Tag Archives: rural French life

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

Advertisements

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!

Carrot and cardamon cake (gf) and a barking competition

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

100g polenta

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.

Chicken and sweet pepper tagine and cowboys on bicycles

tajine

HugojournoandJava

Somebody is going to have to give me a crash course in human logic, or lack thereof, because there are things I’m currently struggling to understand. First of all, I thought that the main function of a butcher was to provide you with an endless supply of slobberingly succulent meat. Not so apparently. The Tall One believes our butcher to be of unparalleled counsel when it comes to his own joints, cartilage and bones and takes his advice over the doctor’s when it comes to treating his dodgy knee. So, since the butcher told him that cycling was the way forward, he has had his bicycle surgically attached (have you noticed that I’ve mastered the metaphor?).

The Tall One and Bossy sometimes take Texas, the very old horse, and Bijou, the very young, insufferably silly horse to a field where proximity to a river and shady oak trees means the grass stays lush year-round. Taking them there is one thing, bringing them back quite another. Bijou has a tendency to pinch the head collars from their ‘safe place’ and hide them. So, bearing in mind that humans are meant to be of superior intelligence, this is what I don’t understand: Why don’t they just find another place to store the head collars? Bijou gets the better of them every time which means that, as he’s quite good at hiding things, they invariably come back ‘au natural’  (the horses, not the intellectually-challenged humans). The sight of Bossy and Tall trying to round them up on their bicycles makes it all worthwhile though.

So to conclude, if you’ve got dodgy knees, the butcher’s your man. And if you want to outwit your animals Bossy and Tall are most certainly not…

bikeshorses

I have to say that Bossy outdid herself with this dish, although I might only be saying that because I feel a bit mean inferring that she and her husband are ‘intellectually-challenged’. I’m not usually a big fan of spices, but this was subtly fragrant and the tagine dish was a pleasure to lick clean.

Ingredients (serves 4)

3 tablespoons of olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

8 chicken thighs

Juice of half a lemon

4 medium-sized carrots, peeled and cut

1 red pepper, washed and cut into strips

1 green pepper, washed and cut into strips

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

1 cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon coriander

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bay leaf

Two tablespoons of honey

200g dried prunes

150ml chicken stock

Fresh coriander to serve

Gently brown the onions, garlic and chicken in the olive oil in a medium-sized casserole dish (or a tagine if you have one). Once golden brown (after about five minutes), add the lemon juice, carrots, peppers, seasoning and spices and continue to brown for a further five minutes. Add the honey, prunes and chicken stock and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for about half an hour with the lid on and then remove the lid to allow the sauce to caramelise slightly. Sprinkle with freshly chopped coriander. Delicious served with couscous.