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Ben Law: The Woodland House (*****)
Fearnley: River Cottage Cookbook (*****)
Richard Mabey: Food for Free (*****)
We have a brand spanking new website at:
Please drop by and check out who we are, what we do and our epic courses for 2013!
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I find that the beauty of eating duck is that its a relatively guilt free experience; I spent half my childhood feeding them, so its only fair to have the favour returned.
Duck. Not only has this humble fowl enriched the lives of many across the globe, but it has even lent its name to the familiar term of ‘get down’ when in the line of fire and being out first ball (that would be cricket to the uneducated). Everyone loves duck, whether it is from Peking: crispy with lashings of hoi-sin and pancakes or dished up with an abhorrant combo of orange. Duck, duck, duck and duck: the tastiest bird I have ever tucked into (although my wife might beg to differ). Chicken? Turkey? Both bland, both white and none should really be eaten raw. So in short, disappointing fowl with very few double entendres to back it up.
It appears I have now been ‘French’ for over a year. Life in South West France is grand…in the summer. Come winter, imagine English weather, regular storms charging into the Bay of Biscay and not a warm fire and country pub in sight. These are dark days indeed messieurs-dammes and blighty beckons like you wouldn’t believe, as far as I’m concerned this is karma paying me back for bragging about beaches, surf and 30C temperatures for the last six months to my UK counterparts- no one likes a willy waver (Al Humphreys-circa 2011).
Every Brit Ex-pat who ends up in France IS a willy waver. And if you know one- tell them they are. Big time. They all like to lay claim to living in a region that produces the best this and cooks the best that. All I will say is that I live in Aquitaine so that’s: Bordeaux wines, Armagnac, Perigord truffles, Bayonne ham, and Espelette chillis. But, above all else, this is foie gras country where the duck is king.
Whether you agree with the ethics of foie gras production or not (I have noted the absence of protesting folk around these parts, but mind you I’ve never met anyone that would want to be dissected with a blunt pitch fork), Foie gras is good stuff, so is veal, badger, lamb and horse, but I don’t want to get sidetracked- this is about the bird itself, not its liver.
Here in Landes, the Frenchies have developed a cunning way to hunt their Duck. Rather than chase fowl, they sit back comfortably in a sort of ‘bunker’ and eat and drink until the duck & geese come to them. Clever. Just down the road from us is L’etang Blanc, which hosts many of these hides known as ‘Palombieres’. Traditionally a palombiere is a high-rise platform in the trees that the armed Frenchie uses for nailing pigeons, often they have cages strategically placed in the surrounding trees where they keep live decoys to help bring in the unsuspecting pigeon.
On L’etang Blanc they have just taken the same concept to water. These elaborate man-made ‘islands’ are built on stilts in the middle of the lake and camouflaged to buggery (see picture).
Many of these Palombieres have running water and electricity piped in, stoves, tv's, fridges, beds, tables and chairs. Surrounding the palombieres are lots of plastic decoys sat on the water and attached to one side of the hide are the live decoys in a cage. These are not your standard live birds, but ones which have been specifically bred for their call- they are responsible for calling in passing duck or Geese and also alerting the hunters to incoming fowl.
All the Frenchie 'Chasseur' has to do is place down his Claret, spit out the baguette, flip open the flaps in the roof and fire away at the approaching silhouettes. Most hunting is done from dusk till dawn on clear moonlit nights, hence the reason for having beds to sleep in. Well thought out indeed, these are not simply hides but an elaborate setup that takes a lot of looking after- plenty of times when I’ve been out fishing for pike I’ve seen dedicated Chasseurs rowing out to their palombieres to take care of their harem of live decoys. Good lads.
So there’s the background on how we get our duck around these parts. On to the hamming…
This recipe for duck hams is based on one I came across in Paula Wolfert’s ‘Cooking of Southwest France’ and quite a fine read it is too. The recipe is fairly standard piece of charcuterie:
2 Large duck breasts
½ cup Salt (100gs)
2 TSP of Ground black pepper
½ TSP of Herbes de Provence (or Thyme on its own work well)
2 TBSP cider or red wine vinegar
So there you have it: ham of duck. Well worth doing, especially if you haven’t delved into the world of charcuterie before. Another particularly good one is this homemade Bresaola that I did a few years back.
