I really shouldn't have mentioned the fact that the snow had gone, because last week it came back again. Not in great amounts, but enough to make everything look pretty, and to send the temperatures plunging. I think this has to be the coldest winter we have experienced since we have been here; either that or it's just that I'm nine years older, so perhaps I'm feeling the cold more than I used to. I remember a few years ago some brainless Government minister suggested old people who were suffering in cold, badly heated, even more badly insulated houses, should wear a woolly hat indoors to prevent heat escaping from their heads. Well, what a brilliant idea - thousands of OAPs wearing bobble hats whilst watching 'Corrie' wrapped in a blanket ,sipping a Cup-a-Soup. Is there any wonder we escaped to France?
I do get a bit annoyed when I hear of attempts to stop ex-pats, living within the EU, receiving the British Winter Fuel Payments. There seems to be a general misconception, mostly amongst non- expat pensioners that those of us who have chosen to retire abroad are all basking in 365 days of warm sunshine, stretched out in January on the beach or the patio quaffing treble G& T's. Well, I've got news for them - nowhere in Europe has the sort of climate where you can do that, even Spain can get pretty nippy on a winter's night. And when the temperature sinks to - 12c as it does here, a G&T is the last thing you want. A cup of hot chocolate is much more attractive.
The French departments who have the Pyrénean chain as their backdrop are well versed in cold- prevention. They have plenty of warm, comfort food to off-set the effects of winter. Home- made soups are cheap, uncomplicated and nourishing, and unless we're out in the morning, and I haven't got any in the fridge from a previous lunch, we have some variety of soup every day.
In SW France, roughly within the Haute Pyrénees/ Aquitaine/Landes triangle the cold- buster is garbure, a cross between a soup and a stew - a 'stoup'as an old friend used to call it.
Garbure is such a highly regarded speciality that there are garbure festivals devoted to the dish. Argelés Gazost, near Lourdes, and Anglet, on the Atlantic coast between Biarritz and Bayonne, both have colourful festivals with traditional songs, dances and of course plates of garbure.
- If you aren't within striking distance of either of these towns you can always make it yourself, and the good part about it is that it can be served as a lunch time soup or a main evening meal, with chunks of crusty bread. Garbure contains white beans, root vegetables, cabbage and a changing variety of meats. These can be pork, Bayonne ham, (or any jambon de campagne) confit of duck, or chicken thighs. Like all good soups it’s very much a case of throwing in whatever meat is available. Whatever is added to the basic recipe, it must be thick enough to stand a spoon up in.
I’m going to give you the Sunday-Best, High-Days-and-Holidays recipe so you can omit some of the meat if you wish, but keep a bacon flavour by still using some pieces of jambon de campagne or a ham bone. If all else fails, some bacon lardons will do …at a push!
For a traditional Garbure to serve 6 you will need:
1 large onion
4 celery stalks
1 large leek
4 medium potatoes, peeled
1 medium turnip or 2 good sized carrots, peeled
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, crushed
250 g white haricot beans (soaked overnight)
150 g jambon de campagne (or the bone if you can scrounge one from your friendly neighbourhood deli)
200 g salt pork belly
2 confit de cuisses de canard (confit of duck legs)
2 litres water
bouquet garni and salt and pepper.
Half a savoy type cabbage, finely shredded.
A large saucepan with a lid
Scrape some of the fat from the confit de canard ( if using) into the saucepan. Otherwise cover the bottom of the pan with a light vegetable oil. Heat gently.
Roughly chop the first 5 ingredients and add to the saucepan. Sauté lightly adding the crushed garlic after a few moments. Then add the pork and ham (or the lardons) cut into smallish cubes. Don’t brown the vegetables off too much, they just want to soften and absorb the duck fat or oil. Add the drained and rinsed haricots, the water, bouquet garni and seasoning (go easy on the salt until the final tasting). Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for a couple of hours
Test the beans are soft, then add the shredded cabbage and the duck legs, with most (but not all) of the fat removed. A little fat will improve the flavour and texture of the soup. Do not throw the rest of the duck fat away on pain of death! Scrape it into a bowl, and use for roast potatoes later. It makes ‘roasties’ to die for! It will keep in the fridge for several weeks
Cook the soup for a further half hour.
The traditional way of serving is to pour portions into a soup bowl lined with slices of day-old rustic bread, but this is not obligatory and can be messy! In more impoverished times the meat would have been removed and kept warm to be served as the main course with salad. Today the whole dish, which should by now be really rib-sticking, is usually eaten as a lunchtime treat on a chilly day with lots of freshly baked ‘pain de campagne.’ Another tradition was to pour half a glass of red wine into the last few spoonfuls of soup to ‘aid the digestion.Chacun à son goût! It's certainly á mon goût.