Monday 29 December 2014

Roses of 2014

This has been the year when I started to love roses, and two roses in particular have stood out for us. I still consider blue roses to be monsters in their zombie-flesh colours, and  I still haven't time for either scentless roses or fancy orchids. But these two varieties were something special.

This is the second year we've been to Chédigny, the village where the rose is queen, and almost every house has its carefully labelled plants. But it's the first year that we have been to the Chédigny Rose Festival, at the beginning of June, where in spite of all the visitors you can see the roses. Here we discovered Jeanne de Chédigny, a rambling rose named in honour of one of the most respected members of the community, Jeanne Louault. This lady was named as "one of the righteous among the Nations"  alongside her late husband Bernard, and their names were inscribed on the Hill of Remembrance at Yad Vashem in Israel for their courage in protecting two German-Jewish teenage boys in occupied France in 1940. The two boys,  Franz (Francois) and Ernst (Ernest) worked on the Louault family farm for eighteen months, hidden in plain sight. Then someone must have denounced them. When a squad in a German army lorry came to arrest them, Ernst was caught but escaped, and Franz got clean away. The brothers joined the Resistance. When Jeanne's name was suggested for a rose dedicated to Chédigny, the fact that her son was mayor at the time was just a happy coincidence.

Rose "Jeanne de Chédigny"

As for Jeanne de Chédigny the rose, « elle est très simple, avec beaucoup de fleurs, de couleur rose pale, entre le rose et le blanc, comme des fleurs d'églantier », a very simple rose, with a lot of flowers, pale pink in colour, between pink and white, like wild rose flowers. It has plenty of perfume, and scrambles happily over a line of posts at the entrance to the village.

The other rose, appropriately enough, is "Peace". This was blooming in the front garden just over a week ago. We inherited this bush when we bought the house and we have no idea how old it is. Knowing that cold and wet weather was forecast, we picked the last two buds and put them in a vase in the kitchen. This is the result.


And a peaceful New Year to one and all

Wednesday 17 December 2014


Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the table.... something new comes out and bites you. The latest idea to give a whole new meaning to the term "cheese board" was highlighted in Phillippe Samzun's article "Cheese? It's childs play!" in La Nouvelle République of 15 December 2014. Here's what he said.

A cheese maker from Fondettes has created a board game dedicated to the cheeses of France. A sort of Monopoly in soft cheese for children and adults.

Play and learn! Photograph - La Nouvelle République

Charles de Gaulle used to say that a country possessing 365 different sorts of cheese was by  its very nature ungovernable. Today you can find 1,200 ... how well do you think President Hollande can get away with it?

Cheeses are the speciality of Jean-Louis Bulté. This chap lives in St Maure - which places him already in the lap of destiny - and he runs three creameries at Fondettes, Bléré and Loches. (*) Creameries which, from now on, will be selling a home made board game dedicated "to this jewel in the crown of our national heritage".

In the matter of board games, his wife got there before him. "She's mad about history, and she created Histofoly, and it's now sold at the Chateaux of Chenonceau and Amboise. JTS, a games producer in Joué-les-Tours, encouraged us to do it again."

It must be said that, in this matter, there is what to say and what to do. Expert in AOP (**),  Jean-Louis Bulté is unstoppable on the subject of cheeses with a powdery crust, pressed cheeses cooked and uncooked, soft cheeses with a washed crust, blue cheese, goat cheese and the "petits laits" name given uniquely to Corsican cheeses. The proliferation of brands is a result of the work put in by the dairy industry to try to soften the blows of the economic difficulties they are encountering. This board game results from the same sort of logic.

"It's a game and educational at the same time. The principle is simple. You have to bring together, on one card, a whole family of cheese. The first to have filled their plate is the winner."

Getting there, but not a winner yet.
 Amazingly, the only cheese picture in my photo library -
a St Maure (left)  and a Pouligny soft goats cheese,
both from our neighbours at Pré,
served with love at La Promenade, Le Petit Pressigny in August 2012.
The hole in the St Maure is for the traditional straw.

