Category Archives: French

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!

French walnut tart and masking your confusion

A pair of goats turned up, quite unannounced, the other evening. Obviously visitors are always a welcome surprise, but I was a bit thrown by these; I’m not familiar with goat etiquette. Do you stick them in a grange and hope someone will claim them, or offer them dinner and send them on their way? I sent messages to all our potentially goat-owning neighbours, and the consensus seemed to be: ‘Not ours, but it’s hardly surprising they turned up — you run Club Med for animals’.

I have been trying out magnet therapy for my stiff neck. It’s supposed to be very effective for inflammation, and, so far it’s proving to be quite effective. Yesterday, while I was in the process of making dinner with a particularly sharp knife, my ‘phone rang. As I put the ‘phone to my ear, the knife sprang vigourously out of my hand, and onto the magnet on my neck, stabbing me the process. So, although the inflammation in my neck is quite a bit better, I’m now dealing with a minor stab wound.

I’m not really fit to be let loose in public: I keep accosting people I don’t know, and blanking people I do. I’m obviously not the only one to find masked faces a challenge though, because the doctor that jabbed me last week asked if I’d been on the operating bloc recently, as I ‘looked very familiar’. I know I’m a bit vague, but I think I’d remember being operated on so recently… I would, wouldn’t I?

A friend who visited recently made this for us during her stay. I loved it so much, I’ve made it quite a few times since.

Walnuts are full of vitamins and minerals, and are an especially rich source of Omega 3. They are a good source of copper, folic acid, phosphorus, vitamin B6, manganese and vitamin E.

Walnuts are also a rich source of phytosterols and antioxidants which help decrease inflammation. Consuming walnuts can enrich the gut microbiome, increasing good bacteria.

Ingredients (serves 6)

Pastry:

150g butter

270g flour (I used einkorn flour)

1 pinch of salt

Water

Filling:

225g walnuts

2 eggs

20cl fresh cream

Drop of vanilla essence

100g cane sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ginger and cardamon

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

To make the pastry, begin by cutting the butter into small cubes. Sift the flours and a pinch of salt together into in a mixing bowl, also adding the cubes of butter. Rub in and blend by hand until the mixture becomes crumbly. Add the cold water, mixing rapidly with a spoon. Remove the mixture from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until you obtain a ball of pastry (if the mixture isn’t ‘sticky’ enough to form a ball, you may need a drop more water). Wrap in a clean cotton tea towel or some cling film and leave to ‘rest’ in the fridge for about two hours. This relaxes the dough and makes it easier to use.

For the filling, crush the walnuts and set aside. Beat the eggs, adding the cream, vanilla, and sugar and spices, mixing well. Add the crushed nuts and pour the mixture into the prepared pastry case. Bake at 180°C for 35 minutes. Delicious hot or cold.

Boulangère potatoes and man versus pigeon

It’s possibly not something you’ve tried, but it’s not easy to convince pigeons to move house. Especially if they’re luxuriating in the pigeon equivalent of a smallish, but charming château, and you’re trying to entice them into a one-bedroom flat with no balcony. Luckily, Luc loves a challenge, and we need their present accommodation to expand the wine-making cellar, so war has been declared. As Luc wearily explained to me that the pigeons were resisting the move, his hands were curled into determined fists, and he strode off punching the air and exclaiming ‘Je les aurai! Je les aurai!’ (I will get them! I will get them!)

Last week I received a copy of ‘International Hatchery Practice’ in the letterbox by mistake. At least I think it was by mistake. It is a very technical journal containing ‘practical information for better breading and hatching’. I thought that the article entitled ‘Chick Performance’ was rather open to interpretation, especially as it precedes articles about cockerels, fertility, and diseased eggs… Anyway, although it’s obviously quite gripping and very informative, I think I’ll resist taking out a subscription for the time-being.

Luc and a neighbour have taken to building and installing little wooden bridges everywhere (there were seven at last count). Although they are most welcome — they mean we can now cross our little rivers and streams without getting wet feet — I’m worried they might have become an addiction, as the last one crosses a dry ditch and is, as such, totally superfluous. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the rainy season when large puddles form; are they going to be able to resist temptation?

These potatoes are called bakers’ potatoes as, traditionally, they were given to the local baker to slow bake in his bread oven.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

800g potatoes, peeled

1 large onion

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

150ml chicken or vegetable stock

100ml cream

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Sprigs of rosemary

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Prepare a gratin dish by coating with the olive oil. Slice the potatoes fairly thinly. Peel and chop the onion. Arrange a layer of potatoes over the base of the dish, followed by some onion, garlic and seasoning. Continue to layer the potatoes, onion and garlic and seasoning, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Pour the stock and cream over the top and add the sprigs of rosemary. Cook for about an hour, until the top layer is golden-brown.

