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BITTER GREENS: some recipes from the feasts described in 'Bitter Greens'

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gourmet Delights from Gascony

My books are filled with feasts. 

From larks’ tongue pies to gypsy stew, the food in my books is always carefully researched and vividly described. Part of my research always involves cooking, as far as possible, the meals I describe. (Larks’ tongue pie was a little difficult to achieve, I must admit).

My novel Bitter Greens has a feast scene set in the Chateau de Cazeneuve in Gascony, in which the baroness of the chateau rather reluctantly puts on a meal for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his corrupt and decadent court.

Gascony is located east and south of Bordeaux, and is a beautiful, rolling, green landscape of orchards and vineyards and tumbledown chateaux, with the snow-capped Pyrenees floating high on the horizon.   

It is famous for its duck dishes – there are far more ducks than people in Gascony – creating the most delicious foie gras, confit and rillettes. Gascony is also the land of the cassoulet, a hearty peasant dish made with duck, sausage and white beans. Pigs hunt for truffles in the forest, and in spring the chestnut trees are in glorious flower along every road. 

Its other most famous invention is the delicious and heady Armagnac brandy.

I tried my hand at a few of the more famous Gascon dishes, with the most delicious results. Here are my favourites: 

Chestnut soup (Soupe aux Chataignes)
Soupe aux Chataignes is a very popular Gascon soup due to the abundance of sweet chestnuts which are grown here.
The primary problem of cooking with chestnuts is peeling them. The old-fashioned way is to score the chestnuts with a knife then bring to the boil in a large pan and simmer for about 10 mins, drain a few at a time and peel off the inner and outer skins while still hot. 
I find it easier to boil a few days in advance and leave– the skins seem easy to remove then. 
Easier still, buy a can of chestnut pureé from your best local delicatessen (cheating, I know, but infinitely easier). 
Serves 6
1 kg of peeled chestnuts or can of chestnut pureé
whites of 4 leeks, washed and chopped
55g of butter
3 potatoes peeled and chopped
4 carrots peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons of crème fraiche
salt and pepper
thin slices of French bread, brushed with oil and toasted
Melt your butter in a large pan with a lid, add leeks and sweat gently for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and chestnuts, 2 litres of water and salt and pepper, then bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 45 mins.
Pureé with a blender and season to taste, stir in the crème fraiche, add the French bread and serve.

Gascon Cassoulet with Duck Confit and White Beans
I travelled to Gascony with my three children, and spent a week staying near Saint-Émilion. We ate this cassoulet  in a tiny stone cafe overlooking the Romanesque church, on a chilly spring evening. I’ve done my best to recreate the dish at home
Serves 4
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
250g pancetta, diced 
1 medium onion, cut coarsely
1 pound dried flageolets or Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 2 hours and drained
4 fresh thyme sprigs from the garden
2 litre chicken stock
1 large garlic, broken into cloves and peeled 
salt to taste
4 pieces of duck leg confit, trimmed of excess fat
½ kg of French sausage – duck, pork, garlic – whatever you can get - sliced crosswise 
100g bacon, cut into cubes
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
In a large saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook over moderate heat until the fat has been rendered, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the beans, thyme sprigs and stock and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring and skimming occasionally, until the beans are al dente, about 1 hour.
Add the garlic cloves to the beans and simmer until the garlic and beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Season the beans with salt and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate the saucepan overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Rewarm the beans over moderate heat. Transfer the beans to a large, deep baking dish. Nestle the duck legs, sausage and bacon into the beans. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the cassoulet is bubbling and all of the meats are hot. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes.
In a skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the parsley over the cassoulet and serve.

Apple and Armagnac Croustade (Croustade à l’Armagnac aux Pommes)
This looks and tastes amazing! It’s a little fiddly to make, but well worth the effort.
around 10 tablespoons butter 
6-8 large apples, peeled, cored and sliced as thin as you can
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup Armagnac (use brandy or Calvados if you can’t find it)
8 sheets filo dough
1/2 cup caster sugar (or more, as needed)
1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided

For this recipe, I like to use a soft-sided silicon cake pan so you can remove the cake more easily. Spray with cooking oil.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the apple slices in a bowl. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds over the apples and drop the pod on top. When the butter is foamy, add the apples with the vanilla and the sugar and cook, stirring very gently but frequently, until the apples are soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl and allow them to cool to room temperature.

