Letter from Bouisse - 14th July

14th July, Bastille Day, marks the national day of France. We have witnessed the military display in Champs-Élysées, Paris and joined in a torch light procession at nearby Rennes-les-Bains, the setting of many scenes in Kate Mosses’ recent novel Sepulchre, but none quite like 14th July 2008.

Away from large cities, holidays and high days are usually marked by family get-together’s and meals, Bouisse echoing this rule rather than the exception. Whatever the occasion, as ‘visitors’ to the village our daily routine doesn’t particularly alter – household tasks including the children’s holiday homework (the French education system is tough!), lunch and often a family walk in the surrounding hills or visit the nearby river or lake for swimming. We chose the latter, a peaceful lake-side option at the nearby village of Arques lying on the Cathar Castle trail. Open to the public, the now deserted golden sandstone coloured Keep at Arques was used as living quarters since the 13th Century and has an annual activity day featuring games and exhibitions until dusk.

Remembering a vague conversation the previous day about the possibility of a picnic I thought it prudent to check details with friends in Bouisse, learning that an expedition the scale of Agincourt was underway, leaving in precisely 2 hours and what was I able to contribute?

A hasty drive through the hills and into my kitchen I put together 2 salads which easily feed a crowd:

Braised Lentil Salad

Lentils are an integral component of French cuisine, the green Puy variety considered the finest.

  • 200g smoked lardons (or chunked streaky bacon)
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 500g Puy (green) lentils
  • white wine or water plus ½ stock cube
  • 1tsp harissa paste
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 mild green chilli, finely chopped
  • raspberry vinegar
  • fruity olive oil

  1. Using a large non-stick frying pan sauté the lardons together with the onion and garlic, gently cooking until most of the fat has melted and the onions are soft.

  1. Stir in the lentils and enough wine or water to just cover. Add the harissa paste and black pepper then cook for about 20-25 minutes until the lentils are soft but still chewy, topping up the liquid, a little at a time, as necessary. At the end of cooking a little juice is OK – this will be absorbed on cooling, a larger quantity should be quickly boiled off, stirring.

  1. When cool, fork-in the chilli being careful not to break the lentils, dressing with raspberry vinegar and olive oil. Serve chilled.

Carrot & Peanut Salad

Originating through distant memories of a Nigella Lawson summertime recipe, this is quick to produce at whatever quantities deemed necessary.

Peel then coarsely grate carrots into a mixing bowl. Add a couple of handfuls of salted, roasted peanuts and a sprinkling of Lemon Vinaigrette. Mix well and serve chilled.

Lemon Vinaigrette

Take the juice of 1 lemon and whisk together with 1tsp Dijon (mild) mustard. Whisking continually, trickle in some fruity olive oil until achieving a thick, viscous consistency. Season.

Including ourselves, 5 squashed car loads set off in convoy to reach the summit of Milobre, the highest peak in the region at 878 meters above sea level. The track winds, is bumpy and is steep, but so worth the effort to see simply stunning views of Narbonne and the coast to the south and Carcassonne to the East.

Picnic unpacked: traditional aperitifs – Pastis or Muscat wine followed by a barbeque of marinated chicken breast, herby pork and mixed kebabs, accompanied by a variety of salads; Impressive, considering the wind force at this height!

Fun and frolics followed – an impromptu game of football and attaching (without complaint) the flag of St. George to our French neighbour’s car, but what we awaited was the setting sun and darkness in order to watch the firework displays across the valley, the pinnacle being at the fortified medieval Cité de Carcassonne where an annual dramatic firework and illuminations display gives the appearance of the entire citadel burning in blood red flame.

The medieval city of Carcassonne The legendary firework display at Carcassonne

Thank you, friends in Bouisse, for a magical evening I shall remember: the company, hospitality and setting.