Stuffed peppers and a bread shop desert

Our son, Léo, has recently finished an intense cycle of competitive exams and interviews for his next three years of further education. He wants to pursue viticulture/oenology studies in an agricultural engineering establishment, and the relevant schools are based either in Bordeaux, Toulouse or Montpellier. After visiting Toulouse, Léo made a rapid decision to strike it from his list because, although it’s an excellent school — wait for it — there was ‘no bread shop within walking distance’. WTAF? Even allowing for cultural differences (Léo is French born and bred, or bread as the case may be, and I was born in the UK), I had trouble seeing the lack of a bread shop as a major hurdle. Luc, on the other hand, found Léo’s logic to be irreproachable. Once Léo had settled on, and been offered a place at the institute in Bordeaux and we started to look for an apartment, we quickly realized that a bread shop, or boulangerie, in the immediate vicinity is one of the biggest selling points for property; estate agents’ maps feature little baguettes to indicate their locations. I became mesmorised by the baguette icons, and began to count those in central Bordeaux, but only got to 78 before going cross-eyed. Google then fed my new-found bread shop statistic obsession with the reassuring fact that Bordeaux has 277 boulangeries/patisseries for 250,000 inhabitants. In the Anglo-Saxon world, we tend to prioritise things like schools, general shops, perhaps hospitals, and other amenities. Not so in France, the baguette is all powerful!

We had a delivery from a man this morning whose first bemused question, once he’d eventually found our house at the end of the sandy track, was: ‘what do you do for bread?’. Reassured to learn that Luc made sure we had a constant supply, and delivery completed, he made his way back to civilisation in a shocked daze, shaking his head disbelievingly and muttering to himself: ‘Putain, ils n’ont même pas de boulangerie!’ (‘Fuck, they don’t even have a bread shop!’) I think the fact that, to all intents and purposes, we live in one of the few remaining boulangerie deserts in France, was a lot for the poor chap to process. I don’t think we’ll be seeing him again any time soon.

Ingredients (serves 4)

4 green peppers (or any other colour)

Olive oil

2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 onions, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

150g arborio rice

750ml chicken or vegetable stock

20g raisins

20g pine nuts

Sprig of thyme

1 teaspoon coriander grains

1 teaspoon paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Handful black olives, pitted and chopped

200g goat’s cheese or feta cheese, sliced

Fresh coriander

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Prepare the peppers by cutting off the top and scooping out the seeds. Place on a roasting tray with a little olive oils and pre-roast for about 15 minutes, until softened. Gently fry the chopped tomatoes, onions and garlic in a little olive oil until soft. Add the rice and continue to fry, mixing with a spatula. Add the stock, stirring well, and then the raisins and pine nuts. Then add the thyme, seasoning and black olives, and leave to cook on a gentle heat until the liquid is absorbed. Once the rice mixture is cooked add the cheese, mixing well. Fill the emptied peppers with the mixture, adding the fresh coriander at the end. Put the tops back on the peppers, pour over a little olive oil and return to the oven for 45 minutes.

Chocolate and almond mousse cake and badgered by badgers

I’m not going to gloat about the results of the French election, because that would be neither kind, nor fair for supporters of Putin’s putain (Putin’s tart). The trouble is though, apparently the moment you get rid of one pest, you gain another: We’re currently being persecuted by a badger.

Badgers are reputed to be fearless, thick skinned, resourceful and unwavering, and the one that comes to visit us every night ticks all the boxes. It started by digging up the lawn farthest from the house, and has gradually made its way closer. At midnight last night, Luc decided enough was enough, and took off to hunt it down on his bicycle. He was dressed in underpants, was armed with an umbrella, and had a torch strapped to his head. He looked quite alarming, but in an insane way, not a badger-scaring way. He circled the house several times, shouting menacingly and brandishing his umbrella like the lethal weapon it wasn’t, before coming back in to reassure me that, although he hadn’t seen the offending creature, he thought we would be left in peace from now on (I love mens’ egos; they’re a constant source of amusement to me). This morning we woke up to a larger-than-ever patch of dug up lawn right in front of the bedroom window. This badger is not only spunky and tenacious, he also has a wicked sense of humour. And the dogs just snoozed on…

Chocolate cake and chocolate mousse are my absolute favourites, and this combines the best of both; it’s not too sweet and the taste and texture, somewhere between the two, are just perfect.