Heat oven to 180°C. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set it aside. 
Unfold the filo dough on your work surface and cover it with a damp towel.
Remove the top sheet of filo (re-cover the remaining sheets), brush it lightly with butter, and dust it with sugar. Gently and loosely crumple the dough into a circle and lay it into the cake pan. Sprinkle it with about one-fifth of the almonds. Repeat this procedure three more times, until you have four buttered, sugared and almond-sprinkled sheets of filo lightly layered in the cake pan. 
Spoon the apples into the centre of the croustade, leaving a border of a few centimetres depth. Working as you did before, butter, sugar and crumple a sheet of filo, fitting it over the apples. Sprinkle this layer with the remaining almonds, and cover this with another crumpled sheet of buttered and sugared filo. Do a little styling and draping; arrange the filo so it looks good.

Slide the croustade into the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, watching the top of the tart carefully to make certain it doesn't brown too much. The top should be just lightly browned. Remove the croustade from the oven.

Increase the oven temperature to 200°C. Butter and sugar another sheet of filo, loosely crumple it and place it on the last layer to make a light, airy crown. Bake the croustade for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven again.

Butter the last sheet of filo and, once again, crumple it to make a crown. Place it on top of the croustade and dust it heavily with the remaining powdered sugar. Return the tart to the oven and bake until the top layer caramelizes evenly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Check the progress of the sugar frequently because it can go from brown to burned in a flash.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!

RECIPE: Dortchen Wild's damson plum jam cake

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

To celebrate THE WILD GIRL being named Most Memorable Love Story of 2013 by Australian readers, I'm going to share some vintage Wild Girl posts this week - I hope you enjoy!


Last week I went to talk to a Book Club in Sydney that had read and loved my novel THE WILD GIRL. One of the club had cooked the damson plum jam cake that Dortchen Wild cooks for Wilhelm Grimm's birthday (the recipe was included in the Book Club reading notes in Australia - its an adaption from an old German recipe).

I cooked this cake a lot when I was writing THE WILD GIRL, but I had forgotten just how good it is. I thought I'd share the recipe with you all.

The picture of Damson Plum Jam comes from First Look, then Cook

Dortchen’s Recipe for Damson Plum Jam Cake 

2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup caster sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup damson plum jam

Preheat oven to 350C. Grease and line a loaf pan. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and salt. Beat the eggs and sugar until combined. Add the canola oil. Slowly beat in the flour mixture. Stir in the buttermilk. With a spatula fold in the cranberries and walnuts. Swirl in the jam in three to four strokes. Pour into the loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a cake testor comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for 25 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack. Allow to cool for 5 minutes or so, then serve warm. This cake lasts a week well covered.


Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter is, at heart, a pagan festival. Easter’s roots go far back into our history, predating Christianity by thousands of years.

Its key symbols – the egg, the bunny, even the hot cross bun – all have their origins in ancient, pagan traditions.

Many different cultures celebrated the spring equinox – a time when day and night stood in perfect balance, before light and summer once again won the age-old battle against darkness and winter. 
The name itself comes from that of an ancient spring goddess, Eostre. Her name comes from the same root as 'east' or 'shining'. A hare was one of her key symbols, and so too was the egg.

The Venerable Bede, who lived in the 7th century, was the first to record her name as the source of the new Christian festival. Like many other pagan traditions, the festival of Eostre was adopted by the early Church in an attempt to convert followers of the old religions to their ways. 
Other goddesses traditionally celebrated at this time include: 
  Aphrodite, in ancient Greece
  Ashtoreth, from ancient Israel
         Demeter from Mycenae
  Hathor from ancient Egypt
  Ishtar from Assyria
  Kali, from India
  Ostara, a Norse Goddess of fertility

The story of Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, is quite striking in its similarity to Christian mythology. 
Gerald L. Berry, author of "Religions of the World," wrote:

"About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill ...Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection."

This is the reason why Easter was condemned during the Protestant Reformation as a ‘pagan’ celebration, and was banned by many religious movements including the Baptists, the Quakers, and Congregational Protestants. 

Wiccans and Neo-pagans celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their eight holy days of celebration. It’s all about recognising the natural rhythm of the seasons, and the circular nature of life and death, summer and winter, light and darkness.

