Here is the menu, with lots of beautifulwinter vegetables to brighten up the dishes.
Something we have recently become aware of is exactly how much the Frenchlove whisky! Apparently, after China, France is the biggest worldwide consumer of the malt delight. Who knew?
I am afraid the shellfish bisque being on the menu might be my fault too, it’s just scrumptious! Such a lot of the depth comes from having good stocks and consequently good sauces. A beautiful broth made with prawn shells, butter and cream for a touch of decadence and a nice juicy langoustine! I really can’t take any more credit for the food than a small input with the menu. It is all down to Matt’s skill, passion and flare.
One of our generous guests, a native Scot, revelled in an impressive delivery of a poem from Robert Burns. What a wonderful end to our first supper club!
My husband Matt has always had a passion for cooking. He is a very intuitive person and he is driven by his emotions. The way he cooks is a beautiful way for him to express himself and he thoroughly enjoys it.
Finding ourselves both hitting the big 40 in the past few months has brought on many discussions about where we are in our lives, what we have achieved and what we hope to aspire to in future. We have decided to start running our own cookery courses, with Matt and I as the teachers, sure to be an exciting experience!
The creation of our company Big in France has been an adventure so far and we have enjoyed the challenge. When we launched this venture several years ago, we had high hopes and I’m proud to say that we have begun to realise these dreams. It is no easy feat to start your own company, trying to master the many skills that are involved along the way, but we have learnt a lot and continue to do so.
The people we have been lucky enough to meet along the way, some of whom we have worked with and some who have been our guests, have opened our eyes to so many things: new skills, cultures, cuisines, languages and beliefs. I try and learn one new thing each day, no matter how big or small, and much of this new knowledge comes from our four children who inspire me every day (and always correct my French, which is therefore improving, even if bit by bit!)
So this year, our new cookery course will be focused around cooking on wood, with a touch of elegance. You can have the drama of the open fire combined with a soft delicate touch to create something special! We are very lucky to have excellent ingredients at hand. We are absolute advocates for local seasonal produce wherever possible. We also grow a lot of our own produce and try to incorporate these fresh delights into our dishes.
With Matt’s design and build of our outdoor kitchen complete, the cookery side of our business has gone from strength to strength. It’s such a pleasure to cook using the different wood fires. A meal, however simple, is always an event and we like to get our family and friends involved!
After winter, we spend a lot of time outside, enjoying the weather and the stunning countryside, watching the dogs leaping around the garden before flopping on to the grass with a sigh of relief to lap up the warm sun.
This time of year is when we start to look forward to the warmth returning. Ideas to improve the facilities and new recipes begin to hatch!
Cooking on wood is a real skill. There is a lot of information to take in and try out for yourself to see what you like and don’t like. What types of wood to use for different flavours? What do you prefer? What works best for different produce? How to control the temperature? The methods are constantly evolving, which makes it a pleasure to be learning new techniques all the time.
There are countless different approaches to cooking; it’s all about finding your style, what flows best. They say ‘food prepared with love tastes better - taste is not just flavour but an experience of flavour, smell, touch, sight and mood’ (Willis Robbins chef).
I have seen Matt’s progression, and he has come full circle. He has always been self-driven, enjoying pushing himself and learning new skills through teaching himself. Right now, it’s fair to say he is literally ‘on fire!’
He has had wonderful feedback from the people he has cooked for, either on our yoga, photography or cookery courses, or for private catered events for people who are lucky enough to travel the world and eat in excellent restaurants. He is very modest but I am so proud of him and I know the superb response he gets when he cooks means the world to him: ultimately, he loves making people happy!
The course will run in June over a long weekend and will feature recipes that Matt has been working on over the past year. This has been a challenge in itself as he rarely follows a recipe, but relies on his senses instead.
Our new cookery course comes from the heart. Matt enjoys nothing more than cooking all day just to see people appreciating what he has created. If you enjoy fantastic food and wine, this really is the experience for you. Big, punchy flavours, excellent ingredients, interesting ideas, yet all served with a note of French savoir faire!
