Thursday, April 30, 2009

happy chickens

The France Géothermie man came back today and after offering us all manner of inducements, bribes, funny handshakes, his granny and a nod and a wink, we've decided to go with geothermal heating. To gain a tax credit we have to pay the whole fee this year, even though work may not start until next year - which is taking a bit of a risk.

The sun's back again (and there's fresh snow on the mountains down to about 1000 m) so I'm going out foraging for wild garlic. The man at the duck farm told me you can put it in olive oil and it's very good for cooking with.
I've just made a leek and goats' cheese tart with Roquin's still warm eggs he dropped off. Look how yellow they are in the picture - happy chickens' eggs.

Enough shortcrust pastry to line a 7½ inch/9 cm non-stick quiche tin
1 tbsp grain mustard
3 leeks, cleaned and sliced
6 oz/175 g goats' cheese, cut into rounds or crumbled
½ oz/10 g butter
3 eggs beaten
7 fl oz/200 ml cream
2 spring onions, finely sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Line the tin with the pastry and spread the mustard over the base. Fry the leeks gently in the butter until just soft. Drain off any excess liquid and arrange over the mustard base. Combine the eggs, cream and spring onions, season and pour over the leeks. Top with the goats' cheese and cook in the oven for 25-30 minutes at 375°F/190°C until golden.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

comfort food

Oh my giddy aunt! It's blowing a gale and the crane is spinning round like a weathervane, which makes me slightly nervous, but BB assures me there's only a 10% chance of it falling over! I had to light the wood burner this morning, it was so chilly. Comfort food was in order. I've still got three sacks of last year's potatoes and what better CF combination than potatoes and cheese - gratin dauphinois it was then - again.

We're trying to decide on the heating system for the mill at the moment and geothermal is looking like the best option. A representative from France Géothermie came to the house today to explain how it works and what it involves (drilling a 120 m bore hole and parting with a large capital sum). The alternative is wood, which we use in our present house, but it's very labour intensive. We have to cut down the tree, split it into 1.08 m lengths and leave to dry out for at least a year. Then it has to be chopped into smaller lengths and stacked and collected from the wood shed twice a day in winter. With geothermal we can have cosy under-floor heating at the flick of a switch - and be eco friendly. Tough decision.
Gratin dauphinois
Serves 4
8 waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼ inch/6 mm slices
16 fl oz/450 ml cream
5 garlic cloves
Sprig each of rosemary and thyme
4 oz/112 g Gruyère cheese
Salt and pepper

Put the potatoes, cream, 4 lightly crushed garlic cloves and herbs in a pot, season, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer into a gratin dish (after discarding the garlic and herbs - but I like to keep them in) that has been rubbed with the remaining garlic clove, sprinkle with grated cheese and cook in the oven until brown - about 40 minutes at 350°F/180°C.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

belote lunch

We went back to the ferme d'ambrune et polalye (duck farm) on Sunday for our annual belote lunch. This is the home of a guy in the village who has turned an old barn into a restaurant where he also keeps ducks and grows fruit - so duck and red berries make more than a guest appearance on the menu.

A platter of rillettes of duck arrived with our apéros - small squares of home-made bread topped with fine shreds of moist duck meat. Then there was an asparagus mousse followed by a medley of duck en salade: slivers of smoked duck, gésiers (gizzards) and thick wedges of pâté au fois gras lounging on long stems of freshly-picked lettuce. I could happily have lounged on some lettuce myself at that point - and that was just the entrée.

After the plates were cleared, several of us repaired to the terrace with the smokers in a bid to put some distance between courses. When we came back, there was breast of chicken and girolles mushrooms with gratin dauphinois (potatoes cooked with cream and Gruyère cheese), then cheese, and at the final hurdle, sponge cake with raspberry cream.

Top Modèl's girlfriend (who has about as much padding as a swivel chair) must have doubled her weight!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

lemon chicken

While BB and Poire were ploughing the potager (vegetable garden) this morning, I went up to the salle des fêtes to claim some free compost. One of the members of our local council (who is always banging on about compost bins and how we should all have one - cue smug look because we have two) had arranged an evènement exceptionnel where you could collect free compost and order a bin. It's the first time in seven years that I've been to something organised by the commune and there hasn't been a buvett (bar). Even at events involving physical endurance (mountain marathons, potato picking) there's always wine or pastis on offer! It worked in my favour however, because due to the poor turn-out I was able to claim six sacks rather than the allotted one per household.

