Community Chest

Our year in France has come to a close. Having struggled so hard with their French school, making friends, coping with the language and the four-course lunches, the twins finally came back to Blighty, to their Grandma, they missed her close proximity, as did I.

The invaluable support you rely on from family and friends all but vanishes when you move far away from everything and everyone you love. It can leave you bereft, but it can also leave you exhilarated…by it’s freedom.
However, the natural desire to seek out your own kind seems to be innate, to connect with someone who understands every nuance and cadance of your speech, every subtle expression you articulate is a function you must somehow fulfill. And so it was for us.
In our small village in rural France an incredible support system had been established long before we lived there and maintained by the local expats. Who looked out for each other in difficult times, supported each other emotionally with friendship, helping with illness or with simple things like cat sitting and log stacking to more desperate straits such as hospital visits or filling in complicated governmental forms. The network was precious and much needed.
Aside from these necessities, our year also gave us an insight into true simplicity. Living far from any major city, with little more to do than roam around reams of fields, pick fruit, cook feasts, chop and stack logs, weed, wander and wallow in nature was in the main pure luxury. The friendships we made were intense and mostly inspiring. Though often within these small communities they can led to gossip and boredom. The people who blew us away were endlessly creating, building and recovering beautiful old houses and barns, making jams, chutneys, cakes, pies, wines, vegetable patches, flower gardens to die for, painting, sculpting, writing, singing and always, always busy.
We felt touched to the core of what we could possibly achieve in this world and how we could live without the pressure of consumerism or to be driven by money.
Of course it wasn’t easy and simply heating our house was expensive and practically impossible. A very sick child saw us lost in the French hospital system; charged for services we take for granted back in Blighty. At times the very idea of more bread and cheese was enough to make us cry. And our wine habit has definitely become more intrenched. The weather, as it turned out, was far from perfect and the rain poured down on us just as much as at home. But the sky was incredibly huge and all engulfing, the colour of blue was more intense and beautiful and made your heart soar.
As the year continued, the recession spanked us, our children continued to struggle with their rudimentary French, we felt we should return home for their sakes and for the sakes of our ageing families and sorely-missed buddies.
But after a month back on this Isle our house languishes on the market, our children have no places at school due to the over-crowding population. The dark skies and rain lash down on us and from our crowded corner of South-East England the stars barely twinkle in a sky swathed in plane fumes and grey clouds.
What should we do next, where should we go? This 21st century question we all seek to answer to fulfill our lives and provide ourselves and our children with a simple lifestyle and space to be free, we cannot answer, and our children shout “don’t take us back to France”!!
And as we sit paralysed with no school place for our children, no idea of our next move we are stuck in a melee of doubt and confusion.

The tablecloth

After suffering four days of excruciating pain, tension and frustration, he finally let go and accepted his fate. Day five saw him arise, tablecloth around his waist, tea-cup in hand, “any cake left?” he enquires.

In the strength of his manhood – my boy – last week severely damaged his back whilst dragging a water jet up and out of a sunken pool. Spraining, straining, tearing call it what you will – the medical profession don’t care – the agony is the same. As is the remedy; drugs and rest.
At the height of this pain, his disabled movement and helpless presence stirred great fears in our bellies. Was this what we had to contend with in old age? My once fit and agile man suddenly aging before me bent over, shuffling, incapable of getting dressed, hugging our children.
Stubborness and foolishness stopped him getting help until the day loomed when his screams and angst for recovery finally propelled him into action.
The French A&E staff, amused by this most common of accidents, pumped him with pain-killers, and, with a serene smile on his face, he began to walk with more agility. The drugs do work.
Pain, discomfort and illness are desperate states which the human body will naturally contend with. Accepting them and allowing yourself that moment to stop and recover, to let go of the world around you and force yourself to look after yourself is incredibly important.
This 24/7 world we inhabit does not tolerate excuses, accidents or problems, yet recuperation and rehabilitation are essential to maintain a physical and emotional recovery and equanimity.
Wear your tablecloth with pride and eat your cake in peace. Time out is time well spent.

Cherry Cerise

After the earlier rains rotted all the sweet dark cherries, I turned my attention to the other cherry trees in the garden. They held a smaller, very red cherry. The French call these cerise originel, the Yanks sour cherry and we often refer to them as the morello cherry.

These little beauties, though originally very tart became quite, quite sweet as the blistering hot sunshine ripened them throughout June. Scoffing them directly from the tree and having a bowl-full with breakfast became the norm. Eventually as they began to ebb, I picked a big bunch washed them and placed them directly into kiln jars, with a handful of sugar and topping up with vodka. Having given the bottle a good shake, I placed them into a dark cupboard where I’ll leave them for a good six-months and then resurrect them for a shot of intense sweet summer sunshine in the depths of winter.
As the cherry season began to end, I panicked, it was jam-making time. I needed to capture all those sweet, juicy berries and keep them safe for friends and for winter time when these summer treats are but a distant memory. I stoned about 4lbs of them, only to find later that the tiny amount of pectin the cherry has is mostly contained within the stone….no matter; the colour – an extreme burst of wondrous cerise – the taste so sweet and addictive, more than made up for the consistency. I left the cherries whole and they looked entirely beautiful suspended aloft in their deep pink home.
Stored in the fridge the jam sets well and served in a small bowl at breakfast it is a welcome addition to hot croissants or fresh bread.
I’ll stick the Sour Cherry Vodka in the freezer at New Year and to cheer us in darkest January will be ice cold shots of cerise vodka…divine!

Sweet feasting friendship

A perfect summer starter here in this sweet fragrant corner of rural France is Charentais melon and Bayonne Ham. The salty, wafer thin slices of ruffled jambon taste divine when paired with the super sweet and juicy orange-fleshed melon. Only the highest quality of ingredients is needed for this dish – no olive oil or dressing, just ripe melon and good Bayonne (or Parma or Serrano) ham.

