Wise Cook

There was something trusting about the way that everybody slept on the night bus from Huatulco to San Cristobal. Upfront, the driver listened to romantic Mariachi songs for all ten hours of the drive, while behind him slumbering bodies were curled up and draped every way over the seats. Cáli and I were amazed to see a replacement driver emerge from a tiny cabin next to the luggage hold where he had been sleeping. There was an air grill so that he could breathe.

Pilar was waiting for us at our rented house with a huge grin on her face. ‘Welcome, welcome! You are going to love it here!’ The adobe house was in a courtyard behind a gate not far from the centre of San Cristobal. I was excited to see that we had a small fireplace and a stack of wood to burn in the evenings.

We hadn’t put our suitcases down before she was suggesting a trip to stay in a cabin in the country with some friends of hers. ‘You should come. It’s going to be great and you are going to love it. We’ll eat by the fire and walk to a waterfall. But I’m leaving in five minutes. You want to come?’

’Sounds great. How about tomorrow?’ I said, feeling my weariness after the journey. Cáli and I exchanged looks. ‘No, no, tomorrow is too late. I was supposed to have left fifteen minutes ago.’

Ten minutes later we were on the back seat of Pilar’s car, squished up against bags of food, jammed against a great coffee urn and some blankets, while other bags spilled over with flutes and shakers, ribbons and children’s toys. Pilar thrust spoons and pots of yogurt in our hands along with some biscuits, which added to the feeling of being a kid going on some holiday without quite knowing the destination. Pilar’s teenage son sat in the front. He was as silent as she was talkative. Words spilled out of her in florid torrents, sometimes in English and then when she got particularly enthusiastic she switched to Spanish. She even managed to interrupt herself. ‘So many topics, so many histories!’ After a stolen doze in the back, we arrived at her friends’ place in the mountains. We said hello to five friends, their three children and our hosts, Antonio a geologist, and his wife, Maria de Guadalupe. Her full name consisted of about ten names which is why she was known as Lupita. A table was set up in the shade of a tree, tortillas unpacked, a pot of steaming beans was produced along with omelettes and roasted green pueblano chillis doused in lime. We drank black coffee from paper cups and ate breakfast together as Antonio, a kind and intelligent man, told the story of how he met Lupita. He first set eyes on her where she lived in the jungle as a widow with her two young children and it was love at first sight.

Pilar clapped her hands in excitement. ‘How I love romantic histories!’ When he told the bit about how they flashed sunlight off mirrors so that they could find each other in the wilderness, Pilar couldn’t contain hersel; she leaped from her seat and made an impassioned stomp on the earth before sitting down again. ‘That is sooo romaaantic!’

As we got our beds ready in the cabin, Pilar told us to meet the other campers at dawn because she wanted to do a goodbye ceremony for Antonio and Lupita as they were shortly leaving for New Zealand on sabatical. ‘I want everyone to participate,’ she said, shaking a rattle above her head. I thought I detected an eye roll from Lupita. Both Cáli and I were exhausted, longing for sleep and Pilar’s enthusiasm was beginning to grate; it now felt more like desperate hyperactivity. It was a relief when everyone left the cabin so we could go to bed. Cáli and I agreed we would get up when we woke up, dawn or no dawn, ceremony or no ceremony.

It got very cold at night. We were at over 2000 metres of altitude and the cold air whistled between the boards of the cabin as we shivered on our lumpy mattresses, despite sleeping fully dressed under our blankets. When we awoke we were of one mind. We would make our way back to San Cristobal after breakfast and leave the friends to their celebrations. We had got swayed off our course, and over breakfast it was becoming evident that there was some tetchiness brewing amongst the friends, that they weren’t quite as close as we had thought. 

We walked over to visit Julieta and her family, neighbours to Lupita and Antonio. They lived in two bamboo huts: one was a kitchen with a fire burning on a waist high fireplace which Julieta tended, burning slim branches and dried corn husks; the other was where the family slept, and it was also where they kept their scythes and animal feed. The family invited is into the kitchen. There were a couple of small benches where Julieta’s husband and son were eating their breakfast of plantains and tortillas with coffee. The door was open and the son, a grown man wearing a leather cowboy hat, was caressing his favourite cockerel and feeding him tidbits. Julieta moved easily and efficiently about her kitchen as she made nopales in a frying pan on the fire. The cactus was trimmed of its spikes and sliced into fingers, fried in a pan and sprinkled with salt and a squeeze of lime. It was fresh and sour and had the slippery consistency of okra.