Lemons were on special offer in the supermarket yesterday - 79 cents for half a dozen - so I made one of my favourite Chinese dishes - Ken Hom's classic lemon chicken.

Serves 4
1 lb/450 g boneless chicken cut into strips
1 egg white
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp cornflour
10 fl oz/300ml groundnut oil or water
2 tbsp chopped spring onions

For the sauce
2½ fl oz/65 ml chicken stock
3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1½ tbsp rice wine or dry sherry
1½ tbsp chopped garlic
1-2 tsp dried chilli
1 tsp cornflour blended with 1 tsp water2 tsp sesame oil

1. Put the chicken in a bowl and combine with the egg white, salt, sesame oil and cornflour.

2. If you are using oil for velveting the chicken, heat a wok until very hot and then add the oil. When very hot, remove from the heat and add the chicken. After about 2 minutes, when the chicken turns white, drain and discard the oil. If using water, do the same but bring the water to the boil in a pan before adding the chicken. It will take about 4 minutes to turn white in the water.

3. Heat the wok and add all the sauce ingredients except the cornflour mixture and sesame oil. Bring to the boil and then add the cornflour mixture and simmer for 1 minute.

4. Return the chicken to the wok and coat with the sauce. Mix in the sesame oil. Serve with the spring onions.

Friday, April 24, 2009

leeks gribiche

Ah ... bliss. It's 8.00 a.m. and all I can hear is bird song (and a strimmer and maybe a distant chainsaw) - but no cement mixer, no kango hammer, no-one banging on the door asking to use les toilettes. The builders have finished. Hooray!

Roquin gave me some leeks from his garden today so we had them for lunch with sauce gribiche. Boil your trimmed leeks for 10-12 minutes until tender and pour over the vinaigrette.

Sauce gribiche
Serves 4
1 small shallot finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tbsp chopped capers
1 tbsp chopped gherkins
1 hard-boiled egg chopped
5 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
a few snipped chives (optional)
a small piece of chopped lemon peel (optional)
salt and pepper

Mix all the ingredients together and season.

Monday, April 20, 2009

show time

Well, the show-down wasn't exactly a show-stopper and anyone with ring-side seats would have asked for their money back. The head builder was summoned and asked to rectify the midgets' staircase, which he readily agreed to do - so another two days have been spent cutting the stairwell wall in half and chipping away at the concrete slab with a kango hammer so that you can get down them without doing the limbo.

The subject of the final bill was also broached. Most of the work has been priced by volume and area, which when BB went to measure, found had been grossly over-stated - to the tune of €7,000. But the builder just gave a Gallic shrug and said that his tape measure "couldn't have been working properly."

Feeling €7,000 richer (and happy that the words "I'll see you in court" hadn't been bandied about), we went to a restaurant to celebrate. Good restuarants are thin on the ground round here. Our favourite, Hôtel Prina 5 km away, shut down two years ago after the death of the patron and is sorely missed. There was always that reassuring buzz in the dining-room (who likes restuarants where you can hear a pin drop?) attributable mainly to lots of truck drivers en route to Italy and for €11 you could eat a well-prepared four-course meal consisting of fresh seasonal ingredients.

This time we went to a restaurant we've never been to before, which is risky, because I always enter a new restaurant with high expectations and nearly always leave bitterly disappointed. (It used to be said that you couldn't eat badly in France but either standards have slipped or I have become more discerning.) But I had a good feeling as soon as we went in because it had that "Prina vibe" - busy, noisy and an €11 menu du jour. We started with salade composeé: mixed salad of lettuce, tomatoes, warm lardons and fried potatoes topped off with fried onions (an unusual combination, we agreed, but we both loved it). Then (on a potatoe and onion roll) I opted for morue à la Lyonnaise: salt cod cooked with potatoes and onions with a generous blob of aïoli on the side. Everything was faultless - just like being back at Prina.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

wild boar curry

These builders could drive a woman to drink! They've been working on the staircase for the last two days, using their own cement bucket for the crane - because they've ruined ours by not cleaning it out properly so now the lid doesn't shut and the concrete spills out when it's lifted up.

