A feast for foragers

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Back in France for the summer, I am delighted to see a bumper crop of cèpe mushrooms in the forests. I am regularly feasting on them, fried with chopped shallots and garlic in olive oil. Serve them with a handful of chopped parsley and season well. A well deserved treat after a trudge through the forest.If you decide to go foraging, do so with caution as many mushroom varieties are poisonous.

Great beautiful Britain blighted by bread in bags

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I have been back “home” now for two weeks and seem to have arrived with a fresh eye to view my native region. Strangely, I feel a bit foreign  in my hometown, so am perhaps more objective about it, or perhaps romantic or critical.I’m not sure what I feel yet. Whilst pouring my coffee, from my cafetière “for one”, I contemplate….

Things I am enjoying in Yorkshire:

Pubs with open fires and bitter, yet floral, pale ales, which can even be enjoyed alone, whilst reading the newspaper – something I would never have done in rural France. Women were not seen alone in café/bars – or in groups for that matter.My morals would have been severely questioned and quite frankly, people would have looked at me funny.

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Speaking Yorkshire again. There are some things only a person from York will understand ie. “river’s up”.

The dynamics of an English conversation and our ability to “self-mock”.

Sunday roasts, with Yorkshire pudding, like this one at the Wellington Inn in Nidderdale, a fantastic, dog-friendly pub.

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Swaledale sausage and chutney sandwiches, at The Duke of York pub.

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Hearing the seagulls in the morning (living in Eastern France, I was probably in the farthest French corner from the sea). We are only 45 minutes from the stunning Yorkshire coast here.

Walking the dog, without fear of running into a wild boar or a wolf. Only gangs of youths to worry about now – nothing compared to 90kg of charging, tusked beast! I’d prefer an altercation with a “chav” any day!

The patchwork landscape, bordered by hedgerows and dry stone walls.

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Watching almost tame herds of deer, in frosty fields in the morning – they always quickly scarpered in France, probably fearing that I was a hunter.

Lambs running and hopping.

Pavements!

Hearing my four year old niece in person, growing up so quickly and asking very relevant questions:

“Aunty Claire, when you look in the mirror, how do you know it’s you?”

“Aunty Claire, does a booby trap, trap boobies?”

Things I am finding strange:

Bread in plastic bags that lasts 2 weeks. We had 5 boulangeries in a small town of around 2000 people and we bought bread daily, as most people did. Bread had a crust and was aerated with both small and large air pockets in it, not dense and uniform, like an old sponge. Thank goodness I have discovered those who advocate proper bread.The Ainsty Farm Shop, who make a lovely loaf and Via Vecchia makes superior, artisan bread.

Pre-chopped vegetables. When was it chopped and why? I don’t understand. I went on a trip to a major supermarket the other day and was unable to find leeks or lovely Yorkshire rhubarb which were  not already trimmed.I reluctantly bought some rhubarb which I needed to place on pancakes, steamed and mixed with mascarpone and honey, then topped off with almonds. It was actually very good, but surely the freshness of the vegetable is affected when it is already chopped on both ends.I reiterate: all hail great farm shops. I look forward to discovering local markets.

Perfect lawns. When I used to take Milou out in our somewhat wild garden in France, he would dart in and out of the bushes, in between trees. Here he just stands there, glances at the perfect square of the perfect lawn and looks back at me, as if to say what am I supposed to do on here. It appears to be an extension of the carpeted living room, which he actually adores – a giant dog bed to him and he proceeds to lie down. Around this time in France, wild chives would be peeking out of the grass; the first flowers, purple wild cowslips would soon be appearing, along with violets under the trees in the dappled shade. Morel mushrooms wouldn’t be long, if it is a warm month of March, at the bottom of the garden on the rocky rough ground. I wonder about the effects of the abundance of weedkiller, used to create the perfect English lawn. I always remember my dad saying “bloomin’ eck they’re not very house proud here”, referring to the lack of garden fences and dishevelled nature of the house exterior, in the Jura. If that dishevelled appearance means that fauna and flora can flourish, then i’m all for dishevelled.

I feel the need to become a home tourist, to study what lies within these city walls, which once made me feel hemmed in and encouraged me me to leave, by trying to find a frugal style of living in York/ Yorkshire. There is a tendency for rustic, simple good food to be chic and expensive in the UK, which is not the case in France. I intend to search for those hidden gems which contradict this trend.

As Stendhal said in “La Chartreuse de Parme”: “A quoi bon chercher le bonheur si loin, il est là sous nos yeux”. In other words, “Why look for happiness, so far away, it is here under our noses”.