Adios 2012, and hello 2013, hope you all have a super New Year wherever you are and do please come and see us at Hunter Gather Cook for one of our courses next year, if you are interested in a joining us for a group day or a private day just drop us an email:
This will be the last blog post here before our brand spanking new website and branding comes online in January with a shop full of our favourite kit, all our courses and a new blog packed full of HGC Recipes.
For over a year now I have had the pleasure of working with the largest skatebrand in the world: Element. As one of their advocates I have tought wilderness skills on their skatecamps around Europe as well as advise on all things wild when needed. Not only have they been a great brand to work with, they also kit me out in some rather fine threads: their jackets, backpacks, waterproofs, T-shirts, trousers and shoes have all been put though their paces down at HGC and even clothed the rest of the team. Just as well- bushcraft clobber is banned when it comes to staff. We are certainly the most stylish and best dressed instructors in the country!
In May a film crew came over from France to film a short video to introduce Element's Wolfboro Collection and shoes for 2012. We shot in some great locations in Sussex: Firle, Cuckmere Haven, HGC HQ and even revisited the Treehouse. I put together a rather brooding script...like, we went deep man. Below are the results, shot on a Canon c300. Enjoy!
We have a few spaces available for our Autumn 'Fungal Foray & Feast' Course if anyone is interested, drop me an email- firstname.lastname@example.org
I have never been an avid fan of January. It’s shit. Mind you, it rarely starts well: the post-festive period culminates with New Year’s Eve and the first day of the year kicks off with the inevitable hangover. The rest of the month is cold, wet and grey. It’s a time for being inside and if your house isn’t much warmer than outside (and our beachfront apartment certainly ain’t built for winter) then you just spend everyday wrapped up looking like the Michelin man. Warm food and warm drinks constantly needed. Another thing I have always found bizarre is the amount of people that give up drinking for January...if there was ever a time of year it is necessary, its now. Wierdos.
January is always a quiet time for me- that’s the nature of seasonal work, but it does have one redeeming feature- The first month of the year is a time for plotting, planning, scheming and conniving. I spend most of it playing in the kitchen and reading- ready for Spring and armed to the teeth with new ideas, recipes and knowledge to make Hunter:Gather:Cook courses the best they can be. Summer will fly by and before I know it, it will be Autumn- at least living in SW France gives me an extra 2 months of summer.
Anyhow, back to the subject of this long overdue post. Kimchi. The first time I came across this wonderful ‘condiment’ was 4 years ago in New York. My Brother was living out there and had found, what he could only describe as ‘tasty jarred farts’. I cannot imagine anyone, not even those you trust most, being able to bring you around to taste something with such a description: but I did…and by gad was it fine!
Kimchee has been on the to-do list for ages, actually since coming back from the big apple with my two tubs, which didn’t last long- but hey ho. Kimchi originates from Korea and is a fermented mix of vegetables and seasonings. It has been around for 3000 years and is a national institution in it’s home country- so much so that in 2010 there was a national crisis in Korea, a spike in the price of ingredients and kimchi itself left the Korean government having to subsidise imports of cabbage. Political food for thought indeed.
Coincidently, I noticed that Kimchi was tipped by the Telegraph as one of the top ten food trends for 2012 along with Ceviche (see that post here).Apparently natural fermentation of all kinds (esp.sourdough) is getting chefs very excited- Really? So as it was January I thought I may as well jump on the bandwagon and make some myself, being much in need of chilli heat at this time of year. Afterall, winter is a good time to put the wild food to one side and play with other ingredients, mainly because there is very little to forage.
You can get very bogged down in search of a simple Kimchi recipe- seasonal variations are rife in Korea, so here is one stripped down to its birthday suit.
First off, chop up the cabbage and place it in a bowl and toss well with the salt- the idea here is to get the salt to suck out some of the moisture from the cabbage and help create a brine. Leave for 1 hour.
