29 June, 2009


I lost my head and got a rabbit. Blame it on the heat. Its fur is softer than you can imagine. It is so mellow it sits up on its hind legs and sniffs the dog's muzzle through the wire of the hutch, oblivious to my Weimaraner's thwarted primordial desire.
I know they put aquariums in medical waiting rooms because it calms people to watch them, but I can't find anything more--look out: yoga jargon just ahead--centering than watching inquisitive little Shadow. Except, perhaps, for one thing: sitting cross-legged on the grass and allowing a small black hen to climb into one's lap, fluff, settle and coo, while the other two doze close by, with heads cocked to the buzzing, fluttering insects that veil the lavender.

The news carries on, as I see from the paper, and the world spins on its axis, but here things are decelerating. Call it summer vacation torpor.

28 June, 2009

How to knock their socks off.

The window is flung open to the gentle night, and the stones of the house, from the paved courtyard to the bat- and swallow-dwelling eaves, exhale the day's gathered warmth. The cigales, or cicadas, have been quite noisily busy these past few weeks. They are true arbiters of the summer heat, and only now in the deep dark have allowed the crickets to take over the orchestra.

There is such nostalgia tied to this particular little creature that a whole industry has sprung up around it. I am referring to the well-loved cicada of the south of France, one of some 2,500 different types of cicadas found world-wide. In the summer markets, tourist stalls and deco shops, you can find cigale anything--from soap, candles, and sculpture to magnets, lavender-scented drawer sachets, and doorstops. All in the shape of a fairly strident little herald of les grandes vacances and la vie douce.

And the sweet life it certainly is here, as the summer holiday gears up and berrying is still very much on. For the moment the garden raspberries have taken center stage--all four varieties are competing for attention. This dessert certainly shows them off to beautiful effect. It can make you a culinary hero--and without that much fuss.

If you should happen to stain your clothes while picking these or any other berries, remember to rub in fresh (or bottled) lemon juice repeatedly until the stain disappears. With an orgy of berries on hand, one can quickly abandon all caution. Just try to save some of the berries for the tart.

Tarte aux Framboises (Raspberry Tart)
1 puff pastry crust*, baked blind** in a tart pan
400 g, give or take, fresh ripe raspberries
3 tablespoons raspberry/white currant jelly or any other berry jelly

1/2 liter milk
1 tablespoon high-quality, pure vanilla extract (I trust and love this one, which can be shipped)
4 organic egg yolks
100 g sugar, fine if possible
50 g flour
50 g unsalted butter, cut in pieces

Begin preparing the pastry cream, which will make for a luscious pale yellow layer under the gem-like raspberries. The recipe I use is pretty much verbatim from my trusty old Petit Larousse de la Cuisine. Once you have mastered this basic recipe, you will be able to use any number of fruits for the topping, but especially those that don't necessarily handle baking well, such as strawberries and blackberries.

So: heat the milk, adding the vanilla (don't skimp on quality here!) Beat the egg yolks, then add the fine sugar, continuing to beat until the yolk thickens to a cream color, just a bit yellow. Gradually sift the flour into the beaten egg yolks, incorporating thoroughly as you go. Add half of the boiling milk to the egg yolks, combine thoroughly, then add the remaining half. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan, and over medium-low heat stir pretty much continuously for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce is thickened and just beginning to bubble. Remove from heat and vigorously, thoroughly beat in the pieces of butter. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate.
As your pastry cream cools, you can unroll and bake your crust. Once it is baked, evenly fill the crust with the pastry cream. Fill the entire, cream-filled crust with a single layer of raspberries. Heat the jelly with a teaspoon or so of water. Gently brush or dab the tops of the raspberries with the melted jelly to give them a glossy glaze.

It is clearly unreasonable to ask you to refrigerate this gorgeous tart overnight before eating, but if you have self-control you will be amply rewarded, as the pastry cream does mellow beautifully. However briefly, you will be a god--or goddess--among men. Smile benevolently as the praise is lavished upon you (and try not to look too startled at how good this tastes).
*In the interest of time, try to find the highest quality commercial puff pastry dough. In France, it is available already rolled out and ready for the tart pan, luckily enough for the lazy among us. It helps to sprinkle additional flour on both sides of the rolled out dough to prevent sticking.

**To bake blind refers to baking the crust without filling, using baking paper filled with pie weights, rice or beans to keep the crust from puffing up while baking.

25 June, 2009

Midsummer night's fire.

It was the summer solstice this past Sunday--the first day of summer and the longest day of the year. This means two things around this part of the world: la Fête de la Musique (World Music Day) and Les Feux de St. Jean (the feast of St. John the Baptist).

