Blue Monday

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

CHRISTMAS PARTY WITH BIG IN FRANCE!

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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.

The starters could wait until the day itself, but my beautiful two youngest daughters were keen to help with all the desserts - of course! I wonder if the desire to hang out with their parents will wear off our younger children as it has with the older two....we shall see! Rosie made a red velvet cake which looked amazing. We also indulged in some scrumptious chocolate truffles that were coated in suitably Christmassy things - chopped pistachios, gold and white fairy dust - they looked so cute!  Matt made the most delicious spicy boeuf bourgignon to fill some little pastries with. Lots of sumptuous winter warming spices, including smoked paprika, cumin and chilli powder were added to shallots, garlic and carrots - all cooked for a day in copious amounts of red wine 🍷 and beef stock until really reduced and sticky. This was finished off with a mixture of fresh herbs and served on little toasts with baby spinach.  Some neighbours of ours had an amazing crop of butternut squash this year and, as there would be a few vegetarians and ‘fall off the wagon’ vegans, Matt rustled up a concoction of squash, potato and onion that was heavily spiced with harissa and Moroccan flavours to make a vegetarian option ‘sausage roll’. Sausage rolls are one of the things I look forward to most of all with Christmas nibbles, just a mouthful of wonderfulness! But the vegetarian roll was definitely up there on a par for tastiness! With a good evening’s prep done and the children sleeping peacefully, we enjoyed a couple of cosy glasses of wine and snuggled up next to the fire with the sleepy dogs.  The next day dawned a little dreamy, a lovely Saturday morning, with no 6.30 rush for the school bus. A last-minute shopping list was compiled and off I went to face the terrible crowds of the French supermarket. The trick is to go at lunchtime: everyone stops to go home for their big, three-course, family lunch so things are definitely a bit calmer. Half an hour later, trolley dash complete, the cooking could continue. A crisp white cream cheese frosting finished off the deep red of the velvet cake and, sprinkled with a little magic dust and cut into bite size treats, these were ready to go, alongside the truffles. 

The starters could wait until the day itself, but my beautiful two youngest daughters were keen to help with all the desserts - of course! I wonder if the desire to hang out with their parents will wear off our younger children as it has with the older two....we shall see! Rosie made a red velvet cake which looked amazing. We also indulged in some scrumptious chocolate truffles that were coated in suitably Christmassy things - chopped pistachios, gold and white fairy dust - they looked so cute! 

Matt made the most delicious spicy boeuf bourgignon to fill some little pastries with. Lots of sumptuous winter warming spices, including smoked paprika, cumin and chilli powder were added to shallots, garlic and carrots - all cooked for a day in copious amounts of red wine 🍷 and beef stock until really reduced and sticky. This was finished off with a mixture of fresh herbs and served on little toasts with baby spinach. 

Some neighbours of ours had an amazing crop of butternut squash this year and, as there would be a few vegetarians and ‘fall off the wagon’ vegans, Matt rustled up a concoction of squash, potato and onion that was heavily spiced with harissa and Moroccan flavours to make a vegetarian option ‘sausage roll’. Sausage rolls are one of the things I look forward to most of all with Christmas nibbles, just a mouthful of wonderfulness! But the vegetarian roll was definitely up there on a par for tastiness! With a good evening’s prep done and the children sleeping peacefully, we enjoyed a couple of cosy glasses of wine and snuggled up next to the fire with the sleepy dogs. 

The next day dawned a little dreamy, a lovely Saturday morning, with no 6.30 rush for the school bus. A last-minute shopping list was compiled and off I went to face the terrible crowds of the French supermarket. The trick is to go at lunchtime: everyone stops to go home for their big, three-course, family lunch so things are definitely a bit calmer. Half an hour later, trolley dash complete, the cooking could continue.

A crisp white cream cheese frosting finished off the deep red of the velvet cake and, sprinkled with a little magic dust and cut into bite size treats, these were ready to go, alongside the truffles. 

