The weather gods have thrown everything at us this winter and this week we had the tiniest sprinkling of snow. On Tuesday morning the garden and the rooftops looked as if someone had dusted them with icing sugar, and just for an hour everywhere appeared to be picture-postcard perfect. Unlike much of France which is blanketed in snow our little flurry of charm didn’t last long and has become but a fleeting memory captured on camera. In the meantime the cold has continued, our lemon trees are wrapped in thermal blankets, and the fire is burning constantly.
Despite an abundance of vibrant yellow from the mimosa in flower everywhere we go
and roadside stands selling giant bunches which I can never resist for a couple of euros
we mustn’t be fooled for it really is still winter. For so long I’ve called it Freezing February, for it’s that month when it seems as if winter will never end, and its’s often the harshest of them all. It’s a time when our bodies yearn for hearty comforting dishes, for when everyone is coughing and sneezing is the time we desperately need to stock up on our vegetables to keep us healthy. Greens are a great way to go, but they don’t have to be boring; I find preparing them in the evening with a glass of wine to hand always helps the artistic process.
My favourite trio are spinach, kale and swiss chard, all packed with nutrients. But as I have often mentioned, there is no guarantee that what I want will be available at the market or in the greengrocers when I want it; this has come to be one of the great pleasures about living in France – buying only what is fresh, local and in season. I’ll throw in bok choy and watercress if I find it, whatever is on offer finds its way into my basket and then between Roddy and I we will make something that hopefully everyone will like!
One of our daughter’s, Hetty, loves to start off her day with a perfectly poached egg sitting on top of her favourite toasted bread, and by adding a generous helping of wilted spinach on the side it becomes a breakfast fit for a princess. If (like me) you are not an egg person at dawn, have it for lunch instead. I love it best during the middle of the day, particularly when the children are at school and it is just Roddy and I having lunch.
Whilst on the subject of eggs, I have to share our REALLY exciting news!
Our chickens mostly stopped laying during the latter half of December and January which is quite normal, but this month they have picked up and then on Tuesday, the same day as the snow, I went to the coop as usual in the evening to collect the eggs and secure the doors, making sure everyone was safe and warm for the night. I reached into the first nesting box and retrieved a couple of eggs. On the left hand side I spotted another couple and reached in to pick them up, and then I found myself squealing with delight, earning myself some startled looks from the now roosting ladies. One of the eggs was perfectly blue, and I had finally realised my dream. One of our Aracauna hens we bought back November had laid her first egg and it was just as we hoped, a perfect blue specimen. I can’t stop grinning. It’s hard to explain exactly why this is such a big deal for us, but just trust me it is. I have wanted blue eggs since I first became aware of their existence four years ago, but I have had to wait as hens which lay blue eggs are not common in this part of France. It’s taken me all this time to find the girls, purchase a pair and finally hold our prize possession!
I have read that this breed of chicken does not like the cold very much so I am surprised she chose the chilliest day of the year to lay her first egg. She is obviously braver than the local folk for they were definitely staying warm indoors. I found the proof of that when I happened to be in Rochefort yesterday afternoon. With the ice skating rink dismantled and gone for another year, the Place Colbert has now been planted with the first of the season’s spring flowers, but despite these it looked more wintry than ever.
Heavy dark skies, which I secretly hoped held more snow, sat menacingly overhead; the only souls to be seen didn’t dally, scurrying to their destination as quickly as they could.
The cafés were empty, although I did spot one lone person in a far corner. Normally there is outdoor life year round, but not yesterday.
On my way home I thought more about green food. Kale is another of my favourites and I often combine it with spinach in a smoothie. I simply put a handful of each in a blender, add a chopped apple and a banana for a little sweetness, and then half a cup of water. I also always add half an inch of chopped fresh ginger and several cubes of ice (somehow it tastes better when it is chilled!). Whizz it all up and serve in a tall glass. When I make it just for myself I frequently include a teaspoon of hemp powder, the children don’t like the taste of it that much and as I am so thrilled that they actually like green smoothies I am more than happy to omit the hemp when they want to join me.
Another way I found to encourage the children to enjoy kale is by making homemade kale chips. Simply tearing up leaves (not the spines) and placing them on a baking tray drizzled with olive oil. Grind a generous sprinkling of salt on top of the leaves and bake in a preheated oven at 350F/180C for about 15 minutes. These are also delicious served in salads.
But hang on a minute, perhaps it’s time for kale to move over and let Swiss Chard into the limelight, another leafy green vegetable packed with antioxidants and vitamins. I actually find it has a slightly milder flavour than kale, it is delicious simply sautéed and seasoned with salt and pepper but it can also be eaten raw. The leaves make fabulous wraps and hold their shape well. Both are wonderful last minute additions to winter soups, omelettes and frittatas.
A gratin makes a wonderfully easy side-dish or a midweek lunch, and it’s something else we do often. You can use, kale, spinach or swiss chard and improvise all you want. My simple recipe includes:
1 onion finely chopped
a clove of garlic finely chopped
a handful of chopped bacon
a cup of grated cheese
a cup of breadcrumbs
Half a cup of cream
Parsley, butter, olive oil and seasoning
Simply fry the bacon in a little olive oil until it is crispy, then add the onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is soft.
Add half a cup of cream, some chopped parsley and season well.
Place the green leaves in an ovenproof dish, (a cast iron one is ideal, but glass works just as well) and pour over the cream sauce.
Sprinkle over the grated cheese and breadcrumbs and top with a few dots of butter.
Bake in a medium oven 180C/350F for about 20 minutes and enjoy!
Whilst we are on the subject of green, don’t forget the world’s most commonly eaten herb, parsley. It is an excellent source of Vitamins K and C and is also packed with antioxidants; rather than just using it as a garnish I often pick a handful and eat it straight from the garden, I love the peppery taste.
So if you are feeling tired and a little in need of a pick me up, try reaching for the greens, I am a firm believer in eating as many as possible, they really do help us perhaps more than we realise.
But let’s not ruin all the fun; if this has been just a bit too green for you and if you or your children or grandchildren really want a sweet snack then try one of my favourite go-to treats for the kids – homemade salted caramel sauce and plenty of chopped up apples to dip into it. It is quick, super easy and utterly delicious. Salted caramel, caramel salé, is enormously popular here in the Charente Maritime, and there are local artisans producing their own ice-creams and caramels all along the coast. It is the salty and sweet combination that makes it so hard to resist.
It is pure indulgence, it contains nothing but cream, butter and sugar, but oh it is so worth it!
So all you have to do is put all of the following into a heavy based saucepan
175g soft brown sugar
300ml cream, the thicker the better
Stir continuously over a gentle heat until the sugar dissolves. Then turn up the heat and boil for 3 – 4 minutes.
Then take off the heat and let it cool slightly before pouring into a jug or a small jar. Once completely cold you can keep it in the fridge for two or three days, although ours never lasts that long!
Finally, we thought as it is Freezing February, you might all be in need of a little pick me up. We are having a special ART SALE in the Etsy shop this coming Sunday. It will mostly be original pieces, there will be one or two unusual finds and also some vintage French fashion magazines from the 1950’s and 1960’s – the covers of these look fantastic when they’re framed. The one thing that everyone asks about is the shipping and so to make this a “sale” we will be offering free shipping worldwide during the sale on Sunday which will run for 24 hours from 2.30pm (14h30) French time. Our Freezing February gift to you. I will remind you all at the weekend, but this is just a quick heads up!