Thursday, 25 February 2010

Languedoc-Roussillon – Anchovies from Collioure

Collioure is a charming coastal town renowned for the artisanal salt-curing of anchovies since Medieval times. Collioure has always been a coveted place due to its opening to the Mediterranean Sea and its two bays which are easily defended. The town has has been fought over for centuries and has swung between Spanish and French ownership. By the mid 1600’s the Treaty of the Pyrenees bought it under French control and at around the same time Collioure, already famous for its salted anchovies, was granted a special royal decree to continue producing them.

The town is full of history including the ancient church which was once a lighthouse at the entrance to the bay. In the early 1900s the artists Matisse and Derain (founders of the Fauvist movement discovered Collioure. Fauvists were a short-lived and loose grouping of early 20th century Modern artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong colour over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism.

Collioure specialized in the salting of tuna, sardines and anchovies and this activity became so significant that in 1466, the King Louis XI exempted the "anchoïeurs" from paying the gabelle (salt tax). By the beginning of the 20th century hundreds were employed in around 40 anchovy salt houses and fresh catches were bought in every morning in the traditional brightly painted fishing boats called Catalans. Nowadays only two salting houses still remain in Collioure, Ets Roques and Anchois Declaux but they continue to prepare the fragile fish in the time honoured fashion – by hand. The women who fillet the tiny fishes are known for their dexterity and light touch.

The anchovies are used to make Anchoïade - a sauce that combines anchovies, garlic, onion, basil and olive oil which is spread on lightly toasted bread. Another anchovy dish is Pissaladière – a famous onion tart from Nice which is basically a pizza dough with a topping of onions, anchovies and olives.

Languedoc Rousillon - Cheeses

Pérail Cheese

Pérail cheese is made in the Aveyron region of France, where Roquefort is produced. As Roquefort's renown grew, along with the demand for the sheep's milk to make it, the local shepherds began selling most of their milk to the Roquefort producers. But many of them always kept a little milk to make small Pérail cheeses for their families. Pérail is thin, flat and a little like Brie. It is a pale straw colour with a pinkish tinge and a nutty aroma.

Bleu des Causses Cheese

Bleu des Causses is a blue cheese made from cow's milk and is considered a mild variant of Roquefort. The cheese is aged for 3–6 months in Gorges du Tarn's natural limestone caves is made along the border of the Lozère and Aveyron . Bleu des Causses has had its own AOC since 1975. Originally Bleu des Causses was made with a mixture of sheep's' and cows' milk, and because cows' milk is more plentiful and cheaper, the cheese became known as the poor man's Roquefort.

Tomme des Pyrenees

Tomme des Pyrenees is usually seen covered in a thin black skin. It was once made from three different kinds of milk: cow, goat and sheep but nowadays it is made from cows' milk. It was first mentioned in the 12th century and was enjoyed by the nobles of St-Girons in Ariège – even King Louis VI knew this cheese of the Pyrenees. The texture is supple and the taste is creamy and only slightly salty. The colour is normally ivory white, varying to pale yellows.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Languedoc Roussillon – Pélardon Cheese

The Cévennes are also renowned for their goats cheese - Pélardon – which has been protected by an AOC since 2000, which ensures its provenance. It is round soft-ripened cheese covered in a white mould and once graced the tables of Romans, according to Pliny. It has a dry and spicy taste and originated by farmer's conserving goat's milk to use over the winter several centuries ago.

The goats, still kept in small herds in accordance with pastoral tradition, eat grasses, oaks, broom, acorns, heather, chestnuts and other herbs. As a result, they produce a rich milk that contributes to the characteristics of the Pélardon.

The milk is left to curdle after each milking. The cheeses are moulded from fresh curds by ladle which gives it is specific shape. Ageing to improve the cheese's flavour must last for at least eleven days.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Sweet Onion Tart

Pre made pastry base
2 lb sweet onions
50 g butter
¼ litre of crème fraiche (or sour cream)
1 cup of milk
4 whole eggs
100g of grated cheese
Bread crumbs
Salt and pepper

Chop the onions finely, then braise them slowly in butter in a saucepan. In a bowl, mix the crème fraiche with the milk, the eggs and the grated cheese. Salt and pepper. Spread the pastry crust in a buttered and floured tart or pie pan. Add the onion mix and the milk/crème/egg mixture. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, and cook in a 400-425 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Languedoc Roussillon – Sweet Onions from the Cévennes

Onions are a staple in our household and driving around our area you can see ranks of spring onions (and smell them) on the slopes around Pershore. This pales in comparison however to the sight of onions growing on steep south facing terraces in the Cévennes hills. The Cévennes are a mountain range in the Languedoc that is also a National Park. To survive here, man had to completely adjust his territory and the natural slopes have been replaced by the continuous piles of terraces, bancels or faissas, running from the valley floor right up to the hill crest. This gigantic work often required that stone and, especially, earth was transported on men's backs using large baskets called terrairaus, which were also used for carrying manure and bringing in the harvest.

