An Italian Interlude

We spent last week in Italy, Lago di Garda to be exact.  We joined daughter No. 1, her husband and twin boys for a camping holiday. It  was all we hoped for: time simply to enjoy being together; breakfast, lunch and dinner all eaten outside; the easy transitory friendships of campsite life; splashing in the pool with the boys; rowing or swimming – rather badly – in the lake; and the pleasures of small-town Italy – people-watching as we sat at some street side bar or restaurant with an ice cream, beer, or plate of pasta, and  exploring charming back streets or ancient churches.

Malcolm and I had it best though.  Not for us the tedious wait in crowded airport departure lounges for the journeys there and back.  We drove through France and Northern Italy, and had a taste of regions we didn’t know, but plan to know better.  Here’s a slide show of some of the places we saw: the Alpes de Haute Provence, little known gems such as Cremona, where Stradivarius came from, the Mercantour and Luberon National Parks. Best of all was a day spent in Mantova (Mantua).  Unlike Florence or Rome, it’s on few tourist itineraries, so it’s unspoilt, uncluttered.

It’s a town whose prosperous Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque mercantile past is told in every street in the city centre, as piazzas, churches and fortified buildings crowd together demanding attention.  The old city is surrounded by waterways which once were swampy rivers, were then extended and widened for defence, and are now pleasant open spaces for pleasure boats, wildlife, fishermen, and people who like us, simply wanted a cool walk at the water’s edge. Go there if you ever have the chance.

Just in case you think we had a totally idyllic week, you might like to know that on the way home, Saturday night in our particular bit of northern Italy proved to be a hotel-free zone.  The nearest we came to finding a bed was when I went to check out a faintly unpromising looking albergo in some very untouristy town.  I scuttled away when I realised it was certainly the local brothel.  We slept in the car.

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SOS Courgette Alert!

Just now, as September begins, the vegetable patch is at its most productive.  The beans, the cabbages, the tomatoes, the new potatoes……  It’s all so very satisfying…apart from one thing.  Courgettes.  They never give up.

It’s a far cry from a few weeks ago, when the flamboyant yellow flowers first announced the appearance of just a few of those tiny delicately flavoured green fingers, waiting to be celebrated as the centrepiece of a light summer meal.  Exciting times.

Now they’ve become something of a trial.  Day after day we courgette-farmers haul dozens of the things back to the kitchen. We comb recipe books and scour the net, seeking yet more inspiration.  I think we have to support each other.  It’s time for every blogger with a veg. patch or allotment to offer inspiration to us all.  Even if you normally write about politics, music or the vagaries of the fashion industry, you and your ideas are needed as a service to the whole courgette-growing-community.

Here’s a recipe to start things off.  This dish is good as part of an Indian-style meal, or as a complement to, say, simply grilled meat.

Courgettes cooked in pickling spices: a recipe from Hyderabad.

2 tablespoons oil or ghee

I tablespoon pickling spices

½ tablespoon ground turmeric

½ tablespoon chilli powder

½ tablespoon ground coriander

2 large tomatoes, skinned and chopped

450 g. courgettes, diced

Salt

Chunk of fresh ginger, grated

2 green chillies, finely chopped

½ tablespoon Kashmiri masala

I tablespoon fresh coriander

Heat the oil in a deep pan and temper with the pickling spices.  Reduce the heat and add the turmeric, chilli and ground coriander.  Sauté for one minute and add the tomatoes. When the mixture has thickened, add the courgettes and season to taste.  Cook till the courgettes are soft. Just before the end of cooking time, add the ginger, chillies and Kashmiri masala.  Garnish with fresh coriander and serve.

Both the pickling spices and Kashmiri masala can be made in batches and used as required.  They’re useful additions to the store cupboard if you enjoy Indian food.

Pickling spices:

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon black cumin seeds

1 tablespoon kalonji

½ tablespoon mustard seeds

Kashmiri masala

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

1 tablespoon cardamom seeds

6 bay leaves

2 tablespoons mace

Grind to a powder and keep in an airtight container

Actually, though, we’ve just come back from a week in Italy. That’s far more exciting, so…….to be continued in our next

Forecast: Rain. Stiff Upper Lip Not Required

We’ve finally made it back to France, after 4 weeks of family, fun, and titivating our house there for marketing purposes.  When we arrived, stocking up with food was a problem.  The shop was closed: the baker’s was closed: holidays you see.  Then I remembered the evening market at La Bastide sur l’Hers.

