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Posts from the ‘Food’ Category

If youre afraid of butter, use cream!

The entirely marvellous Esmé asked me to write a guest post for her blog ‘The Recipe Hunter’ so I offer up to you a little light legend Grenoblois and a recipe for REAL Gratin Dauphinois.  Dig in, do!

Follow the link and you will be magically transported Chez The Recipe Hunter ….

Source: G…uest #21: Le vrai Gratin Dauphinois

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PS:  The title is Julia Child – une heroine culinaire

I’m strong to the finish cos I eats me spinach

Actually this bad boy is more usually made with  Blette which is chard if you aren’t speaking French but if you can’t get that you can use Epinard which is Popeye’s best friend.  In my experience it works well with both.

It’s called Pounti and is one of the absolute signature dishes of l’Auvergne region and in particular le Cantal.  I give a recipe below.  This is not a food blog so it is just my own favourite method and not cleverly photographed. For me, food is for sharing with those I care about so the food posts on my blog are just that – food for you to sample if you care to share.  I was entirely put off by the description offered by a French friend who is a vegetarian which might explain her reluctance, when I first stumbled on it. However, I braved it in Salers a day or two before The Man with Two Brains morphed into The Husband with Two Brains and became rather wed to it before I was wed to him.  Salers is one of ‘les plus beaux villages de France’ and as such is very much on the tourist map.  It’s population is tiny (less than 350 permanent residents) but it positively teems in summer and the shops and eateries and drinkeries thrive.  From Toussaint to Paques (November 1st to Easter) it is pretty well closed except for the boulangerie, boucherie and a couple of braveheart businesses.  Medieval and with buildings, including the church, hewn from volcanic basalt it is certainly worth a visit but it is a fine example of a place that absolutely lights up in the sunshine and seems to don a rather gloomy shroud in less than clement weather.

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This is not lightweight, fashionably clean-eating food.  This is hale and hearty prop-up-the-workers in the harsh elements food.  It’s a loaf and is generally served warm or cold.  If you have it in a  restaurant, it will be artfully cut or made as pert little individual cakes and served with a zingy salad often as a starter but also as a main at lunch.  It is hefty enough not to require any starch on the side.  At home, we served our first attempt two years ago cut into little squares as an appetiser with the appero at a lunch party.  Our friends eyed it will a little apprehension but didn’t spit it out and as far as I could see didn’t hide it in their hankies nor handbags either.  And we loved it and gave each other surrepticious self-contratulatory looks from across the room.  As one does.  The rest of that particular loaf (it was large and I have since invested in a smaller tin and halved the quantities for fear of onset Pounti-fatigue on day three) we sliced and took on a long and lovely hike the following day.  Treating it as the Cantal equivalent of a super-succulent meatloaf, I suppose though my English reference point would have to be Pork Pie.

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Here are The Brains and The Bean replete after their pounti picnic

Now before I begin, I must warn you that the ingredients list looks odd.  But hand on heart, it is really delicious.  Think of it as that marriage that you secretly sneered to self would never EVER work and yet as the 2 in 3 fall like  skittles by the wayside and prove the statisticians right, it glides effortlessly along with only the merest of bumps in it’s road and melds into the collective consciousness as a mysterious but undoubted triumph.

Ingredients:

