Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hallowe'en, US-Style



Hallowe'en

We were lucky enough to be in the US for Hallowe'en last year, something that was a completely new experience for me. In particular, I wanted to see how trick or treat is done properly, since in the UK we know it as an American tradition.

Of course, as we were staying in a hotel, no costumed kids were going to come to our door - so we had to make an effort to get out there ourselves. After taking a bit of advice from friends who live locally, we headed to the small town of Ellicott City for their Trick or Treat evening. The night had a festival atmosphere, with almost every shop on Main Street participating by handing out goodies to all comers. (Even un-costumed, slightly-bemused Brits were offered plenty of candy!) The fact that all the stores were involved (most often with the staff in costume, too) made for a really nice atmosphere.

I loved that everyone, from the littlest kids to fully grown-adults, was getting into the spirit of things. There were whole families decked out in matching outfits, and even some dogs were getting in on the dressing-up action. Insofar as I've seen trick-or-treating done in the UK at all (which hasn't been much), I've only ever thought of it as a kids' thing, but I'd guess about half of the adults were also dressed up.

The variety of the costumes was great, too. I tend to think of Hallowe'en costume options as consisting of witches, vampires, and zombies... but while there were a few friendly witches around, the Ellicott City crowd overall was far more diverse. While many of the costumes were obviously bought off-the-shelf, there was also a lot of innovation going on, with some of the most endearing costumes made from cardboard boxes and tissue paper.

Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en


Monday, 28 October 2013

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne



Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

We may have been unusual in choosing to arrive at the five-star Domaine D'Auriac by public bus, which costs €1 and stops at the nearby hospital, rather than taking a taxi or arranging a private transfer. Certainly the staff on the front desk looked a little surprised when we strolled in wearing our rucksacks and walking clothes!

I'd be the first to admit that this kind of establishment, with its Michelin-starred restaurant, isn't generally in my price range. It is, however, very much the sort of thing I appreciate, so I was thrilled to find a weekend break at a very reasonable price.

Our package included one dinner in the hotel's gourmet restaurant. I didn't take my camera to dinner as it felt like it might spoil the ambiance (I know, I know, what kind of blogger am I?) but I certainly couldn't help commenting on the food, which (along with the walls of Carcassonne) was the highlight of our trip.

We were greeted with a Grand Marnier cocktail, a bowl of olives, and a copy of the menu. A huge slate covered in freshly-picked ceps was presented to demonstrate to us the quality of the produce, and to advertise the chef's recommended starter for the evening.

As a vegetarian, eating at upmarket restaurants can often be a less-than-perfect experience. Finding veggie food in France isn't always easy, either, so when we first planned this trip I made sure to email ahead and check that they would be happy to cater for me. I'd reminded them again when we checked in, just to be on the safe side, and when we were presented with the menu I thought that might be a good time to mention it again. Our server glanced at the menu, informed me that I'd be fine with one of the regular starters (the ceps) and with either dessert. He thought for a moment and offered me a plate of vegetables as my main course.

If you're not vegetarian, you may not appreciate the way that my heart sank at this point. In particular, in the past I've had a promising-sounding "plate of vegetables" manifest itself as a plate full of lettuce with a few scattered tomatoes and slices of cucumber, or as a plate of potatoes, or as a soggy mass of over-cooked greens. I love vegetables, but being offered a plate of vegetables in a restaurant in lieu of a proper meal often seems to end badly. I think our waiter must have spotted my disappointment, as a moment later he offered "with a little risotto, madame?" which sounded far more appealing.

Andy opted for the same starter as me, which turned out to be a huge bowl full of pan-fried ceps, flavoured with garlic and loads of fresh herbs. It was definitely a generous portion, though they were so delicious I could happily have eaten twice as many. Meanwhile, the sommelier plied us with large glasses of local white wine.

Our main courses looked very similar: although Andy had fish and I had risotto, the selection of accompanying vegetables was identical. This was the first time in my life that I've been served vegetables I couldn't identify, in a restaurant. I asked if it was possible to get a list, and by the time we returned to our room, a small printed card had appeared with the details (in French, naturellement). Having done a bit of translation with help from Wikipedia's multilingual links, it seems that the highlights included black radish, salsify, and baby pattypan squash. I was seriously impressed, everything was cooked to perfection, and again I would very happily order the exact same dish again.