Ranged upon a couple of shelves, Julieta had everything she needed to hand and yet nothing more. Plastic bags and utensils were stuffed between the gaps in the bamboo walls. Julieta emanated sane goodness, the essence of which I can only compare to the most delicious tostadas I have ever tasted: golden, toasted tortillas made with home grown corn, roughly ground and cooked by Julieta on her fire. The taste was warm and fragrant and nourishing. It stayed with me all day and I think it shall stay with me much longer.

Next to the huts was a substantial altar, with statues of Jesus and Mary, family photographs and offerings of flowers, candles and husks of corn. Beyond the huts, the family grew vegetables, corn and nopales cactuses. A couple of dogs roamed around. Another was tied up and barked at us. We fed the breakfast leftovers to the chickens and turkeys, while pigs squealed in their sties, and rabbits and guinea pigs spread themselves out on the earth and panted in the shade. 

A look of curiosity crossed Juileta’s face when Cáli and I told her that we had travelled from Europe and from Brazil. ‘Muy lejo,’ she said thoughtfully - very far away. She was planning to catch one of the rabbits and cook it for dinner that day and she looked disappointed when we told her that we would be leaving on the bus for San Cristobal soon. I got the feeling she was enjoying sharing her kitchen with us. Cáli and I were also sad to leave her, yet it was time to make a move back to our base. 

Before Pilar would drive us back, she insisted on a group photo. But first of all she wanted us to shut our eyes and breathe deeply, ground ourselves, stretch this way, then that way, look down, bend our knees, connect with positive energy and think of something that would make us very happy. I went with the first thing which came into my mind which was a fervent longing for this extended photo shoot/workshop to be over as soon as possible.

’That woman has so much energy, she should find some chickens to herd!’ said Antonio afterwards,

We loved our days in San Cristobal surrounded by wooded mountains and the smell of woodsmoke in the cool night air, and the silvery sleigh bell sound of the gas bottles ringing against each other in the delivery truck running through the streets. We spent many hours in shops and markets buying clothes. We admired exquisite embroidery and woven cloths in the textile museum. More about the those to come soon.

Before we left, Pilar came round to the house with three bottles of Pox, (pronounced ‘posh’) a feisty liquor made from corn and sugar cane. Each bottle was flavoured with different fruits and had different properties. Pilar told us that it was medicinal and had been used by the Mayans for thousands of years in ceremonies. ‘It’s very sacred. We must try them all.’ She told us that she hadn’t much enjoyed the day with her friends on the walk and that now she was going to spend a few days by the sea and take care of herself and her cough. She had spread herself too thin. She shed a few tears and so did we and then we all toasted each other with the Pox, drinking to our dreams and our good wishes for our futures, our friends and our families and then we had hugs all round. We left her, feeling warmed, slightly more patient and just a little tipsy.



 Julieta cooking nopales on her fire   

Julieta cooking nopales on her fire


 Julieta cooking beans  

Julieta cooking beans  

 The family altar  

The family altar  

 Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too. 

Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too. 

Mexican Colours

Nearing Oaxaca as the bus twisted around the bends in the road, the sun slipped down behind the mountains, revealing them to be a series of profiles: dark velvet outlines of sleeping beings lying head to head, their noses and lips rising reaching skywards, some aquiline, some rounded, some more delicate.  

In the Zoccolo beside the cathedral, the square joyfully hummed with flutes, marimbas and  chatter. Couples of all ages strolled hand in hand under the trees, children running free holding onto enormous bright pink and orange sausage shaped balloons. There seemed to be almost as many vendors as there were people, selling tamales and tacos, soup and cakes and delicate birds made out of dried grasses. Women with long braids hanging down their backs walked about trying to sell the colourful embroidered clothes loaded upon their arms and onto their backs. I found myself smiling and smiling at this sense of fiesta on a Monday evening, at how the Mariachi bands burst into their serenades with comical timing, at how the grinning young girl half walked, half danced, her glossy black ponytail swinging behind her, making her way towards something good across the square, at the baby tightly wrapped up in a shawl strapped to the back of his mama as she sold coloured sweets, at the long line of people waiting for corn on the cob from the guy working exuberantly from his tiny stall, vigorously smothering the corn in mayonnaise, rolling it in cheese and then squirting it with six kinds of chilli sauce, ranging from vermillion to deep umber. I seemed to have burst through the cobble stones into a magical world where everything is designed to be as fun and colourful as possible. 

