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Archive for the ‘other sides to this life’ Category

It’s going to be hot today–97F / 36C is forecast.

Close the windows and batten down the shuttersil faut!

I’ve managed to water the courgette and cucumber plants, conveniently in the shade until noon. The tomatoes need no watering, they fend for themselves, their roots penetrating deeper and deeper in search of water. This wisdom was told me by Julien, our gardener, and so far it has proven good advice, for a second year.

The problem with the toms is that in my eagerness to have fresh tomatoes on the table as soon as possible, I bought almost exclusively “précoce” (early fruiting), consequently, the kitchen bowls and baskets are now overflowing with red gold, eager to be used, one way or another.

Me next–I’m ripe, sweet and juicy.

Catch me while you can!

(I froze one yesterday and found a collapsed pomme d’or in the fridge this morning–no good for salads, but still good for cooking?)

Well, I’m doing my best, and enjoying every minute–and trying not to think about the end of August, when this bounty may subside….

Each time I totter into “the wild” where tomatoes grow, Marlon Brando in The Godfather comes to mind, and it makes me nervous.

Remember the scene when Don Coreone is entertaining a grandchild on the edge of a tomato patch? He has made a miraculous recovery from the murderous attack in NYC, and has retreated to what looks like a garden paradise.

He playfully chases the boy through the thicket of tomato stakes, begins to lose his breath, starts to cough, then crashes to the ground–massive heart attack.

DEAD!

Arrivederci, Don Vito Corleone!

Just desserts maybe, but quite a nice way to go, though I’d prefer to munch the tomato, and then go….

In fact, I’ll settle for munching tomatoes and leave the GOING ’til later.

I once was driving over Chelsea Bridge into London–a Sunday morning as I recall–and hit traffic backed up from the lights on the Embankment.

Two lines.

I looked across at the limo stationary beside me, and to my astonishment, Marlon Brando was looking down at me from his high perch, front passenger seat–perhaps just arrived at Gatwick Airport.

What I should have done was cooly wind down my window and tell him quietly how much I had enjoyed that wonderful scene.

I did no such thing, of course. Instead, my face moved not an English muscle; I did not blink, showed no recognition, shock, delight, amazement, but turned back to face the lights, which changed and we moved–the moment was gone.

Arrivederci Marlon!

 

 

 

 

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At last–you might be muttering–something has happened in that intriguing interior.

Yes–it has been three years since we gained access to the old church and started seriously to think about what how we might engage its 160-year-old deconsecrated space.

It was carte blanche for our friends, with a sense of humour.

A nightclub?

An indoor swimming pool, a discotheque–some of the ideas floated.

So helpful, thanks.

We came to the tamer, but more reasonable conclusion that to kick off its new life as a deconsecrated piece of local history, a concert of a classical nature would be appropriate.

Spin forward to last Thursday evening and the sight of 80-odd people from up and down and roundabout moving slowly towards the doors, rubbing their hands with expectation (and disinfectant!) and donning masks.

What greeted them inside was l’ancienne église bursting with pride and light– having found a purpose again.

Has to be said: The pride and light was down to some hard-grind cleaning by the initiator and prime mover of the occasion: Monsieur Jean Michel Vinay, art dealer and master of the evening’s revels.

A recent arrival in Lautrec (he bought the beautiful property where I did the cooking classes), he had heard about the church in the middle of nowhere and–looking for an exhibition space to show the work of his painter friends–was keen to see the space.

He liked what he saw and on Thursday the former parishioners found unfamiliar images looking down on them, temporarily covering the simple murals that had overseen their Sunday worship for the past 100 years.

Jean Michel had other friends. One is renowned bass-baritone opera singer, Vincent Le Texier, who reacted favourably when Jean Mich suggested he might enjoy a busman’s holiday–stay with Jean Mich, bring the three kids, and try out the promising acoustic of this unlikely setting, with a view to a summer concert, sharing the platform with his wife, Gabriela Enderlova–a talented mezzo-soprano–and the brilliant pianist, Jean-François Ballèvre, making up the trio.

