France’s Smallest River, Watercress Beds and Soup

As piles of neatly tied bouquets of watercress were stacked high at our local market last week for my Watercress Soup, they instantly conjured up scenes of the watercress beds, or Cressonnières, in Veules-les-Roses this summer. Come join me on a wee jaunt up the watercress road in the Pays-de-Caux in Upper Normandy.

With our all-time dream African Safari cancelled this summer due to my persisting back problems, we finally consoled ourselves and ventured out of Paris with a long weekend in Veules-les-Roses, a sleepy little town on France’s Normandy coast. Julie and Lucie took it like young adults, as the promise of the Big Five game animals were comically replaced by Normandy cows and curious cats looking for fishy leftovers from the seafood restaurants dotted along the town’s seafront.

Veules-les-Roses has two main attractions: it’s home to the smallest river in France, the Veules. It’s the shortest sea-bound river at 1.194 km (about 3/4 of a mile), along which there are three restored 18th Century watermills.

Also, at the source of les Veules river, lies the watercress beds, or Cressonnières. The clear running water’s current of Veules-les-Roses has favoured the cultivation of watercress since the 14th Century. Harvesting watercress is done here by hand with a knife and ties.

The watercress of Veules is known for its fine leaves, its particularly spicy taste and makes the perfect ingredient for a light and healthy soupe de cresson. Watercress is also useful, as it’s always in season.

 

The bunches of watercress that are formed during harvesting are called chignons, when the roots of the stalks come outside the bunch. Luckily these days, harvesting is done wearing rubber boots, rather than sodden feet steeped in 10cm of cold (about 10°C) water wearing clogs with heavy metal leggings!

watercress beds for soup

As Autumn now blows around Paris, comforting spoonfuls of healthy watercress soup help to prepare us for any sniffles or scratchy throats that niggle and nudge as November closes in on us, as it contains iron, calcium and Vitamins A and C.

watercress soup or French soupe de cresson

French Watercress Soup

Watercress Soup (Soupe au Cresson)

A large bunch of watercress
20g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped finely
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
500ml water
250ml chicken (or vegetable) stock
Salt, pepper
2-3 tbsp cream (optional)

method for watercress soup

1.  Wash the watercress, drain and set aside.

2.  Heat the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the onion until cooked but not browned. Add the watercress with the stalks, roughly chopped potatoes and cover with the water and stock. Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook gently for 30 minutes.

3. Blitz the soup with a hand blender or in a food processor until smooth. If you prefer your soup less thick, then you could sieve at this point, although I personally love it with the fibre addition of the stalks.

If serving as an elegant starter dish, swirl in a dash of cream and why not surprise your guests with a mini MadMac herb macaron? The recipe is on page 97 of the book.

More on Veules-les-Roses coming up soon. Join in a festival with a difference…

White Asparagus French Clafoutis

When the asparagus season finally pokes its head out to say bonjour, it’s time to get totally asparagused. Hearing the calls of ‘Aspergez-vous!’ at our local market just outside Paris, I do what I’m told and end up buying so much asparagus that I could open a shop with all the elastic bands they’re bound in.

Weigh-laden with our usual favourites from Monsieur Dee’s poultry stall, I couldn’t help swooning over impressively fat, fresh white asparagus spears which are first to arrive pride of place from sun-kissed Provence.

It’s time to snap these asparagus stems. Snapping asparagus is easy when they’re fresh: they should be firm, have compact heads and not look dry at the stems. Just snap them where they break naturally, about 1/3 from the bottom. Ideally, eat asparagus fresh on the day, otherwise store white asparagus in the fridge for up to 4 days in a humid kitchen towel, heads upwards.

I love tossing fresh white asparagus in sage butter and serving simply with a crunchy baguette, but this is a warmer starter to welcome this chilly Spring. I discovered the recipe in a magazine last year featuring Eric Fréchon, chef at Le Bristol, Paris. But could I find the magazine that I’d painstakingly placed in a ‘safe place’ for this season? No (don’t laugh, Mum). Luckily, I jotted it down and see he’s written a book on Clafoutis.

Macaron lovers will be glad to note that it uses up FOUR egg yolks, but don’t be fooled: this is such a light way to start a meal – and it’s gluten free, too.

White Asparagus Clafoutis Recipe

Serves 4-6

Recipe Adapted by Eric Frechon, Author of Clafoutis.

