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And thick and fast they came at last ….

Purists will note that it’s the wrong quote  because The Walrus and The Carpenter wooed Oysters to their steamy end and this recipe that I am going to share is for Mussels.

I adore Mussels though it wasn’t always so … the first time they were set before me I must have been seventeen and we were  on holiday, skiing in Andorra.  Staying in a Chalet whose chief cook and bottle washer, not to mention bed maker – an early exponent of ‘free’ skiing in a resort in return for pandering to the every whim of demanding groups of holiday-makers – was our doctors daughter who had some name or another that I can’t remember but was always called Boo to her friends.  Boo served up Mussels around Day-8 when the dozen or so of us had had ample opportunity to get to know one another and, doubtless influenced by the cheap Spanish wine flowing at the table, the chap next to me (really old … he must have been at least forty) regaled me with their feeding habits which in his view included sewage – the raw stuff.  I didn’t try a single one.  Which means that I never associate them with food poisoning.  A few days later we dined out and my mother and I ate paté and suffered dreadfully.  I couldn’t eat THAT for years afterwards.  The Mussels waited in the wings until I met the second man I married.  His mother I adored and we ate on our first meeting at The Beetle and Wedge which had just been acquired by a wonderful couple who took it into local (and not so local culinary legend) – they are retired now … am I really that old?  But anyway significant other, the parents and I lunched.  And she ordered Moules.  I watched fascinated as she delicately forked the first into her mouth and then used the shells as pincered cutlery.  Bread to dunk, no mayo nor fries it seemed like the perfect meal … these little orange jewels … to a fish worshipper.  So I gave them a try – sereptitiously at first and then throwing caution to the wind gobbling them by the bowlful whenever they were available.

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Every opportunity included a sojourn to a lovely village (one of les plus beaux villages de France, no less) in Wissant which is a few kilometres up the coast from Calais.  It was the quickest nip-away – just a couple of days and a couple of nights.  First night in this pretty northern village my eyes alighted on the Moules Frites notice chalked on a restaurant A-board.  No sooner spotted than feet under the table, order in and I was waiting.  They did not disappoint – steaming mussels and crispy fries, a glass of something or other, and then another and I reeled back to the hotel where my room looked over the moat.  I was so pleased that with no booking that the hotel had given me a room looking over the moat.  So so happy.  As my head hit the feathery pillow and I closed my eyes, hands laid on my replete belly a duck started to quack.  It quacked louder and louder and louder and I put another pillow vainly over my ears.  Windows along the corridor opened and expletives were yelled before they slammed shut again.  But all in vain.  The duck quacked and quacked and quacked.  In the early hours of the morning I seriously considered throwing myself IN the moat.  The duck quacked and quacked and quacked.  At dawn I got up.  I pottered around bleerily and eventually mustered the strength to dress and wander downstairs for a pre-breakfast stroll.  As I opened the heavy front door, the fresh early morning air and the sound of silence hit me – the quacking had stopped.  I walked along the moat which had things floating in it.  Things that had been thrown from windows – shoes, boots, bottles and cans.  Ducks in flotillas were quietly making their way up and down bobbing occasionally in the delectable weeds beneath.  All except one.  Fast asleep, her head under her wing entirely oblivious of the murderous thoughts I (and clearly others judging by the floating detritus in the moat) had for her … à l’orange, avec cerises, confit – anything but another night of quacking.  Which I duly got the following night before beating a hasty retreat to the hovercraft home.

Now it’s fair to say that I don’t live on the coast.  In fact I am probably 350 kilometres from the nearest coast but fresh Moules are readily available.  So I took it upon myself for the first time to cook the real thing.  But I had a slight problem.  I don’t keep wine in the house when on my own and Moules Mariniere traditionally uses wine or cider.  Nothing ventured this is my recipe.  And may I tell you it is delicious and I am not entirely sure what the alcohol is for – though those cleverer and more gastronomic than I will doubtless be able to comment.

To feed me for two days or HB² and I once royally:

500g Mussels – mine were cleaned if they aren’t you need to deal with beards and barnacles

1 onion – mine was red I don’t think it matters a jot

A good nob of butter (salted … I favour the Breton stuff with salt crystals)

Two or three bayleaves (dried are fine, fresh is prettier)

The leaves from a couple of good sticks of thyme (as with the bay fresh is prettier and actually a little milder so augment as needed if you grow your own as I do)

