Sunday, August 28, 2011

as peaches fall

Had summer been normal this year, the compost heap would have been quietly hiccuping as rejected fruits fermented in the warmth of the sun. Niffle the Rabbit once got drunk on rotten fruit, his eyes were crossed and he could not move; made him easier to catch.
Only July and August have not been normal, they have behaved rather like obnoxious drunks, at one moment warm and jolly, even over-exuberant with temperatures above 30 C. Then cold and suspicious, snarling with torrential rain and a ten degree drop in temperature. The spring warmth was good for grapes but has not been good for our apples, pears or peaches. There are great quantities of these fruits – so great that many branches have crutches - but they are small. In fact the peaches are more the size of golf balls and every burst of rain knocks more to the grass. Fortunately the trees are in the orchard, not on the La Chaise golf course.
The yellow peaches are finished, leaving me with a few pots of peach marmelade (add orange zest, juice and some cloves...) and the rest went to a friend. Now it is the turn of the pêche sanguine, a white fleshed, red veined fruit that turns the most wonderful deep, velvety red when processed. It is also known as the pêche de vigne because it is often planted at the end of vine rows. Like the canary in the mine, it gets sick first.
These, too, this year, are very small but so far seem wonderfully disease resistant. I expect I shall conserve them some way, their colour makes it almost obligatory, irrestible. In our early years at La Chaise, I used to bottle them, either in eau de vie, neat fruit alcohol distilled by a local farmer from his own grapes, or in red wine. The alcoholic peaches made a wonderful dessert, two or three peach halves on plain vanilla ice-cream and the alcohol served in small glasses as accompanient. The yellow peaches were ideal for a 'Belle Hélène' style dessert, peach halves on plain vanilla ice cream, keep chilled, then pour over melted bitter chocolate. But desserts have rather gone by the board with age, as have the stronger alcohols. There is a limit to the number of times one can eat peach crumble, of whatever colour.
In his London flat my son has a 2 litre bottle of peaches in eau de vie that I made in the 1990's, I think. No-one dares open it. As we were renovating our house, thirty years ago now, we discovered under the floor boards some roughly corked wine bottles with peach slices in them; conserves to get the then owners through the war. Inedible when opened – alcohol preserves for a while but not forever, neither peaches, nor people.
Fruit is the first of the autumn bullies, demanding 'eat me', 'pot me'. One late summer visitor came haggard to breakfast, claiming he could not sleep 'for the sound of peaches falling from the trees'.
The advent of the freezer, now that we have a reliable electricity supply, has made life a little easier. It takes less time to make a puree and freeze it than to make jam or fruits in eau de vie. However, it does not have the same visual appeal, the same moral satisfaction as jars and jars of conserved fruit, whether in alcohol or in sugar, neatly labelled and lined up.
The difficulty for the novice country housewife is to get it into her head that these pretty jars are not just for admiring, or giving as modest gifts, but for consumption by the household through the coming winter. Another space has to be made for clean and empty jars, ready to be refilled next autumn.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

