For me, growing and cooking are inextricably linked. I am a firm believer in the importance of understanding where our food comes from and how it is grown. Perhaps it is my farming background but I feel it is necessary for both us and our children to realise what goes into growing food in order to fully appreciate what is in front of us on the table.
Some of us grow our own produce, some of us might have large fruit trees or friends with surplus goodies. But there are also plenty of us who rely solely on purchasing food from the supermarket or, if we are lucky, the local farmers’ market. However we come by our food, I think it is vital we try to choose produce with the fewest stages possible between harvesting and eating, which in short means supporting our local producers and small farmers.
Don’t worry about being too ambitious, growing food and understanding food takes time. I like to keep my recipes simple, as I think it reduces stress and allows you to enjoy the flavours far more and to recognise each food for what it is. I love seeing fruit trees blossoming in the wild, and I always wonder who, decades ago, planted them or perhaps casually tossed away a seed or stone which then germinated.
As I wrote in my last post, the importance of bees is paramount and yet we continue to see bee numbers declining at an alarming rate. I prompted myself this week to go back to the hives I found with Izzi to have a closer look, and I got as close as I could to take photos before I felt I had overstayed my welcome and beat a hasty retreat.
I was delighted to see the hives were swarming with bees and wondered whether this was a farmer who kept bees who had left his hedgerows in a natural state and a relatively pesticide free environment, or whether they belonged to a professional apiarist who moves his hives from location to location, depending on the season. No matter, what, all seemed to be a good health.
However, it’s sadly not like this all around the country. The French love using pesticides and we all physically wince when we spy a field, whilst driving along, which has been turned bright orange by the use of chemical weed killers. Sadly we see them far too often.
The children have become experts at viewing the many vines grown around here. They note those that have a healthy amount of weeds at their base and those that have that tell tale orange colour once again and not a stray blade of grass in sight. This actually reminds me of the wonderful organic vineyard we visited in the summer of 2015. It was the home of Caro Feely who has today published her third book about her life with her family on their vineyard near Bergerac. I have read all three of her books now. The new book is called “Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France” and is available from Amazon. It is once again a compelling read and I really recommend you buy this as I know you won’t be disappointed!
Supporting the locals here means stopping at small makeshift roadside stands.
Right now it is asparagus season and everywhere there are homemade signs informing the driver that there is “Asperge” for sale, perhaps 1km on the right or perhaps at the next left turn.
The first spears of asparagus are best, in my humble opinion, when simply steamed in a little salted water and then served with a dollop of hollandaise sauce, nestling under a fresh poached egg from our hens.
Hollandaise is one of those sauces that really can make people nervous, but I promise it is easy; the secret is really good eggs. If you can, choose organic or those that are at the very least genuinely free range.
Separate two eggs and put the yolks into a heatproof bowl.
Melt 100g of unsalted butter in a small pan over a gentle heat.
Put the bowl with the egg yolks over a pan of gently simmering water. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of mustard and whisk well.
Little by little add the butter to the yolks, whisking well all the time.
Once all the butter is added you should have a smooth thick sauce which you should serve immediately.
With Izzi here for the past week she has been experimenting with her cooking and treating us all to pancakes with the addition of bananas and chia seeds for breakfast!
It’s still too early to have anything to eat from our own garden; our winter kale has finished and we’re at least a month away from anything else. It looks as if we are going to have a bumper crop of plums and cherries but we will have to be patient, I am looking at them longingly but no amount of staring will make them ripen any quicker! For now, we have to purchase our vegetables and fruit from the market. However, as it’s spring and the weather is gorgeous with plenty of sunshine, the local choice is multiplying each day; on offer this week we’ve found artichokes and strawberries amongst other French grown delicacies.
Some towns have markets with stalls running the entire length of the street or more, whilst other small villages have literally just a couple of stands and they are neither flashy nor pretentious.
Cooking for our family takes a little planning and part of the task is to produce meals which everyone enjoys. Izzi is vegetarian and coupled with that restraint is the fact both she and I gave up eating all forms of sugar (except those that are naturally occurring in fruits for example, and of course – red wine) a year and a half ago, for no other reason than our bodies don’t actually need sugar. It started out as something of a joint challenge to see if we could do it and it has stuck. I don’t miss sugar to be frank; I used to often feel that typical slight drop in energy mid-afternoon, the classic 4pm fatigue, but I no longer experience this at all and incredibly I have more energy than ever – and trust me, I was always pretty active!
