... and seven wet, backbreaking hours later you have the beginnings of what's called in French un hérisson - a level and solid base over which to lay wood, stone or gravel.
Un hérisson also means a hedgehog.
No, I don't know why either.
... and seven wet, backbreaking hours later you have the beginnings of what's called in French un hérisson - a level and solid base over which to lay wood, stone or gravel.
Un hérisson also means a hedgehog.
No, I don't know why either.
This was going to be the winter when all the work was planned well in advance and down to a tee, there was plenty of time to do everything without any last minute panics, and we'd be able to take a much-coveted day off every week. Hah!
It all started so well. We had three projects for this winter. First was to 'relook' (and yes, that is a word. It's French!) our farmhouse kitchen. Second was to have a new bathroom installed for us - the last remaining room in the house still in the eighties, with navy blue sanitary ware, no shower, and white tiles that were separating in a sheet from the wall more each day. And third was to create a summer kitchen in one of our semi-open barns, complete with gas hob, plancha, fridge and lots of worktop space, so that guests in La P'tite Maison could cook for themselves if they chose to. That meant pointing up one wall, lime rendering and then limewashing the other, doing something with the rather sad looking woodwork, building made to measure wooden units and putting down a floor.
We found someone to take on the bathroom project, and for once we agreed that he would do everything, from knocking down walls to installing bath and shower and the rest, right down to decorating and tiling: a real clé en main job. He reckoned on four weeks - five at the outside - and would start on January 3rd. Fantastic - no guests in January, so no problem using La P'tite Maison's shower room.
Lovely December weather allowed us to get a head start on the summer kitchen. Working with lime mortar meant that we couldn't work if the temperatures fell below 5 degrees, or would do so while the mortar was going off; the last couple of weeks of December saw sun plus spring like temperatures of 18 degrees so we took full advantage of it, working as many hours as we could given the short days. We raked out the old joints between the stones then pointed them up with a simple lime mortar; it was slow, painstaking work that neither of us had ever done before but we both found it bizarrely addictive. It was looking good ... but then as if by magic, on New Year's Day it all went pear shaped, with low temperatures and heavy rainfall. Fortunately we'd filled our last joints on New Year's Eve ...
We moved inside to relook the kitchen; not a hugely complicated job, just new paint (home made, of course!) on the walls and on the wooden units, the resurrection of an antique Norfolk pine dresser that we'd brought with us but had never got round to homing, installation of a new oven, fridge, extraction system plus posh new gas hob (and that's another story!) and some new textiles. Three weeks of chaos (no kitchen, no bathroom!) and living on stuff we'd prepared earlier and it was done. Apart from the hob, which is still a Hob In Waiting 11 weeks later.
Meanwhile we were having our wettest January for years, with three times the normal amount of rainfall; the garden turned into a sea of mud, our track into a series of potholes and the potager into a lake. The rain continued into February and early March, sometimes falling as snow; sometimes we were blocked in, the Pyrenees had their snowiest winter for more than 30 years and the highest temperatures stayed well below 3 degrees. Our builder, for reasons best known to himself, got further and further behind to the point where if we were to see a finished bathroom before summer I had no choice but to take over all the decorating, tiling and other finishings. Then he came back to start plumbing stuff in and left the handbrake of his Landrover off. During the morning it rolled its way down the drive right into the back of our car, doing 1000 euros worth of damage .....
The bathroom still isn't finished in spite of the fact that we ended up taking on more and more of the work ourselves, and it's all getting more than a bit tedious as we keep discovering issue after issue (testing his own work doesn't appear to be amongst our builder's skills). But last week the temperature finally rose just enough for us to get back to the summer kitchen. The rendering is done, and the wall will be lime washed when it's all gone off, hopefully in 10 days or so. Next week we have a huge delivery of materials arriving for the floor and will start levelling up.
The good news is that spring is springing at last; the birds are singing, the violets are out and the grass is growing all by itself.
The bad news is that we're a good six weeks behind schedule. We'll do everything we can to make up time, but we have less of it to spare (!) now that we're moving into full guest flow and I'm sorry to report that due, as they say, to circumstances completely beyond our control, the summer kitchen won't be functional before the end of May at the earliest.
