Simple Things

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The bread machine has become fussy about what flour it likes, seemingly, in order to avoid sad-looking deflated loaves, only a particular French brand will now do that I can no longer find in supermarkets in the Small Country. This necessitates another occasional trip across the border to stock up. Having done a local, fairly large supermarket shop yesterday, there was very little on the list aside from flour and vacuum bags. A kiss goodbye to a hundred Euros and any plans to spend the coming week on a ‘clean’, dairy-free eating regime having wandered past the cheese counter, we detoured, following the signs for an Italian shop.

This resulted in a packet of linguine that is possibly as long as I am tall and a late lunch at home of sliced tomatoes that yielded slightly when pressed, with equally soft, yielding puffy pillows of buffalo mozzarella followed by coffee and a biscotti or three.

A long, rather costly way round to realise that often, the simplest lunches really are the best.

More than mirabelles

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The landscape changes somewhat if you head South across the border. Roads get longer, stretching out in to the distance, fields get larger with the earth likely being turned over by enormous machines in the early Autumn sun and occasionally you can come across stretches of sad sunflowers, heads bowed, their jobs done for the year. The sky looks huge.

The villages are not the same either, there is not the same tidiness to them as there is in the Small Country, with many houses looking somewhat tired and, in10134273103_87fc61d31e some cases completely dilapidated but clearly lived in. Hoes are leaned on, spanners dropped, brooms stop sweeping as an across-the-border car number plate is registered and met with a long, steady gaze as it passes. Even a small chat tigre will watch intently as you pass and leave the village. It could only be France.

The rural Lorraine region of France looks peaceful, sleepy on a Saturday afternoon Autumnal drive through it but if you look at the road signs it is apparent that there’ve been times when this was not so. Signs point ways to cimetières, both French and German, with hundreds, thousands of soldiers laid to rest amongst the gentle terrain and there are many whose names are not known. You can follow a sign which leads to a small memorial, surrounded by youngish trees which stand amongst strange lumps in the ground and you can look at old photos on boards which show you are standing where once stood the ‘Grande rue’ of a village. The strange lumps are the ruins of the houses, shops, church, the village détruit. There is more than one village détruit. War has left its mark here but the places to remember are tranquil, with a quiet dignity to them and it would have felt wrong to take any pictures.

10134055974_bce0167c42If your eye is caught by a charming L’Epicerie next to a Cafe and you ask to stop so you can take a picture, you may have to wait patiently, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, as the door opens and a lady appears, gently holding the arm of an elder lady walking with a stick who is helped down the steps. You may be somewhat startled by the cheery “Bonjour” directed at you by the younger of the two and stumble slightly over your French as you try to say you’d just like to take a picture if that’s OK because it’s all rather charming. You may be surprised when she invites you in and shows you around, explaining that L’Epicerie and the Cafe is now one, offering bed and breakfast by her and her husband who’ve spent the last few months doing up the place. You may feel it would be an imposition to ask if you could take photos inside whilst cooing at the original woodwork, tiled floor, enormous fireplace, wooden bed frames and renovated bar where once the elder lady with the stick stood behind pouring beers and, surely, glasses of Rickard for the locals alongside her husband.

“She lives next door now” it is explained. “A widow for many years”.

You may later learn that this village was also détruit after the first world war but, unlike others, was rebuilt.

You will later be pleased that somebody else stepped in and took a couple of pictures whilst you cooed at bedrooms upstairs but was politely waiting outside as you thanked the lady for her kindness at the door. You may also be pleased that generally, somebody else’s pictures of that day were far better than yours and here for you to see.

