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First question–before I even sit down in my doctor’s office to discuss my annual comprehensive test results:

“What did you do with that turnip?”

Shows where my priorities lie!

Flashback: We’d bumped into each other at the vegetable stall in Lautrec a few days earlier.

I’d not seen Michel there before. Usually he’s on the road doing his rounds at that hour, making house calls.

He had bought a single medium size turnip–the beautiful purple and cream variety.

It was the singularity of the purchase that intrigued.

And turnips were on my mind.

The day after the Lautrec meeting, a stall-holder in Castres market had tucked two black turnips into the brown paper bag holding my other purchases from him.

Cadeau!” he’d said [Gift!]–a generous gesture, as I hadn’t spent more than five euros.

Ungenerously, I could speculate that this variety is be more difficult to sell on its looks.

Nonetheless, an encouragement to return the following week to his excellent stall.


Michel, the GP–bucked by the way our rendezvous had kicked off–and delighted by the diversion from yet another routine examination, launches into a detailed account of what he did with his beautiful cousin of my navet noire [black turnip].

The test results are shoved firmly onto the back burner–while he regales me with how he made his ravishing poisson au sauce de navet” [fish with turnip sauce]. (!!!)

A pause, while we both metaphorically digest this delicacy.

We then both get up– as a gesture to getting on with the real purpose of the visit–and edge towards the examination couch.

The turnips will not lie down though.

Happy for further delay, I ask Michel about what to do with my navet noire.

The upshot being not too different from what to do with his purple-cheeked cousin.

As he finally gets to listen to the interior workings of my chest through his stethoscope, I mention that to describe someone as a turnip in England is not polite.

Oui, it has other less-than-complimentary meanings in French too,” he says.

Then he chuckles as he indicates the weighing machine.

“Natalie [his wife] will be amused when she hears about our meeting–be sure to tell Meredith, too!”

We resume our seats at his desk and he writes out my quarterly prescription; leafing through my results, he gives me the thumbs up.

Just before I leave he says:

“You bought a cabbage last Friday. I love cabbage. What did you do with it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy and productive New Year à tout le monde!

And–as they say here in France–surtout Bonne Santéabove all, good health!

There was a piece in The Guardian yesterday puffing a new book of hints on writing by well-known authors.

It caught my eye, because I’ve been feeling the need of bit of a push to get started again.

Four days into 2018 seems as good a time as any to re-launch with this my 700th postspurred on by advice from Muriel Spark:

  GET A CAT

If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat.

Alone with the cat in the room where you work….The cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle under the desk lamp.

The light from a lamp…gives the cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding.

And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost.

You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, and very mysterious.

 

Ben, our mercurial black-as-black-can-be cat, has taken to snoozing on some papers to my left on the desk.

Nothing much disturbs him, as Ms Spark observes, and he is a reassuring, friendly presence.

So I realise I’m ahead of the game. I already have a cat and replacements if–heaven forbid–I should need them.

No excuse then.

To paraphrase John Cleese’s less-than-polite encouragement to the diners at Fawlty Towers Hotel: Get on with your writing!

Just checking!

Wish me luck!

 

My granny’s bloomers

Last night I sat unknowingly on the small piece of 90% cacao chocolate.

I have it after meals–along with 2 dried apricots–the untreated, darker ones–and a dried fig.

When I rose from the sofa, Meredith thought I’d had a heavy nose bleed–thinking the dark material on my face and hand was blood.

She was greatly relieved when she realized it was chocolatebut dismayed that there was a substantial stain on the sofa cushion.

She told me not to panic and cooly wiped the chocolate off the sofa.

When I got up a second time, OH calamity, there was the stainrestored!

I wiped my hand across the seat of my black sweat pants–and realized that the wretched piece of chocolate had stuck like a limpet to my nicely warmed-up bottom, and was still a threat to cushions everywhere I sat.

I cursed–upset by my stupidity–and annoyed that I’d missed out eating the chocolate. 

Meredith calmly came to the rescue, a second time.

The trousers went in the wash basket.

This morning I put on a second pair of sweats/trousers that are very comfortable–but have no pockets to keep a handkerchief.

I had to tuck my hanky in the chorded belt that keeps them up.

This triggered a memory:

It transported me to Eastbourne in the 1950s where my beloved grandmother (Granny) lived in a room at a seafront hotel. She used to stand with her back to the gas fire, whip up her skirts, exposing a large amount of pink silk and warm herself, sometimes retrieving the hanky she kept in the elastic round her knickers.

Knickers is not an accurate description–undergarments would be nearer the mark.

I remember…Ahh! could they have been bloomers?

The arrangements, as one might delicately call them, were such that there was nothing in the least shocking about this course of action–even to a seven-year-old.

