Thursday, 27 December 2012

On the move

No, not us. Heaven forfend, what an unthinkable thought - if I start seriously talking about moving from here please have me tightly bound and locked up immediately. But this blog is on the march.

I've been here a long time - since April 2008 in fact. I was looking back at the early years a while ago and was amazed at how often I managed to post; these days I'm lucky if it's once a month. It's true that over the last year life and times have changed: we've finally settled into doing what we came here to do and our day to day story is - well, pretty ordinary, I'd guess, to most people. It's also true that I'm beginning to feel as though I'm spread rather too thinly around the interweb, with Blogger, two (soon to be three) huge sites for our business here, two professional sites, the Ariège Network, and various other networking sites to tweak, maintain and keep up to date with.

And so as you do in the dark days of winter, I've been ruminating. Truth is, I'll never be a proper paid up member of the general blogging community - the one where people post several times a week, read each others blogs, comment on every post and generally form a warm and supportive clique circle. Quite apart from the fact that I have no idea how they find the time to do it, it's just not me. Yes, there are blogs I like, read, and even comment on, but my blogger community member score would never I think exceed a just-about-scraped D.

And so, dear readers (reader?), this will be my last post here on Blogger. And dear Blogger, I shall wave a fond yet oh-so-relieved goodbye to your endless quirks and foibles that have tied so many late nights up in knots over the last four and a half years and sent me to the point of wanting throw you and your 'improvements' into a cyberspace wormhole.

However. It's not an ending, just a change of form. Because from now on I'll be blogging here, on our own website: look for the heading 'Read' and go to the page of your choice. I hope you'll come with me.

Oh, and a very happy, healthy, peaceful and of course Slow 2013 to you all!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Grillou crosses the Pyrenees (3)

While we were over on the other side of the Pyrenees we met a few people like us, who've upped sticks from their own country and settled somewhere new. There's often a kind of bond amongst such 'strangers' that has nothing to do with country of origin and everything to do with the shared experience of culture change. I'm always open to opportunities for such random conversations, which often take place on café terraces or in restaurants and are invariably fascinating.

But what comes up in these meetings, time and time again, is that there's one factor that seems to be number one in determining whether the move works out or not, and that's language - as in being able to speak it. Those who can't (and I include in that a French couple that we met over lunch in L'Ametlla de Mar) seem to feel like permanent holiday makers; those who can describe their adopted country as 'home'.

Although my French and Latin background means that I can understand a good deal of written Spanish and Catalan, my spoken command massacre of both doesn't bear description; it barely goes beyond being able to pass the time of day, book a hotel room or order lunch. Unfortunately it seems that my accent when I do manage to get out a few words must be reasonable, because invariably the other person comes back with a torrent of stuff at a million kilometres an hour that just goes right over my head; fortunately however it seems that my accent suggests me to be French and not English. I say fortunately for two reasons: firstly it's much more likely that the other person can cobble together a few words of French than English, and secondly because it's no secret that French visitors and holidaymakers are rather more respected than English ones.

And I have to tell you that I hated having a language barrier. Not just because of the shame I felt when I couldn't understand what people said to me, but also because there were so many things I wanted to ask different people at different times, like the incredibly helpful and knowledgeable woman who showed us round the Civil War Museum in Corbera d'Ebre. So it's decided: this year's Solstice resolution is going to be Getting To Grips With Spanish, at long last. But I'm left, once again, with the question of how people manage to live in a country without having at least a reasonable command of its language.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Grillou crosses the Pyrenees (2)

Catalonia has always made the most of the resources offered by the sea. The Mediterranean has given to the Catalans a great variety of marine species, up to 120. The most popular fish are small hake, sardines, John Dory or tuna. Nearly everything is used: heads and skeletons, small and ugly rock fish, crustaceans, ‘not very noble’ molluscs and urchin’s gonads. It can be said that the Catalans are one of the most ichthyophagous peoples in the world.
So says the portal site of the Generalitat de Catalunya, at least. I'm afraid I can't (knowingly) report back to you on the taste of urchin's gonads, but we did eat a lot of fish and seafood, and one of our most memorable afternoons was spent at the llotja - fish auction - in Sant Carles de Rapita. For no really apparent reason this little seaside town had a huge appeal for us - it's not the most obviously picturesque of the fishing villages we spent time at (that distinction goes to L'Ametlla de Mar), but it's one of those places that just seems to feel right.