We have been doing more and more private catered events, which have been wonderful! They are a chance to meet new people and enjoy a memorable evening with delicious food. Here is a menu Matt put together for a New Year’s Eve event. You can expect to enjoy something similar on a cookery course with us!
Open toasts with foie gras and fig compote/home cured gravadlax with a lemon and herb crème fraîche
Smoked king crab with langoustine velouté
Pan-fried turbot with a shellfish reduction and moule sauce
Filet of beef with fondant potatoes, baked celeriac purée, pickled carrots and red wine reduction
Chocolate torte with caramel sauce, vanilla infused crème fraîche, honeycomb and gold leaf
Coffee served with homemade pistachio truffles
Here is a little taster of one of Matt's recipes, to be featured on the course:
Winter vegetable tatin
2 large potatoes
1 butternut squash
3 garlic cloves
2 tsp of sea salt
15 black peppercorns
500 g of butter
3 medium-sized onions
1 bunch of tarragon
5 sprigs of thyme
2 tips of good Spanish smoked paprika
10 large slices of raclette cheese
Prep time 15 mins
Cook time 40 mins
Preheat oven to 170 C / gas mark 3
Peel all the vegetables and slice around 2 mm thick. A mandolin is perfect for this, but mind your fingers!
In a pestle and mortar, smash up the garlic with the sea salt, black pepper and paprika.
In a medium sauce pan, heat the butter gently until melted and spoon off white milky solids to clarify.
Once the butter is clarified and still warm, stir in the garlic mix from the pestle and mortar and the leaves from the sprigs of thyme and tarragon.
Now rub butter over a large oven proof frying pan, preferably cast iron!
Start laying the slices of potatoes neatly around the edge and either in rows or in a spiral pattern on the bottom making sure they are all overlapping so they stick to each other. Remember this will be the finished face when turned out of the pan at the end.
Now lay a round of parsnips and then drizzle the clarified butter mix over the parsnips.
Repeat this once more with the butternut and celeriac, with clarified butter between each layer.
Now for a layer of the lovely raclette cheese and cover with the onions.
Continue making layers of the sliced vegetables with a coating of butter until all used up. Ideally, you want to finish at the top of the pan so it sits flat when turned out.
If you have too much veg keep pushing it down to compress the vegetables. If you don't have enough, slice some more.
Once completed, start on a medium to low heat hob and let it cook untouched for 4 mins. This will help with colouring on the bottom (or top as the case may be).
Transfer to the oven for 40 mins or until nice and soft when you put a sharp knife through it.
Take out and let it cool for 5 mins so the butter and cheese firm up a bit more.
Put a plate on top of the pan and quickly flick over so you end up with the tatin nicely turned out.
Repair any damaged bits and serve immediately.
This goes amazingly with game or other hearty meats such as lamb or beef. Or you can just eat with greens or a light salad. We hope you enjoy!!
BOOK NOW TO ENJOY A WONDERFUL WEEKEND OF COOKERY!
At the end of February, just as the daffodils started pushing their way through the ground and I treated myself to tulips to brighten my kitchen, we looked to spring and the warmth of the sunshine and the fresh green buds that it would bring. But, we were halted in our steps by the surprising news that we were to be hit by a cold front from Siberia and for the next 10 days, timed perfectly with the school holidays I might add, it was going to be super cold, hitting -4 most nights! So more wood ordered to warm our little feet and more wine to be tasted to warm our little souls.
To share with you one of the gastronomic highlights we have recently enjoyed, Matt cooked a superb meal to celebrate a hard days work and a Saturday night. As we have some events that we are catering this year, it’s a great excuse to try some new ideas and indulge in some fantastic ingredients. Lobster and steak are my all time favorites. We couldn’t decide which to have, so surf and turf (I know it’s a bit eighties!) was the best option.
I always used to think this was a totally ridiculous idea and who on earth would enjoy fish and meat on the same plate! I must now admit, however, that I have been converted and I think it’s delicious! On holiday in Mauritius a few years ago, one of hotel restaurants that was on the beach with incredible views had a daily special of prawn and chicken Mauritian curry, it was out of this world! I can still taste it now. This was the moment when I had to reconsider the idea of surf and turf.