Not shocking–more surprising to witness.

I had never seen mother do anything like this.

So not knickers exactly–but good old-fashioned bloomers.

I was more careful with the chocolate tonight.

 

 

 

 

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Road to Lautrec–a 45-minute play for radio–is broadcast this Thursday 30th November at 2.15pm on BBC Radio 4.

You can also listen on line: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gkcsm)

We spent two delightful days earlier in October rehearsing and recording this play under the guidance of one of the Beeb’s most famous radio directors, Jane Morgan.

The cast (l to r): Bronte Tadman, Pierre Elliott, Jane Morgan (Director), Nigel Anthony (wonderful comic relief), me, Emma Cunniffe and Cheryl Campbell.

 

At the Acton studio recording with Emma Cunniffe, recently seen in the West End in Queen Anne.

Radio 4 describes the play this way: Three oddly-assorted people from a London cookery course visit the village of Lautrec in southwestern France during its annual pink garlic festival, staying with a local ex-pat [me! A.k.a. Colin].
What follows is a comic romance of gastronomy, lost love and prodigious amounts of garlic and rosé wine–played out in an extraordinary place, under the shadow of Brexit.
“Ah, Lautrec, I remember it well,” says Mary  (Cheryl Campbell) as she recalls a memorable trip to southwestern France as a student decades earlier–and a certain French boy…. 

It was a joy to work with Cheryl Campbell–winner of both a BAFTA and Olivier Awards.

The production team all travelled to Lautrec (my home for over 18 years) in August, to record the real sounds and ambience of the garlic festival, which form the backdrop for the drama.

The village dinner is a high point, and about one thousand visitors and residents attend. The radio crew includes (on the left) Matt Peaty, the sound recordist; (our friend Marc Urquhart);  Frank Stirling, the producer on the back right; Jane Morgan, the director and veteran radio director; and Douglas Livingstone, the author who had to come up with a drama about all this!

 

I meet the village Mascot.

 

L’ail rose de Lautrec–Pink Garlic from Lautrec–the signature crop of our village and famous throughout France.

 

The longest strand of Garlic in the world–over 23 meters!

Here is the winning strand being paraded down the road in Lautrec to the village outdoor dinner:

 

Somehow Douglas made a touching story about all this….Hope you’ll tune in!

You’re invited to the Channel Island of Jersey, just off the Brittany coast–to a special charity event for Diabetes Jersey at the Merton Hotel, Oct 11 or 12, 2017 (it’s repeated Wednesday & Thursday evenings).

Recipes and Recollections–A Delicious Night with Robin Ellis

Here’s the info from the Merton Hotel’s website.


 

(My books.)

On stage with me will be Robert Hall, a senior BBC correspondent, who will pepper me with questions while I season various demonstration dishes.

We’ll talk inevitably about Poldark, cooking, diabetes, France and Fawlty Towers perhaps…

(Robert was John Cleese’s “co-star of choice” when he appeared at the Opera House for his sell-out Audience with John Cleese evenings.)

 

 

 

The one vegetable I will not be cooking sadly is a Jersey Royal potatoes.

I remember my mother preparing these jewels of the potato family back in the fifties, when we’d enjoy a feast of “Jersey Royals” with a piece of white fish from the Macfisheries shop at the entrance to the Golders Green Tube Station.

They needed little addition–white sauce would have been an insult to the delicate taste. Perhaps a knob of butter and a sprinkle of parsley. Ma used to serve them unpeeled.

Delicious–but not a goer for me now.

Potatoes are one of the “whites”  I avoid as a type 2 diabetic; their concentrated carbohydrate puts them off-limits.

Others are: white rice, white pasta, white bread and white flourrefined carbs.

Don’t lose heart though–I shall be cooking up a storm…BROWN basmati rice is fine occasionally, as is wholewheat pasta, certain whole wheat and rye breads and chick pea flour.

Cooking school in Lautrec always started with a glass of bubbly.

 

I’ll be preparing the most popular recipe in my entire repertoire:  No-potato fishcakes:

Also planning on preparing no meat, too-simple-to-believe Red Bean Chili:

A delicious black olive dip from Provence called Tapinade:

And a lovely cold summer soup–Chilled Cucumber, gifted to me by my old friend and fellow Poldark alumnus, Donald Douglas (the fiery and thoroughly untrustworthy Captain McNeil, who pursued me as Ross Poldark, up hill and down dale, with no success–so finally gave up–and settled in a house an hour north of us here.

 

 

There’s a Pork Loin roasted with red onions and balsamic vinegar, a Chicken Tagine and plein d’autres chose [much else] as they say here in France.

