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. 

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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.

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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.

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RAGÙ

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. 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Water and the Antics of the Loir

I returned from three weeks in England to no running water. The bore hole pump was struck by lightning during recent storms and I had to wait for Monsieur Le Forage (Mr Bore Hole) to order a new pump, which meant a week of driving down to the village to fill up water containers at the communal tap. 

It's remarkable how much water we pour down the sink so easily. Using all my water from a bottle made me careful not to waste a drop. The washing up water and my wash water was recycled to flush the loo and water the plants. As inconvenient as it was to be without, my appreciation for clean water became ever greater. As I let it pour from a jug to wash my hands, the coolness and the splashing on my skin felt particularly delicious while the cicadas rasped away in the baking heat. We really can do nothing without water, in fact we are nothing without it. 

Apart from the odd thunderstorm and shower, rain is scarce here from May until September. The smaller streams and rivers tend to dry up, many of them run under the rocky ground towards the coast. Even though I have found most locals take seriously the need to conserve water, I notice too how the farmer on the plain nearby extravagantly pumps water over his lettuces during the heat of the day. The same farmer is known for his liberal use of chemicals; the price paid for people expecting lettuces throughout the year. It's easy to forget that traditionally lettuces were considered a treat for springtime, not something to eat in the heat of the summer, by when they have naturally gone to seed. 

Dreaming of clear water. The waterfall at Sillons La Cascade

Dreaming of clear water. The waterfall at Sillons La Cascade

The other thing I came home to was a sizeable hole in my bedroom shutter along with a lot of wood shavings and some tell tale droppings. Somebody had been busy.

Meet the loir.

Serious gnawing has taken place.

Serious gnawing has taken place.

I had heard about the loir long before I met it. Indeed, I had often heard the loir itself before that meeting. 

Sometimes at night there would be a vigorous scratching and scrabbling about in the wall cavities, in the roof space and on the balcony. I was told it was probably the loir who ate through the wiring to the solar panels, who caused black outs from chomping through yet more electrical wires in the attic. 

When I came to visit last September I found all the grapes had been cleared off the vine which grows up the trellis at the front of the house, leaving only the lacy stems. Not one single grape had been left. 'It'll be the loir,' said my neighbours.

The  loir,  known as the edible dormouse. It was considered a delicacy by the Etruscans and the Romans, who kept them in ceramic jars, fattened them on chestnuts, acorns and walnuts, dipped them in honey and rolled them in poppy seeds before roasting them. 

The loir, known as the edible dormouse. It was considered a delicacy by the Etruscans and the Romans, who kept them in ceramic jars, fattened them on chestnuts, acorns and walnuts, dipped them in honey and rolled them in poppy seeds before roasting them. 

I came face to face with the loir a few weeks ago. I was writing at my laptop when from the corner of my eye I saw the shadow of a tail slip under a nearby chair nearby.

I squealed, leaped into the air and dashed over to the sofa to rouse Betty, who in her younger days was a very fine ratter. I have seen her catch a rat in mid air as it flew out of the compost heap. After watching her sniff around the edges of the arm chair, I took a breath, pushed the chair back, and out shot a furry grey animal, just smaller than a squirrel, and ran promptly over my foot! As I felt the sensation of soft fur and claws on my bare skin, two thoughts converged in my brain. 'this is my idea of a nightmare,' and 'this really isn't as bad as I thought it would be.'

The next thing I knew, it had run directly up the wall and was now clinging to the top of the sliding doors, slipping by its claws as Betty barked frantically below. The creature fixed its enormous eyes upon me and I felt its terror at the same time as my own pounding heart. I gingerly opened the doors, dreading that it might fall upon me, managed to dislodge it with a broom, whereupon the animal shot out into the night, chased by Betty at full throttle. 

Since then, I bought some supposedly inaudible sonic deterrents, but the high pitched tone they make seems likely to drive me away before it does the loir, who continues to squeak outside my bedroom window and scamper from one vine trellis to the next with joyful noisy abandon.

Meanwhile, this week the pump was replaced by Monsieur Le Forage and cool, clear water runs out of my taps as the pure magic that it is. 

Solstice Sunshine in a Jar

Touch-and-heal, demon chaser, goatweed, Barbe de Saint-Jean, chasse diable, herbe a mille vertus, millepertuis, amber, St John's wort. These are some of the names given to hypericum perforata.

St John's Wort infusion made with olive oil on the eve of the summer solstice. After four to six weeks in the warmth of the sunshine and the cool of the moonlight, it should turn a deep amber colour.