And then, walking home, I noticed a group of tiny older women, their dark braids woven with crimson cloth, cooking and eating and talking together upon the low wall. They had pitched up tents and made a little village in the square. A large sign demanded justice and care for indigenous widows. Their husbands had been killed in a massacre in 2010.

Cali (my travelling companion) and I headed up to Teotitlán del Valle, which is a village where everyone makes carpets. Pastora, from the women’s collective welcomed us and demonstrated how the natural dyes are made using herbs and barks and cochineal beetles which live on the cactuses nearby. She changed the colours in a flash by adding a few drops of lemon or a pinch of wood ash; orange turned to lime yellow, plum to fuschia. Later she unrolled the carpets and pointed out the symbols: of the four cardinal points, water, thunder, light, of the commmunity.

After another long bus ride, we arrived in San Agustinillo on the coast near Mazunte, Here the air is warm, the light crystalline and the sea clean. As Miriam, a local healer, gave me one of the best massages of my life, my inner vision was awash with colours, lime green, amber, ochre, sand, rust reds, spiced orange, deep turquoise, emerald green, hot pink, saffron, on and on they swirled in front of me, an endlessly moving sea of colours. 

Before going to bed I went to look at the inky ocean under the stars. I thought of the shadowy whales swimming out in the distance. The moon lit up a band upon every wave turning it silver and iridescent the instant before it crashed into white foam.



Natural dyes for wool


White cochineal beetle on cactus, squashed beetle on hand, some with a drop of lime added 

Winter Rain

The other night it rained. Properly rained.

The wind blew down the chimney, the dark sky flared with lightning, and the electricty cut out. As I read my book by candlelight and the light of the flickering fire, I could hear the rain gushing down the roof tiles and splashing onto the cobbles outside. I put my book down to listen to the rain soaking into the earth and a great peace descended upon me.

 It reminded me of the power cuts in the seventies. For the grown ups, hunting for candles and matches in the dark was a tiresome inconvenience, while we children loved the sense of adventure, the way candlelight transformed eating our supper into something magical, the way brushing our teeth by torchlight became exciting. 

This rain is much needed. It's been a dry year and there is nothing much for the animals to eat. Whether it is that my neighbour’s fences are lax, or whether his animals are particularly determined, it is true that I have been regularly visited by a lone sheep wearing a bell searching for the greener grass of my garden, the odd black pig on the look out for acorns, and now by a stray tabby cat with wild green eyes whom I have started to feed. Betty regularly sees her off, but is no match for Puss when she races straight up the great cedar tree and taunts her from one of its mighty branches. She sleeps in a cardboard box lined with a sheepskin under the back porch by night and yowls until I feed her, while all the while I tell her that she must not come to rely upon me completely as I will be away sometimes.

This week Betty will go and stay with the family on the lavender farm up in the Valensole, I will lock up the house and hope for the best for it while I set off for Mexico for unknown adventures. I may well write to you from there.



Angelica's Risotto

Since I arrived here at the end of April, I have had a steady and pleasurable stream of guests: friends arriving for generous amounts of time, time which feels like a luxury, as we are able to have conversations which settle below the 'catching up' that happens when meeting for a few hours here or there. Time was spent cooking and eating together at the table under the chestnut tree, time talking and walking, swimming, stacking wood and exploring new areas. Each person has left a trace of themselves and has helped to warm the house into a home.

And now for the first time in months I have several weeks by myself. At this time of year I crave quiet and solitude. I've been relishing closing the door on the long evenings and the stillness which descended upon the landscape has made this time alone an exquisite luxury to be savoured, especially knowing that it will not go on forever. As I clear out the ashes in the stove and bring logs into the house, I find myself thinking of my grandmother Angelica, who lived in Forcalquier for the last thirty years of her life, most of them alone. 

It always struck me how physically flexible she was, despite her stroke, how easily she bent down to tend to the stove and move the logs about, her hands capable and strong even in her nineties. It is a sadness to me that my time here didn't coincide with hers. How I would love to have her as my neighbour, to be able to drop in for tea, to borrow a book, or to take her for a spin in the car to admire the colours of the trees. I remember how she brightened when I shared with her my fantasy of coming to live out in this part of the world. 'That would be so wonderful!'