It's one of the most important fishing ports in Catalonia, and we went for two reasons: to eat a fishy lunch (it's known for its seafood restaurants), and then to watch the landing and auctioning of the day's catch in late afternoon.

This is one of the very smallest boats we saw - most are huge

My flabber was well and truly glasted by the sheer number of boats and the amount of fish being landed - some 30 tonnes a day, apparently, on 5 days a week, except for May and June, when the fish get a respite. It's mostly sold by auction, though many buyers cluster round the boats as they come in; we were told that a lot of the fish goes to Madrid. 

Fish being unloaded from one of the boats

The auction itself is an amazing affair. It's hyper-modern, with all the bidding done electronically; buyers have a hand held gizmo, and as each tray of fish moves through the hall, they bid as the price goes down by pressing the right button. It's a Dutch auction - all about holding one's nerve!

The fish is loaded onto conveyor belts which take it through the hall

It's a bit like a theatre, and visitors are welcome to observe from the gallery at the top. So we did, spending a long time watching this fascinating process, learning the Catalan names for all sorts of fish and trying to work out how it all functioned. Each tray is photographed as it moves through the line; the details of the contents are flashed up on the screen in red letters and then the bidding starts. It's all over in seconds, then the next tray moves forward and so it continues.

The fish 'theatre' at Sant Carles de Rapita

It's easy when you're faced with the sheer volume of all this to start getting het up about overfishing, but the truth is that the vast majority of the catch does indeed seem to be 'small and ugly' fish and 'not very noble' molluscs, all apparently equally prized for the plate here; I certainly had one memorable fish soup which was more than half composed of odd looking things in shells, not one of which I recognised! It's probably the fish equivalent of nose to tail eating - gill to fin eating, would that be?

A sunset or three ...

The sunsets over the Ebro Delta were amazing, and it was always worth braving the mosquitoes to see them:

Monday, 26 November 2012

Grillou crosses the Pyrenees (1)

There's not much - almost nothing, in fact - that I miss from north Norfolk, but apart from the wonderful hot and buttery toasted teacakes at The Owl in Holt (sigh), I do miss the birds and the big skies of the marshes. Grillou is brilliant for birds - we have to keep remembering, for example, not to take for granted the fact that we have red and black kites flying over the garden pretty much every day - but there's something about wetland birds that reaches the twitcher in me that other birds just can't reach.

And so it was that I unanimously decided that we'd spend our holidays this year near the Ebro Delta in Catalonia, one of southern Europe's great wetlands (of course the fact that we'd be within spitting distance from the Priorat wine area may just have swayed the choice a little ...!). We're still getting used to the fact that we can be in Spain in less than an hour and a half, just about twice the time it used to take us to drive to our nearest town of Norwich; at the beginning of November we set off on a leisurely five hour drive through the dramatic scenery of the southern Pyrenean foothills, down onto the Lleida plain, up again into the craggy olive-growing mountains of southern Catalonia and then down to the banks of the Ebro, where we'd rented an apartment for a couple of weeks.

We didn't get teacakes, but we did get big skies and birds, including thousands of flamingoes (now you don't find those in Norfolk :) ) as well as some species that were new to us, like the red crested pochard and black-necked grebe. We also got great walking, clementines straight off the tree, wonderful wines, fabulous scenery, amazing sunsets, and some - um - fairly crappy weather ( if we'd stayed at home we'd have had nigh on wall-to-wall sunshine and 20+ degrees; although we had some good days it was relatively chilly and on occasion positively torrential). It's a great region that combines within a relatively small area three of my favourite things: birds, mountains (albeit little ones) and sea. Oh, and wine :), though I may have mentioned that already. So here and in the next post or three I'll share some photos and a taste of a part of Europe very different from our lovely Ariège.

