At first, I wanted to write about Henry David Thoreau. Having read — like almost anyone else who went to High School in the U.S. or uses social media — passages of Walden and Civil Disobedience, I thought I could make an analogy between his Walden Pond and our Lac de Devesset, places to ponder on life and explore nature. Thoreau is so quotable and his prose is so sure; “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! ” could have made a great title for this post.
But the genies of the Internet wanted it otherwise, for the first search I did to refresh my memory on this ragged American philosopher led to an article in The Atlantic that sought to cast some serious doubts on his positive reputation as a rather cool, abolitionist philosopher of nature and freedom of conscience, who beseeched us to “suck the marrow” out of life as those who have seen Dead Poets Society surely remember. As this debate spread from The Atlantic to The New Yorker to The New Republic, I’m still reeling from the cacophony and thinking about all the different angles from which you can look at one person. One thing that is undisputed, however, is that Thoreau was in love with the fauna and flora of Walden. His knowledge on plant species over his eight years spent there is still a reference today.
While far from being plant taxonomists, we did find out about a particularly tasty plant that is typical of Auvergne and specifically our county, Haute-Loire. Verbena, or vervain.
A large Art Deco building is easily noticeable by the road that cuts through the pilgrims’ town of Le Puy-en-Velay. At the top of its ornate tower, large letters read “Verveine du Velay”. I stared, confused at first sight by this seemingly converted office building next to a FNAC (the local book & music store) that must have been quite important when it was built. Verbena, Adélaïde explained, is a plant that is used to make a strong liqueur that is very popular here in Auvergne.We found bottles of artisanal Verveine being sold at a farm products store in the town’s medieval center; I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised when I first tried this herbal liqueur. Drinking verbena is like taking an antique homeopathic medication that gives you the “green” and fresh taste of a wheatgrass shot, and a warm inner glow.
Another time, we experienced this aromatic plant in a completely different context. Looking at the menu at our friend’s restaurant, we were intrigued by a dish of chicken with ground hazelnuts and verbena. A mouthful made me realize the obvious. The herb itself is an excellent ingredient for cooking. It has a slight citrus taste and gives off an incredible aroma when combined with hazelnuts. The locals also love it as tea.
On our monthly visit to the local plant store, we had a clear mission. Find one or two plants that could be put in pots on the floor but would grow high enough with lots of foliage in order to partly cover our big living-room windows. But as is often the case in such a place, we get so lost looking at all of the varieties of orchids, hanging plants, quirky cactuses and succulents, that we always end up packing our car with newfound greens to fill a corner of our cottage.
We found a beautiful verbena plant, thin branches going in all directions, sprouting avenues of tiny aromatic leaves crowding the sidewalks. It almost looks like a carefully crafted and delicate bonsai. Out of the many experiments done using this herb, my favorite has to be the poached peaches on Breton sablé and cream.
Poached peach + verbena & candied hazelnut Breton sablés | Serves 8
The Breton sablés:
These sablés are also delicious by themselves — buttery and crunchy! You can easily make more crust than the quantities below to have extra cookies and store them in an air-tight container. You can also freeze the raw dough for future use.
- 110g salted butter, diced
- 100g brown sugar
- 145g flour
- 6g baking powder
- 2 egg yolks (app. 40g)
- 1 tbsp orange blossom water (optional)
- On a clean work surface, directly sift the flour & baking powder, add the brown sugar and gently mix the dry ingredients. Add the diced butter and work it in by sweeping up and gathering the blend in your hands, gently rubbing them against each other. Once the butter is integrated into the powders, the blend will look like rough sand and turn into a rich yellow color. This sablage should take a few minutes.
- Form a well and add in the beaten egg & orange blossom water. In circles, rub the egg & water into the flour/butter blend until it forms a homogenous dough. Knead as little as possible until smooth. Shape into a ball and flatten it down a little so it’ll be easier to roll out. Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for about half an hour. You can even start by putting it in the freezer for 15 minutes.
- Dust your work surface with a thin and even layer of flour. Roll out the Breton sablé until it is app. 5-6mm thick. Make sure the pastry doesn’t stick by rotating it regularly by a quarter of a turn. Using a round cookie cutter, cut out 8 circles of app. 9-10cm and place them on a lined baking sheet, inside buttered rings of the same size. If you don’t use rings, the sablés will be flat and out of shape after baking. Store in the freezer for 15 minutes before baking for a better result.
Bake for app. 20 min in a preheated oven at 160°C or until the sablés are cooked throughout and crunchy. Move to a cooling rack.
Note: if you have a stand mixer, you can sift the powders and add the chopped butter directly in the mixing bowl. Mix on medium speed with the paddle until the blend gets the desired consistency. Then add in the egg yolk & orange blossom water and keep beating until it starts forming a ball. Finish smoothing out by hand, shape into a ball and flatten it down. Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate.
The poached peaches:
If you don’t have verbena, you could replace it by fresh mint or even fresh basil leaves!
You can keep the syrup after use to flavor yogurts or other desserts. It can be safely stored for weeks.
- 4 pink peaches, peeled & cut in halves (make sure to remove the pit delicately so that the the flesh doesn’t tear)
- 1L water
- 160g cristal sugar
- 50g brown sugar, plus a little extra for sprinkling
- 2 tbsp orange blossom water
- the zest & juice of 1 lemon
- 100g single cream, cold
- 25g hazelnuts
- a few fresh verbena leaves (or mint or basil)
- Prepare the syrup the night before. In a pot, combine 1L of water, 150g cristal sugar, the brown sugar, the orange blossom water and the lemon zest & juice. Bring to a boil and add the peeled peach halves. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Leave to cool & refrigerate, leaving the peaches in the syrup overnight. If you’re in a hurry, you can poach the peaches the same day and leave them to cool in syrup for two hours.
- The next day, drain the peaches and make sure to keep the syrup. Use some of the syrup to coat the whole hazelnuts. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle with a little bit of brown sugar. Toast for app. 10 min in a preheated oven at 160°C, stirring occasionally if necessary. Transfer to a bowl to cool and roughly chop the hazelnuts along with some verbena leaves, saving some whole ones for decoration.
- Whip the single cream with 10g of cristal sugar and 1 tbsp syrup until light and fluffy. Add most of the chopped hazelnuts & verbena (saving some for decoration) and mix gently with a spatula.
- On each sablé, place a spoonful of cream and one or two verbena leaves, then place a poached peach half and decorate with more hazelnuts & verbena. Serve with the remaining cream.