Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Bloomin' Rain!

Days of rain. And mud. But also flowers!  The little troop of about two dozen, cherry-red Darwin hybrid tulips are showing off their bold colour, alluring sheen, and elegant blooms. 

Tulips for the most part are not as reliable as daffodils, therefore they are worth planting each fall for an incomparable jolt of Spring colour.

Iberis sempervirens (candytuft) is an evergreen ground cover that blooms the same time as many spring bulbs. The dying foliage of knobby-rooted flowering plants stores nourishment for future blossoms. But being in a state of decline is not pretty so candytuft does a fantastic job of covering up limp and yellowed leaves.

White species (this type does return reliably each spring) tulips and candytuft

We recently tootled off in our electric Zoe to the south of chez nous. The Calm One dropped me off at a plant nursery as he needed to go to one of several community associations with which he is involved as consultant, tinkerer, and teacher. Whipping out my list, I got loads (OK, OK a few unlisted items found their way into my cart!):  bulbs to plant now for summer blooming like tuberous begonias and dahlias, potting mix for indoor tomato sowing, potted herbs/veggies like chives/basil/sweet red peppers, treatment for black spot in roses, 2-9-9 fertiliser for tomatoes/strawberries, and . . .

. . . wondrous dehydrated horticultural mix. A pot only needs to be one-third full and then watered copiously. Voila, before you know it, you got a completely filled container. Yes, baby! Did I say that it is light as a feather? I was able to tuck the bag under my arm as if it was a pillow. Upon The Calm One's return (I had told him via the portable, that is, mobile phone, that I and the contents of my cart were ready to be picked up), we unloaded the groaning cart into the roomy hatchback boot of the Zoe, and then sans fumes and noise, we zipped on back home. Life, at times, can be a breeze.

Peas are always a challenge to grow in southwest France. They have to be sowed by mid-March to avoid the heat of summer which is significant by June, but the soil also has to be workable which is hard to do with all the rain. Happily, those conditions were met and there will be peas this season! The day after planting, the rain considerately did the watering for me. The bed is covered with horticultural fleece to stop the starlings from disturbing the seeds as birds know when cultivation is happening. I had left the area briefly and on my way back, I saw a gleaming and deceptively black beauty flying away from that bed with a squiggling worm in its beak.

The fleece allows rain and sunlight to get through to the planting

Within a day or two, rhubarb harvesting will begin!

The middle plant is small because it is recovering from being forced last season

The strawberries are putting out more and more flowers so it's time to scratch-in around each plant some fertiliser high in phosphorus and potassium like the one with a NPK of 2-9-9 which I recently bought.

The overwintered leeks are doing well

Our getting two colds in three months plus the inclement weather stopped The Great Iris Transplant in its tracks as lengthening days and abundant rain have resulted in their becoming bushy and close to flowering. So transplanting will wait until after their blooming.

Pink perennial geraniums are popping up on the middle right

À la prochaine!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tagliatelle, Asparagus & Parmesan in Lemon Butter Sauce

Quick, delicious, and nutritious pasta dishes work. All the time. But especially in asparagus season.

Lemon and butter brings out the best both in pasta and asparagus

It's the first time that our asparagus which was planted about five seasons ago can sustain a full harvest lasting two months therefore asparagus picking chez nous will continue till mid-May. Yay for mature asparagus beds!

The bed was weeded and fertilised about two weeks ago. Spears are cut with a sharp knife at an slight angle just below the soil

For one large serving, boil up a couple of fistfuls of pasta. Wash about six spears. Thickly slice the stems on the diagonal, leaving the tips whole. About two minutes before the pasta is almost al dente, toss in the sliced asparagus. After a minute, add the tips. Scoop out a large ladle of pasta water and reserve. In another minute, drain the pasta and asparagus, keeping them in the strainer. Depending on how fresh your asparagus is, it could take less or more time so check for tenderness as it cooks. No mush please! In the same pot that the pasta was cooked, melt a nice knob of butter. Add the freshly squeezed juice from a small lemon and a slosh of the pasta water. Simmer for a minute. Then add the pasta and asparagus, stirring for about a minute or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Serve with a good sprinkling of fleur de sel, freshly ground black pepper, and Parmesan shavings. 

My favourite tagliatelle are short, broad, and slightly curvy noodles made with eggs

Though not as decorative as non-fruiting trees, our peach beauty is putting out a decent enough show of deep-pink blossoms.

Ditto for the purple plum.

