French food focus - May 2019

A focus on food in France. This month, meet chestnuts producers, discover an uncooked pressed cheese and a speciality from the Basque country

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Meet the producers

Cédric et Laetitia Caillat have a small farm in Freyssenet, in Ardèche which produces mainly chestnuts, although they are diversifying.

“We harvest around six tonnes of chestnuts per year,” says Laetitia. “We sell 3.5/4 tonnes of them fresh, direct to the public, we make flour with one tonne, and the rest goes into chestnut jam.

“I do it myself in small batches, 20 pots at time. I make classic chestnut jam, as well as chestnut/vanilla, chestnut with bits of ‘marron glacé’, chestnut/honey, and chestnut/hazelnut/chocolate.”

The only thing she doesn’t do herself is peeling the chestnuts because it’s so slow. “The machine does them all in one afternoon, and it gets the inner skins off as well as the outside shells.”

Their open days in October are very popular. They were dreamed up to solve the problem of picking up all the chestnuts. “We always had fruit we couldn’t collect before it went rotten on the ground.

So because in this area, all the chestnut trees belong to someone, making it impossible for people to go out and collect a few chestnuts, we decided to invite people to come for the day.

“We start at 9am with a talk explaining how we grow chestnuts, how to gather them and what we do with them afterwards, and then we all pick for 4-5 hours together. It’s fun, we talk and laugh, and at midday we all eat our picnics together. And then at the end of the day, people are free to take home a third of what they’ve picked. It means they get a wonderful day out, and we get help with the harvest.” (The dates are posted on their website, or readers can email them to get onto the mailing list.)

They sell their products in their own small farm shop, as well as at farmers’ markets, evening events, Medieval fayres, gastronomic events and local food markets. “We’ve been going since 2014, and we feel it’s successful but we’re always looking for new possibilities.

“After the past two disastrous harvests, we’re renting land for horses, and we’re looking at planting vines and olives because if global warming continues, it will change farming completely. Agriculture in France will move north. Who knows, we might end up planting some oranges!”

Artisan cheese of the month: Le Morbier

Named after the small village of Morbier in Franche-Comté, Le Morbier is a distinctive Appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) uncooked pressed cheese made from raw cow’s milk.

Cylindrical in shape, it usually measures 30 to 40cm in diameter and 5 to 8cm high, with an average weight of 6 to 7 kg. Light pink to beige in colour, it is distinguished by the thin layer of vegetable charcoal that runs through its centre.

It used to be made by pressing two discs together – one made from a dairy’s morning milk, the other from evening milk.

The Badoz family in Pontarlier makes a range of Morbiers and other Jura cheeses;

Local speciality: Thon Basquaise

Think red peppers, think Pays Basque.

Add to the mix some locally caught Germon tuna fillets, leave to stew in rich extra virgin olive oil with onion and garlic and you have the makings of a speciality from Saint-Jean de Luz.

Local fish dish creator and conserver, the Jean de Luz company, adds a pinch of AOC piment d’Espelette for a spicy kick.