Many people have been supplementing zinc to aid immunity to Covid and other viruses. High intake of zinc for extended periods of time may result in copper deficiency. Copper is essential in the formation of collagen, and also helps the body use its stored iron — a deficiency can result in anemia. Dark chocolate and almonds are both excellent sources of copper, so this cake is a good choice if you’ve been taking zinc for over the past few years. Other good sources of copper are shellfish, organ meats, legumes, whole grains and peas.

Ingredients (serves 6-8)

150g dark chocolate (min 70%)

120g coconut oil

5 eggs, separated

150g cane sugar

70g ground almond

Pinch of salt

1/2 teaspoon cardamon powder

Tablespoon rum

Preheat the oven to 140°C. Melt the chocolate and the coconut oil in a bain marie, while whisking the egg whites in a bowl until stiff. In another bowl, blend the egg yolks and sugar, then add the ground almonds, seasoning, rum and chocolate and coconut oil, mixing well. Finally fold in the egg whites until the mixture is homogenous. Pour the mixture into a greased tin (I used a loaf tin) and bake for 45 minutes.

Courgette and goat cheese soup and raucous men

Neither Luc nor I are fans of shopping, especially shopping together. You know those couples you see casually and contentedly wandering around shops hand in hand? That will never be us. Lockdown suited very well from that point of view; one of us went shopping (usually Luc as he thinks I’m an irrational, inefficient and irresponsible shopper), and the rest was bought online.

But we needed new patio furniture and decided to brave the garden centre. I was very happy to try out the swing sets and suspended deck chairs, which I discovered weren’t properly anchored, while Luc frantically looked around for someone to help us. We’d been told that ‘Emilie’ was the salesperson to look for, but she was proving difficult to pin down. Problem solved: Luc planted himself in the middle of the expansive furniture section and absolutely boomed ‘E-M-I-L-I-E!’. After that it was plain sailing; eight dining chairs and two deckchairs were chosen, paid for, and loaded in under 10 minutes, and I hobbled out only slightly bruised.

Because I’m old and broken (see above), I visit my physiotherapist twice a week. He loves to sing as he works, and last week launched into a charmingly boisterous rendition of an old French song about a once — but no longer — glorious, unseaworthy, abandoned ship: ‘Quand je pense à la vielle anglaise…’ (when I think of the old English woman…) Bursting into laughter I said ‘I’m so happy to have inspired you!’ Since then, strangely enough, he has refrained from refrains.

This is a lovely, quick and easy soup for Spring.

Ingredients (serves 6)

45g butter

1 onion, peeled and sliced

2 shallots, peeled and sliced

2 garlic cloves, crushed

200g leeks, washed and chopped

450g courgettes, washed and cut into rounds

1 large potatoes, peeled and sliced

1l chicken stock (or vegetable if you prefer)

1 teaspoon paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

150g soft goat’s cheese

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions, shallots and garlic, fry for about five minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add the leeks, courgettes and potato coating in the butter and cook for a few minutes longer. Add the stock and seasoning and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Add the goat’s cheese and blend the soup until smooth.

Provencal petit fours and a needy washing machine (on a tropical beach)

We bought a new washing machine a few months ago, when the old one held up a white flag and said: ‘Have mercy, I can’t take any more dog hair!’ The thing is, as sophisticated and Germanically robust as the new one is, I’m not a fan; it’s too angular and white, with too many flashing buttons and digital messages, none of which I understand.

Our new washing machine makes me think, irrationally, of gaudy designer labels, overly whitened teeth and forced metallic laughter. It’s all about pouting ‘look at me’ selfies in front of a tropical beach sunset. It’s smug and needy and gets super het up over fewer ‘likes’ than usual and bad hair days. You have to be really committed to the lure of clean clothes to summon up the patience and acumen to turn it on, and even then it might throw a hissy fit and refuse to comply for no known reason. I’ve decided to fly it out to a tropical island and abandon it on the beach; when there’s no one to look at it, admire it, even be annoyed by it, it will just cease to exist.

