Tag Archives: cooking

A lovely old oven

2 Jun
my beautiful FAR oven

my lovely old girl

I shouldn’t go any further before introducing you to this beautiful lady.  She is one of the pride and joy’s of our kitchen and has withstood many a gas bottle change-over (the door on the left conceals the blue butane gas bottle, hooked up by a rubber hose to the elements, which we change over at the hardware store on average every three months).  This ‘cuisiniere’/ stove has had her bottles changed since the 1950’s!

We found her sitting all shiny and alone in an Emmaus (charity shop) many years ago and apart from the crack in her bottom drawer’s handle, has aged so gracefully and remained a very loyal friend in the kitchen.  I love her!

Her name is FAR and I spotted Catherine Deneuve cooking at a single version in an old French film once and got very excited.  And then I came home with this cookbook folder from a ‘vide-grenier’/garage sale the other day, and guess who features on the cover…

the butcher's cookbook folder

The ‘Service Book of the Butcher – 7/7 a recipe!’

I’m not letting her go anywhere!

The people in your neighbourhood #2 – The Night of the Snail Hunter

16 May
escargot man

l’homme des escargots

You don’t get to meet too many Aussies around here (that’s ‘Australian’ when talking Orstrayan)… it took me more than 10 years to meet this one.   Yes, there are quite a few foreigners around here – English, Dutch, New Zealander,  some Americans, Irish,Canadian – but not so many from where I’m from.

I’d always been told about ‘the other Aussie’ in the next village – “Vous ne connaissez pas Joff-wah?!?” (aka Geoffrey), they would exclaim.  No, I’d respond.  I hadn’t met ‘the other one’, even after many years of exploring Felines, a mere 3 km’s from us , I’d never set eyes on Joff-wah.  I’d been told I would have remembered if I’d met him.  And I now know why.

Meeting ‘Geoff’ (I’ll stay simple) finally happened via the lovely Evonne, who had recently moved in and become the third Aussie in our parts.  How wonderful to finally have some ‘mates’ from the other side of the world!!  I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to finally hear the word ‘dance’ rhyme with ‘ants’ and to hear news of a dawn meeting at Geoff’s to watch the AFL Grand Final of Australian Rules football.  Unheard of in the Minervois until now!  After all these years.  Geoff also has a French partner (divine Florence) who also works in wine, like mine – it’s mad we’d never met.

Now I should tell you that Geoff, as well as being token Aussie in his village, is also known as a damn fine snail catcher and cook.  It’s a big tradition around here and once these little slimy creatures come out in force after a big rain, you hear much talk amongst the locals of ‘cagaraula’ (‘snails’ in local Occitan).  Evonne had told me how good Geoff’s snails were and it was thanks to him that I got to try my third-ever*  meal of ‘les escargots’…

* (the first time was back in 1997 in Cape Town where Benji and I had recently eloped – long story and one that I will explain, later! –  and out dining with some Frenchies, I thought I should dip my toes into ‘their’ cuisine once and for all)

Geoff the Snail Hunter

And what were they like?  Bloody good!!

the night of the snail hunter

the night of the snail hunter

I must say I loved every bit of this dish.  A bit of tomato here, a lovely chunk of pork meat there, some snail flesh here…  It’s amazing how well the flavours merged and complemented each other.  I just didn’t want to stare at my fork for too long and wonder about where the big slimy chunks had grown up.

what is that?

what’s this slug on my fork?!??

After beginning our evening with a yummy apero of La Tour Boisee white wine, the snails slid down deliciously with red.  Florence’s La Tour Boisee Minervois 2010 was a real treat.