The first is a national celebration begun in the early 80s which has since spread to many other countries, hence the English translation to World Music Day. Within France, there are scads of free concerts in all genres, pretty much everywhere, and innumerable street performances as well. Definitely a for-the-people festival.

The second is an interesting conflation of ritual, both ageless pagan (harvest-blessing) and christian (saint-blessing).

It's all centered around a bonfire.

Around June 21st, often under a full moon, bonfires are lit across France, some as high as 18 meters can be found in the Alsace. The fires, are accompanied by fireworks and attendant festivities, such as bonfire-jumping for luck (over the smaller ones, natch, else the luck is not so much likely to be there). All this to celebrate midsummer and the birth of St. John the Baptist, believed to have occurred on June 24th.

In the French Catalan area, this has become a point of reunion and cultural pride, which culminates, literally and figuratively, on the 2, 784 meter high Pic du Canigou. Thousands of hiking participants converge, tents and small faggots of wood in hand, upon the Trobada, catalan for reunion. The bonfire is lit at midnight using a torch kept alight the whole year long at the Castillet in Perpignan. Relay runners carry the flamme du Canigou back down onto the plain, stopping at all the villages along the way back to Perpignan, thereby lighting the Focs de la Sant Joan of the region. With the arrival of the torch, the party begins, which varies in detail and scale from town to town.

There are no accompanying pictures; mea culpa. While all this was going on, I was trying to ensure my own little harvest, by watering my wilted, sun-burned lettuce, cucumber plants and strawberries. But I do have this photo of the Pic du Canigou, taken while passing Perpignan...

22 June, 2009

Le Zéphyr.

While the wind is (again) too wild to be called a zephyr, this courgette, or summer squash, is delicate enough to have earned the name...Is it just me, or does seeing these beauties make you want to strip down to a bathing suit and break out the barbecue as well? My friendly local organic producer gave me some to try, calling them "delicieux". They are certainly tender and on the smallish side (which in zucchini and summer squash is good, as bigger can get watery, full of seeds and flavorless, or tough). The Zephyr take this season's prize for gorgeousness, in my book. Summer is here.

It's a pity to lose the lovely contrasting colors in a casserole, soup, bread or dessert however. As this type tastes great raw, I would slice it lengthwise rather thinly and serve with crudités et aioli (alhòli in Provencal Occitan)--that is, sliced fresh vegetables (briefly blanched or outright raw carrots, cauliflower, celery, etc.) and their garlic-laced dipping sauce.


You're best off with a decent-sized mortar and pestle; if that's not an option, use a garlic press and a medium-sized mixing bowl. If serving four people, peel about three cloves of garlic. You can also go unorthodox and use mellower "caramelized" oven-roasted garlic as I do, in which case you double the amount of garlic to the equivalent of about six cloves. Crush/press to a paste. Add an egg yolk or two and combine until you again have an even paste. Add a tablespoon--or less--of lemon juice. Using a smaller whisk, very slowly drizzle olive oil (about a cup and a half or so) into the paste while constantly whisking. Season with salt, and some fresh-ground pepper if desired.

If this sounds less than precise, it is because taste preferences vary. Play around, taste and decide for yourself, as somewhere within this range of proportions, you stand a decent chance of finding your bit of Nirvana on earth; if you can, scoop it up with a yellow and green blade of Zephyr.

Cautionary addendum:

Yes, the dish is done as is, which means the eggs aren't cooked. This is the case with any freshly made mayonnaise-type preparation. Homemade mayonnaise, by the way, is a culinary delight that bears but little resemblance to the industrial pap that comes out of plastic squeeze bottles; promise me you'll at least consider trying it.

Because raw eggs are involved in aioli, all preparation tools (including the cook's hands!) must be immaculately clean and the eggs must be as fresh as possible, and if feasible from free-range, organic hens. This will make any risk of salmonella infinitesimal at best--perhaps I mean at worst.

16 June, 2009

Hot and bothered.

I got some serious back burn while picking cassis--black currant--and am now intensely aware of my skin. This while running around trying to keep up with harvesting all the other berries (one day older but wiser, I am now aiming for the milder parts of the day). There is such a bumper crop of black currants this year that I will try my hand at making my own crème de cassis, or black currant liqueur. It is the defining element of a champagne Kir Royale, but crème de cassis can also be added to red or white wine for a very satisfying early summer cocktail. And can be lovely in desserts.
There are two types of cherries in the orchard which, while mouth-wateringly luscious, are suddenly a pain in the neck to pick for the even remotely height-challenged, thanks to excessively ardent pruning. (All the conveniently low-lying branches? Cut. Why, oh why?) But the cherry stains and clafoutis make all the clambering and teetering on a ladder worthwhile. Right? Right now, I'm also picking raspberries and white currants--which are simply an albino, less tart version of a cassis. I'm hoping you'll enjoy getting familiar with les fruits rouges; 'tis the season...
So now, while the fruit bubbles on the stove, I thought I would quickly jot down the very basic steps to making this brightly colored and flavored jelly.

