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The wacky and wonderful world of cèpes

Freshly picked cèpes mushroom and wild cyclamens

After all the excitement build-up since the kids started school, days of searching in vain, we finally found beautiful cèpes. I have been sharing a few moments from my mushroom adventures through Instagram, discovering amazing parts of the forest I never knew. Every morning, I feel like an explorer, entering the woods with my stick, scrambling the leaves, and always looking down. I have lost my trail several times, playing games of twister with the fern, spiky branches and leaves everywhere. Total freedom. If I was in the girls scouts, I think I’d deserve a few brownie points for bravery and eagerness.

Into the wild

It’s rare to meet fellow mushroom pickers where we are, but I have met a few retired farmers holding large cèpes-filled baskets. It is considered very rude and inappropriate to ask where they unearthed their cèpes. Everybody has their secret places and they are not to be shared. Cèpes are most likely to be found by oak trees, but they can really be found everywhere. I heard that grandfathers reveal their lucky cèpes locations on their deathbeds. It’s in the family’s vault. There are also women curiously referred to as mushroom witches. They know where to go and can feel the cèpes from afar. These women go home with thirty kilograms of brown buttons every day. Whatever it is, there is an element of magic in the forest. I believe it is enchanted, filled with secrets and powers. The overwhelming energy makes me feel like a stronger person. The other day, I stumbled across the most fairytale-like view. Thousands of pink and white wild cyclamens glowing in the darkest part of the woods. I don’t think I could have asked for a better movie-set. Now I should really believe in fairies!

My husband took the kids mushroom hunting Sunday morning. It was pouring with rain, but they were all geared up and super excited. They came back home totally drenched, but their faces were brightened with the biggest smiles. They found twenty gorgeous cèpes very near our house. For lunch, I prepared buttered tagliatelle with garlic cèpes (fried in garlic and parsley) for the kids. For us grown-ups, we had cèpes omelette and cèpes carpaccio (sliced raw) with olive oil, salt and pepper. The kids were so proud, and I could see how gratified they felt when we thanked them for ‘providing’ food for the family.

Cleaning cèpes is simple. I use a knife, toothbrush, a damp cloth and a potato peeler. Cut off the tip of the mushroom’s stalk, scrape off as much earth as possible, peel a single layer of the stalk. It is not advised to wash them in water, because they are like sponges. You can wipe them with a damp cloth for a proper final cleaning.

Médoc is immersed in cèpes culture. Here, the cèpe mushroom is the king of the forest and one of the most sought-after delicacies. They are so hearty and flavorful, with the perfect combination of earthy and sweet taste. There are so many ways to enjoy cèpes, this is only the beginning of this fall’s love affair. Here are a few recipes I’ve been cooking this week.

Basic cèpes cooking tips:

● Always season cèpes with salt as soon as you start to cook them.
● Cook mushrooms on a high heat so the water evaporates faster
● If your frying pan is small, cook mushrooms in batches to avoid soggy mushrooms (if there is too much water released at once, the mushrooms won’t brown and cook in its own juice)
● If you want to store cèpes, it is best to wrap them in a cloth and stored in the refrigerator. Never put them in a plastic bag.

Potato and cèpes soup (serves 4)

400 g fresh cèpes, sliced (+ 1 tbsp butter, one garlic and one shallot, finely chopped, for frying)
8 medium potatoes
3 cloves of garlic
A pinch of nutmeg
3 tbsp butter
6 tbsp crème fraîche (or more depending on your taste)
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Peel and chop potatoes into medium chunks. In a large pot, add potatoes, salt, nutmeg and garlic. Pour water just enough to cover the potatoes. Cover with a lid and cook for 15-20 minutes. Mash soup with a potato masher. Add butter, pepper and crème fraîche. Cover and set aside. Now you can prepare the cèpes, which will take a few minutes. Melt butter in a frying pan, add finely chopped shallots and garlic and fry for a few minutes. Turn heat to high, add sliced cèpes, sprinkle with salt, give the pan a good shake – this should take one minutes. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve soup in large bowls, add a generous amount of cèpes per person, sprinkle with more parsley.

