Striving for…imperfection (and an aside on oily fish)

Living in France has taught me that perfection isn’t always the best goal.  A slightly wonky stone wall is beautiful and wouldn’t look right of someone came and straightened it up (shore it up, yes that is OK, you don’t want it falling on anyone!).

I don’t mean that you settle for less or just accept mediocre…it is more about recognising the value of imperfection….and then (on a short philosophical detour here, bear with me) applying that to your broader view of life.

It is a hard lesson for me, and I fight it all the time. When Dom and I first moved in to the house here I started making lists…never ending lists of what was wrong, what needed to be changed and when we needed to change/fix it (in my mind it was usually, “now”). 

About a year ago we were invited to our friends Laurence and Jo’s house for apéro (a supremely fabulous thing here in France which more often than not includes very tasty food).  Their house is beautiful, warm, classy, welcoming…with high ceilings, lots of wood and manages to retain amazing old features while still feeling ‘modern’.  It isn’t a huge home, but it is lovely and inviting.  While nibbling away on some of the amazing treats Jo had whipped up I was lamenting how we weren’t going to be able to finish all the renovations in the immediate future and we were facing reprioritising a lot of work. 

OK, a little aside here.  I don’t like oily fish.   I want to like it- I appreciate the beauty of the fish, and the health value and when I see gorgeous little tapas with a glistening filet of sardine – I get it, I want to like it. But somehow my mouth is wired in such a way I find the flavour way too intense.  I used to think if I just kept trying it I would finally like it (kind of like avocados and asparagus when I was young, hated them, now I can’t get enough) but no, no matter how much I try, my mouth rejects oily fish.  Anyhow, anchovies in particular are a difficulty (ask Dom who tried to ‘sneak’ some anchovy oil on a salad once…didn’t end well).  I always have anchovies in the fridge, I appreciate what they add to a dish – in small portions – they work in roast lamb or a rich winter meat sauce…or something with lots (and I mean lots) of capers…anyhow…one of Jo’s treats was anchovies that had been sandwiched between two sage leaves, then battered and fried.  I figured I would be a polite guest and try one.  I did.  It was good.  I was shocked.  I still don’t like anchovies, but something magical happens when they join up with sage and hot oil.

Back to my non-anchovy revelation.   Jo responded that my stymied renovations were probably a very good thing…she told me she and Laurence had been working on their home for 25 years to get it where it is, applying their evolving ideas of what worked best and their evolving selves as they lived longer in France (they used to live in London).  She noted I would likely have very different views on what to do with spaces in the house after living in it for a while and I should relax about living within a ‘project’ that would be ever-changing.   

She is so right, ideas of what I’d like to do have already radically changed (and again, getting briefly philosophical), not just with the living space around me- but with myself in that living space. I look around and realise some of the imperfections are good things and I try to stop thinking too much about the end result and just enjoy the journey of living in an old, funky, unpredictable home. 

I’m still making lists, and I am still frequently annoyed with the bathroom next to my office, and the plastic primary-coloured door handles some idiot put on a lot of the doors (what were they thinking, the house was built 200 years ago, yellow and green plastic, really?!?!)…buuuut the terrace is great and it is hard to get stressed sitting on it looking out at the gorgeous countryside I am so lucky to live in.

Jar collecting

Before we moved to France I used to keep jars in the anticipation I would find time/supplies to make delicious jam to share with my friends and neighbours.  The usual scenario was:

  1. Make one batch of something each year
  2. Get really motivated and excited and collect jars until they were spilling all over the floor of my small galley kitchen in North London
  3. Realise I wasn’t going to make anything very soon and recycle said jars
  4. Suddenly get a crate of apples or blackberries…then scramble around try to find jars!

Now, I do have a big stock of jars, spilling all over the floor…but the difference is I actually use them on a regular basis (that said, I probably have a few too many and should probably do a sort/recycling run).  Total mea culpa….I am still learning.  While I can say most of my jams taste fine, I clearly need to learn patience as a few of them aren’t as set as they should be, so a bit more compote-y than jam-y.  Like I said, I am learning. 

My latest ‘thing’ is moving in to cordials and shrubs (and my tried and true goats milk caramel – Cajeta!).  With summer imminent it is time to stock up for sipping chilled drinks on the terrace….and you can only drink so much rose. 😉

My latest effort is a celebration of Rhubarb, with a rhubarb ginger cordial and rhubarb -strawberry compote which is great on yoghurt! (recipe from the fabulous David Lebovitz, replacing the Kirsch with the local aperitif – Quercy des Iles).  Only mistake/new find was grabbing the jar of chestnut honey instead of the acacia for the cordial….I realised once it was all bubbling away (chestnut honey has a strong distinct perfume), but it turns out it works well with the ginger and rhubarb and makes for a pleasantly perfume-y coridal.  Phew.

I have a range of different types of basil, some lemongrass and physalis sprouting on my terrace…so I see some interesting combos coming out later in the summer.  Oh yes, and some blackberries from last year in the freezer I need to use up—hmmm, a blackberry and bay shrub maybe?

