Friday, 17 February 2012

My dog's got Cold Tail!

Yesterday morning, I noticed that Noodles' tail looked a little odd - it was sticking out almost horizontally from his body for a few centimetres, then dropping down limply. And he wasn't wagging it, which is most unusual - he's the waggiest dog who's ever owned me as a pet, with a great line in 'helicopter' wags, generally when he wants something :-) As the day wore on, it became more pronounced, and he became more and more bemused, and more and more depressed, periodically looking round behind him with a disgusted-of-Rimont expression on his face.

The previous day had been the first day of the thaw, and our 30cm of snow was gradually reducing to the point where he could actually run across the nearby fields instead of disappearing under a pile of the white stuff. On his early evening walk he'd disappeared for almost half an hour, eventually coming back completely exhausted and flopping down into the snow to recover. He does this from time to time, usually when he's got an excess of energy to burn off; he knows the land around here better than we do and generally comes back from a direction entirely different from that in which he set off ... And after two weeks of enforced walk restriction from bitterly cold temperatures and thick snow, he had energy!

I wondered, naturally, whether he'd injured his tail somewhere on his jaunt, although there were no obvious signs of injury elsewhere; in fact I feared that he'd broken it, although he didn't appear to be in any pain. Before packing him off to our local vets though I Googled 'floppy dog tail' ... and lo and behold, found the answer. Noodles was displaying the classic symptoms of Cold Tail, also known as Limber Tail, Broken Wag and Dead Tail. Apparently it's a condition still unknown to many vets, brought on sometimes by vigorous exercise, sometimes by exposure to cold, wet weather, and sometimes by nothing obvious at all (too much tail wagging, maybe?). No treatment necessary - it resolves itself in a few days, with warmth and rest (rest? Huh!). Phew.

But how pathetic does he look! (He's banned me from taking a picture of his tail ...). The good news is that this afternoon there are already some signs of improvement, and even some miniscule wags. It'll be helicopters again before you know it.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The fastest relooking in the west!

You know sometimes when you've finished designing a room and it looks great and then you spend some time in there and slowly it starts to dawn on you that although you might admire it, you don't love it? Or does that just happen to me?

The sitting room in our chambre d'hote suite La P'tite Maison was the last room I decorated and furnished - it was finally finished (well, I thought it was!) in late autumn last year. I'd wanted to lime wash it but couldn't because of the mish-mash of existing finishes - it had been two rooms until we knocked down the dividing wall - so I'd made a kind of non-lime wash following a recipe I found on a French website, in a striking terracotta colour that I concocted from various ochres and burnt sienna. When I did it, in mid summer, it looked really great. When I laid the oak floor it looked great. When I put the first bits of furniture in it looked good. When summer turned into autumn it looked fine. As winter approached it looked okay. Are you noticing something here?

Then I kind of moved in to the room for a couple of weeks to do some curtain making. It was mid winter, and although we were still having lots of sun, the colour of the light had changed and my terracotta colour had somehow lost its warmth. And something about the whole room felt wrong - too square, too hard, too - um - masculine. We spent a couple of days moving furniture round, trying out different bits of furniture, new rugs ... to no avail. It still looked okay, but it didn't feel okay.

And so I spent Christmas 'relooking' it, as we say here: new paint/wash on the walls, new curtains, an art wall with lots of my framed photos on it, lots more texture, and my favourite antique bentwood chair - a real (and rare) Thonet Number 4, dating back to 1885 or so, picked up in a sorry state at the auction house in Watton in Norfolk for a song . It's almost finished - just the door curtain to make and hang, when I can finally figure out where the lighting cable runs behind the plasterwork (and that is a long story!). Here it is. What do you think?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Comfort cooking: panforte

I was sorting out the food cellar and larder yesterday, as you do when it's minus 13 outside, you're snowed in, the paint you want to use is frozen solid in the workshop and it's too cold to mix up your tile cement or do any of the things marked 'desperately urgent' on your jobs list. (I even defrosted the freezer. Mad? No, not really - no worries about keeping stuff frozen - I just piled it all up on the snow outside the cellar door ...). Anyway, in the depths of the larder I came across a jar of lemon peel that I'd inadvertently (long story) candied last year and forgotten about. Idly wondering what to do with it, I switched on the laptop to check the mail and there was the latest blog post from David Lebovitz, one of my favourite food bloggers, with a recipe for panforte.

I love panforte. It's a speciality of Sienna: a kind of rich, dense, sweet and chewy dessert cake, with lots of fruit and nuts (and candied lemon peel!) and more than a hint of spices - perfect after dinner with a strong coffee and a glass of Strega. I've eaten it many times, during and after our winter trips to Tuscany in the restaurant days, but I'd never made it, nor had a clue to how to make it. The combination of David's blog, my jar of lemon peel and and sheer frustration at the way the weather here is holding up the jobs list big time propelled me into the kitchen for a spot of comfort cooking.

