29 Dec

ALK green in Carpentras market

In the summer, Carpentras market is a sight to behold. From the independent fruit and veg growers just outside the medieval wall to the artisanal soap merchant at the top of the town, in the cooling shade of the plane trees, there is everything you could want and even things you never knew you needed. The sheer size of this market is simply mind-boggling, and the freshness and diversity of the produce on offer staggering: cheese, meat, fish, fruit, vegetable, local olive oil and wine, and so much more. There are even hardware stalls in case you forgot the emergency triangle for your car.

The last time we went there, I didn’t buy said triangle, but some delicious saucisson that we had on the terrace that same evening, alongside some gorgeous olives, tapenade, and of course a bottle of the delicious local rosé. We also bought figs, nectarines and the biggest frisée salad I had ever seen.

But the purchase I was most proud of was some gorgeous crockery, which was the right shade of green, henceforth known as ALK green. It was love at first sight: bowls, trays, coffee ‘glasses’ and serving plates, I simply could not resist and could have bought the lot. I also had a good chat with the stallholder, and she even threw in a few pieces as a present, which made my day. She had a real passion and a deserved pride for her product, which, as it turns out, was the best reason to visit Carpentras market that day. It is a passion she shares with all stallholders there. That’s why I’m sure I will go back to Carpentras market for more ALK green.

Du vert ALK au marché de Carpentras

L’été, le marché de Carpentras vaut une visite. Des maraîchers indépendants au pied du mur médiéval aux marchands de savons artisanaux en haut de la ville, sous l’ombre fraîche des platanes, on y trouve tout ce qu’on veut et même certaines choses don st vous ignoriez le besoin. L’étendue du marché est époustouflante, la fraîcheur et diversité des produits à votre disposition hallucinantes: fromages, viandes, poissons, fruits, légumes, huile d’olive et vins de la région, et tellement plus. Il y a même des quincailliers si vous avez oublié le triangle d’urgence pour la voiture.

Lors de ma dernière visite, je n’ai pas acheté le dit triangle, mais un savoureux saucisson dévoré le soir même sur la terrasse, avec quelques superbes olives, de la tapenade et bien sûr une bouteille du délicieux rosé local. Nos autres achats: des figues, quelques nectarines et la plus grosse frisée que j’aie jamais vue.

Mais l’acquisition dont je suis le plus fier: quelques pièces de vaisselle verte, exactement de la bonne couleur, à partir de ce jour connu sous le nom de ‘vert ALK’. J’ai tout acheté: bols, plateau, verres à café et assiettes, je n’ai simplement pas pu résister et j’ai presque acheter tout le stock! J’ai aussi papoté avec la patronne, et elle m’a même donné quelques pièces en cadeau, la meilleure nouvelle de la journée. Sa passion, ainsi que sa fierté à la qualité de ses produits étaient évidentes, et la rencontrer fut la meilleure raison de visiter le marché ce jour-là. Une passion qu’elle partage avec tous les marchands présents. C’est pour ça que je sais que je retournerai au marché de Carpentras pour plus de vert ‘ALK”.


20 Dec

Pleasurable dilemmas

A little while ago, I met my good friend E in town. As we hadn’t seen each other for a while, we’d decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather to visit Oxford Street and do some shopping. When lunchtime came I found out, to my great surprise, that E had never experienced the delights of Selfridge’s Brass Rail Brasserie.

Coming back to simple pleasures, this one is one of my favourites. Explaining the choices to E, I salivated in anticipation of the salt beef on rye I was going to have (with pickle on the side for me, coleslaw for E). As it sounds like I knew what I was going to have before I got there, where’s the dilemma, I hear you ask?

Which mustard to choose, of course. American, sweet and brown, French, smooth and mellow, or English, colourful and strong? I am not ashamed to say that I opted for a great lashing of Dijon, enough of it to get up my nose and make my eyes water, but a perfect complement to the salt beef. E went for American, preferring the mellower flavour, but delicious it tired out to be, too.

