For the first time since November we had 12 hours of proper, steady, heavy rain which will have done the garden, the vineyards and the water table a lot of good. It looked gloomy, but it was worth it and the sun is out again now.
Tonight’s Cercle Occitan lecture will be given by a historian, Jacques Bonnet, on the story of the zero and how it came into European culture and learning through a collaboration between Arab doctors, Jews and Christians in tenth-century Andalucia, described by Bonnet as ‘terre de tolérance active’, an almost mythical place and time where diversity and difference were valued rather than derided, something which I wish were more widespread today. By chance, it seems an appropriate subject for this week when some intolerant views have been expressed following the tragedy in Toulouse.
As always, the evening will end with a meal – appropriately enough it will be couscous tonight. We’ve all been asked to contribute desserts and I’ve made an Arab-influenced Valencian pumpkin cake from a recipe in Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery (BBC books, 1987, unfortunately now out of print, but one of my stand-by favourites).
I thought there wasn’t enough egg in this recipe to hold it together, but I followed it anyway and unfortunately was proved right (or proved clumsy) when my trial version fell to pieces as I tried to remove it from the oven tin. It still tasted delicious, though, and I have left the other one in the tin, hoping that when it’s cut tonight no one will notice that it’s a bit crumbly!
Yesterday in bright sunshine Lo Jardinièr lit the barbecue in the place at lunchtime to cook chicken and red peppers on skewers.
Today we had rain, great for the garden but not so good for our spirits. The market was grey and wet, with the sun awnings being used to shelter customers from the rain rather than the heat.
And the lunch menu was equally delicious but almost wintry: pumpkin soup with chopped garlic and croutons, and two fromages fermiers, one sheeps’ milk cheese from Lacaune and a cows’ milk one from the Aveyron.
When I saw Chica Andaluza’s new flag counter I couldn’t resist trying to add one to my blog and inadvertently added it as a post at first. It’s now in its proper place at the foot of my blog, showing the different countries of origin of its readers. Thanks for the idea, Chica!
In the garden, with the air filled with the scent of apricot blossom and the sound of bees around the tree, the wild cherry buds are beginning to appear on our sapling, planted just a couple of years ago.
Leaf and flower buds are appearing on the Rose banksiae. I was worried about it because it began to flower in January (much too early) and those buds were killed by the cold weather, but it seems now to be recovering and flourishing after its pruning last autumn.
The jasmine is flowering:
And there were wonderful shadows on the olive leaves:
It’s St Joseph’s Day today, the date when it’s traditional here for haricot beans to be sown, and we sowed our first row. Although the instructions on the packet suggest the end of April as the earliest sowing date, this is for more northern climates and here all the gardeners sow them at the end of March. We’ll sow several more rows later in the spring to ensure a steady supply.
Back home after our morning’s work, we started our lunch with some leftover foie gras on toasts and then ate Lo Jardinièr’s adaptation of a recipe for pumpkin and chickpea salad from Sam and Sam Clark’s Casa Moro, adding feta cheese to the pumpkin and arranging it all on a green salad with parsley and sorrel from the garden.
It always seems nothing short of a miracle when tomato seeds saved from last summer germinate like this, and a further miracle (I hope) when they go on to produce this summer’s crop. All nine varieties are growing well nine days after sowing. And now the pepper seeds, sown a week ago, have started to germinate too. The new season is on its way.
And the last of last summer – we started eating the last of our Chilean ‘smashing pumpkins’ today, roasting part of it to eat with cuisse de canard confit. I cheated a bit with the duck confit, starting with fresh duck legs and slow-roasting them in their own fat with olive oil and herbs added, covered with foil for about 3 hours and then uncovered and drained from their fat to brown. Just like the real thing!
Of course, it’s essential to have a glass of red wine with this dish, following the rules of what is known as the French paradox: that people in the south-west of France eat a lot of duck fat but still have long healthy lives because they drink red wine with it. I’m not going to argue with that.
Our cheese course was very local – Mas Rolland demi-sec and cendré (coated in wood ash) goats’ cheeses, which also go well with the local red Faugères.
Some days I wonder why I take photos only of dishes we’ve taken a lot of care to prepare or made for special occasions, when even everyday food can be as tasty. This is lunch on a working day: pumpkin soup with garlic and parsley croutons.