In total, there are 640 questions, some of which are designed for children, colour cubes, puzzles, stories, with the possibility at the end of the day of becoming unbeatable on the subject of the cheesemaking, maturing, salting processes; an expert in raw milk; a know-it-all about PDOs (***). Aside from which, a player might just end up the possessor of a degree of competence running France!

* La balade des fromages, 6, rue du Général-de-Gaulle, Bléré. La passion des fromages, 9 rue de la République, Fondettes, La crémerie du Château, rue Picois à Loches. 
** Appellation d'origine protégée.
*** Protected Designation of Origin.

The game is for sale for 19.90 € in the three shops.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Energy weapons

Until last month I had never made flapjacks. My past experience was of something dry, gritty and overly sweet. Imagine! Then I tried Gaynor's flapjacks, and they were quite a revelation. What on earth had I been missing? Gluten free, too.

I started with the recipe for "Basic Flapjacks" in the BBC Good Food "Cakes & Bakes".

You start with the basic ingredients:
175g/6 oz butter, cut into pieces
140g/5oz golden syrup
50g/2oz light soft brown (muscovado) sugar
250g/9oz porridge oats
Now that sounds like it might be a little bland, and more than a little rich. Some dried fruit, nuts...
I reckon you could go up to 250 grammes more of dry ingredients without your flapjacks falling apart through stretching the "glue" too far. They're a little crumbly, but that's flapjacks.

Sultana, apricot, walnut and pumpkin seed flapjack
You could try a combination of
  • walnuts - broken into pieces and lightly toasted in a dry frying pan until crunchy
  • golden or dark raisins - halved if they're very big
  • pumpkin seeds
  • sultanas or currants
  • ready-to-eat dried apricots, quartered
  • ready-to-eat dried figs, quartered
  • pistachios, roughly chopped
  • stem ginger, roughly chopped
  • glacé cherries, quartered ....
You can buy most of these, and the oats, from the Bio Co-op, serve-yourself from dispensers into a paper bag, an ecologically friendly distribution method and good value for money. Not the stem ginger, though they may have it elsewhere.

Line a 23 cm/9 inch square baking tin with greaseproof paper. Preheat the oven to 180°c /170°c fan assisted / gas mark 4.

Put the butter, golden syrup and sugar into a medium saucepan (I weigh them into a pan, and take away the weight of the spoon from the weight of the syrup-plus-spoon). Heat gently, stirring from time to time, until the butter is melted, then stir vigorously until all the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the oats. Keep stirring until all the liquid is mixed in and all the oats are coated in butter. Add the additional ingredients and stir again to mix thoroughly.

Spread the mixture across the bottom of the tin, pressing it firmly down and into the corners and edges with the back of a spoon or spatula, and smoothe the surface. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool in the tin for five minutes, then cover the mixture with another sheet of greaseproof and press down firmly with a flat object or roll with a cylindrical jam jar or something like a child's rolling pin. If you can make up a 23cm/9in square wooden stamp for this purpose, so much the better.

Mark the surface into squares or bars with the back of a knife or a spatula while still warm. Allow to cool completely. in the tin. Cut along the marked lines and break out the individual flapjacks.

Store in an airtight tin or Tupperware box, away from mice, particularly the two-legged variety.
Extra crunchy

Friday 5 December 2014


Our chickens are settling in, apart from Shirley, who left us to become Big Daddy. She/he was exchanged for Blanche Dubois, who is definitely female (until she starts crowing).

Here is Blanche between the two survivors of the first tranche. That's Marion on the left, yes, the one with the developing crest and wattles. Marion bullies the others somewhat, and always gets to the food bowl and the snacks first. They adore chickweed, and their next favourite is the skin of a roast pumpkin.

Three little girls from school are we
 Here comes Alice. She gives Marion as good as she gets.

Werk definitely cluck cluck werk.

And this is Marion.

Cock-a-doodle Whoops...

Sorry, Marion Morrison who has turned into John Wayne, you're coq au vin, when you've put a bit of weight on. I've just seen an excellent recipe...

