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 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.

A seasonal gift to readers: Rebecca Doiley-Bird and the Christmas Case

Every year, I like to offer readers a fun little seasonal story. This year, it’s Rebecca Doiley-Bird and the Christmas Case, featuring a doll from the gorgeous Doiley-Bird series created by my talented friends at Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard.

Rebecca Doiley-Bird and the Christmas Case

By Sophie Masson

Rebecca Doiley-Bird was fed-up. Out of sorts. Bored. Restless. Frustrated. And just about every other kind of tedious feeling of that sort.

She shouldn’t be bored. She knew that. She was one of the famous Doiley-Birds, a family of world-famous girl detectives who solved mysteries big and small. And each of the sisters had their own special skill. Rebecca’s was photography. With her trusty camera, she had snapped more shots of fleeing criminals and dastardly deeds than most of us have had hot breakfasts. She’d been in all kinds of sticky situations, and unmasked all kinds of villains. But that was the problem. Right now she was on a different sort of case, all on her own, one her sisters didn’t even know about. But what it mostly meant was that she had to sit by a window and wait for her quarry to come out of the house opposite. And they hadn’t moved. Not one inch, not one second! Nobody came into that house, nobody came out of it. It was hours since Rebecca had first got here and in all that time not a soul had been and gone in the place across the street. She was beginning to think she had made a mistake and her hunch had not paid off.

To make matters worse, it was nearly Christmas and Rebecca had not even started shopping for presents. Each year, it was the same. Each year, she promised herself she’d start earlier. Each year, she was the last one to finish. Often it was at the last minute on Christmas Eve that she finally rushed out and bought something. The others all had such good ideas, and sometimes they didn’t even buy presents, but made them. Like Lizette, for instance, who created cool individual handbags—Rebecca treasured hers from last year—and Veronica, who made up new crossword puzzle books for everyone. Rebecca could have given photographs. But she didn’t think those were good enough presents, especially as all her photographs were of crime scenes and stolen loot and crooks caught on camera.

At that moment, there was a movement in the house opposite. Not much, just the twitching of a curtain, and the glimpse of a face, but it was enough. Rebecca raised her camera and took a quick shot, and another, and another. Her heart beat fast. This could mean the case was about to break at last.

Forgetting all about the agony of choosing Christmas presents, Rebecca watched with eagle eyes as the curtain twitched back and in a few moments longer, the front door of the house opposite opened and someone came out. Rebecca took photo after photo. As the person headed down the steps and into the street, Rebecca was already grabbing all her things and racing down the stairs and into the street herself. Keeping a discreet distance between herself and her quarry, she followed them with an unhurried step. 

On they went, into the next street and the next. And there they were, in front of the biggest department store in town. Rebecca’s quarry walked in. Her heart beating even faster, Rebecca took a quick shot of the person going into the store, then hurried after them.

The store glittered with Christmas garlands and lights. Green and white and red trees were decorated with shining baubles, and jolly music filled the air. The store was packed with people, with armfuls of gifts, wrapped with big bows, and children running around everywhere, saying, oh look at that! And that! And that!

But Rebecca took no notice. She was much too busy. Grimly, she followed her quarry up the escalators, to the next floor and the next and the next.  They didn’t turn around. They did not seemed to have noticed they were being tailed by a camera-wielding Doiley-Bird in red shoes. Thank goodness!

At last, the quarry reached their destination. After all the glitter and noise of downstairs, it was dark there, and quiet. The figure plunged through a doorway without looking behind them. Rebecca stopped. Dare she go in after them?

Of course she would. She was a Doiley-Bird! Taking a deep breath, she marched over to the doorway. As she did so, lights snapped on, revealing a sign. SANTA CLAUS CAVE. More lights came on. Rebecca blinked. Her heart beat the fastest it had ever done. And then she stepped boldly into the light and called out, ‘Diamond Dan, alias Santa Claus, you’re nicked!’

