‘School dinners, school dinners….

…Iron Beans, iron beans

Sloppy Semolina, sloppy semolina

I feel sick, get a bowl quick.’*

Do you remember this cheery ditty from your days eating school dinners?  Only if you’re British, I suppose.  And most right-thinking French men women and children would be quite prepared to believe that all English food is just like that.

Not the mayor of Villeneuve d’Olmes, where Découverte de Terres Lointaines has taken its Yorkshire exhibition this week.  Back at the planning stage, he’d told us about their school caterer, M. Feliu, who uses almost entirely organic or local ingredients, and who likes to introduce the children to the cooking of other countries every time the excuse arises.

We met M. Feliu at La Freychède.  We worked together to produce a menu (Cheap. Tempting to the young French palate. Three courses that work with the kitchen facilities to hand.  Conforming to nutritional standards).

This is what we came up with:

Crudités with beetroot chutney

Macaroni cheese with green salad

Blackberry and apple Betty with custard.

Yesterday was the day.  I turned up at 10.00 with my English friend and colleague Susie to find the work almost done.  All we had left was to churn out batons of carrot, black radish and cucumber for the first course, which was not, let’s face it, Awfully British.  But it had to fit in with other considerations as above.

11.00: The prepared and cooked food was heaved into insulated containers, and transported by van to one of the local schools.

11.30. Ditto with van number 2.  This batch was sent off to Villeneuve d’Olmes, with me following.

12.00. Children arrived at the canteen.  One of the helpers, Pascale, spoke good English.  ‘What’s your name?’ she’d say to each child in English.  When she had her reply, they could go in, and sit down at one of the circular tables, tinies in one room, and juniors in another.  I joined a table of lively 7 year olds.

One of the staff told me the rules that the children expect to follow:

  • Take turns to serve the dishes of food to everyone at table.
  • Wait till everyone’s served before beginning to eat.
  • Try everything.
  • You can have the portion size you choose.  Once it’s on your plate though, you have to eat it.

Everyone accepts this and we all sat together, eating and chatting.  The children chomped their way through all the crudités, they even enjoyed the chutney, whose sweet and sour taste is not an automatic choice round here.

Once cleared away, bread appeared on the table – this is France after all.

Two more children served the macaroni cheese and the salad.  Most of us came back for seconds.

We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ – in English – to a birthday girl.

I gave an impromptu talk on the food on offer.

The blackberry and apple Betty was served.  Yum! How could it fail?  Gently cooked fruit with a crunchy crust of soft breadcrumbs crisped in golden syrup and butter, with obligatory custard, of course.

Then the children cleared their tables, stacking dirty plates and glasses neatly for washing up, before going off to play.

I was so impressed.  The children here learn that the midday meal is so much more than a pit- stop.  The expectations, reinforced daily, are that this is a moment to spend with friends, a time to share, to think about the needs of others, and to appreciate the food on offer.  The occasion lasted well over an hour.

* To the tune of Frère Jacques

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England comes to Laroque d’Olmes

Yorkshire Dales: as interpreted by the children at the Centre de Loisirs, Laroque.

Yesterday afternoon was the best fun.  20 odd-children (that’s ‘about 20 children’, not ‘Twenty Odd Children’) here in Laroque spent the day in England, courtesy of  ‘Découverte Terres Lointaines’,  without setting foot outside town.

These children spend their Wednesdays, a no-school day, at the Centre de Loisirs.  Their parents are probably out at work, and here is somewhere they can spend the day having purposeful fun, without its costing their parents too much.

We turned up with bag full of groceries, and spent half the morning baking biscuits, basic English everyday crunchy biscuits.  It was great to see them, girls and boys alike carefully measuring out flour, sugar, butter and so on, stirring, mixing, watching a dough come together from these simple ingredients.

Let the baking begin.

A bag full of cutters and a rolling pin meant that they could transform the mixture into stars and circles, miniature gingerbread-style people, bells and flowers.

