Thursday, 4 September 2014

My kingdom for a knife that cuts!

A knife – that cuts
A knife that cuts, a knife that cuts – my kingdom for a knife that cuts!

It is a mystery – albeit not, perhaps, one of Earth’s greatest – how some people view self catering.

We are, as we have been for the past six summers, in a self-catering cottage in Collioure.

On Saturday, after our overnight sleeper from Paris had pulled to a halt at the little station above the ville, we wandered down into the village, found our abode for the duration and dumped the cases, and headed out to Delice Catalans for breakfast.

A quick stock-up of basics in the little Carrefour followed – water, bog roll, kitchen paper, oil, vinegar, fromage frais and rhubarb compote (the last two combine for my breakfast) – and then it was off to the beach.

We ate out that evening: a pleasant – if not stunning – meal at Saffran Bleu, where we’d first tasted dorade some summers ago.

So why bother with self-catering? There are plenty of reasons: not least, that it is ultimately far more relaxing than having to abide by a hotel’s schedules and, of course, there is the food.

With a twice-weekly market as good as the one here, who wouldn’t want to cater for themselves – at least for part of the time?

Sunday marked this year’s first visit for produce.

First up was the usually grumpy man at the organic tomato stall, who grinned broadly, reached over the orange, green, striped, yellow and red tomatoes to shake my hand and ask how I was.

A bag of these divine fruits in hand – I really do dream about them for 13 months of the year – I headed to find Caro, who sells lovely charcuterie and regional cheeses. Fruit was added, and a campagne gris from the nearest boulangerie.

That done, it was back to the house and, with everything neatly stashed in it’s proper place, off to the beach, where Cyril had transats waiting for us.

Lunch brought with it our second chance to eat out.

This was, as per annual ritual, at St Elme, which is right behind the beach. It’s rather touristy, and I get bored of it very quickly, but for the first few days, it hits the spot.

We had steak haché with a fried egg and chips.

But it was in the evening, after we’d returned from sunning ourselves, that the problem hit: where oh where was there a knife that would cut charcuterie and tomato and fruit?

Last year, we had the lunacy of an electric bin: this year, there is not a knife in the place that will cut anything other than hot butter.

There is lashings of cutlery, a plethora of glasses and plenty of plates – but just two paring knives that could be safely given to a toddler, a small serrated knife that is hardly razor sharp, and a bread knife for ... well, bread.

Fortunately, the oversight does not extend to a bottle opener.

What sort of self-catering does that represent?

That night, we muddled through. On Monday, however, with no obvious kitchenware shop in the village, I headed to a local shop that specialises in knives and the odd samurai sword jobby; so sharp it could split a hair. I even managed a conversation with the man in the shop after he asked if it was for a present, using my pigeon French to explain the situation.

He indicated that it was a similar issue in many of the houses that are let.

Later, The Other Half put it to me that, if I was letting for the summer months, I wouldn’t leave my knives out for just anyone.

“Well no,” I observed. “My Sabatiers and Zwilling-Henckels would be under lock and key. But I’d equally make damned sure that were still solid, sharp knives around, together with something with which to sharpen them, other than a steel or the doorstep”.

I’d also ensure, come to that, that chopping boards were labeled – there’s no way of knowing which one has been used for what in previous weeks and months.

Just two hobs (and a microwave)
However, the Opinel allowed us to continue with our simple evening repasts of charcuterie, tomato and bread (plus rosé, of course) with much increased ease.

For lunch on Monday, we returned to St Elme, where I joyfully wolfed a plate of gambas with persillade, aïoli and frites.

On Tuesday, doing so little that the nearest we got to the beach was lunching at the back of one, we hit my beloved Au Casot, where I wolfed baby squid, with persillade, aïoli, tiny tomatoes and wafer-thin slices of roasted potato.

I haven’t relished food so much for a long time – both meals were as perfect as they could be.

And so as it turned out, Wednesday was my first night of actual cooking.

There is no oven, but just two rings on a tiny hob.

I had bought boudin Catalan – the regional, lightly spiced  version of black pudding; always a treat – a tin of potatoes, a jar of haricots blanc and an onion.

