Sunday, September 30, 2012

Of meat, frost and heat.

 The 'annee de poisse' continues: herewith the 'nth' part. Somehow the freezer compartment door of the fridge/freezer in the Farmhouse managed to get solidly frozen. Odd.

Only three weeks ago I had spent four hours at the Farmhouse kitchen table processing a partially butchered lamb carcass. Or to be more honest, I had been refining a butchered lamb carcass as I am getting very pernickety about my meat. This meant I was removing what I considered to be unnecessary fat, de-boning some cutlets to make lamb noisettes – no point in freezing bones after all. In fact, chops are a pain for domestic freezing as the bones tend to poke through the freezer bags.
Odd bits of meat were put through my cheap but effective Lidl mincer so that I would have lamb mince for winter moussaka.

Actually I do not like processing meat: I am perfectly capable of taking the necks plus heads off chickens and ducks, fishing out the liver and gizzards with my bare fingers but I would much rather not. I can joint a fowl, untie a 'roast' and remove the inedible (to me) bits, ditto with meat for blanquette de veau or just beef stew. I have a wonderful array of very sharp knives. But it puts one (me) off eating the result. Cook dines off the smell of that which s/he has cooked....

I have an obsession with what I call 'clean' meat which mostly means fatless meat cooked by someone else – mostly quality cooked ham, sometimes jambon cru if I can peel the fat off the rim. But especially viande des grisons, which is the Swiss name for bresaola, the Italian dried beef. Even then, I turn over every packet in the supermarket chill cabinet to look at the back and inspect for fat. If the packet is not see-through, the product is rejected. Obviously there are no cameras on the chill cabinets otherwise I would have been hauled away a long time ago.

(Actually I am even worse with smoked salmon, especially the farmed salmon -is there any other now?- which I regard with great suspicion and sometimes a mental tape measure to make sure the fish has not been force fed. The flesh between the fat lines has to be narrow and tight, rather like rings one sees in tree stumps.)

However, reverting to the processed lamb: the point of doing it in the Farmhouse was that I needed the freezer compartment because my freezer was full. I carefully packed up the processed, labelled meat, put it in the freezer compartment and closed (I thought) the door. I thought no more about it.

Until today, Sunday 30th Sept, because next Thursday I have guests coming to stay in the Farmhouse. So I went to check on its equipment. Apart from the fact that 9 of the 12 egg cups had disappeared, also two out of the three coffee filter jugs, and the vacuum cleaner bag was full, everything seemed fine. Until I tried to open the freezer door. Frozen solid. What to do?

What I did was to take down to the Farmhouse my kitchen step ladder, on top of which I put an upside down, large pan, on top of which I put a fan heater directed at the freezer door. Then I went to have a drink. About an hour later I was able to open the freezer door. The meat was still frozen, thank goodness. But the door was deformed and would not shut again, not even when I got all the ice out of the cabinet.

Now is this my fault? Same as the time I melted the back end of the vacuum cleaner when using its exhaust to rekindle the embers of a fire? Or was the door deformed when I put the meat in and I just did not notice? Fingers crossed that I can get a new door via another one of my heroes – Fred Rouchier of 'Electrochoc' my supplier of all domestic, electric appliances. Of course, as always amongst French artisans, it is his wife who does the research and admin, so hommage to her also.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beware the evil purple plant

Autumn officially arrived – in calendar terms – on September 22nd. In real life, that is country terms, it arrives when a basic rule of physics switches. We are all taught at some point in our school life that hot air rises and cold air falls, or vice versa. The turning point of the year is when one dominates the other.

