Saturday, 26 May 2012

Marmalade and the Woman in my Dining Room

Years ago when we first moved to the south of France, we wandered into a charming little art gallery on a pedestrian street in San Remo, Italy and found this painting of a beautiful woman.  Hubby and I fell in love with her instantly so after an hour or so of spirited Italian-style haggling, she was ours.

For 12 years now, she's been quietly overseeing dinners we host in our dining room and I always make it a point of seating my guests on the south side of the dining room table so they can see her while they dine.  Especially the men!

There she is, smiling enigmatically while dinner progresses from appetizers to dessert to espresso, and then hours later with full and happy bellies, we part ways and drift en masse to the salon.

It's a lovely painting but the thing I find most striking about it is the contrast between her face and the other elements of the painting.  She's no spring chicken yet her pose, her basket of luscious blood oranges and her exposed breast all say youth and sensual bounty yet her face says maturity and wisdom.

I was thinking about her and how much she reminded me of fruit trees we have growing in our garden in France.   Some of the trees are 50-100 years old, what would be considered quite young for fruit trees yet year after year they produce a prolific number of luscious fruit, with little or no assistance.  It's quite magical.

Every summer when I return to Ottawa for an annual visit, I fill a suitcase with home made citrus marmalade to sell at the incomparable annual Great Glebe Garage sale in our old neighbourhood to raise funds for the Nepal Youth Foundation. The marmalade is made from bitter oranges, lemons, kumquats and mandarins from these mature citrus trees in our terraced gardens that hug the mountainside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

I hope that under our guardianship the trees remain healthy for years to come.  And just like the woman in the painting,  the contrast between the mature age of our trees and the fresh, and delicious bounty they produce is one in the same.  And a pleasure to share.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

On June 28, 1919, Madame Alasia Bought Bread and Milk

"Book of Accounts belonging to...."
On June 28th, 1919, the same day that the Treaty of Versailles was being signed to end the First World War, Madame Catherine Alasia was writing in her Ledger Book of Deliveries and Purchases, "lait" and "3 livre du pain."  Total, 2.30 French Francs.  

Her purchase of milk and 3 pounds of bread  was a modest and prosaic task considering the gravity of what was taking place in Versailles to the north of her.

I found Mme Alasia's little 3"x5" account book at a local flea market and for the past few months, I've been picking it up, leafing through it, putting it down, and wondering what it all meant as I was seduced into the past whenever I opened it.  I paid a mere for it, a complete steal considering its age and how it's stirred my imagination.

One sunny afternoon, my French friend and I sat in my kitchen and pored over it, page by page, she with an innate understanding of French culture and me as a curious time traveller.  We were both eager to decipher what I considered to be a romantic food find.  Together we pieced together the closest we could come to the truth without having been there.

Mme Alasia's entries began in 1917 and ended in 1920.  Most likely, she was a cook for a Catholic residential school or an orphanage in Beausoleil or somewhere between Menton, France and Monaco.  

In her 30 page ledger book, she recorded her purchases and deliveries, and frequent travelling expenses of 3.60FF to Beausoleil near Monaco and to other nearby villages.  We assume that she had many children to feed based on her almost daily purchases of vast quantities of milk.  I imagine that many children were orphaned in the war and perhaps these children fell under her guardianship.

Why Catholic?  Mme Alasia mentions "Mother Superior" and "the sisters" in one of her entries and my French friend noted that every year around Easter, Mme Alasia bought lamb which is traditionally eaten by Catholics at Easter.

Milk, bread, flour, and butter were her most frequent purchases.  Entries for vegetables, fruit, and meat were rare but one entry for soulier (shoes), pantoufle (slippers) and patin was intriguing.   

Patin were felt booties that you would slip on over your shoes or directly on your feet, and then polish your wood floors by sliding around in them.  I'm not sure who would have worn the patin at the time, perhaps Mme Alasia or an energetic child but the idea of someone slipping on patin and sliding around to polish floors is utterly charming to me.

I'm glad I found this little book and that I could share it with you.  
I think it's a remarkable and intriguing little time capsule of what must have been a difficult and austere time to be living in France.

"Receive, dear Mother Superior, our best wishes for the holidays and hello to the sisters"

March 4-8, 1920:  "trip, bread, flour, stamp, milk, flour, return to Beausoleil, butter, meat. Total, 19.85 FF"

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Eating in the Car

I don't know about you but when I was a kid, eating on the car was strictly verboten.  Even in the summer when my dad brought us to the Dairy Queen for ice cream cones we had to sit at a picnic table in the parking lot, our sticky hands and faces a safe distance from the car.

Fast forward 20 years to when hubby and I started dating.  I got conditional permission to eat McIntosh apples in the fall in his sports car while we toodled around town but in the spring, this permission was rescinded along with a stern lecture, when he discovered one of my apple cores had overwintered under the passenger seat.  Oops.

