One morning in late February, Oddur and I woke up to the strangest weather, sun, rain, wind, shutters banging, corridors howling. Slowly the wind quieted down but the heavens kept opening and closing with a mixture of grey and golden, and as a grand finale to this curious symphony, mother nature put on her Sunday hat, the rainbow. It was the beginning of a few weeks that have been, well, somewhat upside down. In Japan they call this sort of weather, the sunshowers, a Fox’s wedding and I was always fascinated by that name. One of my favorite movies, “Dreams” by Kurosawa has a beautiful story about a little boy based on that mythology. Here in France it’s slightly different or “le mariage du loup“, wolf’s wedding.
Soon after we had one of the coldest, windiest mornings we’ve had this winter (or early spring), when we visited our friends at Château Lynch Bages to learn about pruning vines. They are among a number of leading Châteaux in France who have enlisted the services of a group of Italian master pruners who have been trusted with the training of their vineyard workers. It seems at once odd and refreshing that prestigious French Châteaux are relying on Italian expertise to help perfecting their wines but the Italians have re-established an old method that respects the sap flow of the vine and helps protection against disease. I was intrigued to meet these guys, Andrea, Thomas and Valerio, and learn more but while I enjoyed hearing their explanations I don’t think I’m ready to prune those baby vines just yet. They just seem so tiny and fragile and frankly easy to destroy. One of the vineyard workers at Château Lynch Bages is another import, this time from Portugal. His name is Diamantino or little Diamond. And he lives up to his name every season as he keeps winning the annual wine pruning competition that’s held in Médoc. A pruner is given 20 vines to prune and a limited time to complete the job. Afterwards the judges examine the work and declare a winner based on the quality of the work (without knowing which pruner did which vines). The winner is always little Diamond!
A glorious French wine, Italian master pruners and a little diamond from Portugal. Joining forces is always the way to go!
Another European import, this time from England, arrived at our doorstep early in March in the shape of the lovely (and pregnant) Lucy Birkhead. Lucy is a Manger workshop alumni who spent a few days with us last May and we got on so well that she’s back to help with the spring workshops. It’s a curious team we have, two pregnant ladies, an Icelandic man who won’t stop talking about dogs (especially when we have puppies) and an Italian girl who thinks everything comes fro Italy, even Barbapapa and Baba au rhum, two ultra-French exports. Soon after Lucy arrived yet another foreigner ghosted in through our doors (I actually thought he was a ghost), the Austrian Oskar who is the architect for the very ambitious renovation taking place across the street. Oskar usually loves to drink big Bordeaux vines so Oddur had prepared two bottles for him, the 2006 Chateau Figeac and of course the 2006 Château Lynch Bages. This time though, Oskar was abstaining from alcohol for 6 weeks, not for religious reasons, just for no reason. As I said everything has been a little strange lately.
Oskar has found all sorts of ways to make the house opposite (it belongs to our friends in NY, Matt and Yolanda) brighter, warmer … cooler. He’s employed French workers who specialize in restoring old houses with ancient techniques and as he said “the level of work is incredible”.
Living in France I am exposed to masters of all kinds every day. The baker, the butcher, the vegetable farmers, the winemakers. I even have a passionate dog breeder under my own roof. Adding to that an international league of international masters or pruning, building, designing. To be passionate about something, anything, and to do it well. As we all know there has been a resurgence in all things “artisanal” in the last decade, a trend of rediscovering old methods and manners, dong things splendidly instead of just doing them. While some of these things are professions that take years or even a lifetime to master others are simple little household chores like polishing silver or shoes, restoring an old chair that you found at the flea market or just waxing a wooden table.
Little tasks, carefully executed, sometimes with a help of a neighbor, it’s the old way of doing things. It’s the new way of doing things.
Which brings us to food. Simple food, carefully made with good ingredients. This strange season has seen asparagus appear much earlier than usual. Which may be a sign of global warming which is bad but is otherwise very welcome. I think I may have had asparagus every day for the last 3 weeks. And I’ve enjoyed every bite. So many asparagus soufflés already, soups and salads. A favorite “quick but luxurious” dish are eggs in cocotte. Always the same basic ingredients, eggs and cream but each time with a little seasonal touch. And this time it’s the season of the asparagus.
Another simple dish I’ve been making quite often this week is this easy, slightly bitter and crunchy pasta that’s possibly inspired by all the Italians I’ve met lately. I tried making it with a red endive and while that works fine I prefer to use an Italian radicchio and I have to admit my cravings were so strong I had my greengrocer order a little crate, fresh from Italy. Usually I make a point of only using locally grown vegetables but sometimes pregnant women get to break the rules.
To add something sweet I asked, Allegra, my Italian assistant to share a delicious ricotta cake that’s she’s been toying with over the last few weeks. She’s in love with all things Ricotta and had this cake at a friend’s house over Christmas back home in Pescara. It’s takes a bit of time, but is simple to make nevertheless and is perfect if you have some ripe pears standing on your kitchen table.