The thinking was that I could cook the onion in the pan to which would, late on, be added the sliced boudin, while the beans and spuds could be cooked in another pan, in some olive oil.

That, however, had been based on an absurd assumption that a reasonably large saucepan and a frying pan would fit on the aforementioned dinky hob. Fat chance.

As I confided to The Other Half: thank goodness this hadn’t happened five years ago, because I’d have been flummoxed.

The onion thinly sliced – thanks to that rather fabulous Opinel – I let it soften gently in olive oil for some time, before adding some of the haricot blanc, drained and dried.

Heating a generous amount of olive oil in a saucepan, I drained and dried some of the potatoes and then added them to the hot oil.

After around 15 minutes, sliced boudin joined the onion and beans, and was warmed through gently for a further 10 minutes, turning the pudding slices once.

All was served with a generous dollop of sweet, grainy French mustard.

I must say, it was perfectly fine fodder – but bugger me sideways with last year’s Christmas tree, this was cooking as a challenge, in the face of ridiculous obstacles!

So I ask – what do some people imagine ‘self-catering’ means? And this in France, of all places – sacredieu!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A French country kitchen – in Hackney?

Tiles from Collioure
Television occasionally teaches you genuinely useful things – even when you don’t necessarily expect it to.

The limits of aspirational telly for The Other Half and myself is Grand Designs, the programme about people who build their home, under the watchful eye of the charming Kevin McCloud.

Mind, I say “aspirational”, but it never ceases to amaze how you can build a gorgeous home for considerably less than the going rate of a ready-made, small flat in London.

Perhaps that tells us something about ... something.

But if one thing is clear from regular viewing, it’s that, unless you have the expertise, don’t project manage the job yourself.

Two years ago, we had the bathroom done while we were away.

We moved into our home, a housing association new-build block of 12 flats, 19 years ago.

Being on low incomes, we were incredibly grateful to be able to escape escalating private rent – although at this point it’s only fair to say that our landlord never ripped us off, and was incredibly understanding when we had payment problems caused by erratic payment.

Since low incomes was a specific factor that housing associations were attempting to address, we were appreciative of having fitted wardrobes, carpets, a fitted kitchen and bathroom – and even a rack for drying laundry – when we moved in.

But with time, things wear out. Two years ago, we had cracked tiles, bath taps that had almost seized up with limescale, flaking ceiling plaster, a wobbly toilet and a plastic shower curtain that was beyond the merely manky.

Initially, we considered just getting these individual problems remedied. But it didn’t take long to realise that, given that the bath would have to be removed in order to replace the taps, we might as well get a new one.

From there, it was but a small leap to replacing the entire bathroom.

I had an ISA that, given interest rates, was doing nothing, so we funded it that way and spent a month or so pottering around – online and on foot – coming up with ideas and then sourcing and buying stuff.

Fortunately, thanks to a recommendation, we have a gem of a local tradesman who can do work for us.

Ian, a dour – on the surface of it – Scot, is a godsend, who we can trust with the flat and who, as an added bonus, loves cats, or “The Young Ones”, as he refers to our feline trio.

Indeed, a few months ago, he volunteered to come and feed them when we were away, even when he had no work to do.

We got through the bathroom business, but after that, we looked around and saw very clearly that other work needed doing too.

The kitchen, for instance, is slowly falling apart. Ian has done remedial work to keep cupboard doors in place, but it’s not just the doors – and drawer fronts – that are splitting apart and warping; the actual frames are too, with dowels visible in an increasing number of places.

At the same time, the fridge is doing a slow dance of death.

We knew all this last year and started planning 12 months ago, having a box of lovely features tiles shipped over to us from Collioure. They will form the splashback above the new cooker.

That cooker will be the indulgence. I have plumped for an all-electric (we have no gas feed) Rangemaster – and I am already relishing the idea of what a double oven, separate grill and fifth (ceramic) hob will allow me to do.

No more Einsteinian calculations for roast dinners; no more inability to do oven-roasted, crushed potatoes (with home-grown sage) together with something that’s grilled; no more having to wait to put a pudding in, in the cold, dark days of winter, until after the main course has finished cooking.

