Sunday, 17 January 2010

La Fête de la Truffe

As Paula Wolfert suggests in her authoritative book The Cooking of South - West France:

'Something so magnificent must, inevitably, corrupt. Well- truffles will ruin your bank account; as for your virtue, they may ruin that, too.'

Is there any food in the world more surrounded in mystery and intrigue than the truffle?

This weekend saw Sarlat host this region's annual celebration of La Truffe, the black 'diamond' of the Perigord.

With thirty seven producteurs displaying sixty kilos of tuber melanosporum, the heady scent perfumed the entire market square and beyond with an aroma that's both indescribable and unique.

There was an enormous variety of truffle based products for sale. Truffle aperitif, truffled chocolate, truffle cheese, coffee served with a truffle and cream froth, the list went on.

At the stroke of midday, a long line formed leading to a large tent where two chefs lovingly stirred the brouillard, an egg, butter and truffle mixture, gently churned over an enormous bain-marie achieving an almost fondant texture. At once luxurious yet rustic at the same time, it was carefully doled out into little plastic cups to be eaten with a teaspoon savouring every truffly note, such is la truffe's affinity for eggs.

In addition to laying on a truly memorable lunch, the organisers had prepared a busy events itinery which included cookery demonstrations by no less than five michelin starred chefs,

It's a curious thing this subterranean fungus. It lives in a mycorrhizal intimacy with just a handful of tree species, predominately oak though occasionally black pine or hazel.

Although dogs and pigs are frequently used to find truffles, some of the more experienced hunters known as rabassiers will simply look for the little truffle flies which on warm winter days hover in small clouds above the tubers.

You know, it's days like these that make one realise that this really is la France profonde. Deep France, embracing its rural culture away from the hegemony of Paris, rich in tradition, something very magical.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Its That Time Again

The bright spot in January's murk? Seed packets of course.

I have hoarded literally packets upon packets in recent years and with many unopened or barely touched the pile just gets bigger. The reality is I have a problem chucking any away. I'm more than happy to gift them to people, but sooner or later it becomes apparent that gifting starts to resemble 'backdoor' refuge, more off loading than good intention and all because I have this problem doing away with any that are unused or no longer a whim. Sigh.

If there's one corporate department that consistently enjoys inflation busting increases, it has to be the creative people handling the packaging etc at all the various seed companies worldwide.

The presentation just seems to get better and better. Some of the designs are so perfectly 'chocolate box' you simply have to avoid ripping open the packet at all cost. Better to gently steam the gummed flap over a kettle, avoiding any damage whatsoever and gingerly remove the little packet from inside.

Of course there are others that take a different approach. Packed in super strength foil with a label printed in courier or other straight talking fonts, these are the no- nonsense, 'does what it says on the tin' brigade. Rip them open, chuck the seed at the compost and take cover.

Well I 've pretty much made my seed choices for this year. Pink Cosmos is on the list, it simply has to be. So far the others are;


Cosmos bipinnatus ' purity'

Nicotiana sylvestris

Nicotiana mutabilis

Verbena x hybrida 'blue lagoon'


Crambe cordifolia

Digitalis parviflora

Echinacea paradoxa

Echinacea purpurea 'pink parasol'

Nepeta transcaucasia 'blue infinity'

Verbena hastata 'blue spires'

This list will grow, it always does, but old favourites inevitably creep in. For one, I find Nicotiana sylvestris 'only the lonely' practically irreplaceable. With its white tubular bells and six foot leafy stature, I can't think what would look better, particularly during the evening down near the riverside terrace.

So with the seed displays strategically placed at garden centres, catalogues dropping in the post box and daylight just starting to lengthen, it just feels like it'll be no time before things get busy in the garden, but then there was no real down time. We all know that.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Happy New pH

If there's one thing that I can say came good in 2009, it was the soil.

Over the years I've gone to considerable effort trying to improve both its structure and pH, adding horse manure by the sackload, barrowloads of compost , leafmould and practically anything that I think might give it some benefit.

It's good stuff now. I'm really pleased that the pH is now in a range which is more suitable for roses. It's the roses that prompted me to really improve the soil. It was thin, unloved earth when I first arrived here. The pH at that time read at about 7.5 or so, too limey or 'sweet' to get really good rose blooms. Not so now, at about 6.8 the soil is moving in the right direction which I'm sure was a major contributor to 2009 being a 'good year for the roses'.

Having good soil does bring its problems. I never understood the wisdom of planting woody herbs, or sub shrubs such as lavender at the feet of roses. Sure enough as a pairing the aesthetics are spot on. In fact my favourite is Nepeta, Its just that all these plants actually benefit from a little neglect. Too rich an environment and they don't bloom too well, but roses, heavy feeders right? You take my point.

I guess it's all about balance. I neglected Geranium 'Johnsons blue' and Campanula 'Elizabeth' and they took off, simply romped away.

I will incorporate a bit of compost into this little bed later in the winter however. I mean, there's neglect and then there's neglect, so I'll not divorce myself from all responsibility.

The red rose, 'La sevillana' responded to a little earth TLC. I can honestly say that this is the most floriferous it has ever been. Just add horse manure and stand back.

So if there's one thing that 2009 really highlighted for me, it was the wisdom of working a good soil.I say working loosely. I never dig. I simply scatter or mulch and the worms and beetles do the rest.

So anyway, I wish you all a prosperous, healthy, happy and peaceful 2010.

May your gardens bloom and your compost be alive!