Straight from the Tables of Disney

Like many of us born in the 50s, my childhood was difficult. People were too traumatised by the war and their losses. It can’t have been easy on any front to return to whatever ‘normality’ was.  Neither of my parents seemed to be able to settle down. They banged around like an out of control bobsleigh on the Cresta run, although not always together. Fortunes went up and down as they careered from job to job and town to town, dragging my grandmother, my brother, and I with them. Continue reading “Straight from the Tables of Disney”

The Legendary Cassoulet

The cassoulet in its cassole
The cassoulet in its cassole

Cassoulet is a legend here in the South West of France. Quite literally. It was supposed to have originated during the Hundred Years War when the English were besieging the nearby town of Castelnaudary in 1355. The story goes that the inhabitants cooked up what was left of their beans, bones, scraps of meat and dried bits of ham, then went out and beat the English!

Like many of my favourite dishes, I suspect it has its real origins in “peasant food”, namely cooking whatever is to hand, but over the centuries, it has become a complex and truly wonderful dish. It takes its name from the large earthenware pot in which it is cooked and served – “le cassole” – hence “Cassoulet”. When it’s cooked for you by my good friend, Philippe Seguier then it is, quite simply, probably the best cassoulet you’ll ever taste. Continue reading “The Legendary Cassoulet”

Keeping Up with the Joneses

The 70s was the era of the dinner party. Never more so than in foreign lands where expatriates clung together, socialising amongst themselves by circulating around each other’s houses, consuming pineapple cubes on sticks, platters of coronation chicken and boeuf Wellington – all washed down with enough alcohol to drown a liver or two.  At eighteen I started my married life as an expatriate wife, set to travel the world, with postings in Ghana, Zambia, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bahrain, and Haiti. Continue reading “Keeping Up with the Joneses”

New Zealand Chocolate Cake – my mother’s fifty year-old recipe!

My mother's recipe in the Longtown W.I. cookery book and in my own collection of recipes
My mother’s recipe in the Longtown W.I. cookery book and in my own collection of recipes

Last week, I was finally able to unpack one of my boxes of cookery books and I found a copy of the Longtown W.I. Cookery Book to which my mother had contributed her recipe for “New Zealand Chocolate Cake – 1966!”. I also found the small recipe book she gave me as a teenager in which I’ve written up many favourite recipes. Glued in under the cakes section, written in her distinctive hand-writing, I found the same recipe. Continue reading “New Zealand Chocolate Cake – my mother’s fifty year-old recipe!”

Oh Deer, Oh Deer

There is no law, rule, or regulation that says you have to love, like, or even get on with your siblings. As a mother of four, I would be horrified if my children didn’t at least like, rub along with, and support each other. Yes, horrified. Yet my relationship with my brother was far from harmonious… Continue reading “Oh Deer, Oh Deer”

An Ode to Carrots

Some of the ingredients for carrot and cardamom pilaf
Ingredients for carrot and cardamom pilaf

Carrots have been one of my favourite vegetables since way back when. As a child, I was never keen on meat, especially beef. I hated all that chewing and would end up with dry indigestible lumps hidden in my cheeks like a hamster. Muttering that I had finished, I would leave the table and head for the toilet to spit out the offending lumps. So my mother wisely compromised by serving me potatoes and carrots covered with the meaty gravy which I would then mash together. For a four year old, it was my idea of the perfect meal.

In those days, carrots were the inevitable pairing with potatoes – mashed, roasted or boiled – for the traditional ‘meat and two veg’. My grandmother sliced her carrots in roundels and boiled them, as did my mother. Generation after generation of us eating sliced carrots… Continue reading “An Ode to Carrots”

Salt and Pepper – Earth and Fire

Fleurs du sel
Fleurs du sel

Having lived as many decades as I have (six and counting), it’s easy to forget how some of the most basic elements of cooking have changed over my lifetime – and you cannot get more basic than salt and pepper. Continue reading “Salt and Pepper – Earth and Fire”

Starry, Starry Nights

I came to camping late in life, with the arrival of Man, to be precise. Our relationship had started to get serious and it was suggested that after I went to Holland to be introduced to my future father-in-law, we should explore the Normandy coastline, staying in the small town of Yport where Man had previously enjoyed a lively New Year’s Eve. It was then mentioned that ‘staying‘ meant camping. Now this was an activity I had contemplated in the past, something  great to do with kids, but I had to confess never quite got round to doing it, probably because it I’m not very practically minded and the thought of tightening guy ropes – whatever they were, or lighting a Calor Gas camping stove filled me with anxiety. But I will have a go at most things if I can trust somebody to know what they’re doing. ( Bungee jumping is a flat NO!). Therefore as Man was Dutch (known for their like of the great outdoors), handy (no just in that way), I agreed and even managed to sound enthusiastic about it.

Yport and tiny tent with large lady

Yport is a village with a congregation of grey austere houses built in flint, huddled in the cleft of a valley that leads to the sea.  We found what was called the municipal camp site. France has them all over the country. Empty of other campers, it appeared to be a small field on the outskirts of town containing a flat brick outbuilding which, I later learned, housed flush toilets and ‘pay by the centime’ showers. A tiny tent was unfolded from the boot of the car and laid out in the ‘best’ position on fairly flat ground backed by trees, looking down towards the village. Other paraphernalia was unpacked, the tent erected, a lilo and sleeping bag were laid into place. Then we zipped up our new home and strolled into the village to buy provisions.

