Not Mincing my Words about Chilli

To write this now in the 21st century feels like the start of a Victorian novel; to say that I was given an allowance by my first husband, for housekeeping and my own personal expenditure. But it was so. I managed to work in Ghana, our first posting abroad, but by the time we reached Zambia, two years later, their government had brought in a moratorium on accompanying expatriate wives working. Like many before me, bored with few other options, I got pregnant, learnt to cook and got to grips with how to stretch a small budget. My financial acumen was virtually nonexistent despite having been the first female management trainee with an international bank, so was my knowledge about choosing cheap cuts of meat and what to do with them. Continue reading “Not Mincing my Words about Chilli”

A Question of Taste

It’s half term week and Grandson no.1 has come to stay. The north wind has blown in and a damp artic chill is hanging over London. Our visits to the local park are therefore curtailed as, no matter how many layers I wear, I am shivering and my fingers are turning a whiter shade of pale.  Neither Boy nor Dog feel the cold and are reluctant insiders unless given something to do. We retreat to the warmth of the kitchen and bake. Continue reading “A Question of Taste”

Do Not Trifle with a Truffle

Ingredients for an 'Omelette au Truffes'
Ingredients for an ‘Omelette au Truffes’

I am a truffle virgin.

The closest I’ve got to cooking with truffles was a recipe for Cauliflower Soup by John Burton-Race which demanded – or rather, insisted – on a swirl of truffle oil in the soup just before serving. He swore this made all the difference, so I splashed out on a very expensive small bottle of truffle oil. He was right. That ribbon of golden perfumed oil whisked through the creamy cauliflower soup worked magic. My  guests asked me what had I done to make the soup taste so delicious?

But experimenting with truffle oil was as far as I ever got back in the UK – truffles aren’t exactly two a penny on the Welsh Borders. So last week, when I came across some truffle sellers in Albi Market promoting a Fete des Truffes at the nearby village of Villeneuve-sur-Vere the following Sunday, I knew I had to go. Continue reading “Do Not Trifle with a Truffle”

Emergency Rations

As an eternal optimist I’m not risk adverse, but more of a calculated risk taker. In the late 90s I was offered a year’s assignment in Northern California. I jumped at the chance. It was America, what could be risky about that?  There was much muttering from my two younger daughters because they were being uprooted from friends and family, but the muttering didn’t last long as they soon adapted to the world of yellow school buses, western saddle riding and friends living on ranches. It wasn’t until the day before we left London that the husband of a friend professed his shock on hearing that I was planning to take the children to live on the San Andreas fault line. First, I had heard about it. The wooden deck house in Portola Valley we were renting was cute, airy and situated in a beautiful valley with ten other houses.  Sour grapes, I thought, until my children started to return home from school with stories of regular earthquake drills and the fact that other parents kept store cupboards stocked with emergency rations. The 1989 earthquake that had rocketed the Bay Area had been a lesson in preparedness for all. Continue reading “Emergency Rations”

Shaken, not Stirred – or Stirred, not Shaken?

The cocktail kit
The cocktail kit

My father used to tell me that I was born just in time for cocktails – six o’ clock in the evening. In Kenya, the sun went down every day on the dot at six and my parents would sit out on the verandah drinking ‘sundowners’ – gin and tonic (a colonial staple), or a variety of cocktails, Gin Slings, Martinis, or just ‘brandy with a splash’. When we ended up in Buckinghamshire, my parents ‘cocktail’ habits became far more mundane and British – a whisky with water for my father, a sherry for my mother. Continue reading “Shaken, not Stirred – or Stirred, not Shaken?”

“Oh, Lardy, Lardy” in praise of fat

It’s cold. It may not have snowed here in London but when the sun disappears in the late afternoon, the chill ices into your bones. Middle daughter and I suffer from bad circulation that materialises in white fingertips when the temperature drops below 10C and white toes when it hits minus figures. Thawing is mildly painful as the extremities turn bruising blue before returning to pink. Middle daughter doesn’t do hot either. She is a temperate child. The family GP, a pragmatist at the best of times, diagnosed a possible mild form of Raynaud’s syndrome where the arteries spasm and blood flow is reduced. His recommendation is that if I didn’t want surgery to cut the nerves in the back of my neck, then I should wear gloves. I do, regularly. Continue reading ““Oh, Lardy, Lardy” in praise of fat”

Tales of Blood Sausage, Civil War, and Refugees – a Spanish winter stew

The village of Gualchos, Andalucia in Spain
The village of Gualchos, Andalucia in Spain

Thirty-three years ago this month I had clocked up five years working for the BBC on a ‘rolling’ annual contract as a researcher and director when my boss decided he would offer me a permanent contract. My reaction surprised us both – I promptly handed in my resignation! The very thought of a ‘job for life’ made me feel panicked and claustrophobic. I needed ‘time out’. Having saved some money, I headed south to Andalucía in Spain, with enough funds to survive for three months and the vague idea of writing a novel. Continue reading “Tales of Blood Sausage, Civil War, and Refugees – a Spanish winter stew”

Galette des Rois – a French celebration of Epiphany

Adoration of the Magi by Monaco Lorenzo c. 1422. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Adoration of the Magi by Monaco Lorenzo c. 1422. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

It’s January 6th and the boulangeries and patisseries here in Albi are full of large round tarts, the famous Galette des Rois, which are traditionally eaten on the 6th January to celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the Three Wise Men. The tart is made of buttery flaky pastry with a filling of frangipane (almond paste) though you can also buy galettes with a chocolate filling and even Nutella. Hidden in the filling is a fève – traditionally, a dried broad bean. In the 19th century, the bean was replaced by a tiny porcelain figurine  but now, they are inevitably plastic! Whoever finds the fève is king or queen for the day and they get to wear a cardboard crown (usually sold with the galette). Continue reading “Galette des Rois – a French celebration of Epiphany”

The Charms of a Not So Perfect Christmas

My father died when I was 12. Christmases were a little less perfect after that. Grandmother did her best to make the holiday special, but her heart wasn’t in it as she watched my mother slide into alcoholism. My brother left home. As soon as school ended I headed for grimy, raw edged London determined to create my own life and Christmases. Continue reading “The Charms of a Not So Perfect Christmas”

Christmas Eve Oysters – the time has come….

Fines Claire No. 2
Fines Claire No. 2

My first memory of oysters comes from a day spent on the beach near Auckland in New Zealand. I was nine years old and happily crouched over a rock pool tickling the fronds of anemones when I noticed my father prise a knobbly shell off a rock. He then split it open with his penknife, tipped his head back, and swallowed the contents. I was amazed. “What was that?” I asked. “It’s an oyster,” he replied. I was none the wiser. “But you ate it just like that… raw?” I was horrified at the idea. “Yes, even better raw,” he replied. “I love it when they wriggle going down my throat.” My response was to scream. Continue reading “Christmas Eve Oysters – the time has come….”