Tuesday 26 May 2015

Chateau Queille revisited

Chateau Queille, the Cathar stronghold hidden in the hills of the Midi Pyrenees

Friday evening: overture and beginners
The soft wind brushes the field grasses into silvery rivulets as we drive along the high narrow road from the hamlet of St Quentin La Tour, and then take the steep tree lined track down the hillside until we see the sign marked Parking. We gently steer the car through the narrow gap and there, across the meadow appears the familiar yet always magical sight of Chateau Queille perched on its rocky promontory, above the oxbow of the river.  In the foreground is a wonderful red and white, twin topped circus tent, with clusters of traditional caravans around.

We are back, for our eighth Queille Festival (Q9), the extraordinary gathering of music, food, friendship created by Rachel Lethbridge that has taken place every alternate year since 1999.  There is a smell of crushed mint and fresh cut grass as we step out of the car, and make our way in the early evening sunshine across the mole hills, carrying cameras and the extra layers of clothing that will be needed for post concert drinks and canapés on the terrace.
The festive Big Top
At every visit there is something new to surprise us. This time we find that the rickety rackety Billy Goats Gruff wooden bridge across the river – closed to vehicles many years ago – has been replaced by a smart new concrete structure, with tarmac surface and iron railings either side. In fact the whole track has been resurfaced up to the chateau and chapel and beyond. The river appears different too, and we learn that a severe storm last year took down many trees, eroding one side of the river and changing the shape of the meadow.  We recall a previous rain soaked Queille festival when the river threatened to engulf the old bridge, cars got bogged down in mud and electrical sockets disappeared under several centimetres of water.  But nothing dampens the spirits of Queille Festival goers, so the show went on, performers reading scores by candlelight to an audience wearing wellington boots, cagoules and cheerful smiles.

Back to the present.  We climb the terraced hill to the grassy area in front of the chapel where tonight’s concert will mark the start of Q9. There is a babble of greetings and exuberant reunions. A bevy of youthful volunteers dispenses Gayda wines, beer and elderflower cordial from the bar set up in a cavern in the rockface. The chapel bell rings and we make our way into the 11th century  building, collecting the 60 page programme packed with information (compiled by musicologist and composer David Byers) about the delights to come.
The Navarra Quartet at full speed
The Navarra Quartet opens proceedings with verve, their dynamic rendering of the young Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major giving energy even to the most travel weary in the audience. Pianist Tom Poster changes the pace with Schumann’s Walszenen Op 82 (Forest Themes), but then takes us back to the pulsating rhythms of Ravel with a breathtaking performance of La Valse. Composed by Ravel for the Ballet Russes, Diaghilev described it as a masterpiece but not a ballet when it was played to him in its original two piano version in 1920. Ravel never forgave him. 

This virtuoso version, transcribed for solo piano, is rarely performed because of its technical difficulties – difficulties which Tom Poster seems effortlessly to dismiss as he fills the chapel with the glittering notes of an Imperial Ballroom full of whirling dancers, oblivious to the thunderous rumblings of the Great War that is about to change their lives. A very rare treat for us all.

Today’s haiku
Raveling wild tapestries,
eyes meet, fingers flex.
We are caught, breathless.

Thursday 6 February 2014

The lost chord

Philip Seymour Hoffman, second from left, in a scene from A Late Quartet.
As the radio brings news of the untimely death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, I recall his emotionally charged performance in the wonderful film A Late Quartet, which glowed brightly last year in a handful of cinemas before being pushed into the dark cellar of neglected art house films by the usual deluge of undistinguished output from Hollywood. Despite getting great reviews at film festivals and with an impressive cast - including a mesmerising Christopher Walken,  luminous Catherine Keener and exciting new British talent Imogen Poots - the film doesn't feature in any of the tributes to Hoffman that pour in from the great figures of the movie world. It didn't help that A Late Quartet was released in the UK shortly after Quartet, the rom-com for the older person set in a home for retired opera singers. But give me heart-rending rather than heart-warming any day,  especially when the sound track is Beethoven's mighty Opus 131 for four strings, a piece that is played in one continuous, demanding movement.  