Meanwhile finely chop all the other ingredients. Chillies are particularly difficult to find in France, partly because the general consensus in my experience is that the French are fannies when it comes to heat so they don’t stock them in the mupersarket- there is a reason the French word for man is ‘homme’. Fortunately the merry little town of Espelette (see here) is just down the road and Basque folks love a bit of fire! A bunch of dried chilli flakes and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper will give you more than enough heat if you are at a loss.
Back to the cabbage- it should now have decreased in volume by almost half, drain off the liquid, rinse the cabbage in cold water to remove any excess salt and pat dry with a tea towel.
Now mix all your ingredients together in the bowl, cover with a towel and leave in a cool place for 4 days, stirring once a day and tasting. You can pot it up earlier if you are happy with your level of fermentation.
Basically what is going on in the bowl is that the various microorganisms present in the raw ingredients, most notably lactic acid, is able to grow and perpetuate because of a more than 3% brine that you have created for your kimchi to live in.
HGC is still taking bookings, although there is barely any room left in May! Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Please do get in touch if you fancy becoming a 21st Century Hunter-gatherer: Not a bad idea considering the world is due to do something negative by the end of the year and according to the press, PETA are getting scientists to grow artificial meat. And here was I thinking vegetarians were just harmless and a little depressed because of a lack of protein.
Fresh off the slab at Capbreton Fishmarket.
Life in France is grand, plenty of January surf, although it is colder than a witch’s tit. Lots of fish being purchased from Capbreton Harbour. I thought since I lived by the sea I would go big on this in 2012- Bream is the current favourite. Moving inland this week to join the inbreds, have a garden instead of a balcony and build an entire kitchen from scratch- can’t wait! The French Kitchen and HGC France to come soon complete with tree houses.
Adios, Au revoir, Peas x
PS. Due to spam, of which some is difficult to work out if it is or not- I don’t reply to comments on the blog- if you wish to say sommat or have any questions, please drop me an email- email@example.com.
Last year I did a post about Trumpet Chanterelles (Cantharellus Tubaeformis) paired with the ridiculously moreish Joel Robuchon 'Pomme Puree' (see here). Out here in France I have been picking Trumpets for the last few weeks- there should still be plenty in the UK out and about, head to a pine forest near you and have a rummage! Here is a little video I put together to help with Identification and even included a Basque Sheep jam.
Trumpets dry very well, they hold their shape in the pan and are extremely tasty- well worth looking for...they make a very good tart with caramelised onion, thyme and egg too!
We also have a few places left on the HGC group course on Saturday 19th May. Get in touch if you want in! I was most pleased that we Auctioned an HGC overnighter recently for the charity 'Action against hunger' and raised over £1000 for them- Happy days!
Not far from here, nestled amongst the foothills of the Pyrenees, sits a small traditional Basque village. The white washed houses and dark red beams so typical of Basque country are further accentuated by the addition of thousands upon thousands of plump red peppers strung up to dry on all the houses. This is not just any small village, Espelette, famed for the punchy little chillis is a national treasure and a cornerstone of Basque culinary heritage, so much so that it has classified with an AOC (Appellation d’origine controlee) much the same as a PGI (protected geographical status) we get in the UK.
France in general, and many of you may have also noticed this on your travels, don’t seem to be advocates of the chilli pepper. The Gallic palate is clearly not designed to embrace the spicy heat after centuries of being attuned to fine wines, strong cheese, and if I may be so bold to hit upon the presumptuous cliché of garlic and onions. Might I add, just to clear up a few things- Gauls don’t actually smell of these two fruits of the earth…or wear berets, or black & white stripy tops. But they do occasionally say ‘Ooh lala’ and are frequently seen brandishing baguettes, especially around midday. Down in this corner of South West France, and being so close to Spain the Espelette pepper has managed to gradually win over a fair few Frenchies, the dried, ground down peppers have replaced the use of black pepper in some cases: Bayonne ham (another AOC) is rubbed down with a paste of piment d’espelette during the curing process giving the ham a distinctive flavour. In Bayonne, many restaurants will serve ‘Bayonnaise’ a mixture of mayo and Espelette chilli powder- punchy and delicious with a bowl of frites.