Lots and lots of parsley

250 ml Water or wine or cider 

  1. Wash the mussels in plenty of cold water. Scrape away any barnacles with a short-bladed knife. Pull off all the beards and wash the mussels again. Discard any that are open and do not close when tapped sharply (I have to admit I was quite scared of poisoning remembering the fellow in Andorra all those years ago so beat them soundly and soundly again to be sure)
  2. In a large, lidded pan sautee the finely chopped onion in the butter with a good handful of chopped parsley until the onion is just beginning to soften
  3. Add the wine, water or cider or any combination that your palette demands and bring to the bubble.
  4. When bubbling tip in the mussels and forget any reference to The Walrus and The Carpenter because it will make you weep and feel like a murderer
  5. Shake and shake the pan vigorously every couple of minutes and lift the lid after about 5 … the mussels are cooked when they have opened to reveal their amber jewelled morsels
  6. Sprinkle with more parsley and tip into a big bowl to bring steaming to the table and devour (as demonstrated by mother in law above) with the freshest and tastiest white bread you have available and the self-righteous smirk of a person who has achieved a culinary classic and secretly knows how ridiculously simple it is

PS:  The only seafood currently awarded AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status is the Bouchot de Mont St Michel – mussels that you can see clinging happily to their posts infront of the iconic tidal Island in Normandy that has it’s near twin in Cornwall at St Michael’s Mount.  I learned this watching ‘Qui veut Gagner des Millions?’ (‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’) which helps my French enormously!

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Up close and personal

It was hot and sunny and we were walking a walk  that I had tried in the last gasps winter but the waymarks simply stopped – trees felled or fallen … it happens.  The Bean and I, that day in the snow decided to call it a day, even though it meant a near vertical scramble back down what is in fact the edge of an ancient (no seriously, it’s 10th century ancient) quarry to the car.  That had been March.  Now in July we determined to find the main event – 10th century cottage remains … their owners driven out by the plague it is thought.  The plague – up here where the air is clean …it  makes you think!  In the hot sunshine this beauteous butterfly did aerobatics thence alighting and sunning its stunning wings and then again making a beeline for my exposed skin and delighting in intruding.  It hurt by the way.  But I didn’t flinch … such an up close and personal experience with so etherial a creature who would be dead by dawn was an unmissable feast … I hope it was good for flutterby too.

My prompt for this piece was the Weekly Photo Challenge entitled Close Up for which you can find all the other entries here

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PS:  Shortly after the picture was taken and for the next 2 hours straight as we walked, the heavens opened in a deluge of biblical proportions and we were quite literally drenched to the skin.  I wonder about what butterflies do in the rain.  Just a ponder.  The cottage ruins were worth it incidentally despite the fact that visibility was practically zero.  Just walking in a place that was a community a thousand plus years ago and seemingly wiped out in a whisper of invisible venom made me shiver far more than the saturating rain ever could.

The title is swiped from a 1996 movie starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer which I loved and am reminded to seek out again

I wish I had a million dollars … Hot Dog!

Given the title Half and Half for this week’s photo challenge I immediately thought of The Bean.  She’s half Jack Russell and half Chihuahua – a feisty combination particularly if you are a rat since both breeds are bred fundementally for snapping and trapping rodents.  I get asked all the time what she is.  I could answer ‘une croix’ which means a cross but the correct expression is la moitié x and la moitié y which means half x and half y.  I learned this from the delightful middle child of friends of ours.  He must have been 6 at the time and it was a relief not to have a poo-related conversation.  This particular evening he fired moitiers at us all and we had to act them out.  I thank him for the half fish-half hippo, half dragon-half horse, half raptor-half mouse etc etc because it really really helped my French.  With his growly childish slightly lisping voice it has taken a while to tune my lame ear in but he and his beautiful siblings are always forgiving of this apparition of a lady who speaks French like a two year old.  Middle child also happens to adore The Bean despite the fact that she once bit his nose.  She has no idea how lucky she is.  But I know how lucky I am to know, love and be loved by the three of them.

Here comes The Bean, running back from a shady ditch to jump in the car for the obligatory post walk drink, served from her bespoke bowl made from the bottom of a small mineral water bottle, and a treat from her personal supply kept replenished in the car at all times.  As you can see from her tongue she was a hot dog … a condition she has had to get used to these last few weeks as we boil and frizzle in France.  The picture is a little blurry – life here is a little blurry in the heat but it sort of seems to fit the challenge in that she is half the frame – give me some licence here, please!

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PS:  Do I wish I had a million dollars (or whatever inflation has done to the million since George Bailey exuberantly made his wish in 1946) … not really – give me the love of beautiful children, my tiny Hot Dog and HB²,  the place I adore, and I feel as I do – the richest poor girl in the whole wide wonderful world.

Vendre dit vendredi: Part 1 – Sorry but I’m gonna have to pass!

Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins isn’t it?  Maybe that’s why we are finding it so hard to find our perfect Maison Principale given that we are beautifully sated and fully occupied with our Square House.  Why do we need another house?  Well, we have a large family who we want to be able to comfortably accommodate when they visit and, in the end, we want our own land and quite a bit of it surrounding us because we are a teeny bit antisocial and to be able to grow and nurture and live a sort of half-baked gaelic good life.   La Maison Carrée was never intended to be our principal house though we will live there for part of each year.

I have spoken before of the idiosyncracies of the French property market and it does take a little getting used to.  I watch a programme on Channel 2 which pits two immobiliers against one another to find a home that ticks the boxes set by the couple of the day and what stands out to me is that prices don’t seem to vary from place to place at all.  So you can be easily commutable to Paris and the ask is pretty much the same as down here in Vache-ville.  I’ll try and put some meat on the bones of my theories about the property market in France along the way but for the moment, because it’s what I do, I will just tell the stories (and there are rather a lot) of the houses we have looked at.  One at a time to give time for full digestion – I don’t want to be accused of further gluttony!

So here is the story of the house we very almost bought:

We met the immobilier in a nearby town (remember, I observed they are generally extremely reluctant to give away the precise location of a property for fear of dirty dealing behind their backs).  He had been quite rude in our email exchange and we had been given no choice of day or time since he was coming down from Paris.  Which in fairness is a more than 5 hour drive on a good day with a following wind.  He stepped out of his rhinocerous of a  4×4 and the first thing HB² noted in a barely muted stage whisper was that he was wearing ‘European trousers’.  Two Brains has an untreated phobia of such garments.  He means corduroys in a variety of orange, pink or yellow hues (occasionally they even bleed into the emeralds and sapphires and I live in dread of an unplanned encounter with any shade of purple).  He blames the trousers for a particular type of personality.  Not, you will gather, a personality he is attracted to.  I noted the trousers and distracted him with the fact that the extraordinarily glossy woman with the man was dressed for some sort of mythical interpretation of outdoor pursuits.  She had clearly invested enough to prop up a small country in her attire.  The illusion was completed with a Dandy Dinmont Dog.  Which meant that The Bean would be trapped in the car because she can be a little, dare I say, fiesty with other four-leggers until they are fully accepted and even then can have random moments of vehement disapproval.

We set off for the first house (another time – you will have to wait for that one) and thence to the house that we had agreed would probably be a bit dark and oppressive.  European Trousers slowed to a snail slither as we reached sight of the place and pointed.  It was love at first sight.  A coup de foudre.  We drove down the long drive and parked up.  The drive went over, incidentally a bridge crossing a little river, which if you know me at all will tell you that I was pretty much sold, and as we got out of the car, a young man was propped against the front door with that air of nonchelance that the French effect better than any other nation.  The building is not an historic monument but it is historic.  The cellars (at ground floor level so probably more underneath) are 11th Century and the main building rebuilt in the 14th.  The young man who by now had charmingly introduced himself as the grandson of the deceased couple who had restored it to what it is today said that his grandfather had located the site of the original tower.  Had he lived he would have carried on restoring I am sure and my inner Rapunzel was already fast-forwarding to rebuilding the tower.  In fact in the village (about 5 km away) there is an identical building, but intact.  It is a storey and a half higher and has the most curious top to the tower which looks broken until you realise it is deliberate.  Who knows why.  The grounds were perfect … the stream, an orchard with apples, pears, cherries and quince a fine place for a beau potager and views over the valley several hundred metres below that are just breathtaking.  The house has 6 hectares.  We worked out that there was about 1 around the house including the swimming pool compound and driveway (the swimming pool incidentally had a pair of robust trees growing out of the cover so a little attention needed before necessary relaxing with an apero before an evening dip) and another 2 or so in the field below but we were intrigued to know what of the woods beyond was included to make up the other 3.   European Trousers who thus far had been frankly disconnected with the vital fact that we might be interested buyers deflected the question to young Monsieur Nonchelance who stepped up to the plate and explained that in his boyhood when visiting he was allowed to go as far as the waterfall.  This was a romantic notion but not particularly helpful.