I commandeered the help of six-year-old Sienna to help dress the table with candles, sparkles and glitter, so we could begin putting platters out for the evening. Rosie, the keen chef, worked so hard all day! Wearing her chef’s whites, she undertook instruction from Matt who had been suffering with a twisted ankle and was not as mobile as normal. The pizza dough was made early and left to prove, to be turned into a variety of calzone later, mostly for the children. The pulled pork was glazed and left to cook gently. In the evening, this would be teamed with a fantastic tangy homemade bbq sauce, another one of my favourites! It had a dry rub of a special blend of spices and was then marinated in the homemade bbq sauce. We started the meat over the wood fire to give it that lovely charred smoky taste and then it was roasted low and slow in a mixture of beer and more bbq sauce for eight hours. Painstakingly ripped apart by a less than willing teenager, it went back into the roasting pan with all the juices for a further hour. To go with this, we made a colourful little pickled slaw of red onion, carrot, red cabbage and apple all finely sliced on the mandolin, after the obligatory finger cut and swearing rant at the mandolin. The pickling juice was made with sherry vinegar, raspberry vinegar, limes, honey, sea salt, star anise, dill, tarragon, parsley, mint and a few other delicious ingredients discovered in the store cupboard. Along with mini brioche rolls and the homemade bbq sauce, these pulled-pork buns were a real hit👊 For the vegetarian starters, we offered up a cauliflower gratin and jazzed-up mushrooms on toast. Three whole cauliflowers were steamed and then whizzed up really quickly, mixed through a heavenly cheese sauce combining Gouda, Roquefort, Emmental and Camembert, and finished with Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and tarragon.  For the mushrooms on toast, chanterelles, chestnut and shiitake mushrooms were fast fried in a naughty amount of butter and crushed, salted garlic and then finished with soft herbs and seasoning. They were served on baguette toasts drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and rubbed with raw garlic cloves.  Finally, a little piece of Christmas heaven! Having made plenty of sausage roll stuffing, we rolled this out on greaseproof paper and roasted it for 30 mins until crisp. Once cooled, it was cut into perfect squares by Rosie. For the cream, the chestnuts were cooked with onion and garlic in butter then reduced with chicken stock and finished with cream, all whizzed up until a smooth thick purée was formed. The star of the canapé was thinly sliced turkey breast which had been lightly smoked over oak for 20 mins and then finished off in the pan with butter and continuous basting until just cooked. The last piece added to the tower was some reduced cranberry sauce. This mouthful of deliciousness was held together with a cocktail stick and looked glorious with all the different textures and colours to get the taste buds going! The party was great fun and over too quickly! Thank you to everyone who came and to those who couldn’t make it for your continued support. Happy New Year to everyone. May 2018 be full of promise!

I commandeered the help of six-year-old Sienna to help dress the table with candles, sparkles and glitter, so we could begin putting platters out for the evening. Rosie, the keen chef, worked so hard all day! Wearing her chef’s whites, she undertook instruction from Matt who had been suffering with a twisted ankle and was not as mobile as normal. The pizza dough was made early and left to prove, to be turned into a variety of calzone later, mostly for the children. The pulled pork was glazed and left to cook gently. In the evening, this would be teamed with a fantastic tangy homemade bbq sauce, another one of my favourites! It had a dry rub of a special blend of spices and was then marinated in the homemade bbq sauce. We started the meat over the wood fire to give it that lovely charred smoky taste and then it was roasted low and slow in a mixture of beer and more bbq sauce for eight hours. Painstakingly ripped apart by a less than willing teenager, it went back into the roasting pan with all the juices for a further hour. To go with this, we made a colourful little pickled slaw of red onion, carrot, red cabbage and apple all finely sliced on the mandolin, after the obligatory finger cut and swearing rant at the mandolin. The pickling juice was made with sherry vinegar, raspberry vinegar, limes, honey, sea salt, star anise, dill, tarragon, parsley, mint and a few other delicious ingredients discovered in the store cupboard. Along with mini brioche rolls and the homemade bbq sauce, these pulled-pork buns were a real hit👊

For the vegetarian starters, we offered up a cauliflower gratin and jazzed-up mushrooms on toast. Three whole cauliflowers were steamed and then whizzed up really quickly, mixed through a heavenly cheese sauce combining Gouda, Roquefort, Emmental and Camembert, and finished with Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and tarragon. 