The peppers themselves are grown in and around the communes of Espelette and Cambo Les Bains, vast fields of green are peppered (please excuse the Hugh Punely-Whittisism, but seriously, how many can he fit into one programme?!) with bright red chillis- quite a sight to behold in the open air, as opposed to being in the UK where they are shrouded in Polytunnel.
Espelette peppers are not all that hot- bite off the end of one and you would barely even feel a hint of warmth. However, munch down to the business end of the pepper, where the seeds are housed, and you will feel the endorphins start to flow as 4000 Scolville units assault your senses. This is a mistake I have made many a time when adding Espelettes to any dish, much like playing a game of Russian roulette with the fairly harmless ‘Pimiento de Padron’, a small green chilli from Spain and tapas favourite: the seeds are where the heat is and just because the flesh is bearable, the seeds will hit you where it hurts.
When I drove down to Espelette last week on a dual mission to see the village and explore the ‘Gaves’ or trout streams of the Pyrenees, I arrived to a very sleepy village, empty streets, the odd tourist (not sure if I classify as one or not) and millions of chillis. I browsed the shops and bought a rather expensive salami to go with my bread and cheese for lunch up on the mountain streams, not to mention picking up plenty of Espelette peppers- fresh and dried to play around with in the kitchen when I got home- perhaps with some fish?
As it happened, no fish, so soup it was with leftover bread. Basque soup to be precise, well my take on it at least. The chillis will create a gentle heat to the soup perfect to offset the winter blues. This soup is not so far removed from a good bolognaise sauce and as I made such a huge amount of the stuff, the rest was infused with a little red wine, reduced and thickened before being jarred up for later use. Thrifty.
Heat up a large saucepan and add the olive oil, finely chop the carrots, red pepper, onion, celery and garlic and stick it in the saucepan. De-seed and finely chop the Espelette chillis and add them to the pan and keep a few seeds aside to add for a bit of warmth if you fancy it, sauté gently for ten minutes.
Slice the tomatoes into wedges and remove the white cores. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt and sprig of thyme, lower the heat and place the lid on top to allow the tomatoes to gently stew down for a further 10 minutes.
Make up the Veg stock, and slowly add it to the pan, stirring all the time, turn the heat back up until everything is on a fierce boil, then turn the heat back down and simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a bit then blitz it through a blender in batches- as to how long is up to you and how smooth you want your soup. Once blitzed, return to the pan and re-heat- adjust seasoning and serve, with plenty of bread and a dollop of sour cream if you think it is a bit to spicy for your liking.
Since moving to SW France three weeks ago, Fishing has been at the top of the list, to the point that I said to myself, no more posts until I catch a fish to post about (that and the small matter of relocation and trying to make money from thin air…pitch pitch pitch). Now I am not a sea fisherman, I never have been. Ok, a few bass or garfish here and there, even a mackerel of two, a few dorado, trigger fish and bonefish perhaps, but when it comes to fishing I am a freshwater piscator all the way.
I like small bodies of water, tiny brooks and farm ponds. Reservoirs put me off in the same way the sea does. Throwing out your line in the ocean is a bit like planting a single seed and hoping for a bumper harvest- unlikely. Having said that I was sitting out back in the surf this morning with a vast shoal of tiddlers surrounding me, must remember to get me a throw net and stand up paddle board and put whitebait on the menu.
Although I haven’t been fishing in the sea itself, I have been hitting Capbreton port, Hossegor Lac and the main channel between the two hard, with little success. The usual paternoster rig with ragworm, squid, prawns all turn up a few nibbles and occasionally a very small gilthead bream- but never anything for the pot. Mind you I haven’t seen the local Gauls hauling out anything to write home about either, unless they make a point of waiting till I’ve gone home to hit the water and pull out the beasts. I have been beating my head against the wall trying to catch something for the table. Even my faltering conversations with local Frenchies at the water’s edge have been about as useful as a shotgun is to a vegetarian, mind you fishing banter is rarely crops up when learning a language, this prompted me to purchase my first copy of ‘Le Chasseur Francais: la vie grandeur nature’. Good mag, nice pictures too, I just haven’t a clue what all the text means. It may help me pick up some obscure words not used in everyday conversation.