We climbed the fantastic stone steps to the imposing castle door.  Inside everything seemed perfect.  The ‘monumental’ fireplace lived up to its name, the ground floor bedroom was delightful with a well thought out shower room and loo off and the possibility of making a balcony to the full length window (though it would need some monumental supports of its own given the size of the stone pointed to below as the ideal base), the kitchen was tiny (one of my criteria, as a incurable kitchen dweller has always been a kitchen big enough to live in) but as it opened onto the piece de vie which is absolutely humungous taking up, as it does, most of the ground floor, I felt myself compromise.  The restauration was superb … very sympathetic with lots of wood to include a built in Auvergne style clock, a lit clos (basically a bed built into the wall and very much of the region and which young man had happily passed many childhood nights when staying with his gramps) and a touch of magic in the form of a set of bookshelves which at the touch of a button will recess and allow the TV to make a grand entrance a la those wonderful moments in world of 1960’s James Bond.  It needed to be restored but Two Brains was confident it would be a doddle.  I leave these things to him.  Upstairs and one huge and another decent sized bedroom, the former used as a workspace possibly by a designer judging by the work-table both with shower rooms.  No bath.  A bit of a draw back for me as I am a wallower but entirely fixable.  The big room would divide comfortably into two good sized bedrooms if necessary as an asside.  It was fair to say that it appeared ET was correct when he said it was ready to move straight in.

Outside a liberated Bean was frollicking with a verve that would eclipse any Spring Lamb and clearly loved the place.  Her verdict was noted.

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We walked around squeezing hands like toddlers.  We knew we had found home.  A few days later we visited again, sans immobilier and the charming young nonchalance answered our questions as best he could.  It was clear that his grandparents had loved the place and we romantically imagined ourselves continuing their work and concluding it – making the house entirely what it once had been.   Captivated by the vaulted cellars build by men a thousand years ago we imagined these people smiling down at us.  We pointed to a tiny window almost under the eaves that we couldn’t understand – it didn’t correspond to anything inside.  Blithely he told us that his gramps ashes were interred up there so they would forever look over the valley.  I felt fine about that.  No, really I did ….

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Back home we discussed and digested and cojitated both together and after his Brainship had flown back to Boston and came up with a price we were both happy with.  Questions were asked to ascertain the exact location of the mystery woodland, to stick a stake in the ground that we understood that the chimney needed attention and that we understood the exact condition of the pool mechanisms.  Bear in mind that our local friends suck their teeth at asking prices and endlessly fill our heads with tuppence ha’penny deals done on the Q.T.  We offered 75% of the ticket price and waited for the knock back.  Quite amazingly ET came back to us with the news that our offer had been accepted.  That was just before Christmas and I went to bed happy that I would have my forever house by summer.

In January I visited in a blizzard with eldest daughter and her intended – so they could see it at least from the outside.  They did not tell me I was mad.

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March.  After a long period of flatline communication, we were suddenly summoned to a town nearby in 3 days time to sign the Comprimis de Vente (this is basically the moment of exchange of contracts and the comprimis should contain all the clauses we have asked to be included).  As it happened we were in Grenoble and so decided to run the document past the wonderfully effete and beautifully bi-lingual Philippe.  All our friends are called Philippe by the way.  The Brain has excellent French but is humble enough to reach out for a helping hand when needed.  I sat reading a magazine lost in the romantic notion of walking Grande Randonee numero 5 – 620 km through the Alps to the Med and Monaco.  3 or 4 weeks they suggest.  I could feel the grass, smell the air and ….. a problem.  A problem?  Two Brains was drained of colour and looked for all the world like a doctor breaking difficult news to a patient’s relative (compounded by the fact that I was sitting in the refreshment area of a modern Science institution).  Philippe, diplomatic as ever had balked at the price we were paying  and had then drawn attention to the value of the house 7 years ago (pre the 40% drop in overall valuations in France) …. around a third of the original asking price so way, way below what we had offered (remember the speed of the agent’s response).  But we are decent people of morals and we had already agreed that given the difficulty of guaging an accurate price we would just go with what we felt was right.  A rather lumpy swallow but swallow we would.  We loved the house.  The electrics have mulitple areas of non-conformity … sort of to be expected even though they look fine enough but the bit that presented an impasse was the Level 2 problem with the LPG Gas.  Expliques-moi s’il te plait?  Well, the thing is this ….  it could cause the house to explode at any minute.  Nothing lost (girder-made we are).  An email is sent tout de suite to ET and we set off on the 6 hours journey home falling into bed around midnight.  Up with the lark, wakened by the barking (and it is genuinely a barking) of the Brain Phone – an alert to a mail.  Possibly the rudest mail ever.  You WILL be at the notaires office tomorrow morning and tough titty, the problems are yours to solve.

My husband is a mild sort.  My mother always said they are the most dangerous.  The ensuing conversation with ET was lethal.  The man accused him of lying (he clearly thought the real reason was the discovery that the value was much lower than the offer – wrong M’sieur.  You were so very wrong.  Decency prevails on our side however bitter the pill).  And the deal was off.  End of.  A desparation call from the owner would not sway us.  We smelled a consipiracy but now is not the time to air that.  And numbed, we were back to square one.  HB² quietely commented that he should have trusted his instincts.  I mean to say – the man wears European Trousers!