Frugal French Living, in Yorkshire

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My first supper, since my return to Yorkshire. What better way to start than with pies, pasties and peas at the Boston Spa Beer festival. There couldn’t be a more frugal, “complete” handy-sized meal: meat, vegetables and flaky pastry, washed down with a real ale. I went for a traditional Cornish pasty, an important part of our culinary heritage, dating back to the 13th century, but firmly established as the poor man’s food in Cornwall, in  the 1800s. At this point it contained only vegetables(potato, swede and onion). The meat, usually beef,  was a later addition.

After eleven years in France, circumstances have brought me back to my native Yorkshire, permanently. I won’t go into the details, but I now have to empty lots of boxes filled with memories and have a very confused labrador, who responds only to French.I intend to make the most of this transition and recount a “mélange” of French and Yorkshire recipes, still advocating seasonal, fresh ingredients  - local where possible.Back to my boxes…

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Flageolet beans with rosemary and chorizo

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Isn’t it funny how an almost empty fridge, with a sprinkle of inspiration, can help you concoct the most delicious meals. I peered into the abyss of our fridge yesterday, after our walk, and glimpsed the saddest looking bit of chorizo sausage I had ever seen. Despite being very tasty and great quality, from our butchers, all that remained was the bit on the end, normally rather chewy and all skin. Hmmm what to do…In the cupboard was a tin of flageolet beans. Wandering around the flat in despair, my senses were awakened by some rosemary…in the hallway…yes in the hallway. It is in a vase without water, drying, for consumption all year round. It looks pretty and also acts as an air freshener!

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My friend Evelyne, who came for tea the other day, didn’t bring flowers, but more originally a big bunch of rosemary.It has pride of place, on view when we enter the flat. My thoughts turned to a distant holiday in Corsica, from which the aromas of wild herbs are almost etched onto my brain. I remember walking for miles there, enveloped in a sort of olive, thyme and rosemary bubble – abundant on the rocky paths, often crushed under our boots and releasing their herby perfume.A walk there usually culminated in a platter of local “charcuterie”, in a hilltop bistro, flavoured with the said herbs and washed down with a pitcher of robust wine, full of sunshine.Here’s what I made.

All you need is a tin of white beans, a handful of rosemary, two shallots,a few slices of chorizo(chopped into little pieces), a clove or two of garlic and a couple of glasses of dry white wine.Simply fry the roughly chopped shallots, rosemary and garlic in olive oil, until soft. Add a handful of chopped chorizo and the beans. Cover with the wine, season and leave to cook down for about 20 minutes.Add water if it gets too dry. There always needs to be a sauce in this dish.

Serve with a piece of crusty bread. The beans become silky smooth as they are gradually covered in the fat, escaping from the chorizo, which is tempered by the wine.The salty pieces of meat, cutting through the herby bean mixture. If you don’t have Chorizo, you could always use some quality free-range, thick cut and chopped bacon.

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Bon appétit

Quick Hazelnut Cookies

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Another brisk, invigorating walk yesterday. A stunning panorama from the viewpoint at Fort Saint André. Thanks goodness I had some of these in my pocket when we got to the top. Deliciously crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

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They are so easy to make and a welcome treat ,mid-walk.I polished some off this morning too, dipped in strong black coffee.

75g self-raising flour

75g of ground hazelnuts or  grated “pain de noisette”

75g  caster sugar

150g butter

Preheat the oven to 180°c

Place the flour, sugar and nuts in a large bowl.

Rub-in the butter until the mixture looks like crumbs.

Use your hands to squash the crumbs into a rough dough.

Take pieces of the dough and roll into balls, the size of large walnuts.

Place on a greased baking tray and squash down with a fork.

Bake for 10 minutes. Do not wait until they are golden as they tend to burn underneath by this time.

Leave on the baking tray for a minute and then transfer to a cooling tray.

Also, if you wish to decorate with whole hazelnuts, pop them on mid-way through cooking, or they will become little black balls!(as I discovered yesterday)

Variations: replace the hazelnuts with walnuts or pecans.

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Blogger’s block: if in doubt, go for a walk and make a tart

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After several days of relentless walnut shelling, my ears ringing with the “tap TAP TAP” of the wooden mallet, I came to a halt. My back seized up on Tuesday night, deciding to go on strike, tired of the repetitive actions and positions.However, there’s no guarantee of a minimum service in this case. My computer looked like an evil torture instrument,  my back wincing every time I glanced at it. Even food seemed unappealing. Sacré bleu!This is not like me. Customers are rare in January and everyone seems to be hibernating. How will we survive the bleakness?!!!That’s it… I thought: I am doomed to become one of those stooping, nylon-tabard wearing women,(a phenomenon I was unaware of before arriving in France), who doesn’t get out much, other than to proudly sweep her step and maybe buy turnips on the market –  if she’s lucky.As you cross her path, you make a remark about the lovely weather. She replies “It won’t last” and walks off grunting to herself. You see her the next day and say: “you see, it has lasted the nice weather”. “We’ll end up paying for it”, she replies.