Work in your garden, cook a feast of spring lamb and fresh herbs, light candles, and devour eggs decorated with flowers and stars (even if they are chocolate) … and now you are continuing a tradition that began many millenniums ago. 


BOOK REVIEW: 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' by Joanne Harris

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Title: Peaches for Monsieur le Curé
Author: Joanne Harris
Publisher: Doubleday
Age Group & Genre: contemporary magic realism for adults

The Blurb:
‘It isn’t often you receive a letter from the dead’

When Vianne Rocher receives a letter from beyond the grave, she has no choice but to follow the wind that blows her back to Lansquenet, the village in south-west France where, eight year ago, she opened a chocolate shop.

But Vianne is completely unprepared for what she finds there. Women veiled in black, the scent of spices and peppermint tea, and there, on the bank of the river Tannes, facing the square little tower of the church of Saint-Jérôme like a piece on a chessboard – slender, bone-white and crowned with a silver crescent moon – a minaret.

Nor is it only the incomers from North Africa who have brought big changes to the community. Father Reynaud, Vianne’s erstwhile adversary, is now disgraced and under threat. Could it be that Vianne is the only one who can save him?

What I Liked About This Book:
'Chocolat' is one of my favourite books and Joanne Harris is one of my favourite authors. Her novel 'Five Quarters of the Orange' will always be listed in my top 5 favourite adult books.

However, when I heard that she had written another sequel to Chocolat, I didn’t squeal with excitement and rush out to the bookshop straightaway, as I usually do when one of my favourite writers publishes a new book.

I did go to the bookshop and look at the book, wondering, weighing it in my hands. The gorgeous cover swayed me, the blurb on the back cover enticed me (a return to the little French village of Lansquenet, which had so charmed me in Chocolat … I did like the sound of that).

So I opened the book and read the first chapter. It reads, in its entirety:

‘Someone once told me that, in France alone, a quarter of a million letters are delivered every year to the dead.
What she didn’t tell me is that sometimes the dead write back.’

That’s it. The whole first chapter.

I love writers who have the courage to write such short and simple chapters.  Somehow they are always powerful.

With a growing sense of excitement and joy, I turned the page and read the next page and then the next. I was hooked. I wanted to read more. And so I bought 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' and took it home with me.

Before I go on and tell you what I feel about the rest of the book, perhaps I should explain why I hadn’t squealed with excitement at the news that Joanne Harris was writing another book about Vianne Rocher.
The fault lies with 'The Lollipop Shoes', which sits between 'Chocolat' and 'Peaches'. I had squealed in excitement and rushed out to but that one, but, for me, it just didn’t have the same charm and magic as 'Chocolat'. I think it may be because the story alternated between the points of view of Vianne and the antagonist of the story, Zozie de l’Alba, which not only made the story much longer but also took out the element of surprise since we were privy to her thoughts and feelings right from the very beginning and so were never left to wonder whether she was friend or foe. I was also disappointed to find Vianne not working her own particular brand of magic anymore.

I am very happy to say, though, that 'Peaches for Monsieur le Cure' has restored all my faith in Joanne Harris as a novelist. The book is a pleasure to read, vivid, compelling and surprising, with lots of beautiful descriptions of food and cooking and eating, which was one of my favourite aspects of Chocolat.

It’s a pleasure to be back in the small French village that we know and love, with its cast of eccentric characters. It’s a clever twist to have Vianne’s former antagonist now one of the primary points of view, and Reynard’s character – stiff-necked, prickly, stubborn yet wanting to do good – is one of the delights of the novel.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book:
There may have been just one or two too many references to the wind changing …



My Midwinter Feast

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Midwinter Solstice
Today is the midwinter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and I always like to celebrate by cooking a special meal for the family. This is what I plan to cook this year: 

Midwinter Feast
Roast beef & mushrooms
Roast potatoes, onions, carrots and pumpkin 
Green beans & peas

(Photo by John Paul Urizan)

For Pudding:
Apple & rhubarb crumble with cream

(I like to cook warm-coloured vegetables like pumpkin or rhubarb to remind us of the return of summer)

Midwinter Wish
The whole family will eat by candlelight, and then, whoever wants to, will write a wish for the coming year on a piece of paper and burn the paper in the candle flame. Simple!

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