A misty dawn over the Ebro

Our apartment was in the town of Mora d'Ebre, in the historic part which runs right along and behind the river. To be honest, the town itself isn't much to write home about, but it's well placed for exploring, the river banks are lovely, and this was the view we woke up to each day: 

From the balcony of our apartment
Bridge over the Ebro in the mist

Cormorants on their way up river

Looking up river

First hint of sunrise


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A little navel gazing

The leaves are falling off the trees, the potager is almost bare, and I can hardly believe that we've just been stashing away all the garden furniture, solar lights and all the rest for the winter. A couple of months ago we passed our 5 year milestone in this house, and in another couple it will be 6 years since we packed our bags into the boot of the car and came to live in France.

So here we are, already at the end of our first summer season welcoming guests. Inevitably as the days get shorter (sob) we go into reflective mood and start taking stock. What's it been like? What did we get right, and what did we get wrong? What have we discovered? What are we going to change or introduce for next year? Here I share with you just a few random ruminations for a cool autumn evening.

1.  When we first started to think about living in France we were initially unsure whether to set up a maison d'hôtes or to buy a small house for ourselves and have a couple of separate houses nearby to let to guests on a pure holiday rental basis. All I can say is that the two of us are soooo relieved we made the choice we did, because it's clear that we'd have got an awful lot less satisfaction from the rental route. We honestly think that people who choose to stay in a maison d'hôtes or bed and breakfast must be particularly lovely human beings, because pretty much without exception everyone has been a joy to share our home with.

2.  One of the things that we've got very right is the design of the house, which gives us as well as our two sets of guests complete privacy. So there's no question of bumping into someone you don't know very well (or even at all) when you emerge bleary eyed in the morning to make coffee, and no having to whisper to each other because there's another room right across the landing. Believe me, after 13 years of welcoming bed and breakfast guests in village houses, that's pure joy for me as well as for our guests!

3.  The great delight in doing what we do is meeting so many different people and being able to share in their lives, hear their stories, sit down with them over dinner or a glass of wine, find them a perfect walk for the day. We've had guests from all over the place - France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, South Africa, Canada and the UK, many of whom we've got to know through lots of exchanged emails even before they arrive. Often our guests have invited us for an apéro or, in one case, for 'afternoon tea' - and that's very touching because it makes us think that they must feel really at home.

4.  After several years of being chained to the kitchen while my guests sat down to dinner, finally I'm able to be out there sitting down and eating with them. That brings its own challenges, of course, like not getting carried away in a particularly juicy conversation while the next course quietly burns in the oven, but we seem to have largely mastered the art of cooking-serving-and-joining-in reasonably seamlessly now. I'm hugely grateful for those years in our restaurant kitchen though, or I have a feeling it would all feel much more difficult!

5.  While we're delighted that all but one set of this summer's guests have dined with us at least once (and frequently more often), we've noticed that fewer people than we expected have eaten out in restaurants more than once during their stay (and quite a few not at all). To be honest we have a few mixed feelings about that: while we'd obviously like to be doing our bit to support our local restaurants by sending them our guests, we know that it's a growing trend for people on holiday to pull in the reins in one area or another and we understand the need to do that. So what to do? Well, we're going to do two things - a kind of two-pronged attack, if you like. The first is to try and find the time to write a better restaurant guide to give a more enticing flavour of what's on offer out there; and the second is to create a summer kitchen in one of the barns so that for a lot of the year guests in La P'tite Maison, our chambre d'hôtes suite, will have the means to rustle up lunch or dinner even if the weather's not really good enough to get the barbecues out.

6.  We both feel incredibly lucky to be able to have the freedom to create in what we do, and to keep tweaking and growing to make our home and our lifestyle and what we offer even better (we hope!). That's really important for us - one of the things we both dread is getting stale and predictable, and we've seen too many people over the years lose their joy in welcoming guests by getting burned out.

7.  We work as hard as we ever did, but we have a lot more fun doing it!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

And then there were two ...

Go on, admit it. You all knew it would happen, didn't you? Meet the new member of the Grillou family, Hobo.

After my last rant on here, I started doing all the things you do here when you find a lost dog: registering Hobo as' found' on the national dog register, asking round at the vets' surgeries, talking to the postman and the local shops, advertising in the local paper, and putting up a listing on And while the first four things did nothing at all, the fifth proved to be amazing.

