Fennel gratin

“They don’t look too promising….” was Meredith’s verdict on the three fennel bulbs I had lined up on the chopping board.

I admit they looked like someone who’d had an extreme haircut.


(My guess: Frost had got the tops, so the make-up & hair department prettied them up for market!)

Appearances can be deceptive, as my mother must have cautioned me.

The customary clean-up revealed their core to be firm and useable.


They served perfectly.

Always on the lookout for “one-dish wonders“,  I found this one in Rose Elliott’s classic The Bean Book.

I treasure both my Rose Elliott books–the other being Not Just a Load of Lentils.

A prolific cookbook author, she has written over sixty books!

The topping here is red lentils and onions cooked down to resemble yellow mashed potatoes:


A sprinkling of parmesan and wholewheat breadcrumbs finishes off the dish so it browns nicely.


It worked so well, I plan to try it over seafood to create the classic fish pie that I’ve been missing since I was diagnosed with Type 2.

Oh boy! This opens up a whole new horizons!

I shall go pie-mad experimenting with this!


Serves 4

  • 6 oz red lentils–washed clear and drained
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion–chopped
  • 400 ml stock–I use organic vegetable stock cubes (14 fluid ounces or  just under two cups)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1lb fennel bulbs (after removing outer leaves and coring)–chopped into large chunks
  • salt and pepper
  • a tablespoon each of wholewheat breadcrumbs and grated parmesan, mixed–more if you like.
  • juice of half a lemon

Choose a presentable oven proof dish and lightly oil or butter the base.

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F.

In a medium saucepan, sauté the onion in the olive oil with the bay leaf until opaque–five minutes or so–stirring occasionally.

Add the drained lentils and stir in the stock.

Cook them, covered, over a gentle heat until they have softened and formed a loose mash.

Let it cool a bit then blitz with a hand-held blender to a smooth consistency like mashed potatoes.

Mix in the lemon juice.

In another saucepan cook the fennel chunks in enough lightly salted water to cover until just tender.

Remove them with a slotted spoon and transfer to the oven-bound serving dish.

Season well with salt and black pepper and turn them over thoroughly.

Spread the lentil mash evenly over the fennel and finish with a sprinkling of the parmesan and breadcrumb mixture.


Drizzle over some olive oil and place in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes.

It should come out with a lovely sizzling brown top.


Serve as a main dish or as an accompaniment.


It was a perfect foil for some left-over red bean chili (another simple wonder from Rose Elliott) the other night.







Meredith doesn’t recognize “wary”, be it dog or human, when she senses need.

I published this last year and the story bears repeating.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING  à tout le monde!


Meredith and I were at the La Gare in Castres some weeks back seeing our friends Anne and Ray from Maryland onto their midday train to Toulouse.

Double seat benches faced each other in the waiting area–perfect for two couples.

Problem was that on one of the benches sat a hooded figure hunched forward, asleep perhaps–his face hidden, anyway showing no signs of being about to move.

Not a threatening presence exactly but hooded figures give you pause.

It was a chilly early autumn day. He was wearing shorts and sandals and a plastic bag rested at his side.

When the train arrived, the four of us made our way onto the platform with the other waiting passengers.

Mr Hooded Figure followed amid the general animation, fearing perhaps being moved on unless he gave the impression he was traveling too.

We said our goodbyes to Ray and Anne and headed back towards the hall.

Meredith looked for Mr HF.

He was sitting on a bench on the platform still hooded looking straight ahead; unfocused, dazed, unengaged–certainly benign but lost and hungry, Meredith thought.

She made her first move.

For this story is about the moves that Meredith makes that others (like me) might not always leap up to make.

I said I’d get the car started–wary of being too eager a samaritan.

Meredith doesn’t recognize “wary”, be it dog or human, when she senses need.

She went up to him and asked if he’d like something to eat and drink.

He said he would and they made their way to the little news stand where the refrigerated shelf held sandwiches and salads.

He said he just wanted water but Meredith persuaded him to accept a small tabbouleh salad with the bottle of water.

