Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Preparing for winter

We've been eating tomatoes every day for weeks now, but yesterday was the first time we picked a basket full, enough to bottle. Everything seems to be about two weeks later than last year after the cold spring, but yesterday we found 5 kilos of tomatoes were ripe, with about the same again which will be ready in a couple of days' time. So it was time to start bottling.

Last year we tried many different ways of preserving our tomatoes, ending up with more than 50 jars so that we didn't buy tomatoes at all, eating our own all through the winter. This time we tried yet another method:

Bottled tomato passata

Roughly chop the tomatoes and remove the stems and tough centres.
Put them in a large saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer until the skins start to come off.
Put the tomato pulp through a mouli legumes until all that is left in the mouli is dryish skin.
Simmer the pulp and juice until it has reduced by half. Bottle in jars which have been sterilised by placing in an oven at 140 degrees C for 10 minutes. Gently pour a little olive oil over the top of the pulp before putting the lid on. This passata can be used in sauces and dishes which require heating. I think it is safer not to eat it without reheating. It certainly keeps well for nearly a year as we have only just finished our jars of last year's tomatoes.

I had thought that this 'mouli' method would be easier than peeling the tomatoes before cooking, but I'm not sure that it does save time or effort. Next time we'll try peeling them as we did last year.
In the garden at lunchtime we at our first melon:

Monday, 28 July 2008

Mediterranean poetry festival

Yesterday we spent the day in Lodève at the final day of the 11th Voix de la Mediterranée poetry festival (www.voixdelamediterranee.com). This has very little to do with gardening (although some of the events take place in gardens) except that the festival seems to me to embody a lot of the values of the garden bloggers I've 'met' since I've been doing this. Every year about 100 poets and musicians visit this small town just north of here and fill its streets, squares, courtyards and even the river with poetry and music. It's all about cultural diversity - as important as biodiversity - and the meeting of cultures and mutual understanding across the Mediterranean and even further away. As a quotation from Josyane de Jesus-Bercey above the festival office door puts it: 'The only frontiers are in the eyes of man.'
Waiting for a reading in the river

All the events except for some of the evening concerts are free and we just wondered around the town from reading to reading. French and Arabic are the most common languages, and all readings have a French translation. Many of the participants speak English too. We listened to poetry in Spanish, Greek, French, Arabic, Turkish and Croatian.

A musical and poetic siesta in the shade of bay trees

A year or so ago the festival almost closed down through lack of funding, but this year seemed to be its strongest and best attended yet. I'm looking forward to next year.

On the river bank

Appropriately enough for our trip to this festival which crosses the Mediterranean, we drove there over garrigue-covered hills with limestone outcrops and through a rocky, sandy, almost desert-like area, both of which always remind me of my childhood in Libya.

Siham Bouhlal's reading in the place des Chataignons

The life of the town goes on around the festival events. As we listened to Siham Bouhlal an old man rode into the place on a battered pink bicycle, left it at his house in the far corner, took out a folding chair and a watering can, watered the pavement around the chair to make it cool and settled himself down to watch, or maybe just to sit. It looked as though he did this every evening, festival or no festival.

Lodève has even more connections with North Africa than other towns in southern France. It is an important centre for the wool trade because of its closeness to the Larzac plateau. There is a workshop in the town where Berber women weave carpets. For lunch we stopped at our favourite Algerian café La Chamelle where you can eat excellent tagines and couscous.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Prize tomato, and chichoumeille

This is our biggest tomato so far this year - it weighed 400 gms.

I used it when I made chichoumeille - the Languedocian version of the better-known Provençal ratatouille. All around the Mediterranean there are dishes which use the common Mediterranean vegetables - aubergines, courgettes, peppers, onions, garlic - cooked in olive oil. This is the local one here, based on André Soulier's recipe in La Cuisine secrète du Languedoc-Roussillon:


1 aubergine
1 green pepper
1 large or 2 smaller courgettes
1 'prize' tomato or 2 or 3 smaller ones
2 onions
3 large cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
olive oil
herbs - rosemary, thyme and bay

Dice the aubergine, courgette and pepper and chop the onion fairly finely. In a large cast iron pan heat some olive oil - a good covering of the base of the pan as this dish takes quite a lot of olive oil. Sauté the aubergine until it begins to brown, then remove and do the same with the courgette and pepper. You may need to add some more oil. Sauté the onion until it softens then put the other vegetables back in the pan, add the chopped tomato, garlic, salt, pepper and herbs. Simmer for about 45 minutes, until the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated.

