After a drought, let there be a flood. Well actually not. In reality neither is an appealing option but I use the metaphor to witness the fact that I seem to be pedalling a rather large volume of twaddle this week. Two days on the trot after a post last Tuesday AND another on Saturday is unheard of chez Half Baked.
I have decided that Tuesdays for the foreseeable will be devoted to Taste. This will mostly be something edible, but some weeks it might be something beautiful. Always with the caveat that taste is entirely subjective. I do love cooking, I do love tinkering with interiors. I have had a food shop in my chaotically careening life and I have had a house-rescuing business for the desperate to sell and needing a budget savvy person to help them turn their sows ear into a silk purse. And right now, as seems to be a constant theme in my life, we are renovating our home. Actually strictly speaking two houses – the one in France which will again take centre stage when I resume the Coup de Coeur series and the one we live in, here in Massachusetts. Positively the potential for a frisson-making wave of excitement, no?
Whatever it is you can be sure it will eventually form an eclectic whole because I do not have a set taste either in food or in surroundings. I am influenced by many cultures and by many experiences. But there is one absolute. Life forced me to be frugal for a very long time and I am fortunate for it. The habits are ingrained and I am the better for it. So the food we make is not extravagant. I say we, because some of the delights I intend to entice you with are the work of HB² himself.
I have long expounded the good sense in eating food that is reared or grown as close to the ground I walk on as possible. I recently discovered when strolling back to my husband’s office after lunch with a table full of boffins and mentioned my theory to one of them, that I am defined as a locavore. I had no idea. I guess everything has a label in this hashtag day and age. Perfect I am not and here and now I do my best to adhere to my principles but I must admit that I do buy things that have been flown or trucked a pretty substantial distance to tickle my palate. When we eventually settle into retirement and a forever home, we intend to grow as much as we can, raise chickens and ducks and geese for their eggs and possibly sheep and goats for their milk so we can make cheese. HB² will have some vines and we will make some wine. For this reason we have to survive several years …. vines are not viable for a minimum of three years and most wine-makers will tell you that white varieties need five years and the reds seven. And a pig. The Brains thinks I am joking but there will be a pig. And that pig will never be eaten. Actually, when he was newly courting me and met my eldest daughter for the first time, she said to him ‘if you want to win mummy, forget diamonds and flowers. Get her a pig’. She was deadly serious. That’s the dream. For the moment we are here and after a rather faltering start I am ready to embrace all that this place offers. Which is much.
So there you have it. Let the feast commence. Next week … for now I need a lie down after this flurry of activity. And tomorrow, there’s even more!!
PS, the essential PS: The title is from Ricky Martin’s 1999 hit ‘Livin’ The Vida Loca’ which is an appalling attempt to link to my discovery that I identify as a locavore. Dreadful, no?
Here’s the man himself enthusiastically recanting the story of the devil-red lipped temptress who who forcibly enticed him to ‘live the crazy life’ which is the correct translation of the title. Absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the script. Poetic licence, please.
The very first walk I ever took in Grenoble was a tentative totter up to le Bastille which sits some 400 metres above the city. I casually strolled up through le Jardins de Dauphines and found myself facing Philis. Philis is rather arresting in a slightly aggressive warrior sort of way poised casually astride her rearing steed brandishing one-handed some sort of lethal rapier. Clearly this is a woman to laugh in the face of weak-minded affectations of femininity like sitting side-saddle or wearing frocks and who would not shirk from skewering all comers with her dirk. In fairness and for the aforementioned reasons, I did not instantly realise she is a she, portrayed as she is as a rather masculine, if a little foppishly dressed fighter. Of course, mens’ fashions were, a little frou frou in 17th Century France. I inched closer and it was clear that I was, indeed, beholding a gallant gal.