Four months later we are still there.  We have opted to broaden our search outside of le Cantal.  As much as we adore it here we need to find the right place for us.  So the last few months have been about (and mostly remotely – remember Brains in Boston, Charm in Cantal) looking at other places. Our criteria are simple (for the location) snow in winter, sun in summer (if it pleases) and mountains preferably in sight but certainly no more than a half hour drive.  If you have ideas, please share them.  We are open to ideas.

I have just searched on the net for the house in question and it appears to be under offer … if that is the case, I sincerely hope it doesn’t blow up after money has changed hands

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PS:  I am inordinately proud of the title of this series because it marks a milestone in my absorption of French … I now find myself punning and playing with words even though the result may still be ‘Comme une Vache Espagnole’ and the words that inspired Part 1 … ‘Your lips are redder than her lips, they’re fuller, they’re redder but they’re not better’ altogether ‘ sorry but I’m gonna have to pass …. thank you The Coasters … you can hear the whole song here – it fits when you understand that the bar we are working to might seem modest (a 2 bedroomed rented appartment) but modest as it is, home is actually pretty much perfect.  A high bar indeed.

Food Glorious Food … Is it worth the waiting for?

I always keep my promises.  Sometimes I take what seems like a rude length of time to get there, but I always keep my promises.  So I promised food and food you will get.  I’m no cordon bleu whizz.  I’m certainly not a chef … I knew many rather celebrated ones  in my Cheese incarnation.  I know that chefs are amongst the hardest working people on the planet.  And I know they often work in conditions that would have other’s screaming for Elf and Safety.  I would never ever dream of aligning my kitchen efforts to them.  I am a cook learned at my mother’s knee and my grandmothers table.  Almost learned by osmosis the understanding of how to.  Shell peas and beans.  Hull strawberries.  Make apple crumble, fruit cake, victoria sponge.  Mint sauce.  Roast the meat to go with the sauce …. my French friends still find that unbearably funny.  And for the kitchen moments of my adult life there has been ‘Gordon Ramsey Tom’ best friend and best man to be of my daughter’s intended, Tom has fixed many a kitchen moment when I have been about to throw a pot into the yard garnished with a few well chosen and perfectly ripe words.  Tom has gone far since working for Gordon but for me that will forever be his handle.  Probably best not to tell him.

We are in the mighty grip of a la canicule here in France … that’s a heatwave by the way.  It has sweltered for weeks with virtually no rain to be found in my region leaving the mass of massive trees curling at the edges, yellowing, browning.  The normal verdant green is fast becoming a memory.  We even have a hose-pipe ban … scourge of the English and guaranteed to start a riot of polite tut-tutting  there, it is genuinely needed here.  The saddest thing is watching the cattle in the scorched fields.  Normally they would be ruminating delightedly on succulent green pastures whilst their farmer toils away cutting, turning and bringing in the great cotton reels of hay or bagging them for winter silage.  This year, the pickings are lean.  Doubtless there will be a rain of biblical proportions soon enough so I am not complaining.  But I do appreciate that I am fortunate not to have my living affected.  A farmer’s life is never a simple one despite the myths created by town dwellers.

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Food has to fit the bill in the heat just as it has to in the cold.  I am a pathalogical soup eater.  And though not vegetarian  eat a heavily veggie diet.  So in this weather my mind turns to cold soup.  Ice cold soup. And Gazpacho in particular.  At this point per-lease feel free to skip my rambling drivvle and scroll to the recipe laid out at the end of the piece.  I’m certain you have eaten it in many different guises.  I have an almost uncontrollable addiction to recipe books which culminated in my children forcibly packing up 9 crates full and despatching them to a delighted charity shop.  The shop which, incidentally, never let on to the children that most of them had come from there in the first place when I was an eager volunteer sorting the donations in the tiny back room.  It became a standing joke with the equally tiny and extremely feisty manager’s mum, Pauline who worked with me on a Tuesday, that any cookbooks were mine to peruse for first refusal.  Fiesty she was.  72 years old and London born I remember her taking off at a sprint across the near dormant Cotswold town square in pursuit of shoplifters.  She bagged them, brought them back, locked the door and called the Police.  Whilst waiting she gave them a dressing down any army sergeant major would be proud of which incorporated much fruity language and revolved around ritual humiliation and shaming.  I think of her often.  So I have no shortage of reference and I do read them all but in the end, as with most things I tend to start with authenticity and work with it to suit my own taste and hopefully those of anyone else sitting at my table.  And the references are increasing slowly slowly.  I remember volumes and seek them out like a piglet sniffing truffles and eventually hold the cherished volume once more and meanwhile there are newbies on the block which I lust after and hunt down just the same.

