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Here are 19,000 words to show you what a little road trip through SW France and NW Spain looks like. I call it Basquelandia. The 4+3=1 provinces of the Basque Country that drapes over the Pyrenees, straddles two countries, and runs to the Bay of Biscay. Mountain farms and fishing ports via for my affection like old best friends- happy to be with one, and then the other. But really loving both at the same time.
Last week on my annual Salt Circle Road Trip through this mythical kingdom of Basquelandia, I renewed my love affair by sharing the road with a handful of old friends- Cate, Lee, Caroline and Bill. We made a jolly troupe of food lovers, artists, history buffs, gardeners and raconteurs; each table became a organoleptic performance born of salt, earth, and sea.
Sheep and Pigs who punctuate the landscape with ringing bells and soft grunts transformed onto our plates as salty memories of timeless techniques for curing and curding. A mouthful of sweet salty ham from the Euskal Herria or Basque pig balanced a perfect glass of cold rosé wine; a slab of Ossau-Iraty cheese dripping with cherry jam from Itxassou.
A picnic becomes a feast, perched overlooking Les Aldudes; sharing food with new folks on the first days is a gentle way to make fast friendships. We focus on the amazing products produced by people I know- Josette and Gerard, Xole and Michel-while inhaling air so pure we are giddy with clarity.
The Sea calls soon enough-anchovies to ham- salt to salt. We turn our backs to the green green western Pyrenees- not so high but dramatically beautiful in their velour Spring cloaks. Fish as fresh as the salt breeze off of the Golfe de Gascogne beckons.
France morphs into Spain remaining Basque all the way. We bounce between hotels- minuscule to moderne; five-course meals in St. Jean de Luz become pintxos and tapas in San Sebastian.
The simple stripped down small plate rules- a solitary bite of a pork cheek, one perfect anchovy, a sea slipper on a tablespoon of embryonic fava beans-peeled. A stand-up bar, a sea port grill, a gastronomic mecca-all satisfy this well-traveled troupe. Look at the video on the website for Asador Etxebarri if you need more tempting.
From my memories, I pull a bag of red, white and green souvenirs. The Basque Flag visible in every nook and cranny of the land.
For another look from another roadtrip- http://www.kitchen-at-camont.com/basquelandia-in-three-parts-pigs-pyrenees-ham-getaria-anchovy-asador-etxebarri/. Want to make a trip with me? just leave a comment here:
The first rhubarb grown in my garden was cause for celebration this week. This is a new patch of ‘Frontyard Foraging Garden’ that was just started barely two years ago when Jill L. came for a gardening internship at Camont. So since it had already started flowering- see that gnarly bud above? I think I’ll pickle it. Has anyone done this with the flower?
So, once chopped, I had about 2 cups of stalks. I also had a couple cups of the best strawberries in the world from the neighboring berry farm.
Mixed together and sprinkled with raw sugar, they start to give their juices, tout de suite!
I remembered to add a tablespoon of cornstarch to the mixed, sugared fruit.
Put in a small cake pan, I topped the fruit with a mix of oats, flour, some sugar and melted butter- about a cup of each.
Bake in a hot oven until browned and bubbling.
The first time I drove into the Lot-et-Garonne department, it was the Spring of 1988. It was snowing. I was driving into a sunny snow storm on the Canal de Garonne. I remember masses of purple wisteria wired to stone walls, draped over pergolas and woven onto iron fences competing with a thousand tidy orchards exploding with blossom. Growing up in Hawaii and Southern California, I had a seasonally deprived childhood. I didn’t see my first daffodil until I was in my 20’s and never had a garden planted from seeds and stolen shoots. No wonder that I continue to be amazed at what springs out of dead looking branches and against old stone walls. Since that first French Spring, there have been many other memorable March days with hail, sun and rain- all within the same day. We call it Les Giboulees de Mars- when the wind roars around all 360 degrees and the sun shoves the clouds away. Anything can happen now. And now, so many years later, I still marvel at the explosion of color and weather of this four season paradise- Gascony.
The orchards and fields in this old river basin are sowed and planted, terraced and treed, and dotted with old stone farmhouses claiming small plots of garden. My neighbor’s lemon trees have come out into the sun from their winter shelter in the barn; a beautifully trained wisteria down the road is ready to burst into lilac bunches; a scattering of soapwort rises pink and pretty at the corner of the lane. Camont sports it’s share of color this week, too and wears it proudly like a banner announcing what’s to come.