That was last year–but Covid 19 restrictions forced a postponement, and the concert happened elsewhere.

They’d rehearsed in the empty church though, and fallen for its natural ambient charms and extraordinary acoustic.

The same trio of musicians showed up again this year.

So, soon after 7pm, I walked up the side aisle and opened the proceedings with a little speech—in French.


I hadn’t been so nervous since first nights in Stratford in 1976.

For nearly two hours we sat transfixed by a programme of French solos and duets; music a touch too esoteric for my taste, but brilliantly performed. The hypnotic sonority of the voices bouncing off the walls, and down our backs, pinning us to our seats!

It seemed no-one left after the short interval.

Then pot luck supper in the garden under the setting August light.

The buzz was joyful and infectious–and the church, presiding, fairly beamed with delight.

“You’ll be back for more….”

Je n’en doute pas–à la prochaine fois, alors!

Close to midnight, when most of the revellers had dispersed to their homes, the irrepressible Jean-François fulfilled his promise to Meredith to play Scenes from Childhood by Schumann.

An impromptu recital–and the second recognisable tune of the evening!*

It was a joy–and played with such respect and love for the music–it felt a privilege to be listening.

*The first was a lovely waltz–an encore–caught here during a rehearsal.

The wheels are turning to fulfill the church’s prophecy. A clarinettist is coming this week to try out the space.

The next day, young Shadow inspected the art–a private view!

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Ring-a-ding ding

A tale for ❤️Valentine’s Day❤️

Came back from the organic open-air market this week, parked the yogurt, the whole rye loaves, the bouquet of Swiss chard and made up the fire. Lit it, and headed to the sideboard for my pistachio treat–a custom now of the late afternoon.

As I scooped the nuts into the little Florentine bowl, I realized something was missing: My wedding ring!

My finger was missing its ring!

There’s a particularly unpleasant punch-in-the-stomach feeling–WHOOSH–when something hugely-valued is not where it’s supposed to be.

And this is not the first time it has happened.

“Grace under pressure, Robin, grace under pressure….”

I retraced my steps.

Scanned the sideboard where the jars of dried fruits and nuts are stored–but no ring.

Tipped out the pistachio jar, nuts all over the countertop–but no ring.

I turned to the fire, which was picking up nicely.

Moments’ pause, then PANIC as I remembered….

Maybe it slipped off my finger when I tossed in a handful of dry kindling, before deciding I deserved a few pistachios. 

 “How resistant is gold to melting when subjected to intense heat?”

No time to GOOGLE–get dismantling the blaze, without burning my ringless fingers!

The ring is in fact THREE rings in yellow, white and rose gold–a Russian wedding ring. It will have been my close companion for 31 years this August.

I recently “changed hands” from left to right (the traditional hand for Russian rings) because my left had become too thin.

I carefully shovel hot embers aside into a pile, hoping I catch a glinting glimpse of gold.

No ring. 

Meredith arrived back from the shops and calmed me down.

Grace under pressure, grace under pressure—yawowwww!

Together we finished the fire “dismantlement”, without finding the ring. 

We searched the car, the courtyard, the front hall, the bathroom.

Perhaps the pile of warm ash would yield treasure tomorrow.

Next morning, I still felt a glimmer of hope.

It WILL turn up. Something in my water told me so.

I lost the ring once before but remember never losing hope–somewhere, patiently waiting for me to get my act together, would be my ring.

In my head, the image of a gold prospector.

I found a garden weeding stool and, armed with my kitchen sieve, settled down with a bucket of ash outside at the side of the church.
 
 
Awkwardly combing the ash, shovel by shovelful, the pile reduced–along with my hopes, WHEN…
 

THERE IT WAS!!—looking up at me innocently, as if to say: “WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?”

A joyful reunion!
 
Bless its little heart.
 
Meredith and I embraced!
 

YIPPEE!

 
It is on my ring-finger now with a little piece of twine attached to keep it snug.
 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

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snow

England, Wales and Scotland back into lockdown; children and teachers informed that schools will be closed until mid-February and no exams this year (having been told firmly the opposite on Sunday).

