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!

 

A Fruity Weekend at the King’s Vegetable Garden in Versailles

I lost the plot this weekend. Blame it on the persisting torrents of rain. So when the skies suddenly cleared on Sunday, my daughter and I escaped to the King’s Vegetable Garden (Potager du Roi) in Versailles.

Their gates have been open to the public since 1991 but this October weekend was a special Saveurs du Potager, an annual culinary festival to showcase the diversity of the 300-or-so varieties of fruits and vegetables that are grown here.

Classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 30 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables are produced each year at the Potager du Roi, thanks to the horticultural school’s students next door. While Le Notre was responsible for the gardens at Versailles, Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie was responsible for building the potager-fruitier over five years (1678-1683) and ensuring the best quality fruit and vegetables on the royal table. La Quintinie’s statue surveys the daily pickings plus the continuation of experiments and new gardening techniques.

Louis XIV was so proud of this garden that he loved to bring visitors such as the Doge of Venice on a tour here, passing the exotic Orangerie en route. The King could show off his own pruning techniques and explain how his talented gardener managed to ensure that asparagus or strawberries could arrive 3 weeks before season by using different manures.

potager du roi Versailles

My eye was drawn to the aromatic part of the garden since I love decorating dishes with edible flowers.  Bourrache or borage is popular here but I can tell you – I made a mistake the other day, decorating a chocolate mousse with one of these flowers.  Tasting one of these flowers was like eating a light fishy cucumber.  Not quite the best chocolate partner. I would suggest adding borage flowers to savoury fish dishes!

Nasturtiums were growing in all their glory.  Claude Monet adored eating them in peppery salads from his garden at Giverny. Personally on a cool, October day I was craving these beautiful parsnip plants for a comforting parsnip, round carrot and coriander soup. With a mini curry mad mac… Speaking of spice, ginger plants were also proudly on show in the gardens.

edible flowers King's Vegetable garden Versailles

Nasturtiums, parsnips and a parsnip and Parisian carrot soup & mac

As Lucie and I were completely lost just trying to find the stand to buy produce from the garden, we literally stumbled into the most amazing man-made grotto. Lucie being the adventurer, ran up some crooked, mossy steps and discovered a secret passage below a rickety bridge linking up to a round outlook tower.  As we gingerly descended into the creepy darkness below, this enormous grotto was waiting to surprise us. Just as well we didn’t come in the other way: that middle photo is a whopping great hole that we luckily missed on the roof!

caves in the king's vegetable garden Versailles France

Inside the long-corridored building, various gardening clubs were showing visitors how to create compost, how to create a shelter for ladybirds, make your own apple juice using a press plus how to construct a ‘hotel’ for insects.

I even discovered that Alkekenge is the real name for physalis cages d’amour (love cages – trust the French to be so romantic) that are taking over our garden. Hm. Shall we just stick with love cages? Grrrrr. Much that I love the name, ‘Reine des Reinettes’, they’re not my favourite apples since they’re far too sweet. Floury apples don’t do it for me. Call me boring, but comfort me with Pink Lady or Braeburns any day.  Beurré Hardy, on the other hand, is one of my favourite pear varieties.  So good you just eat them on their own but if you want to make a gluten free dessert, then why not try some chocolate macarons with poached coffee-vanilla pears?

apple harvest King's Vegetable Garden Versailles

The theme of culinary demonstrations for the afternoon was Italian cooking. Lucie and I watched Venetian cookbook author, Adriana Cardin, in admiration as she managed to show us how to make pasta in front of such a fidgety, noisy audience. OK, so she said to make pasta by hand and forget your pasta machine. What more do you want? She gave us all tastings of homemade (albeit thicker than I’m used to) pasta triangles with her cavroman sauce. Did you know that poor man’s tortellini has no filling? I also didn’t realise that the famous Italian ’00’ flour, difficult to find in Paris, is simply “Farine Type 55”. When I think I carted flour in my suitcase back from our last Italian holiday. Duh.

cookery demonstrations King's Vegetable Garden October Festival Versailles

The last room for us to visit was les épluchures or peelings. Can you see these peeling-inspired chapeaux hats taking off?

