Going to the Mediterranean

Imagine: a weekend escape from the gloomy Atlantic to France’s Mediterranean coast. You speed past verdant fields, some erumpent with the brightest red poppies. You wind along the longest motorway, wind down down down until you find yourself at the ocean. But it’s a soft, somnolent ocean tempered by a clustering of bays. The sun embraces your skin, it plays against building walls. Brightly colored sailboats dot the harbor. 

Here, you count eight ducklings with their mother under the piers. Here, countless artists have found inspiration in the townscape that seems to melt into the Mediterranean. Here, Catalan pride seeps deeply into the earth, finds its way through labyrinthine streets.

After a day of laying out on the warm pebbles of the beach and an evening whiled away at dinner over the water, you wake to a bustling farmer’s market. The narrow aisles are chock full of temptations: tomato and sardine flatbreads, delicate North African pastries, local wines. But you are drawn to a stand presided by a small man and a gigantic cast iron pan. He lifts the lid, revealing golden brown duck thighs simmering in a sweet broth of Banyuls wine and melted onions. You are poured a cup of Banyuls, straight, as you consider. The man stumbles between French and English. He learns where you’re from and sings you Hotel California. 

Yes, you will take some of his duck stew. You will bring it to the beach and eat it, slowly, looking out at the ocean, before starting your drive back to Gascony.  

Cuisse du Canard aux Banyuls
(as inspired by our trip to Collioure)

Ingredients:

  • 4 large duck legs, 8—10 oz. each
  • 1T thyme leaves, plus 4 whole sprigs thyme
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 1T black pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • 2T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 21/2C onion, diced
  • 1/2C carrot, diced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2T balsamic vinegar
  • 2C  banyuls
  • 3C chicken stock
  • 1/4C parsley        

Method:

  1. Trim excess fat from duck legs
  2. Season with thyme, orange zest, and black pepper
  3. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours and as long as overnight
  4. Take the duck out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before cooking. After 15 minutes, season the legs with salt
  5. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes
  6. Add olive oil and wait 1 minute
  7. Place the duck legs in the pan, skin side down, and cook for 8—10 minutes, until the skin is deep golden brown and crisp
  8. Turn duck legs over, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 2 minutes on the other side
  9. Transfer duck, skin side up, to a braising pan; try to use a pan that just fits the duck legs
  10. Preheat oven to 325°
  11. Discard half the fat from pan and return to stove over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, and a pinch of pepper
  12. Cook until vegetables are caramelized, about 10 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon to scrape up crusty bits.
  13.  Add balsamic vinegar and banyuls.
  14. Bring liquid to a boil, and cook until it has reduced by half, about 6—8 minutes
  15. Add 3 cups stock and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 5 minutes.
  16. Pour broth and vegetables over duck legs, scraping vegetables fallen on top of duck back into the broth. The liquid should not quite cover the duck.
  17. Cover pan very tightly with plastic wrap (yes, it can go in the oven) and then aluminum foil. Braise in oven for about 2 1/2 hours, until duck is very tender. To check for doneness, remove plastic and foil and pierce a piece of the duck with a knife. If the meat is done, it will yield easily and be tender but not quite falling off the bone
  18. Bonus step: to brown the duck legs, turn oven up to 400°. Transfer duck to a baking sheet and return to oven for 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, transfer broth into saucepan and reduce over medium-high heat to thicken
  19. Transfer duck legs into bowls and ladle broth over. Garnish with parsley

Working at the Camont kitchen

In Which Public Shaming Leads to a Recipe

Jon’s Matar Paneer

In his own words

Caveats:

  • All ingredient amounts are more or less approximated - adjust to your own taste or for size/pungency of your produce and spices
  • Cooking times are also approximated - you’ll need to make some judgment calls and I’ve tried to outline what you’re looking for at each step
  • This is not meant to represent “authentic” Indian food - it’s just how I make it. My reference point for matar paneer, like most non-Indian people, is restaurant curry, which may differ from “authentic” homestyle curry. 


