Thursday, June 14, 2018

Summer Is Right Around The Corner . . .

In about a week, it will be officially summer. There has been consistent rains for the last month which has delayed garden tasks that would have been best done before June such as sowing annual flowers like varied-coloured, long-term-flowering cosmos and zinnias; the last of the edible crops, graceful, stylish Tuscan kale with its smoky green-black leaves; fast-growing cover crops like mustard and tansy to revive the completely harvested pea beds (they provided about 5 litres of pods!). Hopefully, if we can believe the forecast, the next week will be sunny and the soggy soil should be workable fairly soon so those postponed tasks can be eventually completed. Regardless, the garden is humming along, with beloved-by-the bees, aromatic lavender, punchy poppies that reseed themselves through the years, and haughty Queen Elizabeth roses.

The potato variety, Daifla, flowers profusely. (That's the raspberry patch in the background, and if you look closely you will see the berries.) Potato blooms signify that the tubers are being formed. In about two months, when the haulms (the growth above ground) have wilted yellow, it will be time to harvest.

The dark green of ivy makes a good backdrop for rhubarb and potatoes. In the upper left, a drooping branch of a Mirabelle plum tree can be seen with its immature fruit looking like green olives. When ripe, they will be a glorious gold flushed with red.

Most of our potato blooms are pure white but there are a few which are tinted mauve. An interesting aside is that Marie Antoinette, a passionate lover of flowers, was known to have tucked some potato blossoms in her hair during the time Antoine Parmentier was trying to convince the movers and shakers that the New World upstart wasn't poisonous. 

Every other day, there's enough raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries to fill up the dessert bowl. Since blueberries must have acid soil to flourish, our bush is grown in a pot with the desired potting mix.

The rambunctious wild area which harbours lizards, hedgehogs, birds, and insects is festooned with bramble blossoms. The middle bed is filled with bushy Roma tomato plants and in front of them are beets which since have seen the trusty cultivator tool which has cleared away the prolific clover.

During a month these well-established daylilies put out many blooms, each lasting just a day. There are cultivars which are everblooming from early summer to autumn which will soon find a place in our garden.

David Austin climbing rose, Falstaff, is beginning a second round of flowering.

In the front garden, yet more lavender and also Shasta daisies are just starting to bloom. The other day, our neighbour across the street told me that she loves seeing, as does her visitors, the small green haven in front of our home. After all this time, it is known by a few that je jardine comme une folle (I garden like a madwoman). The English lavender is putting on the show right now while the late-blooming French lavender waits to take the spotlight in about a month.

From the vantage point of a reclining, cushy chair under the pergola, this is what I get to see: foliage of mums, rose of Sharon, calla lilies, ivy, two enormous, neighbouring spruce trees, and the imperious blooms of a Queen Elizabeth rose. All of this exuberant growth exists in an urban space. Though I can hear the distant din of traffic, I pretend that it's the sound of ocean waves.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Book Review / The Tulip by Anna Pavord

Ms Pavord's tome, coming to 439 pages, contains many intriguing and beautiful colour illustrations. Much beguiling information derived from extensive research is divulged. Tulips which 'broke', that is, became variegated, were highly sought after. However, it was much later that the reason for the flaming and feathering of different colours was discovered which was a virus transported by aphids. Before then, one method was to put the desired colours in powdered paint on their tulip beds, expecting the colours somehow miraculously to transmute the flowers.

Species tulips naturally abound just in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  It was only in 1451 that the first known cultivar was found in the garden of Sultan Mehmed II. So when did our globetrotting floral subject begin its travels? Based on the flowers in medieval paintings before the 15th century, as in the Portinari Altarpiece which shows no tulips, but red lilies, white and blue irises, and violets, tulips stayed in the east until that time.

Goodness! I have water glasses similar to the one in the painting!

