I’ve heard quite a few local sayings about the weather this week: “If it’s mild at Christmas, then the vegetable crop will be poor in the spring.” “If it’s cold at New Year, then it will be warm in June.” They both basically mean the same thing; it seems we need cold weather now to ensure balmy spring temperatures that will lead to a bountiful crop from the kitchen garden in a few months time.
Well, it’s cold. In fact it’s been really cold this past week; so chilly that I’ve had to put some winter protection on the lime and lemon trees and wrap them in winter clothing.
The temperature has truly plummeted, and it’s the coldest it has reached in over two years, hovering around -4C˚ (24˚F). Not every day has been the same, some have been bright and clear, but those skies that have been cloudless have encouraged even colder nights.
while other dawns have been cloaked in freezing fog.
Actually, I’m loving this cold snap; aside from the promise of a lovely spring and a great crop (if we believe the locals – which I do because their words make perfect sense) it’s the most wonderful excuse to wrap up warm. Hats and gloves litter the hallway and we’re all in huge scarves. They’re more like a blanket, really, but they are à la mode in France.
And once we’re suitably dressed for arctic conditions, which is perhaps a little excessive, there is nothing better than to get outside and walk the dogs, with our breath clearly visible in front of us, noses turning red and ears burning from the cold. The tips of our fingers are quite painful in the deep chill even though we’re wearing gloves, but still we march on,
deep into the heart of the Marais, watching buzzards and hawks, the children throwing stones onto the frozen water and breaking the ice with great glee. A lone heron watches us but as soon as I raise my camera he flies off, seeking his prey elsewhere away from the intrusion of humans.
Villages are quiet, the smell of woodsmoke perfumes the air, a distinctive winter smell.
And the best is still yet to come, that return to home and the warmth of our own roaring fire.
Our kitchen is very versatile; it really is a room for all seasons and in the warmer months it opens up onto the terrace with doors and windows permanently open, and indoors and outdoors blend into one. In the winter, though, it’s remarkably snug, the glowing wood-burner in the corner the comforting feature of the space.
Another great thing about this cold weather is that it’s such a good excuse to eat really warm and comforting food. One of our firm family favourites is Tartiflette, a French dish originating from the Savoie region close to the Alps. Based on the staples of a typical winterised chalet high on a snowed-in slope, it is perhaps best eaten at lunch, preferably after some hearty exercise to help assuage some of the guilt for such a rich and calorie-laden dish. But it’s undeniably delicious and is typically made with potatoes, smoked meats, cheese and cream.
For four very hungry people (or six polite eaters) you will need:
1 kilo of potatoes, preferably a variety that is slightly floury
300 g of cubed smoked bacon or ham (lardons will work just fine)
2 large diced yellow or white onions
400 g of mixed grated mountain cheeses (Emmental, Gruyere, Comte and so on are obvious choices, but you should also include some soft cheeses too such as Reblochon and Monte, which can be sliced thinly instead of grating – this dish is in fact best with more soft cheese than hard, but it is not a rule set in stone)
a handful of shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup of white wine
a clove of garlic
olive oil, salt and pepper
- Peel the potatoes and cut them into egg sized pieces. pieces. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the potatoes, bring back to the boil and simmer for 15 mins. They should still be firm enough to slice when ready. When they are cooked, drain and leave until needed.
- While the potatoes are cooking, heat enough olive oil in a non-stick pan to gently sauté the diced onion. When the onion is soft and starting to colour, add the bacon or ham and cook through gently for 5 – 7 minutes.
- When the onions and meat are cooked, add the cup of white wine and half the cream, stirring and simmering at a heat that reduces and thickens the sauce.
- Add 100 g of the mixed cheese to the mixture and stir in well as it bubbles. You’re almost making a cheese fondue here with some bits in it! Season to taste with the salt and pepper. At this stage children may now appear and lay siege to the pan with pieces of bread – resist them at all costs!
- Take a large oven-proof dish and wipe it out with a cut half of the garlic clove. Then butter the dish slightly if you wish. Slice the potatoes 1cm thick and cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of them. With a slotted spoon lift out the onions and meat and place them on top of the potatoes. Then cover this with half of the sauce left in the pan and another 100g of the mountain cheese mix.
- Arrange the rest of the potatoes on top, and pour over the rest of the sauce, followed by the remainder of the cream, and then scatter the shredded cheddar on top of that.
- Cook in a hot oven at 190C/375F until golden brown on top. Serve with crusty bread and a glass of wine, promising yourself that you’ll eat a mass of vegetables only for dinner!
If you do want something on the side, peas are a great favourite, and leeks are a wonderful accompaniment too.
Eat, enjoy, savour every mouthful, allow a good hour for digestion and then preferably head outside and wear it all off with more exercise! Bon appétit.