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April, 2010:

Return on investment

I wrote, back in February that I’d been doing a small spell of gardening. I was lucky to pick what was perhaps one of the few reasonable days in an otherwise interminably long hard winter to get out and plant a few bulbs. Spring bulbs should have gone in before xmas but that just wasn’t happening… and besides which.. I bought the bulbs in the January sale – €7, Result!

So, three hundred tulip bulbs later, a few short weeks, a touch of sunshine, a splash of rain and we’re in business!



The house has been filled with cut flowers for a couple of weeks now. Daffs arrive on the tail end of the cold winter but right now the Tulip crop is just about peaking and heralding a proper warm spring.

Bunches and bunches brought up today from the garden. Fresh flowers in every room and a couple of bundles of extras to take round to our neighbours.


Pootling around down at that end of the garden and I noticed that the very first of this years asparagus spears popping through. Putting them in a few years ago was a bit of a slog but now the investment is all set to pay off once more, as per 2008 and 2009. Ker-ching!

Still to come in the cut flowers department… Gladioli, Lillies, Crocus, Freesias. I think back to life in the UK where I must have coughed up a tenner a week to have a glimpse of colour flown in from halfway across the globe. No more.

La brasseuse

Jungle drums started beating, my chum from brassage-amateur tipped me off that there was a portes-ouvertes at a local brewery. It doesn’t take much more motivation than that – day trip ahoy!

I did a little search online for all breweries in France. Nothing in our immediate area. Nearest to us is the Brasserie de Bellefois in the Vienne, been there, done that. Next nearest is Brasserie des Fontaines up north in Maine et Loire – so off we go. Zip over to Vienne to collect Yann, my brew-buddy and then into the winelands we go! Always love driving through these areas. The differing terroir unfolds in front of you as you roll through countryside that hasn’t changed in centuries. We’re very shortly in serious wine country. Dessert wines from the Coteaux du Layon Saint-Lambert get stellar scores from Robert Parker/Wine Spectator and have a price tag to match. So, a bold move for a young lady to set up a brewery in this area – I love the chutzpah!

Food for the Porte Ouverte visitors

Brasserie des Fontaines

To the village of Les Verchers-sur-Layon for a visit to the brewery which has been open for a few years now. Set up in a converted hangar we were greeted by a small oven burning dried vine clippings and offering some delightful snacks.

Small bread Galipettes – very similar to a fat pitta bread hot from the oven with garlic butter, some artisanal jams or a giant tub of rillets? Then hot roasted field mushrooms with garlic and grain mustard? Non stop food was on offer to complement the non-stop free beer. Superb – just like being at home!

lady brewer - Anne-Catherine Sailly

Anne-Catherine Sailley, our hostess and lady brewer

We were greeted by our hostess Anne-Catherine Sailley.  She was on hand to run through tours of the brewery for a never ending series of visiting groups.

Good to see a small scale operation like this which wasn’t a million miles from what a home brewer might do. I listened in on a couple of her talks and there were some genuinely insightful questions from some people – fascinating stuff.

Yann - tour guide

Yann. my Brew-Buddy!

My friend Yann was bringing up the rear and chipping in his knowledge of brewing too. Any passing visitor was fair game!

So. Down to business. Beer.


Barman doing the business

The beer was free flowing, we sampled through the range of house beers and also got to taste some limited run speciality beers. I think for me the beers all had a pronounced Belgian style and were a world apart form the usual faire – all very high quality. My standout fave was the Sarcophagus. Jet black, sweet, loads of caramel malt and layers of liquorice and toffee and a fairly robust 8.5%. A slow sipping stunner.

It was good to see the small batch nature of the original brewhouse and have a good poke around the equipment and ingredients. There was a transition under way with lots of shiny new fermenters that had only just been installed but not yet commissioned. It’ll be great to return in the future to see it all in operation and impressive to think that it’s by and large all a one-woman operation.

I managed a brief discussion on one of my pet topics. Home malting. Anne-Catherine had a tray full of germinated barley and a small scale roaster to allow her to both deal with local grains for one of her special brews (Organic barley from nearby and wild hops gathered locally) and also to produce malts to her own recipe. I can produce some excellent batches of my own crystal malts here but I do get quite a dark toast on them – i find it difficult to do a low temperature kilning in my current oven. Anne-Catherine offered up my choice of malts from her stocks so I left double-happy. Cases of beer and sacks of grain in the boot of the car!


