Amanda on December 4th, 2009
Jamie Oliver in Cahors Market

Jamie Oliver in Cahors Market

Salut! And welcome to the beautiful Quercy in ankle-deep autumn.
It may officially be winter elsewhere, but here in this incredibly mild year, autumn clings on. The oaks, reluctant as always to surrender their leaves, are a splendid rusty brown and after every wind, a fresh layer of leaves means the forest floor disappears completely. It’s mushroom time, and my kitchen table is permanently coated with learned tomes on the edible – and otherwise – fungi of Europe. Fortunately I also have a couple of mushroom-guru friends who help separate the delicious from the deadly. Pharmacies will help too, but they’re cautious to the point of condemning everything but those you knew anyway. My gurus are better, and I now have a satisfying string of Clitocybe Geotropa drying gently above the wood burning stove in my kitchen, not to mention a good crop of Tricholoma Terreums and Shaggy Ink Caps growing in the garden. Of course a few mushrooms are great for a risotto and the bee’s knees for an omelette or to add to a casserole, but they don’t exactly keep body and soul together. To that end I hared into Cahors market this morning, early for once to the immense surprise of my favourite stall holder. Read More »

Forever Autumn In The Quercy from French Vie

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Amanda on November 14th, 2009
Autumn Vives

Autumn Vines

Welcome to deep, deep autumn in the rain-washed Quercy.
In years to come people will talk about the long hot summer of 2009 and remind one another that it truly lasted from April to October. But it’s November now and the bitter Northern winds have swept across the landscape, turning the shivering vines scarlet and bringing driving rain in their wake. For the first time in my life I really don’t mind. The countryside is parched and gasping, wells and waterholes have been dry for months and the gardens are in desperate need of a good drink. Meanwhile the autumn pruning has been done, winter wood has been cut and stacked and all the leftovers piled high on the bonfire. The last of the wild harvests have been gathered too. Pinecones for the fire – pinecones make superb fire lighters – are piled in six capacious boxes on the lower terrace. Walnuts, still wet and unctuous, wait to be moved inside to dry out for the year, quinces await the preserving pans and bags of fat, glossy chestnuts will be roasted, peeled – what a fiddly job that is – and frozen for Christmas. Read More »

Autumn In The Quercy from French Vie

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Amanda on November 9th, 2009
Orleans Reinette

Orleans Reinette

That’s what I’ve been doing this week, a new word for an old pastime.  There is nothing quite as satisfying as planting a fruit orchard and no pleasure quite as dreamlike (alright so maybe there are one or two exceptions but not that I’m going to discuss here) as looking forward to that far-flung day when you are picking more fruit than will feed the village in a year, it’s a good five or six years away, but I really look forward to that.
One of the problems with planting an orchard in southern France is that it’s not really apple country.  They do grow here, of course they do, but the old English varieties, and especially the sharp culinary apples are just not available to buy.  Fortunately I found a saviour in Deacons Nurseries on the Isle of Wight.  Not only do they grow absolutely every apple I’ve ever heard of and many more into the bargain, they are willing to ship them to rural France.  And so I chose six-of-the-best.  Bramley and Lane’s Prince Albert for the culinaries.  The delicious Lord Lambourne for a fairly early dessert.  Wonderfully aromatic Ashmead’s Kernel and crisp William Crump for the mids and the indispensible Orleans Reinette for my late keeper. I had them all grafted onto a semi-dwarfing rootstock and received an exciting, damp parcel last week.  Honestly – the things that get me excited these days.
Meanwhile down on the orchard terrace six enormous holes have been dug, with a certain amount of grumbling, a pickaxe and a pneumatic drill, by the beloved.  The white stone of the Quercy has been blasted with good muscle and sinew, then sifted and enriched with compost and topsoil; it looks like we’re in business.

Orcharding in the Quercy from French Vie

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Amanda on October 9th, 2009

Chestnuts

Chestnuts

Happy Birthday to You, Squashed Tomatoes and Stew!
Autumn has seeped inexorably into the south in the last few days.  I prowled around Prayssac market this morning admiring box after box of fat, glossy chestnuts and tempting over-sized quinces.  Cardoons are beginning to appear and knobbly, pink Jerusalem artichokes.  All the vegetable stalls have an abundance of late-season tomatoes, and they don’t seem to be diminishing… seasonal tastes are changing and the tomato glut is beginning to tell, prices have dropped to rock bottom and still they can’t sell them all.  The café and restaurant menus are undergoing a subtle change too.  Earthy soups, spiked with Quercy saffron.  Guinea fowl, deliciously pot roasted and served with lardons and chestnuts.  Desserts of apple and pear, quince and walnut replace the soft fruits and frothy, frivolous confections of high summer.  It’s food to go walking on. Read More »

