Thursday, September 24, 2009

Farmers' Feast

Last night was the inaugural Farmers' Feast, an event I helped co-ordinate and that we hope will continue to grow each year. The idea was to promote local food made by local chefs and to bring the producers, chefs and consumers together to create relationships and bring people closer to the food they eat.

The night was a smashing success. The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, no wind, and an unusually warm day for late September. Guests were greeted with live jazz and a free glass of wine if they brought their own wine glass. The chefs really showcased their unique talents with delicious local fare such as mini-bison burgers, Manitoba pike cakes, pulled Manitoba pork with aioli on local lettuce, vegan shepard's pie made with all local produce, vegetarian pemmican, Manitoba pumpkin crumble squares, local apple cider, fairly traded organic coffee and so much more that I didn't even get a chance to taste! People wandered from booth to booth, chatting with the chefs, tasting the delicacies and sipping wine or local Manitoba beer. There was an ambiance to the evening that was almost tangible; people laughed; kids played; little Wally the puppy made people swoon; music drifted; wonderful smells filled the air; it was better than any of us thought it could be. A perfect way to cap off a Manitoba summer.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Mr. Poilane might have rolled over in his grave this morning if he saw me eat his prized bread, arguably the best bread in the world, smeared with peanut butter.

We arrived home from France last night with our kitchen in the midst of being renovated, no stove, oven, sink or food in the fridge, but there was peanut butter and I had carefully carried a huge (12 inch diameter?) round Miche Poilane across the Atlantic, so that's what I had for breakfast. But alas, this post is not about peanut butter and I am not going to try to argue it's virtues with the French (I've tried, they won't hear any of it). What I want to talk about today is the bread, pain Poilane.

I had read about it's carmelized crust, chewy interior, the famous starter, the stone milled flour and sel de Guerande that lend Poilane's bread it's distinct flavour and texture. When we decided to spend a few days in Paris on our way down South and a day on the way home, the one must on my list of things to was to stop in at Poilane. Day one we headed to the rue du Cherche-Midi, the tiny Poilane bakery was just as you would imagine a perfect Parisian bakery, lined with beautifully flaky viennoiseries and the signature round miches engraved with a P. I asked the woman for a quarter loaf and she sliced it with a huge apparatus that I can only compare to a paper cutter, we took it home and tasted it that night with my favourite butter flecked with crystals of sea salt. Everything I had read about Poilane's famous bread was true. The rustic crust was almost black on the bottom and the flour had carmelized and released flavours of molasses and toast, the crumb was chewy and moist, salted just enough so that you knew it was there but you couldn't taste it, the starter lent it's little bit of acidity and the butter smeared on top just took it to the next level.

The next day we wandered around Paris some more and I insisted we take the Metro to the rue du Cherche-Midi again for another quarter of a miche. I made sandwiches with brie for me and jambon buerre for JS to eat in the train with a bottle of wine on our way down south. I told myself that on our last day in Paris I would get an entire loaf and haul it with me back across the ocean to take that taste home with me if only for a few days. We had to go to the alternate location because the Cherche-Midi store is closed on Sundays, but luckily the other store on boulevard de Grenelle was open. So, we all headed across the entire city to the 15th (where there is really nothing else to see or do except drink very expensive coffee in touristy cafes and then pay to go pee as we learned) on 3 different metro lines to get the famous bread. Then I carried it all around Paris and back to our friend J's place that night and then on the RER, our transatlantic flight, the Toronto airport and another flight and car ride home and into my makeshift kitchen where it sits proudly on my cutting board as I type this.

I have since gone grocery shopping and have bought some roquefort and chevre with which to enjoy it (the bread has it's pride too) and I intend on eating and enjoying every last carmelized crumb.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Les Cepes

On Monday evening we went to see a Y, friend who lives in the Pyrenees. The plan was to hike to a refuge where we would sleep and start hiking early the next morning. When we arrived rfom our day on the beach in Spain, later than expected, we were not really in the mood to start hiking. So we opted to pitch a tent in his parents yard and have dinner with them, and start the hike in the morning. Luckily for us his Mom was making a poelee de cepes for dinner. Cepes season is at it's peak in the Pyrenees right now, and she had been picking the day before at about 2000 metres. Their tiny hut built into the side of the mountain (and completely self-sustaining with solar panels and a fireplace) was covered in trays of wild mushrooms sliced thinly and laying out to dry.

