Tag Archives food

Trying out different teaching techniques

By Posted on Location: , 4min read

This post has been hiding in my drafts. I wrote it just before the social unrest flourished into mayhem in October. It was written back when we taught students in real, chair and desk classrooms.


Unearthing a traditional Pachamanca cooked dinner
The connection is that I mention cooking somewhere in the text below…
Ollantaytambo, Peru
January 2020

“Ask her some questions.”

New class, new teacher, the same routine. Silence but for the rustling of backpacks and papers. Two minutes ago they were all looking at me, now the students stare at anything but me.

Then some timid voice dares sound. What sports do I do?

I beam an encouraging smile

It never changes. Every time we do this it’s just another awkward interview.

I gesture at the floor, “Now,” I say, “ I do yoga. I do yoga twice a week.” I gesture behind my shoulder. “When I was a child, I went ice-skating.”

A few more students ask questions, and then one young man asks, “What is ice-skating.”

I write the word on the board and draw an ice skating boot, all laced up. The students find my drawing amusing. I could have just given them a translation, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

I’m on a mission to learn how to teach well

Teaching, after all, is very different from learning, and although I know something about how I personally learn a language. Teaching one is a constant challenge.

The sad reality is that many of my students won’t ever reach a conversational level of English. Before they get to me, many have spent ten years learning and forgetting the same things over and over again. When I ask them how their weekend was, they still draw a blank.

Although I have limited formal teaching education (for now), I do have a bunch of teachers who keep educating me on teaching theory.

One idea which has invaded my mind is the idea of scaffolding

I hadn’t heard such a word in the language teaching context until a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing some text for a fellow teacher. He’s all very serious studying for a masters in this stuff.

Scaffolding is giving the student a helping hand that gets them further than where they could get on their own. It’s practical support. It’s what an active teacher is likely to do, frequently on a one-to-one basis, although the rest of the class may well be listening.

To think about what it means to me though, I have decided to take my imagination out of the classroom and into the kitchen.

This weekend, at the English Club where I help out, we’re doing baking with the children

They range from four to eight years old, so have different levels of skill – both in terms of egg-breaking and English speaking

As a tiny child, I used to cook with the Mother or with the Grandmother

There are pictures of me happily baking, stood on a chair in my Grandparents kitchen, and pictures of me sitting on the kitchen floor with the cake bowl on my head as I try to lick out the last of the mixture.

Send a small child into the kitchen with the instruction to bake some buns and leave them to it, and you won’t come back an hour later to the sweet smell of fresh-out-of-the-oven baking.

And yet, with some assistance, a small child can do most of the work

They can measure out the ingredients and mix them together. You might not want them to operate the oven quite yet, but they can load the bun cases with gooey-mixture.

As the adult, your job is to provide a safe environment and guidance so the children can do almost the whole thing by themselves.

The same goes for the classroom

The space we want to be teaching in is just beyond where the student can function by themselves. It has to feel safe. Sometimes we need to just give an occasional prompt, other times we need to say more, like holding the wooden spoon with them to give them enough power to blend the mix. Sometimes the support is visual, as in a drawing of an ice-skating boot, or takes on a physical gesture, such as indicating that there is a change of tense that they should be aware of.

Once the student can do something by themselves, the teacher should stop prompting. You don’t want the students to rely on prompts, you want them to practice creating their own phrases by themselves. When the child can bake for themselves, you can leave the kitchen and just enjoy the cakes once they’re done. No need for fuss.

For me, this is tricky

There is a point where I have to keep my hands still, my mouth shut, or speak lazily, with my accent, at my natural speed and with the vocabulary that I would normally use.

For teachers in general, doing this work is exhausting. It’s active and intense

No wonder many teachers set an exercise and then withdraw. I guess this is where having a language assistant helps. I can go through the class, often pair by pair, listening and correcting and encouraging the students to extend their conversation a little further.

And yet, it’s not enough. Despite my drawings and my enthusiastic pretending to skate across the classroom, the same student may well have forgotten what ice-skating is by next week. If he remembers, it was his question, his curiosity, so there’s hope, the other students in the class are still unlikely to. Ten years of English lessons and they’re still on the basic building blocks of the language.

It continues to bewilder me how some students speak and others don’t. It’s still a mystery.

Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu

The altitude is making my body feel all a tad disorientated. I’ve got my birthday cards laid out on the desk beside a cactus and a sign which says that should I want any more pillows to call reception. I have four pillows already, all for myself, so I should think that’s going to be unnecessary. I can also request a hot water bottle should I require one, or maybe I could request the filling of my mini-hot-water bottle which remain in the depths of suitcase number two. These days I am a two-suitcase woman. Suitcase number one awaits my return to Chile.

I am very pleased to be able to write that I now have a functioning computer and can write at a sensible pace. I have never been a swift typist on a telephone, I’ve always been a bit awkward with the touch keyboards. On the computer, I’m not fast, but I am significantly faster and what matters more, I feel at ease writing this way.

