Monday, 24 January 2011

Payback time!

Serves me right for gloating about spring-like weather. This morning it was so cold that the water in my wet tile cutter froze right up. As I was using it. Hmm.

There was a compensation though: drinking coffee in the sun at lunchtime, we watched a flock of a dozen or so Common Crossbills perched on the roof of the porcherie, just five metres or so away from where we were sitting. They stayed for quite some time, chattering and singing and flying up to the nearest fir tree and back. Common they may be called, but it was a first for me. Lovely.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Rakes and pains

For the last five days now we've had amazing weather - clear, cloudless blue skies and genuinely warm, spring-like air. At lunchtimes our thermometer has looked like this:

Pretty good for January, huh? Reminds me why we came to live here and not one of the many places I've fallen in love with over the years that are farther north .....

For the first couple of days I huffed and puffed around inside, carrying on doing things that were on the jobs list like finishing the staircase, plastering a wall and cutting the tiles for the bathroom floor, while gazing longingly at the bright yellow thing in the sky outside. By Sunday morning I could take it no more. Reluctantly I decided that Leaving The Premises was, given the length of the jobs list, just a step too far, but a couple of days working in the garden ... well, it's still work (and therefore okay), no? So on went the shorts (yes, really) and wellies, and we set to on the mammoth task of clearing up the garden ready for spring. Here, that means first and foremost raking leaves: living in the middle of several hectares of woodland is a wonderful thing, but trees have leaves, and leaves fall off. Most of them head Grillou-wards, or at least that's what it feels like, and every year we fill seven or eight huge leaf containers that we've made from chicken wire and hidden in strategic places in the woods (where else?).

Although I wouldn't swap it for anything, there are times (usually when I'm mowing ...) when I wish we had a nice, flat grassy garden instead of half a hectare of of rocky nooks and crannies on various degrees of slope, but a day of raking and barrowing and green has reappeared: always a wonderful moment. Next, we started pruning and shaping hundreds of shrubs, and beginning the task of clearing rocks and head-height brambles from the area around one of our ancient oak trees so that you can get near enough to hug it, and generally cleaning out some of winter's debris. Yesterday evening, the forecast end of the good weather, felt like the end of a holiday; I couldn't bear to come in and was still on the end of my rake, in bright moonlight, at 7.30.

At 8pm I realised that I was a bit stiff. By 9pm, I ached all over. By 10pm I could hardly move. It was great. Much of what I'm working on at the moment requires standing for long periods in one place, usually in a silly position, doing things that need anally perfect measurements, and my body had been crying out for some stretching and some physical effort. It got it.

This morning the sun came out again. But just to make you feel better if you're shivering in colder climes, winter is apparently returning on Thursday, with a 'high' of just 1 degree forecast for Friday ......

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

From Facebook to Face Feeding .....

It's been an interesting few days. Firstly, I found myself back in contact with two friends who I lost touch with 15 years ago, after we lived together in an intentional community in Dorset. Quite how we lost touch I'm not sure; one is recently back from living in Eastern Europe, which might have something to do with it, while the other has ended up back not a million miles from where we left off. It was Facebook that dunnit, one of those infernal friends of friends of friends things that I usually ignore (I'm not big on FB, though maybe I need to pay better attention ....). And so I was transported back to the days of running dance retreats and camps and living in tent and tipi circles on the land for three months in the summer and smelling of woodsmoke and trying to work out how to survive in winter in a big but beautiful draughty old Dorset thatched farmhouse on which I and another member had blagged a ninety thousand pound mortgage from Barclays (which was a fortune then, especially for a bunch of hippies with no proper income ....). Oh, and cooking for huge numbers of people.

And it was while I was ruminating on the trials and tribulations of cooking for groups that the second thing happened: I was approached to see if I'd be interested in cooking for twenty people on retreat, for 10 days. Vegan, of course. I spent - ooh, all of thirty seconds thinking about it. And then I said no. (Well, come on, haven't I got enough jobs to be going on with?). In my last-but-seventh incarnation as co-owner of a vegetarian guest house I reckon over half our guests were vegan, and it was a huge challenge, in the days before Terre a Terre and Denis Cotter and the like, to create interesting menus for them. Particularly traumatic was the annual visit, for a week at a time, of a lovely vegan family of four from Hull - they came three times altogether: that's 21 different vegan three course dinners ...... (We must have done something right though; recently my then-partner encountered, purely by chance, a woman who turned out to be one of the daughters; although she was only eight then, she still remembered eating dinner with us ....).