"Me? In a Brewery? With my reputation?"

Full marks to Joan who, despite the photographic evidence, was a picture of restraint, hardly touched a drop and chauffeured Yann and I around all day. So, a great day, very relaxed atmosphere, loads of visitors all getting to see the works of a small artisanal brewer, taste beer and case after case of  it was walking out the door. Good times!

As usual, full photoset is on flickr

So, about that no-brasseries-in-the-Deux-Sevres-thing? Someone should do something about that.

Gottle of gear II

A busy day Friday tidying up the chaotic experimentation ground kitchen. Bottled off the last of my aged flanders red beer. It had been sat on dry hops and toasted oak chips for a few months 10 months.

I’d also given it a little dose of a splendid yeast I’d harvested and grown on for some bottle maturation from a Belgian beer. St. Bernardus Prior 8 which had a giant fine mousse in the mouth and was all dark fruits, plums, toasted bread.  Looking forward to tasting that in the late summer.

Also bottled 5litres of a spiced (Cinnamon, allspice, ginger root, cider and too much cardamon). It was bone dry like a warm champagne. May need to be served ice cold or even kept and mulled in the winter. Still, it was just an experiment as it was picthed on top of my Belgian Triple and fermented like MAD.

And finally 12litres of my first 2010 beer, a light hoppy summer ale. Needs a few weeks bottle conditioning but showing much progress.

BORING! It takes an age to sanitise and fill dozens of bottles

A day of mythic proportions.

An unremarkable afternoons cooking soon turned into a day to remember. Remember, if you want to make an Omlette, you gotta break some eggs.


Knees up, mother Brune

What? A shindig with a twist

Where? Where else, Bellebouche!

When? Saturday, 1st May

Why? The annual American Homebrew Association global brew-day! 5000 people spanning Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Royaume-Uni, Israel, Kenya, The Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland and now France!

The full details, in my best schoolboy French posted to the main French homebrew site. I shall be making a few litres of Scottish 80 Shilling and dishing up moules-frites to any that choose to pitch up and help with the brew day.

Tout brasseurs amateurs qui viennent à travers et je voudrais de venir, s’il vous plaît confirmer votre présence via les commentaires ci-dessous ou sur le site Bassage amateur.


Walking a lonely path.

The pilgrim quotient has been picking up over the last few weeks as dedicated souls make their way through the sleepy back roads of western France en-route down through the south west, to the Pyrenees and then into Northern Spain to pick up on their own journey of the El Camino de Santiago. I’ve written before about the way of St. James/Santiago de Compostela or simply ‘El Camino’ and I’m always inspired by those who undertake this marathon journey.

Two came by today, an elderly gent pushing some kind of modified shopping trolley contraption and a young girl, I’m guessing in her early 20’s. On both occasions I was tied up with something but did manage to take a couple of paparazzi snaps for my pilgrim gallery…

pilgrim 8 4 10 number 1 pilgrim 8 4 10 number 2

The young girl was easy to discern over a regular walker as she was carrying the symbol of the pilgrimage – a Coquille St. Jacques, scallop shell.

Coquilles St Jacques II

Of course, whilst they’re walking through Bellebouche they’re very firmly doing the Santiago de Compostela and as I wrote last year I’m resolute that I’ll try and stop a couple for an interview. Missed my real chance today but there will be more.

We’ve prepped the freezer full of batonnettes this week in anticipation of walkers making the amazing journey on foot to Northwest Spain. An impressive 1200km from here to their final destination so the least we figure we can do is offer up a choc-ice to any that we see walking by.  Others have stopped for water in the past but this year I hope something tastier will be well appreciated as the summer heat starts to ramp up a few notches.

And pilgrims, if you’re making your way through the gatine in Western France and are looking for a place to moor your Donkey overnight, don’t hesitate to ring the doorbell.

Le premier brassage de l’anneé

A brief essay on the  pursuit of science, knowledge, truth, understanding and erm,  beer.