Nothing can be more fulfilling than preparing a feast of epic pleasure for your dearest and oldest friends. To lay a table with glasses, flowers, champagne and evening sunshine.

To present the ones you love with rich, simple tastes, to spoil them with fresh seasonal flavours and to sit together and toast your 30-year friendship with laughter and memories. What could be sweeter than simply being together under a star packed sky.

A dish of perfectly juicy and roasted quail teamed with baked aubergine, tomatoes and local goats cheese, sets off the main course. The quail marinated in crushed garlic, herbs de provence, salt and pepper and oilve oil for as long as you have – pan roast the tiny birds so they become golden and crisp – roast them off in the oven for a little time – constantly check them to keep them pink and juicy. Place the sliced aubergines in a dish, drizzle them with olive oil and anoint with S&P, bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes before placing the sliced tomatoes and crumbled cheese on top – roast again for another ten minutes until all is caramelised and soft A rich red poured into deep glasses to drink with. The time gentle floats around you as you savour each mouthful and smile with your luck.

A good ripe Coulommiers camembert, a super poky roquefort and a hard pourtalet, the last of last autumns creamy walnuts and a juicy pear make for the perfect cheese course.

Hours later, the sun has well set, the stars, planets and satellites course above our heads, the wine and food has left us mellow and at peace. Finally we finish with a plate of roasted nectarines – dusted with cinnamon and served with a generous spoonful of creme fraiche mixed with natural yogurt, icing sugar and fresh vanilla – adorning them. We have feasted like kings and we are at peace with the world – all is good and we are blessed with this moment.

Ma Cherrie

June has been awash, literally, with lashings of rain, buckets of sunshine then lashings of rain. The guests have poured south and it has been back-to-back entertaining.

The washing line has groaned under its weight of duvet covers, sheets, towels and pants. Every night for nigh on a month we have dined like rich, gluttonous lords. The wine has been swimming, the cheeses oozing, the salads crisp, the meat roasted and juicy, the melons fat and swollen and the gout ready to make an appearance.

Despite the sweat and hard work involved in having fun 24-7, several bottles of sweet refreshing elderflower have been made, and consumed.

The cherry crop – appearing to be so fat and sweet – was all but lost to the constant rain. However, several Clafoutis’ made their appearance at the supper table and were duly lapped up.

Fortunately the sour cherry crop is fabulous, though nearing its time now, their sour sweet almost over-ripe taste is divine. The sour cherry jam produced is a thing of beauty, its crimson jelly sweet and dripping off the finger the fat cherries sitting on top glistening like sweet red lips. Several kiln jars of sour cherry vodka have been rustled up in anticipation of autumn and a glassful of sweet lingering summer memories.

Blooming marvellous

The blooms have been abundant this May, and as the blossom has blown off the trees so has the small buds of fruit taken their place. Cherries, sweet and sour, adorn the branches, small green bumps begin the pears and fat, bright green stumps creep down the branches of the fig.

The season of bounty is almost upon as June enters the fray, the strawberries slowly taken on a shade of pink easing to red and the melons are beginning to be seen at the markets. The poppies, the wild lillies, cornflowers and clover slowly begin to ebb away as summer gently takes her turn and starts to heat the landscape up.
The crickets have been chirruping for some weeks now and the frogs will not keep their peace, the Hoopoe and his mate have been seen in the fields and hiding in the hedges. The wheat fields are rising around us like soldiers and the maze is making its story well known.
Dining in the heat of the evening is almost becoming de rigueur as the guests flow constantly south in a bid to eat a slice of French heaven. Cherry jam, cherry liquer and elderflower cordial are all being sketched out to make the most of this local abundance and to capture the essence of our sweet French summer.

Île de Ré…..s’il vous plait

Long golden shorelines empty of people, dunes scattered with long grasses and flat, round pebbles, the sound of the Atlantic crashing onto the beach, welcome to the Île de Ré.

This tiny island, just a few kilometers from La Rochelle, is the darling of chic, wealthy Parisians and touring gourmands. It is blessed with plump crustaceans, a wealth of fat, briny oysters and it’s own hand-harvested, internationally exported delicacy: Fleur de Sel.

This is the place where the beautiful people sit on the quayside of the charmed capital, St Martin de Ré, sipping ice-cold glasses of Chablis, whilst dining on plates of fat langoustines glistening in the hot sunshine, their large Chanel sunglasses perched atop their well-coiffured heads, incurably clean, stripy Breton tops and strappy heels slap their well-toned ankles as they artfully glare at one another whilst sucking out the fat, white flesh from their grilled and buttered crustaceans.

Chic boutiques line the stone clad streets, artfully arranged lobsters, organic breads, gourmet cheeses and fine saucisson array the stone slabs in the covered market. In the small port, gin-palaces adorn the water while envious mortals stare down at the fibre-glass boats as they take long licks of their sweet caramel fleur de sel ice-creams. It is indeed French heaven and all yours for just nine Euros, curtsey of the toll bridge.

In need of fresh salty air and escape from the family head-quarters we flung some trunks, a tent and the children in the car and went in search of our own piece of heaven. At the north of the island we found a small campsite, nestled next to a spectacular beach, seemingly untouched by human hands. We spent several days there holed up beneath some pine trees, the sea just yards away. Every morning and evening the tide went out leaving myriads of rock pools perfect for the children to poke and peer, however the waves were to big for swimming.

On our last day we went in search of the perfect beach and found it in the south, next to the village Le Blois Plage en Ré. Far more gentle, with a long sweeping beach and shallow waters the children up and down the coastline pottered and played well into the late evening sunshine.
Bonsoir Île de Ré.