Though the Dutch may be historically entangled with tulip mania which lasted just a few years from 1634 to 1637, they were not connected to many significant developments in the adoption of tulips by Europeans. Most likely the first introduction of the bulbs was accomplished by a Frenchmen. The first shipments of tulip bulbs arrived in Antwerp from Constantinople and the first known tulip bloomed in Augsburg, Bavaria. As for the Dutch tulip mania, there was much confusion as to legal settlements regarding complicated ownership since more than one person could have dibs on a single tulip bulb along with the increasing involvement of marketplace futures causing a tangled chain of interactions encouraging the government to put strictures on trading tulips. There are several explanations why the mania took off in the Netherlands and one was that the Plague which happened shortly before raised wages because there was a sharp decline in workers, therefore allowing extravagant purchases.

Criticism has been levelled at Ms Pavord for not translating French from which she often excerpts. Sometimes she summarises in English the untranslated section, but mostly she doesn't. She does that a bit with Latin and additionally quotes early modern english. This latter aspect puts her style in perspective for me: she is trying to transport us back into the 16th century without the help of period costumes and speaking actors. It's a bit off-putting but worth the inconvenience because if you let yourself go with the flow of the different languages, you get a sense of the type of interconnected linguistic world in which European horticulturalists lived at that time. 

À la prochaine!


Early-Spring Garden 2018
Tulips, Irises & Sweet Violets
The Tulips Keep Coming . . .
Tulip Season Draws to a Close


Book review / The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt by Robert I. Sutton

Book Review / Florike Egmond's An Eye For Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630

Book Review / Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal

Baking From Around The World by Jessamyn Waldman

Rodriguez with Julia Turshen

Book Review/The Confidence Game: The Psychology Of The Con And Why We Fall For It Every Time By Maria Konnikova

Book Review / The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates


Amazon listing for The Tulip by Anna Pavord

Thursday, May 31, 2018

French Cheese: Comté

Ah, the confusing world of Gruyère! It seems, and that verb is the best to use in the realm of perplexity in which such a venerable cheese finds itself, Gruyère is a cheese made in the eponymous town in Switzerland. Simple, you say? Get ready for a wave of undulating nuance. A similar cheese made in France is called the same name. Additionally there are several French cheeses that are considered to be Gruyère but have different appellations like Beaufort, Emmental, and the subject of this post, the gorgeous and glorious Comté, one of the finest cheeses in the world. Being a mountain cheese, and since salt was not the easiest commodity to drag up steep inclines, it was used sparingly. Because of less salt its meltability increased. Comté's versatility will cheer up a cheese platter as well as dishes like fondue, croque-monsieur (grilled cheese), and savoury tarts.

There are two grades, the brown label which denotes possible holes and the green label which means that the texture will be more smooth. The latter is preferred for cheese platters. The affinage is rather broad and can be anywhere between a minimum of 4 months to 18 and longer. My beauty is aged twenty months and has the green label so I am going to use it on platters besides cooking with it.

Based on the age, I am guessing that the cows whose milk produced it did not dine on summer pastures. If they did, the colour would be more golden because of the higher carotene content.

When first moving here all those years ago, I sampled a bit of Comté on a platter presented by our dinner host. The other cheeses were way more impressive to my tastebuds and from that time on, I got my hands on every other French cheese I could. My conjecture is that our host must have served a less aged version, because when I tasted some the other day, I was impressed to an embarrassingly degree. What degree would that be, you ask? I climbed up on our roof and yelled, Eat aged Comté. Now. Please. Thank you. (Note to The Calm One: our roof badly needs repairs.) The flavour hovers between tangy and sweet tinged with caramel, and I mean hover, you're never quite sure which of those two tastes will dominate, keeping your palate awake. The texture is similar to the richest nougat, unctuous beyond belief with a touch of gooeyness before giving way to an umami cloud pervading every nook and cranny of my very fortunate mouth. It is essential to bring the cheese to room temperature to get the full sensory experience.

Spying some leftover pastry dough along with several leeks and crème fraîche in the fridge, I created Comté Crème Fraîche Leek Pastry Bites to celebrate the serendipity of having those ingredients at my fingertips.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Slice leeks lengthwise almost but not cutting through the root end. Splay the leek layers while rinsing under water to get any dirt or sand out. Slice thinly, discarding the root. Gently saute with a bit of butter and water in a covered skillet for about five to ten minutes till translucent and soft. Put just enough crème fraîche along with the leeks in a bowl in order to use a stick mixer to get a rough blend. Salt to taste.