Ingredients:

  • 2 onions, minced
  • 2 tomatoes, concasse and chopped (a little less than 1 12 oz can of tomatoes works in a pinch, but good fresh tomatoes are better)
  • 2 jalapeños (or serranos), minced (seeds & membrane removed if you don’t want it too hot)
  • 2-3 inch tube of ginger, peeled and grated (or finely minced)
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and grated (or finely minced)
  • Ghee (clarified butter) or some other kind of cooking fat
  • ~2 cups of peas - fresh is best, but frozen works just fine
  • ~1.5 cups Paneer, cubed (about a 4-5 inch square if you made your own)
  • 1 teaspoon coriander (ground)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin (ground)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala (ground bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom)
  • 10-12 cashews, ground
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • Salt
  • Cilantro for garnish (optional)

A note on spices:

  • I generally find that whole spices ground fresh are best - they’re much more flavorful than that shit you buy in the little red container with the red top. Of course, this is a pain in the ass; if you’re a masochist, use a mortar and pestle, otherwise an extra coffee grinder works well (don’t use a coffee grinder that you use for coffee - it’s hard to get the flavor of cumin out once you’ve used it for that purpose). Also, grinding whole spices like cumin and coriander rarely removes the husks of the spices; pass the ground spices through a fine mesh sieve and sift to remove big chunks of husk.

A note on method:

  • For me, making curry like this is all about caramelization, using heat to open up flavors in spices, and long, slow cooking time (like any good stew). Lots of recipes out there suggest you can finish this all up in 30 minutes - I think this is a load of crap. Good sauces and stews take time (especially in this case if you’re making your own paneer) and they always taste better with more time (like the next day).
  • Google concasse for the tomatoes if it’s unfamiliar. Basically it’s a method to quickly and easily remove the skin; tomato skin doesn’t really dissolve in cooking and it’s not great to have the chewy/stringy skin in your finished curry.
  • This should serve at least 4 people, possibly more.


Method:

  1. Sear the paneer: Put some ghee or oil in a pan over medium heat and heat it up. Toast a half teaspoon of the turmeric for 30-60 seconds once the oil is hot. Sear the paneer, about 30-45 seconds and then flip and let it go another 30-45 seconds. It should take on the vibrant yellow/orange color of the turmeric and be lightly caramelized on each side. If you’ve made your paneer well, it should hold its shape relatively well and not melt. Remove from the pan with tongs, chopsticks or a slotted spoon and let drain on a doubled over paper towel and plate.
  2. Toast some spices: Add more oil to the pan and let it heat up. Add the coriander and cumin, toasting over medium heat for at least 1 minute. You should be able to smell the spices; this process opens up the flavor of the spices (and is a process I don’t find often in western cooking).
  3. Caramelize the onions: Once you have the cumin and coriander toasted, add the finely minced onions, salt and cook over medium heat. Once the onions are sweated (translucent), lower the heat to low and caramelize. This part is key - you’re going to cook the hell out of the onions. You want to get them nice and caramelized, which helps get that deep, rich and slightly sweet flavor in the curry. You don’t need to get it to the point of being a deep brown paste, but you definitely want it to look more brown than white. Expect this process to take at least 20 minutes. Like I said, this takes time.
  4. Heat the ginger and garlic: When the onions are browned, push them to the side of the pan and add some more oil to the pan and turn to medium-low heat. Add the grated ginger and garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring as needed to prevent burning. This brings out the flavor in the ginger and garlic. Bring the onions that were at the side back in the mix and stir to combine. 
  5. Add tomatoes, chilis, and the rest of the spices: Add the chills and spices (EXCEPT for the garam masala) first, sauteeing at medium heat for 2-3 minutes (you can use the “push to the onion mix to the side” method again here if you desire). Mix it all up and add the chopped tomatoes. You want to be careful with the amount of tomatoes you add, especially if canned - too much and it can taste like tomato sauce (which is a big reason why I prefer fresh). The tomatoes are there to add some acidity, both liquid and body and some flavor, but it’s obviously not supposed to be the dominant flavor. Stir to combine and simmer the curry for at least 20 minutes, ideally 30-60 minutes. Ideally the curry will not have any obviously recognizable pieces of vegetable in it when you’re finished with this step, though some small chunks are okay. Salt to taste during this process.
  6. Finish the curry. Add the ground cashews and peas and cook for an additional 5 minutes or so. Stir in the yogurt, 1/4 cup at a time until you get your desired creaminess. To me, the curry doesn’t really taste like it should until you add the yogurt, which gives it some brightness/tang, creaminess and generally smoothes it out and helps all the flavors come together. Finish with garam masala and stir to combine. Put it into whatever serving vessel you desire and garnish with cilantro. Serve with rice and/or some kind of Indian bread (naan, roti, chapati). 
Tags: france peas curry

Finding Spice in France

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French food is delectable: rich flavors garnered only from hours of slow roasting or braising, pastries delicately ensconced in butter. There’s the simple alchemy of meat and salt producing paté and sausage and rillettes. And then the decadent milk charcuterie: cheese. However, weeks and weeks of the food had us aching for the fiery and the spicy. For all the beauty of French food, it is undeniably brown in its balance. I craved dramatic highs and lows, punches of red and green. My fellow American students yearned for the same. 