When I moved out here, I had to be ruthless with my packing, stuffing my beloved VW Golf with only the bare necessities- of course all the fishing equipment had to come, including the fly rod. I had been planning on taking it up to search out some amazing rivers in the mountains (oh yes! Check these out: http://www.pyrenea-flyfishing.com/brouillon3/en/gallery.php) and I intend to this weekend. After a particularly frustrating session on the lake spent mostly staring down wistfully at large Mullet feeding lazily in the shallows and completely ignoring my offering on a hook, I decide to tap the vast encyclopedia that is the interweb. Could you fly fish for Mullet?
The answer was yes, and here are three great links which enlightened me and can help you get started:
Mullet have always been tagged as being particularly finicky fish, spook easily, won’t take any bait and once hooked will shed the hook as they have very soft mouths (being more the case with the thin-lipped mullet rather than the thick lipped). In some cases I have found them to be just so- not so spooky, but completely disinterested in my hookbait. About 3 days ago after frustrating session at the top of Hossegor lac and facing a rising tide, I thought I would try one place I hadn’t been before (see aerial photo below). The tide was slowly moving in and with it where plenty of Grey mullet cruising about and, by the looks of things, on the feed. Left over from my lunch was half a baguette, I ripped off a few chunks and threw them out to see if these fish would show more interest than the ones I had encountered earlier- to my surprise they were all over it like a fat kid on a cupcake. I took up the fly rod, tied on a bare hook and baited it with a small crust. First cast went out and as the tide pushed it upriver the fish moved onto the bait, in my excitement of the realization that I could be in, I struck way to early. But then it happened, I struck, the hook set and my god, the fish took off!
This was the first contact I had ever made with a mullet and I was shocked at its strength, the only fish I had encountered before with the same ferocity would have to be a bonefish in Cayman (to see the post on that click here)
I should have expected it as they are not all that dissimilar in terms of look, location and behaviour. The mullet put up an excellent fight, zipping off down stream at quite a pace and then winging it out to the far bank. By the time I got the fish in it was probably only about a pound but had fought with the same power as a 5lb trout.
A couple of Gauls had been watching and approached after the fish was on the bank. They were slightly bewildered by my set up- why the fly rod for sea fish? At least that was what I deduced from the exchange. I wasn’t sure of wether or not to take the mullet home- did I want to disrupt my Karma having finally managed to bag a decent fish? Hmmm, I was hungry and I didn’t want to upset my onlookers who would think I was clinically insane for returning a fish fit for the table. So I donked it on the head and in the bag it went. (I should point out that Grey Mullet are extremely slow growing fish- so be selective, return larger fish, one of 6lbs could be over 10 years old).
So finally, the French fish had begun to talk my language. I fished on, landing a few more that were to tiddly for the table and then called it a day, best not push my luck! On the walk back down the tidal creek I came across clumps of sea spinach, obviously things that grow together go together, never being one to pass up some wild nosh, a bunch of the succulent leaves joined the mullet in the bag.
Back at home, I was faced with the dilemma of how to deal with the fish in the kitchen. As it was to be my first taste of the fish that had always seemed to elude me, I decided to stay simple and bake/steam the fish. Preparation was simple- after de-scaling and gutting I stuffed the belly with a couple of slices of lemon, butter and a good helping of salt & pepper. I was intending to serve the sea spinach on the side, but in an flurry of inspiration thought I could turn it into a one-pot wonder: the sea spinach was spread out over a sheet of foil, liberally doused with a good Bordeaux (may as well as it comes from just up the road), placed the mullet in the center and rolled it up like a fine Cuban cigar before being baked in the oven at 180C for 15 minutes.
With the remains of the baguette I had used as bait, I tucked into my first mullet, and it was certainly worth the wait. A fine, firm textured white meat and not a hint of the earthiness I would have expected from a fish that rifles through muddy estuaries. It would be good to catch a few more before they head out to sea for the winter, but as we don’t have a freezer out here, so for know they will just have to remain the ‘Plat du Jour’.
