Food

Moroccan cuisine is known for its tajine, but I am becoming less of a meat eater these days and what I really appreciate here is the lovely vegetables, salads and fruit. Oh, and of course, the yummy, nutty pastries.

For those who like food shopping and cooking (not me) the food stalls must be a pleasure. I am more lured by the less healthy offerings, but so far have been very good. In fact I have eaten very healthily here this week.

Breakfast on the rooftop

Moroccan breakfasts for tourists are excessively generous. They enable you to go through the day with nothing to eat, just something to drink regularly.

Normally I have indulged myself: A glass of freshly squashed orange juice, a large bowl (or rather bowls) of fruit salad with yoghurt, a boiled egg, and any number of slices of Moroccan bread with honey. And of course, lots of coffee.

I did not have a good night. I have developed stomach cramps and am somewhat anxious in case I have another bout of intestinal occlusions. Hopefully it is just a side effect of overdoing things yesterday. At any rate I am going to take things very easily today, my last day in Fès before moving on to Meknes tomorrow.

A serious consequence of this setback was that I was not up to my usual excessive breakfast! Instead I just had the orange juice, a small bowl of fruit and some coffee.

It seemed such a waste to not touch all this food, particularly when the waiter has carried it up three flights of stairs from the kitchen. Today Mohammed, who usually does the night shift from midnight and serves breakfast to everyone, was having his day off. In his place was a student, Sohaib, who does the Sunday-Monday shift.

Like the waitress last night, Sohaib is studying English at the university, and has there are not many people in the Riad today he was happy to chat with me. Sohaib said his name was uncommon in Morocco but his parents, who are very orthodox Muslims, chose it in honour of Sohaib bin Sinan, a companion of the Prophet.

Sohaib was born and has lived in Fes all his life. When I told him how much I loved the Madrasa Attarine he confessed he had never got round to visiting it. He was always studying, working or resting at home (doing a lot of internet surfing I suspect). You should go, I said, it is a wonderful part of your heritage. He agreed and I dont think he was just being polite. Visiting famous sites does not seem to be something Moroccans do. I compared this with India, where people – regardless of their means or status – seem to be extremely enthusiastic travellers and tourists.

Sohaib said there were two universities in Fes and English is taught at both. Why two universities, I asked. I think he was implying that there was a period of unrest in one and so at that time the government set up the second. Most students go to their local university (and there are very few scholarships), but Fes is one of a small handful of cities which has an open’ university, where students can be admitted from other places. A very nice young man. Pity I wont see him again as I get back to Fes on Sunday evening next week.

And now, since I plan to do nothing today, to ensure I am not ill in Meknes, I plan to catch up by posting odds and ends – various photos which are taking up space and need to be uploaded or thrown away. Actually, given my tendency not to prune enough, lots that I put up should have been thrown away. But it is difficult to manage photo editing and organising easily on an ipad and, most of the time, on my lap.

Fresh food

I tend to take for granted that we eat and drink so well here. It is only when visitors exclaim at the quality of fruit and vegetables that I am reminded how lucky we are.

Of course, depending largely on local produce does restrict one to a diet based on the seasons and what is grown in our region. Those within easy distance of British supermarkets, especially Waitrose, find it hard to adjust their menus when they find that what they think of as a basic ingredient is not on our supermarket shelves.

Typically I have been enjoying the peaches sold at one of my favourite stalls in the le Vigan market on Saturdays. As the seller handed me my bag he said he had picked them himself at 3am that morning. Last night I enjoyed a peach eaten with goat yoghurt and a little honey (my lodger, Sébastian, has a couple of beehives somewhere).

Bread – and Brexit

Yesterday I made another loaf of bread.  It takes little more than five minutes preparation with my bread-making machine, and the result in the morning is a delicious nutty brown loaf.

The French of course favour the baguette and the local village boulangerie makes a delicious variant called La viganaise. But buying this means a car trip, albeit short. And baguettes really don’t last for more than a day.  Not a problem in a family, but not very practical if you are on your own.

Besides, my favourite meal of the day is breakfast: coffee and toast.  My loaf makes better toast than baguettes. I use a multi-ceréales flour (a variety of wheat grains – I’m not a fan of the more virtuous wholemeal flour) and add walnuts and raisins. Yummy result.

Why am I going on about bread? Well for starters it is pouring with rain outside (quelle surprise).  And it keeps my mind off the subject which has dominated my thoughts for the past two years and which now makes me feel even more angry and anguished than ever – Brexit.