10134070854_38dd614d30This region of France is also known for its mirabelles, small plum-like fruits which ripen late July to early September.  Golden yellow, they become slightly flecked with pink as they ripen and are often made into tarts, jams and brandy.  Villages are, it seems, surrounded by mirabelle orchards which I suspect are privately-owned. Late summer will find what looks like whole families sitting amongst their trees sorting fruits before setting up stalls at village edges selling their wares whilst they can. The mirabelle season is short and what is not sold by the roadside will appear in supermarkets.  A tip-off from my French teacher as to a particular place to buy them had me knocking on a door in a small village, watched over by a wizened lady stacking wood in to a trailer across the road. With no answer to my knock and no phone response to the number I’d been given, I found myself in the midst of a typical French conversation between neighbours which involved a Gallic shrug of “But I am French” when I asked if the wizened lady could slow down because I am English, shouting down a hallway by another, being barked at with machine-gun French as a phone conversation was relayed and finally, a motion to “Suivez-moi” in the car. This resulted in squelching my way between rows and rows of mirabelle trees in a huge orchard, their fruits already dropping on the grass and coming across a whole family shaking trees and sorting fruits before returning to the car with a bagful, supposedly of three kilos but was likely nearer eight. It cost 3 Euros.  A further, impromptu trip a couple or so weeks later resulted in four kilos, carefully weighed by a dour lady who only smiled once as I helped her push up her garage door to fetch her scales as she pointed out “Vous êtes plus grande“.

The flavour of mirabelles is more subtle than plums but when eaten fresh has the same slightly perfumed taste that wanders up your nose. Leave four kilos in a bag in a warm kitchen overnight and the sweetness will hit you in the morning. Jam-making, like anything that involves lots of stirring, is hugely therapeutic, particularly when it’s been necessary to wash, halve and stone what seems like a million fruits. Left to macerate for a few hours in sugar, the heating, frothing and stirring can commence, surely the whole point of the exercise.  Wondrously, the colour changes, turning amber and then darkening to orange.

I am not, in fact, a great jam-eater (batch 2 proved I’m not a great jam-maker either as I left it to go past its setting point and resulted in a too-hard, chewy 10134131375_fbce5e0fecjam) but there is, and will continue to be, something thoughtful, very mindful as I spread it liberally on toast or weekend croissants and think of dilapidation that the French carry off so well, charming L’Epiceries, elderly widows, but-I-am-French ladies, suivez-moi sons and hundreds of people whose villages were destroyed and thousands of sons who never made it home.

 

Hibernate Hill

There is ice on the inside of some of the windows at The House on the Hill and the fine, icing sugar snow which fell a few days ago is frozen solid.  It cracked underfoot as I walked up the garden yesterday to upright the bird table which fell over during the high winds of a month or so ago.  I noticed it but did nothing about it, any more than, to my shame, I did anything about refilling the bird feeders.  It was a robin I saw through the kitchen window, puffed up against the cold so as to be almost wholly round, bibbity-bobbing about on the terrace looking for food that induced the guilt trip and I wiped my doughy hands on a tea towel and went to find the bag of bird food.  Freezing temperatures which are set for the whole week have raised my hibernation requirements even higher than before and I cried off going to a yoga class yesterday, preferring to salute the sun on my own with a DVD whilst le chat wound himself round my mountain posed feet, licked my hands whilst downward dogging and drooled all over my mat.  I cancelled my French lesson for today, delightful as my French teacher is, as the idea of conjugating verbs frankly filled me with dread.  Concentration on French studies is proving difficult, mindless mixing and kneading is far easier.  The furthest I’ve been in the last few days is up the road to the post box.  Tellingly of insulation levels in our house, ours is the only roof in the street which has no snow on it.  I think the turrety thing up the road has more snow on its roof than we do.

My recent forays in to breadmaking, both sourdough and otherwise, despite a perfectly good breadmaker, has produced disappointing results – loaves are somewhat flat like ruptured implants rather than the huge inflated airbags I’d envisaged.  I’ve now learned that this is likely to be due to French flour being different to British.  Who knew?

My pasta however, is fantastic.

Thirty first: Timescale

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It feels as though I should upload a meaningful picture and write a profound, end of month post to mark the end of the August Break but, frankly, I’m too tired.  That says it all about this month really.  Joe Brown moved in to our new house at the beginning of this month and it seems a long, long time ago.

