Simple Basque food: part 2

In a scene from A Hundred Words for Butterfly, my characters are in the charming village of Espelette and sit down to enjoy a very classic local dish: axoa (pronounced ‘atchoa’).

Traditionally served on market days, this simple and delicious Basque stew was popularised in Espelette, and in fact in recipe books is often called ‘axoa d’Espelette‘. This dish really highlights piment d’Espelette and in my previous post I indicated where you can easily buy it, but as I mentioned, hot paprika(non-smoked) will make a reasonable substitute (note that sweet paprika is too mild, and smoked paprika really doesn’t taste anything like the piment). The axoa really benefits from cooking ahead and letting it rest—for instance, you could cook it at lunchtime but serve it at dinner time. Even cooking it an hour or so ahead of serving and letting it sit will enhance the flavours. But don’t despair if you don’t have time–it’s excellent even if you don’t have time to cook ahead!

This recipe is my version of axoa, with a twist on tradition. Not only do I provide a vegetarian as well as a meat version, I use green capsicum (bell pepper) instead of the more traditional long pale green pepper (mild variety). Red capsicum however is a traditional part of the stew. And together they look just right, highlighting the traditional vibrant Basque colours of red and green! In the quantities given, the recipes each serve 3-4 people. (‘Axoa’ by the way means ‘chopped’ in Basque, referring to the meat).

Ingredients common to both versions: one large onion, 3 cloves garlic, 1 red capsicum, 1 green capsicum, olive oil, chopped herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf), piment d’Espelette, salt, 200 ml water or stock.

Other ingredients for meat version: 500 g diced veal (the traditional meat for this dish) or pork (which also goes well, in my experience), or 500 g minced veal or pork. Chicken could also be used.

Other ingredients for vegetarian version: 150 g soaked beans. I used black-eyed beans as they don’t take too long to cook (and we grew them!) but you could also use Lima beans (butter beans) or white haricot beans. Also, a bit of extra vegetable stock to cook the beans. If you are making the vegetarian version, cook the beans in stock first till they are at least three-quarters cooked, before adding to the basic mix to cook more.

So, first of all chop your onion, garlic and herbs. Deseed and dice the red and green capsicums. In a pan, cook the onion, garlic and capsicums in olive oil for 15 minutes then add the diced meat or the part-cooked beans, add the herbs, salt, and dash of piment d’Espelette. Reduce the heat and add the water or stock and cook at low heat, lid on, for about 45 minutes. The meat should be very tender but not falling apart, ditto the beans, and the sauce should be thick and reduced. After you turn off the heat, let the stew sit for as long as you can, before reheating, adding another sprinkle of piment d’Espelette, and serving with boiled potatoes or rice.

Simple Basque food: part 1

As I mentioned in my post about the piment d’Espelette last week, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting recipes for some simple Basque food, and thought I’d build it up so you could, if you want, create a whole Basque-inspired meal around it, similar to what my characters in A Hundred Words for Butterfly enjoy!

Today I’m introducing four simple dishes that can function either as snacks, entrees, lunch dishes or even grace a pintxo table if you want (pintxos are the Basque version of tapas). And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that pintxos are ‘Spanish’–they are found on both sides of the French/Spanish border, just like the people who make them, because they are Basque 🙂

I’ve made all of these very recently and the photos are all my own, so you can see they are definitely home-made 🙂 All are very simple, very quick, and and very tasty! By the way, they all include a sprinkle of piment d’Espelette–great if you can obtain some, for example here or here, and I recommend it for that characteristic Basque taste. But you can certainly use good hot paprika if you don’t have any piment handy.

So here are the recipes!

Garlic and egg soup: Garlic cloves (up to 6 for 4 people); stock (chicken or vegetable) olive oil, thyme, bay leaf, eggs(1 per person) salt, piment d’Espelette, slices of bread. Cook the whole peeled garlic cloves in olive oil till they are golden, then add the hot stock. Add salt and a sprinkle of the pepper. Add chopped thyme and the bay leaf. Cook, uncovered, for 30 mins then crack the eggs into the soup to poach them. Fry the slices of bread and cut up to make croutons. And serve!