Gazpacho.  Garzparcho.  Gath-pacho (that Spanish lisp attributed to King Pedro Castilla is apparently a myth.  I am frankly  gutted to have been put straight – I always loved the image of the preening posturing king insisting everyone else speak as he did just because he had the regal clout to insist). However you pronounce it, it’s roots are in Andalucia in roaringly hot southern Spain.  Although on my little voyage of discovery for this piece I discovered that there is another stewy soup in la Mancha (where the man of dreamed the impossible dream) also called Gazpacho which bears absolutely no relation to that which the name conjurs up for most.  Heavy on fowl (the more species the better and if you have a bunny to boil with them, it’s a even better) and bolstered with unleavened bread.  This might well appeal to me in a few months but right now the thought turns me rigid with fear!

No-one really seems to know why it’s called Gazpacho though there are a few rather appealing theories.  One is that it comes from the Spanish word that means stuffed.  The French verb is gaver  so I guess it’s a theoretically a common stem.  Since I don’t speak Spanish I actually don’t know what their verb is … I would love to be enlightened since the theory otherwise seems a teeny bit tenuous – sorry Jane Grigson who is in all other respects on my own personal A-list as a purveyor of the delicious! Another thought is that it results from the need to eat from a bowl or Kaz –  that’s a very old Moorish word by the way, and I don’t speak Moorish nor any other Arabic either so I really am out on a limb here.  To be honest my life is too short to worry why.

Gazpacho is basically salad liquidised and chilled.  Leaving aside such fearful thoughts as lobster, mango watermelon or peach (all of which have appeared in my daily recipe selection by email from Journal des Femmes and all of which are doubtless crooned over in 5 star restaurants somewhere), the main ingredients that don’t change are tomatoes, cucumber, some sort of pepper, onion and garlic.  The burning issue, that which splits houses in Spain, is the inclusion or not of bread.  My own way leaves it out.  But if you want to take some stale good (and it must be good not packet pap) bread and soak in water for 15 minutes and then squeeze the water out again and add it to the mix, feel free.  It will give a velvety texture.  For me it isn’t necessary.  I prefer to pass a basket of the good fresh stuff alongside.

Here’s how I made this one which yields a decent amount for 4-6 scoffers:

8 fully ripe preferably vine tomatoes.   Big ones but not beefers

1 Green Pepper (deseeded and chopped)

1 Red Pepper (ditto)

1 Cucumber (peeled – I don’t bother to deseed but you can)

1 Red onion (peeled and chopped)

1 small yellow onion but a bunch of spring onions also called scallions would do nicely (chopped)

3 cloves of Garlic (smashed and finely chopped)

Red wine vinegar

Olive Oil (virgin please)

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

2 scant teaspoons castor sugar

I take the tomatoes and cut a cross in their bottoms, put them in a bowl and cover them with boiling water for a minute or so.  Then I slip the peels off.  Over the weeks, if you choose to follow my kitchen antics you will realise that this finesse is a rarity.  My explanation is that it is less of a faff than seiving later.DSCF2682

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As the water gets under their skin they will take on an other worldly appearance … retrieve and skin at this point

After skinning, I chop the tomatoes and sling them in a blender and blitz them to a liquid.  Then add the rest of the veg in batches.  The last batch will dictate the texture of the soup so if you want some bits in it, barely blitz, if you want a slight crunch blitz a bit and if you want it smooth (this is a peasant soup and I’m more peasanty than haute cuisine so I’m not here to make silk) blitz some more.  But don’t overblitz or it will all begin to foam … think rabid dog – not a good look.  One point here … you don’t actually HAVE to blend this.  You don’t HAVE to have the equipment.  This soup was made daily for the workers in the fields down in the previouly acknowledge to be scorching south of Spain … the momias and amantes who made it lovingly not to mention the reluctant hemañas, and who carried it out at lunchtime, had no such  luxuries.  You can chop finely enough with a good sharp knife crushing as necessary with the flattenened blade.

Then season.  Start with a tablespoon of vinegar (and sherry vinegar is more authentic, but I’m in France) and 2 of olive oil plus your paprika (and if you don’t like the idea, feel free to leave it out or invent your own twist) and sugar.  Pop in the fridge to chill and after a while check the seasoning.  It is to your taste … play with it, have some fun it will reward you.  If you aren’t lucky enough to have tomatoes that taste really tomatoey you can add a little puree from a tin or bottle or some juice.  It won’t do any harm – surely the thing is to enjoy the end result not to be afraid that the Food Police will come knocking at your door demanding explanations!

