To Banon with the Sisters

Jacky and Eliane are sisters who were born in the village and have lived here all their lives. They have taken me under their wing somewhat and are endeavouring to educate me about all things Provençal. As well as promising to show me mushrooms in the autumn and teaching me about wild plants, they have lent me books about local wildlife and artists. They speak as fast as gunfire and we laugh a lot as I struggle with my erratic French to keep up. When they invited me to the cheese festival at Banon recently, I said yes, of course.  

DSCF2242.jpg

The day was hot, and the streets were jammed with people thronging about the stalls. There were balloons and children and dogs running around. There were horses. Jacky and I entered a competition to guess the combined weight of some kid goats. Neither of us won. There was goats milk ice cream, there were glasses of wine, fried pastries and frites. But most of all there was a lot of cheese. 

Banon is famous for its unpasteurised goats cheese, particularly the one wrapped in chestnut leaves, soaked in eau de vie. I never quite got the point of it until I followed the suggestion of the shopkeeper in the village who sold a cheese to my friend recently. After choosing one that was ripe, he leaned in and told her authoritatively that absolutely the best way to eat it is with steamed potatoes, rather than bread, and to accompany this with a bottle of good white wine, perhaps a Chablis or a Sancerre. We wasted no time in following his advice and found it to be brilliant. Now I eat one a week!

 Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

The woods flanking the windy road up to Banon are full of chestnut trees, so it makes sense that their leaves are used to wrap up the little cheeses. Only twelve or so small dairies make them, but they are sold all over the world. 

 A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

People on decorated tractors threw out tiny bottles of synthetic lavender eau de cologne to the grown ups and inflatable balls to the children. The compère shouted at the top of his voice as though he didn't have a megaphone. It was time to go home. 

 Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Later, sitting outside their house in the shade, Eliane went in and fetched me a book of Martine Franck's photographs, Le temps de vieillir. She opened it up on a photograph of three women. 'Do you recognise her?' she asked me, pointing at the youngest one. It was unmistakably Jacky.

'I was out that day, that's why I'm not in the photograph. Jacky had been sunbathing and that's why she was in her bikini,' said Eliane. I looked over at Jacky and I thought I saw a look of sadness or nostalgia. Perhaps she was thinking of her mother and her grandmother. Perhaps she was thinking of a different time. 

 Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.  As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away. 

Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.

As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away. 

Spring Vegetable Broth with Pistou

The Ice Saints have been and gone, and just as Josie said it would, the weather has turned warm and it is now safe to plant out the tender vegetables. The other day in the market, I counted sixteen varieties of tomato plants. I am waiting until next week to plant mine out, as my house is crammed with boxes to unpack from my move out here from England.

The broom is blooming yellow in the sun, sending out waves of scent as sweet as honey. The skies are blue, blue, blue. The grass and the weeds are growing visibly under my eyes. The fields are dotted with bright poppies, the butterflies are out, the flies and the swallows are back. The nightingales fill the valley with song, day and night, and the stalls in the market are abundant with vegetables. Each week there is more to choose from; artichokes, asparagus, broad beans, delicious strawberries and lettuces of all types. 

Recently, I ate a delicious spring soup at a local restaurant, which inspired me to make my own. It is a version of Soupe au Pistou, a classic Provençal dish, similar to an Italian minestrone, usually made with beans and potatoes and fine pasta. This one is more of a broth: I have left out the potatoes, the pasta and the dried beans and I have used small artichokes, which are plentiful in the Mediterranean, and asparagus for a spring treat. You could try trimming a couple of large artichokes and chopping the heart up into smaller pieces. Watch out you don't include any choke! Both asparagus and artichokes are naturally cleansing vegetables and very good Spring tonics for the liver. The broad beans I bought in the market were small and tender. The older ones have pale, tough skins and need skinning.This recipe can be adapted to whatever is in season. You could use courgettes, fresh peas, green beans, squash and you could add some tinned cannellini or flageolet beans or potatoes for more substance. The pistou is similar to Italian pesto without the pine nuts. Fresh garlic is excellent in this. 