As for other stuff: We are taking bookings for Hunter:Gather:Cook Courses for May-Oct 2012 so please do get in touch if you are interested. I am also looking at setting up an HGC HQ out here in SW France for next year- so will keep you posted on developments. Meanwhile I have my work cut out looking for a local who can take 'le Ros Bif' out to do a bit of this:
I’ve had the French under a microscope for some time now. Studying them as if it was some kind of science project, what makes them tick, what do they eat? What do they drink? What do they do? And above all: why they don’t quite understand what the little lever next to the steering wheel is actually used for.
Of course my research has been conducted in a relatively small part of France, Hossegor, Bayonne and Biarritz: the South-West in high summer- the Cornish Riviera for the Gauls. Although my fumbling grasp of the native language is weak, I can understand most things if said at a reasonable pace and try to avoid direct translation from English to French. I’m not sure what I was taught at school, but it doesn’t seem to apply when ACTUALLY in France…apart from the vocab, that is handy.
Living by the beach is great apart from in July and August when the place has turned into nothing short of a bloody circus, the place seems like the Gallic equivalent of Rock or Polzeath- packed to the brim with hormone-fuelled rich kids with little else in mind than booze, necking one another and playing crap Euro-pop as loud as the gallivanting Gendarmerie will allow. I don’t think I have had a full night sleep without a dawn chorus of drunken teen for two weeks.
So what have I learnt so far? Some of it may sound scathing, but I find it all deeply amusing and sort of loveable. These traits are what makes France, well…France.
Which brings me onto the subject of the post- Pastis. PASTIS! I first tried it last year when we went to a friends for supper. Eager to find out a bit about it, I enquired as to what it was and why it is such a common drink (the French consume 130 million litres of it per year). Eager to fit in I accepted a glass of it and sat there swilling it in the glass as the two French lads looked on in earnest- will the Ros Boeuf take it like a man? I did, just. Having an aversion to Sambuca since Uni makes anything anise shut the gullet down. But its actually not too bad and I am proud to say I purchased my first bottle the other day, be it only a small one. What is really nice is to be able to go into the supermarket and purchase a tip-top bottle of Bordeaux for as little as 3 euros. Again, vive indeed. I also visited the Vin de Sable (wine of the sand) vineyard in the sand dunes just down the road in Capbreton…it was definitely and surprisingly worth the 9 euro price tag.
As for Petanque, apparently it goes very well with pastis, it is a national sport and there are some bad-ass old boys playing it in the park in Hossegor. When I have the courage and the linguistics to get involved- you will be the first to know! Great banter.
The Perfect Vinaigrette.
Had to include a recipe. Now I rarely buy salad dressing- except in France, they do make some good creamy ones I must admit. Making your own is much more fun and its great to play around with. Out here, because it is so bastard hot, Salad features at every mealtime except breakfast. Over the years one keeps cropping up on a regular basis and whilst I will give you the ingredients, you will have to work out the quantities for yourself, I might want to bottle and sell it one day…
Next week, I must return to Mother Blighty for a hectic month of courses at Hunter:Gather:Cook HQ, before donning my beret in September and moving to France full time. HGC will be running in 2012- the course schedule will be up in October. Lots of other stuff been going on: Check out Reader’s Digest this month to read the feature I did on living as a caveman for a week, and also have a watch of this HD vid from Mazda of foraging in the skies with Reggie Yates.
Phat Beets at 'Bunkers', Capbreton.
Few things lift the spirit more than a fine Spring day in Blighty, except perhaps a fine spring day in South-West France, a spring day in Hossegor makes a British Summer pale in comparison. The 1st April was 30C and hotter than Satan’s bollocks, my pasty complexion was shocked and probably thought it was an April fool…not so. The evening was spent sweating by the beach and drinking some of Bordeaux's finest at the beach in Biarritz.
During my visits to Aquitaine, I always go for a bit of an exploration into the ‘Sauvage’ of the Cote des Landes, despite the volume of sand, maritime pines and cork trees, there are many similarities to our native Britain. Be it on foot, in the car or with the fishing rod, there is plenty to do and so far I have found many of the wild foods we have in the UK in serious abundance.