Cèpes en persillade (serves 4)

Should you not have any cèpes, many other seasonal mushrooms works well with persillade.

1 kg fresh cèpes mushrooms, sliced in half if they are small enough (see photo), or sliced.
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic
1 large shallot
3-4 tbsp butter or olive oil, for frying

Peel garlic and shallot and chop them as finely as possible. I use my food processor – quick and easy. Finely chop parsley. Set aside.
In a frying pan, melt butter, add finely chopped shallots and garlic and fry for a 1-2 minutes. Turn heat to high, add sliced cèpes, sprinkle with salt, give the pan a good shake – this should take 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Cèpes omelette – serves one very generous omelette

4 medium-sized cèpes (sliced)
3 eggs
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp chopped shallots
A handful of chopped parsley
1 tbsp butter or olive oil, for frying

Whisk 3 eggs in a bowl till slighly frothy. Set aside. In a medium-sized frying pan, melt butter (or olive oil) add garlic and shallots and fry for 2 minutes. Add sliced cèpes, season with salt, stir well and cook for 30 seconds on a medium heat. Take a few cèpes and set aside to garnish the omelette. Add beaten eggs, salt and pepper, lower heat and cook for 3 minutes (depending on how you like your omelette cooked). Sprinkle with parsley. Take off from heat, gently roll omelette on each side. Return pan to heat for a few seconds. Place on a plate, plate saved cèpes on top of the omelette, sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately.

Cèpes carpaccio

4 small cèpes per person
Olive oil, salt and black pepper for seasoning

Only choose smaller cèpes for this recipe. Slice cèpes into thin slices. Place on a plate, drizzle some olive oil, salt and pepper.

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Why not eat black pudding?

“From Black pudding to pickled jellyfish, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. What we see and taste as beautiful depends largely on what our family and friends approve of — with just a little room for personal preference.” Laurence Mound – Keeper of Entomology, British Museum, Natural History. Introduction to 1988 reprint of ‘Why Not Eat Insects’ by Vincent M. Holt (1885)

Boudin noir (black pudding/sausage) is not for everyone. As a matter of fact, most of my friends don’t really like it. My husband loves it, the kids don’t like it, but have the ‘obligatoire‘ two mouthfuls each. I enjoy it once in a while, especially when the weather gets cooler. Lately, I’ve been getting up extra early and spend at least two hours every morning looking for cèpes mushrooms. I have never felt more adventurous than now, crawling under trees and beneath the fern. I get a real kick out of finding cèpes. It’s the most fun gift nature has to offer in the fall. This extra-curricular activity gives me a very earthy appetite, making me hungry for sturdy rich food, something that can fuel my energy throughout the day. This is when I am in the mood for boudin noir.

This is a very classic recipe of boudin noir served on a bed of warm potatoes and onions, a drizzle of vinaigrette, semi-caramelized apples and parsnip crips. The sweetness of these homemade parsnips crisps make this dish most enjoyable. Make sure to make an extra batch as they are very popular!

Ingredients: (serves 4)

12 slices of boudin noir sausage
1 kg/ 2 pounds potatoes (cut in chunks)
3-4 apples (peeled, cut in round slices)
1 onion or a handful of small onions (thinly sliced or halved if small onions)
8 parsnips (peeled and thinly sliced – I used my food processor with a special slicing blade)
Vegetable oil for frying
25 g/ 2 tbsp butter for frying apples & onions

Vinaigrette dressing:
60 ml/ 1/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp grain mustard (or to your liking)
1 tbsp Xérès vinegar (or sherry/ red wine vinegar)
1 tsp salt
Pepper for seasoning

Step 1) Boil potatoes in a large pot of salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.
Step 2) Prepare vinaigrette dressing. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix well.
Step 3) In a large heavy saucepan, fill oil no more than halfway and heat to 180°C/ 350 F. You can test one slice of parsnip, drop it in the oil – if it starts sizzling, the oil is ready. Fry parsnip slices by batches, 2-3 minutes each, or until golden. Set aside to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. Set aside.
Step 4) In a frying pan, melt the butter, add onions and fry till golden for 3 minutes. Add the apples, and continue frying 3 minutes on both sides, until golden. Set onions and apples aside.
Step 5) In the same frying pan, add the boudin noir and fry on a medium heat for 2 minutes on each sides. Slice potatoes, toss in the onions and vinaigrette.
Step 6) Start with placing the potato salad on a plate. Place three slices of apples, followed by three slices of boudin noir on top. Sprinkle a generous amount of parsnip crisps on top. Serve immediately while salad is warm.

