Messing with Medlars

I blogged about this strange, old-fashioned fruit, often known as the dog’s butt fruit, not so long ago. Time to revisit for some cooking with them.

Chris and I had harvested a small bag of medlars on one of our bike rides about ten days ago. Half of these were well bletted i.e. soft and mushy, so perfect to be turned into medlar cheese. I find a recipe here.

Mushing up bletted medlars

Being me I approximated with the quantities. First I mushed my squishy medlars through a sieve. This gave me about 150 g (6 oz) of purée. I licked a bit off the end of my finger and it was surprisingly pleasant – a sort of earthy, appley taste.

Sieved medlar pulp

I stirred in a roughly equivalent weight of granulated sugar and put a teaspoon of allspice in for good measure. I mixed this together well and had another taste. Definitely better now. It’s a cross between chestnut purée and apple purée, with a pleasant tang to it.

Medlar cheese walnut whip

What to do with my medlar cheese? The Victorians would have put it into little moulds and served it up in pretty shapes as a starter or an accompaniment to meat. I came up with a take on the walnut whip. I put a dollop on top of a spirit biscuit (the French version of a Viennese whirl), a coil of spray cream and topped it with a walnut. Very tasty.

Sliced unbletted medlars. Each fruit has 4 small stones.

I had my unbletted medlars to work with now. I cut those in half, put them in a pan and covered them with water and simmered them gently for around 20 minutes, keeping the water topped up. There was around 200 g (8 oz) of medlars so I poured that amount of sugar into the pan and added some cinnamon and grated in some nutmeg.

I love how you get to grate your own nutmeg (muscade) here in France!

Then I gave it a good boil for 5 minutes or so and worked it through the sieve. I had a good bowlful of medlar jelly. This is really delicious, with a strong hint of apple but again that sweet, earthy taste that’s hard to describe.

Final stage for medlar jelly

We’ve already bought a medlar bush for the garden. It will be spending the winter in the polytunnel. However, I’ll be back on my bike tomorrow to hunt down some more medlars. I’m very impressed with them indeed.

Creuse’s Famous Cake – Le Creusois

Old postcard of Crocq

Creuse, our departément of France, is famous for its elderly population, its poverty – and a wonderful gateau. ‘Le Creusois’ is a cake made with nuts and butter. It’s thought to have originated in the fifteenth century, but wasn’t rediscovered until 1969 when the recipe was found on a piece of parchment in a monastery in Crocq. (The tourist office in the town has a copy of it on display.)

The resourceful André Lacombe, president of the Pâtissiers de la Creuse, saw an opportunity to develop a regional speciality. The pâtissiers all came up with their own versions of the cake and it was the one concocted by M. Langlande that became the official version. The recipe is a closely guarded secret, and known by only the 31 pastry chefs who make up Le Creusois association. They are the only ones who can make and sell this cake under the Le Creusois name. They all undertake to follow the recipe faithfully and use only the finest ingredients when making it.

 

Every year around 160,000 official Le Creusois cakes, weighing 320g, are sold.  Since 1999 mass-produced versions of this gateau have been available in supermarkets but can’t be called Le Creusois. They therefore have names along the lines of ‘Moeulleux de Limousin’ or ‘Gateau Creusois’. These are the only ones we’ve ever eaten. I haven’t treated us to the official version yet.

We occasionally make our own and here’s the recipe we use:

Ingredients

2 eggs (some recipes say use 4 egg stiff egg whites instead, but our version comes out just as tasty)

250 g (8 oz) caster sugar

125 g (4 oz) flour

125 g (4 oz) soft butter

100 g (4 oz) ground hazelnuts

Mix the sugar, flour and hazelnuts in a bowl . Add the butter and mix well. Beat in the eggs (or egg whites).

Pour mix into a well-greased 22 cm cake tin (or thereabouts) . Bake at 350 degrees F (180 C) for 25 minutes. Apparently the original 15th century version was baked in a tile-lined oven but I think our modern ovens do the job just as well!

