Tropical storms and a tribute

Sadly my beloved father died in the middle of June. At 83, he was far too young to die; he was supposed to live to 99 like my grandmother.

This is Léo’s tribute to his grandfather: Andante by Mozart, my father’s favourite composer; Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for his belief in Europe; and from The Planet Suite by Holst, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, because that is exactly what he did.

Perhaps as a nod to my father’s exciting but sometimes extremely perilous life in Africa as Foreign Correspondent, on our return to France at the beginning of July we were catapulted into the deepest, darkest tropics. The mother of all storms caused steam to rise from the grass and the phone lines inside and outside the house to catch fire. It also forced the dogs to take refuge in the shower and brought with it a flourishing tribe of the most noisy, ill-tempered mosquitos I’ve ever experienced.

Getting anything fixed in France during the ‘Grandes Vacances’ is challenging at any time, but even more so when it involves replacing a kilometre of phone cable that serves just one house stuck in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, the upshot was that I spent the month of July bereft, incommunicado, and covered in grotesque insect bites. And to add insult to injury, my Instagram account was hacked by Russian spies.

I hope you are all having a nice Summer. Normal service will be resumed in September (I hope!). xx

Tian’amen Square, 1972

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Gascon garbure and how to put a hen to bed

We’ve had issues with foxes lately. When I say ‘issues’, obviously I mean that the vicious, gluttonous bastards have been mistaking our hens for chicken McNuggets and snacking on them before breakfast. The hens used to sleep in the barn, which worked well because horses and hens are natural companions. Both being prey animals, I suppose they have a mutual understanding of what it is to be persecuted all day; I always imagined them spending their evenings having a good old moan about ill intentioned predators and the day’s run-ins and close shaves. Anyway, the remaining hens, understandably traumatised by Nuggetgate, have since been transferred to enclosed premises: The old bread oven. Frankly, if I were a hen, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel about drifting off next to the gaping metal mouth of a huge oven. Luckily though, they’re not the brightest and seem happy enough in their new home.

After a week or so of ‘training’ which involved haphazardly running around the fields at dusk with spades and horsewhips (us), the hens now understand that they should put themselves to bed in their new quarters and no longer in the horses’ barn. All of them, that is, except one. At bedtime she comes to sit resolutely on the boot room table squawking VERY loudly until Luc succumbs and carries her to bed. Just leave it to us to either acquire or create a noisily needy, attention-seeking, high maintenance hen…

How worried should I be about Luc’s apparently blissful expression?

This hearty soup is a typical peasant dish from Southern Gascony. The vegetables used depend on the season, and in the old days the meat used would have depended on what was to hand. The most luxurious version is made with confit of duck, which is what I usually use, although you could too make it with chicken. I love the fact that there is a certain amount of fat in the soup, because it means that the nutrients from the vegetables are more readily absorbed.

There are many recipes for garbure, but I adapted this one from Jeanne Strang’s recipe in ‘Goose Fat and Garlic’.

Ingredients (serves 6)

2 small leeks

250g potatoes

125g celery

4 carrots

125g turnips

1 large onion

4 cloves of garlic

250g white haricot beans (previously soaked if using dried)

250g salt belly of pork

1.25 litres water

0.5 litre white wine

bouquet garni

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 teaspoon piment d’Espelette (or paprika)

1 Savoy cabbage

6 pieces of confit de canard

Chop all of the vegetables except the cabbage and dice the pork. Place the chopped vegetables, beans and pork in a large pot or casserole dish, cover with the water and wine and bring to the boil, then skim and add the bouquet garni and seasoning. You will need to adjust the salt depending on what meats you are using. Simmer over a low heat for two hours, then shred the cabbage and add to the pot along with the confit de canard. Cook for a further 30 minutes and serve with French bread. Bon appétit!