Sunday 30 November 2014

Crocodile parsnip

That's not a parsnip!

That's not a parsnip either!

Now that's a parsnip....
Nearly 1.5kg of parsnip, actually. The variety is "Guernsey", I've been sowing successfully from the same packet for three years, which is meant to be impossible (always use fresh seed for parsnips, "they say") and despite our extremely stony soil, few of them are forked. This is the same batch that appeared in a post of  April 2013. Despite their size, they are not woody, except where those side roots join in. Just sweet and delicious.

In France, panais tends to be somewhat looked down upon, as a humdrum dish for starving peasants, but lately they have come back into fashion. So far we have made an excellent sausage and bean hotpot covered with slices of parsnip, potato and carrot; a parsnip and pumpkin soup, with Sweet Dumpling and Gold Nugget squash; and a roasted vegetable accompaniment to a roast chicken (thanks Gaynor and Tim, it was meaty).

The big one remains, challenging and taunting us. We'll put him in a sand box in the barn to keep him moist and juicy until we're ready to eat him. There's another sowing for Christmas... and the chicken we called Marion Morrison is turning out to be John Wayne...

Friday 21 November 2014

Chooks - at last!

As a city girl born and bred, I didn't know the first thing about chickens, except that Old Dai Cox, my dad's farmer neighbour in Cowbridge in the twenties and thirties, kept Sussex hens, and logically referred to a singleton as a Sussec. Dad, from whom I inherited my love of words, thought this was great fun. Gradually a desire grew in me, to have a Sussec too. Which is why we are now proprietors of a trio of cross-bred Orpingtons.
The henhouse is a little palace, supplied by HRH Hill Ltd of Hounslow who wholesale chicken houses, and Amazon France, who retail poulaillers.

"The Monmouth", or possibly "The Devonshire" with Tim at the wheel
Of course, there had to be modifications to it - a solid base with wheels at one end and handles at the other, so that the whole thing could be moved from one place to another. Various reinforcements, particularly the replacement of most of the hinges with more solid ones, and the addition of catches at the front of the roof to stop it lifting in high wind. The stencil "hut 17" on the side is to come.

Releasing the wheels

Des. res. - the roosting area, with hay for home comfort.

The roof lifts off too. The metal handle is to close the internal door and shut them in.

Roger brought the hens over today and we settled them in the new house. He has six to part with and these were the easiest to catch on the day. While I went to get the camera they took themselves up the ramp into the roosting box where they couldn't be photographed. Problem: one, or possibly two, of them could be a cockerel. We don't want a cockerel, and no way do we want two. The neighbours have more than enough cockerels for us, thanks. The prime suspect is the biggest and boldest of the three. They didn't have names, but garden chickens should have names. I suggested the name "Shirley" for the possible male, after Shirley Crabtree, alias Big Daddy, a well known British wrestler. The others had to have a female-name-that-is-actually-male too. Welcome Alice (Cooper) and Marion (Morrison, aka John Wayne). We shall see.

Get off your horse and drink your milk!

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Civray draws the crowds

Every year, in late October, Maison Perrin hosts a Marché à la Ferme in the hamlet of Civray. That's about five kilometres away from us as the crow flies, but not as the grotesquely-overfed duck staggers as it's mostly uphill. The speciality of the house is foie gras, and I know many find the whole business of foie gras unacceptably cruel, but I must say the ducks in question appear not in be any distress as they sit, getting fatter and doing nothing but eat, sleep and excrete. And I'm rather partial to foie gras.

M. Charcellay of Maison Perrin with customers in front of Laurent Joumier's goat cheese stall from Pré. The Joumiers have a new baby daughter, Clémence, who is now sleeping through the night, we are told.
It was just approaching lunchtime as we set off for the farm, and some of those not lunching were just about to depart, so we managed to park pretty easily not far from the gate. That was useful in view of the crowd!

The crowd in the courtyard at Maison Perrin

The big draw of the day is the repas - a slap-up lunch. The queue to pay for this meal was extensive on Sunday, and quite a few come long distances for the meal alone.

