Saturday, August 29, 2009

green fingers

I'm way behind with my posts on what's been happening in the garden so above is just a sneeky peek of what's to come. My fingers are green and scented from picking armfuls of basil and green tomatoes from branches broken in the storm the other night.

The far side of the roof is now waterproof and Top Modèl and M. Boule De Billard started on the near side today. Progress is much slower now that Top Modèl has returned to work and Mr Katie Bear to England. Top Modèl has a day off on Monday and has offered to come and help again. He's an apprentice roofer and when he was here with his friend Nico, a qualified roofer, a couple of weeks ago it was amazing how speedily they moved around the roof and got things done. If only we had them both for a week - the roof would be finished in a jiffy.

Friday, August 28, 2009

the rabbit & the horse

Well that's the housework over for another year. (BB actually told his Mum that the clean-up operation required the use of a shovel! - which was rather ungallant, and untrue I hasten to add.)

We had a very pleasant week with our guests - picnicking in the mountains, swimming in the lake, playing boules and belot, foraging for bilberries and eating leisurely lunches out. I'd emailed BB's Mum to ask if there was anything his Aunt didn't like to eat and the reply came back: no horse or rabbit please.

So last weekend we booked to go for paella at the 'regional produce' shop in the next village. I know paella isn't regional or even French but the shop organises monthly outside-catered meals for up to 100 to get people through the door and buying - mainly wine to go with the meals. I love paella and this was about as good as I've tasted in Spain, cooked in a huge paellara outdoors with seafood and chicken. Or so we thought, until I went to chat to the chef after the meal and it transpired that the chicken was in fact, ahem, rabbit.

The day before yesterday we went for lunch in a local restaurant we used to frequent until we got fed up with the surly wife of the chef (who constantly looked like she was sooking a lemon) and her over-charging. The problem is, it's a great place to take visitors because it has a terrace with fantastic views of the mountains, the food can sometimes be very good and it's within walking distance. So we bit the bullet and booked and because it was warm and sunny, I asked if we could eat on the terrace. Well - you'd have thought I'd suggested parricide. Her lip curled up like a dead woodlouse, she huffed and puffed and complained that she was serving on her own (there were six other diners) before marching off without giving us an answer. After waiting 20 minutes for our apéros, she reluctantly set up a table on the terrace before ungraciously taking our order.

The starters were all very good: there was quiche maison with a light fluffy bacon and egg filling, excellent duck paté and a huge fresh seasonal salad. But when the steaks arrived (requested à point - medium rare), they should have been surrounded by police incident tape because what was on the plate was a crime against cooking. They looked as if they'd been forced through a wringer they were so thin and were so over-cooked it was like eating a leather glove. I couldn't eat mine and told Madame it was over-done when she came to clear the plates (she did ask why I'd left it). "No it's not", she said. "Yes it is", I said, demonstrating with exaggerated sawing movements. "No it's not". And off she huffed to the kitchen bearing my plate aloft.

When she returned she fixed me with a scary rictus smile and launched into a lecture on how steaks are cooked en France before adding, "but horse is always a bit tough". Rebelot!

By sheer coincidence, the following day Katie Bear came round with a leaflet advertising the aforementioned restaurant: "Take advantage of our terrace with panoramic views of the mountains where Madame will serve you avec un rayon de soleil - with a sunny smile!!

Friday, August 21, 2009

operation clean-up

BB's parents and Aunt arrive today so I've spent this week getting the house 'mother-in-law fit' - washing windows and curtains and cleaning out kitchen cupboards (remember when I drove all the way to Moutiers to buy an electric whisk and had that embarrassing encounter in Bos Equipement Hôtelier? Well guess what I found at the back of a cupboard? Yup - one of those). I'm not the best housekeeper - the sheets are always clean and the bathrooms spotless and I'm a bit of a compulsive wiper of kitchen surfaces - but in winter you're likely to trip over ski boots and other assorted ski paraphernalia and piles of books lying around all over the place and in summer, crates of fruit and veg (no time to read in summer what with all the pickling and bottling), and there's quite often tumbleweed blowing through the house, but one can't have one's mother-in-law thinking her son is married to a slut - so the house is as bright and clean as a shiny whistling pin (or whatever the simile is).

If I'm not back in a couple of days it's because I'm busy cutting the crusts off jam sandwiches.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


It's soooo hot (36°C) that my arms are sticking to the table as I type. It hasn't been this hot since the canicule in 2003 when the temperature reached 40°C and claimed nearly 15,000 lives in France. I used to think that talking about the weather was a peculiarly British occupation. Not so. Here in the village, everyone has a thermometer in their house and anyone you speak to can tell you what the temperature was when they got up and at various times throughout the day and what the forecast is for the next three days. We're lucky to have a beautiful lake less than five minutes away where I go most afternoons for a swim to cool down.

