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.

Mr. Chilli

Jean Philippe Turpin and his stall at Mirepoix market last week.
Jean Philippe Turpin and his stall at Mirepoix market last week.

About a year ago, I was doing my regular shopping in Lavelanet market when I saw a new stall.  An amazing stall, jewelled with the bright crimsons, scarlets, yellows, greens, purples and blacks of an array of a score or more of varieties of chilli.

It wasn’t busy.  The stall holder was holding court to nobody at all till I came along, so we got talking.  Mr. Chilli (Jean Philippe Turpin) would have as his mission statement if he went in for such things, ‘passionate about chillies’.  He was selling the harvest he had been carefully husbanding all season: mild chillies, warmly scented chillies, chillies with a kick, chillies with a punch, and killer chillies.  Nobody was interested.

He knew he had a chance with me, because I’m English.  The French, famously, do not like hot spices.  Without English customers – not many of us in Lavelanet, but rather more in Mirepoix – he would have had no business at all.  I bought quite a selection from him, carefully trying to memorise the properties of each variety, and froze them.  They lasted me all winter.

In the spring, he appeared again.  This time he was selling chilli seedlings. The varieties were coded from 1 to 10, with 1 being mildest-of-the-mild, to 10: blows your brains out .  He had one or two specimens even I wouldn’t touch – 10 + 6.  Together with two English fellow aficionados and gardeners, I’d pop to see him most weeks – maybe to buy another plant, maybe only for a few handy hints.  He never seemed to mind if we didn’t buy: our enthusiasm won him over and he would spend ages patiently explaining how to get the best out of our precious seedlings.

The season wore on.  The seedlings became plants, then fruiting specimens.  Now we’ve come full circle.  The stall is crammed again with baskets of chillies in every shape and size and colour.  Some look like crinkled Chinese lanterns, some like cherry tomatoes, some like tiny black bilberries, while many of course are the familiar long pointed droplet.  Now he’s busy producing chilli oil, chilli paste, chilli condiments of every kind to sell throughout the year.

He used to live in Paris, but it’s not the kind of place, or the kind of climate, where chillies can thrive.  Not in the kind of quantities he was growing them.  Even back in those days he had getting on for 50 varieties.  So a couple of years ago he looked for a space and a place in the sun, and ended up in a village near here, Saint-Quentin la Tour.  He decided to turn his obsession into a business: I think a man who eats chillies for breakfast can fairly be described as obsessed.  Mr. Chilli has few rivals.  To his knowledge, there is only one other chilli producer in the whole of France, near Béziers.  If you visit his garden, with its views over the Pyrenees, you’ll see row upon row of chillies, chillies and more chillies.  They are protected from frying in too much sun by a system of canopies, staked to keep them posture-perfect, and generally treated to a firm-but-fair regime designed to encourage self-reliant, hearty, healthy and productive plants.  He’ll have harvested the lot by now.

So from now on he has a busy period when he’ll swap his outdoor work for indoor activity.  He’ll be air-drying chillies for the winter, turning others into chilli-based products, always choosing the best and most appropriate variety for the job in hand.

And the last two times I’ve visited him, I’ve had to wait my turn.  Curious customers and would-be customers crowd round his stall, examining all those different varieties, asking questions, making tentative purchases .  They’re all French.  Mr.  Chilli knew he was in for the long game. Perhaps he’s beginning to win.

A Renaissance feast

Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons
Mirepoix: Wikipedia Commons

Along the road from us is Mirepoix: the pretty town, the one with the half-timbered houses set  round a central square, where it’s good to sit outside with a nice cool beer of a summer evening surveying several centuries of history.  A bit of a contrast with shabby old Laroque.  It’s something of a Mecca for both locals and tourists, as it has a busy programme of festivals throughout the year, celebrating everything from Jazz and Swing to the apple harvest.

There was new one the other week, La Fête de la Gastronomie.  We missed most of the talks, walks, demonstrations and foodie events, what with being in Bilbao.  But we did get back just in time to catch the visit to a tiny church in the tiny nearby hamlet of Mazerettes.  This was no church guided tour however.  We’d come to hear Martine Rouche talk about the fresco there, depicting the feast of Herod during which the head of John the Baptist was dished up.  No, it wasn’t an art history lecture either, nor a biblical exposition. Martine Rouche has researched this fresco – one of several recently restored in the church –  to help us understand dining and feasting in this part of 16th century France.

