Julia Child

Not a good time to start delving into traditional classic French cookery when you’re up to your eyes in a war over mince pies.  (Buy? make? make from scratch? use bought pastry? Me and my super ego are having a head to head over this.) Thing is I found I hadn’t yet got to grips with Julia Child’s cookbooks that I was given last Christmas and shame overwhelmed me. More presents coming my way any day now and I haven’t … oh you know. Fill in the gaps. So I read her autobiography in the Autumn and now I am delightfully sucked into the two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, an American living in France just after the war made it her life’s work to translate into a working English-language cookbook all she learned at the Cordon Bleu school and much more besides. Here are the master recipes for the whole of French cuisine and if you feel like it you can still see her demonstrate on Youtube.

I started simple. I was certain that using these books, bursting with French culinary wisdom of centuries, I could learn to cook poached eggs which I adore. I have wasted the labours of countless hens by failing to cook them well and I was sure, this time it would be different! With Julia’s help I failed once more but in a time-consuming way. Brilliant. And still not a mince pie in sight and it’s the 20th December. I mean, come on! But nil desperandum . I am now in the grip of French cuisine and I moved on to Julia’s matchless instructions for a remoulade of celeriac in an eye-watering mustard sauce-cum-mayonnaise – one of my favourite dishes as a student in Paris when it often constituted dinner along with a stick of French bread. It was staggeringly satisfying.

But we’re not done yet.  Tonight Julia really comes into her own : an absolute triumph of a Blanc de Poulet. Well it’s chicken in a white sauce to you and me but if you do it properly I can tell you every pan and spoon in the kitchen is employed; the tiny onions added at the end are poached in their own special stock with their own bouquet garni for heaven’s sake. Vermouth, cream, egg yolks and a decent slug of Cognac are also in the frame. And by gosh what a difference they make! As food has improved beyond measure in England and France has suffered from the spread of universal cuisine the gap between them has shrunk. I had in fact forgotten what France used to taste like and now here it is nestling in a big casserole waiting for me to arrange it on some rice (white rice, thank you, none of your self-flagellating will this ever cook brown) with a few slim whole carrots and maybe a little chard. It brings back to me early trips to France when the flavours and textures were such as simply did not exist back home.

Now I can’t eat like this every day with impunity so I shall soon be back on the fruit salad and white fish but it is fun to read recipes that have no shortcuts, no alternative ingredients, just clear and imperious instructions. Salad dressing? Don’t even think about shaking stuff in a jar a la Jamie, get out your special sized whisk and beat the oil into the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and mustard one drop at a time. It actually makes an entirely different fluid, a true emulsion that coats each leaf as a dressing should.

If you don’t feel like cooking you can always watch the peerless Meryl Streep playing Julia in the film Julie and Julia. Or maybe, unlike me, you can poach yourself an egg.

 

What happens when things go wrong

halibutHalibut at the Restaurant Pierre, Macon

The second night in France was in Macon where the hotel had a plumbing failure and there was no water. That’s right. Not just no hot water. No water at all. After a day’s driving, needing a shower and all the usual conveniences, this put me effortlessly in touch with my default strategy when things go wrong. I have a tantrum. Adult tantrums are not the kind you see children having as they drum their heels on the supermarket floor – they are much quieter than that and more deadly. When I am in the grip of one such my mind rejects what is happening over and over again. I bang my head against the wall of reality as (if my preferences were of any interest to God or True Nature or whatever it is that unfolds around us and keeps dashing our fondest hopes on the rocks of what actually is). Noticing my tantrum I felt about three years old and faintly ridiculous but I kept this internal wailing up for at least an hour or so. I didn’t know what else to do.

What else can we do when we can’t bear what has happened, when our plans are spoiled or our hearts broken? Eventually I remembered what has helped in the past. It can really help to humour that three year old full of rage rather than shaming or scolding her. She needs to learn that she is valuable even though she cannot control things around her. We need to bear with her discomfort and allow her to climb down from that high horse into loving arms. Until then let her throw things and blame people and make sure she doesn’t hurt herself or anyone else.

Eventually I accepted the inevitable and we went off, unwashed, to the Restaurant Pierre which is a small Michelin one star establishment with lovely staff and delicious food. The halibut if always my fish of choice since it doesn’t seem possible to eat it except in restaurants. This one did not die in vain. It was moist and flavoursome and beautifully set off, as you can see, by delicate vegetables.

img_0102

The pre-dessert plate was almost good enough to eat.

However we saved ourselves for the Grand Marnier souffle, again on the grounds that this is not a dish I often knock out at home.  The photo does not do it justice but it was excellent especially with the tiny iced sorbet side dish.souffle

Whilst this is not the kind of food I want to eat very often it was extremely skilfully prepared and gorgeously presented. Next stop Italy where everything will be quite different.