Please, someone point me in the direction of uncomplicated, good-natured white goods and spare me from those with narcissistic personality disorders.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

250g puff pastry

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Small can of tomato concentrate

2 shallots, finely chopped

70g grated gruyère (or any hard cheese)

6 black olives, sliced

6 anchovy filets, cut into small pieces

Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

Paprika

Twig of fresh rosemary

1 egg yolk, beaten

Olive oil

Place the pastry on a flat surface and evenly spread first the mustard and then tomato concentrate. Distribute the other ingredients evenly over the tomato concentrate, season and remove the rosemary from the twig and scatter over the top. Gently roll the pastry and brush with the beaten egg yolk. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Place the roll in the freezer for about 15 minutes, remove and cut into small slices roughly 1cm thick. Place the cut pieces on a baking tray, greased with a little olive oil. Bake for 12 minutes, until golden. Delicious served hot or cold!

Beef Wellington and grazing blondes

Following on from this post, I have just emerged, morally battered and bruised, from a ‘phone call during which I was flung around like a hot potato, between seven different employees of the Regional Health Agency (‘Agence Régionale de Santé’, or ARS, which is very apt). I am desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to get an exemption for the C-19 booster, as my second vaccine caused me to need a ‘little lie down’ that went on to last four months.

The rules for exemption in France are quite simple: if you’ve had two vaccines and lived to tell the tale, then you have absolutely no excuse not to have a third. Or, if you reacted badly to the first or second jab, then they do another one to see whether you actually drop dead or not. If you do drop dead, it’s good news, because it means you’ll automatically qualify for exemption, which obviously you’ll be delighted about. People who have had one or two vaccines in good faith, but subsequently experienced horrible, sometimes long-lasting health problems as a result, not only suffer, they are also punished and silenced. It’s positively dystopian. After nearly an hour of ‘phone tag, the ARS’s employees seemed to weary, and gave me another number to call, which I did; it was a suicide hotline. You couldn’t make it up!

Java had never seen cows before, so when we came across a field of ‘Aquitaine Blondes’ who had been put out to graze on the early Spring grass near the house yesterday, she stood stock still for a while, with her head tilted to one side quizzically. She was deciding what to make of these ‘not dogs, not wild pigs, not horses’. She looked so painfully confused, that I tried to explain — in some detail — that they were quite harmless, and a little bit like the deer she sees around the house, etc. I hadn’t realised that the farmer was just behind us, politely waiting for me to finish my pedagogical lecture. He said, with a cheeky grin, ‘have you taught her to read yet?’ As Jack Nicolson said in A few Good Men, ‘don’t I feel like the fuckin’ asshole?’ (https://memes.yarn.co/yarn-clip/afc700f8-a576-44dd-ba43-f872ae912c42)

Ingredients (serves 4)

1kg filet beef

2 tablespoons olive oil

500g puff pastry

2 egg yolks, beaten

For the mushroom duxelle:

50g butter

15 medium mushrooms, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 shallot, finely chopped

100ml, dry white wine

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a medium-sized frying pan and add the finely chopped mushrooms, cloves of garlic and shallots, stirring and coating with the butter. Continue to fry for about 10 minutes, until everything is well softened. Add the white wine and seasoning and cook until the moisture is absorbed (about 10 minutes). Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Sear the beef filet in olive oil for a few seconds on all sides and set aside. Roll out the puff pastry and place the filet in the centre. Cover the beef with the mushroom duxelle and envelop in the puff pastry, making sure to seal the edges. Glaze with egg yolk and cook for 20 minutes (or more, depending on how well-cooked you like the beef).

Galette des rois and ghetto blasters

We were invited to lunch at a friend’s house last Sunday, where we met their handsome, polite, nicely-mannered dog. While we ate, he sat by us with a gentle expression that said: ‘If you’re having trouble finishing, I could possibly be of assistance…’ This is in stark contrast to Hugo, who barks impatiently and punches Luc in the thigh with his paw, his expression along the lines: ‘Oy! Give me food or I’ll send for backup!’ There is a Peanuts cartoon, in which Woodstock, Snoopy’s feathered friend, sends Snoopy an invoice for damages at a party he had hosted. I’m so glad our dogs are never invited to parties; it would ruin me financially.

I recently came across some funny stories on Twitter, and one of them made me laugh so hard that I dislocated two ribs (the joys of Ehlers Danlos!). Later, wandering aimlessly around the corridors of the local hospital, in my usual mask-induced daze (OK then, just my usual daze), it struck me that the ambient music was identical to a playlist I had on my ‘phone. When, in passing, I mentioned this coincidence to the doctor’s secretary, she said, very kindly, and in the hushed tones usually reserved for maniacs and idiots, that actually the music seemed to be coming from my handbag. I had inadvertently transformed my handbag into a little leather ghetto blaster!

