Saffron, an Autumn Harvest

In Autumn, every morning for a fortnight or so, I go up to my damp and dew-laden vegetable garden, armed with a basket and a long shiny pair of tweezers, to harvest saffron. The pretty lilac flowers are short lived. They last a day, two at the most, especially in the bright autumn sunlight. Each bloom bears three canary yellow stamens and three long, luscious bright vermillion stigmas. These delicate stigmas, once harvested and dried are more valuable than any other spice. They are Saffron.

basket of saffron flowers crocus sativus CROP.fr
close up of fresh saffron stamens CROP.fr

Whilst gently parting the base of the petals to expose the bottom of the stigmas, I contemplate the birth of saffron. Are they the result of a single genetic abnormality? Not all crocus flowers bear saffron. Crocus cartwrightianusoften described as wild saffron is thought to be the parent of crocus sativusthe cultivated, sterile saffron that I have planted in my garden. Like tulips, they are genetically clones. They cannot produce viable seeds. Only by collecting and re-planting the cormels, offshoots that sprout from the original corm during the growing season in the winter, can growers propagate the flowering plant that will produce saffron stigmas. How many genetic mutations occurred before the anonymous man or woman discovered its enchanting traits? I wonder, what were the sequence of events that led to its culinary and medicinal use? Was the significance of the discovery considered and was its value and reverence predicted?

I speculate that the discovery was made due to an appreciation for colour before flavour, an intense desire to covet rich red. I can imagine a person picking autumn blooming crocus flowers at the edge of a forest after heavy dew. They find the stamens beaded with water and a bright red coloring has dissolved into the heavy, meandering droplets, leaving a vermillion trail wherever they wander. An observation of such a moment would lead the natural dyer to a swift conclusion that the stigmas could be used for dyeing. The natural dyer would soon discover that a dye liquor made from saffron would colour cloth in brilliant shades of golden yellow and not the red it appeared to have promised. And the aroma would lead to new experiments, in food.

closed saffron flower crocus sativus CROP.fr
dried saffron on a bowl CROP.fr

When fresh, saffron has no flavour. Only when dried does it impart the familiar hay-like fragrance and its metallic notes. To use it in food it is imperative that the strands be dried and then infused before incorporating them in a dish.

To dry, I lay the fresh stigmas on kitchen paper to air dry. After a few days, I move the stigmas to a sheet of baking paper and place them in a pre-heated oven at 70 degrees Celsius. I keep a constant eye on them. They only need a minute or so. At intervals, I move them around with my fingertip, they become completely rigid when all of the moisture has evaporated and slide around easily on the paper. I immediately move them to a tube or jar for storage.

To infuse, I find the best way to get the most out of the precious stigmas is to take the desired quantity of saffron in my fingertips and crush them into a small glass. A pinch or 20-25 stigmas will often be called for in a recipe. I pour freshly boiled water into the glass. About 50 mls. Then allow the saffron to infuse for at least 30 minutes. Alternatively, I often take advantage of having the wood burning stove alight and I place the liquid filled glass on top of the wood stove where it keeps between 60 and 80 degrees Celsius for four to five hours. I regularly top up the water level as it evaporates. The stigmas turn very pale, and almost appear to be merely stained with orange. This is a good sign that most of the colouring and flavour has been drawn out of the stigmas.

If you plan on growing saffron in your own potager or flower bed I’d like to offer some advice:

  • You must plant your saffron bulbs much earlier than your spring flowering bulbs. I plant in august or september. Here in France they flower in october, about 40 days after planting.
  • If you can, buy your first corms from a reputable grower. I bought a new batch this year from Safranor here in France. They were beautifully healthy and a very good size. Every single bulb gave 1-2 flowers this year. Safranor also produce Crocus Cartwrightianus Albus, a beautiful white flowering saffron. They have an excellent planting and harvesting guide here.
    In the past I have purchased corms from a nursery that were labelled crocus sativus but came up as a standard flowering crocus. I’ve also purchased corms labelled crocus sativus that even after three years have still not flowered at all.
  • You can easily fit one hundred corms in one square meter. This will give you at least 300 saffron strands in the first planting.
  • The corms must remain planted after flowering. Saffron has a clever reversed vegetation cycle that first flowers then produces foliage and then grows cormels that allow the plant to be propagated.
  • I recommend harvesting the whole flower so as to avoid a great deal of back ache and eye squinting. It is tempting to leave them to flower in the garden but they do not last long outdoors. The flowers will stay lovely for a couple of days when stood in a vase.
  • Crocus corms like well drained soil with a rich amount of organic material. I have seen best results from growing them in my raised garden beds that are ‘no-dig’ and receive a 10 cm layer of compost at the end of the growing season every year.

