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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

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

Top Tip for Cooking Mushrooms

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

Serves 6

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?

 

Macaroned on French Impressionists’ Island, Chatou and Macaron Pointillism

Somehow I just couldn’t write, ‘mac-arooned’. They’re not macaroons but macarons, right?

Many people think I live in Paris. I used to live there for 7 years before the children were born. It was wonderful. Another chapter. But truth be told it’s just as wonderful living outside the City of Light. It’s close enough to Paris but far enough to feel out in the country.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll give you a taste of our environs. Today let’s kick off with a walk along the River Seine in nearby Chatou. It’s only 10 minutes west from Paris in the RER commuter train (from Charles de Gaulle’s stop at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.) For me, this is just around the corner from my orthoptiste. Would you believe all this work on the computer means I now have to have vision therapy? At least there’s a progressively less blurred view en route.

boat on the Seine

Along the banks of the River Seine, Chatou

Chatou is one of the towns by the River Seine where the Impressionist painters settled down their easles and impressive palettes. Auguste Renoir took Claude Monet to discover this area and they painted together a set of pieces around the “Grenouillère” just near this spot, where Parisians would flock on the weekend to bathe in the countryside (more on that later, since this deserves a separate post.) The neighbouring towns have about 30 reproductions like this below, to mark the Impressionists’ route.

Renoir paintings on the Seine

Les Canotiers à Chatou, by Renoir (1881)

This is one of my favourite spots in Chatou: the Île des Impressionnistes. The hamlet on the Impressionists’ island was a popular hang out of artists and poets. Thankfully it was restored recently to include the original Fournaise restaurant, a museum, and a boating workshop.  One of the most famous regulars was Auguste Renoir, who was often here at the Fournaise Restaurant.

Maison Fournaise Chatou Impressionists

Maison Fournaise Chatou

Do you recognise this painting?  It’s amazing to think that the scene of Auguste Renoir’s masterpiece,”Le Déjeuner des Canotiers” is just here on that balcony.  Amongst his friends in the painting, the lady clutching the dog on the left ended up becoming Madame Renoir a few years later.

Le Déjeuner des Canotiers by Renoir (1881)

Today nothing much has changed.  The light changes dramatically, reflecting the different seasons. The restaurant is still lively and next door, you can now visit the Fournaise museum.

Maison Restaurant Fournaise Chatou

The day I took these shots, the place was deserted. It was almost spooky.  It’s as if you could hear faint laughter of a bunch of artist friends sitting around a table of fruit and wine up on that balcony.

Maison Fournaise Renoir Balcony

Renoir was watching from that balcony

I’m not an artist, although some family members may disagree when it comes to “wine tasting”. The nearest I get to playing with paints is flicking food colouring on macarons. It’s great fun. It’s best to do this once the macarons have aired and are ready to go in the oven.

What’s your impression?

Personally I think it’s dabbling with Pointillism.

spotty macarons

spotty macarons

Have you been going dotty with macarons lately?