The weather was not kind and it started to rain, profusely. While we were away, a local urchin thought fit to stone the tent causing a small rip. On our return, Man, in the best boy scout manner, pulled a repair kit out of his bag and mended it immediately.  But my most entertaining moment of the night was watching him crouched under the tent’s petite canopy, umbrella in hand, cooking quail and vegetables on a saucepan balanced on the smallest of Camping Gaz stoves, while I sat inside, cross-legged, dry, and holding a glass of red. That moment could be said to be the making of our relationship – possibly because I didn’t complain about the lumpy lilo, the lack of pillows, and having to pee in the middle of the night in the pouring rain – but definitely because supper was delicious. In difficult and trying circumstances, Man had proved he could cook.

Camping Danish Style with Loads of Hygge

Ten years and many camping trips later, the camping experience has been fine honed. We have a high tech, waterproof cotton tent manufactured in Denmark with a ‘living area’ that we can nearly stand up in, a brilliant double mattress that needs only to be deflated not inflated, and I never forget pillows, never mind a sheet to sleep on and a duvet cover for the sleeping bag. It also has room for Dog, who is a camper extraordinaire.

Now our only challenge is to research the September weather in Europe, follow the sun around, and find campsites that suit us. That is the hardest part. We demand things that are not generally popular: no facilities that cater for children, no swimming pools, no restaurants, no wooden lodges; but yes to working hot showers, flushable loos, and a view. Extra points are awarded if it’s walking distance from a small village with a café and shop.

We currently have three favourites, weather permitting; Beatenberg in Switzerland, with incomparable views over the Eiger where you fall asleep to the sound of cowbells; Lake Bolsena in Italy, beautiful to swim in and surrounded by a national park; and our all time favourite in France, in the village of Ceneviéres on the banks of the Lot, just west of Cahors.

View from Bed in Cenevieres

Camping is the greatest detox activity. Many sites have limited Wifi and irregular mobile connectivity. We are both news junkies; Today programme addicts; Channel 4 news regulars; readers of the FT weekend and lunchtime flitterers through the pages of the Guardian. When camping we have access to none of these things.  We wake to either birdsong or Dog digging his muzzle into our faces at 7am to announce it’s time for breakfast.

In the evenings we watch dusk unfold around us, the colours of the sky deepen and the trees and bushes, lit by our lantern and candles, stand out against its deep blue. Flocks of swallows chitter and swirl grouping for their journey south, low level bats flurry past to the hoot of hunting owls. Then stars appear twinkling overhead as we light the mosquito coils and let them waft their thin trails of smoke across our laps. We sit mesmerised by the night sky, glasses of wine in hand. With no screens to watch, the nightly entertainment becomes who can spot the first plane – blinking and moving lights across the night sky; the first satellite – moving but not blinking lights; and the first shooting star – this year we both caught one in France in the skies above the Pilat mountain range.

Night sky, as stars begin to appear

In London,  I do the vast majority of the food shopping and cooking, making the effort to source seasonal and good quality ingredients. Man, therefore, does the washing up. On holiday this is reversed. I keep Dog company, while Man does the shopping in whatever local supermarket presents itself, be it a small village Casino or a large hypermarché. I never quite know what he is going come back with, but I do know he will have taken into account that we still have to cook on the same Camping Gaz stove that he cooked quail in red wine, over ten years ago.  We then will jointly divvy up the cooking tasks. I don’t mind cutting and chopping, if he holds the pan straight on the stove and stirs, adding stuff when necessary. It’s the combination of gas, a tiny hob and balancing that I find scary and something Man handles with great aplomb.

A balancing job; sizzling Merguez

This trip we started off in Italy at a campsite on the shores of Lake Como, and for a couple of days ‘survived’ on squid ink pasta with spicy tomato sauce and prawns. We were then driven out by the arrival of too many motorhomes and moved onto France and an altogether quieter, less artificial site on a fruit farm in the Pilat Regional Nature Park. On the menu was a surprisingly good packaged steak – of unknown cut, into whose juices were stirred just-blanched broccoli florets tossed in with garlic clove or two, and a quick and dirty ratatouille to which fat chunks of merguez sausage were added to ooze their unctuous oils.

But Man’s piece de resistance was the day he returned from the supermarket with a packet of Confit de Gesiers de Volaille et Canard! Mmm. That caused a bit of a stir. The closest I had come to eating a gizzard was at Christmas when I bung them into the pan with the other internal turkey unmentionables to make gravy.

Confit de Gessiers

Anyway, they were sautéed in olive oil with chopped onion, just long enough until they started to fall apart, a tablespoon or two of raspberry vinegar was then sprinkled over and all was tossed into a mache or lambs lettuce salad with a handful or two of cherry tomatoes. Seasoned, and served with thick slices of baguette cereale and a glass or two of a Rhône red. Eaten under the stars on a warm summer’s night. What could be better than that?

A starlight meal – Confit de Gessiers warm salad with raspberry vinagrette dressing


College Days – cooking my oats!

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

This is the simplest of recipes but, whenever I make flapjacks, I am transported back to my college days in Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall. One of the first women’s colleges at Oxford, LMH (as it’s called), had a reputation for being a college where the ‘posh girls’ went.

By the mid-1970s, Oxford University was under pressure to admit more state school candidates and I clearly qualified, having gone to the local grammar school in Buckingham. At my interview I was asked which colleges at Oxford had my parents gone to? My heart sank. When I replied that I was the first member of my family to ever go to university, the tutor looked visibly surprised! Continue reading “College Days – cooking my oats!”