Saffron does not act by addiction like drugs, but by seduction … smell the warm scent that emerges
when you open a box of saffron, you will be seized by the same vertigo as an oenologist before a grand cru.
Saffron delights the eye, captivates the nose, seduces the mind.
Pierre Aucante – Le Safran

If you would like to forgo growing saffron altogether but are looking for a reputable saffron grower, we have one locally! Not far from our village, Danièle Kabacinski has a Saffron farm called Safran des Collines d’Artois. She sells her saffron in delicate little glass tubes and can be contacted via her website or Facebook page. If you are in Nord-pas-de-Calais, she attends a number of food fairs and markets that are listed here. Her farm is also open during flowering season. She produces a beautiful range of saffron products including saffron jelly, saffron syrup, saffron madeleines and saffron meringues.

Photo 6: dried saffron, from my garden, on a MUD Australia Milk coloured dipping bowl sitting on a CROP linen napkin in the colour Natural.

A Passion for Peonies – A Farm Visit

On Saturday, the alarm rang just before 6am. There was heavy fog hanging over our small village but the sun was already up. We had a three hour drive into Belgium ahead of us. Across Flanders fields, around Gent, over Brussels, finally arriving at our destination, Nieuwerkerken in the far East of Belgium. This is pear growing country with hundreds of farms growing rows and rows of beautifully manicured, espaliered pear trees. In fact, almost everything in this area of Belgium is well kempt and flourishing. Amongst the geometric patchwork of fruit trees lies a small peony farm named Graefswinning. In Spring it is a sparkling jewel in a green land.

A few years ago I met Jeaninne Lemmens at the autumn Beervelde garden days. I had almost lunged at her in excitement having never met a peony grower before and being so excited to see so many peony varieties before my eyes. Jeaninne is a lovely, gentle, knowledgable woman with a deep passion for peonies. She is a board member of the American Peony Society which for more than a century has strived to promote and foster the cultivation of peonies as a garden and landscape plant. She is the only European member of the board.

She and her husband bought their farm in 2010. It was already planted with production pear trees. She jokes that the locals thought she was crazy pulling out pear trees to plant peonies. The farm still produces pears, mostly Conference pear, however it is the peonies that give her the greatest pleasure.

Jeaninne had an open day last weekend, timed to allow guests the opportunity to experience thousands of peonies in full bloom. The day was hot and the sun’s penetrating light forced the flower heads to reflect intense colour and vibrance, unlike anything I have seen before. The reds vibrated in the eye and the delicate, paper thin white petals almost camouflaged into the bright white light.

Around the old brick farm buildings, outside of the peony fields, grows an enormous hedge row of pine and on the ground, wild chamomile. In the humid air, the pine, chamomile, peony and warming earth formed an ancient, evocative perfume. Standing amongst the peony rows, swaying gently in that aromatic soup, I was ushered through moments in human memory. A Japanese woman dressed in a kimono bows down slowly towards the blooming peony to breath in its sweet and tender scent. An old Chinese man, with an older hand made tool pressed against his palm, digs in the fresh earth searching gently for the root. Its potion will stave off his beloved wife’s rheumatism.

In home gardens, peonies are generally planted and left undisturbed. They can be an incredibly long living plant, sometimes up to and over fifty years. When cultivated, herbaceous and Itoh peonies are reproduced by dividing the root while tree peonies are grafted. For the purposes of multiplication, Jeaninne divides her plants every three years. So, if a grower like Jeaninne starts with a new variety and only a small number of plants, there can be a significant time investment before they can start selling plants to the public. Jeaninne grows three hundred varieties but makes one hundred of these available in her store. Availability, taste and fashion determine those select one hundred. The farm also produces cutting flowers which are sold at the flower auction Veiling Rhein Maas in Germany, at garden shows and on the farm.

Due to her strong relationships with growers in the United States, many of her plants are sourced from hybridizers there. A number of these peonies are rare in Europe, some exclusively grown and nurtured by her. Red Grace, pictured in the last two images of this post is one of these, hybridized by Lyman D. Glasscock from Elmwood, Illinois in the US. Jeaninne now sells it as plants and cut flowers. This peony has an enormous flower head filled with hundreds of claret red petals that burst from the center in an explosion of colour and texture, it stands out amongst the other flowers.

Peonies have been cultivated for centuries, with known sources dating back 4000 years. Used medicinally in Asia, the peony was a respected and important ingredient to healers and apothecaries. All parts of the plant were used to create tinctures, oils and lotions and were administered for treating a range of ailments: gout, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems, skin problems, stomach upset, migraines, chronic fatigue and many others. Today, early research shows promise in using chemicals and substances derived from the peony plant in the treatment of muscle cramps and rheumatoid arthritis. But despite its impressive healing powers, it is our undeniable fascination with the peony’s exquisite beauty that has bound its fate. It now has an established and enduring place in horticulture and in our homes and gardens.