Upstairs, another group had been talking about the green moorlands of the Yorkshire Dales, then making a mural of a Daleside landscape, complete with Swaledale sheep, farm gates, and obligatory grey cloud (it’s England after all).

Lunch break.  Afterwards, the children came to see our long-prepared exhibition looking at North Yorkshire, which has so many features in common with the Ariège: mountains (OK, the best Yorkshire can manage is Whernside’s  736 metres.  Ariège’s Pic d’Estats is 3143m); textile and mining industries past their glory days; wide open spaces home only to sheep…. and so on.  They enjoyed an extract from Roald Dahl’s ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’, and then it was back to the Centre de Loisirs.  Where we produced a long skipping rope with the idea of teaching them a couple of English skipping games…

‘I like coffee, I like tea

I’d like, er, Nadine, to jump with me’.

Getting started with skipping.

They loved it.  Unfortunately they couldn’t skip at all and tripped and fell all over the place, and all the adults mourned that it was a lost art. As in England (Is that so?  Not sure.) children don’t skip any more.

Back into the kitchen, it was time to decorate those biscuits.  They tinted their bowls of icing in lurid shades, and made free with all the sugary decorations we provided.  ‘Glorious Technicolor’ doesn’t begin to do it justice.  Once decorated, they ate the lot, and we sent them off to their parents for the evening crammed full of enough e-numbers to see them through the week.  One lad, as he set off home, was heard to say ‘I’ve had a great day’.  So had we.

Glorious Technicolor biscuits.

Spitalfields Life: and a recipe from Boundary Estate

Despite the fact I didn’t nominate it as a ‘Lovely Blog’ (perhaps because I feel the Gentle Author is a real professional, not someone who turns out posts only when time permits) Spitalfields Life is definitely a favourite.

Every morning without fail, his daily offering drops into my in-box, usually as I check my mail before breakfast.

And in it will be some tale of life in London’s East End.  The story perhaps of a neighbourhood shop, or a resident who arrived some years ago from a different continent, or another whose family has been deep-rooted in the area for endless generations…. anyone and everyone has a story to tell the Gentle Author.  The posts I look forward to most are those when he showcases the atmospheric photos taken in the 1960’s by John Claridge, of a way of life I remember well, but now seems so very distant.  Or those introducing newly- published work by the witty illustrator Paul Bommer.  The Gentle Author will show us 18th century trade cards, ancient  graffiti from the Tower of London, transsexuals from Bethnal Green – anything or anybody who takes his sympathetic yet enquiring fancy.

The other day he and photographer Sarah Ainslie went to the Boundary Women’s Group, and found a group of women of Asian heritage cooking lunch to share.  They shared their recipes too, and one in particular took my eye, contributed by Julie Begum.

Sardine curry

This is my favourite quick home cooking recipe after a long hard day’s work.

Ingredients –

500 g. sardines

2  tomatoes

1 onion

3  green chillies

1 teaspoon of red chilli powder

½  teaspoon of turmeric powder

1 teaspoon of coriander

1 piece of ginger

 8 cloves of garlic

1 dessert spoon of lemon juice

Salt as required.


  • Cut and clean the fresh sardines (score on both sides) or just open the tins (I prefer the ones in tomato sauce).
  • Heat oil in a pan.
  • Add sliced onion, green chilli, ginger, garlic and sauté well.
  • To this, add red chilli powder, turmeric powder, salt, lemon juice and tomato slices. Sauté well until tomatoes are done and add fish.
  • Add water as required and until fish are cooked.
  • Serve with fresh coriander and a slice of lemon with white basmati rice. Yum!’

Julie – I can confirm that it’s ‘yum’ indeed, and easy, and quick…and the kitchen doesn’t stink of sardines for hours afterwards, as can be the case with this otherwise wonderful fish.

