July 22, 2005

Slow Food.Slow Dance.Slow France

Summer: This is a slow world where grapes ripen day by day in tidy vineyards, armagnac ages for decades in quiet chais and good food grows deliciously slow in market gardens under this slow French blue skies. Now imagine yourself in this edible landscape where cooks and country artisans continue delicious traditions that celebrate a joie de vivre of living... in Southwest France. Step out of your fast lane and into my slow world. Take the time to discover these old ways of growing and cooking with good friends. Return to the source of gastronomy and revelry, the French roots of the intoxicating countryside of Gascony. Here at my French Kitchen at Camont, I am conjuring up culinary memories of long tables and staightforward food cooked simply, carefully, deliciously. Like all good things, we, too, need the time to understand, prepare and above all--enjoy this slow, slow summer.

July 21, 2005

Pick & Cook

I always say “If weeding is gardening, then shopping is cooking.” So today I join the tomato blog wars and add my two summer cents to shopping in the garden.

Weather Report: It has been hot here, really hot. The boat bakes under a shadeless towpath and the wheelhouse begins to delaminate before my eyes. I throw an antique linen monogrammed sheet over it. I am taking this global warming seriously in my long village. My usually green park (summer storms keep it well watered as a rule) has turned brown except for the large patches of wild mint where yet another spring runs close to the river valley surface. The terracotta pots of sweet peas, petunias and marguerites are dying of thirst. DuPont hides under the terrace table on a damp rug seeking relief for his solar powered black fur. I take multiple naps, cool afternoon showers and cut my hair shorter still. Hot. Get it? Really hot.

Garden Report: What I don’t like about the heat, the potager loves! Although the spring peas are well over and the roquette is bolting, the perpetual spinach is thriving, pumpkins and watermelons are reaching across the grass paths, aubergines and peppers plants are loaded and, of course, tomatoes, tomatoes & tomatoes are going wild. The heat and lack of water seems to excite the heavily laden plants more than my careful tending. I forego my usual weeding activities and let the purslane ground cover the bare patches while I limit my visits to early evening to gather the day’s ripest offering. Two aubergines, a handful of haricot verts, that too big courgette and a basket of various red ripe tomatoes that have ratatouille written all over it.

Here is my 'Basix' Ratatouille recipe:

For 4

2 peppers- red, green or yellow, trimmed and cut in thick slices
1 onion, chopped finely
2 garlic cloves, left whole or minced as you like
2 courgettes cut into large chunks
1 aubergine cut into cubes
a handful of black olives
4 tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and cut into quarters
1 branch rosemary
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

Place a large shallow pan over medium heat. Add 2-3 soup spoons of good olive oil.
Place onion, garlic & peppers in hot pan and sizzle until they are slightly golden.
Add aubergine and courgettes, cook until barely soft . (These really fresh vegetables will weep their water and prevent everything from sticking)
Add tomatoes, rosemary, salt and pepper.
Cover and cook over low heat shaking the pan from time to time rather than stirring. just until all vegetables are soft and flavors have married (30-45 minutes). Each vegetable should be distinctive and not a mush of indeterminate origin. Remove from heat and let sit. Serve at room temperature. Serve as accompaniment to meat, fowl or game or top with a poached egg as a lunch or starter.

July 18, 2005

Summer Fun at Camp France

The Fairy Godmother in me rises to the challenge as my Catalan Adventure with my filleule Clotilde-Julia morphed into Camp Camont when we returned to the French Kitchen with 12-year-old Adele and 16-year-old Emily. Eating becomes a game like everything else they do; English lessons, swimming, watering the potager…

We talk about what to prepare for dinner (these too hot summer days beg off cooking) so the fifi’s and I go out to the garden to pick tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines for a feta cheese and olive Greek salad, Italian panzanella, a vegetable stir fry, an eggplant curry, a soirée Mexicaine with fresh salsa and guacamole. In the playful mood of Camp France, Adele announces, “Look, we can travel the world at the table!”

