Just mention melons….

July 31st, 2010

A pinch of lime juice plays up melon's flavor

A slice of this morning’s melon, wrapped in paper-thin slices of country ham -  or as we often do in the southwest, sliced duck ham, with a squeeze from a juicy lime – what could be simpler as a starter or as lunch on a sweltering, hot day?  In fact, you can hold the ham and give me just the lime juice to enhance this sweet curcurbit. Some will wrap their sliced Charentais in prosciutto, others give it a twist of black pepper, sea salt or nutmeg to accent the melon’s flavor.  Right now, when market vendors heap the round, netted spheres of Charente melon or smoother, ridged local cantaloupe in pyramids, it is easy to get used to a slice or three for lunch every day.

Chilled, this fruit of the vine is a cool antidote to the heat waves that can sap our energy.  Desert people knew that….the Egyptians have been eating melon since 2400 B.C.  Moors hybridized wild melons that couldn’t be eaten raw to produce a sweet melon.  During their centuries of rule in  Sicily and Spain, melons became a part of the extensive Arabian agricultural legacy.  Popes in both Rome and Avignon dined on melons, and encouraged local production.  The curious gardener, Thomas Jefferson, planted and savored melon from his garden in Monticello.  So, this curcurbit, in the same family as cucumbers and squash, has taken hold in warm climates around the world.  Across the south of France, from the Atlantic coast’s Charente Maritîme through the Lot and Quercy, to Carpentras and the melon fields of Provence, the melon season is ON.  Which is best? You might want to do a tasting tour to judge for yourself, for local melon appears on menus as a starter as well as dessert.  To finish a summer dinner on a light note, just drizzle a little Pineau de Charente or sweet Monbazillac wine into a small, fruit-filled melon half for a little bit of heaven.

So cool, local, and in season

Mountains or seaside…what to pack?

July 19th, 2010

Whatever your destination this hot summer of 2010, packing light is the deal, being ready for a shift in the warm wind or sea breezes on a star-bright evening.  It’s up early for a stroll round the market, bien sûr:  to take it all in without feeling rumpled, chance to the rescue.  A refreshing line of fresh air, travel-inspired togs launches on July 23rd  in New York, a welcome resource for travelers going anywhere.  So, turn to the site, www.chanceco.com, for the answer to “what to pack” – for a week,  a month or….or just a day by the shore.

French baskets by the dozen dozens

July 18th, 2010

Choosing a basket from hundreds....

A festival of baskets – for shopping or storing, for fishermen and for cooks – fills a medieval Périgord village to the brim on a July Sunday every year.  Annual fairs, whatever the theme, can be fun or boring…. same old winemakers, same old tomato or melon vendors.  To go to a melon fair year after year, one must have a dedicated interest in the fragrant fruit.  To go to a basket fair every year (don’t count, says the vagabond after fifteen-plus fairs), my interest in woven willow verges on passion.  One Sunday in July, the weekly market in Issigeac – always colorful on its own – adds another attraction: baskets.  Stretching across the shady Place du Château between the town’s gray stone church and a medieval bishop’s palace, basket makers from many regions of France display their own wares for the shopper’s choice.  The entry fee of 2 Euros not only gives you a chance at a tombola - drawing for a prize, a basket – but helps fund the organizing of this ambitious event.

Coiled rye straw baskets from the Charente, with a running commentary

Children crowd around to watch a vanier (basket maker) coiling a wrapped rye straw basket, while at another stall, the technique involves steamed chestnut slats to construct a sturdy basket for gathering nuts.  An artisan from Brittany shows us how to make a fish trap basket and a woman chats with bystanders while deftly looping caning across the seat of an antique chair.

Chestnut strip baskets...strong, versatile, and écologique: I was heartened to see a wizened artisan from the Corrèze again this year with his elegantly finished, slatted chestnut baskets and trays.

The flexible and sturdy dark willow baskets of the southwest are in the majority at Issigeac’s fair, in an age old traditional oval form.  From the nearby village of Molières, I spotted the well known basket maker, René Carrier…over ninety and still shaping practical baskets.

Fill them with logs, grapes, plums or potatoes...

There are classes offered in the basket maker’s craft in the southwest, but my thoughts turned to the speed and finesse of these artisans’ work, wondering who will carry on the tradition.  To make hefty working baskets for wood, light, oval baskets to fill with fungi, shallow baskets for serving bread or cheese – each takes a trick or six to master the technique.

Shaping the sides of a large basket…

Of the sixty artisans at the Foire aux Paniers et à la Vannerie, many work steadily through the day to demonstrate techniques of their craft.  A simple panel banner by each stall announces the region, whether it is the Loire Valley, the Ariège or the Ardennes.  One year a basket maker from Sardinia make the journey to the foire, another visiting artisan was from Spain.  So, there are new faces every year, and hopefully the old masters will continue to bring their well woven baskets of all sizes and materials.