For the mushrooms on toast, chanterelles, chestnut and shiitake mushrooms were fast fried in a naughty amount of butter and crushed, salted garlic and then finished with soft herbs and seasoning. They were served on baguette toasts drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and rubbed with raw garlic cloves. 

Finally, a little piece of Christmas heaven! Having made plenty of sausage roll stuffing, we rolled this out on greaseproof paper and roasted it for 30 mins until crisp. Once cooled, it was cut into perfect squares by Rosie. For the cream, the chestnuts were cooked with onion and garlic in butter then reduced with chicken stock and finished with cream, all whizzed up until a smooth thick purée was formed. The star of the canapé was thinly sliced turkey breast which had been lightly smoked over oak for 20 mins and then finished off in the pan with butter and continuous basting until just cooked. The last piece added to the tower was some reduced cranberry sauce. This mouthful of deliciousness was held together with a cocktail stick and looked glorious with all the different textures and colours to get the taste buds going!

The party was great fun and over too quickly! Thank you to everyone who came and to those who couldn’t make it for your continued support. Happy New Year to everyone. May 2018 be full of promise!

This perfect Christmassy picture of my parent's house, tucked in the hills of Wales, couldn't resist sharing it!

This perfect Christmassy picture of my parent's house, tucked in the hills of Wales, couldn't resist sharing it!

COOKERY COURSE WITH MARK GREENAWAY

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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.

Friday was arrival day for the guests and we were thrilled to welcome a dynamic, vibrant, group of people - this weekend was looking to be a lot of fun. After settling in and soaking up the sun, the guests were served a four course dinner from Restaurant Mark Greenaway, winner of Best Restaurant in Scotland. Menu Amuse Bouche Smoked Salmon Espuma Starter Roasted leg and breast of quail hazelnuts, beetroot parfait, golden raisins Main Pan roasted hake fillet Scallop cannelloni, celeriac, burnt leek, chive veloute Dessert Great British Menu Eton Mess Toasted marshmallow, caramel, strawberry meringue The delicacy, skill and thoughtfulness that went into each course was mesmerising. Mark prepared an incredible feast for this opening dinner and we had a fantastic evening.

Friday was arrival day for the guests and we were thrilled to welcome a dynamic, vibrant, group of people - this weekend was looking to be a lot of fun.

After settling in and soaking up the sun, the guests were served a four course dinner from Restaurant Mark Greenaway, winner of Best Restaurant in Scotland.

Menu

Amuse Bouche
Smoked Salmon Espuma

Starter
Roasted leg and breast of quail
hazelnuts, beetroot parfait, golden raisins

Main
Pan roasted hake fillet
Scallop cannelloni, celeriac, burnt leek, chive veloute

Dessert
Great British Menu Eton Mess
Toasted marshmallow, caramel, strawberry meringue

The delicacy, skill and thoughtfulness that went into each course was mesmerising. Mark prepared an incredible feast for this opening dinner and we had a fantastic evening.