So, back to our Saturday night, Garlic butter with tarragon and dill, served with lobster and the eye of the rib steak (a little trick learnt from the wonderful Mark Greenaway) accompanied by a Swedish inspired pickled salad, making the most of our latest vinegar, raved about in Niklas Ekstedt cuisine, it is called ‘Perstorp attica’. This kind of food is really the epitome of everything I love. It was light and delicate but packed full of flavor. The richness of the butter melting into the sweet, succulent lobster tail, and the perfect steak, cooked medium, melted in the mouth, finished with the tangy salad to cut through the decadence of the other ingredients. What more could you ask for?
Well how about a chocolate souffle cooked by Rosie, yes please! Again, one of my all time favorites, this dessert is light enough to eat without feeling like you have overdone it. The richness of the dark chocolate is delicately sweetened to satisfy the sweet tooth, and with the gentle lift of the beaten egg whites, takes you to heaven! A Saturday night feast for kings!
As the weather had been so miserable, when it picked up, we went to Bordeaux for the weekend. I can not recommend this place enough. I would say it was one of my favourite weekends ever! The atmosphere was great. Everyone enjoyed it, which is easier said than done when you are catering for children of different ages.
We had a very central apartment opposite the river and this made our little adventures out very easy. The tram system was so efficient and clean. The longest shopping street in Europe called Rue Sainte Catherine was lovely. A huge variety of shops to enjoy, but it was all so relaxed and lovely. The sun was shining and people all seemed to be happy, taking their time to potter around, not the usual sense of urgency I would associate with a city centre.
There was an enormous choice of restaurants to choose from. We tried La Tupina which is where Rick Stein went in his weekend breaks series.
As you walk in the door, the fires are what attracts the eye, cooking aver these is one of the delights that makes this restaurant so special. I had scallops to start followed by a steak, both were amazing. Matt had foie gras followed by lamb which was also fabulous. The staff were extremely accommodating and the restaurant itself was very welcoming. The children had a smaller version of what we had and they promptly gobbled it up. It was quite expensive, but the bottle of St Emilion 2010 might have made a bit of a difference. Check out Sienna photobombing in the scales reflection!
The following day, after reading the Guardians top 10 restaurants in Bordeaux, we found a really charismatic bar hidden in one of the many back lanes. We had a set lunch for 18€ which was a bargain! Skate followed by beef cheeks, fantastic. A few nice glasses of wine, a belly full of food, half the price of the night before, everyone was on form.
There was a big fair in the centre of town that unfortunately, we had to walk past every time we went out. This was the highlight for Rosie! Amelia talked Matt, Charlie and Rosie into getting on the most ridiculously dangerous ride there, only to jump ship just before it started, leaving them to suffer the pain without her. Everyone was a bit wobbly when they got off, I thought in Matts case it could have been the six pints but he assured me it was nothing to do with that! Fabulous weekend!
Back to work, if it ever stops raining. The summer kitchen is well on its way now and looking amazing. Planning is going well for the first course of the year, food photography with Ilian Iliev and cookery with Bulgarian chef Vladimir Todorov. The menu sounds out of this world and has been really exciting trying to source the ingredients. The forecast for the week is amazing and the villa is ready to go.
It brings back lots of wonderful memories of our good times last year with so many lovely people, incredible chefs, yoga instructors and photographers. We learnt a lot and feel very privileged to be able to do something we both love.
Keep an eye on our social media for updates on the course this week! Enjoy the sunshine everybody!
A little more sun has been brightening our days this week, a lovely change to the very damp and rainy start to the year we have had so far. I keep hearing how low the water table is and how all this rain is a good thing, so I keep reminding myself how wonderfully wet everything is - the most rain for a hundred years!