The peony has been adored by artists, writers and poets across cultures. Its finest portraits I believe are in the work of Japanese Ukiyo-e masters who eternalised their elegant, evocative and romantic nature. The Dutch painters of the Golden Age expressed their voluptuous, rich and opulent nature while at the same time documenting and symbolising the wealth, exploration and trade that the peonies represented. Many peonies were after all, exotic flowers from the East. In France, Renoir and Manet presented an impression of the peony in quiet, peaceful daily life, capturing our intimate and enduring love affair with this remarkable flower.

As a gardener, visiting the peony farm and seeing each variety in person allows you to experience their true character. It is an invaluable way of choosing suitable types for your own garden. Although peonies only have a short flowering period of two to three weeks, you can extend the bloom by having a range of very early to very late flowering varieties and enjoy peonies for six to eight weeks. You can plant spring bulbs amongst your peonies which will flower as the peony foliage begins to emerge. Mixed perennials like the Bearded Iris are a beautiful companion flowering plant as are alliums and poppies. They flower at the same time and later than peonies. Flowering woody shrubs like azalea or flowering trees like dogwood, magnolia and cherry are exquisite when planted behind and create a luscious backdrop.

The great thing about peonies as decorative cut flowers, is that they are absolutely at home all on their own. There is no need to source a bouquet rich in variety or complicate the spontaneity of bringing flowers into your home. Their sublime range of shades and tones and similar foliage across varieties means that you can cut flowers from different plants, form a bouquet and pop them in a vessel. They are an impeccably elegant and evocative statement and certainly herald the arrival of spring in a glorious fashion. I scatter large bouquets all over the house, on central tables, side tables, the dressing table and on the dining table when we are not dining. I can’t get enough of them. Depending on the mood of your interior, the range of peony colours allow for the expression of stately elegance in the whites, romantic whimsy in the light pinks, joy in the magentas and passion in the darker reds.

The peonies photographed are as follows: 1st & 2nd: Miss America. 3rd: Circus-Circus. 6th, 7th & 8th: Coral Sunset. 9th: Soft Salmon Joy. 11th & 12th: Ellen Cowley. 13th & 14th: Buckeye Belle. 15th & 16th: Red Grace.

Blueberry and Lilac Syrup Panna Cotta

When we first moved into the building that is now our home and atelier in northern France, it had been consumed by nature. Once the local café, the heart of social activity in a small mining village, it had been left abandoned and forgotten for almost 20 years. There was two inches of mud covering all of the floors, the windows had rotted away and the grounds had turned to jungle. We spent months removing the mud, cleaning the brick walls and cutting back foliage. There was so much overgrowth that upon our first visit we were surprised to find a second building on site that was not much smaller than the main building. It had been concealed by vines, trees and 20 years of moss growth. We ‘got the keys’ in a February, which is a symbolic phrase in this instance, as the front door had been left ajar for nearly as long as the building had been abandoned. One day, after months of cleaning and tidying we wandered into the garden and were overwhelmed by sight and smell. The entire planted front of our property was a vibrant purple blaze of blooming lilac. We had noticed the trees while clearing and decided to leave them not knowing what they were. We are so glad that we did. Over the years, we preserved the new shoots that spurt up from the undergrowth and now have a thick lilac forest in the garden. The bloom happens in May. The small flowers are perfect for about a week but then start to degrade soon after. The window for dining with fresh lilacs is small but greatly anticipated in our house.

Lilac has an appetizing smell, it is intoxicating, delicious and a wonderful, subtle floral flavor to add to sweet food. I make it into a simple syrup and use it in deserts, gelato and as a cordial after a long hot summer’s day in the garden. A couple of months ago I was browsing the internet and came across the website of Vincent Guiheneuf. He had made an exquisite blueberry and violet panna cotta with white chocolate and meringueI was captivated by the colour of the panna cotta. It immediately reminded me of my lilacs, so I decided to try it by substituting his violet syrup for my lilac syrup.

Making lilac syrup can give you all sorts of colour results but I find that I get a purple syrup if I use the darkest purple lilac flowers, within a day or two of them blooming. The warmer and sunnier it is, the quicker the lilacs begin to fade. The lighter the lilac, the less pigment available to colour the syrup. Of course, in a dish like this, the colour of the syrup becomes irrelevant. The blueberries do all of the work in creating this magical colour.

I serve this dish with a white chocolate ganache, typically in a small pouring vessel so that guests can manage their own serving. This is officially my favorite desert. The flavours are incredible. The texture divine. It is a show stopping desert. Guests will relish with delight at the plate laid before them.

I recommend that you make each element in the order that I have written them.

