A garlicky French welcome
Stepping back this month into life at Caixon, a small rustic, somewhat faded village nestled in France’s rural Hautes-Pyrenees, was like slipping on a pair of well-loved slippers; worn around the edges, but ever so comfy and moulded to fit the wearer— in this case my family — just perfectly.
We came here two years ago on an adventure and so loved the people, their food and the tranquil simplicity of village life, we’ve tripped our way back to do it all over again.
Call me mad, which would be a fair description, given our first week’s succession of mishaps and hiccups. There was internet that a snoozing snail could outrun, then my prepaid phone account was suspended, because I hadn’t known that without sending Orange my passport details before topping-up I’d be regarded as a potential terrorist suspect!
Add to that blocked sinks and a septic tank in remission. All problems were solved, but in French-time— after all, nothing comes between a Frenchman and his long weekend or his two-hour lunches.
Food is the cornerstone of conversation here. We will not buy food outside a 30km radius. Mostly I’ll get it at the weekly markets, of which I have many to choose from as there’s one each day of the week in different nearby villages. On many occasions, the grower himself will sell that food. More than likely, it will carry a label indicating that it is organic, bio, or has its own appellation.
It won’t come pre-packed and will simply be put into my classic chariot (French shopping trolley) and wheeled off to ma maison. Here, where Parisians scoff that we’re so far south we’re not French (a shoulder shrugging pff! is the locals’ retort), there’s passion for good food, for lusting over the specialities of each season, pride in the region’s culinary history — all with an appreciation of the artisan’s skill.
I’m in what was once known as Gascony, home to d’Artagnan (his village is an olive-stone-spitting distance from ours); all things duck from the customary confit du canard, cheap and chewy gesiers (gizzards), to the famed and infamous foie gras; Armagnac and gutsy red Madiran wines.
It’s the land of the French paradox, so where better to start than with garlic the most common aroma that wafts through the chilly air from the traiteurs’ stalls at every market.
Here, no cook is worth his or her salt without a store of l’ail, and I now appreciate that not all garlic cooks the same — far from it. It’s the end of the season here, yours is beginning and early season garlic is milder.
Here in winter, good keeping, violet garlic with purple streaked, gift-wrapped cloves has a gutsy flavour that, unless well-cooked over a slow gentle heat until its flesh softens to a deep caramel hue, will be coarse flavoured, hot and pungent on the breath.
Slow-roasting garlic is an ideal way to appreciate the nuances of different varieties. The velvet-smooth paste, squeezed tenderly from each clove, can be whipped into a store-bought vinaigrette (a wee cheat to make your own bespoke dressing), tossed with butter through new season potatoes or stirred into hummus to add a kick.
I mix the paste with olive oil and then spread it between the golden skin and ruby flesh of corn-fed chicken thighs, baked with seasonal vegetables to create an aromatic meal-in-one-dish that’s ideal for lazy summer days or — as it will be for me — in front of a fire on a snowy evening.
Irene, interpreter of my French book, welcomed us back with a dish that included these flavours; simple ingredients all cooked in one dish for an easy meal: tres bien. Get the recipe
For more see our catch up with Allyson here.