Au cas où ….you find some mirabelles

Mirabelles…there for the taking

I’ve written about the au cas où bag before: that little shopping bag or some such that you tuck into your pocket before any walk, au cas où you find something worth harvesting or talking home.  It was as well we had that bag yesterday.  Walking in the fields above Laroque, we found 2 mirabelle trees, their tiny juicy fruits just turning to golden ripeness.  We harvested what we could, and came home.

Then we remembered the trees we’d seen one previous year on the road between us and Léran.  We went home for another bag and hunted out those mirabelle trees lining the route.

Hundreds of plums, thousands of plums, millions and billions and trillions of plums – to misquote that much loved picture book by Wanda Gagabout rather a lot of cats.  Reader, we picked them – some of them anyway.  We came home.  And this is what we made.  With a few of them, anyway.

Bag not big enough? Find a hat.

Mirabelle and Rosemary Jam

I kg mirabelles

400g high-pectin sugar, or add pectin powder according to pack instructions to granulated sugar.

4 rosemary sprigs, each approx 5 cm long

1/2 vanilla pod.


  • Put mirabelles, sugar, rosemary and vanilla pod in a preserving pan and bring slowly to the boil, so the plums have chance to release their juices.
  • Simmer briskly for about 7 minutes.  It’s not necessary to bring it to jam setting temperature as the pectin will do its work, and it’s a fresh flavour you’re aiming for. But the jam won’t keep long outside the fridge.
  • Take from heat and remove rosemary sprigs and vanilla pod.  This is important.  If you leave the herb in, the jam will taste medicinal. The hint of rosemary should remain elusive, and just add that extra Mediterranean je ne sais quoi
  • This is the bad bit.  You could have halved the plums before you started and removed the stones then.  But I think it’s marginally easier to fish them out now.  Only marginally though.  The choice is yours……
  • Add vanilla seeds from the pod and mix.
  • Fill your ready-prepared jars.

A Mediaeval picnic

Montségur in the morning mist

Saturday morning dawned damp and misty. This was fine by the 100 or so walkers who gathered bright and early in Lavelanet for the annual Marche du Tisserand. The walk, organised by the town’s Musée du Textile, celebrates the ancient ‘chemin pavé’ used by the cloth workers who lived in Montségur and walked this path to bring their produce down to Lavelanet to be sold. Saturday’s walk, the 27th, was for fun, and nobody would have had more than a light rucksack to carry. The full three hour trek (6 hours both ways of course), steep and stony at times, when laden with goods to sell one way and perhaps provisions for the household the other must have been a slightly different matter.

This time too, there were goodies at the top for the walkers as they finished their ascent. The mayor of Montségur was there with an aperitif for everyone, and we at Découverte de Terres Lointaines were there too, with a mediaeval picnic we’d been preparing .

Who knew chopping coriander could be such fun?

The cooking took several days, but the research, with the help of the Museum at Montségur, took weeks of researching, testing, tasting, rejecting, trying again… Still, eating’s always fun

Though curious, the walkers were suspicious too. What would a mediaeval picnic be like? Heavy, probably, with mountains of flatulence-inducing beans. Tasteless too maybe.

What a surprise then. Here’s the menu:

Spinach tart with lardons: we could have used nettles or any of a whole range of herbs, but settled on the more widely available vegetable option.

Poichichade: this herby chick pea paté, which we served on hunks of organic wholemeal bread, is a close cousin of hummus, but without the tahini. It went down well.

Broussade:  star of the show! A very tasty mix of smoked fish and curd cheeses. This really is one for anybody’s dinner table. Simple too. Recipe below.

Pets de nonne: basically deep fried choux pastry, puffy and light. Here’s the story. Back in the Middle Ages, the bishop of Tours was visiting the Abbey of Marmoutiers to bless a relic. Whilst preparing a meal in his honour, a novice let fly an unfortunate noise of the kind familiar to those of us who’ve eaten far too many beans. To cover her embarrassment, she busied herself dropping the choux paste she’d been making into some handy cooking oil so that it sizzled loudly. The pets de nonne were born.