Ingredients

For the lilac syrup

  • 1 cup of lilac flowers – pushed in to the cup but not crushed and compacted
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water

For the panna cotta – makes two panna cottas as shown in the photos

  • 3 grams of gelatin sheet – see note at bottom of page
  • 200 ml cream full cream
  • 80 grams blueberries
  • 30 grams lilac syrup
  • 40 grams white sugar

For the blueberry coulis

  • 100 grams fresh blueberries
  • 30 grams white sugar
  • 10 ml lemon juice

For the white chocolate ganache

  • 60 grams full cream
  • 100 grams white chocolate

For plating

  • 5-8 blueberries per plate
  • A small handful of lilac flowers

Method

For the lilac syrup

Remove the individual lilac flowers from their stem. Be sure to only take the purple flowers, discard all brown flowers and green stems. Wash lilac flowers.

Place flowers, sugar and water in a saucepan. On medium heat, bring to a simmer and continue to simmer for 10 mins. Remove from heat and strain through a wire strainer. Use the back of a metal spoon to push as much colour and flavor out of the flowers as possible.

Allow syrup to cool to room temperature then refrigerate. Can be made a week in advance.

 

For the panna cotta

Place gelatin sheets in enough cold water to cover the sheets. If you haven’t used them before, don’t worry about the gelatin sheets dissolving, they will hold together as a sheet in the cold water but will become floppy.

Place cream, blueberries, lilac syrup and sugar in a saucepan. Over medium heat bring to almost a simmer. When you start seeing bubbles remove from heat and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Return to medium heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Take gelatin sheets from water and shake off excess water. Add to hot cream and gently stir until dissolved and well incorporated.

Strain the panna cotta mixture through a wire strainer. Pour into moulds and cool to room temperature uncovered. This will take at least an hour. Once at room temperature, cover and place in the fridge over night. Can be made a couple of days in advance.

 

For the blueberry coulis

Make the blueberry coulis on the day of serving. Add blueberries, sugar and lemon juice to a saucepan and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and simmer until the coulis has thickened. Similar to the consistency of traditional jam but not dry.

Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.

 

For the ganache

Chop the chocolate into small pieces or shavings and place in a clean bowl. Set aside.

Put cream into a small saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer. Don’t take your eyes off it. Cream tends to boil over very quickly. Remove from heat and whisk it into the white chocolate. Keep whisking until the chocolate has completely dissolved and you have a smooth ganache. Pour into a small pouring vessel. Individual vessels per guest are thoughtful but if in a shared vessel, the fight over the remaining ganache can make things fun.

In terms of timing during dining, make the ganache as close as possible to serving. I put the saucepan with the cream in the fridge and I leave the shaved chocolate in the bowl at room temperature ready and waiting. When the main course is finished, I quickly make the ganache and pour it into the serving vessel. Then I plate the panna cotta.

 

Plating

Make sure that your utensils, plates and all ingredients are cool to room temperature. Putting anything warm on or under the panna cotta will melt it. Wash the fresh lilac flowers and blueberries and lay them on a towel to dry.

To remove the panna cotta from the moulds, take a sharp knife. Holding the panna cotta on its side, place the point of the knife between the inside of the mould and the panna cotta. Push the knife in slowly being careful not to pierce the panna cotta. The weight of the panna cotta will start to pull it away from the edges of the mould, let gravity help you. Once it starts to peel away, begin to roll the mould progressively until it peels completely from the edges. Place the plate against the opening of the mould while still on its side, precisely where you would like the panna cotta to be on the plate then turn the mould upside down with the plate underneath. Just as you would turn out a jelly. If you are having trouble getting them out you can quickly dip the bottom of the mould into very hot water, be careful not to allow any water into the panna cotta.

Using a small spoon, place some of the coulis on top of each panna cotta. Using the back of the spoon, carefully spread the coulis to the edge of the panna cotta.

Decorate each plate with blueberries and flowers. I often slice the bottom third off of one of the blueberries so that it looks submerged into the top of the panna cotta.

Don’t forget to put the ganache on the table!

….. Voila!

A note on gelatin: A great panna cotta has the quintessential ‘belly’. The less gelatin, the more ‘belly’ but also the higher the risk of the panna cotta collapsing or melting. If you are dining in a hot environment or if this is your first panna cotta, then use 3g of gelatin. As you gain experience in making panna cotta, you can reduce the gelatin to 2g. This recipe has been tested with as little as 1.6g of gelatin which produces an absolutely delightful texture and the plumpest ‘belly’. In the photographs I have used 3g of gelatin in order to buy time for styling and photography. For entertaining, I make it with 2g. This has proven to be manageable when plating up for a number of guests but also achieves the highly desirable panna cotta ‘belly’.

A note on the ganache: If you would like the ganache thinner, add more hot cream. If you would like it thicker add more shaved chocolate.