Over the last few years, during July and August, evening markets have grown in popularity in the towns and villages in this part of the world.  Originally, the idea was to attract people in to spend a pleasant hour or two browsing at the stalls offering hand-crafted goods and bits of this and that.  Increasingly, they’ve become somewhere to come to have a night off cooking, and spend a cheerful hour or two eating or drinking with friends.  There are always plenty of food stalls: couscous, paella, oriental stir fries, pizzas, barbecued meats…..   Bring your own knives and forks, don’t forget the corkscrew, find a place at a communal table, sit down and enjoy!

Well, that was what we planned for yesterday.  Then it started to look grey. Soft warm raindrops slowly started to drop intermittently from the sky.  With no food in the house, we had to go anyway.  We knew we’d be alone.  The French seem to have no appetite, like we Brits, who are used to such things, for hiking in the rain, or market shopping in a storm.  In the past, we’ve been victim of the cancelled walks, we’ve seen the empty market squares.

This time, we were wrong.  We chose a spot at a table under a row of plane trees which sheltered us from the worst of the rain, bought our food, opened our wine, and tucked in as we got gradually damper and damper.  We people-watched: there were plenty of people to watch.  We saw others doing the same.  We saw families arrive with their cool boxes, determinedly striding through the puddles.  We saw chivalrous men standing with opened umbrellas protecting the rest of their party from the worst of the weather. We laughed and shared the fun with our neighbours at table as the rain got heavier and heavier.  Obé’s paella has never tasted better.

Some lucky people - including the musicians - kept dry under the shelter of the market hall

Himalayan Balsam: An Unlikely Enemy

If it hasn’t reached you yet, beware.  It will.  This invasive plant was introduced – from the Himalayas, obviously – as an attractive addition to the English garden in 1839, and now seems to be marching inexorably round the country, destroying all plants in its path – yes, ANY plant.  Even roughy-toughies like rosebay willow herb and brambles are powerless to stand against it.

The other day, I went with a friend on a favourite walk along the River Nidd.  It’s a gorgeous path, through typical English woodland, with the river rippling and tumbling  alongside.  Not any more, not where we were.  Himalayan balsam has invaded huge stretches of the walk – it prefers to be near water – and we found ourselves marching between shoulder-high sentinels of the wretched thing, unable any longer either to see the trees and undergrowth, nor enjoy either the riverside views or those of the meadows opposite.

And in town today, walking down a little ginnel where, when I was at work, I used to collect blackberries in my lunch hour to make into jellies and jams(how sad….but it made me happy) there was not a bramble bush in sight, just That Balsam.

If it’s planning an invasion near you, martial your forces.  This plant will fight, smother and strangle every bit of vegetation in its path, and conquer yard after yard of ground with every passing year. You must join battle against it the very first time you see some of its – quite attractive – pink flowers .  Or it will win the war and continue its despotic rule.

Tour de France: a Post Script

We carelessly missed the local excitement of the Tour this year, by having to leave for England the very day it passed within 4 km. of our house.  But we didn’t miss it ALL.  Speeding northwards through the outskirts of Pamiers, a ville d’étape this year, we met these front-runners, all made from flowers, on a roundabout.   So if you’re having Tour withdrawal symptoms, now it’s been over for a fortnight or more, here’s a small souvenir.

Summer Fruit

With a house to sell in England, we’re still here in the UK.  So let’s make the most of  it, particularly at mealtimes.  Here’s how.

Apples:

With any luck, Discovery, the very first apples of the season will appear any day now.  I love their bright red skin, their crisp white crunchy flesh.  They’re hopeless keepers, but for just a very few weeks, their bright fresh flavour presents a real contrast to the departing soft summer fruits.

And when they’re over?  Well, there are James Grieves, Laxton Supreme, Laxton Superb, Worcester Pearmain, Lord Lambourne, Cox’s Orange Pippin and so many others to look forward to…if you can find them.  And of course Bramley Seedlings too, so wonderful to cook with.