Instead the red onion peelings inspired me to make a caramelised red onion tarte tatin, accompanied with a perfectly mineral Sauvignon blanc wine from the Loire Valley to bring out the honey flavours – a simple yet delicious feast to finish off the royal weekend.

Potager du Roi (King’s Vegetable Garden)
10 Rue du Maréchal Joffre
78000 Versailles

January – March: Tues & Thurs 10am-6pm
April-October: Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
du mardi au dimanche de 10h à 18h
November-December: Tues & Thurs 10am-6pm; Sat 10am-1pm

Giverny and Inspiration from Monet’s Gardens

Why is it when you live so close to something truly amazing and touristy, you avoid it? Antoine and I lived in rue Bosquet for 5 years, just a few minutes walk from the Eiffel Tower and yet we went up only after we moved out of Paris. Then last weekend – after 19 years of living here – we finally drove 45 minutes up the A13 to a summery Giverny, Claude Monet’s haven near the river Seine in Normandy.

The secret is to leave early and get there for opening time at 9.30am so that there’s not much of a bouchon (traffic jam) on Monet’s Japanese bridge. Last year there were 611,000 visitors so believe me, this is important. The house and gardens have been open to the public since 1980. It needed 10 years of renovation (with major donations from the USA) after the house and garden’s neglect after the Second World War.

Such a wet summer to date has been good for the lush greens of the gardens.  Most of the flowers are seen in the Clos Normand, in front of the house. What a lovely idea to have an avenue of nasturtiums up to the front door. Imagine how many summer salads you could decorate with these (and eat)?

summer flowers in Monet garden of Giverny France

Just a few snapshots of the hundreds of flowers and plants on show. Claude Monet set to planting and sowing seeds as soon as he arrived in 1883 and his house is filled with volume upon volume of plant encyclopaedias and Japanese prints. Giverny’s talented gardeners continue to succeed in showing different varieties all through the year, as the seasons change.

summer gardens Monet Giverny France

You can see why the master of the Impressionists lived in this idyllic spot for nearly 46 years (1883-1926.)  Seeing the water garden live for the first time, it was just as he had portrayed them in his works of art. Do you recognise them?

Sur le pont… de Monet

Unlike Japanese bridges painted in red, Monet painted his bridge in bright green. Everyone around the garden’s visitor route was transfixed on the lily pads and nymphéas, made so famous by his paintings of them started in 1897. My girls loved watching an cute ugly duckling hobbling from lily pad to the next.

There wasn’t much to visit in the house, to be honest, and there is a lack of information as to what you’re seeing. Unfortunately photos were prohibited inside. His living room was impressive and although it’s filled with replicas, it’s still incredible to think he would lie on his chaise longue, puffing on his pipe while looking up at his masterpieces. Photos of Monet are around the house. Do you love looking at old photographs?

Claude Monet house Giverny

Standing outside Monet’s kitchen window: somehow with lace curtains around the house or that check and shutters you can tell we’re in France. Just up the road, the Hotel Baudy welcomed guests – particularly many American painters who came to Giverny for inspiration and to meet Monet.

Hotel Baudy Giverny France

To see Monet’s lilypond paintings, visit L’Orangerie Museum, the Louvre and the Orsay Museum in Paris. For more of his paintings – including the original painting, Impression Sunrise, which gave Impressionism its name – visit the Marmottan Museum in the 16th Arrondissement. They even have his pipe, if you’re particularly sentimental like myself.

lily pond at Giverny Monet Gardens France

After our meander up to the church to pay our respects to the great artist as well as locals who didn’t make their return to the village after the World Wars, it was time for a picnic. A short drive further up the Seine, we found the perfect spot underneath a weeping willow tree with our toes dangling into the river. The ideal, idyllic summer spot in the shade, imagining Monet capturing the scene on his floating studio.