St John's Wort infusion made with olive oil on the eve of the summer solstice. After four to six weeks in the warmth of the sunshine and the cool of the moonlight, it should turn a deep amber colour.

This ragged, deep yellow flower has an endless list of properties and is used to help lift people out of melancholy and mild depression. It is soothing to the nervous system and is a very good remedy for anxiety and feelings of overwhelm.

Being a powerful antiviral agent, Hypericum is known to help prevent and heal outbreaks of Herpes simplex 1 and 2.

It is often used for helping with premenstrual tension and menopausal symptoms.

The olive oil infusion makes a wonderful massage oil. It is also used to treat grazes, burns, sprains, frozen shoulder, insect bites, sunburn and chapped lips. A balm can be made by emulsifying the infused olive oil with beeswax. More on this to come in a few weeks.

Hypericum's affinity with the sun is obvious. It's stamen look like sun rays. One of the main active ingredients, hypericin, is at its strongest when the plant is not fully in flower, when there are still some unopened buds on the plant. Traditionally, the time to pick it is in the days around the solstice or on the feast of its namesake, St John the Baptist, 24th June. That it helps lift the spirits, especially in the winter months makes sense.

It grows everywhere in the world other than in the desert, tropical lowlands and the polar regions, so very likely it grows near you. Once I spotted it and took an interest in the plant, it caught my eye wherever I went.

To make the oil infusion, pick the flowers, including a short section of stem and leaves. Leave some flowers to remain on the plant so that it can seed itself. Allow the flowers to dry in the sunshine for a few hours so that any insects can crawl out, and there is not too much moisture in them. Fill a clean jar with the blossoms, stalks, leaves and all, and cover with olive oil, making sure they are submerged, and leaving some head room. Place somewhere sunny, either outside or in a window, or failing that, somewhere warm. Leave for four to six weeks, checking the inside of the lids every now and again for condensation, which you can wipe off with some paper towel. 

Then, when it has turned amber, it is strained through a clean cloth. 

Hypericum flowers drying out in the sunshine.

Hypericum flowers drying out in the sunshine.

Thank you to my old friend, Angus in Devon, for reminding me to look into Hypericum and thank you to Jacky for showing me the plant.

To Banon with the Sisters

Jacky and Eliane are sisters who were born in the village and have lived here all their lives. They have taken me under their wing somewhat and are endeavouring to educate me about all things Provençal. As well as promising to show me mushrooms in the autumn and teaching me about wild plants, they have lent me books about local wildlife and artists. They speak as fast as gunfire and we laugh a lot as I struggle with my erratic French to keep up. When they invited me to the cheese festival at Banon recently, I said yes, of course.  

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The day was hot, and the streets were jammed with people thronging about the stalls. There were balloons and children and dogs running around. There were horses. Jacky and I entered a competition to guess the combined weight of some kid goats. Neither of us won. There was goats milk ice cream, there were glasses of wine, fried pastries and frites. But most of all there was a lot of cheese. 

Banon is famous for its unpasteurised goats cheese, particularly the one wrapped in chestnut leaves, soaked in eau de vie. I never quite got the point of it until I followed the suggestion of the shopkeeper in the village who sold a cheese to my friend recently. After choosing one that was ripe, he leaned in and told her authoritatively that absolutely the best way to eat it is with steamed potatoes, rather than bread, and to accompany this with a bottle of good white wine, perhaps a Chablis or a Sancerre. We wasted no time in following his advice and found it to be brilliant. Now I eat one a week!

Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

The woods flanking the windy road up to Banon are full of chestnut trees, so it makes sense that their leaves are used to wrap up the little cheeses. Only twelve or so small dairies make them, but they are sold all over the world. 

A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

People on decorated tractors threw out tiny bottles of synthetic lavender eau de cologne to the grown ups and inflatable balls to the children. The compère shouted at the top of his voice as though he didn't have a megaphone. It was time to go home. 

Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Later, sitting outside their house in the shade, Eliane went in and fetched me a book of Martine Franck's photographs, Le temps de vieillir. She opened it up on a photograph of three women. 'Do you recognise her?' she asked me, pointing at the youngest one. It was unmistakably Jacky.

'I was out that day, that's why I'm not in the photograph. Jacky had been sunbathing and that's why she was in her bikini,' said Eliane. I looked over at Jacky and I thought I saw a look of sadness or nostalgia. Perhaps she was thinking of her mother and her grandmother. Perhaps she was thinking of a different time. 

Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.  As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away. 

Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.

As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away.