I was brought up to anticipate and celebrate the heady variety of taste, texture and appearance of all our English apples.  These days I mourn the uniformity of the standard few varieties that stock the supermarket shelves, year in, year out.  Often as not, they’re imported from New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, and France, while our own traditional varieties have become heritage items whose very existence is protected by Reading University’s National Fruit Collection at Brogdale

Blackcurrants:

I KNOW they’re available in France, but when we got back this time, we discovered a small blackcurrant bush had been secretly prospering in a forgotten corner of the garden.  And there it was, laden with big dark purple berries, over a kilo of them, just asking to picked and enjoyed

Gooseberries:

Gooseberries, white, red and blackcurrants

Hardly seen in France, I love their crisp sour flesh, and eat them any way I can. Gooseberry fool is best of all: gently stewed fruit folded in with equal portions of good custard and double cream.

Raspberries:

They DO exist in France, but can’t compete with the big, juicy, tasty berries we have here: the best ones come from the garden of our friends Richard and Jonet here in Harrogate (and the best jam too).  The rest come from Scotland.

Repeated pleasures:

Back in southern France, broad beans are long over.  Here they’re at their best, so I’ve had two goes this year at my almost-favourite vegetable.  OK, not a fruit. But very good anyway.

Summer pudding:

Surely the quintessential English pud?  Gently cooked quantities of soft summer fruits, spooned into a basin that’s been lined with pappy English sliced bread, left for the flavours to mingle before turning out and serving with cream doesn’t sound too exciting maybe.  But it is.  Summer in England really isn’t summer until you’ve had your first helping. And as many helpings as you can manage before the season’s over

Summer Pudding

Ingredients

  • 1kg (2lb) mixed berries (use a combination
  • of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, redcurrants or blackcurrants)
  • 160g (5½oz) caster sugar
  • 10 thin slices stale white bread, crusts removed

Method

  • Place the berries, sugar and 60ml (2fl oz) of water in a saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer on a low heat and cook, stirring to dissolve the sugar, for 3-4 minutes, or until the fruit has softened and produced lots of juice. Set aside to cool.
  • Pour the juice into a flat dish, reserving the fruit.
  • Cut one slice of bread into a circle small enough to fit the base of a 1.5l (48 fl oz) pudding basin, and another large enough to fit the top. Cut the remaining slices into triangles. Dip both sides of the smaller circle of bread quickly into the juice and place it in the bottom of the pudding basin. Dip both sides of each triangle of bread into the juice, then line the inside of the basin with the juice-soaked bread, overlapping them slightly to make sure there are no gaps.
  • Fill the bread-lined basin with berries, drizzle with any remaining juice and top with the larger circle of bread, trimming it to fit if necessary.
  • Cover the top of the pudding with clingfilm, then place a saucer or small plate that just fits inside the rim of the basin on top. Press the plate in, then weigh it down with a heavy can or two. Place the basin in a shallow dish to catch any juice that might overflow, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
  • To serve, run a thin knife around the inside of the basin and invert the pudding on to a serving plate. Cut into wedges and serve accompanied with plenty of thick cream.

A Good Day for Simon de Montfort: Emily’s Degree Day

Emily and friendsReaders in southern France might be astonished to learn that here in the UK, we have a university named after Simon de Montfort.  Although back in13th century England he called the first directly elected parliament in medieval Europe; was Earl of Leicester and de facto ruler of the kingdom, in France, he was an all-round Bad Guy, a crucial part of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, and responsible for the deaths of 1000s.

Emily

Our daughter Emily has just graduated from the university in Leicester that bears his name, De Montfort University.  Here’s a record of her special day.  For us, it was a chance to meet her friends, her friends’ parents, and to celebrate with them the award of their degrees after 3 years’ work.

Academic procession leaving the podium

Emily’s is one of the newer universities, and yet the ceremony was as traditional as those in the much older institutions attended by my other two children.  Well, why not?  Each graduand is part of a tradition of education stretching back to the early middle ages – well before the time of Simon de Montfort.  Their colourful robes –  and the even more splendid costumes of those with PhDs, reflect that long tradition.  They’re rightly proud to wear them.  And I’m so proud of all three of my children, and of what they’ve achieved.