Monet hat at Giverny

The Giverny look this summer

He’s still making an impression on us in different ways: we can’t all sport white beards but the look in Giverny is this straw hat; we’re also spending a few days in New York City at the moment and this lily pond is following us around Manhattan through his water lily paintings! More on that later.

What impression do you have from Monet’s garden?

Mad About Lime Blossom Macarons in the Loire

Mon Dieu! I was so carried away with the MacTweets Fruity Challenge that I forgot this sequel to the Loire Valley post! Et voici, mes amis – enfin…

Remember recently I asked you what this tree was? It’s a French Tilleul. In English, it’s Linden Blossom but after Sue of Tales from the Giantswood asked if it was a lime tree, I realised that Tilleul is linden blossom or lime blossom.  Thank you, Sue.

lime linden blossom Normandy

We had our breakfast under this tree at the B&B just around the corner from the Château of Azay-le-Rideau in the Loire. What a civilised haven, with classical music coming out from the dining room as we ate – somehow Lady Gaga wouldn’t have been right.

Loire castle fireplace

As the weather was warm, we ate under this tree outside so the breakfast room was used as the buffet – filled with brioches, baguettes and goat cheeses. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve eaten goat cheese for breakfast. What an experience.

Loire goat's cheese or chèvre for breakfast

The perfect pot of café crème with a plate ranging from the freshest goat cheese, to the most matured and piquant; as the word implies, it almost pierced the taste buds and the sticky honey put out the “fire”.

I wouldn’t have this every day, but I shall never forget such a waking revelation to the taste buds. At home, we’re more likely to have our favourite salad in the summer as a main course: Salade de chèvre chaud (warm goat’s cheese salad).

linden or lime blossom Loire Valley

Tilleul / Linden Blossom

Back to that linden blossom tree.  When we first arrived, Antoine greeted the B&B owners as I secretly hid behind the tree and tried to straighten out my back.  I had turned into a chair after 3 hours of lying flat out in the passenger seat from Paris, so it was slightly embarrassing attempting a transformation from a crooked old woman to a 40-something on a romantic weekend..

harvesting lime or linden blossom in Normandy

The owner had her basket out, ready to laden it with linden blossoms. This was the perfect time to dry them as they were in full bloom.

infusing French tilleul or lime blossom in Normandy

In France this is particularly popular as a herbal infusion: infusion de tilleul, which is relaxing and caffeine free before bedtime.  An infusion of lime blossom is also said to soothe tension headaches.

Lime or linden blossom at Azay le Rideau castle Loire Valley

Linden blossom au château d’Azay le Rideau, Loire

As we took a walk around the Château of Azay-le-Rideau, linden blossom trees surrounded us and we were mesmorised by the perfumes and the views.

cat in a basket Normandy drying lime blossom

Back at the B&B, Madame hadn’t got around to collecting the blossoms yet.  Meanwhile, someone had a better idea for her basket.

sleeping cat in lime blossom basket Normandy

Sun in all its glory, blossoms perfuming the air, Vivaldi out of the speakers  – it’s time for a cat-nap.

linden lime blossom or French Tilleul tree

And time for some linden/lime blossom macarons with a hint of lemon for something light and gluten free on a summer’s day…

lime blossom macarons Jill Colonna

Not just for night-time infusions, my macaronivore friends…

Wishing you a summer of lazy cat-naps and dreams

under the shade of your favourite tree.

The Party Times!

Shhh. The macaron secret is out…

Come and join us at The Party Times Online, where Pippa Middleton is sharing some macaron recipes from the book, courtesy of Waverley Books.

Stay tuned, as she is also planning a great Mad About Macarons! competition on the Party Times site…(UK residents)


Azay le Rideau Castle and l’Auberge du 12éme Siecle, Loire Valley

Welcome to a weekend away in the land of fairytale castles, vineyards, and gastronomic pleasures. Antoine whisked me away for 2 guilt-free days: no children to worry about, no cooking, laundry, shopping, homework, and above all – no computer. Ouf! We all need a wee breather now and again, don’t we?  Thanks, Mum and Dad, for making this possible!