Donald Trump tries to bully election officials in Georgia to slip him an extra odd thousand votes to swing the election result into his column. Brexit becomes a sad reality and we lose our European citizenship.

Meanwhile in la France profonde, we wake up to a less complicated scene–snow, white and still gently falling…..❄️❄️❄️  At first  bleary look this morning, I thought it was mist!

A beautiful picture postcard wonderland of good cheer–something our chickens and Shadow (the youngest cat) have never seen.

Indeed, we haven’t seen snow here for at least three years–something quite welcome now after months of gloom and doom.

Black cats on white!

A robin briefly shares the bird table with a young woodpecker–another redbreast–both seen off by an unusually solitary goldfinch and tit:

Three confused French hens.

(They usually range around the garden but today looked dubious and unapproving–and stayed firmly in the covered coop!)

Snow mobility.

Snow slows human traffic but increases flight in the avian world.

“Hey guys–just saw Meredith pour some crushed madeleines and sunflower seeds on the bird table–see you there! Watch out for finches and that black cats though! (Tit telegraph).

Food, glorious food!

It’s an entertaining distraction to Big Tuesday in Georgia.

Meredith put on her heavy duty clogs, grabbed the snow shovel (idle for years, like I said it would be) and her camera, and went in search of beauty.

Here’s what she found, out there:

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British cookery writer Nigel Slater just tweeted:

“Today I need cake!”

I know what he means–and he’s not talking about a slice of jam sponge at teatime with Earl Grey tea in bone china cups.

He means fortification against a day full of angst and metaphoric clichés:

Nail-biting, knife-edge, in the balance, too-close-to-call, could-go-either-way, toss-up.

Stop my ears! Reach for the soup bowl.

Cake –not so good for the diabetic community. But I’ve found the very thing to get us through–a delicious way to calm the collywobbles and look on the bright side (there I go! It’s catching.).

A classic from Tuscany:

White bean soup with cabbagefortification indeed at lunch AND dinner if need be.

I love a BIG soup to get your mooch around–served piping hot with a swirl of olive oil.

This is it from my second cookbook and (whispered) my favourite: Healthy Eating for Life.

Tuscan White Bean Soup with Cabbage

Serves 4

An autumn/winter soup with a big presence.

(Adapted from Leslie Forbes’ lovely A Table in Tuscany)

7 tbsp olive oil plus olive oil to swirl in each bowl
2 sticks of celery and 2 carrots – chopped small
2 leeks or onions – chopped small
3 or 4 tinned/canned tomatoes – chopped up with their liquid

1 large garlic clove – pulped

sprig of fresh thyme
1 whole green cabbage – quartered, stem removed and shredded

800g/28oz cooked white beans – canned or bottled , drained (but their liquid retained)
500ml/1 pint stock (I use vegetable cubes)

  1. Heat 6 tablespoons of the oil in a large saucepan. Sweat the celery, carrots and leeks until tender – about 20 minutes.
  2. Mix in the tomatoes, garlic and thyme. Cook for 5 minutes. Add half the shredded cabbage, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 10 minutes.
  3. Purée three-quarters of the beans in a mixer with a little of their liquid. Add the bean water and the bean purée to the soup and stir together. Cook for an hour, stirring it regularly to stop it sticking and burning. Add a little of the stock each time you stir. This is meant to be a thick soup; it’s up to you how loose you make it, just be careful not to dilute the depth of taste. While the soup cooks, sauté the rest of the cabbage in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to serve as a topping when you present the soup.
  4. Serve hot with swirls of your best olive oil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve spent the morning of this most anxious of days with a chicken.

Not one of ours, I hasten to add.

The medium-sized chicken, I bought in Castres market early Saturday.

I need a distraction today to help get me through.

I’ve been meaning to cook the chicken casserole in Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics again–and I recently spotted dear Ismail Merchant’s recipe for Chicken Curry in my first book–Delicious Dishes for Diabetics.