Simple Basque salad: On a plate arrange lettuce leaves with slices of Bayonne-style ham (Serrano ham is fine if Bayonne ham is unobtainable), and slices of roasted red and green capsicum. Sprinkle a vinaigrette made of olive oil and white wine or cider vinegar over the lettuce, and a small pinch of piment d’Espelette on the ham. For a vegetarian version, you can use sheep’s milk cheese (such as Manchego) instead of the ham, and you can also add other ingredients to the basics, such as tomatoes, artichokes and asparagus. 

Fried sardines: You need fresh sardines for this (can be either whole, gutted and boned sardines or ready-prepared fillets). For 2 people, I used 3 sardines each. You also need an egg and some flour, salt, and you guessed it, piment d’Espelette! Beat the egg, dip each sardine in it then into the flour, making sure it’s all coated, then fry till done. Serve with a sprinkle of salt, the Espelette pepper, and either lemon or vinegar.

Mushrooms with garlic: In the Basque country, ceps or other forest mushrooms would often be used, but field mushrooms are also fine. Simply slice them finely and cook in a little butter for about 2 minutes, add crushed garlic, salt, some chopped herbs—whatever you have on hand (I used basil) and yes, a sprinkle of that Famous Pepper!

The new Shalott: an interview with Felicity Pulman

Today I’m delighted to be bringing you an interview with award-winning writer Felicity Pulman, who has embarked on a wonderful new project: republishing her popular young adult historical fantasy trilogy, Shalott, with new titles, new material and in new formats. The first book, Shalott: Into the Unknown, has just been released, and the other two Shalott: Dangerous Magic, and Shalott: End Play, will be published in September and November respectively.

Congratulations, Felicity! Why did you decide to republish the Shalott trilogy?

I wrote the first novel not realising there was more to come – and it was only when I got to the third novel that I understood what Callie’s quest was really all about. Rewriting and republishing the trilogy was my chance to ‘get it right’; to blend in a wonderful mix of magic and technology, and to seed in the ‘clues’ that there was much more to the teenagers’ quest than they first realised. It was also my chance to bring the books up to date for a new generation of readers, while introducing them to the timeless legend of King Arthur and his knights, and the mysterious and beautiful poem, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The original series came out in the early 2000s. You’ve changed the titles, but was there anything you decided to change within the stories themselves? And did you add any new material?

Basically the story remains the same, although I’ve strengthened the magical aspect, particularly from the points of view of Nimue and Morgan le Fay. Nimue’s magic helps to bring the teenagers to Camelot in order to thwart Morgan’s plans to divide the court through the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot. But Morgan will stop at nothing to eliminate anything that gets in the way of her ambition for Mordred – and the teenagers are caught in the crossfire. I was also able to update the books to reflect society as we know it today in terms of hot button topics for teenagers, new technology, and even the deadly virus! A LOT has changed over the past twenty years.

Tell us about the process you went through in order to get the books back into print – what were the challenges? And discoveries?

I worked on an already formatted version while rewriting the novels, which caused all sorts of problems during editing and proof-reading. With hindsight I’d probably have been better off retyping all three novels! As a technotwit I knew I’d be better off asking for help rather than trying to navigate the self-publishing process on my own.  Joel Naoum from Critical Mass Services has been a great help to me, finding editors, designers and printers, acting as a sounding board, and generally shepherding me through the whole publishing process. What I discovered was just how many decisions one has to make along the journey!

As a self-publisher this time, how are you promoting and publicising the books?

This is still a WIP.  I’ve updated my website; I’m posting on facebook and other platforms, and also spreading the word via the various societies and writing organisations to which I belong. I need to make much more use of social media than I do, and I’m working on that, plus I’m also considering paying for some advertising. Friends like you have been really helpful with giving me ‘air time’ on your own platforms as well – much appreciated!  Of course I always talk about my books at my workshops and author talks, with the age of the audience determining which books I mention. I’ll be canvassing local bookshops with copies of the trilogy, and also sending out press releases to local and any other media that I hope might be interested. Meantime I’m open to suggestions from everyone!

What advice would you have for other authors thinking of republishing their out-of- print titles? 