Scales were acquired from the tip local to me when I lived in the ‘Set. Sadly, no room in the kitchen here so they’ve lived in the garage, as has my much-loved wonky cupboard.  Unlikely to be room in the new kitchen, which is tiny, for the scales but the wonky cupboard will be in the house.

Twenty sixth: Stuff

6083516324_3396f84a46For insurance purposes, we have to provide the packers with an inventory of pretty much everything we own with cost to replace “in the country to where you are going”.  I have therefore spent much of the day taking pictures of stuff, list-making and picking random figures of worth with the help of Google.  The removers are right – we do have too much.  Salt and pepper mills clearly breed in the back of cupboards and I really don’t think we need 25 mugs.

Tomorrow I start upstairs.

Twenty Fifth: Good and Bad

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The good news is that the turnaround time from the time the removers arrive to pack up The Little House by the Big Wood to the time they arrive to oust our stuff at the other end is four days.  This is all part of Joe Brown’s relocation package.

The bad news is, having had some chappy pitch up and walk round the house with a clipboard, we’ve got too much stuff and the attic was specifically mentioned.

I have therefore spent the afternoon getting dusty amongst the batshit and shedding stuff, looking in boxes and whimpering at the sight of seemingly endless cables for I-know-not-what and checking Best Before dates on food items in the kitchen.  Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t pay much mind to an opened jar with ‘Best Before Mar 2007’ but I reckon I’ve reduced our move mass by about two boxes simply by checking the pantry.

Eighth: The Red Stuff

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Jam.  Raspberry.  Homegrown.

August Break 5th

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I forgot to make bread so, at lunchtime, was wandering round the kitchen trying to decide what to have.  Result was first harvested shallot from the garden, a pile of which are drying off in the garage before plaiting, two courgettes twisted off the plants, a handful of small early potatoes from the allotment which are a bit scabby but fine nonetheless, chopped garlic (nearly last clove from bought bulb) and half a red pepper sliced.

Chopping and cooking this up was probably the most energetic thing I’ve done today having cancelled this morning’s gardening gig owing to still dodgy knee which made my right leg feel like a tree trunk.

Winter warmer

When it’s bitterly cold outside, with heavy snow forecast overnight, there’s something hugely calming and therapeutic about slowly stirring something in a pan on the stove.

Paneer, for those unfamiliar, is a cheese much used in Indian cooking and although it can be bought, homemade tastes far better and it’s ridiculously easy to make.  Pour 1 litre of whole milk in a large pan and heat to just below boiling point.  Turn down heat and dump in a few – possibly six – dessertspoons of live yoghurt.  Whack up the heat somewhat and stir, stir, stir, watching with fascination as globby bits start to form in a highly unattractive fashion in the pan.  Keep stirring ’til it really starts to separate with the liquidy bit going really thin and liquidy with a slight green tinge to it and the globby bits going really globby.  It looks revolting, I know.  Drape a large muslin cloth over a colander in the sink and pour the stuff over it, draining the liquid through.  You will be left with a very unappealing pale mess.  Loosely twirl the muslin over the top and leave on a flat surface with a heavy weight over it (I put it on a plastic chopping board on the drainer with the huge granite mortar on it).  Leave for an hour or so, after which you’ll have a far more solid, and frankly far more appetising, cheese-like thing.

Deliciously creamy, it works well in stir-fries and curries, particularly as it can be fried slightly before adding to your dish although wear an apron as it gets stroppy and spits a lot and if, like me, you’re a pescatarian and forgot to get the fish out of the freezer, it’s an excellent source of protein.

As snow started falling last night, we had it in a soupy thing that Joe Brown made in about 15 minutes, made with cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, coriander and tom yum paste.  Deliciously hot, with a spiciness that hits the back of the mouth and offset by by the creaminess of the paneer.

Wild and windy

When it’s wild and windy outside, sometimes the only thing to do is batten down the hatches and make sticky ginger cake.