P1080352

The fresco is dated 1533, so Herod’s feast reflects the customs in use at that date.  At that time, there was no special room designated for dining.  The host had the table arranged wherever it suited him best, whether it was the main hall or a bed-chamber.  In contrast with the fine elaborate costumes worn by the guests, the table itself is quite simply and starkly dressed.  Not so many years before, food had been served on ‘tranchoirs‘, thick solid slices of bread.  Now, simple round plates were provided.

There weren’t many glasses on the table either.  P1080371These were expensive rare items still, so guests expected to share .  Servants would hover, ready to refill glasses as required, and everyone would drink from the glass nearest them.  Glasses didn’t come as a matching set: there were as many designs as there were drinking vessels.

Besides these, there were drageoires of crystal, designed to hold sugar and spices, which guests would nibble at throughout the meal.  This fashion for having these expensive and elegant tit-bits spread from Italy through southern France and Lyon , eventually reaching this area.

A drageoire
A drageoire

There were knives.  These were personal property.  You’d take your own with you and use it both to cut food, and as a means of conveying it to your mouth: no forks yet.  Then you’d take it home with you again.

And this curved implement is a furgeoir.  You may not want to have one at table yourself.  The pointed end is a toothpick, but you’d have used the spoon-like end to scoop out earwax when the fancy took you.

A furgeoir and a couple of plates
A furgeoir and a couple of plates

Under the table is a nef.  Though this one isn’t, such containers were often in the shape of a nautilus shell.  P1080367The principal guest at a banquet might have one as a sort of superior picnic hamper.  He’d use it to keep his knife, his napkin, maybe some spices, and some anti-poison specifics.  Later, the nef was replaced by the cadena, which might have several different compartments.

As to the food served, there are few clues here.  Apart from the head of John the Baptist, which was not intended to be eaten,  there were some sides of ham and other fairly unidentifiable items.  More information comes from contemporary receipt books.  Local  grandee Phillippe de Lévis, who was responsible for commissioning the frescos in the church, also hired patissiers, who of course submitted detailed bills .  These confirm what we already know: that the church calendar ruled.  Periods of plenty (‘régimes gras’) were interspersed with simpler and restricted ‘régimes maigres‘. Every Friday, Lent and Advent among others were ‘maigres‘ .  Meat and dairy products were  avoided in favour of simpler, less rich foods.  Fish was generally allowed, but for the wealthy, this was scarcely a privation.  The River Hers was rich in salmon, and would be prepared with fine and not-at-all-simple spices: cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves – and sugar.  Even certain water fowl, such as the moorhen –  ‘poule d’eau’ – were considered honorary fish.

But outside those periods of abstinence, what feasting took place!  A meal might begin with individual tarts, and go on to several courses of salads, fruits, boiled meats, roast meats, sauced meats.  From our point of view, the courses differed little from one another.  Our clear expectations of the kind of things that might appear as an entrée, a main course and a desert did not hold good back in the 16th century.

It all sounded pretty unappetising.  What with sharing glasses, enduring course after course of rich and highly spiced food, it would probably have been a relief to go home .  The men at least had opportunities with hunting and other manly pusuits to burn off a few calories.  Not quite so easy for the women, I think.

And thank you, Martine Rouche, for a fascinating and entertaining afternoon.

Prunelles, gratte-culs et champignons…

…  which are, being translated, sloes, rosehips and mushrooms.  But it sounds rather more poetic in French, non?  Even if you take into account that ‘gratte-cul‘ translates as ‘scratch-bum‘, because as every naughty school child knows, rosehips seeds are distressingly itchy when shoved down against the skin.

Chapelle Saint Roch
Chapelle Saint Roch

Anyway, I went off by myself for a walk the other day, starting by the ancient and slightly isolated Chapelle Saint Roch.  There’s still a pilgrimage there every year, because he’s the patron saint of plague victims, and well, you never know, do you?

I’d got several ‘au cas ‘ bags, ‘just in case’ I found sloes, rosehips and mushrooms.  It wasn’t ‘just in case’ really though.  I know exactly where to look for the juiciest sloes, the thorniest rosehips, and even a decent clutch of field mushrooms.  Finding mushrooms before the French get to them counts as a real achievement for me.

It pays to have tough clothes when you hunt among the scratchy brambles for the sloes and hips nearby
It pays to have tough clothes when you hunt among the scratchy brambles for the sloes and hips nearby

Here are my sloes, destined not for sloe gin this year: we seem to have such a lot left from the last few years.  No, this year I’m making  a richly flavoured jelly with the fruit I picked that morning and a few windfalls.

Sloes waiting to be picked
Sloes waiting to be picked

And here are the rosehips.  It’s a syrup for those, I think.