Oh, and we're still waiting for a day off, a bath, and a new hob, not necessarily in that order!
This is probably an unusual kind of blog post for a maison d'hôtes. If you don't like reading about the blacker side of humanity, look away now; otherwise read on. But first, a story.
As many of you know, a few months ago we were adopted by a dog called Hobo, who simply arrived one day and never left. After much detective work, we discovered that Hobo has a long and complicated history; he's originally from La Réunion, a tropical island that's a département d'outre-mer - a fully fledged part of France (and the EU) in the Indian Ocean. Brought to the mainland by a member of his original owner's family, he then moved on again to live in Clermont, a village near us, with yet another member of the same family; sadly though one of their existing dogs had other ideas and did everything she could to make his life there untenable. Eventually Hobo took matters into his own paws and set off in search of a safe forever home where he could finally, after three traumatic years, settle down; after weeks of roaming the hills and checking out many dozens of local houses, he found us, and we're very glad he did.
Hobo's previous human told us he's a greyhound-dalmatian cross. Knowing him as we do now, his mix is fairly evident: he's like that well-known illusion of two faces and a vase - sometimes when you look at him he's an (almost) spotless dalmatian, other times he's clearly a greyhound. We think his greyhound ancestry may actually be that of a Galgo (Spanish greyhound) - possibly the most abused dog breed on earth. And that's where this blog post really begins.
the galgo's plight
The galgo is an ancient race of sighthound - one of the ancestors of the dog we English know just as a greyhound. Like greyhounds, they're gentle, loyal, loving and laid back creatures, often described as 40 mph couch potatoes.
Galgos have been used, and are used to this day, in rural Spain for hunting and for hare coursing. They're considered to be a tool, as is a gun, rather than a living creature and most live pretty miserable lives, usually just shut away in a shed when not 'in use', fed on bread and water and possibly the occasional scrap. Worse, they're seen quite simply as disposable. When the short hunting season is over, tens of thousands are abandoned or brutally killed every year by their owners, to whom they're no longer considered to be any use. Campaigners estimate that more than 50,000 dogs, most between 2 and 3 years of age, are massacred by the owners in Spain every year, though some believe it to be more like 100,000.
Killing methods are brutal and sadistic, especially for those dogs deemed too slow or inadequate in other ways, who are considered to have shamed their owners. Dogs are thrown down wells, tied up in plastic bags, injected with bleach, hammered, mutilated ... tied behind moving vehicles with bets taken on how long they'll survive ... used as bait in dog fights ... and then there's the 'typewriter': dogs are hung by their necks from a tree so that their hind feet just touch the ground - their scrabbling, which sounds like someone typing, keeps them (barely) alive until their strength gives out and they're hanged. The 'lucky' ones are abandoned, thrown out of a car by a motorway perhaps or simply dumped on the baking campo.
As things stand at the moment, the only - and I mean only - future for a galgo is outside Spain. As the horrific plight of these dogs becomes more widely known, so do the number of rescue organisations that not only bring as many dogs as possible out of the country for treatment, rehabilitation and rehoming but campaign for laws with teeth that will put an end to the barbarism that's going on under our noses, in a supposedly civilised European country.
what we're doing about it, and what you can do
What we'd really like to do is adopt lots of galgos ourselves! And who knows, maybe one day we will, just as one day I intend to go and spend some time volunteering in one of the rescue shelters in Spain. However, that's for the future. For now, we at Maison Grillou have decided to support galgo rescue in other ways.
Those of you who knew us in our former Norfolk incarnation will know that each year we used to donate a percentage of our takings to a particular organisation that inspired us, and set up ways for our guests and customers to do the same. And as we set off into our second year here, it's time to do the same. So this is what we're going to do during 2013.
1. For every booking of 5 nights or more during 2013 we'll donate 5 euros - 3 euros for shorter bookings - to one of our chosen rescue associations. We'll also invite our guests to match that sum if they feel moved to do so.
2. We'll donate the small additional charge - 5 euros per night - we make for our four legged guests to one of our chosen rescue associations.
