Signs of autumn are slow to arrive in these parts. The vine covered fence a few doors down has turned a significant shade of deep crimson and here and there along the path lie amber-coloured leaves. The light has changed direction as it passes through the kitchen window, presenting a new set of shadows to work with and outside the sunlight is noticeably weaker, washier, on still-bare arms. After months of dry air and earth, my eyes are craving pale, elegant greenery as the season, grudgingly, shifts. Avocado on toast, steaming pots of peppermint tea and handfuls of parsley in everything.
Capturing green in all its subtle, lush shades was difficult in the harsh summer months. But in autumn the light becomes softer, more malleable. Refreshed by cooler days and a little much-needed rain, the herbs are again flourishing. The French tarragon in particular has gone mad. With a snaking root system of rhizomes, tarragon was thought in the Middle Ages to be a cure for snake bites. Can’t say exactly how effective it is given the nature of deadly snakes found in this part of the world. I doubt a sprig or two would do anything to stop the flow of powerful venom. White Magic, on the other hand, suggests it to be protective and calming, relaxing guests and warmly welcoming them into the home. This I am far more willing to believe. It's a licorice-scented herb, one I surprisingly love. The merest hint of that bitterness is all that’s required in a dish - too much and the spicy punch of bitter, characteristic of the Wormwood Family, will be all pervading. Use it instead with a light, knowing hand.
Eating alone presents its own set of pleasures. Alone, I can nab the big white armchair for myself and spread out the way that the men around here often do. Possess the entire space if I please. Alone, I can cook whatever I like. And alone, more often than not, that means soup. Something herbal and creamy. Flageolet beans and leeks paired with the aniseed touch of fresh tarragon. Something elegant, in a soothing shade of pale.
Leek and flageolet soup with tarragon – feeds 3-4
The smoked paprika croutons are just right here, bringing a playful, spicy balance to all that pale elegance. A spoonful of crème fraiche is good, very good in fact, but really just gilds the lily. Beans can take an age to reach tenderness. This is easily gauged by crushing one against the roof of your mouth. Even the slightest resistance? Back to the heat.
¾ cup of dried flageolet beans, soaked overnight
3 leeks, trimmed, keeping only 5cm (2 inches) of greenery
Olive oil and/or butter
6 cloves of garlic
1 large carrot, halved lengthways
Large handful of parsley, chopped
2 sprigs of tarragon, leaves only, chopped
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
2 bay leaves
Sea salt and pepper
4-5 slices of crusty bread
¼ - ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika
1/3 cup of dry white wine
Palmful of tarragon, leaves plucked from the stalks, to serve
Drain beans. Place in a saucepan, cover with fresh water and bring to a rolling boil. Bubble furiously for 10 minutes, skimming off any scum. Drain, rinse, and set aside.
Halve the leeks lengthways, keeping the root end in tact. Fan the leaves out in water to give them a thorough clean. Shake dry and slice thinly. Peel the garlic, halve and flick out the green shoots – the autumnal shoots of garlic are indigestible and nastily bitter.
Warm 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy-based pot. Add the most of leeks, holding back a handful for the garnish, then add the garlic, carrot and herbs. Sweat gently, lid on, for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, add the beans and 1½ litres (6 cups) of water. Bring to a boil, pop the lid on and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 1½-2 hours, or until the beans have almost collapsed (see head note). You may need to add a cup of water from time to time - keep checking. Discard the carrot and bay leaves. Remove 2 cups of the soup and puree. Return the puree to the pot, add salt and lots of pepper to taste. Keep warm.
Meanwhile, cut away and discard the crusts from the bread. Dice roughly. Heat 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and when hot, add the bread. Stir for about 5 minutes, until golden all over and then toss in the paprika. Cool on a plate.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the same frying pan, and add the remaining handful of leeks and the wine. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, spoon a small pile of the wine-braised leeks into the centre of each and sprinkle with tarragon. Pass the croutons at the table.