snails and La Tour Boisee 2010 Minervois

Escargots a La Minervoise and La Tour Boisee 2010 Minervois red

I used to think that these creatures were torn from their outside homes, cleaned up a bit, thrown into a cook pot and then served swimming out of their shells in cream and garlic.  Not so simple!  Snail hunting and preparation is a carefully orchestrated, time-consuming passion.  I could give you my boring, textbook account of how Geoff prepares his snails, but I think the words of the Snail Hunter himself are far more interesting:
Snail Preparation
1. Once the snails are collected they are put into a bird’s cage.  Trapping the snails in a cage allows them to empty their stomachs from herbs or plants that could be poisonous to humans. So a period of starvation assures that you are not going to kill your friends after your dinner party. You can change their diet by feeding the snails with herbs, spices and salads that do not harm humans. Starving the snails makes them thinner and less earthy tasting. So this caging period is a tricky one and most Snailers have their method of doing it. Some other elements that determine the length and method of caging the snails are also the climate, type of cage and the location of the cage. It is a long process as you don’t want the snails to die of starvation, neither suicide from madness, or just simply close back up in their shell in hibernation. Consider the caging period of a snail like trapping the wine in a container. Wine is alive and its “caging period” between the vine to the table is felt at the time of digestion.  
The only time I put them in the bath tub or the kitchen sink is to clean them (I had been told the cage had sat in the family bath tub) – the “cleaning period”.  Depending on the amount of snails I have, I’ll use either the tub or the sink.
Cleaning the Snails
2.  Cleaning the snails comes before the time of death. You clean the snails after the caging period. Washing and sorting the snails is the biggest manual task of the cook. It can take up to three hours to clean them. You give them a good little scrub on their shell and try to make a last minute moose (frothing). Some sorry arsed Snailers throw little bit of vinegar on them to make them froth. I do this in very small amounts to the last of the snails that have not yet come out of their shell. Note: before the snails go into the pot for cooking you have to make sure that the snail can come out of its shell and that is not dead. Snails that die in the cage during the caging period either die from old age or unsupervised mismanagemant during the caging method. Do not include any snails that are dead or that haven’t cracked their bonnet after the cage !

How do they Die?

3.  The Time Of Death.  This is very delicate. Once the snails have been cleaned they are put into a large pot of COLD water and heated very slowly. As the water warms up the snails drift off to sleep and as the water gets hotter they die.

That was so delicious, so can we have the recipe?

4.  My recipe is not a secret. However I don’t go telling just anyone. Cooking snails takes years of practice. In this region a snailer is only able to cook snails about 4 to 6 times maximum per year. I do it about 4 times a year, depending on how much rainfall we get. This year will be my 9th snailing season.  I use fresh pork sausage meat.

Hmmn, I guess that means we can’t have it.

And no Benji, you can’t take home any of Florence’s family record collection!

snail music

a little light music to dine on snails by…

No recipe, no records, but a final word from the SH:

I think there is a village rule that does not allow snailing until around the 1st of May. Snail hunting season!  This is an old rule however and there is a blind eye towards it as there are not as many snailers as there used to be (Snailers: my word for them).  The most discreet way around this rule is to never talk about it, and if you do happen to go snailing in the off-season you should never brag about how many snails you got. 

Amongst the existing Snailers there is huge competition. You should never be seen on another snailer’s turf. I did make a slippery visit this morning to check the snail turf of Lily Marty just to see if a few snails had cracked their bonnet but there were none visible. While shifting around on her turf I felt like I was stealing scones from her kitchen window. I didn’t stay long as I didn’t want to be seen.  I do have my own snail turfs around the place which are not as good as the snail turfs of some of the older local Snailers, as some are a bit more complicated to access.

 The first major rain will bring out the big snails. Apparently we have just gone through the driest winter in one hundred years so I am not familiar with what state the hibernating little buggers will be in. I guess there will not be any major difference to the hibernation state of a snail from previous years but this is still unknown as there is not a living Snailer older than one hundred years to tell me. All I can imagine is that soon the snail hibernation will be ended by a big rain and snailing will be given the green light ! I love the smell of snails in the morning !

Thanks Geoff (and Florence and Evonne!), for your ‘Les Escargots a La Minervoise’.  From one Aussie to another, they and the evening were tres, tres bon!


It’s time for Ratatouille! …have I got the spelling right??

16 Sep

…Umm, here we go again!  For those of you who saw this as a ‘mini-post’ a few hours ago, you must have been thinking ‘so where the heck is that recipe then?’.   Well, I was in a hurry to pick up our child from school and WHOOPS pressed the ‘publish’ button instead of ‘save draft’.   I’ll give it another try.

As for the spelling  …well yes, I checked in the cookbook.  It’s one of those words, like ‘rhythm’ or ‘Mediterranean’… I always have to think twice about it or look it up!

