Sunday, 6 June 2010

Move to Wordpress

Just a short message to let you know that I have moved my blog to Wordpress.  The new address is:

Saturday, 8 May 2010

An abundance of asparagus (English, of course)

I've been having a great time indulging in English asparagus over the last week and I shall continue to do so, at the risk of overdoing it, for the duration of the short,  eight-week season.  As I write, asparagus soup is bubbling on the hob, a simple blend of asparagus ends (the snapped-off bits), a few new potatoes, a handful of chopped basil and a dollop of crème fraiche.
This week, I enjoyed visiting an asparagus farm in South Somerset – New Cross Fruit Farm near South Petherton.  The asparagus is sold in bunches according to size – fine, medium or large for £2.50 each and, if you’re lucky, you might come across bags of odd bits which are great for making soup. We could see the pickers in the fields, with the boards that they use to measure the asparagus to see if it is the right length to pick, and it was good to know that my purchases had been harvested that very morning.
In our house, the 2010 asparagus season has already seen griddled asparagus with poached eggs, roasted asparagus with shavings of parmesan and steamed asparagus dipped in a chive aioli but my favourite so far is baked frittata with asparagus, feta and mint.  We paired the frittata with a crisp, Verdejo from Rueda in Spain.  Indeed, fresh, high-acid, whites are best with most asparagus dishes so think Loire Chenin Blanc, crisp Sauvignon Blanc (Old or New World) and cool climate, unoaked Chardonnay.  Here is the recipe for the frittata:

Baked Frittata with Asparagus, Feta and Mint

6 free-range eggs
A large bunch of chunky asparagus, chopped into 2-inch pieces
500g medium sized new potatoes, chopped in half
125g feta cheese, roughly chopped
A good handful of chopped mint
50g hard cheese – I used gruyère  
You will also need a 6-inch loose-bottomed cake tin and some foil

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees (Gas Mark 3).  Grease the cake tin and wrap a double layer of strong foil around the cake tin.  Boil the potatoes until soft and steam the asparagus until tender. Crack the eggs into a bowl, beat with a fork and add the feta cheese and mint.   When cooked, add the new potatoes and asparagus. Season well with salt and pepper and mix again.  Pour the whole lot into the cake tin and top with the grated hard cheese.  

Place the tin on a baking tray and bake in the oven for 40 minutes or until the top is springy to the touch and a skewer, dipped into the middle of the frittata, comes out clean.  Leave the frittata to stand for five minutes and then gently push it out of the tin.  Serve with a simple green salad and some crusty bread.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

A lazy Sunday lunch & some Burgundy goat's cheese

I recently came back from a fortnight in Burgundy with a coolbox full of delicious goat’s cheeses from the region and, a day or two after my return, we took advantage of a gorgeous, sunny afternoon for an alfresco tasting.  The children were rushing round the garden, a bottle of rosé was being enjoyed and we were feeling distinctly mellow.

My stash included two goat’s cheeses from Alain Hess’ amazing Fromagerie on Place Carnot in Beaune (see photo of a selection of his cheeses below) and a just-made, fresh goat’s cheese, bought at a fraction of the cost of the other two, from a local fermier, La Chèvrerie des Sources. I stumbled across the latter on the road between Couches and Le Creusot in the Saône-et-Loire whilst whisking my 10-year-old daughter to casualty with a broken finger and couldn’t resist calling in the following day to see what was on offer.
Our wines to match the cheeses were the aforementioned rosé – Vida Nova 2008 - a fruity blend of Syrah and Aragonez, from Cliff Richard’s vineyards in the Algarve.  I found it in Waitrose, intending to serve it with barbecue fayre.  I hadn’t expected it to be good with the goat’s cheeses but the bottle was already open and I was pleasantly surprised.  In addition to cheese, another commodity I’d stocked up on in Burgundy was wine and we  now have plenty of Bouzeron to get through (see previous blog post on the Fête du Bouzeron) so we opened a bottle of André Delorme’s 2008.  Being a crisp, acidic white wine, I had expected the Bouzeron would work well with the goat’s cheese, just as Loire Sauvignon does.