With the vegetable patch dug and ready to be attacked, I’m sure I will appreciate this beautifully nourished soil to grow lots of delightful things in - this will be a learning curve. We have succeeded in growing some things in the past and I am really looking forward to getting out in the garden and enjoying the sunshine; after all, this is one of the main reasons we are here! The dates for the cookery courses are confirmed and our ambition is to grow as many vegetables as possible to provide for these courses. It is a very satisfying feeling to actually eat vegetables that you have yourself grown from seed, watered every day and tended to for months, and wow, do they taste amazing!
In our local village, we have some friends who are superb gardeners and they have taken us under their wing - project potager commence! This week, to break us in gently, our task is to buy some black bins, put about a third of compost in and plant some new potatoes. Every time we see the shoots coming through, we need to cover them with compost again, until you get near the top of the bin. At this point, you let the shoots grow until they flower; with any luck, there will be lots of beautiful new potatoes multiplying away beneath the dirty depths of terroir. I will keep you updated!
Rosie has been baking crazy this week. She is now designing her own recipes! Such a great little talent, her confidence and skill for that age is wonderful to see! So on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, no school on Wednesdays here, she rummaged through the cupboards to see what she could concoct. The high protein, tasty nibbles that are great for a snack are super easy to make. Her take on this was to combine some sugar-free muesli with golden syrup and fresh vanilla, mix well, form into bite-size squares and bake. I made the mistake of buying 99% dark chocolate recently, which was very unpleasant! Ruined my coffee break! But if you mix the chocolate with some crème fraîche and sugar, it becomes a decadent, glossy, silky drizzle of indulgence that topped off these little delights. The home-made peanut butter also finished off these cereal bites, a sticky mouthful indeed!
Sprinkled with chopped pistachios, ready for the taste test! They were really lovely, although probably not that healthy after all with the scrummy glazing!
Chocolate cupcakes were also on the agenda, just so she could practise using some of her icing utensils she got for Christmas. These were the perfect bar snack after returning home from the rugby on Saturday (well done Ireland!).
Apparently last Monday was the saddest day of the year and we survived it. Yippee! A celebration was in order requiring lots of delicious and colourful food to keep our health good and our mood high. We were feeling particularly lucky as we had both just recovered from the dreaded Aussie flu and had been feeling incredibly poorly and completely knocked out for a good few days. Since then, every dark gloomy morning as the wind tries to steal the roof away and the rain batters at the house from every angle, I have been greeting Matt with a warm turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, lemon, ginger and cider vinegar cocktail – that’ll teach him! It’s not so bad and it supposedly cures every ill known to man, so that’s good news.
Unfortunately, although we made it through Blue Monday, our car was not so fortunate. After jumping in, ready to whizz down to the village to fetch Sienna home for lunch, the car would not go faster than five mph. Great! You are absolutely scuppered without a car if you live here in the undiscovered depths of the Vendee. Luckily, a new garage has opened five minutes away so at 2.00 pm when normal life resumes after the essential two-hour lunch break, Matt spluttered along there with a friend following in another car to check he got there and to pick him up when he dropped the car off. It looked like a presidential motorcade, with two big black four-by-fours driving ridiculously slowly despite there being a total lack of any traffic – the only difference between the two being that ours was slightly older and slightly more broken. (Reassuring, by the way to be informed that Donald Trump’s mental health has been confirmed as, like, totally good.) A teacher from school asked if maybe the car was depressed as a result of Blue Monday and wondered if I would be better off seeing a psychologist instead; it might even be cheaper than a mechanic. Ah well, I’m afraid our depressed Discovery is taking a month’s sabbatical.
