Sunny autumn morning, organic market…

October 13th, 2010

Somehow, organic markets don’t always show up on official listings and tourism internet sites, so the vagabond is adding a Bio Marché category to help you find them in regions of France. On this bright Tuesday morning, we drove to Bergerac in the Périgord, where biologique producers and artisans set up to sell their seasonal and organic products on a square facing the Mairie /City Hall.  Only a few weeks ago the surge of summer crowds filled this riverside city’s old town with visiting shoppers.  Now, back to autumn rhythms, the market has wound down to four stalwart vendors. I recognized the chèvre cheese vendor, a regular at Issigeac’s market on Sunday mornings. While buying a peppered chèvre, I admired a box of at least four varieties of apples, just-gathered walnuts and a tray of tempting chèvre mini-tartes.  Another regular vendor, Marie-Thé Martin, offers bread to go with any cheese, a range of small to large loaves blended made of wheat and spelt flour.   I remember  (can it be ten years ago?) when her husband was building the ovens in their barn near Molières, planting fields of épautre/spelt on land that had to be chemical-free (i.e. waiting four years before the wheat could be considered biologique/organic), and setting up a grist mill to grind the spelt into flour.  The family has worked hard, planting, grinding, baking and selling in markets to develop a loyal following for their breads and flour.  And a new item has been added to their stall, a seasoning sauce based on épautre (spelt), the ancient and nourishing grain so cherished by the Romans.  In response to my questions about this addition to her nutritious products, she suggested:  “… use Socepotre as you would soy sauce – and add a dash of lemon juice”. And so I will.

Anne-Sophie Martin creates healing and scented soaps

A new face at the bio market was a young woman selling soap.  This is her first year in business, selling her soaps through bio shops, boutiques and at markets. After working as a research chemist in the skin care pharmaceutics industry, she made soaps at home for six years before launching her own line.  She showed me the range of soaps based on essential oils as well as those without perfume. All are  simply cut into uniform squares.  How could I resist the soap for gardeners?

Soaps with poppy seeds or coffee grains serve as exfoliants...

She held up one of the apricot kernel soaps and noted…” I used a little coconut milk with this one for a nice foamy lather”.  The all-natural ingredients in her soaps include calendula and argan oil, avocado and honey, and donkey milk for very sensitive skin.  MC reached for a shaving soap of camomille and white clay scented with mint and lavender, while I couldn’t resist the wheat germ and coffee soap for dry hands.  Pleased with this discovery, we slipped soaps into the basket already bulging with onions, cheese and bread.  As we walked into Bergerac’s medieval quarter for a coffee pause before driving home, one of my old marketing principles came to mind:  bigger is not always better…seek out more relaxed, smaller markets.

Soaps:  For more on the Savonnerie En Douce Heure, send her a message at or visit her site for points of sale:

Note: Contribute an organic market discovery/comment to our list as you travel in France!

A book for the beach bag

August 19th, 2010

A vicarious tour of Majorca....

Whether you stretch out on a dock, a deck or a beach in a secluded cove, pull a good book about faraway places out of your beach bag.  The vagabond’s choice is a small tome packed with details about a Mediterranean cuisine that doesn’t get much attention:  Majorca. Life-long resident, Tomas Graves surveys this culture and its food traditions, introducing its prime ingredients and those who use them.  Pa am oli, the humble Catalan country bread rubbed with garlic and tomato ties his narrative together and links past and present.  In-depth descriptions of bread making and the island’s fine olive oil traditions vie with forays into Andalusian cured ham/jamon, relatively recent arrivals on Majorcan plates.  But don’t let me spoil the story, or get ahead of myself before thoroughly rereading:  Bread & Oil, Majorcan culture’s last stand, published by Grub Street UK in 1998 & 2006.

