BEAUTIFUL BORDEAUX!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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WETTEST WINTER FOR A HUNDRED YEARS

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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!

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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!).

 For a mid-week treat, Matt outdid himself with this tasty dinner -  Stuffed chicken with roasted red peppers, comte cheese, shallots, greek yoghurt, mustard, dill and tarragon  To accompany this, there was buttered spinach, pan-fried Asian mushrooms, going by the name of enokitake and sweet potato cakes.  For the cakes, firstly slice and lightly confit sweet potato in butter and stock. Then lay them out into a cast iron pan and cook on top of the aga. The potato slices were then cut out into little circles and built up into towers placing grated parmesan, crispy onions and dill in between the layers.  After the chicken was cooked and removed from the pan, the mushrooms were added, followed by veal stock and white wine - this was then allowed to reduce. He finished it off with some creme fraîche, tarragon, dill and seasoning. It was certainly a tasty surprise on a Wednesday.   

For a mid-week treat, Matt outdid himself with this tasty dinner -

Stuffed chicken with roasted red peppers, comte cheese, shallots, greek yoghurt, mustard, dill and tarragon

To accompany this, there was buttered spinach, pan-fried Asian mushrooms, going by the name of enokitake and sweet potato cakes.

For the cakes, firstly slice and lightly confit sweet potato in butter and stock. Then lay them out into a cast iron pan and cook on top of the aga. The potato slices were then cut out into little circles and built up into towers placing grated parmesan, crispy onions and dill in between the layers.

After the chicken was cooked and removed from the pan, the mushrooms were added, followed by veal stock and white wine - this was then allowed to reduce. He finished it off with some creme fraîche, tarragon, dill and seasoning. It was certainly a tasty surprise on a Wednesday.

 

 With the ferocious winds and snow falling, it is with a troubled soul that I have undertaken the task of tasting wines that might be good for the cookery courses. We started with an organic wine:  Prieur Barsanne  Languedoc 2016 Organic  (About 4€ from Leclerc)  I very much enjoyed this wine. It was rich and flavoursome, full-bodied and smooth, perfect with charcuterie, red meat and cheese.

With the ferocious winds and snow falling, it is with a troubled soul that I have undertaken the task of tasting wines that might be good for the cookery courses. We started with an organic wine:

Prieur Barsanne

Languedoc 2016 Organic

(About 4€ from Leclerc)

I very much enjoyed this wine. It was rich and flavoursome, full-bodied and smooth, perfect with charcuterie, red meat and cheese.

 Chateau Baudere  Fronton 2016  (A present)  This was easily drinkable but not as nice as the previous. It was slightly rougher on the palate, with less flavour; a fairly average wine, good with red meat and cheese.   

Chateau Baudere

Fronton 2016

(A present)

This was easily drinkable but not as nice as the previous. It was slightly rougher on the palate, with less flavour; a fairly average wine, good with red meat and cheese.

 

 Domaine de la Morandiere  Chinon 2016  (About 7€ Proxi)  Another fairly average wine: quite fruity, lighter than the organic wine and not nearly as pleasant. A little bitter with a slight aftertaste.  The organic wine was by far the nicest, really in a different league, which was a surprise considering it was the most reasonable. The Barsanne is going on my list of ‘keepers’!  So to finish: my words of the week ‘Moxie’ meaning slang for courage, nerve and determination; and just because it’s relevant to my life today - and very cute ‘flakelet’ meaning a flake of snow!   

Domaine de la Morandiere

Chinon 2016

(About 7€ Proxi)

Another fairly average wine: quite fruity, lighter than the organic wine and not nearly as pleasant. A little bitter with a slight aftertaste.

The organic wine was by far the nicest, really in a different league, which was a surprise considering it was the most reasonable. The Barsanne is going on my list of ‘keepers’!

So to finish: my words of the week ‘Moxie’ meaning slang for courage, nerve and determination; and just because it’s relevant to my life today - and very cute ‘flakelet’ meaning a flake of snow!

 

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