now blogging at www.katesplates.com.au


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Farewell Grace and Gusto … Bonjour Kate’s Plates

It is mostly with excitement that I introduce to you all my renamed blog … this will be my last post on Grace and Gusto … after this, my publishing home will be Kate’s Plates.

So why the change? I started blogging about eighteen months ago to see if it was something I enjoyed and something I could stick to. I didn’t want to invest too much time and money into a blog before I knew I would take it seriously. It seems I have done that, I’ve loved the learning process (although I do cringe at some of my old posts which won’t make it on to Kate’s Plates!) and I want to keep going. Grace and Gusto was a very personal name and it really does reflect me as a person but it doesn’t mean much to my audience. Some have even confused it with Grace and Gutso! At least that can relate to food!

Kate’s Plates is easier to remember and clearly represents what I write about … food. It came about a few months ago when I realised I had an alarmingly strong passion for collecting vintage plates. Alarming because I’m not yet sure how to get them all home from France to Australia! I may sell them online one day, but for now I’m having too much fun keeping them all to myself. It’s a joy to hunt for them at a local vide grenier (garage sale) or brocante (second hand) store and of course I love plating up delicious food on them. They make my food look beautiful and they all have a story of their own. Last night, I served dinner on a beautiful plate that could be between 65 and 95 years old! Imagine if it could talk! I’d love to know what dishes it’s held and the story behind its previous owners.

In our recent move to Quillan, I got to unpack everything we had stored during our summer roadtrip. It was like Christmas! I left my crockery boxes until last – I had really missed not being able to select one each mealtime. They all arrived safe and sound … except for this one.
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I must admit I actually shed a tear. This was truly my favourite cake stand. When I first saw it in a brocante shop, I just knew we were meant to be together and it ended up being gifted to me by a family member. I’m sure a few eyes are rolling, but you can see how passionate I am about vintage plates, and why the new blog name works so well.

If you have been subscribing to Grace and Gusto, thankyou. I’ve loved having you on the other end of my posts and have appreciated every comment. I continue to write for myself but it certainly does give me a warm fuzzy when someone else loves what I write too. You will no longer receive notifications from Grace and Gusto, so please head over to www.katesplates.com.au and pop your email address in the top right hand corner to receive future posts from me. I’m about to post a lovely Spiced Zucchini Cake recipe so subscribe now so as not to miss it.

You can also follow Kate’s Plates on Facebook if you’re not already, and also on Instagram.

Thankyou for being with me on this journey so far and don’t forget I love to hear from you so keep the comments and questions coming!

For the last time, with grace and gusto,

kpx

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Village Life

It is day six of chapter three in our family adventure.  [Actually it’s now day ten – I’ve been distracted after a busy weekend!]. Chapter one was six months in an idyllic villa on two acres amongst the vineyards – blissful to say the least. Chapter two was an eight week road trip through France, Italy and Switzerland where we created a lifetime of memories.  We stayed in everything from a camping ground to a rustic stone house to a chic, Scandinavian-designed loft apartment. Fourteen kitchens later, I am setting up “home” in an apartment in Quillan, a village in South West France at the foothills of the Pyrenees. The apartment is directly above a bustling (during the warmer months anyway) cafe and overlooks what becomes the market square for the village every Wednesday and Saturday morning, set against a backdrop of glorious, looming mountains.

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The view from our rooftop terrace up to the mountains

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Market Day in the village square – view from our lounge room window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In one way, I feel as if we are starting from the beginning again – figuring out where to shop and dine, establish which local doctor we should use, learn what days the bins go out, figure out how we can out smart any parking police by knowing the best spots each day and of course, get to know some locals! We have made some headway on the latter already. Our neighbour happens to be Australian and his wife is Vietnamese. They have already proudly shown us their garden allotment where they produce most of their own fruit and vegetables and they gifted us a beautiful Courgette Precoce Maraichere. It’s a huge pale green variety of zucchini (often called a marrow) and I turned it into dinner (see recipe below).

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The enormous marrow as well as garden fresh capsicum, cucumbers and beans (so sweet they barely made it home!)

It’s human interactions like these that help me settle into our new way of life. It should feel “normal” by now, given we have been in France for almost nine months. I am amongst (mostly) french people. I understand them and mostly, they understand me. As the kids started their new school this week, it gave me an opportunity to pause and reflect on the lessons I’ve learned on this journey so far. There’s a story behind every one of them, but I’ve selfishly listed them quickly so I can remember these lessons and apply them elsewhere. Some of them are profound, some may sound petty, but each and every one of them has been a small win on a particular day when things may have been a little challenging and some are life lessons we need to be reminded of constantly.

