A Pot of Coffee and a Mince Pie…..

……………… is all you need for breakfast in the Christmas aftermath.  Weeks behind with my blog, I now settle to a morning at my screen with a mug to my right and my diary to my left.  I must go back to November 28th.

With my Christmas willow tree worked and sitting in the hall awaiting shipment, I now turn to the task of sorting things that will need to travel to France,  wrapping a few presents and writing my remaining share of Christmas cards, assisting Gill with the cleaning and turning out things that she can usefully take for her car boot enterprises.  I slip down to Weymouth to visit Mum. mum1-2 Also I have managed to persuade Nick to come back from France a day earlier than he had planned so we can spend a day with the Dukes.

We meet at the car park by Thorncombe Wood near Bockhampton.  Hardy’s Cottage is nearby, it is a popular spot for visitors and walkers.  We make a short circuit through the woodland and heath and end up at the dog-friendly café where we have a light lunch. img_5305-2 Initially Maddy had proposed a walk but I tacked on the idea that we go to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  in Dorchester.  Written in 2001 by J K Rowling under the pen name of Newt Scamander it is about the magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe.  This would be my second viewing of the film at a cinema, a rare occurrence in my film-going experience.  Rather like books, I only do works of fiction once. My favourite beast is this fellow: niffler%20fantastic%20beasts-png

After the film we went back to Maiden Newton for tea then drove ourselves back into Dorchester for dinner at the Cote Brasserie.  A restaurant which is not expensive and manages reasonably authentic French cuisine.

Cut to Thursday morning and we must be on the ferry ready for departure at 08.30h.  The car is packed full.  Our departure is delayed after a minor medical emergency for which the lack-lustre ambulance service manages to delay us by a couple of hours.  Happily I am always content to be on the Barfleur.

The weekend is spent quietly and I start to think about decorating the house.  I go up to the top floor to investigate the walk-in cupboard where I keep Christmas decorations.  I am somewhat nonplussed to find very few boxes and certainly none of the old familiars.  I realise in that moment that they are sitting in our garage in Dorset, stacked where they were stacked last January ready for transport to France.  In my mind this task had been completed but in reality the boxes have been moved and re-arranged during the year by Nick without him realising what they contained.  At least the wooden reindeer made it across the Channel.  Once I look at the contents of the boxes and bags which are there I realise I will have enough baubles and tree ornaments for the fresh green tree, as well as the new willow one.  This will be a year for holly and ivy over the pictures, and candles, lots of them.

We will gradually start to pick up with our friends.  Martine and Alain come from Paris at the beginning of the week and we meet them that evening for a meal at Le Chasse Maree.  This restaurant has recently changed ownership and the new management are more agreeable than the former.  We enjoy our food there.  The Tailles invite us to eat native oysters at midday.

That is a real treat, they are more favoured than the locally farmed non-native ‘huitre creuse’ but I would be hard pushed to distinguish the two were I to subject myself to a blind tasting.

Friday is a very special day in that I go to have coffee with my talented friend Bibi who I haven’t seen since April.  This seems incredible but she spent two months in Mexico painting a stunning mural in a friend’s house and then we were away in June, then summer intervened and a busy autumn and that’s how it went.  She makes lovely things.  Her current theme is to create puzzles, wooden shapes which form her special brand of jigsaw puzzle and each puzzle comes in its own box which is a work of art.

I love them all but cannot resist the Picasso one which I buy then give to Nick on his birthday!  He likes it too. In the evening we have been invited to eat chez Burnouf, and Dede serves a delicious ‘couscous’.  The Poulets are there, also the Tailles, wonderfully convivial.

Over the weekend Bibi and three other friends hold a Christmas ‘Expo’ and sale of their work.  15380688_551366855059399_4150434975071553341_nI am able to properly meet Charlotte Franklin who I spoke to briefly in the summer at the Daniell event.  She is a talented painter and sculptor and a friend of La Poulette.  I buy some of her lovely cards.  Then it’s also good to meet up with Pink Sarah, she who made the tartan replica of my favourite pinafore dress.  I decide to take a couple of ‘off-the-pegs’ into my wardrobe.  There is a charming Frenchwoman, Florence Renault, who makes beautiful jewellery in glass.  Some Euros are parted with.   Having been in the morning, I later accompany la Poulette and Fefe who both expressed an interest in going to the sale.  As it happens they each buy a version of the striped ponchos that Sarah has made.  I think they suit their respective new owners well although later I gather from Fefe that she has gone off the boil with hers as she feels as if she has a rug slung about her shoulders.  I think she may be missing the point!

By Sunday evening that’s a diverse week wrapped up, another one is in view.

A Walk in the Woods

When Dédé and Françoise proposed a walk in the woods, little did I imagine what a unique moment this would be, for me.  Françoise’s email ran as follows “Mercredi,  à 14 heure veut tu venir avec André et moi aux champignons?   Nous serons de retour pour 17 hr.  On vient te chercher si tu peux ? Gros Bisous.   ‘Aux champignons?  In December?!!  I concluded that ‘aux champignons’ would be an expression, a watchword if you like, to denote a gentle ramble in the countryside.