 It’s hard work but certainly worthwhile if you want to breathe new life into your books, especially if you’re technosavvy. But buyer beware: go with a reputable print company and make sure your books are readily available for purchase (as mine are through amazon and various other outlets.) If you’re outsourcing the publishing process, as I have, it can be expensive, and unless the book suddenly takes off for some reason you should realise that you’re unlikely to make any sort of profit, or even recoup your expenses.

Another of your novels is going to get a new lease of life, I believe, with your very first novel, Ghost Boy, optioned by a film production company. Can you tell us about that?

Ghost Boy is my most successful book to date, particularly as it now forms the basis of the very popular Ghost Boy tour up at the Quarantine Station in Manly, where part of the novel is set. The QS itself is a fabulous site – very cinematic, very historic, and very creepy, and students studying my novel find that the book really comes alive when they can walk in the footsteps of my characters. The film option was taken out several years ago, but I’ve now signed an option for the sale of my book, which means we’ve come one step closer to seeing my novel (and maybe its unpublished sequel: The Curse of the Quarantine Station) turned into a movie. Exciting – but I must admit I’m finding it very hard to let go!

Where you can buy Shalott: Into the Unknown, first volume of Felicity’s republished Shalott trilogy:

Aus: www.amazon.com.au/dp/B097KYVRLS

USA: www.amazon.com/dp/B097KYVRLS

UK: www.amazon.com.uk/dp/B097KYVRLS

The ‘Famous Pepper’ of the Basque country

My audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, is currently with Spineless Wonders Audio in the early stages of preparation for production though due to the current Sydney lockdown, actual recording has not started yet. I’m using the time at the moment to put together some ideas for interesting posts about different aspects of the book, and right now I’m thinking of posts around Basque food. In the novel, you get to hear quite a bit about it–the delicious hams and cheeses and stews and cakes of the region, and especially the aromatic powdered spice known as piment d’Espelette (Ezpeletako biperra in Basque), which is an absolutely central ingredient in a lot of Basque dishes. With its rich, deep, aromatic fruitiness and mild to moderate chilli warmth, piment d’Espelette is made from the long peppers grown in only ten villages, centred on Espelette, in the northern Basque country(ie the French Basque country) . It is so highly prized not only in the region but in the whole of France that it has it own AOP designation(which means it cannot be called or sold as Espelette pepper unless it is made from peppers grown by accredited producers in that small region). The pepper has a ‘confrerie‘ or fraternity dedicated to it and its protection, and it is celebrated in an annual festival that attracts ten of thousands of people every year to Espelette. From the very simplest use, sprinkled on boiled eggs and tomatoes to its pick-me-up presence in unctuous meat stews and rich fish soups or mixed in sauces, pâtés, mustards and even chocolates, it’s a very versatile and distinctive spice.

In A Hundred Words for Butterfly, there’s an important scene set in Espelette, proud home of the ‘Famous Pepper’ as my character Helen jokingly calls it, and in this first post around Basque food I thought readers of this blog might be interested to hear a little more about that celebrated spice. And in future posts, I’ll be putting up recipes for Basque dishes, many of which feature the Famous Pepper.

L to R: brochure about the pepper, me and youngest son Bevis in Espelette a few years ago; and dried peppers in a shop in Espelette.

Originally brought back to the Basque country from Mexico around four hundred years ago, the ancestor of the Ezpeletako biperra thrived in the soils of its new home and over time evolved to develop new characteristics that marked it as unique to that region. At the beginning, it was its medicinal qualities that were celebrated, but it very soon became the preferred spice in many Basque homes, as a substitute for black pepper which was then very expensive. And soon it started to colonise Basque cooking, but it was only in the 20th century that its central culinary and cultural importance was recognised, and its uniqueness protected and celebrated. In France, you can of course buy it pretty much everywhere; but you can also easily obtain it outside of France. In Australia, you can easily buy the ‘Famous Pepper’ powder online: for instance I’ve bought it here and here. It’s not exactly cheap outside of France but it is truly worth getting, if you’re interested in cooking Basque food: you can substitute high quality non-smoked hot paprika but it simply is not the same, and won’t have the same authentic taste.

