Sunday, May 01, 2016

Blog, I have missed you

It's true, the blogging muscles have grown rather flabby. 

What has been happening? 

We had our sculpting friend Jantien to stay. Here she is sculpting, or her hands anyway:

She came initially because we have a covered space to work in, not very sheltered otherwise, but out of the rain. Then she had to stay in the blue room because her usual billet down the road with her mother-in-law was taken by someone else for a bit, then she kind of decided she might as well stay around as she rather liked it here and it would save upping sticks. We didn't mind a bit, she is the most sensible, sensitive and considerate lodger, helped by the fact she actually has something to be getting on with and so doesn't need entertaining, she frequently cooks us delicious vegetarian meals with her own ingredients and caters for herself in a very tidy and tactful way for much of the rest of the time  and she was always eager to stretch her legs at one end of the day or the other and accompany Elfie (with whom she was rather taken, naturally) and her attendant humans on long country walks. 

So I can't say she kept us busy with extra work at all, but having someone dynamic working away on site, and just being encouraged to chat and be a bit more outwardly energetic and sociable oneself, means the patterns change a bit, and one's mental space feels somewhat rearranged and fuller than usual. None of which is a bad thing, of course. 

Now though, having succeeded in stealing away so early that none of us heard the going of her, she is en route back to the Netherlands for a week or two, whence she'll be travelling to England for this exhibition, and we're all being rather quiet and lazy on this fête de travail.

But I think she'll be back later this month, which should please Elfie, who's been looking around for her rather today.  And perhaps it will be a little warmer by then. Elfie's blanket is finished, despite her attempts to commandeer it even before it was:

It's not really her colours, but never mind.

Thus unseasonable cold has made sculpting, gardening and dog walking sometimes something of a struggle, but I suppose the upside of that is a delayed spring; we are only just at the luminous, soft, multi-hued stage which would normally be giving way to a more uniform emerald by now, of which here are some photos from today's walk:

And an early peacock butterfly:

A cold, delayed spring an upside? Indeed, for truly in this life, anything that seems to hold back time is to be welcomed. Also spracht Pollyanna.

That will do for now, we're off to Kerbiriou for the first time this year, and for our first trip away with Elfie, in a week or two, but I'll try to be back here again before then, and to reacquaint myself with blogging friends in the meanwhile.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A bit of terroir

It's become quite apparent since we had Elfie that if you want to reach a whole new level of assimilation into life in Brittany, get yourself a Brittany spaniel.* Many older local friends glow with admiration at the sight of her, or love to hear about her, and tell me fond stories of all the dogs of her breed they have had or known, and complete strangers stop us to compliment her and talk at length in the same vein. I have the feeling we have adopted an emblem of regional pride as well as a dog. Not that this would have made any difference to our taking her of course, but I am rather enjoying basking in her reflected glory, and the increased contact and conversation I'm experiencing.

In fact, when a couple who had parked nearby at the supermarket and were admiring her through the car window, so I got her out to say hello and display her general wonderfulness, then the man opened his car door and she almost jumped in** and he chuckled that she was very welcome to come home with them, it made me think twice about making sure the car was securely locked when I parked outside the next supermarket; their appreciation, it seemed to me, was decidedly tinged with covetousness. They were quite rough-round-the-edges people, but clearly lovely; they couldn't believe she had been abandoned and in a refuge, had not long lost their last Brittany after keeping them, along with Labradors, for eighteen years, and weren't sure how long they could go on without another one. The woman praised us warmly for taking her, said that being such an intelligent dog she would know she had found a loving home with us, and that everything we gave she would give to us back again, we wouldn't regret it. However, not everyone who takes a fancy her might be so nice, and she is much too sweet and trusting not to let herself be led away.

Anyway, to celebrate our chienne de terroir, some cuisine de terroir, since she'll be keeping us at home rather more (though not entirely, we are quite hopeful of her adaptability, and her car habits and plans for appropriate equipment are coming on), and since all the walking is giving me a good appetite, one might as well make the most of some local food (apologies if this gets to sound a bit Peter Mayall...)