From my new kitchen window at Camont I see forsythia yellow and peach pink, acid green of the willows leafing out and a million paper white petals of the many wild plums trees along the canal. It’s not all pretty flowers though and these are Food Stories, right? So I pluck a handful of blossoms to bring inside, take some of the prunings for a vase, and start plotting the plantings of raspberry, pomegranate and other fruiting bushes I am using to fill in a new ‘foresty’ garden area. (inspired by the King of Forest Gardening Robert Hart) Of course, I see the sprigs of pink and white blossoms first, but I quickly jump to what comes next. At Camont, the most beautiful first tree to sprout deep pink flowers is the actually the last to harvest. It’s is a blood-red peach- a pêche de vigne- and I can already taste the bright deep stain running down my September chin. When I planted that tree many years ago, I couldn’t imagine the joy of anticipation its pretty flowers would bring. This is the point of ‘frontyard foraging’- plant it now; you’ll be foraging your own yard soon enough.
It’s a little ritual to wait. Wait to see the next harvest before I use the last of the old. So now I can take the last jars of red peach jam to spread over a goat cheese tartlette or use the deep red cocktail syrup in a Gascon tribute to spring- a Giboulée de Mars. Inspired by last month’s cocktail shaker, Sean Richardson, and good friend and a Smarter and Fitter Smoothie Master, Monica Shaw, I whipped up a ‘cocktail smoothie’ to celebrate this delicious equinoctial moment and all the good food to grow, forage and discover outside my kitchen doors.
Giboulée de Mars- a Cocktail Smoothie for Spring
- 1 banana
- 1 cup farm fresh yogurt
- large soup spoon of homemade pêche de vigne jam or other summer fruit confiture (raspberry, peach, apricot…)
- several ice cubes broken up in smaller pieces
- one cup of fresh grapes or grape juice, water, or other liquid
- a shot of honeysuckle liquor, framboise or other fruit alcohol.
Blend and drink!
Now when I look into my potager garden beds–moved closer last year to the kitchen terrace in a mosaic of metal rimmed squares– and I am hankering to see everything blooming and budding, I remember that first French Spring snow storm. Although it might be the first days of Spring, anything can happen. So patience is the word for the rest of this month. A little extra planning now, will result in a lot more productivity later. This is where my Food Stories from Gascony begin. Remember, flowers = fruit.
For more about Pêche de Vigne and planting your garden read these Spring posts:
Driving across the Landes forest southwest from Camont and towards the Pyrenees, is a lesson in patience. I am in a hurry to leave our Camont cocoon, get in the van and start the day driving south. I know that once I pass the kilometers of scraggy maritime pines and sandy fern littered forest floor, I’ll start to get glimpses of mountain clouds, snow-licked peaks, and green pastures. Late leaving, late driving and smothered in fog as we leave the Garonne River Valley, I try to explain to my colleagues and students why we are driving so far… to eat more charcuterie.
I tell a few tales of Basque friends- a California pig breeder perched on the side of a mountain near the pilgrim’s trail raising her family and making cheese; a passionate charcutier who weaves magic with his salt and air spells; a group of small producers who banded together to build a state of the art small processing plant minutes from their mountain valley homes. I try to describe the small Basque auberge in a tiny village where we’ll stay and only end up dithering about church bells answering the sound track of cowbells from the pastures across the valley. I forget to say that that our rooms are large, new, clean and have great views from the balconies.
The roads that led me here originally are washed over with layers of other memories and jumbled with trips with friends, family or previous students. This trip is the only one that counts now. And I am anxious to get to the end of the road; a road that leads up and up over a mountain top, across a prehistoric path, and back into time. The skies are hazy all afternoon and as we enter the Vallee des Aldudes; smoke streams from the millennial tradition of écobuage or controlled burns as far as we can see and the mountains remain elusive. Where is the foehn effect? That warm dry fresh blowing breeze that helps create this a world class ham growing area. Here, in open air ventilated chambers like this one at Eric Ospital’s Hasparren site, special hams are hanging in white cloth bags for 18-36 months ripening to the temperate breezes and gentle temperature fluctuations.