Serve hot or leave to cool. If there's some left over it will taste even better the next day.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Eating well ... as usual

We've had the family staying with us for the past week and we've eaten very well and had lots of help with the garden. We've had meals in the house and in the garden with our son and daughter, all four of us cooking together as we like to do, and meals out in restaurants.

Vine leaves again

It's a bit late in the year to pick vine leaves for dolmas, so I'll have to wait till next year to make more of those. But we've been experimenting with cooking with the leaves all the same. If they're used to wrap food on the barbecue a slight toughness doesn't matter as the leaves aren't eaten, but just keep the flavour in and give extra taste of their own. We wrapped sardines in them again and then tried wrapping goats' cheese:

Goats' cheese in vine leaves

Small round goats' cheeses - they are called pelardons here, but other names are used in other areas
2 or 4 vine leaves per cheese
salt and pepper
olive oil

Cut the cheeses in half or in quarters (depending on size of cheese and leaf). Brush some olive oil onto the leaves.
Place a piece of cheese on each leaf. Add some chopped herbs - I used oregano and savoury - and salt and pepper.

Wrap the cheese in the leaf, then secure with a cocktail stick or skewer.
Grill on a barbecue for a few minutes - just long enough for the cheese to melt.
The tastiest part of the cheese is nearest to the leaf.

One evening in the garden we barbecued encornets (small squid) - a couple of minutes on each side, then a squeeze of lemon and serve with salsa (La Jardiniera's recipe):


1 red chilli pepper
2 small long green sweet peppers
1 small red onion
2 large tomatoes
1 large clove of garlic
salt and pepper
olive oil

Chop all the ingredients and mix with salt and pepper and olive oil.

Sausage and rosemary

And there was our son's recipe for grilled sausage and rosemary:

Form a long piece of sausage into a spiral and thread rosemary branches through it crossways.
Grill over charcoal. Simple and delicious.

Tomato and bread

Now that the tomatoes are ripening even more quickly than we can eat them, we can have my favourite breakfast, which we ate in Andalucian cafés, pan y tomate. We've also eaten this in Catalunya where it's called pan amb tomaquet in Catalan:

Skin some ripe tomatoes and chop the flesh finely, discarding the juicy pips. Sprinkle with salt and leave to drain in a sieve for 15 minutes (or longer if you have time).
Grill pieces of crusty bread (grilling isn't essential - you can do this with untoasted bread).
Spread the bread with the tomato, add salt and olive oil.

In Catalunya we found that this chopped tomato spread is used instead of butter in sandwiches. Since we discovered it there, we always do this for sandwiches to take on journeys as it doesn't melt in the heat like butter does.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

More vine leaves ... and aubergines at last!

Today was market day and the fish stall had some lovely sardines. Following an idea I'd had from a Turkish cooking website - here - we wrapped them in vine leaves, after cleaning and gutting them.

Lo Jardinèr grilled them on the barbecue he's constructed this week:

There was a wonderful 'viney' smokey smell when they were cooking and once they were done they had the taste of vines as well as the flavour of sardines. One of the best and simplest ways of cooking them, I think. The leaves get burnt, so you don't eat them, but when you open the parcel the skin of the fish comes off leaving the delicious fish inside.

We've had lots of flowers on our aubergine plants

. . . . . . .

and now we've got aubergines at last!

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Food from weeds


Thanks to citygardener's recent post I've realised that the plants which grow as weeds all over our garden are purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and are edible.

Richard Mabey in Food for Free and Roger Phillips in Wild Food mention sea purslane. The variety which grows in our garden must be related to this, but it doesn't need damp conditions. In fact, it grows everywhere, whether on parts of the plot that we water or on dry paths and uncultivated areas.

I made a salad of the leaves, salt and pepper, lime juice, olive oil and some pieces of roquefort. The purslane leaves don't have a lot of flavour, but provide a nice crunchy texture with the tangy cheese.