  • 300g Chard (leaves only – use the stalks in a gratin or sautee) or spinach but in either case chopped fine
  • 1 large or 2 smaller onions chopped equally fine
  • A big bunch of parsley – about the size of a fat head of brocolli. This is much easier to find in France than elsewhere so feel free to play with other gentle flavoured herbs and use dried if you need to. Chop what you have fresh, you guessed it, fine
  • 300g Sausagemeat
  • 6 eggs given a light beating
  • 300g flour. Traditionally it would be buckwheat but white flour is generally better behaved
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder unless, of course your flour is self-raising though the comedy value of using both might be worth it for any idle onlookers
  • ½ litre milk – mine is semi-skimmed (2%) but feel free to use your favourite – it won’t make any difference to the result.  In fact some recipes call for a couple of dollops of creme-fraiche in addition to milk but I stop short of that addition
  • 300g stoned prunes (stones removed not drugged for the avoidance of doubt)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6
  • Grease and flour a 2lb loaf tin or terrine. And line it too if you think your container needs it – I’m all for safety first
  • If your prunes are the ready stoned, no soak variety you can now look self-righteous but if not, you need to stone them. My wandering mind now has visions of lining them up and hurling rocks at them. and set them to soak in warm water (or Armagnac if you feel extravagant)
  • Once you have finished all that chopping, its a question of mixing all the greens and onions in with the sausagemeat. Squidging with your hands is really the best way and oddly satisfying though I’m not certain I should be admitting to that.
  • Mix in the beaten egg and milk – alternating so it doesn’t get too slimey – this is another opportunity for some cheap comedy as getting it wrong can have the whole amorphous lump  skating like Bambi on ice out of the bowl on a skid of raw egg
  • Seive in the flour (and baking powder if using)
  • Season with salt and pepper and add dried herbs if needed to replace or bolster the fresh parsley
  • Turn half the mixture into the tin and cover with the pitted soaked prunes
  • Cover with the rest of the mix and place in the centre of the pre-heated oven.
  • Keep an eye on it – you may need to turn the oven back to 180C/350F/Gas 4 if it seems to be getting too brown too quickly
  • Bake for a 45 minutes and then test with a skewer.  If it comes out clean it’s done.  It will probably need an hour in all

 

If you halve the quantities, you will need a 1lb tin.  I know that sounds obvious and possibly even a trifle condescending but sometimes my meager brain needs a little nudging and though I am sure you are not so afflicted, I would not want to be responsible for any disaster.  The baking time will drop by a third.  If you choose to make individual loaves or little muffins, the baking time will drop to half.

PS:   I remember being desperately disappointed a few years ago when I read that the original Iron Rating made for Spinach by German scientist Emil Von Wolf in 1870  was mistaken.  His decimal point was misplaced leading to a caluculation ten times higher than it should have been.  The mistake was not discovered until the 1930s.  So although it is high in those essential folates, it is not actually any higher than any other green  vegetable.  Poor old Popeye – I wonder if it was the placebo effect.

Few desires, happy life

My husband and I, not because we want to, live apart for much of the time.  Our collective desire is to be together.  That would be our happy life.  When we are together we cook.  When we are apart, we often cook separately what we have cooked together.  It makes us feel closer in some way.  In Grenoble recently we went back to a favourite little Moroccan restaurant. There is a large North African and Arab community in the city and it is one of the things we love about the place.  This is not the grandest, nor the most expensive but it is family run and in the simple surroundings which appear not to have changed in decades you will get a fantastic meal served with grace and style by one of the children and not break the bank.  If I could remember it’s name I would share it ….

We had this dish as a starter not for the first time and back home in Cantal decided to try and replicate it.  Since then we have made it together and we have made it apart.  The restaurant has the edge, of course but I would urge you to give it a go because it is rather luscious.

 Zaalouk:

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Peel an aubergine (eggplant) and dice it, put into a pan with sufficient water to immerse (initially it’s light and spongy texture will cause it to float) and a teaspoon of salt.  Cover, bring to the boil and simmer until really soft.  Then drain in a collander and let all the water release.  Meanwhile, chop around 3 ripe tomatoes (if your tomatoes are dull and flavourless please use tinned – life is too short to willingly eat uninspiring tomatoes) and crush as much garlic as you dare – I use a fat clove for each tomato.  When the aubergine is well drained (feel free to give it a good squish to this end) sautee the garlic and tomatoes in a glug of olive oil with around a teaspoon of crushed cumin seed, twice that of crushed coriander seed and a half teaspoon of paprika (smoked or not depending on your own preference).  I add a pinch of sugar too – I find it makes tomatoes more tomatoey for some mysterious reason.  When the tomatoes are well cooked down stir in the aubergine pulp.  Let it cook for about 10 minutes and then fork it, mash it or even blend it (I blend with my trusty stick blender because I prefer the silken texture it gives).  Taste and add salt (mine is black and volcanic from Hawaii but that is not at all necessary – it honestly happens to be what I have in the house and is not any kind of arty condiment affectation) and more crushed coriander seed.  You can finish with chopped fresh coriander (cillantro) and it will be all the better for it but it is hard to find here in my coin perdu and I can’t seem to get it to grow successfully – a matter of huge frustration which borders on the obsessional.  Last of all drizzle with more olive oil.

