Sunday, September 28, 2008

Autunm Has Arrived

Well, autumn has arrived. I'm not that downhearted because this has to be the most spectacular time of the year here in the Haute Pyrenees. On a good year we can cock a snoot at New England, tho' we don't have coach loads of 'leaf-peepers' . We're pretty laid back about it here so it doesn't occur to us to advertise just how beautiful the countryside looks. I just wish the season would last longer. But, fingers crossed, we should enjoy the blaze of colour until the middle of November.
Depending on the dryness of the summer we have so many bramble hedges in the lanes around here that we can pick several kilos of wild blackberries to freeze for winter blackberry and apple puds. We've four fairly prolific apple trees in our garden, but we just lack the suet to make a really traditional steamed pudding. It's probably just as well, because steamed suet pudding has to be the most unhealthy dessert on the planet. But it is good !
Here's an article I wrote for last year.
There's some advice on harvesting your autumn bounty, together with a recipe for sloe gin and autumn fruit jellies.

The autumn hedgerows are full of wild fruits which can be made into jams, jellies and homemade wines to use during the winter.
Nature saves the best of her free gifts until the autumn, when the hedgerows become a treasure trove of edible goodies.
Walking in the countryside can be a pleasurable and rewarding experience in the autumn. After a warm summer the hedgerows are an abundant source of berries, many of which can be gathered to make jams, wines, jellies and liqueurs.
Before venturing out though, there are a few things to bear in mind.
Don’t pick anything from hedgerows at the side of busy roads. There are too many petrol and diesel fumes hanging about in the air which may settle on the fruit.
Make sure the trees or shrubs don’t obviously belong to anyone. Those juicy plums might be hanging temptingly over the public highway but if the tree or bush is on someone’s private property the fruit rightly belongs to them.
Take a longish walking stick with a curved handle, or something similar. Many of the best fruits are out of reach (the easily reached ones having been picked before you got there) so a stick comes in useful to pull the branches down.
Don’t damage the trees or bushes in your eagerness. They’ve probably been on the planet longer than you, so show them some respect.
Thick gloves are a useful addition to your equipment. Many hedgerows are full of thorny bushes.
Always check the lie of the land. In your enthusiasm for spotting a bush covered in fruit make sure there isn't a hidden ditch in your way before you launch yourself into the hedge. Getting a soaking can take the fun off the afternoon.
If your hunting takes you into a field, check for grazing cattle and remember to close all gates behind you …..and if you notice a bull in with a herd of cows, don’t go in the field at all.
Black berries and elderberries are the first fruits to ripen in the Northrn Hemisphere.

Autumn is the time to be watching the hedgerows for the arrival of the first sloes which, when soaked in gin for a few weeks, will provide a delicious Christmas liqueur.
Sloe gin is favourite winter warmer for colder climates
Its ruby-red colour and sweet flavour make it an ideal drink after a brisk walk in the depth of winter.
If you are not a gin lover it can be made with vodka, but gin imparts a richer flavour, and is undetectable in the finished product.
Sloes are the small purple-black fruit of the blackthorn. They are generally found in hedgerows from late August onwards, and can be a bit inaccessible as the bushes are thorny and the berries often high on the branch. A long walking stick with a curved handle is a useful aid to picking, and the resulting liqueur is well worth the effort.
Do not be tempted to pick the fruits too early as they will be bitter. September is a good time, although traditionally they are at their best after the first frost. In a mild winter this can mean leaving it too late for the finished product to be ready for Christmas drinking, so the ‘frosting’ can be faked by placing the picked fruit in the freezer for a day or two before preparing the liqueur. Some experienced sloe gin makers believe the freezing releases the juice and makes for an improved flavour
For 1 ltr. of sloe gin you will need:
· 450g sloes
· 225g castor sugar
· 1ltr. gin
Wash and dry the sloes and prick all over with a sharp needle. Place in a large screw top jar which will hold 1 ltr of liquid comfortably.
Add the castor sugar and top up with the gin. Seal tightly. Leave in a cool, dark environment for at least two months Try to give the jar a good shake every day if possible.
As with all homemade alcoholic drinks, the longer they’re left to soak the better the flavour will be.
At this point ideas differ. Some people prefer to leave the sloes in the gin; indeed many aficionados actually macerate the mixture in an empty gin bottle and serve the drink straight from there. Others strain the gin into bottles, or a decanter.
Whichever method you choose the dark ruby-red liqueur is an absolute winner on a chilly evening.
A dash of sloe gin in a glass of champagne also makes an elegant cocktail drink.
The sloes themselves are frequently thrown away, having served their purpose. But a delicious sweet can be made by coating the fruit in bitter chocolate.
Spread the used sloes in a single layer on a thick piece of absorbent kitchen paper. When they have dried dip each one in melted chocolate and place carefully on waxed paper to cool and become firm. Store in an air-tight container.
These rich chocolates are a perfect accompaniment to a glass of sloe gin, preferably enjoyed with good friends and a roaring log fire.
Traditionally elderberries have been used for country wine making, but together with sloes, crab apples, and rose hips they can also be used to make jellies.