  • My family means more to me than I can ever put down in words. The gift of time and experiences with them in France is something I will remain humbly grateful for.
  • I’ve learned to drive on the right (wrong?) side of the road.
  • I’ve learned to be a more skillful and alert driver (I can hear my husband scoff) … mastering small spaces is survival in this country!
  • I’ve learned the difference between jambon (ham) cru, cuit and sec … this may sound like one of those petty ones, but the day I figured this out was the day the clouds parted and the sun shone through!
  • I’ve learned to take even more time to prepare and cook … it’s my happy place, my therapy and my art
  • I’ve fallen in love with vegetables all over again … they taste so good here!
  • I’ve learned to truly appreciate nature and the seasonal produce she bares. I love seeing an abundance of fresh courgettes in summer and dreaming up new ways to eat them all (I’ve included one way in the recipe below).  I indulge in blueberries in summer knowing they’re simply not available from October until May. It becomes a real treat.
  • I’ve learned to be more patient. In France, you wait a lot. Often. In nearly all situations. Shop vendors are more interested in finishing their conversation with one customer than they are with serving the next. I respect this and am learning to wait patiently and to enjoy the process of a real conversation with each person I meet rather than it being simply a transaction.
  • I’m learning that the digital economy here is not what we’re used to in Australia. Emails get answered when its convenient – face to face interaction takes precedence. Websites are rarely optimised or user friendly and it’s considered normal that the wifi rarely works perfectly.
  • I’ve learned to have a great respect for the history and culture of this country and how it impacts people beliefs and attitudes towards food and their craft today.  The word artisan is not just a marketing term – it holds great value and will often mean (if you ask and listen) that there is a beautifully rich family history associated with their work.
  • I’ve learned to have more grace with people … one person’s opinion about something doesn’t mean they can be labelled or stereotyped. They are a whole person and it’s my responsibility to understand first rather than be understood. Having French as a second language is the best tool to force you to use your ears and mouth as God intended.
  • I’ve learned to ask questions, ask for what I want, ask if I’m making sense, ask if I have understood correctly and ask about anything that is unclear. It’s the only way we can get by here but having the courage to ask has always meant we have made things happen and discovered new things.  When we open doors, open our mind and open our heart, the experience is always richer.
  • I’m learning the beautiful side to village life is that you can see and hear everything that’s happening outside your window.
  • I’m learning that the drawback of village life is that you can see and hear everything that’s happening outside your window.
  • I’m learning to live in old buildings and accept that a part of life here is that there is always something that doesn’t work all that well. Strangely enough, I get by with very few dramas.  My expectations are changing for the better.  I get resourceful and find other solutions.

 

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Market fresh produce

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’m sure as we become accustomed to village life, we will no doubt learn many more lessons. For now, I am enjoying this quaint, walk-everywhere lifestyle. I can walk to the butcher, the baker, (no candlestick maker in town), market, cafe, restaurant, school, doctor, river, pool, gym, cinemas and even a local brocante store! I have spotted a piece of land available in a community garden and perhaps, with a few lessons from my earnest and eager neighbour, I may even get my hippy on and grow a few vegies.

There’s nothing that inspires me to cook more than super fresh locally grown produce without chemicals and with loads of love. I took the enormous courgette and decided to do a courgette farci. It sounds so much nicer in French … Stuffed Zuc is the Aussie translation. This is a perfect midweek meal and one you can change up depending on what’s in season and what’s in your kitchen. Don’t overcomplicate it with too                                                                      many flavours, just season well and enjoy the flavour of the vegetable.

Ingredients

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A few fresh vegies is all this receipe needs

2-3 large zucchinis or marrows or 1 smaller one for each person eating
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
200gms smoked bacon, diced (lardons)
150gms cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
half bunch of parsley, finely chopped
200gms rice
200gms grated cheese (I used emmental)
salt and pepper to taste

Method

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Scoop out the seeds to allow room for the stuffing

Prepare the rice in a rice cooker, on the stove or in your Thermomix. This can be done in advance and set aside. Heat the oven to 180 degrees. In a large pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil to medium high and saute the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the bacon and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Cook for a further 3 minutes until the tomatoes just start to soften. Turn off the heat and set aside.

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I used left-over stuffing in a tomato and capsicum and served it all up!

Wash the marrow or zucchini, trim the ends, slice in half horizontally and scoop out the seeds. Reserve for use in a stir-fry or vegetable stock. Combine the rice with the bacon and tomato mix, adding an extra tablespoon of olive oil if needed.  Stir in the chopped parsley (reserving a little for the garnish) and ensure it is well combined. Spoon the rice mixture into the hollowed out zucchinis and push down to form a mound on the zucchini. Sprinkle with grated cheese, season again and put into the oven for approximately 30 minutes until the marrow is cooked through and the topping is golden. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh parsley, a side salad and crusty baguette. This could easily be a vegetarian meal – substitute the bacon for olives and add a dash of lemon juice and lemon zest to the rice mixture. You can also substitute the rice for chick peas, cous cous or breadcrumbs – the options are endless.

I’m off to slow cook some lamb for dinner … despite the intense blue sky and glorious September sunshine, the mornings and evenings have quickly become cool enough to hint at Autumn … cool enough for some good ol’ roast dinners.

With grace and gusto,

kpx


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Summer Lovin’

I had a short break from posting until yesterday (I have been busy doing other things like writing a book – I feel like this could be a life-long task – and setting up my new blog domain.  But more on that later …).  I dug this out from the start of our summer holidays – hard to believe that was four weeks ago now!!

