Wednesday, 31 July 2013
A short respite from the canicule as we were suddenly treated to a few cold and very torrential downpours accompanied, occasionally, by claps of thunder and sparks of lightning, and now we're promised another scorching hot day today.
I'm attempting to address my currently high stress levels with some kitchen-therapy.
Now that the cherries are over, and I have several preserving jars of them soaking in various alcoholic mixes and various small jars filled withe jams and compotes and relishes, now that the cherry season has passed, it's time to cast my eyes around for something else to play with.
So how about lettuces?
I eat them daily in my tuna salad, but liberally doused in Heinz Salad Cream, having been raised in a decade when mayonnaise was considered to be Fancy French Muck, which means that I rarely taste the lettuce leaves. Which is a shame really. So back to my Breton-Days when, even though I had a surfeit of lettuces growing in my garden, several friends in the village sneakily took to leaving their own unloved lettuces in carrier bags on my gate, and the only option to avoid being over-whelmed by lettuces was to make soup from them.
Recipe: The Cyber Tour Guide to Lettuce Soup
2 large Breton onions, peeled and diced
4 fat cloves of garlic from your English neighbour's garden
6 dew-fresh common or garden lettuces
handful of gentle herbs (mint works well) from the pots on the window ledge
4 oz organic Brittany butter, the one with flecks of sea salt
2 oz organic plain flour
2 pints of vegetable stock
1/2 pint organic milk
Fry the onions and crushed garlic in butter until they're soft but take care not to brown the mixture. Sprinkle the flour over pan and stir gently for a minute. Slowly add the stock, stirring gently and then pour in the milk, still stirring and petit à petit bring to the boil. Chop the lettuces and add to the pan with the herbs and salt and pepper according to your taste. (If you used salted butter then you won't need any more salt now).
Let it simmer gently. It will fill your kitchen with fresh, green aromas and endow you with a feeling of health and vitality, while you water the plants or wash the dishes. After around 20 minutes remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Blend in a liquidiser until smooth and silky.
Now you can choose to store the soup in the fridge or, if you REALLY are inundated with lettuces and drastic measures are called-for, freeze it in rigid containers.
If, however, you've just just come in from cutting the grass that's as high as an elephant's eye, with a useless little Flymo, and are in desperate need of a healthy and flavoursome snack, then eat it now with a crusty 'zig-zag loaf' from the village boulangerie
(Quantities given are sufficient for everyone in a small French village)
Now for the science...
The Health Benefits of Lettuce:
Low in calories
A good source of dietary fibre and vitamins A, B, C and K
Contains the minerals potassium, magnesium and calcium
Said to contain folic acid
Reputed to help prevent bone degradation in post-menopausal women
Sunday, 28 July 2013
When I look back on the summer of 2013 I will think of it as The Cherry Summer.
For the last four or five weeks we have been enjoying a heatwave here in England.
I say 'enjoying' because it does not suit everyone. There are some who suffer in a scorching sun, many people have allergies which, I am pretty sure, were rare and quite exotic when I was a child, the dog doesn't do heat, driving is a trial when the air conditioning stops working, sleep is elusive when the night is hot and humid, tempers become frayed...
But it is possible to adapt and to thrive in a heatwave, a canicule, as they say in France where, after the canicule of 2003, they take such events much more seriously than do we Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It simply requires a little adjustment to one's schedule and daily habits, such as walking the dog at 4:30am before the full force of the sun's rays has hit the fields, and keeping the bottle of gin in the freezer, from which it will emerge, frosty and delicious once the sun has sunk below the neighbour's ash trees, and evicting a bag of frozen peas in order to make room for ice cubes and ice lollies and ice cream, and raising the hemline while lowering the neckline, and sleeping as close to the window as possible and au naturel...
And most of all, just jolly well enjoying the summer!
This year I made an important discovery while walking among my beloved walnuts...
which are, I am delighted to report, having a wonderful summer...
which makes me very happy indeed....
But this year I discovered a cherry tree.
How can it have happened that I, a self-confessed tree-hugger and explorer of nature, have managed to miss the cherry tree for three years?
