Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The World’s Best Spaghetti Bolognaise :

In my last blog's rather unconvincing contribution to the world of cuisine (an idea for a recipe which I then suggested that you might not want to cook) I promised something rather special, a good old kitchen standby raised to the level of the sublime. No young man should leave home, no student should arrive at college, no young woman should get married without knowing how to cook the wonderfully ubiquitous spaghetti bolognaise.

As is my previous blog, I’m not going to claim any personal credit. If you like Italian food, ask Santa for Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy, Food and Stories. So much more than a cookbook, you can read it as easily as a novel. Bolognaise is actually the French term for several dishes inspired by Italian cookery, especially that of the city of Bologna. In Italy, this becomes alla bolognese and the sauce is known as a ragù, which is itself a corruption of the French word ragoût, hence ragù alla bolognese. In fact, this version is actually ragù di maiale (pork ragù).
In place of minced beef, it uses finely diced pork.

And you don’t even get to serve it up with spaghetti: Giorgio suggests thicker pasta like pappadelle, tagliatelle or short pasta; we used radiatori (literally, ‘radiators”) which actually looked like tripe.

Why the pork version? We’ve recently slaughtered this year’s pigs and I do the butchery myself. At the rear of the animal, tucked inside the ribcage, one either side of the spine, is a long muscle called the tenderloin, filet mignon in French. With a bit of care, it’s easily separated from the carcass. We have four now sitting in labelled plastic bags in the freezer. Like its bovine equivalent, the filet steak, it’s a very tender, lean meat but with less flavour than other parts of the animal. We need to cook it carefully to avoid it drying out and flavour it. We thought that a long, slow cook in a tomatoey sauce would be just the thing and put Jane Grigson’s excellent Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery aside, turning instead to Giorgio’s book.

He gives you extra chef’s tips such as leaving your meat out of the fridge to come to room temperature, “so that it will sear, rather than ‘boil’ when it goes into the pan.” Further precise instructions are given to ensure the meat cooks correctly without burning the vegetables until it’s time to add the wine. The list of ingredients (for 8 servings) says, simply, “one bottle of red wine”: that’s my type of cooking! Having added it, it has to reduce right down before adding a litre of tomato passata: we proudly used our own delicious sauce. Can you imagine what this, plus a further hour and a half of oh-so-gentle-cooking, does to that tender filet mignon?
The sauce is richer that a Russian oligarch and the meat melts as easily as a polar icecap being globally warmed. Simply, it is divinely sublime!

We’ve got some good friends of ours, Phil, Sid and their three delightful children who’ve come from England to stay for Christmas … so that we can head the other way to spend the holiday with our parents. It’s the first time in two years that Gabrielle and I have taken a holiday together for over two years (since our honeymoon, in fact) it’s like that when you have animals!
To all our readers, we wish you Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Artichokes, f’artichokes !

A Taste of Garlic is a relatively new blog dedicated to introducing us to blogs about living in France. Keith wrote a very flattering account of our own blog (on 4th December) but did criticise us for not having many articles about cooking. Fair play to him: one of the principle rewards to a hard-working peasant-style life in rural Brittany is the pleasure taken in eating the most amazing home produce, the sort of thing that would make Michelin-stared restaurateurs weep.

We are the owners of a fair library of cookbooks, which are always useful to point us in the right direction. Although we adapt them, I’m not sure that we’ve ever invented a recipe unique enough to call our own. Rather than recipes, then, I’m going to suggest ideas. First off, a seasonal root vegetable called the Jerusalem Artichoke, topinambour in French and to anyone who’s encountered them, “F’artichokes”. Apparently, they make a tasty soup but, and this is a big BUT, they have an unenviable reputation for being wind-inducing. I was given some by Sébastien a while back and put them in the vegetable rack, mentioning them to Gabrielle. They were allowed to go rotten and were then thrown away (sorry, Séb).

