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Thick Frost

Thick Frost

What a breathtakingly beautiful Christmas we enjoyed here in the Quercy. It wasn’t strictly white because it didn’t actually snow, but I’m sure if I hadn’t just allowed the secret to slip, you’d never have known. It was five degrees below zero, and the accumulation of over a weeks worth of frost on the landscape transformed our valley into a magical world of myth and legend. As we walked along the little lane, in a feeble effort to shrug off the lunchtime goose, we found ourselves in a tunnel of white. The laden trees bowed towards us, sharp rocks were slippery with ice and the only colour to be seen was the vermilion of the rosehips hanging like Christmas tree baubles in the frosted shrubs. Tantalising glimpses of the view revealed turreted farmhouses buried in frozen vines and dusted with icing sugar; witches castles from another world.

Now it has all disappeared, in fact it’s been quite warm since the beginning of the year, as I write the thermometer on my terrace is registering eighteen. The skies are a clear, postcard blue and I could almost be tempted to eat lunch outside, not quite, but almost.
Time to turn a little attention to the garden perhaps. The exquisite persimmon trees, that decorate the potagers and orchards with their beautiful lacquered fruit, are now being harvested. They’re so delicate and stark with their deep golden treasures dangling enticingly, they look like Japanese paintings of themselves. The lemons and clementines, which were quickly whisked down to a thousand cellars as the temperatures began to drop, are also ready for the fruit baskets and kitchens. Mine did spectacularly well this year and I’m so proud it’s nauseating – so I won’t tell you! Suffice to say I won’t be buying any marmalade for a considerable while.



In the markets the vegetable of the moment is spinach. Vast mounds of glistening green leaves are sold by the kilo, and everybody seems to want it. I ate a spectacular Lasagne in my little café the other day. It was a plat du jour and described, somewhat vaguely, as a Pasticcio aux Cabecous. I beckoned the waiter and asked for a translation. “Spinach, lasagne and cabecou” – the fabulous creamy disks of local goat’s cheese – “it’s excellent,” he told me, kissing the tips of his fingers and rolling his eyes heavenwards.
And so of course I ordered it, even though I wasn’t terribly hungry, and of course they treated me to the largest portion they could squeeze out of the tin; there must have been half a kilo of spinach in my slice alone. But it was truly delectable; the strong, tangy cheese complemented the spinach perfectly. I ate it all, and waddled out of the café a full and happy woman!

Another vegetable that comes into it’s own at this time of year, when the choice is severely limited and it’s far too early for spring greens, is the much neglected salsify. It looks like a long, anaemic, slightly whiskery carrot, and has a delicate flavour, that I rather enjoy. Unfortunately it’s one of those tiresome roots that takes forever to peel and oxidises if you don’t throw it into water fast. Elizabeth David suggests that unless you’re quite sure your guests will appreciate the subtle flavour, you shouldn’t bother with it. She has a point, but the Cadurciennes at least don’t agree, and neither do I. I bought a kilo from the gentleman by the cathedral door.
B’jour Madame, Bonne Annee!” He exclaimed, leaning precariously over the prunes for a kiss – it was the first time I had seen him since the new year and he was therefore entitled to a greeting and a kiss – the waiters and patron at the café all did the same – I wished him a Happy New Year, picked a couple of prunes off his hairy jacket and enquired about some salsify. He hauled a box of unidentifiable roots from beneath the stall, deftly shook off another kilo or so of earth, tied them into a bundle and placed them neatly in my basket. “Now,” he twinkled at me, mischievously, “look at this,” he selected a bottle of fairly dubious looking liquid from a small case. “My own ratafia, you couldn’t buy it in the shops.” I wasn’t at all sure I would have wanted to.
“It’s a gift,” he winked, “or I’ll take five euros if you’re sure!
I smiled and handed over the money. The old rascal!

© Amanda Lawrence 2007

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Frosty French Life from French Vie

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