I am also reminded of a more recent event  - a concert in Paris that triggered memories of A Last Quartet and its  subtle and perceptive portrayal of four individuals trying to sustain a creative unison whilst beset with uncertainty, loyalty and passion. It is Saturday evening in Paris, in early December.  We emerge from the Metro into the chill air,  the Arc de Triomphe glowing heroically before us, and stride down Avenue Hoche, marvelling anew at the fin de siècle glories stretching six stories high on either side of the wide pavements. Tall windows full of soft light, framed with rich swags and delicate ironwork balconies, seem to beckon alluringly to passers by with promises of cool wine, amuse bouches and bon mots.

Turning left into Rue Faubourg Saint-Honore, we find Salle Pleyel, the largest concert hall in Paris. There is a buzz of activity around its doors and we step inside to discover an architectural paeon to Art Deco, challenging its neighbours with clean lines and lack of adornment. Walls are white, the carpet deep red and balusters black. The large lift provides the first sign of ornamentation, with heavy, silver chevrons studding its black doors. Young women ushers greet us, crimson pashminas swept with careless chic across their black uniforms, and smilingly propose to upgrade us from our 2nd tier balcony seats to the orchestra stalls. The policy is clearly to fill from the front and it is done with what seems to be telepathic ability - no seating plan or radio earpiece to be seen as we are guided into our superior seats on the central aisle.

The house lights are dimmed, spotlights pick out four chairs and music stands and on to the stage stride the Hagen quartet, tall blond Veronika, flashing a slim calf through a long black dress, with her brothers Lukas and Clemens. When the quartet was formed in Salzburg in 1981, it was a family affair, with sibling Angelika playing second violin, but when she decided to retire six years later,  Rainer Schmidt took over the role. 

Two wonderful Beethoven quartets later and we make our way to  the Bar Noir, another large, white, circular room around the central staircase, lit by uncompromising clusters of white fluorescent tubes and dominated at each end by huge and rather erotic artworks by Marco del Rey. One is black and white, the other is white and red, made of carved and painted plaster.  Reminiscent of Chagall or Picasso, to our surprise they were created only some seven years ago, presumably as part of the rescue package for the hall following the collapse of owners Credit Lyonnais. 

Mural by Marco del Rey, Salle Pleyel in Paris
The final piece is one of the dark and haunting last Beethoven quartets. Held breathless until the bows are slowly lowered, the audience erupts in appreciation. We walk back through the bright, bustling streets strung with fairy lights, past shop windows filled with candied fruits and handmade chocolates, glowing silk frocks and gleaming leather shoes, landscapes in oil and strange sculptures in bronze. As the bell of Notre Dame rings 11.00, we cross the Pont Marie to our hotel on the Ile Saint Louis, remembering Schubert's words on hearing Beethoven's last works,  “After this, what is left for us to write?” Our good fortune is that we can listen - and wonder. 

Monday 28 October 2013

Simmered not stirred

Beyond the vines, the Pyrenees                                            
The vendange is running late this year at Domaine Gayda in Languedoc Rousillon, thanks to the fluctuating weather. But the white grapes are now gathered in, and as we arrive at the end of September to celebrate the harvest with Carole and Anthony Record, the pickers are beginning on the Cabernet Franc and the Syrah.

There is a new addition to the poolside outdoor kitchen that promises to take Records’ reputation for warm hospitality to new heights. It is a very large firepit, made in India, imported by a specialist in England and then delivered to France for Anthony – who was brought up in South Africa.

Recycled energy: firepit hammered from an oil barrel
On our second evening, we gather around the glowing logs and watch a butterflied leg of lamb cook to succulent and fragrant pink perfection.  The next evening, after dining handsomely at Gayda’s restaurant, the firepit is lit again and six of us sit around the leaping flames, savouring a digestif,  listening to a tawny owl hooting close by, putting the world to rights and watching the night sky draped like a sequinned velvet shawl over the Pyrenees.

For our third evening, Anthony proposes a serious firepit feast. Amongst his batterie de cuisine  is a large South African potjie (pronounced poiky).  Made of cast iron, with three legs, it is just like the French marmite we bought in France many years ago and in which we sometimes cook pot au feu, suspended from a pothook over the open fire in Gloucestershire.  The history of the potjie started in Holland somewhere between 1566 to 1648 during the war between the Netherlands and Spain. During the siege of Leyden food was scarce and the townspeople contributed what meagre morsels they had into a large communal pot and cooked it all together. When the Dutch pioneers went to South Africa their potjies went too, slung under their wagons, ready to sit in the hot coals of the fire once they had set up camp. 

The challenge of potjie cooking in the open air for eight people is irresistible – especially when Anthony produces cookbooks and suggests that we cook potjie bread too.  He has a collection of mini potjkies just right for little loaves he says.....

