Summer Lunch

imageWe have a number of friends here in the south of France that we only see once or twice a year. Of course, it’s always good to meet up with them and catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since the last time we saw them. A couple of our friends live up in the mountains about seventy five minutes drive from here. One year we will make the journey up to see them and the next year they will visit us down here on the coast. We always enjoy our trip up to see them especially when it’s very hot down here on the coast, because the temperature is usually a little lower up there and the air is much fresher. As the crow flies it is about fifty kilometres, or thirty miles, from their house to the Mediterranean, but on a clear day the view is quite stunning, as you can see the whole way down the River Tech valley right down to the seaside town of Argelès-sur-mer and the blue Mediterranean beyond! The picture that I have posted at the beginning of this piece was taken back in 2008 with a camera that was not as advanced as the one I have now, and doesn’t really give the best impression, but it will have to do for now, and I’m afraid you will have to wait another year for that spectacular view, because this year it was the turn of our friends to come here, and on Wednesday we enjoyed a very relaxed lunch with them and two other friends.

Being so close to the Mediterranean, and having the advantage of the many small fishing ports along this coast, we are able to enjoy  a huge variety of fresh fish and seafood, and so it was fish, or to be more precise, a duo of tuna and swordfish which was the main course of our summer lunch with our friends. Fortunately, just a few minutes away by car, in the neighbouring village of Sainte-Marie la Mer, a new fish restaurant has opened called L’Étrille, (the French word is the name of a swimming crab) and apart from being a very good fish restaurant, it is also a poissonnerie or fresh fish shop.

Swordfish and tuna having been bought on Tuesday, they were left to marinate overnight in an olive oil, lime, ginger, vermouth, and dill marinade. The fish was cooked à la plancha as they say down here, a few minutes on each side on the electric grill plate out in the garden, and it was beautifully tender without falling apart, and served with gratin dauphinois and roasted Mediterranean vegetables with a Parmesan crisp, it made a very tasty and presentable main course.

It was a fortnight ago, that I came across a recipe on the site of a fellow blogger that I follow, Taste of France, and this recipe for tarte à l’oignon, or Onion Tart took my fancy. You can find the recipe for this yourself on her site, under the heading Onion Tart to Start. It made an excellent starter for our summer lunch this week, although I did make two slight modifications to her recipe. Here is a picture of my tarte à l’oignon with the addition of some thyme in the onion and crème fraîche mixture before the cooking stage, and some local white anchovies or boquerones placed on the top, just before the end of cooking. Two slices you will notice are missing, but someone had to try it to make sure it was good enough to serve! It was!

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Obviously we served some cheese after the main course in the French style, and then came the dessert. This was a Summer Fruit Pavlova, which is not a difficult dessert to make. I always follow Delia Smith’s recipe for making meringue. It has never failed me yet, so long as the instructions are followed to the letter. You can find her recipe on line and in many of her cookery books. The secret to a perfect meringue is in the whisking and allowing it to dry out in the oven after cooking. I believe meringue should be crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle. Thankfully there were no blunders on Wednesday, and with the addition of lots of different fruits, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, red currants, apricots, kiwi, figs, pomegranate and pineapple, and lashings of crème chantilly, it was the perfect ending to our summer lunch with friends.

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Thursday Thanks #5

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There are a few more days left of this holiday, staying at our house in Canet-en-Roussillon. Just a few hundred metres away, the town’s new Medical Centre is nearing completion. Health-wise we are well served in this area, with a world renowned clinic just a few miles away, a large brand new hospital in Perpignan and two private clinics in the city. The new centre, due to open later this summer will be an important addition to the town’s health facilities for both locals and tourists.

I often pass the building site (photo above) where the centre is taking shape, and that has led me to think about healthcare this week, and for it to be the subject of my Thursday Thanks blog post. It’s not just the new building  which has prompted this, but also a number of friends who have recently undergone medical treatment. Healthcare here in France is supposedly amongst the best in the world, and one of my friends, an eighty six year old ex-pat is recovering well from recent major surgery, and what she describes as excellent treatment, to replace a ball and socket joint in the shoulder.

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom comes in for a lot of criticism, but it is also something that the British are usually very proud of. I certainly am, and with respect to any American friends reading this, I don’t really understand your country’s opposition to a National Health Care system like ours in the U.K. As I get older, like most people, I find I’m needing healthcare more and more, and I know it will always be there when I need it, and it will be free of charge. Another friend has recently had day surgery, and if she is reading this we wish her well.

