A Very French Whelkome, and Fun and Games with Franglais

We crossed to France on Sunday afternoon, enjoying the sparsely populated, spacious accommodation offered by one of Brittany Ferries’ largest ships.  At this time of year you can only cross the Channel on the cruise ferries, the faster catamarans do not run in sea states any more agitated than a Force 6, and late autumn and winter weather conditions are seldom favourable for these smaller vessels.  Sitting up in the restaurant on Deck 8 of the Mont St Michel, enjoying a leisurely dinner,  you can look down on a very restless sea and feel buffered from, rather than buffeted by, the serious white horses.

The reduced schedule offered by Brittany Ferries means we often have to cross from Portsmouth to Caen and this necessitates a longer drive to the house.  We get indoors at about 10.30 p.m. and find a dish of cooked sea snails kindly left by Daniel.  We love whelks and eat some at lunch-time on successive days and they are delicious.

By coincidence I find myself listening to Sheila Dillon on The Food Programme one lunch-time.  She is investigating the appeal of shellfish – “bivalves and molluscs” – from the point of view of taste and sustainability and asks why we don’t eat them more in Britain. Actually she means bivalves and gastropods – they are both molluscs :)….

She finds out what has happened to the marine environment in Lyme Bay since a scallop dredging ban was introduced in part of it and about the implications of a proposed mussel farm there. She discovers why whelk fishing is a big export industry with low environmental impact and oysters are ecologically friendly. Chef Mark Hix shows what can be done with the lesser used varieties like whelks and razor clams.

I’m not sure how one gets over the reluctance many have to eating the less attractive mollusc species.  Scallops, dainty clams, even oysters are gradually finding favour with a wider public.  But whelks do look, frankly, quite unpleasant when you have twirled them out of their shells with a hefty pin, and a variety of terminology is used to describe their appearance – vocabulary of a nasal nature!!

But we heard on the programme that the whelk fishery is commercially more successful than our cod fishery – and we export nearly all our whelks, most of them are lapped up by the Japanese.  One way forward is to use the whelk meat as an accompanying protein.  Fancy Whelk and Smoked Haddock Fricassee with Celeriac Chips anyone?  Or how about Whelks with Pernod Sauce.  But first find out how to cook the humble sea snail itself.

Despite the advice you will find on the web (10-15 minutes cooking time) I have it on good authority from Daniel, our seasoned Norman fisherman neighbour, that they need slow cooking for about 40 minutes.  Having washed the whelks in several changes of water and let them soak for an hour or so, you place them in a pan of water well-salted and bring them slowly to the boil.  You also shake in a generous helping of pepper which imparts a wonderful flavour to the whelk meat.   Whelks that cross our threshold never make it to more sophisticated dishes.  We eat them au naturel with home-made mayonnaise.

Which brings me to our fun with word play.  Daniel taught Nick how to make mayonnaise but Nick sometimes muddles the ingredients.  After being shown how to, the first batch Nick turned out single-handed was miraculous in that he made a passable mayonnaise with the white of the egg, rather than the yolk!  The next occasion he added far too much mustard.  This time he made the mayonnaise with a whole egg (the first laid by Anne’s Christmas present hen as it turned out) and asked me to taste it.  “It’s a bit bland”, I said, “how much mustard did you add”.  “Oops I forgot the mustard!!”

When we recounted this tale to Francois later it caused much merriment and when he inspected the contents of the bowl he ventured the opinion that it looked more like ‘creme anglaise’.  This is French for custard.  “Yes”, I said “it’s mustard custard”.

At long last we see light at the end of our fungal tunnel.  The principle reason for our short trip is to attend the all-important site meeting at our house.  We need to hear that the works necessary and costs for dry rot treatment have been agreed and how they will be shared by the two insurance companies involved.  A start date would be the proverbial icing.  The meeting is very successful – after 2 hours in rather technical French which, all credit to him, Nick follows and understands, we have the funding agreed and a possible start envisaged for the beginning of March.

During our few days here we have put a sofa back in front of the fire which we keep burning for the duration, and we spend time on gardening duties.  There are colourful treasures to be found once weeds are yanked out, and Nick makes 8 new boxes of compost.

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….. while ye may, old time is still a-flying: and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

I reflect on this verse as I soak in a hot bath in St Vaast.  Nick and I have crossed the Channel to spend a day at the house.  Parts of the house are rather bleak, it being cold, dark, unwelcoming.  We are still waiting for remedial works to protect against further infestation of the dreaded champignons to start.  Although they won’t start until early spring is our guess.  That’s if the parties involved in getting the project off the ground can come to a consensus.  We live in hope that the process can start when we have a site meeting on January 25th.

So we have spent a day outside, in very inclement weather, tidying the garden.  In addition to clearing dead growth and big weeds (which task reveals a previously unremarked Christmas Rose in flower) I take up several foxglove plants which should flower in 2011, to transplant to the hedge at the bottom of the garden at Winterborne K.  A dozen small terracotta pots of Tete-a-Tete daffs also make the return crossing with us because I know just where they will go.

But I’m thinking about rosebuds in the bath because I have just picked some optimistic buds from the roses which climb along the east wall of the house.  A brother-in-law is very ill and will not live long into the New Year.  And I’m remembering words posted by a nephew on Facebook just before he went abroad for a short working trip:

It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth — and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up — that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Come the weekend we are visited by the Ryans and Billy and Charlie refind familiar toys in the children’s room.  Billy is a delightful child with a sweet voice and his younger brother is a cheeky pickle – and delightful 😉

There’s more gardening of sorts when Nick and I drive up to 88 on Sunday.  We have a job to get done in the flats and Nick takes his big chainsaw to help Ryan retrieve and cut up oak logs from the woodland.  These are oaks from The Great Storm of 1987 and there is still plenty of timber to be had.  My task is to sweep and bag up leaves, leaves and more leaves from the front terrace, side passage.  A satisfying activity.

