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Cooking With Emma

After seven months in France, we took a break from r-gargling and brie bingeing and visited Italy as part of our very brave eight-weeks-on-the-road-with-three-young-kids summer road trip.  Michael and I have been there done that in Rome, Venice and Florence, so we picked a small country village in the hills of Tuscany and a quaint terrace house in Nesso, Lake Como as our Italian destinations of choice.  For six nights in Tuscany, we stayed in an old stone relic of a house with those classic terracotta tiles you wish you could afford in a new home.  They would never look as good as they do in a house that has been lived in for hundreds of years … it’s the scratches, divots and dents and the smooth, worn down steps that give it such character.  I had a quick look on the other side of the ancient door that led to the attic from our enormous main bedroom and decided it could be left undiscovered.  The cobwebs alone put me off!

The big country kitchen with ivory tiled benchtops and an eight seater dining table right in the middle that doubled as a preparation area made me feel like a true Italian Nonna!  I swear when I next build a house, I’ll be installing one of the old-fashioned dish racks hidden in a cupboard above the sink.  A brilliant idea!  The house also came with an Italian coffee pot for making my morning cups of black gold.  My aunt and uncle have always used them, and I know they are readily available at home, but I’d never tried one myself.  Needless to say, I am now the proud owner of an Italian coffee pot that can be used on a gas, electric or induction stove top … had to cover all bases when our holiday means we will use fifteen different kitchens!  It was worth the extra ten euros to ensure my family gets the best version of me each morning.

Highlights of Tuscany: San Gimignano at dusk was a moment in time (so much so that we went back a second time!); the views of the endless hills, dotted with olive trees and old farmhouses and marked by rows of vineyards; and Siena for its surprisingly entertaining Santa Maria della Scala Art Museum (we sheltered from a storm but stayed for a couple of hours exploring the underground hallways and rooms of what used to be a hospital in the 1300s) and equally entertaining and passionate providore in a quaint deli.  This rotund gentleman was full of jubilance and good humour, his walrus moustache following suit.  He looked like an actor from a 1960s street scene – someone who would be the local town butcher.  I imagine him in a black and white photograph, his personality all that is needed to colour the scene.  He over-generously handed out samples of his aged and smoked prosciutto served atop crusty bread and then quickly followed that up with a wedge of sharp pecorino smothered in creamy pesto.  Twenty-six euros later, we walked out of there with snugly wrapped packages of everything we’d tried and more … we justified it by agreeing we didn’t need lunch after all the samples!

But there was one highlight that stood out in Tuscany.  After months of living in Europe as a foreigner, I am almost repelled by the “top ten things to do in …” lists and deliberately go looking for experiences that are usually left for those who attempt to break in to the local circles.  I got wind of a certain neighbour who occasionally offered cooking classes.  I had no idea of her qualifications or if she was any good, but I felt that at the very least, it would be fantastic to meet someone local who spoke my language (both English and foodie!) and could offer further recommendations.  Little did I know my luck would have me meet Emma Mantovani.  She lived just a couple of doors up the (steep) hill and ended up being the person who checked us in as our hosts were called away to England at the last minute.

I booked a 4 hour cooking class and dinner for two with Emma and she very kindly invited the children to come along too and swim in her pool before-hand.  She asked which meat I preferred and I picked pork, but apart from this, I left it all up to her! My afternoon of cooking with Emma started with a surprise visit to a local biodynamic farm to pick up supplies for our evening meal.  It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting Nathalie, a passionate, young farmer fighting against nature and the elements and no doubt her own will, to produce biodynamic vegetables and herbs.  I’m no expert on this type of farming, but I’ve come to understand that very few farmers attempt this approach because the results are so unpredictable which means earning a living from this passion is almost impossible.  However, that hasn’t stopped Nathalie, who is qualified in viniculture and has used her agricultural knowledge to set up her own farm with her boyfriend (I noticed she had family members helping in the fields too!).  She explained to me that it’s a cut above organic and involves the use of many complimentary planting techniques, feeding the plants nutrition from fermented organic matter and the use of spiders and other creepy crawlies to keep away those insects that hinder a successful crop.  She walked me through rows of eggplants, basil, celery, potatoes, onions, zucchinis, tomatoes, cabbages, shallots, garlic, asparagus, carrots and capsicums, and pointed out many failed crops along the way.  This year it is mostly due to the searing heat that swept through France and Italy in June and early July.
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Nonetheless, we left Nathalie with a big, brown paper bag full of zucchinis and their flowers, garlic and basil that had just been picked.  As we drove off up the hill on the rugged dirt track, the echos of many “ciao’s” could be heard behind us.  It felt as if we were leaving another world behind in the valley between two giant hills.
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Back at Emma’s, I was presented with the evening’s menu and my tummy started to growl!  Despite the four courses, the offering was simple, fresh and oh so Italian:

Appetiser: Terrine of Ricotta and Carrot with a Pesto Sauce and Schiacciata all’olio (Foccacia)

First Course: Fresh Pasta with Zucchini Sauce

Second Course: Pork Tenderloin Crusted with Aromatic Herbs

Dessert: Apple and Pine Nut Cake
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As we tackled the baking first to allow plenty of time for proving, I couldn’t help but notice Emma’s classic old school Salter scales.  It made me feel like a pro at the outset! The cake went into the oven to cook first and we paused around 6pm for a glass of Lapillo Amiata 2010, which uses Tuscany’s famous Sangiovese grapes.  It went down very easily with a few slices of Pecorino from Sardinia.  I relaxed into casual chatter with Emma and discovered a little about her life around food.
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She essentially grew up in a family restaurant where she made sure she worked hard to progress from washing dishes, to instead cooking with her aunt, as quickly as possible.  Emma went on to run a bistro in Florence for years and opened an Artisan Chocolate Shop before most people knew and understood the difference between industrially produced chocolate and that of an artisan chocolatier.  All her life she has been sharing her passion for food in one way or another.  These days, she lives in one end of her large home with husband, Giancarlo, and rents out the other end as a 3 bedroom, self-catering B&B.  She is kept busy during the summer months with cooking classes in her own kitchen, using as many herbs and vegies as she can from her own backyard.

I was sent out to the herb garden with instructions to pick sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano for the pork and stood dumb-founded by the views at sunset.  Her backyard is an ideal platform to take in the panoramic views of the Tuscan hills.  I stopped by at the pool for a quick chat with my hubby and kids who had come to join us for dinner, before heading back in to start on the fresh pasta for first course.
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Whilst Emma takes food very seriously, I felt as though I was just hanging out in the kitchen watching my Italian Nonna cook the evening meal.  She has an ease about her that makes you realise that sometimes the glamour and hype over food as a trend, means you lose the true meaning of what it means to really enjoy food.  “You need patience and love to cook well” she told me.  I couldn’t help but smile and think how similar it is to life itself – patience and love with people goes a long way too. It was obvious she had passed on her love of food to Matteo, her 33 year old son.  He was visiting to help with their 600-tree olive farm and was called into the kitchen at about 9pm, challenged to a “rolling pin versus machine” race to prepare the pasta.  He produced his Grandmother’s pasta machine that was purchased in 1967 and got straight to it, chatting enthusiastically with me about how simple food is and how important it is to forget about chasing “the perfect dish” … “because it doesn’t exist” he tells me quite frankly.  Of course it doesn’t.  I agreed with him that chef-reality shows do nothing to encourage ordinary folk to get acquainted with their kitchens.  In fact, it intimidates them into thinking they could never cook dishes that look like Michelin starred centrepieces, so why bother?

By the way, Emma won the competition – the woman is twice my age and I couldn’t keep up rolling that dough at the pace she kept.  I now look at food preparation in a new light – as part of a potential fitness regime!  Matteo did well with the machine but shared the task around with me and the kids which no doubt slowed him up a bit.
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I couldn’t help but ask Emma about the Thermomix I am so fond of.  I was sure she would know of it – it’s a European appliance afterall.  She didn’t let on that she knew of it and all I know is that after that conversation, she decided we would cut everything by hand!  I couldn’t help but respect her even more for pushing me into a “back to basics” style of cooking to help me understand the work that traditionally goes into preparing a family Italian feast.  I’m guessing the certificate from the Cordon Bleu in Paris on the wall may have had something to do with her purist intent as well.
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Despite all this, she produced her blender at the last minute to make the pesto.  She seemed oblivious to my squeals of delight at her original Vorwerk “Bibby 300” from the 1970s … obviously the precursor to the Thermomix we know and love today.  Still in perfect working order but not something she uses often, she assured me.  I could tell – I could see the muscle definition in her forearms!