She was also concerned about his state of mind and asked him if he wanted to see a doctor or go to the hospital.

He eventually agreed to go to the hospital.

My face when she turned up with him was a picture, she says.

She explained the situation and the young man got into the back of the car.

I said “Bonjour Monsieur”; took a deep breath and set off.

When we arrived at the hospital Meredith accompanied him into “Urgences”, the emergency reception.

I parked the car and hung out.

It took a while.

When she came out she said she’d left him waiting to see a doctor.

To her surprise he’d produced his identity card and carte vitale (health system card) from a deep pocket in his shorts, when asked by reception.

She later went back to the hospital with a bag of clothes but found that he had been discharged–to her dismay.

The receptionist said the doctor who’d dealt with him was busy with other patients and she’d have to wait.

After 45 minutes she reluctantly gave up and drove home.

She later found him on Facebook and left a message wishing him well and hoping he was alright.

Last week she received this email from him.

Bonjour, je suis la personne que vous avez aidée à la gare de Castres.

Merci pour votre humanité et votre gentillesse.
Je vous souhaite une bonne continuation.

She found this quote from Voltaire to include in her reply:

La vie est un naufrage, mais nous ne devons pas oublier de chanter dans les canots de sauvetage

“Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats!”

The beat goes on…

Yesterday Meredith made another trip to Toulouse with two American friends to deliver “stuff” for needy Syrian refugees as winter sets in.


Café Plum in Lautrec was buzzing on Thursday evening.

It is a bar with a bohemian air, set up a few years ago in the old village school house–spacious and welcoming. It doubles as a bookshop–bookshelves floor to ceiling–browsing between courses encouraged.

The arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau and the prospect of a rousing gig from favorite sons, The Narvalos–nine local musicians with a reputation for playing long and hard–a perfect match for the atmosphere of unspoken defiance and determination that life must proceed as normal.

Nothing said, but clearly–no surrender.

Autumn is in and the trees are almost bare–though not the oaks, always the last to shed.

No stopping that either–winter is coming.


Les Narvelos. Local press describes them–“Neuf instruments sur scène et une énergie toujours présente dans ce groupe où les textes défendent l’art du bien vivre ensemble.”

The Narvelos–not sure why the name–were on song Thursday from the start, playing a brilliant set of high energy French popular music, most their own–sort of chansons that rock.

There was a feeling of comradeship–long term–that spread out from the bandstand to encompass us all.

We were all Narvelos Thursday night!

We left at 11pm– but the party went on ’til 4am we heard!

The next night Café Plum were the promoters of a different sort of gig–in the village church–a imposing building with an elaborate baroque interior. The bells strike the hour twice and still summon the faithful, but the church struggles these days to fill the pews.

Friday night though there is a fair turn-out for the concert of songs from the Basque country that borders the Atlantic–four hours to the west of us.

Unaccompanied singing in close harmony–acapella or polyphonie.


Vox Bigerri*

The five men in the group–their black outfits encouraging a feeling of monkish brotherhood–start singing at the back of the church and make their way up the nave, glancing at one another, as though in conversation as they proceed–confirmation of their experience and fraternity.

Their formation–who stands next to whom–changes, the harmonies enhanced by the appropriate proximity.

For one song four of them form a close circle–arms held loosely round their waists.

The leader–Pascal Caumont–introduces each song as though he’s talking to you in your living room–then taps his small tuning fork, puts it to his ear, emitting an almost imperceptible oumm–which the others appear to pick up in their heads.


Then that quiet glance to each other again before the inward breath and the perfect synchronized start.

Their harmonies are daring and mesmerizing and like the Narvalos they communicate a sense of mutual trust for each other, earned over a long period of practice and performance; not too much to call it–love.

Before gifting us an encore they modestly promote their CDs and hint that they might wind down at Café Plum with more.

We head over there and are rewarded.

Vive la France! Vive la Musique– mais surtout, vive L’Harmonie!

*I apologize for misspelling the name of Vox Bigerri under the first photo in my original post.







We took Pippa to the vet this week, where she quietly slipped away.

