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December, 2009:

Joyeux Noël

A quick trip back to the UK and on our return we’re topped up with the gastronomic spoils of international travel. All the important stuff like Yorkshire tea, assorted bulk spices cloves, cinnamon, cardamon, turmeric so necessary for curries and erm, brewing! The comedic weight restrictions which are sometimes imposed by Ryanair (and often time completely ignored) meant that our pockets were stuffed with goodies when we flew back home and I can attest that a gilet can quite comfortably hold two 700g blocks of extra mature cheddar and a selection of crumbly tart Wensleydale and Cheshire for good measure! Interestingly the first flight I’ve ever been on where GSM mobile phones where allowed to be used officially. Strangely the aircraft didn’t plunge from the skies. Fancy that.

Good to spend time with our family and deliver a load of presents and pick up a few goodies (pork scratchings!) to bring back too.

Dead Donkey Cake

Rather pleasant slice of Bavarois with afternoon coffee!

My xmas porter has been bottle conditioning for ten days now and for good measure I set off a tenaciously spiced cider to ferment on the old lees. It’s bubbling away in the corner as I write. One more beer related post is in the wings for boxing day when I’ll report back on the beer of the year.

Tootling off around the shops today and they’re stocked up with Christmas goodies. Geese are in the shops at last and it’s the one time of year when you can buy them… if you’ve got deep pockets. Our pair would have cost > €100 to buy at todays prices in the shops so the economics of raising them is very rewarding. The shops are also full of Chapons. Castrated male birds are something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on sale in the UK but are a firm favourite here at xmas time. They’re expensive at €12/Kg but look magnificent in the stores.. something I may consider having a go at next year if I can pluck up the courage – the castration is not without some small risk to the bird but after his cacahuettes are gone he no longer has to worry about fighting, chasing ladies or having sex… just eating! We’ve two more cockerels to bid adieu to between Christmas and New Year so that will round out the poultry raising year nicely. In just a few short weeks we’ll be planning hatching some more!

Speaking of  le shopping, things which all year round are normally very reasonably priced seem to have shot up with huitres and crevettes doubling in price since last week. Normal service will resume in a fortnight no doubt.

I’d set myself a little personal challenge of trying to take a photo-a-day for December and it’s been fun so far, managed to turn in some of the best images of the year as a result. I’ll revisit photos early next year but for now, here’s a slideshow of my Advent 2009 set from flickr.

That’s it for now. I’ve got a slice of cake to polish off – much better to eat these things than take photos of them! Chestnuts are roasting on the fire… we’ve a never ending supply of eggs of course so I’ll be making a batch of egg nog later on and then we’re bunkering down for a good week or so for our very own French xmas. Compliments of the season to you all.

Bit of a nip in the air

Bit of a nip in the air this morning!

Bit of a nip in the air this morning!

So, I got fully cladded up like a polar explorer at half three this morning to go and check on our latest batch of chicks. We’d only hatched them at the end of September and I had visions of seeing them in a Bernard Mathews state. I needn’t have worried, they were out prancing around their cage digging in the snow like it was the most natural thing in the world. Hardy stuff.

Far more hardy than me.. back to bed with a mug of chocolat chaud

Look out, look up!

Here’s hoping that wherever you are… over the evenings this coming weekend… I hope you have clear skies and have an opportunity to have a look up.

The annual Geminid Meteor Shower is upon us with a good chance of a peak of 100 meteors an hour over the evenings of the 12th, 13th and 14th December – all the more visible as there’s no moon  to speak of that weekend.

I’d had a bit of a hoot this year so far spotting the Perseid and Leonid meteor showers and look forward to these.

The splendid chaps of  Newbury Astronomical Society have put together an excellent teaser trailer.

For those that tweet it’ll all  be on twitter as it unfolds

Slow food, from hatch to dispatch in 126 days.

It’s been just a little over four months since we hatched our first clutch of chickens. Our first batch produced 4 cockerels and two hens. The hens get to stay as replacement layers for us – we keep a rolling stock of younger birds for this and in the past have bought young pullets at ‘point-of-lay’. One bird was the pick of the bunch and was given as a gift to our neighbours. He’ll get to spend his days cock-a-doodle-doo-ing, dancing and shimmying and having lots of sex. Not a bad life.

So, the day of reckoning for the remaining batch of three young cocks was upon us. Joan and I went to the paddock to collect them. They all started to cock-a-doodle-doo, so no mistaking that they were boys and each one was swiftly dispatched in the time honoured tradition. Plucking chickens is a doddle and all three were done in less than an hour… affording a brief photo opportunity! Line up boys, smile for the camera.

