Saturday, 26 June 2010

Magic in the air

If you're one of those people who despises so-called rose-tinted, fluffy blog posts (yes, you know who you are!), then look away now. Because in our lovely green Ariège the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the insects are buzzing, people are smiling, and wherever you go, even if it's just to the builders' merchants, you can't help but feel a certain magic in the air.

The summer solstice really does mark the first day of summer here, and never more than this year, after our very, very long winter and pretty dismal spring. With just a week to go before les grandes vacances, the mood is upbeat and full of anticipation. It's deemed acceptable (almost normal) to wear shorts to do your shopping, barbecues are dusted off and butchers are falling over each other to sell the best ready-to-grill brochettes; there's a mad rush for sun cream, magazines are full of last minute diets to prepare your 'bikini-body', and swimming pool chemicals are the product of the moment in the brico sheds (though woe betide you if you're still, like us, looking for garden furniture. That's all sold out ...). The fête season is under way, beginning as usual with the Fête de la Musique, closely followed by the Fête de St Jean, and then - well, all hell breaks loose. It's as if the whole of nature is conspiring to attract us so that we can do nothing but be out of doors, out of our normal lives, out of ourselves. Hell, France are (oh joy) even out of the World Cup, so we don't even have to contend with that ...

The scent and sound of haymaking fill the air from dawn to dusk, and pasture after pasture changes its appearance from shaggy to impossibly neat, each with its stash of round bales. Many of the cattle are up in the estives - the high altitude summer pastures - where it's cooler and the grass lush and filled with nutrients after its six month covering of snow. Tourists and visitors are arriving; summer-only shops and buvettes are opening. Paradoxically, villages appear deserted as shutters stay shut through the day to keep out summer heat (it's said that you can always spot the house of an Anglo-Saxon immigrant by their ever-open shutters). And each day the mountains are a little less white ...

View from the track to Grillou, 2 minutes from the house

Here at Grillou, life has changed its rhythm a bit. Well, quite a lot, actually, because I'm working over the summer for anything up to three days as week as massage therapist at a holistic holiday retreat nearby. I've been a holistic bodywork practitioner for (gulp) over twenty years, though it's a few years since I've had the time to practise professionally. But it's been a big part of who I am for a long time and I've missed it, dreadfully. So when a completely out-of-the-blue opportunity came up a couple of months ago, I just couldn't say no. And it's an absolute joy to be back ... like it's been slumbering, dormant, just waiting to be embraced back into my life. And to be honest, although it takes me away from the réno a bit more than I'd anticipated, it's no bad thing for us here either: I can come to the work fresh each long weekend and truly enjoy doing whatever it is that's next to be done, and after thirteen years of working together under the same roof 24/7, John and I at last get some space to work independently. Life feels more normal, and we're both beginning to sense the balance that we came here to find.

There is a knock on effect, possibly (depending on your perspective) a downside. And that's that after a lot of thought and discussion, we're going to defer the opening of our guest accommodation until 1 April 2011. Partly in the interest of clarity, so that those people who've wanted to book for later this year (and there have been a surprising number) and have been waiting for news of an opening date have got time to make other plans. But partly because the bloody dining room is still a bloody builders' yard, and will be until the bloody builders come back and do their bloody thing in it in (we hope) September, which wouldn't give us long enough to move in afterwards and do all the finishing: limewashing and painting (both of which require scaffolding) and building cupboards and shelves and renovating floors and doing all the other 1001 minor-but-time-consuming things that you never take account of when you're planning a project ...

We are, it seems, in good company. I subscribe to a French magazine, Accueillir, which is aimed at those running maisons d'hôtes; recently they've been contacted by a TV producer looking for people whose projects have been seriously delayed and who are willing to be followed by a production crew for three months while they try to catch up (no, we're not, before you ask!). Apparently, they've been inundated.

Maybe it's la belle saison working its magic.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Hospitality and hard cheese

As many of you know, I seem to have interspersed a life of doing Socially Useful Things - civil servant, welfare rights activist, CAB manager, citizen advocate, and latterly counsellor/psychotherapist - with various forays into the hospitality world: prototype vegetarian guest house in the 1980s, meditation and workshop centre, dance and other camps, and latterly restaurant with rooms (not to mention the unmentionable one that's running unmentionably late: Grillou!). It's a pretty big thing to me, the H word. You can have the most perfect set up in the world - the most beautiful home, the latest designer interior, the most far reaching views, the best ingredients, the most 'professional' service - but if you haven't got the deep desire to enter in to a human exchange with your guests something indefinable is always going to be lacking from what you're offering. Sounds obvious, maybe ... or maybe not, to those of us more used to hearing the phrase 'hospitality industry'. But it's the relationship between host and guest that matters, that makes the difference between simply providing others with a service, and being truly hospitable.