Typically in the Basque country, Espelette peppers are sown in spring, with seedlings raised under glass in April, and planted out in mid-May when the soil has warmed up. Flowers appear in mid-June and then the fruit starts appearing. It starts off as green and gradually turns a deep red and is harvested from August to October and either sold fresh or kept to be dried. For this, the peppers are harvested with their stalks, which are then pierced to allow for food-quality string to be pushed through–the fruit is then hung to dry. Sometimes a whole lot of peppers are threaded on long ropes which are then hung on the front of houses to dry: you see these in several places in the season in the pepper area, especially in Espelette itself! Against the traditional white and red houses, it looks extremely picturesque. (But though it is still done to some extent, these days many producers dry the fruit in the air, but under glass). Then comes the next phase: making the powdered spice. Basically, once the peppers have dried in the air, they are then dried again in the oven for several hours and then ground to produce a grainy deep red or orangey-red powder. There are strict rules around it: no additive of any kind is allowed, the pepper powder must only be composed of the unadulterated ground dried fruit and as well, there can be no mixing of fruit from different growers: each accredited producer must use only their own peppers. Finally, the powder must be hermetically sealed into jars(this is how it’s mainly retailed) or shrink-wrapped packages(this is mainly for the larger quantities. )

So there you have it: the Famous Pepper! Incidentally, there are five other varieties of peppers which were brought back to the Basque country, north and south, by seafarers returning from the Americas. These include both mild and hot varieties which are rightly celebrated in their own regions. But none has quite achieved the worldwide celebrity of the piment d’Espelette 🙂

From brochure on piment d’Espelette

Physical journeys in fiction–my latest post on Writer Unboxed

In my latest post on the international writing website, Writer Unboxed, I write about physical journeys in fiction, concentrating on how I’m doing that in a historical novel for children that I’m writing at the moment, plus looking at the classic adventure novel I consider to be one of the great ‘road trip’ novels, Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. Here’s an extract from my post:

At the moment I’m writing a historical novel for children, set in the Roman province of Brittania (Roman Britain) in the late first century AD/CE. The novel involves a great deal of journeying, as the main characters attempt to meet up with someone who always seems to be a day ahead of them, and whom they have to chase after from town to town. Eventually they do catch up with him, but not in the way they hoped and it makes matters much worse as they then have to flee cross-country to escape pursuers! This is the part I’m up to, and I know my poor exhausted characters still have a way to go!

Most of my novels in fact involve journeys of one sort or the other, it’s a natural theme of my writing—perhaps because I was brought up between two countries, France and Australia, and we travelled so much as kids. But in this one, the structure and plot of the novel absolutely depend on the physical journey. Now when you’re writing a novel like that, you have to work hard to make sure that the constant traveling doesn’t get boring for the reader (as well as tiring for your characters).

You can read the whole post here–and please do make comments(on the Writer Unboxed site) if you like!

The key to a work in progress…

Some years ago, in a little antique shop near the British Museum in London, I bought an extraordinary object–a Roman key-ring, that is, a key designed to be worn as a ring. Made of lead, it was dated to the 1st century AD. It wasn’t particularly expensive, because apparently such rings are not uncommon finds. But I was immediately fascinated by it when I saw it in the window of the shop: it was the kind of humble object that propels you straight into another world, another time. And when I looked at it more closely, I saw that the ring size was very small–on my own hand, it only fitted on the little finger. So either it had been meant for a very small woman or a child, or it had simply been meant to be worn around the neck, on a leather thong or something similar. And what lock would such a key open? Definitely not a door, but probably a box of some sort. A money or valuables box? A medicine box? I had no idea as to the truth of it, but immediately what ifs began bubbling in my head…I began to see, through the mists of imagination, a figure become clearer, a young girl living in the province of Brittania whose widowed Roman father is an oculist, an eye-doctor(they were commonly found in Roman times, especially in Gaul and Brittania). And when he dies, he leaves her this key, a mysterious key that does not fit any of the locks of his boxes. And he tells her not to speak of it to anyone, but to find her uncle, who will know what to do. And so she sets off…

I began writing the story not long after I bought the key. But for various reasons–mostly because I couldn’t get past certain plotting problems with it–it never got finished or even really properly going. I had set it aside and almost forgotten about it until just a few weeks ago, when trawling through documents in my computer, I came across the outline and sample chapters which was all I’d written of the novel I’d called ‘The Key to Rome.’ Instantly, it called to me again. I got the key itself out of the display box in which we keep it and I looked at it for a long moment, and then I knew: I had to write this story! And now I knew just how to write it, and what I had to change to make it work.