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This can be eaten hot or cold – we favour just above warm with bread – here in bread heaven we have a ridiculous choice of course, in North Africa I imagine it would be eaten with pitta and, as an aside, I have dipped crunchy raw veggies in it too and it is good and feels rather virtuous.

As a point of interest – the aubergine was once called mala insane (the apple of madness) and it is a member of the nightshade family.  Though not deadly, it does contain toxins which will upset a sturdy tummy when turning from flower to fruit.  You have been warned.

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PS:  The title is a Moroccan proverb of which I am very fond

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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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.

The battle of the bulge

Here I am back in France this past fortnight and nine days of it have been on a ‘regime’.  A diet.  A detox actually.  And it paid dividends – I’m now a bit more than half a stone lighter and I have lost the inches in the right places.  By which I mean when it drops off your face after a certain age you just look older, more saggy and haggard and equally at my age one has a tendency to gaining round the middle.  A spare tyre that would not help in the event of a blowout in the little yellow car.  So I am a little more en ligne, a little trimmer and all the happier for it.  It’s a curious fact that you wear the over-weight on your mind at some level and the niggling anxiety wears you out.  So best to out it and get leaner and fitter again.

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But the process got me to thinking – I cut out wheat and dairy and sugar and caffeine and had pills and gloop to swallow and on days 3 through 9 I had a light evening meal.  And I didn’t miss the caffeine, didn’t crave the sugar and since I don’t drink when I’m on my own the abstinence from alcohol was a doddle.  And the dairy was replaced with Almond milk which is surprisingly pleasant and the wheat well I just blotted out the landscape of boulangeries and pattiseries in my country of choice.  But what it really got me to thinking about is the French diet and the WAY the French eat.  Because its in the UK that I gain the weight.  Not here in the land of pastry and bread and cream and cheese and all things wicked.  I live in the goose fat region and though we use olive oil you won’t find an olive grove anywhere nearby and we eat meat and potatoes because it gets very very cold in winter.  And we cook with cheese.  And yet I have yet to see a single obese person.  Let’s take a closer look ….

Watching St Nectaires being made by our friend Christine in Cantal

Watching St Nectaires being made by our friend Christine in Cantal

The French are wonderfully reverent about food.  And about mealtimes and I believe that herein lies the difference.  Here we break the fast every day.  We wouldn’t dream of skipping le petit dejeuner.  But we also don’t snack.  Typically le dix heure is reserved for children to coincide with break time at school.  And whilst you might have a nibble at le gouter that too is not a daily habit but rather something you would do if you happen to have a visitor at that hour (4-5pm).

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Homemade Custard Creams … thank you Nigella!

Here we have le dejeuner and we sit and we eat together ensemble.  If it is a weekend then we might join with friends and family but whatever the day we halt.  And we sit and eat.  When I’m on my own I shut down Mr Mac, clear the table, lay it and eat my lunch.  If its a restaurant typically we will partake of a ‘formule’ – we will choose whether to have a starter and a main or to go the full monty and have cheese and dessert too.  In the village here as is typical, l’Auberge caters for the workers be they bin men or the Maire himself with a set meal – soupe, entrée, plat, fromage, dessert, café.  Water included, wine (un verre, un quart, un demi or a bouteille depending how many of you there are) extra.  The basic cost is €13.50.  That translates as £10 or $15.25 at todays rate of exchange.  The soup will invariably be whatever vegetables are good that day though if a boiled fowl is on the menu it will be a chicken broth with whatever she has to hand added, the entree perhaps a plate of charcuterie, paté and cornichons with salad on the side, the plat probably a coq au vin or a boeuf Bourginon, the cheeses local, a choice of several different desserts – mousse au chocolat will always feature and there will be a clafoutis or a pie and iles flottant for sure.

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His first tart … handmade by Two Brains

If you want wine, it will be good – the French will not tolerate something awful.  They simply would not drink it.  And mostly they drink red.  The coffee will be an expresso.  And there will be bread but woe betide you grab it before the meal comes – very very non-you.  The Bread is to eat WITH the meal.  And the cheese is not to take great slabs off – just a little morcel of each (or just the ones you like).  You see the WAY the French eat is different.