3. On a personal level, we'll sponsor or 'virtually adopt' one or more galgos via a rescue association. Often dogs need extensive (and expensive) veterinary treatment before they can be rehomed, or are considered too old or ill to be rehomed and instead are given a home for life at a shelter or with an association member - all of which costs serious money and can only happen if people are willing to help meet the costs.
find out more or join in
Many of our guests so far have been dog lovers, and I know that at least some of the readers of this blog are too. If you've been shocked or moved by my far-too-brief resumé of the plight of the Spanish galgos and want to find out more, these are the associations we're going to be supporting:
Lévriers sans Frontières, a French association working through a number of partner refuges;
Scooby Medina, an extraordinary place led by an extraordinary man, Fermin Pérez; the largest refuge in Spain;
Galgos del Sol, a small refuge based in Murcia that organises adoptions to the UK (I know two lovely people who've adopted a dog through them).
All have websites full of information - often harrowing - and stories. We'd really love it if you were inspired by what you've read to find out more and perhaps to support them too.
Down here in the foothills of the Pyrenees we've been seeing some truly exceptional weather conditions since the beginning of January. At our meagre altitude of 501 metres (which is nevertheless halfway up Snowdon) it's been raining. And boy, what rain: three times the average rainfall for January, ditto into the beginning of February, with many days receiving 2 or 3 centimetres - a couple of days ago I had to stop the car twice while driving back from Toulouse, so heavily was the rain falling. All around us lakes have appeared where once were fields, tiny streams have become raging torrents. In spite of the fact that we're on the side of a hill, our grounds are waterlogged, the potager is actually under water and the parking area just a sea of 10cm thick mud. Then yesterday it started to snow; it's snowing as I write and forecast to continue on and off for another week.
But that's nothing compared to what's going on in the Pyrenees proper, which are experiencing record breaking snow depths. The picture above is of Cauterets, a bit farther west along the chain, currently the snowiest ski resort not just in France but in the world: on Tuesday the depth of snow measured a record breaking five and a half metres; yesterday it was approaching six, even more than Mammoth Mountain in California which generally has more snow than anywhere else; I've just read that it's now at eight, and still falling fast. What makes it exceptional, and a record, is that 7 metres of that have fallen in just 3 weeks.
We're not quite approaching such hallucinatory levels here in the Ariège, though some of our ski resorts (such as Goulier, which so far today has had 80cm of snow) are closed because ... there's too much of the white stuff! The classes de neige - ski holidays - of 500 school children from all over France were cut short yesterday so that they could be bussed home before heavy snowfall today made access out impossible (bet their parents were delighted. Not). Access from France into Andorra is impossible, and the train service south of Ax les Thermes is blocked too. La Chaîne Méteo tells us that a sequence of Atlantic depressions is pushing across us in waves and meeting a static cold front of air to the east; it also tells us, depressingly, that we have at least another 7 to 10 days of this to come. I'm not sure whether to order a snowmobile or a boat .....
The good news about this January is that we've not been snowed in. In fact we've not even seen more than a couple of snowflakes here, although you only have to travel a little farther south and 50 metres or so higher in altitude to find quite a covering of the white stuff.
The bad news about this January is that in the last two weeks we've had well over twice the amount of rainfall we can expect for the entire month, and we're fast heading towards the record books. The ground is completely saturated, streams are appearing where they've never appeared before, and the other day I caught one of the last remaining beetroot in our potager gently floating away.
Not having any great desire to start a whole new winter sport of mud boarding, we've had to resort to walking the dogs on quiet lanes and tracks instead of on our usual network of footpaths. A couple of days ago the sun came out (briefly), and we quickly dropped the To Do list in favour of this lovely stroll around the lanes and hamlets of our neighbouring village, Durban sur Arize (click on the first image to see full sized pictures and more details).
I don't think we're too hard done by, do you?
We’re both itchy-footed jam makers. What I mean by that is that neither of us is content just to go on using the same recipe for years and years – we tinker and tweak and fiddle and twiddle endlessly. Well, I do.