As we move the sprinkler around the potager, in swimsuit gardening clothes, Emily says, “Wow, Ka-ate, we should call you Harry Potager. Everything grows here!” The magic garden has lost it’s neat tic-tac-toe springtime design and is overrun with a wild exuberance that mixes red onions with watermelons, black eye peas (the bean not the group), artichokes, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, calendula flowers and a few self seeded tomatillos from two years ago! The delicious chaos is its own inspiration to be more playful in the summer kitchen. For the dessert main course, we decide to make JohnnyDeppDeliciousChocolateBrownies after an afternoon matinee with Charlie at the chocolate factory and an evening video of Chocolate. I love these three ‘tween French girl-stagiaires-- a welcome change from the usual too serious foodies that haunt the halles and white-tiled kitchens of three-starred restaurants looking for perfection. Food is Fun-- enjoy!

July 15, 2005

Catalan Vacation- a coffee in the port

Early Morning Cadaqués belongs to a few old men who sit outside the closed Bar Meliton watching the beginnings of another day—small boats anchor on a very flat surface sea, there is barely a breath of southwind. I join them to take a coffee in the port at the towering white remnants of the turn of the century Casino, the only open door on the beachfront. I am not alone this early: a group of French tourists finish their ‘white night’ with café con leche and large glasses of zuma de Taranja- orange juice; a half-dozen men stand at the bar, their Catalan gossip competing with the clink of cups and spoons and the constant gurgle of the busy coffee machine; three green-clad guardia civil down glass shooters of café solo; a small white truck delivers bread for entrepans from Balthazar’s ubercool wood-fired oven. Day begins in Cadaqués with the smell of scooter exhaust mingling with sea salt and a sugar-scented wave from the pastry shop next door.

La Mallorquina’s window is full of soft sugar-powdered snails, cream-filled beignets and syrup-imbibed taps, a cork-shaped specialty to dip in coffee or soak in rum. Like most of Cadaqués, even the bakery has a sea view. Blanxart chocolate boxes line the back wall and refrigerator cases are already filled with cream cakes and fruit pastries. La Mallorquina is a sweet magnet these early hours and I buy a box of taps to take back to Camont today. This Catalan summer vacation is over but the French Kitchen version now begins back on the Gascon ranch. The potager will have run a little wild, the boat will smell faintly of diesel and dust and DuPont will need a little extra care as we slip back into our day to day adventures in the French Kitchen.

July 10, 2005

arroz de clavos pix

Sunday Lunch at Portlligat- arroz de clavos

Some friends can’t imagine why I have never been to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli; it is, literally, just around this corner of Cap Creus at Rosas and I come here often. I will go someday. Perhaps. If I have nothing better to do. Today, I have something much better to do—lunch with friends at the end of the dock that serves the vanishing fishing fleet of Portlligat. Clotilde and I, en vacances in Cadaqués, are invited for a Sunday lunch of arroz de clavos- rice with shellfish. They’ll cook and I’ll watch, listen and… remember.

I remember nights when I listened to the hiss of gas lanterns from a couple dozen boats on this flat sea. Salvador Dali was still alive, the tourists had not yet arrived, and I had just bought the Julia Hoyt. Today there are only a couple active fishing boats but my dear friend Moises Tibau, Catalan artist, still fishes with his salty mentor, Benito, for escorpio, rape, calamar and langoustes. His paintings and ceramics grow like rampant sea fennel on this still wild rocky cape in a studio amid an olive grove overlooking the wide blue sea. I love his triptych of a knife, fork and spoon painted in squid ink and sardine oil on parchment paper. Moises paints like he cooks and fishes—with passion.

MT has prepared a box of Catalan ingredients to take to the port- onions, garlic, green peppers, homemade tomato sauce, rice, and two frozen bottles of fish stock. We jump in and on scooters, 4x4’s and shank’s pony to meet up just past the Dali House Museum and in front of Gala’s chrome yellow fishing boat. While Frederico takes a group of tourists for a boat ride along the rocks and coves, Moises and Isca prepare the Rice and Crab. As Quique chills the cava, Corrine, Adele, Clotilde and I, les filles, head for the beach across the bay.

