A spring stroll though Castillonès bastide market

April 29th, 2010

When Alphonse de Poitiers granted the land to build a new bastide town in the 13th century, he chose the site well.  Like most bastides, Castillonès sprawls along a ridge of high ground, in this case straddling two historic regions.  It lies on the southern hem of the Périgord, while being woven into the heart of the ancient Agenais.  For many of us, Agen equals fruit (proclaimed as the prune capital of Europe), while the Périgord is famed for walnuts and poultry.  So on a market visit, be ready for produce and poultry in abundance.  The vagabond is drawn to this hilly region by the expansive panoramas around nearly every turn, a case of the journey being as stunning as the market goodies are delicious.

Click on distant chapel to view photo gallery of  Castillonès market.

This département, the Lot-et-Garonne, rests between Gascony to the south and the Périgord to the north, quietly going about its business which is largely agricultural. As a region slightly off the beaten path, the Agenais is worth a detour:  for Romanesque chapels rising above slopes sponged with white plum blossoms in April and nodding sunflowers through July,  it is a revelation.  And off season, the markets are among the region’s most authentic, least gentrified or tourist-trammeled in the entire Aquitaine.  From mid-May to late September expect crowds, which could be said of any part of the French southwest – unless, like the locals, you grab your basket and shop very early when everything is dew-fresh.

Like Monflanquin and Villefranche-du-Périgord, the town’s focus is on an arcaded market square, where weekly markets and monthly fairs have come and gone for centuries. What was the vagabond looking for on an April morning in Castillonès Tuesday market?  Asparagus, bien sûr, and bedding plants for potagers (vegetable gardens), to be choosen from flats of lettuce, tomato, peppers and squash (lots of vigorous courgettes). We always hunt for honey, and here I not only did we score with local tilleul/linden flower honey, but with a light-on- acidity honey vinegar.  I was delighted to find white cherry tomato plants and other unusual varieties sold by a young couple specializing in biologique/organic plants.  In fact on this visit, I noticed more biologique products lining Castillonès Grande Rue, the lively market street leading off the central square.  Cheese vendors offer a gamut of specialties from firm to crumbly Auvergne Salers and Cantal tommes to local chèvre as well as excellent fromages Corse. Two vendors tempted me with samples of Italian cheese, as well as olives, tortellini and pastries.  With such enticing products, and a lazy day ambiance of having coffee (and a flaky, rum-cream filled pastry) in the shade of  Castillonès arcades, I vowed to return…when stalls groan under loads of melons, tomatoes and freshly picked plums.

Note:  Watch for more on bastide markets in June, for a supper stop in a night market or two…quite a different interpretation of “market”. We will sample the ambiance of  just a few of the 300 bastides scattered across southern and southwestern France.

Add snap to April salads with Sariette d’hiver

April 21st, 2010

Winter savory, ready for a spring trim

This week, suddenly sariette’s tender shoots are ready to be clipped,  strung up in the attic to dry – and while I’m snipping, the peppery fresh taste will also perk up a bean salad for lunch today. Associations with beans – fresh fève or dried cocos- are so strong that in German, it is referred to as the bean herb: Bohnenkraut.  Whether you call it winter savory, sariette des montagnes, savourée, or poivre d’âne, this ancient potherb goes by many names. Greeks dedicated the spicy leaves to Dionysos, dubbing it Herbe à  Satyre for what they considered to be  savory’s aphrodesiac effects. Egyptians used it in medicine for anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and Romans carried savory with them as they settled into far flung lands* and islands  of Europe. Clearly, it was a highly appreciated aromatique.

Poked into a bottle, the herb flavors vinegar

Running through a list of savory’s virtues, I found not only the peppery flavor (giving a bite to Italian salami), its antibacterial effects valued by beekeepers (the chemical thymol in savory used against the varoa mite), and best known is the natural antiflatulence effect of savory cooked with beans and cabbage (as we were saying…Bohnenkraut).  Used before peppercorns were shipped into Europe, as well as during war times when spices were scarce, savory replaces pepper as a seasoning for those with a pepper intolerance.  In Quebec, savory is whisked into mashed potatoes to spark up the purée.  So, if sprigs of this simple herb do everything from aiding digestion to providing more anti-oxidants than many fresh vegetables, why – I wondered – is sariette not more commonly used?  For iron, calcium, manganese, and magnesium, a little savory in salads or snipped into a pot of butter for seasoning vegetables does us all kinds of good. Minced with other herbs, it seasons discs of fresh chèvre – a favorite, I discovered, in markets around Banon where poivre d’âne grows wild in the rugged Provence uplands. Closer to home, take a handful of tender new savory shoots to fill a sterile bottle, fill it with white wine vinegar and cap tightly – then let the sun accent the infusion by putting it on a windowsill for a month. Don’t wait until late in the summer to collect savory, for by then the leaves turn to stiff little spears (not a gum-friendly seasoning at that point)….April is savory harvest time!

The vagabond’s  last note on this ancient herb is a quote from Jean Giono’s  novel set in Provence, where he evoked the power of sariette’s aroma in Le Serpent d’étoiles. Children were bedded down for the night on layers of herbs…”and the weight of their movements released fragrances of savory and lemon balm.”

.”et, sous le poids de leurs gestes, jaillisaient des odeurs de sariette et de citronnelle.”