So it was up till about the last weekend of August that we were conscious of hot air rising into the attic rooms, that we had to open the sky lights to let it rise higher, preferably creating a draught on the way. The ceiling fans were switched on way before bed-time. Then, suddenly, it was cold air coming down the stairs and the door to the attic had to be kept closed. Now fan heaters are briefly put on first thing in the morning in the downstairs rooms to compensate for the overnight cold.

beware! the evil crocus lurks....
The most attractive sign of the arrival of autumn is the sudden appearance of the autumn crocus. Given the appalling – and continuing - summer drought this year, I was not expecting it. I assumed the bulbs had dried out. But no, August 31st I got up, looked out of the kitchen window and there was the first, single, autumn crocus. It is a pretty, pale lilac leafless flower. In the spring, only its leaves come above ground, luxuriant, large and very, very green. Also, very, very poisonous.

In fact colchicum autumnale is a dangerous plant, full of unstable alkaloids that will poison humans or cattle if ingested in large quantities. In times of starvation cattle have been known to eat it with sometimes fatal results. People in hard times have tried to release the sugars from the bulbs. My mother tried this in the Forties but fortunately had the sense to boil only tulip bulbs which are slightly less poisonous. I believe she gave up sugar.

It seems to me odd that a plant should rely on folk memory, 'granny died from eating too much crocus leaf salad', for its survival. Less odd that humans should have this folk memory. This is the kind of knowledge that is discounted in times of near starvation, see about cows above. Does the crocus know that knowledge passes from human to human just as from sparrow to sparrow in the great milk bottle top story? Is a crocus conscious? Is it evil? We are getting dangerously near non-Darwinian theories of existence here.

Arthropods, humans easily concede, do have a consciousness but that is probably only because they move – bite, sting or generally make a nuisance of themselves. Many are so small as to be nearly invisible to the sleepy human eye. Or so it would seem.

Only one week away, in the Great Smoke, and, as soon as I get back, I am attacked. I don't know specifically what I did wrong, whether it was to pick flowers, tomatoes, or to get into bed without shaking the sheet first, but my left hand is covered in tiny, hard, red bites that itch like fury.

If that is what one (or several) small insects can inflict on a human being – thank heavens, or whoever, or whatever, that colchicum autumnale and its ilk, are firmly grounded.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chicken dreams

What does it mean to dream of chickens? Just ordinary chickens, say four hens and a cockerel. None of your ritually sacrificed black specimens. In my dream the hens were destined for egg-laying until too old when they became confit de poule. The cockerel, of course, in the fullness of time, would become coq au vin, and would probably need much marinading to make him tender.

My dream was quite complicated. The giver of the fowls (in my dream) visited me the following morning to check on his birds. He told me triumphantly – whilst I was still in bed and not quite compos mentis – that our protection schemes had got one of the marauders. And then he vanished. Characters can do this kind of thing in dreams. So my dreaming self got up and went to see what had happened. I thought to see an electrocuted fox lying in front of the hen-house, thought with some pleasure of displaying it for a while to dissuade others of its kind. Only I am (in my dream) not sure if that works.

For some reason or other the dream hen-house had its top cut off and the protective fencing around it halved in height. I gave the birds some water. Then I woke up. My only interpretation of this nonsense is that I am wishful of having hens, or ducks, again at La Chaise. But the time is not right. There are signs of foxes everywhere, nasty little sausage turds in the pathways between one woodland and another. And Arnold has seen them in with the flock very early in the mornings.

Popular opinion is that there are too many foxes currently. The post millenium damage to the woodlands around, the subsequent scrubby regrowth, has made far too many suitable vulpine breeding and hiding areas. But the limits of your average country man's tolerance have been over-stepped. The fox, or the vixen, has been taking the ducks and hens belonging to members of the local chasse. The hunting season has just started. Vengeance is mine, says the man in the fluorescent orange jacket, shot gun under arm. Quietly, unofficially vengeance will stalk the woods..

The first chickens I had at La Chaise were said to be 'Marans' which look like nothing so much as speckled, grey, knitted tea-cosies. Actually since their eggs never got darker than standard egg brown I expect they were a local cross breed because the real Marans hen lays eggs almost chocolate in colour. I was very proud of them, even forgave them for scratching up my attempts at a herb garden, because of their wonderful eggs. But they kept dying on me, by themselves without the aid of today's fox.