Later, you might take an apero.  Mostly here in my region that would be a glass of rosé or perhaps une biere or maybe an avèze our local eau de vie which can be taken neat or diluted with whatever you like or fortified with white wine if you are feeling in need of a kick.  Its bitter – made from the special yellow gentiane flowers unique to the Auvergne and reminds me of a neon yellow Campari.  I like it.  And the beer is unlikely to be a pint.  Let me tell you about what happened last February.

Driving back from Lyon having dropped Two Brains I hit a blizzard and then a concrete post.  I broke the steering arm on the driver side wheel and the car was rendered undriveable.  The Bean and I walked into the nearest town (Riom ès Montagnes) to await rescue.   We waited in a bar all alone with the delightful Patron and  his cat which amused The Bean for hours.  And we were there for hours.  It was a bad blizzard and nothing was moving so my rescue party of Raymond and Ernest were 4 hours in getting to me.  I drank coffee and spoke pigeon French to the delightful Monsieur also called Raymond.  He has the patience of a Saint and I now count him amongst my friends in Cantal.  After a while he suggested I might drink something stronger.  I think he was getting desperate.  Une petite pressione I ventured.  And it was petite.  He took his smallest wine glass and filled it with aplomb.  I sipped it gracefully.  This was not the place for a gutsy swig.  We returned, The Brains and I a few weeks later when he was back, with a box of Hawaiin biscuits to say thank you (I had not been in on my own in the meantime because it is honestly not the done thing here for a woman to venture into a bar on her own – beautifully old fashioned and long may it last).  The men at the bar were all drinking from similarly tiny glasses – beer or wine or Avèze all in what to my English eyes are positively tiny measures.

With the apero you will have some olives or nuts or maybe some crisps.  But it is not a contest to see who can eat the most, the fastest.  It is just that – a teeny little nibble.  An amuse bouche.  Later you will eat le diner.  This is the main meal of the day and will be eaten en famille.  It too will probably consist of several courses.  A starter, a main, the veg or salade served afterwards, the cheese and possibly but certainly not always a dessert.  During the week you are more likely to have fruit to finish.  Wine –  yes and coffee to aid digestion on occasions with an alcoholic  digestif.  I favour Armagnac.   Now lets just talk about wine for a moment.   In the UK and the USA my experience is that these days a normal glass of wine is 250cl with a small glass being 175cl.  Sometimes they are even bigger.  Guzzling is the way.  Here a normal glass holds a 125cl max and will only be filled a third for red wine and a little over half for white or rosé.  Emptying your glass means you have had enough.  And there is always, always water on the table.

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A perfect lunch in Rocamadour, Lot

So that is how we do it here.  In the UK I skip breakfast, eat lunch which is generally bread and cheese and paté and I take big chunks, I snack on biscuits in the morning and the afternoon, I eat cake at teatime and snack again til supper which is probably the most balanced meal of the day except that I will typically have wine and it is in a huge glass which is filled.  My poor old blood sugar is a confused mess.  The other difference is that I walk less.  The culture here is very much geared to walking – I regularly meet very elderly people out walking.  They may not be going far but they are using their legs, bearing their own weight and taking fresh air.  In England, the England that I visit most which is Oxfordshire, I see this less.  Which is not to say that  people don’t because I know they do but just to say that it is perhaps something that should be encouraged from a very young age.  My daughters all walk fast and its because they had to keep up with me walking to and from Goring to get the shopping.  I take this opportunity to throw myself on their mercy and apologise … except I think grown as they are now they probably thank me for my lack of compassion at the time.

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A little frog high up in the Cezallier whose legs are perfectly safe because we don’t eat these

I think the difference for me is in old habits verses new.  It is perfectly possible to be slim and trim in the UK and the USA and I have been.  But there are aspects of lifestyle here that would translate very nicely and enhance the average life.  Not eating on the hoof, only drinking alcohol with food and taking a little at a time (and we do have a couple of fantastic old soaks in the village incidentally who drink a little a lottle all day long), eating together and finally not your piling plate but taking a small helping and then if you really want it going back for more but stopping when you are full.  It’s all about keeping the blood sugar even.  That’s my own spin on The French Paradox for what its worth.  For me it’s worth being able to eat and NOT gain pounds and hopefully keep myself at low risk of heart attack which seems like a good deal all round.  Just as we are trying to educate our French friends that the British can cook too, so I think the British could learn a better way to eat.