L'herbe (includes any herbaceous, soft-stemmed plant so that term is perfect for our weedy lawn!) got its first edging of the season with the dresse-bordure (metal lawn edger shaped like a half-moon) and grass clippers. An effective method is easing the edger close to the concrete/tiled edge while at a slight angle towards the grass so as to undercut the roots. Remove the tool by slightly rocking it from side to side as the handle is pressed towards the grass side so as to compact the wodge of soil (slightly moist soil is the most malleable) so it doesn't crumble into the little ditch that is being made. Using your gloved fingers, pull out the cut strip, shaking off and squishing any excess soil back into the ditch. The edge is cut with well oiled, sharpened, and cleaned grass clippers. The clippings get scooped out and the patio swept. Even our 'lawn' looks great with such precise treatment! Such edging usually needs refreshing several times during the growing season while clipping the grass along the ditch needs to be repeated when the lawn is mowed. As pesky as this maintenance is, it is one of the tasks that drastically improves the appearance of any garden. As my British sister-in-law says, it makes the garden look posh.

Culinary sage in the lower right which soon will be be pruned back severely

Our neighbours bring us their clippings which include lots of fragrant camomile from their front garden.

The clippings are turned frequently to dry them out, so they can be used as mulch, along with partially decomposed leaves from this past autumn (in background)

The two overwintered beds of onions, garlic, and shallots have been weeded and fertilised. They are awaiting to be mulched to conserve soil moisture until their harvest in July.

The Darwin hybrid Apeldoorn tulips charm in their cherry-red, silk dresses.

Italian arums are putting out their distinctive, shield-shaped leaves, making tuffs of lush green.

À la prochaine!


L'herbe is not exactly a lawn. Explanation in French here.
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe

Thursday, March 9, 2017

No Post this Week!

Souped-up Garden is still feeling under the weather. Those allergies morphed into a nasty cold.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Sprouting and Budding Garden

Like many, I have spring allergies which makes it tempting to give sway to the irritating symptoms and stay indoors. But, a sprint through the garden is as good a remedy as a dose of antihistamines. The overwintered leeks are enjoying the longer days by growing taller.

The rhubarb has leafed out and is now lengthening their red, succulent stalks.

Strawberries are putting out a flower here and there.

The shade-loving, herbaceous Lamium is popping up with its fuzzy, variegated leaves. 

The cherry-red Apeldoorn, Darwin Hybrid tulips are close to budding. They are one of the few non-species tulips that naturalise.

Sweet violets galore! Why? Blame it on their explosive seed dispersal.

The trumpet daffodils survived a recent hail storm fairly well.

Désirée seed potatoes, all seventy-five of them, are peacefully chitting on a sous-sol window sill.

Delicious and comforting Italian Pasta and Beans is a meal easy to make when you are not feeling up to par.
Topped with a poached egg

Dirac the Cat is working hard catching computer mice.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

French Cheeses: Maroilles

Twenty years ago, that is, shortly after our moving to France, we were invited to dinner at a colleague's home. Our hostess while presenting a modest plateau de fromage asked almost in a whisper, do you like French cheese?  I enthusiastically nodded my head signifying, oh yes, very much. At that time, I had only tasted Brie de CoulommiersPont-l'Évêque, Roquefort, Bleu de Bresse, and Comté but they were surely French, and they were surely wonderful. That small knife with a crooked, jagged tip made no sense to me so I ignored it and used the one by my plate. Oh my! Then I proceeded to cut the cheeses in a most inconsiderate manner, as I took a goodly amount of the croûte (rind), an appreciated aspect of French cheese. Luckily I was not immediately deported and was allowed to remain so I could learn more about the many French cheeses which roughly number about three hundred. If a more flexible accounting is done, then the figure is closer to a thousand.

Last autumn, we found a 1968 book titled Le Livre Du Fromage at an open-air brocante (flea market)

The Book of Cheese contains a charming perspective, many fascinating photographic plates, and much interesting information. 

An old carte postal (postcard) showing a large Maroilles paired with beer

It is the smallest size that is found easily nowadays. Like a smoker who adores the ritual of lighting up including unwrapping the cigarette pack as much as inhaling tobacco smoke, that's the way I am with Maroilles (pronounced ma-wahl). The cheese is taken out of its snug carton and let come to room temperature.

As the wrapper is peeled back, the bracing odour presents itself.

Though the rind which is of the washed type has a sharp aroma, the pâte itself is gorgeously mellow with nutty, earthy notes.

This little beauty provides six portions.

Since much of our menu includes cheese in the main dish, we seldom make up a selection of cheeses as in a plateau. One of the intriguing bits of information provided by the old book was what famous restaurants such as Au Pied De Cochon and La Tour D'Argent served as plateaux which at that time consisted from ten to fifteen choices. But the list that caught my attention most was the one offered by Air France:  a stable consisting of Camembert, RoquefortComté, and Port-Salut with another four which could be any of the following ReblochonPont-l'Évêque, ValledieuPetit Pâtre, Sainte-Maure, Chavignol, and Boursin. As there was some sourdough rye that was still around from the loaf The Calm One had gotten from the local boulangerie, an ample slice was covered with slivers of Maroilles.

Thus lusciously laden, it was cut into strips.

Though a robust red wine can be paired with this cheese, a good quality beer is also recommended.