Gelée de Framboises et Groseilles Blanches (Raspberry and White Currant Jelly)

Boil smallish glass jars and their tops for a good quarter hour to sterilize. Allow them to dry completely.

You'll need your largest (and, ideally, heaviest) pot. The fruit may not even fill it halfway, but this is good, as the pot will help contain any splatters.

Find the best and freshest raspberries and white currants you can, about one kilo total, and put them in the pot. Add about 3/4 kilo of sugar, and cook at medium heat for a good half-hour. Taste-test, adding a bit more sugar if your fruit calls for it. Since the currants are naturally high in pectin, you don't need to add anything to make the jelly "set".

After the half-hour or so has passed, you can test if it's ready by sticking a clean spoon in the pot and seeing whether the jelly rather thickly coats the back of the spoon. If so, get a fine-mesh strainer, place it over a mixing bowl, spouted if possible, and pour the mixture in. Allow the jelly to strain. Resist the very strong urge to push down on the fruit solids in order to extract the last bits of fruit, because this will make your beautiful, sparkly jelly go cloudy. Carefully pour the jelly into the sterilized jars, cap them tightly and flip the jars upside down. That's it.

Kick back and wait for the applause, come breakfast time. Having said that, the praise could also come at dessert time, as this makes an excellent glaze for tarts, if reheated and thinned slightly with some water. Everything in life should be this easy--and rewarding.

11 June, 2009

The story of Pelardon.

I've just been in Claudie and Bruno's barn and cheese room. About time I allowed my curiosity free rein, as I have been buying goat cheese whenever possible from their market stall for the better part of this decade. They make a very fine Pélardon to which I remain exceedingly loyal.

The Pélardon, a small, round goat cheese, has been made in the Languedoc Roussillon since the dawn of time. Well, perhaps its history doesn't stretch quite that far back, but Pliny the Elder did speak well of it, noting that the cheese was served at the best tables of Rome...In the ensuing centuries, while the cheese continued to be made, its status drifted rather miserably downward, as goats were long considered the poor man's cows. For a good long stretch, up until the twentieth century, really, the Pélardon was pretty much off the wider culinary radar, being made only for at-home consumption, rather than being sold.

Today the reputation of the delectably tangy, creamy Pélardon (and other goat cheeses) has been very much rehabilitated. The Pélardon now additionally benefits from the imprimatur of the AOC, which came about thanks to the combined efforts of locals who conscientiously standardized the ancient cheese-making ways in the 1960s and avid, quality-focused Pélardon fans who lobbied for national recognition in the 1980s.

But how is Pélardon in fact made? This was the question driving my visit to Claudie and Bruno's barn. For starters, this raw-milk cheese is seasonal; that is, it is available while the goats produce milk, and cannot be made from frozen milk. This means you can start getting your fix in February or March, when the nanny goats have their kids. As it gets hotter, there is less milk; by autumn, the only Pélardon you can get is amply aged (in a good way). Then the goats have a well-earned break, and we go without for awhile.

The goats are required by AOC law to be outside a minimum of 210 days a year in space large enough to ensure at least 0.2 hectares per animal. In the Cevennes this translates to grazing in forests often dominated by chestnut trees, and herb- and scrub oak-filled open heath (called the garrigue). What these goats eat is of course bound to affect how their milk--and thus their cheese--tastes. Hence Pélardon typicité, which is why at least 80 percent of the goats' feed must be from local, native vegetation (rather than hay for example).
Claudie milks twice a day. Each of the goats, which are required by AOC rules to be either Saanen, Alpine, Rove or crossings of these three breeds, produce on average, about 500 liters a year.
Live cheese cultures and rennet are added to fresh drawn milk, which causes it to curdle (i.e. solidify). This goes on for 24 hours, after which Bruno scoops the jelly-like milk into perforated forms. The curdled milk will rest overnight in the molds; by the next day, the volume in each mold will have decreased by half, with the clear liquid (whey) having slowly seeped out of the perforations. The resulting little cake is put on a metal grill to rest, then flipped over. The grills, filled with rounds of fresh, very white cheese are carried into an temperature- and humidity-controlled drying room, where they will continue to decrease in humidity and thus size. Next they go into the aging room, where they will take on their distinctive bluish or beige-ish color and aromas. They will still need to be turned every two days, and will spend at least 11 days ripening. At no point are any flavors, colorants or concentrates added, nor is the milk ever heated.