And it was while I was ruminating on the trials and tribulations of cooking for vegans that I had a sudden craving for something we used to cook in great quantities in our early restaurant days. So I dropped my plastering float and made it, there and then. It's just as good as ever, and I thought you might like to make it too. And so here is the recipe, reproduced shamelessly from our second cook book, which was called slowcafefood.

(very) sticky date gingerbread

Okay, here it is - the darkest, richest, stickiest thing ever. You've been badgering us for this one ever since we made the first one in our tea room days and it went within a couple of hours. Now who would have thought that a vegan cake would be so popular? Yes, this one contains absolutely no animal or animal derived products at all. No eggs, no butter, no honey … sounds gross (but, oh, it isn't). If you make no other cake from this book, make this one.

Having developed quite a repertoire of gluten free and sugar free dessert cakes, we've been working recently on coming up with some vegan ones. We know we've succeeded when most of the people eating them have no idea that what they're eating is 'different' in some way, because we really hate sidelining certain kinds of eaters, just as we hate being 'catered for' if we want to eat veggie in a restaurant or pub or hotel (in fact best not let me loose on this one - it's one of my major soapbox subjects). Vegan-cakes-I-have-known tend to be of the worthy wholefood variety, which are - er - very nice and all that, but come on - how many times have you heard the words 'vegan' and 'wicked' used in the same sentence? This cake, however, is most definitely wicked. Especially with (close your eyes, you vegans out there) a large dollop of Greek yoghurt or cream. You can eat this any time with a cup of good coffee, but it’s brilliant dressed up as a dessert in any number of ways. Try it, for instance, with slow roasted pears and ginger flavoured crème fraîche; or cut into thin fingers, arranged artfully over a rhubarb compote and drizzled with a vegan shrikand cream ...

Now we’ve never got tired of either eating or making this one just as it is, but ruminating away at the back of my mind are one or two variations. What would it be like, for instance, as a chocolate ginger cake, made by substituting some of the flour with organic cocoa?  And perhaps throwing in some roasted hazelnuts or walnuts as well? I hope some of you are tempted to do a little fiddling around if you discover you like this cake as much as we do. So I guess you’d better have the recipe:

200g white flour
150g wholemeal flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
125g dates, chopped very thinly (otherwise they'll sink)
4 or 5 round stems of preserved ginger (the kind that comes in syrup), thinly sliced
125g Demerara sugar
150g black treacle
150g golden syrup
125ml sunflower or soya oil
125ml soya milk

Sift the flours and put all the dry stuff and fruit into a big bowl. Gently warm the treacle and syrup to blend them together, then when the mixture's cooled slightly (not too much otherwise it'll be too viscous) stir in the oil and then the soya milk. Don't worry if it appears to go globby or curdly (these are technical terms, you realise): simply trust the process and keep stirring gently, and all of a sudden you'll have a nice dark glossy liquid. It's important, this bit - for some reason the cake doesn't work so well if you add the soya milk first, or if you mix the oil and milk together before you add them. Pour the liquid mixture onto the solid mixture and stir to combine. Spoon the result (which should be pretty runny - if you can do this without making a mess you were either brought up nicer than me or you've done something different) into a 1kg loaf tin, lined with baking parchment, and bake for round about 75 minutes at 150°C. You want it to be quite firm, even slightly caramelised, at the edges and squidgy inside. And don't panic when it sinks a bit in the middle. That's what it does.
Take the cake out of the tin after about 5 minutes, peel the paper away from the sides and then leave it till it's cool. Wrap it in foil, put it in an airtight tin and (this is the most difficult bit) forget all about it for at least 3 days. Put it out of sight, tie up your hands, put the tin in your safety deposit box at the bank, do whatever you have to do … but wait. You (and it) will be all the better for it.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Too many things to redo

Someone I once knew - I think it was my ex-partner's mother, but don't hold me to that - used to say when she was flustered "Arrgh! Too many things to redo ...". If you're wondering why I've gone a bit quiet on the renovation front recently - well, that's why. Since I've been back working full-time here at Grillou I seem to have spent much of the time not doing, but re-doing. And re-doing not things that I've done myself (I'm far too tediously and anally perfectionist not to get things right at first pop), but things done (or sometimes not done) By Others: in some cases by our predecessors, in others by - well, no, let's not go there ...

