Floralies, plant shopping heaven

May 29th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand, image of poppy

Fête des Plantes, Floralies, Foire aux Fleurs…anywhere in France during May and June, plant-shoppers flock to their favorite plant specialists’ stalls to bring color back home.  In fact, color, fragrance, and taste are all to be found  in every Foire aux Fleurs. Vendors gather in a church square, or on the grounds of medieval monasteries to tempt gardeners of all stripes.  Geraniums for your balcony? Maple trees and bushes of great diversity to enhance your slopes or lawns?  A Meyer Lemon tree for the terrace (and pies in good time), bamboos or ferns, perennials or old roses are all to be admired – and bought – in this season’s floralies.

Vagabond Gourmand, photo of poppy

Two of the vagabond’s favorite plant festivals are set against 13th century walls.  In Cadouin, between Bergerac and Sarlat, stalls sprawl across the square of the grey stone abbey church that was once a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to St. Jaques de Compostella. Now, the village May Floralies draws some of the finest plant specialists in  southwest France.  Whether one is searching for a special cyclamen or pots of lavender, a wide variety of greenery and related wares tempt gardeners.  How many new kinds of peppers can you find for the potager?  The vagabond succumbs to enticing piments et aromatiques each year at the Cadouin fair.

At L’Abbaye – Nouvelle, a 13th century Cistercian site in the Lot  south of Gourdon, a Fête des Plantes in May brings together vendors of everything from bonsai to aquatic plants, as well as camelias and jasmins.  Usually held on Sunday, floralies fit into my calendar of special markets, a visual feast as well as  a chance to bring fragrance home….and to watch a new season unfold in the garden.

A note on the Poppy shown above:  the star of the borders this week is Picotee, a robust poppy found at a plant fair three years ago.  Picotee has a different tint or orange sorbet blush every year.  And the seed pods are always left to dry, ready to poke open and sprinkle a few black seeds into yogurt cakes or for an added crunch in a crumb crust for fish.  Any poppy seed recipe ideas are welcome…to include in the Poppy Seed file – comments and tips bienvenue!

Ah, spring’s succulent mushrooms

May 20th, 2009

mushroom

Morels?  Cèpes? Too early for Girolles – but let’s be on the lookout anyway: May is mushroom time.  Maybe your “woods” are in Michigan, in Minnesota, or just over the line in northern Iowa.  Or perhaps your sturdy mushroom-walking stick is poking through a ferny forest floor in the Périgord – where  every hunter needs a good “mushrooming stick”.  The Périgord’s brief morel season has slipped past, usually a fleeting moment late in March. One year I spotted three fine morels under our pear tree about that time, but no such luck this time around.  So, when friends brought us a fern-lined basket of cèpes this week, the mushroom-loving vagabond was delighted.

Get out the black cast-iron skillet, the mushroom season is underway! Whether you call them cèpesporcini or boletus edulis, a healthy dose of garlic, parsley, and duck fat are the traditional partners for enhancing their earthy flavor.  To keep them fresh for a few hours before cooking, wrap them in ferns and avoid contact with plastic.  The first step in preparing cèpes is simply to wipe off the cap and stem, then chop the stem and mix it with minced garlic and chopped (flat-leaf) parsley in a bowl to add later. Peel and slice rounds of firm, red-skinned potatoes (ratio of at least 1 cup  sliced spuds for each mushroom). Heat 2 tablespoons of duck fat (or olive oil) in your good old skillet, and add the sliced potatoes, stir to turn them over and as some crisp and become transparent, add the cèpes – left whole if small, in slices if large. Then, don’t be surprised if the mushrooms seem to dissolve, melting with the heat, infusing the pototoes with flavor. Add the chopped stems with garlic and stir the mixture, lower the heat and cover, to cook for 20 to 30 minutes. Check at least 3 times, turning so nothing sticks and burns, a little more oil or duck fat is usually needed.  Sprinkle with more chopped parsley and serve with a green salad tossed with a lemon vinaigrette dressing. Other than a cold beer or a glass of white wine, you’ll need only good company to complete a perfect spring lunch.

Wine lovers will weep

May 13th, 2009

“Damage, major damage today in Aquitaine vineyards” – news carried like wildfire about hail the size of pigeon eggs.  “It was raining ice the size of 2 Euro coins”… or pingpong balls, depending on which report I read.  About sundown last night, violent hailstorms swept from Angoulême in the Charente across Cognac vineyards, with force enough to leave car roofs dappled with dents.  Some mighty pigeon eggs, I would say. The winds, lightning and hail swept across the Médoc north of Bordeaux, leaving vines in Margaux vineyards with barely a leaf intact.  Two phases of grapes, just in delicate first growth have been stripped from the vines across Blaye, Bourg, Fronsac, Entre-Deux-Mers, and St. Emilion.  Counting on 300 to 500 grapes per vine, winemakers are faced with less than 50 fruits per vine, but the leaves that should protect them from summer sun have been put through nature’s  shredder. Estimates of loss in some vineyards run between 70% and 100%.