Once the rounds are ready, Claudie sells them at market at a range of ages: "fresh" ones, creamy (with a soft center), mi-sec, or "half-dry" (which has a more assertive, rich flavor) all the way to the smallest, darker and more solid Pélardons, which have the fullest flavor. Each type has its best uses, and the fun is in comparing them to one another. It is a wonderful cheese to grill on toast and serve with a mustardy green salad. But this cheese, which fits easily in the palm of your hand--and is the cheese of the Cevennes--definitely has its place simply on the cheese plate, along with any one of the other 365-some cheeses of France.

Sigh: so many cheeses, so little time. While I strategize how I am going to manage to try all the French cheeses, I think I'll have another piece of Pélardon.

07 June, 2009

Sauve and the pitchfork.

Sauve is a well-preserved medieval village perched on the edge of the Vidourle river, whose importance at one point in history, it is said, briefly rivaled the city of Nîme's. This is hard to fathom in the twenty-first century, ghosts of royalists and warring peasant camisards nothwithstanding.

One of its two remaining claims to fame is that among its current residents is a cult hero to comic book enthusiasts, the subversive R. Crumb. I found this notion somewhat hard to swallow, given his American, LSD-fueled past; do underground comic book artists ever mellow? The satirical 1972 film which features his priapic Fritz the Cat left a strong (on the shocked side) impression on me. It was the first-ever officially X-rated animated film.Of course there is far more to his body of work than this character, but Fritz became R. Crumb for me, even if Crumb himself heavily objected to how Felix been changed in the movie adaptation. At any rate, my doubts about his Gard residency were dispelled when I saw this 2007 sign fighting the hypermarché-ization of his quiet village. Note the grabby R. Crumb hands of the big-box store going after everything within reach.This successful campaign (which received national and international coverage) helped make for a lovely stroll today as I took in the sights and sounds of the Fête de la Fourche et de la Cerise, or Pitchfork and Cherry Festival. Seriously. Sauve was known for its cherry production, which is today only a memory--even the heirloom variety having disappeared. Its pitchfork production stretches back some 1000 years and is still going on today, however, and is Sauve's second claim to current fame.

Sauve is the only remaining producer of these pitchforks in Europe. In the 1800s, production levels were at some 10,000 annually, made by some 300 workers, while today it consists of 300 per year made by two craftsmen and further subsidized, judging by the prices; but still. The old ways persist.The particularity about these lightweight yet sturdy wooden pitchforks is that they are grown. That is, they are cut from European hackberry elm bushes (celtis australis) which have been intensively shaped by finely calibrated pruning. (If you play a wind instrument, fish, ride or enjoy a good walking cane, you may have already handled its very resistant wood). Allowed to grow naturally, it can reach some 25 meters, but in Sauve, they manage the bush's growth, capitalizing on its natural tendency to grow a three-pronged fork. For a working hay fork, this takes eight years on the bush, with well-gauged pruning all the while. If more than ten days lapse without trimming, the year's harvest can be lost. Once the fork is ready and cut from the bush, it is transferred to a 100 C oven, where as the sap sweats out, the branch warms and becomes flexible. The bark is then easily stripped, and after adroit adjustments (all this using the original, highly specialized tools), the branch is returned to a warmer oven in which it is hermetically sealed and smoke-cured for a day, resulting in its light brown hue. The distinctive striping is a Sauve identifying mark made by tying a narrow strip of bark to the branch before it goes in the kiln. After the second bake, the fork is further adjusted. It then spends a year air-curing before being ready for sale. I didn't stay for the cherry and hackberry pit-spitting contests, nor could I hang around for the crowning of the 2009 Miss Cerisette and Mister Forcaïre, but I didn't go home empty-handed. In addition to a bag of cherries (a different variety from the ones in the garden), I walked away with a fourche of my own.

06 June, 2009

The cherry on top.

The cherries are back in the garden. For weeks I have been eyeing their evolution from minute green nubs, and they are finally approaching ripeness now. I can really recommend planting one of your own if you can, because they offer so many pleasures for the senses. The blossoms are a well-known delight, and the fruit is a luscious treat for us and so many other creatures--but even the end of cherry season has its particular charm. As the spoiling pits begin to blanket the ground under the tree, dropped there by birds and other passersby, the butterflies arrive in turn and settle in a thick layer, because once the skin has been broken on a cherry, they can suck the juices. So there they are, a mass like you've possibly never seen before, and if you should breeze by inattentively, they rise up into the air, an evanescent cloud to startle and surround you.