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Today, my back pain had eased, somewhat, so Jean-Pierre forced me out of my lethargy. “Right!We are going to the top of Mont Poupet!”, a very popular place for paragliding. It’s just outside Salins, literally 5 minutes away. Its summit reaches 850m at the highest point.It was full of the resistance during the Second World War –  the last remaining farm,on the mountain, was sadly burnt down by the enemy.It’s also famous for the  international sporting event, “La Montée du Poupet”, where very courageous people actually run to the top.  Reluctant at first, I quickly felt invigorated by the epic scenery and the cold air – making us feel alive again. We didn’t go all the way to the top, only walked 8 km,but it did the trick. JP made me laugh, practicing his pigeon English. I am apparently the meanest English native, in the world, according to JP, as I have not taught him the language of Shakespeare. My problem is that I have great patience with a class of 30 arrogant kids, yet no patience with my partner. Putting-up with his “English for Dummies” book, in the toilet, he has made  some progress.”I put my hot on”, describing his gesture as he placed his beret on his head(of course, he meant “hat”). I made a remark about the scent of a fox, quite pungent in some areas on the walk, much to Milou’s delight. JP’s English version was “it smiles like a fox”, (“it smells like a fox”, obviously!). I laughed my way up the mountain. Milou was like a puppy again, rolling in the snow and darting off into the woods. I desperately tried to keep him on the track, hoping he didn’t run into a wild boar.When we reached the viewpoint, silenced and astounded by the views, I felt like a new person. On my return home, I rustled up a Comté cheese tart, very simply: puff pastry, Comté cheese,(as much as you like, to make it as cheesy as you like), one egg, some milk, salt and pepper; cooked in a hot oven until golden brown and risen.I think I’ll keep my nylon-tabard project for later.

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Bonkers about brassicas: cabbage, walnut and Comté pesto

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I really am bonkers about brassicas at the moment: Savoy cabbage, red cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kale…and so on. Thank goodness they exist, to populate the veg garden, during this somewhat sparse, Winter period. They are actually part of the mustard family, believe it or not. Selective breeding over the years has produced flowers, leaves and roots and has led to an abundance of sturdy varieties. Packed full of vitamins, easy to grow, thriving in cool weather, there’s no excuse. Bung some brassicas in your garden, for inexpensive, leafy feasts all Winter!After my sprout and walnut risotto , the challenge arose to use-up some left-over Savoy cabbage.We had had pork, cooked with Fennel and wholegrain mustard, accompanied by steamed Savoy cabbage. I had 5 leaves left, and was reluctant to confine them to compost.

Whiz the cabbage leaves up in the mixer, with some grated, sieved “pain de noix”,(about a handful, you can also use ground walnuts).

Add a generous glug of walnut oil, the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper.

Cook some pasta. I used tagliatelle, enough for two people. The sauce really bulked it up. This dish would probably be enough for 4.

Drain the pasta, leaving a little bit of the cooking water in the bottom of the pan.

Add the pesto and stir, on a very low heat for a couple of minutes.

Add a handful of your favourite grated cheese. We used Comté.

Just before serving, add a good few drops of vinegar. I used Savagnin wine-vinegar. You can always use, Jerez vinegar, sherry having similar production methods to matured Savagnin. If not simply white wine or cider vinegar will do, but Savagnin really gives it an extra special touch, its initial lemon and spice flavours, tempered by a smooth, longer-lasting, nutty taste.

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Sunny food for a grey day: lemon and walnut tart

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It really is grey today. The fort Belin, on the hilltop opposite, looks like a black and white photo of itself. I wanted to make something light and sunny, but still making the most of seasonal ingredients. The fruit bowl is overflowing with lemons. I can’t get enough of them, very cheap and seasonal at the moment. We’ve also got lots of dry walnuts and “pain de noix”, which remains after each press of walnut oil.There is still a surplus of puff pastry in the fridge, due to the “galette des rois” tradition, which is wearing on me now. I feel the need for a variation on the theme.The decorative petals have been hanging around for a while to be honest, after we bought them on a market in summer. Perhaps they should be used in more of a summery dish, but what the heck! They cheer me up. These pretty cornflowers and marigolds come from a local organic producer Carole Sutty, just up the road from Salins. She works mainly with herbs and plants that she gathers in the countryside, but also with her own production.We are very lucky in the region to have a network of local herbalists(with a recognised qualification from the local agricultural college). We are drinking gallons of herbal tea from La Serpolette, at the moment, still trying to undo the ravages of the end of…and beginning of the year festivities!

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Another reason for making this tart: an inspirational, sumptuous description of a scrumptious, “classic” lemon tart, on Roger Stowell’s blog.

This tart is extremely comforting: its light and fluffy filling and the subtle creaminess of the walnuts, perfectly complimented by the fruity bitterness of the lemons.The only thing I would change is to use sweet, shortcrust, rather than puff pastry. I think it would set-off the fluffy filling much more effectively.