So where are we in the world?  At the moment, we are in Sanary-sur-mer, a little seaside village on the Mediterranean between Marseille and Nice.  I only discovered this little gem because an Australian friend of mine married a local eight years ago and we were forced (it was hard) to come visit for a week and take part in the wedding celebrations.
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So I’ve been here three times now – I keep coming back.  There’s a certain comfort in knowing what you can expect from a place when you have your family in tow.  This seemed like the perfect first stop on our eight week summer holiday throughout France, Italy and Switzerland, because it is small enough to walk around, big enough to be spoilt for choice with restaurants and pretty enough to entice you down to the harbour for their glorious, ultra-long twilights and enchanting nocturnal markets.  I am yet again gobsmacked by the French’s ability to put so much effort into detail purely for the joy of aesthetics.  Joie de vivre is alive and well here!
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Apart from a drastic change in temperature (the French are calling this heatwave a canicule, but in reality it’s low-mid 30s – weather we should be used to as native Brisbanites), we have had a major change of scenery.  After six months of living in a six-bedroom villa in country South-West France, I must admit I found the first couple of days in our 4 x 6m cabin in a camping ground a bit of a shock!  I won’t even go into detail about the “disposable sheets”!  Yes that’s a real thing.

We left the Villa with a car so full I had to sacrifice taking my market trolley with us.  For those of you who know how much I love the atmosphere of fresh food markets, you know how hard this would have been for me!  So it took me a couple of days to “organise” a spot for everything so that our 2 week stay would be comfortable and that everything could be found relatively easily.   But given how full the car was (I’m talking the kids and front seat passenger with their knees up to their chest to make room for bags at their feet!) it didn’t take us long to notice how the French deal with this problem.  Small cars are the go around here (ours is half the size we had in Australia) and so in holiday season they whip out their coffre de toit.  In English perhaps we call it a rooftop storage pod?  It gives you an extra 400L or so of storage … and so we are onto it.  We will leave this place with a coffre on our roof and happier kids – which is paramount when you are doing a 5 or 6 hour drive in a day!

Thermie came with us of course – this is a luxury when you are glamping, and when you have no oven!  Let’s just say it’s been an opportunity to think differently about meals given my space and appliance restrictions.  I am a self-confessed food snob and so I have a lot of trouble spending 50 euros on a meal out for the family which typically includes loads of trans fats and very little nutrition.  Don’t get me wrong, I am no skinny Minnie health freak over here in the land of cheese, bread and wine, but I just can’t feed my family this rubbish – and spend so much on it! – only to see the effects of poor nutrition on my kids.  Did I mention we’re in a 4x6m space for 2 weeks?  Hyperactive, cranky kids are not fun to hang out with.  Feeding them right is critical.
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So meals have included lots of fresh cut ham and salads  – I’ve found investing in a good quality mango vinegar and olive oil makes the kids LOVE any salad.  The seasonal fruits at the moment (figs, apricots, peaches, raspberries and cherries) make for super tasty and quick desserts (together with 70% dark chocolate which is only 1.20 euro here!!) and of course the luscious cheeses can be added to any meal.  Goats cheese on salad, blue cheese on bread or a brie with olives for a snack is almost too easy.  But I have created a couple of soup recipes that the kids enjoy, which is super easy to do in the Thermie in a tiny cupboard-sized kitchen and is the easiest way to ingest a load of vegies.  Given it’s winter in Australia, I figured these might come in handy for you too!!
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Creamy Sweet Potato Soup (TM31)

This recipe uses a Thermomix but can be easily adapted to your blender or food processor.
Ingredients:
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 leek, white part only, sliced
2 large carrots, peeled, sliced
3 cloves garlic
2 tsp cumin
2 tbsp creme fraiche
500gms water
2 tbsp homemade stock paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp butter
Handful of parsley, finely chopped
Blitz the leek and garlic on speed 7 for 3 seconds. Add butter and sauté for 2 minutes on speed 1 at 100 degrees.
Add remaining vegetables, reserving the parsley, and process for 10 sec on speed 6 until finely diced. Add water, stock, salt and pepper and cumin and cook for 20 minutes on speed 1 at 100 degrees.
Once cooked, add parsley, creme fraiche and remaining cumin (to taste – I like lots) and blend on speed 9 for up to a minute until your desired consistency is reached. My kids prefer it smooth.
Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and crusty bread. Freezes well for a quick meal solution.
***
Spending plenty of time around the pool to keep cool has also been a wonderful opportunity to do some serious people watching.  I keep looking for common traits in the French so as to understand them better.  There are certainly plenty of gorgeous bikini clad bodies and perfectly bronzed bare breasts (yes we had to fill our kids in on that one) but there’s also your fair share of tummy rolls, dimply bums and wobbly cellulite.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like the women here in my age group (30-40) are much less concerned about what they look like in swimwear.  They’re not reaching for their sarong to cover up the second they get out of the pool.  They’ll happily toddle around the pool area with their beautiful bouncy bodies on show for all.  There’s an air of confidence about them.  There’s a feeling of body acceptance and healthy body image mentality that I don’t think I’ve seen at home.  I love it!  I feel right at home with my wobbly bits and have felt a new freedom to just “hang out” so to speak.
home back bandol wine

Tonight, we’ve booked somewhere a bit special for dinner.  The kids have had a day sleep and we are pumped to celebrate Bastille Day in style!  We’ll be joining the thousands on the Port for fireworks at 10.30pm!