Stuffed peppers are also an easy favorite I’ll be demonstrating:

 

Dinner is included in the event– and the kitchens of the Merton hotel are putting on a banquet with recipes from my cookbooks–so you can try them out!

I’ll be autographing books too, of course.

Here’s further info for reservations and tickets.

I’m looking forward to my first visit to Jersey and so is Meredith, my wife.

On va se voir bientôt, j’espère!

See you there…!

The key to the church…

…is in our hands!

Signed and sealed–the deal is done, completed; the church next to our rectory is ours.

I find this an astonishing thing to write.

Owning a church was never an ambition–I have no allegiance–not since spending three hours on my knees at St Jude’s Church Hampstead Garden Suburb (High Anglican) for Good Friday service in the late 1950’s.

An act of pure exhibitionism–no wonder I became an actor.

In 1990 we fell in love with this house, a presbytère (the priest’s residence) with its church just next door–and a cemetery (could come in handy later).

The church is close–a few steps from our front gate.

A benign presence in our fairy tale since 1990–and an everyday one since moving here permanently in 1999.

Twice a year–on Easter Monday and at All Saints (November)–the curé of Lautrec came to say mass to a dwindling number of parishioners.

Funeral services were held from time to time, before burial in the cemetery à coté.

Our neighbors, Alice and Pierrette, made a terrible racket ringing the bells on Christmas Eve–frightening Père Noel out of his wits. The reindeer bolted!

About 15 years ago, a small piece of the vaulted ceiling fell–and the church was closed permanently–and essentially abandoned.

There is a slowly widening fissure in the outer walls one of the side chapels. Birds and bats took up residence inside.

Nonetheless it withstood whirlwind and tempest–and still stands–almost intact.

We are proud of our modest church–not old by French standards–built around 1860.

But three years ago the fairy tale took a less than benign turn.

Our newly-elected Mayor, a local garlic farmer whose parents are buried in the cemetery, announced he was keen to sell it!

All churches in France have been the property of the state since 1905–when an act separating Church and State became law in France.

(Would it were true in the UK–what are the bishops doing in the House of Lords?)

Lautrec needed the money and the now-derelict church was a burden, according to Monsieur le Maire. He was well within his rights.

Several buyers were interested in converting it to a domestic space–and thus becoming our cheek-by-jowl neighbors.

Our hackles were roused.

After an anxious year, we agreed to the asking price and shook hands with the Mayor.

Whoopeewe thought.

That was over two years ago!

French bureaucracy is a world beater–the notaire and the mayor wholeheartedly agreed on Thursday morning, as we both signed the final act of sale and shook hands again.

He wants the cash to improve the primary school and other good works around the village.

Felicitations to him,  felicitations to Lautrec and finally–felicitations to us!

Thus opens a new chapter….

 

 

 

Ratatouille

Ratatouille came into my mind as I was walking this morning–must have been the sun coming up.

A classic vegetable stew and the culinary face of summer! Looking at it makes you smile and forget–for a second– the state of the world.

Memories of holidays in Southern Europe drift into view.

Elizabeth David calls it Ratatouille de Nice–a sunny place for shady people“–according to Somerset Maugham–in her definitive tome, French Provincial Cooking.

Haven’t made it for years–got distracted by spicier recipes in the repertoire for sweet pepper, aubergine and tomato.

Shakshuka for instance–which features in my latest cookbook, Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics, p. 41with a couple of eggs melting into the surface.

Ratatouille is gentler–relying on herbs for its flavor enhancers–rosemary, bay, thyme, marjoram.

We’ll have it for lunch, with pork chops and rosemary, cooked in a cosy nest of aubergine slices.

 

  • 3 tblsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion–roughly chopped
  • 3 sweet peppers–red and yellow makes a pretty picture
  • 1 medium aubergine–halved and quartered lengthwise and then sliced into square inch pieces
  • 3 tomatoes–skinned and roughly chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves–pulped
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds–crushed
  • Sprigs of thyme, rosemary and bay–all added with the toms
  • 1 medium courgette–prepared as the aubergine

Heat 2 to 3 tbsp olive oil in a medium pan and add the onions.

Cook over a gentle flame until they soften–about five minutes.

Add the chopped peppers, aubergine and garlic to the pan and turn everything over in the oil.

Cover the pan and cook on a low flame for about 35 minutes–until the vegetables soften nicely.

Add the tomatoes, courgette, the herbs and the coriander seeds and turn it all again–being careful to preserve the shape of the veggy pieces, remembering that it’s the face of summer!

Cook for a further half hour–uncovered.

A dollop of tapinade (black olive dip–recipe also in my cookbook), enhances the feeling of being in Europe du Sud.

 

Can’t resist showing it again…