When you need a bit of sweetness in life. Cajeta: goat’s milk caramel

What to do when you have too much goat’s milk and you need a little pick me up.  Yes, of course, cajeta! 

OK you probably thought,  “make cheese”, and I have been working on that  – with mixed results (I’ll post that a little later) or maybe ‘ how about some delicious yoghurt”….and that is on the list. 

A tiny backstory- we finally started milking our x2  ‘ex-Rocamadour’ goats Ella and Aretha, in November.  Being a ‘goat milking newbie’ it took a few weeks to get a routine going…and I have gone from about 300mL a to nearly a litre a day. Which is pretty good given we only milk in the morning right now (because of our limited electric fencing/pasture space they are with their kids in the field all day, so we don’t do an evening milk).  In any case we have more fresh milk than we can use, so I am having to come up with creative ways to use it before it goes off.

Ella and Aretha and their feisty kids

Cajeta is a bit like dulce de leche but made with goats milk and a bit of cinnamon.  I am all about the cajeta right now…move over salted caramel, it is cajeta time!  In brownies, on ice cream, on yoghurt (or fromage frais, or fromage blanc), in cakes (especially nice in apple cake), drizzled over fresh fruit, on toast (especially if you have a bit of fresh goat’s cheese underneath) and anywhere else you want a little sweetness on your life.  Cajeta latte? Si si!

Without further ado, here is my current cajeta recipe, adapted from the lovely Isabel Eats blog (which has a ton of delicious recipes for Mexican food).

  • 1 litre goat’s milk
  • 225g sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 5g Baking soda (bicarbonate) mixed into 15ml lukewarm water
  • 5ml vanilla

First off – start with a big pot- bigger than you think you need, when this gets to bubbling away you will be surprised at the volume you need to contain!  I use my jam pan – it has a heavy bottom and sloping sides so things reduce quickly.

Put the sugar milk and cinnamon stick in the pot- bring to a simmer over medium heat.  When you just start to see tiny little bubbles at the edge- take the pot off the heat and stir in the baking soda.  Put the pot back on the heat.  Keep a close watch – it will start bubbling up soon…stir continuously until it has calmed down, then you only need to stir every few minutes to keep things from sticking to the bottom.  Reduce over medium heat for about an hour. You know it is ready when it is a deep brown caramel colour, has the consistency of honey and you start to see the bottom of the pan when you scrape the mixture to the side.  Pour in to sterilised jars and keep it in the fridge.  It should last a month or more- but  I suspect you will use it all up before then.

Idea evolution and transformation

So, you know when you discount the first idea that pops into your head (either as way too obvious, or way too unrealistic)….and then it keeps stalking you? Yep, that is me right now.  Without replaying the full history of the last year…part of the ‘dream’ in France was to run a cooking school.  For various reasons I had come to the conclusion that we would still do cooking classes, but more as a small side offering. I just couldn’t see how we could get enough people to make it viable. AAANNNND, I am still not sure how it will work, but thanks to a course I am on (The Ideas Adventure- which is indeed an adventure!) and some amazing creative and supportive people on the course with me, I have been spurred on to revisit the idea and play with a bit since it is something I am really passionate about.

Instead of just throwing whole thing out I am picking it back up and examining it from different angles.  Rather than a simple ‘cooking class’ maybe more of a ’food experience’.  With the wealth of markets, farms, vineyards and stunning produce to draw from in this area there are endless variations of what I could do. So, what next? Certainly not sitting around playing every scenario over in my head.  Now- I need to do.  Try things out, talk to people, get out and meet more of the local producers, share my excitement.

I also now have a slightly abstract list that I keep with me to remind me what really moves me and whatever I do needs to resonate with these:

  1. Allows me to share knowledge
  2. Involves food and wine
  3. Includes creativity/creating
  4. Provides a nurturing/nourishing environment
  5. Is varied in both activity and pace
  6. Allows me to interact with nature/outdoors/animals
  7. Provides a sense of purpose
  8. Provides an opportunity for face-to face interactions
  9. Is inspiring
  10. Is authentic
  11. Provides an opportunity to be with passionate people
  12. …and I get to keep learning new things

In the do spirit – I have scheduled my first dry run food experience for 21 -July (why don’t you join me!)

…and put out a little market research survey to test the waters:

Watch this space to see where it all goes.  The one thing I know for sure is I am happy to be right here, right now….oh, and I still love cheese (and did I mention we are getting goats in July!!).


The Cuisiniste…

Finally, there is an army of artisans roaming around the house, gîte, land and pool. In the last few days we have had:

  • Maçon – mason/builder doing a magical job creating a window in the gîte this week…and getting rid of the 1970’s textured plaster to expose the beautiful stone walls underneath!