Côtelettes d'agneau pré-salé - salt marsh lamb chops

Just a few weeks ago, when Elfie was no more than a twinkle in our eyes, we went to the Mont St Michel area. I took lots of photos, as one always does there, and haven't got round to doing much with them, perhaps I will. Here is one from near the top though:

What you can see in the inland distance is salt marsh, pré-salé. That's where the sheep live, and one of the reasons I go there, frankly, is to eat them. We don't eat much red meat, and hardly ever lamb but this stuff is too good to resist, for me anyway. The hotel we stay at is in Pontorson, about five miles up the road from and with the nearest railway station to le Mont, but despite that the latter is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Pontorson is a rather scruffy, down-at-heel, undeveloped place, and the hotel is remarkably cheap, with rather good food, including the lamb. Breakfast is bread and jam, good coffee and lousy tea, and trying to save ourselves for our evening meal, we picnic on fruit and biscuits at lunchtime, once stopping out on the salt marsh to the east of the landmark, observing something of the life of the sheep.

They are very free range, grazing on sparse grass, herbs, samphire and the like, which gives the meat its excellent flavour. They grow slowly and don't have to travel far at the end of their lives. They help maintain the unique habitat and landscape, for other wildlife such as these shelduck.

As well as indulging while we were there, this time we looked into the butcher's on the high street in Pontorson, and bought some chops which I put in the freezer when we got home. The lamb's availability is confined to the very local area, I gather there's a butcher's in the indoor market at Rennes that sells it a couple of times a week, but that's the furthest afield you'll find it. Six chops, not large, cost €20, which is a lot, but I really feel this is the kind of meat we should be prepared to pay more for, less often, in terms of sustainability, animal welfare, and not least, taste.

When it comes to cooking it, you shouldn't really have to do much, since it's flavour and tenderness is such that, as Brillat-Savarin said, it should taste of itself, and not be buggered about with (Brillat-Savarin didn't say that last bit). That said, I rather feel grilled or roast lamb without garlic and rosemary isn't right, so I smushed up a bit of garlic, and laid a couple of sprigs of rosemary in the pan, and also rubbed a bit of lemon thyme over it, and some sea salt and black pepper, and splashed some rosé wine over it to moisten it... yes, OK, I did bugger about with it some. It tasted bloody amazing anyway.

I also think redcurrant jelly is something of a necessity with lamb, after the fact, not in the cooking. Mint sauce, however, is an abomination. The jar in the photo is labelled in French not because I am an insufferable Peter Mayall type who has to show how very assimilated I am, or some would-be cheffy type who thinks all food should be in French, but because I gave the rest of them to the ladies at Quessquitricote, who were very appreciative. In fact it's white currant jelly, I still don't really know what to do with all the white currants I grow, but at least I can make jelly and give it away.

Having gone relatively easy (by our standards) on the garlic in the cooking, I roasted a load more whole cloves with some sweet potato and pimento, and served them with these and some green pease pudding. I feel so sorry for people who can't eat garlic.

 There wasn't much left over.

Dogs mustn't have chop bones. Bugger it.


Chicken with Roscoff pink onions and pommeau de Bretagne (or Normandie)

Long time readers here will know about the Roscoff pink onions. Or you can type it into the dinky little search widget top right, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I don't have any photos to illustrate this one but here's a drawing.

I did it the other day, I've not drawn anything for ages, but set myself half an hour before Elfie's late afternoon walk (that being quite long enough to sit in front of a cut onion), got out the pastel paper and pastel pencils, no rubber, to see what happened; my hand is not in, but it was nice to do it. The appetite and motivation for certain things I had set aside seem to be returning a little, tentatively.

Roscoff pinks are known for their keeping quality, which is how the onion sellers were able to store, carry and sell them abroad, so there are still some about, including a couple from my own last year's crop. For this recipe, take a fair number of them and slice them as you like (I like top to bottom for most things), caramelise them for as long as you've time, and deglaze them with pommeau. Pommeau is the cider producing regions' (Brittany, Normandy) version of pineau de Charentes, that is, an aperitif made from the must, the fruit juice base, grape or apple, of wine or cider, mixed with the eau de vie distilled from the same production, cognac or Calvados or its equivalent. The fruit juice sweetens and lightens the spirit, the spirit stops the fruit juice fermenting. Both drinks are quite sweet, and about 16%. I guess you could just use some sweet apple juice (or what in the US is called cider, as opposed to hard cider) and some other alcohol, applejack if you've got it, or whatever.

