This year’s winter has brought so many charms, compensation enough for the cold. As the early morning light breaks over the horizon, the distant hills and clouds blend and cling to their darkness still. The lingering fog hovers over the Diamond Creek, vacillating, waiting, before moving along the valley. The sharp crystal light captures the work of the night weavers, strings of pearls webbed between gnarly branches, holding the night rain, ethereal but strong. I imagine wearing this exquisite rivière for one second, more alluring than gemstones, a spider girl’s best friend.
The winter flowers have more charm than their spring cousins, their appearance always surprising and more welcome. The first delicate jonquils of June exhilarate with perfume, while the long flowering fronds of the Hardenbergia Violacea glow deep magenta in the early light. Blossom spurs fatten on the pear trees, the coned tips of the Echium engorge: the more abundant seasonal rain will make these creatures shout in purple and blue when the time comes. Pale green lichen hugs the Melia Azedarach, an exotic knitted sleeve that will dry out in summer’s harsh winds. Brave dying oak leaves, copper and russet, cling to the trees, Pre- Raphaelite colours brightening the driveway.
I’m learning to understand winter and may even like her now. But then it’s only late June. While the light slowly returns, the cold winds will come and shock that early promise back into dormancy. It’s not yet time to rejoice.
Autumn in Melbourne, most would agree, is the best season of the year. Days are warm and still while evenings are crisp. A few small logs burning in the wood stove symbolise a seasonal turning point in the calendar: the first cosy fire is the most evocative of all. Other Autumnal markers are the slow ripening of the quinces, with a few falling each day, the late season heritage apples, the Rome Beauty and Akane varieties now ready, and the fat green olives beginning to blush purple-black. Keeping a productive vegetable patch and orchard may seem demanding to some- an abundant harvest can be a hard task master. This extra time in the kitchen is offset by time spent away from supermarkets. In my kitchen, the garden is featuring more each month and will continue to do so. Out of My Garden and into the Kitchen perhaps?
If you grow your own chillies, you will probably end up with way too many but really, count this as a blessing. There are little saucers of chillies lying about in my kitchen and on sunny ledges, slowly drying out for the year’s supply. Once ready, they will be whizzed in an electric spice grinder then stored stored for the year in jars. Some dried chilli flakes also go into the making of chilli oil, an essential condiment on a southern Italian table. Soup bowls proliferate in my kitchen. Because I love soup so much, I have preferred bowls for certain soups. Fine purees tend to go into old-fashioned 1940s small bowls, onion soup into rustic terracotta bowls, Italian bean and pasta soups lounge around in shallow but very wide bowls and so on. It’s obsessive I know, and my soup bowl collection is being reviewed as I address the issue of downsizing. A few new irregular shaped bowls recently snuck into my kitchen.
And when it comes to soup, the garden produce usually dictates the recipe. I always start with a soffritto, a very finely chopped selection of onion, celery, herbs and garlic sauted in olive oil, and then the soup is built on this base. It is artistic expression for me- not just a bowl of soup.
The soup that followed the picking.
I get nervous if the dried bean and pulse supplies fall too low. Sourced from Bas Foods, most of these are Australian grown and are packed fresh in the warehouse next door. There’s nothing worse than woody old dried beans: no soaking and long cooking will revive them. Another essential soup ingredient is Farro, and it’s great to see the Australian variety on the market made by Mt Zero olives.
Autumn fruits, and a few stored plums from late summer, make fine fruit crumbles. My favourite mixture is apple, plum, orange, lemon peel, sugar, cloves and marsala. This batch is ready to be topped with crumble.
As we have been running between two kitchens for the last two months, we have discovered some interesting fresh supplies near our campsite on the Mornington Peninsula. These mussels are grown in the bay off Mt Martha where the water is deep and pristine. They are not available commercially in Melbourne as Point Lonsdale black mussels tend to dominate the markets. They can be bought at Safety Beach and also in Dromana. They are really the best mussels I have ever tasted.