Autumn is Approaching in The Quercy from French Vie

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Amanda on September 1st, 2009
Ripe Figs

Ripe Figs

The last of the season’s fêtes drew to a close at the weekend. The early morning light revealed a Coke can rolling casually down the street and tattered streamers flapping gently in the warm breeze. The tourists have gone and the lazy, hazy, crazy days are over, but the hot southern summer lingers on.
The famous vineyards of the region are heavy with fruit, we have had no significant rain for three months and the grapes are cooking in the searing heat. They cannot be artificially watered if they are to produce an AOC wine and there is no likelihood of any rain on the horizon. No other crop could stand the pace. Read More »

Tomato Chutney and Fig Preserve from French Vie

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Amanda on August 1st, 2009
Tree frog

Tree frog

The oleanders and hibiscus on my terrace provide the perfect backdrop for lazy afternoons and steamy nights. And last week we had a little visitor who was thoroughly taken in by the façade and looked as if he’d dropped straight out of an Attenborough documentary.
We were lingering over a late breakfast, about to pour a little more coffee, when our visitor announced himself with a distinct plopping sound. I turned round and there on a slender branch of the big hibiscus tree, a little wobbly but very much at home, was a bright green frog. Read More »

Sumptuous Summer Treats from French Vie

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Amanda on July 1st, 2009
Apricots

Apricots

July heralds the start of the tourist season here in southern France. Markets swell to five times their winter size, chefs sharpen their knives in eager anticipation and the rest of us try to remember where we found that tiny nook that was always available to park the car. But in congested Cahors, things have changed a little, with the opening of the long awaited Parking de l’Amphitheatre. Why is she telling us about a car park for heaven’s sake? I hear you all cry from your collective desks in the grey north. Well hush and I’ll illuminate. This is not just any old car park, it should have three Michelin stars and a mention in every guide book worth its salt. It is a work of art, a day out on its own. You descend into the gleaming depths of a brand new underground parking area, and are confronted by the staggeringly beautiful remains of Cahors’ ancient Roman amphitheatre. There it is, all laid out for you to see, with detailed guide and a plan to show you just how it must have appeared in its glorious past. All this and parking thrown in. Fabulous. When you have feasted your eyes enough, you will want to ascend to the sunlit place, now beautifully landscaped and planted with trees, to stroll and muse and end up in one of the cafes on the boulevard. Read More »

Lunch at the Poule au Pot from French Vie

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Amanda on June 1st, 2009
Moissac

Moissac

Out on the terraces a thousand thermometers boil, cicadas scream from the trees and the oleanders have shaken off their reticence and burst into a riot of bloom. It’s high summer and a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of windsurfing. This can be a fortunate circumstance for me, because the resident man’s favourite puddle for this sort of daredevil activity is the huge lake caused by the confluence of the rivers Tarn and Garonne. It’s just south of the historic city of Moissac, and that happens to be a very convenient spot for me to meet a friend from the Gers, it was time for a highly indulgent lunch. This is one of the perks of the laid-back lifestyle in southern France. When the going gets hot, drop everything and cool off, which is just what we did, in our varying ways, last Thursday. Read More »

A Delightful Lunch in Moissac from French Vie

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Amanda on May 12th, 2009
Quercy Spring Salad

Quercy Spring Salad

Salade Printemps

The days are getting longer and the woods are full of catkins and lime-green hellebores. The breezes are softer and the sun warms your soul. Spring is in the air. The soups and casseroles of winter are banished for another eight months. Or are they? How can you construct a decent salad with the sort of half-ripe, totally flavourless tomatoes available at this time of year? And anyway, it may be warming up, but it’s not that warm… the answer is in the oven, beat the last of the winter blues, roast those tomatoes until the flavour oozes out in a sticky unctuous sauce. You will have created one of the terribly in foods of the moment – the warm salad. In the Quercy this is no new concept, the Quercynois have been making warm salads with duck and lettuce, warm fois gras, crispy toasts and warm goat’s cheese ever since anyone can remember. But classical local salads don’t usually include tomatoes and this one does. In many ways it’s something of a moveable feast. You could give it an Italian slant with Gorgonzola, Fontina and Mozzarella, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts, or slide it down to Provence with Banon, Fontagne and a handful of green olives, liberally doused in olive oil. My recipe however is anchored firmly in the Quercy and was originally developed to use up cheesy leftovers in the fridge. It’s a firm favourite now and it’s utterly delicious, I promise. Read More »