It's nearly the end of the ski season so I invited a couple of our ski instructor friends from Courchevel over for dinner tonight and made wild boar curry with some sanglier I had in the freezer by adapting Delia Smith's beef curry dopiaza recipe. After dinner we all went to have a look at our new staircase and although we couldn't stand on it, it was instantly apparent from the top that there wasn't enough headroom to descend without hitting your jaw against the ceiling. BB just exploded - so now there's going to be a show-down.
Serves 4
2 lb/900 g chuck steak cut into 1 inch/2.5 cm pieces
1 rounded tsp cumin seeds
1 rounded tsp corinader seeds
3 cardamom pods
1 level tsp fennel seeds
1 level tsp whole (or ground) fenugreek
3 tbsp groundnut or other flavourless oil
3 tbsp onions, peeled and sliced into half-moons ½ inch/1 cm thick
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 green chillies, deseeded aaaand finely chopped
1 level tbsp ground tumeric
1 level tbsp freshly grated root ginger
2 medium tomatoes, skinned and chopped
3 oz/75 g creamed coconut
5 fl oz/150 ml natural yoghurt
salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lime and fresh chopped coriander to serve

1. First of all you need to roast the whole spices, and to do this place them in a small frying pan or saucepan over a medium heat and stir and toss them around for 1-2 minutes, or until they begin to look toasted and start to jump in the pan. Now transfer them to a pestle and mortar and crush them to a powder.

2. Next place 2 tablespoons of the oil in the casserole over a high heat and, when it is really hot, brown the pieces of meat a few at a time. Remove them to a plate, then add the rest of the oil and, when that's really hot, too, fry the onions till well browned – about 10 minutes – then add the garlic and chilli and cook for a further 2 minutes.

3. Next return the meat to the pan, add the crushed spices, fenugreek powder (if you were unable to buy it whole), turmeric, ginger and tomatoes and stir everything around. Next grate the creamed coconut into a bowl and combine it with 10 fl oz (275 ml) boiling water using a whisk, then, when it has dissolved, pour it into the casserole, followed by the yoghurt and some seasoning. Now bring the mixture up to a slow simmer, put the lid on the casserole and simmer very gently for 2 hours. Just before serving, add the lime juice and sprinkle over the chopped fresh coriander. Serve with basmati rice.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Bernie, the bolt"

I was working on the computer this morning when I looked up to see a rickety old wheelbarrow full of concrete resting on a thin wooden pallet wobble past the third storey window. I felt momentarily giddy as I tried to fathom a volley of questions such as: "why aren't they using the concrete bucket attachment for the crane?"; "why hasn't the wheelbarrow fallen off yet?"; and ultimately, "where is the wheelbarrow going to fall off?" I rushed to the window and found myself shouting: "up, up, up, left a bit, right a bit, left a bit, left a bit, LEFT A BIT! ....." in a bid to steer the barrow away from my flower garden and towards the staircase where it was supposed to be heading but before I could finish, the wheelbarrow and contents toppled over and crashed on to the lawn, narrowly missing the pergola for my wisteria.

I had to go out for a walk to calm down after that and on my way back I met Top Modèl's brother who'd been trout fishing in the stream at the bottom of our garden and very generously gave me some of his catch to cheer me up after my stressful morning.

I don't like to do too much to trout when cooking it. A whole trout stuffed with fresh thyme and roasted in the oven for 10 minutes, served with roasted lemons, is my preferred method, but when looking for other ways to cook it I found this in an Elizabeth David book, which I like as much for the poetry as the simplicity of the recipe.

les truites à la manière Alsacienne
"A trout, when it is a fairly large one, I prefer cooked au bleu, with the sole accompaniment of a few little curls of butter; but when chance - a happy chance - has filled your fishing basket with only a score or so of small trout, you can make an exquisite dish of them by cooking them in a court-bouillon in which white wine, butter, onion, salt, pepper, parsley, a clove and a little good stock have prepared, for your little fishes, a marvellously aromatic bath.

"Then, when they are cooked, which does not take very long, you simply sprinkle them with butter in which you have cooked a few breadcrumbs until they are golden.

"Here is an exquisite dish, even a naïf dish, but one in every way worthy of the learned gastronome." Gaston Thierry La Table 1932

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Annie get your gun

I've become accustomed to being woken at 7 a.m. and the screech of the cement mixer all day but I'm finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the acts of vandalism being perpetrated by the builders.

The glass in all the old windows and doors which we were saving to use as cold frames has been smashed and thrown all over the lawn. They've also smashed an old Godin wooden stove, all my terracotta pots which were sitting on a wall out of harm's way and the old loo. It's partly our fault that we didn't move these things to safety, but we didn't expect them to be deliberately smashed up.

They've stacked up the shuttering against the fragile wire fence where I've been trailing a vine for six years (just feet away from some iron railings where you'd expect heavy shuttering to be stacked!) and broken it, so I'll now have to cut it right back to replace the fence.

