The week before I left for France, doubts crept into my mind. As I was sitting in bed late at night, wondering if I should indeed go through with this- go to a village deep in the South of France, for three weeks, with complete strangers- I received an email with the pickup details, which mentioned, in passing, that we would be taken to a supermarket upon our arrival, but needn’t stock up on eggs or tomatoes which we could get from a neighbor, or water, which we could from the village well. Also, we would be able to buy local honey and trout in a nearby village. Um, seriously? Packing my bags.
Settling into the village deep in the lush green mountains, nature felt so abundant, a thick blanket wrapped snugly around us- we could just extend our hands and pluck figs, blackberries, grapes, elderberries; chestnuts and walnuts littered the ground; carpets of nettles crept around corners; mushrooms sprouted in the woods. There’s something so reassuring in seeing sustenance growing all around you, in knowing that your basic needs for survival are so easily within reach. Nature felt calm and benevolent, like resting your head in your mother’s lap.
Once a week, grocery, bread and butcher trucks pulled into the village, drawing the villagers out of their homes and into the square. You know you’re in France when the grocery truck carries over two dozen types of cheese.
On a hike to a nearby lake (nearby being relative, in this case: a three hour hike), we stopped at a dairy farm, and bought milk in washed out plastic water bottles. When we arrived, the farmer was in the middle of feeding his cows, so we chatted with his mother about growing up in this secluded spot, and raising cows and goats. Back at the cottage, we boiled the milk before tasting it slowly, slightly apprehensive. We lived.
The long summer afternoons were punctuated by shots of hunters deep in the mountains, reminding us of the presence of wildlife; time was marked by the village bells, ringing loudly every half hour, striking the hour once, then a second time, in case you weren’t able to count- pleasant at three, annoying at eleven.
When the last week rolled around and I still hadn’t paid a visit to the trout lady, I set out to remedy the situation. After a morning hike at nearby Cathar ruins, the sun hot and high in the sky, we walked down to the trout lady, who turned out to be a rather surly man.
In response to our request, he pulled his fishing net off a hook on the exterior of a little shack, and plunged it into the water. When he lifted it back up, it contained three small, wriggling fish. As we hiked back up the mountains, beneath an impossibly blue sky (guys, I didn’t edit this picture, I swear), we passed Roquefere, with its turquoise shutters and fairytale castle, and I held the dripping bag of dead fish away from my body.
Filleting, deboning and skinning the small fish was a trial in patience (this video was helpful), but the marinating part more than made up for it: measure ingredients, pour in, refrigerate, done. I brought the trout to an exhibit we had at the end of our retreat– everyone’s paintings and photography hanging on the walls. We walked around, admiring each other’s work, nibbling on trout from the river beneath the mountains: fresh and juicy and bright.
Easy Pickled Trout
From this recipe by Donna Hay
4 x 120g trout fillets, pin-boned and skin removed*
1 white onion, thinly sliced
½ cup (125ml) white wine vinegar
4 pieces lemon peel
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon olive oil
Place the trout in a non-metallic bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients, and gently toss until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes to marinate (or longer- I left mine for close to 24 hours). Thinly slice the trout, spoon over the marinade and serve with onion and soda bread (or crackers!). Serves 4.
* DH notes that you can ask your fishmonger to pin-bone the fish for you; otherwise run your hands down the length of the fillet and remove any protruding bones with kitchen tweezers. If starting with whole fish, I found this video useful.
Other Ideas for Trout:
Panfried Trout with Almonds and Parsley// Martha Stewart
Cornmeal-Fried Trout with Tomato, Sorrel, and Basil Panzanella// Martha Stewart
Trout, Tomatoes, and Basil in Parchment// Whole Living
Baked Trout with Honey-Thyme Glaze// Cookin’ Canuck