Roscoff pinks are not unlike shallots in flavour, so perhaps banana shallots would substitute.

Put the onions into a slow cooker (or heavy pan in a low oven), slosh in a bit more pommeau and some chicken stock, which I do make myself, properly, but I am also a shameless user of chicken stock cubes, which I also add some of, then sauté a chopped up chicken breast or two , or any other chicken meat you like in the oniony pan; I am a leg woman myself and Tom is a breast man (I'm talking about chicken here, for shame!), and thus between the two of us we do the Jack Spratt thing, but you can't buy boned leg meat here so if I'm feeling lazy it has to be breast. I think I meant to chop up and sauté an apple and add that too but I forgot.

Leave it to cook and go out for the afternoon, perhaps peel some spuds for mash, which goes well. I think I was going to walk refuge dogs, a volunteer activity I started before we got Elfie, while we were still purportedly at the stage of thinking of getting another dog in a year or so, as a kind of preparation. However, now I'm sort of committed to it, and after an afternoon of having my arms nearly pulled out of their sockets by Tifou, Idyll, India, Olga or whichever old lag I've been walking (most French dogs have daft names, Elfie was a lucky exception, and many of these dogs are unlikely to see a life beyond the refuge, which isn't necessarily so bad for them) I am most appreciative of coming back to a hearty, tasty meal and to luxuriating on the sofa with our, clever, affectionate,(mostly) gentle medium-sized darling; even if I never dare let her off the lead, at least she doesn't pull me all over the countryside like a plough horse.

Terroir is one of those pretentious, snobby kind of words/ideas about food, like fusion, which is its antithesis. Yet there's something about putting things together from the same corner of the earth that often does work; sweet potatoes, pimentos, garlic, redcurrant and split peas with the lamb is clearly more like fusion, and they work too, but the simple combination of the pommeau and the pink onions really is spot on, you don't even specially need the chicken.


Finally, if that all seems a bit heavy on the meat and rich stuff, here's a bit of foraging fusion.

Bean tops, sorrel and noodles

In the last couple of years, a number of the fields hereabouts have been planted with legumes - field beans, peas, vetches etc - as cover crops. They get ploughed in at some point and things like maize planted on top. This year, the ones with field beans - rather like small broad (fava) beans, and not bad eating, have been left fallow for the moment and begun to sprout from the old crop. Here's Elfie in such a field, with a view of Plémy in the background, looking every inch an emblem of rural Brittany, despite (or perhaps because of***) the rather orthopaedic looking harness:

I'll wait on this nice slack lead for as long as you say, but if you think I'm going to pay you any other attention just because you're pointing that thing at me you can think again****.
Broad bean tops are good eating as greens, if you can get to them before the blackfly, so I wondered if these would be. I picked a good bag full, along with some sorrel, and washed it in the salad spinner. 

I have a great appetite for the first wild and foraged greens at this time of year, one which Tom doesn't share. They seem very cleansing and refreshing. I heard somewhere that women's biology really does need and want vegetable matter rather more than men's, and we certainly seem to be more easily constipated. I'm not entirely convinced they aren't just mostly babies who never learned to like their greens, though. (She says, while Tom's cooking mushroom, pea and cashew curry.)

Soak some chow mein noodles. I've nothing against ramen, and eat them sometimes, but chow mein soaked for a bit longer is just as simple and really has a bit more texture and integrity. Sauté a shallot or two, in a wok or just a saucepan, then add some soy of some kind, I used a sachet or two of Japanese left over from sushi.

Then, and this is the important bit, throw all the raw greens and noodles in together, and stir it up. Serve, sprinkled with some of those crispy onion bits, my current favourite savoury topping.

An experiment, but really a very successful one. The bean tops stayed very chunky and substantial, unlike a lot of leafy greens which seem to dissolve and nearly disappear when heated, but they lost that rather nasty bitter, raw bean, leguminous taste. The wild sorrel melted, but the acidity of it offset the other ingredients very nicely. I must make it again before they plough the field up.


* or rather épagneul breton. According to those in the know,  épagneul derived from an old French word for a net, the original manner of bird hunting with such dogs, and 'spaniel' is a mistranslation, since that word originated in the fact that English spaniels were supposed to come from Spain, or something like that.

