Sunday, 28 November 2010

Bean eaters anonymous

Once upon a time, we had a habit of spending a weekend somewhere in Tuscany at about this point in the year: to wander, to drink coffee, maybe to do a gallery or two ... and to eat. Well, okay, mostly to eat. But hey, come on, it was work: a lot of the inspiration for what I cooked at the resto came from Tuscany, and by that point in the year I was in need of a top up. Tiresome, huh?

The Tuscans are not called mangiafagioli (beaneaters) for nothing: beans play a huge part in the local cuisine. And they're sooooo good too: in the days when you could actually carry more than a spare pair of knickers on Ryanair we used to bring back kilos of them (beans, not knickers), along with several litres of newly pressed oil (if you once saw someone emptying a large suitcase at Stansted airport security and trying to explain convincingly why it was full of bubblewrap and not a lot else ... that was me). Lucca was our very favourite haunt; apart from being just a genuinely lovely little city, its oil and beans are second to none (Awww. I want to go, NOW!). It was in Lucca that I first ate zuppa di frantoiana - literally 'oil mill soup' - at a trattoria called Gigi. November is oil pressing time, and there are dishes featuring the new oil are on every menu. Gigi's zuppa was so good that we ate it twice, in quick succession, then I came home and did my best to recreate it.

Today being a biting Tuscan-cold type of day seemed like a perfect opportunity to spend a few hours on zuppa duty, especially given that the alternative was yet another hands-and-knees afternoon waxing the newly restored terracotta tiles in the dining room. I couldn't manage the new oil - we buy our 'good' olive oil from the Coop in Clermont l'Herault which produces several varieties, but pressing doesn't take place until December at the earliest - but for the first time (beware - crow alert) I did manage to use a lot of our own vegetables - everything but potatoes, celery and garlic in fact, none of which we grow.

Cavalo nero (black Tuscan kale) growing on the potager

Amazingly, even the tomatoes are ours: we picked them green at the beginning of the month and they're ripening nicely on the windowsill. So, in case you too have a task that you'd like to avoid, here is the (sort of) recipe.

Zuppa de frantoiana

some onions and/or leeks, diced
some green celery, including the leaves, finely chopped
some carrots, chopped into smallish pieces
a few potatoes, ditto
some garlic, minced
some fresh herbs - rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, that sort of thing - chopped
a couple of peperoncini or small dried red chili peppers, crushed
some cavalo nero (black Tuscan kale) or Savoy cabbage, shredded
some butternut squash or pumpkin or potimarron, peeled and chopped into small-to-medium pieces
a few fresh tomatoes, skinned and chopped
some vegetable stock
some pinto or cannellini beans, cooked
a rind of Parmesan if you have one
some wheat or spelt grains
some good olive oil

So, this is what I do. In a big pan, warm some olive oil and gently fry the onions for 5 minutes. Add the celery, fry for 5 minutes. Add the carrots, fry for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, fry for 5 minutes. Add the herbs and peperoncini, fry for 5 minutes. Add the cavalo nero, pumpkin and tomatoes, fry for 5 minutes. I know this seems a bit OTT, but I've found it to be the best way of bringing out the flavour of each ingredient - if you add them all to the pan at once it's all a little bit more indistinct and subdued.

Purée half the beans either with some of their cooking water, or with some vegetable stock, and add them to the pan, with the Parmesan rind too if you have it. Add more vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables, then simmer over the lowest possible heat for an hour.

Add the wheat and simmer for another half an hour. At that point, add the rest of the beans and simmer for another 20 minutes or so. Stir in some olive oil and let the whole thing stand for a couple of hours. Reheat gently - it should now be nicely thick - check the seasoning, ladle into bowls and serve with a glug of good olive oil poured over each one.

Make at least twice as much as you can eat, because it'll be even better tomorrow ....

Saturday, 27 November 2010

A tale of two Grilloux ...

8.30am: a world white with hard frost: minus 6 degrees.

12.30pm: lunch on the terrace: 20 degrees in the sun. On the shady side of the house: still zero; central heating still on anti-frost setting.

A blackbird singing, in blissful defiance of the season.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Silver linings

Yesterday was a thoroughly unpleasant day: cold (very cold), wet (very wet) and dark (very dark). There's a wonderful French word, much loved by weather forecasters: maussade. It means dull and dismal; it also means sullen. (Don't you just love the idea of the weather being sullen? Perfect word.) And the fact that I was putting the seven hundredth and fifty-ninth coat of paint on yet another of our panelled glazed doors did nothing to assuage my mood.