Within hours of my listing going live, I'd had a phone call from someone who lives in La Réunion and is involved in animal rescue there, offering to try and find out from the local vets what might have happened to his owner. Somebody else from La Réunion contacted me to tell me she was going to go in person to Hobo's registered address to see if she could find out anything. Somebody else offered to phone all the people with the same surname as the owner in Midi-Pyrénées. I met somebody local involved with an animal rescue association outside the vets, who was a great help. And various other people phoned me just to be supportive, one of whom - who lives in the Vosges and is also involved in animal rescue - offered to do some digging and as a last ditch solution to take Hobo for rehoming if no home or owner could be found. It was amazing, and it really opened my eyes to just how open and giving the 'doggie' community is here.

Meanwhile, our guests arrived with a dog of their own - an absolutely gorgeous black cocker spaniel, completely loopy and in her element having two besotted males to boss around! And for a week the three of them had the best of times, though Hobo couldn't quite join in the wild games of the other two and would stand to one side with an expression of "oh - I so wish I could do that" on his face. Noodles, meanwhile, was ecstatic in the company of his doggie friends.

And then a few days later, I had a phone call from someone in the next village. "Can I come round?" she said, "I've just been contacted by someone in the Vosges and I need to talk to you about Hobo". And so she did. Hobo's story is truly extraordinary and very sad, but for various reasons I'm not going to tell it here. Suffice it to say that she and her partner had brought Hobo from a previous 'rescue' home elsewhere in France with the aim of keeping him, but one of their other dogs had other ideas and took against him. Hobo became very stressed out and started to spend each day out wandering; eventually one day he just didn't go home. He had, it seems, been wandering the hills looking for a suitable home for himself, and when he found one - ours - simply stayed.

What do you do when you've been chosen by a dog? And when your own dog seems to be telling you in no uncertain terms they'd like not to be an only dog? Yep. You become a two dog family.

He learns fast from his older brother:

And has the occasional unsavoury habit, like rolling in - um - fumier:

But mostly he's the gentlest, sweetest and most affectionate creature you could imagine:

And as the top photo shows, he's learning how to play for the first time. And we're very happy that fate, or whatever it was, brought him Grillou-wards.

Friday, 14 September 2012


I hereby announce that I wish Grillou to secede from its commune, Rimont. Here's why.

Two or three weeks ago, during the heatwave, we began to see a white hound-type dog around a bit. He was timid and wouldn't come near, and we thought he belonged to one of our distant neighbours, a farmer across the valley; just in case he didn't (there are lots of dogs who look a bit like him) we left out food and water, which went.

Last week, the dog came back and started to play with ours. They got on like a house on fire. After a couple of hours, he'd disappear before turning up again the next day. Then on Monday he arrived ... and stayed. Nothing we could do could entice him to leave; he settled down under the big ash tree, where he spent the night. A visit to the farm told us he wasn't their dog, though they had seen him around; talking to other neighbours (I call them that in the loose sense of the word - they're all well over a kilometre away!) told us that he'd been seen around by lots of people.

I started trying to find out who he was. Amazingly, he's tattooed, and the national register told me that his name - and I swear I'm not making this up - was Hobo. This is him:

However, being a mere mortal, I was Not Authorised to find out directly who the owner was, so today we went to visit somebody who was - our local vet. And we found out that the person who registered Hobo 2 years ago lives in ... La Réunion. Near Madagascar. Which is - um - in the Indian Ocean. Undeterred, the receptionist phoned the registered owner, who answered, then put the phone down. And that was that.

What the story is heaven only knows. But although he's actually a lovely dog and is very gentil and sociable, (if a little demanding and noisy!) there's no way we can keep him or even find the time to try and rehome him ... especially at the moment when we're busier than we've been since we opened AND I have a full book of my own clients at the same time. So it was with a heavy heart and feeling rotten that after dropping me back home to finish the changeover for tomorrow's new guests, John went to our Mairie (you might call it the town hall, if we were a town - which we're not, but you get the idea) whose responsibility it was to sign the papers allowing Hobo to be admitted to the refuge.