From mountain pig to salt springs, the drying winds and historic fairs, ham is written across the hills as pigs have crushed chestnuts and turned up brambles. Medieval liturgy dictated curing and aging times and stone sculptures ring the porticos of area cathedrals. A leftover hospitality to pilgrim and patron alike insures that when we are invited in to the home of one Basque pig producer, we are fed soft shards of nutty ham and slices of chewy saucisson. We never get hungry here. This is along the Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostello and we are following in old footprints. We made new friends, we cemented old friendships and we celebrated the successful completion of 2 student’s own paths to discover their salty futures.
My students have been building up to this all month- they have watched, made, and tasted dozens of good farmstead products working alongside the Chapolard family and in our teaching kitchen at Camont. Now they are seeing out in a new world, how charcuterie–French farmstead charcuterie– rules an entire land. We meet the ham kings, the pig saviors, the community chefs that elevated the work of the land to celestial standing.
The wealth of ham–Ibaiona, Jambon de Bayonne, Jambon de Kintoa– leaves a salty impression on us all. The appreciation for the days and weeks and months of work that lead to a quality product that takes over 3 years old to produce is cemented forever in my brain as we hear over and over again about the need for the best raw material, the attention to detail, and the need for patience- patience to let time work its magic.
So I am back to the P word again- patience. I realize that after all the times I have visited Eric Ospital’s ham cave, I never seen these hams removed for sale. I have photographed them barely swinging in the foehn wind from their chains, draped like ghosts in their fine white shrouds, and waxed with lard and flour to keep them from drying too fast. This was the first time I had seen them removed from their place of patience and readied for delivery. How many other edible products need so much time and attention, space and patience before we place a thin slice on our tongues and whisper reverently? Oh, jambon…
For more information about eating ham and traveling through the Basque Lands with me- http://www.kitchen-at-camont.com/course/basquelandia-road-trip/
“Everything but the oink.” Nothing goes to waste on a pig. Of all the nose-to-tail recipes I love, from Fergus Henderson’s slow-braised pork belly to Michel Dussau’s Brioche de Boudin Noir et Pomme, I love the fat and simple pork rind sausages that stud my cassoulets and deliver an extra flavor and texture bomb to braised cabbage, sage-infused beans and my own poule-au-pot.
The Recipe for Saucisse de Couenne
Ingredients: for every kilo of mixture use 1/3 rind to 2/3 meat
330 g fresh pork rind (cooked and chilled*)
*To prepare the rind, cut into long strips about 5 cm wide, scrape off all the fat, roll loosely, tie with a string. Cook in clear water for 2-3 hours. Remove from liquid and let cool. (I threw in 500 grs. or a pound of dried beans with these and let them cook a the same time.)
660gr freshly minced pork (lean meat and belly)
17 gr salt
6 gr freshly ground black pepper (this is a flavorful peppery amount- reduce to 4 gr if you are scared of pepper)
- one large bunch parsley
- chopped chives and green onions
- small glass of white wine
- generous pinch quatre épice
Grind the cooled, cooked rind and meat on a small hole (6mm) plate.
Add salt and pepper.
Mix well and stuff in thick casings (saucisson- 50mm); tie well on both ends. Let set overnight (24-2=48 hours)
Poach in water 15 minutes or confit in fat over a low flame- for 30 minutes.
Serve with lentilles du puy, beans or greens.
Cooking confit de canard is one thing; putting it up in jars to save for later in the year is another. Here are some pictures of the traditional process as practiced in thousands of home kitchens across the France. Once the confit is cooked to a tender stage–notice the skin and meat have pulled off the leg bone– the pieces of duck meat are placed carefully in clean jars, covered with the cooking fat, and sealed with a new capsule and lid. The jars are placed in a large zinc bouilloire, covered with water and brought to a boil. The jars are boiled for about 2 hours and then let cool in the water. The outer lid is removed (otherwise it will rust to the capsule!-#voiceofexperience) and the jars are wiped dry, fixed with a label and placed in the pantry. We’ll be eating this confit with frites, served on a big summer salad with peaches or smothered under a layer of mashed potatoes for a ‘Gaveuse Pie’ or Confit Parmentier. A staple of the Gascon pantry, confit de canard is worth all the work!
So what does one do during the rest of the afternoon while the boiler is burbling and the steam warms the kitchen? A slice of home-cured ham and a glass of rosé shared with friends makes the time pass gently in my new Keeping Kitchen–at Camont.