From that desire came forth two dinners cooked in the house we shared: matar paneer and jambalaya. Yes, in the Gascon heartland, we managed to coax fire into our meals. Not without some guilt, I wolfed down bowls and bowls. But French cooking was not wholly left out in the cold- if it were not for the creamy raw milk straight from the farm, I am convinced our paneer would not have been so toothsome. If not for the fresh chickens obtained at Toulouse’s famed market, the jamabalya would not have been so succulent. So, France did have a role to play in our decidedly non-French cooking. 

Jon’s Matar (and Diana’s) Paneer

For the paneer:

Ingredients

  • 1/2 gallon of the highest quality whole milk you can find
  • 1/4c lemon juice
  • 1/2t salt

Method

  1. Set milk over medium heat in saucepan and bring to a low simmer. Stir milk occasionally, scraping the bottom of the pan so that it does not scald. It’s ready when it looks steamy and foamy
  2. Remove milk from the heat and add lemon juice. It should curdle
  3. Cover saucepan and let stand for 10 minutes, allowing the curds to separate from the whey. If separation has not occurred after 10 minutes, add another tablespoon of lemon juice
  4. Strain curds by placing cheesecloth or muslin over a colander and pour in curd; whey can be reserved or discarded 
  5. Squeeze curds to expel remaining whey
  6. Salt curds; taste and add more as necessary
  7. Press curds: still in cheesecloth, place whey on dinner plate. Wrap cheesecloth around curds, forming into rectangular shape. Place another plate on top of curds and weigh down. Press for at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour 
  8. Use paneer or refrigerate up to two days. Paneer will firm up and be less crumbly if left in the fridge longer

For the curry:

I sadly did not take notes as Jon was making the curry. I’m trying to wrest the steps from him, but my efforts have proven fruitless thus far. Maybe one day I will be able to put a recipe here. 

Update: Success! The recipe is here

Ali’s Jambalaya

Ingredients

  • 1 stick of butter
  • Dry cajun seasoning (Ali recommends Slap Ya Mamma)
  • Bell pepper
  • Onions
  • Okra
  • Parsley 
  • Garlic
  • 2lb chunked chicken ( Ali’s notes: I like to break down a chicken myself and get a mix of white and dark)
  • 2lb smoked sausage (Ali’s notes: Andouille is traditional but any form of REAL SMOKED sausage will do)
  • White Rice
  • Bouquet garnis (bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns)
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Hot sauce

Method

In Ali’s words:

  1. Melt half stick of butter in a skillet and saute peppers, onion, garlic, parsley, and a sprinkle of seasoning until mostly cooked. Remove from skillet
  2. Put the rest of your butter in the skillet and add chicken along with a healthy amount of cajun seasoning (at least enough to get a good cover on your chicken,…if you’re trying to have a mild jambalaya this is where you need to take note of seasoning usage)
  3. Cook your chicken over medium heat. It’s important to cook the chicken into the butter it’s a process of making a type of flavored sauce that is going to flavor your rice, and that is a pivotal point in jambalaya. (you want good sized chunks of chicken so they don’t disintegrate while slow cooking)
  4. Add your sausage when the chicken is about halfway done. Low and slow and delicious. Let the juices from the chicken and sausage combine with that butter to make a super tasty juice. 
  5. Use the lid of your skillet to drain out the chicken/sausage juice….measure the amount you have. Factor that amount into your liquid measure for the amount of rice you are going to cook, once measure add the liquid back into the skillet. **this part is optional depending on your skill of cooking. The main point of this step is to refrain from having runny rice (that’s a major faux pax in cajun country) 
  6. Take your chicken sausage mix and put it into an appropriately sized stock pot, add your veggies into the same pot and test your spice/seasoning.
  7. At this point add a touch of worcestershire sauce and the bouquet garnis
  8. Add your rice and the appropriate amount of water. For 4 lbs. of meat 3 cups of rice is usually appropriate. 
  9. Throw a lid on it, keep it on a medium heat and DON”T TOUCH IT! for at least ten minutes. Stirring in not essential. You will want to stir the bottom of the pot every 10-15 minutes at first as to not have anything burn on the bottom, but that’s the only reason you should touch it. You want the rice to cook in all the flavors of all the deliciousness you just created. As it’s going along, I usually test it, throw in some hot sauce if you like heat.
  10. Cook until rice is done and longer if you desire (longer doesn’t hurt, just don’t let it dry out) You want a colored flavorful sticky type rice.
  11. Remove the bouquet garnis and ENJOY! 