Not our problem, said the Mairie. Go to the Gendarmerie. It's only over the road, so he did. Not our problem, said the Gendarmerie, it's the Mairie's responsibility. Back to the Mairie, who in spite of being required to get involved under both the rural and the administrative codes, refused point blank, even when J pointed out in no uncertain terms (yes, his French has improved!) that we run a business which brings visitors to the commune and which is going to be increasingly difficult to manage given the presence of a chien errant. So, said J, what are your suggestions?

Put the dog in the car, drive him somewhere else, and dump him there, came the response.

Words fail me. I am so angry.

Tomorrow we have more guests arriving, and I still have no idea what we're going to do. But it won't be what the Mairie say.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Cathares and Canadairs

Since we've been here we've somehow stumbled into the habit of taking a few days out during the last week of August to explore and get to know our area better - we call it our Ariège holiday. And this year was no exception - we blocked it in the diary many months ago, and then when we found out that the village boulangerie was also taking its hols this week there was really no argument (unless you're one of the people who wanted to stay with us. Sorry).

Having spent a manic two days turning the last few hundred kilos of plums (okay, I exaggerate. But not by much) into ice cream, sorbet, sauce, compôte, jelly and sweet chilli jam, we decided to take Sunday gently, starting with a long slow breakfast reading the papers in Foix before setting off on our first walk, a circular walk around and above the ruined Cathare château of Roquefixade and the village of the same name. This is a great walk and one that many of our guests enjoy - short enough for an afternoon, easy enough for almost anybody yet hugely satisfying and with breathtaking views.

Looking down onto the medieval village

First glimpse of the view south

And it just gets better ...
The château is quite literally 'fixed to the rock'

Back in the village, a lovely gîte d'étape for a beer afterwards

Then it was on to Puivert, just over the border into Aude, and one of our favourite campsites:

'Our' pitch looks right over the lake 
Here's the view - yes, another Cathare château
How do you tear yourself away from that? Well, you don't, really - you have a coffee and pain aux raisins, then a swim, then another coffee ... and then it's midday ... Eventually you decide to spend the afternoon walking the part of the path around Lac Montbel, a few kilometres away, that you haven't yet done.

You could think yourself on the Med ...
And yes, the water really is that colour ...
On our way round, I was struck by a very strange, small cloud in a dip over the mountains to the south - it seemed to be a very strange shape. I put it down to a local storm, hoped it wouldn't make its way north, and thought no more about it. After a very hot walk, with no sign of a break in the weather, we landed back at the wonderful guinguette L'Ecume des Jours (recommended, both for its genuine beach shack atmosphere and for its slightly alternative twice weekly concerts) for a beer, and we were just enjoying the bizarre sense of feeling as though we were on a Greek island when suddenly two big yellow planes flew right over us. "They're Canadairs!" I yelled, as I leapt up to see what was what. A Canadair is a water bomber, or fire fighting plane; they fight inaccessible forest fires by scooping up water from the sea or a lake, and dropping it over burning forest. I first encountered them many years ago in Corsica, and although I've watched them several times since both on the French coast and in Greece I've somehow never lost the thrill of seeing them in action. Half the customers of the guinguette followed me over to the beach to wait for them to come back; we weren't disappointed, and cameras clicked wildly, mine included:

So skillful, the way they scoop up the water
I could almost touch this one
Altogether the Canadairs came back 5 times. After the first time, the local pompiers arrived, blue lights flashing, with several landrovers and a boat, presumably in case someone was unfortunate enough to get in the way of the planes. A siren now announced the Canadairs' arrival and drew an increasing number of spectators from the villages around, and the whole place began to feel like a big party. And then suddenly, it struck me. The odd looking 'cloud' that I'd seen nearly 4 hours earlier had been smoke; great chimneys of it were now rising from the exact same spot.

Later, I discovered that the fire had been a reprise of an earlier fire at L'Hospitalet: the one that Margaret wrote about in her blog just a few days ago. Scarier than that, I learned that the new outbreak had been discovered at around 4pm. I'd seen the smoke - although I hadn't realised that was what it was - two hours before that. I shuddered.