We started our tasting with the round, fermier cheese which was only five days old.  Lemony, light and acidic, it was an unusual, refreshing cheeseboard option and would be a great addition to a salad of spring vegetables – broad beans, asparagus and freshly-podded peas.  It worked tolerably with the Bouzeron but was far better with the rosé, the fruitiness being a wonderful contrast to the young cheese. Next up was a Vézelay, from the town of the same name in the Yonne.  This was obviously older than the first cheese and denser. Smooth and creamy, there was not a hint of citrus yet it, too, preferred the rosé wine.    Finally , we tried a lusciously creamy cheese called Le Cosne which disappeared fairly quickly, being my husband’s favourite.  It went extremely well with the Bouzeron but the flavour of the rosé was completely lost on it.  
One thing this rather pleasant tasting has taught me is that I should definitely try rosé wine and goat's cheese again and I imagine, giving our findings, that other mild, creamy cheeses would work too. Next time I’m in Burgundy, I plan to investigate the cow’s milk cheeses of the area: Ami du Chambertin, Epoisses, Soumaintrain and Saint Felicien to name just a few.  Don't be surprised to hear that I'm already thinking about the wine matches.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

La Fête du Bouzeron et du Persillé de Bourgogne

Finding myself in Burgundy on a sunny, Sunday April morning with two children aged seven and ten in tow, the obvious event to attend was a wine festival.  Not in their minds perhaps but I had done my fair share of kiddy activities by that stage in the week and a wine festival it was to be despite the chants of “Oh no, Mummy, not more wine”.

Bouzeron is located at the northerly edge of the Côte Chalonnaise and  is something of an oddity being an AOC solely for white wines from the Aligoté grape, the rest of the region focusing on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Acknowledged as the best area in Burgundy for Aligoté wines, Bouzeron Aligoté has its own AOC – Aligoté from other areas must be labelled Bourgogne Aligoté.  Bouzeron Aligoté, as translated from the Fête programme, is ‘a wine of Spring which is fruity, aromatic and minerally on the nose.  The palate displays further the roundness and suppleness of the Golden Aligoté’, the last point referring to the name of the vines here – Aligoté Dorée.  Clearly the poor relation to Chardonnay in this part of the world, I find Bouzeron Aligoté a great, refreshing (if rather racy at times) wine for summer and it pairs superbly with seafood and soft cheeses (more on that in my next blog post on Burgundy goat’s cheese).

Sunday, April 11th was the occasion of the 11th annual Fête du Bouzeron et du Persillé de Bourgogne (a ham terrine in a white wine jelly made with Bouzeron wine).  We turned up at midday, after a visit to the very lively market in nearby Chagny, and the festival was well underway.  The attractive programme advertised a ticket for €7 which included six tasting samples (of Jambon Persillé or wine, the choice being from white and red Bourgogne, Bouzeron Aligoté and the sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne).  Eschewing the chance to taste more Crémant (I had stocked up on Jean-Claude Breliere’s Crémant earlier in the week in Rully), I plumped for a sample of Jambon Persillé (delicious and stunning with the Aligoté),  four Bouzerons (from Domaines de Villaine, Jacquesson, Chanzy, and Delorme) and a white Bourgogne (Clos de la Fortune) also from Domaine Chanzy which I had read about in a recently purchased book: Food-Wine-Burgundy by David Downie (The Terroir Guides).  The book also recommends the Bouzeron from my local cave in Mazenay – Marinot-Vernay.  I was less taken with their example of Bouzeron although their white Bourgogne is delightful.

All the wines open for tasting at the festival were on sale back at the car park for €7 a bottle but, perhaps unsurprisingly, when I returned to place my order, my top three Bouzerons were already sold out – Domaines Chanzy, de Villaine (co-owners of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) and Jacquesson.  I did, however, stumble across a Chanzy Bouzeron in the Leclerc supermarket in Beaune but next year I shall be sure to be at the festival early so as to secure the best wines.  As for the Persillé de Bourgogne, I found a recipe in Elizabeth David’s ‘A book of Mediterranean Food’ (oddly) but as it involves calf’s feet and much soaking of hams, I am researching other recipes and I shall soon be giving it a try.

To buy Bouzeron Aligoté in the UK, try Lay & Wheeler and Winedirect.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Memories of Nice and Pissaladière

In 1993, the now husband and I (then in our early to mid twenties) dared one another to give up full-time, professional jobs for a spell in Provence. The first of Peter Mayle’s books on Provence had just been aired on TV, starring John Thaw who later was to have huge success as Inspector Morse, and we fancied a piece of the action. Needless to say, our search for the romantic lifestyle in the French countryside somehow directed us to the fifth largest city in France – the bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis of Nice, Côte-d’Azur.

Clearly this was not quite the idyllic provençal setting we had envisioned but, nevertheless, this vibrant city with its strong Italian and North African gastronomic influences, was to be our home for six months over that summer. And, boy, did we make the most of it.