Asparagus: The great spring cleaner

It’s asparagus season which, for me, results in really bizarre, almost psychedelic dreams. Every Spring I hope this will be the year I can eat asparagus to my heart’s content without the added bonus of technicolour horror films. I suppose it could be related to its powerful detoxifying properties. I would be interested to hear if anyone else suffers from this.

Consuming seasonal produce provides unequalled support for our health. And at this time of year, when we need to be detoxified and invigorated after a winter of excesses and heavy, rich food, asparagus is unrivalled.

White asparagus, reputedly cultivated in France since the renaissance, was dubbed the ‘food of kings’ by Louis XIV, aka the Sun King, who grew asparagus year-round in hothouses at Versailles and ate them dipped in a soft boiled egg. Ironically enough, white asparagus must be covered with soil and protected from the sun at all times or it produces chlorophyll which makes it turn green or purple. White asparagus is particularly delicate and well-suited to the light, mineral-rich, sandy soils of this region, the Landes, in southwestern France.

Asparagus is nutrient-dense and high in vitamins A,  B, C ,E and K, as well as potassium, iodine, chromium and zinc. It is also an excellent source of rutin, a flavonoid that prevents small blood vessels from rupturing. It should be noted that the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) should be eaten with healthy fats to be efficiently absorbed, which is why asparagus is best eaten with melted butter, vinaigrette or dipped into an egg yolk like the Sun King.

Asparagus also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which may help reduce chronic health problems such as type II diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The antioxidant glutathione has been shown to slow the ageing process and break down free radicals, protecting your skin from sun damage and pollution. Glutathione also plays a pivotal role in immune function.

With its high levels of the amino acid asparagine, asparagus also acts as a natural diuretic, ridding the body of excess salt and fluid, which is very beneficial for people with oedema and high blood pressure. Researchers have also discovered that asparagus is useful in the treatment of urinary tract infections by reducing pain and swelling.

The high inulin content of asparagus feeds and promotes the healthy gut bacteria that are responsible for better nutrient absorption and better digestive, immune and mental health. Finally, asparagus is an extremely good source of fibre, which moves through the digestive tract trapping excess fat, sugars, bacteria and toxins to remove them from the body.

Trout with almonds and an eight-kilo water baby

As a discerning Frenchman-in-the-making, Léo has strong opinions about the taste, quality and provenance of the water he drinks. At lycée, he often plays football at lunchtime with his classmates and, after playing on Friday, they were thirsty and nipped to the supermarket where he spotted an eight-litre bottle of his preferred water on special offer. Although they were due back in class, he couldn’t resist, and he and his friends had to haul this vast bottle back over almost a kilometre and up several flights of stairs. The vat was treated like a new class member and given its own desk and chair and became quite the talking point, much to the teacher’s exasperation. Over the next couple of days, it accompanied them everywhere, including the canteen at lunchtime where it had its own place at the table. When Léo was telling me this story, I was reminded of an experiment where men were asked to carry a five-kilo bag of flour around with them all day, pretending it was a baby. They had to feed it, change its nappy, put it down to sleep and generally do their best not to kill it. So now I feel like the grandmother of a giant blue, intellectually precocious water baby called Volvic…

In other news, I think that Java, who couldn’t be accused of intellectual precociousness,  might need reading glasses. Either that or she’s wilfully disobedient, which I’m sure can’t be the case. Léo says a lobotomy is the only answer, but in view of the whole big blue water baby paternity thing, I’m not sure his opinion’s valid.

We are eating more trout and less salmon these days because, although I love wild salmon, it’s not always easy to find and is also expensive. Farmed salmon has three times more fat than the wild variety and a large proportion of this fat is the pro-inflammatory Omega 6, as opposed to the more beneficial Omega 3 fatty acid . It is the couch potato of fish and the quality of its fat speaks volumes.