With the mussels we bought from the coquillages van on Saturday morning, we made two very different dishes over the weekend. The first was an old favourite, pumpkin and mussel soup, the recipe for which is on the Food from the Mediterranean blog.
And the second was a new experiment which worked – marinated mussels. I removed about 750 grams of cooked mussels from their shells, added a chopped sweet onion, a finely chopped piment d’Espelette (you could use a chilli pepper if you like hot food), a glass of white wine, the juice of half a lemon and a little salt, not too much as the mussels are often quite salty. I left the mussels to marinate overnight and then served them as a first course with crusty bread (and, separately, the few remainders of our own olives).
These earthenware cazuelas are definitely part of my essential kitchen equipment, well worn, chipped and some slightly cracked, they are used almost every day. As soon as one of these dishes begins to heat up on the hob or in the oven a characteristic earthy smell fills the kitchen and I’m sure that they add flavour to anything that is cooked in them. They are widely available in markets and shops here and over the border in Catalunya and Spain, sold with varying advice on how to treat them to make them last ‘for ever’. I don’t believe that they do last for ever, but they aren’t expensive so if one does crack too badly it can be replaced. When they’re new they should be soaked for an hour or so in water before use, but after that I find that so long as they are heated slowly, on a low flame to start with if used for cooking on gas, they last for years.
I used one today to make a chorizo, pumpkin and haricot bean stew – very simply, with tinned beans added near the end of the cooking time when the pumpkin was done.
Although it’s not cold here yet, now that we’re into December I’m beginning to feel like wintry food, the colours and flavours of the colder months. It’s nice to come home with a vague idea of a recipe for the ingredients that await, to put them together and to find myself only an hour or so later eating just what I’d wanted. This is what happened at lunchtime today.
I had half a kilo of sausage bought from the charcutier in the market on Wednesday that I fried in olive oil in a cast-iron casserole for ten minutes while I fried pieces of pumpkin separately to brown them. I added a chopped onion to the sausage and let it soften for five minutes or so then added the pumpkin, a handful of black and green olives, some chopped garlic, a few peeled and chopped tomatoes (the last ones from the garden this season), a tablespoonful of capers, a couple of sprigs of oregano and a bay leaf, a big glassful of white wine, salt and pepper, and left it all to stew for 45 minutes. Served with garlic mashed potatoes, it was just what I’d hoped for….and there are leftovers too!
Another friend on Blipfoto, dis..dat….d’udda, sent me seeds last year of a Chilean variety of pumpkin she calls, simply, Smashing. This autumn we harvest three of these and today Lo Jardinièr cooked the first one. Of course, we’ve saved the seeds for next year.
According to dis…dat…d’udda these are much used in Chile in many different dishes – especially in stews or mashed with potatoes – and we decided to try one of our standard pumpkin recipes with it. Lo Jardinièr cut half of it into chunks and roasted them for about an hour in olive oil with a good pinch of coarse sea salt. When the pieces were nicely browned he puréed them with a couple of cloves of garlic, put the purée in an oven-proof dish, crumbled some bleu d’Auvergne cheese on top and put it back in the oven for about ten minutes and then briefly under the grill to brown the cheese. All we needed with this for a warming, cheering lunch on a grey day was a baguette. And the pumpkin was indeed smashing – with a very concentrated almost spicy flavour. The other half is waiting to be made into soup.
I was sent seeds of this variety of pumpkin last year by fellow blipper ceridwen and this autumn we’ve harvested two of these pumpkins which originate in the USA. With our daughter here and a friend invited for supper, neither of whom eat meat, I decided to stuff it with bulgur (cooked until almost soft), chopped garlic, chopped mushrooms that I’d briefly sautéed in olive oil, thyme, a chopped fresh paprika pepper, a tablespoonful of chopped capers and two chopped, peeled tomatoes.
I roasted the stuffed pumpkin in the oven at 180 C for three hours. For the last half-hour I removed the top and covered the stuffing with cubes of feta cheese.
It was worth the three-hour cooking time! We cut it in wedges, like a cake, to serve it. The flesh of the pumpkin had a denser texture than other varieties – perhaps that’s where the ‘cheese’ part of its name came from – and a very good flavour which went well with the stuffing I’d invented. I’ve saved the seeds so that we can grow them again next year.