I’m concerned firstly as someone who chose to live in France and for whom the consequences of what is decided – when it is decided – could change my life, and has already resulted in living with uncertainty.

I’m concerned for the British economy, for which any outcome other than remaining in Europe, will mean we are worse off, maybe much worse off. Businesses will suffer, so too will hospitals, schools, universities, young people seeking employment wider afield… the list is longer.

I’m concerned for this total loss of a sense of belonging to a community (however blemished) which is larger than a nation.

Now what? We are in a complete Alice in Wonderland situation.  It is impossible to predict what will be the outcome. I fear the Conservatives will revert to tribal stereotype(even Ken Baker is talking of supporting May!) and fall behind the very bad current deal. (Don’t get me started in the equally messy scene in the Labour Party.)

A couple of days ago Martin Kettle in the Guardian described the dilemma succinctly:

There is no majority for Theresa May’s deal; no majority for a no-deal exit; no majority for a Norway-type option; no majority for a second referendum and no majority for a general election. Politically, there seems no way out.

I keep hoping, even  at this dangerously late stage, that we will go for a second referendum. It cannot be assumed that this time round the Remainers would win, but a second referendum offers a chance to limit the damage done by the ill-advised and very badly drafted first one (whose campaign was so full of misinformation and downright lies and whose outcome incidentally, people quickly forgot, is not legally binding). Whatever happens now, damage is done.  We have polarised positions and angry people. I feel pessimistic about repair to these wounds in my lifetime.

Oh, and if there is a second referendum, I – along with all other Brits who have lived in Europe for more than 15 years – will not have a vote.

 

Coconut milk

On Saturday I had my first tasty meal in a month, at my favourite little restaurant in le Vigan, Chez Fatou.

I had asked Fatou if she could possibly serve me a simple dish of boiled rice and vegetables without her usual rich assortment of spices and with no fats or crudités. She came up trumps: beautifully cooked rice with a delicious sauce of crevettes cooked in coconut milk delicately flavoured with turmeric.  Yum!

The turmeric produced no ill effects, and I stopped off on the way home to buy cartons of coconut meal, and managed on Sunday to produce a modest imitation of Fatou’s sauce, this time on a trout fillet I bought from Véro, my friend from the pisciculture, at the first Little Bréau market of the summer. (The fillets were a good idea, as Véro had effectively removed the bones.)

Gastronomically things are looking up, as the next day my two great doctor friends, Christine and Roy, sent me encouraging emails. Christine has endless ideas for meals, enhancing dishes with ginger, lemon juice or a slice of orange, for example. I was hesitating at the addition of acid ingredients – on my dietitan’s verboten list. Then I read the email from Roy, a very senior gastroenterologist.

It will take time to recover, he said, but perhaps I need not be so strict with the diet.  “As long as your digestion feels comfortable and no vomiting or nausea, I suggest you liberalise your diet – one treat at a time, one each day – something to plan with anticipation!”

And now, a new impetus, the arrival of my pal, Sara. I had to go to Montpellier for the postponed examination of my car following the guy who scraped it in May and combined this with picking Sara up from the station. Bad idea. The gare has always been protected by a maze of one way roads. It has got worse since my last visit a few years back (not helped by an outdated gps),  though at least there is now a new parking house. Luckily Sara’s train was late, while I sweated in temperatures above 35, circling the station, trying to find the magic way in.

We have eaten rather well since then, with Sara insisting on joining me on my new regime and as usual, full of ideas, starting with filling her basket with lots of vegetables at yesterday’s little market in Le Vigan.

Just in case people think I have lapsed into my usual state of kitchen inertia, I did at least produce yesterday’s supper – boiled new potatoes ,steamed courgettes and poached eggs.

Today I suspect I might pass the pan to Sara…

Back home

My first three days home are a bit of a blur, dominated by the heat, my fatigue and the need to prepare regular but unappetising meals. 

While I was in hospital the strange monsoon weather we have had all spring was replaced abruptly by an equally relentless summer heat. Afternoon temperatures soar to the mid thirties. All that tropical green vegetation is turning brown overnight. 

My house, with all its big windows, does not keep out the heat as efficiently as old Cévenol farmhouses. I spend the day opening and closing shutters and windows, as the sun passes round the house.  Poppy is also overcome by the heat and is happy to doze alongside me in the afternoon. 