Beervelde, Belgium: Les Journées des Plantes – The Garden Days – De Tuindagen – Die Gartentage

It feels as if we’ve waited so long for it, but last weekend, it was hot! A searing, burning sun carrying bright sparkling light shone upon us all here in Western Europe. Happily, it also marked the weekend of the greatly anticipated Beervelde Garden Days, an utterly magnificent bi-annual outdoor garden and lifestyle event held in May and October. The sun, heat and very merry public made it all the more sublime. The Beervelde Garden Days are held in privately owned Beervelde Parc, located 18 kilometers East of Gent, Belgium. The event is impeccably curated and hosted by Count Renaud and Countess Valérie de Kerchove de Denterghem who open their home, for three wonderful days. Beervelde Parc is 25 glorious hectares of woodland, expansive lush meadows, flower gardens and a grand lake fed by a river. During the fair you are free to roam the grounds, with all of the buildings, including the ground floor of the stately villa and the coach house, being used by merchants. This Spring there were more than 220 specialist growers, producers, makers and manufacturers with an incredibly diverse array of superb quality produce and crafted product. We enjoyed browsing all of the plant and flower stalls, my favourites are always the peony and bulb growers. I’ve never seen so many different varieties of Iris. We also tasted many new things, the standout being a beautiful ice cream made from horse milk. Incredibly light and smooth and full of flavour. It was a very pleasant surprise.

The coach house is a complex of buildings that surround a courtyard with a large fountain. The buildings are made of red brick with subtle architectural details and have a very healthy vine sprawling across the facade. The stables have beautiful original wooden doors and a stone floor where a couple of antique dealers and a jewellery maker were installed. They were surprisingly intimate rooms and had a lovely feel. Here you will also find the barn and schoolhouse where antique dealer Anniek De Vlieger was selling exquisite antique earthenware vessels from Morroco originally used for storing water, oil and grain; large black marble plates from India and various other pots, bowls and planters from ancient Asia. Another happy find, nestled in the arched entryway to the coach house was Kopersporen, sellers of beautiful bronze garden tools made by PKS BRONZE of Austria. Shiny and new they are just lovely but their aged patina and wooden handles are really what makes them beautiful. The tools they had for testing were delightful and so very well made.

I bought myself a rose from Casteels Rozen. I am partial to double roses and this cupped, double rose called ‘Mary Ann’ is impressive in colour and petal count with a strong, delightfully sweet scent.

We also had the pleasure of meeting artist Christophe Annys. He works primarily with stone but also plaster and molding. I think his stone sculptures are wonderful. Textured, gritty and evocative. On this day however, he was demonstrating his skill in stone letter carving which he does under the business name Letterbeeld. His work is exact with no room for error. I loved that as I moved my way around the garden I could still hear his chisel sounding chink, chink, chink.

At the end of walled vegetable garden were Wenceslaus Mertens and Hilbrand De Vuyst from Reizend Bakhuis who make wood fired ovens. The two friends build their ovens using hand made bricks, clay, straw and tree branches. They use an exceptionally clever traditional technique of forming a skeleton made from woven tree branches that allow the oven to expand and contract during heating and cooling. We had a lovely long conversation about how the ovens were constructed and built to last and last. What astounded me was that they often build the oven inside a stand alone building designed as a bake house where all bread preparation, proofing and baking occurs. The installation of such a bake house constitutes a serious investment in wood fired baking and families do so as a multi-generational investment. Reizend Bakhuis reflect this attitude and ideal by providing a three generation warranty on their ovens. I was so glad to hear that this way of living and cooking is alive and well in Europe.

With his wares spread out over three enormous tables, and a view of the villa across a splendid meadow, we met Dirk Mortier and his wooden boards. Spectacular, solid, working chopping or cheese boards. At around 5cm or 2 inches thick, they appear built to withstand warping and hard work. He uses a range of wood types including French oak, American oak, European beech, European ash, plum and walnut and are made by himself, one by one, in his atelier in Belgium. You can see by the images above that these are boards with gravitas! He has a wonderful sense of celebration and feast with oversized styles that would require at least two people to carry when laden with gorgeous food. I can imagine a wonderful, characteristic grazing table at a family feast utilising different sizes, layered in levels creating a dramatic presentation.

Amongst the peony and rose sellers were master basket weavers Philippe Guérinel from France and Bruno Vloeberghs from Belgium. Both are masters in different weaving techniques and they gave us a wonderful tutorial in how their basket weaving styles differ. Philippe Guérinel forms baskets using an artful technique known as Périgord, from the Dordogne region of France. The basket is woven free form in a spiral structure which produces a very light but very strong basket. It appears from the range of baskets he had on display that the possibilities for shape are vast. He is able to form very flat, open, plate like baskets but also very curved and deep forms. I was captivated. They truly are beautiful objects. It takes great skill to produce a result such as this, a skill developed through a life-time of dedication and practice. You can see more of his baskets here.