A leg of lamb is put to marinade in spices and herbs and red wine and next morning Anthony and I go to Leclerc in Limoux to pick up yeast and couscous and other ingredients. Another temptation presents itself  – fresh sardines just crying out to be wrapped in fresh vine leaves (plenty of those around at Gayda) and grilled for the first course.

The fire is lit at 5.00pm. The bread is kneaded and left to rise. The lamb is turned again in its marinade. Tomatoes are peeled and chopped, carrots, courgettes and onions sliced. Pine nuts are toasted in a dry frying pan and sultanas set to swell in warm water ready to add to the couscous.  Boiling water is poured over the vine leaves to soften them before wrapping the fish. All seems under control - until I discover that the two dozen fat sardines need gutting. Time for a glass of Cremant de Limoux.
Some of the bread dough is shaped into two large rounds for baking in the electric oven in the pool kitchen (just in case cooking dough in mini witches' cauldrons doesn't come off) and attention turns to the main course. The meat is seared in the hot potjie and then set aside whilst sliced onions are added to the pot. When soft and coloured, a kilo of seeded and chopped tomatoes are added to the onions and the meat put back on top with enough of the spiced wine marinade to barely cover and the heavy iron lid put on. Like a pot au feu, the contents should barely simmer - which demands careful management of the fire and frequent re-positioning of the pot. It's tricky balancing the three legs of the heavy pot evenly on the grill. 

Further ingredients are added every half hour or so, in order of cooking time required, adding marinade when necessary,  and finishing with a generous quantity of dried apricots.  According to potjie tradition, stirring of the contents is strictly forbidden, so that each flavour develops separately and the vegetables steam. A pojtie is not a stew, the experts declare.

The mini potjies have been well greased, including the inside of the lids, before being half filled with bread dough and put to rise.  The grill is lifted from the firepit, and more in hope than expectation, I pop them all into the fire and cover their lids with hot embers.  The lamb potjie is wedged away from the direct heat and the fish put to grill. The sun disappears over the Pyrenees, candles are lit,  sardines in their crispy leaf wrappings are served and excellent wine poured and savoured.

And then the moment of truth.  The potjie bread, once extracted from its pots (cut into four, eased from the sides and then flipped out)  is delicious. Crispy all around and soft and steamy in the crumb.  As for the potjkie lamb, it is meltingly tender with vegetables that are cooked yet firm and clean tasting, and a sauce that is rich and intense.  "It tastes really gamey," says one diner, unaware of the recipe's claim that the lamb will taste like venison.  

I look around our group. We hail from England, Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands, the USA and South Africa. We discover that the Oxford importer of the firepit is the son of a very old engineering friend whom we resolve to contact after losing touch over the years. We have come together under the French night sky sharing food from the Rainbow nation and drinking wine pressed from the grapes harvested just a few yards away. A cultural melting potjie,  each element distinctive yet complementary. As Anthony declares, "We can go to a restaurant any time, but we will always remember this." And a shooting star streaks through the sky over our heads.

The morning after: sunrise over Domaine Gayda

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Love and food in the Apennines (Volume 2)

Thor meets Venus

Thunder rolls round the mountains like a battalion of tanks driven by trolls. Great sheets of lightning fill the house with brilliant white light. Rivers of rain cascade down the roof, bouncing off the gutters, pouring across the terrace. It is two in the morning.

We check the shutters and the windows. Then a sixth sense steps in and we check the car - to find the sun roof is cocked up in ventilation mode.  Fortunately little water has so far penetrated. One good thing about dashing out naked in the small hours means that at least there are no clothes to get soaked - and at Casa Barile in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany there are no lace curtains to twitch.

While the storm rages, the church bell down the hill continues to strike the hour and the half hour, undaunted by the flashing whiplashes around its clock tower. By five am, the thunder god is growling his way over the Apennines, with an occasional backward rumble reminding us that he could easily return. Now the only sound is staccato dripping from tiles and ledges, sills and branches. We finish our tea and go back to sleep.

Later that morning, we find persimmons scattered across the drive, the swimming pool cover bending under the weight of rain and leaves from the walnut tree littering the terrace. We check the barn and re-set the electric light circuit. But then we discover the really serious impact of the storm – no broadband. After testing the line, the modem and the splitter, we discover that this is a major outage affecting most of the area, it happens quite frequently and can take up to two days to restore. However will we survive, we wonder?

