>Sun, cloud and essential #2

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Some days have been warm and bright, almost like spring, with the sun casting sharp shadows ….

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and some days have been cold and grey …

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… as it was yesterday when we went the Domaine d’Estève at Roquessels to buy wine – this was the view from there, looking back towards Gabian, which is behind one of the hills in the middle distance. 

In the garden we’ve cleared the ground where the pepper plants were last summer, ready to spread goat manure, and spread manure on another bed which we’ll use for tomatoes this year.  After working in the garden yesterday we were glad to come home to a hot meal of alubias beans given to us by our friend Drew in Navarra – they’re black when they’re dried, but turn reddish brown when cooked.  I soaked them overnight then cooked them for about an hour.  Then I added onion fried in olive oil, a finely chopped chorizo pepper, chopped garlic, some lardons (bacon pieces), some leftover cooked sausage and tomato purée made with our tomatoes.  We ate it with some slices of fried black pudding, chopped garlic and parsley and Aveyronnais bread from the village baker.

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Olive trees

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The road to Mas Rolland, where we went to fetch goat manure this week, passes a row of lovely old olive trees with beautiful twisted trunks like sculptures.

Essential batterie de cuisine #2 – espresso coffee maker

About thirty years ago my sister was living in Italy and brought us back one of these espresso coffee machines when they were still quite difficult to find outside Italy.  We still use it every day – it’s showing signs of use but it works perfectly.  It’s a very simple system – you fill the bottom half of the macchinetta (little machine) with water and fill the middle section with strong Italian fine-ground coffee, then heat until the water boils and is forced upwards through the coffee grounds and the coffee pours into the top section – magic!

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This is our original thirty-year old coffee maker – much used and much travelled.  For years, when we went on holiday, we would take it with us and if we couldn’t find a café which sold good coffee (and this can happen even in France!) we would stop somewhere and make our own on a camping gaz stove.  So its battered, burnt, used-looking state is the result of years of gas flames, barbecues and campfires… but we still use it every morning to make our breakfast coffee.  One of the characteristics of this way of making coffee is that the coffee makers work best when they are full, so that this one (a six-espresso cup size) is fine for our two large breakfast cups of coffee, but we’ve found we need different sizes for different occasions:

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So we have two 9-cup (one made of stainless steel), a 6-cup, a 3-cup and a 1-cup size.  I think this means we can make any number of perfect cups of coffee! 

>Hibernation, and the first of an occasional series

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When the weather’s like this …

DSC00995 DSC00998 We don’t usually get mist here, but we did today.

we go to the garden to pick lettuce, lamb’s lettuce, cauliflowers, leeks, chard and herbs, but it’s too cold and damp to spend a lot of time there.

Spending more time in the house means we’ve been thinking more about cooking and the kitchen, so I’m starting an occasional series of the things that we feel make up our essential batterie de cuisine or kitchen equipment.

Essential batterie de cuisine – 1: A knife

I’m not sure yet how many of these essentials there will be, and I don’t want to rank them all, but the most important for me is a very good knife.

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Ever since I was eighteen I’ve had a good kitchen knife and a steel to sharpen it. I bought this one about five or six years ago and it’s the best one I’ve ever had. It’s heavy with a comfortable handle and a curved blade. I use it to cut meat and vegetables and to chop herbs and garlic. The curved blade is essential for the rocking motion you need for chopping. It needs to be very sharp – sharp knives are safer than blunt ones as you have more control. A good knife will also be expensive – at least 30 to 40 euros (or pounds sterling) – but it will last a lifetime and will be worth every centime/penny. If I had to choose just one kitchen implement to take to a desert island it would be this knife.

A few other knives ….

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The large knife at the top (above) was my first knife which I’ve had for forty years – as I said, they last a lifetime and this one still looks as it did then, apart from the nice worn effect on the wooden handle. The sharpening steel in the first picture came with it and I use it regularly. It is said that the same person should always sharpen a knife as everyone does it differently and it’s better for the blade to sharpen it with the same action every time. Lo Jardinièr uses these knives, but I’m always the one who sharpens them. When I started using my first set of knives I was afraid of their sharpness and even used to have nightmares about them, but experience has shown me that you are far more likely to cut yourself with a blunt knife than with a sharp one.

The small black-handled knives are two of a set of three we bought for 10 euros at the market in Narbonne a few years ago. They’re useful for peeling vegetables and slicing charcuterie and cheese, and they need regular sharpening too, but they could never replace a good large kitchen knife.

Buying a knife

When you buy a knife you should try holding it to make sure it feels comfortable to you. It should feel quite heavy as the weight helps you to cut with it. It should be of good quality and expensive – it’s a lifetime investment. You can buy and use cheap saucepans and chopping boards, but you need a good knife. It should be big enough – with a blade 18 to 20 cm long. And remember to buy a sharpening steel as well – you’ll want to use it so much it won’t stay sharp for long! And never put a good kitchen knife in the dishwasher.