I’m definitely on the mend, though regular twinges around my rib cage – amongst other things – remind me that the doctor predicted three months to recover. 

The biggest challenge is making my three meals a day. Breakfast is OK. Coffee is sadly replaced by a worthy tisane, and I eat my toast with jam but no butter.

But lunch and supper, c’est une autre histoire. I eat out of duty rather than pleasure. 

I regard the job of producing tasteless baby food – no fat, no raw vegetables, nothing acid, and virtually no spices – as a major challenge, especially for someone like me with no interest or aptitude for cooking. 

To divert myself I have bought a steamer. So far I have cooked meals based on rice or pasta with steamed fish or burger (tasteless) and carrots.  I cook enough for the two meals to avoid a repeat performance in the evening, when I am more tired. Next challenge: to make a sauce using yoghurt and mild spices. Pudding continues to be fruit purées, but thank goodness I am no longer restricted to the apple purée I had in hospital. 

I am trying to resume normal activities – the Tuesday market (too early-I was exhausted), a short trip to Intermarché, a haircut, and a couple of lengthy sits in my favourite cafe. On Tuesday night I went to hear my fellow cellists play at the end of term concert – for which I had been preparing Mendelssohn’s Song without Words. Frustrating to have not been able to perform it eventually

Today has turned into a medical day – a trip to the pharmacy, on to Charlotte, my physio, and now a very long wait in the waiting room of Maëlle, my doctor – enough to write all this! 

Baby food

Today I knew my appetite had really come back when I looked enviously at the others being served generous portions of tagliatelle and beef daube (good apparently) topped with grated Parmesan, followed by a good cheese not the usual plastic covered affair) and a tasty looking chocolate pudding.

I meanwhile had a rather dry beef burger – no sauce – and the, mainly carrot, vegetable dish. I did at least persuade the server to give me a few strands of pasta (which had had butter added and was hence verboten). And then of course, the inevitable little tub of apple purée. 

The first four or five days after arriving in hospital I ate nothing and wanted nothing. Then I was put on a diet of mainly thin beef stew with little vermicelles, apple purée and yoghurt. I was still not hungry and struggled to get a few mouthfuls down.

Next thing I knew the hospital diététicien arrived to say I was not eating enough. Moi?!

She then went on to say what my diet should be for at least the next three months. The aim is to give the stomach the minimum of work while it recovers.

No  fat, dairy or sugar – or very little indeed

So, for example, no lamb, no charcuterie, just chicken (without skin) or fish, preferably steamed… the barbecue is a no-no as it adds more indigestible elements

All vegetables must be cooked (with skin of tomatoes etc peeled) and nothing raw – so no salads (and no dressings)

No creamy sauces.

Pasta is fine, but cooked in water without adding butter   Read, flour and rice should all be white.

Fruit should be mainly cooked – hence my regular apple purée – though it is ok if absolutely raw, not acidic, and not crunchy like apples.

No grains and no nuts (so no muesli, for example).

I have still to get a clear message on spices, which I adore. Obviously the paprika/chilli end of the spectrum is off the menu, ginger is apparently ok if cooked. I still need to ask someone about black pepper and mustard. 

Bread, flour and rice are ok, provided they are white.

Luckily I have my friend Sara visiting shortly. I will set her the challenge of how I organise a summer regime, avoiding my standard staple, barbecue plus salad! 

La Couvertoirade and then to friends

Somehow Sara had never visited the La Couvertoirade, the knights templar village, high up and remote on the Causses du Larzac.

Wednesday was (yet another) glorious day and the fortifications of this wonderfully intact medieval village looked particularly splendid.  We were almost the only people to be strolling around; the tourist season clearly ended at the start of October and almost all the shops and cafes were closed.

We then did a rather mad, circuitous drive across the Causses towards Montpeyroux.  I had forgotten to pack my map, but we were not in a hurry, and so meandered around, discovering that there are some pretty bleak isolate parts of this huge plateau.  The box bushes which are a feature of the Causses were all looking distinctly brown – dead from the drought – rather than autumnal, adding to a rather sombre aspect.

Then down the winding road off the plateau towards the vineyards which stretch to the south. By now we were peckish and disappointed to find the Montpeyroux restaurant closed.  On to St Saturnin, where there is another restaurant frequented by the wine trade as well as tourists.  This being France and after two o’clock, I was not optimistic.  But no, we were offered a splendid, huge plate of charcuterie and impressive range of cheeses.  Just what we wanted, and all for 15 euros for the two of us.