I had my first taste of the hospitality world when I was a green and clueless student, working the summer vac in the tiny, isolated Hotel de la Poste in Arolla, supposedly the highest village in Switzerland. At the far end of a long and precipitous valley with no way out except back, it was a most extraordinary place. Most of the older people had never been out of the valley and spoke only a very localised patois. Nobody spoke English, only an odd version of French that had me fooled for quite a while. Other than the one that took you there (eyes shut, holding tightly to the side of the postbus while invoking deities you didn’t think you believed in) there were no roads and so almost no cars - just high, high mountains and light that was so perfectly blue and clear it took your breath away.

 It was a baptism of fire for me. At home, as a pampered only child I’d never cooked, cleaned or even done my own washing. And yet suddenly there I was, the first outsider ever to have worked in this ancient family-run pension where everybody, whether eight or eighty, did everything. To begin with I was forever getting my fondues confused with my Fendants and having running battles with the coffee machine, which was the size of a Mini and even more difficult to start, but, unaccountably, I loved it almost from the word go. I learned to cook, carry four plates at a time, work 16 hour days, drink copious amounts of wine and coffee, eat spoonfuls of Ovaltine out of the jar, speak French with a pronounced Swiss accent, smoke Disque Bleue and walk up a glacier (not necessarily all at the same time).

I’m sure that I look back on that summer with slightly rose-tinted contact lenses. The hotel is long gone, sadly, but two things have stayed with me ever since. The first is the way the running of the hotel was inseparable from the owner-family's daily life. They (and I) lived and congregated in the kitchen and restaurant, decided the lunch menu over breakfast and the dinner menu over lunch, ate what the guests and customers ate and did whatever needed doing whenever it needed doing. There were no ‘private’ signs, no rotas, no job descriptions, no scheduled time or days off, no separation of ‘work’ and ‘non-work’. It was all very flexible, very organic - haphazard even. And it worked.

But maybe even more impactful (is that a word?) than that was the genuine open heartedness with which guests and diners were welcomed. For one who'd grown up going to holiday camps and, later, petit bourgeois hotels with ideas above their station this was a true revelation: guests would be made to feel instantly at home, would wander in and out of the kitchen, would sit and talk for hours after lunch or dinner and were treated as an extension to the family. There was no big thing about it; no rule that said " thou shalt enter into relationship with thine guests". But they just did, and after a while so did I. And ever since then I've aspired to that honest, easy going and above all genuine way of offering hospitality.

I've been thinking about this this week for various reasons, which will, I'm afraid, remain unblogged. But as I was doing so, I remembered one of Monsieur le Patrons's signature dishes, and a speciality of the Val d’Hérens, the valley of which Arolla forms the head. It was very often on the lunch menu, and just as often demanded when it wasn’t. After I’d been there a couple of weeks he sat me down in the kitchen with a bottle of Fendant, the local white wine, and made me this; a while later he taught me to cook it. I cooked it all the way through that summer, and I’ve been cooking it ever since, though I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t remember what it was called. I suppose it’s a kind of fondue-without-tears; it certainly gives off the same appetite-inducing aroma of cheese and wine as it’s cooking. Here's the recipe, for an impromptu supper for two people: try it first in its pure form, but experiment too – it’s exceptionally good with some thin slices of air-dried ham between the bread and the cheese …

2 thick slices of good, dense, white bread - preferably sourdough
a glass (150ml or thereabouts) of white wine
about 175g of Swiss cheeses: a mixture of Gruyere and Emmental cheeses is ideal (make sure it’s the real thing: pukka Swiss cheese has got ‘Switzerland’ printed in red through its rind, in case it forgets where it’s come from)
paprika to sprinkle

Put a slice of bread in each of two small ovenproof gratin dishes, then trickle over the wine – slowly, so that it’s thoroughly soaked. Slice the cheeses very thinly and arrange the slices over the winey bread, mixing the different cheeses as you go to get a good blend. Lightly sprinkle the cheese with paprika and bake near the top of a hot oven (around 200°C) for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and bubbling and you can’t wait any longer. Eat straight out of the dish, with a green salad if you like and a glass of white wine. It's not dignified, as the cheese tries to wrap your face up in its strings, so you may prefer not to make it for someone you're trying to impress ... but enjoy!