Plum & fig meringue pie

‘People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy’. Anton Chekhov

As hard as it was letting go of summer, I find the fall season most inspiring of all. We have never been so happy to have rainy days, anxiously waiting for the cèpes mushrooms to appear. Not only do I go to the local village for daily groceries, but I am also expecting to get some useful information. I linger at the newstand longer, at the greengrocer’s and at the boulangerie, in the hope of getting some clues because mushroom hunting gossip has become the talk of the town.
On my way back home through the forest yesterday morning, I parked my bike by an oak tree and went through a meadow filled with ferns. I found one cèpe. Yes, one. Which means that my intuition was right about that location. There shall be more. It’s a matter of days.
I still have an abundance of plums, and plucked the last batch of figs from our tree. I felt I needed to honor this final crop by making something extra-special. Meringues are a considerable part of my domestic happiness, so I decided to treat myself to a plum and fig meringue pie. I prepared my favourite pastry dough (so easy, and I love the subtle ground almond taste) and aligned the fruits. Here’s a wonderful tip on how to avoid a watery pie. Just sprinkle the sliced plums with sugar and instant refined tapioca, and set aside for 15 minutes. You’ll be amazed with the results. I made a medium-sized pie and four little ones, just for fun.
Depending on your mood, this pie can be dressed up with meringue, or dressed down bare. They are both equally delicious. Whatever makes you happy.

Ingredients

For the pastry:
250 g/2 cups plain flour
150 g/ 2/3 cups butter (softened at room temperature)
30 g/ ¼ cup caster sugar
60 g icing/ ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
80 g/ ½ cup ground almonds
1 egg
A pinch of salt

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together until the mixture forms a homogenous dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Take out 30 minutes before rolling out. On a floured parchment covered surface, roll out the dough to fit your tart pan. Line tart pan with the pastry dough, and cut out excess overhang dough approx. ¼ inch/ 1 cm off the rim. Fold in the excess dough to make a double thick rim. Pierce dough with a fork all over.

Filling ingredients:
8-9 medium-sized plums – pitted and sliced
4-5 medium-sized figs – sliced
50 g/ 1/4 cup sugar
30 g/ 2 1/2 tbsp instant refined tapioca
2 tbsp plum jam (to glaze plums on pie)

Meringue topping:
4 egg whites
200 g/ 1 cup caster sugar
A pinch of salt
A pinch of cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven 180°C/ 350 F
Step 1) Place sliced plums in a bowl, sprinkle with sugar and tapioca – mix gently. Set aside for 15 minutes. Slice figs, set aside on a plate.
Step 2) Place plums (flesh upwards) and figs inside the pie crust (see photos). With a brush, smooth some jam to glaze the fruits.
Step 3) Bake in oven for 25 minutes (large pie) and 15 minutes (small pies) or until crust is golden. Set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
Turn the heat up to 240°C/ 450 F
Step 4) You can now start preparing the meringue topping. In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy, add cream of tartar, salt and vanilla extract. Continue to whisk and gradually add sugar until egg whites become glossy with stiff peaks. Using a spatula, garnish the pies with the meringue topping in a circular movement. In this recipe, the meringue is 4-5 cm height for the large pie, and 3-4 for the small pies. You can choose the thickness to your liking.
Step 5) Place pies in the top part of the oven for 2 minutes or until meringue browns slightly on top. Check constantly as the browning can happen very fast.