I did a lot more than shudder the next day, though you'll have to wait until the next post to find out why. In the meantime, enjoy a couple more of the Cathare châteaux we took in on the trip:

This is Usson, in Donezan, one of my new favourite places
Montaillou, made famous by the author Le Roy Ladurie

Friday, 24 August 2012

Stress management

No, not us. We're fine; having a whale of a time, in fact.

But our grounds and our plants aren't. If they had blood pressure, it would be through the roof.

For the last couple of weeks we've had temperatures of 36 degrees or so most days (and for the last week they've not dropped below 22 at night); this month so far we've had just 2 hours of rain, all at once. And this year, our rainfall is running at between a half and two thirds of what was once considered 'normal'. Same thing last year. Compared to what friends in Spain have experienced so far this year, it may not be much to write home about.
But ...

... this is the Pyrenees. The ecosystems here have developed in response to a certain climate - if you look at detailed meteorological  maps, Grillou sits almost exactly on the borderline between Mediterranean and Atlantic climatic influences, giving us a healthy mixture of hot sun, clear unpolluted air, gentle breezes and enough rain to keep Ariège that amazing green colour that so struck us when we first came here one September many moons ago. When we started to look for the place to live, we discovered that once you went over the border into Aude the summer greens turned to browns and quickly found that our hearts were here, with the best of both worlds.

Now, as Bob Dylan, said, the times they are a'changin'. This is our lawn field today:

Trees are shedding their leaves as if it were November:

Lots of shrubs - the same shrubs that have struggled to re-establish themselves after the Big Freeze in February, when we had temperatures of minus 18 or lower for 2 weeks - are doing the same:

Who have thought that I'd have to spend half of yesterday raking up leaves?

The several-hundred-year old oaks that stand guard over our land are seriously stressed out, and we quite literally fear for their lives if we're now seeing the beginning of a new and very different pattern of extreme climatic conditions. And here's a sad sight: one of our wild cherry trees completely uprooted itself a couple of days ago and is now leaning at a precarious angle - the ground is so dry that the entire root ball has upended. The only question now is do we let it fall, or cut it down?

It's the same story in the woods around us, and we're acutely aware of how tinder-dry everything is - one stray spark could start a wildfire which would spread like - well, wildfire. We've not quite banned barbecues yet, but we do make sure that everyone who's using one has several buckets of water to hand ...

Our stocks of rainwater ran out a long time ago so we're having to resort to the hose to keep things alive, like the multitude of colourful pots that greet you on arrival:

And the roses, which by now should be preparing for their second flush:

The good news is that we're having a fantastic crop of tomatoes that taste as though they've been grown in a hot Provencal climate. And then there are these - would you believe that this vine is only 2 years old?

We and our guests have moved on to Spanish time - dinner has moved itself slowly forward to around 9.30 as it's just too hot to think about eating before then - and we're all making good use of the shady 'Zen' terrace:

The heat is considerably less intense today - only 27 degrees at the moment - and there are rumours - only rumours, mind - of a little light drizzle tomorrow. Then we're back up into those thirties again ...

And then we're into September and October, which traditionally are Ariège's most beautiful months - warm, golden, balmy. But who knows, this year?

Saturday, 28 July 2012

What a pain

This may sound strange coming from someone who lives in a country stuffed full of boulangeries, but one of the few things I miss being able to buy here is what I call 'proper' wholemeal bread - the dense and chewy stuff with big bits in it, with that wonderful wheat-y smell that's just heaven with some butter and a smear of honey. (Wheat addiction? Moi?). The French pain complet just doesn't really do it for me, even the stuff produced by artisan bakers like the one in our neighbouring village of Montseron that produces organic bread in a wood-fired oven in what's little more than their house.

 We've always been bread makers (by hand, never in a machine), making not just wholemeal but a huge variety of different breads. In north Norfolk we lived a couple of kilometres away from Letheringsett Mill, a water mill restored to working order and flour production by Mike Thurlow; we bought as well from Adrian Colman at Garboldisham Windmill a bit farther south, from Maud Foster Mill in Boston and from Caudwell's Mill near Rowsley in the Peak District, close to where I used to live. All milled organic flours and were excellent; if I had to pick my favourite it might just be Maud Foster (sorry Mike!). But it was always a bit of a challenge finding out where the grain was grown - all the millers claim to use 'locally grown' grain, but they buy from their suppliers, who buy from their (bigger) suppliers .... and so on. It's bizarre, and rather sad - all the wheat that grows across East Anglia tends to disappear down farm tracks in huge lorries, never to be heard of again, at least by name.

