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First blush…

Ridiculous, I know, but I’m excited today because I spotted the first blush of colour on a tomato in the new vegetable patch–planted a month ago on our old compost heap.

How long from first blush to first bite?

I’m counting the days.

Depends in part on the weather.

Hot days are forecast–so perhaps not so long to wait.

Bit like opening an advent calendar, day-to-day, waiting for Christmas–agony, I remember.

And it’s not only tomatoes that are keeping me enthralled. We just ate our first  cucumber–the short stubby kind–that can be bitter, or sweet as can be.

Julien, who helps us with the garden and grows vegetables for a living, told us:

“If you pick them in the morning, they are less likely to be bitter. The unpleasantness builds up during the day.”

I’m looking for the second little beauty to mature, to test the theory.

He also advises cleaning the knife used to cut away infected leaves before moving on to the next tomato, courgette or cucumber plant.

Makes sense.

And water tomatoes rarely, he says–this encourages their roots to delve deeper and it increases the intensity of the taste. And pick them late in day when they’ve absorbed all the sunshine.

One of the courgette plants was given to us by our neighbour, Tom, and is a different variety from the other three. It resembles the lighter ridged zucchini our friend Helen uses for her courgette pasta at Boggioli, their olive farm in Tuscany.

I think it yields  a creamier sauce.

(See the AUTUMN section of my new cook book Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking, p. 158.)

Julian, normally a genial, droll character, said darkly before departing:

“I may have to pour vinegar on the plot–I’m so jealous!”.

Echoes of the film, Manon des Sources?

 

 

Winston Graham–who would have been 112 today (!)–and all things Poldark have featured in my life since the day I walked into BBC-TV Centre, for my first audition for the role of Ross Poldark in January, 1975.

Of course, I had no inkling then how significant the outcome of that test might be for me.

I wrote about it in Making Poldark:

It was a lovely sunny day, I remember, and I was going to an interview at the BBC. Another interview! I’d been to hundreds before. I’d been to three in this particular building—and I’d got all three jobs. What had my agent said? It’s for a thing called Poldark, written by a man whose name rang a bell—Winston Graham—and set in 18th century Cornwall.

I sat facing the sun in the producer’s office, my eyes twitching, and thinking of the third degree. As always happens, he covered the awkwardness of the situation by giving me an outline of the story while looking me up and down and through and through. The subtext of first interviews is always more interesting than the scene itself.

“Thanks for coming in. Of course, I’m seeing others for this part….I want to get it right—but very good to meet you at last. I’ve wanted to use you for some time.”

I found a bookshop in Gloucester Road, bought the books and attacked Ross Poldark for the rest of the afternoon.

I went through two more of these interviews and read a scene or two for the directors. By the end of the third interview I was quite keen to get the part.

The rest is history–a history that keeps refreshing itself.

Bonne Anniversaire, Winston!

I have much to thank you for.

We’ve had two Zoom online book launches of Robin Ellis’ Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking recently. The first with family and friends, was altogether a wonder of chaotic joyfulness. The second no less joyful, but a little less chaotic (practice makes almost perfect)-turned out to be more family and friends and alumni from my healthy cooking workshops.

Their faces started popping up in little rectangles on the screen from around the world: From a bear preserve on an Alaskan island; a vegetarian restaurant in Belgrade, Serbia; from a kitchen in Kent; a brownstone back garden in Manhattan; an indoor terrace garden in beautiful San Miguel de Allende in Mexico and dining tables around the UK, the USA and France.

We were forced to hold the celebration online due to the coronavirus–plans for the book tour were scuppered–but as it turned out it afforded an opportunity to bring together a larger group than we could ever otherwise have assembled.

We popped the champagne– and waved at friends and family near and far.

It was a BYO (Bring your own) dinner party (or brunch or lunch for those in North America). Some guests were invited to make a dish from the new cookbook and do a kind of “show and tell”.

Cooking workshop alumni in Minnesota actually made a video of their efforts:

Special thanks to Shelly and Lisa!

Meredith’s sister Holly was at the controls in Silicon Valley–valiantly marshaling the throng, politely asking people to use their MUTE button. (It seems actors, journalists and writers do not like to be muted!)  But it all contributed to the “chaotic joyfulness”.

If you speak on Zoom, you automatically become the face in the centre of peoples’ screens.