Serve with cream or custard.

The Evils of Tomato Ketchup

I enjoyed writing my animal themed blog posts last week, so I thought I’d go with a theme again this week. And, this  being France, well, it had to be food.

I’m starting with a look at tomato ketchup. The French government recently banned tomato this from school canteens as part of its new dietary guidelines. Kids can have one helping of ketchup each on their chips, but no more than once a week. Claims have been made that this is a public health move.

This is nonsense. It’s a political move, pure and simple. The politicians don’t want French children adulterating good French food with this American concoction.

Let’s see how healthy or unhealthy ketchup actually is. 100g of tomato ketchup contains 108 kcals, 1.3 g protein, 25 g of carbohydrates (glucides) and o.3 g of fat (lipides). In comparison, mayonnaise has 676 kcals for the same quantity and 74g of fat. And cheese, that French staple, is often around 400 kcals per 100 g with 30 g or so of fat.

The unhealthy claim simply doesn’t work. It’s not ideal for kids to slosh it on everything they eat, but it’s hardly the end of the world. Our Ruadhri loves a tomato ketchup sandwich and his big brother enjoys a plate of pasta with ketchup on. It’s a universally popular food and it’s frankly just plain mean to ban it in canteens.

The government can be a bit heavy handed in its anti-obesity drive. It banned primary school kids from having snacks during breaktimes a couple of years ago. This caused an outcry at the school where Ruadhri was at the time.  Like many schools in France, it’s a country one. A lot of the pupils leave their homes around an hour before school starts to make the bus ride there. Obviously they have their breakfasts at least half an hour before departing, say around 7.30. Going through to midday is a long haul for little kids, many of whom can be faddy when they’re half asleep at the breakfast table. Rors was one of these and some days he’d hardly eat anything. So we parents all protested and the teacher eventually said it was OK for them to have something to eat before lessons began, but remember, she didn’t really say that. It put her and all other teachers in a very awkward position. The ridiculous thing was there wasn’t even one remotely chubby child at the school anyway. A friend of mine with twins at another school had her kids actually faint a couple of times. Their school had two sittings since there were a lot of pupils, and the twins were on the second sitting, not getting lunch till around 1.15 pm. These poor kids were having to go nearly 6 hours without eating. No adult would stand for that, but somehow it was OK to inflict it on children.

So this seems another equally ill-advised move. It may possibly save schools some money, but I bet it’s more likely they’ll be throwing away more leftover food that would have been happily eaten up with a splodge of ketchup on top.

 

Fête de la Grue – Crane Celebrations

Last year's migration - I haven't got a good photo of this year's yet

To my delight I can finish animal week on this blog by talking about our exciting twice-yearly visitors. The grues – European grey crane – have begun their migration south for the winter. We spotted our first ones yesterday during the afternoon and evening, and heard a lot more flying over during the night. It’s still as magical as ever to hear and see them making their epic voyage. They are on their way from Northern Europe (Sweden, the Baltic Sea and northern Germany) to Spain via France. Some grues head down to Tunisia and Algeria.

This weekend it’s the fête de la grue up at the Lac du Der in Champagne, and the timing couldn’t be better because the main migration is under way, relatively early this year. This is the website, http://champagne-ardenne.lpo.fr/grus-grus/donnee_mig/point_mig.htm, to follow for general information about the migrations, whilte this one gives you up to date daily accounts. I send in reports to this latter site whenever we see cranes. I will have to watch out for next year’s fete and maybe make a trip up to Champagne. I would love to see the cranes a bit closer up.

Lac du Der is where many of thousands cranes gather during the migration. This is the largest artificial lake in Europe at 4,800 hectares. In a nice link to my last blog about carp, this was one of the first lakes to become popular with English carpists in France. It’s full name is Lac Der Chantecoq.

