A big Hip hip to this New Year, 2013! May it be a good one for all and a happy and healthy one.
Just thought I’d say I haven’t forgotten about the blog, just busy cruising the streets in S.A. (South Australia) and lapping up as much quality time as possible, before the annually dreaded departure. Gotta make the most of it!
But somehow there’s those petite ‘mon Dieu’ surprises that always bring France back to mind…
Oh boy, now I am in a PANIC. Could you please put a BIG ‘P.S.’ next to this part and pretend it was part of the other post???
My lovely friend Jen has just informed me that part of a text I had written and hadn’t finished – a draft – WENT ONLINE!!!?!!! Whoops. I must have pressed ‘publish’ when I meant to press the button ‘SAVE DRAFT’!?!!
See what I mean? I really need to get my head around a computer and its buttons. THIS WAS NOT INTENDED. So now you have had a glimpse (if you saw the first version online before I updated, that is) into some crazy text that wasn’t finished and sounded so smutty (it ended with a polite ‘naked hairy pussy’). Double whoops and I’m sorry!…
So, here goes: part 1 + part 2
I’m a loser when it comes to all things technical. Almost anything in the realm of computers intimidates me – and the fact that I don’t know much and employ the good old ‘trial and error’ method, there are often moments of sheer panic as I wipe out hours of work off the screen… I get those delightful hot flushes of fear all from sitting at a keyboard. So much fun.
I still can’t believe I managed to get this blog working, though I admit I nearly crashed it a few days ago. It was only through the kindness of a person out there in the WordPress community that I managed to keep it on the road.
As I sat in a haze of panic, something did however make me smile: “Naked Hairy Pussy”.
(part 2 – …and you thought it ended with a naked hairy pussy)
As I was scurrying around the working pages and forums on my computer when I thought I’d crashed it, I suddenly saw the list of all the keywords and phrases typed by people into their computers to find my blog – or rather, found my blog by accident, with them. It was illuminating! They were all listed under “Search Engine Terms”. Find out more about Search Engine term and ‘optimization’ here!
Naked Hairy Pussy was one of them.
And these were too: (I’m going to link these terms to stuff in my blog where possible, just to give myself a plug – not so sure for the N.H.P. though…)
Checking the grapes, the night before school goes back
It only seems like yesterday that Lilas broke up from school and started the Summer holidays at the beginning of July.
And then before I knew it, we’d been on the Naked tour, my family had come and gone, the Olympics and Paralympics ended with a bang, the Fetes de Villages had packed up for the year, our Summer friends had all been and gone…
…and suddenly the grapes got ripe for the picking! (‘Les Vendanges’):
– and the new school year (‘La Rentree’) 2012-2013 started.
Come September, a different kind of ambience sets in around here. The tourists (or most of them!) have left en masse, the weather softens and jumpers come out for nights on the terrace, the markets no longer have ‘bouchons’ (traffic jams):
…the local pools have shut their gates:
– and tanned bodies (just not ours) post ‘les vacances’:
…get ready for some WORK!
Les Vendanges is one of the most important events on our local calendar (most people in our village own or have some family connection/ investment in grape vines) – and each year, come September, there is the most wonderful buzz in the air. The village hums with expectation and excitement over the ‘recolte’ (harvest) – it’s time to pick the ‘fruits’ of a long year’s labour.
And harvest always coincides with the kiddies going back to school after two months’ of holidays. I still can’t quite get my head around this school ‘year’ here. In Australia our school ‘year’ begins around the beginning of the calendar year, in February – after Xmas and at the end of Summer. Here, each school year ends in what I would call the middle of the year, July, and then recommences in September. And because of this schoolbooks, labels etc name the school ‘year’ as ‘2000-2001’ etc. This year for example, is ‘2012-2013’. I know I’m rambling. Maybe it’s because I’m from ‘down there’ that I’m confused.
Anyway, back to the grapes. The reds are just getting under way, but Benji has been picking for a couple weeks’ now as the whites here ripened earlier. As for how this year’s harvest will be? It’s looking good so far – relief! The weather has been almost perfect for the grapes these last few weeks – a lot of sun and no rain – and so it all needs to come in NOW!
It will be the biggest week yet – 4am starts, working through until 6pm, 7/7. Another couple of weeks of this, then it’s finished for the pickers and machine harvesters in the vines, but full-steam ahead in the wine cellar – managing the tanks and their juice. Benji will maintain this crazy routine for a few more weeks yet – until the end of October. And then it will be time to think about HIS holiday!…
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!