So, there we are, a pleasurable dilemma leading to a simple lunch with a dear friend. Who could ask for anything more?

11 Dec

A taste of my youth

Last September, as I was browsing the aisles of the local supermarket (well, ok, I was looking for the biggest jar of Nutella I could find), I ‘fell’ on the sweets section. There, a familiar pink and yellow packet caught my eye. Carambar! Wow, now, that’s a blast from the past, I can tell you. What I can’t tell you is when was the last time I actually had one of them. Very nearly 20 years ago, give or take a couple of months, I would say.

These excessively chewy caramel sticks are delicious and ridiculously moreish. The only problem with them is that you simply cannot actually chew on them, as they’d pull your teeth out. So you have to be patient and suck on them. There are two main methods for this. You can unwrap one end of the stick and start there, feeling the caramel melt and stretch or, like me, you can fold the stick in half and stuff the whole thing in your mouth. Hmmmmmm.

The added bonus to the Carambar sticks are the jokes. Found on the inside of the wrapper and sent in by, it seems, young fans, they are simply terrible. If I were to explain how bad these are, I could only compare them to Christmas crackers jokes… Here is an example:

Qu’est-ce qu’une catapulte à salade?

Un lance roquette

(Rusties, drop me an e-mail and I’ll explain!)

30 Nov

Joyeux Christmas, everyone!

The season is nearly upon us, and I am dreading it. Not so much the shopping for presents (I love it!) and even less the preparing of the feast (as if!). No, what I am dreading is the writing of the Christmas cards. Or rather, I would be dreading it if I actually wrote any. You see, even after all these years in this country, I have not fallen foul of this most bizarre of British obsessions.

It is simply not a French ‘thing’ at all. Some people do send cartes de voeux for the New Year, but even that is nothing compared to the frenzy that seizes a whole population around the beginning of December. In our household, the ordering of the cards from various charities has been done, and the address book has been checked. All that remains now is spending hours writing the darn things.

My role usually involves buying the stamps and sometimes writing the addresses on the envelopes, but I will not do more. End of discussion. Oh, and I will push the boat out enough to take them to the post box, but that’s all. Well, almost. Apparently, it is also my job to find a neat way to display the hundreds (at least it seems that many) of cards we receive every year. But I will NOT be drawn into writing any.

So, if any of my dear friends happen to read this, now you know the truth! And if you happen to receive a card from me, you’ll know how lucky and treasured you are.


23 Nov

Astley Castle

 Nestled in the Warwickshire countryside, Astley Castle is a simply stunning place. Winner of the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture, it is imposing, yet charming; sombre, yet utterly comfortable; and most of all, romantic beyond belief. I have been lucky enough to stay there last year with a group of friends and even luckier to be going back later this year. I doubt that we will have the chance to visit again next year.

So I have decided to make the most of it again this year. I am lucky to be only one of the several cooks coming to the gathering, and we always share the pleasures of feeding the group. I will of course be bringing a couple of cakes to make sure that we can have a proper tea upon arrival on the Friday afternoon. After that, I am not sure which meal I will be cooking. I think I may be in charge of breakfast on both days.

Others will provide us with grand meals, keeping us all fuelled for the walks, visits to antiques market and endless (and very competitive) games of croquet. I hope that my friend Dan brings Hector the dog, a wonderfully placid English setter who loves long walks and the wood burner stove, just like me.

I will be sure to update you after breakfast…

11 Nov

Salted or not, here I come!

I’m talking butter, here. Like Marmite, this issue divides the nation. Let me be clear from the start: it is salted for me, end of. I love the stuff. I guess it’s the Breton in me, making me think that this predisposition is genetic. To be honest, I don’t recall which type of butter was used at home in my early years, but I have a feeling it was beurre doux and not the beurre salé I invariably use on my tartines now.