So, to mark our continued sanity, I went for a dinner that would brighten our kitchen and kick start us into health. A little surprisingly, all our children adore Thai salad. It’s one of my favourite dishes as it combines so many things that I love. This particular salad was a bit of a variation on the theme, more of an oriental-inspired salad. It was made up of peppers, cucumber, onion, red cabbage, carrots, mango, pomegranate, coriander and peanuts, all finely chopped or grated to make a wonderful and delicious dinner. Making nut butter has been a recent revelation for me. I had no idea it was so easy. Rosie and Sienna put a few handfuls of peanuts in the food processor and watched the magic unfold. We used this with soy sauce, oyster sauce, lime juice, fresh ginger and chilli (and a little olive oil to loosen it) to accompany the colourful salad and make a zingy, tangfastic, fresh and spicy match made in heaven. We do try to make the most of all our local seasonal produce as much as possible. When we arrived in France 12 years ago, there was very little variety in the supermarkets. Now, there is a lot more choice, resulting in the addition of a section marked exotique. I treated myself to mango, pomegranates and even a coconut. I marinated some chicken pieces in curry spices and wine and then cooked them gently in the oven. To fill everyone up on this miserable January evening, some rice went alongside the enticing rainbow salad, topped with the spicy chicken. Clean plates, happy family. And, to top it all, Sienna has this week recognised the beauty of stacking plates – bonus!
On Wednesday night, inspired by The Curry Guy, aka Dan Toombs, Matt wanted to try out his recipe for Sri Lankan pork curry. We had some organic pork steaks from the local farmer that would be perfect for this. Rich in flavour and packed with spices, the pork was tender and delicious after being marinated for a few hours. The marinade was super simple – consisting of things we would generally have to hand: oil, garlic, onion, chilli, ketchup, tamarind, cumin, coriander, pepper and vinegar. This dish went down a treat served with plain rice, garlic naan bread and cucumber raita. We learnt some fantastic curry recipes last year when Dan kicked off our cookery courses in France. He’s an absolute legend in this field and we are looking forward to his next course.
Rosie’s treat once a week is to bake. We have to try and restrict it slightly as she cooks such wonderful desserts and cakes, it’s difficult to resist. At this time of year a traditional French cake can be found at school and in both the boulangerie and the supermarket. The Galette des Rois dates back to the fourteenth century and is traditionally eaten on January 6th to celebrate the arrival of the three kings. Today, a porcelain or plastic figurine is hidden in the cake. Known as the fève (literally, a broad bean), this represents the king. Whoever finds the fève is crowned king or queen for the day. The children love this idea, even if it is a little precarious. Rosie decided to tackle the task of creating this cake fit for kings. It has a fairly simple recipe. After lining the cake tin with puff pastry, Rosie made a scrummy frangipane, a creamy sweet almond paste for the filling, finished off with a lid of puff pastry that she decorated with a delicate pattern. After baking and cooling, the cake was dusted with icing sugar and served with vanilla ice cream. This was gobbled up after the curry and put a smile on everyone’s face.
To end with a bit of a curve ball, I have downloaded a dictionary/thesaurus app that sends me an alert every day with a word and its definition. It sparks conversation and is good for the children to keep learning vocabulary. This week, my favourite word is dénouement, meaning the outcome or resolution of a difficult business or the drawing together of all the different strands in the plot. So, on that note, Big in France wishes you all a big weekend!
I do love Christmas. Having four children and three brothers and sisters of my own, there are a lot of us when we get together - 23! We often celebrate Christmas at our house in France because there is plenty of room for dogs, children and general chaos!
It is difficult to believe that it is done and dusted for another year. Such a huge effort goes into the lead up to it and to making the event itself a success, but it is a wonderful time of year when I feel truly grateful for my friends and family. Looking back what seems to be an age ago, here is a little piece of Christmas spirit to tide you over until next December!
This year, we decided to throw a little works party for our friends and for people who helped us along the way this year. People keep assuring me that the first year in business can be tricky and positivity is key. We are very lucky to have lovely friends and people we can rely on to help us to get this new project off the ground.
The whole process of planning a party is pretty good fun. We spend a lot of time looking at ideas for the menu and I love taking the children shopping to choose lots of beautiful glittery decorations to make the house festive and inviting. The whole family gets involved and we make a mountain of cut-out snowflakes which we hang all over the kitchen ceiling to make our own little snowy wonderland, even if the chance of the real thing is not very likely! It certainly gets everyone in the mood!
The preparations began in earnest the day before: Michael Buble in the background, snowflakes hanging, fairy lights flashing, a glass of wine in hand and off we go. Food for fifty: sit down? Nibbles? What works best? I like a room full of people mingling, nothing too formal, plenty of delicious bites for people to get stuck into.