I made a quick smoky chowder last night and a few of these briny molluscs went into the soup. Today’s Pizza lunch demanded a few more- and I still have half a bag left for some Pasta con Cozze tonight. Not bad for $7.50 a kilo.
For the monthly series, In My Kitchen, organised and collated by Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings. Strangely enough, this series keeps me on track and up to date with my garden life too.
Apologies to Eha, Debi and others for my earlier draft which suddenly appeared without my knowledge. Gremlins!
Village markets in France roll around once or twice a week, and if you happen to miss your local marché, there’s always another one the following day in a village nearby. I can sense pre- market excitement when I’m staying in a village but maybe it’s just my own eagerness to get there. I must confess, I’m a French market junkie, having been to around a dozen or so over the last four weeks, and I put this down to my greed and lust for good food. I’m in the right country. French markets are integral to life here. Supplies come to your village from the local district: some from the farmers, cheese makers, apiarists, some from local artisans, and of course, manufacturers of cheap clothing. Heading out the front door, with strong bags in hand, and strolling through narrow lanes and medieval arcades, with no car traffic to deal with enroute, is far more pleasurable than heading off to a supermarket by car. If only my local market back at home near Melbourne was as easy to visit, without fear of being run down by speeding tourists keen to park as close to the market as possible. In French country markets, cars are banned: they are parked on the outskirts of the village, allowing easy access for vendors’ vehicles. All shoppers must walk to the market.
What treasures will turn up this week? What new seasonal vegetables will be on offer and will I show some restraint for a change? The church bells are chiming 8 am and I can hardly wait. Today’s market in Pezenas, Occitanie, will be interesting. It takes place in a nearby square, a stone’s throw from our 16th century apartment. As I write, I can hear the trolleys being wheeled in through the port below the window.
The markets in the Dordogne region varied in size and style. The large and colourful Sunday market at Issigeac was a favourite. It snaked its way around the narrow and winding village streets in an unpredictable way, given that Issigeac doesn’t have a large market square. All sorts of vendors turned up: the mushroom man, selling girelles, trompe du mort and Cèpes(porcini): a rugged looking duo selling oysters of every size, boxed up for buyers on beds of seaweed, a curly red headed lady with honey and bees wax for sale, who played the squeeze box and sang French folk songs when not engaged in selling, and the usual array of vegetable, cheese and saucisson stalls.
The Thursday market at Monpazier ( it has always been held on Thursdays since the 13th century ) was much smaller, though on one occasion, a mattress seller took pride of place in the square and I did rather fancy the knife sharpening man, a skill that is slowly dying. The big town market at Bergerac encircled the town’s cathedral, then radiated uphill along adjacent streets. A huge christening ceremony took place one Saturday while the market was in full swing, the shoppers and vendors forming a row of honour as the family and baby arrived.
There were little stalls selling sweet canelè in every flavour, lots of walnut stalls, chestnuts, and a substantial flower market. The Saturday market at Le Bugue, right on the Dordogne, sold the best Paella, cakess and quiches and the huge poissomiere truck did a roaring trade. I purchased a small tub of brandade to spread on croutons: this is one dish I never bother to make at home given the tedious soaking of salted cod required.
In each market you’ll usually find a separate area where cheap clothing, linen, shoes and handbags are sold. These stalls are appealing at first, then after a while, you recognise the same garments at every market- this season it’s oversized knitted sloppy joes, women’s tops with large stars on the back, and retro looking cotton tops with a lot of glitter and sequins.
One of the other features of the village market, and one I’m too shy and too foreign to join, is the footpath café scene. Coffee and wine are sipped slowly, double or triple kiss greetings take place as locals gather to catch up, though you can always spot a French poseur or two, and a few expats trying very hard to appear local. I’ll head to the Café des Arts in the late afternoon for a Pastis. I’ve acquired a taste for this old Provençal drink. I’ll wave about an imaginary Gauloises and if chilly, I may even don my new fingerless gloves or perhaps a beret.Bonne journée.