Alpacas are fantastic animals, and like sheep, they can produce a wonderful fibre for making garments, accessories, blankets and other home textiles. We met the owners of Ecosnooze who bought along their alpacas for the show. Alpaca as a fibre has many interesting natural characteristics which make it an intriguing choice for clothing and bedding. Firstly it is free of lanolin which as I understand it, is the oil that gives sheep fleece its characteristic smell. It was expressed to us that a great deal of industrial cleaning and processing is required to remove the lanolin from the wool to ready it for the consumer, an unnecessary step in the processing of Alpaca. All protein fibres, meaning hair and wool, have micro scales on the surface of the fibre. These scales, depending on their size and the coarseness of the fibre can create an itchy sensation upon contact with the skin. Alpaca is apparently a somewhat smoother fibre which reduces the itchiness dramatically. Also, Alpacas over hundreds of years of evolution have developed a partially hollow fibre that keeps them warmer in cold climates and cooler in the warmer weather. It apparently also makes the fibre lighter in weight. But the fact that most surprised me is illustrated on the colour card above. Those shades are the natural colours of their alpacas, they don’t dye or colour their fleece. This results in a beautiful, soft palette of garments, also illustrated above. From chocolate brown to tan, cream and blue grey, they are absolutely lovely shades. The owner told us that when each alpaca is born the first question they ask is “boy or girl?” And, then immediately “what colour?”

All in all, we had a wonderful time at the Spring Beervelde Garden Days. The thing that stood out to me most of all was the overwhelming, majestic passion that all of the makers and producers had. They truly love what they do and enjoy expressing that through conversation. Great skill, knowledge and know how was demonstrated at every stall and tent and quality was evident throughout. It was a highly pleasurable weekend and I look forward to the Autumn event.

The International Orchid Exhibition at the Abbaye de Vaucelles

The Abbaye de Vaucelles in the Haut-Escaut valley is a Cistercian abbey. It has stood since 1132 when the foundation stone was laid and according to their website, in the 13th Century it had the biggest Cistercian church in Europe, bigger than the Notre Dame in Paris. The abbey, as it stands today, consists of two buildings: the Abbot’s palace and the Monks’ wing. The latter has a number of magnificent rooms one of which is the Salle de Moines, the Monks’ hall, where special events are held. Two rows of five stone columns rise into arches and form a characteristic stone vault. The architecture is dramatic and majestic with very little ornamentation and a quiet simple palette that suits a modern sensibility towards interior spaces, providing a magnificent venue for cultural and artistic events. Happily, Google has a virtual tour of the Salle de Moines where you can get a sense of the room.

This weekend past we visited the Abbey to see the 26th International Orchid Exhibition, XXVIème Exposition Internationale d’Orchidées. The mornings are fresh at the moment, tip-toe on the spot kind of fresh. The pebble stone driveway leading up to the abbey was lined with bulb and plant sellers selling roses, agapanthuses, peonies, anemones and giant amaryllises, amongst an endless list of exquisite flowers and bulbs ready for planting. Although irresistable, the cold kept us from lingering too long, it was still early.
The doorway to the Salle de Moines is unassuming and looks rather more like a service entrance but what a deception it is. We entered center of the columns to a stunning symmetrical view and in a heart beat became immediately cognizant of our other senses. The warmth needed for the delicate plants warmed our cold faces and an all-encompassing, uplifting smell of orchid flowers, new leaves, bark and fresh earth transported us to a tropical haven. It was a true sensory delight.

Growers from all over the world displayed magnificent, rare and endangered orchids in what could not have been a more appropriate space for these flowers. The sun shone all morning, its light spilling in from the high windows of the abbey illuminated every orchid brilliantly. As you can imagine, the environment commanded a sense of veneration that not a single visitor would have missed.

If you do intend to visit in the future, there was an entire room dedicated to orchid sellers with many of the orchid varieties on display available for purchase. I’ve happily discovered a handful of excellent growers in France and Belgium.

On the CROP linen Facebook page, we have an album of more than 30 images from the exhibition.

The orchids photographed are as follows:
1st: Aerangis Rhodosticta
2nd: Coelogyne Lentiginosa
3rd: Rhyncholaeliocattleya Pamela Finney ‘Pink Beauty’
4th: Cymbidium Mystique ‘Los Osos’
5th & 6th: Unfortunately the final orchid was not labelled.