Day two of the course kicked off with a fresh continental breakfast from the local boulangerie - an array of pastries, homemade jams and honey. The menu for lunch was as follows: Whole roast rib of beef Homemade focaccia Homemade mustard mayonnaise Crispy beef fat potato salad Asian style slaw Green bean salad Mixed berry and vanilla bean pavlova The outdoor kitchen was bright with the enthusiasm pouring from the budding chefs and the warm French sunshine. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial. People undertook their separate tasks eagerly, with Mark giving one-to-one tutoring to help and support each individual as he took the time to move around the group. After several hours of dicing, kneading, baking and griddling, the aroma of our lunchtime banquet had everyone's taste buds dancing. People took their seats and relaxed around the handmade oak table, ready to enjoy their morning's hard work with a glass of wine or two and delightful company. A lazy few hours lying by the pool, enjoying the wonderful weather, or even indulging in a siesta was the programme. With newfound energy, we regrouped and began preparing for the evening meal. Menu Beef tartare, confit egg yolk, parmesan snow, capers, gherkins, parsley, shallots, ketchup, tabasco and Worcestershire sauce Homemade olive focaccia Whole haunch of venison baked on hay Baked dauphinoise potatoes Roasted market vegetables with red pepper pesto Oven baked salted caramel apples with whipped mascarpone cream The evening masterclass started with a vengeance at 4.00. People split into groups to undertake yet another feast. Mark divided people up to make sure everyone had a chance to practise difference skills to what they had been doing in the morning. Because of this hands-on approach, the guests tackled a dish from start to finish, thus being empowered with the confidence to take these skills home and to recreate the dishes for their friends and family. It was lovely to see how Mark used his knowledge and his naturally friendly approach to break the recipes down, explaining each stage and showing the group how to successfully cook a wonderful three course meal. We do welcome non-participants and, with this group, we had one gentleman who was perfectly happy to top up his ‘golf-tan’ by the pool, reading and snoozing, before joining in with all the laughter and eating at meal-times. It's nice for couples to be able to travel together and we are happy to make everyone feel at home. All of my favourite desserts feature caramel, but I am always a little nervous about when to melt the sugar, when to add the cream and how long to keep it boiling. So, I would have to say that the salted caramel being drizzled over the softened apples was a delight to behold! The old farmhouse is a beautiful setting during the day with the backdrop of the river running along the boundary and the tree filled garden. At night the place comes alive, the perfect venue for an informal gathering. Picture pretty tea lights lining the pathway, fairy lights twinkling around the seating area, gentle summer beats in the background, the comforting smell of lavender, the hustle and bustle from the kitchen, chatting and chuckling over an Aperol spritz while people unwind, ready for dinner. As the guests sauntered to their seats, we served the tartare, soft and tangy, partnered with the olive focaccia - a triumph! The haunch of venison was like velvet, melting in the mouth, accompanied by the creamy garlicky potatoes and the colourful vegetables smothered in the red pepper pesto - divine! We had invited Beth Sandland, a successful blogger, and we were thrilled to see her get stuck in! She took control of the pesto making, and it was absolutely delicious - definitely a recipe we will be doing at home! To round off the perfect evening, the salted caramel apples went down a treat, a sugary, tasty finale! As the sun set, people talked with full bellies, listening to each other's stories and learning about their lives. Guests came from all over so we had an eclectic mix of cultures. At one point, our Italian guest burst into opera, singing an array of passionate pieces, thoroughly entertaining! Eyelids began to droop as the night enveloped us and, gradually, the enticing idea of a warm bed won us over.

Day two of the course kicked off with a fresh continental breakfast from the local boulangerie - an array of pastries, homemade jams and honey.

The menu for lunch was as follows:

Whole roast rib of beef
Homemade focaccia
Homemade mustard mayonnaise
Crispy beef fat potato salad
Asian style slaw
Green bean salad
Mixed berry and vanilla bean pavlova

The outdoor kitchen was bright with the enthusiasm pouring from the budding chefs and the warm French sunshine. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial. People undertook their separate tasks eagerly, with Mark giving one-to-one tutoring to help and support each individual as he took the time to move around the group. After several hours of dicing, kneading, baking and griddling, the aroma of our lunchtime banquet had everyone's taste buds dancing. People took their seats and relaxed around the handmade oak table, ready to enjoy their morning's hard work with a glass of wine or two and delightful company.