So that’s what I’m working on: the unlocking of the story, and the real meaning of ‘the key to Rome.’ And now, somehow, all the plotting problems have disappeared, the story is powering along, simpler, tighter, stronger than I’d originally seen it.

And that’s why writing is so exciting!

The audio novel is now with the publisher!

This week, the fully edited final ms of A Hundred Words for Butterfly went off to the publisher, Spineless Wonders Audio. It was an exciting moment, pressing ‘Send’. It’s been a real journey of discovery, writing the novel–or perhaps I should call it novella, given its length(just under 32,000 words)–and at times a bit of a challenge, but so enjoyable!

It’s turned out so well, pretty much exactly how I wanted it to be, and I think it will transfer beautifully to the audio form. I can’t wait for the next stage, as the book moves into production. And by the way, it was lovely recently to see it mentioned for the first time outside my blog, in an interview in Books+Publishing with Spineless Wonders publisher Bronwyn Mehan.

More soon!

The Basque elements of A Turn off the Path

My audio novel, A Turn off the Path, is set in the Pays Basque, the French Basque country, in the beautiful Pyrenean hill town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi in Basque. I wanted to set it there not only because it is at the beginning of the famous Camino Frances, or French Way, to Compostella, but also for family reasons. On my mother’s family’s side, we have Basque heritage and though they’re not from Saint Jean, but rather from Biarritz (where my uncles, aunts, cousins and extended family still live) and also, further back, from the Spanish Basque side, from childhood onwards we have roamed across the beautiful Pays Basque, including several visits to Saint Jean, like this one to the markets there. As well, my sister Camille, who’s an artist, lives and works in Hasparren, and is a proud member of the Institut Culturel Basque.

Though we were not brought up speaking Basque ourselves, and we had other very important ethnic heritages–French (which dominated), French-Canadian, Spanish and Portuguese–our Basque heritage strand was always a rich and valued part of our family tapestry. It lived not only in our DNA but in our cultural references and lived experience. All of it fascinated me: the gorgeous landscape, the tumultuous history reaching way back into the millenia, the ancient culture whose ancient, non-Indo-European language still flourishes, and people both clannish and dynamic, tenacious and adaptable, traditional and innovative, fierce and businesslike, imaginative and reserved. And it influenced my writing: my first ever published piece was an article in Vogue Living on Basque cooking, which combined glimpses of Basque culture and places with delicious recipes. Over the years, I’ve sprinkled Basque references and characters in several of my novels, but in my alternative history YA novel The Hand of Glory, a Basque character is at central stage: a young undercover detective called Anje Otsoa. Through him, I was able to explore some aspects of Basque folklore, history and mythology. And now, in A Turn off the Path, I am exploring that Basque heritage again, not only through my main character Helen getting to know the region, its history and culture, but also through another character, another Australian, who’s come to investigate his family history and his Basque ancestors.

It’s an interesting challenge, both to include those elements yet not make it into some kind of Basque tourist guide or explanation of Basque culture. And in a novel like this one, where you always have to think of the auditory aspect as well, I have to think carefully about how I can present those important strands without overwhelming dialogue with information or having too much description. It’s very much about glimpses, and also emotion. For example, one of the scenes I’ve written recently has Helen walking through the streets one evening and suddenly hearing music floating from an open window: it’s a local Basque male choir practising. For like the Russians, the Welsh, Corsicans and others around the world, the Basques have a long-standing tradition of male choirs, and hearing a really good one is absolutely spine-tingling. That scene is only brief, but it anchors the action in something that is both concrete yet elusive, and emotional all the way through. (If you’re interested in hearing what such a choir sounds like, here’s the website of one, Gogotik, from Saint Jean Pied de Port itself)

Below is a composite photo of my mother’s maternal side, on the Basque lineage. Going left to right, far left is my mother, Gisele; then her mother, Anna (both born in the French Basque country); her mother Antonina, and her mother Ama (both born in the Spanish Basque country, though Antonina came to live in the French Basque country as a young woman). And below that is me, as a teenager in the late 1970’s in the French Basque country, near the village of Ainhoa. Yes, you could still see the occasional ox cart there, back then!

