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Archive for May, 2011

When I hear the words wine country I think of Range Rovers, golden retrievers and turquoise swimming pools surrounded by terra cotta tiles with a view of the vines. This probably stems from spending lazy Sunday afternoons as a child watching the Parent Trap on VHS. The Lindsay Lohan version.

Here in France, in the middle of the Médoc, north of Bordeaux, wine country is a little bit different. Instead of Range Rovers, I have a red Peugot bike which I ride to the vines each morning. There are no lolloping golden retrievers, only roosters which crow at all hours of the day and cats to catch the field mice. And to cool down after tending to the vines we prefer to drink, not swim. A chilled glass of Rosé with a splash of creme de cassis and an ice cube. Organic Rosé made from the grapes that only a few hours ago I had been weeding, by hand.

Is there anything more beautiful than Wine Country?

Last night I brought a little bit of New Zealand to a French vingernon’s kitchen. More than a little bit, three courses. Three courses prepared in what is affectionately, or sometimes hatefully, referred to as une cuisine de camping. This house is a continual work in progress. There are wires hanging from the ceiling and every once in a while, Gerard must stand on a chair and push the insulation back into place with a broom handle. There are dust draps over everything and in the morning, in my east facing bedroom, I can see the sun rays through the gaps in the tiled roof. Thank goodness it is hot. Imagine the kitchen. I’m sure there are student flats with better kitchens. However, I’m sure these flats do not have Le Creuset. The shining orange Le Creuset helped calm my nerves cooking in a crazy French kitchen for Gerard and Ghislaine. One can not go wrong with Le Creuset.

Menu:

entrée: salad of roast kumara, asparagus and green beans with mesclun and a mustard dressing.
main: leg of lamb baked with eggplant and mint.
dessert: pavlova with kiwifruit

When I began the cooking in the afternoon, determined to break the pattern of eating at 9.30-10p.m, the house keeper, Maria, asked me if I was sure I wanted to cook the kumara in the oven. She wondered if maybe I had muddled my french words a bit. Kumara, or patate douce, is somewhat of a novelty in France. Last night was the very first time Gerard, a man of 56, had tasted kumara. He liked it very much. He even had seconds.

The lamb was quite sensational, if I may say so myself. Or, I could just thank the powers of Le Creuset and be far more modest. Thank you Le Creuset. The lamb was tender and flavorsome and the aubergines, lightly spiked with mint, were soft and sweet. I will be making this dish again.

As for the Pavlova, I think the days of future pavlova Queen are a long way off. While pouring, as supposed to delicately placing, the whipped mixture on the baking tray, I prepared myself for another pavlova flop. But, I would never have guessed that a pavlova had the ability, indeed the quality, to be “the little Pavlova that could.” After a long sleep in a cold oven and a generous blanketing of cream, it really wasn’t too bad.

Gerard and Ghislaine were really rather impressed with New Zealand cuisine. As for me, I had survived “la cuisne de camping.”

And I hadn’t even made that many dishes. Did you read that, Mum?

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Two weeks ago I left the beautiful and lively city of Bordeaux for the Landes region in south western France. I was starting the next chapter of aventure française: WWOOFing. Worldwide opportunities on organic farms. This is a volunteer program, of sorts: for a few weeks you work on an organic farm in exchange for lodging and meals. It is a wonderful opportunity to speak French and discover a new region of France.

I was to be living with Marie Hélène and her partner, Christoph, on the outskirts of a tiny village called Pissos. For two weeks I was very much part of their lives. During the day I would work with Marie Hélène in her organic market garden and at night I would help around the house: feeding the chickens and the pigeons, taking care of the horse and doing the cooking.