Fromentée sucrée:  cracked wheat cooked with milk and honey. If you like rice pudding, you’d like this too

Gâteau de fruits secs:  a rich and heavily fruited pain d’epices style cake.

Just before the walkers arrived: The picnic on its thoroughly modern paper plates.

The congratulations when they came – and they came in quantity – were tinted with some astonishment:  ‘It was so good. We never expected it to be so tasty! Well done’.

But after eating, drinking and lots of talking, it was time to dance. Zingazanga had been playing loudly throughout the meal, but they turned their attention to teaching us simple steps and dances from centuries ago. Even I with my two left feet joined in.

Let the dancing begin


• A quantity of as many varieties of smoked fish as you can decently lay your hands on: we used smoked salmon, herring and haddock.
• A more-or less equal quantity of brousse. This is a curd cheese made from the milk of sheep, goats or cows. A mixture would be ideal, and failing that, any soft curd cheese.

Broussade in the making

• Paprika
• Chopped dill
• Seasoning.

Process half the fish coarsely, and finely chop the rest. Mix with the other ingredients. That’s all. Enjoy with some good bread and a probably thoroughly un-mediaeval green salad.

Posh squash

Fetch up at our friend Peta’s on a summers day, and she’ll have thrust a cool glass of sophisticated, refreshing and home-made elderflower cordial into your hand before you’ve even had time to admire the garden.  Somehow, I’ve never got round to making it myself …. before this year.

Which is silly, because it’s too easy, and you can make several bottles of concentrated cordial for the price of a bag of sugar and a couple of lemons.  Oh, and a small amount of citric acid.  And there’s the rub.  I had a small pack left over from some project in England.  It’s all gone and now I’m trying to replace it.  Every chemist I’ve spoken here to has narrowed his or her eyes suspiciously and offered to order me half a kilo to arrive next week.  What CAN they think I’m up to?

Here’s Sophie Grigson’s recipe:


20 heads of elderflower, well shaken to remove any insects

1.8 kg. granulated sugar

1.2 litres water

2 unwaxed lemons

75 g. citric acid.


  • Heat the water and sugar to boiling point and stir till the sugar has dissolved.
  • Meanwhile pare the zest of the lemons in wide strips and put into a bowl with the elderflowers.
  • Slice the lemons, discard the ends and add the slices to the bowl.
  • Pour over the boiling syrup and add the citric acid.
  • Cover with a cloth and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
  • Next day, strain the cordial through a muslin-lined sieve, and pour into thoroughly clean bottles.  And it’s done.

And if you explore this link, you’ll find lots of ideas for using it.


Apricot jam

There’s been discontent in the house.  No jam to go with the  fresh bread and coffee at breakfast time.  At this time of year, you can’t expect either the hedgerows or the market place to produce any suitable ingredients, so what to do?  Then I remembered my mother’s solution to winter jam crises, and a good one too.  Dried apricot jam.

I remember that she used to use those dark, rich yet slightly tart and chewy fruits that needed long soaking and cooking to soften them, though I always used to prefer to eat them as they were.  Jam recipes recommend them still, but just you try buying them, even on Lavalanet market.  It’s all the plump pale soft style these days.  I was afraid these would deliver a slightly wishy-washy and anaemic jam so I added a few spices to the mix.  And here’s what I made:

Breakfast sorted.

Dried apricot jam

  • 500g dried apricots
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Seeds from 3 cardamom pods
  • A chunk of peeled fresh ginger
  • 500g caster sugar
  • A large lemon

Place apricots in a large bowl, cover with a litre of water and soak overnight.

Use a potato peeler to peel the zest thinly from the lemon: chop the zest into fine pieces.

Roughly chop the apricots, put them and the soaking liquid in a large pan with spices, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add sugar and the juice from the lemon, and return mixture to a slow boil until jam setting point is reached (105 degrees C).  Remove the ginger chunk (I ate it).  Pour jam into about 3 sterilised jars.

