May 1998

Cycling through artichoke fields near St. Pol de Leon, Brittany

Roscoff, Brittany, France May 29, 1998 Summer half term, the kids on holiday, and our now annual cycling and camping trip to Brittany: there is nothing finer, we assert, than loading up the bikes, leaving the car behind at the Plymouth docks, and cycling on to, then six hours later, off of the ferry in Northern France, totally self-contained, with little fixed plans, the world literally our oyster. This year my sister Michele flew over from Cambridge, MA to join us; scarcely had she stepped off the plane and made her way down to Devon, then she was on a bike, loaded with heavy panniers, tent, sleeping bags. Guy carried packs for the first time, while I trailed Bella (and half the contents of our house) behind me in the Burley trailer; Kim and her bike, meanwhile, were loaded down like a Third World cart mule.

Cycling (very slowly) along quiet rural lanes and through fields of magnificent globe artichokes, then down to Penzé and along the deep, muddy estuary to Morlaix, this is little visited but truly magnificent country to explore at leisure. The camping was excellent, and we enjoyed both simple meals (our favourite is lentilles au petit salé,no more than supermarket-purchased tinned lentils with chunks of smoked ham, prepared on the camp stove, and attacked with crusty baguettes washed down with plenty of red wine -- truly unbeatable) as well as some real fish and shellfish blow-outs at restaurants encountered along the way. Worth recommending are Aux Delices de la Mer in Carantec for stylishly prepared seafood with a regional accent, and the wholly traditional old favourite Les Chardons Bleus in Roscoff.

Our plan, at the end of the trip, was to pick up five globe artichokes at the alimentaire in Roscoff (as we have often done before) the night prior to boarding the early morning return ferry, but unfortunately, the shop had -- quel horreur -- sold out what they had that morning gathered from their garden, and it opened too late the next day for us to procure this unique and wonderful vegetable to take home and prepare ourselves, a deep disappointment given that we had been looking at artichokes for the better part of five days. No matter: on returning to an unseasonably cold, windy Devon, Michele compensated by preparing for us her famous black bean soup, incredibly tasty and satisfying after days lived outdoors, carrying heavy weights up the short, sharp, sometimes savage hills of Brittany ("I'm no weight, I'm your daughter," I hear five-year-old Bella protest).

Michele's Famous Black Bean Soup

Black beans are essential for this delicious one-pot meal; they come from China, and should be available from good health food shops, where they may be sold as black turtle beans. Neither black kidney beans nor black soy beans are acceptable substitutes. Black beans don't need to be soaked prior to cooking, but they will take about 3-4 hours on a low simmer; we prefer to pre-cook them for about a half hour in a pressure cooker. Though Michele calls this dish a 'soup' it is really in consistency more of a bean casserole, delicious served with the toppings over shortgrain organic brown rice.

1 lb dried black beans

3 tablespoons olive oil

About 8 large carrots, peeled and diced

2 large onions, peeled and chopped

6 stalks of celery, diced

4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed and coarsley chopped

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablspoon dried thyme

3 tablespoons cumin powder

Cayenne pepper to taste

Juice of 5-6 limes

5 vegetable stock cubes (best quality)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Large handful of cilantro (coriander), finely chopped

For the topping

Another handful of freshly chopped cilantro

About 6 sliced green onions

Sour cream

Grated cheddar cheese

Pickled jalapeño chillies to taste

If using the pressure cooker, add the washed black beans, cover with water and cook for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile gently sauté the chopped onions, celery, garlic and carrots in the olive oil. When the vegetables are wilted but not browned, add the tomato paste, thyme, bay leaves, cayenne and cumin. Stir and continue to cook for a further five or ten minutes. If you have pre-cooked the beans, add them now to the vegetables together with their cooking liquid. If you are not pre-cooking the beans, add the washed beans to the pot and cover with water. Crumble in the vegetable stock cubes, bring to the boil, stir and reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook until the beans are tender (a further hour if pre-cooked in a pressure cooker or up to 3-4 hours otherwise). Stir from time to time and add more water if necessary. Add the chopped cilantro and lime juice about 30 minutes before serving. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Put the toppings in individual bowls on the table, serve the beans over organic shortgrain brown rice, and let everyone add whatever they want.

Wine suggestion: This delicious beanfeast, with its hot and sour undertones that come from the lime juice, cilantro and chilli, deserves a vibrant and zesty white wine: try a Chilean Chardonnay, or a new wave Italian from Puglia's Salento Peninsula, such as excellent, if weirdly named and packaged, 'The Original Sin', in its distinctive blue glass bottle and irreverent crown cork. Alternatively, serve with Mexican lager with a wedge of lime.

recipe © Michele Millon

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