The aim of the day had been to visit our very good friends, Graeme and Alice in Octon and arrived, as planned, for tea (I had brought a delicious cake from le Vigan!).

Alice is a childhood friend of Sara’s niece, Amelia, and I had the good luck to meet her on another trip with Sara years ago.  She is full of warm, enthusiasm, intelligence and compassion.  And Graeme is the same, though somewhat less effervescent!

We talked about their life choice, compared with that of so many of the friends.  Graeme left his life as an up and coming doctor in a London hospital 17 years ago to learn winemaking. He then bought little vineyards scattered around their home in Octon and now has an established domaine, Trois Terres.

Alice, who had been a consultant in developing countries, joined him in this adventure.  I asked her if she had any regrets about leaving her old job, which had involved much travelling round the world.  No, she said, she was completely happy with sharing the work with the vines and in the cave (selling wine) as well as bringing up the two children in a happy, safe rural environment.

Life is financially more limited and precarious than their previous one in London, but they have no regrets leaving this stress behind and living in a peaceful village.

Graeme, who has been dividing his week between winemaking and being a GP in the village, had been going to give up being a doctor all together this year and concentrate on the vines.  Luckily he did not carry this out as this year’s catastrophic nearly five-month drought has had a serious effect on wine production. Indeed, Graham said, the obvious signs of climate change are making him think he may have to abandon one of his vineyards because of lack of water and get land near Lac de Salagou, a man-made reservoir beside their village, where the soil is not so good for wine but the water is available.

Then we had to leave, as two separate parties of Dutch arrived to buy wine.  Our last sight was of Graham filling one of the car boots to the brim with cases of his wine.

Cancer checkup OK

On Monday we had to go to Montpellier for my annual visit to the oncologue, Dr Kerr.

But first we treated ourselves to a stroll round Montpellier and a yummy lunch at Alain’s restaurant.  (Somehow we managed to try out three desserts … …)

Then rather overcome by good things, we attempted to find the vast Montpellier Cancer Institute, Val d’Aurelle.  I had to abandon my trusted TomTom GPS as it refused to recognise any of the streets near the centre.  I think Sara was suitably impressed by the vastness of the complex (one of the 20 regional centres in France) and by the very impersonal way patients have to negotiate reception and pass from one waiting room to another.

Until now, I have found Dr Kerr efficient (reputed as one of THE oncologues of Montpellier) but somewhat distant.  All that changed on Monday.  She came into the room asking anxiously if I was all right.  My appointment was apparently an hour previously and she said it was out of character for me not to turn up.  She was showing genuine concern for me and somehow it was much easier to talk with her this time.

The checkup showed no problems.  However, she stressed that next time I really should come with all the reports and scans for other parts of my body, in particular my ongoing sciatic nerve problems, as she believed in looking at problems globally. If she could see the size of just this year’s file of medical documents and scans!

Anyhow, I now feel that in the hopefully unlikely event that I have a recurrence of problems that I am in the hands of an oncologue I like as well as respect.

New kitchen stuff

Me? Excited by kitchen appliances? Well, I have to admit – yes!

A fortnight ago I said I had ordered a new hob and oven.  They arrived and Richard, who originally installed my kitchen, has just finished putting them in place.

I have to report instant satisfaction.  Whereas the old gas hob was incapable of simmering slowly (something to do with the gas supply), my new induction hob gently heated a pan of girolles, no problem.  I thought I would be irritating by the controls, which ae hiding in the black surface (a white would have cost me more than 100 euros more), but once you touch the start button all is lit up and very intuitive.

Even more satisfying is the oven.  In contrast to my old Smeg, which was a nightmare of unnecessary electronic complexity, this Samsung number basically has two satisfying physical knobs, one to turn it on and rotate to select the function, the other to rotate to select the temperature.  I exaggerate a bit, there is a tiny bit of touching the screen (to select the temperature function or changing the clock, for example), but it is pretty idiot-proof.

Today I grilled lamb chops (something I have not been able to do easily for years). Better still, you can choose to just grill on one side, if grilling for one. And the oven can be divided into two, either simply not heating the bottom half, or using it for some complex baking at two different temperatures (not my league).

My family and friends who have struggled with cooking here will be delighted to read all this.  And once I  have finished some forthcoming travels, I intend to justify the expense by improving my cooking skills.

I’m not promising to pull my weight by sharing more of the cooking when you are here – not just yet.