I then saw some in a local market and bought a bag. Still no soup. More recently, we saw a recipe on TV for a winter salad using artichokes but, of course, with the usual windy caveat. This reminded me and when we were next shopping together, I came across these nobbly terrors once again and bought some more. I managed to persuade Gabrielle into using them this time, rather than her hoping I’d forget about them, so she could hustle them quietly into the compost bin. In fairness, Gabrielle’s reluctance is understandable as I am no stranger to the odd trouser-cough or botty-burp and anything with a tendency to accentuate this is clearly to be avoided. Resigned to serving them up, she came up with Carrot and Jerusalem artichoke soup in her current favourite cookbooks, Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook.

Sarah tells us that artichoke soup “is one of the most wind-producing things that you can eat.” So, far, so un-reassuring. She then goes on to suggest that, “if you mix artichokes with the same amount of carrot, you still enjoy the artichoke’s sweet flavour but without the same effect.” Gabrielle cooked it, I ate it. It’s a tasty soup but:
“Oops, I beg your pardon.”
“Excuse me” … sorry, Sarah, we don’t agree.

Click on the photo of the Jerusalem artichoke plants below for cultivation advice and interesting history of this tuber.

Next blog, something rather special, a good old kitchen standby raised to the level of the sublime: “spag bol” good enough to serve to royalty.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)

We’ve had to do a bit of sheep maintenance recently. We’ve wormed and feet-trimmed this year’s lambs, moving them onto fresh pasture a couple of days later, once any worms had been passed. Doing the same for the other group—the ram and his five ewes—was rising in priority up the “List of Things to Do”. This would involve a move onto fresh pasture after worming. The field the lambs were on was looking a bit threadbare and so they needed moving too. Added to which, I wanted to take the ram away from the ewes and put him in with his sons for the winter. A sheepy logistical conundrum.

Why move the ram? He maybe macho but he’s no gentleman and whilst he “protects” his ewes from me, he’s sure to get his nose in the feeding trough first, robustly bustling the ladies out of the way. As their sheepy pregnancy advances, I assume they become a bit more delicate, so we like to take him away. There’s also a strange thing where, when it’s raining, one ewe always gets excluded from the shelter and ends up having to hide from the worst of the weather round the leeward side. They would be better off without him.

Although we’re in our third year of keeping sheep, I’d still class us as relative beginners, and I was wary of making a mistake, being too eager to take the ram away from the ewes, i.e., before he’d put them in lamb. We phoned Renée to ask her what the gestation period of a sheep is. It’s about 5 months. She went on to say that a ewe’s menstrual cycle is 3 weeks but they’re receptive for a very short time. So I checked the birthdates of this and last year’s lambs. Around the beginning of March, which means the woolly jumping took place back at the beginning of October, which made our decision for us.

The next issue is catching them. We don’t (yet) have sheep hurdles and had an enclosure at the end of one field where we’ve managed to coax them in many times before, sneakily closing the gate while they had their noses in the sheep nuts. But they’ve been getting ever more wary of this. Gabrielle and I had tried unsuccessfully and knew we needed help. Paddy used to be a shepherd on the Cumbrian fells and his grey-whiskered mate Scruff, used to be a Cumbrian fell shepherd’s sheepdog. We called Paddy and Scruff. Now Scruff has encountered our pint-sized black Ouessant sheep before and didn’t really know what to make of them, much to Paddy’s embarrassment. Well, he’s made amends and while Paddy reckons this retired chap has lost the instinct to close in and finish the job off, he did enough to successfully round up our miniature flock of miniature sheep into their pen to allow me to deal with medicine and toenails. It was a tear-in-the-eye treat to see man and dog working together in our very own field. I’m sorry I haven’t any photos to mark the occasion as I was rather occupied in snappy gate-closing duties but we do have a pic of Scruff out for a walk when we looked after him for a weekend recently: handsome chap!

The ewes are definitely happier now in their women’s-only paddock but the same could not be said of the boys. Despite the fact that the male lambs have been veterinarily disconnected from their testicles, they retain enough masculinity to be up for a fight when a new bloke turns up on their patch (even if he is their dad). The aftermath of their initial getting-to-know-you party bore an uncanny resemblance to pub kicking out time on the Kilburn High Road on a Saturday night. I spot painted their cuts and black eyes with blue antiseptic spray and, thankfully, they seemed to have settled down nicely now (see photo below).