Blini for carnival….and beyond

February 16th, 2010

Hot off the griddle, blinis for apéros or...supper

Often blini -  little two-bite disks of goodness – appear as cocktail party fare at Christmas and Easter, making an appearance on some platters for a Mardi Gras fest.  But a blin or two can be great comfort food any time. The vagabond has fond memories of these pancakes as an occasional late supper after a long day’s work in wintry Helsinki. Hopping off the tram in front of Sashlik, one of the city’s Russian restaurants, once I stepped through the brocade entry curtains, the February snow and slush seemed far behind.  No menu was necessary, as I knew what to order:  a side of buttery blini and a restorative bowl of beet borscht. With the blini, just a dab of smetana and chopped dill – and an icy thimble-sized glass of vodka.

These lingering images stir me on, and I return to blini-making.  Most of my recipes call for  several pounds of flour, six eggs, a half-pound of butter – too big a batch without a crowd to feed.  At last, a scaled-for-two recipe of such stunning simplicity fell out of a favorite cookbook and landed in my lap.  This will make about fifteen to eighteen small blini:  allow about three hours including cooking them – two hours for the batter to rise gives you time to clear the way, chop up the garnish and heat the griddle.

Easy blini:      3/4 cup /175 ml  milk, warmed

2 tsp. granulated yeast

1/2 cup/ 50 g. buckwheat flour

1 large egg, separated

1/4 cup / 25 g. plain flour + 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/4 cup /75 ml butter, melted

2 Tablespoons thick cream

2 Tablespoons minced dill (or dried if none is available)

1/2 cup/150 ml butter, warmed/clarified for cooking

Garnishes:  chopped green spring onions, chopped hard-boiled eggs, fish roe such as trout or – best of all – vendace, white fish roe/muikkun matti

Sprinkle the yeast over the warmed milk, let it proof for 10 minutes. Put the flours in a mixing bowl, make a well and plop the egg yolk in, then whisk in the milk/yeast. Set the bowl in a warm place to rise for 2 hours, wrapped in  a thick towel. Bubbles will form and let you know it is ready:  whip the egg white and fold it into this batter with melted butter, fold in the thick cream and dill (or use fresh dill as a garnish if you prefer). Heat a crêpe pan or iron skillet, dribble on some clarified butter (use the golden top layer, it tolerates high griddle temps) and drop 1 full tablespoon of batter for each blin; flip as bubbles begin to form around the edges. Keep warm (on a covered plate or in foil) or serve at room temperature with the garnishes.  And what to drink with your blini fest?  Sparkling wine, or iced vodka is the vagabond’s suggestion.

Cook’s Notes: Buckwheat flour is essential – but if you wish, use 1/3 rye flour, 1/3 buckwheat and 1/3 white flour proportions for heartier blini. The real deal is to have them “swimming in butter”, as a Finnish friend counsels, but that will be up to you.  Clarified butter has a higher smoke point, so it is worth the extra minutes to melt and separate it for cooking them without burning.  With the addition of smoked fish (delicate trout or peppered mackerel), lemon slices, sour cream and a modest beet and apple salad, blinis become a light supper.  Watch for more of the amazing buckwheat story in March.

Viva i Grissini !

January 28th, 2010

I fell for grissini in Turin one winter weekend, and although it was a few years ago, it was a memorable gastronomic crush.  Bakers’ windows,  steamed up from the warmth inside, all displayed individual styles – some straight, some knobby – of these long, crisp fingers of bread.  To call them “bread sticks” doesn’t seem quite fair, for they ran from delicate wands to thicker, shorter sticks studded with herbs or seeds. All variations are very crisp, wonderful for nibbling with a bowl of thick, hearty soup. Every winter I indulge in a nostalgic trip back to Turin via a batch of homemade grissini.