So here is my version of a ‘Rattatooey’ (that’s how I pronounce it, causing grimaces all round I’m sure) – a very traditional French dish that for me, unlike any other dish, evokes Summer in the South.  The colours of the ingredients are sublime and just thinking about cooking it conjures up images of potagers (vegetable patches), big cast-iron casserole pots simmering on country kitchen stoves, lashings of fresh basil and chilled French wines.  Many households are cooking up this dish right now and on my visits to friends’ houses I love nothing more than peeking into their pots to see what theirs look like.  Vegies cut big or small? Diced or sliced??  Oily, not so oily?  Fresh tomotoes, tinned?

I say ‘my’ version as yes, there are many.  The ingredients are almost always the same, but the cooking methods differ.  I’m a little embarrassed admitting that mine has conserved tomatoes in it instead of fresh, but it has.  A good friend of ours came to stay this Summer (more of him in later posts) and being the most wonderful cook he is (and being French, I must also add) I was eager to get his opinion on what the ‘correct’ way to prepare this is.  Strike out!  He insisted the tomatoes had to be fresh.  Ohh, I thought to myself, now I feel unworthy.  Oh well.  It’s always tasted good to us and what’s the point in arguing with this Frenchman, whose opinions on cooking and wine I admire so much.

I should add that my two of my  favourite references for cooking are Stephanie Alexander’s ‘The Cook’s Companion’ and Susan Herrmann Loomis’s ‘French Farmhouse Cookbook’ and I first accessed this recipe from their reassuring pages.   They were both wedding presents and how many times did I think to myself in those early days as a mute-non-speaking the local language-housewife with her apron – ‘where wold I be with out you??!??’   Well I must say that neither of their versions use conserve/ tinned tomatoes either!

Our friend did have a little extra advice for me too.  On his departure, he mentioned that during the vintage I should be preparing many good meals for my husband, be kind and – with a wink –  be a ‘bonne femme’.  What did he mean?  Did he really mean the housewife variety relegated to her stove or being simply good to Him?  In the kitchen, elsewhere? (now don’t go there…).  Mais merci, I’ll take that on board.

Incidentally, in  French, ‘bonne femme’ could be either ‘good woman’ or ‘good wife’ – it’s the same term for both.  For the blokes however, there’s no such confusion as husband has its own word – ‘mari’.

I’m beginning to think we’re all destined to be good housewives here! (in the countryside anyway, if not the towns).

Anyway, here’s my recipe, minus the fresh tomatoes, from one Bonne Femme to you!

‘Ratatouille’

With these quantities, you can serve this to 6-8 people and still have left-overs.

This is one of those dishes that just gets better and better on the second and third days.  Ideally, I make this the night before serving.

ratatouille

ratatouille

Ingredients:

(I change my portions each time, according to how it looks in the pot, so these quantities can be varied according to your taste)

4-5 medium onions, sliced (I love them!)

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

4 eggplants, sliced

8 zucchinis, sliced to 1cm thickness

3-4 capsicums (that is, peppers or poivrons, depending on your country!) – green, yellow and red, seeded and sliced

1 x 690g bottle crushed tomato pulp (you may not want to pour all of it in)

2 x 800g tin tomatoes

salt, pepper

olive oil, sunflower oil for frying

chopped parsley and torn basil

method:

Cut the eggplant into 1cm (or finer if you like) slices, place the slices in layers on a large tray, sprinkling salt over each layer.  Cover with tin foil, weigh down with a heavy book and leave for one hour.

Heat up a generous amount of oil in a large cast-iron casserole/ heavy-bottomed pot and fry the onions over medium-low heat until soft and golden.

a lotta onions

I love onions

While the onions are frying,  seed and chop capsicums, chop zucchinis, chop garlic.

'tricolore' de poivrons

a ‘tricolore’ of capsicums

As the onions become soft and golden, add the capsicum and the garlic and stir well.  Increase heat to medium-high, stirring frequently to mix the ingredients.

Lower heat, cover with lid.  Cook for further 15 minutes.

onions and capsicums

During this time, rinse the eggplant slices, drain through a colander and pat dry with tea towels.

