Full moon sorcery

The place behind the church in Neffiès was transformed from its everyday use as a playground and pétanque ground, and from the night before too, when it had been the scene of a fantastic lively concert by Occitan musicians Du Bartas. Last night it was filled with small low tables surrounded by cushions and long tables covered with pretty cloths, laid with wine glasses glinting in the light, netting floated from the trees and candelabras hung from the branches.

las mascas1

 

las mascas2

 

las mascas3

 

A group of eight or nine women, all dressed in white, had prepared a supper for eighty people to follow a tasting of local wines. Las Mascas – female sorcerers in Occitan – had conjured all this from the space and the food made entirely from local ingredients. And in between cooking and serving they toured the tables singing Occitan songs too. It was a memorable evening.

las mascas5

 

las mascas6las mascas7

 

And the food? A delicious and inventive four-course supper:

las mascas4

 

A tortilla-like concoction of egg and nettle leaves, tapenade made with olives from the village, and salad made from locally grown chick peas with tomatoes, onions and wild herbs from the garrigue.

las mascas8

 

Mutton sausage with vegetables and aioli made with wild garlic.

las mascas9

 

Goats’ cheese from a farm near the village, served on a vine leaf and with rosemary syrup.

las mascas10

 

And chocolate gateau decorated with a mallow flower, just before midnight as the full moon rose above the plane trees.

Advertisements

A winter flower on New Year’s Day

1-winter flower

It was only when I was arranging these mozzarella salads, with pickled peppers from our summer garden, for our first course at lunchtime today that I realised it looked a bit like a flower, which is appropriate since we have a botany blog in the family.

For the main course of our new year’s day lunch we had griddled duck breast with roast vegetables and a very good bottle of Emoción red wine from Domaine Monplezy (with its reminder of summer in the hoopoe on the label).

2-duck

The wine went very well with some sheep’s cheese from the Larzac too. And then we had preserved kumqats (grown by a friend, bottled by me) with a glass of muscat wine.

4-kumqats

A good start to the year!

Bona annada!

Blwyddyn newydd dda!

Bonne année!

Happy new year!

Courgette flowers

There weren’t any more courgettes ready to eat yet in the garden today so I picked some of the flowers instead, making sure that there were some male ones left to fertilise any female ones that may open over the next day or so.  Sometimes we simply cut the flowers in half lengthwise, coat them in batter made from half chick pea flour and half ordinary baking flower, mixed with a little water.  Today I decided to stuff them and serve them with a salad made from our first green pepper of the season and a cucumber, also from the garden.

I mixed some chopped mint, salt and pepper into a large tablespoonful of fresh breadcrumbs, added some olive oil to make the stuffing stick together and put it into the flowers.  It doesn’t matter if they don’t look very tidy as the batter will cover any gaps.

Then Lo Jardinièr made the batter, coated them and fried them in olive oil while I arranged the salads.

They made a tasty first course at lunchtime, with a little local Picholine olive oil poured over the cucumber and pepper.

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:

IMGP2461

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:

IMGP2414

the Lucque olive tree about to flower:

IMGP2431

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

IMGP2427

and some tiny wild violets:

IMGP2425

Foraging for flavours

IMGP1100

Found in the garden at lunchtime today, some herbs and flavourings to add to a lettuce bought in the market: wild rocket, sorrel, onion shoots, broad bean tops and a mix of herbs, mint, thyme and savory.

IMGP1094

leaves bursting out on the pomegranate bush

IMGP1105

and the apple tree

IMGP1107

the apricot blossom is over, so I’m hoping to see tiny apricots soon.

IMGP1108

And Lo Jardinièr planted out these red onion plants he bought in the market this morning.

Just an ordinary Monday

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.

IMGP0832

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.

IMGP0837

The jasmine is flowering:

IMGP0841

And there were wonderful shadows on the olive leaves:

IMGP0862

IMGP0867

IMGP0875

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.

IMGP0890

IMGP0892

Discoveries, old and new

I made another trip this morning into the countryside around the village to take a few more photos for the geology lecture next week.  The features we were concentrating on were olistoliths – rocks which stand up from the flatter ground around them, the result of movement of a block of limestone over another layer of rock and its collision (underwater as it was 300 million years ago) with a coral reef, which broke up the limestone into these distinctive features.  The same formations occur in the Guilin area of China and around Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

There are three of them in this first photo, a large one on the left, a smaller one on the right and a very small one in the centre.  The view also shows how dry it is here now – in the season when we should have had most of the year’s rain over the past couple of months, we have had no proper rain since November.  The garrigue on the hills looks as it always does, because it’s evergreen and adapted to drought, but I hope we’ll have enough rain for the spring wild flowers.

We followed this tiny road through some very dry vineyards towards Vailhan and past the gap between an olistolith and its original limestone block.

At Vailhan, the church and presbytery (the latter is now a very good restaurant) stand on another olistolith.