For your next night in, give this soup recipe a try – super easy and packed with 5+ vegies.  And if you can, don’t forget to add a French brie … and maybe a glass of French red!

With grace and gusto,

Kpx

P.S Quick tip: Dan Murphy’s in Australia sells French red wine from the Corbiere region … we highly recommend it!  Great price and even better taste.  Enjoy!

P.S.S I didn’t get back to talking about the new domain … I am changing the name of my blog to Kate’s Plates.  It’s more work than I first thought (of course) but sometime in the next few months I hope, this will be my new writing home.  It’s easier to remember, reflects what I’m writing about and is a nice nod to my passion for vintage French plates.  Stay tuned!  But don’t hold your breath … I don’t want to be responsible for anyone passing out J


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Cooking With Emma

After seven months in France, we took a break from r-gargling and brie bingeing and visited Italy as part of our very brave eight-weeks-on-the-road-with-three-young-kids summer road trip.  Michael and I have been there done that in Rome, Venice and Florence, so we picked a small country village in the hills of Tuscany and a quaint terrace house in Nesso, Lake Como as our Italian destinations of choice.  For six nights in Tuscany, we stayed in an old stone relic of a house with those classic terracotta tiles you wish you could afford in a new home.  They would never look as good as they do in a house that has been lived in for hundreds of years … it’s the scratches, divots and dents and the smooth, worn down steps that give it such character.  I had a quick look on the other side of the ancient door that led to the attic from our enormous main bedroom and decided it could be left undiscovered.  The cobwebs alone put me off!

The big country kitchen with ivory tiled benchtops and an eight seater dining table right in the middle that doubled as a preparation area made me feel like a true Italian Nonna!  I swear when I next build a house, I’ll be installing one of the old-fashioned dish racks hidden in a cupboard above the sink.  A brilliant idea!  The house also came with an Italian coffee pot for making my morning cups of black gold.  My aunt and uncle have always used them, and I know they are readily available at home, but I’d never tried one myself.  Needless to say, I am now the proud owner of an Italian coffee pot that can be used on a gas, electric or induction stove top … had to cover all bases when our holiday means we will use fifteen different kitchens!  It was worth the extra ten euros to ensure my family gets the best version of me each morning.

Highlights of Tuscany: San Gimignano at dusk was a moment in time (so much so that we went back a second time!); the views of the endless hills, dotted with olive trees and old farmhouses and marked by rows of vineyards; and Siena for its surprisingly entertaining Santa Maria della Scala Art Museum (we sheltered from a storm but stayed for a couple of hours exploring the underground hallways and rooms of what used to be a hospital in the 1300s) and equally entertaining and passionate providore in a quaint deli.  This rotund gentleman was full of jubilance and good humour, his walrus moustache following suit.  He looked like an actor from a 1960s street scene – someone who would be the local town butcher.  I imagine him in a black and white photograph, his personality all that is needed to colour the scene.  He over-generously handed out samples of his aged and smoked prosciutto served atop crusty bread and then quickly followed that up with a wedge of sharp pecorino smothered in creamy pesto.  Twenty-six euros later, we walked out of there with snugly wrapped packages of everything we’d tried and more … we justified it by agreeing we didn’t need lunch after all the samples!

But there was one highlight that stood out in Tuscany.  After months of living in Europe as a foreigner, I am almost repelled by the “top ten things to do in …” lists and deliberately go looking for experiences that are usually left for those who attempt to break in to the local circles.  I got wind of a certain neighbour who occasionally offered cooking classes.  I had no idea of her qualifications or if she was any good, but I felt that at the very least, it would be fantastic to meet someone local who spoke my language (both English and foodie!) and could offer further recommendations.  Little did I know my luck would have me meet Emma Mantovani.  She lived just a couple of doors up the (steep) hill and ended up being the person who checked us in as our hosts were called away to England at the last minute.

I booked a 4 hour cooking class and dinner for two with Emma and she very kindly invited the children to come along too and swim in her pool before-hand.  She asked which meat I preferred and I picked pork, but apart from this, I left it all up to her! My afternoon of cooking with Emma started with a surprise visit to a local biodynamic farm to pick up supplies for our evening meal.  It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting Nathalie, a passionate, young farmer fighting against nature and the elements and no doubt her own will, to produce biodynamic vegetables and herbs.  I’m no expert on this type of farming, but I’ve come to understand that very few farmers attempt this approach because the results are so unpredictable which means earning a living from this passion is almost impossible.  However, that hasn’t stopped Nathalie, who is qualified in viniculture and has used her agricultural knowledge to set up her own farm with her boyfriend (I noticed she had family members helping in the fields too!).  She explained to me that it’s a cut above organic and involves the use of many complimentary planting techniques, feeding the plants nutrition from fermented organic matter and the use of spiders and other creepy crawlies to keep away those insects that hinder a successful crop.  She walked me through rows of eggplants, basil, celery, potatoes, onions, zucchinis, tomatoes, cabbages, shallots, garlic, asparagus, carrots and capsicums, and pointed out many failed crops along the way.  This year it is mostly due to the searing heat that swept through France and Italy in June and early July.
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Nonetheless, we left Nathalie with a big, brown paper bag full of zucchinis and their flowers, garlic and basil that had just been picked.  As we drove off up the hill on the rugged dirt track, the echos of many “ciao’s” could be heard behind us.  It felt as if we were leaving another world behind in the valley between two giant hills.
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Back at Emma’s, I was presented with the evening’s menu and my tummy started to growl!  Despite the four courses, the offering was simple, fresh and oh so Italian:

Appetiser: Terrine of Ricotta and Carrot with a Pesto Sauce and Schiacciata all’olio (Foccacia)

First Course: Fresh Pasta with Zucchini Sauce

Second Course: Pork Tenderloin Crusted with Aromatic Herbs

Dessert: Apple and Pine Nut Cake
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As we tackled the baking first to allow plenty of time for proving, I couldn’t help but notice Emma’s classic old school Salter scales.  It made me feel like a pro at the outset! The cake went into the oven to cook first and we paused around 6pm for a glass of Lapillo Amiata 2010, which uses Tuscany’s famous Sangiovese grapes.  It went down very easily with a few slices of Pecorino from Sardinia.  I relaxed into casual chatter with Emma and discovered a little about her life around food.
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She essentially grew up in a family restaurant where she made sure she worked hard to progress from washing dishes, to instead cooking with her aunt, as quickly as possible.  Emma went on to run a bistro in Florence for years and opened an Artisan Chocolate Shop before most people knew and understood the difference between industrially produced chocolate and that of an artisan chocolatier.  All her life she has been sharing her passion for food in one way or another.  These days, she lives in one end of her large home with husband, Giancarlo, and rents out the other end as a 3 bedroom, self-catering B&B.  She is kept busy during the summer months with cooking classes in her own kitchen, using as many herbs and vegies as she can from her own backyard.

I was sent out to the herb garden with instructions to pick sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano for the pork and stood dumb-founded by the views at sunset.  Her backyard is an ideal platform to take in the panoramic views of the Tuscan hills.  I stopped by at the pool for a quick chat with my hubby and kids who had come to join us for dinner, before heading back in to start on the fresh pasta for first course.
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Whilst Emma takes food very seriously, I felt as though I was just hanging out in the kitchen watching my Italian Nonna cook the evening meal.  She has an ease about her that makes you realise that sometimes the glamour and hype over food as a trend, means you lose the true meaning of what it means to really enjoy food.  “You need patience and love to cook well” she told me.  I couldn’t help but smile and think how similar it is to life itself – patience and love with people goes a long way too. It was obvious she had passed on her love of food to Matteo, her 33 year old son.  He was visiting to help with their 600-tree olive farm and was called into the kitchen at about 9pm, challenged to a “rolling pin versus machine” race to prepare the pasta.  He produced his Grandmother’s pasta machine that was purchased in 1967 and got straight to it, chatting enthusiastically with me about how simple food is and how important it is to forget about chasing “the perfect dish” … “because it doesn’t exist” he tells me quite frankly.  Of course it doesn’t.  I agreed with him that chef-reality shows do nothing to encourage ordinary folk to get acquainted with their kitchens.  In fact, it intimidates them into thinking they could never cook dishes that look like Michelin starred centrepieces, so why bother?

By the way, Emma won the competition – the woman is twice my age and I couldn’t keep up rolling that dough at the pace she kept.  I now look at food preparation in a new light – as part of a potential fitness regime!  Matteo did well with the machine but shared the task around with me and the kids which no doubt slowed him up a bit.
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I couldn’t help but ask Emma about the Thermomix I am so fond of.  I was sure she would know of it – it’s a European appliance afterall.  She didn’t let on that she knew of it and all I know is that after that conversation, she decided we would cut everything by hand!  I couldn’t help but respect her even more for pushing me into a “back to basics” style of cooking to help me understand the work that traditionally goes into preparing a family Italian feast.  I’m guessing the certificate from the Cordon Bleu in Paris on the wall may have had something to do with her purist intent as well.
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Despite all this, she produced her blender at the last minute to make the pesto.  She seemed oblivious to my squeals of delight at her original Vorwerk “Bibby 300” from the 1970s … obviously the precursor to the Thermomix we know and love today.  Still in perfect working order but not something she uses often, she assured me.  I could tell – I could see the muscle definition in her forearms!

By 11pm, we were ready to sit down for the appetiser.  The whole family had been involved somehow in the preparation and Giancarlo shared with me, over dinner in the garden, his belief that food is an important part of life and should be something that families take time to do together and share with others.  I could see his genuine concern that this was a dying art.  You see, food and sharing is not only a business for this family but also a way of life.  They meet people from all over the world who come and stay in their little patch of Tuscan paradise.  I have no doubt they all leave richer for having had the experience of sitting down for a meal with the Mantovani family.
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The following three courses were devoured in time and before each one, I was summoned to the kitchen to help Emma present each dish, and picked up little tips here and there that I can now pass on to you. I am a garlic lover and I can never seem to put in too much for my liking.  To me, there’s just no point adding one or two cloves to a casserole.  “Simple!” Emma tells me. “Just add two in the beginning and two just before you serve it.” Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?  Sometimes we get so used to cooking a certain way that a class now and then can really freshen up your thinking and remind you how simple and easy cooking should be.