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Our first dinner on arrival – a box acts as a table as the furniture had not arrived … but French-style we still laid it properly to eat

PS:  The Bean is less than keen on any form of diet – here she is expressing her need (not want you understand, need) for cheese ….

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The begging Bean

Seven for a secret never to be told ….

Oh heavens … the title of the Weekly Writing Challenge is ‘Pie’.  Maybe I’ll give it a miss this week.  But I started taking part in this for discipline.  And that was only last week.  I can’t opt out.  I am made of a sterner crust than that.

Pie.  I love pie actually – my preference is for a shortcrust top and bottom because it is the pastry as well as what it encases that I love.  It’s also possible that I find it less risky.  My dear French friend Isobelle pointed out recently I eat ‘comme un cochon’.  She was not being unkind just referring to the random scattering of crumbs circling the space where my plate had been as she tidied her table.  I can wear it and indeed I often do.  I am messy and, flaky or puff, whether rough or not,  is more likely to break free and land in my hair giving some comedy value but at odds with my quest for elegance and allure.   Honestly, I wish the hairnet would have a fashion revival … my hair is a monstrous liability and seems fatally attracted to food.  When making or baking I invariably cast at least one – my daughters long ago ceased to be alarmed and would point out to friends that it is simply a sign that mummy really did make it when a long black thread appeared in their soup or stew or indeed pie.

These days I am fond of Pi too.  I am wed to my Two Brained love and he has taught me to be unafraid of mathematics and that it can be rather lovely and quite useful too.  He has me convinced that there is a latent scientist lurking within … whether the world is ready for my ability to understand and explain theorem through domestic appliances is debatable, but I am pleased and I know my Nuclear Physicist late father is smiling down content that finally his daughter has been made to realise what he always asserted – that as far as maths and science go, she can if she will.

Living here in France has it’s challenges but food is almost never one of them.  However, when we are invited for a meal, and as is customary, take a plate of something with us, or when we entertain at home, we use the opportunity to educate our Gaelic friends that not everything the British produce to eat is inedible.  In fact the British are really rather brilliant at British cuisine.   We have had a few successes but none so great as the pasty.

Invited to the home of local friends in the summer we decided to make pasties.  Little tiny ones as nibbly bits rather than hobnailed booted mains.  Some meat and some vegetarian since the hostess does not partake of the flesh of fish, fowl or furry creatures.  Hold that thought.  Working as a team, we produced the prettiest little pasties ever.  I made the pastry and it was a triumph.  The fillings – one of beef, potatoes carrots, turnip (which is treated much more much respectfully in France than the UK), and a little thyme and the other of potatoes, leeks, carrots and some red pepper for sweetness, seasoned with parsley so as not to overwhelm.  They smelled divine and Two Brains (whose alternative career choice was to be a surgeon) made them so neatly into little crescents that they were almost too pretty to eat.

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Purists will say they are not crimped in the traditional rope style – I say why can’t we create a new tradition?!

 

We arrived, we sat in the garden and the plate of fragrant pastries was duly put out as an appetizer.  We explained the history – that these would normally have been made much larger and were the staple of Cornish tin miners often containing savoury meaty at one end and sweet probably appley at the other – the ultimate portable lunch.  Slowly each of our friends lifted their morcel, eyed it with the suspicion that a cow in the field eyes a dog walking past and took the tiniest nibble.  Then, satisfied that this was actually edible even by their own haute patisserie standards they bit a proper mouthfilling bite and munched away.  ‘What is the pastry?’ Christiane next to me demanded to know – ‘it is delicious and so short, tell me – what is your secret?’  Puffed with pride I told her that it is simply wheat flour, ice cold water and duck fat.  As the words left my lips and sailed across the table, the words ‘gras de canard’, I remembered the relevance of the warning ‘pride comes before a fall’.  I looked across at our hostess, tucking into her third safe vegetarian pie and swallowed hard.  Christiane gave me a conspiratorial wink, I reminded myself that our hostess has occassionally been known to sneak a little light charcuterie and I think I got away with it.  But I will wear the guilt like a hair shirt for many moons to come.