The answer is a walk through the mountains, followed by a swim, leisurely lunch, reading by the pool, watching the sunset with a glass of Prosecco, followed by dinner. Oh, and a spot of jam-making.

Remembering the bounty of fruit and vegetables from our visit two years ago, (see Grand opera meets jam and Jerusalem) we have made the most of driving rather than flying to Italy by adding a sugar thermometer and glass jars to our luggage, along with the oil paints, easel, knitting, computers, half-written novels, hiking boots etc etc. Sad, really, but knowing that there will be no wild damsons for jam in the Gloucestershire woods again this year, how could I resist the large, luscious, dark red plums in the local store? Especially when they are called Aphrodite - rather more enticing than Victoria.

Take a hammer to a nut

Plum jam for lovers
1 kg Aphrodite plums (or any other sort you can forage or buy)
150ml water
850 gm sugar (most recipes say 1 kg, but I prefer jam less sweet)
Juice of a lemon

Halve and stone the plums (keeping the stones) then cut into quarters.  Put plums into a large pan with the water and simmer gently for half an hour or so until really soft. Put the sugar in a casserole dish or roasting pan to warm in a low oven.

Meanwhile, using a nutcracker or small hammer, crack open the plum stones to extract the kernels. Blanch the kernels for a minute in boiling water and then drain.

Bubble, bubble - but little toil and trouble
Remove the plums from the heat and add the warm sugar, stirring continuously until you are sure the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the lemon juice and blanched kernels. Put clean jam jars and lids into the oven to sterilize.

Bring the fruit to a rolling boil and cook without stirring for about ten minutes until the magic temperature of 105 degrees is reached. If you do not have a thermometer, then use the chilled saucer, blob of jam, wrinkle test to see if you have reached setting point. (Use Google if you need more info on sterilising and testing.) Stir in a nut of butter to remove any scum, then ladle carefully into a jug to pour into the hot sterilized jars and seal with screw lids (or traditional waxed disc and cellophane if you prefer.) 

Best eaten at breakfast, on holiday, in the sun, with someone of whom you are particularly fond......

Sunday 2 December 2012

Time for the acid test

I spy with my little eye something beginning with 'l'

It is decision time for the lemon tree in the London garden, after a third night of frost.  It is looking happy, having recovered from the red spider mite infestation contracted when taken indoors last January. See From one pot to another. The campaign of daily brushing and spraying with dilute washing up liquid, combined with acclimatising it back to the outdoors in April, was successful.  New shoots sprouted, white blossom appeared and there will be home-grown lemons for Christmas gin and tonic and smoked salmon. Rather than risking another red spider mite attack in the warm, dry atmosphere of the conservatory kitchen, the plan is to leave it outside all winter, wrapped in a duvet of horticultural fleece.

One of the strange things that happened when the lemon tree began to lose its leaves was that it started to sprout thorns - and quite sharp ones too. This reminds me of friend Meg's comments about fruit picking when she was a girl in the United States, triggered by reading about last year's foraging trip Wild and free. and the embarrassment of riches during our stay in Tuscany. Meg's parents were very early advocates of self-sufficiency,  growing every imaginable fruit and vegetable on their plot in Virginia. Meg recounted how sore her hands got from picking lemons, on account of the thorns.

She grew up in a home with several acres of land, including a small orchard with four or five sour cherry trees, several apples that ripened from late June until latish autumn, a couple of pears and a peach or two. "We also had about an acre of vegetables: radishes, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, squash, green beans, wild and domestic asparagus, black eyed peas, cucumbers, corn, onions, peppers of a few different types, collards, cabbage, cantaloupe, water melon and lettuce when it was not too hot. We had some strawberries, grapes and rhubarb plus lots of wild blackberries and across the creek were wild huckleberries. I am sure I have left something out of this long list, but you can see that I grew up eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruit.

"We also had chickens, ducks, geese and sometimes a few pigs.  Canning, pickling and preserving was always a fun time taking over life for a while each summer, so you can see that very little of our food came from the supermarket. Sometimes friends might join in these activities. We lived on the water, so we fished, clammed, oystered and crabbed too, and in the days before freezers became common, fish had to be shared if too many were caught; therefore, during the summer, fish was almost always for dinner."