A lazy few hours lying by the pool, enjoying the wonderful weather, or even indulging in a siesta was the programme.

With newfound energy, we regrouped and began preparing for the evening meal.

Menu

Beef tartare, confit egg yolk, parmesan snow, capers, gherkins, parsley, shallots, ketchup, tabasco and Worcestershire sauce
Homemade olive focaccia
Whole haunch of venison baked on hay
Baked dauphinoise potatoes
Roasted market vegetables with red pepper pesto
Oven baked salted caramel apples with whipped mascarpone cream

The evening masterclass started with a vengeance at 4.00. People split into groups to undertake yet another feast. Mark divided people up to make sure everyone had a chance to practise difference skills to what they had been doing in the morning. Because of this hands-on approach, the guests tackled a dish from start to finish, thus being empowered with the confidence to take these skills home and to recreate the dishes for their friends and family. It was lovely to see how Mark used his knowledge and his naturally friendly approach to break the recipes down, explaining each stage and showing the group how to successfully cook a wonderful three course meal. We do welcome non-participants and, with this group, we had one gentleman who was perfectly happy to top up his ‘golf-tan’ by the pool, reading and snoozing, before joining in with all the laughter and eating at meal-times. It's nice for couples to be able to travel together and we are happy to make everyone feel at home.

All of my favourite desserts feature caramel, but I am always a little nervous about when to melt the sugar, when to add the cream and how long to keep it boiling. So, I would have to say that the salted caramel being drizzled over the softened apples was a delight to behold!

The old farmhouse is a beautiful setting during the day with the backdrop of the river running along the boundary and the tree filled garden. At night the place comes alive, the perfect venue for an informal gathering. Picture pretty tea lights lining the pathway, fairy lights twinkling around the seating area, gentle summer beats in the background, the comforting smell of lavender, the hustle and bustle from the kitchen, chatting and chuckling over an Aperol spritz while people unwind, ready for dinner. As the guests sauntered to their seats, we served the tartare, soft and tangy, partnered with the olive focaccia - a triumph! The haunch of venison was like velvet, melting in the mouth, accompanied by the creamy garlicky potatoes and the colourful vegetables smothered in the red pepper pesto - divine! We had invited Beth Sandland, a successful blogger, and we were thrilled to see her get stuck in! She took control of the pesto making, and it was absolutely delicious - definitely a recipe we will be doing at home! To round off the perfect evening, the salted caramel apples went down a treat, a sugary, tasty finale!

As the sun set, people talked with full bellies, listening to each other's stories and learning about their lives. Guests came from all over so we had an eclectic mix of cultures. At one point, our Italian guest burst into opera, singing an array of passionate pieces, thoroughly entertaining! Eyelids began to droop as the night enveloped us and, gradually, the enticing idea of a warm bed won us over.

Day three was upon us: scrambled egg on toast welcomed people as they descended to the kitchen after a nourishing nights’ sleep. A market trip was on the agenda in the local historical town of Niort. A beautiful array of local produce spoiled us, allowing the imagination to run wild with recipe ideas. Mark wanted to give the guests the opportunity to make the stripy pasta that we had eaten on the opening night for themselves, to be accompanied by clams which we bought from the market. After returning to the villa, a light lunch of pates and cheeses with French bread was served. This was followed by a calm afternoon by the pool to digest the food and allow time for the appetite to kick in again! The evening masterclass was all about butchery. We had an array of birds, including pheasant, quail, poussin and duck. As Mark pointed out, although the cooking and flavour may be very different for each bird, the butchery is very similar. Everyone set themselves up with a bird, a board and a knife and Mark expertly guided the guests through the process of preparation: such a useful skill to possess and something people are often unsure of. The guests learnt how to confit the duck legs and cook the rest of the birds on the wood fires in the outdoor kitchen. The carcasses were used to make a stock which was then turned into the most amazing sauce with whole grain mustard, white wine and cream, out of this world!