DSCF1756.jpg

I made a vegetable stock, using onion, carrot, celery and celeriac as a base. To this, I added clean potato peelings, spring onion trimmings, the asparagus and some of the artichoke trimmings. Leek trimmings are also good. Don't overdo the artichokes, as they can add a bitter note. The carrot and the onion add the necessary sweetness. The celeriac gives it a full flavour. 

SPRING BROTH WITH PISTOU - 4 helpings

FOR THE STOCK

1/2 Celariac

2 carrots, roughly chopped

I onion, quartered

1 stick of celery

Trimming from potatoes and spring onions, if you have them, or other vegetable trimmings to hand

Artichoke and asparagus trimmings

 

FOR THE SOUP

Asparagus - 8

Artichokes, 5 of the small ones, trimmed into quarters

Young broad beans - a couple of generous handfuls, podded

2 diced carrots

2 thinly sliced spring onions

 

FOR THE PISTOU

Big bunch of basil

100ml olive oil

A little grated parmesan

Cover the vegetables for the stock with about 1 1/2 litres of cold water and leave to simmer for a few hours. Add a couple of teaspoons of salt and strain.

Cut the tough ends off the asparagus and trim the artichokes - small ones if you can find them - quarter them, cut the top third off, peel of the tough outer leaves and trim away the chokes, leave attached and peel a section of the stalk. (See below)

Make the pistou: Put a good handful of basil into a blender with 100 ml of olive oil with a desertspoon of freshly grated parmesan and a pressed clove of garlic. Blitz throughly.

 

Add the quartered artichokes to the broth and simmer for 2 minutes.

Add the asparagus and the carrots and simmer for another 2 minutes.

Add the broad beans and the spring onions and simmer for another 2 minutes.

 

Season with salt and pepper.

 

Place the vegetables in the bowls and ladle broth on top. Serve with the pistou.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité and Sentimentalité

 Robert and his free range eggs

Robert and his free range eggs

Sunday is market day in the village. The sun was out after the thunderstorms and heavy rain of yesterday, and the cafe overlooking the square was filling up. First stop was with Robert, the egg man. 

'These eggs will make you feel happy,' he said, smiling broadly. Only two days ago, I had been reading that eating eggs increases dopamine in the body, which makes one feel more happy and motivated,

'And are the chickens happy?' I asked. '

'Absolument.  They peck about outside in the grass all day. Please come and visit them and the ducks anytime.' As he picked out twelve eggs stuck with straw, he explained where he lives in the village. He did look piratically happy as he kissed the regulars on both cheeks. 

My friend, Elizabeth and I had another invitation from François, who grows organic vegetables, to visit his farm next Saturday. His stall was loaded with vibrantly healthy vegetables, including broad beans, beetroot, radishes and frilly lettuces, as well as vegetable plants for the garden. My neighbour, Josie, had already warned me not to plant anything out until after the 13th May as tomatoes and other tender plants are not safe until after the last of the Ice Saints days, les saints de glace, has been and gone. François scribbled complicated directions to his place on the back of my shopping list. I hope I can find it!

 François' vegetables

François' vegetables

As I was taking photographs of the market, a voice behind me pronounced, 'photographs are sentimental, Madame.' I turned around. A man, well dressed in tweed, was smiling wryly at me. I smiled back. 'Not always,' I said. But I have to admit that he has a point. It can be tempting to edit Provence down to garish lavender fields and sunlit hills. And yet those things are there. Just know that in the moment I pressed the shutter on these delicious olives, the stall holder cried out, 'merde!' as the pesky wind blew over the canopy. As my mother says, (she lived here for over fifteen years) 'Haute Provence ain't the Riviera!'

When I went to join Elizabeth at the cafe, I spotted this shopping on a neighbouring table. Sentimental? Maybe. Posed? Non! 

France goes to the polls today. Provence is solid Le Pen territory. Reillanne and Forcalquier are rich with artists and creatives and have a vibrant counter culture. These three beauties sang Italian Resistance songs at the top of their voices in the market. I'm crossing everything for Macron.