During the week that follows (in which I hear that a very dear friend in Cornwall is not at all well) it rains heavily and often.  Because I have been stowing boxes into the eaves cupboards I notice a small leak through the interior roof cladding.  Nick deduces that the conduit for the trickle must be the TV aerial wiring that runs down next to the chimney stack.  We will keep an eye on this chink in our armour – it seems to be prompted by a deluge rather than what one might term normal rainfall.  So I have been busy indoors, setting up my sewing machine – or to be more precise my grandmother’s Singer which must be 60 years old and probably more – to run up cushions, bathmats, tablecloths.  At the end of this session my remnant stack is satisfactorily depleted.

The very wet conditions put garden tasks at WK on hold.  But come the weekend I am able to get outside on Saturday afternoon, plant the daffodil bulbs which are shooting well, plant the foxgloves and lift the cyclamen corms.  The plants were knocked out by the severe frosts and it is doubtful they will come through the experience.  They certainly don’t want to stay wet so I’m going to try and dry them out and see what happens later in the year.  I’m equally doubtful about the Mimosa which was planted by our predecessors and it now looks decidedly dead.  I’ll be watching it closely.

Saving Sauces, Riding Horses

Two days the other side of Christmas and we feel perkier than we’d expected.  So much so that we ‘phone Eileen to see if we can opt in for the New Year’s Eve dinner at Anthea’s after all.  Of course that’s OK – Eileen says so and she can speak for Anthea 🙂

I make a Lemon Mousse and some Stem Ginger Macaroons as my contribution to the feast.  Dick and Eileen, a master duo in the kitchen, are in charge of Canapes (haggis balls rolled in Japanese breadcrumbs, anchovy palmiers, mushroom and spinach on mini brioche slices, smoked salmon/cream cheese rolls) and Anthea is poaching a salmon which will be served with Dauphinoises and her panache of vegetables.

At some point in the proceedings whilst we nibble and chat,  it transpires that Anthea’s Hollandaise has done the dirty, and separated.  Dick is good at saving sauces, says Eileen, and sure enough the addition of a couple of additional egg yolks retrieves the texture.  Me, I would just be delighted to serve my own Hollandaise separated or not 😉

We have such a fun evening, slipping through to watch the fireworks by the London Eye on the telly at midnight. These are spectacular, like some galactic event.

The next morning Nick gets up to help with the washing up, bless him and I drink tea in bed and read one of the books by Anthea’s bedside.  This is All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, I’m sufficiently engaged to order a 1p copy from Amazon later on.  As I get dressed I glance out of the window and see Anthea, out for an early walk with Lily the Lurcher

Then we are off to Midhurst to see the Hunt gather.  This is a new experience for Nick and me.  Nick is uncomfortable about the whole thing so he disappears into the pub, followed by Dick and they sit by the fireside with a Guinness.  The pub is The Spread Eagle Hotel, parts dating back to 1430.  There will be a ‘Hunter’ 🙂 !! family event here later in the year – wonderful venue.

I am fascinated by the Meet and taken up with a sense of heritage and ritual which I think I had to experience first-hand.  I may have formed opinions based on sentiment and prejudice and now I feel rather more ambivalently about hunting with hounds.  And everyone looks fabulously smart – and I still love any excuse to do smart though opportunities seem to dwindle year by year.

After an interval of milling around whilst all riders gather and sip a small noggin provided by the pub, the quad bikes rev up and set off to lay the trail that the hounds will follow.  Seconds later those hounds streak out of the pub grounds after them, and the riders fall in behind with the dearest little rider and pony bringing up the rear.

Cue for Eileen, Anthea’s mother Elizabeth, and I to join the men before the open fire.  A drink or two later we are ready to head back for Dorset.

We have really enjoyed our New Year spell in West Sussex with great friends.  As we roll along I feel a sense of anticipation and enthusiasm for these early days of 2011, when ideas and plans are laced with enthusiasm and possibility.

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Simply Christmages

A pictures does for many words it’s said so here follows a slideshow, a chronological set of pictures which might give you the impression that Christmas was largely spent in the kitchen.  But that’s ok because I love our kitchen and its back is broad…..

We coasted into festivities with the arrival of Dan, Ems, Lola and Ruby.  By Boxing Day afternoon 29 sentient beings excluding Rooney were circulating around the ground floor of the Workshop which meant we could easily keep tabs on the children and vice versa. I’ve cooked up two vats: a venison casserole and a lamb curry.  My sisters have offered desserts.  There is a mountain of good food and the day passes convivially.  The children have a vigorous session in the garden after lunch then settle down in front of Toy Story 3.

With time trickling by and the necessity for some to leave in the late afternoon we squeeze in the communal cracker pulling event in the big hall followed by a frenzy of present unwrapping.  It all has to be fitted into a smaller time window than one would have wished but we manage.  There is fun and games before the children go to bed and once they are away Dan treats us to a screening of The Prophet – an unusual choice for festive viewing!

There is more kitchen action for me the following day.  The Hackneys get on the road early in the morning, northward bound, then a leg of lamb goes into the Aga before two contingents sally forth: one to the Tank Museum, the other to Weymouth Sands.  We eat our roast meal at the end of the afternoon.  The exodus starts the following day.

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