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.


Hospital food

I realise I’ve been here three months and not really talked about the food.  How could I have been so remiss when I’m so greedy?

I’m not the only one: in a routine of remorseless exercises of rééducation interspersed with periods of inactivity when most people find it hard to occupy themselves, the meals are pivotal points in the day.

I usually get up and shower at 6.30 and await breakfast eagerly. It arrives at 8.15, usually delivered by a charming, smiling woman – on of several of Magebran origin. Normally my favourite meal of the day, breakfast here is sadly nothing to write home about. I have opted for chocolate rather than the indifferent coffee. And the bread roll (‘tartinée ‘ with butter and jam)  is not a patch on my own lovely toast (or, on my more virtuous days, porridge).

Lunch, at midi, is in a different class. The entrée is usually a salad and the main dish can be really good. Yesterday we had steak, with a good sauce, excellent potato gratin and peppers. Particular highlights of the week are mussels – and chips, which everybody falls on with gusto. Then we have cheese (proper cheese – not the plastic sort I have had in other clinics), fruit (I’ve lost count of how many clementines I have eaten) and about twice a week a dessert. Marie Laure and I get quite excited on pudding days, but we are not the only ones!

Supper is often of lower quality and the weekends, when many people go home, can be really indifferent.  Sad, when those who remain in the clinic need cheering up and entertaining over two long days with no rééducation.

I almost forgot the goûter, at four in the afternoon – hot drink of your choice and on Thursdays a small bun or cake. The French laugh at the English and their afternoon tea, but they are partial to their goûter. (The difference is I see very little snacking between these four daily events.)

So the only real downsides are the weekends – and the vegetables, which are invariably overlooked for my taste.

The result of all this is that I have put on over three kilos here! For the past month I have opted for ‘petite portion’ for the main course – a half portion – but with no sign of a stop to this relentless weight gain. Some serious dieting will be on order when I get home.

Paucity of restaurants and cafes

My brother-in-law, Peter, and I recently visited a few vineyards in the region.  We tasted well – but we also ate well.  In particular we had an excellent lunch in the wine village of Montpeyroux.

We chose ‘La Terrasse du Mimosa’ because it was round the corner from the caves where we had been buying wine.  And we were hungry. We didn’t expect much, as the tables were plonked in an area surrounded by roads and seemed without pretention.  We were wrong: the food was excellent, the service good, and the wine recommended by the waitress a new discovery.  We sat in the mid-day sun, feeling all was right with the world.

That is perhaps many people’s image of the south of France – a village centre, the sun, watching people walk by, and enjoying good food and wine.  But Montpeyroux is 50 km south of here, in the prosperous wine belt of the up and coming Terrasses du Larzac.  There is more money around.

When friends and family come to stay, they often say “Let’s go out for a meal”.  But where? Or if they go for a walk over the hills and arrive in a village, they are thirsty, and look for a local cafe or bar. In vein. The truth is that the network of bars, cafes, bistros, brasseries, restaurants, auberges…..that one dreams of finding is not there.  Maybe it was never there, though there is evidence in local history of village bars, once serving the more modest needs of the locals.

When Chris and I first came here, Bréau had an auberge, where Alain offered outstanding food (though not to the taste of the locals).  The auberge is now a chambre d’hôtes, and the bar above the baker’s is open for short hours, doing a good job, but really a meeting place for locals such as the hunters.  The nearby village of Aulas had a restaurant (for a time very good) and a cafe.  Both are now closed.  Le Vigan, our local ‘metropolis’ has half a dozen  places where you can eat lunch (mainly bars) and even fewer where you can eat in the evening.  The main restaurant with gastronomic aspirations closed two years ago.  There are one or two other places with better food, but a fair trek from le Vigan.

Why? I suppose the lack of restaurants can partly be explained by the strong Protestant tradition of the Cévennes. That is what a friend, from a Catholic Breton background said to us in our early years here. I sometimes forget that this is one of the very few Protestant areas of France – not that many people go to church, but there is a sense of belonging to a huguenot past, a puritan culture. People meet, celebrate, eat and drink, but more so in the family or within the social structures of a village do (like the one I’m about to go to in five minutes).

For me the reasons for the lack of restaurants are more fundamentally economic.  Our region until recently was called Languedoc Roussillon and finds itself near the bottom of the national wealth table:  20% of households in Languedoc Roussillon, Corsica and Pas de Calais live below the poverty line. Within the region the département of the Gard is not as poor as its more northern neighbour, Lozère.  But the western part, including the pays viganais, is far poorer than further east, towards the Rhone.  Even those with jobs are often low paid and have little money to spare for going out – apart from Saturday, when people go to the market as much to sit having a drink with friends as to buy food.