By 11pm, we were ready to sit down for the appetiser.  The whole family had been involved somehow in the preparation and Giancarlo shared with me, over dinner in the garden, his belief that food is an important part of life and should be something that families take time to do together and share with others.  I could see his genuine concern that this was a dying art.  You see, food and sharing is not only a business for this family but also a way of life.  They meet people from all over the world who come and stay in their little patch of Tuscan paradise.  I have no doubt they all leave richer for having had the experience of sitting down for a meal with the Mantovani family.
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The following three courses were devoured in time and before each one, I was summoned to the kitchen to help Emma present each dish, and picked up little tips here and there that I can now pass on to you. I am a garlic lover and I can never seem to put in too much for my liking.  To me, there’s just no point adding one or two cloves to a casserole.  “Simple!” Emma tells me. “Just add two in the beginning and two just before you serve it.” Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?  Sometimes we get so used to cooking a certain way that a class now and then can really freshen up your thinking and remind you how simple and easy cooking should be.

I was pleased to see Emma wrestling with the fresh pasta and sauce in the pan … I thought it was just me who ended up with all the sauce on the bottom!  She simply served the whole pan to the table and reminded everyone as they helped themselves to dig for the best part … the taste of the biodynamic zucchinis was crisp and flavoursome and the mint that Emma added at the last minute gave the whole dish a fresh twist for summer.   Again, this simple sauce had just four main ingredients but offered up enough flavour to be a stand-alone meal.
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The pork tenderloin will go down in my recipe book as a fabulous cheat dish for entertaining.  We cooked it an hour in advance by simply rolling the fillet in the mix of herbs (I learned all about juniper berries during the marathon chopping task) and searing it in a pan, adding the leftover herbs to form the base of the sauce.  White wine was the only other ingredient together with the meat juices and the sauce was reheated just before serving.  A brilliant way to serve meat hot without having to cook it all while your guests are waiting. The apple cake was moist and caramelised and served with Matteo’s home-made vanilla ice cream (the remaining four slices travelled with us to Lake Como the next day and were enjoyed for supper!).  We rolled down the hill well after midnight with tired kiddies and content tummies.
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Emma is one of those unique humans that can empower you without inflating your ego.  Her no-nonsense attitude and relaxed demeanour meant I walked away feeling inspired.  She made me feel like I had a responsibility to remind others how important good food and simple cooking is to families.  That fresh, locally grown produce is always best and worth the extra effort to source.  But above all, it reminded me that a basic investment of time and love in preparing food and sharing it with family and friends, will always pay life-long dividends.
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If you’re ever travelling to Italy, I can highly recommend Tuscany.  We stayed at Casa Magnolia (we contacted our host Charly via Airbnb.com).  Emma and Giancarlo’s B&B is called “Casa Pietraia”. If you love cooking as I do, contact Emma in advance to book in a cooking class.  She can be contacted on emmamant@tin.it.  Tell her I said “ciao!”

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Let’s Meat in Lyon

Our little pocket of the South of France has really shown us how quickly the seasons can change around here.  A week ago, we only just made it out of our road, through snow as deep as my five year old is tall and temperatures below zero. And this afternoon, the day after coming home from our road trip, we sat outside in the sunshine and enjoyed wearing only two layers (not our usual five) in a toasty 13 degrees.

We took advantage of the kid’s school holidays and drove to Grenoble to stay with a friend.  Five years ago when I started to welcome au pairs into our home in Australia to help me cope with three children under two years of age, I never knew the depth of friendships we were creating, and how well these girls (and a guy in there too!) would get to know and love our family.  What a treat it has been to continue our wonderful connection with some of these young ladies in their home country. We were invited to spend a few nights in a small town called Voreppe, just out of Grenoble and an hour south of Lyon.  It cemented for me two things: I much prefer to spend time in smaller villages and towns than larger cities; and you can’t pay for the experience you get when you are hosted in a family’s home and are gifted the opportunity to see how a real French family lives, day to day.