** an absent minded reflex common in dogs; an article I was reading the other day recommended if you are faced with a runaway dog, your own or someone else's, especially in dangerous traffic, a good ploy is to open your car door and they dog will often jump in without thinking about it.

*** Breton back or hip problems are well known, openly attributed to consanguinity.

**** I still wouldn't let her off. This field is full of skylarks, as well as partridges and pheasants which have survived the hunting season and gone on to breed another day, so that gives me another excuse for curbing her freedoms: even if I could get her back, there's no reason that all the spring wildlife should be rampaged all over. Also fox poo and other temptations.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Second Sunday of Elfie

I'm afraid if I'm to blog at all at the moment it will inevitably feature a great deal of Elfie, since she remains very much the focus of things.

She's very observant of anything I do and very reactive, and tends to change position or move towards me whenever I point the camera at her, so it's something of a challenge to take her photo.

She has a new collar (and matching lead) all of her own, rather than darling Molly's hand-me-downs.

It's really more turquoise than it looks here; nevertheless, I would have preferred a deeper, more 'teal' shade, to go with her Rita Hayworth colouring, but I dare say with a bit of rolling in fox/squirrel/magpie poo it will darken up nicely. 

In fact she hasn't caused us too much worry at all in the last week; a very long dead shrew found in amongst some leaf litter was given up to me almost graciously. Somewhat to our relief she proves not to be a water dog, seeming to quite dislike approaching streams and rivers and is even a neat and sparing drinker. Though we've not tried leaving her completely alone for more than a very short period, and then remaining in the house ourselves, she is being quite brave about my going out without her - only springing onto the table in a panic and giving the nearest we've heard to a bark from her when my departure unfortunately coincided with the dustbin lorry going past, presumably thinking they'd taken me away with the rubbish.  The following day, when I was going out to walk other rescue dogs, I bribed her with a stuffed Kong and she wasn't bad at all, going out later with Tom quite happily. They are rather falling in love,

though I still seem to be the focus of need for her. He has been feeding her almost exclusively to offset this, so as it edges towards dinner time, and he's still upstairs painting, she is hedging her bets:

We've not let her off the lead outside at all yet, but I feel trust and confidence is building, that she's more focussed on and connected to me/us when we go out, seems to check back a lot and leave quite seemingly interesting smells and things to catch up before being called or getting to the point of tension on the extending lead, and will stay and submit to training sessions even in quite distracting surroundings. Car travel is a little easier, but we're going to meet Emmy the vet for the first time next week, to get some advice about travelling crates etc. She continues to be charmingly friendly and polite to all other humans and dogs she meets, and is generally winning hearts all round.

Well, she is rather gorgeous, we think.

We have managed to do a few other things than obsess about our dog. The partially anatomically intact fowl was taken out of the freezer and is now a plate of neat chicken meat in the fridge, the gall bladder (which was still attached to the liver) remained unperforated, as did the sack of stones and vegetable matter inside the gizzard (I did that bit, so proud!), and guess who got the liver, heart and gizzard, nicely cooked in bacon fat?

Though I trimmed off the sot-l'y-laisse and set them aside for myself.

And I thought I'd unravel a jumper I knitted a couple of years ago from some not very special yarn with a bit of wool in it, always too lumpy and heavy though I rather liked the grey and red.

Now I have many nice little cakes of recouped yarn, and am knitting them into, guess what?

A blanket for Elfie!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Sunday with Elfie

Watching Watership Down in the afternoon.

"Look, I've been a dog with a job, now I'm sitting watching cartoon rabbits..." 

This was after we had retrieved a drowned cat from out of our garden pond (the lairy neighbourhood tom, pushing his luck once too often in pursuit of our goldfish, I think/hope, rather than someone's beloved minou, it was hard to tell), and before we had retrieved a dead greenfinch out of Elfie's mouth (it was dead when she found it under the Mexican orange bush, I think/hope). We are now working on the command 'drop'.