Day three was upon us: scrambled egg on toast welcomed people as they descended to the kitchen after a nourishing nights’ sleep.

A market trip was on the agenda in the local historical town of Niort. A beautiful array of local produce spoiled us, allowing the imagination to run wild with recipe ideas. Mark wanted to give the guests the opportunity to make the stripy pasta that we had eaten on the opening night for themselves, to be accompanied by clams which we bought from the market.

After returning to the villa, a light lunch of pates and cheeses with French bread was served. This was followed by a calm afternoon by the pool to digest the food and allow time for the appetite to kick in again!

The evening masterclass was all about butchery. We had an array of birds, including pheasant, quail, poussin and duck. As Mark pointed out, although the cooking and flavour may be very different for each bird, the butchery is very similar. Everyone set themselves up with a bird, a board and a knife and Mark expertly guided the guests through the process of preparation: such a useful skill to possess and something people are often unsure of. The guests learnt how to confit the duck legs and cook the rest of the birds on the wood fires in the outdoor kitchen. The carcasses were used to make a stock which was then turned into the most amazing sauce with whole grain mustard, white wine and cream, out of this world!

The pasta making was a challenge and kept everyone busy, focused and entertained for a while! It certainly was a little tricky, but we all had a go and it was a fabulous starter of pappardelle with clams, chilli and garlic. Mark wanted to show us how you really only need a few excellent ingredients to make a show stopper! To satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth, a beautiful sweet pastry chocolate tart with a vanilla mascarpone accompaniment was gorgeous! A delicious treat to finish what had been a wonderful weekend I will never forget. Mark worked so hard to make sure the weekend was interesting and adapted the menu to cater for people who wanted to learn particular things. The variety of skills that were covered guaranteed there was plenty of knowledge people could take home and use again. We were spoiled with the food and the company. I would say it stands out in my memory as a really magical experience!

The pasta making was a challenge and kept everyone busy, focused and entertained for a while! It certainly was a little tricky, but we all had a go and it was a fabulous starter of pappardelle with clams, chilli and garlic. Mark wanted to show us how you really only need a few excellent ingredients to make a show stopper!

To satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth, a beautiful sweet pastry chocolate tart with a vanilla mascarpone accompaniment was gorgeous! A delicious treat to finish what had been a wonderful weekend I will never forget.

Mark worked so hard to make sure the weekend was interesting and adapted the menu to cater for people who wanted to learn particular things. The variety of skills that were covered guaranteed there was plenty of knowledge people could take home and use again. We were spoiled with the food and the company. I would say it stands out in my memory as a really magical experience!

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Perfect Portugal!

Perfect Portugal!

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.

Mervent

Mervent is a beautiful forest nearby. We have a villa that was designed and built by my husband right in the center of the area, a short walk from the river and bars. It's such a great spot with plenty to do for the whole family. If you are interested in outdoor activities, this is the perfect destination for you. There is a sailing school to hire boats of different sizes. There are walks and cycle paths through the forest as well as pony treks if this appeals to you. There is an adventure park that all ages can enjoy, and finally a zoo that has been recently improved.


A welcoming French couple run one restaurant by the bridge and offer a reasonable menu du jour as well as a good range of snacks, happy to cater for large groups too.


It has been frustrating as it is such a stunning environment, but has needed someone with vision (and money) to update the other two bars. An Irish lady has bought one of the bars recently so we are waiting to see what she does with this. It is the most perfect setting, breath-taking!


It is with great anticipation that the spacious venue set right on the rivers edge, next to our villa is reopening! It is a quiet life we lead out here, especially through the winter months, so this is the talk of the commune and we have high expectations! The complete overhaul has taken sometime, but it is looking very smart, the work was well-needed and has made a huge difference.


