Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Greed Factor

Fear not, despite the prevailing gloom in local shops and cafes, despite the dire predictions of taxi drivers, boletus edulis, the coveted cepe did make a belated appearance.   Two weeks late compared to last year. A very long two weeks for the dedicated cepe hunter-gather-consumer.

So, as usual, there were cars parked in every gap in the woods that was accessible by road.  And in the roadside ditches, elderly persons risked life and limb (they should know better) slithering along, armed only with a hastily cut stick and a battered plastic bag.

And, as usual, in the local shops and cafes - even the hairdressers' salons - the arguments rage over whether and how to control the harvesting of this highly prized wild mushroom.  What makes people cross is partly jealousy - of the greater gathering success of some - partly anger that non wood owners 'profit' from their success on wood owners' property by selling what they have stolen.  For it is still legally theft to take wild mushrooms from land that does not belong to you.
A rare boletus triplet, the top one is actually growing on the
left hand one, found in La Chaise woods.

And, as usual, humans are attempting to control nature, domesticate the wild. Way back in 1995 an association was created, the Cepe du Perigord to research ways and means of encouraging cepes to grow with greater regularity and in greater quantity. Last year Cepe du Perigord formally became a brand name and those selling under this name have to conform to certain standards of presentation, identification, date of harvesting - and be owners of woodland. Reassuring for the ignorant buyer - and who would be bold enough to be certain of their judgment in the matter of fungi?

So far it does not look as though the cepe can be reliably cultivated though there are various theories on how to encourage their growth. Number one theory is to keep out trampling hordes of ignorant, non woodland owners. It is true that once we had fenced in part of our woodland, our 'harvest' of all sorts of wild fungi more than quadrupled.

Surprisingly, the sheep seem to do little damage to emerging fungi, even when eagerly turning over the fallen leaves in search of chestnuts and acorns.
They were not even tempted to kick at the largest puff-ball ever.

The largest vessie du loup EVER

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Re-learning how to boil an egg

It was frequently said of my beloved grandmother that she did not know how to boil an egg.  Apparently this is the height of culinary incompetence.  But over a glass of gin each, neat Dutch gin, she confided to me that she had, once, known how to boil an egg.   But now there was someone to boil eggs for her so she filed this knowledge to the back of what active grey matter she still had.   We had a second glass of gin.

This memory surfaced with the official return of the Rayburn wood fired cooking range to active duty.  Cook (i.e me) has to switch from the three ring, top of the Bosch range electric hot-plate, a Bosch electric oven-microwave and an electric spit roaster (whose maker had probably better not be named), to a solid cast iron 54 x 27 cm cooking surface of uncontrollable variable heat, a cast iron oven box 35 x 38 x 30 cm wide, deep and high, ditto...

In short, I have to re-learn how to boil an egg.  One of the first things one learns about a solid surface cast iron hot plate is that it is not an efficient means of bringing water to the boil.  It takes too long.  And the longer the hot plate insulating lid is raised, the quicker the hot plate loses heat, also the oven.

Before anything one has to get the fire very hot, using small, fast burning logs. A supply of these should be too hand in the kitchen along with some heavy duty oak logs for taming down the fire, keeping it alight until evening cooking time.

Then step one in boiling an egg on the range is to put said egg into already hot water - slowly. (Pretend it is the mythical frog.)  I use hot water from the tap, pouring lukewarm water over the egg until hot water takes its place.  This, along with pricking one hole in the egg shell (a typically Dutch trick), should prevent the egg from cracking and spitting out white as the water temperature rises to boiling. 

The egg should be placed in the smallest possible container - I use an old 1960's blue enamel, Polish made, Habitat bought 1970's Turkish coffee maker. (Yes, it will also make Greek and Arabian coffee). Obviously it takes only one egg at a time.

Step two is to place this pan, with a lid, on the apparently hottest part of the cast iron plate.   This is usually as near as possible to the insulating lid over the oven , still down, as that is where the hot air passes in high concentration.  It is important to have a lid for the pot.   I modified a very large, deep cork to fit this particular pan.
Egg boiling tools, the egg pricker,  the Polish pan plus lid,  the egg decapitator.

Step three is to program a timer which you will set in motion as soon as you hear the water boil, properly boil.   Whilst waiting you can toast bread on the exposed parts of the cast iron plate.   I recommend using a long bladed knife for turning the bread - do it frequently to avoid excessive burning.

Step four is to get the egg out of the egg boiling pot and into egg cup as quickly as possible.   Put egg boiler, still containing hot water on the flue box to keep hot for possible second egg. When the egg is slightly cooled - the time it takes to get from range to table - use egg decapitator and quickly remove top.  If egg not cooked to recipient's satisfaction, pass to someone else and try again.

Luckily for me, the cook books I acquired when I first started to live at La Chaise, namely the Larousse Gastronomique of 1938 and La Mazille's 'La bonne cuisine du perigord' (Flammarion) are both excellent on technique but vague on temperature and timing.   One puts the dish on a 'hot fire', or 'on the edge of the fire', a dish of cooked cucumbers (!) will take about one and a half hours....a roast is cooked - when it is cooked.  How did any cook ever manage to get anything to table in sequence and on time?

And how on earth could anyone imagine that such a range cooker, perhaps even one twice as long, could produce elegant dinners of many courses for a party of twenty or more?   In my view, the 'Downton Abbey' kitchen seems unreal....the largest party I remember cooking for, a Christmas one, numbered twelve.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Early autumn oddities

Proper autumn weather always arrives sooner than expected.  All of a sudden one is closing curtains in the early evening, peaking around them at seven in the morning only to find that it is still dark outside. The day closes faster and opens more slowly.

Our usual pattern here is to have a warm but misty start to the day, a start that promises warmer weather by mid-day.  The warm weather comes after lunch (taken on the terrace) where evening drinks are later served as the sun settles behind the high woods across the valley. Toasts are drunk to 'shepherd's delight' as the sheep noisily rootle in the woods for chestnuts and acorns, then finally settle for the night's digestion in the high fields.
morning misty view from the terrace - towards the fields

For a while we were all lulled into thinking this autumn would be a standard issue autumn.   But, if a few days experience is any basis for judgment, it seems this autumn will not be as autumns of yore.

On the one hand, I blame the mycophiles who are in great distress.   The tail end of August, most of September, were very dry months with only sporadic rainfall - though some of it was impressively heavy.  As a result the ground in the woodlands is dry, too dry for fungi to arise at the appropriate phases of the moon.   And now it has started raining, a full moon is expected on Wednesday as well as a rise in day-time temperature.   This should mean fungi by Sunday.
If yes, their prayers have been heard first.

But the hunting season has started - so all may not be safe in those woods. Scared game, over enthusiastic dogs with little bells attached, and armed men in strange combinations of camouflage clothing highlit by fluorescent vests, will also be noisily ploutering around.

Another sign of an unexpectedly cold early autumn is the arrival of strange insects attempting to take over the house.  We quickly get used to the dopey flies, head-butting against the window from the inside.  Even the odd, disoriented couple of dragon-flies in the conservatory were accepted and eventually persuaded outside.

A very silly arthropod indeed.

But i do not understand the fascination of the bath for spiders and other multi-legged beings.   Only a few days ago, truly the biggest spider I have ever seen, was trying to find minute roughness in the bath sides in in order to get out.   I had to help by hanging the shower mat over the side.   The millipede managed to get out by itself.  I rather wish I knew where they went.   Or perhaps I don't.

How many legs?   I did not stop to count.