I was pleased to see Emma wrestling with the fresh pasta and sauce in the pan … I thought it was just me who ended up with all the sauce on the bottom!  She simply served the whole pan to the table and reminded everyone as they helped themselves to dig for the best part … the taste of the biodynamic zucchinis was crisp and flavoursome and the mint that Emma added at the last minute gave the whole dish a fresh twist for summer.   Again, this simple sauce had just four main ingredients but offered up enough flavour to be a stand-alone meal.
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The pork tenderloin will go down in my recipe book as a fabulous cheat dish for entertaining.  We cooked it an hour in advance by simply rolling the fillet in the mix of herbs (I learned all about juniper berries during the marathon chopping task) and searing it in a pan, adding the leftover herbs to form the base of the sauce.  White wine was the only other ingredient together with the meat juices and the sauce was reheated just before serving.  A brilliant way to serve meat hot without having to cook it all while your guests are waiting. The apple cake was moist and caramelised and served with Matteo’s home-made vanilla ice cream (the remaining four slices travelled with us to Lake Como the next day and were enjoyed for supper!).  We rolled down the hill well after midnight with tired kiddies and content tummies.
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Emma is one of those unique humans that can empower you without inflating your ego.  Her no-nonsense attitude and relaxed demeanour meant I walked away feeling inspired.  She made me feel like I had a responsibility to remind others how important good food and simple cooking is to families.  That fresh, locally grown produce is always best and worth the extra effort to source.  But above all, it reminded me that a basic investment of time and love in preparing food and sharing it with family and friends, will always pay life-long dividends.
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If you’re ever travelling to Italy, I can highly recommend Tuscany.  We stayed at Casa Magnolia (we contacted our host Charly via Airbnb.com).  Emma and Giancarlo’s B&B is called “Casa Pietraia”. If you love cooking as I do, contact Emma in advance to book in a cooking class.  She can be contacted on emmamant@tin.it.  Tell her I said “ciao!”


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Global Village

She was nine years old.  Her teacher was asking the class about their ethnicity and nationality.  She remembers hearing big words like “Caucasian” and wondering if she was one of them.  She grew anxious as the teacher made her way through each student, asking them “What is your Ethnicity?”  This moment in time could have been her earliest memory of feeling confused about her identity and where she belonged.  But instead, the teacher labelled her “the perfect child of the future”.  I wonder if the teacher knew the seed of pride she had planted in a little girl’s heart? This was the story Dewi-Ann told me as she recounted her incredibly international childhood.

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Before I go on, you should know how to pronounce this pretty name properly.  I called her Dew-ee-Ann for a bit, then I moved on to Dev-ee-Ann before she very graciously corrected me in her perfectly posh English accent.  Dave-ee-Ann is her name.  Cute huh?  She’s the first Dave-ee-Ann I’ve ever met, and I think she is rather interesting.  So much so that I wanted to tell you her story.

Born to a Dutch botanist father and a Malaysian mother who were living in Thailand at the time, Dewi-Ann spent the first seven years of her life in Indonesia where she attended an American International school.  Following this, they lived in Holland for two years before moving to Rome.  Dewi-Ann lived in Rome until she was sixteen.  This is where she feels she grew up.  Can you imagine her language repertoire?  She speaks English, Italian, Dutch and French and I wouldn’t mind betting she has a basic knowledge of Malay to add to this impressive selection.

Dewi-Ann and I met mainly because we both speak English!  One of the unexpected bonuses of living in the South of France, has been the expat community we have found ourselves enjoying.  My husband has taken up playing his long-forgotten love of soccer.   The local village team is half English, half French and I am helping him to translate the weekly emails he receives with instructions on where and who they’re playing.  I get a giggle every week when for every email he receives with details about the actual game, there are six more with details on who’s bringing what for the team meal that happens after each game.  The meal starts at about 10.30pm … I still don’t know how these guys get up and go to work each Friday after such a late night!  But I love the community spirit and importance placed on creating a time to eat together … very French indeed.

Together with her husband Will and their three children Amy, 10, Tom, 9 and Mary, 6 (plus her two eldest Dylan and Pia who pop over regularly), Dewi-Ann took the plunge six months ago and moved from England, which had been home for her since 1985.  As an Aussie, I’m jealous of their short trip across the channel to such a land as this!

Now with an upbringing like hers, you’d think this move would have been no big deal for her – in fact I figured she’d been in Will’s ear about it for years.  Not quite.  It was in fact Will who suggested the move at first.  After some changes in his accounting career he suggested that this adventure could be just the thing for their family.  Dewi-Ann was quite happy to start looking at property to buy in France – who wouldn’t be?  They’d holidayed here plenty of times before.  But she admits it took quite a while longer before she had truly internalised the fact that they were moving to France to live.