Preparation Time: 40 minutes
Cooking Time: 35 minutes

1 bundle white asparagus (500 g /1 lb)
3 eggs
4 egg yolks
10 g (4 tsp) cornflour

300 ml /10 fl oz single cream
100 g /3 oz fresh parmesan, grated
Seasoning
Handful of pine nuts (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Wash the asparagus spears and snap them 2/3rds of the way down, where they break naturally. Peel them as close as possible to the spear heads. Keep the peelings!

2. Cut the asparagus in 3, reserving the spear heads.

3. Fill a large pan with water and bring to the boil with the asparagus peelings, adding a tablespoon of sugar (to reduce the bitterness).
When bubbling, remove the peelings and cook only the spears for 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

4. Using the same cooking water, drop in the rest of the asparagus chunks and cook for 7 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, prepare the clafoutis batter: mix the eggs, cornflour, cream, grated parmesan and season with salt and pepper.

6. Drain the asparagus chunks and, using a hand blender or food processor, mix the asparagus and cream together.

7. Pour into a non-stick tart dish and decorate with the asparagus spears. I like to sprinkle over some lightly toasted pine nuts for a crunchy texture.

8. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes until golden.

 Note: If making individual versions, pour into 6 silicone briochette moulds and bake for only 20 minutes. Turn them out directly on guests’ plates for a posh but simple starter.

Enjoy this asparagus clafoutis either warm or hot from the oven and serve with a glass of chilled Pinot Blanc from the Alsace.

Cheers!

Now it’s your turn to snap them this Spring and become totally asparagused!

 Aspergez-vous!

Corsica on the Rocks and Savoury Macarons

Wild waves were crashing on the rocks off the west coast of Corsica last week. We were visiting family around Calvi and, as we were impatient for our fun little nephew to awake from his routine siestas, a windy walk along the ragged coast of Punta di Spanu was perfect to idle away the time.

There’s something rather spooky about the Genoese Towers dotted along Corsica’s dramatic coastline: echoing cries whistle in numbed ears from distant tower-keepers as they prepare for invaders to claim the Island of Beauty.

Corsican Maquis

If only I could have bottled the fragrance of the maquis for you. It’s a heady mix of wild rosemary, thyme, myrtle, wild cistus, laburnum, sage, mint and curry plants. Such an intoxicating mixture of salty, smoky, spicy perfumes come together as a herbal gingerbread smell.

Corsican maquis or shrub

It’s hard to imagine that just 15 minutes in the car inland and you’re already driving in the snow-capped mountains. Donkeys and goats grazing on the higher maquis-floored slopes make life seem at a completely different pace to city life as we know it.

San Antonino perched Corsican Village

San Antonino, one of the beautiful villages of France which inspired ‘l’Enquête Corse’

We were in the clouds. I found my hermit-like hideaway although judging by the look of the car fallen by the side of the mountain, there wouldn’t be much of a getaway too soon if I suddenly changed my mind. Tea in Montemaggiore? Pas de problème: there was even a tiny bar that could bring back the life in my cold hands with a hot cup of Lipton while the children had… ice creams. Well, that’s all there was and who would want it any other way?

Mountain scenes of Corsica

I had a confession to make: I had this burning desire to just drop everything and hijack the tea-room opposite the chapel up at the Citadel in Calvi. Who wouldn’t relish the views up there of the sea and the land, making macarons, fiadone (Corsican cheesecake) or éclairs all day and awash yourself with pots of tea? Or perhaps the local tipple, Cap Corse, an addictive bitter-sweet apéritif made with quinine?

Churches Calvi and Corsica

The photo (top right) is all that’s left of the house reputed to have been Christopher Columbus’ birthplace. What do you think?  Was he born in Corsica or Italy? Corsica, of Corse!

Our trip’s grand finale was dinner at the wonderful restaurant, U Fanale. The chef, Philippe Gouret delights visitors with a surprise of terre et mer, where land meets sea. At first I tried the starter of salmon and charcuterie, gingerly tasting the salmon first – but when I tried them both together it was just fantastic! Our friendly server introduced us to a newcomer wine from Calvi, le Clos des Anges. Unfortunately, the Irish winemaker, Richard Spurr wasn’t around during our visit but next time I’m dying to stock up on their white oily nectar.

Inspired by the chef’s ideas, I loaded up on Corsica’s famous charcuteries and as soon as we returned home, found some beautiful Scottish Salmon at the market. Served with slices of Lonzo (my favourite as it’s a filet cut without much fat) and marinaded julienne strips of chiogga beetroot (in olive oil and Xeres vinegar) to garnish, just like the chef had presented his starter dish.

