Tag Archive for: the Languedoc

Cooking The Books

The trouble with having worked in the UK and then moving to France is the need to sort out quite complicated tax rules. So I had to bite the bullet and visit an accountant. It was whilst getting stuff ready to take that it reminded me that I needed to do a blog about cookbooks.

As a chef I have a passion for cookbooks, I can happily just read them and browse through them. Here in France it also helps improve my language and gives insights into the culture – in France they sometimes use as a measure a cuilliere a cafe (coffee spoon) where English books use a teaspoon.

So how should you choose a cookbook? In his book Considerations sur la cuisine, Pierre de Pressac  advises, “Which is the best cookery book? The one you like best, and which gives you that confidence that cannot be called forth to order but which is instinctively felt.”  One master French work is Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne published in 1938. He was a master chef here in the Languedoc and although working at the top of his profession never forgot the regional cookery which had been practiced within his family for generations. Another great French chef who never forgot his regional roots was Escoffier and his great work Ma Cuisine published in 1932, when he was 88, contains many famous Provencal dishes. At Chez Maison Bleue I always try to follow one of Escoffier’s greatest maxims “Faites simple

a simple desert

In terms of great English cookbooks many people often refer to “Mrs Beeton” forgetting that her work is really about far more than cooking being, to use its title, a “Book of Household Management”

I suppose moving to the modern era many swear by Delia, I tend to swear at her because I find her recipes a bit verbose and sometimes unnecessarily complicated. Jamie Oliver produces some good recipes as do many of the celebrity chefs. However as a good foundation basic cookbook I reckon that the Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cookbook takes some beating.

For a real insight into French cookery everyone should read French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David. This book first published in 1960 is more than a cookbook. Although containing some classic recipes it also gives fascinating cultural and historical information and is an interesting read even if you never follow any of the recipes.

So what books do I use, well loads actually. If I want to try a new dish I will read as many different versions of the same thing and then make an amalgam of them picking what I consider to be the best bits. I would never rely on just one version. I share the view of cookbooks expressed by Pierre de Pressac with whom I started this piece. He went on to say, “For myself I like those books which are not too complicated and which suggest ideas rather than being minutely detailed handbooks.” Although fans of Heston Blumenthal would probably not agree with de Pressac’s comment, “Mere freakishness is no passport to glory. It is not even to be recommended”.

Popeye and Olive Oil

You have to be of a certain age to really remember these cartoon characters. For those too young to remember and those who are suffering senior moments Popeye grew huge muscles by consuming copious quantities of spinach, and Olive Oil was his love interest (a female character not just the pressings of the olive)! Needless to say it is the culinary ingredient, particularly spinach that interests me.

One of my hobby horses is that people are put off foods simply by them being served badly cooked. Spinach is a classic for this. Many associate spinach with a bitter tasting green mush. It does not have to be like this. At this time of year it is plentiful and cheap to buy at Mirepoix market, the lively, weekly market a few minutes from Chez Maison Bleue. I love to cook with it for its vibrant green colour and the knowledge of the richness of the iron and vitamins it contains. The secret is do not overcook. Spinach is perfectly edible raw but lightly cooked it is delicious.

One of my favourite ways to cook spinach at the B&B is not to boil it at all! Simply melt some butter in a saucepan on a low/moderate heat, add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon or if you prefer grated nutmeg and allow the butter to absorb the flavours for a minute. Then add the freshly washed and drained spinach and toss in the butter and cook over a gentle heat for 1-2 minutes until the spinach “wilts” then stir again and serve. The spinach should be soft but not mushy.

Spinach and grilled goats cheese starter or light lunch

The main drawback to this dish is it uses a separate pan! If you want to stick with the Chez Maison Bleue theme of one pot suppers you can add the spinach to a pan of roast vegetables for the last minute or two, the key here is to make sure the spinach is still wet from washing and I like to add a knob of butter too. For those who are dairy intolerant, for the butter substitute olive oil.

Which brings me back to the cartoon where we started. Whilst I can’t promise that the spinach cooked as I do here in the Languedoc will give the muscles it gives Popeye, it  will certainly preserve far more of the goodness than cooked to death the way it usually was in my school dinners.

A walk before lunch

Drove this morning to Ste-Colmbe sur l’Hers, an ancient bastide town so typical of the Languedoc that stand in testament to past conflicts. We often cycle here so it’s not far from the house. An easy walk along the valley floor to la Bastide sur l’Hers, the barrage thunderous due to the swollen river Hers. A short stop at le Peyrat to admire the church of many bells (I made up the name). A steep climb from la Bastide along the GR7b brings you to Mireval; you have lovely views of Lac Montbel by now, though beware the eye squintingly strawberry pink villa that will never, ever mellow. Like a summer’s day on the ridge, fluorescent lime green and lemon butterflies dancing on the breeze as though it were July. Picked bay leaves from the path which are making their way into the lamb stew this evening.  You could extend this walk in any direction, previously we have dropped down to the shores of the lake. Today we came down from the ridge via en Sarrat, a short but very satisfying ramble which would have you back to your holiday cottage and on your terrace in time for lunch.

A walk from the house, November, 2011

Hot and sunny in the Languedoc just now, lunch on the square every day this week. Flowers wilting in their pots, parched. There are 250 km of paths in the Mirepoix area, today we covered about 20 of them. Camon is a “plus beaux village de France” around 3km. Particularly lovely in May, June when the roses draped round all the houses are in full bloom; a gift from the municipality years ago. The bar closed, which is not unusual, probably closed for lunch, so we continued.

Church, Camon

Lagarde a bit further, around 7km, where the ruined chateau on the hill still maintains a degree of dignity. We have paid 3 euros previously to look around the ruin, even though you couldn’t actually look around it, too dangerous,  just get fractionally closer than from the path. Never mind, good to support the restoration, there is a long way to go.

Lagarde

We often walk or cycle this path, the furthest we have gone is Mirepoix, another hour on the bike from Lagarde. There is good scrumping to be had from the hedgerows and we often see red squirrels scampering along ahead. They seem less timid than their English counterparts, maybe I have been sitting in the sun too long.

Bounty from the woods