I would like to wish everyone a very happy and healthy new year. We had a pleasant, but reasonably uneventful Christmas, with the exception of a lobster theft, three sick people and several lost presents. As is tradition in France, we have seafood on Christmas Eve and this year it was more a case of ‘now you seafood, now you don’t!’ Luc had bought oysters and lobster which he prepared in advance and stored in a ‘safe’ place outside. The ‘safe’ place turned out to be a deluxe al fresco buffet for the dogs. (Luc has form: The story of the year we misplaced a guinea fowl thigh). They left most of the oysters though because there is definitely something of a knack to oyster slurping. Also there was no lemon to hand (or paw) and they are nothing if not discerning. Maybe next year. After that, we felt badly for the cat who hadn’t been invited to join the impromptu feast, so he got a smoked salmon platter, while we made do with omelettes and green salad. Luckily the lemon meringue had taken refuge in the back of the fridge and, as the dogs haven’t yet worked out how to open the door, it was intact. Every year we make this dessert several times between Christmas and New Year, each time more friends arrive and it always disappears in a flash, even without the dogs’ help. I’ve posted the recipe before, but it definitely bears repeating.
We have nearly two kilometres of sandy track leading to our house. With its tree roots, rocks, potholes and animal traces, our track is not conducive to good car health, and our suspension has given out four times in the past year. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that a new car is in order, but buying it is proving to be a problem. After much procrastination, we made it through the door of a Suzuki showroom today, did a quick recce of the 4x4s (I’m boring myself just writing this) and then legged it before anyone could collar us. The idea of having the ‘horsepower, fuel consumption, and whether or not it does 0 to 60’ conversation makes me want to gnaw my arm off, and Luc is no better. We both glaze over if somebody so much as mentions anything vaguely auto-related. All we want is a reliable metal thing on wheels that goes ‘vroom’ without doing my back in, and has a very good tempered suspension system (or whatever the technical term is). All suggestions gratefully received.
I recently discovered that for the past 12 years or so I have inadvertently been an adept of the practice of Forest Bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku as it’s known in Japan where it originated in the 1980s. Numerous studies are testament to the calming and rejuvenating virtues of simply being beneath a forest canopy. Emphasis is placed on slowing down; a sweaty hike aimed at increasing the heart rate it is not! Benefits include a boost to the immune system, reduced stress and blood pressure, improved mood, a better ability to focus, quicker recovery from illness, decreased inflammation, increased energy and improved sleep. Japanese doctors promote forest bathing as an antidote to the hectic urban life. I can certainly vouch for the practice; whenever I feel stressed (just thinking about car showrooms for example), I instinctively head off into the pine forest that surrounds our house.
Just a few words from me today because I’m busy proving a point. If you saw Bossy’s last post, you’ll know that she’s gone all hippy dippy on the animal communciation front. I was sceptical about Bossy’s insect repellent story and asked Jojo whether her claims were true. It turns out he had just played along so she would shut up; insect repellent was, it seems, the lesser of two evils and far preferable to listening to her jabber on.
So I set out to prove to Bossy that her new-found ‘talents’ are but a figment (see what I did there?) of her overactive imagination: I block access to cupboard doors in the kitchen, stay out late into the night, steal food from the worktop, growl at Java and sleep on the sofa. Bossy can dog whisper explanations as to why she isn’t loving my behaviour all she likes, I won’t be influenced. I just hope she doesn’t discover my invaluable new tool: industrial-strength ear plugs.
Figs are in abundance at the moment. We are giving them out to everyone we know, but they are still getting the better of us. Figs are rich in fibre and vital vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, B1, B2 and K, manganese, potassium, magnesium, calcium, copper, iron and phosphorus. They also contain antioxidants.
Ingredients (makes 12 muffins)
125g coconut oil, softened
150g buckwheat flour (normal flour will work fine too)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder
150g cane sugar
60g ground almonds
6 fresh figs, chopped
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Cream the coconut oil in the mixer until well softened. Add a spoonful of flour, beat again, then add the eggs, beating further until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add a little more flour to prevent curdling. Gently fold in the rest of the flour, baking powder, sugar, ground almonds and milk. Lastly, fold the chopped figs into the mix. Spoon the mixture into muffin trays and bake for 30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
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.