As I sit under her huge platane tree, so typical of this area in the South of France, I take the time to admire the gardens, trees, vines and ancient looking pots and statues that all have more history than I do.  But what I’m most drawn to are the crisp white shutters and crawling green ivy that accent this 130 year old farmhouse that soars above us.  It was a twenty month process from the time Dewi-Ann first laid eyes on Domaine Codaїgues to when they actually moved in.
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Domaine Codaїgues means “le Mas des eaux” … farmhouse of water.  It refers to the abundance of rain water that runs down the hill from their village of Montréal into the surrounding fields.  Although the original farmland surrounding Codaїgues was sold off by previous owners in the late 1970s, the house remains on eight acres of established gardens dotted with century-old farm machinery to decorate the aptly named “park” that is Dewi-Ann’s front yard.  The original concrete slab of the barn declares 1885 as the year it was laid and together with a huge garage, it bookends a building that could comfortably house three families.  Dewi-Ann, Will and their family are living in one end of the farmhouse with five bedrooms in use.  Add to this a workshop, horse stables, two lounge rooms, a sitting room, a kitchen with the original fireplace, three bathrooms and a grand entry foyer complete with a marble and wrought iron staircase and a feature stain-glass window, and you have an impressive home indeed.  I can’t help noticing there is also a hallway closed off with four more rooms that aren’t currently in use and an enormous attic that can be found through a “secret” door … I’m guessing they are on the future “to do” list.

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main foyer internal stairs bathroom window

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It would be easy to get overwhelmed by the task at hand and although Dewi-Ann first thought five years would see their renovation project completed, after six months of slipping into a slow-paced French life at Codaїgues, she feels no sense of urgency, preferring to take the time to respect the history of the place and repair it accordingly.  It’s almost as if Domaine Codaїgues and her new owners need time to get to know and understand one another before they walk together into the future.

Although Will has started renovating the two-storey, four bedroom residence adjacent to their living quarters, they have other projects that will be done in time including the barn, three-bedroom chalet, installing a pool and building a pool house from the existing structure that was once an orangerie.  The original owner, Madame Vidal, had this built to honour her son who died in WW1.  The gardener was charged with growing flowers in the orangerie all year round to ensure his grave was always decorated with fresh flowers.

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There are other stories that Domaine Codaїgues has been witness to.  Monsieur Laquire’s wedding took place in the park in 1971.  He was the son of the owners at the time.  There are remnants of the white foot bridge where he and his bride would have had their photo taken.  The two 60m3 grain stores and idle farm machinery in the barn hints at the productivity that once went on at Domaine Codaїgues.    Despite the charm of rusted machinery and aging stone walls, the new life in the chicken coup and fruit tree orchard brings hope for what Domaine Codaїgues will once again become.

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Dewi-Ann admits that during their first, very cold winter where she wore beanies and gloves inside the house, she may have had one or two moments where she questioned her sanity.  But as she sits in the Spring sunshine with her happy, soon-to-be-bilingual kids and the two beloved family dogs squabbling at her feet, she admits she feels it’s a real privilege to be on a journey such as this.

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Apart from having a really cool name – one you could never forget – Dewi-Ann is someone who finds herself “at home” not so much in places and things, but in family, good friends and meeting interesting people along the journey of life.  She’s happier meeting new people and swapping stories in a foreign land than she is in a shopping mall.  She would rather spend a day entertaining under her platane tree overlooking the sprawling eight acre grounds of her new home than racing around the city trying to impress people.  But what I think she doesn’t realise is how this love for the simple things in life, the way she makes people take a big deep breath and just relax around her, is really impressive.  She doesn’t need to try very hard at all.

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I ask her if she thinks she’ll have itchy feet again – or if this is it for her.  As she finishes her cup of tea, she can’t hide her smile and doesn’t hesitate … “of course I’ll get itchy feet again … there’s lots to do in this lifetime.”


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Local Characters

It would be easy for me to commit to writing a series of short posts on the people I have met around here in these last months.  Many characters … many stories.  Maybe I will park the idea until we have left.  For now, I am busy practicing the art of running a B&B, cooking for crowds, planning itineraries around local festivals and trawling brocante shops (think half way between bric-a-brac and antiques).  It’s been fun!

But I can’t resist pausing in and among all this clamor, to tell you about Bruno, whom I met properly this afternoon. I first came across him briefly over the weekend when our party of seven decided to pull over on the way home to have a peek in his brocante store just ten minutes from our villa.  I’ve been meaning to stop there ever since we moved here in January. I wasn’t expecting much – many older people in the area have average bric-a-brac shops to keep them going in retirement.  So you can imagine my elation when I stepped inside Bruno’s artfully renovated house, the ground level of which showcased beautifully his passion for brocante.  My excitement was very short lived, however, as twin #2 decided she desperately needed the toilet … at home.  Don’t you love it when that happens?  My well-trained eye had already spied a cake stand that I could imagine using back home, so I asked Monsieur to put it aside for me, promising to return the next day he was open.

So today’s experience was much calmer.  I went alone and I had no deadline.  Bruno remembered me and in sing-songy French, he fetched the cake stand and matching plates and complimented me on my choice – such a charmer.  The store was empty so I took the opportunity to chat to him.  It turned out his English was very good so the following half hour flowed in polite and animated “Frenglish”.  He bought and renovated his house twenty years ago and he travels quite regularly, visiting the other houses he owns in Toulouse, Nice and Perpignan … as you do.  He has lived in New Caledonia before and therefore worked with Australians.  My curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask him what he thought of “us”.  I think he was pretty accurate.  He used many adjectives – the French always do – but summarized his monologue with “direct, but authentic”.  I think that’s a pretty good wrap, don’t you?