Most doctors, nurses, and others in the healthcare system do a wonderful job, and we can all be grateful for their expertise and care, but many of them on the front line suffer abuse, and of course, we know that there is severe understaffing in the British system. Today, in my Thursday Thanks, I am expressing my gratitude for healthcare in general and for the healthcare that I have received over the years, and those dedicated people who have cared for me and enabled me to be as healthy as I am today! I look forward to the new Medical Centre here, Medi-Canet, being opened and improving the health of the people of this town for many years to come.

La Fête du Muguet

There are many different titles given to the first day of May. May Day is the obvious one, and for well over a century the day has had connections with workers’ rights, indeed it is sometimes known as International Labour Day, or here in France where I am at the moment, La Fête du Travail. Even the Catholic Church has got in on the act, and as a response to the May Day celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists, Pope Pius Xll instituted the Feast Day of Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955. The day has long been a public holiday in many countries, but here in France there is another lovely tradition going back to 1561, when on May 1st King Charles lX was presented with a bunch of lily-of-the-valley flowers as a token of luck and prosperity for the coming year. It is said that he then began the tradition of giving little posies of the highly perfumed lily-of-the-valley (Muguet in French) to the ladies of the court on that day each year as tokens of good luck.

All over France in the days leading up to May Day, you can buy these little sprigs of flowers or even potted plants to give to your sweetheart, other family members, or even neighbours, as tokens of luck and prosperity. It has become big business here. We arrived here on Saturday and our friends who met us at the airport presented us with a little pot of these flowers when they deposited us outside our house. The wrapper usually states Je porte bonheur – I bring good luck or happiness.

Big business or not, it is still a charming French custom as the beautiful scent of le muguet fills the air. I cannot give you that scent, but I do send you all “a virtual sprig of lily-of-the-valley” which I hope brings you good luck and happiness too. Bonne Fête du Muguet!

Postcard from Cuba

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After seven months overwintering at home in England we arrived back at our house in the south of France yesterday. We’ll be here for just over two weeks on this first trip of what will be a total of sixteen weeks here this year, and already I can see that we shall have to spend quite some time cleaning both inside and out, and doing a fair bit of gardening. They have obviously had a very wet and windy winter down here in the Roussillon. The Tramontane, that north westerly wind that Joanne Harris described in Chocolat, blows winter and summer alike, and this winter it has covered everything in a layer of fine sandy dust and has piled the leaves up against locked doors. It looks too, like the rain has fallen by the bucket full, as our flowering Oleanders are shooting well, the lemon tree has hundreds of buds on it, the vine already has the tiniest clusters of grapes forming, and even the bird of paradise, sheltered in a protected corner of the garden looks like it will give four huge flowers this year.

Our postbox, in typically French fashion, is set into the front wall of our garden. It has not escaped the ravages of either the Tramontane or the winter rains. Usually all it contains when we empty it on a first visit is a pile of junk mail, and the odd bill thankfully already paid by Direct Debit. Most of the contents had got wet at some point, and that inevitable sandy dust had then stuck to them. It didn’t take long to go through it all, throwing most of it in the bin, but there stuck face down to a flyer from a local estate agent was a dirty, damp postcard from Cuba!

The godson, (you’ll remember him, he was with us on our recent trip to Paris) had gone travelling on his own to Cuba last September. He loved the country and its people, but his experiences there were not all good. One night he woke up in a field miles from Havana, covered in insect bites, no wallet, no passport, no iPhone and his white Converse trainers taken from his feet. His drink had been spiked in a bar! The next few days were a mixture of Cuban hospitality and kindness from the hostel where he was staying, a British Embassy where the telephone lines were constantly down, and a sorry tale of trying to get money to him through the Foreign Office in London. Suffice it to say that all was eventually sorted and he was able to enjoy the next ten days, albeit on a temporary passport, paid for in Cuba, with money sent out by his parents through the British Foreign Office, and immediately removed from him on his arrival in London, and nothing but a pair of flip-flops on his feet!

We were here in France when all this happened, and were in touch with his parents and the British Embassy in Havana, so know how stressful it was for everyone. But like many young people he is quite resilient, and was determined that this unfortunate story would not totally spoil his view of Cuba and its people.

It didn’t! That dirty damp postcard sitting in our postbox for six months, having taken the best part of a month to get from Cuba, and suffering from the effects of the southern French wind and rain, told us he was continuing to enjoy his trip despite the setback. A reminder that all’s well that ends well in Cuba, and hopefully here too in the South of France after the winter winds and rain, we are set for a summer of pink flowering Oleanders, a tree full of lemons, a vine heavy with fruit, and those birds of paradise flowers all resplendent in their sheltered corner of our garden as the Mediterranean sun blazes down on us all. Happy days to come!