We had a lovely sunny lunch there not long ago. The menu is quite simple, classically French, and a little expensive, you do pay for the right to sit beside the river which is wonderful and worth it! I think we need to allow them time to get settled into the business and the area, which I'm sure will help them to iron out the teething problems that are apparent with any new business.


As a final thought, the staff were friendly, the setting is incredible and the food was pretty good. For tourists and locals this is the perfect spot for a relaxed lunch or an aperitif, definitely worth a visit!

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Our villa in Mervent

Spring Lunch at Le Mazeau

With the changing weather and the welcome warmth that seems to be gradually pushing itself back into our cold wintery days, the available produce feels suddenly brighter and inspiring. The mood is lifted by the lighter evenings, bringing memories of balmy summer nights and anticipation of many more to come. Jumping out of bed with the sun shining is fabulous after a long cold February, asking oneself, 'could I wear shorts today?' 'Definitely maybe' would be the answer, although temperatures have been hitting early twenties, fantastic!

So we decided an early spring lunch was how to spend our sunny Friday. The market in Niort is really fantastic. It's open most days which is a luxury, and has such an interesting range of produce. A bussling hive of activity as people saunter through the aisles ready for inspiration. Always a three course lunch at midday here, and make sure at 12 on the dot it's ready...

This took a lot of getting used to when we arrived. By the time we got up and ready and drove to the shops, everything would shut for a two hour lunch break...literally everything except of course the restaurants. 

From fairly early you will be able to find a few locals at the bar drinking a cold glass of muscadet. In Niort there is a busy bar set in the middle of the indoor market, at first it looks inviting, but if you even think about sitting down, the looks of horror from the regulars is enough to rapidly convince you otherwise! As we continue through the market, the colorful array of vegetables is simply beautiful. We bought a range of fresh produce for our delicious spring lunch and hurried back to the house to get stuck in.

After lighting the fires and enjoying the morning sunshine, the vegetables strewn over the limestone island gently seducing us and silently screaming 'throw us in the fire', so we did. The raw reality of cooking over wood taking us back to our cave man instincts, is great fun. You get to enjoy the whole process, knowing you have achieved it with your own bare hands. The impact of the theatre makes the meal more exciting, and the flavor makes the food more delicious!

Succulent lamb chops left to marinate with cumin and olive oil whilst tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, a whole head of garlic and shallots, cook over the hot coals until softened and slightly charred, then roughly chopped. Mix all these little beauties with the mashed garlic, a little seasoning and fresh herbs from the garden, et voilà - scrummy ratatouille! We quickly rustled up some flatbreads which were also cooked directly on the hot coals - fantastic!

The lamb chops then cooked on the plancha and brushed with the marinade via a rosemary sprig - the perfect centerpiece! Bon appétit et bienvenue printemps!

Thanks Roger Stowell for filming the video, check out the link below...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pD4AN_9NOX0

  

Spring has sprung a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

The translation of idioms and sayings can be tricky and has always been an interesting topic. We were inspired this week when our daughter (little chip off the old block) came home from school and asked me what a 'bobbly' was. It turns out that in her English lesson, she had been taught that a policeman is also known as a 'bobbly'! If children went to England and said some of the things that they have learnt at school, they would not get very far!


Spring is definitely on it's way and our first sunny, happy daffodil appeared this week. This time of year is preparation time for the holiday and activity season. There is always a lot to do, we are as busy as a bee, constantly adding to and improving the properties. There is a charity run organisation nearby where all profits go to helping get people back on their feet. It is located in a few old barns with a large courtyard, literally full of odds and sods (translate that one...!). The mirrors from reclaimed wardrobes are such a little pot of gold. They work well in our holiday villas when repaired and painted and this week we got 12 mirrors, 2 chairs and 2 tables for €35!