Since Nick and I bought our French house eleven years ago we have never been for a walk in French woods!  IMG_5347 (2).JPG

When I think about that it is rather extraordinary.  We have walked often enough along the shores and coast of the Cotentin, round La Hougue many times, and less frequently inland within our neighbourhood.  But we have not experienced true French countryside at first hand.  One reason is that ‘the right to roam’ does not exist in France.  Much land is in private ownership and much of that is managed for hunting.  ‘Chasse garde’ or ‘Chasse prive’.

We were picked up at 2 o’clock and the first surprise was that we would be going by car.  Dédé drove us to a bit of well-established woodland that he has known since he was a boy.  Indeed as a boy he used to forage for mushrooms. I think it was a clandestine activity; I am not even sure we should be here today, there are wooden signs nailed to trees all around.  img_5333-2 It would not be giving too much away to say that the locality is called Montaigu, a sprawling area of woodland either side of the main road to Valognes.  Montaigu la Brisette covers an area of some 1500 sq. km.  We drove down a few lanes and then a track.  Dédé parked the car.  There was a very fine drizzle, at times more like a swirling mist, which persisted throughout the afternoon.  It was rather pleasant: humidity and fungi are happy companions.  We walked into the woodland with some purpose and before long our hosts were stopping and staring at the ground.  And there they were, small brown circular shapes with fluted edges, the caps of Chanterellesimg_5336-2Chanterelles, also known as Girolles, Cantharellus cibarius, are probably the best known species of the genus Cantharellus.  Wikipedia tells us that the mushroom is orange or yellow, meaty and funnel-shaped. On the lower surface, underneath the smooth cap, it has gill-like ridges that run almost all the way down its stipe, which tapers down seamlessly from the cap. It emits a fruity aroma, reminiscent of apricots and a mildly peppery taste and is considered an excellent edible mushroom.

Our mushrooms, my expert mycologist sister has since told me, were  Cantharellus infundibuliformis.  img_5339-2A common mushroom that grows in large groups in wooded areas and damp places. They are characterized by dark brown caps that measure up to two inches across and brownish-yellow stems. The underside of the cap features narrow veins rather than gills. They are known as Yellow Legs and have a pleasant aroma but are very bitter if eaten raw. They are best when added to dishes that are slow cooked which makes them tender and much more flavoursome. They will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to a week and they are very easy to dry.

We browsed our way through the woods, stooping to gather freely where the toadstools were fruiting.  img_5349-2Once you knew what you were looking for their congregations were not difficult to spot.  They appear, in pockets, in much the same places year after year.  We all gathered a magnificent haul of the dainty mushrooms.  Along the way we saw other fungus species.  Dede gave me their names and I later emailed Françoise: “J’ai trouvé les autres champignons dont nous avons parlé aujourd’hui, Peziza orangée, Clavaire choufleur, Pied de mouton.  Il y avait , je pense un autre quatrieme ‘quelquechose de bois’ que j’oublie?  Donc Peziza s’appelle Orange Peel fungus (zeste du orange), Clavaire choufleur s’appelle Coral fungus, Pied de mouton s’appelle ‘Wood Hedgehog fungus’ cela veut dire Herisson du bois!!  Ce nom-là est tres drôle.”img_5356-4

At the end of our walk Dédé stopped to take some small pine tree branches for Christmas decoration then we took a circuitous route back to the car.  img_5350-2As we swished our way through the thick and loosely packed leaf litter, with the starkness of the tall skinny pine trees and the prickly holly scrub all around, I was reminded of Middle Earth, and hobbits, and hidden places where secretive and unseen beings may be watching.  These woods are known to be home to wild boar; we saw plenty of evidence of scrapes in the rich, vegetative soil, especially beneath trees.  Wild boar root for acorns but there were few oak trees around.  I wondered if the animals had been searching for truffles.  Ever since I read Richard Fortey’s homage to woodlands  I have learnt that truffles might be more widespread than is believed.  The locations where you can find truffles are not often shared between fungi officinados.  They are expensive.  I checked one supplier’s prices: a smooth black truffle about the size of a conker would cost you £49.  There is so much mystique around the subject. img_5361-2

Delivered to our front door we thanked Dédé and Françoise as profusely as we could in flowery French, for such a wonderful and very special afternoon with them.  Fungi foragers do not easily share their haunts and expertise with others.  Once indoors I set to and sorted my haul into mushrooms that would be dried, others to cook within a few days and, following Dede’s advice, I removed all the stalks which would be used to make a veloute.

The following day I sautéed some in a pan with butter then folded them through some saffron tagliatelle with crème fraiche.  Another way to eat the fresh little mushrooms is to fry them in a pan until crispy and then make an omelette around them.img_5370-2

Drying mushrooms is a very straightforward process.  Various methods are suggested although I discovered that putting them in a very low temperature oven did not work as the mushrooms started to cook and yield their liquid.  Better was putting them on a wire rack on top of the wood-burning stove.  I have a proper food dryer and dehydrator but not where I need it!

Gathering wild mushrooms then taking them home to create tasty dishes; it doesn’t get much better.