Kouign Amann

One of the best things about the fall season is mushroom picking. Someone had whispered in my ear they had found three large gorgeous cèpes in their garden last week-end. After hearing this, I never leave home without rubber boots and a basket in the hope to bring back a bounty of my own. Since I moved to Médoc, I have discovered reliable mushroom trails close to my house. Where to go, how to pick them, and more importantly what not to pick. It is so revitalizing to go on daily walks in the woods and meadows, filled with untouched wildlife in every corner. I love the different shades of light you see as you walk along, especially when the sunlight sparkles through the trees and fern, bringing its warmth and wonder to everything it touches. As the kids don’t have school on Wednesdays, it seemed like the ideal time to go on a family mushroom picking excursion. So there we were, along with a our dogs (not all of them, but most), on a champignons quest.

We entered the woods, looking all over for shiny brown buttons. The dogs, as usual, managed to find what their hearts desire. A dead bird, a fox skeleton, a deer’s paw. Non merci! After an hour of searching in vain, we were all a bit disappointed, but it wasn’t a total loss. You know it’s still a good day when your daughter says: ‘Maman, this was a real adventure’! Walking back home, we talked about how the moon and the rain affect the mushroom’s growth. Because the secret of nature is patience.

Back home, the kids were longing for the goûter. It’s the tea-time break that is the most important hour in the life of les enfants. On Wednesdays (in France, most kids until the age of 11 don’t have school on that day), they enjoy a little grown-up style tea and cake moment in the playroom. They sit together and, as they are drinking a vervain tisane, they feel very grown-up and discuss important school issues. ‘Did you like the food at the canteen this week, do you like your new teacher, who is your new best friend?’ Mia had requested the butter, sugar and caramel cake, just like the one Amélie Poulain makes in ‘Amélie’.

This old-fashioned Breton cake is called kouign amann. Brittany is all about warmth, coziness, comfort and butter. It’s a caramelized cake made of the most basic ingredients: butter, flour, sugar and yeast. You will need patience (for the dough rising), and a good hand to fold in the butter and sugar in a few layers. The kids adore this caramelized treat, and I think they also find the unusual name mystical. Old Breton words like kouign (cake) and amann (butter) sound like a language from an enchanted forest. It’s a very rich cake, especially in butter. Vive la France!

Later that night, as I slipped into bed, I heard terrifying sounds in the forest. Our mornings are graced by visiting deers, but at night we hear the wild boars at play. I can hear them from afar, their deep grunting echoing in the forest. They are probably on the same trail as we were earlier, eating all the fresh acorns I saw. Will they come to my house? It’s funny, but two years ago, I would have been horrified and up all night. The new ‘country me‘ thought, ‘I hope they won’t eat my precious cèpes’! (the ones that aren’t there yet… perhaps next week?)

Ingredients:
250 g/ 2 cups plain flour
200 g/ 3/4 cup salted butter ‘demi-sel’ (room temperature)
200 g/ 1 cup granulated white sugar + extra for dusting
10 g/ 1 tbsp fresh baker’s yeast
1 good pinch of salt/ fleur de sel
120 ml/ 1/2 cup lukewarm water

In a large bowl, prepare the dough. Dissolve yeast in 3 tbsp lukewarm water and wait till it becomes frothy. Mix flour, salt and add dissolve yeast in center. Gradually add water and start kneading. I do everything by hand, and it usually takes me about 15 minutes of good kneading until I get a soft and supple dough. Shape into a ball, and leave to rise in the bowl covered in a cotton cloth for 3 hours at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 210°C/450F

