Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How to Harvest Charentais Melons and Grow Carrots...plus making velouté de carottes

Since we live in the Poitou Charente region of France, it's appropriate to grow succulent, fragrant Charentais melons which look like smoother skinned, small cantaloupes.   To check ripeness,  I smell the unattached end of the melon, often having to contort myself as not to break the vine, but nothing is more disappointing than a melon not bursting with ripe flavour.  It also needs to be flushed with gold and feel heavy.  Stopping watering around a week before harvesting may prevent melons splitting.  During the end of August, I walk and sniff around the melon patch because a split melon that is mostly ripe will fill the air with its heady fragrance.  If I note a split melon soon enough I will be able to eat it before the ants do.

When moving to France over a decade ago, the first dinner I was invited to had as its first course a slice of cantaloupe au nature, separated from its rind, cubed, and served on said rind.  Presenting melons this way emphasises their freshnessThough melons  can be halved, seeds scooped out, and be eaten with a spoon, chunks have a satisfying texture and are a bit neater to eat.  First scrub the outside of the melon with a veggie brush under running water to prevent dirt and bacteria being transferred to the melon flesh.  Cut the seeded halves into slices, slip a knife between the rind and the flesh, and then slice in thick pieces and either serve on the rind or in a dish.  The Calm One eats way more fruit when it is not a chore for him to do.

Slice on the bottom is separated from its rind and cubed.

Luscious, juicy, golden chunks

Watering has been necessary all throughout August and doing it at twilight is a mellow time both Dayo and I enjoy.  He needs to make sure each and every time I drag out the yellow hose that it has not become a snake.  He is very careful about such matters.

Iris foliage, yellow hose, and snake handler Dayo lit up by the setting sun

Carrots have an infamous reputation in the veggie patch as being difficult to grow.  Baby or short, round carrots are a cinch, but if you want substantial carrots it gets a bit more demanding.  My soil is semi-conducive to carrot growing, so half the crop comes out looking like this:

While the other half come out like this:

And if I am really lucky, I get a carrot as intriguing in appearance as this:

About two and half years ago, when I first started to grow our produce, I left out root veggies because home-grown did not seem to be cost-effective as store-bought is so inexpensive, and I had the mistaken conception that the quality would not be that different than if I grew my own.  In addition, the soil was a little stony which would impede the growth of succulent roots.  Be rest assured, beets, potatoes, onions, and carrots grown in the garden are exceptionally flavourful--earthy with a touch of sweetness and worth the effort.

Once you decide what size root is best for your soil--I choose mid-long varieties--the three main problems with growing carrots is that their seed is small so it is difficult to space well, they are vulnerable to getting blitzed by carrot fly, and they take several weeks to become little plants making weeding difficult.

I usually plant two carrot crops, one in early spring and the other in late summer as they prefer cooler weather. For the fall/winter harvest, I choose varieties which can withstand some frost and can be stored in the ground as the soil here does not freeze deeply.  First I prepare the area by spading, removing weeds and as many stones as possible, and forking in compost, letting the bed settle down for a week or so before actually sowing.  Young plants don't take kindly to either an impacted soil or a very loose one.

Taking a large pinch of seeds, I slowly deposit them by rubbing them between my first two fingers and thumb as I go down the furrow--spacing is about four to five inches between rows in my block beds--that has been partially filled with sowing mix.  Using sowing mix will not turn magically a stony soil into the perfect one for growing carrots, but it will allow for a greater number of tiny seeds not to meet up with a pebble or a soil lump that would prevent it from starting the growing process.  Once that process is started, the roots may not form straight, but they will form.

Rake, carrot seed packet, and sowing mix.  Note how fluffy the sowing mix is compared to the soil.

I then sow some widely spaced large radish seeds down the rows and then cover up with a light dusting of sowing mix.  Radishes sprout quickly, marking the row and guiding weeding plus I get a few radishes to eat as I harvest them in several weeks, allowing plenty of room for the carrots to develop, usually about three to four months. Using the back of the rake, I tamp down the rows and water thoroughly with a light spray.  To encourage sprouting, I keep the bed moist, but not soaked.

Once the plants are about two inches high, I place horticultural fleece over the bed, securing it by tucking it under the tiles framing the bed.  The fleece forms a mechanical barrier against carrot fly preventing its depositing eggs which would become legions of  hungry munchers devastating crop yields.  You would not be aware of this underground devouring until harvesting.  There is at least one variety that is resistant to carrot fly, but there are so many delightful varieties that aren't.

Velouté in French cuisine means the addition of chicken broth and cream which lends a velvety richness.  This is a gorgeous soup in taste and looks. It gives me immense pleasure when all the veggies and herbs in a recipe come from my potager Potage after all is the French word for soup. 

Velouté de carottes
(6 servings)

  • Carrots, 8 large, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
  • Chicken broth, preferably homemade, 2 liters
  • Cream, 500 ml
  • Potatoes, 4 medium
  • Celery, 1/4 cup or preferably lovage, 1/8 cup
  • Onions, 2 medium, chopped
  • Parsley, flat leaf, a few sprigs and extra for garnishing
  • butter, 60 grams
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Bacon, two slices for each serving
  • French bread, two slices for each serving

Melt the butter in a soup pot and let the carrots, onions, and celery/lovage saute for about 15 minutes.  This step brings out the flavour and ensures a nice colour to the soup.  Then add the cubed potatoes and parsley, mixing well.

Pour in the chicken stock and simmer until all the veggies are tender, about 20 minutes. 

Using a stick mixer, blend until very smooth.  Add cream/seasoning and keep hot.  Fry up the bacon, reserve, and keep warm.  Pan fry slices of French bread in the bacon fat. For each serving, sprinkle crumbled bacon and some minced parsley and serve with a slice or two of fried bread.

Bon appétit!