I highly suggest pairing this with some cornbread and bourbon 

Eating meat in France

The Meat of Gascony

The best beef I’ve ever eaten was bought in Toulouse, the meat sourced from the region of Limousin not too far away. We ate extremely high quality pork daily, prepared in at least three different ways at each meal. Yet, I feel that duck is most emblematic of Gascony. Certainly, the glut of foie gras is a constant reminder: foie in paté, on salad, on more foie gras. But there is something about the richness and particular saltiness of duck that melds well with with the bounty and the hospitality unique to the region.

The dish that brings this all together is, of course, cassoulet: a meal of various meats, most often duck confit and sausage, baked with beans, broth, and animal fat. Breadcrumbs or patience with the oven will both yield a delicate crunch to balance out the richness of the proteins. Heavy, stick to your ribs fare that will keep you warm well into the next meal- that is Gascony. 

Kate has written beautifully about why she makes cassoulet:

Because it warms the hearth, warms the spirit, and nourishes the body to keep the core warm agains the infernal Tramontana winds. I cook cassoulet to teach the basics of how to cook something simply but perfectly.

I’ve included her recipe below because, really, it’s the best I’ve found.

Kate’s Cassoulet de Gascon

This is the basic, bonafide, easy to prepare, authentic, traditional, real, regional version of cassoulet that I prepare, teach, cook and eat in my French Kitchen. The emphasis is on careful combining of very good ingredients, slow cooking and hearty enjoyment. I use duck confit and sausage de Toulouse, ventrèche ( salt cured pork belly), and pork rind for the meats. This is not gospel but pretty close. As much a state of mind as a recipe, this Cassoulet should feed your spirit as well as your belly. Invite a few friends- make it a party.

This makes a large cassoulet that fills a 4-liter cassole and feeds 8 people easily.

Step 1: the beans

Ingredients:

  • beans -1 kg dried beans (tarbais, coco, lingots, or other plump thin skinned white bean (for dried beans- soak several hours, over night or cover with water, bring to boil and let sit one hour.)
  • 1 onion- peeled
  • one whole carrot
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Thick slice of ventrèche (pancetta), salt pork, bacon or ham ends.
  • Ham bone or hock
  • Fresh pork rind-(couenne) about a 4-by-12 inch strip or about 100gr, rolled and tied with a string
  • Bouquet garni- bay, thyme and parsley stems.
  • black peppercorns- a dozen slighty crushed

Place all of the above ingredients in a large pot, cover with 2 litres of water; because of the addition of the ham bone there is no need to season with salt at this stage. The seasoning can be adjusted when the cassoulet is put together.
Bring the bouillon to a boil then turn down to simmer and let cook gently for 1 hour or until beans are just barely tender. How do you tell if the beans are done?The skins go papery and begin to collapse and the cooking liquid is milky.

Step 2: the meat- prepare while the beans are cooking.

Ingredients: This is where you can be flexible using fresh sausage, preserved duck or goose, ham or cured pork, lamb shanks, etc. We used:

  • Duck- confit de canard- one/half leg per person (note: after slipping off most of the softened congealed fat from the surface of the duck legs, we trimmed any excess skin so as to leave just a covering to protect the meat. We jointed the thigh from the drumstick and then teased the thigh bone out resulting in a neat little package of confit meat that is easier to cut in the plate.)
  • Saucisse de Toulouse- about 500 grams or about 15 cm/6 inches per person. This is a fresh pork sausage made from primarily the shoulder meat and seasoned with salt and pepper. Nothing else.
  • Saucisse de Couenne- I love how these succulent sausages made with lean pork meat and the soft rind taste. They sort of explode with flavour in the cassoulet.

Brown all of the above; the duck confit in a sauté pan and the sausages we cooked over the grill, however, they could have been pan browned as well. You want a nice hot fire to brown the skins and it’s preferable to not cook the sausages 100% at this stage as they will continue to cook in the cassoulet and give their juices to the broth.Note: Because we buy the sausage in one long link we made a pretty spiral that may be browned as a whole on one side then turned over in one piece to cook the other side.We did this on a grill over the hot ashes of the log fire.

