This is my April column for Kingston This Week. The post is out of synch with my other posts from France because being a newspaper column – it had to be submitted shortly after I arrived in France.
Here in the South of France, where I am spending a couple of weeks locked up in an old stone barn, writing, it is unseasonably cold. It has also been raining, a lot. Which is all good because it’s conducive to getting some work done.
I could be locked up in a barn anywhere I suppose. But being here, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, is perfect. It’s rural and quiet. The countryside is ruggedly beautiful. The rocky Cévennes Mountains are visible in the distance. The local villages are old, working villages – not touristy – but with a charm of their own. Just beyond my studio in the barn, is a river and beyond that, a vineyard.
Incredibly, grapevines are said to have existed in this particular area since the Pliocene period, that is, since before the existence of Homo sapiens. Hardly surprising then, the importance of wine to the French culture and economy. In terms of volume, the Languedoc is the largest wine-producing area in France.
Everywhere I look there are ancient stone buildings, stone bridges, and stone walls. Perhaps because I spent my early years in the rugged north of England – where old stone buildings and walls abound – I feel completely at home here. It’s also part of the reason I love living in Kingston – all the beautiful old limestone.
I’m staying in the writer’s studio at Le Mas Blanc, the property of Canadian writer Isabel Huggan, who lives for most of the year here in the South of France. She wrote about this place in Belonging, a book that resonated deeply with me. I never once imagined being here until I stumbled across a reference to Le Mas Blanc on The Hungry Novelist, the wonderful food blog of Toronto writer, Kim Moritsugu.
It seems fitting that food should have brought me here to France and more specifically to Le Mas Blanc, where I am spending my days writing and my evenings in the kitchen with Isabel who is not only an award-winning, best-selling writer, a teacher and mentor to many aspiring writers, but also a wonderful cook.
On my first night at Le Mas Blanc, we made a lovely risotto with asparagus bought from a local farmer. Just one of the many things that I admire about France is the importance of high quality ingredients – and particularly their reverence for using fresh local food.
By the time I get back to Kingston later this month, it will be the beginning of asparagus season in Ontario. This dish will be up on my chalkboard menu at the first sign of local asparagus.
Asparagus and Cremini Mushroom Risotto (serves four)
1 finely chopped medium onion
1 finely chopped clove garlic
1 ½ cups short grain Italian rice
1 lb asparagus
12 cremini mushrooms (sometimes known as baby Portobellos)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 oz grated cheddar
½ cup dry white wine
5 cups vegetable stock
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese to garnish
Trim asparagus, break into 1 inch pieces, and set aside. Wash and slice mushrooms and set aside. Grate cheddar and Parmesan.
Sauté onions in olive oil until transparent, then add garlic. Add rice and stir for 2 minutes. Add wine stirring constantly. Simmer over med-low heat until the wine is fully absorbed and begin adding stock slowly – continuing to add stock as it is absorbed.
When about 2/3 of the stock is used – in a separate pan, steam asparagus for 4-6 minutes. In a small skillet gently sauté mushrooms in a little additional olive oil. Add any remaining stock plus the cheddar to the risotto and continue cooking until all is absorbed.
Season risotto with salt and pepper and then serve topped with asparagus, mushrooms and freshly grated Parmesan.