You may have heard of the Cévennes from the writings of Robert Louis Stephenson (author of Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) who trekked through them in 1878, on foot with a donkey called Modestine. The record of his journey was published in 1879 and is called Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

It's not known how long the Cévennes have been growing onions but the Occitan word for onion is ceba and the name Cévennes comes from the Gaulish Cebenna, which was Latinized by Julius Caesar to Cevenna – which makes me think that onion growing has been going on for thousands of years here.

The sweet onion from the Cévennes was awarded an AOC in 2003 (the only other is the AOC for the pink onions from Roscoff in Brittany which was awarded in 2009) and have a mild, sweet, soft satiny texture. They are called the Oignon Doux des Cévennes and are from the species Allium cepa L (L means that they belong the Lily family) which are bulb onions. Named varieties grown in the Cévennes are the St André, Cénol, Toli, Jaune des Cévennes and Rayolle des Cévennes.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Languedoc Roussillon – Sweets, Treats and Bubbles

Oreillettes and Croquants Villaret are popular treats found in the Languedoc Roussillon. Oreillettes are a type of fritter - dry and brittle, deliciously flavoured with orange or lemon blossom and dusted with icing sugar. Croquants Villaret are made in Nimes to a secret recipe, passed down by word of mouth through generations of the Villaret family, since 1775. They are made with a base of almonds, flour, sugar, orange flower water and lemon extract and are glazed and quite crunchy and hard.

Berlingots de Pézenas are boiled sweets – a little like Humbugs and legend has it that the recipe dates back to the time of the Medieval fairs when an African trader passed the secret on to a confectioner. The sweets have different flavours including mint, anise, coffee and lemon.

The Nougat de Limoux is made of whole almonds toasted in their skins covered by a milky-coloured mixture of glucose, honey and eggs. Almonds were easy to come by in the past as there were many almond trees bordering vineyards. The sparkling wines from these vineyards are said to pre-date Champagne.

Blanquette de Limoux is considered to be the first sparkling white wine produced in France, created long before the Champagne region became world renowned for their bubbles.

The first written mention of Blanquette appeared in 1531 in papers written by Benedictine monks at an Abbey in Saint-Hilaire. They detail the production and distribution of Saint-Hilaire's Blanquette in cork-stoppered flasks.

The region's location, north of the Cork Oak forest of Cataluña, gave Limoux producers easy access to the material needed to produce secondary fermentation in the flask, which produces the bubbles necessary for sparkling wine.

Local lore suggests that Dom Pérignon picked up this idea while serving in this Abbey before moving to Champagne!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Languedoc Roussillon – Grisettes de Montpellier

Grisettes de Montpellier are tiny honey flavoured sweets with touch of liquorice. They look like small black beads the size of a pea and their origins go back to the Middle Ages. They were used by pilgrims travelling to the sanctuary of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia as barter with the 12th century shopkeepers of Notre-Dame-des-Tables. Grisettes are still made there to a recipe dating from 1837.

Liquorice was a speciality of 18th century Montpellier and was grown in the garrigues (low, soft-leaved scrub land found on limestone soils around the Mediterranean Basin, generally near the sea coast). The Liquorice plant is related to beans and peas and is native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. Liquorice extract is made by boiling the root of the Liquorice plant and the name Liquorice comes from the Old French word licoresse. Liquorice contains glycyrrhizin, a sweetener more than 50 times as sweet as sucrose.

Oddly enough it was Pontefract in Yorkshire which was the first place where Liquorice mixed with sugar began to be used as a sweet (Pontefract Cakes were originally made there). In Yorkshire and Lancashire Liquorice is colloquially known as Spanish, supposedly because Spanish monks grew liquorice root at Rievaulx Abbey near Thirsk.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Languedoc Roussillon - Crème Catalane

Crème Catalane is a favourite dessert in the Languedoc Roussillon and is similar to Crème Brûlée but is made with lemon and orange zest, cinnamon, vanilla and fennel seed. Many countries lay claim to the origin of the dessert – including Spain, England and Germany but the chief difference between Crème Catalane and Crème Brûlée is that Crème Catalane is not baked in a bain-marie and is based on milk. The earliest mention of this dessert is in a French cookbook in 1691.

Fennel seeds give Crème Catalane a mild aniseed flavour and grows wild in the Languedoc Roussillon. It is thought that Fennel originated on the shores of the Mediterranean and it has become widely naturalised elsewhere (perhaps being spread by the Romans). It is a highly aromatic herb with both culinary and medicinal uses, and is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. In Greek mythology the Giant Fennel (Ferula communis) provided the stalks that followers of Dionysus, the god of wine, used as wands.

Zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1 vanilla pod
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
3 egg yolks
70g sugar
330ml milk
1 tbsp cornflour
4 tbsp brown sugar

Boil the milk, vanilla and crushed fennel seeds in a saucepan, then turn down heat. Cover and leave for 30 minutes. Strain the milk and add egg yolks. Whisk the mixture, then add the sugar and lemon and orange zest, then whisk again. Add the cornflour with a little more milk, cook gently, remove from heat just before boiling. Pour into 4 ramekins and chill for 2 hours in fridge. Sprinkle with sugar and caramelise for 2 minutes under grill just before serving.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Rousquilles Recipe

300g flour
1 tsp baking powder
85g icing sugar
½ tsp salt
1 drop vanilla essence
1 tbsp orange blossom water
85g butter
3 egg yolks
25g honey
50ml milk
2 tbsp aniseed seed
Icing Sugar
170g icing sugar
1 egg white
1 tsp lemon juice

Place the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a bowl, add the butter and rub till the mixture is crumbly. Stir in the egg yolks, honey, milk, vanilla essence, orange blossom water and aniseed. Knead the dough until smooth. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Remove and roll out the dough, cut out the rings with pastry cutters and bake for 15 minutes at 180ºC.

To make the icing pour 70ml of boiling water into the icing sugar in a pan and heat. Whisk the egg white until stiff, add the icing sugar syrup and lemon juice. Dip the Rousquilles into the mixture so that they are covered.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Languedoc Roussillon – Rousquilles

Rousquilles are ring-shaped biscuits, similar to shortbread, made in the Vallespir region in Roussillon. They originated in southern Spain, and their name means “small wheels” and were looped onto thin sticks which hawkers would carry on their shoulders for sale in the streets. They are flavoured with aniseed, orange blossom water and honey and are usually eaten with coffee or before a meal with a glass of local wine such as Banyuls or a Muscat.

Aniseed (anis) is a member of the parsley family, and related to caraway, dill, cumin, and fennel. Aniseed is native to the eastern Mediterranean region and has been highly valued since ancient times. Aniseeds have a distinctive sweet liquorice-like aroma and flavour and have been used for medicinal purposes throughout history, especially as a digestive aid. The seeds are also used whole or crushed as a flavouring in various foods, from baked goods and sweets to liqueurs such as absinthe or the Greek liqueur ouzo.

Ancient Roman wedding ceremonies often concluded with the breaking of a cake of wheat or barley containing anise over the bride's head as a symbol of good fortune. And centuries later, King Edward IV was said to have slept on bed linens that had been perfumed with anise.

Orange Blossom Water (eau de fleur d'oranger) is a distillate made from the petals of the bitter orange tree (known as a bigaradier in French). It's a traditional ingredient in North African cooking where you will find it in both sweet and savoury dishes and even salads. In France it is mostly in the south where you will find flower waters used to delicately flavour various regional dishes, mostly desserts and sweets. Like Aniseed, orange blossoms were used in weddings in ancient times but in this instance they were used to make wreaths for the brides.

Languedoc-Roussillon is one of France’s main bee-keeping regions and honey is an ingredient in many local deserts. You can find Rosemary, Chestnut and Lavender Honey in the region. Chestnut Honey is from the white blossom of the red sweet chestnut tree and has a full-bodied nutty flavour.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Marmande Tomato

There is a lovely story about the heritage beefsteak Marmande tomato which takes its name from the town of Marmande. Once upon a time, Peyrot Bory, an impoverished young man fell in love with Ferline Giraudeau, the daughter of a wealthy middle class man in Marmande. Peyrot dared not tell her of his love as he was conscious of being too poor to aspire to her hand so, filled with grief, he decided to leave Marmande. He arrived in Bordeaux just when a ship was setting sail to "the Isles".

For four years he travelled, throughout the Caribbean and New Granada. He worked hard and yet he could not forget Ferline. Eventually he returned to Marmande and in his luggage was a large leather bag filled with Spanish doubloons and a pouch in which lay strange dark grey flower seeds. He planted them in a sunny corner of his garden and in early summer clusters of beautiful red fruits appeared. Each morning, he picked a few and placed them in a little wicker basket on the window ledge of his beloved. After a few days Ferline saw him placing his offering:
"Tell me, friend," she said, “What do you call this delicious fruit that you bring every day?"

"When I was in the Americas, the Indians called this fruit the tomato, but I call it Ferline in remembrance of you, as it is so beautiful!"
he replied.

"Well," she said, throwing herself into his arms, “from today, we will call it "the apple of love, Pomme d'amour".

Monday, 1 February 2010

Languedoc Roussillon – Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a major feature in Languedoc Roussillon cuisine and according to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the tomato was introduced there in 1590. The tomato is native to South America and evidence supports the theory that the first domesticated tomato was a little yellow fruit grown by the Aztecs of Central Mexico, who called it xitomatl. Aztec writings mention tomatoes were prepared with peppers, corn and salt, which could be the original salsa recipe!

It's not known whether it was the Spanish explorer Cortez who brought the tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City in 1521 – or whether it was Christopher Columbus, earlier in 1493. Either way the introduction of the tomato in France was slow. In the 1600s the tomato was eyed with suspicion and was used as an ornamental plant rather than for its fruit in France. In France, it was called Pomme d'or (golden apple) or Pomme d'amour (apple of love).

Strangely enough it was the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1863 that saw the boom in tomato growing. As vines were abandoned they were replaced with tomatoes. The Conservatory of Tomatoes, located at Chateau de la Bourdaisière in Montlouis-sur-Loire, holds the heirloom collection of more than 600 old varieties.