“If you want to make a comment pop it in the chat box,” Holly pleads…

“I never quite found the chat box,” says a friend plaintively in Rhode Island.

“Where’s that extraneous music coming from?” says a grumpy voice in London.

After a bit of investigation, Holly confirms: “From your own computer actually…!”

“Oh sorry!”

It didn’t matter.

Everyone was charmed by Meredith’s opening montage of food photos from the book, backed by Lionel Bart’s incomparable Food, Glorious Food number from Oliver!  followed by a short tour of the church which gives our rectory its name.

Our dear friend, John Willis, “interviewed” me about the new book–and NO, we are not fully vegetarian ourselves, though we lean that way.

Getting to know the cattle who calmly graze in pasture behind our house–beautiful Blonde d’Aquitaine, raised for beef, put us off meat.

My dish for this special booklaunch supper was a colourful early summer recipe dubbed My Ratatouille (p. 90 in the new book) which omits aubergines and courgettes.

I chose it for both its colours and its deliciousness (but then all the recipes are delicious–that is the sine qua non to get into the book!)

This new cookbook–my fourth–is available now in the UK.

The official publication date in the USA is Aug 18th–but if you order from The Book Depository, they will deliver it free around the world.

Thanks to my editor at Little, Brown, Tom Asker, Copy editor Amanda Keats, Duncan Proudfoot who has seen all my books into print and Andrew Baron, the designer of the last two. And finally, thanks to my wife, Meredith, who has taken all the photographs while the food got cold….

Published!

Today’s the day!!

Robin Ellis’ Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking emerges into the sunlight–my fourth cookbook:

A joyful day for Meredith (photographer, chief-taster and bottle-washer) and me (writer and cook).

It is available now on Amazon.ukFoyles, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Hive and The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) and from good bookstores. It’s available as an ebook too!

(In North American, the publication date is not until August 18th–but The Book Depository will send it to you NOW.)

The recipes are simple, seasonal and do not have long lists of ingredients.  Dare I say they are delicious too?

Meredith and I are not fully paid up veggies but we’ve both enjoyed this voyage of discovery ’round the Mediterranean Sea.

The ingredients are often similar in the different countries that border the sparkling waters, but the treatment varies–like the difference between a French omelette and an Italian frittata.

Herbs and spices feature strongly; olive oil is the cooking medium and the sun an ever-present element, ripening the ingredients and honing the flavours.

Our new vegetable patch is bursting to show off its wares. (“Me, Me–I’m ripe!“) and this book provides plenty of ideas for what to do with them!

We planted it this year on an old compost heap–and here is the BEFORE and AFTER:

Bon appetit!

Castres‘ Saturday morning market is a major event.

It attracts locals–alarmingly known as Castraises–and weekend visitors, among them the occasional cluster of rugby fans from Angleterre visiting for the match against erstwhile national champions Castres Olympic.

As well as offering a stunning source of local, fresh produce, it serves as a chance to meet friends, share a coffee or apéro [apéritif] in one of the bars that surround Place Jean Jaurès in centre ville.

It’s teeming by 10am with slow-moving crowds, greeting friends in the traditional French fashion of shaking hands or kissing on both cheeks (sometimes twice) in normal times–but these are NOT normal times.

After a 10-week absence in lockdown due to the virus threat, I’m back, wearing a mask.

I still get there early to bag the best, and move more freely from stall to stall.

There has been some rearranging of stalls to aid social distancing–but relative location has been more or less respected–important for punters to find their favourites.

Our great friend and neighbour, Flo, is an unlucky exception.  She and her marvelous spice stall have been radically re-located.

She is not happy about it.

Flo at her spice stand in happier times

Not everyone is masked now—though most traders are and shoppers must point to the courgette they fancy rather than sort through the pile.

I locate all my usual vendors and favor a few new ones.

There’s a seasonal limit to the vegetables on offer–summer’s bounty is some weeks off. Courgettes are featuring strongly and aubergines are making their shiny black presence felt for the first time since late autumn.

I’m hoping for broad beans next week and young artichokes so I can make Vignerola–the marvelous Roman vegetable stew–which features in my new book: Robin Ellis’ Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking, published on 25th June (and available for pre-order now via various booksellers*).

The atmosphere is convivial, despite everyone looking slightly confused and discombobulated.