The Great French Bake Off

I’ve just had The Best afternoon.

Over at Découverte Terres Lointaines, we realised that Fun was sometimes in short supply.  Often busy getting the next event together, with deadlines to meet and crises to overcome, we weren’t getting together and having time sharing our skills for the simple pleasure that brings.

So this afternoon, we had our first atelier to do just that.  We did a little publicity and attracted five women and one brave man, who came along to the CAF (Social Services.  Sort of) with their pinnies to cook.

The work we’re doing this year is on England, Yorkshire in particular, so I was put in charge of the session: though Sylvia did the work of producing a recipe booklet for each participant. What to choose?  In the end I settled for scones, which are unknown here, and crunchy ginger nuts.  Both start with the same technique – rubbing flour and butter together- but end up quite different from each other.  Both are inexpensive and quick to prepare.

Getting stuck into ginger nuts
Everyone rolled up their sleeves, weighed, stirred, mixed, rolled out, organised what they’d made onto baking trays….and waited while the ovens did their work.

Astonishing to see how identical ingredients prepared identically by different hands, with different ovens varied so much.  Some ginger nuts had crunchy crackled crusts, others were smoother, crisper.  Some scones were domed, others, equally well-risen, were flatter on top.

3 cooking squads, 3 sets of biscuits

So we all had to try everybody else’s over – of course – a nice cup of tea. Lots of discussion and constructive criticism (‘Did you add salt to yours?  Which do you think is better?  With?  Without?’).  The scones were a hit, though not everyone chose to have either butter or jam.  The ginger nuts went down well too.

Everyone declared they’d had fun.  Plenty of time to cook, to share, to talk and laugh and eventually sit and eat what we’d made with new friends. We’ve all said we’d like to come and do it again.  Soon.

Puzzled by the title? It’s an allusion to a series which has apparently been popular back in the UK: The Great British Bake Off

Comfort cooking: Snow 4

I’m getting a bad case of cabin fever at the moment.  The snow is turning to hard packed ice and/or slush and is not much fun to walk on.  We’re not getting out much. So I’ve turned to comfort cooking.

About a week ago, my favourite food blogger, David Lebovitz wrote about his take on that wonderfully decadent Italian treat, Panforte.  Two days after that, Kalba’s blog dropped into my in-box.  She’d been tweaking his recipe whilst hiding from the snow on her side of the Ariège.  Today it was my turn- and here’s my tweaked recipe

  • 40g unsweetened cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting the tin
  • 200g chopped toasted nuts- I used the hazelnuts I gathered with some friends early last Autumn, and the last of my walnuts
  • 100g chopped dried prunes
  • 110g flour
  • 200g chopped candied orange peel
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground red chilli
  • 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice 
  • A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 85g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 200g sugar
  • 210g clear honey

Preheat the oven to 165ºC.

Line the bottom of a 22cm springform tin with parchment paper. Dust the inside, including the sides, with cocoa powder.

In a large bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, dried fruit, nuts, flour, candied peel, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, mixed spice, and red chilli.

Melt the chocolate in a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Remove from heat and stir it into the nut mixture.

Gently heat the sugar and honey to 115ºC.

Pour the hot honey syrup over the nut mixture and immediately stir it all well to mix. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake the panforte for 30-35 minutes; the centre will feel soft, like just-baked custard, and if you touch it, your finger will come away clean when it’s done. Let it cool in the tin on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge to loosen it. Remove the springform carefully, let cool completely, and dust generously with icing sugar.

The panforte's on its way

So why have I changed things? For my usual reason of being short of an ingredient or two of course.  I’d run out of dried apricots.  Well, what’s wrong with prunes then? No candied lemon peel?  I used the last of the orange peel.

Entirely untypically, I decided I’d get in a muddle if I didn’t weigh out all the ingredients and put them neatly beside the mixing bowl in dinky little dishes ready for the off, in the manner of Delia Smith and TV cooks everywhere.  We both weighed, chopped, melted things and  mixed. The panforte safely in the oven, we started tidying up, and then I found….the dish of cocoa powder.

