to a pan of boiling water.  Leave it there a moment too long and it’s watery, tasteless and almost slimy.

But there are recipes in which it shines. On a miserable winter’s day after a few hours out in the cold, you can’t beat a plateful of good old cauliflower cheese made with lots of decent sharp-flavoured cheddar. You can get away with Cantal Entre Deux, but not the ready-grated Emmenthal that seems to be the default cooking cheese round here.

My next favourite is Rose Elliot‘s cashew nut korma – very mild indeed as far as curries go, but tasty and more-ish.  I’ll adapt the vegetables to what I have in the house, but I’m always sure to include cauliflower.  It’s a recipe I try to make a day ahead, because that way, the ingredients sit together in the pan and get very well acquainted overnight.  By the time we eat them, they’ve become good and harmonious friends.  And I get to use two of the chillies I’ve been carefully growing all summer.

There’s a bit of a theme emerging here: it’s all about comfort food.  Perhaps because this week’s been unremittingly horrible.  It’s rained and rained, the wind has blown, and then it’s rained some more.  A fresh crunchy salad involving fine slices of cauliflower, enlivened by finely chopped herbs and a bright dressing simply wouldn’t hit the spot.  Here’s the last suggestion,  from Nigel Slater’s Tender, Volume one.

A mildly spiced supper of cauliflower and potatoes

That potato and cauliflower dish bubbling away
That potato and cauliflower dish bubbling away

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3 large onions
Rapeseed oil
4 cloves garlic
Ginger: a thumb-sized lump
1 tbsp. ground coriander-a tablespoon
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp.cayenne
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
3 tomatoes (or 1/2 tin)
600 ml. water
3 medium potatoes
a large cauliflower
Handful unroasted cashew nuts
6 green cardamom pods
1 tbsp. garam masala-a tablespoon
150- 200 ml. crème fraîche
coriander-a small bunch

  • Peel the onions, chop one of them roughly, then let it soften with a tablespoon or two of oil in a deep pan over a moderate heat.
  • Halve and thinly slice the others and set aside. peel the garlic cloves, slice them thinly then stir into the softening onion. Continue cooking, without browning either the onion or the garlic.
  • Grate the ginger.  These days I freeze ginger when I buy it, and grate from frozen. It’s so easy to deal with this way. Add to the onion and garlic.
  • Stir the ground coriander, cumin, cayenne and turmeric into the onion. Let them fry for a minute or two, then roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan.
  • Add the water and bring to the boil.
  • Season with salt and a generous grind of black pepper.
  • Cut the potatoes into large pieces (as if for boiling) and add them to the pan. lower the heat and leave to simmer for fifteen minutes before breaking the cauliflower into florets and adding to the sauce.
  • Quickly toast the cashew nuts in a small non-stick frying pan until golden, tip them into the pot, cover with a lid and continue to simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes.
  • Meanwhile, fry the reserved onions in a little oil in a shallow pan till deep, nutty gold.
  • Whilst they are cooking, crack the cardamom pods, scrape out the seeds, crush lightly and add to the onions.
  • Continue cooking for five minutes or so, then, when all is gold and fragrant, remove and place on kitchen paper.
  • When the cauliflower and potatoes are tender to the point of a knife, stir in the garam masala (the spices in it are already roasted, so it needs very little cooking) and the crème fraîche. Simmer for a minute, then serve topped with the reserved onions and the roughly chopped or torn coriander leaves.

If it’s fish, it must be Wednesday.

Our village  shop has a daily battle on its hands to keep itself in our hearts and minds as we plan our weekly shopping.  With three supermarkets (two of them offering ‘le hard discount’) within two miles, it’s all uphill.

Dominique and Joel, the owners, have three types of customer: the old faithfuls who buy all their groceries there.  There are so few of these that if one of them goes on holiday, or worse, dies (I did say old faithfuls), it makes quite a difference.  There are those of us who shop a  fair bit there, and make a conscious decision to do so, to keep the shop in business as an asset for the whole community.  And there’s the passing trade, and those who only go if they’ve forgotten the matches, or fancy a tub of ice-cream just before closing time.

So they encourage local producers, offer delivery,  open earlier and later than the supermarkets (though they have a long break at midday) and are constantly on the look-out to stay noticed.

One of their winning ideas, though, is to supply fresh fish on one day a week.  You’re as well to get yourself there in good time on Wednesday, or it’ll all be gone.  Every week, there’ll be a choice of two varieties.  And last week, the choice was a fairly unusual one for this part of the world: mackerel, my favourite.  Inspired by various ideas from BBC Good Food, though owing allegiance to none in particular, this is the speedy no-nonsense meal I came up with.

Grilled sweet soy mackerel

P1070874

Ingredients

  • 4 mackerel fillets
  • zest and juice of 1 lime, or 1 lemon
  • 1 tbspn. rapeseed oil
  • Noodles, as required

For the sauce

  • 2 tbspn. soy sauce
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded and cut into matchsticks
  • Juice 1 lime or lemon
  • Thumb sized piece of ginger, finely grated
  • 2 tbspn. muscovado sugar
  • 2 tbspn. water
    1. Score the mackerel fillets a couple of times on the skin, then lay them in a shallow dish. Sprinkle with the lime or lemon zest and juice, and leave to marinate for 5-10 mins.
    2. Place all of the sauce ingredients in a small pan and gradually bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 mins to thicken slightly, then remove from the heat and set aside.
    3. Turn the grill to its highest setting and place the mackerel on a greased baking tray, skin side up. Sprinkle the fillets with the oil and some sea salt, then grill for 5 mins until the flesh is opaque and cooked through.
    4. Meanwhile, cook the noodles.