"The cherry is the fruit of many plants of the genus Prunus, and is a fleshy drupe (stone fruit). The cherry fruits of commerce are usually obtained from a limited number of species, including especially cultivars of the sweet cherry, Prunus avium." (Wikipedia)
"The native range of the sweet cherry extends through most of Europe, western Asia and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed throughout its range since prehistoric times. A form of cherry was introduced into England at Teynham, near Sittingbourne in Kent by order of Henry VIII, who had tasted them in Flanders" (Wikipedia)
At first I was very restrained. I just picked a handful of cherries to munch as the dog and I wandered, and I pointed out the tree to my fellow dog-walkers, "There's a cherry tree over there, did you know?" But no-one else seemed to be interested in the cherries. So I took a bowl and picked a few and came home to sit in a shady room and eat my cherries and marvel at this free treat. And still no-one seemed to be interested in the cherries.
So I took a bag and picked enough to make a small pot of jam.
And still no-one seemed to be interested in the cherries and, other than putting up a sign saying "CHERRIES", there was nothing else I could do to encourage people to pick them. So I did.
Well, I picked enough for a cherry pie
and for a cherry liquer made with vodka and brandy
it needs to mature for three months which will make it a perfect Christmas tipple...
And then, inspired, I made cherry vodka
This will be ready in time for me to take to France.
I'm planning to take a bottle for a friend in the village who delights in giving me 'interesting' drinks to try after dinner.
I left enough cherries for the birds to feast on.
And plenty for anyone else who cares to pick them.
But no-one has...
There are other cherry trees growing among the trees on the other side of the green.
They're smaller and this one is quite sour.
I'm thinking a cherry relish to eat with pan-fried duck breasts?
This one is very, very small and very, very sweet.
And since it is ripe, cherry-ripe, and so abundant, I think more cherry vodka?
I can't understand why no-one else has picked the cherries. It's such a waste to leave them on the trees and they are so delicious. And the price of fresh cherries in the shops! I think my harvest would have cost me a King's ransom had I bought them, instead of picking them for free.
And it has been such a pleasure, this picking cherries...
And such fun to make jam, and pies, and delicious drinks.
I've frozen a few cherry stones.
As I explained to The Ragazza when she asked me why there are little pots of pips next to the ice cubes, they don't germinate until they've experienced a few sub-zero temperatures. I am hoping that they'll grow into little cherry trees which I will nurture and cherish and take to France to plant in my garden.
Cherish the cherries, that's been my motto this summer...
Cherish the cherries
Wednesday, 24 July 2013
It's no secret that I'm a fan of ice-age art, prehistoric sites and our earliest history. All that contributes to the story of the journey that our human species took as we evolved from the tree-dwelling apes to who we are now.
Anything that could be called "Making Us Human".
So as soon as I returned to England from France I set off to search for some local sites that would feed my need to dwell, from time to time, in the past.
Here's the first, The White Horse at Uffingon.
First the Wikipedia bit:
The Uffington White Horse is a highly stylised prehistoric hill figure, 374 feet (110 m) long, cut into the turf of the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in the parish of Uffington, Oxon.
It is located some five miles south of the town of Faringdon and a similar distance west of the town of Wantage. The hill forms a part of the scarp of the Berkshire Downs and overlooks to Vale of White Horse to the north.
We set off walking along The Ridgeway path in search of Wayland's Smithy, a neolithic long barrow and chamber tomb site.
During my two years living in central Brittany I developed a deep love of standing stones, burial chambers, megaliths, menhirs and dolmens. Encountering this unexpected treasure was a real delight, I felt at home instantly...
Wayland's Smithy is one of many prehistoric sites associated with Wayland or Wolund, the Norse and Saxon god of blacksmithing. The name was seemingly applied to the site by the Saxon invaders, who reached the area some four thousand years after Wayland's Smithy was built.
According to legend, a traveller whose horse has lost a shoe can leave the animal and the smallest silver coin (a groat) on the capstone at Wayland's Smithy. When he returns next morning he will find that his horse has been re-shod and the money gone. It is conjectured that the invisible smith may have been linked to this site for many centuries before the Saxons recognized him as Wayland. The Ancient Britons may have been accustomed to making votive offerings to a local god. (Wikipedia again)
Around the burial mound there are majestic beech trees.
Being somewhat of a tree-hugger and having suffered recently from withdrawal symptoms due to an absence of arboreal adventures, I couldn't resist lying under a tree and gazing, in silent admiration, up into it's branches.