Our wanderings frequently took us for a mooch around the old town whose narrow alleyways shielded us from the searing heat by day and, by night, came alive with loud and happy revelers, spilling out onto the tiny streets from an astonishing selection of buzzing restaurants. It was here that we first sampled, and came to love, the pizza-like onion and olive snack, Pissaladière, that is sold throughout Nice’s ‘Vieille Ville’ and is thought to have come to the area with the Romans during the Avignon Papacy. Known as Pissaladiera in Provençal, and Piscialandrea in Ligurian, it is a form of white pizza (no tomatoes used) which is common along the Provence coast from Nice to Marseilles and also in the Italian region of Liguria.

The dough is usually a bread dough, a little thicker than Italian pizza dough, although a pâte brisée is sometimes used instead and this is what I used in the recipe below with the traditional topping of onions, olives, garlic and anchovies. You can spread the luscious topping on crusty, French bread for an easier option. No cheese is used in France but over the border in the Italian town of San Remo, mozzarella is added although, according to Elizabeth David, writing in ‘A Book of Mediterranean Food’ the main difference between a Niçois Pissaladière and the San Remo version is the use of sardines in place of anchovies in Italy.

Indeed, Elizabeth David’s book, first published in 1950, talks at length about this gorgeous Mediterranean ‘pizza’: “This dish is one of the delights of Marseille, Toulon and the Var country, where it is sold in the market places and the bakeries in the early morning and can be bought, piping hot, by the slice, off big iron trays.”

Over the 17 years since I first came across Pissaladière, I have given much thought to the perfect wine match as you will no doubt imagine. The best choices seem to be fino or manzanilla sherry (they love the olives and anchovies), dry provençal rosé (when in Nice…), dry northern Italian whites, or fresh, New World Sauvignons. If you want to go up-market with your wine pairing and are keen to try something more adventurous, opt for an Alsace or Oregon Pinot Gris or an Australian Semillon.

Serve Pissaladière as a snack or chop it into bite-size pieces for a great canapé on a warm summer’s evening. I love to eat Pissaladière all year round served with a rocket salad or with sliced, juicy red tomatoes topped with a splash of olive oil, lemon juice and generous grindings of fresh black pepper.


For the pâte brisée base:

125g unsalted butter, beaten until creamy
250g plain flour
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt

For the filling:

Olive oil
1kg onions, thinly sliced
a few leaves of fresh sage, chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
12 anchovy fillets
a good handful of black olives

Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt, sugar and 3 tbsp of water. Mix together and then add the butter and egg yolk. Mix the ingredients with your hands to form a soft dough. Knead it lightly for a couple of minutes. Form into a ball and leave to sit , wrapped in a cloth, for 2 hours. You can store it in the fridge for a couple of days. 

To use, bring the dough to room temperature. Butter a loose-bottomed tart tin. Roll out the dough on a floured surface and lift it into the tin. Prick it all over with a fork and put in the fridge and leave in the fridge for 20 minutes. Turn the over on to 200 degrees centigrade (Gas Mark 6).

In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions over a low-medium heat for about 40 minutes, stirring every now and then to ensure that they do not burn. 

Line the pastry case with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes in the oven. Remove the beans and leave to one side until the onions are ready.  Meanwhile, add the chopped garlic and sage to the onions and continue to cook on a low heat. When the onion mixture is soft and sweet, spread it across the pastry case and decorate with criss-cross patterns of anchovies and the black olives. Drizzle the dish with olive oil and bake for 15 minutes.

Pissaladière is delicious straight from the oven but it is also excellent when served cold and I like to take it in a lunchbox to work!

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Winter vines, delicious wines and the pizza van