To serve: divide noodles between shallow bowls, top with mackerel fillets, and drizzle the soy sauce mixture over the top

Catalonia visits southern France, bearing calçots

My daughter Emily’s just visited from her home in Barcelona, bringing her Catalan boyfriend, and an enormous bundle of calçots sent by his mother.

Calçots! Think we have enough?
Calçots! Think we have enough?

Eating calçots is a century-old tradition in Catalonia at this time of year.  Garden onions are planted deep in the soil, and earthed up throughout their growing period, so they have long thick white stems, just like a leek’s.  Harvested between Christmas and Easter, they’re a much appreciated local delicacy.

Really, they should be grilled fiercely over an open fire or barbecue.  We lack a barbecue, and in any case, southern France has its own traditions: Holy week is cold, wet and miserable.  Without fail.

Preparing the calçots
Preparing the calçots

So we settled for baking them in a fiercely hot oven.  And then we got down to the cheerfully messy business of eating them.  You strip the hot slippery skin off each calçot, and then dunk it in a punchy romanesco sauce before tipping your head back to ingest the lot.  You need napkins, yards of kitchen roll – bibs would be good –  and good bread to mop up the juices and sauce.

Serving the calçots.  Another break with tradition.  They should be on a terracotta roof tile.
Serving the calçots. Another break with tradition. They should be on a terracotta roof tile.

We had fun, but probably not as much as if we’d visited one of the outdoor festivals dedicated to the eating of these alliums.  Watch the video from Valls.

Eating the calçots.  No red wine for us.  The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal
Eating the calçots. No red wine for us. The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal

Coffee and walnut cake – the failure

I knew it would end in tears. I should have listened to Nigel.

Malcolm’s favourite cake in all the world is coffee and walnut cake. So why not indulge him for his birthday? I made one a while back, and it was just as it should have been – rich and indulgent, with a moist crumb, but not too sickly sweet. How could I have forgotten that it was Nigel who delivered, as he invariably does, the Tips That Matter? I turned to another book, a BBC book for heaven’s sake, which is normally pretty reliable. My instincts told me it was wrong. The size of tin relative to the mixture, the heat of the oven – everything. But I decided to go for it in every particular: you don’t argue with the Beeb.

And of course I shouldn’t have done. The two layers were too thin to rise into a satisying mound of comforting coffee-infused sponge, the quantity of icing advised would have filled and decorated enough cakes to fill the WI stall at the farmer’s market. I was unimpressed. Malcolm’s being too polite to say so, but he did venture to point out that Nigel is King in this house, and his recipes should always be first port of call.

Here’s his recipe. I’ve just this minute compared it with the one I made. And would you believe, the two are all but identical?  Extraordinary.  Jut reading a recipe by Nigel seems to make it succeed.

It’s rare for me to follow recipes to the letter.  Like Nigel Slater, I tend to adapt, substitute, tinker.  So what I’ve learnt from this is that instincts are there to be heeded.  If a recipe seems wrong, it probably is.  For you, anyway.  On that particular day, at least.

The failed coffee cake. It can't be all that bad.  We'll eat it.
The failed coffee cake. It can’t be all that bad. We’ll eat it.

Painter’s Toast

You might have noticed we’ve been busy lately.  Bathroom-building.  Time-consuming lunch-time cooking doesn’t fit well with such industriousness.  I’ll often have a pot of soup on the stove, but the other day, a lunchtime treat from our days in England suddenly popped into my head.

Painter’s toast.

I think I read this recipe back in the 70’s, in an early example of the genre where famous people were invited to submit a recipe for a book raising funds for a charity.  I’ve just remembered what it was:  ‘The Shelter Cookery Book’. Was it Roger McGough who suggested crisp sandwiches?

One of Elisabeth Ayrton's best-known books
One of Elisabeth Ayrton’s best-known books
Novel by the painter
Novel by the painter

Anyway, Michael Ayrton said he and his wife were often too busy to make lunch.  Unsurprising really. He was a painter, printmaker, sculptor and designer, broadcaster, novelist and stage and costume designer.  Fascinated by the Minotaur and the maze-builder Daedalus, he created many works inspired by them.  Elisabeth, his wife, was a writer and the author of several cookery books.  So I suppose beans on toast just wouldn’t do.

Here’s what they came up with, as far as I can remember.

Mix grated strong cheese – cheddar is good – with a small amount of milk and softened butter.  Add a bit of whatever you fancy to liven it up.  Maybe mustard.  Maybe a little chilli.  Pile onto bread which you’ve toasted on one side only, and grill until bubbling and browned on top.

That’s it.  This close cousin of Welsh Rarebit always goes down well with us on cheerless winter days.  It may suit you too.  And while you’re at it, you might enjoy looking at a few more of Michael Ayrton’s works.