What I hadn’t seen on my previous fleeting visit was his display of floristry and aromatic herbs.  In the middle of all the crockery, glassware, silverware and linen from bygone eras, the freshness and recency of this greenery worked perfectly to create an ambiance I didn’t want to leave.  I’d have been in trouble if I had a house of my own to take the plants back to.  Dommage for Bruno, I ended up with the cake stand, six matching plates (pictured below) and a couple of gorgeous old books.  One is the Michelin Guide from 1951 (the only other one I own is from 2012 – will be fun to compare!) and the other is a recipe book called “La Cuisine Familiale” written by Paul Bouillard in 1932, five years before he died at the age of 63. Included in his 1500+ recipes, I found one for “flour soup”.  The ingredients list is short.  I imagine this kept many families going during WWII and throughout many long, cold winters.

The bonus Bruno gave me was a little tip on posting French books home to Australia.  There is such a law in France that falls under what’s called “Francophonie”.  It effectively means that postage is cheaper when sending French books out of the country because “it is good for France”.  Good for tourism?  Good for national morale?  Who knows.  It will be good for my bank account.  Thankyou Bruno!

I will leave you with the photos he let me take of his quaint little store … it really was a treat to step back in time in Bruno’s well laid-out, clean and thoughtfully categorised store.  I’ll be checking back in before I leave!  Should I take orders?

With grace and gusto,

kpx

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Life’s a picnic

We must take adventures to know where we truly belong.  I am a bit of a control freak, I admit, so my way around “adventures” with three kids, is to pack a great picnic to take with us … at least lunch will be predictable!  Since moving to France nearly four months ago (eek time flies!), our way around EVERYTHING being closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays is to jump in the car and drive somewhere new.  It’s backfired once or twice, believe me.  In the middle of winter, we once drove forty minutes to greet the pouring rain in a ghost town with nowhere to take cover.  So the picnic happened in the car, right after I lost the coin toss and had to make a (very cold and wet!) dash to the boulangerie at one minute before noon.  The kids thought it was great … hubby was not so impressed and spent the next few days picking breadcrumbs out of the upholstery.

But mostly, we’ve had beautiful picnics – in front of World Heritage Listed chateaux and cités, by gushing rivers and trickling streams in tiny towns that look like they’ve almost been forgotten about, and by shiny lakes with looming mountains in the background and a smattering of nearly naked trees struggling to show off their early-Spring leaves in maroon, burnt orange and bright yellows.  We even picnicked in the courtyard of an old library-turned apartment building in a country village once, which was perfected by the smiling young mademoiselle who swished by offering “Bon appetit!” as she disappeared inside.

I feel like I may have perfected the art of packing a picnic into one bag and being able to walk out the door with three kids and a hubby in fifteen minutes flat.  I’ve learned there are two rules to make it work.  The first rule is to keep it simple. It’s not at all like hosting lunch at home.  The second rule is that people don’t eat as much as they would at the table.  The kids are more interested in the playground or their surroundings, so you can pack far less, and top them up later with an ice cream as a treat or an afternoon tea when you get home.  (As a side issue, the French really don’t do morning tea – just coffee – but they are big on their gôuter – afternoon tea).

The easiest picnic I’ve packed was when I had leftovers from my poached chicken and beetroot salad from the night before.  It filled a large Tupperware container, and it’s an all-in-one meal.  I threw in some plastic bowls and some vintage cutlery I had bought the day before for only five euros (it’s always nice to have real cutlery – real crockery is way too hard) and the bulk was done. I always have baking in the freezer and cheese in the fridge (several in fact) so they get popped in the bag with some mandarins, a baguette bought on the way, and you’re a superstar mum and caterer.  If you want to really create a memory, it’s lovely to include a bottle of bubbles and some plastic flutes.  Discard all the plasticware before you leave and it makes for a quick getaway and a no-mess cleanup.

For colder weather, prepare in advance by having soup already made in the freezer.  Take it out the night before (ha! who am I kidding … a whole day and a night before in the European winter …) and store it hot in a Thermos.  A mug of soup finished with cheese and baguette – and perhaps some olives? – is very satisfying, packs neatly and fills up tummies.

The only other trick I have used is to make up a homemade dip (usually hommus or garlic and herb dip in fromage blanc) and transport it in a jar with a screw top lid.  Cut up a stack of carrots, zucchinis, cucumber, capsicum – whatever you have on hand – into batons and you’ve got a speedy, nutritious snack.  Throw in some cured ham, don’t forget the cheese and baguette and everyone’s happy.

Being away from “home” and living a much slower paced life has allowed me to really fall in love with the simple things you notice when you get good at doing the picnic thing … nature has so much to offer, a foreign culture always has a surprise or two waiting and quality time with your nearest and dearest can turn into amazing memories when you create a reason to huddle around a rug or a weather-beaten picnic table.  Deadlines are non-existent and conversation flows easily.  Picnics are food for your tummy and food for your soul.
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We are always rewarded with beautiful views when we get out into the country …
and we always meet some interesting characters 🙂
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On the way to Puivert Lake, we had to stop and photograph this chateau,
home to a herd of donkeys.

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Keep it simple stupid!  But there’s always room for vintage cutlery …
especially when it was only €5!

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Picnics mean time to hang out with the kids …
and play around with quirky photos!

Bon appetit!

With grace and gusto,

kpx