Pay here for lunch.
Meanwhile, on sale were wines from Vouvray, Bourgueil and Chinon (we bought some of that, to encourage them)...

very popular, not even a chance to say hello, never mind ordering anyrhing!
local honey from M. Hervé ...

no shortage here
...jam, walnut oil, poires tapées (dried, flattened pears, we still have some from about four years ago), snails, charcuterie of the duck kind and oven ready birds, almost all sold out, pottery...

Some of Magali Desroches' lovely work, elegantly displayed

and dairy products from Fromagerie Maurice and La Borde staffed with great dignity by a female person who may only have been eight years old but she knew how to operate a till and do sums, which is better than one of the Civray boys two years ago!

All in all 'twere a reet good do.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Sheep's noses and amputated fingers

Sounds like a gruesome recipe for Hallow'een? No, these are the varieties of sweet pepper (poivrons) that we are growing this year. Sheepnose is an old favourite, a heritage variety from the US state of Ohio (obtained from Kokopelli who no longer have them, try Rareseeds). They produce a good number of middle-sized bell peppers with thick sweet flesh on stocky plants that have been known to fall over under the weight of fruit.

Sheepnose plant, 6/8/2014

They have been growing all on their own in a little bed behind the longère to isolate them from the other peppers, and particularly from the hot ones (piments)! That way I can keep the seed strain going. They grow happily outdoors here, apart from the snails; in the UK I kept them in the greenhouse where they did extremely well. A certain amount of tickling of flowers with a sable paint brush was called for, in both locations, to ensure plenty of seeds.

Why are they called Sheepnose mummy?
'Dedo de Mocha' or Sweet Ají is a new one for us, courtesy of the Real Seed Company. They are related to some of the hottest chillies in the world, but are not hot at all. To quote the supplier,
The name of this traditional variety translates roughly as 'Amputated Fingers', which is fair enough given the shape and colour, but seems to be in dubious taste! 
Lurking pepper

The closer you look, the more you see (August 2014)

They are incredibly productive plants, but the peppers stayed resolutely green. A few are turning red now (mid October). The shape is rather wiggly, but it's quite easy to remove the seeds to stuff them.


They are perfect for many stuffed pepper recipes, including some for mild chillis such as poblanos. The recipe for Tina's Greek stuffed peppers with feta cheese that follows is from Allrecipes UK and Ireland.

Serves: 6

    12 long green peppers
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    1 tablespoon plain flour
    235ml milk
    250g feta cheese, crumbled
    1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
    black pepper to taste
    oregano to taste

Preheat the oven to 180 C / Gas 4.
Boil the peppers in hot salted water for about 7 minutes, or until they start to soften. Drain them and leave to cool.
Heat the oil and flour in a small pan. Add the milk and whisk until you have a smooth sauce. Take the pan off the heat and add the feta cheese, some parsley, black pepper and oregano. Mix them in but the feta should remain slightly lumpy.

Make a slice in the side of the peppers and take out the seeds. Try not to break the peppers, but open them up (like the shape of a little boat). Stuff them with the feta mixture. Place them in on an oiled baking tray.

Ready to start baking

Bake in the preheated oven until heated through, about 30 minutes. You can leave them to cool before serving, but I thought they were nicer hot.

Ready to start eating!

Make ahead and pop them in the oven  ready for serving as a starter, with crusty bread and a green salad.

No need to add salt to this recipe because feta cheese is salty enough. I used a young goat cheese instead of feta, and that did need a little salt.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Health and safety puts a blanket over its head

just when you thought it couldn't get worse...

Note this is a hard hat area. Is Monsieur wearing a hard hat? I have airbrushed out his face, in case you were wondering, to spare his blushes. Note also that he is holding onto the guttering so that he can step over the frame holding up his planks. He's just about finished this wall, but how on earth will he do those gables?

The cladding looks nice though.