So, when two of the guests who'd booked a holiday with us in July turned out to be organic growers AND millers and asked me if I wanted them to bring any flour with them, you just couldn't hold me down ...... enter Andrew and Leonie Workman, from Dunany Farm near Drogheda in County Louth, Ireland where their farm is surrounded on 3 sides by the Irish Sea. And apart from being Jolly Nice People, they also make flour which I reckon is the best yet: fine wholemeal, coarse wholemeal, spelt and rye. Have you ever stuck your nose into a bag of real flour that was milled just a few days beforehand? Bliss.

 We soon got stuck in. The bread is exactly what I've been craving: a gorgeous, nutty, golden crust, with a rich, sweet and moist crumb. It would fly at the market in St Girons ..... The spelt flour makes wonderful breakfast breads - we've used it so far for courgette and banana loaves, and various muffins - as well as pastry. And next up, as soon as I remember to buy some buttermilk, I'm going to be trying out Leonie's recipe for soda bread - watch this space!

Wholemeal loaves, 30% coarse, 70% fine

Look at that gorgeous crumb ...

Banana, spelt and seed breakfast bread

Lovely moist texture

Just got to work out now how to import Andrew and Leonie, and their land, and probably the Irish Sea as well, to the Ariège :)

Actually we are hoping that enough people here will be interested in buying their flour that we can organise an occasional bulk pallet delivery - so if you're local, and you are, give me a shout. If you're in the UK and would like to see a local shop stocking their flour, give them a shout - they're currently looking for some UK outlets. Their contact details are here:; they're on Facebook too: And say I sent you!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

So you want to run a restaurant?

I was firkling through some old files today, as you do, and I came across a whole pile of the articles I wrote for a Norfolk magazine a few years ago. This one made me smile. I thought it might make you smile too.

So you want to run a restaurant …?
One of the things we hear most often, especially in the summer when half the
population seems to be looking for ways to Not Do Their Jobs, is “Oh, it must be
soooo wonderful to run a restaurant …”. And yes, it is (usually) – though I suspect
perhaps not in the way that you think. Oh yes, we’ve all had celebrity-chef fantasies
of spending long, hot afternoons at the beach, before sauntering into a pristine
kitchen to don an immaculate set of whites and do a few achingly clever things to the
day’s ingredients before socialising the evening away over a glass or two with the
diners and collecting the evening’s accolades, while the minions toil away at the
sheer hard graft.

Real life, of course – at least in the ever-decreasing number of owner-run restaurants
in this country – ain’t like that. So this article is for the curious, for anyone who’s ever
thought about starting a restaurant, for all those who wonder why we don’t open for
lunch, ‘only’ open six evenings a week, and close down from December to February
… and especially for you, if you’re the man I overheard at our noticeboard the other
day who grunted while reading our opening times, “Hmph. They don’t put themselves
out, do they?”. What follows is an unembellished account of a perfectly ordinary day
in the middle of July – just one of a couple of hundred other such days through the
year. Yes, this, my friends, is the reality …