Queues run differently, stalls face the opposite direction than B.C. (Before Coronavirus!), voices are muffled.

All that said–it is good to have a little of the old life impose itself on the new.
Nevertheless…
“My kingdom for a ripe tomato!

*The new cookbook can be pre-ordered at any of these booksellers–and for those not in the UK, free worldwide delivery via The Book Depository/.

Amazon

Blackwell’s

Foyles

Hive

Waterstones

I just dug a grave for a squirrel.

Two graves in fact–both in shady cool spots.

In which hollow it finds a final resting place–is a decision that must wait  Meredith’s return from her Memorial Day ceremonies.

The fully grown red squirrel with its long bushy tail, made me jump as I swung the watering can round, early this morning.

There it was, lying peacefully stretched out and unmauled–at the corner of the vegetable patch; like a perfect specimen in a taxidermist’s shop.

No doubt a cadeau [a present] for Meredith–thought one of our six, well-enough-fed cats.

The reds are one of the many joys of living here in southwest France. They lift the spirits with their antics in the trees and their hop-along gait.

We’ve a mulberry tree dropping its tiny ripe black berries on the lawn and the roof of the car; that’s what attracted the poor mite. It ate one too many, too close to the ground and BANG!

We’ll find  a stone or heavy tree stump to mark the spot–not far from its last temptation–and place some flowers there.  Meredith planned to do the same this morning– honouring the fallen.

Mulberry trees are a source of food for silkworms (leaves) and squirrels (berries).

It’s the fruit of its beautiful, deep-red cousin that I covert.

Succulent, melt-in-the-mouth delicious; they are too delicate to harvest in large quantities. I’ve never seen them in the markets here.

Best to know a private mulberry tree–and not tell anyone about it!

Schoolfriend Chris Fordyce and I feasted–like the squirrel–from the overhanging branches of just such a tree, on the  outsikirts of Delphi in Greece–in 1961!

We reached up with bare arms–popping them straight into our hungry mouths.

There was no disguising our indulgence as we quickly signed the youth hostel register for the night, trying to hide our red-stained hands.

When Meredith returned from the ceremony–we agreed the appropriate resting place was under the mulberry tree; on the fringe of our cat cemetery.

We heard this morning that June 25th is the day my new book is officially LAUNCHED!

No dry dock smashing of champagne bottles or the equivalent book launch parties this time–circumstances don’t allow.

Just a heartfelt virtual heave.

Maybe later when the virus has met its match and it feels the right moment we’ll take a trip to Cornwall–Truro, where Meredith and I had planned a return to Waterstones and to meet up with everyone, as we have with previous books.

Meredith–who appropriately has just started a vegetable garden–repeats her triumph with the last cookbook, supplying all the photographs–upstaging me shamelessly. It looks beautiful, with the photos doing their job of making you want to cook the dishes shown.

Over a 100 recipes from round the circumference of the Mediterranean–many with the same components cooked in different traditional ways–the sun nearly always topping of the list of ingredients.

The book is written season by season–the way I like to cook–starting with Spring.

The recipes are simple with approachable ingredients lists.

It is available now for pre–order on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

As I start to write, a woodpecker—yellow, black and red—is performing an Olympic gymnastic routine on the bars of the bird feeder to reach the seed-ball suspended from the top of the cone.

Now hanging upside seedball, s/he has no concern for modesty as its beautiful underbelly is exposed. It is making several trips–I guess because hanging upside down is not its accustomed attachment technique and it gets weary.

It’s just one of the shows in town, during this period of lockdown, that has required us to stay put for the last TWO months.

The backdrop to this open air theatre–maybe the only form of theatre to survive this pandemic–is the scenery. Lots of rain followed by lots of sun and the result is an explosion of green growth. Spring has been in her pomp this year–lucky for us!

Last night, after a day of heavy rain, I heaved a soaking wicker chair indoors to dry it out. An hour later a “walk” (I looked it up!) of confused snails dropped off their unsought means of transport, enacting a show of slow formation dancing that could have done with more rehearsal. Their necks were at full stretch as they abandoned the routine and headed across the tiles for the front door. One by one, I helped them to a place of greater safety–a  circle of greenery in the courtyard.

Our two senior cats, Beau and Ben, are being particularly present through all this. Perhaps astonished to see so much of us at a time of the year when normally we might be away from home for a stretch.