We were back in Burgundy during half-term week and drove down the autoroute wondering if, after the first eventful weekend in the house in January, more nightmare scenarios would greet us on our arrival.  Would we have another burst pipe?  Would the heating work?  There was snow on the ground and below zero temperatures as we pulled up at the house and it was just getting dark.  The house was uninvitingly cold.  A very dodgy half-hour was spent trying to get the boiler going for the heating and the oven but, thankfully and after many a cross word, it all worked.  That meant time for a glass of wine and we celebrated with a delicious Marsannay Blanc 2006 from Domaine Trappet.  The house was soon snugly warm and the SMEG oven did us proud when it was time for dinner.
During that week, we went backwards and forward to Beaune about a million times, or so it seemed.  There are two possible routes from our house and we found ourselves timing each one to see which was the better track to take.  One way, via names such as Santenay, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault involves going through four villages with indescribably horrible road humps so we hoped that the other, more picturesque and bump-free route, via Saint Romain, Monthélie, Pommard and Volnay would be the quickest.  Our hopes were dashed but the preferred route has glorious views over the vines and I just loved driving through them every day and look forward to going back a few times, before this year’s vintage, to see the vines in different stages of development.  Now, in February, the vines are being pruned and a familiar site across the landscape is the rising smoke from burning vine clippings.
Whilst we didn’t eat out at all during the week (too much unpacking of furniture and trekking around for white goods), we ate and drank well at home.  The best wines included a red Rully les Montpalais 2007 from Jean-Claude & Anna Brelière with goat’s cheese wrapped in bacon, and a Bouzeron Aligoté 2008 from Domaine Chanzy (silver medal at Mâcon 2009) with linguine, homemade pesto and shavings of parmesan. 
The gastronomic highlight of the week was some mouth-wateringly good Charolais steak, the white Charolais beef being from Charolles in southern Burgundy.  We went non-Burgundy for the wine on this occasion as I had brought a bottle of Emily Laughton’s Occam’s Razor Shiraz 2006 from the much-respected Jasper Hill estate in Heathcote, Victoria.  It was a superb match for the steak and a welcome break from the local wines - as much as I adore Burgundy, it’s good to ring the changes.
A final point to mention: we made a terribly important discovery on this trip – the pizza van is in our village every Friday night and, for every 12 pizzas purchased, we get one free!  Friday night in France will definitely be pizza night.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Burgundy (71), here we come.

Having just bought a house in Burgundy (no, not the magnificent pile pictured although it's not far away, being the local château), here's my write-up of our recent trip where the deal was sealed.  There will be a little Burgundy food and wine matching coming your way if you read this blog, so putting things into context seems like a good idea.  We have spent longer than is usually necessary to finalise a sale, mostly because we sought a ‘Permit de Demolir’ for a large, concrete outbuilding in the garden of the house.  The local Mairie passed our application onto the powers that be in Mâcon as, it transpired, the house is within 500 metres of a listed building.  Needless to say, the application was finally passed and we look forward to nearly doubling the size of the garden as soon as we can get the builders in to knock this monstrosity down.
We set off on Thursday 21st January at crack of dawn, with the signing meeting at the notaire’s office planned for the following day.  The vendor had already left the area so it would just be us and the agent at the meeting, the notaire having been given power of attorney.  We arrived in Beaune around 6pm that evening, checked into a cheapie hotel and set off into the beautiful centre of the town to find pizza (we had the 7-year-old and 10-year-old with us).

The next day, we had another pleasant amble around Beaune before setting off down the N74 to the house where we had agreed to meet the agent who would then show us the way to the notaire’s office.  When we arrived, the agent informed us that the notaire had postponed the signing meeting until 10am the next morning.  Aargh!  The first thought that sprung to mind was, ‘So, where are we going to sleep tonight?’.  The ever-helpful agent, Nigel, had already thought of that and had contacted the vendor, who had agreed that it was no problem for us to stay in the house that night anyway.  Our relief was shortlived when we got into the house and realized that the water and the gas had been turned off.  We had enquired about this and it hadn’t been mentioned so it was something of a surprise but, after much begging and pleading with the Mairie and the water company, a charming chap came to turn the water on at 5pm, only to discover a burst pipe!  It was impossible to get that fixed on the Friday afternoon so we faced the prospect of another night in a hotel - fine if it were just the two of us but more of a challenge with the children.

Anyway, we arrived back at the house the following morning to let in the very helpful man who had agreed to fix the burst pipe and then drove down to the notaire’s office for the signing.  The children were left in an ante-room to amuse themselves, which concerned me rather, but they did us proud and sat quietly reading their books for 45 minutes.  Everything was straightforward, the monies had arrived from our bank account on time, our insurance on the property was in place so the deal was swiftly agreed and off we went to the restaurant nextdoor, with Nigel and his colleague from their Beaune office, for a coffee (it was before 11am so too soon for proper drinks) and to bask in our new status as property magnates, as my husband jokingly described us.  I can’t speak highly enough of our agents – this is where we came across Nigel

So, back we went to the house and drank a bottle of Dom Perignon (at midday) in the freezing cold and hoped that the gas company would arrive, as agreed, to turn the gas on.  They never did and we spent a freezing cold night, sleeping in our clothes on blow-up beds, before getting up at 5am to return to the UK.  We go out again during the February Half-Term, by which time we should have heating (the gas is now connected) and the furniture will arrive mid-week.  We had wondered if we might think we’d made the wrong decision about buying the house when we returned – it was nine months since we had last seen it – mais je ne regrette rien and neither does the husband!