Prepare one or two fry pans for  shallow frying eggplants with generous amount of blended olive oil/ sunflower oil in each.

Stir in the tomatoes into the pot.

tomatoes added

Stir in zucchinis to the pot, add freshly ground pepper and continue simmering with lid on.

Over a high heat (watch that the oil doesn’t burn) fry the eggplant slices until golden, re-adding oils to the pan/s regularly.  This step is one of the most time-consuming in this recipe, but I really think it makes a difference to the dish. Once slices are cooked, I lay them aside on paper towels on a large tray.

Please note: I don’t salt the pot until I’ve tasted it with the eggplant added – even if the eggplants have been well-rinsed there can be a residue of salt.

frying the eggplant

Using two fry pans can reduce the time spent over the stove!

Once all the eggplant slices have been fried, I add them to the pot, taste for salt and then re-cover and leave simmering for another 20 minutes.

almost there with the ratatouille

Serve cold, warm or hot the next day with torn basil leaves and freshly chopped parsley.

This is a great side dish for bbq’d meats – especially lamb.  It also goes very well with country sausages.

barbecued country sausage

barbecued country sausage

We also enjoy serving left-over ratatouille as a pizza base or tossed through pasta – it’s a delicious mix with spaghetti or fettuccine, sprinkled with basil and parmesan. 

It’s a great way to get Lilas to eat her vegies!

ratatouille spaghetti

ratatouille spaghetti

a very simple cauliflower dish

7 Sep
Cauliflower Polonaise

a very big version of the ‘Cauliflower Polonaise’

This has to be one of our all-time favourites and is so ridiculously easy to make!   The combination of flavours with the simple cauliflower base is completely moreish (especially if you’re a salt lover like me).

It wasn’t until I moved to France that I started eating so much of this vegetable.  At home my parents didn’t really serve it – note: we DID actually eat vegetables at my parents’, and not just the frozen variety either, just in case you were thinking ‘ahh, those Aussies with their chops and three frozen veg’…  But I remember it well at one of my best-friend’s mum’s…  She would always serve ‘cauliflower cheese’ with a family roast and we’d all fight over it.  But these were probably the only times I ate it. In France my husband’s family eat it regularly and eat it as an entree or sidedish, boiled or steamed and then served with a vinaigrette poured over the top and chopped parsley.  This recipe isn’t very different to this, just a few more flavours and time in preparing each ingredient.  It comes from one of the queens of cooking in Australia, Stephanie Alexander, in her brilliant ‘The Cook’s Companion’.  When Benjamin and I first moved to France this was one of the only two cookbooks we brought with us on the plane (and you should see how big the book is), and I can’t believe how helpful it’s been, all this time.

We eat this as an entree, or to accompany a BBQ.   And it is amazing as left-overs the next day or two (if you’re anything like me and love to eat food upto a week after it’s been in the fridge.  Parents from the Depression and their influence!!..)

‘Cauliflower Polonaise’ (from Stephanie Alexander) – serves 4 with these quantities, but I tend to always double it!

ingredients:

1-2 cauliflower

2 hardboiled eggs (no time for arguments!)

2 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs

40g butter

oil or butter for frying the capers

1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley

salt

freshly ground black pepper

Oh, and I almost forgot: a small cup of home-made vinaigrette (I have added this to the recipe as I like it moist!)mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper, red-wine vinegar, olive oil

method:

Steam cauliflower, section it up  and then put aside on a serving dish.  (You may like to prepare all the ingredients ahead, so that the dish is served hot or warm, or otherwise serve at room temperature).

Shell the eggs, and separate the yolks from the whites (my husband thinks I’m nuts every time I insist on doing this).  Chop up the whites and then crush the yolks with the back of a fork, keep apart in bowls for later.

In a frying pan, toss the breadcrumbs in the butter, always tossing to avoid them burning.  I like my mix to have larger crouton-sized chinks as well as crumbs, so maybe do the chunks forst and then add the crumbs at the end.  Fry until very golden.

Drain and then fry the capers in some oil or butter until they open.

