Feasts in Summer!

Where has the summer gone? Suddenly, it’s time to organise everything for réentrée here in France, the week when the schools begin again, the hot weather finally kicks in, and we can start to have a maybe more normal juggle of family and work, instead of a chaotic mix of kids, work (read ‘weddings’), visitors, work, and all the extra social events that go on here throughout August, and work…
Summer here means fields of sunflowers or freshly bailed hay, visiting castles, swimming in pools, outdoor concerts, village fêtes and night markets. And beaches. And moules frites! Such a French thing, mussels and chips, summer isn’t summer without them. We had mussels on both sides of the coast this year, Mediterranean coast ones while staying with friends on the Spanish Costa Brava, and Atlantic coast ones at Soccoa near St Jean-de-Luz.

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If you’re driving down the Mediterranean coast of France, be sure to make a stop at Leucate to buy big bags of oysters and mussels direct from the farms that line the salt-water lake Étang de Leuacte. (If you are on the A9 motorway, going south from Narbonne towards Spain, take Junction 40, which leads past Leucate on the D627, between the sea and the étang. If you’re coming up the other way, take Junction 41 and follow the signs for Port Leucate on the D83, which leads to the D627.)
Halfway between the village of Leucate and Port Leucate, look for the signs to turn off for the Centre Ostréïcole, and you’ll end up in a car park in front of the row of outlets – some with cafes – where you can sit and watch the flat-bottomed little boats that come in with the haul, and eat the freshest of oysters and mussels. Go for a stroll on the beach before buying at the cheapest prices you will ever find.

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On the Atlantic side, we arrived at Chez Margots in Soccoa (see post 23/03/2014) dead on lunchtime on a Friday – perfect timing for a chilled bottle of Jurançon Sec and moules frites all round, sitting outside on the terrace at this time of year, of course.
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(The postman strolled in just after us, and sat down for his lunch too).

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After an afternoon sleeping off the wine on the beach we headed inland and just over the Spanish border to our favourite little Spanish hostal, at the base of Mount Rhune – ‘La Runa’ in Basque. Here, at Col. Lizuniaga (owned by M. Ascen Irazoki Echegaray – that’s very Basque!) there are four spotless rooms that cost less than €40 a night each. Or, if you’re walking on the Grande Route or Haute Route Pyrenees, which pass directly through this valley, you can camp for free in the field. Despite a vast terrace and big dining rooms inside, only we and one other family of campers ate on Friday night. Plates full of croquettes, fresh squid rings, local ham, Spanish salad tapas, and rotisserie chicken, with fabulous Navarra rosès at amazingly cheap prices, meant we could feast freely.

For breakfast on Saturday, we walked through the kitchen (where the owner was rolling the little potato cakes she was making, and chickens were lined up for basting) and had hot chocolates, cakes, and bread for €2 a head! Then we walked straight out the door to climb Mount Rhune at a reasonably fast pace – a steep ascent of 670 metres – sweating pure rosé all the way; I wouldn’t say that I looked particularly fit and energetic. After crossing the French/Spanish border all the way up by following the stone border markers, we were treated to spectacular views of the coastline stretching north as we crossed the flank to the summit. We watched the trains clank slowly come up from the French side ( they were winched up the last bit, so I was quite glad I walked actually).

I never did get a photo of the all the fresh produce piled up outside the hostal kitchen door. This mountain of food (which had also been there on previous visits) had always puzzled me, because we had mostly dined alone (albeit cheerfully waited on for as long as we liked), so why would they need so much food? As we rounded the last corner of the descent however, through the field back towards the hotel, the reason for all the boxes of veges and the rows chickens being rotisseried in the morning became clear; with a pleasant buzz of chatter and kids running around, there were all the Spanish families out for the weekend, drinking wine and eating until late into the afternoon – we wanted to join in immediately! But we’d had our picnic on the mountain top, and besides (we reminded ourselves), we were about to hit the tapas again that evening. But not before taking a small drive further into Spain to enjoy some very distinctive Spanish Basque villages and some spectacular medieval towers and churches.