Step 3: to assemble the cassoulet

The traditional cassole bottom is just half of the diameter as the top, making a deep slant-sided glazed terracotta pot (see pictures). Remove the bouquet garni, ham bones, onion, carrot and rind from the beans. I chop the onion, carrot and rind into small bean-size pieces and take the tender meat off the ham bone then return all to the beans and gently stir in. USing a slotted spoon, the cassole is then layered with the beans, the confit and pieces of toulouse and rind sausage then finished with a layer of beans. Adjust the seasoning of the broth from the beans; a little salt, some more black pepper and pinch of piment d’esplette. the tweaked bouillon/bean stock is wonderfully savoury. Now add this liquid to the cassoles until the beans are just covered.Any remaining bouillon should be saved for basting if needed or making bean soup with leftovers.

Step 4- To cook the cassoulet

Slip the cassole into a very hot oven (around 450’ F/ 275’C); turn down the oven after 30 minutes to medium heat- 350′ F/175′C and then let the cassoulet bake slowly as long as you can. The cassoulet in the electric oven is nicely browned in about 1-1/2 to 2 hours; ‘break’ the crust by pushing into down into the juices two or three more times. A wonderful crust forms during cooking so there is no need for a sprinkle of breadcrumbs* as the beans and starchy sauce do this by themselves. Cassoulets are not fatty and are nicely done in about 2 hours. If you start preparing the cassoulet at around 3 pm and you’ll be sitting at the table by eight pm. This could be done in advance- all or in part by cooking the beans, and or assembling before baking.

Step 5: to serve

Pour a glass of hearty red wine like a Madiran, Cahors or Zinfandel, break the crust on top at the table, ladle the steaming cassoulet into dishes and prepare to be very full and very warm as stories are told around the kitchen table well into the night!

Late Night Pastry

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve baked late into the night with my sister. Somehow, when Crystal and I get together, we find ourselves huddling around the oven door, willing macaron shells to puff at 1AM, or perhaps filling cream puffs at half past 2. At an hour normally reserved for either rest or debauchery, we are instead discussing sugar ratios and the perfect crumb. 

When I’m with Crystal, I become a more daring baker. With her, complex steps requiring several hours lose any threat of difficulty. This time, we tackled kouign amann. This French pastry has been somewhat of an albatross for me, first capturing my imagination watching Amélie in tenth grade, in which the principal character makes one just before the film’s climax. I remember being hypnotized by the kouign amann being rolled into being; I could smell the melting sugar through the television screen. But at that point, I had no words for the sweet and it slipped away until I chanced upon this. Finally, I had a name for the mesmerizing pastry: kouign amann. But upon reading the recipe, I became overwhelmed by the ratio of butter to every other ingredient and already nursed a healthy fear of laminated pastry dough. Croissants, pain au chocolate, puff pastry- this was the stuff of seemingly unattainable patisserie. 

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But not so with Crystal. On her last visit to San Francisco, we arrived quite quickly on the decision to make kouign amann. We wanted a challenge, to stretch beyond our boundaries. It is embarrassing to admit how excited we were when they came out of the oven, each one so incredibly perfect. You could see the crunchiness of the outer layer before even biting down into the buttered loveliness. We sat down to split one pastry, knowing that the inside of the kouign amann would be the true reflection of our failure or success. And- glory of glories! The crusty outside yielded to layers and layers of flaky dough sweet with caramelized sugar. 

Sometime past midnight, our beautiful kouign amann still steaming from the oven, we split two more. Tomorrow, we would share with family and friends. But for that moment, it was just the two of us and our dessert.

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Kouign Amman

Adapted from Clockwork Lemon and Use Real Butter

Ingredients

  • 1c warm water
  • 2t active dry yeast
  • 2 3/4c all-purpose flour
  • 1t salt
  • 8oz cold salted butter
  • 1/4c sugar