It has been raining cats and dogs all week, making it perfect to do some of the internal work. A beautiful his and hers wardrobe has been the project to get stuck into and so far so good, it's looking great! My husband makes it look like a piece of cake! Next week, touch wood, the sun is returning so we can get going in the gardens.


After a busy week, we had a visit to the market, bought some grumpy John Dory for dinner and had a cheeky lunch in a fabulous little bistro in Fontenay-le-Comte called 'le Cap'tain'. They do a tasty steak and roblochon burger, and lovely fish too.  I enjoyed a wok of spiced prawns and chicken - delicious! I use the term 'spiced' loosely as the French definition of this is very different to the English. It doesn't really cut the mustard for us spice-lovers! In for a penny in for a pound, we decided to finish with a cafe gourmand. It's perfect for us as they are happy to cater for families and dogs are welcome, even our silly Rhodesian. The owner is real salt of the earth and makes the place what it is, a dynamic, friendly hang-out that we love to support. He's a good egg, or should I say un bon œuf!

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A walk through the Vendee

Dis-moi la Vendee

 

This is brilliant walking country. As well as the many kilometres of trails in attractions such as the Mervent Forest, there are designated walking trails in every commune, highlighted by arrows painted on trees in different colours to indicate shorter or longer routes. Here, the terrain includes open fields, small woodlands, streams and tracks that pass through tiny hamlets. A cart track up behind the local chateau reveals itself as an ancient road that crosses a Roman bridge. Beside an old mill is a monument to the Maquis (the local war-time French resistance).

 

The French love of walking includes a passion for organised events. My neighbour invited me to join her family on a walk in a nearby commune organised by a group call Dis-moi la Vendee (roughly translated as Tell me of the Vendee), which I understood combined a walk, a picnic and information about local history. So it was that I set out at eight-o’clock on the last and very stormy day of February to join a group of over 100 walkers setting off from St Maurice le Girard, all, unlike me, equipped with proper wet weather gear. 

 

Preceded by energetic marshals, we set off on the 10k route through wind, rain and the occasional outburst of sun. More used to solitary and meditative rambles, walking in a large group was a challenge. They walked very fast, for one thing. It was also important not to follow blindly as those just ahead might have stepped off the track to satisfy what the marshals called out as a “problème urinaire”. You could also hear an occasional warning chorus of “pi pi”.

You don’t get to admire the country so well when it’s raining and your vision is curtailed by a hood, but the walk involved some lovely woodland tracks, an extremely soggy muddy cross-field trek and an interesting break. Half-way through our 10k, we marched (or rather straggled) into what appeared to be an ordinary farmyard. Here, in a basic farm shed, we were treated to a demonstration by the Rolf Circus, a duo combining motorbike acrobatic stunts with modern dance. 

 

After an allegedly brilliant talk about one Jean-Gabriel Gallot, a local hero from the French Revolution, we continued on our circular walk back to St Maurice for a picnic in the local hall. When all the now wet walkers returned to their cars to collect their picnics and put on clean shoes, I realised I was about to commit a crime of heinous proportions by having to enter the hall with muddy feet. No-one warned me to bring clean shoes!

 

The picnic was preceded by too many speeches, but accompanied with gusto and a fair few bottles of wine. The day was not, however, over at this point. After lunch, we had a Q&A session with the fabulous Rudolphe and Leslie of the aforementioned Rolfe Circus. From what I understood they want to widen what is largely a very macho Mad Max genre into something with wider family appeal. Even their dog joins in. And they have just moved to the Vendee.

 

And then we were off again to visit La Corbière where retired famer Jean Brémaud has a collection of ancient farm machinery and where brioche is still baked in an eighteenth century four à bois or bread oven. Whatever one’s own sore feet felt at the forensic description of every single blessed exhibit in the museum, the French could only rave about the use of patois in M Brémaud’s delivery, his authentic dress of tunic and flat hat and the wonder of all the machinery they or their parents could still remember using. This enthusiasm is in part what makes me love this part of France.

Maeve Good