Monday, December 29, 2014

Les Pastras - Truffle Hunting in Provence

 Expert truffier Jean Marc with his adorable truffle hunters - Pupuce and Mirabelle

This summer guests of Cuisine de Provence asked me to find them a  truffle hunt - not easy during the summer months as truffles, also known as the black gold of Provence, are mostly to be found between November and February. Thankfully I found out about Les Pastras an organic olive and truffle farm in the Luberon owned and run by Johann and Lisa Pepin, a French-American couple. 
The feedback I got from my guests was so enthusiastic that I decided we had to experience this for ourselves and also that it made a wonderful gift for my husband - a gift with benefits so to speak as I got to go, too!
Truffle hunting is a highly secretive business as truffles are not only called the black gold of Provence, they are also, just like gold, sold by the gram (or ounce) and so sought after that unfortunately a lot of poaching is going on. Owners have to keep their truffle pastures secret and only those who book a tour are given the GPS coordinates to Les Pastras, the Pepins' beautiful old Provençal farmhouse set within acres and acres of vineyards, olive and truffle oak groves.
Yesterday was a typical Provence winter day: brilliant sunshine, blue skies but a very strong Mistral - the dreaded wind from the north. Johann's friend Jean Marc, the truffle expert, was almost doubtful if his dogs, mother and daughter team Pupuce and Mirabelle, would find any truffles at all because of the strong wind that takes the scent away. But it turned out the only ones suffering from the wind were we, the fascinated onlookers - no matter how much we had bundled up it was still very, very cold!
The first truffle of our hunt,

 small but oh so fragrant!

 The dogs at work

While the dogs were doing their work Johann explained all the ins and outs of truffles and truffle  harvesting - how the dogs are trained, how truffles come to grow, how to find them, the difference between summer and winter truffles, how to distinguish between original and synthetic truffle oil (if it only says oil and truffle aroma on the back of the bottle it has never seen a truffle).

  Johann explaining the ins and outs of truffle hunting

 Just beginning, but it looks promising...

 Found another truffle!

 We proudly present the truffle harvest of the day

 Work done - now I want my belly rub!
After our bracing two hour walk hunting truffles and visiting Les Pastras' olive groves and vineyards, finding wild herbs and braving the wind, then came the real exciting part: tasting the truffles! Lisa had prepared a wonderful spread - we even got to taste a truffle infused dessert - and we warmed up with plenty of Champagne! To put it in a nutshell - if in Provence go truffle hunting with Jean Marc and Joahnn and Lisa Pepin - a wonderful experience!

 Toast, salted butter and truffles - what more do you need?

Our wonderful hosts - Lisa and Johann Pepin

Truffles are sold by the gram - yesterdays price was € 70 for 100 grams 

 Bethmale cheese, truffles and a drop of Les Pastras' finest truffle oil

 Dessert with a truffle infused Crème Anglaise

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas In Provence

 A children's Christmas in Vaison: kids can post their letters to Father Christmas in the little red letter box

  Having our photo taken with Père Noël
What do you do on a beautifully sunny Sunday morning? Take a walk of course. We mostly drove I have to admit, but only in order to inspect three different Christmas festivities. Our surrounding villages of Sablet and Séguret were holding their "Fête de Noël", which in Sablet was a Christmas market held in a tent on the main square. They had "vin chaud" - mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and sold wine, foie gras and truffles (600 Euro per kilo - the typical somewhat inflated pre Christmas price, after New Years they become much cheaper...). We bought Christmas tombola tickets and drove on to Séguret. The cobblestone village had made a real effort - beautifully decorated this was a very Provençal Christmas fête. The old communal charcoal oven was back in service, you could stock up on oysters and sausages, delicious tartes and Provençal Fougasse breads, all very joyful!
Our last stop, Vaison la Romaine, had this year decided on a children's Christmas. A giant teddy bear on Place Montfort, little kids posting their letters to Father Christmas and the man himself who graciously agreed to have his photos taken even with some not so small kids.