The boons, even for a household of two, will be enormous.

Being rather old-fashioned, we opened an extra savings account last year to fund it, along with removing yet another ISA that was mired in interest-rate slumber.

But even with finance sensibly in place, it didn’t take long before we realised that a repeat of the process for the bathroom was simply not possible.

It’s one thing to pick a bathroom suite and some tiles; it’s another entirely to sort out units for a kitchen, with all the measuring and so on that that entails. So we asked Ian to project manage.

He, knowing outlets other than B&Q, Homebase and Wickes, has measured, taken our list of ‘this is the sort of thing we’d like’, and come up with solutions that we now realise will revolutionise the kitchen.

And stereotypes exist for a reason. Ian hates to see clients spending any more than they need, and has sourced a number of things in a way that is cheaper than our own original ideas.

CGI of the new kitchen
The big issue was always going to be storage – and our current cupboards are a nightmare. Being a short arse hardly helps, but cleaning out what’s there has been decidedly difficult, even with a step ladder, simply because stuff gets stuck at the back or, worse, in impossible-to-reach corners.

As an example, I found three bottles of soy sauce on Saturday, when I expected only one.

And in one of the aforementioned corners was an ancient, opened box of cat biscuits, and a tin from prehistoric times containing the remains of a packet of cream crackers.

It is, then, the perfect opportunity for a major clear out. Given all those corners and high shelves, I had no idea just how many jars for preserving and stock I had – but it was enough to save some and still fill three bags for recycling.

We have timed this for when we’re away. There is no practical way you could have a kitchen – or a bathroom – done while you were in residence.

The contents of the freezer are gradually being used up – a pack of lamb kidneys on Sunday, my final jar of homemade chicken stock the day after, the blackcurrant sorbet on an indulgently regular basis.

To be honest, I didn’t realise just how much storage space we have got, but this will transform how we use it. At the moment, my small collection of best crockery is bubble-wrapped between uses, and sits on the top of a bookshelf in the bedroom: no cupboard can accommodate it.

Just working through this means we’re going to substantially rethink where and how we store what, to utilise spaces that are less easily accessible for things we don't need often.

Of course on a less practical side, there is pleasure in considering the look.

A few years ago, there was an advert for one of the big chains where they asked you to go in for a consultation, taking one item from your kitchen that most represented you. I’ve often wondered what I’d have taken – and often concluded that it might be an olive oil drizzler.

It probably wouldn’t have been possible to take the shelf/dresser unit that we bought some years ago on Tottenham Court Road, which turned out to be French, and is a lovely piece of proper, wooden furniture and now holds, as well as many cookery books, pretty pots from Collioure and a traditional, semi-glazed earthenware cassoulet pot from Carcassonne.

As I mentioned earlier, we have feature tiles from Collioure – together with matching cupboard and drawer knobs – so there was already a bit of a theme.

The unit fronts will be off-white, with a subtle look of planking. The awkwardness of the corner will be tackled by, above, double doors opening from the centre and, below, a carousel that will rotate out.

There will be a tall, narrow cupboard that will hold mops and brushes, and even a small, built-in wine rack.

The rest of the wall tiling will be an light ‘stone’ look, while there are quite pale terracotta tiles for the floor.

Paint colours I selected at the weekend: magnolia for the walls, white for the ceiling and an olive for the window sills and skirting, to give some depth. The cooker and hood will be cream, so a hint of solid colour should look good – and besides, olive green continues the developing theme.

The work surface – currently something mottled, grey and artificial, which somehow stains and is almost impossible to clean or dry properly – will instead be oak.

And then there’s the small matter of the sink.

I can’t say I ever expected to find myself spending hours thinking about sinks – let alone taps – but when the first computer-generated images were placed in front of us by Ian, with a bog standard, stainless steel sink and drainer combined, it started me mulling.

And after I lost four days of my life last month to exploring the vexed question of how to produced a pre-paid envelope for a reader survey, sinks and taps proved to be a pleasure.

The current draining board is a pain, since it doesn’t do the absolutely essential job of draining. So instead of repeating this, we’re plumping for a Belfast sink with slightly retro taps – both of which, thanks to Ian’s canny eye, will be cheaper than we had initially thought possible.