Scatter ingredients over the cauliflower in this order – egg whites, yolk, breadcrumbs/ croutons, capers and then the parsley.  Pour over with vinaigrette… et voila!

to market to market… part 1

19 May

no. 7, Le Marche, illustrators G. Bonmarti & G. Michel, OGE-HACHETTE

One of the great things about living where we do, is the access to good produce.  The Mediterranean climate allows for almost anything to be grown, and more and more I’m trying to buy locally from people I get to know at the local village markets.

glorious produce on offer at the market

The Olonzac market, one of the biggest in our area, is held every Tuesday morning until about 1pm.  You can find almost anything:  fruit, vegies, pastries, breads, meats, fish, flowers, fresh coffee, cheeses, olives, local honey, wine, ready-made asian dishes from the guy with his own personal dvd collection on loop in his van (Lilas’ favourite)… those hard to find ingredients for ‘exotic’ cuisine such as lemongrass, coriander and chilies and then there’s your zippers, hats, bras, oversized undies, slippers, kitchen utensils, Indian dresses, incense, second-hand books, army surplus clothing, jewellery… it’s endless.

market selection

the usual and some exotic surprises at the market

This market is growing in size each year and in full Summer has traffic jams of people, carts and pushers down the bottleneck streets – you should try pushing a pusher through this mass…

There’s Pierre with his bread.  You can spot him from a mile off, with his old van and black wool beret.  He’s like a character from a film – and his organic bread is of the old, sourdough rustic style.  He takes his time, nearly always a big smile on his face and an open pot of honey on his table to spread on his breakfast ‘pain’.   And there’s always his thermos of hot coffee and tin mug ready for dipping.  Pierre’s bread is the sort that you can keep for a week – not at all your light, airy baguette, but a full, wholesome loaf that is just divine toasted with butter and Vegemite.

Pierre and his pains

Pierre and les pains

Just up from Pierre is Laetitia, the young girl who a lot of the year has only her free-range eggs to sell.  She has a tiny stand but always many people jostling around her.  Throughout the year she sells apples, onions, potatoes, and in full summer has mountains of cheap tomatoes, nectarines, grapes, peaches and a queue leading back for miles.  You have to be quick – her tomatoes can sell out by 9.30am.

free-range eggs chez Laetitia

Laetitia’s free-range eggs

Towards the roundabout on your left are the people selling THAT saucisson (salami)…  ‘Mont Charvin’.  The one that costs an arm and a leg, full of beautiful chunks of bright green pistachios.  It’s a small investment buying even just one of their products, but once you’ve tasted the difference, you can’t buy supermarket salami again. In general I buy a lot less saucisson now, but boy do we enjoy the ’50 centimes slices’ when they’re around.  By chance, I got to meet Jacques, the maker of this wonderful product the other day.  I was thrilled to be able to tell him how much we loved his ‘salted meats’ and hear his story of how he and his brother-in-law, once butchers in Paris, settled down south and built a company from scratch offering a range of products made in the Savoie region of France, using no additives or preservatives.

the selection of 'salaisons' chez Mont Charvin

Jacques slicing a sample from the selection of ‘salaisons’ -salted meats

But before I stop by the saucisson stand, I head quickly for Valerie’s before she runs out of vegetables…

(to be continued, part 2)

A night with La Clape

13 May

It’s that time of year already…  everyone’s thinking of summer.  Trips to the beach, trips abroad, no school, hairy legs to shave, and umpteen outdoor bbq’s with friends, food and wine.

The lead-up to the harvest, after the big risk period for frost has passed (phew, it’s around now and looks like we’re ok), is a relatively easy-going time in the vines.  They’re growing with hopefully enough rain and a lot of sun, and have a few organic treatments here and there etc.  Sounds like an ideal summer!

But this is the time Benji begins to stress.

In his head he’s organising the entire lead-up to the harvest and beyond and no-one knows what the weather will do, and how the fruits will develop.  There is the cellar to organise, extra work to take on filling in for those taking summer breaks, and prevention of disease in the grapes.  Any rainfall during this hot time can be dire.

As I said, this stress is cyclical.  And sometimes it’s hard not to take it personally!!  Ever had an argument about the ‘correct’ way to boil an egg? (although we ARE in France…).