Unlike those TV chefs, I whipped the panforte out of the oven, dumped the mixture in a bowl with the cocoa, mixed it up, and shoved it back in the tin, and then into the oven again.  I think I got away with it…..

Can't eat it yet

The thing is, Malcolm’s always said he doesn’t care for panforte.  That’s why I made him a treat of his own this morning.  But this afternoon, we both squabbled over who could lick the scrapings from the bottom of the panforte bowl.  He liked it.  We both more than liked it.

We can’t try the finished article yet though. Several days waiting time for the flavours to marry together is recommended.  We’ll have to do our best to ignore the box sitting in the pantry.

So what did I make for Malcolm?  Well, tidying up my recipe collection, I found Dan Lepard’s recipe for Sesame Ginger Halva.  Like the Panforte, it’s perfect with a shot of strong black coffee.  Unlike the panforte, you can eat it immediately, and it’s a comforting pick-me-up on a snowy day.

  • 250g tahini
  • 100g stem ginger, strained from its syrup
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 50ml water
  • 50g of the syrup

Spoon the tahini and the oil separated from it into a bowl and beat with an electric hand whisk until it is smooth and emulsified.

Chop the ginger into ½cm cubes. Line the base of a 2lb loaf tin or similar with a buttered sheet of foil.

A crumby photo of a crumbly treat

Place the sugar, water and 50g syrup from the stem ginger in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until a drop of the toffee hardens when popped into a glass of cold water, and can be squeezed with the fingers into a soft ball.  This step’s tricky.  Because there’s so little syrup, the heat increases rapidly.  Just do your best: if it gets too hot, the halva will be crumbly rather than creamy, but who cares?

Next, add the ginger cubes and remove from the heat and add the tahini. Beat until the mixture thickens, then tip into the foil-lined tin. Cut into squares when warm.

Just one tip, while you’re reading this: do as the spellchecker does, and substitute ‘pianoforte’ for ‘panforte’ every time the word occurs.  It makes for interesting reading

A ‘So British’ Christmas in Lavelanet

A homely Christmas at Lavelanet library

A good old-fashioned English Christmas has come early to Lavelanet.  To the library (oops, mediathèque) to be exact.  The librarian there enjoys children’s literature, and is a bit of an Anglophile.  So she’s mounting a small festival of English Children’s literature featuring everyone from John Burningham and Quentin Blake to, of course, Charles Dickens and Beatrix Potter.

What a disappointment I am to her.  I can’t produce a pretty tea set awash with rosebuds, and she can’t believe I really don’t like tea very much: and that when I do drink it, I decline to add milk.

Look what father Christmas left!

She’s wheeled in Découverte des Terres Lointaines to help with all the activities for schools, retirement homes, and the general public.  And DTL have wheeled me in as Consultant on All Matters English. Together we’ve chosen recipes and we’re baking biscuits and cakes and we’ve planned craft activities round, for instance, our ‘so British’ Christmas cards.  From tomorrow, I’ll be reading stories in English, helping pull crackers, and unpacking – many times – a stocking which dear old Father Christmas has delivered to me early.

Mass production of gingerbread men

My other job is to correct the misapprehensions learnt from French websites and children’s books about England. Who knew that the English enjoy tucking in to a huge plate of oysters at the beginning of Christmas dinner? Or that all British schoolchildren have a free bottle of milk every morning?  Margaret Thatcher abolished that back in the early 70’s.  And Sylvia misunderstood me, and thought we served stewed cherries, not sherry sauce, with our Christmas pudding (cherries – sherry: easy to confuse when you speak no English).  And so on.

But it’s been fun transforming the community room in the library into an impossibly cosy snug, full of Christmas cheer.  Let’s see what ‘le tout public’ think, when we open the doors tomorrow.

Rather a lot of marmalade cake