Baskets woven of honeysuckle roots - for tiny treasures

More basket fairs coming up! If your travels this month lead to the heart of France, the Auvergne, take a day for the Fête des Paniers in Montsalvy. This popular event in a Cantal town south of Aurillac opens with giant marionettes, and winds up with a Soirée Dansante on Saturday, July 31st 2010.  Willow growers and basket makers get together on October 2nd & 3rd in northern France in Reilly, east of Rouen for a Fête de l’Osier et de la Vannerie Française. – don’t miss the afternoon parade of the brotherhood of the noble willow, la Confrérie des Façonneurs du Noble Osier.

What’s on the menu for Quatorze Juillet?

July 14th, 2010

14th of July, a special breakfast

This is what the vagabond has been asking, taking a running survey of what  French culinary tradition calls for to fête Bastille Day.  What ?  Not anything special? One friend says, ….”nope, it’s turkey or capon for Noël, lamb for Easter and veal for Pentecost, but eat whatever you like for the 14th of July!” On this theme of menu independence, a French friend reflects that he remembers no particular foods associated with their national holiday. It seems that independence rules, as does the season’s ripe, fragrant melon and a good stack of steaks or chops for the grill.  Not satisfied to wait ’til dinner for something appropriately seasonal and French, we start the day with a handful of raspberries with yogurt and still-warm croissants.  Pour the coffee, I’m ready for a day in the garden – and much later, a glass of bubbly with apéros before watching fireworks over the Dordogne….after dark.

Next up: A basket-lover’s fair….and more on melon.

Persillade for….green beans

July 11th, 2010

Basics for a quick chop of persillade

Maybe you could call persillade a condiment, for it heightens flavors of vegetables or meats – but it isn’t in the strain of sauces or relishes, much simpler in fact.  The vagabond has encountered this traditional southern seasoning pressed into lamb chops, sprinkled over magret/duck breast, and divinely stirred into fried potatoes Sarladais just before serving.  Great results with just two ingredients:  finely chopped fresh garlic (now is the hour) and parsley leaves (also tender in early summer).  Days when the canicule/heat wave calls for a “the simpler the better” approach, and persillade is just that.  Ingredients finely chopped or minced with a sharp blade are basic, and my  tool of choice is a two-handled hachoir.  This can be done with a whizz of the food processor’s blades, but it tends to chop in a blink to the point of mashed parsley. Not my favorite, but use it if you don’t mind washing up; a sharp knife is the ecological choice, non?

All chopped together, put it in a jar for later use

Whether you refer to them as haricots verts, French beans or simply string beans, market stalls this month are heaped with them, straight from the bush.  The vagabond heads out early to get haricots fins – the skinny little ones loaded with flavor – before these delicate beans wilt in the heat of the day.  What could be simpler than a handful of  beans for each serving, nipped and snipped, then  steamed for a few minutes?  Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, a drizzling of good olive oil (okay – or sweet butter if you please).  This is obvious, a classic everyone knows how to set before the queen or king with tonight’s grilled chicken, fish or ribs.  Not that I am into gilding the lily of the beans’, natural flavor, but observing traditions in the French southwest, I have picked up some other enhancers.  Slivered and seared meaty smoked bacon (called ventrèche fumé in the southwest) is great tossed with the beans in a bowl to serve….with lemon, bien sûr.  But for our small mountain of haricots verts tonight, I’ll mix up a savory persillade .

Simple, light, and delish...

To make persillade, I follow the basic proportions given by Kate Ratliffe in  A Culinary Journey in Gascony (10 Speed Books, 1995). Two thirds flat-leaved parsley leaves – reserve the stems to mince into a tomato sauce – to one third new garlic:  3 plump cloves chopped up with 1 cup leaves is about right. If you are garlic-shy, cut it back – otherwise, venture into the garlicsphere with a ratio of half and half.  Choose beans that are about the same length and thickness for uniform cooking.  Wash and trim green beans, allowing about 1 handful for each serving, with 1 or 2 white onions, quartered. Put them in the top pan of a vegetable steamer, to steam until you taste one that meets your own measure of crunch, cooked tender or….al dente. Turn them out into a serving bowl or plate them and sprinkle the persillade over the steaming beans; add a twist of sea salt & cracked pepper – a squirt of lemon if you like.  A fine side for a summer night… or a main plate for lunch.