It was only 3 hours’ drive from Paris – albeit that the back was playing up again and so I had to lie completely flat out in the car.  I discovered every inch of our car’s interior details but it was worth being patient.  Look what greeted us on arrival in Azay le Rideau…

Azay le Rideau Castle, Loire

I picked my bedroom out: that one with the pretty tower, please.  I’ll let down my short, dishwasher blond hair and Antoine can serenade me below, with a kareoke version of Lady in Red from his Blackberry.

 Not so sure if I liked the kitchen, though.  Imagine cooking with that “oven”?  Pretty hot work, n’est-ce pas?

Fancy this for your kitchen oven?

On the other hand, the drawing room was rather civilised.  Draw in your chair for a game of cards in front of the fireplace with the salamander symbol of François 1st, sip tea from a royal porcelain cup, and nibble on a macaron, peut-être?

Anyone for tea and a macaron?

The beds were always so small.  Did they really sleep upright?  Jings.  That couldn’t have been comfortable. The concrete mattress was possibly the same original that we had in our B&B up the road: back-breaking!

On the way out, a lovely large bottle of the local Bourgeuil red was just sitting saying bonjour.  The red wines here are served chilled. Each time I’ve had the Loire reds, though, I’ve not been as keen as the whites; something I have to work on…

 The wee town of Azay le Rideau is picture postcard material.  Walking over the bridge, there were a few people fishing in amongst the lily pads.

Just a 10 minute drive out of of Azay-le-Rideau, however, there is a gastronomic restaurant in the village of Saché: L’Auberge du XIIème Siècle.  Balzac lived in Saché (now a castle museum), and just up the road in Monts is where the abdicated Edward VIII married Wallis Simpson at the Château de Candé in 1937.

L’Auberge du XIIème siècle

Antoine and I couldn’t help ourselves.  We ate there two nights in a row.  Put a gourmet Frenchman and a Scot together to pick a restaurant and the best value for money element comes into play. 😉 We went for the normal dinner menu at €35.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll show you the highlights as one meal, as we both tried absolutely everything, just for you

 The sommelier suggested a local sauvignon blanc for an apéritif.  This is perfect to get the appetite going, especially to accompany the five little amuse-bouches.  I’m apologising now, as I’m difficult in restaurants like this; I dare say that the cheese straw clashed with the langoustine mousse and the carrot-chive sorbet was a bit too sweet for my liking before a meal.  Now if they’d put spices in the carrot to react with the sugary sorbet, that would be totally dynamite…

The apéritif continues…

The rabbit confit (tasted just like roasted chicken bits) in the shot glass was tasty but so dry, accompanied by a little pancake with no sauce.  Wetting it with the sauvignon was the thing to do, I think.  The other pastry with snails was better. Time to go to our table indoors for the main meal…

Another amuse-bouche arrived.  This time a warm port caramel was sitting on a crème brûlée of foie gras.  I honestly would have preferred this for dessert.  It was far too sweet and the wine hadn’t arrived yet.  Why do I get so irritated when the sommelier has all the wine bottles in the centre of the room and you have to beg to be served?  Or am I just a wine artist?

 Now you’re talking.  A beautiful starter of sautéed giant prawns with asparagus, crispy potatoes on a lemon thyme jus arrived – enfin with a Chenin blanc, produced locally by an organic winegrower.

The crispy potatoes were revealed under the prawns – but they’d lost their crispiness.  Lovely idea, though; cut finely with a mandoline and in clean-cut, even rounds.

Filet de canette au jus d’ollives, confits d’été et sa tapenade – for one?