As we approach Christmas, I thought I would seize the opportunity to look back at the wonderful sunny weekend we had with chef Mark Greenaway in September. We had been building up to this course since the previous autumn and to see it come to fruition so successfully fills us with a great deal of pride here at Big in France.
After months of care and thought over every detail and after countless emails discussing equipment and produce, we were thrilled to finally meet the man himself at Poitiers airport: nothing quite like a little French airport to welcome you!
Mark was happy to spend a couple of nights prior to the start of the course at our house, getting to know the family - children, dogs and all. One of our daughters, a keen chef herself had donned her chef's whites in anticipation of his arrival and prepared a chocolate torte. She also proceeded to call him not ‘Mark’ but Mark Greenaway’ for his entire stay! ‘Good morning Mark Greenaway’ ‘Good night Mark Greenaway’ ‘Thank you Mark Greenaway!’ She was in awe to have such an inspiration sitting in her very own kitchen!
An entertaining night unfolded, the beginning of a weekend of gluttony: start as you mean to go on after all! Up bright and early, as is the life of a chef, we set off to the venue via a farm shop to discover the beauty of local, organic produce. A good friend of ours has recently opened a shop selling all his own vegetables and it’s such a little gem! The produce is out of this world. You can see the care that has gone into the growing and the taste is divine, such a massive difference to the supermarket. One vegetable, previously unknown to me, had pride of place. When asked for advice on what to do with it, I got a typically French answer: steam it, then fry it with dried ‘herbes de provence’. This was not quite what you would hope for as an end to such a beautiful specimen. This turned out to be called a chayote, a variety of squash.
A good day's prepping ensued, giving us a chance to get the fires going in the outdoor kitchen where Mark cooked some delicious scallops with herbs and butter followed by hanger steak, all on the plancha, what a great piece of kit! Seeing a chef of his calibre at work was fascinating and eye opening. We really learnt a lot.
A spur-of- the-moment decision meant a last-minute trip to Faro, Portugal for the half-term holidays: excellent value for flights and accommodation, and what a well-deserved treat! The enigma of being in a different country and speaking a different language flummoxed our youngest, age six! The fact that all four of our children are bilingual does seem to mean that they are much more open to learning and speaking other languages. This interest in mastering other languages will hopefully be a massive bonus for them in the future.
After the hustle and bustle of the airport (the concept of ‘queueing’ is apparently unknown and baffling to the French), we survived the cut and thrust of the crowds to get on the plane. We also managed to shove our hand luggage on without too much trouble and came out alive after eating warm ham sandwiches and over-priced beer. It was all worth it! I love the feeling of stepping off the plane and having the heat hit you. It was quite a few degrees warmer than La Rochelle, so definitely summery weather with the need for shorts. Perfect! We had a big villa with a private (freezing) swimming pool about 10 minutes’ walk from the beach. The coast was stunning! The dramatic orange cliffs dropping into the clear blue sea and the power of the swell was mesmerizing. You had to be quite a tough cookie to brave the sea: it was pretty rough and not for the faint hearted! But Rosie (age 10) bought a boogie board and had a wonderful time crashing through the waves all day, only stopping to show us her wounds!
The food was good and we discovered some lovely restaurants, generally very reasonable. Snack food was amazing value and you could grab a decent burger or pizza for €5. Beer was €1 a pint, which was great after the price of beer in France! You could buy wine in cardboard cartons ‒ like milk ‒ for only €0.69 a litre! Chicken piri piri is the local speciality. This seemed to vary depending on the restaurant, but was a wonderful meal in the right place.
Our favourite haunt was a quaint little Thai restaurant, well tucked away. The food was fresh, fragrant and delicious. The children enjoyed all the dishes we chose, which meant everyone was happy! We saved the Indian restaurant for the last night. Eating Indian food is probably one of the things we miss most from the UK. The French do not like spicy food and do not really eat curry. The kick from this dinner was just right to send us on our way home.