I recently spent a week cooking lunches and dinners for a handful of workers on a goat farm in the Ardèche, an undulating, forested region in the south-east of France. I ended up here for various reasons, most of which boiled down to “I physically cannot spend another day hanging off a mountain considering my own mortality in 36 degree heat. I am bored senseless by climbing, van-life and my own putrid thoughts. Must. Do. Something. Different.”
Somehow this meant cooking hearty meals in the middle of nowhere for between 6-8 people twice a day, which, all things considered, wasn’t so far removed from what I was doing beforehand in my van amongst my friends. On the farm however, three of the people for whom I was cooking did not eat any carbohydrates, another did not eat cheese, and I wasn’t paying for groceries. You win some, you lose some.
Another sardonic twist of the knife is that the kitchen facilities in my van were actually better than what I had to work with in the farmhouse.
Have a photograph.
Yep. That’s it. The kitchen essentially consisted of an ancient electric hotplate wherein only one of the two rings actually got hot enough to cook anything. The other just kept things tepid, which is a bottom-tier adjective I don’t use lightly. Additionally, what you can see in the above photo was all the prep-space I had to work with – other than the long dining table on the opposite side of the room, which was a bit too covered in layers of dust, paperwork and cat hair to think about using as a work-surface without feeling slightly sick. And just to clarify, there was no oven, no grill, and nothing had been cleaned for 3 million years until I got to it.
On paper the whole shebang sounds like a nightmare. ‘Why didn’t you just run away?’ I can hear you asking. Well, I asked myself the same question when I arrived and was greeted by a dimly lit jumble-sale of dirty pots and pans, a distinct lack of light and enough flies to sustain an army of frogs. But for some reason, I felt compelled to stay. I don’t know why. It could have been to do with the heavily laden plum trees, or the abundance of feral kittens, or the fact I really, really didn’t have anything better to do. I have since written nearly 6000 words of purple prose about this in a diary extract, just to make sense of it all, but most of this is terribly dull so I’ll spare you the dappled-sunlight-and-expressions-of-concern-flashing-across-faces guff. Instead I’ll just quote myself every now and again to add colour, like the literary wanker I truly am.
My plan then, is to share everything I cooked with you over the next few blog posts. I will provide each recipe outlined below, with a funny little extract from my week on the farm. I’m hoping this will come in handy if you too ever find yourself cooking ketogenic meals for a slightly unhinged French-American couple in the middle of a forest, with nothing but forty goats, eight chickens, two dogs, eleven cats and seven strangers for company.
But first, let me show you what I had in terms of ingredients to work with.
This is what I scouted out over a few days, because most of the food was hidden in all manner of rooms and cupboards throughout the farm rather than being stored in one particular place:
[insert sigh of relief]
- Olive oil
[insert second sigh of relief]
- Black pepper
- Dried oregano
- Dried basil
- Veal steaks
- Bacon lardons
- 150kg of courgettes (or so it seemed)
- A whole garden full of kale (wish I’d got a photo. It was like, at least 3 square meters of kale)
- Crème fraiche
- Pre-grated emmental cheese
- Fresh goat’s cheese from the farm (please note that goat’s cheese is the one thing in the world that I genuinely dislike. I am deeply aware of the irony here.)
- Soy sauce
- Red wine
- Fresh tomatoes
- Dried haricot beans
- Eggs, still warm from a chicken’s fanny
- Tinned mushrooms
- Tinned ham hock
- Green olives in brine
This is more than plenty to go off, of course, but I took ages to find and list everything, so I ended up working with a much more limited set of ingredients each day. It’s also not so easy to think of ways to use these ingredients which are all low-carb, seeing as many of them lend themselves so well to pasta sauces, rice dishes or pancake fillings, so in the end I cooked 2 separate meals for everyone – one which would raise insulin levels by a lot and one which would not. By providing a carbohydrate-rich option, things like meat, cheese and eggs went a lot further, and created a distinct impression of abundance; always nice to have, but especially important if you’ve been doing physical labour all day and just want to feel full.