Of the two of us John has always been the marmalade maker, and he’s perfectly fine at it. This year though I decided that I wanted to have a go. Although they’re not easy to find here, a couple of weeks ago a friend managed to get hold of some oranges amères (Seville oranges) and bought enough for us. It was all getting a bit hairy, timing wise, because our kitchen has been out of action seemingly forever while we tart it up (and don’t mention our ongoing but so far fruitless attempts to replace the gas hob …). But finally, four days ago, we were almost back to normal, though still minus the new hob, now the subject of some serious concerted action on my part via a French equivalent of Watchdog.
We both like marmalade that is full of the flavour of the fruit, not too sweet, not too hard (but not so soft that it runs off your toast) and a glowing orange colour. Not for us the dark, thick stuff that you can stand your spoon up in and tastes of treacle, nor the insipid gloopy ‘Golden Shred’ that we both grew up with. Having had some success this year with steeping various jams overnight (thank you Sharon!), I decided to do something similar with marmalade. So, with credit to Jane Grigson whose recipe (or rather that of the Hotel Madeleine in St Benoît sur Loire, whose recipe she acquired) I’ve twiddled, here for the first time is:
Maison Grillou’s three day marmalade
8 large Seville oranges
juice of 2 lemons
about 3 litres of water
about 2.5 kilos of granulated sugar
Cut the oranges into quarters, squeezing them slightly to loosen the pips. With your fingers separate the flesh from the peel, put everything into a large glass or plastic bowl and add the water and the lemon juice. Cover loosely with a tea towel and leave for 24 hours.
Put everything into a large pan and bring to the boil. Simmer very very gently until the skins are soft – for me this was around an hour and a half. Cool, cover loosely with a tea towel and leave for another 24 hours.
Fish out the skins, which by now are nicely soft, and cut them into strips of whatever thickness you like. Strain the liquid and pulp through a sieve and put the liquid into a preserving pan; tip the pulp out, line the sieve with some muslin, put the pulp back and let the last bits of juice strain through. Then tie up the muslin so that you have a little bag containing pulp and pips, and add this to the pan.
Bring everything slowly to the boil. Remove the muslin bag, squeeze it out over the pan and discard. Now add the sugar; I did this by taste and ended up adding 2.5 kilos; you may want more or less, so taste as you go. Stir it all around a bit to dissolve, then bring it to the boil and boil to setting point. This bit’s another moveable feast: I use a mixture of a probe thermometer and - erm - my ears. Using the thermometer, I take the mixture to the point where it just goes up from 103°C to 104°C; then I get rid of the thermometer and wait until it makes a particular sort of splut splut noise that tells me it’s made jelly. Then I turn off the heat and test it by spooning a little onto a cold saucer and leaving it in the fridge for 5 minutes.
Some people will tell you that it’s ready when it wrinkles; I like a slightly softer set than that so look for a slightly wrinkly skin rather than a full blown wrinkle (if you know what I mean). If it’s not there, I put it back on the heat and go through the process again until it is. Leave it to cool for 20 minutes or so, adding a knob of butter to remove any scum, then spoon it into hot sterilised jars. Sterilise the lids in boiling water and screw them on while everything’s still warm.
This made 11 jars of varying sizes. The double soaking process really draws out the flavour and the pectin: it sounds like a faff but it’s not, actually. If you think it is, you could just go out and buy a jar.
Or of course you could always come here and try this one.
Once upon a time, we had a habit of spending a weekend somewhere in Tuscany in December: to wander, to drink coffee, maybe to do a gallery or two ... and to eat (well, okay, mostly to eat).
The Tuscans are not called mangiafagioli (beaneaters) for nothing: beans play a huge part in the local cuisine. And they're sooooo good too: in the days when you could actually afford to carry more than a spare pair of knickers on Ryanair we used to bring back kilos of them (beans, not knickers), along with several litres of newly pressed oil (if you once saw someone emptying a large suitcase at Stansted airport security and trying to explain convincingly why it was full of bubblewrap and not a lot else ... that was me). Lucca was our very favourite haunt; apart from being just a genuinely lovely little city, its oil and beans are wonderful. It was there that I first ate zuppa di frantoiana - literally 'oil mill soup' - at a trattoria called Gigi. December is oil pressing time, and dishes featuring the new oil are on every menu. Gigi's zuppa was so good that we ate it twice, in quick succession, then I came home and did my best to recreate it.