 Angelica painted this in 1938 when she studied painting at the Euston Road School 

Angelica painted this in 1938 when she studied painting at the Euston Road School 

My grandmother was extensively creative. At different times in her life, she painted, made etchings, mosaics, sculptures and wrote stories and memoirs. She knitted, crocheted, embroidered and made tapestries. She painted her walls and the furniture, sang, played the piano, the viola, the violin, the cello and the harp, and was an excellent cook. While she treasured time alone to paint and write, I know that she sometimes felt lonely. In later years, Lydia, who cooked for her would time her holidays to coincide with my visits and I would cook for my grandmother. I remember once taking great care and pleasure in making a Risotto alla Milanese with some stock made from the ends of a roast chicken. There is something so good about cooking a dish for someone you love, especially if you have time for lots of stirring.

Angelica was quiet as she tasted it and she fluttered her eyelids, then laid down her fork and laughed. 'That really is very good!' After that she always asked me to make it.

 Angelica in her studio 2009. Credit Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

Angelica in her studio 2009. Credit Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

Risotto alla Milanese is one of those deceptively simple dishes which demands the fine ingredients. For best results make with a stock made from a left over roast chicken or some chicken wings and onions (quartered with the skins on), carrots, a celeriac and some celery with leaves. 



RISOTTO ALLA MILANESE - enough for 3 of 4 

2500ml of chicken broth (you might not use all of this)

50g butter

1 onion, finely chopped

400g carnaroli or arborio rice (don't wash)

1 small glass of dry white wine

1/2 tsp of saffron powder or threads

Another 50g butter for stirring in at the end

100g grated Parmesan


Put the stock onto a slow simmer. 

Melt 50g butter into a heavy pan and gently cook the onion for a few minutes until soft but not brown. Add the rice, stir and then when coated in the butter and warmed through, add the glass of wine. Cook until the alcohol has evaporated.

Add the saffron.

Add one ladle of stock and stir. Once this has absorbed add the next and continue like this, one ladle at a time until rice is al dente, cooked but with some bite to it. This could take anything from 20mins to 30mins. 

Stir in the remaining butter and then the Parmesan.

Check the seasoning and eat with some delicious white wine.




The Snow Cupboard

The unfolding of the seasons here is a symphony of changes with each new thing chiming in one after the other. Now the leaves on the trees turn golden yellow against an impossibly blue sky, now the first pumpkins appear in the market, now the walnuts, the pomegranates, the ceps, the kaki fruit. Now sweet woodsmoke twists into the frozen stillness and now the air is so clear, invigorating and cold that it is good enough to drink. Champagne air. 

 My friend Suzie up in the hills behind Digne at the end of September 

My friend Suzie up in the hills behind Digne at the end of September 

Earlier in the year, my mum suggested that I prepare a 'snow cupboard'. "You will need it in the winter." 

And so I did. The cupboard includes packets of pasta and polenta and rice as well as canned tomatoes and boxes of matches, tins of sardines and bottles of olive oil. There is something deeply pleasurable and satisfying about squirrelling things away for the winter, whether it be food or wood. Now the cold may come.

And it did. Last week I woke up to a thick blanket of snow. The ice on the little pond is four inches thick and the barometer has been falling to -8c at night. It felt good to know that I needn't go out into civilisation, that I had everything I needed for a while.


Back in September I was on my balcony watching the sun rise behind the mountains. Shots rang out across the misty valley. I heard a sound below. There in the trees a family of wild boar were running for cover. As they disappeared from sight, some hounds ran past, noses to the scent and frantic with excitement. I hoped the boar were safe in the sanctuary of my garden. 

That afternoon there was a knock on my door. Betty barked furiously for it's not often someone turns up. Two men were on the step, one, slightly built, was holding a carcass. 'Would you like this? We hunted the boar in your woods.' They introduced themselves as two brothers from the village.

'Oh, I saw the boar this morning. The family.' 

'Yes, it was the father.'

When I confessed I had hoped the boar would get away, the hunter smiled and told me there were too many and they have no predators. He handed me the skinned flank of animal. 

I thanked him, really touched by the brothers' kindness and yet so sad for the family. Grateful too for the meat. Such wild meat.