Of course, baking and cooking use a lot of unsalted butter, and I am going with the flow there, although I stubbornly use my favourite brand of salted butter to create the perfect garlic butter for my world famous(-ish) escargots.

My problem lies in restaurants. To me, even the best of butters, like Echiré, is incomplete without the crunchy flakes of sea salt I’m obviously addicted to. That’s where the salt and pepper set comes in handy. While I trust the chef implicitly as far as the seasoning of my meal is concerned, I simply cannot do without salted butter. Do I then breach restaurant etiquette if I spread some butter on bread and then salt it myself? I would never dream of doing it as a guest at your table, so why do I do it at the chef’s? It’s a mystery, but the stomach wants what it wants…

05 Oct

My face on a flyer

Now that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?! You go to your local Italian deli (Saponara, on Prebend Street, in Islington), for a well-deserved Friday night pizza and the genial Marco hands you his brand new flyer.

And lo and behold, you recognise yourself and your loved one, albeit in pixellised form, enjoying your treat. To be honest, I’m proud to be part of Marco’s literature, because he, his brother and his staff work hard and the pizzas are to die for. We’re so lucky to have this gem of a place at our doorstep.

Which leads me to think. Most of the things I love to eat are usually a clever assemblage of delicious morsels, whose whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like those Michelin stars as much as the next person, but there is nothing wrong with the simple deliciousness that is a well-made pizza.

It’s alchemy, that’s what it is. Dough, tomatoes, cheese and a few choice ingredients of your choice (you can never have too many choices), and you have a meal that will make you forget that the car needs servicing, that you must book the cat in at the vet’s or that you have to attend THAT meeting on Monday.

In short, even though you put my mug on a flyer, Marco, I thank you.

22 Jul

These little things

I love Provence. I do. Time spent there is the best way to come back to life after a hard year at work, dealing with real life. Even if it’s just for a romantic weekend in May, the blue sky, gentle heat and sprawling markets are enough to make me feel I belong there.

But it’s the summer heat I crave. The sky is still blue, the markets are even larger and there’s the added bonus of the swifts swooping high and screeching their little heads off. I do love that sound, it’s one of those little things.

Forget the madeleines, it’s the sounds of summer I hear when I think of my little corner of Provence, near Carpentras. I bet you thought I would mention the cicadas, didn’t you? Well, of course, they’re part of it, but it’s the swifts I like best. Go figure.

A summer in Provence: all the clichés are there, but they are also so real. Figs so ripe they explode like grenades, fresh goat’s cheese from the Mont Ventoux herds and lavender honey from the little man in Gordes. Breakfast on the terrace with that nice pear jam (yes, really) from the girls in Flassan. That’s of course after you’ve walked to the village to buy bread and croissants. Just because, you know, it’s the holidays, and you deserve it after all.

Oh, how it all comes together…

15 Jun


I do not like pigeons. That may not come as such a novel sentiment to those of us who live in a large city, but these creatures do make my skin crawl. The reason I’m telling you this is because they have reappeared on my balcony.

Again, why, oh why should I mention the flying critters? Because I want you to take up the cause of the little garden birds I am trying to feed, that’s why. Mr and Mrs Robin, her slim-bodied and all legs, him dumpier and oh-so loud, seem to like the seeds I put out. So do the Dunnocks, who had a very successful brood this year. And I do like the Blackbirds and their surly teenager, sitting in seeds but still waiting to be fed by his parents. Even the choosy Great Tits, who fling the seeds they don’t like out of the feeders, I can put up with, but not the greedy, piggy pigeons.

The pigeons come in two or threes, hoover the seeds up and go. The worst of them, No-Tail (he’s missing half of his), is fearless and has become my nemesis. No matter how many times or how noisily I shoo him away, he flies just out of reach and fixes me with his beady eye.

But you know what annoys me most? That, as an urban version of his plump and delicious country cousin, I can’t even fantasise about having him on my plate with petits pois à la française…