I was woken this morning to the sound of the dogs barking inside the house and Luc barking outside. Our land is a favourite haunt for hunters because apparently it’s ‘scenic’ and where the best game is to be found. Because of course game, when they’re looking for a place to hang out, always put beautiful surroundings above anything else… For some reason hunting involves, not only pretty scenery, but also lots of shouting. So there was Luc at the crack of dawn, wearing not very much and ranting about how we have to get up early every day of the week and the weekend is the only day we can lie in and why can’t they go and shout and be generally annoying elsewhere because it makes the dogs bark and wakes us up and then he has to come outside and shout at them when he could still be in bed. To be honest, falling leaves are enough to make our dogs bark, and the person making by far the most noise and waking everyone up was Luc. But whatever – he seemed determined to shout himself hoarse.
I got up and made a piece of toast. We have a very small but fierce toaster with a powerful but woefully imprecise firing range and my toast was catapulted behind the fridge. Retrieving it involved rummaging through piles of crumbs, dust and a dead, flattened mouse. So far the morning was proving to be a real delight, further enhanced by the dogs who decided to embark on an energetic game of ‘doors’. The principle of ‘doors’ is to ask to be let out by one door and then rush to a door on the opposite side of the house and scratch until your owners’ nerves are ripped to shreds. And repeat ad nauseum.
Christmas plans are off to a shaky start too: organised I am not. Due to a flu epidemic, we are not where we had planned to be, and there’s an ongoing controversy about whether maritime pines make for proper Christmas trees. Something to do with their needles being too long, amongst other sins according to Léo. Anyway, as it’s now 24th December and there are no trees with appropriate length needles left, we had to go and lop the top off a pine tree. Once the contentious ‘tree’ was in place, Léo’s arguments gained momentum, Hugo cocked his leg at it and Java took a flying leap and furiously attacked it with her little teeth. Also, most of the gifts I had bought to put under it are 1000kms away. And to add insult to injury, Luc and I decided to go shopping together (something we very rarely do) and he forgot and left without me.
I had imagined a lovely photo of the dogs in front of the tree, gazing adoringly at each other. Ha! This is a Photoshop montage (thank you Léo), because they refused to be captured together in front of the non-regulation tree. Unfortunately, neither Photoshop nor camembert were able to make Hugo look at the camera. Happy Christmas everyone!
This cake contains copious amounts of cardamon, a spice that never fails to make everything alright. I’m currently mainlining it. It’s very fragrant and has a lovely, slightly crunchy texture. Delicious warm or cold, alone or accompanied by Greek yoghurt or ice-cream.
Ingredients (serves 12)
350g carrots, grated
50g raisins (pre-soaked in rum)
50g almonds, flaked
50g walnuts, chopped
5 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
80g cane sugar
3 eggs, whisked
100g almond flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cardamon powder
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Combine the carrots, raisins, almonds, walnuts, melted coconut oil and sugar in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the almond flour and polenta, bicarbonate of soda and cardamom to the whisked eggs and blend until homogenous. Add the flour/egg mixture to the carrot/nut mixture and combine well. Transfer to a greased medium-sized baking tin and bake for 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
I’m all about oats today, which means I won’t have time to talk about my eccentric dogs. But as a picture paints a thousand words here is:
Hugo waiting with eager anticipation for the vet to let him into her office because, after all, who isn’t a massive fan of painful injections?
And Java yesterday. Luc asked me if I’d stuck her on a pole and used it to sweep the chimney. I particularly like the facial war paint. (By the way, I am aware that this is a case of the kettle calling the pot black; almost every time I see a photo of myself I immediately think of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
Oats (Avena sativa) contain beta glucan, a complex sugar that forms a gelatinous texture in the digestive tract and has an enormously beneficial influence on the immune system. Beta glucan boosts defenses against bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
Findings published in the BMJ showed that oat fibre reduced the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Not only do oats have anti-inflammatory properties, good gut bacteria may be increased by eating the non-digestible oligosaccharides they contain.
Oats help maintain a healthy weight. According to a collection of scientific reviews, they play an important role in improving satiety, diet quality, and digestive, cardiovascular and general metabolic health.
Oats may help regulate blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity, especially in people who are overweight or have type 2 diabetes. Beta glucans reduce the absorption of sugar and as a result lower levels of blood glucose.
A Finnish study found that babies introduced early to oats were less likely to develop persistent asthma. And soaked oats applied as a poultice or added to the bath also provide a very soothing treatment for eczema.
Oats are often used for their relaxing, restorative qualities, probably due to their high levels of B vitamins. In fact, oat extract has been used for centuries by healers in India to treat opium addiction. Studies have shown that it can also reduce nicotine cravings.
Last but not least, oats are a rich source of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. This includes the B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. It is best to soak oats for at least two hours before eating as this improves digestibility. Soaking also reduces phytic acid, allowing for better absorption of the nutrients.
Here is a recipe for my staple breakfast of bircher muesli which eases the pain of getting up early.
