Weekend harvest

Somehow a whole week has passed since I last posted on this blog and during this time spring carried on its one step forwards, two steps backwards progress, still feeling cold at times but with enough sun – and plenty of rain – to keep the plants growing well. In the garrigue some of the wild flowers are already passing their best. Wild garlic:

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and wild salsify – I think I’ve posted a photo of this beautiful star-shaped flower before but I’m doing so again because this is probably the last one I’ll see this year.

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In the garden, our big purple iris is almost embarrasingly big and purple:

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and the white cistus – my favourite of the cultivated cistuses – is flowering, its delicate flowers lasting only a day at a time before being replaced by others waiting to burst out of their buds:

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We’re thinking ahead from spring to summer crops now and this morning we planted out six peppers that have been nurtured up till now in mini-greenhouses on the balconies. These first six plants are of a variety that we call A and A Spanish as the seeds originally came from our friends A and A who had brought an especially tasty red pepper home from Spain a few years ago.

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I’m very glad that I sowed two double rows of broad beans last autumn, one in October and another in November, because the second row is now producing huge pods while the first hasn’t finished yet either. In past years I’ve sown one double row in the autumn and then another in February, but I’ve found that the February-sown row never does very well, perhaps because there isn’t enough water for them at crucial times. Autumn-sown broad beans do much better here, as shown by the 4.5 kilos we picked today.

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These (most of which will be frozen), another small artichoke, some wild thyme from the garrigue and some wild flowers Lo Jardinièr had brought home to identify made the kitchen table look full of possibilities:

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I cooked some of the broad beans straight away for lunch, in an earthenware dish over a low heat in olive oil, adding chopped garlic and oregano leaves and some tomato concentrate, then, once they were cooked which took only 5 minutes, some chopped leftover cooked artichoke hearts.

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Small harvests – sorrel and artichoke

Sometimes the tastiest harvests, the ones that make me most pleased that we grow our own food, are very small scale. Yesterday, when we were eating fried breadcrumbed mussels for lunch, I was inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s sorrel recipes to pick 6 large sorrel leaves and whizz them with a clove of garlic and 3 tablespoons of crème fraiche to make a sauce for the mussels. It was nice and sharp and made an interesting change from squeezing lemon on them.

mussels and sorrel

Today I noticed that one of the small artichokes our plants are producing was ready to pick. Not a lot between two of us, but it made a very tasty mise en bouche sliced thinly and fried in olive oil. The oil was delicious too, soaked up straight from the pan with pieces of bread!

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Spring keeps on trying

A couple of sunny, warm days when we can eat outside in the garden at lunchtime, followed by a couple of cooler, wet days – that seems to be the pattern of this spring and it’s good for the plants, which get a nice combination of warmth, longer days and water.

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Peach blossom, above, and artichokes in Clermont-l’Hérault market below:

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Rainy May

Most years we get hardly any rain at all in May.  Some years we get no rain apart from the occasional thunderstorm between the beginning of April and the end of September.  The last few days have been very wet and grey.  It’s a bit gloomy (although good for the garden and the water table), but it makes the colours of the fresh new vine leaves stand out against the damp earth and stone.

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In the olive groves the trees are covered with flower buds, all about to open:

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And in the garden the mangetout peas are flowering at last:

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I picked our only artichoke – a perfect small one:

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I wanted to taste its full flavour – and share it between two people! – so after removing the outside leaves I sliced it thinly and fried it in olive oil.  This really concentrates the flavour and the slices are delicious served with just a sprinkle of salt.

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I first ate them like this in a restaurant in Figueres in Catalunya and since then have often copied the idea at home. Recently Maddogtvdinners posted a tempting photo of this dish, eaten in a restaurant in Barcelona, but I don’t think I can cut them quite as finely at home!  This is one of the simplest artichoke dishes, but you need to use very young artichokes without a choke.

Artichoke – singular?

I’m wondering whether I’ll have to change the name of my blog.  The artichoke plants, which had been doing well throughout the winter, suffered badly in the cold weather we had in February and are only just beginning to recover, too late for a good crop this year, I fear.  This is the only artichoke I can see developing on any of the surviving plants.