A rule-of-thumb recipe for fruit jellies:
Clean the fruit thoroughly, checking for hidden insects
Whatever quantity of fruit you have, cover with water and bring to the boil.
Simmer until the fruit has softened.
Allow to cool and strain through a clean tea cloth or muslin jelly bag.
Measure cooled liquid and place in a thick bottomed saucepan.
Add 1 lb(500g) white sugar for each pint(550ml) of liquid.
Boil briskly until the setting point is reached
Skim off any scum that may have formed on the surface, allow to cool, then ladle into sterilised jars and seal tightly.
Rose hip jelly is delicious with pork or poultry as the flavour is similar to cranberries and the fruit is high in vitamin C. Rose hip syrup, a healthy drink for children, can be made by following the recipe for fruit jelly, but remove from the heat as soon as the liquid has achieved a syrupy appearance. Pour into sterilised bottles when the syrup has cooled and keep in the fridge.

This is just one of many recipes that can be made from hedgerow fruit.
The copyright of the article Mother Nature’s Autumn Bounty in Fall Recipes is owned by permission of the author.To republish Mother Nature’s Autumn Bounty in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

When the Rose-Tinted Glasses Fall Off

The other day I happened to come across a forum posting from an expat who was clearly having a bad day. The trouble was she had allowed a smallish matter to blow itself up into something that had completely sent her off on a rant. Against everything French.

The rose tinted glasses had well and truly come off, and de-railed her in the process.

I can understand how this could have come about. And it's not unusual. Especially in the present economic climate.

The pound sterling and the dollar are being squeezed to within an inch of their lives, belts are having to be tightened all round and M'sieu Sarkozy is not exactly making life easy for immigrants. And that is what we are, we Brits, Americans, Dutch, Germans Like it,or not.

So often we think the word applies just to Moroccans, or the Algerians we see on the markets selling cheap jewellery. But it's us too. So Sarko's ruling last year on health cover didn't go down well with those expats who had recently arrived, often with young families, to find they were not entitled to the same health cover as French nationals. Full private health cover came as a nasty shock to many, and that together with the general rises in the cost of living has brought on some severe cases of disillusionment.
When the dream looks like turning into a nightmare, something else coming along to hit them full in the face, or the wallet, is the very last straw.

For many women there's the added stress of being separated from their close family. Yes, you can explode, or whimper (depending on your personality) down the phone to mum, but it can never take the place of a good old-fashioned bawl on a sympathetic shoulder. And for men, in France there isn't the option of going down the pub for a pint and a moan to your mates. French bars may appear havens of warmth and friendliness ( an idea put about by the likes of Peter Mayle with a good dollop of literary license) but in actual fact your average Pierre propping up the bar with his pastis is not in the least interested in any one's marital or financial problems. Political discussion....ah that''s another matter. He'll talk politics all day.

Right now expat internet forums seem full of sob stories, but I wonder how many of them would resort to the cold anonymity of the web if they had a near neighbour who spoke the same language and who was probably in the same boat? Maybe someone should start up local support groups for those who think their dream has turned sour. I say 'think 'because I reckon if only some of these families who seem at the end of their tether could have a good old moan, over a glass or two of something, maybe they'd look at life in France in a more balanced way.

Yes, life here has got tougher over the past few months, but what are the alternatives? The grass isn't any greener anywhere else, especially right now.

So to those who are really fed-up and contemplating a move back I'd say..."Hang on in there. Don't make any hasty decisions you might regret later."