Philis is a legend. We all know what legends are, I hope. Legends are stories that are so old that no one can remember if they are true or not. Keep that front of mind as we sashay elegantly forward. Philis was born Philippe de la Tour du Pin de la Charce in 1645, the fifth child of high falootin’ tootin’ parents – hardly a surprise given the full mouthful of a name they blithely gave their infant. At the age of six her Aunt, a poet of some acclaim, took her to watch a series of Roman plays in Nyon and SO amazed was the girl named Phil that she promptly declared she was changing her name that very minute to the entirely Roman Philis. Which, let’s face facts was probably just a clever ruse to get a more girlie name. However, it became clear that she had no intention of being a damsel, even though her newly acquired name was a little less … manly, more maidenly. She competed brilliantly with her brothers and became a breathtaking horsewoman and dashing blade wielder. She fell in love with a Catholic, became betrothed when he promised to convert to the Protestant version of exactly the same faith as his but, a little caddishly one might observe, he reneged on his pledge. She then did what any self-respecting jilted girl might resolve to do … she became an even better horsewoman and an even greater blade and vowed that she would not so much as look at another man except down on him from high on her hot-blooded stallion.
This area of France is historically named le Dauphiné which means ‘dolphin’ and accounts for the fact that though we are 275km (170 miles) from our nearest coastline, there are an awful lot of dolphin references around the city. Forward to 1690 and enter stage right or left depending whether you are facing North or South, Victor Amedée II. You are absolved of any guilt for not remotely realising there was a Victor Amedée I, even though it actually turns out that, in fact there was also a further Victor Amedée imaginatively named Victor Amedée III. Victor’s correct title was Victor Amedée Duc de Savoie. Savoie was next door to le Dauphiné (it still is) but he had absolutely no intention of being an affable neighbour. He far preferred the idea of snatching the Dauphiné lands to add to his already bulging, to the point of vulgar, property portfolio. According to her legend, Philis organised a résistance and heading an army of peasants she successfully saved her region from the marauding Victor. The rather mealy-mouthed scolars who variously argued the story for over 100 years, claim she simply fronted a band of looters who often came here “to collect contributions from citizens of local towns and villages” and that it was thanks to her relations with the French Royal Court in Paris that she was ever rewarded with a pension from King Louis XIV. Whichever version you choose, by the 19th Century her myth had mushroomed and for a while she was called Jean d’Arc du Dauphiné. Several historians have muted her laurels but she is still proudly acclaimed Heroine de Dauphine on her statue. I know which version I prefer.
And as this guest piece is being written for a cookery blog I thought it only fitting that I give you an appropriate recipe: Le vrai Gratin Dauphinois. You will kindly notice that a real Gratin Dauphinois has no cheese in it even though it is said that Escoffier experimented and was rumoured to occasionally add a little. Like a Quiche Lorraine, here in this Gratin’s spiritual home, the real deal has no cheese and that is how I infinitely prefer it. If you doubt me, give it a try – I promise it is a sumptuous experience that belies its meager list of ingredients.
Ingredients: Potatoes – not waxy new ones. King Edwards are perfect
Double cream or Crême Fraiche – you can dilute with milk if you prefer. I don’t prefer.
Freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt – if your butter is unsalted Method:
Preheat oven to 150C
Butter a shallow but not too shallow oven-proof dish
Peel (reserve the peelings) enough potatoes to fill the dish when thinly sliced
Rub with a cut clove of garlic
Peel, chop and smoosh the garlic
Slice potatoes into slender rounds – some use a mandolin, I don’t have one so I just keep them as thin as I can without adding slivers of finger – never elegant
Layer the potatoes with a sprinkling of garlic, grated nutmeg and ground pepper
Repeat til all the potatoes are used – three layers for my dish
Dot with butter (mine has salt crystals so I don’t add salt)
Drench it in cream – I used 50cl
Bake for 2½ hours until bubbling, unctuous and smelling like your life depends on eating it. In fairness, your life WILL be incomplete if you don’t.
I served ours with green beans and Diot. Diots are a traditional Savoyard sausage. I apologise for being unable to resist the irony …
PS: Eat only fruit for many days afterwards as a penance for the ambrosial decadence of the dish and to notionally save the impending blockade in your arteries. But not before you have triumphantly taken up the saved peelings, coated them in a little oil of choice (always olive chez moi) and a good grind of black pepper. Or frankly whatever you like to season them, who am I to dictate to you? Pop them in a highish oven for 10 minutes. Recline on sofa or chaise longue and idly nibble as a little snackette with your choice of libation.
PS: The title is Julia Child – une heroine culinaire
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 ‘lesplus 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
PS: The title is a Moroccan proverb of which I am very fond
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
Veg for the main course
Turbot – a story for another time
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.
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.
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.
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 ….
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.
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.
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