The cranes are large birds, between 4 and 6 kg in weight and are up to 140 cm high. Adults have a grey body with a black and white neck, and red markings on their head. Young birds up to a year old are yellowy-brown. They’re endangered due to loss of overwintering habitat in Spain and their breeding grounds in Scandanavia. Fortunately they’re protected, so let’s hope they’ll survive and remain the fantastic spectacle they are each year as they fly loudly over our house!

 

 

Creuse Carp

I’ve never talked much about our fish on this blog, and since it’s animal week, then they should get a look in. We have three carp fishing lakes. Carp – ciprinids – are cool fish. Izaak Walton said so in his famous book, The Compleat Angler. To be precise, he said “The Carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good, and a very subtil fish” which was 1653-speak for ‘cool’. When we bought Les Fragnes, the lakes, which had been teeming with life when we viewed the property, were all completely empty. It was a massive blow and meant to we had to restock with carp.

There are several main varieties of carp – crucian carp, grass carp and common carp. Mirror carp, Royale carp and koi carp (goldfish) are variants on common carp that have arisen during their many years of domestication. We were looking for something in the common carp line. I’d started writing and emailing various fish farms in early September, but getting a reply was like getting blood out of a stone. I persisted in my pestering. Fortunately and finally, one pisciculteur in Indre got back to us and his prices for Royale carp were very attractive, so we went to visit. It was an impressive set up, clearly very professional and well managed, exactly the sort of place we wanted to get fish from. It offered a wide selection of fish – several types of trout, tench, perch, roach, catfish, common and Royale carp, pike, zander, sturgeon, grass carp and black bass. These were farmed in various sizes in various sized stock ponds. We watched as a delivery of trout was captured for a client. We peered into the various ponds. The manager netted a few carp to show us what they were like. They looked healthy and lively so we were satisfied. We came home and put in our first order – 550 kg of Royale carp in the range of 3 to 10 kgs, and two medium catfish. We opted for smaller fish as we knew we wouldn’t be opening for fishing business for at least another year and a half, so there was plenty of growing-on time for them. And the smaller you buy them, the cheaper they are. But small is relative here. Ten kg represents a stone and a half. That’s a lot of fish.

Royale carp are the night-club bouncers of the carp world. They’re solid fish with a large humpy shoulder, and as they mature they develop deep, round bellies. They’re browny-grey on their upper portion with a mustard yellow underside. Some have very distinctive patterns of scales. They’re handsome and imposing, a super fish to catch. Ours have the added advantage of being triploid, that is, sterile. They put all their energy into growing, rather than reproducing, which, when you want big fish, is all to the good. It also means they don’t display spawning behaviour so won’t stop biting during that period of the year. And a further plus is that the lake doesn’t fill up with lots of small carp which anglers will soon get fed up with catching.

We were very excited when the lorry turned up with our very first fish, almost exactly five years ago now. It was a white mini-tanker that made lots of satisfying swishing and sloshing noises, long after it had stopped moving. That could only be our carp eager to meet our lakes. It was a cold drizzly winter day – it was early November – and we were all suitably dressed in waterproofs, confident that we’d stay dry and warm during the proceedings. Not a bit of it. Unloading around 200 thrashing carp is a wet business. They send water up your sleeves, and splash it down your neck and into your boots. We were all soaked by the end of operations.

We began down at the big lake, and put around 100 of the biggest of the carp in there. There was just the one fishery employee. He suited up far more professionally than us, and took his position on the lorry. What had appeared at first to be one large tank was actually divided into half a dozen smaller ones. He opened one of these and began to net the carp. He lowered two or three into a large plastic box that Chris and I were steadying, reaching up with arms outstretched. This was why so much water ended up down our sleeves. The fish fought energetically against being put in. We then carefully lifted the boxes down and carried the fish between us to the lake. Caiti took a quick photo and we then gently tipped the fish out into their new home. The fish fought energetically against being emptied out. A few of them hung around for a short while before taking off, but most of them torpedoed away the moment they were in the lake. Benj lent us a hand so each of he, Chris and I did two out of three boxfuls of fish, but it was still muscle-aching work. Caiti snapped away. Ruadhri soon lost interest and wandered off to play in total and happy neglect.