Step 1: On a floured surface, start rolling the dough to a square shape, about 1 cm thick. Spread 50 g butter, 60 g sugar and fold the dough over the butter/sugar on each side (as if you were wrapping a present in paper – the present being the butter/sugar, the paper being both sides of dough). Fold to form another square.
Step 2: On a floured surface, use a rolling-pin and roll the folded dough into a square shape. Repeat as step one with butter/sugar and folding.
Step 3: Place folded dough in a floured cling film and leave to rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Step 4: On a floured surface, roll out refrigerated dough one last time. Shape in the form of a square. Place 70 g butter and remaining sugar and fold like in step 1.
Step 5: Place in a buttered round cake tin. Gently press the dough with the palm of your hand to fill in the cake tin. Spread remaining butter on top of dough and sprinkle with a 1 tbsp of sugar. Place in oven and bake for 22-25 minutes, depending on oven strength.
Tip: As this cake is all about caramelization, I would advise to start checking every 2-3 minutes towards the end as it is so easy to over-caramelize or even burn. Starting 17 minutes or so, as soon as it looks slightly golden brown, it’s ready. As I have been making this cake for years, I have learnt from my mistakes.
Step 6: Leave to rest on a rack for 15 minutes before transferring to a plate. Use a round-tipped knife to lift/ unmould the cake. Serve warm.
Tip: Should you want to prepare this cake in advance, I would recommend reheating it by bain-marie (steaming).

Mad about plums

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the ‘red velvet plums with pain perdu’. This is, for sure, a show stopper of a dessert. It could also be breakfast, or brunch, depending on your decadent hungry mood. Inspired by the colours on my kitchen table, the plums were screaming ‘Think red!’. So there I was, seeing red on a plate, slowly adding some matching taste. Cinnamon, star anise, sugar and of course, some red wine. Themed like a cabaret show, with lots of heavy red velvet curtains and the whole spicy pizzazz. Served with a rustic pain perdu and you have a hit.

Instead of having a dinner and a show, I thought of a drink and a show. The show being the plums and pain perdu. The drink is none other than ice-cold red wine mixed with sugar and crushed strawberries. It’s very good indeed. It’s definitely over-the-top to serve all this together, but isn’t that what a good show is all about?

Pain perdu (French toast) is such a satisfying meal to make. It was called ‘lost bread’ because the bread was so old and stale that if it wasn’t cooked in this manner, it would have been lost. I used three-day old country bread, soaked in two eggs, milk and sugar. By only using two eggs, I find the ‘toasts’ to be lighter, airier and more to my taste.

Ingredients: (serves 8 slices)

Red velvet plums:
8 medium plums (halved and stones removed)
300 ml red wine + 2 tbsp (I used Beaujolais)
130 g caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise

Slice plums in half (horizontally), remove the stones and place in a bowl. Pour the red wine and cover for one hour at room temperature. Drain the plums and save the red wine. In a saucepan, pour the saved red wine + 2 tbsp, add sugar, cinnamon stick, star anise and cook on a low heat until sugar has entirely dissolved. Turn the heat slightly higher and bring the mixture to a boil until it becomes syrupy. Lower heat again and add plums (flesh down). Stir occasionally and gently. Cook on a low heat for 10-15 minutes, depending on how ripe the plums are. Set aside.

Pain perdu:
8 slices of stale country bread (or any bread of your choice)
2 eggs
75 g caster sugar
240 ml milk
5-6 tbsp unsalted butter (for frying)

Mix sugar, egg and milk in a large bowl or deep dish and whisk ingredients together until slightly frothy. Soak bread slices on both sides (if bread is stale, soak 8 minutes of each sides, if bread is not stale, soak 4 minutes on each sides). Heat butter in a frying pan on a medium heat. Make sure not to over heat the butter. Add the bread by batches (depending on the size of your pan). Fry 2-3 minutes on each sides. Bread should be golden brown.

Serve pain perdu with the plums and syrup on top.

Strawberry wine cocktail:

400 g fresh strawberries (hulled)
5-7 tbsp sugar (depending on your taste)
1 bottle of red wine (I would recommend a red wine that is nice served cold such as a fresh Burgundy ‘Pinot noir’ or a Beaujolais)

Wash strawberries. Chop coarsely to very small cubes, or place in a food processor and mix for a few seconds. Place in a large jug, sprinkle with sugar and pour red wine. Mix gently. Leave to macerate in fridge for 1-2 hours. Mix gently before serving. Serve ice-cold.