Creating Value in Calais

unnamed-3The beach at Bleriot-Plage

It was last summer that I realised we could begin our drive to Italy with a nice easy afternoon crossing the Channel by tunnel and then stay the night at Bleriot-Plage, Calais,  under the auspices of the venerable Les Dunes Hotel and Restaurant. Instead of a crack of dawn start and the worry that you left the oven on/front door open/passport on the kitchen table (or is that just me?) you get to potter off after lunch and arrive in time for dinner. There is no reason to make life harder than it already is.

Les Dunes is just around the corner from where M. Bleriot won the Daily Mail’s £1000 bet by building an aircraft and being the first man to cross the Channel in it in 1909. It is not grand but it is run with love and the very nice food is supplemented by wine curated with skill and adoration by  M. Philippe Mene, patron. He has some great wines of great age and some good half bottles (what happened to half bottles?). It would be positively churlish not to try them! Given half a chance M. Philippe will lead you astray with clarets from the 70’s and a glass of Sauternes (on the house if you’re having the foie gras).

philippeM. Philippe Mene, patron

 

foie-gras The foie grascreme-bruleeThe creme brûlée

When I was a child it was France we looked to for all things sophisticated and refined and on their day the French still lead the world in certain aspects of their special cuisine. What perhaps has been lost – and for which we now look to Italy – is the value that they used to afford mealtimes. I’m sure there are fewer proper lunches and lingering dinners in France than there used to be. Maybe they are valuing their productivity or their health more than they used to, I don’t know. Value and self-esteem are big things in therapy and I thought I might shoe-horn them into this tribute to Les Dunes if you’re feeling patient.

Self-Esteem : a recipe

Once upon a time low self-esteem was the neurosis of choice in England. It seems now to have ceded its position to anxiety and depression, two sides of the same coin if ever there were one. I wonder whether much has changed, however, beyond the way we relate to those unpleasant feelings of meaningless and dread, feelings which often bring us into therapy and invariably accompany a lack of self-worth. There is a very simple treatment for that lack of value that we feel and, in my experience, it may shift the meaninglessness and dread as well. The treatment may sound too ridiculously simple to work but work it does. Give it a whirl. You can do it right where you are sitting.

But just a cotton-picking minute, I hear you say, I don’t want to pay attention to myself when I’m full of horrible scary feelings. The feelings may come and eat me up. The secret is that they don’t. Try it and see. Curiously, as I pay attention to my body and even to the feelings themselves they often metamorphose into less troubling experiences or open up into something entirely different. We pay attention to those things we value and the more I pay attention to myself, to what is actually happening in this location that I call me, the more I accrue internal value. This paying of attention, we can call it mindfulness or not, in fact gives the whole organism the message that it is valuable.

So take a deep breath and have a go. You can start with the soles of your feet. Close your eyes (if it’s not too scary) and see if you can locate yourself in the soles of your feet. Spend a few moments feeling them and what they feel. It may take practice before you can feel anything at all. That’s fine.  Meanwhile just notice what it’s like not being able to feel them. Notice sensations, thoughts, ideas, judgments, memories that arise and let it all be just as it is. Commune a while with the internal landscape of your feet. What harm can it do?

Clients often abandon this pretty much straight away because it is a challenge but it isn’t the sort of challenge they were expecting. It’s not complicated or expensive. There’s no equipment involved. You don’t need a book or a therapist to do it for you. In a word it’s not glamorous. It’s free. It’s available every waking minute of your day and only you will know you’re doing it. That is the whole point! You are paying attention to you, treating yourself as something of value. Bear with me. Have a go. Start by locating your consciousness in your feet and after a few minutes move on to sensing your ankles, your lower legs, your thighs. Then start again. Flood your finger tips with your awareness and work your way up to your shoulders. Now see if you can feel both arms and both legs at the same time. As you open your eyes and begin to function again see if you can stay deeply rooted in yourself. See what that’s like and whether it impacts your mood. How often should you do this? Until it’s second nature. In hardened cases like me, this can take a long time but it’s worth it.

When you’ve done your homework you can treat yourself to the recipe below for the most amazing egg custard I have ever eaten or made. It’s not creme brûlée but it’s wholesome and delicious and tastes as though you have used cream. (La Casella is a delightful agriturismo near Orvieto.)

Maria’s Egg Custard from La Casella

4 whole eggs

8 egg yolks

250g caster sugar

1 litre whole milk

vanilla

Scald the milk with the vanilla and cool until it won’t cause the eggs to cook. Work the eggs with the sugar until they are as one and add hot milk. Pour into an oven proof dish in a bain marie for one hour at 180 degrees. Makes 12 generous small pots.