So getting away last Friday night to the beautiful ‘La Clape’ area was a perfect way to switch off for 24 hours.

running on the beachLa Clape (yes, fair share of commentary) is a lovely seaside wine region (15 00 hectares of vines within the Coteaux du Languedoc apellation) not far from Narbonne.  From the town you take a spectacular, windy drive through the rugged hills of Le Massif de la Clape and there’s always a huge gasp of pleasure and surprise when the Mediterranean greets you on the other side.  It’s been years since we did this, but it’s still as beautiful and ‘sauvage’ as ever.

We were headed for a gite not far from the beach in St Pierre La Mer, Chateau d’Angles (so lovely, thank you!) and arrived just in time to join our friends for the ‘aperos’.  Vanessa’s hot homemade pesto, cheese and tomato pastries were fantastic and went down beautifully with the local white.

Then it was down to business, the men got tending the bbq (sound familiar?) and us ladies fed the kids who’d been on the go ever since we arrived.

Yum!  There’s nothing quite like a fresh seafood platter.  We ate a blend of raw and bbq’d delights collected from the nearby ‘poissonnerie’.  I must admit the seafood platter was half the reason I’d been so keen to come!!  Absolutely delicious – you can’t beat the mix of garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, aioli, and burning wood with clams, ‘bulots’ (whelks), prawns, ‘couteaux’ (razor clams) – I could eat like this everyday.

local delights for dinner

Top it off with a crisp, frsh white or rose and it’s heaven!  We followed the local white with a Muscat Sec and then a bottle of Benji’s delicious Viognier.  I wasn’t sure about the mouth of the muscat at first.  Dry muscat is a strange one sometimes, the nose is so inviting and floral and sweet and then the mouth seems dry and short.  But this opened up beautifully.  Benji’s white, as always was floral, crisp and fresh.  These whites were great mates for the seafood.

Dinner ended being a casual, straight off the barbie affair.  No set seating, just constant ‘aller-retours’ with everyone taking turns bringing new dishes to the table.   I like this way of eating at the beach.  No fuss, just enjoying each other’s company and each new wonderful flavour.  As the light dimmed we got out the camper lanterns and popped the kids to bed.  Ready for another white!

And a quick plug!… we had an abundance of ininvited mosquitos joining us and the good old Aussie products of Rid and Aerogard came out in force.  Must say that the Frenchies were quite impressed with how well the stuff worked!

Like happy campers (and a happy winemaker), we all headed for bed in the fresh of the night.

A day of collecting to follow…

shells from La Clape

JamieOliver.com

3 May

Ispiring times at the moment.  On the Easter weekend we were invited to lunch at Liz, Joe and Ryan’s at Domaine O’Vineyards to meet up with Danny McCubbin, the editor of jamieoliver.com.  Danny and his photography assistant Anthony (both Aussies!) were travelling around the South of France and stopped by to taste some of the wines and produce from our region.

They’d been filming a luncheon the day before at the ‘La Barbacane’, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Hotel de la Cite,
a grand hotel situated within the walls of La Cite, the medieval city located inside Carcassonne, and were now out to see what gets served at a local ‘vigneron’s’ table amidst the vineyards.

I’ve got to admit that I was quite nervous about the whole thing (and I’m not even the winemaker! – can’t imagine how Benji must have been feeling), but once we’d met up with Danny and Anthony, I felt much better!  They are great guys – so sincere and laid-back yet incredibly inspiring when you listened to what they get up to for the site and in their personal time.   It’s inspiring to meet people like this who are so motivated to help and educate others.  I know I was shaking at the knees beforehand, but inside I had been thinking that anyone working for Jamie Oliver would have to be cool as well as full of energy, and I was right.

It was a delightful afternoon, full of delicious nibbles and dishes prepared by Liz (would LOVE the recipe for your spicy sauce Liz!)…

lunch at Liz's

And all of it washed down with wines by a few of us local producers:  Domaine O, Domaine de Chamans and Benji’s

got some tasting to do...

Over the course of our marathon lunch some particular highlights in the wines for me were: Hegarty Chamans Blanc Minervois 2008,  Trah Lah Lah 2008 and Benji’s Minervois 2010 and his St Chinian Organic 2009.

Thanks to everyone involved in the afternoon – we had a wonderful time.

a bientot!

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