We had so much fun photographing this post, the house has felt like magic lately, one room filled with puppies, another one with crates of asparagus. I got to hold the puppies, Lucy the crate of radicchio. Oddur even made her wear an old, squashed hat that Yolanda left here at the end of summer, because as he said, “it makes her look like a mad English hatter”. Of course it’s him who is the mad hatter which is fine, every family needs one.
I’m off to NYC in the morning, with the whole family, a mixture of work and play. We’re visiting our 20-year-old, Gunnhildur, who’s finishing an internship. We’re also putting the final touches on my upcoming book and meeting members of the press. I hope I can share the new cover with you in the coming days.
Broadway here I come!
(I always wanted to say that – the Random house offices are on Broadway).
Eggs en cocotte with asparagus and Jura wine butter vinaigrette
You will need a 6 ramekins or small pots
2 tablespoons heavy cream
5 asparagus, green or white, tips halved and stem sliced
A dash of piment d’Espellette
Fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper
For the vinaigrette
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Zest of an organic lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
A dash of Jura wine (if you can’t find Jura wine, try a dry Sherry)
A dash of finely chopped chives
Fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper
Break the eggs into a little bowl and pour into each ramekins. Add the cream, place the asparagus on top. If the asparagus is very thick, steam them for 5 minutes before.
Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle a dash of piment d’Espellette.
Pour water into a pot or large deep skillet, approximately 2 to 3 inches, place the ramekins in the pot, cover with a lid and bring to a boil. Steam for about 5 minutes, or until egg white is turning opaque. You want the egg yolk to be runny so you can dip your ‘mouilettes’(grilled sliced baguette/ little soldiers) in the glorious yolk.
Meanwhile, prepare the butter vinaigrette. On a medium heat, melt the butter in a saucepan. Grate the lemon zest and add to the melted butter. Bring the butter to a light simmer, without coloring, and add the Jura wine and lemon juice. Cook until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the finely chopped chives.
Drizzle the eggs with the sauce and serve immediately with grilled ‘mouilettes’(little tip : I like to rub a small piece of garlic on them).
Fennel, radicchio and lemon butter noisette pasta
Serves 4 to 6
500 g/ 1 pack pasta (I used fetuccine)
3 medium-sized fennels, sliced finely
2 heads of radicchio, sliced coarsely
100 g/ ¾ cup pine nuts
Zest of 3 organic lemons
180 g/ ¾ cup unsalted butter
90 g/ 1 & ½ cup Parmesan, grated
Fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper
A dash of olive oil, for roasting the vegetables
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F
Slice the fennels finely. Chop the radicchio coarsely. Place both ingredients on a roasting tray and drizzle a little olive oil. Season with salt. Place in the preheated oven and roast for 10 minutes, or until golden. Add the pine nuts half-way.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to instructions.
Meanwhile, prepare the lemon beurre noisette. In a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter on a medium to low heat. Whisk until the butter foams and turns into a light brown color. Take off the heat and grate the lemon zest into the butter. Set aside and let the lemon zest infuse the butter.
Drain the pasta and set aside a ladle of cooking water. Add all the roasted fennel, radicchio and pine nuts, season with salt and pepper, add the grated parmesan, the ladle of pasta water and toss everything together with the lemon beurre noisette. Serve immediately and add extra parmesan when serving.
Amalfi Ricotta Pear Cake
For the hazelnut biscuit
200 g/ 1 & 2/3 cup flour
60 g/ ½ cup hazelnut flour
100 g/6 &1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
65 g/1/3 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 whole egg
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon vanilla seeds
A pinch of fine salt
In a large bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder, add the sugar, the salt, vanilla and the hazelnut flour. Incorporate the eggs and cold butter. Mix all the ingredients together until the mixture forms a homogenous dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. On a floured surface roll out the dough to fit your spring form cake tin, (approx 1 cm) Line it with the pastry dough, and cut out excess. Pierce dough with a fork all over, cook at 180 °C/350°F in a preheated oven for about 15 min, or until golden brown.
Repeat the operation once again to get 2 perfect sized layers of biscuit.
For the ricotta & pears filling
400 g/ 15 ounces ricotta
160 ml/ 2/3 cup heavy cream, whipped
65 g/ sugar/ 1/3 cup, plus 1 tablespoon to sauté the pears
Zest of 2 organic lemons
2 tablespoons of rum
4/5 medium-sized pears, peeled, cored and diced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Confectionner’s sugar for dusting the cake
In a saucepan, sauté the diced pear with one tablespoon of sugar, the lemon juice, and rum. Stir occasionally until the pears begin to cook and release liquid. Continue stirring so that the pears don’t burn and until the sugar dissolves and the pears soften, about 5 minutes, add some water if necessary. Remove from heat and transfer to another bowl. Leave to cool completely.
Whisk the ricotta with the lemon zest and sugar, fold in the whipped heavy cream and the cooled pears with their syrup (save some of it to brush the 2 disks of biscuit)
To assemble the cake, use the spring form cake tin lined with parchment paper. Place one disk of biscuit at the bottom, brush it with the pear syrup, fill with the ricotta cream pear mixture and cover with the second layer of biscuit, brushed with more syrup.
Let the cake set in the fridge for at least 3 to 4 hours or overnight and place in the freezer 10 minutes before serving. When ready, dust the cake with confectionner’s sugar.