I make mine in the morning to eat for supper to allow plenty of developing and melding of flavours.  And then the fun starts.  Spoon into bowls and serve with whatever garnishes take your fancy … chopped cucumber, pepper, onion, egg (hard boiled for the avoidance of doubt), serano ham are all traditional.  But chopped olives are a good edge (green please despite what that doyenne of culinary brilliance, Elizabeth David might have indicated … black are too earthy and I think she may have been either having a laugh or a bad hair day, or both)  and I love mint so I garnish with it and serve a little bowl of chopped fresh leaves alongside.  I don’t do icecubes – they water the soup.  And it does freeze.  I brought up four daughters and always had a housefull of rabbit’s friends and relations – now I live on my own, mostly.  This means there are ALWAYS leftovers.  One time I will share my freezing method, of which I am rather proud.

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PS:  Throughout the writing of this post I have had one image.  My second daughter, aged four and deliciously chubby dressed as a Spanish Onion and singing this song at the top of her very enthusiastic lungs:

We are the best of Spanish onions

chosen for our sleek appearance

We are kept in separate places

For we seldom smell too sweet (smell too sweet)!!

The rhythm was Spanish, there were castinets involved and I was enchanted.  And I can’t chop an onion to this day (21 years on and she is no longer remotely chubby) without hearing the sounds of those children echoing joyously through the corridors of my mind.

Coup de Cœur – Part One: Let’s start at the very beginning

Actually, Julie Andrews, let’s not.  Start at the very beginning that is.  The fact is that this particular serial .. Oh! I feel the need to digress – I LOVE a serial!  All those wonderful adaptations that the British do so well – from The Forsytes, through The Pallisers, much Jane Austen, many Thomas Hardy’s and no doubt a glut of Dickens whose great works were written as episodes for a variety of journals, only later being published in book form.  This explains two things – firstly, why he serialises SO successfully on television and secondly the minute detail in his descriptives which can be the finish of many a secondary school student’s tolerance of his work …. his narrative can feel achingly slow to the modern reader  but gathers pace and impact on the screen.  Not so for everyone but I have carefully explained to four teenaged daughters and many attendant friends that he should not be dismissed as boring without giving the films and series a whirl first.  And it is not just a British phenomena – for instance Alexander Dumas serialised The Three Musketeers (Three Musky Queers as my first husband irreverantly and, quite possibly these days  illegally, always referred to them) in 139 episodes in Le Constititutionnel.

Back on piste … I do love a serial and this will be one.  But I can’t quite start at the very beginning for the simple reason that the story of finding and buying this place is currently my novel in progress.  Based in the factual, it is a work of fiction with all players and places concealed and touched up with the clay and paint that an Author has the licence to apply at will.

So here it is.  We bought a village house that needs renovating in France.  Other’s do that too.  And they blog – I follow one in particular because she captivates me.  You can too, if you want to – just here.  So that’s not unique.  Where we bought it as English people is unique:  Marcolès: newly recognised as ‘Une Petite Cité de Caractère’  In fact only three villages in the entire Auvergne region currently hold this accolade and the award  was made to the three as recently as May this year.  But most important is what it is.

Looking at the picture you would be forgiven for thinking – nice but so what?  It’s a nice little town house.  In a village.  Somewhere in France.  What makes it special, if you will, is that it is a Monument Historique de France … gosh, wowy zowy.  Boom!!  But take a closer look and ask the question beloved of toddlers and indeed, I think,  the smartest people throughout their lives …. why?

The thing with this little baby is that it was originally built as the City Watchtower.  It is a tour medieval  – this is what it would once have looked like in 1203 when it is  first accurately recorded:

As a point of interest, all of these examples are within 50 km of our own village

Sadly the community of Marcolès was less caring then than it is now.  Or more accurately, I am sure, had other vital criteria for survival.  The tower fell into ruin and the stone was pillaged for other buildings.  However.  For reasons unrecorded (but we intend to do our darndest to trace and clarify), the village or perhaps just one villager, decided to rebuild it from what was left (and some other stone they found lying around).  And the result …la Maison Carrée.  For non French speakers, that means ‘The Square House’.  Which it is. It is also the only house within the city walls to stand entirely on it’s own.  Detached.  Reliant on no other.  As the locals charmingly put it – you can walk right around it.  Completed in 1830 it has been  inhabited by a variety of people including a very tall Russian lady who the present Mayor (Marcolèsian born, raised, elected and something of a saviour) remembers vaguely from boyhood.  I’m very tall and I love Russia and all things Russian (shoot me – I know its not de rigeur just now) … I rather hope I’m remembered too.  As someone who DID something for the Commune.  Gave something back, if you will.  My HB² of a Spouse feels just the same.