We believe it was a relief for her; her life was not a life anymore.

Her last day was a sunny one–a brilliant autumn day where her ginger coat fitted right in with the colors around her.

Polite as ever she yawned a “good morning” in reply to mine and we breakfasted together on the terrace–although I was the one eating.

She was always a companionable cat.

Midnight joined her in a sunny spot near the church, keeping her company as if repaying her for all the times she had done the same for others.

Later she would make to move again, but her back legs would not obey instructions.

She stayed half up and half down, finding it hard to understand why her legs would not respond.

In the evening she had another fit–more serious this time–and she cried out.

It was time. We took her into Castres at 8h30pm.

It was out of hours and the streets were quiet.

The vet, who was gentle and understanding, said she had never known a week like this–so many older animals brought in.

Dear Pip looked at peace.

We brought her home in a cardboard box.

Our best friends and neighbors, Thierry and Flo, came over in the morning. Pippa was born in their house 17 years ago.

Thierry dug the grave under the trees. She was joining her offspring, Marmalade and Little Mother–Lucien too whom she had adopted and suckled years before.

Her shroud was an orange and yellow silk scarf and Meredith surrounded her with little autumn flowers.




Midnight pays his respects.










Pippa in a basket that could have been purpose-made!

Pippa, our great survivor mother cat, is 84.

I always thought multiplying a cat’s age by seven gave you an approximation of their equivalent human age.

Not according to a flyer Meredith picked up at our local veterinary surgery.

Assume that a 1-year-old cat is equal to a 15-year-old human and a 2-year-old cat is equal to a 24-year-old human. Then add four years for every year after that. 

She is 17 years old which works out to 84 if you follow the formula above.

Pippa has outlived her offspring by some time–[see posts to Marmalade and Butterscotch (Little mother).]

But she has been a worry lately.

Spending most of the summer outdoors–even the nights.

This is a cat that’s a homebody.

She sleeps on the bed.

She’s there when you’re feeling sick and stays–keeping vigil.

Pippa rules, has ruled–she’s a Queen of cats.


The table top is her throne room or at least the higher ground [window sill above] when other lesser cats are present.

Tolerant but not a push-over–she’ll show her disapproval and walk away.

(She has an aversion to singing–she’ll leave the room.)

The other morning she wasn’t to be found and Meredith started thinking the worst.

Cats, we have learned, start distancing themselves “when the time comes”.

We worry about knowing when the time has come.

Our friend Theresa, who has some experience of this (her cat Billy lived to a great age), helpfully suggested that if Pippa had an appetite for food, it was not yet the time.

Pippa still likes to eat, though she feels like a bag of bones when we stroke her.

Meredith has persuaded her that indoors is better now that autumn is here and the nights are cold and the mornings frosty.

She even bought some cat-warming comforters to relax an old body into sleep and Pippa has shown her appreciation by using them.

Thin she may be but it’s not over yet–the door’s still open.










This weekend the classic comedy series Fawlty Towers celebrates its 40th birthday!

In December 1974 John Cleese cast me as cockney detective Danny Brown in the pilot episode of the series that is now celebrated as one of the great comedy shows of TV history.


Quite why he cast me I have never been able to figure out–until this morning!

The only time I’d met him before was when we were both in an undergraduate production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Trevor Nunn at Cambridge University in 1961. Although we were both in the same scene–Act IV Scene II–I can’t remember spending any time with him.

He was on the comedy side of university theatre in The Footlights and I was on the straight side, the ADC–the Amateur Dramatic Club.

This morning I pulled out my volume of The Works of Shakespeare (purchased, second hand, in 1960)–and looked up the scene.

John played a member of the Watch (comedy) and I was Borachio (straight)–a henchman of the villainous Don John.

Borachio and his fellow fixer, Conrad, are being arraigned by Constable Dogberry, having been caught red-handed by members of the watch.

Was John so impressed with my cockney accent that 13 years later he reincarnated a reformed Borachio as Detective Danny Brown?!

I was too nervous to ask him in rehearsal–seems the likely explanation though.