The French like to give the impression they are serious foragers- you cannot deny they’ve cornered the gastronomic market with their culinary genius, but it strikes me that the French have lost interest in food for free unless it has a pulse or a web of mycelium beneath it. Mushrooms are the Frenchman’s wild food of choice and perhaps that’s all that matters to them. They are old hands at gathering wild greens and the baton of thrift has been passed over the channel and lobbed over the Atlantic to let the Brits and the Yanks rummage through the undergrowth for a change.
When I think of a Quince, I picture it being dressed up in Armour, wielding a mace and being patted on the back by Henry XIII for adding a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ to his epic feasts. Far fetched perhaps, but this fruit has regal properties about it…a seat at the round table perhaps?
The Quince is one of those forgotten medieval fruits slowly clawing a comeback in Britain, you know, like the Medlar. It’s a fruit of still life paintings, jellies and delightful blossom. Fortunately for us, the Spaniards have taken it and turned into something a little better than a preserve. In Britain, we have a terrible habit of imprisoning hedgerow fruit in a jam jar with sugar…I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I am guilty of jarring up more members of the wild larder than most, but perhaps it is time indulge in more continental practices: take the raw inedible, and force it to be desirable on the palate, asap.
It must be said the first time I tried oysters I was far from impressed. I can vividly recollect the shelled creature retracting in horror as someone squeezed a bit of lemon juice and a few drops of Tabasco before handing it to me to shoot back, have a brief chew and swallow. It very nearly came straight back up and I remember making a conscious 12 year-old decision to steer well clear of them in the future. My, how things have changed…
It was this very recipe that changed my mind. Raw oysters are something to be reckoned with for the amateur and I do wonder just how many folk truly enjoy their very first? And for those that are sitting on the bench after their first wad of oyster, how is that these mysterious shellfish make us favour them to the point of putting them on a pedestal as a luxury food item? If my memory serves me correct, they were in fact seen as peasant food in London during the Tudor times.
One thing that is always overlooked and is perhaps the most frequently used ingredient of all time is salt. Without seasoning food would be dull. Too much is bad, not enough is disastrous. But how many people have actually made it themselves? It is so ludicrously simple to make: collect a jug of seawater, boil it and reduce it down till you are left with a white residue= salt. Done. I could end the post there…that is all there is to it. But to really sell it to you and hopefully urge you to give it a go yourself, I shall continue.
Salt is something that has been used for 1000’s of years, Sodium chloride has been found as far back as the Neolithic around 6000BC, mainly used in the context of preserving, but no doubt our ancestors found it had the ability to heighten the flavour of whatever they were eating. Along with fire, salt was probably man’s second greatest discovery.
The shout above the crash of the surf combined with the water gradually draining out of my ears could have meant one of two things: either he said ‘pour’ or ‘pas’, to be frank, I had absolutely no fucking idea what he had said anyway, my grasp of the native tongue has progressed little since my GCSE’s. All I could do was nod my head and say ‘Pardon’ in my best accent and hope that I had not angered a local lad while I memorized the sentence to enter into Google translate later, the wonders of modern technology...
Thankfully my knowledge of the rules of etiquette when out surfing in the line-up are a little better than my linguistics, I had been pretty confident it was my wave, I was clearly closest to the peak and, as it turned out, whilst at the mercy of the internet later, I had been right: the Frenchman was merely saying “Call me, It was yours…”
I knew it, perhaps these Frenchies aren’t all that complicated after all?
Why? For the love of god why would anyone want to gorge on slimy amphibians? Despite the off-putting outside appearance they are actually extremely tasty. I began my love affair with frogs many years ago at the tender age of 6. We used to visit a restaurant called La Catogne in the valley below the Verbier in Switzerland. I vaguely remember ordering them out of child like curiosity: frogs? You can eat frogs?!
They were served in the most mouth watering of methods, pan-fried in Garlic,Vin Blanc, Parsley, butter and lemon juice. I was hooked. The dainty little drumsticks of the lower part of the leg were eaten with fingers which were greedily sucked clean after- I never understood what the bowl of warm water with the slice of lemon was for, my parents had to stop me from drinking it...
The view from the new desk.
