Sunday, February 27, 2011


These little tubers resemble fat maggots, but still manage to look appetising - you can almost see that Crosnes (Chinese artichokes) are crunchy and juicy. They are very moreish if munched raw - great in salads. They retain their crunchiness if boiled or steamed, and their mild, nutty flavour benefits from some salty melted butter. They reach a high price in posh markets around the world, but are also pretty cheap in places where they are commonplace. I got a whole bag for about €1 from the local French market. One thing that is harder to come by in France is water chestnuts, and crosnes make an ideal substitute.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Freshly Roasted Peanuts

Since my visit to Sierra Leone, about 4 years ago, I've been keeping an eye out for fresh, uncooked peanuts. The roasted peanuts I had there were sooo much tastier than those you buy in a packet in Europe, and I was hoping to recreate the flavour. I wondered if they needed boiling first (they are often served simply boiled in Sierra Leone, when they are served warm, crunchy, slightly sweet and juicy) or weather simply toasting would transform their translucent flesh into the waxy nut we are familiar with in The West. I finally found out when I was rewarded for my regular greengrocer searches by these fresh peanuts (AKA groundnuts) in a Grand Frais supermarket in France.

The first attempt at recreation was to grill them, skin on, until thoroughly browned. And it worked! The papery skin came away easily, and I was left with delicious African-style roasted peanuts, to dip in flakey salt. Yes, I may have to work on evenness of toasting, but the flavour was spot-on.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Baby Goats Being Born!

I needed to speak to the farmer two days ago. In the distance, I saw her slip into the barn through a side door, so I followed her. I walked into a utility room, with brooms and buckets and lots of grey cement. I called out quite a few times, but no answer, so I pushed open the interior door that I assumed must lead into the main section of the barn.

Immediately to my right as I looked around the door, were large goats in their stalls, head through the wooden bars, munching hay just next to my face. I had the right place. I called out again, but still no answer, so I walked further in. This barn looks so industrial, cold and unfriendly from the outside, but is magical inside: Everything nestles on a thick bed of hay; dusty, yellow sunlight gives everything a warm, honey colour; massive round hay bails tuck everything and make it feel cosy; the dozens of goats crunch slowly and rhythmically on the hay.

I saw some movement at the other end of the barn, and called out again. This time, she turned around and said "Oh, so you found me, then?"

I went over to this lovely, smiley, twinkly-eyed lady, and we talked for a minute about nothing much. I asked if the baby goats had started to be born, and looked into the stalls. No kids were visible, and the farmer said "No, not yet - very soon now, though".

When the babies are born each February, they are mostly kept in an old stone farm building next to my cottage. Yesterday evening, I heard some teeny bleeting next door, as the first kid was born, and the farmer lady saying "the-e-e-e-ere now, my beauty, there now". Such an amazing thing to hear happening!

Since then, I've heard a few more making their way out, and look forward to helping the farmer feed them. They nuzzle and rub and bleat for stokes and attention. It always makes me sad, though; they are crying for their mummies, and every time they hear me move outside I get a cacophony of bleating in response. But our society means that it is very expensive to raise goats naturally with their mum, so the babies will all be sold on for less than a euro in a few weeks' time. Some will only be a few hours old when they are sold and taken away in a lorry, some a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the pining mothers - whilst lucky to be in a beautiful, cosy barn, with a caring farmer, will not even get to suckle the kids they carried for months. The babies are fed by bottle, and the whole point of the pregnancy was the subsequent milk production, so the mums now fulfill their destiny.

I do know goat farmers locally who do things the old fashioned way, and let the mothers live with their babies and suckle them, despite the farmers taking some milk for cheese. But this is rare. They are a dying breed.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ethiopian Cooking

I have a lovely, rustic ‘Exotic Ethiopian Cooking’ book*, that my brother bought for me in Ethiopia. It has loads of information about food culture in Ethiopia, as well as hundreds of inspiring and interesting recipes, including some for fermented drinks.

A lot of the recipes require ingredients I can’t get in France, so the first recipe I’ve tried requires callaloo (collard greens in American), which I have growing in the garden, along with other very simple ingredients. The results were outstanding.

The recipe is for ‘Collard Green Mixed In Spiced Cottage Cheese’. Sounds very simple, but you need to make your own cottage cheese, because shop-bought stuff won’t work at all.

So, starting a few days in advance, I bought raw milk and let it go sour for a couple of days on a warm windowsill. Then, you shake the milk in a jar, until it turns into [exceptionally wonderful] butter. Put the butter in the fridge, and then heat the buttermilk really gently, until the curds separate. Once cool, refrigerate, and you now have homemade cottage cheese! It is amazing. It tastes like mozzarella, and, when heated, behaves like it, too.

Homemade cottage cheese

For the dish:

• Chop callaloo (you can also use spinach) and boil for a few minutes
• Mix black pepper and butter with the cottage cheese
• Stir in the hot callaloo.
• Serve with injera or other thin flatbread, or as a side dish

You can also mix in spices, like chili, caraway, cumin, cardamom, coriander seed etc and I felt it needed some salt, too.

