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French Autumn Cooking Holiday

Lunch on the terrace at Chateau Ventenac

Lunch on the terrace at Chateau Ventenac

Last week was our sixth vegetarian cooking holiday at Chateau Ventenac, which now feels like home from home. Julia and Philip are the friendliest hosts and make sure we have a relaxed stay at their home on the Canal du Midi.

This Autumn, the sun shone and it was lovely and warm during the day, hot enough to swim and the vines and trees were just begin to turn golden.

French cooking wouldn’t be French without unsalted butter, eggs and cream for the soufflés, hollandaise, brioche & puff pastry. We balanced this richness with beautiful aromatic fresh salads and vegetables.

Elizabeth & Helen making Hollandise

Elizabeth & Helen making Hollandise

The produce at this time of year is the best, as its had the hot southern French sun to pack the fruit and vegetables with sweetness, aromas and flavour. We served them as simply as possible.The fruit and vegetables tasted so sweet, so flavoursome, it almost seemed a shame to cook them. Our bounty included bright orange squash, ripe black and green figs, muscatel black grapes that are so sweet, mushrooms like ceps, chantrelles and parasols, pineapple tomatoes, wet walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, mirabelle plums, peaches, quinces.

Green Figs, Colourful Tomatoes at Lezignan market

Green Figs, Colourful Tomatoes at Lezignan market

It's still a peculiarity to be vegetarian in France. Eating out in restaurants is very limited, with few vegetables on the menu. Salads tend to be plain lettuce; potatoes are served as chips. But in the markets the vegetables are amazing, they must all go for home cooking.

The local Lezignan market was piled high with Autumnal vegetables, nuts and fruit. The small stalls offered produce from peoples' gardens, with little piles of different vegetables, figs, nuts. Some were registered organic.

I was over-excited by the ceps stall. Ceps are the one wild mushroom (other than truffles) which are not commonly found wild at home and are very expensive to buy. I think of all mushrooms, ceps taste the best!

Ceps (Boletus edulis)

Ceps (Boletus edulis)

I was not disappointed at the local market at Lezignan. One stall had the biggest ceps I’ve ever seen. At another stall, much smaller (where the locals were buying), people were sorting through and choosing the freshest ceps with smooth caps, bulbous stems and without too much snail nibbles. The girolles/chantrelles smelt of apricots and the parasols earthy.

Chantrelles/Girolles

Chantrelles/Girolles

The mushrooms were such a treat I wanted to cook them very simply in butter and a little olive oil. We ate them straight away, and also used them to top the Tarte aux Poireaux.

One of the highlights of our French Cookery Course is our market shopping. We divide into two teams with a 20 Euro budget each and we set them a challenge: this time, to buy ingredients for a big salad or vegetable dish, the stipulation being that the ingredients must be French, seasonal, and not blow the budget!

Elisa, Pam, Elizabeth & Helen with their market produce

Elisa, Pam, Elizabeth & Helen with their market produce

One of the groups at the market found roasted beetroot cooked in a wood oven, made it into Beetroot Carpaccio. It had an oaky flavour and an amazing appeared (it barely looks vegetarian!). We enjoyed it sliced with a red wine vinaigrette and green tomato slices. Is there anybody in England oak smoking beetroot?

Carpaccio of Roasted Beetroot

The other group came back with preserved lemon, freshly made, so different from the bottled ones that smell of washing up liquid we get here, these were lightly salted, they sliced them, removing the pips and pith and sprinkled them on their market salad, provided a lovely salty flavour burst.

Geof, Angie, Penny & Richard with their Market Produce

Geof, Angie, Penny & Richard with their Market Produce

Market produce

Market finds and autumnal treats

Wet Walnuts

Wet Walnuts

Wet walnuts: the nut is crisp and creamy and doesn't have any of that bitterness that older dried out walnuts have. We served the walnuts with pears and soft goats cheese, the pears were not quite ripe, so Helen gently cooked them in white wine with a few crushed peppercorns.

Chestnuts

Chestnuts

Chestnuts: Elisa from Italy showed us how to cut and roast the chestnuts long enough, so that the inner skin, which can be annoyingly fiddly to scrape off, slipped off, we served the chestnuts warm crumbled with pomegrante pearls on a lettuce salad.

Green Figs

Green Figs

Green Figs: best eaten at once. Delicious with goats cheese or blue cheese.

Onion Squash

Onion Squash

Winter squash: My favourite onion squash were lovely and ripe, served roasted, with walnuts and goats cheese.

Amazing Tomatoes

Amazing Tomatoes

Amazing Tomatoes: Such a variety of different shapes and sizes, we were excited by the pineapple tomato, which we thought did smell of pineapples. The traditional Marmande variety, yellow pear drops, green tomatoes, they were so sweet we ate raw and for tomates farcies (stuffed tomatoes).

Quinces

Quinces

Quinces: We roasted the Quinces with local honey, oranges, cinnamon sticks, star anise and cardamom. Here is our recipe for Baked Quince.

Table Grapes: Delicious, black muscatelle were our favourite with a sweet floral aroma.

Wine Tasting with Master of Wine Juliet Bruce Jones

The Wine Vendage around the chateau was just finished. We had a tutored wine tasting out on the terrace with the setting sun. Juliet Bruce Jones, Master of Wine and expert on the Languedoc Wines, gave us a blind tasting of the local wines as chosen by her. All delicious. She exports local wine and now has her own Syrah & Carignan vines and is on to her second vintage. Julia's blog is worth a visit: Tales from Languedoc Wine Country

Savouring the Olive Harvest

Pincholine Olives

Pincholine Olives

The Olive Harvest for eating olives had just started. Olives for oil are not picked until November.

We visited L’Oulibo Cooperative where they were cleaning and sorting the Lucques olives for eating, these prized crescent shaped olives only grows in Languedoc Roussillion. We sampled the freshly processed ones, bright green and tasted of fresh grass.

For the Olive oil tasting we tried the oil by the dessert spoon full, which some of us found a bit much! Amazing how different the varieties of olive tasted. Aglandau was very green and tasted of artichokes; Bouteillan tasted of hazelnuts; Picholine was strong and bitter.

Helen and I had a wonderful week teaching thanks largely to our great group of students. Cooking together is a lovely way to get to know each other. We cooked lots, laughed lots and drank some lovely wines.

To see more photos from our French cookery holiday, visit our photoset on Flickr.

Our next cookery holiday at Chateau Ventenac is 6 - 10 May, 2013. Visit the website for details: Flavours of the Mediterranean - Southern French Cookery Holiday.

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