While the leeks are simmering, roll out dough and cut into five-centimetre (two-inch) circles. Pierce with the tines of a fork to prevent puffing up during baking. Bake about ten minutes. Remove and switch oven to broil function.

Put a dollop of leek mixture on each round.

Top with a small square of Comté, squishing it into the tiny mound of leek puree.

Broil for just about a minute, fairly close to the heat. Remember Comté melts fast. The smokiness of aged Comté finds its match with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Such a pairing made for a lovely late supper. Their small size allows an easy pop into the mouth without crumbs so they would be great for stand-up buffets. They could be put together ahead of time and then placed under the broiler when needed. Small rich crackers mostly likely would be a fine substitute for pastry.

À la prochaine!





Bleu d'Auvergne
Bresse Bleu


Comté flavor wheel & wine pairing infographic
Basic Information on Comté 
Two part article by David Leibovitz regarding his visits to 1) Comté  fruitiéres and 2) ripening caves

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deutzia, Lavender, Roses & Honeysuckle

Our two and a half metre (eight-foot) Deutzia scabra has awakened from its slumber. When a bud loosens up a bit before opening into gorgeous double blooms, the distribution of rosy colour mimics lips smudged with lipstick. This was the bush that for seven years I whacked to the ground thinking it was a pesky weed. Two years ago, for some reason I forgot to raze it to the ground yet again and surprise, a beauty was born. It has graceful, drooping branches, interesting sepals, moderate fragrance, and attractive bark.

The below photo shows the bottom of the vase-shaped bush. Not captured by my camera is how it splays out towards its top like a huge vessel overflowing with numerous blooms.

Because of that, it cosies up to anything close by, like Queen Elizabeth roses . . .

. . . and bearded iris foliage . . .

 . . . and just-beginning-to-bloom lavender.

Constellation upon constellation of flowers, delicate but sharply cut like paper art, present a stunning display.

If they weren't stylish enough, nature decided to go all out and cap them with snug, suede, olive-green sepals.

I still haven't been able to identify this quartered, huge, deeply fragrant, glowing coral rose.

This variety of honeysuckle has violet and white flowers when freshly opened.

However it starts out as elongated, magenta buds and ends up as deep-ivory with spent pollen.

À la prochaine!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mid-Spring Garden & Potager 2018

Getting into the heart of spring, the garden is showing red and pink all over. In the front garden an Étoile de Hollande climbing rose greets us as we open the front door as it is entwined on the balcony railing. On a sunny day, its potent damask fragrance becomes an olfactory cloud upon which I descend down the stairs.

Taking a beauty bath in the rain makes the enormous blooms droop even more than they already do.

Below it is a weigela which finally got fertilised after many a year and is so happy. It is flushed, laden, festooned . . .

. . . but hardly burdened with tons of luscious deep-pink blooms. Though I fantasise about making the entrance steps all spiffy with tiles, I adore the pleasingly mottled design that moss and lichens have made on the cement. We inherited the heavy, bronze-coloured clay pot long ago when a neighbour in Grenoble hastily had to empty his apartment and said, Here. Have this. So I took it and eventually carted it to Angouleme. Besides being visually arrestingwe refer to it as The Bell Jarit has also helped to force rhubarb in the dark.

Rounding the east side of the house, leaving behind mini-gladioli, spikey iris foliage, and dusty-blue flowering sage, I can glimpse a part of the back garden with its wall of ivy, David Austin Flagstaff rose, wild area, raspberries, and lusty rhubarb.

Making a sharp turn around the house's corner, I come to the patio with its tubs of blueberries and bougainvillea. Calla lilies are thriving in a patio cut-out while mini-gladioli, Iris foliage, and abelia are just off the patio.

These smaller version of gladioli, unlike their larger brethren, need no staking, naturalise wherever their pink hearts desire, and are cold-hardy so digging up their bulbs for the winter and replanting in spring is not necessary.