The Gironde (now matched by the Hérault region in the Languedoc) is the largest wine-making region in France.  Damage wrought by the storm stretches south of Bordeaux into the Graves, Barsac and Sauternes region, about which I have recently been absorbed in research. When I heard an interview with the mayor of La Brède (yes, the home of the philosopher and winemaker, Montesquieu) in the Graves, the news struck a chord. These horages devastateurs not only compromise the harvest of 2009, but will have an impact on wines of 2010. The regional news’ apocalyptic images of bare vines in the Cognac region only reinforce the impact of this disaster for winemakers – and for wine lovers.

For more (in French) see: www.france-info.com/ or www.sudouest.com/charente/actualité, or www.aquitainemeteo.com

Baby almonds, a fleeting treat

May 8th, 2009

fuzzy_nut

Green and fuzzy, the early stages of an almond’s life hold little in common with the adult nuts that we roll into Christmas kringle or Noël gâteaux.  In fact, what can you do with the sour little brats – within a few days, baby almonds go from a viscous gel to a tangy white lozenge that melts on your tongue.  Fragile, edgy, prone to changing character within hours, the green almond is not a volume item in shops.  A small basket of the pale green nuts – if you are lucky to spot one  in the produce cooler – might be found from April to June in Whole Foods Markets, or in the open markets of Provence. In San Francisco last spring about this time, I spotted a basketful in a Ferry Plaza restaurant – but backed up when someone pointed to the “No Photos” sign.  Since the vagabond is not close to green almond venues, and since the four (at last count) almonds clinging to the top of my almond tree are inaccessible, I was most grateful when friends returned from Perpignan with a branch in tow.  Not a laurel branch, but this was a stem loaded with downy-soft green almonds from the windy Roussillon, one of the best French almond regions.

avocado

“What will you DO with them?” my friends asked.  I slit one to extract a rather soft ivory almond, popped it in my mouth and puckered up. Maybe ‘tangy’ is too gentle a word for this stage.  This is the almond for tapas tables – I can imagine bowls of them on bars in Barcelona:  shell it, dip into sea salt, then do that again, with a sherry apéro.  So, the green almond lends itself to salty, appetizing tidbits…and to topping seafood tossed with pasta. With a few more almond branches, I would give the mortar and pestle some pesto action, to blend the green almonds with fresh herbs such as tarragon and chives and a few capers stirred with oil and minced aillet garlic. Chefs team green almonds with everything from squid to chilled soups.  Why not try that…a cauliflower soup accented with delicate green almonds?

soup

This recipe, concocted as a foil for the strange little almonds, is a simple vegetable soup:  wash 2 leek whites (about 400 grams) thoroughly, chop, then sauté in a soup pot with 2 tablespoons duck fat or vegetable oil.  When the leeks have cooked about 10 minutes, add 1 cup chopped celery branch with leaves, cook another 5 minutes and add a medium head of cauliflower, (just under 500 grams) trimmed of leaves, and chopped (include the core/stem chopped).  Pour 5 cups of water into the pot, add a bay leaf and 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (add fresh tarragon, too – if you have it) and bring to a simmer. Cook the soup for 30 to 40 minutes until all is soft, add salt, (remove bay leaf) blend to a coarse purée with a blending wand. Taste for seasoning: a chicken bouillon cube and pinch of salt may be added to your taste; if it is too thick add a little white wine or water and cook 10 minutes longer. Let the soup cool, then refrigerate overnight.  Prepare the almond garnish, slitting each almond open, slicing lengthwise (depending on the stage – the gel-center stage is best chopped crosswise).  In a shallow bowl, mix seasalt (such as fleur de sel), ground white pepper and a pinch of Hungarian paprika – toss the shelled almonds in this before serving (not too long in advance or the almonds will ‘weep’).  Serve the soup in small bowls – or in chilled lowball glasses -  topped with the seasoned green almonds.  Or… if it is a cold, rainy spring evening, reheat the soup and serve hot, topped with the baby almonds, and a pair of sesame grissini at each place.  Pour a chilled Montravel white wine, to toast Spring in all its phases.

First of May in the potager

May 1st, 2009

Winds swept a heavy cover of clouds away, at last. Weeks of chilly wet weather have put planting and spading plans on the bench: no game. So, in spite of the wind, the vagabond ventures out to see what’s sprouting, what needs pruning, and what is (almost) edible in the garden.  Knobs of purple thyme of Crete blossoms sprawl over one corner, and Muguet – Lilies of the Valley, programmed for picking on May first – brighten the walk.  Chive buds are about to burst, bay flowers still cling to the laurel stems, and pink-tipped leaves on the Merlot vine protect their blossoms’ earliest stages. As a new season begins with encouraging signs,  I wish you all a very special May Day…Hauskaa Vappua!

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May Day 2009 Flower Gallery