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”

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….”

Wood Hedgehogs and Meadow Mushrooms

Sherry and Mushrooms - a classic combination
Sherry and Mushrooms – a classic combination

Sometimes, the best meals start without a recipe but with a question – what is in season? Four weeks ago this Saturday, the weekly outdoor market in Albi was an autumnal cornucopia: butternut squash, pumpkins, gourds, and plastic ‘barquettes’ filled with pieds de moutons, girolles and ceps. Girolles are two a penny at this time of year, ceps cost a small fortune, but pieds de mouton rarely make an appearance – I was tempted but saw the price. €5 euros for a small barquette. Far too expensive! Continue reading “Wood Hedgehogs and Meadow Mushrooms”

The Business of Awful Offal

Where to start? Where to buy? Unless you are a habitué of restaurants trying to climb the ladder of Michelin stardom, you are unlikely to find offal served up in many parts of the UK. My local supermarket is nearly void of any offal, or ‘organ meat’ as my transatlantic friends refer to it. They are not keen on it either, but then I would find the word ‘organ’ more difficult to digest. What happened? Continue reading “The Business of Awful Offal”

“Un peu d’ail, un peu de persil” – keep it simple

Going to the market in France – especially here in the South West – involves taking a large basket and an equally large amount of patience. Things move slowly, people stop mid-order to ‘faire le bise’ to passing friends, stallholders exchange gossip, and quite often, both stallholder and buyer get involved in a serious discussion on how best to cook ‘les aiguillettes de canard’ or the ‘filet de bar’ or ‘ceps’. In which case, patience is essential! Continue reading ““Un peu d’ail, un peu de persil” – keep it simple”

A Tale of Two Picnics

The view from Snowdon
The view from Snowdon

A picnic is ‘an occasion when a packed meal is eaten in an outside setting’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The British enthusiasm for picnics is truly the triumph of hope over experience, be it parked up in a lay-by, surrounded by wind breaks on a stony beach, or on rare occasions, lying in long grass contemplating the Magritte clouds passing by overhead in a pool of blue sky. Continue reading “A Tale of Two Picnics”

Rationed Chicken – the three meal bird

My Guiding Hand
My Guiding Hand

My maternal grandmother (Nanna) was born in the 1890’s, and lived through two world wars with their accompanying ration books and shortages of food. When I was born, partial rationing was still in force and ‘frugality’ was well entrenched in Nanna’s mortal soul. Blessings had to be counted – stockings were mended, collars turned, and clean underwear always had to be worn in case you were run over by a bus. This frugality didn’t stop at the kitchen door. Waste was not to be tolerated. One of my kitchen duties was to scrape the cake mix out of the bowl with a teaspoon, on a promise of the last lick. Every last spoonful, I was told, was enough cake to feed a starving African child. We didn’t own a spatula, so I was amused to read in Bee Wilson’s ‘Consider the Fork’, that rubber spatulas were once referred to as ‘child cheaters’, for their knack of removing every last gram of batter. Nanna would have approved of that. Continue reading “Rationed Chicken – the three meal bird”

Tortilla De Patatas – memories of Andalucia

Cooling off
Tortilla de patatas

I have eaten tortilla, that ubiquitous Spanish dish made from eggs, onions, and potatoes, hundreds of times in my life. Some were good but a lot were bad, spoiled by being made with pre-cooked potatoes, or too much potato. Like all the simplest dishes, especially the eggy ones like scrambled eggs and omelettes, cooking a good tortilla depends on the method you use. I learned to make tortillas thanks to my first husband who had studied Spanish and spent a year teaching in Galicia. To my mind, his recipe is the best I have come across and it’s one of the few things I still have from my first short-lived marriage… Continue reading “Tortilla De Patatas – memories of Andalucia”

Grow What You Eat – tales from the vegetable plot

Furry Scarecrow

My vegetable growing career began in Leipzig, Eastern Germany. Man and I lived in a converted leather factory, whose apartments had balconies suspended over the Elstermühlgraben –  an old mill stream. We lived and barbecued on this 1 metre by 5 metre space from late April to early October. To protect our privacy from neighbours intrigued by our foreign cooking smells, I decided to grow window boxes full of climbing vegetables. Now back in urban London, I grow vegetables on a sunny south facing terrace,  utilising a combination of wooden troughs, long window boxes and a variety of pots.

Fiona, on the other hand, has had at least two proper gardens. One in the Welsh Borders, full of raspberries, lettuces, and beans neatly in rows, with chickens grubbing around and probably the odd Peter Rabbit nibbling away. The other was on a French hillside with gnarled and garrulous farming neighbours clucking over the fence at her very English attempts to grow vegetables in their native soil. Continue reading “Grow What You Eat – tales from the vegetable plot”