I enjoyed working in the garden. There is something very liberating in being able to get absolutely filthy without a care in the world. I would return home each day with dirt under my nails and a mud streaked face from wiping away perspiration. The garden is hard work but the rewards are tangible and, tasty too. Radishes as an apéro with fresh bread, butter and salt; salads for lunch with lettuce picked less than an hour before; new season potatoes sautéed in olive oil and peas eaten straight from the pods. In the coming months Marie Hélène and Christoph will have tomatoes of every variety, courgettes, cucumbers, rhubarb, beetroot, green beans and artichokes.

Like so many of my French experiences, my time with Marie and Christoph will be remembered by the food that we ate. My first night we had spaghetti with beautifully tender and rare entrecôte steak. The next night we sat down late, at 10.30p.m, to a succulent piece of black Gascogne pork that had been roasted in the coals of the original 180 year old fireplace. A friend of Marie and Christoph farm the black pigs, organically, of course.

Every morning for breakfast there was hot coffee, served in cereal bowl sized, hand-made ceramic mugs. Croissants, pain au chocolat or baguette, warmed and slathered with butter and honey. (Honey, from their friend the apiculteur who collects the honey from the beehives in Marie’s garden and, who also happens to be a dab hand at irrigation systems.) For midday apéro hour we ate whole anchovies which had been marinated for a few days in olive oil, vinegar, salt and garlic. We pulled the little fish, dripping and glistening, from the bowl with toothpicks and ate them with crusty bread. A friend had kindly given Marie and Christoph a big white bucket of crabs he had caught the day before. In the evening, the crabs still scuttling in their bucket, we made crab soup.

The next day for lunch, despite not arriving back at the house until 1.30, Marie roasted a whole chicken from a friend’s farm. Whole is not an exaggeration: the head, the stomach, the liver, the intestines, even the reproductive organs. We ate the chicken with fries which had been cooked in duck fat. Friday night dinner was take away pizza from the local pizzeria. Pizza with fresh duck liver, magret de canard fumé, mushrooms and foie gras, or, pizza with white asparagus, sun dried tomatoes, Serrano ham and poached egg.

Saturday afternoon, after a very successful morning selling at the market, Marie and I returned home with boxes of fresh meat, fish, cheese, bread and yoghurt. That night for apéro hour we shelled prawns and broad beans.

Sunday in Pissos is a day of rest and cooking. I helped Marie prepare the vegetables: aubergines, tomatoes, mushrooms, fennel, onions, fresh garlic and broad beans. They were cooked on the stove top with cumin and chili until wonderfully translucent and caramelised. Christoph prepared the outdoor brick fire place where we roasted a whole fish. We ate at the outdoor table in the shadow of 100 year old plane trees, discussing politics and the “fin d’une era.” It all felt so very French.

Sunday evening a friend of Marie and Christoph was cooking for us. On the menu: rognons d’agneau, lamb testicules. I was nervous about trying this particular cut of meat. The rognons were prepared simply with olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and then grilled in the fireplace. I was given the first taste, and in front of an audience. I didn’t dislike the taste or the texture: slightly creamy like pâté, but I don’t think they will be going on the weekly grocery list.

Monday lunch was another meal of no mean proportions. A friend of Marie and Christoph roasted a salmon fillet and brought it the house in a beautiful green Le Creuset dish. The salmon had been cooked with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and generous quantities of olive oil. We ate it with boiled potatoes, a salad from the garden and an herbed crème fraiche sauce. The crème fraiche, from the milk of Jersey cows, is made by a friend. It is soft, almost whipped and butter mellow yellow. I could have eaten it with a spoon. In fact, that’s exactly what we did.

Lunch the following day we ate a lentil salad with tomatoes, feta, onions and garlic. In the evening, after planting 200 tomato plants, we had fat andouillette sausages with sautéed new potatoes. Our attempt at eating light.

I cooked the next day, a soup or stew, I do not know. Carrots, mushrooms and sausages cooked in a spicy tomato broth. Apple and wild blackberry crumble for dessert. Last minute on Thursday night Marie decided to make a cheese soufflé. She gave me the pot of béchamel sauce to lick, I felt at home. The soufflé was golden topped, puffed and smooth.