mushrooms maketh men mad

There was a rather smart Renault saloon half parked in the ditch that fed our woodland pond. I gave it a desultory glance and thought no more – until I went to my favourite champignon spot, under the great oak, above the pond. Neatly aligned were several stalks that had been severed by a sharp knife. The rough roadside gate made of sheep fencing stapled to chestnut stakes had been carelessly left open. I was so angry that I immediately bought chain and padlock to make entry impossible. I had gone native and he was a thief.
'Champignons' are considered as the noblest of fungi, the bolets or ceps, over which fist fights, verbal disputes and much boasting occurs. Indeed, as I was walking in the fields with a grass expert last Thursday, he confided that he had been able to collect 40 kilos of ceps in the past few weeks. Experience in this kind of conversation, I assumed he was using the term 'forty' in the ancient Persian or Biblical sense, not as a definite number, just a general term for 'lots'. He was probably a thief, too.
Most of French woodland is private or state property, yet the harvesting of wild mushrooms is still thought of as a right – which it is not. Picking wild mushrooms on land other than your own is theft under French law. Hence all those boards stating variations on 'champignons interdit' or the more severe 'propriété privé, cueillete de champignons interdite'. Some woodland owners have even come round to selling a permit to their local neighbours, so that they can legally pick mushrooms. But, as own disabused owner observed, as soon as you issue a permit, the world knows there are champignons.
The cep season this year started quietly. There were not the usual, near suicidal, plastic bag armed, elderly walkers along the roadsides, poking at ditches with their sticks and totally unaware of cars, lorries and vans going by at over 90kms an hour at breakfast, lunch and dinner times. Nor were there any cars half parked in roadside ditches, or lurking behind trees on woodland entry paths whose trees sported champignons interdit signs. Mind you, it seemed to me that more than usual of these paths had been blocked by strategic, recumbent tree trunks, chains or generally car unfriendly obstacles such as large stones.
Since mid August champignons have appeared with what non cep lovers might call monotonous regularity, probably due to the erratic summer weather. Until very recently daily temperatures had difficulty reaching over the mid twenties centigrade and every attempt at fine weather was spoilt by mild rainfall. Ideal for cep production, local people muttered darkly, the soil would ferment with the warmth and the damp and the cep would show its head. As it did, every third day. You had to get there before the slugs did – not that easy.
There is something magical about finding ceps. You wander along the edge of the woodland, venture into clearings, carefully disturbing layers of oak and chestnut leaves, then suddenly there arises a a firm, dark cap, perhaps two or three. With any luck the long brown slugs have not yet found them, the caps are undamaged and, if that is true, they are likely to be very young, the sponge like tubes under the cap are still white and firm. They look and smell most appetising unlike the decaying, yellow-brown ones offered commercially. You can almost persuade yourself there is a skill to cep hunting, too. You look to see where the sunlight pierces through the trees, where it hits a damp patch of decaying leaves...and then you are proved wrong by finding them on a stony bank above a dry stream.
There are many ways of eating ceps, many ways of conserving them for eating later. Locally, in the Dordogne, they are sliced finely, fried and mixed in with coarsely hashed boiled potatoes, parsley and garlic (the delicate recipe) or very deeply fried and added to potatoes fried in duck or goose fat with parsley and garlic (a more calorific version) often known as 'pommes Salardaises'. To complete the calorific value of the dish, it usually accompanies confit - hot preserved fat goose or duck leg – both birds, foie gras producers, having previously been conserved in their own fat. In theory, the goose or duck meat loses the fat in which it was preserved as it is re-heated.
. The other classic presentation of the cep is in an omelette, again fried with parsley and garlic. Recently I tried combining the two ideas. My potatoes were sliced, boiled and used to line an oiled dish (a quiche form) and kept warm under the grill. The egg, parsley,garlic and cep mixture when partly cooked, was placed on top and briefly placed under the grill. It was certainly filling but had less of the 'fried' taste of the other recipes.
There is an argument about how to prepare ceps before use. Old fashioned persons will blanch the cleaned and sliced ceps in vinegar water, then dry before frying. Modern Perigord housewives, who do not have so much time at their disposal, simply clean, slice and fry them. Having tried the blanching method, I have decided in favour of simple frying; blanching seems to confer a rubbery consistency on the cep which makes it rather disagreable to eat. Perhaps that was what put me off when I first ate them in restaurants.
As always with mushrooms, there are many old wives' sayings and beliefs. In the Dordogne it is darkly opined that once a champignon has been seen by the human eye, it will grow no larger. Well, obviously not, for what the human eye sees, human fingers will pick.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sunday is Chicken Day

As we were coming home from Bordeaux airport, along autoroute 89, direction Perigueux, late last Saturday, I saw a hen carefully shepherding a single chick along the near-side grass verge. I drew my husband's attention to the bird. Perhaps the fact of taking her chicks for insect hunts on motorway verges accounted for the fact that she only had one. We speculated on their chances of survival.
Chicken for Sunday lunch is probably a standard no brain answer, assuming Sunday catering to be a problem. Nevertheless, with only the mildest guilt twinge, I had decided to get a chicken for last Sunday's lunch. Saturday I went off to the local organic butcher because I do prefer my meat to have had a natural life, as far as is possible, before it is killed and I, with my nearest and dearest, sit down to respectfully eat it. Also I knew that he was open all day unlike almost all the other specialist shops. Only he had gone on holiday. It is August, after all.
Fortunately for me – and those who were to eat Sunday lunch with me – there was a farmers'
produce shop close by, and it was open. On the off chance that it still had some chickens I stopped and went in. It was a splendid shop. There were the seasonal vegetables, courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, carrots and beans, an amazing variety of salads. The fruit looked rather tired, as though it had walked there by itself instead of being driven in padded boxes and comfort. There was goats' cheese in all its varied forms next to pots of local honey. There was a neatly tiered display of farm made jams next to the freezer with farm made ice-cream. In the long cold display of decidedly artisanal vacuum packed cuts of meat I discovered the chickens, lightly clad in cling film with date of slaughter, weight and suggested latest date of consumption tacked on. I selected one and went to pay.
Come Sunday, it was time to process the bird. Like all direct-from-the-farm and organic chickens this one had its head, still attached to neck and body, tucked under one leg and its wings neatly turned under to form a stable base. (This authentic presentation has been known to provoke screams from urban holiday makers in the La Chaise gites – as much as 10 dcb on the Edvard Munch scale.) It was white and scrawny, a most unlovely bird, what my late mother in law would have called 'a scratcher', using her best Scottish accent. But perhaps its mother had loved it had it ever met its mother, as the hen on the autoroute obviously loved its chick. More likely its first view of life was from an incubator.
After some 30 plus years buying farm chickens I am no longer squeamish, so merely got down my long, sharp knife and hunted for the poultry shears. A couple of cuts where the neck joins the body, a deft snap with the poultry shears and the carcass almost looked like one of those supermarket jobs presented on polystyrene barquettes. All that was left to do was to remove liver and giblets from the interior and substitute lemon, garlic, bay leaf and salt. But this time – the first time ever – I found that someone, presumably the proud breeder, had included the two feet in the cavity, neatly peeled and with the toenails cut off. I don't (yet) know what to do with chicken feet.