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On the other hand, we have plenty of broad beans and I’ll be putting some in the freezer for later in the year, when they’ll be an even greater treat than they are now.

broad beans

The tomato plants have grown well since they’ve been planted out – they always seem to stretch out their roots and just grow once they have the space to do so.  The lettuce plants between the rows benefit from the watering and will all have been eaten by the time the tomatoes grow big enough to cover them.

tomato plants

Do have a look at Lo Jardinèr’s post today where he links this morning’s inauguration of the new French president with asphodels, Ancient Greece and a beautiful piece of music.

Invention, inspiration, influence

artichokes

I bought another bouquet of small artichauts violets in the market and Lo Jardinièr asked me to do them ‘as I usually do them’.  Well, he should know that I rarely do exactly what I’m asked to do and I couldn’t resist trying something new with these, something very simple that may have been done by someone before me, but it was a first for me.  I cut the ends of the leaves, trimming down to the heart, peeled off the outer leaves and removed what little choke there was, all the time covering the cut edges with lemon juice to stop them browning.  I mixed a couple of tablespoons of stoned green olives, 3 cloves of garlic and a piece of stale bread in the liquidiser until they made a stuffing which I put into the hearts of the artichokes.  I then put them, stems pointing upwards, in a good layer of olive oil in a cast iron pan and added a glass of white wine and some salt and pepper, brought it all to the boil and simmered gently for about an hour until the artichokes were cooked.  Some of the stuffing escaped but that just seemed to add flavour to the oil and wine sauce.  Served cold with a slice of lemon they were delicious and luckily Lo Jardinièr agreed.

I was interested by a recent post by Cooking in Sens and the comments that followed about whether or not chefs ‘invent’ recipes.  As she says, ‘In cooking, there is really nothing new under the sun.’  But recipes do not always have to come from books or television programmes, or even the Internet.  I love cookery books and books about food and I have shelves of them – by Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, Giorgio Locatelli, the Moro couple, and many many more – but I rarely follow a recipe.  I use the books as inspiration, added to the knowledge I’ve amassed over more than forty years of cooking, from my mother, from talking to friends, especially here in the Languedoc (where no one I know uses cookery books at all), and from my own experience and experimentation.  I think if you have a grounding in cooking, from any of these sources, and a knowledge of which ingredients go well with which others, you can be inspired, influenced and then invent.  The salad that Lo Jardinièr made for lunch, which he described as a Mediterranean salad, for its colour and flavour, is another example of this:

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Local goats’ cheese, chorizo, lettuce, wild rocket (picked in the garden this morning), pickled yellow peppers (from the garden last summer)….and garlic, of course.

In the garden today we planted out the corn plants, a Greek variety resistant to drought, grown from seed we saved last year – we had 44 very healthy looking plants.  I also saw what I think is a Wall butterfly, looking slightly battered:

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the Lucque olive tree about to flower:

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a snail enjoying a good meal of rosemary – we have plenty, we can spare some!

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and some tiny wild violets:

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>Artichokes and a lot of spring flowers

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I picked three more artichokes this morning, making 9 in all this year, so the plants are doing much better than they did last year and there are plenty more still growing.

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It’s the most colourful time of the year in the garden and in the garrigue because all the plants flower now before dying down again when the weather gets too hot and dry for them from June onwards.

IMGP9374 IMGP9404 Cistus (left), poppies (above) and irises (right). IMGP9388

And because the irises look so lovely now and won’t last for long I took a lot of photos of them this morning:

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>First sight of an artichoke

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Several of the artichoke plants have small artichokes developing among their leaves, so it looks as though it may be a better crop than last year when the plants took too long to recover from the cold winter.

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We should be eating our own artichokes within a week or so!

Roses and olives

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olive flower buds look so insignificant but the fruit will make a good harvest in the autumn, we hope.

…about to flower, while the broom and Banksiae Rose are almost over….