  • Électricien – oh yes, if you have an army of artisans that all arrive at the same time and all plug in their equipment- you will likely blow your electrics. Top tip – get the electrician to install a special circuit just for the work.  Now they tell me.
  • Pisciniste –installing new pump equipment and draining the pool, revealing a lovely green sludge. It is going to be beautiful when it is finished. No. Really. It is.


  • Err….fosse-septique-iste – trying to figure out where all the new ‘evacuation’ pipes will go to link up with the new giant septic thank that will be installed soon (please, soon…soon….I know our current septic tank is about to give it up)
  • Maître d’ouevre – contractor, guy bringing it all together and drawing up the plans….now looking to draw up plans for the renovations on the main house.
  • Pascal – the man with the demolition/digging/giant machines


….and the cusiniste, of course.  I am hoping this guy is a magician, the kitchen in the main house is relatively tiny, and we need to get a lot out of it, and the budget is slowly getting smaller as all the ‘ça ne marche pas’ add up.   In any case before June we will have a shiny new kitchen….oh yes, I am supremely excited!!

Food Magpie and Duck Bones

I am wondering if I should change my blog to Food Magpie in France?

Like many other people, I apply my own experience to my cooking…making the most of ingredients where I am,  maybe applying them in a slightly different way…or taking particular techniques and adapting to different ingredients.  For example, cassoulet….I suppose I could wax poetic about that dish for ages, but using that as starting point and bringing in my food experience:   black beans instead of the traditional white haricot beans, short rib instead of duck confit, chorizo instead of Toulouse sausage…..and then sneak in a bit of ancho chili and toasted cumin.  No longer cassoulet of course, but still something very good.   Alternatively, take local ingredients and put them in other recipes- duck confit and Cabécou (local goats cheese) lasagne anyone?

And of course, I very thoroughly embrace the full local food traditions….and love to learn the history and discover ‘new’ dishes.  I was recently told about the tradition of ‘duck bones’. I am still not entirely sure, but here it goes.  In this area most ducks are ‘fat ducks’ and are raised for their pieces….liver (foie gras) breast (magret) leg-thigh (for confit) neck (cou farci…kind of a sausage, but different, and yummy), gizzards for salads and general munching.  The rest of the meat is used for things like rillettes and friton (chunky bits you get either as a pâté kind of dish or if you need something a bit naughty – fried, think pork scratchings taken to a whole new level). Oddly – you don’t often see a whole duck for roasting or ‘non confit’ bits of duck to cook.  So – in the French spirit of using everything, the last remaining bits are ‘the bones’, and I have been told these are very very good.  I think I am supposed to go to my butcher and ask for ‘des os de canard’ and then I get a pile of bones…either ready to roast or already roasted.  Then you eat them…which I believe means suck all the remaining meat off the roasted bones.  I’ll see how that goes, sounds good to me.

Budget, breaking bad brain habits and…breathe

The featured image of cheese doesn’t really have anything to do with this post- it is just there because I am ‘grateful’ to live in a country that has an endless supply of delicious cheese. 🙂

OK, two things to start:

  1. For reasons I won’t detail because I am trying to be more of a positive person- about 20% of our total funds have been “lost”. This includes what was to have been our ‘budget cushion’ and any emergency funds. (ouch)
  2. Whatever your renovation budget and timeline – double them. (ouch again)

That pretty much covers the budget, which has sort of been giving me heart palpitations.  BUT we are moving forward and determined to find other avenues of income to fill that gap. As the saying goes, c’est la vie.

Which brings me to ‘breaking bad brain habits’.  Just like developing general bad habits (like smoking, biting your nails or over-filling the rubbish bin…OK, that last one might be debate-able) we can build bad ‘emotional response’ habits. I was recently reading specifically about complaining…and how it is a seemingly easy way to deal with challenges/barriers/problems – but it becomes a habitual negative response. One suggestion to try and break the negative habit is every time you complain pause and remind yourself of something be grateful for.  So it might work like this:

  1. Complain: Grrr, X company is really annoying me by screwing up my account so I can’t watch Game of Thrones.
  2. Pause – avoid going into an overactive tirade about being denied the opportunity to cheer on the dragon chick.
  3. Shift thought – well, since I can’t watch GoT, I have the opportunity to catch up on Samantha Bee/John Oliver/Stephen Colbert – and laugh my ass off instead, and I am grateful there are people in this world who make me laugh.

I am grateful my dog recognises the Christmas tree is indoors and doesn’t feel the urge to pee on it (so far).

Yes- I realise that is a bit simplistic and my ‘gratefuls’ lately have been a bit more philosophical…more about having an opportunity to chase a dream, meet wonderful new people and live in a beautiful place.  I think you get the point.  Being negative is easy but it sucks your energy in the long run and you don’t get much done, and I have an ever-growing list of fun things I want to be doing so I need that energy; things like-  make marshmallows, bake Christmas cookies, try my hand at a terrine, plan a vegetable garden, find a pig breeder, research chicken breeds…..find out where the hell my carte de sejour is….

Now- breathe!