Sunny days in the Charente

August 21st, 2008



Summer has an odd way of building up a stock of fleeting moments, and by mid-August I have a mountain of memory-bites. In spite of azur skies overhead and al fresco lunches, between indoor and outdoor projects, part of me is racing against time toward cool September mornings. “Hint, hint”, the garden signals with asters peeping out in starry clusters, blushing sedum is about to burst, and a round knob of a pomegranate bulges on the bush. It’s time to pause in the race and collect a few highlights from my memory mountain, to revel in sunny days spent in western France, more specifically in the southern Charente. Landscapes? Think Tuscany viewed through a wide-angle lens, tile-roofed farms tucked into woodlands and undulating fields of shimmering wheat. I close my eyes and recall the heat as we hiked along patches of nodding sunflowers, turning their droopy heads to follow the sun’s path. This is the Charente, south of the majestic city of Angoulême, near Aubeterre and the edges of the dark Double forest: farm land, vineyards, nut groves.

On the way to Cognac for a day’s outing, we zipped past a sign nearly covered with vines. “Wait! A nut oil shop, Huilerie du Bernous“, I exclaimed. “Later”, I was told. On our return trip, after a tour and tasting in the historic Cognac château, now headquarters for Otard Cognac, we stopped at the huilerie and rang the bell. As Madame Petit managed their enthusiastic laborador, we walked to the huilerie, where they press walnut and hazelnut oils, and to the adjacent shop. The tanned woman seemed preoccupied as we talked about their work, about the upcoming harvest and those past. I selected some hazelnut oil, one of my favorite “drizzlers” to top hot carrots or beet and apple salads. Her remarks on the hazelnut yield this year were stark: “Zero”, she said, “…frost two nights running – just at the peak of blossoming – clipped the crop, so there will be no hazelnut oil this year”. But the walnuts seem to be promising, with their anticipated average harvest to weigh in at 60 tons. Last year was abysmal, she noted, with only 40 tons, a bad year. The Franquette variety is their favorite walnut with an average of nine kilograms of nuts to yield three kilograms of kernels, to give one liter of flavorful oil. Their harvest in October lasts ten days, with ten helpers and the use of a tree-vibrator, similar to those used in almond harvesting. The Petites, who run the business started by her father-in-law, have planted a new variety, Farnor, which will help replace over 1,400 trees lost in the violent 1999 winter wind storms. “Gradually, we are recovering”, she smiled and added a hopeful…”almost all of our groves will again be bearing next year”. No wonder she seemed preoccupied, I mused and vowed to return for another supply of nut oil and local honey.

The summer wheat seemed ripe for harvesting one late afternoon as I paused to survey rolling fields. At just that moment, a white van pulled up, stopped short of crushing the golden grain; a man hopped out. He waded through the wheat, bent and rubbed heads of wheat between the palms of his hands, blew the chaff away, and studied the kernels remaining: a gesture as old as agriculture. We had nodded bonsoir, so I ventured a question: “How does the crop look?” He glanced up at approaching clouds, waved an arm and said, “Come see this wheat – we have had too much cloud cover when it needs to be sunny for ripening the kernels, drying them”. I looked at the bearded summer wheat in his calloused palm and saw some kernels withered, some with a pink tinge at the base. “At this point, the kernels should be plump and slightly nacré, a little pearly. The pink you see is a disease “…trop des maladies cette année!” too many diseases this year, and too overcast.” His estimate, a harvest of normal volume but half the quality, anticipated the work of upcoming weeks, but as I turned to go, he added: “We’ll hope for a better crop next year”. This wheat farmer sums up the inherent spirit that keeps the wheels turning, the age-old plant and harvest cycle…. and hope for better weather.

A Sunday morning market draws shoppers to Aubeterre, but not all are here for peaches and new potatoes. This is a craft market as well, a mix of pottery, jewelry, paintings and artisanal foods. In this sense, it is unique in the region, with over half of the vendors showing their work in a side-walk café ambiance. After soap shopping (boutiques are open, too) and wine tasting, we went looking for lunch. A few steps off of the central boulevard market, we were rewarded at the Le Passé Simple. Inside the purple-toned dining room or outside in the garden, the restaurant is attracting Sunday crowds with a simple menu. Appealing entrées, such as hot scallops on a bed of rich, creamy leeks or a pyramid of spicy shrimp, are followed by old favorites prepared with originality. Magret de canard (duck breast) and roast lamb are done perfectly, and a layer of roasted, crushed tomatoes under daurade (sea bream) from the Gulf of Gascony sings of the season. Any room left for a gooey white chocolate and coconut mousse? Or how about a mousse au chocolat, so dense it is more like scooping into ganache - dipping into thick frosting with a spoon? Just how good was it? We returned at nine for dinner…..c’était dimanche!

Notes:

Huilerie du Bernou, Les Vergers du Marquis, sell their single-pressed walnut and hazelnut oils to visitors, call tel.: 06 80 83 11 29 (to make sure someone is there). Located near the village of Pillac, they are west of Aubeterre, north east of Chalais.

Le Passé Simple, 1 rue du Minage in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, is closed Wednesday night and Thursday. Call to reserve (Sundays are especially busy) tel.: 05 45 98 50 64.

Next up: A French heirloom in season, baking with Charente butter – the Cognac will wait until autumn – and almond butter for the rentrée/back to school.