Then I found that the burly free-range chicken I was looking forward to roasting for our Easter Sunday dinner was not in fact prêt à cuire, as they usually are but merely effilé. I have come across them with the giblets in a bag inside, and I have learned to cook a poule, rather than a poulet, which could give Paula Radcliffe a run for her money in the stringiness department, slowly so it turns into delectable shreds in a tasty broth, but effilé I have never had to deal with before. It means it has been drawn, so the intestines have been removed, but the remaining organs are all in place and attached. There is a depiction here. At least it didn't still have its head on.

Even so, I announced that after everything else that day there was no way I could cope with this, and I was going to go and face ridicule and give it to Victor. However, Tom said don't do that, he would deal with it and turn it into curry, but not now. I was surprised at this, but then remembered this is a man who owns a pair of poultry shears and isn't afraid to use them, so I put it in the freezer and we ate the potatoes roasted with the garlic cloves I was planning to stuff inside the chickens nicely empty cavity, with some hastily defrosted chipolatas.

The last episode brought back two memories. The first was of my mum buying a couple of chickens when I was a kid from an Asian stall on High Wycombe market, probably suspiciously cheap. They were completely undrawn, so still contained their intestines. I sat in the kitchen and read the instructions to her from the Readers' Digest Cookery Year, a book I still own. She bodged the first one and burst its gall bladder, the smell of which pervaded the house. The second was OK. I guess we must have eaten them, though I'm not sure either of us fancied them much by then.

The second was of lunch at a day out in the eighties of the El Salvador Solidarity Campaign in Islington. There was chicken stew as well as a vegetarian option, and the chicken tasted distinctly as if it had been badly drawn. Jeremy Corbyn was speaking (I imagine he got lucky and had the vegetarian option). He warned against the dangers of dilettantism, I recall. I probably should have listened to him.

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Our new arrival, an épagneul breton, usually known in English as a Brittany spaniel, or simply a Brittany, which sounds nicer than Breton spaniel, we thought.

We weren't going to do this yet; we'd told ourselves we'd get a couple more trips out of the way then commit to another dog perhaps in the autumn. But we got back from a short trip to Mont St Michel where Tom had said he really didn't want to wait to get another dog but didn't want to impose this on me and deprive me of travelling etc, and I'd said I felt much the same, and then I saw Elfie on the website and the next day we drove out to the other side of Rennes to find her.

She was living in an SPA refuge, for about five or six weeks. Before that she had been in the pound (rather sinisterly called in French la fourrière). She's probably about six years old.

We took her on a 'test-drive', chatted a bit about her, then went to sign the papers for her. She went back in her pen, which she shared with another dog. When we went to get her again, she flew out and into my arms, then went looking for Tom. She spent the first quarter of an hour or so of the drive back rather anxiously watching the traffic going by on the N road, then withdrew to the back of the car (we had one back seat down as we used to with Mol) and hid under Tom's jacket.

We have the impression she has lived indoors before, she's clean and well behaved and very happy to be a house dog.  Clearly though, she is a strayed and unclaimed hunting dog. She has a number tattooed in her ear, which presumably was useless in tracing her owner, but no chip or other ID. She was sterilised from the refuge, you can see where the hair's growing back.

In the house she is the most polite, attentive, sweetest, kindest creature imaginable. She has winning ways galore, and does that listening-with-her-head-on-one-side thing to perfection. Furthermore, she is remarkably, weirdly voiceless, her lack of a bark was noted in the refuge's notes, and we haven't heard her bark, whine or much less growl there or since she arrived here. She seems completely without aggression, though we were warned she was a cat chaser, isn't destructive and picks things up quickly, especially since she's now learning a second language! Her 'sit', 'stay' and 'come' are already quite established, and 'leave', 'wait' and 'down' seem to be generally understood, as does 'up-up', but then again she doesn't need much encouragement with that.

She has the rescue dog's preoccupation with food, but isn't obsessed or too much of a thief so far, if she smells food on the counter she will investigate, but a firm 'no' is enough to make her desist, and the rubbish bin so far is unmolested, she takes food from our hands and eats quite delicately. I can't move towards the kitchen without having her on my heels, and she has certainly attached herself very firmly to me, but she likes and is friendly to Tom, and he's started giving her her dinner to strengthen the bond.