Lunch on Friday, after standard apéro hour, we ate grilled pork steaks and fries cooked in duck fat. Saturday lunch was another meal of “firsts” for me. Our friend at the market hadn’t sold all the veal liver he expected, and for fear of wasting it, he generously gave us five or six veal livers. And hearts, and heads, and feet. The head and feet were destined for the dogs, for which I was secretly glad. I think my two week experience of nose to tail eating had already been quite comprehensive. The veal liver, though, was yet another interesting meal. Cooked in the fry pan with only salt and pepper for seasoning and served with a tomato salad and a slice of veal heart, just for good measure. Nose to tail eating, I feel, is an acquired taste.

That evening we went to a friend’s fête. On the lawn in front of a beautiful old stone house with a grape vine arching across the façade, we danced until the wee hours of the morning. We ate barbequed wild boar and Spanish Merguez sausages and warmed our hands over the barrel drum fire.

Sunday was my final day with Marie and Christoph and we enjoyed another wonderful meal. We tasted regional charcuterie: smoked garlic sausage and delicious salted pork wrapped in a pâté. The second course was fried trout and eel which Christoph had caught in the river that runs next to the house. Marie cooked roast pork with carrots, mushrooms and new potatoes. A slice of cheese, apple crumble and coffee to finish.

Oh, and the wine; one or two bottles with nearly every meal. Mojitos in the middle of day, floc de Gascogne and porto blanco. We drank beautiful Bordeaux reds, and always organic. There is less guilt in pouring a second or a third glass. Two weeks of wonderful meals and new delicacies to try.

But, please, feed me fruit and water for the next week.

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2p.m Saturday 23rd of April I said good bye to Bonneville and began my trip south. Intending to return to New Zealand in June a bronzed beauty, I thought the south of France would be the best place to be. So, of course, the further south I head, the darker and more threatening it becomes.

I arrived in a cold and drizzly Bastia at 7a.m on Sunday morning after a very long ferry crossing. From this point on things all got rather interesting. A lack of cheap accommodation in Corsica meant I had to look outside the box. Enter: Maison Saint Hyacinthe, a convent 7km into the mountains outside of Bastia.

Not wanting to intrude on the nuns too early on Easter Sunday, I camped myself on a bench in la Place Saint Nicholas to observe the Sunday morning rituals. A flea market was being set up at one end of the square and a cycle race at the other. Old men in cloth caps and plaid shirts shuffled past me, making comments about the weather; I did have my sunglasses perched optimistically on my head.

I eventually caught a taxi out of Bastia and up the hill to the convent. Pippa had arrived late the night before to a rather angry head nun but we were glad to see that we had each arrived safe and on the right side of the Island. While filling in the accommodation forms, the Chaplain spoke to us in Polish. Our home for the next two nights was to be a Polish convent in the mountains of Corsica.

We began the walk two kilometres down the hill to the nearest bus stop. We missed the bus but instead picked up a dog which liked to chase cars and snap at their wheels. The dog followed us for the remaining five kilometres into the town centre of Bastia despite our efforts to lose it. We even asked two police officers what they would recommend, only to be laughed at and told we could keep him as a travel companion. We lost the dog only by sneaking into a café to eat ice cream for lunch.

The rest of the afternoon we spent walking around the port and citadel areas of Bastia. For our first proper meal in days we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant by the harbour. For the very reasonable price of €18 we had an entrée, main and dessert. We had mussels and whole baked fish: there is just something about eating fish when you can see the fishing boats bobbing calmly in the port.

The next morning the nun was appalled when we told her that we had walked all the way to Bastia. She said we must faire du stop, or hitchhike… After a feeble attempt we decided we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do this. We had resigned ourselves to another 7km walk when a car pulled over and offered us a lift. We jumped in, only to be confronted by a lovely set of gold teeth. With childhood memories of Denis the Menace and stranger danger school lessons running through my head, we made it to the centre of Bastia. Only to take a bus straight back in the direction we had come from to a little seaside village called Erbalunga on the Cap Corse coast.