Bread winner

When you think of France, do you see a béret, a marinière top and a baguette under the arm? To this day, this image has been inked into our minds. I sometimes reflect on the origins of this postal card, souvenir, movie-like ‘cliché’. The characteristics of a baguette remind us of the simplicity and originality of the French way of life. The morning ritual of going to the boulangerie, or in other words the village’s social rendez-vous. You meet everyone there, exchanging stories, saying hellos, overhearing gossip. You can also dive into someone’s life by knowing their bread preferences. And that is how life is all over France. We buy our daily baguettes, hold them under the arms, nibbling the tip out of sheer ‘gourmandise’. The crusty smell of a freshly baked baguette is enchanting.

Baguettes in the making & a charming client buying her baguette tradition

Perfect baguettes.

Baguette ordinaire (left), and a client buying a ficelle.

Baguette is France’s daily bread. Finding a perfect baguette is a sacred quest. Once found, you shall forever be faithful. It’s a family affair.

When we lived in Paris, we found a boulangerie with baguettes just how we like them (Pain D’Epis, 63 Avenue Bosquet, 75007 Paris note I just found out they closed down – Boulanger Thierry Dubois decided to take a year off for a ‘Tour du monde’). Everytime we bought bread there, we were grateful for the excellent quality. When we left Paris, one of the first things I said every morning was: ‘Oh how I miss my boulanger!’ So there we were, discreetly searching for a great baguette. We tried, talked, discussed, searched. After a few months of tasting and comparing (lots of good bread), we discovered ‘Le fournil de J & J’, located in Soulac-sur-Mer (24, Rue Trouche 33780, Soulac-sur-mer). This husband and wife bakery (Jeremy & Jessica) is certainly a bit of a stretch distance wise, but in exchange we get the quality we are looking for. Don’t be fooled by the simple décor. This place is all about excellent bread. It’s as good as any bread I’ve ever had, right up there with the very best, the kind of bread you would expect from a great establishment where the boulanger wears the French flag around his neck. That this bread is made by such a young artisan makes it even more special and bodes well for the future of French gastronomy.

Jeremy only uses flour from Charente-Maritime.

What is a perfect baguette? Golden thin crisp crust, light and airy inside. The bubbles of air keep all the flavours in. Jeremy is the ‘artisan‘ boulanger, a master of his trade. He started when he was fourteen years old and has been perfecting his art ever since. What is the secret to a good baguette, I asked? It’s the ‘action de la levure, la fermentation (the action of the yeast, the fermentation). But what is even more important is the time he lets his bread rise. From 24 to 72 hours. Quality is all about patience. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time, nor the staff, for such dedication. Additionally, Jeremy has a few tricks up his sleeve that make his bread unique. C’est le secret professionel, something he won’t share with anyone.

Fresh baker’s yeast (left), Jessica and boulanger Pierre.

The less yeast , the better the quality. The more water, the thinner the crust, the airier the crumb, therefore the bread tastes better. Jeremy leaves his baguette ‘tradition’ (their bestseller) to rise 48 hours in a cold room of 3 degrees Celsius. He uses ‘mitronette’ mill flour from the Charente-Maritime region. In high season, queues start forming at 7:30 am, clients buying the baguette classique, the ficelle, the céréales, the bio among many others.

I have learnt a great deal from Jeremy’s techniques and will take these very important tips:

● Only use fresh yeast (your baker can sell you some),
● Don’t be shy to let the dough rise for a long time (Jeremy lets his baguette rise 48 hours in a cold room 3 degrees), or at least 3 hours at home at room temperature
● Less yeast = better tasting bread
● While baking the bread at 240°C, use a cast iron skillet filled with 1 large glass of water placed under the baking tray. Traditional baguettes are baked in ovens that produce steam, which delays crust formation so the loaves can fully rise.

Cycling around the charming village of Soulac-sur-mer.

My favourite sandwich: saucissons secs, pickles and butter with baguette bread.

We came back home by lunchtime. I made my favourite sandwich. Baguette, saucissons secs, butter and crunchy pickles. Simplicity at its best.