I decided to conserve the meat by canning it in jars, rather than putting it in the freezer, as for one thing the electricity supply here is unreliable when there are storms and I can't think of anything more unappetising than coming home to defrosted wild boar, but also because meat prepared in jars gets better over time rather than drying out as it does in the freezer. When I looked this up on British websites I was warned not to attempt this in case I got food poisoning, but speaking to my neighbour, I found out that this is a very common way of conserving meat in France, whether making pâtes or stews. One has to use the proper jars and lids, make sure everything is sterilised and cook for long enough in the pressure cooker. 

I spent a couple of days chopping and slicing, making a ragù for pasta or polenta and a stew similar to boeuf bourgignan, tossing the odd morsel to Betty.

The jars look great in the snow cupboard.



This sauce would also be excellent made with venison.

500g wild boar or venison meat, chopped finely or minced

50g onions

40g celery

50g carrots

1 clove garlic

2 bay leaves

sprig of rosemary

2 tins of chopped tomatoes (about 800g)

A slug of olive oil

50g red wine

salt and pepper

Peel the carrots, onions and garlic and dice extremely finely along with the celery. 

Cook gently in the olive oil for about ten minutes, stirring every now and again.

Add the meat together with the rosemary and the bay leaves. Turn up the heat a little and let everything brown together for another ten minutes.

Add the red wine and, once the alcohol has evaporated, add the tomato.

Season generously, cover, and leave to cook on a low flame for three and a half hours, stirring every now and again.

Check the seasoning and serve with pappardelle, tagliatelle or polenta, some grated parmesan and a glass of red wine.

Fires, the Sun and the Stars

I am sat outside on a rug and I am looking at the golden outline of the horizon. Fingers of light are piercing the clouds. I have begun to drum and it is that time in the morning. The Sun is rising.

A fiery sliver peeps over the mountains and within minutes it emerges round and magnificent, beaming in every direction. A miracle! I am able to look directly at the light for the first ten minutes. I can feel the rays streaming directly into my eyes, cleansing and vibrating. Everything around me comes to life: colours glowing with warmth, the light catching the wings of the morning birds swooping down to the valley and the woods behind me hum as the bees begin to gently buzz.

 Giant cloud bird at dawn 

Giant cloud bird at dawn 

A good friend recommended this as a powerful practice and I have been getting up for the Sun most mornings for the last six weeks. It is always an effort to get out of bed at that hour, to make myself brush my teeth and splash my face with cold water when I would rather turn over and sleep. What spurs me on is that I have a date with someone exciting, one that won't wait! The moment I step outside and see the glowing sky behind the blue mountains in the East, all resistance leaves me. 

Sunrise is a good time to pray for those I love, and for those I don't love so much! it's a good time to bless the water all over the world and to thank the Earth, to remember that she is alive, that we are like mites upon the back of a whale so large we don't even realise she is moving and breathing as she carries us on her journey. It's a good time to think of all those elephants, whales, insects, tigers, fish and all those in trouble. It's a good time to ask for help with transforming war into peace, with turning hatred to love, to ask for wisdom and guidance. It's a good time to ask the infinitely powerful Sun for help with all of that. It's a good time to remember that we are all related.

 Sun rising over the Pre Alps

Sun rising over the Pre Alps

At the end of July, while driving to Manosque, I saw plumes of black smoke darkening the sky to the West. Forest fires were burning in the Vaucluse. Others started along the coast. The Mistral wind blew for three days, fanning dying embers and sending ancient pine woods up into flames, spreading a black, resinous smoke. It has been so hot and everything is so dry, it only takes a single spark from a hot machine, a barbecue or a careless flick from a cigarette. Sometimes fires even start where lightning strikes. Living right below the woods, high up on the hills where the wind blows, makes me very aware about how fast they can spread. So, even though I have had a month of delightful visits from friends and family, there have been no barbecues.

 Uncredited photo - thank you to the photographer.

Uncredited photo - thank you to the photographer.

On the twelfth of August, as a dear friend and I walked back from the village in the dark, we saw many stars streaking across the sky. Some, the 'earth grazers,' travelled horizontally, others fell vertically. One was so bright and it's tail so long, that we turned and reached for each other in excitement there on the rocky road. 'Did you see that?'

 Once home, we lay down upon a blanket in the garden and looked up at the dark dome above, pricked with bright stars . We were generously showered by at least forty or so etoiles filantes, so many that it became a challenge to think of another wish. So there in the dark, we silently remembered obscure friends, people we hadn't thought of in a long while.