A whole chicken is obviously too much for two–although I often roast one whole, because I love the look of a roasted chicken.

So–today, half for the curry and half for the casserole–about 6 or 7 pieces each dish.

We have the curry for lunch, with dal and some steamed broccoli and cauliflower–a comforting plate, while we wait… ’til late.

Dinner’s decided (it’s good to be decisive today): A cauliflower in tomato sauce with a slice or two of sausage from Delicious Dishes, again.

It’s fun to revisit my first cookbook published in 2011–which feels like a century ago–but in truth is only two elections and a Brexit back!  

Don’t even go there!

Early evening, and the search is on for the cauliflower in a lockdown-crammed fridge.

Doing my best to stay sane when I can’t find the anchovies either.

Then the calm face of the cauliflower comes into focus, staring straight at me.

Here I am, dear boy–worry not! All will be well….

We’ll know better in the morning whether caulis are to be trusted!

 

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Autumn colours in the countryside are starting to match the rich copper finish of this soup.

The Liquid Amber tree.

Leaves are on the turn–slowly this year– but still attached.

The sunflower soldiers–stand in the field heads bowed, fading to charcoal black, waiting to be harvested.

The ground is too wet to harvest the seed heads.

The walnuts are dropping freely when the wind and rain are strong. For a short time after a storm, there’s a scattering across the road; until word gets out, and the owners or gleaners arrive to gather them up.

Conkers (horse chestnuts) everywhere–so round and polished chocolate-brown and so frustrating.

There’s no known use for them except the English schoolboy game of bashing the daylights out of a rival’s, both of them dangling at the end of a piece of string.

“Mine’s a sixer. What’s yours?”

“A twelver,” I lie….

And acorns in their thousands crunching underfoot, as I get back from a walk and start thinking about a soup to match the colour and the feel of early autumn.

Pumpkins are on the stalls with their cousins–butternut and spaghetti squash. It’s a heart-warming sight for me. It helps make the gear change from summer to autumn into something positive.

The man who delivered our winter supply of wood for the fireplace presented us his home-grown pumpkin.

So here’s the soup as it appears in my third book–Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics (but useful for all who like to cook simple, healthy food.)*

Just looking at that colour warms you up!

IMG_2672

Adapted from a recipe in Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen–a peek into the daily ways of cooking in a Tuscan villa in the late 19th century.

2 to 3 serving

1lb/450gms pumpkin–roughly-chopped with its skin (HOORAY!)

1 medium onion–peeled and roughly-chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon coriander powder

1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder

1 generous pint stock (I use organic vegetable stock cubes.)

salt and pepper

  • Place the onion and the pumpkin pieces in a saucepan with the olive oil.
  • Add the spices with the salt and pepper.
  • Turn everything over, cover and sweat over a low heat for 20 minutes to soften the vegetables.

IMG_2670

  • Add the stock and cook uncovered for a further 20 minutes or so, until the pumpkin is tender enough to liquidize.
  • Liquidize the mix–best done with a stick mixer (saves much washing up!)
  • A garnish of chopped parsley is a nice touch in each bowl–or a teaspoon of cream or plain yogurt swirled in.
  • Brown bread–one slice per person–cut into croutons and sautéed in a little olive oil with pinch of salt and cumin powder
  • Meredith suggests sautéed bacon bits would be good too.

*new subtitle!

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The big news today is that Maud, one of our three hens, has laid her second egg.

Maud struts her stuff!

An egg to equal the first in size; a dear little egg–and all her own work.

The joy was written on Meredith’s face as she announced it in the kitchen.

We now have enough for an omelette–albeit the smallest two egg omelet in the world.

It may be more fun to poach or fry them individually and “lay” them ceremonially on a serving of the Swiss chard gratin that’s waiting to go into the oven for lunch.

The hens are new to the gaff–delivered by our dear friend and neighbour, Florence.

The hens keep us company over lunch, hoping for some tidbits!

There are two Poules Soies* (Silkies) and one slightly larger Araucana**.