In addition to breaking the remote for the crane, they've also broken BB's chainsaw and again returned it without saying anything. And one of the builders has engraved his name on the side of the crane with a nail.

I can't sit still when they're here now and I spend all day pacing and looking out the window, waiting to spot the next act of destruction. I've just planted out my seedling sweet peas and sunflowers (which I've been growing in a propagator for the last six weeks) - dangerously close to where they're working - and if I see them being trashed I think I may just go and get Poire's gun! There's only one major job left to do - the staircase down to the basement - which should be done in the next couple of days then a bit of finishing off and they will be gone for good.
We're eating a lot of asparagus at the moment, but even in season it's expensive - €11.90 a kilo in our nearest shop. The restaurants in this region serve it with a vinaigrette sauce with chopped boiled egg on top. I like to eat it steamed, with anchovy and lemon butter (knob of butter, chopped anchovies, squeeze of lemon and some dried chilli if you like a kick) or roasted with garlic, cherry tomatoes, black olives and some olive oil.

Young's Modulus

BB finished building the truss yesterday which will be a supporting beam for the floor (and roof) above. I can't get my head around how so much heavy oak timber can sit on such a thin piece of steel without touching the ground, nor how it will be able to support all that weight above. (A truss was necessary because the builders didn't make the concrete slab strong enough to take the beam.) BB demonstrated with a paper model and showed me his deflection calculations. I appreciate he has a first class honours degree in civil engineering, but by his own admission, he skipped a lot of classes, so I think I'd like someone to check his homework - just in case he missed the one on Young's Modulus.

We invited Mr and Mrs K. Bear for Easter lunch and I made Jamie Oliver's pot-roasted guinea fowl with sage, celery and blood orange. It's important to retain moisture when cooking guinea fowl (apparently) to prevent it from drying out and this recipe is ideal.

Serves 4-6
2 x 2-2½ lb/900-1100 g guinea fowl
8 blood oranges
1 bulb celery
handful of fresh thyme
sea salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
6 cloves garlic, whole and unpeeled
3 oz/85 g butter
10 sage leaves
12 fl oz/350 ml fruity dry white wine

1. Wash the birds, pat dry and rub the cavities with a little salt. Cut the ends off the oranges, remove the skin and slice into five or six rounds. Remove the tough outer sticks of celery and slice the bulb thinly. Put in a bowl with the thyme and salt and pepper and stuff the cavity of each bird with the filling.

2. Rub the skin with salt and pepper and seal in a thick-bottomed pan in the olive oil until lightly golden on all sides, then add the garlic, butter and sage and cook for 3-4 minutes until golden brown. Add a little wine and place in the oven at 225°C/425°F/gas 7 for 45 minutes. Keep adding wine at intervals (check every 10-15 minutes) to keep the pan slightly moist at all times.

Look - no feet!

Friday, April 3, 2009


The timber for the roof arrived this morning - 15 tonnes of it - which took two hours to unload even with the crane. Mini-B turned up to give a hand, with his pockets full of the first morilles (morels) of the season which he'd found in the woods.

go particularly well with veal and Anthony Bourdain has a great recipe for veal tenderloin with wild mushrooms.

Serves 4
1 x 2 lb/900 g veal tenderloin
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp/14 ml olive oil
3 tbsp/42 g butter
4 oz/112 g fresh wild morels (or porcini)
1 shallot
4 oz/110 ml Madeira
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
4 oz/110 ml dark chicken or veal stock
2 oz/56 ml heavy cream
1 tbsp/14 ml sherry vinegar
1 sprig flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Season the veal. Place a large ovenproof sauté pan over high heat and add the oil. Drop in 14 g of the butter. Let it foam and subside. Sear the veal on all sides until golden brown. Transfer to oven and cook for about 25 minutes.

2. Heat 14 g of butter in small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once it has bubbled and come down again, add mushrooms and cook over medium heat until golden brown. Add the shallot and cook for another minute. Stir in 56 ml of the Madeira. Add sliced garlic and continue to cook until the wine is reduced by half. Set aside.

3. Once the veal has cooked, remove from oven and set aside. Return the pan to the stovetop over medium heat and stir in remaining 56 ml of Madeira. Add cooked mushroom mixture and the stock and bring to the boil. Let the liquid reduce by half, then add the cream. Continue to cook until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Whisk in remaining 14 g of butter and drizzle in the sherry vinegar. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

4. Cut the veal into ¼ inch/1 cm slices, pour the sauce over and garnish with chopped parsley.