It was meant to have been a BIG surprise, but in the end we knew. But that didn’t change ANYTHING in the way of how excited I was to have my parents – for the first time in 12 years!!- come and visit us.
My lovely brother had tried as hard as he could to keep it a surprise until the very last but, with all sorts of things popping up on his end and ours, had to tell us that he was heading our way with two of his kids and da da da daaaa… Ma and Pop in tow!
Since we moved here 14 years ago I’ve been enormously lucky to have had so many friends and family stay – and each time is so special as you get to enjoy each person on their own and usually over an extended time (hey, this is no quick side trip on the itinerary – if you’re going to travel from one side of the world to the other you’d better make it a decent trip!). I adore going back to see everyone in Oz, but it can get hectic trying desparately to catch up with everyone at once. This way, when people come to stay on our turf, I can relish every minute of their company and not have to juggle with a social diary.
So this was Jan and Pete’s – and Mark, Ruby and James’s turn to finally drop their bags and hang out (in the home that my parents hadn’t seen until now!)
I took them to all the places they’d rememebered vividly from twelve years ago, dined in a few lovely bistrots, cooked my favourite meals for them, introduced them to our mates and even snuck in a few drinking sessions, bien sur, with Benji’s wines (yes I’ll make it clear you don’t drink the stuff Mum).
I can’t tell you how good it was to have everyone here at last. I’m still smiling. Thanks big bro Mark for making it happen!
ps – a word of warning! there’s a few pics down below, sorry – but hell, this trip was twelve years in the making!
I want to share a little recipe with you. It’s asparagus season here and every year we eat tonnes of it and the way we’ve normally prepared it, is steamed until al dente and served on a platter with boiled egg scattered over the top and then washed over with a mustard vinaigrette (essentially an oil-based sauce with vinegar – to which you can add lemon juice, salt, pepper, mustard etc, whatever you feel like!).
We’ve been eating it for years and I’ve never considered preparing it any other way, I like it so much! That is, until I ate Philippa’s oven-baked asparagus.
Philippa and her partner John have a winery here in the Minervois – Hegarty Chamans – where they make a great range of organic and biodynamic whites (I love their Marsanne Roussanne!) and reds. Their philosophy of how they make their wines follows into the kitchen. Philippa is an amazing cook and meals there are a real treat. It’s like a celebration of fresh produce (often from their ‘potager’/ vegie patch), colours and aromas. There’s no messing around, just simple, pure flavours blended beautifully together. And it all feels so healthy! (if I leave my wine consumption out of the equation). This dish in particular is a beauty. Thanks Philippa, I’ve been hooked ever since you served this entree of asparagus!
Philippa’s Oven-Baked Asparagus
(Yum! and great served as an entree…)
2-3 bunches green asparagus
a good cup full of grated Swiss Gruyere (my favourite cheese EVER) or Parmesan
3-4 dried chopped dried chillies (or 1 or 2 fresh – very hard to find around these parts!)
salt and pepper
chop the ends off the asparagus spears (I never really peel the ends), then rinse and pat dry in a teatowel
pour olive oil into bottom of a good heavy baking dish and swirl to spead the oil
place the spears, then top with the cheese, then the chillies, drizzle more oil and then add salt, pepper to taste
bake in moderate to hot oven (in my old gas oven I cook them on ‘7’) for 30 mins ( or for however long you want, depending on how much crunch you want to leave in the spears)
Et voila! so simple and so delicious!
…and a note on the wine! Asparagus is a difficult thing to match with wine. But if you really can’t resist, go ahead and eat them with a dry but fruity white… Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris
You don’t get to meet too many Aussies around here (that’s ‘Australian’ when talking Orstrayan)… it took me more than 10 years to meet this one. Yes, there are quite a few foreigners around here – English, Dutch, New Zealander, some Americans, Irish,Canadian – but not so many from where I’m from.
I’d always been told about ‘the other Aussie’ in the next village – “Vous ne connaissez pas Joff-wah?!?” (aka Geoffrey), they would exclaim. No, I’d respond. I hadn’t met ‘the other one’, even after many years of exploring Felines, a mere 3 km’s from us , I’d never set eyes on Joff-wah. I’d been told I would have remembered if I’d met him. And I now know why.
Meeting ‘Geoff’ (I’ll stay simple) finally happened via the lovely Evonne, who had recently moved in and become the third Aussie in our parts. How wonderful to finally have some ‘mates’ from the other side of the world!! I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to finally hear the word ‘dance’ rhyme with ‘ants’ and to hear news of a dawn meeting at Geoff’s to watch the AFL Grand Final of Australian Rules football. Unheard of in the Minervois until now! After all these years. Geoff also has a French partner (divine Florence) who also works in wine, like mine – it’s mad we’d never met.