Interview at #LoveOzYA

Alex Patrikios of the wonderful literary group #LoveOzYA interviewed me via Zoom the other day, to talk about The Ghost Squad–she had great questions, and I really enjoyed our chat! The interview is now up as a transcript on the #LOveOzYA website, and you can also see clips of the video, exploring such things as research, speculative fiction tropes, and the writing life, at their You Tube channel. Here’s an extract from the interview, about the inspiration and research behind the book:

Was there a particular moment of inspiration that sparked the idea for THE GHOST SQUAD?

A while back, I went to this little museum in Rome, which is called the Museum of Purgatory. Of course in Catholic doctrine, purgatory is a sort of halfway house between heaven and hell. This particular museum was quite a weird little place, and (I learned) this priest in the 19th Century had tried to show proof that purgatory existed and he did with burned handprints on a piece of fabric, supposedly of people who had tried to send messages from purgatory.

But this is now: people don’t believe a burned handprint on a piece of fabric is proof. So I thought, okay, what would cause a disturbance in the electronic systems — monitoring machines and other things like that in hospitals — so I had a look, and found out about electronic magnetic pulses(note: caused by solar storms). I found out about the Carrington Event, and also that a lot of governments actually have contingency plans for when the next one hits. I read stuff from both NASA and the British Government, about what they plan to do in the event of an electromagnetic pulse.

When I saw the Carrington Event had happened around the same time you saw this big interest in seances and spiritualism, in the Victorian times, I thought, okay, this is kind of ‘ghosty’ stuff — and maybe in my lifetime, it would trigger something similar.

Everything sort of fell into place after that.

Apart from that kind of research — NASA, government documents — did you also look at popular movies or shows that have that speculative flavour, and try to examine the genre itself?

Absolutely! Also the novel came out of a creative practice Phd, so that was the creative part of it, but the academic part of it was all about afterlife fiction for young adults. Really fantastic books, like Neal Shusterman’s Everlost trilogy, Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, and Lynette Lounsbury’s Afterworld.

I watched a lot of films and TV series — things like The Glitch, and the French series The Returned, and even Lost have examples of (afterlife fiction). That was fun! I had so much fun doing ‘research’, reading all these great books and watching all these terrific TV series and films.

I also read a lot of folklore and (material) from religious and spiritual traditions. I had three years to do the Phd, which was fantastic, because it meant I could really develop the book in the very rich and complex way that I wanted to do.

You can read the whole interview here.

The Ghost Squad is out today!

I am thrilled to announce that today is the official release of my new book, The Ghost Squad, published by MidnightSun Publishing and now available in bookshops all over Australia. Hurrah!

As readers of this blog know, the novel, a young adult speculative fiction thriller set in a disconcerting world, was first written as the creative part of my PhD at the University of New England (I was awarded the PhD in 2019) and subsequently acquired by MidnightSun Publishing.  It is immensely exciting to see the novel out there in beautiful book form and for that I wish to greatly thank Anna Solding of MidnightSun Publishing, who so warmly and thoughtfully responded to The Ghost Squad from the start, and many thanks to all her great team as well. I am absolutely delighted that the novel has found its perfect home with such a wonderful publisher. Many thanks to my fantastic agent Margaret Connolly, who always sees the potential in my work, no matter how ‘left-field’, and without whose unfailing support my career would never have been as fortunate and enduring as it has been. And thank you to UNE and my supervisors, especially Dr Yvonne Griggs, whose unfailing support, encouragement and thoughtful readings throughout the PhD helped so much in the development of the novel.

I hope many, many readers will enjoy The Ghost Squad, as this lovely early reader did in a wonderful advance review in Books+Publishing. If you’d like to know more about the book, have a look at the dedicated page to it on this blog. You can also read a short interview with me about the book on the international writing blog, Writer Unboxed. And if you’d like to get a taste of the novel’s atmosphere, do check out the fabulous trailer here.