When I first studied Keats’ Ode to Autumn as a 17-year-old student, I was naive, optimistic and ignorant, full of expectation and youthful determination. The possibilities of life stretched out endlessly before me. I was in the Spring of my life: this metaphor, now considered clichéd, was not lost on me at the time, but then again, how could I have fully understood the real depth of this Keatsian analogy, not having travelled very far through the successive seasons of life. My literature teacher laid strong foundations for future and deeper understandings. Good literature requires frequent visitations.
‘To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.’
I’m now in the Autumn of my life and am delighted to be here: I wouldn’t want to be 18, or 38 or 55 still. Those times were good: each season brought blessings and joys, angst and worry. Each season does. I just happen to love Autumn more and cling to whatever this season brings, knowing that my winter is not so far away.
‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.’
I visit the vegetable garden now and am rewarded with the products of our particular Summer: volatile and untrustworthy, youthful and full of energy, promises are made and broken. Patience is important when dealing with summer. Autumn is long and slow, with cool beginnings, windless warm days and soft pink, crimson, turning to tangerine sunsets. The ‘conspiracy’ is now over: we are loaded and blessed with fruits and vegetables and I’m not in a hurry to tamper with the season or hurry it along.
Hiding along walkways, slow maturing pumpkins need another two lazy months before they surrender their sweetness and hard flesh for storing. Meanwhile, the zucchini are on display again, more loud and showy than the petite summer offerings: new flowers, bees and prolific fruits appear daily. Large seed filled zeppelins appear far too quickly now.
‘To swell the gourd’
There could be a part two to my Keatsian story: to think that we have only just begun our gentle waltz through Autumn.
My previous Keatsian posts can be viewed here and the full verse can be found here.
One of the joys of Christmas, as far as our seasonal food calendar goes, is the arrival of fresh cherries in abundance. The season usually peaks in mid to late December but this year they are appearing more slowly, thanks to a very cold Spring. The plump, expensive boxes have hit the shelves, but I am still waiting for the big flush, when cherries appear in luscious piles on fruiterers’ tables, dark, plump and cheap, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailer cherries, to hang over ears or slurp out of the bag before reaching home, as well as a few kilos to preserve in Brandy, or to stud a Clafoutis.
In the meantime, this unusual recipe for Cherry Clafoutis caught my eye. It utilises dried sour cherries, reconstituted in Cognac. Or perhaps the Cognac caught my eye first, a Christmas life saver of a drink for those who feel a little stressed.
Preserved Cherry Clafoutis.
150 ml pouring cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
85 gr caster sugar
1 egg white
25 gr ( 1/3 cup) plain flour, sifter
icing sugar to serve
clotted cream, or mascarpone whipped with cream, or just cream, to serve
60 gr dried cherries
100 gr white sugar
3 ml Cognac
For preserved cherries, combine dried cherries in a saucepan with sugar, Cognac and 150 ml water and cool on low heat for 7-8 minutes until liquid is syrupy. Watch that the liquid doesn’t turn to toffee.
Preheat oven to 180C. Heat cream and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to boil, remove from heat and cool. Remove vanilla bean. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until light and creamy. In a separate bowl, whisk egg white until soft peaks form, then add the cream mixture and fold to combine. add the flour and fold in, then slowly beat in the egg mixture.
Spoon cherries into a lightly buttered and sugared 6 cup ovenproof baking dish. Pour batter over cherries and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Serve immediately, dusted liberally with icing sugar and with cream.
This version of clafoutis is very light and more like a souffle in texture, so it is best to eat it straight from the oven, though I must mention that it is rather nice at 6.30 am, eaten straight from the fridge, which is the quiet hour when I like to write and eat leftovers. The recipe is also handy for all other seasons, and may suit the cherry- deprived in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course you can use fresh cherries or ones you preserved from last year.
**The recipe is from a Gourmet Traveller Annual Cookbookand is attributed to Peter Gilmour.
And now for a song plant/ear worm for the day. Just change the chorus from Sherry Baby to Cherry Baby when you make a classic cherry Clafoutis.