Method

  1. Combine water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let stand until the yeast has bloomed, about 5-10 minutes
  2. Add flour and salt
  3. Mix on low until the dough is shaggy, about 3-4 minutes
  4. Knead the dough with the hook attachment until the dough is smooth and slightly tacky, about 3-4 minutes
  5. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, about an hour
  6. Roll out the dough into a rough rectangle and refrigerate until the dough has chilled, about 30 minutes
  7. Pound the butter by placing between two pieces of lightly floured plastic wrap and pounding with a rolling plan until it is a 8”x8” square about 1/4” thick. Wrap and refrigerate 
  8. Join dough and butter. When dough is chilled, take out from the refrigerator and roll out to 10”x10”, 1/2” thick square on lightly floured surface. Take out butter block and place offset on top of dough. Fold corners of the dough over butter block like an envelope and seal. Lightly pound the dough with the rolling pin to help set the dough and butter. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes. 
  9. Fold the dough in order to create layers. Take out dough and roll out to 14”x10”, 1/2” thick rectangle. Fold into thirds from the shorter side. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  10. Repeat two more times, lightly flouring the counter and placing the opening of the top flap of the dough to your right at the beginning of each fold cycle.
  11. Fold for the final time, this time dusting surface with sugar. Roll out dough to 10”x14” once more, then dust with 1/4 cup sugar. Proceed with the normal folding into thirds. Wrap in plastic and chill for 20 minutes. 
  12. Grease muffin tin and and coat with sugar
  13. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  14. Form the kouign amann. Take out dough and roll out to 20”x15”, 1/4” thick rectangle on lightly floured surface. Slice into 12 squares. Fold corners of the square into the center, forming a bundle, then gently press bundle into the muffin tin. Sprinkle tops of kouign amann with sugar
  15. Bake the kouign amann. Place muffin tin on baking sheet to prevent butter from dripping. Bake for 25-40 minutes, until tops are golden and caramelized and the centers are no longer white or wet. 
  16. Remove kouign amann immediately from muffin tin once they are done to prevent them from sticking. Place upside down on a cooling rack to set.  
Finally gave in and bought a Costco-sized bag.

First on the docket with the new flour: bagels.

Finally gave in and bought a Costco-sized bag.

First on the docket with the new flour: bagels.

Tags: flour

Pops of color at the Port Angeles farmer’s market

Elderflower Cordial

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When people ask me what I learned on my trip, I feel that they expect a grand narrative: “Diana went to France and when she returned she realized x about her life.” Or maybe some defining capstone: something concrete, definitive. To satisfy this expectation, I tell them that I can now break down an entire pig carcass. But I think the most valuable learnings from my time in France are much more subtle. I have been met with blank stares when trying to explain this (perhaps I shouldn’t have started with the pig carcass); hopefully I can better put it down in words. I will start with a story. 

I love the taste of elderflowers. Unlike many edible flora, elderflowers have their own distinct flavor and aroma; they do not overwhelm you with thoughts of potpourri and hand soap. They are sweet like lychees, with a lingering hint of pleasant grassiness. However, my consumption of elderflowers has been largely limited to drinking St. Germain and poring over the edlerflower chapter in Nigel Slater’s Ripe. So you can imagine my excitement when Kate, our fiercely delightful teacher, pointed out the blossoming elderflower trees at the Chapolard farmhouse. Once I knew what to look for (greyish brown trunks, thick canopy of yellow-green leaves, dense clusters of tiny white flowers), I spotted elderflower trees everywhere: in fields, alongside the roads, edging the Canal du Midi.
One day, I mentioned my largely unrequited love of elderflowers to Kate. “Well,” she said, “It would be easy enough to make some elderflower cordial. Why don’t you do that? Then we can float it on sparkling water. Or rosé.”

"But I’ve never made anything like that. I don’t know how…"
"Oh, it’s easy. Just go out and pick some. Then steep them in water and add sugar. You can do it."

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Why not? So, with Jon’s help, I collected a basketful of elderflowers. I stuck my nose in them before their hot water bath. The scent is amazing, heady without being overwhelming. They smell creamy. I can’t explain that further, you just have to find some elderflowers and breathe them in for yourself. A few days later, after straining, citrus, sweetening, and simmering, I had three bottles of elderflower cordial. We served it at the start of a feast held in Kate’s beautifully wild garden.
At that point of the trip, I had already cut most parts of the pig, slaughtered, gutted, and butchered ducks, and knew how to make five different kinds of paté. But I felt especially proud of making this floral syrup, proud enough to lug thick glass jars of it home to the States. They are proof that I could go beyond my assumptions of what I am capable of doing, that sometimes I need to get  out of my own head and just do it

Thank you, Kate, for nonchalantly pushing me past my self-imposed limitations.

Elderflower Cordial
Ingredients
  • A basketful of elderflowers
  • 6-7c water, boiled
  • Juice and zest of some citrus (lemons, oranges…)
  • 2lb sugar

Method

  1. Pour boiling water over elderflowers and citrus zest and cover to let infuse overnight
  2. Strain out elderflowers
  3. Pour remaining liquid into a saucepan
  4. Add citrus juice and sugar
  5. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar
  6. Cook for a few minutes, then pour cordial out into sterilized jars