Two days in, here are some more things I’d asked for
- Fresh parsley
- Ground almonds
And then here’s what I found in the woods around the farm:
- fresh rosemary
- wild thyme
- Dog (non-edible)
How it started
I didn’t cook dinner explicitly on the first night because that would have been a bit of a dickhead power-move, but here’s an extract from my diary to explain what happened after I witnessed my host throwing a large assortment of vegetables into in a saucepan with a mug of water, without cooking the onions or garlic through first. I could have understood if it were for soup, but this was just to serve with some meat. Which had been boiled in crème fraiche for an hour to cook it.
I wish I was joking.
[In the below extract, you’ll find 3 people. For clarity, they are Ryan, another volunteer, plus Evelynne and Greg, who own the farm together. Evelynne was not in the room at this point because what I did would have been rude if she were watching:]
“Finally, I could bear it no longer. I excused myself while Greg and Ryan talked about guns, walked to the hotplate, stirred the courgettes, and added a large splash of olive oil once the water had evaporated. That way at least the onions would have half a chance of being sautéed. I fished out a piece of courgette and tried it. No salt of course, and there was no way I was going to get any colour on anything using the soup pan. I rooted around for a large frying pan in an overflowing cupboard (“Under the cat-food” called Greg, who was on his second bottle of wine now) but the moment I touched it I knew I couldn’t use it due to the thick layer of grime it had built up over the years. I decided that we’d just have to have slightly soggy vegetables, but at least they could taste of something. I found an old fashioned pepper grinder, which, mercifully, seemed to work, and then stumbled across some dried basil and oregano, both unopened. I made the promise to myself there and then that I would not cook with anything here unless its seal was intact. I added the herbs and a big pinch of salt and left the lid off, going back to the table, which I then realised would need a serious clean before we ate off it.“
After Evelynne had worked out I’d done something funny to her vegetables, she decided that I was most welcome to cook whenever I wanted. Over the next 5 working days, I prepared:
- veal steaks with wine, parsley, lemon and crème fraiche
-sautéed kale in butter
– griddled courgette salad
(all LCHF, which stands for Low-Carb, High-Fat, if you’re wondering, which is more or less the same thing as keto.)
- spaghetti with chicken thighs, olives and tomatoes (just sauce and cheese for the LCHF lot)
- crepes with bacon, egg and cheese (Non-LCHF)
- layered courgette, fresh tomato and cheese griddle (LCHF)
- Creamy courgette soup (LCHF)
- ‘Oiseaux’ in fresh tomato sauce with olives (LCHF)
- white bean, rice, ham, courgette and olive salad (Non-LCHF)
- chicken and mushrooms in a creamy lemon and thyme sauce (LCHF)
- Courgette and cheese fritters with fresh tomato salsa and fried egg (LCHF)
- More veal in a cherry tomato sugo with yellow courgettes (LCHF)
- Plum jam (Deffo not LCHF looool)
- Peaches stewed in rosé and cinnamon. All three of these things were bought on the day at market. (possibly LCish – no added sugar as the peaches were on the turn and the rose was sweet enough and also I’d run out of sugar.)
When I’ve written all these blog posts (some of which I’ll combine together where needs be) I’ll link them back here and use this as a sort of very odd homepage. And I know this isn’t exactly your usual fare on SCFTGT, but actually most of these recipes were economical, tasty, and easy to prepare in a room full of shite with limited prep space. If you ask me, I’d say this pretty closely aligned with being a student in shared accommodation.
And before you worry about sending out the French version of Kim Woodburn to sort things out, yes I did clean everything thoroughly from top to bottom before I used it. Yes, with Ajax, washing up liquid, boiling water and where needed, bleach. The whole experience was a lesson in being flexible with your ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of living standards, and highlighted to me how much I’ll really put up with to feed people decent quality food.
I’m also aware that this post probably raises more questions than answers such as, “why haven’t you got a real job?”, “what the hell?” and “why would anyone choose not to eat carbohydrates?” I am happy to answer all of these questions in whatever format you’d like to ask me, up to and including interpretative balloon modelling. I am, as they say, an open book.
Stay tuned for the recipes and stories, poppets – TTFN.