My personal touch?  I added some finely chopped bits of Ariane apple and a beetroot and horseradish macaron (recipe in Mad About Macarons – there’s a whole chapter on savoury macarons.) It’s a Scot mac that meets Corsican land and sea in the middle. Or I should just have Jill and Antoine…

Land-a-hoy – or perhaps that should be Mac-ahoy!

 

Cremini Mushroom Cappuccino with Mini Macarons

Just look at this tray of healthy looking cremini mushrooms from the market – just perfect for a mushroom cappuccino. When I first bought mushrooms in France, it was amazing to see how they were sold with such large stalks and earthy feet as opposed to the pale, pre-packaged mushrooms presented in cellophane punnets looking as clean as a button in supermarkets.

Down to earth with organic mushrooms

As Autumn is winding its way around Paris, it’s high time to return to macaron madness with mushroom and truffle macarons. Have you tried savoury macarons?  In France, they’re great as an apéritif – my favourite part before the meal that has urged me to become more French over the last 19 years here. Serve with Champagne or a white wine from the Jura or an Alsacian Riesling but in this case, why not serve these mini macarons with the cutest little mushroom cappuccino for an amuse-bouche teaser or as a bigger appetiser/starter to a special meal? Surprise your friends.

French macaron mushroom

A Macaron Mushroom? It’s magic.

For the macaron shells, follow the basic recipe from the book (using less sugar – see page 97.) While beating the meringue to stiff peaks, add just enough brown (3/4 coffee spoon) with a slight hint of yellow (1/4) powdered colouring and a dash of cayenne pepper, then pipe out the macaron batter into the smallest, cutest rounds you can. Using a smaller, 6mm plain tip makes this easier.

how to make mushroom macarons

Getting the right mushroom colour meringue

To make the filling, sauté 100g cremini mushrooms until they sweat off all their liquid* and add them to 100ml whipping cream, infusing them over a low heat for 15 minutes.  Blitz with a hand blender or processor and add a dash of good quality truffle oil. Whisk an egg with 10g cornflour in a small bowl then add to the cream and mushrooms and keep whisking over a medium heat until the sauce thickens. Set aside to cool, then whisk in 20g softened butter then fill the macarons.

* Tip: fry the mushrooms in a dry, non-stick pan. There’s no need for any extra butter or oil. Keep sautéing them until they give off their liquid and you’ll end up with healthy, natural mushrooms that are concentrated in flavour (and not dripping in oil!)

how to make mushroom filling for savoury macarons

This mushroom cappuccino is full of flavour and complements the macarons well. I prefer using cremini or portobello (giant cremini) mushrooms since I find they have more flavour than the normal white button mushrooms. Adding the truffle crème fraîche on top with a dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Van Houten 100%) just finishes off le cappuccino look. Here I used crème fraîche to make this quickly, but if you prefer frothing up some whipped cream, then this will have a more authentic look.

mushroom cappuccino

Mushroom Cappuccino Recipe

Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 35 minutes

600g cremini or portobello mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
25g butter
1 litre chicken stock
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tbsp crème fraîche
1 tsp truffle oil

1. In a large, high-sided pan, cook the onion over a medium heat in the butter without browning for about 5 minutes. Remove the onion from the pan then throw in the chopped mushrooms and sauté them until they give off all their liquid. Add the cayenne pepper and return the cooked onion to the pan.

2. Add the stock and leave to cook on the lowest heat until the liquid reduces by at least a quarter for about 30 minutes.

3. Blend and froth up the soup using a hand blender and season to taste.

Serve in coffee cups with a blob of crème fraîche mixed with some good quality truffle oil and dust with unsweetened cocoa powder; or what about dusting it with dried porcini mushrooms that have been whizzed in a spice grinder to create a concentrated mushroom powder?

mushroom macaron

Is there mushroom for macarons here?

The Cutest Wombat Bento Box by Pudding Pie Lane

I don’t watch TV much these days but I’m hooked on Top Chef. It showcases France’s up and coming professional chefs, as they battle it out in front of the daunting cameras – all sweat and tears to seduce the eyes and tastebuds of the discerning jury with their innovative dishes based on each set task. The jury? We’re talking Thierry Marx, Jean-François Piege, Ghislaine Arabian, and Christian Constant, s’il vous plaît. One of the surprising tasks last week was to come up with an artistic and healthily balanced bento box. The additional jury was even tougher this time: a group of sophisticated 8-year-old French children.