Ingredients (serves 2)
4 tablespoons rolled oats
1 tablespoon sultanas
50ml oat milk (or any milk)
75g natural yoghurt
2 tablespoons’ honey
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 apple, washed and grated
2 tablespoons chopped nuts (I use walnuts and almonds)
150g red berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants)
Soak the oats and sultanas in the milk for at least two hours or even overnight. Stir in the yoghurt, honey and lemon juice. Then add the grated apple, chopped nuts and berries.
I read in the paper that President Macron and his wife had adopted a black labrador. His name is Nemo, he’s two years old and almost as handsome as me. Obviously I suspect he has neither my gravitas nor superior intellect, but he looks like a reasonable chap nonetheless. I sent an email to Emmanuel (we’re on first name terms; he calls me Hugo) saying that I would be happy to offer my services if he felt Nemo needed coaching in the sort of behaviour expected of the First Dog. I haven’t heard back yet – I expect he’s quite busy with other matters, although he usually replies to my emails as a matter of priority. Obviously Emmanuel offered me the job of Top Dog, but I had to turn it down due to my loyalty and sense of duty to Bossy. I think he was particularly keen on me for the position because, aside from the obvious reasons, I’m bilingual and well-versed in the international scene. The problem is I know that pandemonium would break out if I were to leave here. I tried to explain to Java why the President had chosen a black labrador and not an English Setter. This entailed a lengthy explanation as there are so many reasons I didn’t know where to start: severe insubordination, acute inconsequentiality, fear of loud noises, general neurosis and goofiness, loud snoring, inherent psychological instability… She was all huffy and put out for about three minutes until something far more interesting came along to distract her: a falling leaf. I rest my case.
Bossy made this cheesecake. Whatever.
Ingredients (serves 8)
150g raisins, pre-soaked in rum
3 eggs, beaten
1 ripe banana, mashed
Zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons’ crème fraîche
3 tablespoons’ desiccated coconut
3 tablespoons’ cane sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Mix all of the ingredients together and pour into a greased, medium-sized baking tin. Cook for 50 minutes and chill and sprinkle with coconut before serving.
Hugo and Java are not natural allies. I’ve always dreamed of having dogs that cuddle up together in the same basket, but alas, it is not to be. The room that their baskets and the space necessary between them take up in order to prevent friction and growling is surprisingly large. Java would love to be Hugo’s best friend, but the feeling is not reciprocated. Not one bit. If she so much as deigns to lie on the same rug as him, she receives her marching orders accompanied by a dark, ominous look. I suspect matters aren’t helped by the fact that Hugo is rather envious of her speed; he used to easily outrun deer and rabbits in the forest, but age has slowed him down. Java can outrun anyone and anything, including her own sense, which is admittedly thin on the ground.
So imagine our surprise when we looked outside the other evening to see the two dogs lying side by side, bathed in the soft evening light. They were under a budding oak tree watching the magnificent sunset and it was as perfect a picture of tranquility, contemplation and friendship as I have ever seen. As soon as Hugo noticed us though, he got up, visibly horrified at having been caught. He made a show of vigorously shaking himself free of any residual girly sentimentality. Despite Hugo’s unchivalrous behaviour, and as fleeting as the moment had been, it made Java and me very happy…
Ingredients (serves 4)
4 large dessert oranges, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons orange flower water (optional)
2 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon freshly-grated ginger
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Handful of sliced almonds
8 fresh mint leaves
Arrange the orange slices in a shallow bowl. Add a little water, the orange flower water, honey, ginger and cinnamon to a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the honey. Remove from the heat. Drizzle the syrup over the oranges, garnish with the almonds and mint and serve with a dollop of crème fraîche.
I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas. We did and, true to form, Hugo spent most of the time either hiding from Java or chewing her ears, while Java spent most of the time either looking for Hugo or chewing up paper hats, corks and tree decorations. Needless to say, her visits to the naughty corner were not infrequent. The hens, I suspect, breathed a collective sigh of relief at having, once again, been spared.
I kept expecting to come down in the morning to the sight of the Christmas tree prostrate, having ‘fainted’ in the night. But no, Java prefers to play the long game when it comes to dismantling the tree, and her progress is insidious and incisive. She’s a pretty little, furry, decoration-seeking stealth missile and if it weren’t for the telling crunch of trodden-on glass baubles on the floor, and glitter and tinsel in places you would least expect, you would hardly know she had been untoward. She isn’t devious but she prefers to proceed this way for practical reasons: the trauma and commotion of a whole tree falling over at once would tip her right over the edge.
This dessert is ambrosial. It’s light and refreshing, almost sparkling – a very welcome antidote to a rich main course.