When the fourth one died, I panicked and called the vet and got roundly scolded for my pains. Country people don't call out vets to attend to chickens. When I insisted he examine the corpse, he insisted on borrowing my kitchen knife. He ripped the hen open, pulled out its guts and showed me the liver. 'You've been scandalously over-feeding the silly bird (he did not add 'you stupid woman')look at the size of that died of over-eating, chickens don't know when to stop'.

The problem for commercial breeders recently is not the fox, or even other predators, but the climate. Hens are not very good at heat. Like old people, they will not drink enough to keep themselves hydrated. A friend, a commercial breeder of hens for eating, lost eighty in last summer's heat wave due to dehydration. A serious commercial breeder in Brittanny lost thousands ...yes, there is something to said about mass breeding of animals – it produces cheap, tasteless protein for the poor.

Monday, September 3, 2012


The hiccups will come early to the compost heap this autumn. Not only has it been fed those jams and chutneys rejected by my fit of store-room tidying last week, it has also just received my entire hoard of home made apéritifs. The list is as follows:

Liqueur de mure 1988 – one bottle
Crème de cassis 1989 – one bottle
Crème de cassis 1992 – two bottles
Crème de cassis 2001 – one bottle
Extrait de noyer 2002 – one 1.5 litre bottle
(this is extract of walnut leaves in pure eau de vie
for the prepartion of vin de noyer)
Vin de noix 2006 – one bottle
Sloe liqueur 2006 – one bottle
Crème de cassis 2007 – one bottle
Curaçao maison 2008 – two bottles

And that is the list of those bottles whose location was known to me. I may yet find others. To mitigate my sadness, I have recovered some antique bottles I used for these liqueurs.

Imagine all this alcohol – that is, sugar – poured on grass cuttings which were already liberally dowsed in jam last week – more sugar. All on top of vegetable peelings, some rejected commercial fruit. Add the continuing sunlight. The compost heap, more or less neatly confined to one corner of the vegetable garden, gets the morning sun. Of course it is all going to ferment. It may be my imagination but I can see it heaving, burping, gas bubbles going skywards. Fortunately it does not smell or it is far enough from the house for me not to notice.

The recipes for these alcohols were mostly found in my first edition (I think it is a first edition) of Prosper Montagne's Larousse Gastronomique, (1938) with foreword by Escoffier himself, a gift from a neighbour in our early days at La Chaise. You will find them under 'Liqueurs'. My second French cookery bible was 'La bonne cuisine du Perigord' by La Mazille (Flammarion 1919) which also has recipes for domestic liqueurs.

The reason for the predominace of crème de cassis is that for many years I had some very productive blackcurrant bushes – and there is a limit to the amount of
black currant jelly one family can consume, especially if its head only consumes marmalade. I thought it a fairly harmless cordial when a neighbour at Chantepoule offered some, in very small glasses, to my very small children. But its best known use is for the apéritif , 'kir', actually a means of making somewhat sour white wine drinkable.

The two elements all the apéritif recipes have in common (apart from sugar) is fruit, or fruit tree leaves, and eau de vie, usually plain distilled grape juice purchased from neighbouring farmers. Its alcoholic degree can be quite high – sometimes more than 60 proof..... Until quite recently, farmers had the right to distill their fruits for personal consumption without paying any form of duty. A travelling distillery used to do its rounds of local villages. But this right died with the that generation of farmers in their 80's or over. Now the fermenting fruit has to be taken to a fixed still and duty has to be paid.

The snag with buying eau de vie from a neighbour was that it seldom came in an identifiable bottle. The purchaser had to make a discreet mark on the container. Hence my scrawl, EV, across the corner of a Chardonnay label. Hence a helpful visitor's mistake in making 'kir' for everyone using this 'Chardonnay' and my own
crème de cassis. The rest I can leave to my dear reader's imagination.