Bento boxes are something I only discovered recently by visiting Xinmei Wang’s blog, Pudding Pie Lane. If you don’t already know it, then I urge you to check it out. Xinmei’s creatively cute bento boxes are what first caught my eye, then I returned for more doses of her sense of humour. You get a glimpse into her life as a student while at Cambridge University. Yes, Xinmei is a clever cookie and in her spare time in between essay writing, she skillfully bakes and cooks up dishes not only on a limited budget but with the minimum of equipment, perfecting the art of getting by on a microwave. Let me hand you over to Xinmei.

Ever wondered how to be a food blogger as a student, meaning a very stretched budget? I like baking and everything I do is in my spare time (often procrastinating from writing my 10th essay of the term!) I study Economics at Cambridge so have never taken any courses related to baking or cooking, I’ve taught myself from various cookbooks, but occasionally like to make up my own recipes to ‘see what happens’. I especially love baking for my friends at Uni and more recently making bento boxes after I saw them on another site. Not only are they a (quite literally) healthy break from the cakes and cookies, but also look incredibly cute!

You may wonder how I manage to make this bento box in my tiny puny midget University kitchen (aka ‘gyp room’), with just a microwave, kettle and toaster. How did I cook the eggs? How did I boil the rice? And just how did I manage to make the wombat/bear/generic-furry-animal bento so astoundingly amazingly awesomely cute?

For the first two, that’s the Art Of Getting By On A Microwave. For the third one, well, that’s a secret 😉

At my University we’re all catered, so we have limited cooking means, and I’ve often had to make do. I don’t go to the hall to eat very often, however Harry Potteresque Cambridge University dining halls looks like (or should I say ‘however Cambridge-esque Harry Potter looks like!’). Maybe because we have to eat by candlelight at dinner every night. This may sound cool, but the novelty wears off when you’ve accidentally eaten sponge cake instead of chicken.

Not that I have ever done this. But anyway, I’m going to show you how you can make this bento in your very own box of a ‘gyp room’ so you can make one yourself!

You will need:

1. Rice! How to cook them in the microwave? Well:

  • Buy/borrow/find a pyrex bowl with a lid.
  • Put 1 cup of rice in it and rinse the rice. Soak with just over 1 cup of warm water for 15 minutes minimum (this is important!).
  • Microwave, with the lid on, on HIGH for 5 minutes.
  • Stir the rice around to get all the uncooked bits evenly distributed.
  • Do this two more times, or until the rice seems cooked when you stir it. It will depend on your microwave.

2. Eggs!

  • boil them in the kettle (see the bottom of this post). After it is boiled and cooked, separate the yolk from the white and mix it with the rice to colour it yellow. This makes said rice taste creamy and yummy.
  • You can even make scrambled eggs in the microwave by cracking them into a bowl, adding milk and seasonings, then microwaving in about 2 or 3 thirty second bursts (stirring between each one).
  • (I have, however, yet to figure out how to make eggs in the toaster.)

It’s a funny thing about eggs, because, well….

…please don’t judge me, but this one time, I went out to eat at a very posh restaurant where the menus have words like ‘mouli’ and ‘pousse café’. You see, one of the things was some chicken and ‘hen’s egg’ dish. And, seeing that, my thought process went something like this:

1)    Oooh! Hen’s egg! I’ve never had that before.

2)    I’m going to order it.

3)    That was very yummy.

4)    Wait a second.

5)    Hm.

6)    A hen’s egg is just an egg.

7)    Oops.

My friends have never let me forget that.
So moving swiftly on, here is a nice photo of the steps needed to make the wombat bento. You can put anything you like in the bento as extras, I have used random bits of veg, crabsticks, dumplings and pork fritters. You will also need:

  • Seaweed sushi nori for the eyes and mouth
  • Black sesame seeds for the eyelashes
  • Ham for the ears
  • A mushroom (I used a date instead, but you might find that a bit strange) for the nose
  • Ketchup for the cheeks

Et voila! You are done. I hope you like it!

Thanks so much, Xinmei. I think the Top Chef contestants could have done with checking out your bento box for their task last week, especially since one of the young jury members said she hoped to see a bento box with a cute bear’s head and none of them had this wombat beauty. The chefs could have also impressed the jury by telling them it was made with hens’ eggs! You know, I ate out in Paris last night (yes, hubby took me out after 7 months, bless him, so it was posh to shut me up) and the first item on the menu was…”oeuf de poule...” It cracked me up!