We had our delicious dinner of sauteed cepes with olive oil and garlic, olives from the tree in the yard and brined by Y's Dad, home made bread and steamed potatoes and a salad of tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, and muscat wine to start and a really good red wine from the region. We ate by candlelight in the garden on a table that looked to be 100 years old and benches made of stone and built into the slope of the ground. After dinner Y's Mom wandered all around the dark and sloped yard to pick all sorts of herbs (thyme, rosemary, mint, verbena) to make an delicious infusion. We fell asleep to the sound of crickets chirping and the lights of a village below twinkling and woke up in the clouds.

Y assured us that the hike would be short and easy, "ca va pas trop monter" he insisted. Why we haven't learnt our lesson that he has lived in the mountains his whole life and is in much better hiking shape than us is a mystery. It turned out to be a long and difficult hike, but we managed. We walked through pine forests and picked wild mushrooms, though not as many as a couple of older men we passed had in their basket. We walked through a clearing filled with cows and listened to the bells clinking as they chewed their grass, we stopped here and there to have a rink and admire the truly spectacular scenery. And we stopped at the top (or what felt like the top) of the mountain to have our lunch on a rock. We were at 2400 metres and started at 1560 metres, not a bad hike if I do say so myself. Lunch is so much more satisfying when you are truly re-fueling.

On our way back down we took a different route to try to find more cepes, and got a little lost. I had a few moments of wanting to scream or cry, but I contained myself and kept on going. The hike down was in some ways harder than up as we were in an area without trails that was very steep. It took much longer than it should have to get back to the car, but we all arrived with no broken bones.

Before we headed on our way we stopped back at Y's place and his Mom sent us home with a jar of dried cepes. We had picked about 7 or 8 good sized ones too, so it was a good day.

Tonight back in Beziers, I made a gratin de cepes with layers of potatoes and sauteed cepes covered with milk, dotted with butter and sprinkled with gruyere.

Gratin de Cepes

5 or 6 medium white potatoes (Yukon Gold would work well too)
2 or 3 good sized wild cepes, or substitute other wild mushrooms if you can't find cepes
500 ml whole milk
3/4 cup grated gruyere
a few dots of butter
salt and pepper

Clean the mushrooms with a brush or dry paper towel and cut into thin strips, use the stems too. Sautee them in olive oil at high heat for a few minutes, tossing around, until golden.

Preheat the oven to 375.

Peel, then cut the potatoes into thin rounds.

In a buttered glass baking dish, place a layer of potatoes, followed by a layer of cepes until you have used all of them, sprinkling a bit of salt and pepper between each layer. Pour the milk over and then sprinkle with the gruyere and dot with butter.

Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown and tender when you press a knife into the middle.

Enjoy the aroma of the forests of the Pyrenees while you wait for it to be cool enough to eat.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Belles Figues

We're holidaying in the South of France right now, enjoying every minute and every morsel of delicious, crusty bread, creamy cheese and perfect red wine, but I have also been spoiled with all the fresh fruit at this time of year. We've had juicy muscat grapes, tiny green plums, apples, almonds and pears right from the trees, and today, I thought I had died and gone to heaven, fresh, heavy, ripe, sweet figs from the tree to my mouth.

JL asked me last night if I would be interested in coming with him and the neighbour to a fig tree in the middle of a friends vineyard to pick enough figs to make confiture and figues confites. Would I? The question didn't need to be asked! So off we went this morning with our hooks and baskets to a beautiful, huge vineyard with rows and rows of merlot, cinsault and chardonnay grapes among others. I had a taste of the merlot grapes as we walked, sweet and lovely, even though the neighbour said they were the worst eating grape.

The fig tree was so big you could see it from miles away in the middle of the rows of grapes, but it was only when we got close the the smell overcame us. That unmistakeable perfume of ripe figs and fig leaves, earthy and sweet, the smell of the sunshine and the South of France for me.

We picked quite a few and tasted a few in the process. JL wanted me to taste one from the tree and then one that had fallen to see the difference. The freshly plucked fig was cool, perfumed and lightly sweet, the fallen fig was warm, super sweet and concentrated, almost like it was full of honey. Both were sublime.

Here are some photos to look at while you plan your next holiday to the beautiful South of France.