Like barbeques everywhere, this is man’s work in man’s sacred sanctuary. Fishing nets and traps form the edges of this Mediterranean Kitchen garden where squid baskets, lines, buoys and floats grow like colorful flowers. In the middle of this nautical chaos is a stone-lined cooking area with two orange propane bottles attached to two gas tripods. A pot steams on each tripod: the monkfish head bouillon simmers on one; a dozen deepwater crabs, chunks of calamari, mussels and one fat lobster joins the rice and onion, garlic and pepper—a classic sofregit on the other. The bouillon is ladled over, one cup at a time; think creamy risotto, not dried-out restaurant paella.

A table is set under a shady net awning, plastic tumblers of cava are poured and we sit to eat from the large cast iron cazuela brought to the table on a plank from an old boat. A jar of allioli is passed around, a pungent compliment to the intoxicating flavor of the sea that permeates the rice- each grain firm yet creamy at the same time. A luxury of crabs and seafood fill our plates. The noise of gossip and crab claws being broken and sucked upon interrupts even the gull’s cries as tales are told around this Sunday table of Dali days gone past. Everyone has their own memory of the great Mustaches; I remember my first sea urchin, eaten here at Portlligat even as his dog howled his passing in the winter of 1989. These food memories are strong. This Sunday, eating arroz de clavos with old friends as small boats bob on a flat dalibluesea, I celebrate one more of these ephemeral edible souvenirs.

July 09, 2005

The French Kitchen on vacation… in Catalunya

The best thing about living in Southwest France is that Spain is at my doorstep. In four hours, I am smack in the middle of the Pays Basques eating pintxos and drinking sidra in San Sebastian or I am perched at a small table eating calamar and drinking cava by the Dalibluesea at Cadaqués. Summer strikes hard and hot this year and the cool eau-de-nile green canal isn’t enough to quench my thirst for salt water and all that swims therein. I long to see clear blue water.

The opportunity arises to take my 11-year-old goddaughter, Clotilde-Julia, to visit 12-year-old Adele on the Costa Brava. We jump in the car and drive southeast packing (along with our swimsuits) haricots verts, a half-dozen perfect courgettes and the first ripe tomatoes from the garden. Along the way we collect bottles of sweet Maury* wine driving through this little aperitif-producing valley that sweeps from the edge of the Pyrenees Orientals through Rivesaltes* and on to the Mediterranean at Banyuls*. Bright hot sunny days and long warm nights pump the grapes full of sugar here; some of these vins cuits age in barrels outside for years under a brutal orb—literally cooking the wine to a deep amber/ruby nectar.

*When to drink: The complex Banyuls is a perfect match for chocolate and rich desserts and turns up often on top restaurant menus accompanying these. Rivesaltes is a common bar aperitif and Maury, though less available, is worth the hunt to sweetly finish a summery meal instead of dessert.

Clotilde has never been to Spain. She sings ‘tween pop songs contentedly all the way. I love being the fairy godmother. As we swoop across the invisible border near La Jonquera, she sings, “Es-pagne!!! en fin…”. “At last,” I echo and we drop down the eastern edge of these great frontier mountains leaving the Midi, the Cathar castles and all things French behind. Next stop… vamos ala playa!

Eating Catalunya: I love the Catalan ‘jet-lag’—everything is an hour or two behind our usual French schedule, including eating. The famous late Spanish lunches and dinners are made up for by the abundance of small food one might eat when at a bar. Although tapas or pintxos reflect aperitif hour of the western Basques, it is not against culinary law here to eat a snack before a meal. Mid-morning, I walk down to the Bar Boia on the beach. I order a cortado*- a short coffee with a splash of milk and an enterpan* or bocadillo with thinly sliced jamon or my favorite filling, truitas*- a freshly made omelet. Of course, the bread is rubbed with tomato and drizzled with olive oil—the ubiquitous pa amb tomaqet*.

*things to order in a bar

Stayed tuned for eating Dali....