Through the balcony windows and out across the private garden I can see a fountain, water pouring through clusters of cheerful pink flowers. This is living in luxury and is, I admit, a bit of a contrast to my everyday life where I live on a not a whole lot. In the last twenty-four hours, I have eaten more meat than I would normally consume within a week. Peruvian food is good. It’s full of strong flavours and has a heat to it that Chilean food lacks. At lunchtime, I bit into a sweet potato and my mouth was filled with such sensations that I sat in my seat and stared for a while at what remained on my fork. So much flavour from a potato. And yesterday’s ceviche came with enough chilli that my eyes actually began to water, something which hasn’t occurred since I was in an Indian restaurant near the train station in Leeds.

Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu and the Father responds to this with his dead guinea pig impersonation which I used to think of as excessive silliness, but which I realise probably looks tame compared to some of my theatrical (histrionic) behaviour when I’m teaching.

Living with such a marvellous range of experiences, I’m pretty sure that I’m the luckiest person in the world. I get these moments of sweet wonder – I write from a fancy hotel in Cusco – but without living entirely in a money-padded bubble. I could not afford such a hotel, to eat such a volume of food or to be escorted around by a friendly chap called Julio Cesar or the nifty Lima traffic trained private drivers. Normally, I drag my suitcase along using my fierce muscles and get the bus.

And oddly I’m glad that at least at this point in my life I don’t have much money. I love my parents’ world, but I can’t help but feel that having substantial funds would give me a very different experience of Chile right now. In England, I am of course middle-class, even when I’m unemployed, but I’m told that no such thing exists in Chile. In a temporary exhibition on immigration in the human rights and memory museum in Santiago I saw a film depicting the views of Palestinians living in Chile, and one woman stated how in Palestine they have apartheid (based on religion and race) but in Chile, there is also apartheid, economic apartheid.

The teachers with whom I work fiercely declare themselves to be working class.

Because I don’t have much, I find myself overwhelmed by intense gratitude as I accept a refugee paying for my coffee. I bake English cakes in return and introduce my friends to that very British dish coronation chicken. One of my birthday presents is polka-dot bun cases, these are going to get used in my baking for the people for whom I feel affection. My money gets absorbed into airfares so I carry a flask with my tea in my bag and go for picnics on the beach rather than the fancy restaurants that my family can afford.

Right now, I, therefore, feel like I’m living in a fantasy. A cushy hotel in Cusco, a private guided tour of Machu-Pichu, birthday presents of expensive notebooks and quality shoes; it really is dream-like.

How I worked out what I wanted (once I’d stopped fretting about it)

The river in Strasbourg

Strasbourg, France, March 2018.
On this day I treated myself to croissants and crepes… It’s important to try the local cuisine, right?

My favourite type of restaurant to frequent in Spain belongs on the edge of a small town. Outside on the road, or in an unmarked parking lot sits a collection of cars with the appearance of being unwashed, although the land here is so dry and the air swirls with so much dust that they could have conceivably been washed that morning.

Every time I approach such a restaurant I feel a little afraid. You can’t see too well inside, maybe older men sit outside, smoking, suggesting an all boys club, but on entering you discover the place to be loud with voices high and low. You take a seat, anywhere you want, and you’re offered the menu of the day: a selection of courses that will be brought out, one after another to be shared between you and your companions, all for a fixed (and very reasonable) price.

This is my favourite type of restaurant because it forgoes all that pesky decision making that comes from having to choose what it is you want.

Here I can just eat.

Sometimes though, life ain’t quite so easy.

“So—do you know what you want?”

This is the question my mother emailed me with after reading my previous blog posts (lessons from the mother), and by the question, she didn’t mean just for dinner, she meant in life. I stared at her email for a moment, considered my lists, my plans and the feeling that floods my heart when I’m doing something that I consider to be important and then my fingertips hit the keys in determined strokes. I wrote back, “Yes, I think I do.”

I thought, for my mother, as well as any other reader, I’d elaborate. I’m going to briefly elude to three stages of how I got here.

This isn’t guide to how to work out what it is that you want, I wouldn’t want to suggest that such a process would be the same for you, this is just a story of how things were for me. But, what with you being human too, chances are you’re going to relate to some part of my journey.

The stages so far:

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue
Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals were my long term goals
Stage 3: Writing down the next step

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue

Towards the end of my degree I proactively made an appointment to see the career counsellor. I was a few months off finishing my degree and hadn’t worked out what I was going to do after graduation. I had, in one moment, contemplated teaching, but after volunteering in a primary school for a while I came to the solid conclusion that teaching would be a long slog of me against the system.

This chap who was supposed to advise me was probably a great source of information for physicists looking to move into a hedge fund or academic department, but he didn’t excel with hysterical me. It was hardly his fault.

Wisely, in hindsight, he suggested speaking to a medical professional

Although he didn’t express himself very well. Of course I did not feel that not knowing what job to apply for constituted a mental health problem. I figured it was a very common challenge facing many graduates and that it would, in time, resolve itself.

It didn’t.

In fact I didn’t understand that not knowing what I wanted was a real problem until a number of years later when my psychotherapist pointed it out to me. Graciously she guided me into the understanding that my incredible, analytical, rational brain (the one that was at home in the world of quantum mechanics) was a bully, and that my emotional needs were being squished, surfacing only in inelegant spurts of anti-social behaviour.

