In the 300-year-old Laurence house in south-west France, it’s time to put the woodstoves to work. Hwee Hwee is ready for the delights of country living where frugality = cosiness.
When I tell my friends in Singapore that we use woodstoves to heat our house in winter, their jaws drop in amazement. They simply cannot imagine what it is like, or else they imagine us living like in the Little House on the Prairie. I tell them that wood is the best heating source. It warms you up three times – first when you cut it, then when you carry it, and lastly when you burn it.
We use woodstoves simply because it is the cheapest source of heating and also because we constantly have to clear our land and that provides a good supply of wood for burning. Besides, flames flickering in woodstoves give a lovely ambience. The downside is that I have to empty the ashes and clean the stoves once in a while and that makes me feel rather like a Cinderella who, despite having found her prince, still has to do housework.
My husband tells me that in olden France, there would be a cauldron always burning on the stove or in the fireplace. Vegetables and meat were constantly added to simmer and stew, and the main evening meal of country folk consisted of a hearty soup and crusty bread. So much so that nowadays when you call the family to dinner, you would still say à la soupe or ‘to the soup!’
I, too, revert to cooking the rustic way in winter. Winter is the season of stews and hotpots and the best way to cook meat until it is meltingly tender is to stew it slowly over the woodstove. It fills the house with a rich aroma and when the children come home from school, upon opening the front door, they always take a deep breath and try to guess what is for dinner.
Another lesser-known way of cooking on the woodstove is to use what my husband calls a potato cloche. It is rare antique thing nowadays. I have one that has been in my husband’s mother’s family for many generations. It is an earthen cloche with three half-rings that act either as handles or legs. It is extremely useful for cooking root vegetables.
I fill the cloche with scrubbed potatoes, turnip, celery root or beetroot. Then I put an old heavy frying pan on top and invert the whole thing so that the cloche acts as a cover for the vegetables. This assemblage goes on top of the woodstove to be roasted slowly and the result is slightly-browned root vegetables, rather crispy on the outside and soft in the insides. I love the thought that so many women of the family before me had stood in their kitchens and roasted potatoes in this cloche and it always made me feel somehow connected to a mother-in-law I have never met (she died of breast cancer years before my husband and I were married).
Autumn and winter are also seasons for pruning trees and making bonfires. On the weekends, the kids have to help wheelbarrow the cut branches and heap them on the bonfires, a job they do not really mind because they know that as a reward, they will be allowed to roast marshmallows over the hot ashes. But bonfires are not just for marshmallows. Believe it or not, I have cooked the following dish in a bonfire although a normal oven will serve just as well.
Bonfire Baked Apples
4 large apples
1 packet (230 g) ready-to-use puff pastry
Butter, cut in pieces
Remove the core and seeds of the apples, taking care not to cut through all the way to the bottom.
Into each apple, put some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a small piece of butter (all according to your taste).
Cut the puff pastry into four, and use it to wrap each apple well, pinching the tops of the pastry to close it.
For the bonfire method, wrap each apple securely with aluminum foil and gently put them into the hot ashes. Cook for about 20 minutes until pastry is brown and puffed and apple is soft.
For the oven method, preheat oven at 200 °C. Line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper and arrange the pastry-covered apples on it.
To have a nice golden-brown colour, brush pastry all over with beaten egg (optional).
Bake for about 30 minutes until pastry is golden and puffed and apples are soft.
I decorated mine with sprigs of apple leaves.