This is a really special dish. I can’t wait to try some more Ethiopian recipes, and Ethiopia is very high up on my list of adventure destinations…

*Book by D J Mesfin, published by Ethiopian Cookbook Enterprises.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Re-discovering French Markets

One of the reasons I moved to France and one of the things I still enjoy most about life here is the markets. Having written about them several times before, and been to them hundreds of times, I found myself assuming that people have had enough of reading about them. But each visit to the market is different, and if I hadn’t been going to French markets all this time, I would still want to read about them!


This morning was frozen and frosty as I drove to the market. There were some wisps of mist, but I could tell that it wouldn’t be long before the sun broke through with full force.

I hadn’t intended to buy anything at the market; I just needed to get a card from a shop. But then I decided to do some market-watching and enjoy a chocolatine (the southern word for ‘pain au chocolat’) with a milky coffee. I bought my buttery chocolatine from a fantastic bakery in a market square (there are a number of market squares in Périgueux), sat outside the café next door, and ordered my coffee.

By now, the sun had indeed broken through, and I had to take my coat off. Bright blue skies and hot sun in February – after heavy frost in the morning – love it!

I tore off a piece of flakey, gooey chocolatine and dipped it in my coffee. As I put it in my mouth and looked up, I noticed that the couple on the next table were ordering glasses of muscadet. ‘How nice’, I thought.

I had my back to the café, tables on either side, the market stalls and covered market a few metres in front of me. Directly opposite was a stall selling mainly oysters – all different varieties and sizes – along with a few other shellfish. The oyster-seller was opening oysters, the liquid pouring out of each one – and putting them directly on a big platter. Even as I was eating my sweet breakfast, my mouth started watering for oysters.

Other stalls were selling bread baked in a wood-fired oven, garden produce, farm eggs, cheeses, sausages, chickens with their gizzards displayed, skinned rabbits, huge bunches of seasonal herbs, rotisserie chicken dripping tasty goodness onto roast potatoes, black puddings, foie gras, plaits of garlic, flowers, olives…. And much, much more. And times that by about 20, for each medieval square and cobbled alley packed with stalls, among the limestone walls of the old town.

The oyster man had filled his platter. I wondered whether it was a display or maybe he was offering free tasters that I could take advantage of. But as he walked towards me with the mound of oysters, he veered to the right and put it down in front of the couple drinking muscadet. I was quite overwhelmed with feelings of happiness, love for French culture, respect and jealousy. How brilliant that you can sit in a café and order wine, then have a plate of opened oysters delivered from the specialist stall opposite! And at 11:30 am! 11:30 is unusually early for lunch, but people do tend to relax their strict midday lunch custom for market day.

This event reawakened me to how there’s always something new to discover at the market, some new tradition, food or way of doing things. I never get tired of it. I thought, ‘I want to share this with everyone, but I don’t suppose they’d be that interested anymore’. That’s when I realised I had made subconscious assumptions about my readers, when actually they might really enjoy hearing more about the markets. Do you? Shall I keep giving you these anecdotes, or have you had enough?

A friend joined the oyster couple, and started tucking in with them. I had finished my breakfast and needed to get on, but before heading for the car, I was compelled to buy myself 6 oysters. The man gave me 7 and they cost me €4.

I drove home with the window down, feeling the heat of the sun and smelling the start of spring. But as I pulled up at home, the warm, sunny weather we have had for a week started to change, and some dark clouds started welling up around me.

Inside, I stoked up the fire, poured a glass of white wine, and began opening my oyster treasures. I took Tabasco, the pepper grinder, my plate of oysters, a wedge of lemon and my glass of wine into the lounge, and had myself an oyster picnic in front of the fire. Love market days.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Vegetable Garden Gallery 2010

Here’s a look back at the different stages of my vegetable garden in 2010. Now there are just a few cabbages, sprouts, and turnips left, along with some sad-looking beets and ratty callaloo.

The pigeons have pretty much destroyed my kale and sprouting broccoli crops, which is particularly painful, because the seeds came from the States and were delivered by a friend, and you can’t buy either vegetable in France.

Bring on summer! It it is time to start again, and plant the first veg of 2011 – broad beans. The sun has been warm for a week, and spring is on its way, so it feels like I don’t have long to wait for summer. I’ve still got a couple of months of bringing logs in to stay warm, but there is an end in sight.


Peas flowering

Sunflowers, baby aubergine plants and some happy-looking beetroot

Lots of baby plants; garden still looks quite bare


Peas are ready now

Courgette starting to fruit

Pretty beans


Baby cabbages and brussels sprouts

Tomatoes ripening among flowers

Aubergines fruiting madly

Garden looking less bare now


Lush ripe tomatoes

Haul of garden produce

Decent squash harvest


Fantastic cabbage - I'm proud of this one!