Three big cocks

We get amazingly deep orange eggs – unsurpassed by anything else I’ve ever tasted. The eggs are flavoursome, have a bit of body and have lovely creamy yolks. Cooking with them gives everything an amazing yellow cast. These birds, slow raised on a diet that’s mostly open pasture (more of that later!) the carcasses show a  mix of characteristics from their parents. No mistaking the big legs and tall gait of their father and a reasonably plump size. They’re not a meat breed specifically.. rather a cross of a handsome pure bred male and the assorted farmhouse layers we have about the place – all imbued with that amazing cast from a natural forage diet.

Oi! Get DOWN!

Oi! Get DOWN! Naughty kitteh gets shouted at. Again.

When they were dressed the finished oven-ready weights were 1.7kg, 1.68kg and 1.48kg. The kitten got the hearts as a treat for patiently ‘helping’ with the plucking and not actually nomming on them whilst we were working. She did have a few goes though – can hardly blame her as she could sense da flava!

In the months since we hatched these chicks I’ve given quite some thought to the lot of chickens. The average supermarket el-cheapo animal is intensively reared indoors on a fast-grow diet, never sees the light of day and meets it’s end in 43 days. We have excellent Label Rouge birds in the shops here which get to free range and are a minimum of 81 days old and make fine eating. An upmarket bird is available that’s 100 days old and if you wish to push the boat out a poulet fermier can be bought from the boucherie for about €15. What does that time buy you? A better standard of living for the bird, better meat.. more flavour… the animal is a different shape.. it’s got longer legs, less breast meatand with a darker, more intense flavour. A world apart from the pallid, plump, boneless slabs of pink breast meat sold in poly trays. It’s worth the wait.

So, back to our boys. The smaller bird is lined up for todays Sunday lunch and the other two go off into the freezer after a few days. The livers are retained for making a farce for stuffing the birds with. I’ve used minced pork shoulder, minced smoked bacon, black pepper, the livers from the birds, three softened onions, a whole branch of  sage and a respectable slug of Armagnac. Some bread crumbs to bind and it’s done. I fried off a patty like a little mini luxury burger as a cooks sample. Trés bien, chefs privilege and all that.

Necks have already made me a litre of stock which simmered for 7 hours on top of the wood stove yesterday and that just leaves the remarkable and oft overlooked Gizzard. The organ that does all of the work, turning the diet of the bird into the good stuff that we like to eat. And herein lies the key issue around food that we eat… if you take literally the phrase you are what you eat and actually think about it for a moment it really does ring true. I’ll expand.

Our chickens all free-range of course. We feed them a few handfuls of a compound poultry growers feed, a few handfuls of mixed grain and some feedcorn… but the vast majority of what they consume they have to get themselves from the garden / paddock.  They are voracious omnivores so whilst a good 80% of what they eat is grass they love nothing better than a worm, insect, bug, spider, small baby mouse, gecko or indeed… carrot peeling.  Having no teeth they require a gizzard loaded with tiny shards of gravel to munch up all the stuff they eat… and that’s what brings them their colour and flavour. Proof of the pudding is in the gizzard – so to speak.  It’d be rude of me not to dissect the fresh organ for you!

Gesiers de Volaiile

You are what you eat. It would seem grass, mostly.

So, with the chicken’s last meal chucked away, the hard plate inside the gizzard is removed and that sweet, intense dark meat can be used. I’m a huge fan of confit gesiers so I just lightly marinade the meat for 24 hours in sea salt, thyme, garlic and black pepper.

Gesiers

A Cheeky marinade for the gizzards

After a day spent soaking up that flavour they’re ready to be slowly poached in duckfat on the fire for 5/6 hrs until meltingly tender. Only the slightest tremble of the fat is required.. barely enough to ‘glop’ once in a while as they’re not cooked as such,  more taught a lesson in how to become something delicious. It’s a truism for any meat that the bits that are often considered poorer often have the very best flavour. The Gesiers will store for months if kept under the fat and makes a superb warm salad when re-warmed in a pan, chopped and tossed with a mesclun salad.