I said I like all pies and I do.  I like the birds too.  The magpies of the rhyme, and I am deeply supersticious of them – I salute, I wave, I say good morning and I tell them where I am going.  I draw the line at spitting but I think I have the bases covered.  Particularly if I only see one.  Before we moved here we were driving with the husband of the aforementioned pastry quizzer and with the most stilted French, I asked conversationally (he being an expert on the flora and fauna of the area) ‘So then, what will one call the bird of black and white feathers?’  ‘Le pee’ he replied.  ‘Ah then, this will be parallel to my English – we speak the pie’ I confidently retorted.  ‘Non.  Le pee’ he insisted.  My French was deplorable but he has absolutely no English …. the fact that the word is pronounced differently makes it a completely different word to him.  For a moment I felt quite bi-lingual.  Which I am not.  But I’m certainly pie-lingual.

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You may be smart enough to spot that this is actually a Russian Crow – my lame defence is that I didn’t have a photo of a magpie to hand

 

PS:  It interests me that in a culture where food reigns supreme the French word for pastry is identical to that for pasta or any other dough.  Pate.  Not to be muddled with paté which would really make a mess of things. And further, if you were wondering why the title – it comes from an English nursery rhyme about Magpies and refers to the fact that according to myth the number of magpies you see are supposed to determine your luck for the day:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told

 

This surreptitious scion of summers circumspect ….

 …. In fairness, Emily Dickenson was not specific about which mushroom was ‘the elf of plants’ but I like the poem and it fits the moment.

Two Brains, The Bean and I strolling into the square last week were stopped in our tracks by Didier, one of the characters of our village.  He is the most delightful and gentle man, reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Lennie in  both stature and his mode of dress – typically dungarees with a long sleeved collarless vest under and a hat, woollen tea cosy in winter and cotton with a little peak more hunter-worker than baseball in summer.  I should be clear that he has tonnes more wit and hopefully is not liable to break necks nor baby animals with over-zealous caresses.  He lumbered over towards us gesturing and grinning and delightedly told us that the Girolles (you may know them as Chanterelles) have arrived and exactly where in the masses of forest surrounding us to look for them.  Indeed, he reported,  one local had bagged 17 kg of the golden lovelies that very morning.  Our joy at this sharing was two-fold … in the first instance we happen to love edible fungus and Girolles rate very high on the richter scale of delicious mushrooms, but the more important delight came from the fact that we were being treated to information that would not normally be shared with random strangers.  Actually, the information is guarded jealously by locals who prize the flavour at their own tables and make a good profit by selling to restaurants and market stalls and shops …. it made us realise that we are slowly slowly ever so slowly fitting into our community.

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Girolles, Chanterelles call them what you want are amongst the nicest fungi to eat.  Delicate on the tongue, some say they smell of apricots – I can’t say I quite recognise that, but their colour is spectacular – amber-yellow, on the apricot side of orange, and their shape beauteous … the way the narrow gills flare upwards to the crown, forcing it inside out and the raggedy edges – like a tiny shiny golden shamrock when they first appear and when fully mature like the thinly beaten bell of a primitive hunting horn.

We have picked three bags full between Didier’s sharing of the good news and the writing of this little blog  – parsley from our balcony  to finish the gently sauteed darlings and then bound in eggy splendour enriched with a dollop of creme fraiche they make for a delicious omelette –  the more so for the scrabbling in the woodlands, the sun speckling through the canopy of leaves, the ground slightly damp and the air scented faintly musty.

 

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If we could train only The Bean to seek them out how rich we would be but absent her interest in any such sport, we will content ourselves with the delight of spotting the little elves in moss and grass and the thick carpet of years and years of dead leaves.  Later in the week we will stroll into the bar and thank Didier with a drink and a smile.

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PS:  Remember, there must always be a PS, there are two types of mushroom, Le Fausse Girolle (literally, false Girolle) and Lactaire Orangé Fauve which are easy to confuse with a Chanterelle the first is edible but only when cooked and the second, though not deadly will make you ill if eaten.  Alongside a good book and the advice of a local (whom one hopes is neither trying to fool you nor kill you) in France you should take fungus to any pharmacie where they will identify them for you with authority.