I still bake; I make cakes, cookies and snacks with sugar for the other children, for Roddy, for friends and I still absolutely love making sweet dishes, I have always been the dessert chef whilst Roddy was more the savoury one. However, I just no longer taste, and instead I get whoever is around to do it for me!
This week we have made several batches of meringues. Perfect for using up the egg whites left over from the hollandaise sauce and because we are overrun with eggs! Millie has made chocolate ones,
Izzi plain ones.
Meringues, rather like hollandaise sauce, scare some people but there really is no need to worry at all – even the smallest of our cooks think nothing of making them now. The most important thing is a spotlessly clean stainless steel bowl.
Beat 6 egg whites until they stand in soft peaks (usually on a high setting) for around 2 or 3 minutes.
Then slowly add 300g of fine sugar, a spoon at a time.
For the chocolate version also add 1 tablespoon of pure cocoa powder.
Once all the sugar is added continue beating for several minutes longer until they stand in soft glossy peaks.
Spoon onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake at 275F/135C for 1 hour.
If making the chocolate version, sprinkle each one with a pinch of cocoa powder before they go into the oven.
So as not to be left in the dark in the pudding stakes, last weekend Izzi concocted some little chocolate mousses for us (and anyone else who wanted one). The recipe sounds bizarre, be warned, and when I first saw this I was more than a little dubious, but after tasting it with some trepidation I was completely smitten. It is delicious, a supremely healthy desert that satisfies that ‘need’ for something sweet without the sugar!
In a food processor mix together 1 avocado, half a cup of cocoa powder, a quarter cup of almond milk and one banana. Serve with a topping of berries – we used strawberries, as you can see.
And whilst we’re keeping things healthy and simple, she also taught me how to make her hummus. As a sidenote, I have to add here that there are many stages of motherhood. I adore babies, and I would happily have had a sixth, except Roddy very wisely said ‘No!’. I love the toddler stage and the under-tens, and then we get to the ‘tweens’ and the teenagers – I have treasured and am still treasuring all of these stages. Each one is very different and each has its own special moments and rewards. But now Izzi is 20, she’s our eldest, and she is teaching me things, how wonderful is that?
Izzi makes her hummus without tahini, and it is simply the best. You can whip this up in a couple of minutes and it will keep in the fridge covered for several days (if it lasts that long, which it never does with us!).
Put one tall jar of chickpeas (we prefer them to tinned ones) and 3 cloves of garlic into a food processor. Add a splash of lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt, pepper, paprika and cumin (the cumin is vital). Blend until smooth.
It is the perfect dip, with raw carrot sticks, cucumber or tortilla chips, or eat it with a salad – the choice is endless. One day, Izzi spread it on slices of toast and served it bruschetta-style, topped with halved asparagus spears.
Is there any better sight as a mother than quietly watching your children, without them knowing? Silently tiptoeing into the kitchen and seeing our youngest and our eldest, ten years apart, cooking together, giggling and sharing a joke – I clicked away in secret, my heart was truly melting.
The girls have also made flatbreads and pizzas topped with everything from avocados to broad beans. I suggested this new topping making use of fèves, the broad beans, that I bought at the market and which are very much in season at the moment. I blanched them for 2 minutes in boiling water and then drained them and rinsed them in cold water. Once the pizza base was ready we added some classic homemade tomato sauce and then a good helping of the broad beans which we then sprinkled with grated mozzarella cheese and plenty of black pepper.
I am no food expert; I am neither a nutritionist nor a chef, but I am passionate about eating as much natural homemade food as we can, and raising our children so that at the very least they have an appreciation of where their food comes from. When they are older they can make their own choices, but at least they will be educated choices. It makes me cry to know so many children have no idea where their food comes from, and that no one ever teaches them. As Roddy and I say, surely nothing is more important as a human than being able to feed oneself, and it surely should be a requirement for every school in the world to teach their children that, perhaps in place of latin, or advanced mathematics ?