 Séguret: baking in the old communal oven

Where delicious Tartes and
 Fougasses, the typical Provençal bread were baked

 Care for some oysters?

 The truffles had all but sold out

 Christmas market in Sablet

 Provence Christmas weather: and yes, it is supposed to stay this sunny until well
 into the New Year!

Happy Holidays and a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year 2015 !

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tartiflette: One Dish Winter Comfort Food

It is cold outside. Just overnight it has become so cold in Provence, you don't want to leave the house without a big scarf and mittens. And a beanie won't hurt either. But there is reason to rejoice - cold means comfort food and I found just the recipe that spells comfort in capital letters.
Tartiflette hails from the Haute Savoie region of France and takes its name from the Franco Provençal word for potato - tartiflâ. And although it comes along like very simple, few ingredient peasant food this is not a dish with a long rural tradition but a genial bit of marketing dreamt up by some Reblochon producers in the 1980s to promote the sale of their cheese.
 Onions and Bacon
 Reblochon Cheese
 Tartiflette ready to go into the Oven
Start by parboiling 1 kg/2 lb waxy potatoes. Leave to cool. Peel and finely slice two white onions and sauté them in a bit of butter together with 250 g/ 8oz lardons (bacon bits) until the bacon is cooked and the onion translucent, taking care not the brown the mix. Season with freshly grated pepper - black or white, it doesn't really matter.
Peel and slice the potatoes. Layer the potato slices into a lightly buttered gratin dish, top with the onion/bacon mixture. Drizzle with a bit of either cream or white wine and top with slices of Reblochon. Cook in the oven at 180 C/350 F for 25 to 30 minutes until beautifully browned and bubbling. You won't  have to call your family to the table, the wonderful kitchen smells doing their magic calling them all by themselves. To be served either with a crisp white or a robust red wine.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Here we go again - Countdown to Christmas 2014

What a busy weekend this has been! Our "Countdown to Christmas" started on Saturday by volunteering for the "Banque Alimentaire", the local food bank. They do an annual collection where you hand out plastic bags to shoppers at the local supermarkets and ask them nicely to do a bit of extra shopping for the food bank. Much in demand this year: cooking oil, sugar, coffee and cans of vegetables and ready cooked meals. I am happy to say that the shopping carts filled up, maybe not quite as fast as a few years ago, but every little bit helps!

 Food bank collection - the vest was to identify the collectors...

Done that I did my own little bit of shopping making sure I had all ingredients for Sunday's big Christmas cookie bake. My friend Sabine's daughter Jade had asked me for a crash course in Christmas cookie baking, and I have a little suspicion she got more than she asked for: we baked almost non stop from 11 am to 6 pm - six different cookie recipes. Turns out Jade is a master decorator - my cookies never looked so pretty before!

 Jade with the first three cookie batches

 Jade's beautiful cookie decorations

Having given my "prettily" icing decorated kitchen a major clean I then made my husband get all our Christmas boxes out of the garage and while he was putting the outside Christmas lights up I decorated the tree. I have never counted but there must be hundreds of little ornaments going up that tree - it never takes me less than a full day to get it just right. Sorry about the less than fab photos but I dropped my camera on our stone floor and it went straight to camera heaven so I had to take these with a phone camera. At least Santa now knows what to bring me for Christmas....
 Collected from all over the world - our tree ornaments

Done! The tree is up!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Raspberrry Financiers

One thing I have learned in France is, when invited to a dinner party you don't just graciously accept and then think about what to gift your hostess. Oh no! It seems the polite thing to do is to ask "what can I bring?" That doesn't always mean your offer is taken, but sometimes it is and so today I am preparing a little dessert for six people to take along to an invitation tonight. Crème de Citron and Financiers aux Framboises it will be, elegant bite sized (oaky, two bites) petit fours that, as long as you have some frozen raspberries at hand are a cinch to make.
All you need is 110 g powdered sugar, 3 eggwhites, 55 g almond flour (ground almonds), 35 g flour,  100 g butter and a handful of raspberries.
With a wodden spoon, stir all ingredients except for the butter together. Melt the butter and let cook for a few minutes so its color changes to a nutty light brown. Let the melted butter cool down, then mix into the batter. Fill into a financier baking form (you could also use a madeleine form or miniature cupcake forms), push two frozen rasperries into each financier and bake at 180C/350F for 20 minutes.
Rasperry financiers in their baking form