The Silkies are smaller than your average hen and delightful to look at.

They pad around together, pick over the compost heap together and shelter from rain under an outdoor furniture together. Safety in numbers!

Three Sisters–our Chekhovian hens.

They don’t know how calming their pad, pad, padding and peck, peck pecking is in these troubling times. Just watching them go about their business slows the heart-rate and diverts the mind.

As the sun sets and darkness descends, they make their way–together–to the newly-created chicken-run, an improvised enclosure, constructed between two buttresses of the church. Perfect.

Inside the pen is a little hen house–lent to us by Flo–that any house-proud hen would be happy to be seen in.

A modest split-level!

In the nesting box, Meredith placed a marble egg–pour encourager les autres–and it worked!

Marble egg on the left–to encourage laying.

There’s just room for all three inside. There they huddle for the night, without a sound.

Last night though–while Amber and Lucette snoozed off–Maud was busy!

Maud’s egg (right)–small but perfect! The joy of small things!

*The Silkie is a breed of chicken originally from China, named for its atypically fluffy plumage. The breed has several other unusual qualities, such as black skin and bones, blue earlobes, and five toes on each foot (most chickens have four). They are friendly and sociable too!

** The Araucana breed is originally from Chile and famous for laying blue eggs–though no proof of that yet!

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Winston Graham’s emotionally-charged tale of life in late 18th-century Cornwall, first hit the TV screens in the UK at 7.25pm on October 5th,  1975–45 years ago today.

Remembering Angharad Rees, Ralph Bates, Paul Curran, Mary Wimbush, Richard Morant, and Frank Middlemass.

The cast and crew had been hard at work on location in remote Cornwall and at the BBC-TV White City Studios in London. If I remember rightly, we hadn’t finished all sixteen episodes by that October evening–and were feeling nervous about how it would be received.

We knew it was a good story, with all the right ingredients to engage–and even entrance–an early-evening audience–but you never know.

I only remember one review. It was from the witty and candid Clive James in The Observer the following Sunday. At the end of three paragraphs reviewing other programmes he wrote:

“Oh yes, and there is POLDARK which I can’t help noticing is an anagram for OLD KRAP. I rest my case.”

It was a bit of a shock at the time–and made my mother very cross!

Well–when the run of the first series came to an end four months later, with viewing figures topping 15 million, we had the last laugh.

A quarter of a century after that October evening and not long after Winston’s death, Angharad Rees and myself accompanied Winston’s son, Andrew and daughter, Rosamund, on a return to Cornwall to launch Winston’s autobiography–Memoirs of a Private Man.

Andrew Graham signing Winston’s autobiography at Waterstones in Truro in 2003.

Rosamund, Robin and Angharad signing Winston’s autobiography.

I took the opportunity to revisit the house that had served as Nampara–to the surprise of its owner at the time.

The last time Angharad Rees and I were on the cliffs of Cornwall together.

It was a poignant trip for everyone.

An opportunity to remember and celebrate the life of a man who had had a lasting and positive influence on each and every one of us.

Still does on my life.

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Fridays.

End of the week, in the time of COVID-19.

Shopping expeditions curtailed. Really only one: Saturdays.

What to do for lunch and dinner?

NO EGGS!

Baskets, trays and bowls almost empty.

Raining.

Oven on the blink.

No wish to budge….

Thinking cap.

Remember red and yellow peppers that have been in the fridge for some time and cross fingers. Discover that they are well preserved–as is a forgotten small green one. The three juicy-looking tomatoes that need using weigh the perfect pound.

My Ratatouille comes to mind from my new cookbook–a last hurrah for Summer.

It’ll bring a splash of colour and cheer onto the kitchen table on a grey day.

Things are looking up!

Remembered the pumpkin soup that’s been waiting in the fridge, which will make for a light supper with some chèvre and crackers– and the remaining half of the fine bottle of Côte de Rhône, kindly brought over last Sunday by our neighbours.

Starting to enjoy this!

Adding a bit of black olive tapenade.

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