A week’s TV work just before Christmas after three years earning peanuts in the theatre was very welcome.

But it involved recording in front of a studio audience–something I’d never done–and I was nervous!

Snooty Basil didn’t like having his hotel foyer polluted with Danny’s broad Cockney accent, but was forced to show him a bit of respect when, failing to make Manuel–the waiter–understand his instructions to take the luggage upstairs–Danny steps into the breach with a surprising display of fluent Spanish.


I don’t speak Spanish–so I learned the lines by rote.

Come the “take”–nails biting into my palms–I managed a faultless rendition of the Spanish lines–only to be told by the floor manager that there was a camera in shot–and we would have to go again!


There I am on the DVD, speaking fluent Spanish, so I must have managed it again–but I have no memory of it!


I had just been cast as Ross Poldark and after Christmas began work on the epic that changed my life.

It wasn’t the end of Fawlty Towers for me though.

The pilot was approved and the series got the go-ahead. Six half-hour episodes were in the can, but a late plot change involving Polly–played by Connie Booth, John’s writing partner and wife at the time–meant they had to re-record part of my dinner scene exchange with Polly.

My hair had grown and changed color for Poldark–so for one afternoon at Television Centre in mid-summer, they dyed my hair dark brown and pinned it up at the back–and I was briefly Cockney Danny Brown again.


I just read a newspaper piece about the anniversary, in which actor Nicky Henson, who appeared in a later episode, rejoices that 40 years later the residuals (those were the days!) are still enhancing his pension.


Nicky Henson with John Cleese

I concur–we were lucky boys!

I doubt playing Borachio has ever paid off so well in the life of an actor!






I went walnutting this morning after the rain.

Beautiful heavy drops plomping straight down into the cats’ drinking bowls with a splash.

The sort of rain that can topple a walnut from the tree before it is quite ready to fall–thus making an early expedition to walnut alley worthwhile.

A big wind blew last night as we went to bed–violently shaking the trees.

Then rain this morning–a perfect scenario for a seasoned walnutter.


Came back with two sacks (five pounds!) of walnuts–freed them from their outer cases–and a good feeling.


Hosed them down and decanted them into a filigreed steel basket to sit in the sun.


Now for lunch.

I made the walnut pasta two days ago for Meredith to photograph for the next book–Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics–due out in the Spring.

We didn’t feel like eating it just then–but I had a plan… (see below)


Here is the original recipe which is beautifully simple.


Spaghettini with Walnut, Garlic and Parmesan Sauce

 serves 4
  • 100g/4oz shelled walnuts – be careful, if you shell them yourself, to avoid any teeth-cracking bits being left in
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 1 tbsp parsley, chopped, plus a little extra parsley
  • salt and pepper
  • 5 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to serve
  • 1 tbsp walnut oil
  • 425g/14oz wholewheat spaghettini or spaghetti
  • 100g/4oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra to serve

Put the walnuts, garlic and parsley in a food processor, season with salt and pepper, add the oils and pulse to a sauce of this texture:


Add the grated cheese and mix.


Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water.

Drain it– keeping a little of the cooking liquid– and put the pasta back in the hot pan.

Add the sauce and a tablespoon of the cooking liquid (i.e. hot, salted water) and turn it over thoroughly.

Turn it into a warmed bowl and sprinkle with extra parsley.

Serve immediately with more olive oil and Parmesan to hand.


It’s a favorite pasta for us!

Two days later and…

I’m lightly sautéing half the spaghettini in walnut sauce (half because there are only two of us) to go with a small salad of sliced tomatoes gathered from our garden–another harvest this morning.


Panfried Walnut Pasta (for leftovers!)

(This pasta lends itself to re-use, crisping up nicely for a crunchy bite.)

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium sauté pan.

When the oil is hot, slip in the pasta.

Cook this over a medium heat for about 5 or 6 minutes. The bottom should be crispy brown.


Turn this over carefully with a spatula and cook the other side to a similar effect.

Halve the pancake (I find scissors work well!) and divide between two plates.



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