Tag Archive for: mirepoix

Cycling to Mirepoix

On a glorious April morning in southern France, we cycled to Mirepoix market through lush green landscapes unable to contain the Languedoc Springtime any longer. The cycling is easy for anyone of reasonable fitness, about an hour and a half along the mainly flat Voie Verte – greenway. Still plenty of snow on the higher Pyrenees, our guests took the cable car in Ax Les Thermes and had lunch on the mountain.

Snow topped French Pyrenees on a glorious April morning

Snow topped French Pyrenees on a glorious April morning

Beautiful, ancient towns & villages are on the doorstep of our bed and breakfast and holiday cottage in southern France, the Abbaye and ramparts of medieval Camon:

Medieval Camon hosts the Fete des Roses in May

Medieval Camon hosts the Fete des Roses in May

And broody Chateau de Lagarde looks down with disdain in its ruinous state, there are fireworks in summer and Repas Gourmands in the evenings celebrating local produce:

Broody Chateau de Lagarde

Broody Chateau de Lagarde

Then onto Mirepoix for the best farmer’s market in the region. Lunch in one of the many pavement cafes is a treat – and a must for sustaining the return journey.

Mirepoix market, a cycle ride on a glorious Spring morning

Mirepoix market, a cycle ride on a glorious Spring morning

 

Wild Swimming in southern France

If you feel like something more adventurous than a chlorine soaked pool next summer, then “wild” swimming close to our holiday home in southern France may appeal.

Wild and beautiful Lac Montbel

Wild and beautiful Lac Montbel

Lac Montbel (5kms) is a huge expanse of shimmering, emerald green waters, busy only in July and August, even then it’s possible to find secret places along its shores off the [beaten] track.

Lac Montbel, lots of wild, secret places for a private dip

Lac Montbel, lots of wild, secret places for a private dip

We have walked the perimeter (16kms) in just a few hours. There are a couple of cafes and picnic areas, however, better to find a bit of sandy shore all to yourself for a lunch (or supper?) of local bread, cheese and wine purchased that morning at Mirepoix market.

Puivert Chateau, listen to jazz by the lake in summer

Puivert Chateau, listen to jazz by the lake in summer

Lac Puivert is 11kms from our holiday home and is much smaller, the medieval Cathar chateau provides a magnificent backdrop. A gently sloping shore and calm waters make for safe swimming. Early or late in the day outside July and August you may have it to yourself. Night markets each Wednesday in summer sell food that you can enjoy on the trestle tables set out by the lake, or bring food for a barbeque. The Fete du Lac in July ends with spectacular fireworks, exploding across the lake.

Carcassonne Plage, combine with a visit to La Cité

Carcassonne Plage, combine with a visit to La Cité

Carcassone Plage is a bit further, perfect when combined with a day out to the medieval Cité. Only a few minutes from Carcassonne, the lake, its sandy beaches and palm trees are a great alternative to the coast. There is an adventure park in the forest, bits of rope were hanging scarily across the lake and lots of things seemed to be going on very high up (age 4+, March – October).

At the foot of wooded slopes, spend all day

At the foot of wooded slopes, spend all day

The mighty Hers flows past the village. 3kms drive or cycle along the road brings you to a rough track through the woods leading to a great spot by the river. A tiny pebble beach, shady meadows, a deep pool for a decent swim, and flat rocks where the kids love to scramble to catch those pesky crayfish, a perfect summer’s day.

 

Blowing Hot and Cold in the south of France

Now summer is here and the balmy warm evenings are allowing us to eat out on the terrace of our French holiday home, Chez Maison Bleue. The salada, lettuce are in plentiful supply and tomatoes are getting cheaper on Mirepoix market so we are serving more and more salads as a first course at dinner. Although we do some simple salade jambon, salad with the local cured ham, I like to serve warm salads. Unlike in England, here in the south of France warm salads are very common. The most common warm ingredient is lardons, small pieces of fried bacon, but other diced meats are also used. An Ariege speciality is gesier, the gizzard of a duck. Although it sounds pretty awful it is absolutely delicious! If you are not feeling quite so adventurous try this chicken salad for a great light lunch.