Meg goes on to tell me that one lemon tree in a tub will be more than enough for our needs. Apparently she and Bob were unable to cope with the quarterly harvest from the two trees they had when living in Cap Ferrat and regret not selling some of them! I look at the four modest lemons on our precious specimen (one large and one medium yellow, plus two smaller green ones) before retrieving the unwaxed fruit from Waitrose to make a new batch of preserved lemons ready for tagines and celery salads. Maybe next year there will be enough of my own to preserve.  Or maybe we move to Provence....
All my own work, but not my own fruit - yet

Photographs by Sandi.

Saturday 1 December 2012

The goose of Christmas past

A rude awakening for Scrooge                   © Walt Disney
Working through the cottage freezer in preparation for the festive fill-up, and trying to persuade myself that it doesn't need defrosting, I discover in the depths a plastic box labelled 'roast goose in giblet gravy'. In another corner, there is a small tub labelled 'fresh goose liver.' The excitement of December 2011 comes flooding back. On Christmas morning, over traditional smoked salmon and Buck's Fizz, our youngest son and his lovely fiancee announced that they have decided on their wedding date (in three days' time) and place (Washington DC).  We are invited.  Fortunately we have passports (call it feminine intuition) and warm clothing, so air tickets are booked for 27 December.

The Cratchits sit down to dine                            © Walt Disney
We then have to address the practical consequences of a pop-up wedding in the middle of Christmas Present: what to do with the gastronomical delights and substantial left-overs. Spiced beef, salads and vegetables, cheese and fruit are distributed to family and friends. The rest is packaged for the freezer - and forgotten.

...and so did we.
Now Christmas Yet to Come is almost upon us, and as we are  living in a building site with bare concrete floors, exposed wiring, rain filled excavation trenches etc,  liberating the goose of Christmas Past is an enticing idea. The giblet gravy has done a fine job in keeping the rich gamey meat tasty and succulent. I create a sauce with shallots, dry sherry, damson jelly and the strained gravy,  then put back some of the meat and gently simmer it until thoroughly heated through. It is served with roast butternut squash and puy lentils mixed with mushrooms, peas and diced red pepper.

The next evening, after a brisk walk through the sodden countryside, the goose liver is transformed into a luxurious appetiser. Sliced into small squares, it is seared in unsalted butter,  popped on to thin pieces of crisp toast topped with scrambled Burford Brown egg and dribbled with the pan juices deglazed with a splash of brandy. Perfect with a glass of Tio Pepe.

Friday 9 March 2012

From one pot to another

Last May, a year after conceding that I would settle for one lemon tree in a pot on the patio rather than a crumbing villa in a citrus grove in Tuscany (A classical education with zest) a large and heavy container arrives. It contains  a five foot high lemon tree bearing both blossom and fruit - a present from husband Rod to mark a significant birthday.

The tree spends the summer in its traditional terracotta pot on the patio in London, the flowers scenting the air and the lemons growing larger. The first fruit is ceremonially picked and sliced for a celebratory gin and tonic. Three more are used to make a lemon tart. The tree is fed with citrus food, the new growth pinched out according to instructions and when the temperature finally drops in December, is brought in to overwinter under the glass roof of the kitchen extension. 

That's when we discover the challenge of cultivating this wonderful fruit.  Leaves begin to fall with alarming and increasing frequency. Consultation with the experts revealed that this could be too much water, or not enough water. Or that the tree was too warm - the temperature should not rise above 12 degrees - challenging in any room in a normal home. Or that the air was too dry. All commentators advise not to panic.

We then identify that the tree is under attack from red spider mite (a bug new to us) and we go into battle, every morning removing microscopic eggs and mites with an artist's paintbrush and a weak solution of washing up liquid followed by copious spraying with the same mixture. This seems to be working. We watch the outside temperature beginning to rise,  and look forward to returning the lemon tree to its sheltered spot on the patio - with a roll of horticultural fleece on hand for swaddling in the event of late frost.

Meanwhile the three largest fruit on the tree continue to grow larger, but remain green rather than yellow. Assured by our friend Liz, who has several lemon trees growing lustily in the Dordogne, that they will still taste good, I pick them. 

Mindful that these may be the last of the homegrown fruits for some time, I decide to make that old-fashioned preserve, lemon curd. Eggs and sugar are beaten, butter melted, lemons zested and squeezed and the mixture stirred gently over simmering water until it turns to a shining, wonderfully fragrant emulsion. The lemon curd now sits in its sterilised pots in the fridge, ready to make a special tart or transform a simple sponge cake.  Sunshine in a jar.