To paraphase a curious quote from the book, attributed to Curnonsky, if one wanted to riff on the literary description Huysmans applied to liqueurs by using a musical analogy then Maroilles is a saxophone in the symphony of cheese. I would agree if only the sax voices of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone were all included as though it catches your attention, it's also balanced. This contented eater, comforted by the knowledge that five portions remained, finished her ritual by cozying the re-wrapped Maroilles back into its home.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Gardener Migrates from the House to the Garden . . .

Les Grues (Cranes) flew over chez nous the other day as they returned from overwintering in Spain. The melodious honking told me of their presence which inspired my doing an imitation, no matter how pathetic, of these beautiful birds as I craned my neck to count seven sedges. These fantastic creatures flying in undulating, V-shaped formations are some of the 130,000 using the western European route on the way to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Once they are sighted in Angoulême, spring gets sprung in about two weeks. Therefore I am back to being a full-time gardener and some. The first task was spraying the dormant peach tree to protect it from developing leaf curl.

Treatment is best done on dry, windless days

The plump, pink rhubarb buds are starting to do their wondrous unfurling thereby letting me know that their bed needed weeding and fertilising.

Bearded irises outgrow their space in three to five years depending on how closely they were planted. Big knobs of dead rhizomes are bunched throughout the four beds which will lessen flowering.

Dividing those gnarled lumps and discarding the defunct sections will constitute The Great Iris Transplant which will be happening the next several weeks as the two central beds will be dug up. The glorious floral display flanking one side of the long central garden path will be lessened this April as only the first and last beds will be flowering as their division will be delayed until late summer so as to allow some blooming this season.

Less crowded irises in all their glory from some years back

It's time to check to see if tools and seeds are in shape and in stock for the soon-to-be frenzied planting. That's not a drawing implement. It's a clever little device that sharpens tools from spades to grass clippers. Before an inventory of what seeds I have and what will need to be bought can be taken, a rough drawing of the thirteen potager beds has to be done, annotated with what veggies/fruits go where, honouring of course the principle of rotation.

Most of the winter mustard crop has been chopped down and incorporated into the soil. Any chunky bits will be raked off and reserved as mulch or put on the compost.

The paths between the veggie beds have gotten their first cut of the season via the string trimmer.

The lawn is sparkling with small flowers as sunlight bounces off sweet violets, English daisies, and forget-me-nots.

A single blue forget-me-not easing between two, burgundy, wandering tips of stonecrop

As the heather fades, the daffodils pop.

Looking towards the garden from the sous-sol's door

When the garden is more barren than not, seasonal object constancy is challenged as remembering the inevitable transformation of brave but sparse colour to lush and enveloping seems to have become rusty. This photo from a past May gives a shine to those memories.

Looking towards the sous-sol's door from the garden

À la prochaine!


How to divide Irises

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Simple Pleasures

When a wintry weekend afternoon reveals gloom not only on the news, but also in the damp and forlorn garden, the way to boost my fast-deflating spirits via a warming snack is as uncomplicated as baking a potato, the largest one in our cellier, roasted till its skin is crusty, slashed with a double cross so its fluffy insides can be puffed-out to be saturated with butter, crème fraîche, and chives, making that steaming, fragrant bundle look like it is puckering for a kiss. Though I am tempted to return the gesture, I am bien élevé enough to use a fork.

Preheat oven to 230 degrees C/450 degrees F. The chosen potato measures about 13 cm/5 inches long by about 7 cm/3 inches wide and is a floury type (low-moisture content) well-suited for baking. If you can't find baking potatoes then go with all-purpose. Scrub well and dry.

To let out steam as the potato bakes, prior to oven-time, pierce it all over with the tines of a fork. For a potato this size, ten stabs will be in order.

Roast for 50 to 60 minutes right on the centre rack till the skin is crackly and flesh is tender which can be tested by inserting a sharp knife in the centre. Place the baked beauty on a paper towel, potholder, or tea towel. Slash through the skin lengthwise and then make two perpendiculars near the ends of the initial cut.

Protecting your hands with the tea towel, press on both ends simultaneously towards the centre.

Fresh chives of course are the highest quality choice, but the second best are freeze-dried ones. They rehydrate quickly, retaining flavour and texture closer to the fresh version. You may have to hunt a bit for these as the less-expensive, air-dried herbs are way more common.

Put a noix (knob) of butter and a heaping teaspoon of crème fraîche (or sour cream) along with several mega-pinches of chives. A good sprinkling of salt is the final touch.

Carefully mash and mix with a fork, till all the ingredients are nicely distributed.

As you eat, don't be shy. Add more butter, crème fraîche, and chives.

And what's waiting at the bottom? The glorious skin!

A large potato with skin has about 1000 mg of potassium! 

À la prochaine!


Health benefits, food sources, and recommended daily allowance of potassium