P.S. The message on the postcard asked if we knew who the two men were? We knew that one was Fidel Castro. The other we discovered was Ernest Hemingway, but perhaps you already knew that!
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Thursday Thanks #2

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I suppose that I should start by apologising! I know some of my followers have been wondering what has happened to Thursday Thanks, when it is now Saturday. The only excuse I can offer is that it has been a very busy week since my first Thursday Thanks. Not only did Easter weekend fall in that period, and for most practising Christians that is an incredibly busy few days, and my weekend was no exception; but I have been busy preparing for two dinner parties here, I have enjoyed dinner with other friends, and I have been to the theatre with supper at a local restaurant beforehand, and there has been a little bit of tutoring in the French language for some youngsters, which has also passed the odd hour or two. I could apologise for the delay, but no – I’m not going to, I’m thankful that I’ve been so busy and wouldn’t want it any other way!

Last week I wrote that friends are so important, and that I’m really fortunate to have such a lovely group of friends. This week I can only say the same again. They are different friends, in different circumstances, but sharing meals again, and feeling truly blessed in the people that I know. No doubt many of you can say the same, and I hope that like me you want those friends to know that they are not taken for granted.

That’s it for this posting this week; next week looks interesting, busy and a bit different!

Thursday Thanks #1

Blogging is fairly new to me, I’ve only been doing it for just over a week, and thankfully I’m enjoying both the writing and the responses that I’ve had. Today I want to start what I hope will become a regular feature every Thursday. Like all of us, I have so much in my life for which I am thankful, and quite simply this is going to be my way of putting my words of gratitude in the public domain.

  1. Friends are so important to us all, and I know that I’m really blessed in having many good ones. Last Friday evening, my partner and I, (just so that you know when I use the word “we” in the future) had supper with friends who live in a village on the border of Warwickshire and Leicestershire. They had prepared us a lovely meal, which included paella and a good bottle of Rioja, for which I’m always grateful, but it was the time just sitting and talking and catching up on news, sharing thoughts, and reminiscing which was priceless.
  2. Food will be a common theme through a lot of what I write, and we enjoyed a lovely lunch on Sunday when another friend celebrated her seventieth birthday. Another good meal, and more good friends, but on Sunday it was the stunning view that I was really thankful for. We had travelled into the Cotswolds from our home in Coventry, not far, just about forty minutes away; but we could have been a world away from this city. The lunch was at Charingworth Manor near Chipping Campden, and with glorious weather we enjoyed on Sunday, which was the hottest day of the year so far in these parts, we could see for miles over the rolling hills of South Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. I remember saying to someone how many shades of green there were in that view. I know its a simple thing, but very often those simple things leave a lasting impression.
  3. Those signs of Spring are all around us now. This year the Magnolia tree in our front garden has been absolutely full of beautiful blooms, and the blossom on the pear tree at the back survived longer than usual because there was hardly any wind, and certainly no rain to ruin it, and this morning I had to do a double take at the vast amount of pink blossom on a flowering cherry tree that I passed in the park on my way to the shops. Signs of Spring and signs of rebirth after the winter.
  4. Of course, this coming weekend we celebrate that greatest of all Christian Festivals, Easter, which is all about new life, the new life of Jesus Christ after his resurrection. As a Christian, this Holy Week is very important to me, and I have been sharing in the worship of the church as we remember the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and like many Christians we were able to witness to our faith with an outdoor procession. We have that freedom to do that in this country as in many countries, and we feel safe doing it, but at the same moment that we were witnessing to our Christian faith in the streets of Coventry, two suicide bombings killed at least forty Coptic Christians, and injured many more, in churches in Egypt. I am thankful for the freedom we have in this country, and as I remember those who died in Egypt, and other Christians who have given their lives for their faith throughout the Middle East, I am thankful for their witness in such difficult and dangerous circumstances.
  5. Yesterday was a family day. My brother and sister-in-law visited us, and brought with them two American students from the University of Evansville in Indiana. That university has a British campus in the unlikely setting of a Victorian stately home in the village of Harlaxton just outside Grantham. The students come for a semester to do British Studies and experience something of the life and culture of the United Kingdom, with opportunities to travel around the country and neighbouring European states. They came yesterday to see Coventry, its cathedrals, all three of them – the medieval foundations of the first cathedral destroyed by Henry Vlll, the ruins of the second cathedral destroyed by German bombers in November 1941, and the third modern cathedral consecrated and opened in 1962, which stands as a sign of peace and reconciliation. Living here it is easy to take these things for granted, but yesterday was a reminder to try and see them through the eyes of visitors. They were impressed with our city and our cathedral, and that IS something to be grateful for!IMG_1322