Homemade Water Crackers

Growing up, some evenings, my mum would prepare a cheese plate and there would always be a collective buzz of excitement when she’d call out cheese and bikkies! We were kids, so it was a fairly simple plate but there would always be some firm favorites: a super sharp cheddar, sliced pickles and several handfuls of Carr’s water crackers carefully laid out like fallen dominos. We’d hover around the table grazing while chatting. It was a comforting time of the day. These days we have apéro which is the short name for apéritif, the pre-dinner drinks usually accompanied by lots of French cheese, cured meats and, of course, crackers. It is a wonderful social occasion to enjoy with friends and family but it can also provide a mellow interlude before evening meal preparation.

When I became an expat, there was obviously never a shortage of cheese but it was difficult to find a suitable alternative to our favored Carr’s water crackers. In Northern France, you can find them every now and then in the quintessential British products section of the supermarket, but not in ours. So, to satisfy our cracker needs and to accompany l’apéro I started to make my own. They are quick to prepare once you get the hang of them, and even more so if you have a pasta maker. I make them 20 minutes or so before apéro and always try to make enough to carry over to the next day. They are also great with soup, lentils, dips and spreads like Greek fava, tapenade or melitzanoasalata (Greek grilled aubergine spread).

I quantify the recipe as you would fresh pasta: 100g of flour for each person. So for each person attending I make the following:

Ingredients:

100g flour
¼ teaspoon bicarb soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ tablespoon olive oil
⅛ teaspoon vinegar. White vinegar is a good basic choice but other vinegars can give a slightly different outcome. For example, apple cider vinegar gives a sweeter aroma but doesn’t change the taste.
3½ tablespoons water
Extra water for brushing

Preparation:

Into a medium mixing bowl, sift flour, bicarb soda and salt. This will be referred to as the flour mix.

Into a glass or small bowl, combine vinegar and water. This will be referred to as the water mix.

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (356ºF). Fan-forced is beneficial.

Prepare at least 2 un-greased baking sheets and cover each with baking paper.

Method:

Add olive oil to the flour mix and rub with your fingers. Make sure that the olive oil is well combined and that no large balls remain.

Add the water mix to the flour mix. Mix together with your fingers until the mixture forms a ball. If it feels a little dry, add a splash more water. If it seems sticky, wait a minute or two, dough can take a moment to absorb moisture. If it stays sticky, sprinkle some flour over the ball and work it in. Do not knead the dough, just manipulate it enough for the ingredients to combine.

If making by hand, roll out the dough using a rolling pin, folding it on itself and rolling it out at least four times. This will create the fine layers that you see in commercially made water crackers.

If using a pasta maker, start on the thickest setting. Pass through a small piece of dough at a time. Fold it on itself each time you pass it through the machine. Move your way through the thickness settings as you would when making pasta. I have an Imperia machine and I roll up to and including the second thinnest setting. The finest setting is far too thin. For your first batch it is a good idea to test a couple of thicknesses so that you can evaluate which you prefer.

In regards to shape, you can bake large pieces that can be broken up at the table or pre-cut them to size. For this post I made long rustic crackers and circular ones using a cookie cutter.

Lay the crackers out on the prepared trays. Using a fork, prick the crackers all over. The more holes, the flatter the cracker. The fewer holes the larger the air bubbles.

Using a pastry brush, coat the top of every cracker with water.

Bake for 12-15 minutes until bubbles start to get a golden brown colour.

If you find that your test batch is slightly chewy, bake the next batch for a minute or two longer. It simply means that they’ve retained a little moisture.

Let cool and store in an air-tight container.

Bon apéro!

Photo 2 cheeses: Tomette de Brebis des Pyrénées raw sheep’s milk. Tomme Savoie raw cow’s milk. Petite Camembert pasteurised cow’s milk. Photo 4 cheeses: Chabichou du Poitou raw goat’s milk. Brie de Meaux 1/2 affine, raw cow’s milk. Morbier 70 days, raw cow’s milk. Photo 4 CROP linen napkins: in Flax & in Natural colours. 

Kourabiethes, a Greek butter-biscuit

Most countries have a sweet treat or delicacy that appears only for the holiday season. In France, at least in our region there is a surprising array of beautifully packaged, jarred, boxed or wrapped luxury savory foods like foie gras and pâté. And although our regular cheese selection is bountiful, at Christmas time, the frommageries burst with beautiful, tiny cheeses for entertaining, making hampers and giving as gifts. These are glorious little artisanal creations that fit in the palm of your hand, sometimes covered in dried flower petals or finely diced dried fruit. In Greece, at Christmas time, that perfect little holiday season morsel is known as the Kourabie, pronounced: kou-ra-be-eh. Kourabiethes (plural) are light, delectable shortbread-like biscuits covered in confectioner’s sugar, sold by weight and made in Greek kitchens all over the world. Like all traditional recipes, they vary slightly in texture and flavour with some Greek cooks using different butters depending on their region, including but not limited to buffalo milk butter, goat milk butter, sheep milk butter or regular cow’s milk butter. Some also use finely sliced and roasted almonds for texture and some add a splash of scotch whiskey for aroma. But the key to the perfect Kourabie is using a high quality butter and beating it, very very well. This produces a very light, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit.