Next blog, a couple of recipes: a delicious soup made with carrots, potatoes and f’artichokes and a tasty Shepherd’s Pie. And with all that clashing of horned heads, I’ll let Elton John sing us out:

  Don't give us none of your aggravation
  We had it with your discipline
  Saturday night's alright for fighting
  Get a little action in …

© 1973 Dick James Music Limited

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Can We Feed Ourselves ?

I posed the question in a recent blog: could we be self-sufficient in tomatoes? The idea being that after the end-of-summer glut of tomatoes was not wasted but boiled and preserved in several Kilner jars, would that be enough to keep us from having to buy cheap canned Italian tomatoes before the first of 2010’s tomatoes ripened on the vine.

Back in 1975, the Scottish ecologist, Kenneth Mellanby, posed the question, “Can Britain Feed Itself?” He used a relatively simplistic analysis of the hectares available to agriculture and how it might be used to feed the population of Britain. 32 years later, Simon Fairlie (campaigner for “access to land for all households … through environmentally sound planning”, agricultural worker, builder, stonemason, writer, seller of Austrian scythes and all-round committed eco-activist and good egg) decided to have a go at answering the same question for a different Britain. A Britain with an extra 7.5 million people and more efficient agriculture.

He’s a humble guy—a quality I think a lot of us warm to (in this age of over-self-confidence) and writes, “I do not claim to have carried it out with either the expertise or the thoroughness that it merits. This is, at best, a back of and A4 envelope job. However since I can find no evidence that anyone with the necessary qualifications and stipend to do justice to the subject has been inclined to take it on, I hope that readers will find my offering better than nothing. The results should not be see as anything other than a rough guide, and a useful framework for thinking about such matters.

The article, published in The Land magazine and you can read or download it as a PDF. Can Britain Feed Itself? Can France Feed Itself? Should each country aim to be self-sufficient in food? Enough intro, have a read and make your own mind up. He’s not claiming to have all the answers, just posing a necessary question and opening up a large can of worms … food for thought!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

It’s all green lights, this job ! Some years back, when I had a “proper” job, I remember a colleague who used to stride meaningfully along the corridors, a couple of A4 files clamped tightly under his elbow, giving the impression of being busily efficient. If you caught his eye, he’d smile broadly and say, “it’s all green lights, this job,” as he disappeared quickly into the distance. I often pondered what he meant. Did he mean that he was perpetually busy, with ne’er a moment to take breath? or was he suggesting that it was all plain sailing, that wonderful feeling when cruising along in town at 30 mph, seemingly synchronised with the traffic lights, so gliding through each successive set on green?

Perhaps it was both. It seemed that way last week when we had the kind and industrious help of a couple of volunteers, Stuart and Debbie. They arrived Sunday evening, all the way from Holland. Monday morning Stuart and I took the pigs to the abattoir and when we got back, Gabrielle and Debbie joined us for a first look at the woods, getting down to work after lunch.

Apart from an afternoon off for good behaviour, we all worked solidly for the week, both in the wood and processing the sides of pork once we’d collected them on the Wednesday morning: slicing, sawing and parcelling up of chops and joints, making pâté, eating devilled kidneys for lunch and chilli liver for tea and making no less than 260 sausages.

There is a tremendous change to the hectare of pines that we have to clear before the end of January to qualify for our subsidy. The branches of the trees we’re keeping need to be cut off to a height of 6 metres and then several trees felled. Our next helper arrives next Tuesday, for a week. Graham is qualified to use a chainsaw and we’ll concentrate on felling. Then we have Paul and Liam (also chainsaw chappies) coming in January, who’ll hopefully mop up what’s left.

We worked so hard, I forgot to take any photos of Debbie and Stuart. These photos, taken today, show the effects of their and our efforts. The traffic light photo is of three of our chillies, taken during the summer.

We're not the only ones working hard. The last photo shows Henri (carpenter by trade) and Sébastien (electrician) perched in the loading bucket, with Irick (retired mason) behind the wheel. They're hanging up the Christmas lights in the village. Irick parks by a lamppost and lifts Henri and Séb to light-hanging height. They're all doing it for the commune in their spare time, using a Manuscope borrowed from a local farmer and with apparently no concern for health and safety considerations!