What you need:

A sheet of all-butter puff or preferably sweet, shortcrust pastry

4  heaped tablespoons of ground walnuts or grated and sieved “pain de noix”

4 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar

2 beaten eggs

1 tablespoon of walnut oil

1 tablespoon of runny honey

The juice of one lemon

2 tablespoons of double cream

Simply beat the ingredients together until the mixture is light and fluffy.

Blind-bake the pastry sheet or disk. This prevents the dreaded “soggy-bottom” syndrome!You can use ceramic baking beans, but I tend to just prick a  lot of holes in the pastry(not too deep). It prevents the pastry from having bubbles. The holes simply cover themselves over when the pastry cooks anyway.

When the edges have only slightly hardened, after about 10 minutes in a hot oven, place the mixture into the tin. I use a proper tart tin, but a high edged baking tray would do if you don’t mind having an oblong tart!

Swirl around the tin, until even.

Place in the oven for around 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and the mixture has risen.

Decorate as you like and serve, preferably warm.

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François Hollande, the merits of dry toast and pumpkin pancakes

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“About as much charisma as un-buttered toast” was the description of François Hollande, by the ABC news correspondent, who expressed his surprise at the alleged French president’s love affair , which seems to involve two very beautiful ladies. I found this highly amusing, whilst feeling sorry for Valérie, or “Valou”, who is obviously going through a terrible time.However, I would actually like to defend the case of dry toast!  I believe it can actually be very charismatic. I often toast up stale bread and use it as a cobbler-like topping on a casserole. It’s also great as croutons on onion soup, or bulks up a salad, fluffing-up as it absorbs the vinaigrette. It’s traditionally used here as a base for “croûte aux  champignons”, posh mushrooms on toast, made with wild mushrooms, cream and local Savagnin wine. Hollande’s public image has really gone downhill recently. Although the French media doesn’t seem to be talking about it much, the “moped-riding philanderer” is not a good look.Let’s hope he can overcome these events and become more of a crouton, or a rustic bread salad, the more charismatic kind of dry toast.

Pain de Noix

Pain de noix, on an old plate made in Salins Les Bains, once a thriving crockery-making town.

DSCF0134The frugal tip of the day was given to me by a lovely couple who brought their walnuts to be pressed yesterday morning. If you need to heat the room next door, make a hole in the wall. Although this may not be very aesthetic, it’s actually not a bad idea. I have some friends who heated their house only using a wood-burner, as we do. Their bedroom upstairs had no heating at all. They consequently cut a hole in the floor of the bedroom of around 15cm in diameter, which enabled the heat to float up into the bedroom. If ever it was drafty, they had a disc to cover it, just in case. Saves you installing heating in the other room.

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What to eat today after days of leftover couscous came to an end. In the fridge I had one onion and a bit of pumpkin hanging around. From the latest walnut press, I have some “pain de noix“, which I grate to make a sort of walnut flour. I always have buckwheat flour in the cupboard so decided to make some crepes. This mixture would also work well in pasta with some Parmesan or as a ravioli filling, maybe jazzed-up with Mascarpone.

Pumpkin, Sage and Walnut Crêpes                            

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Ingredients (makes 4 crêpes)

¼ of a small pumpkin or butternut squash

1 medium onion

Sunflower oil

3 tablespoons of ground nuts or “pain de noix”

A knob of butter

A drop or two of milk

1 egg

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·         Put 250g of buckwheat flour in a mixing bowl

·         Place an egg, a dessert spoon of sunflower oil, and a pinch of salt, in a well in the centre.

·         Beat the egg and flour together, gradually, working from the centre outwards.

·         Gradually beat in 50cl of water. The mixture will turn from a rough paste to a silky fluid.

·         Leave to rest for at least an hour.

·         Fry a sliced onion in a drop of sunflower oil.

·         Add the slices of pumpkin and a touch of dried sage or a few chopped leaves of the fresh stuff.

·         Leave to sweat until soft.

·         Mix in 2 tablespoons of grated “pain de noix” or ground walnuts.

·         Add a knob of butter and stir for a minute or so.

·         Gradually add about 4 tablespoons of milk. You can add cream at this stage, but I didn’t want it to be too rich.

·         It should have a pesto like texture. Turn off the heat, season, cover and leave to stand.

·         Place a ladle of the crêpe mixture in a slightly buttered frying pan.

·         Swirl around to cover the whole pan and cook on a high heat.

·         When it starts to detach around the edges and moves when you shake the pan, flip it over.

·         Spread the pumpkin mixture on whilst the crêpe is still in the pan. After a few minutes, flip over one half of it, so it’s like a half-moon.

·         Flip over the whole thing and leave for a further few minutes.

Serve. Bon appétit!