Rosehips with thorns ready for the attack
Rosehips with thorns ready for the attack

But the mushrooms……  Someone got there before me.  And it wasn’t a Frenchman .  Grrr.

I didn't know slugs ate mushrooms
I didn’t know slugs ate mushrooms

Harvest home…..

Fields near Villelongue.  A grey summer's morning.
Fields near Villelongue. A grey summer’s morning.

….. next month.

We were walking in the Aude today, and with every step we took, we realised that harvest season is well on its way.
Sorghum grains for animal feed swelled in fields where last year sunflowers had grown.  A few seeds had escaped the Autumn harvest, and so this year a few cheeky sunflowers raised their heads above the more lowly winter feed.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Grapes cluster  on the vine. They’ve grown almost as much as they intend, but they still have work to do.  Most are still a bright acidic green.  A few are starting to blush a bruised pink.  Some have even achieved a classic purple: but they’re not ripe yet.  We know.  We tried one or two.
And those fields of sunflowers,  Apart from one field’s worth, they no longer look like those cheerful images you see on postcards from our region.  Their bright sunny faces no longer track the movement of the sun as it travels across the sky.  Instead, they’ve developed a hang-dog look as the weight of their maturing seeds pulls their heads earthwards.
Then there were almonds.  We found a few had fallen already, so made a handful of creamy nuts into a small 11 o’clock treat.  Walnuts are a different matter. They’re still heavily enclosed in their thick green fleshy coats.  It’ll be a few weeks before this protection dries and splits to reveal the ripened nuts within.
Apples?  Yes, a few, but they’re still green, with white flesh that browns as soon as it’s bitten into.  Blackberries?  Hardly any have turned black.  They’re still very small and green, or rather small and pink.  We’ll have to wait.
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So far then, only the hay bales sit plumply at the edges of the fields, ready for winter. The other crops soak up the remaining summer sunshine, fatten, ripen, and wait for the moment when they too will be gathered in.
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d'Aude
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d’Aude

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.

‘Let them eat cake’

Back in the UK, I hear everyone’s gone baking mad, that the entire nation was glued to its screens to watch the final of  ‘The Great British Bake-off’.  Here in France, it’s the one branch of cookery in which the average French person will allow the average Brit some supremacy.

The French are rightly proud of their high-end patisserie, the delectable tarts and gâteaux which traditionally come to the table at the end of a family celebration or Sunday lunch: from the baker’s naturally, no shame in that.

More day-to-day baking is a different matter, however.  Plainish cakes, loaf-shaped and known in France as ‘cake’, are a big disappointment, especially if they’re from the supermarket.  I find them over-dry, over-sugared, too strongly flavoured with something, such as vanilla, that should be a subtle undertone.  I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but even cakes available in any old British supermarket can be quite a treat in comparison.

McVitie’s Jamaican ginger cake, for example, dark and sticky, is just the thing with a hot cuppa after a brisk country walk in winter: it even has its own website.  And while I’m not sure that Mr. Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes, they’re – well – not too bad.

No wonder then, that when we run our cookery workshops at Découvertes Terres Lointaines, and announce that we’ll be turning our hands to British tea-time treats, the group is immediately oversubscribed .  Scones, coffee and walnut cake and a nice of cup of tea anyone?

Supermarket scene in France

The Orange Man

Winter has arrived.  How do I know?  Although the nights are cold, the afternoons are still for going walking or tidying up the garden wearing a tee-shirt, beneath a duck-egg blue sky. So until the other day, I thought we were clinging on to autumn.

But on Thursday, the Orange Man arrived.  This is exciting enough news for it to be worth phoning a friend.  Every year, once winter kicks in and the orange harvest is well under way in southern Spain, a huge container lorry arrives in Lavelanet. It parks up at a disused petrol station on the main road into town and becomes an impromptu shop.

The man with the lorry, the Orange Man,  speaks only Spanish, and sells only oranges.  Not singly or by the half-dozen, but in large 10 kilo boxes.  10 kilos, 10 euros.  What a bargain.  These oranges, though sometimes a little knobbly and in irregular sizes, are the juiciest and tastiest you’ll ever eat, and it’s no wonder that whenever you pass, you’ll see someone pulling up their car and opening the boot for a case or two.  Our Spanish friend won’t have to stay long.  In a few days the entire container-load will be sold, he’ll return to Spain …. only to return when he’s loaded up again.

When he departs for the last time at the end of the season, we’ll know for sure that spring has arrived.

PS.  Very topically, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall takes oranges as his subject in today’s cookery column in the Guardian