Luc is using our fussy cat as a means to critique the food I prepare. He keeps saying things like ‘the cat didn’t finish the beef bourguignon because he found it a bit fatty’, or ‘Minou preferred the Coq au Vin you made last time’. I can tell you, the cat had better learn to stop bellyaching, or his homemade food is going to end up in the dogs’ bowls…

Galette des Rois (or King Cake) has been a tradition in France since the 14th century. It is served on 6th January to celebrate Epiphany, although they are generally available throughout January and it is now shared amongst family and friends as a way to celebrate the new year. The ‘king’ is represented by a ‘fève’, or charm, hidden within the cake. The person to come across the ‘fève’ in their slice of cake, becomes ‘king’ and has the dubious honour of wearing a paper crown for the day.

Ingredients (serves 6)

400g puff pastry

2 tablespoons apricot jam

75g butter

100g sugar

2 eggs, beaten plus 1 egg yolk

140g ground almonds

A pinch of salt

2 tablespoons Cognac or Armagnac

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Divide the pastry in half, roll out each piece and cut into roughly 25cm rounds and place one round on a baking sheet. Spread the apricot jam over the pastry (not quite reaching the edges). Beat the softened butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then add the beaten eggs. Stir in the ground almonds and salt and add the Cognac/Armagnac. Spoon the mixture over the jam and spread evenly. Brush the edges of the pastry with a little water and cover with the second round, pressing at the edges to seal. Make a pattern on the top with a sharp knife, then brush with egg yolk. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden. May be served warm, but not hot, or cold.

Celeriac and walnut gratin and greedy gourmet dogs

Families that have managed to celebrate Christmas ‘normally’ seem to be in the minority this year, so I would like to spare a thought for all the people that have had a challenging time due to illness, bereavement, enforced isolation, travel restrictions, etc. Sending love to you all.

A noisy commotion broke out next to our land yesterday, with lots of shouting, barking and swearing. We found out from a friend afterwards, that a hunter, who had stopped for a picnic lunch, had had his foie gras sandwich swiped by a greedy English Setter. I’m not sure if I’m more mystified by the refined tastes of the naughty dog, or by the fact that someone would fill a sandwich with foie gras, even if it was Christmas Day.

I have been very busy lately because Léo had covid and had to isolate in the guest grange. His appetite wasn’t stinted, if anything, it increased, so I had a bit of a mini Uber Eats business running from my kitchen. Apparently my new venture meant I was too busy to notice a wasp hibernating in my trousers while getting dressed, and when I later slammed my thigh into a door, it understandably got very irate, stinging me in revenge for being woken up and concussed. So not only am I the only person I know to receive a PCR test result of ‘inconclusive’ 10 days ago, I’m also the only person I know to be walking around with an angry wasp sting in December.

Ingredients (serves 6)

1kg celeriac, peeled and cut into large cubes

3 medium potatoes, peeled

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

15g butter

200ml double cream

Handful of walnuts, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g, Comté, finely sliced

Half teaspoon Espelette pepper or paprika

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Boil the celeriac and potatoes until cooked. Strain and add the garlic and butter and puree until smooth. Add the cream, walnuts and seasoning, mixing well to create a homogenous texture. Transfer to a buttered oven-proof dish and cover with the sliced cheese and Espelette pepper. Cook for 30 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling.

Works well as a standalone dish with green salad, or as an accompaniment.

Onion and goat cheese tart, smoke signals and tyrannical parrots

I have learnt three surprising things in the past few weeks. One: Results of recent genetic testing revealed that I have considerably more French genes than either Luc or Léo. (Which doesn’t stop everyone referring to me as ‘l’Anglaise’.) Two: Hugo, the labrador, hates violin concertos with a passion, something he made quite clear last week, when I had the audacity to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. He growled in distaste and scratched frantically at the door to flee the aural offensive. And three: there exist worse-behaved dogs than Hugo and Java. In a restaurant at the beach last weekend, there was a beautifully leggy and elegant red setter casually sauntering over the table tops, checking out the plates, their contents, and their owners, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Red setters are notoriously batshit crazy and disobedient, so now of course, I want one.

