The Sunflower Thief
Cast & Characters
If you ever find yourself living in the country you will soon discover how hard it is to avoid your neighbors. Not that you’d necessarily want to avoid them but all the convenient excuses that city life provides are removed by the slow motion of “la vie de campagne”. It’s the difference of driving down a street or walking down it. A car takes you further, faster, but on foot you will see more, learn more. In Paris I lived in the same building for 6 years and though I was little by little on friendly terms with most of the occupants I never really befriended more than a handful. Some I never spoke to. A few, of course, only spoke to us because of the dogs or the kids and they didn’t all have smiles on their faces. The point is, the countryside is a good place to make friends. The local policeman, the one who watches your TV show and calls you “the ambassadrice of Médoc” when you go to the town hall to apply for a passport for your daughter, will also be at the market on Saturdays “stealing” shrimps from the fish stall where his wife works, calling it “inspection”. The polite journalist who interviewed you for the local newspaper will be there buying vegetables and so will your children’s teacher, your doctor and even the electrician who is so nervous that he must have had a shock or two in his time. Let’s just call it a “village thing”. Everybody knows you are moving house, and where to. They’ve either played in the new house as children, dated the previous owner’s daughter or at least had a fight on the corner.
Country life is somehow more old-fashioned than city life, the characters (for they are characters) are painted in more vivid colors, the stage is set for … something. And it isn’t just any old stage, Médoc has it all, the finest wines in the world, glamorous châteaux, deep dark forests, rough hunters that roam them looking for wild boar, oystermen, surfers, adventurers.
Murder in Médoc, read all about it (one day)
All this rustic complexity gets the imagination going and makes for an interesting plot. The backdrop, the fascinating quirky stereotypes, I could see myself writing a little roman in this setting, or a play even. We already have the characters, an intriguing mix of old families, real Médocains and newcomers. There would have to be a crime of some sort – murder most foul à la Agatha Christie. Once when I was visiting the chais at a friend’s château, climbing up the old wooden ladder right up to the top of the enormous barrel, looking down into a sea of red wine it occurred to me what a great hiding place for a corpse it could be. I have always loved a good mystery and could never resist a bit of plot. Over time the body would dissolve in the barrel and in true “noir” style the wine would win many awards and accolades. Too add a bit of humor the villain would find a way to add the victims name on the bottle. Somewhat in the style of “The Perfume” perhaps but with a different twist. Maybe you’ll read all about it one day.
But it wouldn’t have to be an epic family feud or even murder, maybe just a nice little mystery, stolen antiques, counterfeit wine, a piano player … wait I am getting ahead of myself.
Recipes in the attic
Close to St Yzans, where we are moving, is a most beautiful and quiet village called St. Christoly. It’s right on the banks of the Gironde estuary and has a special place in my heart because it has my favorite antiques & brocantes store in the world. I’ve talked about this store before and over time Anne, the owner, has become a dear friend. She’s kept us in props and plates, given me great advice and generous terms and I simply couldn’t think of anything lovelier to do on a lazy Sunday than pop over to Anne’s, for a chat and to see if she has unearthed some gems for me.
Recently Anne was elected to the town council and she has big plans for the future. Coming up first is a fête du village on the 26th of July and in true neighborly fashion I have volunteered to do some catering. I’ll draft all the kids and we’ll be making delicious duck burgers and meringue desserts in the town square. Of course I’ll make a post of it but it would be a thrill if some of you could come – a good excuse to visit Médoc.
An event like this needs some planning so last Saturday we met up at the pretty house Anne shares with her companion Michelle and their German Schnauzer, Ella, just up the street from her antiques store. We did some planning, some cooking, had a few laughs, drank a bit of rosé. All the objects in their house have such stories to tell and I felt compelled to cook something to match, something with a bit of history. From time to time I’ve been inspired by Anne’s collection of old cookbooks and for this occasion I cooked a few things in the “esprit” of those books – sometimes the food just has to match the plates and the mood. A classic tomato tart tatin, a red wine chicken dish you might have had at a country inn 200 years ago, an “exotic” dessert that Parisian society might have been swooning over in the days of Balzac. The children enjoyed playing in the garden and Hudson, smitten by Anne’s house even bought a few items at her store. As he had nothing to pay with Anne just put it on his tab. He says he’ll pay with the 20 euros he has in his bank account, the same 20 euros he’s used so many times in the past year. It was a gift for me so I’m not complaining.