Spring planting continues. Two green pea beds, one potato, one beet, and one carrot have been done.

Striped with white, the hybrid perpetual Ferninand Pichard has many blooms on one branch, is fragrant, and flourishes close to the patio.

Strawberry harvest has begun. The Strawberry Eater chez nous, aka The Calm One, has already polished off  two bowls of just picked, sliced, sugared berries, one topped with whipped cream and the other with coffee ice cream. He says they are GOOD, sweet and full of flavour.

À la prochaine!


How to transplant strawberries
How to make strawberry jam
Strawberry heart scones
Individual Top-Crust Strawberry Pies With Dark Chocolate Ganache & Candied Violets
Eton mess
Strawberry shortcake
Strawberry cobbler

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Cantal Asparagus Tart with Creme Fraiche

Asparagus harvest chez nous just finished with a flourish of numerous spears, enough for a succulent tart.

Recipe taken from Felicity Cloake's Guardian Article
makes a 22cm round giving four to six servings

For the pastry (or use 250g ready-made shortcrust pastry)
  • 120g cold butter, plus extra to grease
  • 225g plain flour, plus extra to dust
  • 1 medium egg yolk
For the filling
  • 300g asparagus, trimmed
  • 284ml double cream (I substituted crème fraîche)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 50g gruyère, or nutty cheddar, finely grated (I substituted Cantal Entre Deux Laitier)

To make the pastry, grate the butter (I first dredged the butter in the flour to prevent sticking, cut it into small cubes, then using my fingers worked it into small bits) into the flour and rub in roughly with your fingertips to coat (or use a food processor). Stir in the egg yolk and a pinch of salt and, if necessary, a drop of cold water (I needed to use several tablespoons of water) to bring it together into a dough. Form into a thick disc, wrap and chill for 20 minutes. 
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F/gas mark 4) and grease a 22cm round tart tin. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface and use to line the tin, pressing it into the sides with a small ball of excess dough (this was fun!). Prick the base with a fork, line with baking paper and baking beans or pulses/rice and bake for 15 minutes until lightly golden. Remove the beans and paper and put back into the oven for five minutes. 
Meanwhile, steam the asparagus for about four minutes, until al dente. Chop into short lengths, and put about half of the stalks into a food processor (keep all the tops). Puree. Pour the double cream into a jug and add the eggs. Beat together, then stir in the puree and the grated cheese. Season well.
Arrange the remaining asparagus pieces on the bottom of the tart, and then pour in the cream mixture. Bake for about 35-40 minutes until jiggly but set, and golden on top, and allow to cool slightly before serving.
This is the first time I made pastry crust with an egg yolk. How lovely it is! With the leftover pastry, I baked several three-inch rounds which resembled the flakiest flat bread ever.

Blind baking a tart crust may seem not worth the bother, but it does keep the crust nicely crisp, whether it is served cold or warm, even when it had been frozen and defrosted. Therefore this tart can be made in advance. The crust may shrink a bit regardless when pre-baking, so if there is excess of filling, pour it into a baking dish and bake along with the tart.

I used a mixture of white and brown rice to weigh down the parchment paper placed over the pastry. A silicone tart 'tin' was chosen so it could be easily removed for a snazzy presentation.

I am going to miss seeing these little green soldiers pertly poking up in their patch. Since their planting several years ago, this was the first continuous harvest that lasted the recommended full six weeks. Till next spring! Asparagus may take awhile to achieve abundant picking, but once they do, they will keep going for a couple of decades.

Par-boiled asparagus pieces were scattered over the pre-baked crust and the filling poured on.

Because of yellow eggs and green asparagus, its fashion colour sense showed up as delectable chartreuse.

It relied on the Maillard Reaction not only to intensify the flavour but also to round out the colour with a classy brown edginess.

The crust was not only fantastic in taste and texture, but also was sturdy enough to stand on it own.

Delicious aspects abound and one of the most is its consistency which is more like a dense savoury pudding than custard which I suspect is due to blending some of the asparagus.

À la prochaine!


How to make crème fraîche at home


French cheeses: Cantal Apple Clafoutis
How to plant asparagus