“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow” W.B. Yeats”
Many months planning by my dearest brother-by-proxy in Sydney, Australia in advance of celebrating his 60th, resulted in an enormous treat for those of us that travelled to Le Domaine de Puget. Hosted with ease, grace and endless generosity by John and Janie in their magnificent home and retreat in the Aude, 11 of us descended from London, Lymington and Australia for a long week-end and with only the glimmer of a clue as to what would ensue. It was a triumph delivered in the most modest and understated way. One of those ‘spotlight on my life’ moments that will always be treasured. One of those week ends where there was a heady mixture of good conversation, challenging ideas, kindness, peace – along with magnificent wines. And the setting was beyond perfection.
As you will know, I am known for my hyperbole. But believe me, it was perfection.
Imagine this…….. 25 acres of rolling French countryside, a large farmhouse perched on top of the hill; ripe figs hanging from the trees, endless quiet places to sit and stare, a candle-lit courtyard, a kitchen large enough to cope with twice the number we had. A dining room with half-trees burning in the grate. A sheltered pool that was still warm enough for frequent swims even though it was early October. Quince trees weighed down with bulbous fruit. Soft autumnal light and long shadows. Breakfast in the meadow looking back toward Fanjeaux. The last of the sunflowers drooping their heads in serried ranks, set in dusty green clay earth. And then there was the food………
John’s food is legendary (see Le Puget) and I was intrigued and mesmerised by the delights that emerged from the kitchen. Charcuterie on well-worn wooden boards, little black olives sharp and juicy, buttery parmesan biscuits, stuffed guinea fowl, double-baked cheese souffle, lentil and vegetable melange, slow roast pork, fig and feta salad, local bread, artisanal cheeses made only a kilometre away, a secret recipe hazlenut cake, more croissants than you could shake a stick at, and cloudy creamy yellow butter. #heavenishere!
So here’s a selection of recipes, my take on those culinary memories.
Roast guinea fowl, boned and stuffed
This guinea fowl recipe is on my list for Boxing Day. I get a lot of my game and fowl from the Wild Meat Company and they do really high quality mail order too. They supplied the quail for our popup suppers earlier in the year, and venison, wild rabbit, pheasant and pigeon for my freezer.
Ask your butcher to bone out the guinea fowl but make sure you ask for the innards and the bones in a separate bag and the legs removed! To serve 6 generously you will need one guinea fowl. Pat it dry and leave uncovered for a few hours in a cool place. To make the forcemeat first, roast the legs in a small pan with some onion then remove the flesh and chop it finely. Gently fry an onion in rapeseed or olive oil with a couple of cloves of garlic and the tiniest smidgeon of crushed juniper berries and some fresh thyme. Then turn up the heat and add the chopped livers and heart from the bag of innards. Season with seasalt and black pepper. Add a wineglass full of red wine on a high heat then reduce the liquid to practically nothing. Allow the leg meat and the innards to cool completely – you could do all of this the night before. Next day add all this to some herby coarse sausagemeat – probably about 500g, it depends on the size of your bird – and then add more salt (the best way to know how much you need is not to guess!! Fry a dessert-spoon full in a little oil then taste it). Then add a good scraping of nutmeg. You get the idea don’t you – you are looking for a deep, well seasoned, warmly spiced and fragrant forcemeat, not a sharp salty one.
As you can see already. It will help to have prepared some things in advance of cooking this dish but believe me it will be worth it. So the night before, do the stuff with the livers and the legs! And peel and poach some pears and/or quince in a light syrup, whilst roasting some shallot very gently so that the natural sugars start to caramelise but not burn. Now you can start the consttuction!
Turn your oven on to 200C. Make sure your work surface is scrupulously clean. Not to mention your hands. Have a long ball of butchers string and some sharp scissors to hand. Lay the bird skin side down on a a large piece of greaseproof paper that has been rubbed with olive oil. Stretch out its various appendages. You will notice that some parts of the bird are thicker than others. You’ll soon see to that with your rolling pin! Lay another piece of greaseproof on top then beat the thicker pieces till the whole bird has stretched out and the thickness is relatively even. The only thing to avoid is making it too thin. about 2.5 cm thick will do it. Then dry off your pears/quince and slice into even thickness then lay slices across the bird, leaving a good 3cm clear all around the edges. Then to the same with some of the roasted shallot. Finally, spread the forcemeat across the pears and onions – about 2.5cm thick.
Now you need to imagine an envelope. You are going to fold both sides to the middle followed by the meat at the top and bottom edges. Truss the bird up with the string, (you are aiming for a neat cylinder shape with all the ends tucked underneath). Give it a good olive oil or rapeseed oil massage and sprinkle with a little seasalt.
Place in a hot roasting tin on a bed of carrot, celery and leek. and rosemary stalks along with more olive oil and a litre of boiling water. Cover with foil and roast at 180C for an hour, then turn the heat up to 200C, remove the foil and cook for a further 15-20 minutes until lovely and brown. Test with a skewer, if the juices are clear, then it’s done. Remove the bird from the pan and let it rest, boil up and thicken the gravy in the pan.
This has to be the most forgiving potato dish in the world. You can prepare it in advance and reheat it. You can freeze it. You can try an resist it but you won’t win. You can eat it in solitary confinement in the kitchen at 2am and no-one will know. Seriously. I’ve done it!