Voreppe

We were well and truly spoilt for space, comfort, good food and wonderful conversation, despite the challenges of a language barrier. Our friends really went all out to show us their “specialties of the region”.  So much so that we ended up having a joke at each meal time about how if something is a “specialty of the region”, it must be eaten, no matter how much fat or sugar is involved. We happily agreed to share in the specialty of the region for January – a croissant consistency pastry that was laced with praline walnuts. The kids thought it was Christmas when this was served for breakfast!  And as there is a specialty patisserie product for each month (brilliant marketing or respected tradition??) we also had to sample February’s bugnes. These are sweet, crunchy pastry layers that taste like they’ve been deep fried – but in a good way – and dusted with icing sugar.  They’re delicious and delicate and indulgent and leave me feeling like the French have a secret I don’t know about or an iron will that keeps them thin.  Incredible how they resist these temptations.  I’m sure there is a gene in a French person’s DNA that doubles their rate of metabolism – it just doesn’t make sense.

The best dishes were the traditional French dinners they cooked that included Roti de Veau aux Chanterelles (Roasted Veal with Chanterelle Mushrooms in a Cream Sauce – best bit about this dish was that the mushrooms were hand picked from the forest and dehydrated at home!), Pommes de Terres Dauphinoises (Potatoes Dauphinois), Boeuf aux Carottes (Slow Cooked Beef and Carrot Casserole) and a dish I’d never seen or heard of before called Quenelles. The best way I can describe these are a cross between gnocchi and cannelloni or boiled bread dough and pasta – they soak up whatever you cook with them and in our case, it was a simple and very tasty tomato and olive sauce.  Interestingly, when we ordered these a few days later in Lyon, they were made from fish and had a consistency similar to tofu.  So I’m left thinking there are at least a couple of versions.  Both were yum.

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What struck me most is the simplicity of how the French eat.  You even see it on their restaurant menus.  As an example, Boeuf aux Carrottes.  Beef with carrots.  No apology, no fancy dress-ups, just humble food served with love. What the untrained palette may not realise however, is that the dish is slow cooked, sometimes over two days.  And most French people have been taught the art of saveur (flavour) so that a generous amount of garlic is used, the right herbs are added at the right time, and they are never shy with salt and pepper (I rarely need to season food after it’s served).  And of course with each main meal we are first offered a salad and before dessert, a plate of heavenly cheeses.  I swear I will never tire of tasting new cheeses. Charles de Gaulle once said that “a country with over 350 kinds of cheese is ungovernable”.  Well, I’m afraid I don’t need to worry too much about the government here as it will probably never effect me directly.  So until such a time, I will push on in pursuit of those 350 kinds of cheeses, and be grateful for each morcel.
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Speaking of cheese, we went on our friend’s recommendation and took a day trip to Annecy, an hour and a half from Voreppe.  It’s in the Savoie department and is the home of the original cheese fondue.  I’d seen it on the map before and knew it was close to the Swiss border, but other than that, I was grateful for someone else to play tour guide and show us around.  What an unexpected delight! It’s by far the prettiest city I have seen in France so far and the most unique given it borders France’s third largest lake and juts up against the mountains, giving us ample opportunities to take some breathtaking, postcard-worthy photos.  The architecture reminded me of Switzerland and the canals through the old town reminded me of Venice, but it was the cheese fondue we ate for lunch that reminded me of being a kid again!  I had a great time, swirling various charcuterie cuts, fresh rye bread and pickles through the thick, gooey cheese, that was both sweet and creamy all at once.  I had to fight off the kids to ensure my fill.  That meal will be one we remember, punctuated by how cold it was outside despite the brilliant blue sky and sunshine, and how warm and cozy it was inside the Savoyard restaurant.  A brilliant day.
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After Voreppe and Grenoble, we ventured in to Lyon.  It reminded me of braving Paris by car a little. It is a very densely populated city, although this was only apparent to us by buildings and cars, not necessarily people.  Lyon is France’s “second city” or the “city between two rivers”.  The waters of the Rhone and Saone mucked up my usual stellar navigation.  We stayed in the Croix Rousse district which was probably just as well.  It sits very high up on a hill overlooking the city – breathtaking views on a clear day – and meant we could squeeze plenty of high intensity training into our days of eating. Histroically, the area was famous for it’s artisan silk weavers.  Les Pentes are the famous stairs that take you from the city centre to the top of the hill in twenty minutes depending on your fitness levels.  Driving would probably take just as long once you deal with the horrors of parking, zigzag turns and miniature roads that spit you out at one end only to confuse you with endless one way streets as your next option!
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I read up on Lyon before we arrived – I am always keen to find out what the food specialties are of each region.  One thing France does well, is clearly define which regions own the origin of certain products.  And from all the reading I did, the theme I picked up was meat, meat, meat.  This quote from an article in The Guardian summed it up perfectly: “In a dining establishment in Lyon, you can eat pig fat fried in pig fat, a pig’s brain dressed in a porky vinaigrette, a salad made with creamy pig lard, a chicken cooked inside a sealed pig’s bladder, a pig’s digestive tract filled up with pig’s blood and cooked like a custard, nuggets of a pig’s belly mixed with cold vinegary lentils, a piggy intestine blown up like a balloon and stuffed thickly with a handful of piggy intestines, and a sausage roasted in a brioche (an elevated version of a “pig in a blanket”).”  The only thing I would add to this is pig trotters, which appeared on more than one menu I read.