Friday 17 October 2014

Little Plum

Little plums in increasing order of size:
  • sloe (prunelle)
  • damson (prune de damas)
  • quetsche (damson)....
Prunelles en profusion
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn (épine noire, prunus communis), a British and European native shrub to be found in hedgerows all over Europe. Its sour, astringent fruit are black, with a bluish bloom that disappears as the fruit ripens. Sloes are widely used to flavour alcoholic drinks and to make jelly. In France, another alcoholic drink (also called épine noire) is made with the young shoots.

We have blackthorn along the bank of the Aigronne. Unusual among them is one plant (and its offspring) which flowers three weeks earlier than all the others, and has fruit the size of a marble. The leaves are somewhat more rounded than normal. This fruit is relatively sweet and we believe it is either a subspecies or a hybrid of some kind. The bush was absolutely loaded with fruit this year but we have more than enough sloe gin, not to mention sloe rum. So I decided to make jam from them.

Good enough to eat?
The recipe comes from Recettes de Confiture, by Vincent Pommeraie. It was only after the jam was made that I found out that a prunelle is also a type of small plum, a bit bigger than a quetsche. However the context does indicate that he means sloes and not plums. Being by M. Pommeraie, the original recipe includes a vanilla pod, but I left this out as I wanted to taste plum, not vanilla.

This jam could also be made with frozen sloes.

Sloe jam

1.8 kg sloes
750g sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Wash the fruit and remove stalks spiders etc. Place the sloes in a stainless steel saucepan, add water to just cover and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer until the fruit is reduced to a pulp (en marmelade}. Strain out the stones (see below). Tip the resulting pulp into a preserving pan with the lemon juice, and bring back to the boil. Stir in the sugar. Heat gently, stirring till the sugar is dissolved, then turn up the heat and boil till the setting point is reached,. Pommeraie has a final, unusual step here. I left this out because our sloes aren't astringent. To remove any remaining acidity, he suggests you spread the mixture on a baking dish or tray and heat in a very slow oven at 150° - 200° F / 70°-90° C (therme 2-3) for 12 hours. Pot and cover in the usual way.

The sloe jam worked very well, with a sharp but intense plum flavour. This made it worth the tedium of removing the stones. The traditional mouli food mill proved to be the best tool (forget rubbing them through a sieve). The main problem was that the tiny stones jammed under the mouli blade and burst with a loud bang, shooting bits across the kitchen. The only thing worse than fruit stones in jam is broken bits of fruit stone. I received a lot of help with this part! The mixture I obtained was actually quite sweet, although sharp, and a little goes a long way. I used a jam thermometer backed by the old plate-in-icebox to test for set. Having used too much water to get the mixture go through the mouli it took about an hour and a half to reach a set. The texture is more like a fruit spread than a jam.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Health and safety gone round the corner for a ciggie

Thank goodness this building site is just across the road from the Descartes Maison de la Santé (health centre).

The helipad is even closer...

I can't make up my mind whether the two planks across the void are the best bit, or the pallet and beam combo holding up the second frame from the right.

We wonder what the builder will do to reach the next level of cladding!

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Peas in our time

And all because the lady wanted to make Risi e Bisi...

For years now our favourite variety of pea has been Pea Wee 65, a petit pois (geddit?  Pea Wee, it's a little guy, it's a wee pea!) from Marshalls. The peas are so tightly packed in the pod that it's not straightforward to get them  out, but it's worth it for the sweet flavour. They may be small, but you get a heck of a lot. They are flattened by being crammed together in the pod, but round out in cooking. We blogged about Pea Wee before, here.

Pea Wee 65 in 2011 - 'scuse fingers

The 2011 Pea Wee crop...

... prepared

This year I made an early sowing of Pea Wee, along with some rather elderly seed of Meteor, an early variety. Disaster. Only one of the Meteor germinated, plus a few of the Pea Wee, and none of the seedlings looked well. This was probably down to the wet spring, plus the age of the seed.