Allez, les Abeilles !

A couple of days working in the garden and we’ve been joined by a busy horde of hundreds of bees all frantically gathering in the pollen. We’ve eight peach trees all in full blossom in the orchard right now and spring blossom honey is the order of the day!

Honey bee with pollen baskets full on peach blossom

Pollen baskets filled. A Bee on Peach blossom

That’s a peach blossom from the petite white Italian peaches that we get. Assuming we have no very late frosts then I’m predicting a massive bumper crop this year. We have had in prior years literally wheelbarrow loads of these peaches to deal with and I’d guess we’re in for the same again.

A double bonus for keeping bees in the garden is not just the superb quality honey you get but that everyone gets to benefit from better pollination rates. Not only do our neighbours get a few jars of honey they’ll also get much better crops from their own fruits trees and bushes. Nice!

Honey bee with pollen baskets full

Bee with full pollen baskets

It’s a real thrill to see both of my hives come through the harsh winter so well – they’re both very active and will be building up strength after the winter. Another week or so and I’ll be putting down fresh frames with foundation to grow the hives I have and will try and split one this year. I’ve never raised (and kept!) a Queen before and I’m determined to learn this old beekeeping trick.

First Time Mother

Well, it’s that time of year again when we put a load of eggs in the incubator and wait for the little cheeps of  delight 21 days later.  We had a bum start this year when the duck eggs turned out to be duds.  So after pitching these, we put in a selection of chicken eggs from both the old hens and the new girls from last year’s batches.

7 eggs = 7 chickens – enough to stock our freezer – assuming they all hatch.  But …


A confection with a reputation

Confession time. I’m not a pud man. Not big on cakes, sweets and deserts. I make a little ice-cream in the summer and a steamed sponge pud every once in a while. That’s about it.

We do have something of a ritual of picking up a chocolatey confection at Fink in Poitiers every time we go but that may be just two or three times a year. Finks hand made chocolates are €70/kg and they always offer you a sample when you buy a €3 patisserie. How kind.

So, it’s easter time and we’ve an invite for supper with friends… I thought it’d be a good opportunity to dust off my patisserie skills and make a cake. A fearsome cake. A cake that takes no prisoners. River Cafés ‘Chocolate Nemesis’! It’s the last recipe in Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ original ‘blue’ cook book from their leading London restaurant. Sadly, Rose passed away just a couple of weeks ago so was bouncing around in my thoughts.

So, Cake. The ingredients are dead simple. A dozen eggs, 675g of chocolate, 450g butter, 500g sugar. Sounds like a lot? It is a lot. That quantity is for a claimed 10/12 portions – it’ll comfortably do more but remember, you’re not going to eat this cake every day. It’s ultra-rich , very moist and well, more of an experience than a cake. The internet is full of tales about it. This old article from the Guardian elevates the making of the cake to an implausible fable but other blogs cover it off nicely.

I made the full batch. Enough for two cakes in my diddy little 30litre oven and even then it wasnt without some trauma.

I baked a second one and this came out fine as well. Part of the beauty of the recipe is that the cake souffle’s up nicely when it’s in the bain-marie but on cooling it collapses in a charming fashion and gives the look of the thing some real character. I left mine in the oven as we were dashing out the door and it was still very hot and quivering.

Still the first one turned out well and taken around to friends and served up with a little creme Anglais and some confit’d cherries it went down well.

Woke up the next morning and remembered the cake left in the oven. Oops. Uneven cooling kept the top surface fairly uniform except for a single massive san-andreas fault and it half slumped unevenly.

San Andreas fault

San Andreas fault

Mostly my fault as I’d baked it in a proper tall dundee cake style cake tin but never mind. It set well, the heart stayed a little gooey and it’s all good. Our afternoon coffee will be punctuated with chocolately goodness.

cakey pig - river cafe chocolate nemesis

Cakey pig

River café were charging £8/slice if you went for lunch. Good for them.


I should mention a couple of other foodie posts-from-the-past that have their origins in this fine cookbook. They’re all somewhat unusual things that you might not be equipped to make at home.

Roast pork shoulder.

Tomato soup.

Don’t own the book? Buy it here!
The River Cafe Cook Book
Buy it now!

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