I say this is the cutest bento box but believe me, Xinmei has many more wonderful creations over at Pudding Pie Lane: check out her bento panda (‘Pandi’.) Please say hello from me and try not to make any hen jokes.

Smoked Haddock Fishcakes with Tartare Sauce

Tintin may still make the odd appearance in French shop windows following Spielberg’s film, but I’m frankly fascinated by Captain Haddock’s nose. It reminds me of a one-liner by Steve Martin in the film, Roxanne (based on the French story of Cyrano de Bergérac by Rostand) referring to ze nose:
“Do you have a license for that?”

Photos are all over the supermarkets to promote the film!

My handsome French teacher at school back in the 80s was also embellished with a nose – or nez, or even pif to be familiar – that was so spectacular that a group of us in class wrote a piece entitled, “Why do Frenchmen have big noses?” We could not have been serious. I was eventually punished for that one when I broke my nose 4 years ago, falling with my complete weight on the hooter. Now I’m constantly reminded of my lesson in this freezing weather when my nose lights up à la Rudolf with its license to glow in the cold.

Do you remember Gérard Depardieu’s legendary nose in Cyrano de Bergerac? As Depardieu’s name suggests, he is a dieu on stage. I saw him larger than life in person recently at the première in Paris of his new Telefilm, Rasputin (in French and Russian). Hang on to your seats, folks. This film is spine-tingling. I can’t think of anyone who could play the part of Rasputin as well as Gérard. You can smell it will be a hit.

I wonder if Captain Archibald Haddock could sniff out these Scottish fishcakes from The Black Island? Although it’s more of a weekday family supper, serving mini portions as a Scottish starter has been a surprising hit with French friends at weekends. I love the smokiness of the fish but what really makes it? The simple, homemade tartare sauce. You know what’s coming, don’t you? It’s another handy recipe to use up your egg yolks for making macarons!

églefin fumé or haddock, please?

You can use any smoked fish or a combination of smoked and plain fish but I personally love making it all with smoked haddock. It took me a while to get the tongue around the French word for haddock: églefin; but did you know that églefin fumé can result in funny looks at the poissonerie? I stand corrected as they say that smoked haddock is just known as…

‘Haddock’ (with a French accent, please.)

 

Recipe: Smoked Haddock Fishcakes and Tartare Sauce

Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Chilling Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Fishcakes

300g smoked haddock
2 bay leaves
milk
500g potatoes, cooked
zest of an untreated lemon
1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp chopped chives
2 tsp horseradish sauce
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp capers, chopped
1 egg
oat flour (to shape) or plain flour
100g breadcrumbs or panko

Tartare Sauce

2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp Dijon mustard
200ml olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp gherkins, finely chopped
1 tbsp capers, chopped
1 tbsp dill, chopped
1 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon

Poach the smoked haddock

1. Poach the fish in milk (just enough to cover up to 1/3 of the fish) with the bay leaves for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool, then strain, skin and flake the fish to ensure there are no bones.

2. Mash the potatoes, mixing in the mustard, horseradish, lemon zest, capers and herbs. Season well then add the flaked fish.

3. Divide the fish mixture into small patty cakes (about 2.5 cm thick for starter/hors d’oeuvres size). Form into a shape then roll into the flour. Beat the egg in a separate bowl, dip the patties into it, then cover in the breadcrumbs or panko.

4. Chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge until needed – this is when I make the tartare sauce. You could freeze the fishcakes at this point, placing them openly on a baking sheet. When frozen, transfer to containers and freeze for up to 3 months.

5. Fry in batches in hot olive oil for 5 minutes on each side until golden and crispy. Keep them warm until serving with the tartare sauce.

Make the tartare sauce. Ensure your ingredients are at room temperature to make the perfect sauce. This sauce can keep for 3 days in an airtight jar in the fridge, so it’s handy to make this in advance.

  1. Whisk the egg yolks, salt and mustard with a metallic whisk in a glass bowl. Gradually add the olive oil, dribbling it finely and regularly, whisking all the time. Once the mixture starts to thicken, add the white wine vinegar (use a good quality one.)
  2. Add all the remaining ingredients and mix well.

I wonder how on earth the Tartare sauce formed the map of Corsica? It wasn’t the Black Island but the ‘Island of Beauty’, as my Corsican husband calls it.

Who nose?