Tag Archives: French life

Cider and bacon mussels and terror-struck parents

Cider and bacon mussels

Léo and I attended a morning course at the Driving School yesterday, along with about ten other learner drivers and their frazzled parents. In France, following about 20 hours of lessons and a pre-test, learners are able to drive accompanied until they reach test age at 17. The aim of the course was just to check in with everyone and see if there were any concerns or questions (ha!). What struck me was how many parents seem to regard their teenage offspring as basically just really tall, inconsequential, hormone-drenched toddlers.

When asked how his daughter’s driving was coming along, one man, with tears in his eyes, kept repeating mantra-like, : ‘I can’t do it anymore, I can’t do it anymore’. His poor daughter, sitting beside him looking slightly bemused, didn’t seem to have it in her to comfort him anymore. Somebody else asked if it was possible to hire a dual control car, because if not there was no way in hell that they would contemplate going out with their child again. One man was very hot and bothered every time they hit a roundabout (and that’s a whole lot of hot and bother because roundabouts are all the rage in France now). Yet another father was very troubled by the fact that his son somehow managed to hit sixth gear before he’d reached the end of the driveway. He had a virtual spreadsheet in his head, details of which he regaled us with at length, of every time he changed gear. He kept saying: ‘I don’t think he gets it, he’s just not made for driving’. Luckily for both of them, the son took his father making him out to be a total cretin in very good humour.

All in all, it was not dissimilar to an AA meeting so when it was finally my turn to speak I said: ‘hello, my name is Fiona and I break out in a cold sweat and start shaking every time we approach an intersection’. As Léo explained to me quite resolutely afterwards, I ‘need to go and make peace with my bloody intersections because I’m the one with the problem, not him’. He has a point, but the good news is I certainly don’t seem to be alone!

These mussels make a nice change from ‘moules marinières’.

Ingredients (serves 4)

2 kg fresh mussels

30g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves of  garlic, crushed

6 rashers of bacon (cut into strips)

4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

150ml dry cider

Wash the mussels in cold running water making sure to remove any grit or sand. Discard any that float or any that are already open. Heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over a low heat. Add the shallots, garlic and bacon and cook for a few minutes until softened. Add the mussels and coat well with the melted butter, oil and shallots. Add the herbs and seasoning and then the cider. Bring to a simmer and cook for about five minutes until the mussels have opened.

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Chicken soup and unruly hair

My hair is a free-for-all, to be chewed on, judged and discussed without compunction or reserve. I’m asked on a regular basis if it’s natural (because you think I would I chose it?), if it’s wet, if it’s dry, if it’s just been to the hairdresser and if it hasn’t. In some parts of the world, people come and stroke it like a strange woolly pet. A rather uncharming old lady who lives nearby actually uses the word ‘mop’ when referring to it, which she does every time I see her. And Luc said the other day ‘it just really suits you – it’s chaotic’. This was meant as a compliment (wtf?). The assistant in a posh haircare shop not long ago suggested, without a hint of irony, that I could ‘always try using a comb’ when I asked for advice on how to tame it. And to add insult to injury, Hugo chews on it in much the same way that he chews on Java’s ears.

A number of studies have been conducted on the usefulness of chicken soup (aka Jewish penicillin) in warding off and treating cold and flu viruses. It appears that the soup inhibits the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell that defends against infection. The theory is, that by inhibiting the migration of these infection-fighting cells in the body, chicken soup essentially helps reduce upper respiratory cold symptoms by reducing inflammation.

The researchers couldn’t identify the exact ingredient or ingredients in the soup that made it effective against colds but say it may be the combination of vegetables and chicken that work together.

Make what you will of the research, but at the very least, chicken soup with vegetables contains lots of healthy nutrients, is easy to digest, increases hydration and tastes delicious.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, peeled and chopped

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 leeks, washed and cut into rounds

1 fennel bulb, washed and cut

1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into cubes

4 carrots, peeled and cut

200g cabbage, shredded

1 red pepper or chilli pepper, cut into strips

2 sprigs of thyme

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

2 teaspoons turmeric

1.5 litres chicken stock

2 tablespoons Pernod (optional)

300g pre-roasted chicken, skin removed and shredded

100g frozen peas

2 serving of pre-cooked brown rice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently brown the onions, shallots, garlic and leeks in the olive oil in a large saucepan or casserole dish. Once browed, add the fennel, butternut squash, carrots, cabbage and chilli pepper and continue to cook for a few minutes. Add the thyme, ginger, turmeric, chicken stock and Pernod and bring to a simmer. Once the vegetables are almost cooked, add the chicken and frozen peas and continue to cook for another ten minutes. Add the brown rice towards the end of cooking, season with the salt and pepper and serve piping hot.

 

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.’

 

 

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