Now I should tell you that Geoff, as well as being token Aussie in his village, is also known as a damn fine snail catcher and cook. It’s a big tradition around here and once these little slimy creatures come out in force after a big rain, you hear much talk amongst the locals of ‘cagaraula’ (‘snails’ in local Occitan). Evonne had told me how good Geoff’s snails were and it was thanks to him that I got to try my third-ever* meal of ‘les escargots’…
* (the first time was back in 1997 in Cape Town where Benji and I had recently eloped – long story and one that I will explain, later! – and out dining with some Frenchies, I thought I should dip my toes into ‘their’ cuisine once and for all)
And what were they like? Bloody good!!
I must say I loved every bit of this dish. A bit of tomato here, a lovely chunk of pork meat there, some snail flesh here… It’s amazing how well the flavours merged and complemented each other. I just didn’t want to stare at my fork for too long and wonder about where the big slimy chunks had grown up.
After beginning our evening with a yummy apero of La Tour Boisee white wine, the snails slid down deliciously with red. Florence’s La Tour Boisee Minervois 2010 was a real treat.
I used to think that these creatures were torn from their outside homes, cleaned up a bit, thrown into a cook pot and then served swimming out of their shells in cream and garlic. Not so simple! Snail hunting and preparation is a carefully orchestrated, time-consuming passion. I could give you my boring, textbook account of how Geoff prepares his snails, but I think the words of the Snail Hunter himself are far more interesting:
1. Once the snails are collected they are put into a bird’s cage. Trapping the snails in a cage allows them to empty their stomachs from herbs or plants that could be poisonous to humans. So a period of starvation assures that you are not going to kill your friends after your dinner party. You can change their diet by feeding the snails with herbs, spices and salads that do not harm humans. Starving the snails makes them thinner and less earthy tasting. So this caging period is a tricky one and most Snailers have their method of doing it. Some other elements that determine the length and method of caging the snails are also the climate, type of cage and the location of the cage. It is a long process as you don’t want the snails to die of starvation, neither suicide from madness, or just simply close back up in their shell in hibernation. Consider the caging period of a snail like trapping the wine in a container. Wine is alive and its “caging period” between the vine to the table is felt at the time of digestion.
The only time I put them in the bath tub or the kitchen sink is to clean them (I had been told the cage had sat in the family bath tub) – the “cleaning period”. Depending on the amount of snails I have, I’ll use either the tub or the sink.
Cleaning the Snails
2. Cleaning the snails comes before the time of death. You clean the snails after the caging period. Washing and sorting the snails is the biggest manual task of the cook. It can take up to three hours to clean them. You give them a good little scrub on their shell and try to make a last minute moose (frothing). Some sorry arsed Snailers throw little bit of vinegar on them to make them froth. I do this in very small amounts to the last of the snails that have not yet come out of their shell. Note: before the snails go into the pot for cooking you have to make sure that the snail can come out of its shell and that is not dead. Snails that die in the cage during the caging period either die from old age or unsupervised mismanagemant during the caging method. Do not include any snails that are dead or that haven’t cracked their bonnet after the cage !
How do they Die?
3. The Time Of Death. This is very delicate. Once the snails have been cleaned they are put into a large pot of COLD water and heated very slowly. As the water warms up the snails drift off to sleep and as the water gets hotter they die.
That was so delicious, so can we have the recipe?
4. My recipe is not a secret. However I don’t go telling just anyone. Cooking snails takes years of practice. In this region a snailer is only able to cook snails about 4 to 6 times maximum per year. I do it about 4 times a year, depending on how much rainfall we get. This year will be my 9th snailing season. I use fresh pork sausage meat.
Hmmn, I guess that means we can’t have it.
And no Benji, you can’t take home any of Florence’s family record collection!
No recipe, no records, but a final word from the SH:
I think there is a village rule that does not allow snailing until around the 1st of May. Snail hunting season! This is an old rule however and there is a blind eye towards it as there are not as many snailers as there used to be (Snailers: my word for them). The most discreet way around this rule is to never talk about it, and if you do happen to go snailing in the off-season you should never brag about how many snails you got.
Amongst the existing Snailers there is huge competition. You should never be seen on another snailer’s turf. I did make a slippery visit this morning to check the snail turf of Lily Marty just to see if a few snails had cracked their bonnet but there were none visible. While shifting around on her turf I felt like I was stealing scones from her kitchen window. I didn’t stay long as I didn’t want to be seen. I do have my own snail turfs around the place which are not as good as the snail turfs of some of the older local Snailers, as some are a bit more complicated to access.
The first major rain will bring out the big snails. Apparently we have just gone through the driest winter in one hundred years so I am not familiar with what state the hibernating little buggers will be in. I guess there will not be any major difference to the hibernation state of a snail from previous years but this is still unknown as there is not a living Snailer older than one hundred years to tell me. All I can imagine is that soon the snail hibernation will be ended by a big rain and snailing will be given the green light ! I love the smell of snails in the morning !
Thanks Geoff (and Florence and Evonne!), for your ‘Les Escargots a La Minervoise’. From one Aussie to another, they and the evening were tres, tres bon!