Tonight's Dessert

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Primeur Beaumes de Venise - the new wine of 2014

 Primeur 2014
Last night we were among the first to taste this year's "Primeur" - the new wine of the prestigious Beaumes de Venise wine cooperative. Beaumes de Venise is famous for its fortified sweet Muscat wine that often accompanies foie gras dishes. Although grown for more than 2000 years in and around Beaumes, Muscat only celebrated its 70 birthday as an AOC (controlled designation of origin) wine last year.
But Beaumes de Venise also produces wonderful red wines which became "cru" - the highest order of wines in the Rhone Valley in 2005.
Now you cannot just go and have a taste of a new AOC wine whenever you feel like it. There are strict rules and regulations to obey: the Primeurs, the new AOC wines, are only allowed to be sold after the third Thursday in November, which means this year from Thursday, November 20th after 12 am. So we were lucky to have a taste but also couldn't buy any. Too bad, because the red and the rosé are very nice even drunk this young and the vintners are more than  happy with their new vintage. Which means we better go back this Friday and stock up, not forgetting a bottle of Muscat or two!

But savour we could: the beautiful halls of the Beaumes de Venise Cave

and a scrumptious buffet the wine growers treated us to

 Great wine, delicious food

 The famous Muscat
Professional tasters: the owners of the Vaison restaurant "L'Epicurien"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I might become a baker yet...

Most people are either a cook or a baker, seldom both. I so do not care for baking that I am grateful for living where I do, as in France we are spoiled for our choice of  bakers and patissiers. I have yet to find a French housewife who bakes her own bread and even dinner party desserts are very unashamedly bought in, inspite of often totally absurd prices. Today at a not even fancy village bakery I saw an medium sized apricot tart that even I would whip up in five minutes for the royal sum of  € 25 ($ 31/£ 20) - highway robbery!
So what got me baking? Again - ridiculus pricing. What the Italians call Foccacia and in Provence is known as Fougasse is easily thrown together with ingredients that cost "trois fois rien" - three times nothing as we say in Provence: wholemeal flour, semolina, some salt, olive oil and warm water plus a few grams of yeast , some Herbes de Provence and about 4 or five chopped up sundried tomatoes. Lovingly kneaded, then left to prove for an hour et voilà! Fougasse! Next time to be varied with lardons (bacon bits) and caramelized onions.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Up to my Elbows in Tomatoes

Our kitchen garden is not exactly giving us much joy this year - the zucchini are flowering and flowering but have not produced one single fruit, our lovingly seeded butternut squash does the same, the peppers are probably proud to show one (in numbers: 1!) scrawny little pepper and the only tomatoes that grow are the cherry tomatoes we planted more or less for decoration purposes into pots against a sunny wall. So to our farmer's market I go. There, talk about adding insult to very much bruised gardener's pride, they are selling tomatoes cheaper than ever this summer since they have such a bountiful harvest....

Of course I can't resist and have been spending much time in the kitchen up to my elbows in tomatoes - coring and cutting then cooking them. Then passing them through my newest toy, the "Passatutto Master" that removes skins and pips (and no, unfortunately I don't get paid for this and even bought and paid for this tomato wonder machine myself).

 Tomato skin and pips remover

Once skinned and deseeded in went little chunks of carrots and zucchini, garlic and some onions, loads of basil, a bit of sugar and salt and pepper and lots of tender loving stirring care. Lots. For the best pasta sauce ever. Almost as good as the one a former colleague used to bring back from her Nonna when returning from her summer vacations in Sicily. But I can still practise - tomato season is still on and tomorrow is farmer's market day.
Homemade Pasta Sauce