It turned out to be a very late lunch or an early dinner, Michelle and Anne had to leave us early, they were invited elsewhere (they are sought after) to watch France’s game with Germany. We took the rest of the chicken with us and headed home too, to watch what we hoped would be a French victory (it wasn’t but let’s not talk about that now). On our way home we were ambushed by the most irresistible sunflower field, so beautifully lit in the late afternoon sun, like a painting so inviting and bright that all you can do is jump in, even if you are late for the big game. For a while we were completly lost in time, wandering around the flowers as if on another planet. Some moments cannot be planned, they just happen. And when they do it’s good to have a camera.
Back in the car I noticed that Gaïa was holding a little sunflower, beaming with pride. She had nicked it as we were about to leave, somehow managed to tear it up with her little hands. The boys might be thinking about the game, but she was not about to leave this field of treasures empty-handed.
It brought a smile to my face. I might not have caught a killer but I had found my villain, a determined little sunflower thief.
Tomato tarte tatin
1 & 1/3 pounds/ 600 g cherry tomatoes (or enough to fill your tart pan)
1 pack 8 ounces/230g puff pastry
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons oregano
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 200°C/ 400°F
In a large pan, melt the butter and sugar together. When it starts to caramelize, add the tomatoes and cook for 5 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle the oregano leaves and one tablespoon of sugar all over. Season with salt & pepper. Add the balsamic vinegar and reduce for 2 minutes. Place the tomatoes in a tart pan. Place the pastry on top of the tomatoes and tuck the sides in. Place the tart in the oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown.
Leave the tart to rest for 5 minutes, then flip over on a plate. Pour as much excess liquid as possible. Garnish the tart with fresh thyme leaves.
Red wine & vinegar chicken
For the chicken
1 chicken 1.3 kg/ 2.8 pounds approx. cut into 6 pieces – keep the chicken carcass or any unwanted pieces and save for the sauce.
3 tablespoons/45 ml Armagnac
3 tablespoons/ 45 g unsalted butter
2 shallots, finely sliced
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
For the sauce
1 & ¼ cup / 300 ml good-quality red wine
2 tablespoons/30 ml red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons/ 45 g unsalted butter
2 tablespoons mustard
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tablespoon tomato concentrate
A few sprigs of thyme & rosemary
Coarse sea-salt & freshly ground black pepper
Finely chopped chives and diced tomatoes ( 1 medium-sized tomato per person).
In a large dutch oven/ cocotte, melt the butter & sauté the chicken until golden. Add the unpeeled garlic cloves and sliced shallots. Season with salt & pepper.
Flambé the chicken with the Armagnac. Off the heat, pour the Armagnac, light a match, and carefully ignite the liquid to flambé.
For the sauce
In a large saucepan, heat the butter and sauté the chicken carcass. Add the minced garlic, season with salt & pepper, add a few sprigs of thyme & rosemary. Pour the vinegar in the pan, along with the red wine, and mustard. Leave to reduce until the sauce has thickened. Sift through a sieve before serving.
Serve the chicken with the sauce, sprinkle with the chives and garnish with diced tomatoes on the side.
Orange blossom flower cream pastilla
8 sheets of filo pastry
2 cups/ 475 ml full cream milk
1 cinnamon stick
3 egg yolks
8 tablespoons/ 100 g granulated sugar
2 tablespoons corn starch (Maïzana)
1/3 cup/ 80 ml orange blossom water
2 tablespoons butter
Extra butter for the filo pastry
A large handful of mixed nuts: pistachios, pine nuts and blanched almonds
Confectionner’s sugar, for dusting
In a saucepan, heat the milk, cinnamon stick, and half of the sugar on a medium heat– bring to a soft simmer. Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk 3 egg yolk with the rest of the sugar. Add the corn starch & orange blossom water – whisk for 3 minutes.
Off the heat, add the egg yolk mixture to the saucepan, stir continuously until blended, then return to the heat on low and stir until the cream has thickened to a custard-like cream. Take off the heat. Add the butter and stir until melted. Pour into a bowl and cover with baking paper directly on top of mixture. Leave to cool completely and place into the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Cut the filo sheets into circles 23cm/ 9inch wide circles.
Heat ½ teaspoon of unsalted butter in a frying pan, fry the filo sheets until crispy and golden on both sides. Repeat with each sheets.
For the sauce
1 ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
6 tablespoons/ 80 g granulated sugar
Heat the juice of 1 lemon & 1 orange with the sugar in a saucepan until dissolved. When the mixture starts to thicken, take off the heat and whisk the buuter. Leave to cool.
To assemble, place two sheets of pastry on a serving plate, then spread the cream all over. Repeat with the remaining sheets & cream. Sprinkle with icing sugar on the last top sheet and scatter the nut mixture all over.