Yesterday morning, we caught sight of a friend sitting outside in the car. When, 10 minutes later, he still hadn’t moved, Luc went out to get him. Our friend explained that he’d been waiting to see smoke coming out of the chimney before coming in, as he didn’t know whether we were awake. We will know for next time: three billows means coffee!

Once inside, coffee in hand, he told us that when he lived on a boat in Brasil, he had a parrot. At the time he was a very heavy smoker (the friend, not the parrot; everything seems to revolve around coffee and smoke with this guy!), but knew it was time to give up when the parrot started to cough every time he saw him! That must have been some pushy parrot, because he hasn’t touched a cigarette since…

Ingredients (serves 4)

225g puff pastry

50g butter

4 medium onions, sliced

1 tsp sugar

200g goat’s cheese, sliced into rounds

4 sprigs of thyme

Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Arrange the pastry in a baking sheet (or sheets). Melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the sliced onions, cover and fry gently for about 10 minutes, until softened. Remove the lid, add the sugar and continue to cook until golden and slightly caramelised. Spoon the onions onto the pastry, then top with the cheese and thyme, and season. Drizzle with oil and bake for 20 minutes.

Soda bread and medical gaslighting

A couple of days after my second C vaccine, I started to suffer from severe abdominal pain, fatigue, dizziness, low blood pressure, and breathlessness. I had trouble staying upright for any length of time. I had expected this might happen, as I had had exactly the same sort of reaction to a flu vaccine 15 years previously. Still, I had decided I would rather run the risk of another vaccine reaction than a potentially nasty case of Covid. Although most of us are very grateful vaccines exist, I think it’s dishonest, and actually quite counter-productive, to pretend they’re without, what are sometimes long-lasting, side-effects.

When I was still in a lot of pain two months later, I made an appointment with my gastroenterologist. My husband has always accompanied me in the past when I visited this particular doctor; perhaps I had sensed the need for a male presence in the face of latent misogyny? For this appointment though, I was alone. I had hardly had time to speak before the doctor started to fire off his absolute certainties: the problems I had been having did not come from my stomach, the implication being that they came from my head. When I finally managed to squeeze in a few words between his increasingly incoherent rants, I asked how, in that case, had the cortisone/omeprazole/paracetamol cocktail I had been taking helped with the pain. ‘Placebo effect!’ was his categorical and loudly shouted reply. He then yelled that the endoscopy I had had three years previously had not shown a problem, therefore I must be mistaken, making it up, or perhaps in need of a psychiatrist.

I managed to escape after about twenty minutes, feeling very shaken. It was only afterwards, from the sanctuary of my car, did I realise that it’s neither normal, nor OK, to feel the need to repeat to a doctor: ‘calm down, there’s no need to be so aggressive’. Also, I am absolutely certain that the scenario would have been different, had my husband been present. But why, in 2021, should I have to be ‘escorted’ to the doctor in order to be treated decently?

I’m pretty resilient, and managed to bounce back fairly quickly after this horrible encounter. But what about someone with no emotional support, or in a precarious psychological state? How would they fare after being verbally aggressed, repeatedly questioned, shouted at, and generally humiliated by someone they had trusted to take care of them?

When my son, Léo, was 15, he had a massive growth spurt, which led to very low blood pressure and dizziness. Our doctor gave him a letter for school, which allowed for him to work from home, until the problem sorted itself out. A girl in his class, with almost identical symptoms, was not so lucky; her fainting fits were dismissed as ‘hysterical’, the lazy blanket diagnosis much used and loved by misogynists.

I am certainly not alone. Googling ‘female medical gaslighting’ brings up millions of hits. I came across a study that found that women going to the Emergency Room with severe stomach pain had to wait almost 33% longer than men with exactly the same symptoms. The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics cited research in 2001 showing that women are prescribed less pain medication than men after identical procedures, and are less likely to be admitted to hospital when complaining of chest pain. What’s more, experts say that women are underrepresented in clinical trials for new medications and vaccines, and are therefore at greater risk for adverse side effects, and less likely to be heard when suffering them.