I am indeed a meat lover, but the Lyonnaises takes it one step further. I must applaud them for owning the “head to trotter” philosophy and not wasting any beast’s innards, but I wasn’t in the right stomach-space to go forth and sample all these local delicacies.  Mike managed an andouillette one night (a sausage made from pork intestines) and enjoyed it – I did taste the very rich dish and didn’t mind it, but I did prefer my simple chicken and mushroom dish.

The charcuterie is a different story altogether – we sampled some sensational rosette salami and brought more home – it didn’t last a day. And for the first time since arriving in France, we walked Vieux Lyon (the old town) holding Nutella crepes, which are an institution anywhere in France. It wasn’t quite as romantic as I’d envisaged with three kids faces resembling those of “vegemite kids” gone wrong, but the washing was worth the memory.

After all this meat, we came back to our villa and all I wanted to do was cook vegetables.  I went a little overboard (as I do, occasionally) and ended up with a twelve veggie casserole – thirteen if you count the herbs. Not very French at all – I’m sure they would think it far too complicated.  But it tasted great, the kids ate it happily, and it lasted two nights.  And it had twelve vegetables in it – did I mention that?  It’s not pretty so forgive the lack of images, but it tastes good, which is most important.  Here’s my “recipe” … hopefully this will inspire you to make your own creation using the veggies your family loves. I’m calling this dish my anti-Lyon casserole.  No apologies 🙂

Vegetable Casserole

Ingredients – serves 10-12 people

1 bulb garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 large red onion, sliced
1 leek, sliced
5 carrotts, peeled and cut into large chunks
1/2 bunch celery, leaves removed, sliced
1 eggplant, diced
1/2 cabbage or kale, sliced thin
1 large zuccini (or 2 small). diced
10 button or cup mushrooms, peeled and quartered
4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
2 x 400g cans of whole tomatoes and juice from 1 can
1 bunch parsley
300gms lardons or diced bacon
1 cup of water
3 tbsp vegetable stock
1/2 cup red wine
30gms butter
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup grated cheese – cheddar, emmental or parmesan
1/2 cup flaked almonds
1/3 cup milk
salt and pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and prep all your vegetables.  Start with the sweet potatoes, and get them on to boil. Once they’re very soft, add the milk, a tablespoon of butter and a pinch or two of salt before mashing.  Set aside.

Heat a large frypan with the remaining butter and oil and saute the leeks, onions, garlic and bacon for five minutes. Once softened, add the carrots, celery and mushrooms to cook for 5-10 minutes before adding the red wine.  Allow to simmer vigorously until the alcohol has evaporated and the liquid has thickened slightly.

At this point, I transfer the vegetables to a larger cooking pot to accommodate the remaining ingredients. Combine all remaining ingredients except the broccolli (these need to be gently steamed separately) and add the stock and water.  Stir to ensure all ingredients are coated and lower the temperature to a medium level.  Cook for 20 minutes until the carrots are just starting to soften.  Stir regularly and add extra water if needed.