Ingredients (serves 6-8)
pinch of salt
400 ml whipping cream
4 egg whites
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 140°C. Add the egg whites and salt to a medium-size mixing bowl until foamy. Gradually add the sugar, a tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form and sugar dissolves.
Spread the meringue mixture onto greaseproof paper covered baking trays. Bake for 30 minutes and then turn off the oven and leave for an hour. Remove the meringues and leave to cool.
4 egg yolks
Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons
400ml whipping cream
Place the egg yolks and sugar in a small saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until paste-like. Add the lemon rind and then the lemon juice little by little until the mixture is thick and smooth. Remove from the hear and leave to cool completely.
Beat the whipping cream until soft peaks form and then fold into the cooled lemon mixture. Spoon the mixture into one of the the cooled meringue shells and gently place the other one on top. Chill overnight.
We are still being outwitted by a tiny little mouse who has become addicted to my buckwheat crackers. As she seems unfazed by the supposedly dissuasive mint essential oil with which I flood the cupboards, I did a bit of research and came across a sonic mouse deterrent. Rushing out to buy one, I discovered reading the small print while waiting to pay, that the device ‘could perturb domestic animals’. Totally panicked by this news, I explained (at some length) to the man at the checkout that my domestic animals didn’t need any more crazy in their lives, particularly my little English Setter with her fragile constitution, delicate nerves and rather unusual ways. Wondering whether the strange look he gave me was pity or amusement, I arrived home to the realisation that my extended monologue about my dogs’ mental health had been a case of the pot calling the kettle black: I was sporting a back-to-front top. And it wasn’t a subtle, hardly discernible back-to-front either; it was definitely an in-your-face ‘escaped from an asylum’ back-to-front. I made this cake to take my mind off the fact that I’m losing it, and intentionally omitted, OK totally forgot, some of the ingredients. It was however a very fortuitous error, because the result was a perfectly deliciously light, fluffy succulent cake. The bad news is though that the mouse has become a permanent fixture.
2 medium eggs
100g cane sugar
1 large ripe banana, cut and mashed with little lemon juice
100ml unsweetened apple purée
100ml plain yoghurt
2 tablespoons walnut oil
60g ground hazelnuts
170g buckwheat flour
a pinch of salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
100g raisins, pre-soaked in rum
Preheat the oven to 180ºC and prepare a medium-sized loaf tin. Whisk the eggs and sugar until light and smooth and slightly fluffy and then add the banana, oil, apple purée and yoghurt and whisk a bit longer. Mix the ground hazelnuts, buckwheat flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon and ginger together and then combine well with the wet mixture. Stir in the soaked raisins and pour the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the tin and leave to cool. Delicious served alone or with butter and jam. May be used a mouse bait too.
Noisy is a resourceful boy: Within a day of returning to school last week, he had found himself a very efficient personal assistant. A much-needed personal assistant I might add because, although he’s a clever boy, he doesn’t do well with practical matters and is rather absent-minded. Quite often he asks me what day it is and whether or not he’s had lunch yet. His new assistant ‘phones him in the morning to tell him which classroom he should go to and at what time, and in return Noisy advises on homework matters.
I have decided to take a leaf out of Noisy’s book and recruit a PA for myself. I believe that in some circles, you don’t even exist if you don’t have a PA. I’m having difficulty finding someone though. So far I’ve had applications from Java (ha ha, in your dreams Java), a couple of hens and a somewhat persistent hedgehog. Still, I’m quite determined because things can’t go on like this – I have too many slap-happy charges. Last week Bossy went flying over the handlebars of her mountain bike because Java chased a deer onto the track in front of her, and Java pinched a pair of Bossy’s shoes and vomited into them. I have taken to hiding in the shower for some respite. Please let me know if you can suggest any suitable applicants.
Hazelnuts are a good source of oleic and linoleic acids and are also rich in dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytochemicals.
Ingredients (10 servings)
150g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa)
115g coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 tablespoons black coffee
4 eggs, separated
100g cane sugar
100ml plain yoghurt
70g ground hazelnuts
40g buckwheat flour
75g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Preheat the oven to 180ºC and prepare a medium-sized loaf tin. Melt the chocolate and coconut oil until smooth and add the vanilla extract and coffee. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and yogurt until light and smooth and then combine with the melted chocolate/coconut oil/coffee. Mix the ground hazelnuts, buckwheat flour, chopped hazelnuts, salt and bicarbonate of soda together and combine with the egg yolk and chocolate mixture. Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks and gently but thoroughly fold into the mocha mixture. Pour into the loaf tin and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the tin and leave to cool. Delicious served alone or with Greek yoghurt or ice cream.