Just before I settle into 2018 I must recount a late highlight of 2017.
Is there anything better than joining dear friends and heading to a comfortable retreat, to really talk? To discuss weighty or frivolous topics as well as cook and eat and drink together. I did this just before Christmas and we ate at Annie Smithers’ du fermier in Trentham. The best rump steak with béarnaise and pommes lyonnaises I have ever eaten. A big claim, but true.
After lunch we were invited to view Annie and her partner’s newly-acquired property. It was jaw-droppingly amazing.
Its natural spring is already being used for kayaking and swimming. It is to be stocked with trout. The property has old sheds with massive hundred-year-old timbers, permitting secure storage of stuff and the garaging of a huge ride-on mower. It has several outbuildings that offer a multitude of possibilities, from classes to celebrations. The vegetable gardens are planted with the widest range of edibles, all growing well in the magnificent deep soil the colour of crumbled chocolate cake. The geese are pets, and are not for sale or consumption and have names. And there is a comfortable house and an ambitious landscaped garden plan for the future.
My tips – plan it well. Do as much shopping as you can right now, not two days beforehand.
Abandon unrealistic menus that would be achievable if you had three kitchen-hands and a refrigerator twice the size of the one you own. Just because it is Christmas most people can still only eat the same quantity of food as the day before. And the shops do not close for a month – maybe 2-3 days at most. There is a Christmas Day menu in my book The Cook’s Table with a rather fancy stuffed duck galantine (see above) which can be completed several days before Christmas Day. And this book includes enjoyable menus for different occasions and each one has a timetable intended to remove the stress.
Holiday memories are fading as I get back into the ups and downs of real life.
Required to follow a ‘white diet’ for five days because of a fairly standard medical procedure, I discovered just how devastatingly boring it is to exist on white bread, poached chicken or fish, and eggs. All perfectly delicious ingredients if cooked with herbs, and accompanied by savoury vegetables, salads and excitingly spicy side dishes. I found I was happy with a poached or boiled egg for breakfast (I did look longingly at the spinach, or the parsley), but day after day a white bread cheese sandwich, and a plainly steamed or poached piece of fish with a boiled potato, kept me alive but not delighted. It was only five days and I reflected on those who do not have my usual options, or even those who choose these options.
After listening to a podcast on BBC Food I bought a copy of First Bite – how we learn to eat by Bee Wilson, and found it fascinating. It did confirm some of my own most strongly-held beliefs. Firstly that eating is a learned behaviour and as such eating habits can be changed. And that change is most likely as a result of example, enthusiasm and patient exposure to good food. (Just as we are doing with the Kitchen Garden Foundation movement).
After a few action-packed days in Paris, Annie Smithers and I headed for Gascony and here settled into base camp with other travellers, the week to be curated by Kate Hill. I have always been fascinated by those who successfully expatriate. I know I could never do it myself so I hung on Kate’s stories of how she left the US over 30 years ago, worked for awhile in the UK, bought a large canal boat and travelled up and down the canals of France and Belgium for years, with a small group of passengers before finally settling in her delightful house, alongside a minor canal in the almost non-existent village of Camont, and devoting herself to sharing the delights of Gascony with interested travellers, writing about it, developing her interest in charcuterie, and sharing it all. We had such fun. Kate must have met every small farmer up and down the river, and she had so many stories.
I am back after a month of eating, drinking, reflecting on travel and life, and immersing myself in several very different French landscapes (and a moment in Spain) and sharing the experience with a like-minded friend, chef Annie Smithers of du fermier (whom I proudly acknowledge as an apprentice way back in time).
First up, a summary of the great food experiences with a few words to give the meal a sense of place, in chronological order, not order of excellence.
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