In spite of its name and its Tuscan origins, this could perfectly well be an Ariégeois dish, especially when it's made using the lovely, tender white beans grown here - known as Cocos de Pamiers - that are used in mounjetado, the Ariège version of cassoulet. Here of course it would be more likely to feature duck or goose fat rather than olive oil, though times are changing and there's slow movement in many restaurants towards using much lighter ingredients to create equally big flavours (which gets a big tick from me).
After several days of wall repointing, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to spend a few hours on zuppa duty, especially given that the alternative was ... more of the same! So, in case you too have a task that you'd like to avoid, or you've just eaten one too many plate of rich food over the holidays, here is the (sort of) recipe.
Zuppa de frantoiana
some onions and/or leeks, diced
some green celery, including the leaves, finely chopped
some carrots, chopped into smallish pieces
a few potatoes, ditto
some garlic, minced
some fresh herbs - rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, etc - chopped
a couple of peperoncini or small dried red chili peppers, crushed
some cavalo nero (black Tuscan kale) or Savoy cabbage, shredded
some butternut squash or pumpkin or potimarron, peeled and chopped into small-to-medium pieces
a few tomatoes, skinned and chopped, or a tin
some vegetable stock
some pinto or cannellini beans, cooked
a rind of Parmesan if you have one
some wheat or spelt grains
some good olive oil
This is what I do. In a big pan, warm some olive oil and gently fry the onions for 5 minutes. Add the celery, fry for 5 minutes. Add the carrots, fry for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, fry for 5 minutes. Add the herbs and peperoncini, fry for 5 minutes. Add the cavalo nero, pumpkin and tomatoes, fry for 5 minutes. I know this seems a bit OTT, but I've found it to be the best way of bringing out the flavour of each ingredient - if you add them all to the pan at once it's all a little bit more indistinct and subdued.
Purée half the beans either with some of their cooking water, or with some vegetable stock, and add them to the pan, with the Parmesan rind too if you have it. Add more vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables, then simmer over the lowest possible heat for an hour.
Add the wheat and simmer for another half an hour. At that point, add the rest of the beans and simmer for another 20 minutes or so. Stir in some olive oil and let the whole thing stand for a couple of hours. Reheat gently - it should now be nicely thick - check the seasoning, ladle into bowls and serve with a glug of good olive oil poured over each one.
Oh, and make at least twice as much as you can eat, because it'll be even better tomorrow ....
Some of you will know that I've been writing a blog over at Blogger for 4 years now: a few have even trailed along with me through the agonies (and dust) of our renovation process here, our attempts to get to grips with French administration, the joys and tears of growing vegetables and a hundred and one other bits and pieces of our life here.
Having a break from guests for a couple of months while we work on the new summer kitchen, have a new bathroom installed (for us this time!) and 'relook' our own kitchen means that it's also a good time to put other bits of our house in order, so to speak. So this site has had, and will continue to have, a bit of an overhaul, with (so far) four new pages on walking and walking holidays, some new photos I took during the year (including the one that now forms the background to the site) and this new blog page, which will by and large take the place of our old Blogger blog.
So, what can you expect to find here? Well, we'll keep you updated with some of the news and gossip from life at Maison Grillou; we'll take you with us on some lovely walks and to local events and fêtes; we'll introduce you to some of our local food producers. And most importantly, lots of you lovely guests have asked for recipes for things we've served for dinner or breakfast, so I'll be posting some of those here too. If you'd like to subscribe so that you don't miss out on a new post, either add your email address to subscribe via email, or if you already have a feed reader set up just click on the RSS button over on the right. We'd love to have you!
The old blog will stay up, so you can always go back and discover some of what we've been up to since 2008 if you've nothing better to do on a rainy afternoon, or indeed you just want a good laugh at us covered from head to toe in dust :). But for now, let me just wish you a very warm welcome, and a very happy, healthy, peaceful and of course Slow 2013!