Peel and slice 8 large potatoes. Mix 500ml double cream (yes!) with 500ml full cream milk (yes, again!) a couple of peeled garlic cloves and half a teaspoon of salt. Put the potatoes in a big pan with the milk/cream, bring slowly to just under the boil and let them cook for about 5 minutes. Then remove potatoes with a slotted spoon and place in a shallow well buttered (oh God, the cholesterol!) dish then pour over the milk/cream and bake at 190C for about 50 minutes until the whole is creamy and thick and brown on top. Dare you to eat it!
Fig and salt cheese salad
Sometimes with rich food, just a simple salad on the side is sufficient. Try this. Fresh, ripe figs are a must though. Keep an eye out in Lidl, I have frequently purchased trays of fresh figs from there in late summer. Slice and chop fresh ripe tomatoes and cucumber and remove most of the wet middle. Sprinkle with gremolata (chopped rosemary, garlic, lemon zest and seasalt) to season. Add chopped feta or salty goat’s cheese and quartered fresh figs. Mix together with a gentle vinaigrette warmed with a little dash of honey.
Charcuterie with olives and warm cheesy biscuits
The easiest of appetisers. Go get some great charcuterie from Marshpig or your nearest deli, or from the fantastic market in Mirepoix! Slice it, pile it on a plate with hot, crisp radishes, some salt, some juicy olives, some of Janie’s warm cheesy biscuits and a glass of something cold and fizzy, such as a Blanquette de Limoux. Irresistible.
Mix 100g plain flour with a pinch of cayenne, a teaspoon of mustard powder and a little salt. Rub in 100g butter then gently mix in 50g hard cheese and 50g parmesan. Bind together with half the egg (beaten). Cover and leave in the fridge to rest for half an hour, then roll out to about 1.5cm thick and use a cutter, placing each biscuit on the tray lined with greaseproof paper. Brush lightly with the remaining egg and sprinkle with more parmesan. Bake at 80C for about 10 minutes. I challenge you to eat only one.
Twice-baked cheese souffle
Never be frightened by a souffle – especially if you make individual ones. You can make and bake, allow to cool, leave overnight, have a party, go out for the day – then come back and put them back in the oven and voila! A souffle resurrects itself as if by magic.
I bow to Delia Smith on this one. Heat 225 full cream milk in a pan with half an onion, a few black peppercorns, a grating of fresh nutmeg and a bay leaf. Bring to simmering point then pour into a jug through a sieve, thus removing the onion etc. Essentially you are flavouring the milk. Rinse out the pan then put back on a low heat and melt 25g butter, then add 25g plain flour to make a roux and cook very gently for a couple of minutes. Gently pour in the milk, bit by bit, stirring all the time until you have a thick sauce. Beat two egg yolks. Pour the sauce into a mixing bowl when it is cool then add the egg yolks and mix thoroughly. Fold in 110g good quality goat’s cheese, cubed if hard and gently broken up if soft. Mix thoroughly. Season with black pepper.
Whisk the two egg whites until stiff and almost ‘dry’ then gently fold into the sauce with a large metal spoon and a cutting and folding motion.
Generously butter the inside of 6 ramekin dishes and coat with a little coarse semolina flour. Divide the mixture between the dishes. Heat the oven to 200C with a baking tray already in the oven. When up to heat, remove the baking tray, place the ramekins on the tray and fill the tray with about 2cm of boiling water. Put back in the centre of the oven and cook until they are risen, firm and just a tiny bit wobbly in the middle (about 15 minutes). Now you can take them out of the oven to cool and they will sink like a stone. Don’t worry. Put in a cool place and when you are ready then slide a very sharp knife round the edge of the ramekin to release the souffle, invert it onto the palm of your hand then place on a buttered baking tray and sprinkle each one with a little parmesan. Later in the day, or tomorrow, crank up the oven again to 200C and put back in the oven for 30 minutes. Miraculously they will puff up again and are ready to eat.
The mysterious Hazelnut cake
Marie helps out John and Janie at Le Puget sometimes and makes the most amazing hazelnut cake using a recipe from when she lived in Switzerland. A recipe that was never divulged to me. I’ve experimented a bit this week whilst nursing the Le Puget chest infection. This is the closest I can get to the exquisite cake made by Marie last week. somewhere on my various devices I have a photograph of her cake and I will post it when I find it.
Toast 100g hazelnuts in the oven then rub place them in a tea towel and rub them till the skins flake off. Sieve 125g rice flour, 50g golden caster sugar, half a teaspoon of baking powder and a little salt into a bowl. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor or blender, until fine. Add to the flour and mix thoroughly.Whisk together 75ml vegetable oil and 75ml agave syrup (or honey), 3 egg yolks , a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of cream of tartar. Then add the flour mixture to the wet mixture and beat till it is a thick (ish) batter. Now whisk 5 egg whites till they are stiff.Fold into the hazelnut batter with a cut and fold motion.
Pour into one or two pre-prepared springform sponge tins that have been lined with greaseproof paper. Bake in the centre of the oven at 180C for about 25 minutes. Then remove from the oven and keep in the tin until cold.
This version is not the exact cake made by Marie – but it is close enough. I suspect hers had little or no flour, which is why I used very fine rice flour. I recommend eating on the terrace of Le Puget with good friends and pots of tea.