Despite the fact that some doctors still seem to bandy the the term around, hysteria is actually no longer recognised as a medical condition today. Unfortunately though, the mentality that made it an acceptable diagnosis in the past is still very much alive and kicking…

One good thing to come out of the past couple of months was this bread. I wanted a yeast-free bread, as yeast had become difficult for me to digest, what with my imaginary stomach problems and all. The unique texture is the result of a reaction between the yoghurt and bicarbonate of soda that results in the formation of small bubbles of carbon dioxide within the dough. Kneading bread is very therapeutic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Ingredients

180g plain flour

180g einkorn flour

1 scant teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 scant teaspoon cream of tartare

1/2 teaspoon salt

300ml natural yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Put the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartare, and salt into a bowl and mix well. Making a well in the centre, add the yoghurt, little by little, kneading with the hands to form a ball of dough. Continue kneading until soft and ‘stretchy’. Place the ball of dough on a baking tray, flattening slightly and cutting a cross in the centre. Sprinkle a little flour over the top, and bake for 30-35 minutes; the bread should sound hollow when tapped.

Basque cheesecake and mad cows

Yesterday I decided to give blood, and ‘phoned the blood bank for instructions. I was asked a couple of questions about my age and health, then subjected to some rather indiscreet inquiries as to my ‘tendency to sluttiness’. After that, apparently randomly, they asked if I had lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996, which, although I now have dual nationality, I had. Gauging their reaction, I might have said that my favourite hobby was smothering kittens, because all of a sudden the warm tone switched to ice-cold and, following consultation with colleagues and perfectly audible mutterings about ‘mad cows’, I was told that they didn’t want my blood after all. With both my character and honour well and truly assassinated, I haughtily replied that it was their loss, but that the name-calling was TOTALLY OUT OF LINE (I may have been shouting at this point). It was only afterwards, once I’d hung up and reined in the paranoid ranting, that I realised they didn’t want my blood because of the Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the 80s and 90s in the UK, and not because it belonged to a mad cow…

This cheesecake was a real hit, unlike my blood. It’s very simple, but light, and with a gorgeous burnt caramel flavor.

Ingredients (serves 6)

20g butter

Handful of raisins

2 tablespoons rum

450g cream cheese

125g cane sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

250ml cream

20g coconut flour (you could use any flour)

Pinch of salt

Grease (with the butter) a 17cm non-stick cake tin. Preheat the oven to 210°C. Cook the raisins in the rum and a little water until absorbed. Set aside. Place the cream cheese in a bowl, add the sugar, vanilla extract and mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, still mixing. Lastly, add the cream gradually and then the flour. Once the mixture is homogenous, pour into the buttered cake tin and bake for 45 minutes. The surface of the cake should look burnt/caramelised, but the inside should still be wobbly. Cool before removing from the tin. Serve chilled and then hide before it all disappears! 

Chicken and morel mushrooms in white wine cream sauce and needy cats

A friend, who has a country house in Burgundy, told me about a problem she’d been having with a particularly ornery billy goat. The goat had got into the habit of appearing in her garden every evening; apparently its sole intent was digging up her roses bushes, and anything else in temptation’s way. She was greatly relieved when she finally managed to track down the owner and explain the damage caused over the past couple of weeks. The goat’s owner, not missing a beat, said: ‘Yes, well I can see he’s made a terrible mess of your garden! So what are you going to do about it? How are you going to keep him out?’ My friend, a psychiatrist, is not usually lost for words, nor ways to handle challenging people, but this exchange left her slack-jawed and well and truly stumped!

Luc is in Paris for the weekend so I have been left on full-time animal duty, armed with lengthy instructions of What To Do. The dogs I know about, because I’m the one to walk and feed them usually, although I hadn’t factored in the fact that they would play up quite so much during the night. Hugo took it upon himself to move a very heavy armchair and hefty table at 2am. Noisily. And Java, perhaps stressed by the moving furniture, decided to repeatedly throw herself against a glass door.

The pigeons are easy, as all I need to do is throw five handfuls of grain at a certain spot on the grass. Although, accounting for the fact that my hands are much smaller than Luc’s, I should probably make that six handfuls, or so the instructions say. The horses need a precise quantity of hay twice a day, at 9am and 6pm. According to Luc’s instructions, they will try to manipulate me into feeding them at lunchtime, by whinnying in my general direction, and stamping their feet hangrily. I am not to be taken in as their lunch is the plentiful grass buffet, and they are both too fat for more hay. Got it.