Warm chicken salad, provenance of the food is assured

Warm chicken salad, provenance of the food is assured

Prepare a bed of lettuce with a circle of tomato slices around the outside of the plate and maybe some peppers or red onions finely sliced – anything you fancy really but leave space for the chicken in the centre. Next take a skinned chicken breast and cut into strips. Put a little olive oil in a pan and add 2 cloves of chopped garlic (home grown here) some herbs de Provence, and a little chopped dried chilli (the amount depending on how hot and spicy your taste). Heat the pan and fry the herbs and garlic until the garlic starts to brown then add the chicken strips turning them to brown on all sides. Keep tuning until cooked through, this will only take a few minutes. Put the chicken strips onto the centre of the salad and pour over some of the oil and fried garlic as a dressing, serve immediately.

You will also find cold soups on the menu at our B&B, again not a popular thing in the UK where soup is something to warm you up. Our holiday home is close to Spain so Gazpaccio is very popular. With all the delicious and plentiful tomatoes and vegetable from the potager or from Mirepoix market, it is a beautiful entree on a hot evening. The other classic cold soup is crème vichyssoise.  This classic dish is only associated with France because of its name and the fact that it was invented by a French chef. In fact it was first served by Louis Diat the chef at the Ritz – Carlton Hotel in New York in the summer of 1917 and is now considered an American dish. It is essentially a leek and potato soup with a significant amount of cream. It should be made well in advance and chilled for at least two hours before serving. It is important to only use the white part of the leek as the soup should be pure white in colour.

So we will continue to serve have hot salads and cold soups for dinner at our B&B in the south of France. They make delicious and healthy starters or a light lunch dish.

Keeping chickens in the south of France

We have been preparing our potager behind our holiday home in the south of France to receive its first residents, les pondeuses, laying hens. From the market in Mirepoix, six Les Noires (Black Rock we think) prête à pondre, at point of lay, are now scratching around in the warm Languedoc sunshine. The hens are 18–20 weeks, and as promised, have already begun laying.  Apparently they had until Friday and then they were for the pot, Chef has already named them, Chasseur, Au Vin – you get the picture, he’s hilarious, Chef will be for the pot first.

Zero food miles for your fluffy breakfast omelette

Zero food miles for your fluffy breakfast omelette

I have already spent hours with them and my camera, getting to know them. They are timid, as am I, does their peck hurt? My son Sean said I would be scared of them! They have to be persuaded to leave their corner of the coop, perhaps unused to so much space. Already their characters are becoming apparent, one is bolder than the rest and is therefore easily distinguished, one has a darker coat that shimmers emerald green in the spring sunshine.

We are interested in eco tourism and the provenance of food and already source much of the produce locally that we serve at our bed and breakfast in Languedoc. It will be marvellous to collect the eggs each day, I am certain guests will share the delight and be assured that their fluffy lavender omelette has travelled zero food miles.

Vegging out in the South of France

At Chez Maison Bleue we are seeing increasing numbers of vegetarian and vegan guests. They commonly complain that outside Paris, France just does not cater for vegetarians and vegans who fare even worse. The most common meal that they are both offered is an omelette! The term vegan was coined in 1944 as a word to describe “non dairy vegetarians”. The principle is that man should live without exploiting animals. There is some debate within the vegan community as to whether products from insects are permissible, Vegan Action says that eating honey and wearing silk is a matter of individual choice and conscience.

The biggest difficulty we find here is sourcing vegan wine. Most wines are fined (the process which clarifies the wine) by using animal products. Some pragmatic vegans have decided that it is permissible to depart from strict interpretation if the culture of where you are makes it impractical and they use this to enable them to enjoy a nice glass of wine with an otherwise vegan meal. This type of pragmatic interpretation of rules is very typically French and it is no surprise that it is known as the Paris exemption!

The strange thing for me is that France has such an abundance of wonderful vegetables that it is really easy to produce fabulous vegetable dishes. Here at our B&B in the Languedoc we grow our own fruit and vegetables organically (and from next year will keep chickens) we serve vegetable dishes where there is only a matter of minutes between the vegetables being harvested and going into the pan. This means that they cook very quickly and are absolutely delicious. This area also produces large quantities of pulses from the wonderfully meaty haricot blanc, mainly used in cassoulet, to great puy lentils. Legend has it that these were introduced into France by Catherine de Medici, Comtesse de Lauragais when she was given some seeds newly brought back from America as a wedding present on her marriage to the Dauphin of France in 1533. I use them as the main ingredient in a great non-meat loaf. Other dishes on our menu include stuffed peppers. At this time of year the market in Mirepoix, the best in this part of south of France, has an amazing variety of squashes. Some of the larger ones are great for a vegetable roast. Slice off the top and take out the seeds and soft flesh from the middle then roast and fill with other roast vegetables. Pile them inside the squash when they are all cooked and serve. You have an edible oven to table serving dish!