Roquefort and purslane salad

Vine leaves

I've always loved dolmas (stuffed vine leaves) ever since I lived in Turkey, and I've made them with packets or jars of vine leaves. Here, where we're surrounded by vines, it seems ridiculous to buy the leaves, so I decided to try making dolmas with fresh leaves. I used wild ones which grow near the garden and picked the younger, fresher-looking ones.


(quantities depend on how many leaves you have and how big they are)

vine leaves


olive oil

salt and pepper

1 onion

pine kernels

raisins or currants

juniper berries (I used these because I like the flavour, but you can season the dolmas with parsley, dill, cumin, paprika or a mix of these spices and herbs)

Put the leaves in boiling water for a few minutes. Some recipes say you should cut the stem off first, but I find that leaving the stem on makes it easier to handle them once they're cooked and tend to stick together.

Heat a cupful of rice in olive oil in a pan then cover the rice with water and add salt, bring the water to the boil and let it simmer for a couple of minutes then turn the heat off. The rice shouldn't be completely cooked as it will cook in the vine leaves.

In another pan sauté the chopped onion in olive oil, trying not let it brown, then add a tablespoonful of pine kernels and one of raisins and about a dozen chopped juniper berries. Mix these with the rice.

Cut the stems off the leaves, and remove the central vein if it seems tough. Put a spoonful of the rice mixture in the centre of each leaf and roll them up into parcels. Arrange them tightly in a pan, put a saucer or plate over them to keep them in place, and add enough water to cover them. Add some lemon juice and some white wine, too, if you like.

Simmer them gently for about 50 minutes and leave to cool. Remove carefully from the pan, sprinkle with lemon juice and serve as a meze or one of a selection of hors d'oeuvres.

It's quite difficult to make the parcels - these were the four tidiest ones I made!

You can also make them with minced lamb - just add the lamb to the rice mixture. If you have any of the rice mixture left over it can be used to stuff peppers or tomatoes.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

More watering . . . and passion fruit?

One of Gabian's fountains

Gabian is lucky in having a spring, La Resclauze, at the top of the hill above the gardens. For centuries this has been used for watering the gardens and, of course, that is why the gardens are where they are. The stream which runs down from the spring also powered mills which ground corn and wheat for flour and olives for oil. These are all in ruins now, unfortunately, although the Mairie and the municipal council talk of a restoration project. A couple of hundred years ago there were rules about when gardeners could take water from the stream,and each gardener could take water only on certain days. Nowadays there is a reservoir at the top of the hill, which provides water for the village and its three remaining fountains. The overflow from it is regulated. For the past couple of years of drought there hasn't been any overflow and the stream has been dry throughout the year. This year, after the unusually wet spring, there has been water in the stream again.

collecting water from the stream

Today we installed a pipeline from the stream down to our garden to fill our water butts and to water the plants. It needs some more work on it to feed it into the irrigation system which we put in last month, but for the moment we're pleased with our primitive system which involves only a plastic bottle, 50 metres of cheap hosepipe and a couple of connectors. The water is free, unlike the metered supply to the garden, and hasn't had chemicals added to it.

We have a climbing passion flower growing on the shelter over the terrace where we eat and this year, its third, it has really taken off. We've had lots of flowers and now there are fruit, mostly green at the moment, but one is ripe and a lovely apricot colour. As this is an ornamental plant I'm not sure whether we can eat them - they certainly look edible. Does anyone know?


and a ripe fruit

In the rest of the garden, the tomatoes are ripening

and today we made this salad

tomato, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, basil leaves and oregano flowers all straight from the garden

Monday, 7 July 2008

Terracotta pot watering system

About a week ago we installed the terracotta pot watering system, as suggested by Kate at Hills and Plains seedsavers, but a less sophisticated system than hers. We've started with four pots and plugged the holes in the bases with corks. We dug holes for them and filled in the space around them with a mix of soil and compost. We've used old floor tiles as lids and unlike Kate have not connected them to a hose for filling up. We may do this next year, but this time we're just going to fill them up with a watering can or a hose by hand.

Once the row of pots were in, I sowed haricot verts (French beans) around the pots. I watered the soil where the seeds were, around the pots, until they germinated. Now that they have germinated we're watering straight into the pots and it seems to be working well. The soil around the pots seems to be damp all the time. And, an added bonus, the snails have left the seedlings alone. I think this is because the surface of the soil isn't damp. In the past we've lost whole rows of haricots to the snails and had to use snail pellets to protect them.