The main course of small duck (canette) arrived.  This was perfectly pink inside, the confit tomatoes and red peppers a perfect match, as was the tapenade – once I’d found it underneath the pile of chervil.  You can see from the lighting that service was slow but after seeing the cheese trolley (extra 12€ supplement), it was worth the wait.  I’ve never eaten so much chèvre (goat) cheese in my life!  The best over the weekend was goats’ cheese that was more mature and dry.  The flavour was powerful and was perfectly matched with the fig jam.

Still room for some Loire cheeses…

I couldn’t help putting the strongest chèvre under this lady’s nose on the plate.  On the palate, I preferred sticking to the Chenin blanc.  Antoine’s red chilled Chinon just didn’t have the same reaction.  It certainly went with the cheese ok (go for something outside the region and the cheese tastes like washing powder and no – I haven’t tried eating it, if you ask) but the Chenin brought out floral honey notes.

Superpostition de nougat glacé, soup aux fruits rouges

Oops.  Photos, Jill?  Wine and photos don’t go together, as I’ve shown my knack of camera shake like this before, remember? 😉  Da-dada-da-da-da: dessert!  Hm.  Lovely.  It was a bit disappointing, though. Antoine’s puff pastry flute to accompany the strawberries and green mint sorbet was the same they used for the apéritif, I’m sure.  I don’t like overly sweet desserts, but this seriously lacked sugar.

And, since we obviously looked like we were still hungry at this point, a verbena infusion (verveine: see blog post for verveine macarons) arrived with some mignardises: an orange fruit jelly, a mini crème brulée (see what I mean about the port caramel? That would have been fantastic at that point to finish up, although perhaps not with the foie gras!), an almond financier (excellent), and a beautiful raspberry mousse.

still room for mignardises?

I took one spoonful, but then the spoon wouldn’t fit into the glass to fetch out the rest.  Ah well, I think we really did well by that point.  Time to order a crane to lift us out of the restaurant, Monsieur?

All in all, I would give it 14 out of 20.  Where were the macarons? It was funny seeing clients order from the other menus – they had more or less the same things from the main menu, dressed up with bigger or smaller tasting portions. Antoine gets 20 out of 20 for taking me out – let’s face it, we don’t go out that much but when we do, I love getting ideas and inspiration for entertaining when my light fades in ze kitchen.

Or should I say he gets “vin sur vin”?   Speaking of wine, the chenin blancs were so good that we popped in to the cellars to find out more and stock up.  The winemakers were so passionate about their babies as they explained the much longer process of making wines organically.

Visiting the local organic wine cellars

First stop was at Château de la Roche en Loire.  Our favourite was the one in the restaurant: the 2009 Cuvée Céline. It’s so intensely fruity and “oily” that it can easily cope with partnering a meal from start to finish.  A real blockbuster that could even take on the toughest of highly flavoured dishes, was La Noblesse d’Aziaum 2006, from Pascal Pibaleau’s cellar.  Like all organic wines, you’ll see a lot of deposit at the bottom: c’est normal.

I’ll finally finish off with an image of one of my favourite trees, full of perfumed scents.  It greeted us on arrival at the B&B and we had breakfast underneath it.  Such inspiration for macarons, my friends!  I’ll show you next week. Any guesses?

Egg Yolk Recipe Series

I am so proud to welcome Marsha, the Harried Cook.  When her email arrived with her recipe and photos, she literally dropped a bombshell.  If you haven’t seen it already, drool over her Strawberries and Cream Mousse Pie, using pâte à bombe – a French term for a base of egg yolks and sugar.  What’s more, she’s offering a Giveaway of 2 Mad About Macarons!” books; hurry, the giveaway ends on Sunday 26 June.

Discover France Feature Article

Discover this super website, Discover France, for all of you who are mad about Paris and everything French.  If you have a moment, please read my first feature article for them.  

I’m so proud to be listed amongst their featured authors. They also include an excerpt from the book:

Discover the Decadent Fashionable Pâtisserie: The Parisian Macaron

Ouf ! I’m finished now, promise…