*A point for gardeners:  Satureja montana grows in zones 6 to 10, and is winter hardy with some protection against long periods below 0°c/32°f.  It becomes a low woody bush and needs pruning both before and after delicate white blossoms appear in May.  The annual, summer savory, has pink blossoms and is easily grown from seed.  For more on the savories, see:  www.herbalcuisine.com/savory.html

The first rhubarb – at last !

April 14th, 2010

Pear blossoms, an April pleasure

The gnarly old pear tree – said to be one hundred years old – is a reassuring sign that April is on track.  This year it is laden with blossoms, which will drift onto the flower bed below before summer’s warmer days bring a cover of greenery.  The variety is a hard winter pear to be picked and ripened in the shade during autumn months. But my attention now turns to the ground, to the potager calling to be spaded and prepared for tomato and pepper plants.  These and lettuce sets are already available at the weekly market, so I am running behind.  In April’s chilly mornings and warm afternoons everything shoots and sprouts at once.

New rhubarb and oranges sanguine...

For weeks, I watched the pink rhubarb stems like a hawk, noting more bundles of leaves ready to unfurl and shoot out from the rich soil near our potager compost heap. It had been a cold winter – just the trigger rhubarb needs for energetic production.  One more day of growth in the clump was all it needed before enough could be pulled to cook, enough for a dish or two of rhubarb sauce, whip, or fool.  So, a dish of  rhubarb sauce lightened with a dash of orange zest is in the picture for our first spring supper outdoors.  Having trimmed and cleaned the slim stalks, I chopped them up to measure almost 2 cups.  A cup of water sweetened with a tablespoon of honey and slivers of orange peel – all heated in a saucepan, ready to simmer the rhubarb, covered, for 10 to 12 minutes – was all it took.  Since oranges sanguine (blood oranges) are still available, I squeezed the juice from a quarter of an orange to give color to the sauce.  This is just enough for 2, but if drained and folded into whipped cream (and a sprinkling of shaved, toasted almonds) it could stretch to serve 4.  With almond cookies, of course.  Longer spring evenings invite a walk ’round the garden after supper – to discover more signs of spring.

Earliest wild orchids - in poor, rocky places

Easter Monday’s Cake

April 5th, 2010

After the spring feast, after preparations for feeding a crowd, what is left…les restes…become the vagabond’s favorite meals.  The duckling bones make a marvelously rich soup, the Crumble aux légumes is even tastier at room temperature, and the Gâteau aux amandes seems to improve every day.  As European habits go, having a second jour de  fête at Easter and Pentecost is a delightful bonus.  Stores and banks are closed, so all can relax.  For many, Easter Monday is a time to see friends after Sunday’s traditional family gathering – and if the weather cooperates, take a long walk together into the hills and along river trails.  A day off to celebrate spring is a respite in a hectic season.  And when we return, the leftovers make quick work of pulling a meal together.  A platter of cold duck, ham or lamb garnished with sun-dried tomatoes in caper oil is on the table in minutes.  If the first green “points” of asperagus are on hand, oop-la: into a hot skillet with sizzling (clarified) butter to sear for a few minutes before a squeeze of  lemon juice – to serve adorned with a simple sprinkling of sea salt.  Sunday’s steamed cauliflower, chilled and tossed with MC’s mustard vinaigrette, a tumbler full of bread sticks, then sliced almond cake served with a dollop of crème fraîche or ice cream and figs or pears in spiced syrup replenish the hikers.  I bake the cake on Saturday, so even the cook can relax outdoors.  This recipe makes a large bundt cake – or two smaller loaf cakes (one for my kind petite voisine/neighbor) – and is open to variations with spices.  My choice is freshly grated nutmeg, but try ground cardamom or golden Spanish saffron.

Delicate almond cake - adorn it with fruit or nibble with morning coffee

Finnish Almond Cake

A time-honored recipe adapted from my “Finnish cooking bible”, The Finnish Cookbook by Beatrice Ojakangas, published by Crown in 1964. The texture resembles a pound cake, but without heaps of butter. Set oven at moderate, 350°f/180° c and put rack in middle setting.

4 eggs, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

6 Tablespoons sweet butter, melted

6 Tablespoons full cream

3/4 cup ground almonds

2 cups white flour, sifted with 1  1/2 tsp baking powder + pinch salt

1 tsp pure almond extract (1 tsp. nutmeg or cardamom)

toasted shaved/sliced almonds  for garnish

Whisk the eggs ’til light & frothy, add the sugar gradually, beating until thick. In a small bowl mix together the cream, almonds and butter, blend with the eggs & sugar, then carefully fold in the dry ingredients to blend all.  At this point add almond extract and any spices.  Preheat the oven to 350°f/180°c, grease a bundt or tube cake pan (or *) and dust with flour – tapping out any excess flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, set in the middle of the oven and bake until golden – about 1 hour; sides will begin to pull away from the pan, test it. Let the cake rest on a rack for 10 minutes before turning out onto a serving plate.  * If baking this in 2 pans (such as 8″/20 cm. cake pans), only bake it 35 minutes & test it.  When cool, spread the bottom layer with jam or preserves (quince? apricot?) and set second layer on top.  Frost with a light icing or dust with powdered/icing sugar.  This cake takes on a chocolate icing, or mocha glaze easily….let your imagination take it from there. Top with freshly toasted shaved almonds.  Make it a day ahead – so you can enjoy the season, whether on foot or perched on a bench in the garden.

Pheasant's Eye narcissus, worth waiting for after most daffs are gone