The last fish to go into the big lake was the Wels catfish. He was 27 kg, which is a magnificent and large quantity of silurus glanis. Dark grey, long and sinuous, rows of tiny teeth, six sensitive barbels, sharp pectoral fins that wash the prey into the cavernous mouth – this guy was a custom-built killing machine. The fishery employee lowered him into our waiting plastic box. Would he even fit? Somehow he coiled himself up in it. Then into the lake he went. He was momentarily quiet, then with a muscular ripple of his body, he disappeared into the depths.

We’ve since topped up the stock by another few hundred carp, including some superb specimen fish who went in at 20 kg, a consignment of grass carp, a few more catfish and one sturgeon. So, with the exception of campagnols, carp are the most common creature to be found at Les Fragnes. But you’ve got to catch them first …!

Millions of Mulots

Gigi has just brought another mulot into the house, and been quickly chased out. Mulot is the colloquial term round here for any sort of small country rodent. The usual suspects are campagnols or field rats, which is what they used to be called. It was my friend Georges-Louise Leclerc de Buffon, a famous naturalist, who came up with the term campagnol in the eighteenth century. (He’s my friend because back in the 1770s he suggested that llamas would be good animals to introduce into France.)

Campagnols aren’t mice. The latter have longer tails and are grey, whereas our mulots are brown with a relatively short tail. You get up to 1,000 of them per hectare in the countryside. They are burrowing creatures and do a lot of damage. Our poor old lawn is full of holes and as lumpy and bumpy as a lunar landscape. The burrows collapse after a while so there’s no hope of playing croquet on the surface above them. Come winter, when food starts to run short (they eat grass and sedge), the mulots  turn to roots and shoots underground and harm a lot of trees and other plants. They don’t have a lot going for them, do they?

Mulots are the chief prey of buzzards, kites, owls and various mammals, such as badgers and foxes, and of course our cats and Nessie, our dog. She gets through quite a few every day. They have an unpleasant effect on her digestive system, so unpleasant that she’s often exiled outside while we leave the door open to let some fresh air in! The little critters are parasite-infested, so anything that eats them will inherit these nasties. Our vet recommends worming our mulot-munching pet once a month, but we usually wait for evidence before we dose them up again. I don’t go for over prescribing.

Now that the cold weather is here, the campagnols will be starting to move in with us. We’ve already seen a couple scurrying around the lounge. The cats were asleep on the chair at the time. We prodded them awake but somehow indoor rodents don’t get their interest like the outdoor ones do. It looks like we’re on our own again this year in fending them off!

 

 

  

 

The Good, The Bad and The Delicious – Crayfish (Ecrevisses) in France

Look at the photo carefully. Can you see him? I spotted this large écrevisse, crayfish, at the dam end of the middle lake yesterday. He’s the biggest one I’ve seen for a while. He was covered in silt and lying low in the water so I couldn’t make out if he was friend or foe.

Friends are the native French écrevisses. They are a few varieties of these and sadly all are now considered ‘vulnerable’. They are  the red-clawed crayfish (écrevisses à pattes rouges), the white-footed crayfish (écrevisses à pieds blancs) and the spindly clawed crayfish (écrevisses à pattes grêles ou turque).

The main foes are the signal crayfish from the USA. They are generally chunkier than the native varieties, have more red patches on them and have a distinctive spur just behind their pincers. There are also American and Louisiana crayfish.