She likes sofas, and has slept, just two nights so far, which we have to keep reminding ourselves, in our bedroom but in her own bed. I hesitated about this, but Tom was decisive. It would help her to see us as pack, and also save us having to render everything in the kitchen and downstairs secure. The first night she jumped onto our bed three or four times, perhaps, and I lifted her down firmly and put her back onto her own, the final time I put the t-shirt I'd been wearing all day down for her to sleep with, and it seemed to work. Last night she played at jumping up but then settled without protest. Once in the small hours I felt a wet nose and a lick on my foot that was sticking out, but I led her back and she went back to sleep. Yet the moment we spoke to each other about getting up she was suddenly in between us and greeting us affectionately. 'How did she get here?' Tom asked 'I didn't feel her jumping up'.

For indeed, this is the sole real problem with her: she is Elfie the Flying Dog, or in another sense, Elfie la Fugueuse. The first morning, at about 7 am, after having pottered round the garden together the afternoon before, watching her closely but without a lead on, and assuming it was safe, I let her out the back door. I followed but wasn't quick enough to stop her suddenly flying effortlessly over the picket fence at the side and haring off down the road. In pyjamas, dressing gown and wellingtons I pursued her through every corner of the village, finally catching her up in one of the scuzzier backyards. Having been totally deaf to my calls she looked at me without a trace of sheepishness or contrition, as if to say, 'Oh, are you here?' I lifted her up (she had no collar or lead on at the time) to which indignity she submitted equably, and carried her home, gasping with my heart thumping. I certainly need to get fitter.

This is a worry. I've been reading up about the breed, which resemble small setters as much as spaniels, and it seems it's rather the nature of the beast to take off like this when something catches their nose, it's called 'throwing a deafy', apparently, or simply 'buggering off'. However fit I am I'll never catch her, and the chances of her making her own way back safely are not good. Presumably this is how she ended up in the fourrière. At six years old, however sweet and trainable she is in other ways, I rather doubt she can be cured of the behaviour. It may well be that she will never really be able to be off the lead outside of the house. This isn't so terrible, though. She is lovely to walk on the extending lead, sensitive and responsive and not just a tedious puller, rather like having a butterfly on a string. But her mind is elsewhere, she isn't interested in treats and food and fuss while there are the smells and sounds of nature around her.

I feel at times overwhelmed, worried, oppressed by sudden new responsibility, and fearful of regret. Suddenly our planned freedoms have been curtailed, our life is going another way, and there is another creature's life to be taken into account and worked round. I feel she is forcing me to come back to life in certain ways and part of me is reluctant to do that.  Since Elfie arrived, I've cried more about Molly than any time since we lost her I think. It's not only comparing them, or that I'm going to places and doing things I've not done since Mol was with us, in her younger and fitter days, it's because I find I'm feeling and facing things I thought I'd let go of and give up on. But she's also forcing me to wrap up and get outside, to walk hard and not to fear the weather, to come back cheerful and with a good appetite, to carry a plastic tub of dog treats in my pocket and think about how best to train her and build her confidence and our relationship. I think she may be what I need.

Elfie isn't Molly, of course, we never expected her to be. But though she is wilder and stranger and in some ways more problematical, she also has her strengths. She seems to be a sturdier, more robust, healthier, less needy and more adaptable little person, rather more of a doggy dog. Her beautiful strawberry blond coat is feathery and soft to the touch but only needs a basic brush now and then, won't need cutting and dries quickly; her paws are neat little tools, and she has a canny way of getting right in between the closely set pads with her teeth and tongue to get out any prickles or other foreign bodies, her ears are perky little clean pink shells which I can touch and look at without objection. She is herself, and we will grow to know and love each other accordingly. And I think she'd probably cope much better with going to stay in good kennels with other dogs now and then, as long as there are plenty of walks, good grub and high fences.

And we've already had some very good moments I really wouldn't have expected so soon. She's not completely relaxed in the car, though she gets in happily, we may try her with a travelling crate. But yesterday morning we made a trip to the arboretum, stopped at the supermarket where she stayed in the car, a bit hot and bothered and fed up but without any real problem, then we went visiting.

Our friend J was very pleased to welcome her, despite it being evident there was a cat somewhere, she lay down like a lamb while we drank coffee and chatted,  Knowing she'll settle down quietly at other people's houses, and maybe restaurants or cafés too, is really a plus, and when she met J again today Elfie greeted her familiarly.  J took this picture of us with her i-pad.