If you are new to kourabiethes, there are a few things that I can tell you that will aid you in experimentation and personalisation. To assist the sugar in sticking, each kourabie is lightly sprayed or brushed with water and then rolled in and covered with confectioner’s sugar. After a short while, the sugar soaks in the water creating a fine icing shell in-between the biscuit and the fluffy sugar outer. This shell not only creates a light structure for the delicate biscuits but also, I believe, increases its shelf-life. To make the ingredients easier to procure, I have specified water but I myself and many Greek cooks use rose water or orange blossom water to add a fresh Eastern flavour. There’s plenty of room for personalisation here. One could experiment with flavour-filled infusions in place of the rose water or spice the confectioner’s sugar by adding crushed clove or cinnamon. In Greece, kourabiethes are usually found either shaped as a ball or a crescent moon. I find the ball to be less fuss and much faster to form. Due to the high butter content, it is imperative to work as quickly as possible to ensure that the butter doesn’t melt. Any novice would be forgiven for thinking that the little powdery snowballs are sturdy, they certainly feel it in the hand, but they crumble at the slightest amount of pressure. So, a single bite size is good for most. Especially children. The biscuits in the photographs are four-bite size. If your room is warm, you can rest your bowl in a cold bain-marie to keep the dough cool. I myself keep the baking tray away from warm appliances, i.e. the cooking range, before preparing the biscuits and while laying them out for baking. Store the kourabiethes as you would loukoumi (turkish delight), buried in confectioner’s sugar. They are fabulous gifts for «drop by for tea» invitations and fun to box, wrap and package.

Ingredients:
250g butter at room temperature
2 egg yolks
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar + 3-4 cups for dusting and storing.
2 pinches baking soda (about 1/16 of a teaspoon)
2 cups flour (I use T45 but all purpose flour will be fine)
½ cup almond meal
Pinch of salt
Coating water (plain water, rose water or orange blossom water)

Preparation:

In a medium to large mixing bowl, place the room temperature butter, egg yolks, ¼ cup of sifted confectioners sugar and sifted baking soda. This will be referred to as the butter mix.

Into a second bowl, sift flour, almond meal and salt. When you get to the larger pieces of almond meal, you can break them up and tip them into the mix. This will be referred to as the flour mix.

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (356ºF)

Prepare an un-greased cookie sheet and cover it with a sheet of baking paper.

Method:

Using an electric mixer set on medium speed, beat the butter mix until smooth and creamy. I know that it is ready when it is light in color and has lines and ripples in the surface. It can take up to 20 minutes to achieve this. Do not hurry this key step.

With the electric mixer set on low speed, slowly add the flour mix at a rate of ¼ cup at a time, until beaten in. Once all of the ingredients have been incorporated, if you find the dough to be too sticky to handle, you can sift in small amounts of flour until it is no longer so.

Take small pieces of dough, the size of an un-shelled walnut, and shape into a ball. Place on the baking-paper-covered cookie sheet 1 to 2 inches apart. They will not spread much.

Bake for 18-20 minutes but keep an eye on them. You want them to have a light golden color, not a golden brown color which would indicate they dried out too much. I advise a single-biscuit test to evaluate best cooking time.

Once baked, slide the baking paper from the baking tray onto another cool tray, being very gentle in your movements. While the butter is hot the biscuits are extremely delicate. Let them cool completely before the final step.

Take a baking pan, large enough to fit all of your kourabiethes, and cover the bottom in a generous layer of confectioner’s sugar. You want to ensure that you cannot see the bottom of the pan through the sugar. Once the biscuits are completely cool, using a spray atomizer or brush, lightly and evenly coat a single biscuit with the coating water you chose. If dripping, gently dry off with a paper towel. Place the biscuit on the sugar coated tray and generously sift confectioners sugar over the damp biscuit ensuring that it is completely covered. It can build up on the sides. Repeat one biscuit at a time until they are all sugar coated. You can store the biscuits in this pan until ready to serve.

We often eat them straight out of the storage tray but if I plan to present them to guests or give them as a gift, I do as follows. I take each kourabie out of the storage pan and gently dust them off to reveal the round shape. With a small strainer or a sifter I sprinkle it with fresh sugar while balancing it in my hand. Finally, I dust a little more sugar once on the serving plate.

Makes 16-20 kourabiethes.

Photo 4: CROP linen Azuma in Natural colour.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Learn more.

Cookies help the CROP linen website carry out important tasks. For example, remembering the contents of your cart. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click the "Accept" button then you are telling us that you have no problem with our use of cookies.

Close