Le fournil de J & J

Chocolate swirl meringues

Meringues are the most pleasurable desserts to make from start to finish. From separating the eggs, whisking up a sky of fluffy clouds, shaping them into pretty petticoats, these sweet confections are simply magical. When I was small, I always imagined clouds tasted like vanilla meringues. Slightly crisp on the outside, creamy yet airy inside. As intimidating as they may look, meringues are actually very simple to make as long as you follow a few basic rules. Always whisk egg whites at room temperature, add sugar little by little, and try to keep the whisk as horizontal as possible. It is similar to creating foam, which is a collection of bubbles. The cornflour acts as a binding agent, and the sugar stiffens the foam. The best part of these meringues is folding in the cocoa powder. It instantly forms beautiful long ribbon-like swirls. When baked the cocoa somehow melts inside creating a meringue filled with a soft chocolate fondant. I call this culinary art. These chocolate swirl meringues are timeless delights. I love them best served with crème Chantilly (whipped cream) and semi-drenched in a luxurious dark chocolate sauce.

Ingredients:
6 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
1 + 1/2 tsp cornflour (I use maïzana)
2 tbsp good-quality cocoa powder
A pinch of fine salt
320 g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 140° C. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Meringues:(makes about 5-6 meringues)

In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites (I use a pair of electric whisks) and salt on a high-speed until frothy – try to keep the whisk position as horizontal as possible. Add the cornflour and sugar (1-2 tbsp at a time) gradually and continue whisking. You should add the sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. When the egg whites form stiff peaks (this usually takes about 10-15 minutes), gently fold in the cocoa powder. You should create nice swirls in the egg whites. With the help of two large slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites onto the parchment-lined baking tray. The meringues should be about 10-12 cm large and 6 cm high. ‘Twirl’ your spoon around and finish off with a spiky peak. Finally ‘dust’ some cocoa powder on top of each meringue and use a small fork to gently draw a few more swirls.
Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes, switch off the oven, and leave them to cool inside the oven with the door slightly open for 15 minutes.

Chocolate sauce:

40 g good-quality cocoa powder
100 ml water
50 g sugar
40 g golden syrup (or corn syrup)
20 g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces

Mix the cocoa powder, water, sugar, golden syrup in a small saucepan and bring to a soft boil. Remove from heat and add dark chocolate pieces. Stir until the chocolate has melted. Set aside at room temperature for an hour before serving.

These little ‘meringues’ have been out of the oven for 3 weeks!

September is for snails

There are only two hundred snail farms in France, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered that one of them was just around the corner. Heliciculturalist Françoise Pion and her husband Francis have been successfully cultivating the Helix aspersa maxima, better known as the ‘gros gris’ snail. France remains the largest consumers of snails in the world, consuming 40,000 tons per year. It is considered a delicacy and loved by most, especially cooked in the manner of ‘Escargots à la Bourguignonne‘, baked in the oven with garlic butter. Snail cuisine represents a very important part of French heritage, just like foie gras, wine and cheese.

Françoise & Francis Pion

Françoise advised me to come on a rainy day, when the snail pens are most impressive. The wooden sheds are covered in thousands of gros gris (large grey) snails. Even in my wildest imagination had I never witnessed such a scene. Cultivating snails requires a meticulous understanding of nature, balance and patience. The mortality rate can be as high as 40% as these molluscs are very sensitive to the environment, but the couple discovered a homeopathic doctor, a snail whisperer, renowned for his herbal treatments. The water sprayed on the snails is infused with a special concoction. Since then the snails have been healthier than ever, with hardly any mortality rates. These treatments are also used in oyster farms in the Arcachon bay and have proven to be very successful.

I have always loved snails since I was a child. If there are escargots on the menu, I will most probably order them. Ancient Romans considered snails to be an elite food, often served during Lent as it was neither considered meat nor fish. In the old days, châteaux in France had their own private snail farms to cater to their gourmet tables. Snails are mature when a lip forms at the opening of their shell. Snail picking usually starts in September. Unless you live in an snail-friendly environment or a snail farm, buying them fresh can be a difficult task. However, you can find good-quality canned or frozen snails in most fine ‘épiceries‘ (grocery store/delicatessen). Françoise’s clientèle is mostly based around Bordeaux and Médoc, catering to some of the major chefs around the region.