During the canicule the water was so low in the lake that you were able to get to hitherto unreachable parts away from the main beach where I liked to go for some peace and quiet. Until one day I looked up from my book to find a naked man standing in front of me who suggested I remove my bathers too so we could go for a dip together - which I thought was a bit rude.

I picked my onions last week and pickled them. I did this a couple of years ago and, even if I do say so myself, they were the best pickled onions I've ever tasted. Take some small pickling onions, trim them (not too much or they'll fall apart), blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds, pat dry, cover in salt and leave overnight (the salt draws out the moisture and makes them crunchy). The next day, rinse them and place in sterilized jars with some chillies, cloves and mustard or coriander seeds. Boil up some red/white wine vinegar and sugar for 1 minute (roughly 14 oz/400g sugar to 2 pints/1.2 litre vinegar for 3 lbs/1.3 kg onions), pour over the onions and seal.

♫ Pickle along to: Booker T. & The MG's Green Onions

Monday, August 17, 2009

gazpacho and bees

When I came downstairs this morning and opened the front door to let the cat out I found a pile of tomatoes on the doorstep with a folded-up piece of A4 paper tucked among them on which Poire had written "please could you translate this for me". In any other year, off-loading your tomatoes would be akin to the Chap Door Run prank with the courgettes but because it's been so hot and dry this summer, my toms have been very late ripening so they were very welcome (particularly since I have a small forest of basil with which to make bruschetta).

The translation was headed "solar wax melter" followed by diagrams and instructions on how to make a bees' wax melter with ¾ inch lumber to handle wax rendered from 60 hives. It contained expressions like "insulating board", "thermopane lid", "cappings basket" and "expanded metal wire lath" - your everyday sort of vocabulary! I left the translating to BB who conveyed the meaning to Poire in a comical pantomime fashion with funny French accent.

Poire has offered to show me his bees (I hope this isn't the French paysan equivalent of "would you like to see my etchings?") which he keeps up in the mountains on the other side of the valley - which should make for an interesting blog post if my experiences with goats and horses are anything to go by.

I used most of the tomatoes in this recipe for gazpacho which was given to Katie Bear's sister by a Spanish friend - perfect for a summer lunch.

Serves 4
10 tomatoes, skinned and de-seeded
1 slice of white bread, crust removed
½ red onion
2 cloves garlic
salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
sherry vinegar
cucumber, skinned, de-seeded and diced to serve

Whizz the first 4 ingredients together in a food processor with a good glug of olive oil and some sherry vinegar and season. Serve chilled with diced cucumber.

♫ Cook along to: The Bee Gees Stayin' Alive

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Princess and the pea

I woke up in the middle of the night last night with a searing pain in my chest and thought I was having a heart attack - until I rolled over and dislodged a hard pea-shaped piece of jetsam which had obviously been dragged in by Loti (or Princess as BB calls her).

This is Loti in her favourite position on the arm of the sofa.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

wild raspberries

We were up with the lark today to go and pick Mini-B's potatoes. I'm not an early riser, so 6 a.m. felt like the middle of the night, but it was exhilarating to be working outside at that hour with the mist rolling over the fields where red deer were grazing, watching the sun come up over the mountains. Tatties picked, we all sat outside in the morning sunshine eating breakfast of sausage, cheese, bread and white wine.

On the building front: yesterday the batten BB was standing on snapped and he literally had to hang on to the roof by his fingertips - no easy feat for a man whose stomach, when restrained by a white T-shirt, resembles a giant mozzarella. Then another of our helpers, our fireman friend Titi, embedded a wood axe in his thumb and was rushed to hospital. He won't lose his thumb, thankfully, but nor will he be helping out on the roof any time soon.

I picked these tiny wild raspberries when I went walking up in the mountains this afternoon. When the sun shone on them on the bushes they looked like red jewels. The man down at the duck farm makes a gorgeous apéro with them so I've frozen them until I can get his recipe.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

char-grilled peppers

On the rare occasion that I run out of garlic, it's on a par with running out of moisturiser or toothpaste or losing my internet connection - I feel a bit lost without it. I use garlic generously, especially the sweet white summer garlic which is perfect for rubbing on toast to make bruschetta, or for slicing thinly and tucking between velvety char-grilled peppers or adding to steamed green beans. After the summer season the bulbs start to lose their sweetness, the flesh darkens and their bitter taste makes it impossible to use raw.

Nainbo gave me some garlic from his garden today and I made char-grilled peppers with anchovies and capers. This is based on a River Café Cook Book recipe.

Serves 4
3 red and 3 yellow peppers
large handful of capers
a few anchovies
2 garlic cloves thinly sliced
handful of fresh basil leaves
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil

1. Grill the whole peppers until the skins are black then place in a plastic bag. When cool, remove the skin, de-seed and cut into strips.