French onion tart and a budding winemaker

Léo, who is studying Viticulture/Oenology in Bordeaux, decided very recently that our life was incomplete without 200 grapevines in the garden to water, weed, feed, protect from potential bad-vine weather, fret about, protect from digging dogs, and generally mollycoddle. Grapevines are also very useful for further knackering already-knackered backs.

Our house was originally a farm (it still is I suppose, albeit slightly non-conformist), and the owners grew grapes to produce wine for their consumption, and for the farm labourers. The soil in the Landes is extremely sandy, and the climate very hot and dry in the Summer months. We chose (actually Luc and Léo chose; my ‘wine abilities’ stop at knowing how to neck it) the varieties of grape best suited to these conditions: Tannat, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Maseng, Gros Maseng, and Chardonnay. One of the major advantages of growing in a hot, dry climate is it’s much easier to grow organic (less risk of mildew etc.).

Wine has been produced in this area since Gallo-Roman times. There is a vinyard in Capbreton right on the Atlantic coast, La Domaine de la Pointe, that produces wine with iodised undertones, that come from the sea air and salty soil.

I receive instructions from Léo every day as to what I need to be doing vine-wise. I’m about to go outside with a magnifying glass to check for budding buds, and then stick my fist in the soil to make a totally uneducated guess as to the degree of humidity. Spot the neophyte!

I tend to eat a lot of quercetin-rich onions and apples in the Spring, as I suffer from allergies. Studies have demonstrated that quercetin acts as an antihistamine and lessens the respiratory side effects of allergies by reducing inflammatory response in the airways. It is also a zinc ionophore (transports zinc into the cells) and, as such, is being studied as a potential treatment for Covid-19.

Ingredients (serves 6)

Pastry (I used this one)

10g butter

1kg onions (peeled and cut into thin rounds)

100g smoky bacon

3 eggs

30cl cream

Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Fry the onions in butter (or olive oil) until softened, and slightly caramelised (approx 20-25 minutes). Prepare the tart tin (or individual cases) by greasing and lining with pastry.

Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the cream and seasoning, mixing well. Place the onions on the pastry, with a piece of bacon on top. Pour the egg/cream mixture over the top and bake for 25 minutes for individual tarts, or 35 minutes for a larger one.

Rosemary and black olive Fougasse and sausages for officers

Last week Luc admitted to a hunter friend (who has eight obedient beagles) that we had ‘issues’ with our dogs. We hit a new low recently; we have to barricade the doors at night with chairs to send the message that we don’t provide a 24/7 service, and it’s NOT OK to wake us up at random just because you fancy a moonlit stroll in the garden. The friend wasn’t overly sympathetic and seemed to suggest that in our case, the ‘obedience ship’ had set sail long ago. He trains his dogs as puppies (like most sensible people), but I just can’t get my head around the idea of disciplining a puppy. Or any dog, if I’m being absolutely honest.

Léo and five friends celebrated the end of exams last week in true Bordeaux style with copious amounts of food, wine and noise (gatherings of up to six people are allowed in France). They were just tucking in to a second ‘dinner’ at three in the morning when the police knocked at the door. The noise was such that the gendarmes had called in reinforcements, and were accompanied by a heavily armed military squadron. They were rather taken aback when they realised that the impressive commotion was coming from just six boys, although the fact that several of them were Basque went some way to explaining things (Basque fiestas are notoriously loud). Realising there was no pressing need for mob control, they laid down their guns but, slightly bewildered, graciously refused the offer of sausages and chips. Way to avoid a hefty fine.

Fougasse is a flatbread that was traditionally baked in the ashes of the hearth. It is really a primitive form of pizza, without the tomatoes.

Ingredients

250g einkorn flour (normal flour is fine)

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon bread yeast, mixed in a little lukewarm water

8 black olives, chopped

1 shallot, chopped

Fresh rosemary, removed from stem

Water

Sea salt to sprinkle on top

Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt, olive oil, yeast, chopped olives, shallot and rosemary. Add the water, little by little to form a smooth ball. Knead for a couple of minutes and then flatten to form an oval shape a couple of centimetres thick. Decorate with the sea salt.