What are American crayfish doing in France? As so often happens, like the ladybirds I was talking about just the other day, someone introduced them. In the first half of the twentieth century, crayfish plague wiped out most of the crayfish in Europe, so in the 1960s American crayfish were introduced to help boost European stocks. Sadly no one realised that these new crayfish also carried the crayfish plague. They were resistant to it themselves, but their poor stressed European counterparts weren’t, and so suffered from another dose. The signal crayfish are also taking over the territory of the natives, which is putting further pressure on their numbers. They’re found in most countries in Europe now, but haven’t made it to Ireland yet.

So a rather sad tale for French écrevisses.

When we first arrived at Les Fragnes, we often came across huge signals crayfish wandering up the drive or across the garden. Since introducing catfish into our lakes, their numbers have dropped considerably and it’s rare to see large ones, like the one I spotted above.

The nuisance crayfish can be fished all throughout the fishing season, usually Easter to the end of September. However, fishing for native crayfish is restricted to just a few days, sometimes only one, during the year, according to departément.

Crayfish are delicious. They’re like large prawns so whenever we trap some foreign invaders, we have a nice supper afterwards! Barbecuing works well.

There are detailed posters about the crayfish varieties here and here  so you can familiarise yourself with the wicked ones it’s OK to hunt down and digest, and the native ones, which really we should leave alone in order to protect France’s biodiversity.

 

Guinea-Pig Gardeners of Les Fragnes

The gite garden has never been so well maintained as it has been this year – thanks to our guinea-pig gardeners! It wasn’t intentional. Back in the spring, the male guinea-pigs bust out of their run on their lawn and evaded capture for a few days. Once we were certain that the cats weren’t interested in them, we decided to leave them running loose, since the weather was warm and it meant less cage cleaning out, a very important consideration. And they’ve been there ever since. After a few weeks every single weed had gone from the garden. The only thing they won’t touch are dock leaves, and sometimes nettles, but all the grass, dandelions and various unidentified weeds that used to flourish there have been demolished and kept down. The pigs have moved out onto the lawn and are keeping it beautifully manicured!

We put the girls out into the run during the summer. Owing to our lawn being a bit on the bumpy side, thanks to the zillions of campagnole (vole) burrows beneath it, there are a few escapes as someone manages to squeeze under the wooden side of the pen. The gardening boys soon cotton on to the fact that female company is to be had, with the result of very sweet but worryingly inbred cutenesses like these latest arrivals!

That's not mum in the background but auntie/sister/cousin/granny ...

There’s one permanent slacker, though. Chocolate lives contentedly, if frustratedly, under the girls’ cages most of the time. He’s occasionally flushed out by Nessie but he ‘s soon back at his post. He’s not one for gardening, obviously!

We’ll round them up once it starts to get cold and move them into cosy hutches for the winter. They’ll have deserved a few months off for all their hard work.

Invading Ladybirds

During the last gite changeover, I had, sadly, to vac up a lot of dead ladybirds off one of the windowsills. It’s the time of year that they start to wander indoors, looking for somewhere cosy to spend the winter. I’m not sure why this lot all perished.

When I told Ruadhri about my discovery, he immediately wanted to know if they were coccinelles asiatiques – Asian ladybirds. He went on to tell me all about these insects which he’d recently read about in his Mon Quotidien magazine. I was fascinated. I had no idea we were being invaded.

I’ve done a bit more research myself and here are a few facts about these imported ladybirds. And that’s exactly what they are. Back in 1982, some bright spark had the idea of introducing this species of ladybird to France to help keep the numbers of pucerons, aphids, down. Coccinelles asiatiques, Latin name harmonia axyridis, have particularly voracious appetites and breed enthusiastically. Originally they were confined to greenhouses where they were studied, but they were released on the general public in 1995 when a company commercialised them and made the larvae available to gardeners. Oh boy. They are rapidly becoming the dominant species of ladybird in France now. They’ve already taken Belgium over. They’ve made it into Switzerland, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany and Great Britain too. When food runs short, they turn to eating the larvae of other species, and especially of other ladybirds, so there is a very real risk of some indigenous European varieties being wiped out.