It will be an interesting talk next week, just as it was fascinating to travel through familiar landscape with someone who knows so much about the geology of the area.  The vinegrowers are very lucky in this small area around our village because there is an unusual variety of different kinds of rock, due to forces on the different formations 300 million years ago, and resulting in a terroir (an untranslatable word meaning the geological and meteorological elements that make up the character of a wine) where different varieties can be grown very close to each other in suitable conditions for each one.

The Cercle Occitan is a group in the village which I belong to and which promotes Occitan language and culture, Occitan being the indigenous language of much of southern France from the Alps to the Pyrenees (and including some small areas in both Italy and Catalunya).  It is still spoken by many, in spite of the discouragement of the French state and its centralised educational policies.  As well as language classes, our group organises  a programme of cultural events, not all directly related to Occitan issues, like this lecture on geology.  After each lecture or meeting about 40 or 50 of us eat together and continue the discussion.  Next week’s lecture will take place the day after St David’s Day, the Welsh national day, when we usually make a Welsh meal in our house for 15 or 16 friends.  This time Lo Jardinièr and I have offered to make cawl (Welsh lamb stew/soup) for 40 people.  Others will make the first and last courses.  I’ll post the recipe, as promised!

The village shop has recently been taken over by a very enthusiastic young couple who are willing to carry on as before, but still to try out new things.  This morning I found that they were offering chicken livers confit (cooked in duck fat), so I couldn’t resist trying them.  I made a salad with sliced endive, grated carrot and a few slices of fennel and added a dressing made with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  I cooked the livers in the duck fat (if I’d had fresh ones I would have fried them quickly in olive oil), added them to the salad and deglazed the pan with a bit more balsamic vinegar to pour over them.  Served with bruschetta and a glass of local red wine, it made a nice lunch for this in-between season when spring is clearly on its way at last.

New Orleans in Languedoc

I’ve been quite busy the past few days helping with organising a dinner and jazz concert put on by the Cercle Occitan in our village.  With very little knowledge of New Orleans among members of the group we created our version of a suitable dinner for almost 100 people.  Lo Jardinièr and I made the first course: accras (salt cod fritters) with sauce made from mayonnaise, paprika, capers, chopped olives and parsley, served with red bean, green pepper and sweet corn salad.  Marie-Jo and a huge number of helpers made colombo, chicken in spicy tomato sauce with rice.  I’m sure some of my readers here will know a lot more about this cuisine than I do and may find the menu inauthentic, but everyone enjoyed the food and the music, by Ray the only one of us who has been to New Orleans, was even better.

The food Lo Jardinièr and I prepared was simple but the quantities meant that we seemed to be chopping and frying most of the day.

IMGP4461

IMGP4464

IMGP4471

IMGP4480

Ready to serve!

Some souvenirs

There are olive trees all around our village and an olive oil mill run by friends of ours who produce wonderful oil.  But I like to taste oils from other areas too, so when I go to Catalunya or Andalucia I always bring back a few bottles.  This time I found two oils made from Arbequina olives, one made near to where we were staying, at Castellterçol near Barcelona, and the other from Jerez de los Caballeros in Andalucia.  They look and taste quite similar, although the Catalan oil (on the right in the photo) was slightly more peppery.

IMGP3929 gimped

Arbequina olives are smaller than most other varieties and I was told once by a grower that the advantage of this is that they do not attract the olive fly because there is not enough flesh for it to lay its eggs in.  This makes Arbequina olive trees very suitable for organic production as they do not need chemical sprays to protect against the fly.

For supper on Friday night in a restaurant in the village where we were staying, the first course was a salad of red peppers, tomatoes and salt cod.  It reminded me that we don’t often enough eat our red peppers raw – because they’re so delicious grilled.  They’re very sweet and tasty when they’re raw too, so tonight for supper I made a salad with chopped red and green peppers and sweet onion mixed with cooked potatoes and dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  I arranged this around the plates and then added pieces of chicken that had been marinated in lemon juice, garlic and paprika and then fried in olive oil.  I garnished it all with some finely sliced red pepper and a few basil leaves.

IMGP3936 gimped

Aubergine and pepper salad

When we had a good vine wood fire burning on the barbecue to cook our supper in the garden the evening before last I took the chance to grill some aubergine slices and some whole peppers for later.  You can grill them indoors, but the vine wood gives them an extra smoky flavour.  Next morning I skinned the peppers (easy to do once the skins were slightly burnt by the fire), cut them and the aubergine slices into narrow strips, added some chopped garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and left them to marinate in the fridge for the day.

IMGP2602

In the evening I arranged them on plates with some slices of tomato, pieces of feta cheese (or goats’ cheese would work well too), green olives, a few basil leaves and a little more olive oil and garlic.  With some crusty bread from the nearby  boulangerie and a glass of rosé from the Domaine des Pascales in the village, these salads made a tasty supper at the end of a very hot day.