For dessert we both selected the soufflé, which was huge and incredibly fluffy. This was served with a jug of hot suzette sauce, which the waiter poured into the middle of the souffle. On the side, a scoop of ice cream was arranged on a crunchy base, on top of which was balanced a crispy candied orange slice. My one resolution of the evening was to learn how to create these candied slices (so watch this space).

By the time we finished our desserts we were both stuffed to bursting, but there was still coffee to come - and a selection of tiny petit fours, just in case we hadn't had enough to eat. We retired to our room thinking we wouldn't need to eat again for days (although of course, we were more than happy to tuck into breakfast the next morning).

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

The October weather wasn't really suitable for a dip in the outdoor pool, but in the summer I imagine it would be lovely, not only to swim but to relax on the terrace.

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

There's also a golf course at the hotel; unfortunately, a large sign warned that access was for golfers only, and emphatically no walkers! Which rather spoiled our plan to go for a gentle stroll around the grounds.

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

We'd paid a small supplement to upgrade to a superior room, so our bedroom had loads of space, with a coffee table and armchairs. As the hotel is a little way out of town, we tended to spend our evenings playing games and doing crosswords, so it was great to have that extra space to stretch out. The decor was a little faded in places, but generally it was a nice room with a comfy bed.

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

Breakfast consisted of a generous basket of breads and pastries, various conserves, fruit salad, yoghurt, a plate of ham and cheese (which we ignored), and a little pot of scrambled eggs. Plus, of course, as much coffee as you could possibly drink. The fruit salad was especially nice, with a huge variety of different ingredients, from local grapes to more exotic flavours such as dragonfruit.

Domaine D'Auriac, Carcassonne

On our way from the hotel into town, we passed this sign pointing towards the Service Protection des Végéteaux, and we couldn't help wondering if there was any connection to Domaine D'Auriac's great selection of heritage vegetables. I like to think so!

Carcassonne


Friday, 25 October 2013

Essential Tips for Making Jams and Preserves



Jam & Preserve Recipes
Recipes Using Jam
Tips and Tricks

It has been (as regular readers may have noticed) quite the year of jam making for me. In the process of preserving everything I could lay my hands on, I've picked up a few tips about jamming and jellying, which I thought I'd share.

Jam-making tips

Gathering your harvest can be a somewhat incremental process, particularly in the case of hedgerow berries, which are prone to mould before you have chance to cook them. Reduce the stress by popping handfuls of berries into the freezer as and when you pick them, and preserving from frozen.

A basic ratio for most jams is equal parts fruit and sugar, by weight. You can experiment and mess around with this to your taste, of course, but it seems to be a pretty reliable starting point. You can use any kind of sugar.

Jam won't set if it doesn't have sufficient pectin. If in doubt, grate in half a large cooking apple per kilo (2lb) of fruit (making sure to leave the skin on). This will provide a pectin boost without affecting the flavour, and works out a lot cheaper than buying special "jam sugar", especially if you have your own apple tree.

Blackberry jam

Adding a little lemon juice (or citric acid, if you prefer to buy it as a powder) increases the acidity of the mixture, and will help the jam last longer. Lemon juice also contains pectin.

You could spend ages scraping 'scum' off the top of your boiling berries, and many recipes would have you believe this is an essential step, but personally I just wouldn't bother unless I was aiming for a clear jelly. In general, since I prefer my jams with lumps of fruit, it doesn't seem worth the effort to worry about a few bubbles.

The setting point of jam is about 104°C (220°F), but although a sugar thermometer is a worthwhile investment, you don't absolutely need one. Put a small plate in the freezer before you start. Then you can quickly check whether jam is going to set by dropping a little onto the cold plate; if it congeals and wrinkles when you push it, you're good to go.

There are several methods for sterilizing jam jars. Running them through a dishwasher cycle is probably the easiest. You can also half-fill the jars with warm water and put them in the oven at 100°C (212°F) or a half-filled pan of water. It's important to heat glass gradually so it doesn't break; start with warm water and increase the temperature to boiling point. Lids don't sterilize properly, so you shouldn't reuse lids unless you put some clean parchment paper between the jar and the lid.