Isn't this the most amazing view of a tree?
Can you imagine climbing up into that leafy, green canopy?
I spent most of my childhood sitting in trees and a great deal of my adulthood wondering if I had grown too old to climb them again.
This is the Ridegway National Trail
The Ridgeway National Trail, 87 miles (139km) through ancient landscapes. Over rolling, open downland to the west of the River Thames, and through secluded valleys and woods in The Chilterns to the east, following the same route used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers.
Back to the White Horse. As a group of volunteers with yellow buckets were earnestly cleaning the horse to our right, we could hear the commentary of a nearby horse show broadcast on loud speakers.
It seemed very fitting somehow that the White Horse should have a 'seat in the stalls' as flesh and blood horses performed on a grassy stage.
There is a great deal to explore along The Ridgeway. We only dipped our inquisitive toes in the shallow water of this special place. One day, before I return to Brittany, it would be nice to walk its length. I am making plans...
Saturday, 20 July 2013
It's been a while...
Work has been stressful, changes to our working hours, a reduction in our O/T pay, rota complexities as we are obliged to accommodate the needs of a rival Lab in Eastern Europe. We are not happy campers and some of us are making plans to move on...
I am reminded of that saying "God give me strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference".
So while I work on my stress levels and try to find the courage to take the steps that I know are right for me, I find myself drawn to memories of my two years in France, and to the house in Brittany that I still own. And I take comfort from those memories of happier, more relaxed, fun-filled times, even as I shake my head and ask myself "Why the hell did you return to the rat race and come back to the corporate cage?"
So, here's a post from my days in France.
This is my therapy
Saturday Night Fever
Did I ever mention that I love to cook?
Because I do, for me cooking is an emotional, spiritual and deeply pleasurable experience
People who know me well say that my culinary concoctions are an accurate indication of my current emotions and mood, as in, when I am feeling maternal I produce a vegetable-rich beef stew with dumplings and an old-fashioned pudding with custard
When I am feeling skittish, when there is a new moon and a soft breeze from the south it's seafood, preferable the kind that you can eat with your fingers and with melted butter and juices dripping off your chin so that you have to lick your lips a lot
Those times when wanderlust overcomes me, when I long for faraway places and exotic locations I cook hot-hot chilli, or work my wok to create Chinese dishes or experiment with something drawn at random from one of the cookbooks on top of the cupboard over the sink
When memories engulf me and I want my mum I do as she did, I spend a whole morning baking cakes, in her case one fruit cake (for father) one sponge cake filled with cream and strawberry jam (for her) and a tin of small cakes and pastries for us kids and all delivered with the profound declaration "Yes, you can have a cake but When They're Gone They're Gone".
In my case it's my shortbread cookies and a rich gooey chocolate fudge cake since I have no man to cater for
And when I am Homesick for England I cook the National Dish of The Englishman
Above is a picture of tonight's dinner sizzling on the stove
a hot and spicy aubergine bhaji
a chicken korma just waiting for the addition of coconut milk and cream
and pilau rice
(I would have made puffy oven bread too, had I not been too busy grappling with grammar and distracted by dictionaries all afternoon...)
All cooked from totally 100% raw ingredients, even the spices are home-crushed and dry-roasted, everything as nature intended it...
If I am ever tempted to cheat with a ground garam marsala or, heaven forbid, an additive-stuffed, preservative-bound, fakely coloured sauce in a jar then I simply go away and eat a cheese sandwich instead
So on Saturday night I spent several hours happily slicing thick cloves of garlic and fresh juicy ginger into wafer-thin slices until my fingers were gently marinated in their juices, gently frying pinches and palmfuls of cumin, turmeric and ground coriander in home-made ghee, salting black shiny aubergines and hot-popping mustard seeds in olive oil until they danced and sang
all without weights or measures because each time I cook a curry it tastes different and that difference is due to my influence, my mood, my vibrations....
in the background the music of a sitar made me swish and sway...
and for inspiration Madhur Jaffry's fabulous book A Taste of India was open at a page showing a vibrant street market...
Last night the chicken korma was a silky-smooth golden sauce, with a tender hint of coconut and subtle undertones of ginger
the aubergine bahji was chilli-hot and lively
and the rice was subtle and subdued, definitely playing the supporting role to the main dishes
Last night I was definitely Hot!