In an isolated Corsican village on a sedentary Easter Monday, we hit a low. After a very expensive phone call to New Zealand I discovered I had about €2 to my name. Not even enough to afford a hot chocolate when the rain set in for the afternoon. We walked the 2km hill back up to the nunnery in the rain, occasionally catching each others eye and laughing at the hilarity of our current situation.

The next day we left the convent heading to Calvi on the other side of the Island. On our one carriage train that seemed about as old as the Island itself, and later a bus, we wound through the Corsican Mountains. I was pleased to see we seemed to be heading towards the sun. We passed by fields of olive trees, big green nets hanging underneath the trees. The highest mountains still had white peaks while others were a brilliant red. We saw the pine trees that I only associate with Mediterranean climates, their very trunks seeming to exude heat.

Once in Calvi, lunch, bathrooms and accommodation were our top priorities, in that order. After finding a hotel for the night we were free to explore Calvi: the citadel, the beach and the supermarket for a €10 dinner. The next morning we planned to leave Calvi quite early for Ajaccio. Once again, finances proved to be inhibiting as Pippa’s card declined buying the train tickets. We headed to the beach to lie on golden sand and watch the surf: the best place to decide our next move.

We eventually made it on a bus bound for Ajaccio, though of course we couldn’t expect the journey to pass smoothly. The public transport system in Corsica reflects the Island life perfectly. There is really only one major line throughout the Island which services all the big towns. Unless you would like to do a whole tour, you must make several transport changes. A man directs all the passengers where to stand in the dusty car park and then you must wait (and hope) for the connection.

Less than 30 minutes from Ajaccio our train began to slow and puff rather violently. Pippa commented how funny it would be if it broke down, stuck in the middle of the mountains. Our train chugged to a noisy halt, the drivers jumped onto the track, hammers and other tools in hand, while the carriage filled with smoke. We waited and waited and the cold, damp dark began to descend. The train rolled back to the last station where, again, we waited and waited.

A bus arrived to take us to Ajaccio but our night was not over yet. Money issues are not a recent development in our lives: we have become quite accustomed to eating baguette for lunch and dinner on some days, scrimping for train tickets and finding cheap accommodation. Alors, enter: Couch Surfing. In front of the closed Ajaccio train station we waited until 10.30, with each passing minute thinking our luck had finally run out and wondering what we were going to do stranded in Ajaccio late at night.

Mr. Couch Surfer eventually showed up, energy drink in hand. We piled into his little car and began to drive out of Ajaccio… He explained that his house had become almost a hostel for couch surfers in the recent months, with at least one couch surfer every night for over a month. We made quick introductions, discussed Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and then very nearly passed out with exhaustion.

The next morning we rose early and walked another 35 minutes into Ajaccio town centre. Morning bank balance check revealed that we were now in the money, from rags to riches overnight. We spent the morning wandering around Ajaccio, enjoying the sun, the markets and the palm trees. In the afternoon we found a beach and swam in the Mediterranean! The water was clear blue, the sand golden and there were sail boats just off shore.

Late that night, after a lovely meal in a harbour side restaurant we took a taxi back up to Mr. Couch Surfer’s house. The driver got slightly confused and we were dropped off about 100 metres down the road. It was dark and there was no footpath, just steep rock rising up from the road. We took off running and every time a car passed we threw ourselves against the rock. Another night on Mr. Couch Surfer’s couch. Another early start, ready for our ferry back to mainland France at 8.15a.m. As a parting gesture from Corsica the heavens opened and it poured.

A series of unexpected events in Corsica, but despite all that happened, I loved the rustic charm of this Island. At times though, this “rustic charm” was just plan ol’ run down. I loved the diverse and interesting terrain. And I loved the Corsican people: polite, friendly and always keen for a chat.

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