But there was a silver lining: cranes. Halfway through the afternoon a strange and loud trumpeting noise drew my attention. Wah! Geese! yelled the ex-Norfolk me to anyone who'd listen, before realising that the only geese you're likely to see in Ariège are on your dinner table. Flocks of hundreds, even thousands, of flying geese - we'd get them over the house almost daily in the wnter - are about the only thing I miss from the Norfolk days, especially the Brents with their growly 'rruckk' call. I racked my paint-befuddled brain and realised that they must be cranes.

And cranes they were. Huge V shapes of them, common cranes (grues cendrées) on their way across the Pyrénées to spend their winter in warmer climes. Ariège is not on the main crane route, which is much farther west, but birding friends here have told me that we can expect to see them every so often. To see a big flock flying over our house was a huge treat. To see a second flock following at dusk was an even bigger one. But to hear, and then glimpse, a third, flying right over the chimney pots at midnight on the night of the full moon, was something unforgettable: in spite of the bitter cold, in spite of the lashing rain, in spite of being half undressed for bed, I ran outside to the track and watched, and listened.

The picture is not, I confess, mine. But this is what I saw:

And today I stumbled upon this video, captured by a local person at St Lizier, just a few kilometres down the road.

An ah -so moment.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Ariège Moun Pais

The new Ariégeois anthem! Will it take over from Se Canto, I wonder???? (Sorry. Ariège joke ...).

(Paroles et musique Florent Adroit mars 2010)
Je viens te parler d’un morceau de terre
Pas plus grand que ça mais dont je suis fier
Pas loin de l’Espagne même près d’Andorre
Comme un privilège, comme un gros trésor
Toi tu montes au « Pass », eux, ils montent au pa
Ce n’est pas l’Ardèche, non tu connais pas ?
Pourtant je t’assure qu’il y a un grand A
A comme l’Ariège, A comme Ariégeois
Lève ton drapeau, chante tes couleurs
Au vu des montagnes qui sont ton bonheur
Car les gars du nord aiment ton accent
C’est parce que ça monte et puis ça descend
Chante « se canto » la main sur le cœur
Ariège « moun païs » rien ne te fait peur
Car il n’y a pas plus fier que d’être Ariègeois
Chante le bien fort et chante en patois
Non pas toulousain, non pas Doriphore
Nous on les aime bien, eux ils nous adorent !
Pour nos champignons et nos Pyrénées
Nous pour le travail, c’est juste à côté !
On est espanté de voir que ça pègue
Dans nos expressions, là haut ils roumèguent
De ne pas comprendre la moitié des mots
On dit pas qu’est ce que c’est? On dit « Quésaco !!!»
Et à son panneau tu klaxonneras
Comme une sirène pour dire Ariègeois
Tu verras ensuite le panorama
Qui est magnifique, qui laisse sans voix
Car si tu t’exiles un peu trop longtemps
Loin de tes verdures, loin de ton accent
Tu verras alors que des bons côtés
Tu verras l’Ariège : ça va te manquer !
Chante « se canto » la main sur le cœur
Ariège « moun païs » rien ne te fait peur
Car il n’y a pas plus fier que d’être Ariègeois
Chante le bien fort et chante en patois

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Slow Road to Salau

At half past eight yesterday morning it was foggy, and I was up my ladder, paintbrush in hand. At half past nine the sun started to come through. Knowing that it would probably be our last chance this year to get out amongst the extraordinary autumn colours here, we needed no persuasion to down tools and set off in the car on the Slow Road to Salau, the last village in the Haut Salat before the Spanish frontier.

After the obligatory coffee and croissant stop, this time in the bar at Castillon that we got to like so much in our Ariège holiday week, we set off down the Bethmale valley towards the Etang de Bethmale, which must be one of the department's most contemplative places. Amazingly, we had it to ourselves, and could contemplate in peace. After a while the sun disappeared behind the peaks just to the south and we moved onwards to the Col de la Core, a few kilometres away, from where there are amazing views to both east and west. The Col de la Core is part of Le Chemin de la Liberté, a path that commemorates one of several secret escape routes in World War Two; as one whose father spent the war years in the RAF and who as a child was fed a diet of war films, I can't help but find it a moving experience to walk in the footsteps of those who found refuge on these trails.