Ingredients (serves 2)

100g salted butter

2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 whole trout, cleaned and gutted

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

80g flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Melt half of the butter and combine with the fresh herbs and lemon juice. Cover the trout generously and then set into a baking dish and add the seasoning. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the fish crumbles when prodded with a fork. Melt the remains of the butter and gently fry the flaked almonds until golden brown. Pour over the cooked fish and serve.

In memory of Isabelle

A month ago a very old friend of mine lost her 18-year-old daughter, Isabelle, to EHE (epithelioid hemangioendothelioma) after a long and very brave fight. EHE is little-known, rare and vastly underfunded form of cancer, and my friend and her family are now determined to raise both awareness and funds to perhaps help prevent others from suffering a similar tragedy. So this is for Claire-Anne, OJ and Sebastian; in memory of your beautiful daughter and twin sister, Isabelle.

This is their story:

As some of you know, 12 months ago our world was blown apart when our 17 year old daughter Isabelle, following two years of increasing neck pain, was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (EHE for short). Instead of enjoying friendships, worrying about end of school exams and planning her future life after school, she was thrust into a world of hospitals, IV drips, pain and fear.

In March 2017 she underwent major surgery to her neck and spine. From May-July she received radiation and proton treatment which removed the cancer but left her virtually unable to swallow. In August she started having agonising chest pain, only to then be told the cancer was now in her left lung. As a result in September she started receiving aggressive chemo, which led her to spend weeks in hospital due to the side effects and numerous complications. In short, to quote Isabelle, ‘life sucks’.

EHE is a rare vascular tumour that arises from the lining of blood vessels. It can appear almost anywhere in the body, but common sites include the liver, lungs, and bones. The cause of EHE is presently unknown, and no proven treatments exist. EHE tumours can behave differently from one patient to the next, with some being stable for years while others progress quickly. The cancer often metastases throughout the body and possesses the ability to transform into an extremely aggressive state with little or no warning. In short, EHE is an unpredictable disease.

The EHE Rare Cancer Charity is fighting back by funding research into finding a cure and provides invaluable support and information to patients and families like us, whose lives are affected by this devastating disease. Sadly however, very rare cancer research gets no funding from governments, none from the pharmaceutical companies, and almost zero even from the big cancer charities. Companies and foundations will help but only if we continue to show that we are raising funds too.

Donating through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell them on or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to the charity. So it’s the most efficient way to donate – saving time and cutting costs for the charity.

Thank you Claire-Anne, OJ and Sebastian.

Please click here to donate

Stir-fry scallops and decorating hens

Java has a boyfriend. In fact, she has two. One lives about a kilometre away to the east, and the other a kilometre to the west. At the moment they have different visiting times but, as one of them in particular is making himself more and more at home ‘chez Java’, it’s inevitable that one day they’ll turn up at the same time and I’m afraid it won’t be pretty. Especially if drama llama Java has anything to do with it. Meanwhile, Hugo is delighted because it gets her off his back for a bit; when either of them turns up,  he shrugs a gallic canine shrug, sighs with relief and leaves them to it. There are only two prerequisites to be Java’s dogfriend: speed and stamina (although Hugo would no doubt say stupidity was another one). ‘Dates’ consist of running around the house at break-neck speed for hours on end, stopping only occasionally either to change direction or to slurp noisily from the pool. If they tire before she’s had enough, she barks at them manically. A catch she is not – just ask Hugo.

Niko, Java’s handsome admirer from the East

In other news, I noticed the other day that a couple of the hens had blobs of Farrow and Ball’s ‘Folly Green’ paint on their wings. Thinking that they’d just been hanging out too long in the workshop, I rinsed them down and forgot about it until Luc started to rant that the hens’ ‘tattoos’  had faded. Apparently he’d been colour-coding them according to how many eggs they lay. No doubt this information was to make its way onto a complicated spreadsheet to determine whether they’re paying for their keep, and if not, whether their next port of call should be a Le Creuset casserole dish. As he knows that I refuse to cook any beast that I’ve fed and built up a relationship with, it seems rather futile, but whatever floats his boat. And spreadsheets seem to.