And so whereas by now I should be engaged in a deep and meaningful relationship with my sewing machine, I'm still up to my armpits in things infinitely more messy. This weekend's project, for example, is replastering the two walls that butt up to the new, scarily-expensive-but-worth-it, French double doors we've just had made and installed in L'Atelier's kitchen by a local artisan. But before I can do that, I need to repair the huge holes in the plasterboard that were made in a failed attempt to repair the previous door .... When I'm not doing that I'll be on the end of my angle grinder cutting the pieces of stone mosaic that will form the border of the tiled area on L'Atelier's bathroom floor .... and when I'm not doing that I'll be working on putting together the bits of the metre-high staircase we've built to join our hallway with the new dining room.

After that, there are four Big Jobs still to contend with: one shower to tile, two floors to level and lay, and a huge cupboard to build out of reclaimed materials. And after that? Five pages of small(er) jobs, several pieces of furniture to finish restoring ... and twenty curtains to make. If it sounds daunting, it's because it is.

It's two years almost to the day that I signed the devis for the building work that would make Grillou what it (nearly) is today. A couple of weeks after that, we started preparing the ground for the builders: removing acres of old tiles, cupboards, kitchen fittings and all the rest. If someone had told me then that two years on we'd still be working ten hour days, seven days a week they'd have probably got short shrift. But it's a very common tale; we're by no means unusual, blah blah blah; and This Too Will Pass.

But do you know what would be wonderful? To be able to get up in the morning and not put on working clothes ...

Monday, 3 January 2011

Don't call me madam(e)

It so happens that as I still have the occasional dribble of income from the UK, I keep an account in a certain British bank, along with its associated credit card. Normally I don't pay much attention to it, nor it to me. But every so often it seems like a good idea to spend the dribble of income rather than let it contribute to the Bankers Pension Fund, and so last week when La Redoute had a vente privée (a kind of pre-sale sale, limited to previous customers and usually much more attractive than the sales proper, which start next week) I decided to spend it on some new linen for one of our guest beds. After a typically Libran angst-filled online evening (How many threads per centimetre? Ecru or taupe with the ivory sheets? Flappy bits on the pillowcases or not? Fitted sheets or flat ones?), I submitted my order, flashed my UK credit card at my laptop, and mopped my brow.

The next morning I had an email from La Redoute, telling me that my payment had been refused. Thinking that there had been a simple mistake, that afternoon I cancelled the order then put it through again. Ten minutes later, same thing: payment refused. Sigh. Nothing for it but a long and tedious telephone call to The Bank. Now I hate talking to banks. They seem to occupy a different universe to the one I inhabit. But after the statutory 17 minutes pressing 1 or 2 or hash and listening to The Four Seasons, I found myself taking to a person who appeared to know my name. So far so promising.

Having told her my grandmother's dog's name and when I last cut my toenails (they call it the security test, I think), I regaled her with the story so far. "Oh yes" she said. "We blocked your card last night".
"Er - why?"
"Because we weren't sure it was you".
"Er - why?"
"I can't tell you that".
"Er - why?"
"It's for your own security".

I'll skip the next ten minutes lest you lose the will to live, but eventually we got to the the point where I had learned that it 'could have been' because there was a discrepancy between the name and address provided by La Redoute and that held by The Bank. Having eliminated possible spelling mistakes, and differences in where English and French addresses place the postcode, I was stumped. Until ......

"Could it be" I asked, "that The Bank's computer systems don't recognise the Madame in front of my name and think it's another forename instead of a salutation?"

"Um - that could indeed possibly theoretically happen" said my patient, if scripted, advisor. Aha! She means yes, I thought. Good. Now we know what the problem is, we can set something up to stop it happening again.

Wrong. She went on to tell me that every time I made a so-called cardholder-not-present transaction using the same details, my card would be automatically blocked "for my own security" (eh?) and payment would be refused. There was no way round it. The computer knows best.

"Right", I said, counting to ten. "So what can I do in order to be able to spend my own money, where I live?".

"Well, the best thing is if you give your name to these French shops as Ms instead of [sic] madam", she said. I swallowed a snort. Clearly she's never been to France.

"Okay, so could I perhaps change my salutation with The Bank to Madame?" I wondered, still trying - heaven knows why - to be constructive. She went off to consult.

Computer said no. I could be Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, Dr, Professor, Captain, Colonel, Lady, Lord, Major, Master, Rev, Sir, Sister, Viscount, Dame or Rabbi. But just don't call me Madame. For my own security, of course.

Welcome to Europe.