Once cooked, transfer to a large baking or lasagne dish and top with the mashed sweet potato.  Smooth the mash over the top to create a “crust”.  Sprinkle with the grated cheese and flaked almonds and cook until the top is golden – approximately 30 minutes.  Serve with steamed broccoli florets.

Bon appetit!

With grace and gusto,

kpx


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Dinner and a Show

I accidentally just made a great salad.  It was an accident because it includes lentils which I usually avoid.  The bottom line is that I’m about to serve duck for dinner with a side of lentil salad … I’m sure I’ll come up with a more creative name for it by the time I’ve finished writing this post but that’s what we shall call it for now.  So what’s the show you ask? A series of SMS messages coming at me every minute or so from my husband who is currently sitting at the Limoux piscine (piscine = pool: I use the French translation because it’s his favourite french word).  He very gallantly volunteered to help with swimming lessons for the kids school in May.  His help was gratefully received … and then they sent a note home.

“Please report to the Limoux municipal pool on a cold Monday night in February so that we can check if you actually can swim.  We will be the judge of your swimming capabilities.  Please don’t wear boardies – we want to see what you really look like under those winter coats.  Wear DTs (as us Aussie’s know them) or tighty whities.  And what we’re not telling you is that we will first make you sit through a lecture on what we will actually be teaching the kids – because it’s very important that you know all this three months out from the actual lessons.  On a Monday night.  In the cold.  Thirty minutes from home.  Oh and by the way, the lecture will be all in French so you won’t understand a word.  But it is polite to sit through it all with an impressed look on your face, and nod occasionally to show your interest.  Thankyou so much for your help – we really appreciate it.  We couldn’t do swimming lessons without the valuable help from parents like you.”

So, as you can tell, I may be inflating this story just a little, but the officialdom around ten swimming lessons in a country school for no more than 27 students is slightly amusing.  One thing is for sure, I will not be nervous about my children participating … I think their safety needs will be well-covered.

Allow me to double back to the type of swimwear that parents were asked to wear … just in case you missed it.  If a good-looking Aussie guy walks into the pool trying to wear boardies, he will be forbidden to swim.  This is what we had heard, so I decided to double check with our go-to man here in our little village, Monsieur le Mairie.  He answered me in French and said “yes that is correct, you need to wear tight swimming costumes, although a lengthier short is allowed, so long as it is tight.  And he must also wear a rubber duckie around his waste.”  He said this to me with a straight face so it took me a second to appreciate that he too found the requirements a little stringent.  Nevertheless, it meant hubby had to take a trip to town to invest in some tight togs so he didn’t offend.  Let it be known that I did not assist him on this particular shopping trip.

All photographic evidence that I tried to collect of his black and fluro pink (yep, that’s what he bought) swimming shorts has been destroyed.  Hubby has a background in security so there’s no way he was going to let those photos slip through his grasp.  I’m not sure why he felt he needed fluro pink shorts, but all I got by way of explanation was “they looked red in the store … they were definitely red when I bought them” from a very grave looking face indeed.

So imagine the show I enjoyed when he proceeded to keep me updated on the whole hilarious night via SMS while it was actually happening.  His french is improving so he picked up a phrase here and there.  They covered a policy that was created in 1937 and is still effective today.  Really?? They drew stick figures so all the parents could understand what the swimmers would be taught.  And they explained that any “helper” on their mobile phone WHILST in the pool would not be covered by insurance should anything happen to a child on their watch.  Gee I’m glad that was covered – now it’s clear.

So back to dinner … duck is very popular here in France.  And they’re huge!  I don’t really want to know why they’re so huge; all I know is that they taste amazing and it is by far my favourite meat dish here.  I’ve been practicing cooking duck breast quite a bit since we arrived so now I think I have it just right.  Here’s my recipe for duck breast and lentil salad.  If I just change it to French, I have my exotic title: Magret du Canard aux Lentilles.  Perfect!

magret du canard

Magret du Canard Aux Lentilles

Ingredients – serves 4-5

2 large duck breasts (or 4 small)
1-2 tbsp orange blossom honey
1 cup green lentils
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 cup slivered almonds
50gms fresh rocket
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
2 tbsp coconut oil
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Method

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, fan forced.  Put a large saucepan on to boil with the lentils and 2 cups of water.  As soon as the water boils, turn down the temperature to facilitate a gentle simmer for a further 20 minutes.  Add the cumin to flavour the water.