It was obvious I had to ask Françoise and her husband Francis to introduce me to snail recipes, as I have never cooked them before. They kindly shared a few of their favourite ones, such as snails à la Bourguignonne (her favourite – baked in garlic butter), snails à la Bordelaise (his favourite – meat based wine sauce) and snails sautéed in cèpes mushrooms and persillade (parsley and garlic). I had so much fun learning how to prepare these delicacies with them – I couldn’t have had better teachers! The garlic butter was exactly what I had wished for (I kept the left-over butter in the freezer – it will be perfect for steaks), and the Bordelaise sauce was pure extravagance. It was so good, next time I will make a double portion so I can save some sauce for a pasta dish.

Ingredients:

Preparing the snails:

Blanch in boiling water for 5 minutes. Rinse several times in clear water. In a large bowl of water mixed with 2 tbsp of vinegar, clean the snails with the help of a small brush (a toothbrush is good). Rinse in clear water again.

Prepare the court-bouillon (broth):

2 litres chicken broth
250 ml dry white wine
1 small onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
Salt and pepper

Chop the onion, celery, carrot and parsley, add in a large saucepan with the wine and broth. Add bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a soft boil. Place snails in pot, the broth should cover snails entirely. Cover and cook them on a low heat for 2 hours. Let the snails cool in the broth. Use a small ‘snail’ fork to remove the snails from their shells. Insert the fork to separate the meat from the shells, twisting the shells away from the meat to separate. Discard (just tear with your fingers) the ‘twisted’ past of the snail (intestines). If you are cooking a recipe with shelled snails, return the snail back in its shell. Just push it back in with a small fork or use your index finger. If you are cooking the snail’s flesh, just set aside on a plate or prepare for freezing storage in a ziplock bag.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

For 7 dozen snails (84 snails)
250 g butter (at room temperature)
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
1 bunch of parsley
1 tbsp fleur de sel/ coarse salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 pinch ground nutmeg

In a food processor, mix garlic and shallots for 2 minutes. Add parsley, salt, pepper and nutmeg and mix 1 minute. Add butter (at room temperature) and mix 30 more seconds until you get a smooth paste. Place a small piece of garlic butter (approx 1 tsp depending on size of snail) inside snail. Arrange snails in an appropriate dish and place them in a preheated oven at 200°C degrees for about 5-8 minutes and serve.

Escargots à la Bordelaise

For 9 dozen snails
450 g sausage meat
150 g ham (cut into small squares)
5 small shallots
2 garlic cloves
A handful of parsley
1 kg tomato passata
½ l red wine
½ l chicken broth
2 tbsp flour
Olive oil (for frying)
Salt and pepper
1 pinch chilli powder

In a large pan, heat olive oil and add minced garlic and shallots . Cook until soft and slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add sausage meat, ham and parsley and continue to cook until browned. Take the pan off the heat, add 1 tbsp of flour and mix well. Return to heat, add tomato passata, mix well, cover and cook on a low heat for 15 minutes. Add chicken broth, red wine, salt, pepper and chilli. Cover and cook for a further 15 minutes. Add shelled snails and cook for 10 minutes on a very low heat. Serve immediately.

Escargots aux cèpes

300 g cleaned and coarsely chopped cèpes mushrooms
300 g deshelled snails
1 garlic clove (sliced)
A bun of parsley, finely chopped
Butter (for frying) or garlic butter (see previous recipe)
Salt and pepper to taste

Clean and slice mushrooms coarsely. Heat a frying pan on a medium heat. When the pan is very hot, add the mushrooms, without any fat. Fry for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Set aside and drain if necessary. Melt garlic butter (see previous recipes) in frying pan, sauté snails (deshelled) for 2-3 minutes. Return mushrooms to pan, stirring constantly. On a high heat, add chopped parsley and garlic, salt and pepper, mix well for 10 seconds. Serve immediately.