Our Slow Road took us down through the small town of Seix and out along the valley of the river Salat, through the village of Couflens and then on to Salau where we stopped to explore the small Romanesque church. Salau has, appropriately, a real end of the world feeling. By car there's nowhere else to go but back where you've come from; on foot, however, a three and a half hour walk will take you up to an altitude of 2087 metres to the Port de Salau, the border with Spain. This is a path that's been in use as a trade (and contraband!) route since medieval times and links between those living on either side of the (relatively recent) frontier have always been strong; the first Sunday of August is the occasion for Les Pujadas, a meeting of people who have walked up from both sides to celebrate the links between them.

We didn't have the time to do the whole walk, although it's On the List, and we will, one day, when life returns to normal (!). We did, however, walk briskly up above Salau to two rather impressive waterfalls, one short and fat, the other long and thin, and found ourselves in a lovely but un-named cirque. My map tells me that there are nine springs here that jointly form the source of the Salat. In true mountain fashion the mist started to roll in and within a few minutes we were surrounded by cloud; time to make an excuse and leave.

On the way back through Salau we were a bit taken aback to come face to face with what could have been an inner city estate in Toulouse, or Birmingham, or London: five seventies-style concrete blocks of flats set on a desolate piece of ground just outside the village. Bearing in mind that Salau, together with its neighbouring (larger) village of Couflens, has a population of just 81 people, at a density of 1.4 persons per kilometre, my mind boggled. Google, as ever, was my friend, and later told me that they were built to house workers at the tungsten mines at Anglade, closed in the early 1980s. (But who lives there now????? Some, at least, are clearly still occupied. Bizarre).

And today's been rainy and windy, with a snowstorm of leaves, and I've been back up my ladder. Carpe diem, and all that.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Culture shock 2

We're just back from a few days break away from Grillou, a kind of punctuation mark between the life we've led this summer and the one to come over the winter. Fitting, because it coincided with Samhain, traditionally a time for looking back, for letting go of the old to make way for the new. We went to Périgord Noir, between Bergerac and Sarlat, an area that neither of us had visited before. Beautiful though it is, after the first day we almost turned tail and came home.

On the agenda was a bit of exploring, and a lot of walking, and so we stayed in a small, and very pleasant, town between the valleys of the Dordogne and the Vezère rivers where we thought we'd get the best of both worlds. What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer heights to which tourism has been raised there. Now I'm not a good tourist at the best of times: I hate 'attractions' and guided tours and all the junk that comes along with them, and I hate being regimented; I'd much sooner stumble upon quirky, low-key places almost by accident than have everything presented to me on placards and in guide books. And I particularly hate being seen as exploitation fodder. So when, on the first day of our holiday, we thought we would briefly explore a couple of the well known villages on the Dordogne before setting out on a walk from the third, I neither expected nor appreciated having to stuff a parking meter with a rather large amount of change in order to park anywhere within four kilometres of - well, anywhere, really. Hectares of each village were given over to paying (yes, even between 12pm and 2pm, unheard of and truly shocking) parking, with all other land barred off; in spite it of being the Toussaint school holidays the car parks were mostly empty, meaning of course no trade for local businesses ... now how crazy is that as a policy ??? We did stop at one and had a desultory look around, but after half an hour of feeling as though we were in an over-restored and twee theme park we decided, simultaneously, to beat a hasty retreat.

The same evening we ate out in a simple restaurant in our local town known and recommended for its wood fired pizzas. We ordered a pichet of red wine. "You'd prefer a half bottle of this" said our host. Er, no, actually we wouldn't. He snorted, and asked us whether we'd like water. Of course we would. "Still or sparkling?" asked our host. No, just a carafe of tap water, I said. It's many years since I've been through this charade; in Ariège, as in most of southern France, water is brought to your table with a basket of bread almost as you sit down. He snorted again. We ordered pizzas. "Would you like a side order of chips?" asked our relentless host. (Chips?? With pizza???) By now we were feeling distinctly uncomfortable, as if as visitors to the area we were fair game to be milked for cash. Our host sulked off to the kitchen, returning a couple of minutes later to ask ... if we were Belgian.

For the rest of our stay we did our best to get more off the beaten track. The landscape is lovely - deep valleys, limestone cliffs and wooded hills - as is the vernacular architecture. But it's just all so ... nice. The verges look as though they've been clipped with nail scissors; nearly all the houses are immaculate; even the trees are neat. There are no soixante-huitards or 'eepees', not a dreadlock or a beur to be seen (and gens de voyage - travellers - are actually prohibited from stopping anywhere in the two valleys). The level of control - for residents as well as visitors - is awesome. After a few days I was longing to get back to the laid back, well worn, non money-grasping, somewhat anarchic, culturally mixed vibe of Ariège.

And so here we are, home. And at home.