To make up for such a strict upbringing, I've been known to eat all kinds of stuff in the car as an adult.  My favourite is strawberries from road side stands and I'm very careful to never leave a mess except what drips occasionally on my own clothing.

On a recent trip to the town of Antibes, just down the coast from Monaco, I bought a kilo of peas and I decided to make the best use of my time so I shelled them in the car while we were zipping home on the highway.  How's that for multi tasking?  Preparing dinner and snacking on strawberries at the same time!

When we arrived home, I had a full half kilo of shelled peas, less losses due to sampling of course.    I think my dad would approve.

Oh, and I checked under the seats just to be sure I didn't drop any.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Salad of Home Made Goats' Milk Cheese, Tomatoes, Fresh Peas and Mâche


I think the French do a stellar job when it comes to dairy products.  The sheer quantity and variety they produce is astounding and lucky for us they're available everywhere you go.  Even in the tiniest corner store in the tiniest villages and in the truck stops en route to them have a fine selection on offer.

Personally, I never drink milk unless it's poured into a hot cuppa or frothed and added to my Caffè Orzo but I'm always up for tasting anything at least once. For years now, I've been buying fresh milk from Mr Gaborit for hubby's cappuccino to great applause so when I saw Mr Gaborit's new Lait frais de chèvre or fresh goats' milk, I thought I'd give it a go.

Mr Gaborit's organic farm is in Maulévrier in the Maine et Loire Prefecture in the north west of France near Nantes and it's here where he raises his mostly free range goats, cows, and sheep.  His milk is pasteurized but not homogenized, which may explain the extraordinary taste:  sweet, buttery, clean, and creamy.  It makes commercial milk taste bitter and diluted by comparison.

Even though his cows' milk is demi-écrémé or partly skimmed, it tastes and acts like full fat milk.  When you first open a new container there's always a luxurious plug of cream on the top.  I read with delight on the label:  "shake to mix in the cream,"  just like in the good old days.

Call me crazy but the first thing that came to mind after tasting the goats' milk was how good it would taste as a fresh cheese. Luckily, fresh cheese is surprisingly quick and easy to make so off I went.

You can use this recipe to make cheese with any fresh goat milk available where you are or if you can't find goats' milk, you can substitute fresh, full fat cows' milk.  Moo!

Salad of Home Made Goat Cheese, 
Tomatoes, Fresh Peas and Mâche

Succulent, intense Merinda Tomatoes.  If you can find them, use them
Makes 2 servings

Large sieve or colander
Fine meshed sieve
Salad spinner


For the fresh cheese:
4 1/4 cups (1 litre) fresh goats' milk
1 tablespoon  plus one teaspoon (18g) plain white vinegar
1 tablespoon water
A pinch of granulated sugar

For the salad:
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
1 cup (15g) fresh basil leaves
Fleur de sel or sea salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3-4 small Merinda tomatoes, sliced or cherry tomatoes, halved
3 cups (40g) Mâche
1/2 (75g) cup fresh peas, (about 150g in their pods)
2 tablespoons (16g) pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon lemon thyme leaves, finely chopped
Fleur de sel
Freshly ground pepper


1. Wash and spin the mâche.  Put it in the fridge to crisp up. While you're there, put your serving plates in the fridge too.

Drained curd, ready to be pressed and chilled
2. Make the fresh goat cheese.  Line a sieve with two layers of cheesecloth.  Rinse a large sauce pan with water and leave about 1 tablespoon of water in the pan.  Add the milk and the pinch of sugar.  On high heat, bring the milk to a boil and as soon as begins to rise in the pan turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar.  Let it sit, undisturbed for about 30 seconds, then pour it through your cheese cloth lined sieve.  Once the liquid has drained you'll be left with the curd.  Gather together the cheesecloth and form the bundle into a square or rectangle. Place it on a plate, weigh it down with another plate and place in the fridge to chill and firm up.

3.  Prepare the basil oil.  Bring some unsalted water to a boil and toss in the basil.  stir gently, count to 20 and drain.  Lay the basil out on a clean tea towel or paper towels.  Roll gently to dry.  Place the basil and the 1/4 cup olive oil in a blender and blend on medium speed for 30 seconds.  Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl or measuring cup, press out as much of the oil as you can.  Set the oil aside.

4.  Boil the fresh peas in salted water for one minute.  Remove with a slotted spoon and place an ice bath.   After they're cold, drain them and set them aside.

5.  Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth and slice into any shape you wish.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, gently toss the mâche with half of the basil oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and the chopped lemon thyme. Divide the mâche between the two plates, top with the sliced tomatoes, peas and cheese.  Drizzle with the remaining basil oil.  Sprinkle on the pine nuts, a bit of fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper.

1.  Don't leave the milk on the stove unattended.  It boils over in an instant and trust me, it'll make a big mess.
2.  I didn't remove the skin from the tomatoes but you certainly can.  It would add a more refined note to your salad. To do so, cover them with boiling water for 30 seconds or dip them into boiling water then plunge them into ice water and leave them there for 5 minutes.  Peel, slice.