I discovered that panforte is not difficult to make, although you do have to work fast when you're mixing the melted chocolate and the honey syrup into the dry ingredients. This is my slightly amended version of David's recipe:

40g unsweetened cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting the tin
200g chopped nuts - I used almonds and the last of our own walnuts
100g chopped dried apricots
110g flour
200g chopped candied lemon peel
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground red chilli
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice 
85g dark chocolate, chopped
200g sugar
210g clear honey

1. Preheat the oven to 165ºC.

2. Line the bottom of a 22cm springform tin with parchment paper. Dust the inside, including the sides, with cocoa powder.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, dried fruit, nuts, flour, candied peel, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, mixed spice, and red chilli.

4. Melt the chocolate in a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Remove from heat and stir it into the nut mixture.

5. Gently heat the sugar and honey to115ºC.

6. Pour the hot honey syrup over the nut mixture and immediately stir it all well to mix. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

7. Bake the panforte for 30-35 minutes; the centre will feel soft, like just-baked custard, and if you touch it, your finger will come away clean when it’s done. Let it cool in the tin on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge to loosen it. Remove the springform carefully, then let cool completely.

Once it's cool, remove the bottom of the springform pan and peel away the parchment paper. Then wrap it up and put it away for a few days to bring out the flavours. When you're ready to eat it, dust the top with icing sugar and rub it in with your fingers.

Here it is just out of the oven:

And how it will look when it's dusted and cut (this is David's photo: mine's not at that stage yet!):

Right now it's wrapped up, maturing ....... though for how long I'll have the willpower to leave it there I don't know! If it's good it's likely to find its way onto our winter menus ...

My favourite weather forecaster, Laurent Cabrol on Europe 1, announced this morning that we would almost certainly see a change in the weather in the middle of the month ... though probably not for the better. All the forecasts seem to agree that the 'big freeze' is likely to continue until the end of the month, possibly through into March. Minus 16 predicted for us tonight (with a 'feels like' figure of minus 19 ...). We're still snowed/iced in, though rumour has it that our neighbour may attempt a breakout tomorrow. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A (snowy) day in the life ...

The good news: the snow plough came up again this morning, right up our drive.

The bad news: the snow plough came up again this morning, right up our drive.

The tractor driver got the location of the hard-packed drive under the snow completely wrong and has dug up the grassy verge with all that was planted in it. Not only that, but he had the plough set too low and has bulldozed around 5 centimetres off the surface of our driveway and left huge piles of hard core at either side. Not only that but he's turned the triangular area by our post box, where the postman turns his van every day, into a half-metre high muddy bank, in the process preventing our neighbours down in the valley from passing until it's been cleared. All the work that I did on the drive this summer - creating nice grassy borders, planting along the edges of the driveway, cleaning and de-mossing the compacted gravel that forms (formed) its surface, painstakingly reshaping it with an edging tool - is b*&&ered, in just 3 minutes.

We are not amused.

It's stopped snowing (for now), but this morning it was minus 10 just outside, and similar temperatures are forecast for another week. Our main road, like most roads in the department, is still impassable without chains because although they've been cleared they're impossibly icy, and there are reputedly more cars to be seen in ditches than on the roads ....

Still, we're promised a hot afternoon: 0 degrees Celsius. Shorts and tee shirts then.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

I'm just staying in and I may be some time

For the last week or so Metéo France has been regaling the best part of France with dire warnings that winter is, at last, arriving - a period of extreme cold, set to last at least 10 days. We, here, are getting off lightly with lows of 'only' around minus 10 degrees Celsius, while the east will shiver at minus 20 (and I can believe it - we once spent January in a remote house high in Haut Beaujolais where we were completely snowed in for over a week in temperatures of minus 25 ....).

This is what I can see out of my study window as I write:

It's still snowing, and the flakes are getting bigger. This is 'proper' snow - light, fluffy and pretty - unlike the wet stuff we had on Sunday. Only thing is, not a single weather forecast so far is admitting that we're having it! Although, amazingly, we will get snow ploughed here if it gets thick, given the extreme low temperatures we're likely to get 'iced in', possibly for some time - there's a steep hill at the end of our track that becomes a skating rink under frozen snow and even our snow chains would be unlikely to grip. Hey ho. All part of the joys of living in this wonderful spot.

Today is La Chandeleur, or Candlemas; in North America it's Groundhog Day. Here in France La Chandeleur is synonymous with the mass eating of pancakes. But it's also, according to legend, a key day in determining what the weather's going to be like for the next 6 weeks.
« Si fait beau et luit Chandeleur
Six semaines se cache l’ours »
On this day, the bear wakes up from her winter hibernation and pokes her nose outside her lair; if the sun shines, she turns tail and goes back to sleep for another 6 weeks because she knows that sun at Chandeleur means that the last half of winter is going to be long and hard. If, on the other hand, it's cloudy, she knows that spring will arrive early and that it's safe to come out of hibernation. Similar legends focus on the marmot (hence 'groundhog'), who will only come out of hibernation on 2 February if she can't see her own shadow.

marmotte, météo, chandeleur, tanière

What, I wonder, are they all making of the weather today?