I've also gathered that there are a few differences in methodology between the US and the UK. In particular, the Brits tend to just throw the jam in the jar and leave it be, while the Americans have all sorts of added steps like pressure- or water-bath canning (neither of which I'd ever heard of before). The US Department of Agriculture has even funded a centre to research food preservation, who produce pretty comprehensive guidelines that are well worth a read. I do things the British way, just because that's how I've been taught, but some time I'd like to compare the two styles properly.
Mini jam tarts


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Carcassonne - Beyond the Castle



Aside from its impressively intact defences, one of Carcassonne's best known features is its ancient bridge across the Aude, the Pont Vieux (literally 'old bridge').

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

At one end of the Pont Vieux, a tiny chapel overlooks the water, with beautiful stained glass windows that are particularly striking on a sunny day.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The city itself is divided into two parts; the medieval city at the top of the hill is filled mostly with hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops these days, while the more recent centre ville with its supermarkets and train station is at the bottom.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

A few minutes out of town, the surrounding countryside is mostly vineyards, which give rise to the region's wines. When we visited, the grapes were heavy on the vines, and we enjoyed them in fruit salads (as well as in wine, obviously).

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Carcassonne


Monday, 21 October 2013

Mini Jam Tarts



Mini jam tarts

Since I started making my own jam, I've been looking at jam-based recipes in a whole new light. Jam tarts, for instance. While I'm certainly not averse to a jam tart now and then, I've never really sought them out, as commercial jam has a tendency to be too sickly for me except in the smallest quantities. It's quite a different thing when you've made both jam and pastry yourself!

I used three different kinds of homemade jam for my mini tarts: strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry. A solid-set jam works better than a softer texture, for tarts, as it's less likely to bubble up all over your oven - it turned out that my strawberry was a bit too soft, really.

Blackberry jamAre you interested in learning to make your own jam? Or just looking for more yummy recipes with jam as an ingredient? Click here for jam-making tips and a collection of related recipes.

Jam tarts construction

Mini jam tarts

Miniature Jam Tarts
Makes 16

For the pastry:
100g (4oz) butter or margarine
200g (8oz) plain flour
a little cold water

For the filling:
5-6tbsp jam
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F), and prepare a mini muffin tray (grease it if you don't have a good non-stick coating).
  2. Grate the butter (straight from the fridge) into the flour.
  3. Rub the butter into the flour to a fine crumb-like texture (try to keep your hands as cool as possible).
  4. Add a little cold water, and knead to bring the .
  5. Roll out the pastry, and cut circles a little larger than the holes in your muffin tin.
  6. Push each circle of pastry into a the holes of the tin to make the pastry cases.
  7. Spoon a little jam into each case (about 1tsp per tart).
  8. Cut shapes for the tops from the remaining pastry (I used different shaped cutters for each flavour of jam).
  9. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the pastry is becoming golden brown.
  10. Gently remove the tarts from the tray, being careful not to burn yourself on the boiling jam, and leave to cool on a wire rack.


Saturday, 19 October 2013

A Walk Around The Medieval Walls of Carcassonne




The ancient city of Carcassonne is famous for having some of the most impressive walls in Europe. Fully restored in the 1850s, the original hilltop fort dates back to the Roman republic, and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

You can walk around the outer ramparts for free, at any time; we did the full circuit twice, once in the rain and then again the next day when the sun came out. There is a charge to visit the inner castle, but it's well worth the money as there's loads to explore, and we learnt a lot more about the history of the city.

Carcassonne
A view of Carcassonne from the river

Carcassonne
The outer walls

Carcassonne
A flock of birds circles one of the restored towers

Carcassonne
A view across the rooftops

Carcassonne
Three Roman towers survive from the original fortifications

Carcassonne
The Roman brickwork has a very distinctive geometry

Carcassonne
The wall walk takes a path through many of the towers

Carcassonne
Two of the later towers

Carcassonne
One of the walkways within the castle

Carcassonne
The main courtyard within the castle

Carcassonne
Information boards throughout the castle explain about the growth and restoration of the fortress (in French, English, and Spanish)

Carcassonne
A view along the walls

Carcassonne
Painted walls in the chapel

Carcassonne
Traditional French roof tiles

Carcassonne
A view from within the castle

Carcassonne
Looking out over the town

Carcassonne
A rainy day


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