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It was a perfect 3 day break before needing to get back to parties for work, and of course, more summer parties in the village…

Don’t tell the French!…

With more contact than usual with UK media over school holidays, I am mindful of the foodie interest in provenance, food miles, and local culinary practice. I came over all smug with this recipe …until I remembered the beans.
What better way to feed a large number of visitors over Easter than to use up the last haunch of venison, still in the freezer, for the main course? Although I knew it was from the woods in the valley directly below us, I wasn’t completely sure of its age, so decided to slow roast to ensure tenderness. (This recipe is adapted from a slow-roast lamb dish I cut out of a long-forgotten-which-one magazine).
Knowing it wasn’t going to be warm-and-sunny salad type of weather, I paired it with a potato dauphinois, with potatoes provided by the neighbour – grown each year in his enormous plot that borders our fields, and then stored in his garage. This recipe is fail-safe and fantastic for large events. (Duphinois recipe taken from a book put together by volunteers of the American Hospital of Paris.)
Lastly, I used lovely big vibrantly green French beans, sautéed in garlic…But they came from the local supermarket. They were there in abundance because, as the blackboard sign clearly stated, they came from Morocco. Miles away. Don’t tell the neighbour, he would not be amused!

Slow-Roasted Haunch of Venison

• Shoulder or leg of venison (that has arrived, in a dripping plastic bag, from the local hunters. Defrost first if you have frozen it.)
• Herbs of your choice (from the garden)
• 2 onions (grown by the neighbour)
• Approx. 300ml (½ pint) red wine (mine was local Cahors AOC)
• Approx. 1 litre (2 pints) chicken stock (mine was fresh from a chicken bought in the village – told you I was feeling smug!)
• 6 garlic cloves (from France)
• A couple of teaspoons of honey (local supplier at the market)
• Approx. 150ml (1/4 pint) balsamic vinegar. (Oops, produced in Italy)

Peel and cut the onions into chunks, and put in a large roasting dish, along with the peeled garlic cloves and herbs. Place the venison on top. Heat the wine and stock together and pour over the venison in the roasting dish. Cover tightly with foil. Cook in the oven at 130°C (250°F) for 4 hours. Uncover, mix balsamic and honey together and baste with this mixture. Cook uncovered for a further hour at 180°C (160°F, 350°F, gas 4). Rest for at least 15 min before serving. Use the onion broth that is left for gravy.

Gratin Dauphinois

• 1kg potatoes (The neighbour grows ‘Spounter’ potatoes because they keep well)
• 3 cups of milk
• 1 cup cream or crème fraiche
• Salt & pepper & a pinch of nutmeg
• 100g butter and 1 garlic glove
Peel and cut potatoes into very thin slices. Heat the milk in a large saucepan without letting it boil over. Add the salt & pepper, nutmeg, cream and potato slices. Bring to a boil again and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes. Don’t let it stick to the bottom of the pan. Prepare a roasting pan or gratin dish; melt the butter and mix it with the crushed or chopped garlic, and wipe this all around the inside of the dish. Pour in the potato mixture and bake in oven at 150°C (300°F) for 2 hours – check to see that it is cooked through and all the liquid has been absorbed.
This can be made beforehand if required, sliced into desired shapes, and reheated in the oven.

Green beans sautéed in Garlic

Buy French beans that have been locally grown! Trim off the ‘picked’ end – I leave the slightly curly other end intact, although I have been told (locally) that this is not acceptable to the French, they always trim this end off too.
Boil until just tender, about 10 minutes, but regularly check by eating one (finish it, don’t put it back!) until they have the perfect crunch. Drain and soak/ rinse under cold water to stop them cooking. Heat a non-stick pan and sauté them very briefly with a little olive oil and finely chopped garlic to taste.

 

Neighbour's vast garden Stored Potatoes