Quercy Spring Salad Recipe from French Vie

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Amanda on May 1st, 2009
Gariguette strawberries

Gariguette strawberries

Welcome to the Quercy in lovely May, where the first strains of summer can be heard drifting through the villages and across the fields.
Every month of the calendar year has its own special charm, but I have to admit, May has the edge. The verges foam with cow parsley, underplanted with the renowned orchids of the region. Meadows are knee deep in blond grasses studded with numerous wild flowers. Rape gilds the fields and the ravishing white stone houses are pillowed by the new lime green of the oak forests. As I drove down into the valley yesterday, my car windows were wide open. Soft, warm breezes wafted delicious fragrances as I passed through hamlets garlanded with wisteria, plumped with blowsy peonies and studded with the pale lavender irises that mirror the colour of the wisteria and seem so very popular here. The sweeping vineyards drifted past, burgeoning new green, the walnut groves were tentatively putting out their first, delicate bronze leaves. From behind a collapsing old borie, a young deer eyed me curiously before springing to the safety of the forest, flashing her creamy rump. Read More »

May Market Life in France from French Vie

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Amanda on April 1st, 2009
Grape Hyacinth

Grape Hyacinth

Last week as I drove south down that most characteristic of holiday routes – the A20 – from Cahors to Montauban, I gazed out at an enchanting landscape. The chequered fields and woods were newly green and the fabulous orchards of the Quercy Bas appeared in a haze of white blossom, as if somebody had shaken a feather pillow over the land. Closer to home, the vines are breaking bud, violets spread their purple mantles beneath the oaks, delicate lemon cowslips throng the verges, and every now and then I spot a cluster of deep blue gems among the rocky outcrops, wild grape hyacinths hide their startling colours like sapphires carelessly discarded. Redstarts sing boisterously from the top of our pigeonnier, cranes flap laboriously past and cuckoos call from the deep woods.

Down in the markets the change is heart-warming. Asparagus spears lie in stacked bundles side by side with innumerable boxes of that sweet, fragrant and amazingly early strawberry of the Quercy, the Gariguette. Tourists are beginning to arrive for an Easter break, they sit in carefree, laughing groups outside the sprawling cafes, shuffling maps, guides and café crèmes. Happy just to be here, sit in the sun and watch the world go by. Read More »

I Do Love Cahors! from French Vie

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Amanda on March 1st, 2009
Lemons on our Tree

Lemons on our Tree

Welcome to spring in the Quercy where the last few days have been as warm and wonderful as May. My lemon trees have been hauled out of their winter quarters to waft their delicious scent over the sunlit terrace; they’re chock full of waxy blossom and in dire need of a few bees. The herb gardens have had an explosion of tender new growth too, creating another fragrant assault on the senses whenever one happens to brush past. Almond trees have shyly unfurled their pale pink petals and, most significant of all, the lizards who’ve spent the freezing winter months holed up in deep stone cracks have started to creep out and sun themselves on rocky outcrops. Summer is just a few degrees away. Read More »

Lunch in Puy L’Eveque from French Vie

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Amanda on February 1st, 2009
Cahors Market

Cahors Market

Whilst England shivered under a blanket of snow, all last week the Quercy languished under sparkling blue skies. They lured me out for the day on Wednesday. It was market day in Cahors and by the time I rounded the chilly corner of the Rue Marechal Foch into the blazing sunshine opposite the cathedral the morning was well advanced. I exchanged some halting badinage with one of my favourite stall holders about the state of the English weather, bought an armful of magnificent leeks, admired the truffle he had unexpectedly unearthed that morning and moved on to the man with the birds. Read More »

Lunch in Cahors from French Vie

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Amanda on January 1st, 2009
Frosted Vines

Frosted Vines

Year 2009 dawned bright and clear in the lovely Quercy and we’re all set for a good year.
Out in the chilly vineyards half-frozen paysans bend over the wiry winter vines pruning and tidying, they’ve been out there for weeks and it’s a relentless task. I watched them on Boxing Day (the 26th December isn’t a holiday in France) full of Buche de Noel and litres of good wine, doggedly ploughing on despite the sudden fall of snow. The hunters were out in force too. According to the local rag, and despite the best endeavours of the afore-mentioned, wild boar caused hundreds of thousands of euros worth of damage amongst the precious vines in this tiny area alone. There are thousands of them out there in the rampant oak forests, which is peculiar, because although you see plenty of evidence, where they’ve rooted for truffles at the base of a tree for instance, you hardly ever see them, although when you consider that whenever they tentatively poke their snouts out of the undergrowth they get their whiskers blown off, perhaps it isn’t so peculiar. Read More »