Bonjour, ca va? Je ne comprends pas. Although my French vocab extends beyond the former, trying to dig it out from the recess of my brain has been tough. I do apologize for the lack of radio contact of late, but I have (I think) a good enough excuse: I have been locked away in a small room by my publishers turning six months of treehouse shenanigans into a book. So here I am in the South of France, about 50ft from the pounding surf of Hossegor beach…its loud, very loud and yet really quite soothing at the same time. I came out with surfboard in tow expecting to get stuck into a nice wedge of Atlantic surf, turns out the waves pack a little more of a punch to the mellow rollers of Cornwall: Double overhead is a bit out of my league…looks like the only wedge I’ll be getting stuck into will be on a cracker with a stick of celery and a few grapes to hand.
Snails, frog’s legs, onions and garlic…I don’t think you could ever make the mistake of linking the above with any other country than France. Yet French cuisine is revered the world over so they must be on to something. Why have the French become known as frogs? Who first coined that phrase? But then we British are described as roast beef! Do we smell of gravy? Do we taste of beef? I think not. Xenophobia has for some strange reason decided to look to the food that we consume to mastermind such witty pet names for one another. Frog’s legs or “la cuisse de grenuille” has been a firm favorite of mine since the age of five. My parents would take my brother and I down to a wonderful restaurant in the valley below our chalet in Switzerland called La Catogne. The dish I would always have would be frog’s legs coated in garlic, smothered in butter and lemon with handfuls of parsley mixed in. I couldn’t get enough! But anyway this is meant to be about snails.
The common garden snail (Helix aspersa) or as the French call them; le petit gris, is viewed by many as a garden pest and rightly so, the little buggers had a proper go at some of my lettuces but seemed a lot more keen on the pak choi, which they really hammered. Over the channel, it’s a different story snail farms are rife and the Frenchies consume a whopping 30,000 tons of snails a year! You would be hard pressed to find them for sale in this country, but there are about 3 snail farms practicing the art of Heliciculture. One in South Devon, the king William pub in Yorkshire and l’escargot anglais in Herefordshire.
Snails and Romans were particularly fond of each other and with spread of the Roman empire we saw the spread of snails as food. The snail’s sex life is also rather interesting. All snails are male until they mate, snails have a sort of penis just below the eye and two snails will come together and join their wedding tackle for up to 10 hours of seminal fluid exchange, by the end of which one will be inseminated and lay up to a thousand eggs. These are also known as snail caviar and seen by many as a delicacy in its own right.
So it was with a little knowledge of these slow moving creatures and some intense anger at finding them decimating my veggies that I set about venturing into the garden with a torch under the cover of darkness to procure myself some Escargot. After about a week I had about 14 and revenge was immanent.
Once you have a batch of snails they need to go into rehab. Sort of. They need to be purged of all unpleasant goods that may be in their gut. To do this you must feed them on a one-item diet. Lettuce, carrot shavings or cabbage leaves are fine and they will need to be purged for 3-5 days. Best to store them in a well-ventilated plastic container with a lid. After this you must starve them for 48 hours, which reduces the amount of slime although this is not necessary.
The classic French way is probably the simplest method of cooking snails. The method I went for was to boil up some well-salted vegetable stock and pop in all the snails and let them simmer for 10 minutes. Once drained and cooled the next stage is to remove them from their shells, this is actually, in the same way as skinning an eel, quite a gleeful experience. It is as they say all in the wrist; get yourself a skewer and dig it into the snail and twist slowly out until you get a nice morsel of snail meat.
To finish them, chop up a couple of cloves of garlic, half a shallot and some parsley and chuck them in a pan along some butter and a splash of white wine and gently fry them for a few minutes. To serve, simply place on a few fresh salad leaves with a little seasoning. Il sont Magnifiques!
If you have a garden or know someone with one then you are more than likely to get your hands on some snails. If you are a keen gardener then I can think of no better way to deal with a snail problem. I like to think of eating snails as just another product of my garden that can be harvested at regular intervals. If you have never tried snails, you don’t have a leg to stand on or to put in context a shell to hide in…if the French can manage 30,000 tons I’m sure you can manage at least a few.