To rescue the situation I looked for an early pea variety and found "Avola" in the Kew Urban Gardens Collection brand of Thompson and Morgan, to re-sow the disaster area. This choice was purely on a whim - I wanted an early variety and I'd never heard of them before, though I have since found them in other catalogues. They grew as well as could be expected between two rows of broad beans, and tasted pretty good.

Avola was claimed to reach maturity - harvestable peas - in 70 days after sowing, but only in the US, for some reason. The Organic Gardening Catalogue, which sells the same variety, claims 60 days. I can confirm that both are totally inaccurate. It's actually 45 days. I made a second sowing of both Avola and Pea Wee 65 on 5th August. I picked the first Avola from the second sowing on 20th September and the first Pea Wee on 9th October.

Avola (left, held up with Y stakes and string) and Pea Wee, taken 10.10.2014

Both varieties need some support, or otherwise flop on the ground for the slugs. We use a length of chickenwire held up by canes or Y-stakes. We were a little late with the Avola and needed string to push the plants off the ground and against the chickenwire,  but once there, they behaved nicely. By 10th October, Avola are finished - though still growing - while Pea Wee are still flowering. Pea Wee is taller, overtopping the chicken wire. and floppier, and much later to harvest.

Pea Wee just about ready to pick, 10.10.2014
Avola are round, fat and sweet-tasting.

Avola - a sample
The air gap at the tip of the pod makes it a piece of cake to extract the peas.
Here we could probably get three crops of Avola in a year. In "mild areas" they can be planted in November for an early spring harvest. We could get away with an overwintered planting, with fleece to hand if a stiff frost is forecast. Most of the Avola went straight into the freezer, and the Pea Wee will probably join them.

But some Avola came out, to  be used to make Risi e Bisi, a classic pea risotto. The recipe comes from The Best of Supercook "Rice and Pasta" going back to the days when I was a member of the Cookery Book Club, the early eighties, I think. This series was amazingly multi-cultural and authentic for its time, with an Italian recipe like this one rubbing shoulders with Biryani and a west indian Hoppin' John, and no curries featuring grated apple or sultanas.

For two people I used:
½lb /250g fresh or frozen peas, weighed without the pods
½lb/250g  round grain (Arborio/arvorio) rice
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2oz /60g dry cure streaky bacon, cut in lardons (I used smoked poitrine)
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional – include if the bacon is not nice and fat)
1oz butter
½ glass (2 fluid ounces / a good splash) dry white wine (I had some rosé left, so used that)
1 pint / 500ml chicken stock, boiling
2oz/60g parmesan, grated (we used the coffee grinder attachment)
Salt and pepper to taste
The bacon must be decent quality, i.e. not pumped up with water. You want crispy, not boiled.

Put the olive oil into a heavy based pan over a medium heat. If not using oil, dry-heat the pan. Put in the bacon, and stir it around until it is crisp and has given up most of its fat. Scoop the bacon out of the fat with a slotted spoon, and lay it on some kitchen paper to dry.

Add half the butter to the fat in the pan. When it has stopped sizzling, add the onion. Stir and cook the onion until it is soft and translucent, but stop before it starts going brown. Reduce the heat a little and add the rice and peas, and stir them about for about five minutes.

Add the wine and a ladleful of stock (about a third of it). Adjust the heat so the mixture is just bubbling. Stir frequently and cook until the liquid is almost all absorbed. Add another ladleful of stock and continue cooking as before. Keep adding ladlefuls of stock until it is all gone. When all the stock has been added, and is all absorbed, check the rice is cooked (it should still have a “bite” but crunchy is definitely Not Done). If it still needs a little more cooking, turn the heat right down, put on a lid and leave the pan for five minutes, then check again. Repeat if necessary.

Stir in the rest of the butter, the parmesan and cooked bacon, add salt and pepper to taste, and heat through for a minute. Serve immediately.

Serving suggestion: a fresh green salad and a dry white wine – Frascati is the classic Italian accompaniment, but a nice Muscadet sur lie would go very well (wow that phrase would have annoyed my English teachers. Fights down urge to edit it immediately). We toasted pisum sativum var. “Avola” in vinho verde.