Asian ladybirds are big, and come in a variety of colours – anything from yellow, to red with all sorts of patterns of black spots, including cats-paw shaped ones, to black with red spots. It’s apparently quite tricky to distinguish them from our native French varieties.

There’s an interesting and informative website (in French) all about them here.  It has lots of photos, maps showing how harmonia axyridis has spread from the north through a good chunk of the country now, and contact names for people in charge of keeping an eye open for these critters in each région of France.

I’d always taken ladybirds for granted up to now, but I’ll be looking at them a bit more carefully to see if the Asian variety has arrived at Les Fragnes yet.

Disruptions …

Sorry if you called by my blog in the last few days and found it wasn’t there. The server, Blue Host, went down unexpectedly and for a long time mid-week, so Chris decided it was a good moment to transfer operations to another server, Lunar Pages. He took care of all that yesterday. So now there should be no more sudden blog disappearances.

The kitties not long after we found them back in June, using Caiti as a bed

That was one disruption to the week. The second was the kitties. They had their necessary ops this week so that we won’t be disappearing in a sea of cats in the near future. That was on Tuesday. Because they mustn’t eat in the 24 hours run up to the event, we’d kept them inside. This included over night. By now the three kitties were a little peckish and definitely grumpy. They spent a good part of the night bouncing around bad temperedly on our bed and hungrily biting our toes. I wasn’t that sorry in the end to shut them in the cage and cart them off to the vet. Ruadhri and I picked them up on Tuesday night. There was a definite air of self-pity about them. But not for long. We thought we’d better keep them indoors for another night since they must be sore and dopey. Not a bit of it. Within an hour or so of coming home, they had perked up considerably. And so we began another night of bouncing on the bed and bitten toes. This time we took action and put the three hooligans outside. They were clearly in fine form. And still are. Despite walking oddly for a day, Voltaire, the male, is fully recovered, and the girls never seemed to even notice their surgery. I wish I was that tough.

Disruption number three is the weather. Summer has suddenly stopped. We were swimming and sunbathing on Sunday, but in gloves and woollies on Thursday, with our first fire lit on Friday. It’s not good enough! I want the warmth back. I’m not ready for winter yet. I was enjoying our daily rides and my footballer’s wife dips in the pool. Now all our planned activities suddenly become weather dependant. The cycling season will finish soon, certainly by mid-November, when it gets just too cold, and we’ll begin the long, long tramps to Nouzerines and back with Rors on school days.

The fourth disruption is set for Monday. Another school-related strike means that the internat, the boarding facilities at lycée, will be closed on Monday night. Caits will have to come home that evening, and I will have to go and fetch her since there isn’t a co-operative bus to bring her back. And it will also mean two early mornings in a row for runs to the bus-stop, and you know my feelings about that. Still, at least there is a bus on the Tuesday so I don’t have to drag my sorry butt all the way down to Gueret to deliever her to school. And we will have to feed a hungry teen an extra meal.  Last year we got a rebate of €6,85 for each night the internat was closed due to strikes. That seems surprisingly little considering we’re losing out on an evening meal and a night’s board and lodging. It doesn’t even cover the petrol cost for collecting stranded kids, let alone their victuals. Oh well. We get an extra night of our cherished ones’ company during which the internet slows to a crawl as huge amounts of bandwidth are sucked away in a teenward direction! And quite how all this disruption to our household will influence the outcome of the strike is a mystery to me. Sadly I have no say in sorting out whatever this particular grève is all about.

Life isn’t meant to run smoothly. I have occasional longings to live an organised, predictable existence, in which tidying-up gets done and schedules are stuck to. But where’s the fun in that?

And a quick PS. My latest free book, The Witch’s Dog, is up on Smashwords for grabs here. It’s a fun, non-nightmare-inducing halloweeny tale for kids. And the cover features our very own Nessie!