Leave to rise in a 30°C oven for half an hour, then increase the oven temperature to 200°C and bake for 25 minutes.

The perfect omelette

I managed to live for over half a century without knowing how to cook an omelette properly. Or at least in a way that avoided husband and son sharing eye rolls and ostentatious dry heaves.

Speaking of exasperation, there are a few culinary fads that really boil my noodle: egg white omelettes (just eat the whole egg or go for the polystyrene option) and spiralised ‘spaghetti’ vegetables (eat spaghetti or eat vegetables, both if you really want to push the boat out, but don’t eat ‘pretend’ food unless you’re a toddler; exactly how idiotic do you think your taste buds are?)

Back to The Omelette. There used to be a restaurant, l’Hôtel de la Tête d’Or, on the Mont St Michel in Normandy, which was famous for its omelette. The owner of the hotel, Madame Poulard, attracted tourists from all over, and although there was much speculation about her secret recipe, she always stayed circumspect. I suspect that her secret had more to do with hardware and impeccable timing than the actual ingredients, although apparently we will never know. 

In any case, the simplest dishes are often the most delicious, but also the most difficult to get right. During my years of blissful ignorance, I used to beat the eggs a bit, add a touch of seasoning and then fry until most of the runniness was gone. They used to taste OK, although they sometimes looked as if I’d finished them off in the tumble dryer.

In my naivety I didn’t realise that in fact you have to go all sado-masochistic on the poor eggs, furiously beating and whipping them into complete submission.  You then have to pitch them, molecules awhirl, from across the room into a blazing furnace of a pan for mere seconds, until the outside is seared and the inside still runny. The experience is athletic, stressful, and affirmative.

As the saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, sweating profusely, hyperventilating, F-bombing anyone and anything in your way and setting off the smoke alarm…

Ingredients (serves 1)

knob of butter

2 fresh free-range eggs

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a flat-bottomed frying pan over a high heat. Beat the seasoned eggs very fast until they become frothy. Throw the still-frothy mixture into the pan immediately and sear. Fold the omelette in half while the top is still runny. Serve! And breathe…

 

Madiran wine and unravelling

The production of Madiran wine is spread over three departments of southwestern France: Gers, Hautes Pyrénées and Pyrénées Atlantiques. We visited two chateaux in the region last week. At the first chateau, when I couldn’t face another gory detail of the ‘chatelain’s’ latest surgical procedure, I ended up with my head between my legs to stop myself fainting. I suspect his technique is to regale wine buyers with the minutiae of his latest operation, and when their defences are down (or they’ll do anything to escape), go in for the kill; we had planned to buy 18 bottles of his excellent 2012 and instead ended up with 36!

Our visit to the second chateau was after a very long, hot hike through the vineyards, and I think that we probably arrived looking a bit dishevelled (our sartorial baseline is iffy to begin with). There was an English couple tasting wine, and either they’d been there a while and had forgotten to swill and spit, or they didn’t realise I was English, because the lady rather loudly and randomly commented to her husband that we looked like ‘a rather eccentric French family who didn’t know how to tie their shoe laces’. I thought this was pretty rich coming from someone whose companion was sporting an garish yellow daisy-print sunhat!

Classic Madirans are robust, earthy and quite ‘tanniny’ (wine critics the world over will be blown away by my wine vocab.), which is just how I like my wine (and men) to be. And the very best are aged in oak.

The polyphenols found in red wine in general play a key role in its health benefits by acting as antioxidants. Grape skins have high concentrations of polyphenols and in particular, procyanidin. Studies show that regions of the world with the greatest longevity also correspond to those with the highest procyanidin content in their wines.

The highest procyanidin content of all is to be found in the wines in the Madiran region and, as it happens, they also have the highest concentration of resveratrol, which is a sort of a natural plant antibiotic. Resveratrol is part of the defense mechanism in vines, which fights against fungus and other diseases. In humans, studies have shown it has anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar lowering and other beneficial cardiovascular effects.

As Professor Roger Corder, author of ‘The Wine Diet’ explains: ‘One important advantage of choosing wines with a high procyanidin level is that less needs to be consumed to achieve the optimal health benefit. The best results I’ve had in my laboratory have been from Madiran wines. These have some of the highest procyanidin levels I’ve encountered, as a result of the local grape variety, Tannat, and the traditional long fermentation and maceration. In contrast, mass-produced, branded wines sold in many wine bars and pubs generally have disappointingly low levels of procyanidins.’

 

 

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.