It won’t just look good, though: given the amount of slow cooking I do, it’ll be a great deal easier to soak and wash my big pots, without having to twist them to even get them in the sink at all.

It will also, though, be entirely in keeping with a room that, it is becoming increasingly clear, is about to become little other than a French country kitchen in the heart of Hackney.

What a thing that should be to welcome us home in late September.

I shall hang strings of garlic and Roscoff onions from the dresser once more and dive into an autumn of daubes and cassoulets and gardianes.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Books for the beach: the great annual dilemma

Loki with, err, her gospel
And so it begins: the great annual kerfuffle about What Books am I Taking on Holiday.

It brings with it the annual question of: ‘why don’t you get a Kindle?’ Well, I have a tablet, and I read news and features on it, but don’t particularly like reading anything longer.

I love the feel, the heft, the smell, the sense of a real book.

And however good the backlighting is on a device, glass does not take well to being buffeted by sand (oddly enough) and other elements, while computer technology does not, generally speaking, make good bedfellows with water.

I don’t an electronic device into the bath – so why would I risk dropping one into the sea or similar?

Books it is – and this ritual is one that, even in its apparent indecisiveness, I enjoy.

Of course, it adds weight to the baggage, but I’m not travelling by air.

The Other Half is being seriously serious this time around, with an intention of taking Piketty for the beach – only a doubting Thomas would not concede that Capital in the Twenty-First Century has already caused enough of a stir to render the first name of its author as superfluous.

And Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, a massive new biography by Stephen Parker, is also sitting ready to find a corner in the case.

My own reading list is somewhat different – although the Brecht will be available if the mood takes me.

First up is The Colours of Catalonia: In the Footsteps of Twentieth-Century Artists by Virginie Raguenaud, which I bought in Collioure in the first place – and will now take back to provide artistic background for this trip.

It does, of course, include a section on Collioure and Matisse and the Fauves. And Raguenaud talks of Ceret and Elne, of Picasso and Survage.

Museums Without Walls, by Jonathan Meades, is also penciled in for provision of pithy pointers to looking at and reading the built environment around us.

And then I have Five Quarters of the Orange, Holy Fools and Coastliners – three novels, all set in France, by Joanne Harris, together with The Gospel of Loki, her reworking of Norse myth from earlier this year.

Harris is one of those writers I haven’t read as much of as I have meant to – but that’s largely out of fear. For ages, I dreaded any of her other titles being a let-down after the glories of Chocolat, which is a rare beast, in that it’s a book I’ve read rather more than once.

Back in 2005, I reviewed Gentlemen and Players for a magazine – and thoroughly enjoyed that too – but subsequent re-reads of Chocolat and a first reading of its sequel, The Lollipop Shoes, were as far as I dipped my foot into Harris’s oeuvre until dipping into Blackberry Wine a week or so ago.

I’d always intended to get a copy of The Gospel of Loki, but this has not been a big reading year, so hadn’t got around to it until The Other Half suggested it for the holiday list.

One Amazon reviewer suggested that Loki won’t appeal to anyone who liked Chocolat, but that seems a remarkably limiting idea with no logic.

I love Chocolat – and I love the Norse myths. I can’t be unique – well, not on that score, at least.

As Terry Pratchett’s dust jacket biog points out, he is “sometimes accused of literature”.

Harris is, first and foremost, a wonderful storyteller, with a great ability to weave modern fairytales – on occasion, very darkly – and to employ magic realism, but she’s also a writer of the sort of subtlety that the same can be said of her: indeed, she makes me think of Angela Carter.

Take Chocolat: it’s a wonderful story, but it’s also ‘about’ so much: about life, living, pleasure and guilt, and it leaves you with plenty of food for thought.

My mother didn’t like it, but then it was only some time after I’d given her a copy that it dawned on me that Harris’s approach to both the sensual pleasures of life and to religion might not entirely have appealed to her.

C’est la vie, as those damnable Frenchies might say.

Blackberry Wine is a great read, and as I turned the final page and brushed away a tear – yes, you really do care that much about the characters Harris creates – thus was born the feeling that Proust can wait.