2. Put the peppers in a shallow dish with the garlic, anchovies, capers, basil and black pepper and cover with a generous amount of olive oil. Serve with bruschetta.

♫ Cook along to:
Brooklyn Funk Essential Big Apple Boogaloo

Friday, August 7, 2009

Asian cabbage parcels

We had our first building accident yesterday when Mr Katie Bear, who's here for the summer and helping BB on the roof, fell through the rafters. There's no flooring on the upper level yet so there's a drop of two storeys but he managed to stop himself by jamming his arms either side of the floor joists. Result: he's still alive but has very purple arms. Oh how that must have stung! I'll be glad when the roof is finished because I worry like mad whenever anyone is up there.

To put some colour back in his cheeks (not his arms) I invited him and Katie Bear round for dinner last night. Katie Bear's a real foodie like me and we love laughing at telly programmes like Come Dine With Me where "amateur chefs compete for dinner party prowess". Now, "prowess" to me denotes a certain amount of skill or expertise, so if you were going to be on the telly demonstrating this (for a cash prize) would you stick a bought Swiss roll in a plastic wine glass, top it up with jelly and serve it to your guests who are marking you out of ten? Mmm - thought not. Anyway, it makes for good tittering and exaggerated smug faces.

I made these stuffed cabbage leaves with cabbages from my garden - which KB proclaimed "the best thing I've eaten for ages". The recipe's based on Jamie Oliver's Asian cabbage parcels but I used spring onions instead of cabbage in the filling and added coconut cream, fish sauce, sesame seeds and lime zest.

Serves 4
1 Savoy cabbage
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 fresh red chilli, halved and seeded
Small bunch coriander
Thumb-sized piece ginger, peeled
2 skinless chicken breasts (about 150g each), preferably free-range or organic, cut into large chunks
Soy sauce, to serve
1 lime, quartered
Chilli oil to serve

1. Put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Peel back the outer leaves on the cabbage. Coax and click off 8 round leaves (it doesn’t matter if they tear a little). Core the cabbage, reserving the stalk; chop cabbage into quarters and set aside. Drop the 8 leaves into the pan of boiling water for 3 minutes, or until you can pick one up and bend it easily. Remove to a tray to cool down.

2. Put your garlic, chilli, coriander, and ginger into a food processor and whiz for 30 seconds. Add a pinch of sea salt and the chopped cabbage stalk and pulse for 30 seconds to break it down a bit. Add the chicken and one quarter of the cabbage and pulse it for about 30–60 seconds so the flavours combine and you’ve got a coarse chicken mince.

3. Put a piece of clingfilm on a board and scoop the mince onto it. Divide it into 8 equal amounts. Grease a large colander with a bit of olive oil. Take a soft cabbage leaf in your hand, spoon the mince into the middle, then fold in the sides until you have a closed parcel. Lay it in the colander so the parcel holds it shape. Repeat 7 times.

4. Pour a few inches of water into a pan and put on a medium heat to boil. Place the colander on top, seal with a tight-fitting lid or some foil and steam for about 10 minutes. Don't take the lid off or you'll slow their cooking time. When the time’s up, cut one of the parcels in half and have a look – the meat will be more than cooked.

5. Serve right away with a drizzle of soy sauce, a quarter of lime and a good splurge of chilli oil.

♫ Cook along to: Cab Calloway Minnie the Moocher

This is Rhuma (above) and in the background you can see my shopping list scratched on a bit of old slate. My fellow blogger over at Designers' Block has some lovely vintage-framed chalkboards. Take a peek.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


I'm not very good at remembering names. When I'm introduced to someone, unusually for a woman I can't concentrate on a firm handshake (there's nothing worse than someone putting a limp fish in your hand - tells you so much about a person don't you think?), looking them in the eye (in France eye contact is very important - especially when clinking glasses) and take in their name all at the same time - so inevitably something has to give and it's usually the latter. As a result, when BB refers to people in the village, their various distinctions are listed in parenthesis. For example:

BB: Met so-and-so in the post office this morning.

BC: Who?

BB: (The man with the eye).

BC: Ah! Gotcha.


BB: Saw so-and-so round at Mini-B's.

BC: Who?

BB: (The woman with the beard).

BC: Ah! Gotcha.

A veritable plethora of parentheses descended upon us this afternoon and judging by the way they wobbled down the grassy slope to our patio, they had been staring at each other, gimlet-eyed, and clinking glasses well before the apéro hour. There was: (the man with the comb-over), (the man who lives in a cave), (the woman who jumped out of a window), (micro-short man), (the knitter) and Mini-B - no parenthesis needed. Who needs telly when you're living in the midst of a real life soap opera?

P.S. All the rafters are on the roof now - as you can see from the photo.