Salt cod brandade and ask a silly question…

I’m so glad Bossy doesn’t have my mobile ‘phone number; it’s the only way I’ve found to avoid being the irritated recipient of one of her inane texts. Earlier this week she was fretting about whether Noisy had caught the right bus home. Admittedly his grasp of logistics and time management are, at best, very shaky. But, despite spending much of his time with his head in the clouds, he is still a 15-year-old with an above-average IQ who can usually remember where he lives. Last school year, he was lucky enough to find a very efficient PA who took up the organisational slack and kept him on track. This year, he and the friend are no longer in the same class, hence Bossy’s fretting.

Anyway, Bossy’s irrational folly got the better of her and she sent a short text to check he was travelling in the right direction. As the bus doesn’t stop, I really didn’t understand the point; either he was going in the right direction, in which case the text was an annoying waste of time, or he wasn’t in which case it was too late anyway. So I can only commend his reply:  ‘No. Peruvian mutant turtles, having made a lucky escape from a Congolese fruit salad, recruited me for the Norwegian-Chinese mafia. I am currently in a underwater aeroplane with subatomic engines, carrying out biochemical experiments on hamster volunteers. Don’t worry: the Montparnasse tower is not in any immediate danger, and I should manage to finish digging the Dax-Rion tunnel with my Christmas tree. I will be in touch again once I’m within 15 lightyears of your town of residence.’

Obviously his reply begs the question: ‘what does she sprinkle on his breakfast cereal?’, but still: Kudos. Maybe she’ll think twice before sending silly texts again, although somehow I doubt it…

Ingredients (serves 4)

200g salt cod

2 bay leaves

1 onion, peeled and sliced

500ml milk

250g potatoes, peeled and boiled

2 cloves garlic

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

4 tablespoons olive oil

Freshly grated parmesan for topping

Soak the salt cod in cold water for 24 hours, changing the water once or twice. Drain and place in a pan with the bay leaves, onion and 500ml of milk. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for five minutes and then drain, removing any bones and skin and breaking the flesh into coarse shreds. Reserve some of the milk for the purée. Cook the potatoes until soft then drain and purée together with the cod, garlic and seasoning in a food processor, adding the olive oil to create a soft consistency (you may need to add a little of the reserved milk to achieve the desired consistency). Place the purée in an oven-proof dish and sprinkle with parmesan. Put in an oven preheated to 180°C for about 20 minutes until golden brown.

This is sometimes served as a dip with toast. I like it as a standalone dish with a crispy green salad. Hugo likes to lick the bowl, although he pretends otherwise.

Beef bourguignon and a god complex

boeufbourg

Most dogs have beds; Hugo has a throne. He recently spent considerable time and energy trying to relay to us the fact that it’s wholly inappropriate for a dog of his stature to sleep on the floor. He dug his paws in and refused to sleep on his bed, creating temporary accommodation in other places such as the shower, sofas and on piles of dirty laundry. I could tell that he was getting increasingly irate with us for not understanding his problem and poor Java was very confused by the whole affair. And then I had an epiphany: Hugo doesn’t see himself as a common or garden ‘floor’ animal and thinks his bed should be raised accordingly. To him it is incomprehensible that he should sleep at the same level as Java. Complicated measures were taken (the facial expressions when I explained that my dog needed a bed at least 50cm from the ground were a sight to behold), and he now deigns to sleep in his bed again. I’m hoping that his delusions of grandeur aren’t going to be incremental or he’ll soon need a stepladder and the thought of explaining that to the man in the pet shop brings me out in a cold sweat.

hugothrone

Beef Bourguignon is an iconic French dish. Ideally it should be made with Charolais beef and Burgundy wine, although I make it using Bordeaux as that is local to us. It’s best made a day or two before you’re going to eat it to tenderise the meat and bring out the flavours more fully.

Ingredients (serves 4)

800g beef brisket, cut into large cubes

1 litre of full-bodied red wine

2 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves

4 garlic cloves, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 red onions, peeled and sliced

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

100g mushrooms, peeled and sliced

100g pancetta, diced

2 tablespoons flour (I used chickpea flour but plain will do)

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Mix the beef, wine, thyme, bay leaves and garlic in a deep dish and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight. Preheat the oven to 150°C, scoop out the meat and set the marinade aside. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole dish and add the onions, shallots, mushrooms and pancetta. Toss the meat in the flour and add to the dish, gently browning. Add the stock and red wine marinade and bring to the boil. Add the carrots and seasoning and cook for about two hours. Delicious served with creamy mashed potatoes.