Back towards Pierre and Laetitia, on the same side is Valerie’s ‘garden’…
‘Le Jardin de Valerie’ is the one of the most enticing stands… Her tables are lined with beautiful baskets laden with luminous green salads, rocket, mini broccolis, mini cabbages, shiny yellow ‘courgettes’/ zucchinis, celeriac, the best potatoes I’ve eaten in a long time and an enticing array of home-made ‘gelees’ and confitures (jams). The jelly made of muscat is a beautiful accompaniment to a chunk of aged ‘brebis’/ sheep’s milk (where are you Vincent?!?… your Brebis de Napoleon was the one of the best cheeses we’ve ever had. You are missed at the markets!).
It’s not officially ‘organic’ produce, but Valerie’s principles are the same – cultivation with full respect for the environment, minimal water use and ‘lutte biologique’/ biological pest control. Compared to a lot of other fruit and vegetable producers you see at the markets, it’s by no means a big stand but in this scale, I’m reminded that all these beautiful vegetables are the product of one woman’s dedication and energy. Having visited Valerie’s ‘potagers’ (vegetable gardens) during an open day late last Summer, I was in awe at seeing the size of the whole thing, knowing that she maintained all of it herself (5 acres), and how much land you need to work to provide for a market stall, let alone your own weekly provisions! For her it’s a 7 day a week job from early morning till dark, but judging by her face she couldn’t be happier.
It’s been nearly two years since Valerie quit her job at the local paper and became a full-time grower and her enthusiasm for her produce is infectious. While I’m glancing over all the varieties of vegetables she’s always ready to share ideas for dishes she’s cooked at home with the same produce. She grows around 40-50 different varities of vegetables, including many ancient varities that you don’t see anymore in the supermarkets. I love buying her baby cabbages and the tiny heads of ‘mini’ broccolis and it’s the first time I’ve ever cooked with vegies like this. The flavours are so sweet and concentrated.
Her plans are ever expanding, she’s very excited about the large orchard recently planted of organic fruit trees which will help contribute to her jellies and jams.
I love shopping at the markets. I’m not able to find absolutely everything to stock the cupboards like I can in the supermarket, but its rewarding to get to know producers like Valerie, Pierre, Jacques and Laetitia and chat about how and why they do what they do.
These people usually have huge smiles on their faces – no matter how cold or hot or early in the morning – and you can see their satisfaction from selling their produce direct to the consumer. It’s also great exchanging recipe ideas and even just talking about the weather. Something we do a lot of around here!
One of the great things about living where we do, is the access to good produce. The Mediterranean climate allows for almost anything to be grown, and more and more I’m trying to buy locally from people I get to know at the local village markets.
The Olonzac market, one of the biggest in our area, is held every Tuesday morning until about 1pm. You can find almost anything: fruit, vegies, pastries, breads, meats, fish, flowers, fresh coffee, cheeses, olives, local honey, wine, ready-made asian dishes from the guy with his own personal dvd collection on loop in his van (Lilas’ favourite)… those hard to find ingredients for ‘exotic’ cuisine such as lemongrass, coriander and chilies and then there’s your zippers, hats, bras, oversized undies, slippers, kitchen utensils, Indian dresses, incense, second-hand books, army surplus clothing, jewellery… it’s endless.
This market is growing in size each year and in full Summer has traffic jams of people, carts and pushers down the bottleneck streets – you should try pushing a pusher through this mass…
There’s Pierre with his bread. You can spot him from a mile off, with his old van and black wool beret. He’s like a character from a film – and his organic bread is of the old, sourdough rustic style. He takes his time, nearly always a big smile on his face and an open pot of honey on his table to spread on his breakfast ‘pain’. And there’s always his thermos of hot coffee and tin mug ready for dipping. Pierre’s bread is the sort that you can keep for a week – not at all your light, airy baguette, but a full, wholesome loaf that is just divine toasted with butter and Vegemite.
Just up from Pierre is Laetitia, the young girl who a lot of the year has only her free-range eggs to sell. She has a tiny stand but always many people jostling around her. Throughout the year she sells apples, onions, potatoes, and in full summer has mountains of cheap tomatoes, nectarines, grapes, peaches and a queue leading back for miles. You have to be quick – her tomatoes can sell out by 9.30am.
Towards the roundabout on your left are the people selling THAT saucisson (salami)… ‘Mont Charvin’. The one that costs an arm and a leg, full of beautiful chunks of bright green pistachios. It’s a small investment buying even just one of their products, but once you’ve tasted the difference, you can’t buy supermarket salami again. In general I buy a lot less saucisson now, but boy do we enjoy the ’50 centimes slices’ when they’re around. By chance, I got to meet Jacques, the maker of this wonderful product the other day. I was thrilled to be able to tell him how much we loved his ‘salted meats’ and hear his story of how he and his brother-in-law, once butchers in Paris, settled down south and built a company from scratch offering a range of products made in the Savoie region of France, using no additives or preservatives.
But before I stop by the saucisson stand, I head quickly for Valerie’s before she runs out of vegetables…