Monday, December 29, 2014

Les Pastras - Truffle Hunting in Provence

 Expert truffier Jean Marc with his adorable truffle hunters - Pupuce and Mirabelle

This summer guests of Cuisine de Provence asked me to find them a  truffle hunt - not easy during the summer months as truffles, also known as the black gold of Provence, are mostly to be found between November and February. Thankfully I found out about Les Pastras an organic olive and truffle farm in the Luberon owned and run by Johann and Lisa Pepin, a French-American couple. 
The feedback I got from my guests was so enthusiastic that I decided we had to experience this for ourselves and also that it made a wonderful gift for my husband - a gift with benefits so to speak as I got to go, too!
Truffle hunting is a highly secretive business as truffles are not only called the black gold of Provence, they are also, just like gold, sold by the gram (or ounce) and so sought after that unfortunately a lot of poaching is going on. Owners have to keep their truffle pastures secret and only those who book a tour are given the GPS coordinates to Les Pastras, the Pepins' beautiful old Provençal farmhouse set within acres and acres of vineyards, olive and truffle oak groves.
Yesterday was a typical Provence winter day: brilliant sunshine, blue skies but a very strong Mistral - the dreaded wind from the north. Johann's friend Jean Marc, the truffle expert, was almost doubtful if his dogs, mother and daughter team Pupuce and Mirabelle, would find any truffles at all because of the strong wind that takes the scent away. But it turned out the only ones suffering from the wind were we, the fascinated onlookers - no matter how much we had bundled up it was still very, very cold!
The first truffle of our hunt,

 small but oh so fragrant!

 The dogs at work

While the dogs were doing their work Johann explained all the ins and outs of truffles and truffle  harvesting - how the dogs are trained, how truffles come to grow, how to find them, the difference between summer and winter truffles, how to distinguish between original and synthetic truffle oil (if it only says oil and truffle aroma on the back of the bottle it has never seen a truffle).

  Johann explaining the ins and outs of truffle hunting

 Just beginning, but it looks promising...

 Found another truffle!

 We proudly present the truffle harvest of the day

 Work done - now I want my belly rub!
After our bracing two hour walk hunting truffles and visiting Les Pastras' olive groves and vineyards, finding wild herbs and braving the wind, then came the real exciting part: tasting the truffles! Lisa had prepared a wonderful spread - we even got to taste a truffle infused dessert - and we warmed up with plenty of Champagne! To put it in a nutshell - if in Provence go truffle hunting with Jean Marc and Joahnn and Lisa Pepin - a wonderful experience!

 Toast, salted butter and truffles - what more do you need?

Our wonderful hosts - Lisa and Johann Pepin

Truffles are sold by the gram - yesterdays price was € 70 for 100 grams 

 Bethmale cheese, truffles and a drop of Les Pastras' finest truffle oil

 Dessert with a truffle infused Crème Anglaise

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas In Provence

 A children's Christmas in Vaison: kids can post their letters to Father Christmas in the little red letter box

  Having our photo taken with Père Noël
What do you do on a beautifully sunny Sunday morning? Take a walk of course. We mostly drove I have to admit, but only in order to inspect three different Christmas festivities. Our surrounding villages of Sablet and Séguret were holding their "Fête de Noël", which in Sablet was a Christmas market held in a tent on the main square. They had "vin chaud" - mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and sold wine, foie gras and truffles (600 Euro per kilo - the typical somewhat inflated pre Christmas price, after New Years they become much cheaper...). We bought Christmas tombola tickets and drove on to Séguret. The cobblestone village had made a real effort - beautifully decorated this was a very Provençal Christmas fête. The old communal charcoal oven was back in service, you could stock up on oysters and sausages, delicious tartes and Provençal Fougasse breads, all very joyful!
Our last stop, Vaison la Romaine, had this year decided on a children's Christmas. A giant teddy bear on Place Montfort, little kids posting their letters to Father Christmas and the man himself who graciously agreed to have his photos taken even with some not so small kids.

 Séguret: baking in the old communal oven

Where delicious Tartes and
 Fougasses, the typical Provençal bread were baked

 Care for some oysters?

 The truffles had all but sold out

 Christmas market in Sablet

 Provence Christmas weather: and yes, it is supposed to stay this sunny until well
 into the New Year!

Happy Holidays and a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year 2015 !

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tartiflette: One Dish Winter Comfort Food

It is cold outside. Just overnight it has become so cold in Provence, you don't want to leave the house without a big scarf and mittens. And a beanie won't hurt either. But there is reason to rejoice - cold means comfort food and I found just the recipe that spells comfort in capital letters.
Tartiflette hails from the Haute Savoie region of France and takes its name from the Franco Provençal word for potato - tartiflâ. And although it comes along like very simple, few ingredient peasant food this is not a dish with a long rural tradition but a genial bit of marketing dreamt up by some Reblochon producers in the 1980s to promote the sale of their cheese.
 Onions and Bacon
 Reblochon Cheese
 Tartiflette ready to go into the Oven
Start by parboiling 1 kg/2 lb waxy potatoes. Leave to cool. Peel and finely slice two white onions and sauté them in a bit of butter together with 250 g/ 8oz lardons (bacon bits) until the bacon is cooked and the onion translucent, taking care not the brown the mix. Season with freshly grated pepper - black or white, it doesn't really matter.
Peel and slice the potatoes. Layer the potato slices into a lightly buttered gratin dish, top with the onion/bacon mixture. Drizzle with a bit of either cream or white wine and top with slices of Reblochon. Cook in the oven at 180 C/350 F for 25 to 30 minutes until beautifully browned and bubbling. You won't  have to call your family to the table, the wonderful kitchen smells doing their magic calling them all by themselves. To be served either with a crisp white or a robust red wine.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Here we go again - Countdown to Christmas 2014

What a busy weekend this has been! Our "Countdown to Christmas" started on Saturday by volunteering for the "Banque Alimentaire", the local food bank. They do an annual collection where you hand out plastic bags to shoppers at the local supermarkets and ask them nicely to do a bit of extra shopping for the food bank. Much in demand this year: cooking oil, sugar, coffee and cans of vegetables and ready cooked meals. I am happy to say that the shopping carts filled up, maybe not quite as fast as a few years ago, but every little bit helps!

 Food bank collection - the vest was to identify the collectors...

Done that I did my own little bit of shopping making sure I had all ingredients for Sunday's big Christmas cookie bake. My friend Sabine's daughter Jade had asked me for a crash course in Christmas cookie baking, and I have a little suspicion she got more than she asked for: we baked almost non stop from 11 am to 6 pm - six different cookie recipes. Turns out Jade is a master decorator - my cookies never looked so pretty before!

 Jade with the first three cookie batches

 Jade's beautiful cookie decorations

Having given my "prettily" icing decorated kitchen a major clean I then made my husband get all our Christmas boxes out of the garage and while he was putting the outside Christmas lights up I decorated the tree. I have never counted but there must be hundreds of little ornaments going up that tree - it never takes me less than a full day to get it just right. Sorry about the less than fab photos but I dropped my camera on our stone floor and it went straight to camera heaven so I had to take these with a phone camera. At least Santa now knows what to bring me for Christmas....
 Collected from all over the world - our tree ornaments

Done! The tree is up!