The French word, persil, is the origin of persillade, but that doesn’t seem to deter chefs and cooks from adapting this classic to all sorts of variations with other herbs.  Chef Ivan Flowers at Fournos in Sedona, Arizona uses butter as a base, makes a persillade with basil (a basillade?), rolls it up to chill and slices up the seasoned butter to garnish meats.  A persillade in the hands of Ina Garten becomes a seasoning for a butterflied leg of  lamb by adding bread crumbs, lemon zest with two cups of chopped parsley to three cloves of garlic (chopped in a processor) – all to enhance the lamb.  Another cook does a mint persillade (a menthiade?) over pork, as other cooks scatter more classic persillades over a bowl of mussels or sautéed gambas shrimp. So, once you start chopping, allow enough for tonight’s haricots – but make a good batch so a jar is in the fridge to bring a touch of southern France to your daily fare.

Note: For more on Serious Chopping tools, see Dorie Greenspan’s recent post on mezzalunas – to answer any questions on how Italian cooks mince the fillings for ravioli and tortellini – not to mention persillade‘s cousin gremollata – so efficiently.  See her post of 7 July on: www.doriegreenspan.com . Put her new, upcoming book on your autumn cooking (for release 8 October 2010) list:  Around my French Table.

Lavender Fields Forever

July 3rd, 2010

Bienvenue  juillet…the vagabond welcomes July with open arms! This week, my market basket is laden with stone fruit for preserves, green almonds and bundles of herbs.  On the way to markets across southern France I note lavender in bud, ready to bloom and scent the air.  But nowhere is lavender as much a part of the July scene as in the Vaucluse and high country of Haute Provence.  My memories drift back to Saturday markets in Apt, a hub of trade and activity on the river Coulon.  Artisans, farmers, plantsmen and vendors selling all manner of household goods – some with olive and lemon prints to dance across your table, others with olive wood salad tossers – line the narrow streets of this Luberon town.  We always begin at the open market at the edge of the old town, where sausage, honey and cheese vendors mingle with flower stalls bursting with the region’s trademark colors:  golden sunflowers, brilliant zinnias and graceful wands of lavender.  This week may be a little too early for the surrounding lavender fields to be in full bloom, but wait a week to take in miles of the purple haze.

Gather lavender early, just as blossoms form

Lavender lore credits the Romans for bringing both their bathing rituals and the cleansing, antiseptic lavender plants to Apta Julia when this trading crossroads center was founded.  Originally a military camp, the town grew to assume importance as an administrative center on the Domitian Way from Rome to Narbonne. The climate was right for lavender, cultivated for its medicinal and antiseptic values, and the plant took hold.  Soldiers carried it to cleanse wounds and found the scent relieved stress.  I sometimes wonder what a citizen of ancient Apta Julia would say now when gazing across expanses of lavender fields between Apt, the high country of Sault, and east towards Forcalquier – before surveying the seemingly endless fields of the Valensole plâteau.  If the lavender fields now seem to stretch to the horizon, the reason today is in part commercial:  this region of Provence leads the world in lavender production.

Within this genus, Lavendula augustifolius, there are thirty-nine species. Spikes with flower tips wave above the round, bushy plant – and easily cross-pollinate, so many variations exist.  Blue, lilac, violet or white lavender all draw bees, and lavender honey is one of the region’s specialties.  To discover lavender country, the market at Sault - on Wednesdays since 1515 – is not only overflowing with Provençal vegetables, but vendors offer honeys and soaps, pastries and essential oils, all with a hint of lavender. Take a moment to ramble around Sault’s old streets and admire the vistas from its promontory overlooking the valley.  Be tempted by nougat, both black and white (both a part of the Christmas Eve Treize Desserts tradition) of local almonds and lavender honey.

A fleeting moment in the lavender fields

Pick lavender just before blossoms are completely open to maximize the natural oils.  Tuck a few into your pillow case, a bag of sweaters sealed away for winter, and in closets to repel moths and refresh the air. Using lavender in cooking takes restraint – one too many blossoms can impart a bitter taste:  remember, it is an antiseptic.  A little caution is due for the relaxing, de-stressing effect of lavender under your pillow:  it slows the nervous system to some extent, a natural for inducing sleep.  Its essential oils are effective in aromatherapy and in beauty products as well as the classic, refreshing lavender eau de toilette.  If you travel across Provence in late July and through August, you may see the lavender harvesters at work, machines rolling through fields gathering the blossoms destined for distilleries to extract lavender’s essential oils.  In Sault’s August Lavender Festival, watch a lavender-cutting competition, all a blur of scythes in action.  But for a few sprigs to infuse in a refreshing sorbet, a simple panna cotta or a custard with summer berries, now is the time to snip lavender.

For more on Provençal lavender, visit: www.avignon-et-provence.com tap Tourism, then scroll to Practical Information to tap:  Markets.  In www.saultenprovence.com/gb you will find details on lavender-related events, and at www.provencebeyond.com , a variety of travel information.