 

Squash stall

So whether you are vegetarian, vegan or a meat eater who likes different fresh and tasty vegetables with your meat, Chez Maison Bleue, our 18th century holiday home in the south of France is a great place to veg out!

Potter’s Fair, Mirepoix

The Potter’s Fair takes place each August among the medieval “couverts” of Mirepoix in the south of France. Mirepoix is 14kms from Chez Maison Bleue, our holiday home in Languedoc, a few minutes drive or around 1.5hrs cycle through lush landscapes – fields of sunflowers this time of year. The Fair is a colourful day out and offers some beautiful pieces, very reasonably priced, there are past purchases dotted all around the holiday cottage and B&B. We were there in the lunch hours so the stalls were deserted, the cafes and bars packed – the French philosophy of life is conducive to wellbeing.

Potter’s Fair, Mirepoix

For more photos see Facebook

Cycling in the hills south of Carcassonne

A sixty km round trip from our holiday cottage in the south of France covered some beautiful terrain. It’s a marvellous time to be in the south of France, fields stuffed with sunflowers, grapes ripening on the vine, the sun mellowing the ancient stone of ruined chateaux that stand on rocky outcrops, testament to past conflicts of Languedoc.

We had an early start from Sonnac sur l’Hers following the old railway line through Camon, a plus beaux village de France, onto Mirepoix and Fanjeaux, all key strategic towns during medieval times and the crusade against the Cathars. Quiet roads, twisty cols (if you want them in this heat) and wide valley floors that sweep through vineyards and ancient towns and villages, make cycling Languedoc joyous. I was grateful for the old French law decreeing its people should always have free access to drinking water as I replenished my water bottle (and dunked my face and arms) in the centuries old lavage (communal washing facilities in a bygone age) in a tiny village by the roadside.

An Eggcellent Dish

Here at Chez Maison Bleue we like to source our produce locally. We get our eggs from two suppliers. The main one is a man on Mirepoix market who has a small holding. The reserve supplier is our neighbour here in Sonnac sur l’Hers, and were it not for the walnut tree in the farmers garden we could actually see the hens from our terrace. The eggs we get are superb with lovely golden yolks that are not the result of artificial colouring. Those who follow my blog will know how the eggs make great meringue; well the whole eggs are fabulous for omelettes.

Our guests seem to really enjoy the herb omelette we serve for breakfast. The herbs are cut from where we grow them on the terrace only when the omelette has been ordered. Some guests even enjoy choosing the combination of herbs themselves. If you have theses nice fresh ingredients it gives you a head start in producing a great omelette. The key to a first rate omelette is to get the pan fairly hot and give the eggs a thorough whisking so when you pour them in the pan there are lots of air bubbles visible. Then as soon as it is in the pan draw a fork through it and keep doing this. You will scrape the cooking omelette in towards the centre and allow the raw egg on the top to hit the hot pan. Keep on doing this until the egg will no longer run into the gap. Then allow it to cook for a few minutes until it is a light golden brown on the underneath. For the herb omelette I start by briefly frying the herbs in a little oil and then leave them in the pan and pour the egg mix on top.

At Easter here in Sonnac sur l’Hers we have a village gathering, aperitifs followed by salad and barbecued meat but the highlight is the sweet Easter omelette. This is made with a hefty lot of castor sugar added to the eggs and then the cooking is just like a normal omelette to start with. The best bit is the finish when it is flambéed in the local eau de vie produced from pears grown in the village. It is a good job that most people walk to the event as the amount of eau de vie that goes into it would definitely put you over the limit! This year we had our aperitifs outside in the sunshine, so Easter is a great time to visit. The eau de vie is distilled by the man who arrives with his mobile still in November. The weather can still be quite warm even then and there is often an evening gathering of locals round the still which gets more and more animated as the produce is tested, so come in November too!