A New Year, A New French Life from French Vie

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Amanda on December 1st, 2008
Autumn Vines

Autumn Vines

We were to arrive at 12.30 on a Sunday afternoon – which means at least half an hour later as naturally nobody ever arrives on time in France. We were looking forward to this encounter, but with some trepidation, as our neighbours speak absolutely no English. This is fair enough of course and on its own we would have been able to cope with it quite well, but they add to this minor hurdle by having extremely strong southwestern accents. This means that when confronted with a polite: Read More »

Lunch with the Neighbours from French Vie

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Amanda on November 1st, 2008
Café Noir

Café Noir

Lunch in this café is a one-menu-for-all affair, and very good it is too. I began with a small plate of shiny, plump violet and black olives, a bowl of cornichons and a slice of nutty, air-dried ham from Bayonne. The bread came from the bakery on the other side of the church, a good chewy, yeasty flute, to be consumed with pace and care. I refused a glass of wine, to the frank amazement of my neighbouring diners. They were workmen in dusty overalls, cold and hungry, their bellies budging the table to and fro as they reached for the bread or salt. Read More »

It Could Only Happen in France from French Vie

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Amanda on October 1st, 2008
Cahors Wine Grapes

Cahors Wine Grapes

Late September and the temperatures were still sizzling. We’d had no rain for weeks and the leaves on my pear trees were drooping disconsolately, like a guilty dog’s ears. In the vineyards the farmers frowned, growled and stroked the grapes contemplatively. They were ripe and just about ready for picking but they would have been better for a drink. It has to be supplied by nature too, a vine destined to make AOC Cahors wine cannot be watered artificially. It was too late anyway, having failed to produce a shower at the right time the weather mustn’t be allowed to break now, and ruin the year’s prospects. A good spell of sunshine is absolutely crucial for the harvest and the forecasters were on their mettle, a whole community depended on their getting it right. Read More »

The Fete des Vendanges from French Vie

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Amanda on September 1st, 2008
Wild Fruit Harvest

Wild Fruit Harvest

The last few weeks of summer are lazy. The mercury is boiling in a thousand thermometers and nobody feels inclined to move.
Vignerons prowl slowly round the vines, squinting anxiously at distant clouds. Holidaymakers prowl round the little villages, cameras at the ready, squinting curiously through ancient stone doorways and posing in front of the old chapel; the rest of us do as little as possible in the heat of the day, and wait until the cool of the evening to conduct any serious business. Eating, drinking, flirting and partying are the most serious, naturally, but even the more sober pursuits, such as harvesting – the combine-harvesters work all night – and of course shopping, are done in the evening. Read More »

Figs for Breakfast from French Vie

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Amanda on August 1st, 2008
Prayssac Market

Prayssac Market

Glorious August in southwest France lures tourists as a buddleia in full bloom lures butterflies. The heat, the holiday atmosphere that pervades every little town and village, and the outstanding food and wine available at every turn, have all contributed to make this once neglected little rural backwater one of the holiday hotspots of Europe. For decades the overworked masses have swarmed down from the frozen North to the beaches of the Mediterranean, but gradually, very gradually, tourists have worked inland. They’ve stopped en route, made forays into hitherto untented territory, and discovered to their amazement that the beautiful Quercy holds more attractions than they had believed possible. Now, during the two holiday months, the population more than doubles and nowhere is this more obvious than in the markets. They swell in season, to four or five times their winter size, jammed with lithe blondes in skimpy shorts (much appreciated by some of the locals) and enormous bellies in lively shirts. Read More »

Balmy August in the Quercy from French Vie

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Amanda on July 1st, 2008
Picture Window

Picture Window

High summer in the Quercy and the skies are as blue as the wild cornflowers that line every field. Scarlet and pink geraniums foam from every windowsill, whilst on the limestone cliffs helichrysum and santolina bloom riotously on bone-dry outcrops of rock. Out in the immaculately groomed vineyards grapes are beginning to swell. Dogs lie panting in the shade; cats lie dozing in the sun and lizards scuttle hither and thither with newly minted energy.
I haul myself lethargically round the throbbing markets. Courgettes are proliferating faster than the Quercynoise can eat them; the stalls are overflowing with slender green and yellow fruits, jostling for position with the ubiquitous heap of haricots verts and napped by a sturdy column of tomato crates. Read More »

Summer Entertaining from French Vie

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