So, enough offal.. what about the real deal. Well, it was superb. Good, flavourful meat, the breast was meltingly tender, the legs with good strong flavor of real chicken. The farce a particular hit and the resultant fond made from a reduction of the cooking juices and a little vegetable water was pure heaven.

agreable supper

December 6th, Slender thighs and ample dark breasts

Pain pain, how the path to gourmet bread is paved with peril

A nod from our neighbour… he’s firing up his wood fired oven as he has a baking commission – 120 portions of gateau-sec, a local dry biscuit that’s like an airy version of shortbread. 120 portions is a lot to make and you need a big oven and when it’s up to temperature it’ll be good to go for quite some hours… so, it was time to get makin’ some bakin’!

I knocked up 3kg worth of assorted flours into a number of different breads.

  • Using a French T55 flour,  24 hour rise pavé made with ice-water to retard the yeast and develop the flour glutens slowly.
  • A couple of Batards made with a mix of strong flour, rye and buckwheat Sarrasin.
  • ‘Normal’ white base for pizzas.
  • A big batch of Chelsea Buns!

I didn’t do the house special Sourdough as I didn’t have enough time but the flavour of the other loaves came through well and I was pleased with the results.

But, the path to high gastronomy is paved with peril! We’d already made our pizzas at this point and things were going well. We had a bit of teamwork going. I was flouring the paddle and unloading the bread from the bannetons onto the  blade of the peel. Mr Morin was in his element driving the loading of the oven with the last batch of breads, deftly flicking them off onto the red-hot stone.

Boulanger at work

Le boulanger travaille à son four à pain

I was keen to try and take a closer shot.. so.. regretfully got a little too close to the source of the heat.. and for my troubles ended up a lot less eyebrow and eyelash on one side of my head! Still, I got the snap of the oven spring action.

I suffer for my art

What's that smell? Oh, my eyebrow!

It takes no time to cook bread in that heat and the results are just great. The flavour development in the bread is superb… a real crust with bite and chew and a definite something special. It’s the missing link for home made bread really. Very few domestic ovens are ever going to get close to that level of heat and intensity. Don’t even get me started on bread machines.

Bread. Bored

Chop chop

Next day, I’ve got lots of loaves to slice for the freezer.

Simply, makes the best toast ever. Lashings of butter and a spoon of home made marmalade and we’re set for a great breakfast!

Slices of Pavé

It's all about da flava

Carrot Cake

Every once in a while I knock up something for one of Joan’s ladies soireés. On a recent trip to the Supermarche, the autumn veg is cheap as chips and all of it excellent quality. 5Kg of carrots… for €1 ! ?

It’s insanely cheap and at that price not worth growing your own really… I mean.. that’s just giving them away.

So. Raw carrots munched whilst walking around the garden. Carrot salad. Carrot soup. Sauteed carrots as a side dish… and come the monthly ladies meeting… carrot cake!

carrot cake

Cake!

Cakes and biscuits and the like are not my normal stock in trade… I do them once in a while but I’m just not a pâtissier – having said that I had fun making it and it did seem to go down well. On collecting Joan I was able to meet many of her ladyfriends amidst a clamour of cries for the recipe.

It’s not for the feint hearted. Nor for the Diabetic. Nor for those on a Diet. If you ate a slice and you’re shocked.. I apologise… but… you did ask!  The diet can start tomorrow.

Carrot Cake.

  • Very finely grate 500g of small/sweet carrots.
  • In a food processor blend 280ml of sunflower oil with 200g of brown sugar until pale and frothy. All the sugar should dissolve and there should be no grittiness.
  • 4 large free range eggs are added one at a time to the oil and sugar mixture.
  • You should have something now that is like a giant fluffy mayonnaise. It IS a giant fluffy mayonnaise, but with added sugar!
  • Add the seeds from one split vanilla pod. Keep the pod.
  • Sift together 200g flour, 2 tsp cinnamon,  1 tsp ginger, 2 tsp baking powder, 5 ml salt.
  • Add the dry ingredients in thirds to the liaison, gently folding in.
  • Add 200g raisins, folding in.
  • Finally add the finely grated carrot and fold.

Now, into a 28cm springform tin that you’ve previously floured and lined. 70 mins at 180C. Rest for ten mins in the hot oven, test for done-ness with a skewer, remove from tin and allow to cool overnight.

Done.

I topped with a heady mix of 150g full fat cream cheese (St. Moret is a ‘philadelphia’ style French version) . 150g unsalted butter and 300g icing sugar.

I skipped lunch as I was off taking photos, had a slice at 4pm with afternoon coffee – I was in a carb coma within 40 minutes. Top cake!

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