On to the cat. Oh my god, the cat, a neurotic stray that first moved in about six years ago. Although he wasn’t neurotic when he arrived. He used to catch mice to eat, then little-by-little, Luc started to feed him. At first, it was dry cat food, but he went off that. Then he had expensive tinned food, which he also turned his nose up at after a little while. He now eats home-cooked casseroles, or prime cuts of meat or fish. What I didn’t know (until Friday) was that, in order for him to deign to eat at all, you have to wash his bowl in warm soapy water before every meal (presumably the cat equivalent of warming the plates), talk to him while you are preparing his food, continue talking while he is eating, and only stroke him if he ‘asks’. As my mother said, when I told her about catgate, ‘who would have thought that a great big macho would be such a softie with animals’. I’m still not sure how I feel about my husband being described as a ‘great big macho’, but I’m all catted out and therefore too tired to care!

Ingredients (serves 4)

30g dried morel mushrooms, soaked overnight in cold water

4 shallots, sliced

4 skinless free-range chicken breasts, sliced

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

15g butter

100g mushrooms, sliced

2 bay leaves

200ml white wine

100ml chicken or vegetable stock

200ml double cream

Remove the morels from the soaking liquid, squeezing as much excess water out as possible. Chop any large morels in half and reserve. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a large frying pan, add the shallots and chicken and fry gently for a couple of minutes on each side. Remove from the pan and put to one side. In the butter that’s left in the pan, cook the soaked, cleaned morels and button mushrooms for a few minutes to soften, then season. Add the white wine, stock and double cream. Bring to the boil, then return the chicken breasts to the pan, coating them in the cream. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 6 minutes or so until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken from the pan briefly, turn up the heat and reduce the sauce on full boil until it coats the back of a spoon. Return the chicken to the pan, coat in sauce, adjust the seasoning and serve. Bon appétit!

Courgette gratin and Java’s midnight garden

I love the summer, when the windows are left open for the night air to cool the house. And for me to escape through, furtively. Once everyone’s in bed, I creep past Hugo on the tips of my paws, jump onto the window sill, then spring over the rosebush to freedom in the shadowy, moonlit garden.

My first stop is the wise old boar who lives quite close by. He’s always good for dispensing advice on dealing with humans. His insight is surprisingly spot-on for someone who has virtually no contact with them. I don’t stay too long because, once he gets started on a subject, he tends to harp on a bit. I’m fond of the boar and his rough-skinned ways though, and we have a lot in common: we both love mud, will eat just about anything with gusto, and hate the sound of guns. In his wisdom, he tells me that it’s a good thing hunting rifles are so noisy, as it’s a warning to hide.

Giving Bertie the Badger a wide berth (he can be very bad-tempered), I make my way through the pine trees and over the bridge to the deer that live by the river. I admire the deer for their beauty, grace, agility, and speed; we have these traits in common. They tell me about the blackberries that are ripening in the late summer sun, and the best places to find them. I can see they’ve been gorging because their muzzles are stained purple. They know all there is to know about edible plants and shrubs due to their odd eating habits; who eats roses for breakfast? Certainly not me!

My last visit is to the mice, who I find nestling in the horses’ hay. On the way I make a detour to say ‘bonsoir’ to Minou, the cat. We chat quite amicably at night, when nobody’s looking, but make a pretense of being enemies in the day; it’s what expected of us. Mice aren’t very interesting companions to be honest — they’re quite inconsequential — but I do like the way they roll. They love to party and sometimes organise an illicit rave in the kitchen at night, fueled by the crumbs left on the floor. They let me gently chew their little heads. They seem to enjoy it — I suppose it gives them a head massage, a bit of relaxation after their high jinks.

When I see that dawn is breaking, I head back home. The hedgehog, rabbits, and stone martens will have to wait for my visit another night.

This recipe uses courgettes, which I don’t see the point of, and cheese, which I love.

Ingredients (serves 4)

750g courgettes (unpeeled, sliced and lightly precooked)

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 eggs

200g crème fraîche

75g hard cheese (I used Comté)

Seasalt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Arrange the precooked courgettes and finely chopped shallots in a gratin dish. Beat the eggs, gradually adding the cream, cheese, and seasoning. Pour the mixture over the courgettes and shallots and bake for 15 minutes. Delicious served alone with green salad, or as a side dish.