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>Foire au gras and the last day of March in the garden

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At the weekend we went on a trip to the Gers in south-west France, guided by friends who used to live in that area and know it well. The highlight of the visit was the Monday morning foire au gras in Samatan, devoted to the sale of foie gras and fattened ducks for making confit de canard and other south-western delights. I know that some people find the production of foie gras distasteful – if you are one of these then you should fast forward to the spring flowers at the end of this post. I’ve written about this subject before on my blog a couple of years ago. I believe that properly raised ducks and foie gras represent sustainable local food in an area which is well-suited to raising them. The life of a duck on the farm of a small producer in the Gers is so much better than that of an industrially kept chicken or duck that they cannot really be compared, so I make no apology for being a supporter of the traditional foie gras farmers.

The marché au gras at Samatan

Every Monday morning throughout the winter and until the end of March this market has two sessions – the first from 9.30 to 10.30 a.m. when producers sell duck carcases and a huge hall is filled with tables where people display anything from 20 to a hundred or so of their ducks for sale at very reasonable prices (around 2 euros per kilo this week). This session of the market then closes and another opens to sell foie gras. Again small local producers bring small numbers of foies gras for around 30 euros per kilo (this week). During spring and summer, from next week onwards the two markets are combined and the market is usually smaller although, apparently, the Easter Monday market is very popular and busy.

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You choose your duck (above left) and then it is taken to be weighed at central scales before you pay for it. The foie gras is weighed by each stall holder. For 1 euro per bird you can take it to a cutting room where two men were working non-stop to joint the ducks. Some people had trolleys filled with twenty or so birds, for restaurants perhaps, others like us had just one.

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These ducks are specially reared to have plenty of fat for preserving them and are not meant for roasting. Our duck was cut into: 2 legs and 2 wings for making confit de canard, 2 magrets or breasts which can be grilled, the neck to be used to make cou farci – the skin stuffed with pork meat to make a kind of sausage, the giblets for preserving in fat, and the carcass which was delicious grilled so that we could eat the tender slivers of meat that were left on it. I’ll write another post in the next day or so about how we have made confit, cou farci and preserved the foie gras.

In another market hall next door there was a live poultry and vegetable market, with farmers selling baskets of fresh eggs by the door.

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The chickens in cages looked a bit cramped, but were heading for a life in the open air as free range layers – nothing like the life of a battery hen!

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Above left, the part of the market hall which is unused at this time of year, but would be used in winter when the market would be bigger, showing the size of this south-western phenomenon. On the right, one of the streets of the town where the usual market was taking place.

And the garden….

We came home with some oignons de Trébons, similar to our local Lézignan onions but with smaller bulbs. There’s some more about them in French here. Natives of the south-west, they may not do so well in our dry climate, but it’s worth a try.

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Above left, some of the new onions next to the second sowing of broad beans; right, the artichoke plants are doing well and we’re hoping for artichokes next month.

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The tulips are out.
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One of the cherry trees given to us by our neighbour a couple of years ago is flowering for the first time.
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and bay.

>From a frosty garden

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We’ve had a couple of very cold nights, below freezing with frost in the garden.  Not nearly as cold as further north, and no snow here at all, but it’s still been quite wintry.  There were a few olives left on our Lucque tree, that weren’t quite ripe when we picked the others, but they seem to have gone rather mushy as though they’ve been affected by the frost, although I’d be surprised at this since some varieties aren’t harvested until January and there are almost always freezing temperatures before then.

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Red cabbages and cauliflowers
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The artichoke plants will soon recover
IMGP3790 Lettuce, which will also recover, we hope. IMGP3791-1 This little radicchio plant looks completely unaffected by the cold.
IMGP3798 The frosted aubretia  leaves looked pretty in the sun. IMGP3799 The broad beans have been protected by the layer of bamboo leaves.
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Frost melting on the palm leaves.
IMGP3802 Low sun sparkling through the fence.

And the building work goes on

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Above right, two big machines and a lorry…. it’s very noisy in our garden now.  Above left, you can see how close the work is to the garden.