And an update on the prickly pear cuttings:

The four cuttings have grown quite an extensive root system in only three weeks. This surprised me as the information I could find suggested that they would take some months to root.

Two of the plants have now been transplanted to the garden. I'm hoping to grow the other two in pots outside the house.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Courgette / zucchini flowers - male or female?

These pictures are especially for Sue at the Balcony garden in Milan who is growing courgettes on her balcony.

The first flowers on the plants are usually male and grow on the end of a stem:

The female flowers have tiny courgettes / zucchini behind them which grow bigger once the flower is fertilised:

I took the photos in the evening when the flowers are closed, so that it's easier to see the difference.

By the time the flowers are out, there should be enough insects around to pollinate them, but they may need some help. Good luck, Sue!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Food and environmental crisis

Two shocking environmental items, which I want others to be aware of, have struck me today:

A headline in the Guardian: 'Biofuels caused food crisis'. Governments who hope to avoid frightening their voters by telling the truth, it seems, are suppressing reports which are critical of biofuels. The rush to grow fuel from plants has led to huge rises in food prices, which of course affect the poorest people in the world who don't drive cars anyway.

Rising food prices have pushed 100m people worldwide below the poverty line, estimates the World Bank, and have sparked riots from Bangladesh to Egypt.

You can read the full article here.

It seems to me that we should accept that we must all reduce our dependence on oil rather than trying to find alternatives, which may seem soft options for developed countries, but are hard ones for millions of others.

And then there was Kate's shocking post on Hills and Plains Seedsavers, recording her horror at what is happening near to her in Australia - the ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE of an entire river and lake system. Read it - NOW!

This kind of disaster could happen in many parts of the world, near any of us.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Courgettes . . . . and more courgettes

One of the nice problems we face at this time of the year is what to do with all the courgettes. Our simplest recipe is just to cut them from the plant, slice them lengthways, brush them with olive oil and barbecue them in the garden to eat within a few metres and about 10 minutes of the plant.

Lo Jardinièr makes delicious fritters with the courgettes themselves and the flowers, and the other day he made a courgette soufflé following a recipe described to us by our neighbour over the garden fence.

We don't use very exact quantities in cooking - we use what we've got usually and often guess weights and amounts. These recipes serve 2 people as a main dish, or 4 as a tapas dish (approximately, although appetites vary).

Courgette fritters

Courgettes with their flowers still attached

for the batter:

1 cup of half milk, half water

salt and pepper

3 or 4 dessertspoonfuls flour

Mix the milk and water mixture with enough flour to make a thin batter.

Slice the courgette flowers in half lengthways, wash and dry.

Slice the courgettes thinly lengthways

Dip flowers and slices into batter and fry in a mixture of half olive oil and half sunflower oil until brown and crisp. Eat straight away.

Courgette soufflé

3 medium courgettes (about 300 gm)

1 small fresh goats' cheese (about 100 gm)

2 eggs

salt and pepper

grated cheese - gruyere or Cantal or other hard cheese

Cut courgettes in chunks and steam until tender. Blend in the food processor or put through a mouli légumes and allow to cool. Mix the blended courgette with the goats' cheese, seasoning and beaten eggs. Pour into a greased oven-proof dish, sprinkle with grated cheese and bake at 180 degrees C for about 25-30 minutes until the cheese has browned. Eat it hot or cold.

And a couple of recipes of mine:

Courgette omelette or tortilla

Grate 2 or 3 medium courgettes and sauté gently for 8 - 10 minutes in olive oil in an omelette or frying pan. Don't let them brown. You can add some chopped onion at this stage too. Beat 4 eggs with salt and pepper and add them to the pan. Cook the egg mixture. You can add grated cheese and finish it under the grill if you like.

Courgettes gratinées

Slice 3 or 4 courgettes fairly thinly and fry in olive oil. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper. Layer them in a flan dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and grated Parmesan or other hard cheese and then with piment d'Espelette or paprika. Put under the grill until the cheese melts and browns. You can make a more substantial dish by putting this into a pastry flan case.

Sorry I haven't taken any pictures when we made these dishes - I'll have to take some next time!