These scallops seemed to float everyone’s boat when I last made them. I served them with rice, but they would be delicious with noodles too.

Ingredients (serves 4)

4 tablespoons sesame oil

10 mushrooms, peeled and sliced

1 red onion, peeled and sliced

2 small carrots, peeled and sliced

75g greens peas

1 red pepper, sliced

500g scallops

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated

1 teaspoon chilli powder

4 tablespoons soya sauce

Heat the sesame soil in a large frying pan or wok, add the mushrooms, onion, carrots, peaks and pepper and stir fry until tender. Add the scallops, garlic, ginger and chilli powder and stir fry for about two minutes or until the scallops become opaque. Add the soya sauce heating for a further minute and serve. I served with a combination of wild rice/thai rice.

 

Buckwheat apple cake (gf) and a tale of two photos

First of all, I’d like to wish everyone a very happy new year. I know a number of people who had a tough 2017, so I wish them all the best for 2018. I have made only a couple of new year resolutions (it’s hard to improve on perfection): to be nicer to Java, and especially more understanding and tolerant of her limitations, which are apparently inexhaustible. And to make fewer catty (doggy?) comments about Bossy in my blog posts. Believe me when I say that it’s tough on both counts.

Bossy showed me these photographs this morning. The first photo shows (left to right) Wookie, Frank and Baby Cecil, and the second me and Java. Feel free to admire our handiwork.

Bossy said that Java and I came off very badly when the photos were compared, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves. She went on to add that at least Baby Cecil had the grace to look contrite, although as all we’re showing the camera is our bottoms it’s anyone’s guess as to our expressions. And the other two dogs, Wookie and Frank, look thoroughly shocked and disapproving, but in an indulgent, unpatronising way. She said this rather pointedly – I’m not sure what she was getting at.

Anyway, I think Bossy’s been confusing ‘contrite’ and ‘really pissed off at having been caught red-pawed’.  She said that Baby Cecil probably had the excuse that he was teething and asked me what our excuse for The Great Cushion Massacre was. She then started to rant about the fact that we take advantage of her good nature (disorganised sloppiness more like) and that, contrary to popular belief, she’s not running a dog borstal, which I thought was a bit far-fetched, even coming from her.

I don’t buy the ‘teething’ excuse for a moment; Baby Cecil looks like a bit of a tinker to me. An adorable tinker, but a tinker nonetheless. Wookie and Frank are wearing the most disapproving expressions I have ever seen on dogs. In fact, unless you’re in the habit of frequenting particularly uptight spinster librarians, you rarely even see such disapproving expressions on humans. One wonders if there isn’t a slight hint of hypocrisy. After all, they could have warned Baby Cecil that he ran the risk of forfeiting his flavour of the month badge.

And as for Java and me, we were simply trying to help sort the house out a bit. I recently read a very enlightening book about feng shui which said that, to achieve a good yin-yang balance, you shouldn’t have too many cushions lying around. Quite honestly, Bossy should have thanked us, not scolded us. She can be very short-sighted sometimes.

Thank you Hugo for your take on these revealing photos. And good luck with your ‘resolutions’ – it looks as if you’re off to a shaky start.

I got the recipe for this cake from the mother of a friend of Léo’s who made it for lunch after a volleyball match. It was meant to be for the whole team, but Léo devoured the lot in one fell swoop.

Ingredients (serves 8 normal people, or 1 greedy volleyball player)

3 eggs, beaten

100g olive oil

80g cane sugar

100g buckwheat flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

6 apples, peeled and diced.

Preheat the oven to 180°C and prepare a medium-sized loaf tin. Beat the eggs, olive oil and cane sugar together until thick and smooth. Gently fold in the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate soda. Finally stir in the diced apples vanilla essence and transfer the mixture to the greased tin. Bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer poked into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool before serving.