In the next breath she gasped, ‘Oof!’ as a figure in red and white came barrelling out of the Cave, sack over his shoulder, knocking her down. But either Diamond Dan was dazzled by the lights or it was Rebecca’s lucky day, but the thief tripped and fell, twisting his ankle as he went down. The sack flew out of his hands, and a glittering shower of jewels—necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, and even tiaras—spread all over the floor like a river of stars.

Rebecca’s hunch had been right. Diamond Dan had been using Santa’s sack to store all his ill-gotten gains and that was the very day he was planning on taking it all away!

‘How did you guess?’ croaked Diamond Dan, as Rebecca, snapping photos (for evidence, of course!) stood guard over him, before the police arrived to take him away. ‘Yes how did you?’ asked Rebecca’s sisters, later.

‘It was simple,’ said Rebecca. ‘I couldn’t stop thinking about Christmas shopping. And that made me think of Santa. And his sack. And so when I saw Diamond Dan come out of his house, dressed in a Santa suit, I knew what he was up to!’

‘Curses!’ said Diamond Dan, but Rebecca’s sisters said, ‘Wow!’ And that made Rebecca feel good. Very, very good. Until she remembered. She still had one case to solve. And that was a hard one to crack. What was she going to get her sisters for Christmas?

But maybe you can solve that for her 🙂

What a lovely launch of French Fairy Tales!

It was such a wonderful launch last night, so much enjoyed it! Below you can find a link to the video of the launch(which was live online)

To get a copy of the book, visit the Serenity Press website. Here’s a link to the print edition: https://www.serenitypress.org/product-page/french-fairy-tales

And here’s a link to the flipbook edition(like an ebook, only better!): https://www.flipsnack.com/…/french-fairy…/full-view.html

Launch of French Fairy Tales online!

I’m delighted to announce that French Fairy Tales will be launched in an online event on Friday November 20, at 6.30 pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time. Here’s the description of the event from the publisher, Serenity Press:

Join us to celebrate the release of French Fairytales by Sophie Masson and illustrated by Lorena Carrington. Both Sophie and Lorena will be in conversation with the publisher Karen Mc Dermott.
It will be an evening of celebration for this beautiful book and all things French Fairy Tales.
You can join us on zoom (Link posted before the event) or watch live on Facebook.

All welcome! The Facebook link to the event is here.

My favourite French castle, an inspirational fairy tale setting

Cross-posted from my Fairytale Country site.

Today I want to write  a bit about the castle that for me, since childhood, has represented the absolute epitome of the classic French fairy tale setting: and that is the gorgeous small chateau of  Azay-le-Rideau, in the Loire Valley.  Of course the Loire Valley is full of beautiful castles; but this one is my favourite of them, indeed it’s my top favourite in all of France. Not only does this absolute jewel of a chateau represent for me that epitome of fairy tale magic and charm, but it’s also the setting for the Beast’s castle in my retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which is the longest story in French Fairy Tales.

Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, September 2018. Photo: Sophie Masson

Built in the early 16th century on the ruins of the previous fortress suited there, the castle of Azay-le-Rideau has a tumultuous history. It’s situated  within the charming little village of the same name, down a small road away from the main highway, amongst green fields and little woods. The castle is set on a small lake, in superb parkland, and I’ve visited it a number of times, the most recent being in September 2018. That time, in a glorious early autumn with blue skies and trees still green but starting to turn gold, we stayed in a lovely little hotel in the village, a few steps away from the castle. At the time we were there, an extraordinary, eerily beautiful art installation called ‘Les enchantements d’Azay‘, by artists Piet.sO  and Peter Keene, was displayed in the castle. Together, the castle, the parkland gardens, the art installation, and the amazing, magical feel of the whole place, were just the most perfect elements to help create the Beast’s world.

It isn’t just in Beauty and the Beast, however, that you will see the enchanting influence of Azay-le-Rideau; for in the next post, Lorena will be writing about how her own stay there and her visits to other places in the Loire Valley, became the source for her glorious illustrations in French Fairy Tales.