For two months of the year there is a dramatic influx of tourists and an evident demand for restaurants and cafés.  But the tourist season here is ridiculously short and it is hard to sustain a business on a few months of sunshine in summer.

Luckily all is not gloom.  On Peter’s last evening here we returned to a local restaurant in Aumessas (15 km away is regarded as local round here): La Filature. Here at last was some classy food.


Dégustation de vin

I still find it quite unnerving that the French word for ‘tasting’ is ‘degustation’. But that is what we have done a couple of times in the past week.

My brother-in-law, Peter, is here for a fortnight. Most of his visit is rather boringly low key, while I get on with a backlog of tasks, like trying to cram a fortnight’s cello practise into a week, rescue the Arabic completely forgotten over the summer before the first autumn class this Thursday, and deal with the pile of administration generated by the latest chapter in my health history.

However we have managed to fit in three wine trips,  the first to visit our friends Graeme (‘Trois Terres’) and Alice at Octon on Lac de Salagou, then to Pic St Loup and the yesterday to the Terrasses du Larzac. These trips were made very special by the glorious warm sunny weather.

The jagged limestone masses of Pic St Loup and its neighbour, the Montagne de l’Hortus, are the landmark when driving down from my house to Montpellier.

Pic St Loup (L) and Montagne de l'Hortus (R)
Pic St Loup (L) and Montagne de l’Hortus (R)

Peter and I have refined the list of vineyards we visit to a manageable maximum of about six (mid-range in reputation).  Last Friday we visited three: Mas Gourdou, Foulaquier and Lavabre (not least so I could avoid the temptation to spend too much!).

We tasted – and bought – some superb wines in all three.  But these were wines made three or four years ago.  I fear the story could be quite different in another three years.  Pic St Loup was hit by a devastating freak hailstorm one day in August. Giant balls of ice wiped out whole crops. The mother of the young man who now runs Mas Gourdou told us that he had lost 60% of his grapes – particularly serious as he has just invested huge sums to upgrade the vineyard equipment and buildings. At Foulaquier the owner said he had lost 70%.  The worst he said was that the damage done to the vines meant that next year would have no grapes either.  At Lavabre the owner said that he had lost all – 100% – of his Grenache one of the three main grapes he needed to produce an appellation wine.

The Terrasses du Larzac is  the wine growing area to the west of Montpellier, on the southern slopes of the Larzac plateau. It is perhaps less well known than Pic St Loup, but it merits the same accolades.  We decided to limit ourselves to just two vignerons. (A viticulteur makes grows the vines but leaves the production of the wine to a cave cooperative. A vigneron grows the grapes and turns them into wine himself, selling directly from his cave, to specialist wine merchants or direct to restaurants.)

It has now become an annual event to visit André Suquet and Jo Lynch, the delightful couple who own and run the domaine Villa Dondona near Montpeyroux.  Earlier this year André took us on a memorable tour of his vineyards, surrounding the picturesque hamlet of Barry, with dramatic views of the nearby ruins of a medieval fort.  This time we had arranged to meet him in his cave in Montpeyroux.  André was for decades a doctor in Africa – we think in quite a senior post – and we have had delightful, wide ranging conversations with him in the past.  This time the talk was mainly of Brexit, as we all (including the young Italian waiting to make his case for being employed by André) struggled to understand the mentality of those who voted to leave.

One amusing aside: we learnt that André was in the same class at medical school as André Bertrand (now a dentist of high repute), the father of Marion Bertrand, the surgeon about to do my shoulder. The Bertrand parents own and run several vineyards, the main one, Domaine de Malavieille, being close to Graeme and Alice, who also know them.  A trio of medical vignerons!

People in the wine trade like eating well.  André told us about the forthcoming annual dinner of vignerons from Montpeyroux and its surrounds, when the food will be provided by a many starred Michelin chef.  Lunch in the middle of the square near his cave was not quite this, but still, well above the standard you get in le Vigan.  Further, the waitress recommended a wine we didn’t know which turned out to be excellent.  The restaurant is also a wine shop and sells at the same price as you pay when visiting vineyards.  We will be back.

After lunch we visited a vineyard we didnt know, recommended by Graeme, called Mas des Brousses, in Puéchabon, a lovely old village which does not seem to feature in guide books.img_3848

The vigneron turned out to be a vigneronne – a very pleasant young woman, Géraldine Combes, as were her wines.

I benefit on all these trips from Peter’s knowledge about wine.