Savory wands, Grissini banish the winter "blahs"

If you can’t find frozen pizza dough, or if your favorite bakery doesn’t take orders for unbaked baguette dough, simply make your own. This can be made the day before, kept to cool-rise overnight and rolled out, shaped to bake for the next day’s lunch. If you do this, let it rest at room temperature before working the dough. It also can be rolled into a long log, sliced into rounds and patted flat to make pitas.  Simple, economical grissini can be on the table in under two hours. Begin by proofing (sprinkle yeast over the water, cover and let it rest for 10 minutes in a warm place) until the surface begins to show some tiny bubble activity :

1 teaspoon dried yeast sprinkled over 1 + 2/3 cup/14 oz/400ml warm water

4 1/2 cups to 5 cups/1 lb.4 oz. unbleached white flour – this will vary with the flour you use; allow more for dusting the work surface)  + 1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons each mixed herbs and seeds for rolling each wand: oregano, thyme, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, Hungarian sweet paprika, celery salt, crushed black pepper – choose 2 or 3, as you like – mixed on a plate.

olive oil for your hands and to brush over grissini before baking

Put the flour in a warm bowl, gradually pour the water + yeast in along the inside of the bowl, stirring to incorporate it without becoming lumpy – pinch any lumps with your fingertips and keep working it into a ball. Cover and let this rest for about 30 minutes. Prepare 2 large baking sheets by lining each with a piece of baking paper, preheat the oven to hot:  450° f./230°c. When the dough has almost doubled, oil your hands and knead, slapping the dough and turning it over until it feels elastic. Slice it into 6 parts, roll one by one into a long rectangle 1 1/2 inches/3 to 4 mm thick, and cut evenly into 6 parts. Pick each one up, roll and begin to twist – the dough will stretch – so cut each strand in half, roll in the mixed herbs and place on the baking sheet. Brush each with a little olive oil. Let rest while shaping all the grissini, then bake for 10 minutes - just as you put them in, spray the oven interior with a water mist (to crisp edges) – until lightly golden. Then turn off the oven, open the door slightly and watch closely that they are not too brown, but leave to crisp for about 10 minutes before taking them out to cool on a rack.  Depending on how thin you shape them, this should make 2 to 3 dozen grissini. In metal tins lined with aluminum foil, they will keep at least a week in a cool place.  Serve short ones with apéros to dip into a tapenade, brousse or soft cheese dip – save the long grissini to enjoy with  salads and soups… to chase away any winter blues or blahs.

Every recipe has its source, an inspiration to try a new angle. I must thank Alba Pezone for clarifying steps in making grissini, as found in Elle à Table, December 2009.

Color – November markets brighten grey days

November 6th, 2009
Squash & cabbage families reign in November

Squash & cabbage families reign in November

Beyond the mounds of yellows, deep violets and pink tints of Toussaint chrysanthemums, the Bergerac market never fails to brighten the first Saturday in November – always a foggy grey, often drizzly day.  Heaps of bright squash and pumpkin are ready for slicing into wedges.  Red, pale green and curly dark Savoy cabbage weigh in for soups and casseroles. What about roots?  Grab the fringy tops of carrots, just-dug beetroot, purple-shouldered turnip globes, fennel bulbs to be gratinéed, or fill a sack with oval red Rosamonde potatoes. Delicate chanterelle mushrooms may still be around, but the meatier cèpes (boletus) are found in many markets now.

Select mushrooms - or chestnuts of your choice

Select mushrooms - or chestnuts of your choice

Then, look for perfect, local persimmons – the glow-in-the-dark orange fruit visible on the farthest market stalls, or reach for rosy pomegranates packed in straw to cushion their journey to market. Whether the vagabond is in Brive or Bergerac, these nut growing regions never fail to supply wonderful breads for a simple market day lunch of salad (often endive with a mustard vinaigrette), nutbread and fresh cheese.

Artisanal breads, a market must

Artisanal breads, a market must

But what’s colorful about a loaf of nutbread?  Just roll a round of chèvre cheese in pomegranate seeds, slip a slab of it onto your slice of nutty bread – not only colorful…. but juicy!

Simply chèvre & glossy pomegranate seeds

Simply chèvre & glossy pomegranate seeds