Really, it seems superfluous to suggest a recipe; I know that a ripe cherry you have picked yourself cannot be improved upon. Sidebar: I adore a really fruity-tasting cherry jam--and I make jam every year--but I just can't be bothered to make my own cherry jam: the cherries we have, while delicious, are relatively small, so pitting them would be a fairly significant hassle.

So I am going ahead and sharing a cherry recipe; because not everyone has their own cherry tree. I found this particular recipe in Cuisine et Vins, a French periodical, and enjoy it for its slight, tropical twist on the classic clafoutis, which is to the French what cherry pie is to Americans. If this is your first time, please note that a clafoutis is neither baked custard nor cake, but rather a tender somewhere between the two. Please also note that for the purists, a cherry clafoutis is always made without pitting the cherries. They will insist that the pits improve the flavor of the dessert. So unless you have a serious problem with the thought of a little line of pits (or in my case a pile)on your dessert plate, leave them in. This dessert can be made in advance, which gives you a little more time to enjoy the nice weather and anyone who drops in, lured by the perfume of your labor.

Clafoutis Métissé
Serves six

50 g butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
500 g cherries
zest of 1 organic lime
4 eggs
120 g fine sugar
50 g flour
50 g corn starch
30 cl coconut milk
20 cl milk

Preheat oven to 210 C. Grease a medium-sized oven-proof dish. Remove the stems from the cherries, place them in the greased dish. Zest the lime finely and sprinkle the zest over the cherries.

Melt the butter, allow to cool slightly. In a mixing bowl, whip the eggs and fine sugar, all the while gradually incorporating the melted butter and the remaining ingredients. Once the batter is smooth, pour it over the cherries and bake for about 40 minutes. It can be served warm, room temperature, or even cool. I like it best a bit warm.

I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees. --Pablo Neruda

03 June, 2009

Loving Lamiaceae.

The wind went away, mostly. And so did my kitchen and garden strike. But I am still playing around with mint, whether in drinks, salads, or preserves. The latest mentholated passion takes the form of ice cream.

To give this some context, different varieties of mint grow wild all over the Cevenol countryside, as in most places on the globe where people have lived. But here in the Cevennes, quite a lot of the Lamiaceae (read: mint) family is represented, from cousins rosemary, savory and oregano, to lavender, marjoram, and thyme. All you have to do is walk out into a nearby field to realize this, as in doing so you will tread upon the hardy little plants, releasing their tonic scents. But before I get carried away with the olfactory memories this invokes, let me return to my starting point: fresh mint, for dessert.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you mint, make vanilla mint ice cream. This particular concoction has been a hit with anyone who has tasted it. Unctuous, unapologetically lavish, with that comforting vanilla baseline, it raises the eyebrow with a delicate but very present and bracing mint overlay. If you have an ice cream maker, try this out. If you don't have an ice cream maker, then this is one very compelling reason to buy one.

Technical note: I weigh, but I use American-style measuring cups as well; please use the converter in the sidebar as necessary. I use spearmint with great success but any one of the many different types of mint can be used, including chocolate mint, orange/bergamot mint, Corsican mint or apple mint. With thanks to David Lebovitz, whose version of fresh mint ice cream inspired my own variation; he also has a recipe for absinthe ice cream I'd love to try, if I could just get my hands on some absinthe. Another posting...

Glace à la Menthe Vanillée (Vanilla Mint Ice Cream)

Makes about 1 liter.

1 1/2 cups milk
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Pinch salt
2-3 cups lightly packed fresh mint leaves
6 whole peppercorns, optional
1/2 vanilla bean
6 egg yolks

Warm the milk, sugar, 1/2 cup of the cream, and salt in a saucepan. Add the mint (and peppercorns if desired) and stir. Cover, remove from the heat, and allow to steep at room temperature for at least 1 hour, preferably half the day.

Strain the mint-infused mixture into a medium saucepan (the milk will have turned a pale green). Press or squeeze the mint leaves to extract as much of the flavor as possible, then discard the leaves. Pour the remaining 1 cup chilled heavy cream into a large bowl and set the strainer on top. Gently rewarm the mint-infused mixture. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks til they are a good shade lighter. Slowly pour some of the hot (but not too hot) mint liquid into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape that yolk mixture back into the saucepan. Now stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom thoroughly, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour this custard through the strainer into the bowl of chilled cream. Stir then chill thoroughly in the refrigerator. Freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

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