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!'
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.
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)
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.