Sweet Lavender Omelette

As a desert at our B&B here in the Languedoc I serve a sweet omelette. Mine uses an ingredient for which our neighbouring region of Provence is famous, lavender! You can make it by gently frying a few lavender flower heads for a minute and then adding the egg and sugar mixture and cook as per a normal omelette. Flambé is optional and use what spirit you like but one with a delicate flavour. The omelette has a gorgeous sweet scented flavour, and as lavender grows really well here it too is cut fresh to order. So whether you want sweet or savoury get cracking and make some omelettes.

Great reviews for our holiday home

June has been a very busy month for us in our holiday cottage and bed and breakfast in the south of France. And it is soooo satisfying to get some great reviews for what we are doing here at Chez Maison Bleue. All from our guest book in June…”5* hospitality, accommodation and food” – Roy & Elaine, UK, “Great service and friendliness, fabulous place for hiking and bicycle rides” – Robert & Catharine, Germany, “What a welcome to this part of France, nothing was too much trouble and no effort spared, the best gite we have stayed in” – Terry & Elaine, France, “A wonderful place to stay, great company, we have loved it” – Deane & Ella, Utah.

This is our first year running our business in this beautiful part of Languedoc / Midi Pyrenees. It is interesting to see what our guests are choosing to do – walking the GR7, cycling,  the towns and cities, especially Mirepoix and Carcassonne, wine tours including Blanquette de Limoux, the ruined chateaux of the Cathars, and now that the weather is baking, swimming in the river and in the lakes at Puivert and Montbel. So you could do something different every day, or you could simply put on a CD, pick up a book from our library, and lounge on your terrace ’till the cows come home (literally) it’s up to you.

Puivert Chateau, a magnificent backdrop for swimming in the lake

Pudding at our B&B

I have been surprised at how popular pavlova and other meringue based desserts are here at our holiday cottage in the South of France . Most of our guests seem to love them but say that they could never make them. The reality is that provided you take some simple precautions they are very straightforward, but I’ll come back to that.

Many people suggest that meringue was the creation of Italian chef Gasparini when he was working in Mehringyghen in Switzerland and it is the place that gave the name. However there is a reference to meringue in Massialot’s book “Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liquers et les fruits” published in 1692. Although not called meringues there are earlier references in English cookery books to “white bisket bread” and the cooking ingredients and method are the same as for meringue. The Pavlova is named after the Russian Ballerina Anne Pavlova. The invention is the source of dispute between Australia and New Zealand but on balance it was probably created in Wellington New Zealand during her 1926 tour.

There are essentially three types of meringue. The first and most basic is Suisse where egg white and sugar are whipped together in proportions of 1 egg white to 50g (2oz) of caster sugar. Second is Meringue Cuite (cooked) This is not actually cooked in the preparation but it is whisked over hot water and icing sugar is used in a slightly higher proportion. It produces a firmer meringue. The third is Meringue Itallienne. This is the meringue used in professional patisserie work giving a similar result to meringue cuit but is a lighter finer mixture. It is made by making the sugar into a syrup before adding to the egg white.

So what are the key pointers to successful meringues?

1 Make sure the bowl and whisk are completely grease free, clean and dry.

2 Make sure there is absolutely no trace of yolk in the whites.

3 Eggs should be at room temperature and a few days old, but not stale.

4 The shape of the whisk and bowl can affect the quality of the meringue. The best is a balloon whisk in a rounded copper bowl and although it gives the best volume it takes a long time and a strong arm! I use a slightly narrower bowl and an electric whisk. It is important to use a constant speed and not to stop until the whites are stiff ready for the sugar to be added.

5 Use fine sugar. Caster sugar or icing sugar. Granulated is not suitable.

6 Dry the meringue rather than cook it! Low oven temperatures are essential. If the oven is too hot the meringue will lack crispness and be tough, you will also see beads of moisture oozing out. Some chefs will even say you should do meringues at 90o for about 3 hours with the oven door ajar to allow the steam to escape but that was before we became energy conscious!

 

Birthday Pud

Recently at Chez Maison Bleue we had a guest with a birthday and as a special dessert we produced a strawberry pavlova using lovely local strawberries from Mirepoix market. I like to beat some of the strawberries in with the cream to give the toping a nice light pink colour and then decorate with the whole or cut strawberries. Summer is the perfect time for making meringues with loads of delicious fresh fruit. Apricots and cherries are in season at the moment here in the Languedoc and peaches will be coming at the beginning of July. If you are worried about having all those egg yolks left over use them for lovely rich custards.