7am. Rudely awaked by Today programme. Groan. Drag self out of bed (John) to
start clean-up from previous night and prepare for guest breakfast (I am unspeakable
and best avoided before 8.30). Wash/rinse/dry/polish 40 glasses/120 pieces of
cutlery/12 coffee cups and saucers. Remove red wine and coffee stains from
napkins. Guests have asked for room service breakfast, so prepare and serve for
9.45. Eat own breakfast (sort of).
10am. Shopping. Sprint with famous purple shopping trolley round usual haunts in
Holt. We won’t buy anything that we can’t taste, smell or feel, so always hand select
every bit of fruit and veg that we or our neighbouring growers don’t/can’t grow, right
down to last onion.
11.15am. Back. Unload supplies. Deal with 5 voicemail messages; iron 3 days supply
of napkins and aprons; polish and lay up restaurant tables; update blackboards;
clean windows. Clean guest suite; replenish supplies. Guest has mopped up major
coffee spill with white hand towel. Attempt to deal with stain – fear may be write-off.
Put first of 3 loads into washing machine. Washing machine dead. Swear. Call
regular repair guy. On holiday. Call other repair guy. Will come tomorrow [machine
stays out of service for 6 days. Napkins, aprons, tea towels, guest bedding and
towels washed by hand till fixed]. Start day’s bread, plus brioche for guest breakfast.
Slurp coffee.
12.30pm. John: to restaurant garden with 4 buckets of compost and wheelbarrow full
of bottles to drop at bottle bank. Dig 3 rows of potatoes; pick French beans and
courgettes. Hand weed round leeks. Collect beetroot from neighbouring gardener,
plums from another. Kalba: to desk. Check and answer emails; deal with post, phone
calls, accounts and payments; update guest suite availability on website. Think about
next EcoEcho article (late). Time runs out. Interrupted by (1) delivery of 7 cases of
wine; (2) non-delivery of cheese; (3) 17 calls from BT trying to persuade me to buy
back line rental. Start preparing dessert.
1.30pm. John phones on mobile: pigeons have pigged out on cavalo nero seedlings
– needs to reinforce netting cages so will be late back.
1.45pm. Write rest of menu for evening – open to change, of course, if (a) garden
offers unexpectedly large/small/early/late/no yield, or if (b) something different
suggests itself during afternoon – nothing ever fixed until moment it hits the plate.
2pm. Start mise en place: gather ingredients, pick herbs, make stock, clean and prep
first round of veg. Make aioli and pesto. Listen to play on R4.
2.30pm. John returns. Knock back bread. 30 minute tea break. Miss end of play.
3pm. Clean/chop/prep/cook/wash up, ad infinitum. Bake bread and brioche. Do usual
daily round of minor repairs, paint touch-ups etc; check stock and place orders for
eggs/milk/cream/wine/water/oil/cheese/coffee/olives etc as needed.
5.45pm. Kalba: yes, still in the kitchen! John: sort out day’s recyclables; check and
bring in wines and mineral waters; clean restaurant, serving area and loo; sweep
kitchen floor.
7pm. Listen to Archers. Final prep; psych selves up for service. John makes self
beautiful. Figuratively speaking.
7.30pm. Doors open; first diners arrive. John: greet, settle and put everyone at ease;
serve aperitifs, wines, waters. Kalba (in kitchen): in fast forward mode, now alone,
preparing to serve roomful of first courses at 8pm.
8pm to 10pm: John: serve all tables, describe each course, ingredients and
provenance to each; ferry plates in and out; serve more wines and waters, answer
questions about food, us, life, universe and everything. Kalba: cook, finish and plate
four courses; clean down kitchen between each course. Eat saucerful of dinner.
Wash, dry and polish 60 plates; wash all pots and cooking implements. Raise energy
by listening to Queen (no, not that one) on headphones. Leap around kitchen. Scrub
down kitchen. On good day, talk to kitchen-visiting diner. On bad day, talk to self.
11.20pm. Last diners leave. Clear room. Stack glasses and coffee cups ready for
washing tomorrow morning; wipe down tables; straighten chairs, sweep floor. Go out
with torch to remove slugs and snails from lettuce and herb plants.
11.45pm. Check evening’s emails and voicemails. Slurp tea. Do Sudoku puzzle. Go
to bed. Have now been working for nearly seventeen hours: that’s one and a half
hours – each – for every person who dines. Never mind. Soon be December.

So tell me … do you still want to run a restaurant?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Somewhere, under the rainbow

Suddenly at sunset this evening our world went golden.

I ran outside with the camera. It had been raining for most of the day; it was still raining, but soft and warm. The cloud was thin and gauzy, and the rays of the sun lit everything up like a Photoshopped soft focus image.

Turning back towards the house, I found the biggest rainbow I've ever seen arched right over Maison Grillou.

As I watched, the light changed colour before my eyes.

And then changed again ...

And then the heavens opened and the rainbow faded. I ran upstairs to catch the last moments of the sun.

And then it was gone.

But at least I now know what's at the end of the rainbow.

We are.