Ben slept an hour in my lap yesterday afternoon, forcing me to watch an episode of Better Call Saul on NetlixI wasn’t able to move, you understand.

He and Beau have been seen to punctuate their progress out of window or door with a skip or two–just for la joie de vivre it seems. (The little sack of catnip may have helped put a spring in their paws.)

I’ve had some time to feast on more than food during lockdown. Music from another era, for example.

The Grateful Dead hove into view on Youtube a couple of days ago.

I put the earphones on–the Dead are not to everyone’s taste–and was reminded of the genius of Jerry Garcia.

Seeing him and his hair, I make a link with the present. There are some neighbours I don’t recognise on my walks until–click, click, click–it dawns on me who they are! No-one’s been chez le coiffeur for weeks–me included!

download-1

RIP and merci, Jerry.

Meredith posted a moving tribute to her father on the occasion of his 106th birthday  (May 4th–he died aged 70). Prompted by the commemoration of the 75th VE Day, she wrote about his experience in the war and how it affected his life afterwards.

VE (Victory in Europe)Day May 8th 1945

I was three years, five months on May 8th 1945 and living with my mother in a friend’s house in Putney SW London. Molly, my mum, had celebrated her thirtieth birthday the day before.

I have no memory of these momentous days or asking about them as the years passed.

I am a history major but never grilled Dad about what he did in the war and he was never forthcoming. Too late now.

Dad, my father–(Tony) may or may not have been there on VE Day.

April 1938 Molly and Tony on their honeymoon*

 

Young Dad–RAF trainee

He’d spent the previous nine months in the States training to be a fighter pilot based at Falcon Field, Mesa, NE of Phoenix, Arizona; where he’d “won his wings” on April 1st 1945.

Maybe he was on his way back to Blighty. How lucky for him and Molly and me that the war in Europe ended a month later on May 8th.

Aircraftsman 1st class Tony Ellis, had been ground staff until he was recruited to train as a flyer. He was posted  ’round the country as needed. I was born in Ipswich on the east coast and saw Edinburgh and Leamington Spa from my pram before setting in Hammersmith.

No great exploits, I guess, no derring-do’s.

He must have, however, let slip the story, that one day, on a training flight in Arizona, he flew solo through the Grand Canyon–an action strictly verboten and uncharacteristic of my father whose mantra in life as communicated to his three sons was–don’t rock the boat!

It took me over 70 years get a true understanding of what he had done, albeit in a small commercial helicopter with a pilot and Meredith and her sister Holly on board. It took our breath away!

He was 28 when left Molly and me and went west. He wrote long, tender letters to her telling her how much he loved her and how he missed us both– but he was clearly seduced by the American way. 

He brought back 78rpm reckerds…

Country music—Hank Williams; Roy Acuff; railroad balladeer, Jimmie Rogers.  

I loved Jimmie Rogers singing his hobo songs and listening Dad mimicking the sad, resigned yodelling refrains.

He’s in the jailhouse now, he’s in the jailhouse now–Ahh lee odle edly ee.

I didn’t learn much about the war but Dad with his Arizona tan and his gentle humour instilled in me a love of things American I couldn’t explain and set me on a life changing path.


*This photo was taken on their honeymoon and a story from the family history jar is that they took the boat out for an innocent row on the sea and were capsized by a basking shark (not dangerous apparently, except to non-swimmers!).

Not satisfied with the drama of that, they both got chickenpox!

Thirty years ago–about this time of the year–we walked into a courtyard and fell in love with a house.

Well, I did, for sure.

It was second coup de foudre (thunder bolt) for me in four years–guess who was the first..!

Four hours later, in the retirement home of Meredith’s ex–ABC TV colleague, the veteran anchor and correspondent Hughes Rudd, I phoned the owner of the breathtaking, life-altering, irresistible home and agreed to pay the asking price.

Back in London I heard myself telling brother Jack I’d bought a house in France.

This was the courtyard and this the house.

(Cover photo Meredith Wheeler!)

We are still here and I have never regretted the impulse to buy.

My fourth cookbook (all written in this house) is scheduled for publication in late June.

Robin Ellis’s Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking

Delicious Seasonal Dishes for Living With Diabetes

(available on pre-order now on Amazon.co.uk)

(Little, Brown UK)

 

Here’s the link to the magazine (there is no free link to the article itself).