So here we are.  We have the house.  Without giving anything away we signed the papers for the purchase in March 2014 exactly a year from the start of the purchase …  but we didn’t get the keys til Christmas 2014.  Stick with me – Part Two is all about le vider.  No!  NOT the la vida loca! though translated as ‘Living a Crazy Life’ it could be apt in this instance. Vider means ‘to empty’.  You also use it when referring to gutting something prior to cooking.  Which is about right in this case.  It’s a whole story in itself.

À très bientôt

DSCF2219PS:  I’ve called this series Coup de Cœur because it is the expression that French Immobiliers – those are Estate Agents to my UK readers, Realtors to those in the US (and apologies to everyone else) – use.   Coup de Cœur means a favourite thought that doesn’t cover it, really it is more something that pulls at one’s heart strings.  Immobiliers generally use it to imply an  irrisistible attraction to a house.  That overwhelming almost lusting for a place the moment you lay eyes on it, much less walk inside.  A feeling which doesn’t necessarily have either foot in the common sense field ….  which in this case, fits perfectly!

I’m forever blowing bubbles …

Little bubbles in the air …. for me that is the anthem of West Ham (an East End of London football team for those unfamiliar with them … don’t ask me to explain the Ham nor the fact that they are from the East and called West – though I can if pushed).  I support The Arsenal, a North London team.

These bubbles  were installed in Grenoble, which you can glimpse in the background and which is commonly referred to as the gateway to the Alps, for the 1968 Winter Olympic Games.  They are correctly called The Grenoble-Bastille Telepherique (or cable car).  The sixties was a time of experimentation and free expression in every sphere and engineering was no exception.  The French love engineering and respect engineers.  Which can only be a good thing.  Amongst other revelations were three tower blocks to house the athletes which were to revolve on their bases.  They are still inhabited and still visible from all over the city but I’m quite relieved to say that they never actually revolved.  The bubbles were to be the symbol of the games.    All these years later (and a rebuild in 1975 of the stations at top and bottom too) and they are preserved and still running happily up and down to la Bastille, the mountain in the middle of the city, all day and into the night over the Isere river below.  They long ago surpassed the original ideal to become the symbol of the city.

The title of this weeks photo challenge is Symbol – you can find many more exemplaires of the notion, here

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PS:  The inaugural ‘voyage’ of the bubbles in 1967 was planned point perfect as such things are and the bubble cars were filled with dignitaries, including the mayor himself and various Olympic higher-muck-a-mucks …. unfortunately the cable busted and the bubbles were left suspended over the river for some time until a rescue could be effected. They were left for seemingly hours because the Franco-German consortium responsible for the design and installation (it should be noted that there had been a cable car of sorts in place since 1934) had a bigger project to attend to!   These days this would have spelt instant closure.  Some things have not improved in this modern world of ours

The picture was taken by HB²  (my husband to the unititiated) and though I have many good ones – we are regular visitors – I wanted his to be published since Grenoble was once his home and still remains so somewhere in his heart.

Just when I stopped opening doors ….

It’s holiday season.  On Saturday, my US friends and relations celebrated ‘Independence Day’ (July 4th) and in France les grands vacances are upon us.  The next two months will see most French people taking time off and we will also celebrate le 14th juillet (‘Bastille Day’ but it is never referred to as such by the French) and le 15th août (Assumption Day) both of which are major holidays.  In the village of Marcoles, a teeny weeny but perfectly and beautifully formed medieval gem (and officially ‘une petite cité de caractère’) 15th August is celebrated with a festival of street theatre, music, dance and that particular brand of delightful eccentricity that is unmistakeably French.  It is called Lez’Artes dans la Rue (the mascot is a lizard and the title is a clever pun).   I absolutely adore it.

We visited for the first time two years ago and were treated, amongst other delights to a troop of medieval musicians with a fantastically barking mad front man, a band fronted by a girl in fishnets and doc martins perched on the roof of a miniature car as it toured the village and oompahpahing deliciously on a souzaphone.  And this chap.  To say I was not quite ready for him is a probable understatement …. this was in no small measure due to the fact that shortly after this picture was taken he produced a large and fully inflated balloon from the trouser area he is so emphatically framing.  His pant region.  The balloon was sausage shaped, proudly cocked and bright pink.  So there you have it.  Standing in front of those wonderful medieval arched doors, he opened his door, one might say …. The crowd went wild. And crowd it was – the village is literally over-run for the occasion.

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PS:  You will know that the title is from ‘Send in the Clowns’ that wonderful song from Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’ … making my entrance with my usual flair and indecently late, I must recommend that you take a look at the other offerings for the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge entitled Door – there are some crackers.

And also – tragically, I shan’t be able to attend this year.  But I do have a vaguely acceptable reason … my eldest daughter will be marrying her love a week later in England’s West Country and I rather hope her need of me is greater than that of Marcoles on this occasion …