As the oven is heating up, put the slivered almonds in to brown for 5 minutes and cube the sweet potato.  Once the almonds are brown and fragrant, roast the sweet potato cubes for about 30 minutes with coconut oil, salt and pepper.

Prepare the duck breast by drying it in a paper towel.  Rub salt into the fat and turn a large frying pan on high heat. Cook the duck breast fat side down to render the fat for about 5 minutes.  It should be a lovely golden colour. Remove from the pan and place on an oven tray, fat side up.  Drizzle the honey over the fat and place in the oven to finish for about 15 minutes.  Turn the oven down to 180 degrees as you put the duck in.  Keep the duck fat left in the pan for tomorrow night’s roast potatoes!

Meanwhile, add salt to the lentil water just as it’s finishing, and drain.  Add to a bowl with the rocket and almonds. Add the sweet potato once it’s cooked and caramelised.  Dress the warm lentil salad with olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.  Toss and serve.

The duck breast should be a dark pink to pale brown colour.  Slice diagonally and plate on top of the lentils.  Bon appetit!

With grace and gusto, kpx


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Lost in France

I just got home from being gloriously lost! On my way back from a neighboring village market, Madamoiselle GPS decided to take me on a picturesque version of the homeward trail. I was cursing that my good camera wasn’t with me because the sky was so blue despite the chilly temps. I could have stopped and taken phone photos but I was running late to pick up the kids from school for lunch.
I meandered through narrow roads only to turn the corner and be greeted with sweeping golden fields of a crop I must find out about – rye maybe? And then the next bend presented me with buildings from centuries ago – now used as farm barns or not used for anything at all other than to delight tourists like me who get lost on country roads. The landsacpe on the way to the market was silver.  Everything was coated in what looked like a fine spiders web, glistening from time to time. The sun only rises here at 8.45am so you can imagine it takes the countryside a little while to wake up when the sun is so lazy. But on this trip home, the colours have all changed to golds, greens, yellows and oranges – all offset beautifully by the bright blue sky.
Foggy trees
A foggy morning shot from last week
Accompanying me in the car was the rich smell of roast farm chicken I’d just bought and une baguette ancienne still warm from the boulangerie oven. This sensory overload is what gets me about France – the simple things in life are so rich here. Country living is one thing but in this corner of south-west France, they don’t know how good they’ve got it. I am looking forward to getting lost on that road again and I’ll take my camera so I can share it with you. I passed a tomato farmer too – I bet they’re amazing. We’ll go back together and taste them.
In my following posts I will back fill you on the journey so far and how we’ve come to settle in these last two weeks in our little piece of French country paradise.  But before I go, I’ll leave you with how I learned to make pasta carbonara like the french do.  So simple, but rich with flavour.  They use lardons which is essentially cubed bacon but in France, you buy the bacon meat in a slab from the butcher and cube it yourself (or you can buy it pre-cut from the supermarket but it kills the romance). The meat is smokey and cured and has a different texture from what we’re used to in Australia.  And it seems the French use lardons in as many dishes as they can!  I don’t blame them – it tastes divine.
mirepoix markets_cheese mirepoix markets
Country markets in Mirepoix
Les Pâtes à la Carbonara
Serves 4-5
Ingredients
500gms good quality bacon, cubed or diced (lardons)
200gms fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg yolk per person (save half the shell for presentation)
3/4 cup Creme Fraiche or pure cream
4 cloves garlic, crushed or finely diced
500gms fresh pasta
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil, cold pressed is best
Method
Get the water for the pasta boiling with a teaspoon of salt.  Add the pasta once boiling and cook accordingly.
Meanwhile, add a little olive oil to a hot pan and saute the garlic with the lardons for approximately 5 minutes.  Add the cream and turn down the heat a little.  Stir regularly and add salt and pepper to taste.  After 2 minutes, add half the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine.
Once the pasta is cooked and drained, add it to the pan with the cream sauce.  Stir to coat and serve immediately. Top with extra Parmesan cheese and complete your creation by serving the egg yolk in its shell on top.  The kids have a ball mixing this extra bit of sauce into the dish!
cabonara3cabonara
Bon Appetit!
A bientot, kpx