July 06, 2005

Huck Finn Postscript

While mumbling over my garden harvest lunch and smuggly playing hooky plugged in from afar, a real life Tom and Huck- French style, pulled up in their canoe. Arnaud and Mathieu had set off from Agen along my long village for a three day paddle writing a short series of articles for the local SudOuest daily. I was the second 'river gypsy' they had met. I broke out the little 33cl beers we like and we 'talked story'. Before they left, we exchanged e-addresses and e-pictures.
Funny little world along this long winding canal.

Huck Finn and me

I remember summers like this—they started early and stretched forever across days of warm weather and clear nights. Is this why after nearly 20 years afloat, I feel like I am still playing hooky?

This morning’s plucking from the potager is for a summer salad: a fist full of mange tout or snow peas to eat raw while making lunch; haricots verts to blanch and dress with a hazelnut oil vinaigrette; six gnarly tomatoes of the un-named variety that, once sliced, will melt into oil, chopped shallots, sea salt and freshly ground pepper for a French ‘salsa’; and a handful of my favorite greens- roquette perforated by hunger critters as a good organic garden should allow.
I watch that I leave the ladybugs behind as I close the garden gate.

Everyone is eating sugar sweet smooth-skinned melons in their own favorite way, with jambon, anchois or ‘en brochette’ with pruneaux and ventreche. A friend has adopted the melon soup recipe from ‘A Culinary Journey in Gascony’ as her Summer Scoop and yesterday we ate it for lunch and again for dinner! Talk about tasting life twice… The verveine (lemon verbena) infusion and splash of vanilla-perfumed vinegar balance the so sweet melon; a base of sweet onions or shallots gives it some guts and elevates it above a ‘fruit smoothy in a bowl’.

More than just a soup and salad pairing, this becomes the easy beginning to a French summer supper. Just add a duck breast or two and finish with a glass of sweet cherries and ice cream for dessert—eh voila!

July 01, 2005

The Gascon Farm Report

the concierge of Camont- H.P. DuPont

Weather Report: Up early with the birds in this long village of canal and river on a cool start to July. June’s solstice flame already baked the wheat fields, spurred the sunflowers into yellow crowns and ripened the first coeur de boeuf tomatoes in the potager. Today’s respite from a too-strong sun prompts DuPont to take me for a walk along the towpath to survey our neighborhood- the farms and orchards of the Garonne River Valley.

Geography Lesson: The Garonne River Basin sprawls across southwestern France from the Pyrenees, north and west to Bordeaux and gathers in dozens of rivers such as the Tarn, Gers and Lot as well as numerous small but significant streams like the Ciron that feeds cold water through Sauternes to induce the noble rot-infused fog. Finally, the tidal Garonne disgorges herself (La Garonne) alongside the Dordogne into its estuary, the Gironde, and on to the Atlantic. Picture the palm of your hand threaded with lines and veins that water our potagers, gardens and farms. Your wrist is the muddy estuary ebb and flow where pibale (bébé eels) and sturgeon live. Your arm is the Gulf Stream that brings our predominate weather from the southwest and the Bay of Biscay or Golfe de Gascogne. The Garonne runs at a fast clip five-hundred meters from my French Kitchen; the Canal de Garonne flows just underneath me on the Julia Hoyt. I write with my feet rooted in water.

Farm Report: It’s pretty quiet out there this morning. Dupe and I walk the towpath that perches above the valley floor, a man-made dyke to keep canal in and river flooding out. We pass a wheat field flattened in its prime by an excitable summer storm. A lone deer nibble at the edges keeping one eye on DuPont as he runs ahead of me. The kiwi vines are flushed out and form a dark canopy punctuated every now and then by a male plant dominating over his fecund ‘harem’. Two orchard workers ‘summer prune’ the semi-dwarf apple trees—chanteclers, I think. Young friends, Penelope and Julia, gather a hand full of wheat from the field next to Camont. They thresh the golden kernels by hand, grind them in the mortar and pestle then use the coffee grinder to make 2 cups of fine fresh whole-wheat flour. We’ll make a buttery crust for an apricot tart later.