I needed these two parts of my brain to cooperate

The compromise however would have to be from the rational side of me. The side of me that understands my bank balance, writes my CV and earnt a degree. I really despised this idea, but eventually, after much fighting with myself, recognised that my emotions are impossible to reason with.

Now I had surrendered some of my stubbornness it was time to move onto the second stage.

Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals

It surprised me to discover that what I want is nothing new. The things that make me the happiest are pretty much the same things that made me the happiest when I was at school.

The desire for travelling has amplified rather, and become more nuanced. Painting and drawing have been pretty consistent activities throughout my life. And I whilst my standards have risen, my writing has been prolific since I was a teenager. I might have started my diaries when I was in my twenties, but the Christmas holidays of my sixteenth birthday I churned out 20,000 words. A year later I’d created most of a novel.

My problem however was that it all felt pretty much like playing

I’d written that novel after stopping studying English at school at the grand old age of sixteen, and although I did art at AS-level it became a horrific endurance battle as the department entered civil war.

So whilst other people around me studied to be artists or writers, I played at both and loved both hobbies equally. Meanwhile I was pretty obnoxiously certain that I was going to become successful, well-off and influential because of my incredible analytical mind.

Thankfully, after a few false starts, I ended up amongst the psychotherapists cushions. She helped me think through some very important questions. What will being well-off give you? Successful in whose eyes? Influencing people to what goal?

At which point it hit home

I want to be immersed in the things which require a soft ego, gentle humility and that are driven by listening to the world, not shouting at it. I want to paint, I want to write, and I want to learn by opening myself to all the incredible people around me.

Here steps in the Crabbe and Goyle of my brain

Crabbe says yes, but you are going to have to get a proper job one day, and Goyle says, but don’t you want to be successful like your house-buying, PhD winning, money making peers.

At first I fought them.

Then I realised that they, like most bullies out there, need a bit of compassion. I was rejecting them and therefore they were going through a bit of a rough patch. This time it was my emotions that needed to get to work. It was time to show some compassion, to myself.

I needed to commit myself to doing what I love.

Stage 3: Writing down the next step

So, these fluffy goals of creating art, writing something and seeing the world aren’t exactly your business SMART goals. And I’m sure intelligent goals are very useful for some people, but what I need is a direction. At this stage, it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t got a clue where I’ll be in five-years time. I don’t currently know which continent I’ll be living in six months from now. I’ve kind of made a nest of uncertainty, and whilst it’s not necessarily plastic wrapped perfect, it’s tactile and stable.

I know that in five-years time what I will be doing is creating art, writing stories and conversing with strangers. Therefore, all I’m focusing on right now is getting really good at those three things. I plan on spending the rest of my life continuing to get really good at these same three things.

So all I need to know today is what small step I’m making

Each week, or every couple of days I review my goals, write down the next small step I need to take, and then I focus on doing just that. It’s simple.

In the future I assume I will need to put more emphasis on being more financially stable but I’m practicing my humility. I’m not in the place to do that right now. I’m practicing my generosity, I believe I’ll get there eventually. I’m practicing my self-kindness, I’ve just picked myself up off the ground after a rather nasty fall.

I need to get a stable footing before I try to cartwheel

And so today I wrote this article, and I painted a picture of a photo I took a few weeks back whilst visiting Granada and I practiced my Spanish.

So, yes mother, I know my life goals. And I’m achieving them every single day.

In summary:

  • For me, it’s easy to be so analytical that I forget to follow my gut feeling.
  • My gut feeling, what I like and don’t like, is actually surprisingly consistent. Therefore I pay attention to this and set goals that reflect what I actually enjoy doing.
  • Getting the next step written down helps me keep my mind focused on today, whilst moving along the path of creativity I’ve actively chosen for myself.

It doesn’t mean I know what I want to eat when I’m presented with a menu

So if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask the waiting staff for a recommendation.

Spain is a wonderful place for trying new food. You can pick at the food, share it, swap it, taste only a tiny amount of it and this is all considered to be polite. It’s how you’re meant to eat.

Life ain’t so different.

Do you know what you want?

Adding a pinch of salt to some well-meant advice

Lorca Castle (Fortaleza Del Sol)
One of the towers of the castle that stands staring down over the town of Lorca in the region of Murcia. The Fortaleza Del Sol, the fortress of the sun. I ate a roast pepper and tomato salad here that was not quite as I expected.

A hall, with plastic chairs and a projector. A short, smiling Spanish lady fiddles with the computer controls as she tries to make the presentation show. It starts late. We’re in Spain, so no apology is deemed necessary. Patience is expected. The first presentation begins with a man who speaks a challenging form of Spanish. Here they drop the ends of the words, particularly anything with an ‘s’ and speak ever so fast. I don’t catch a single word.

The heavily-abridged English translation, haltingly forced out by another Spaniard who’s uncomfortable with having to translate, could be summarized as ‘welcome’.

Then the men disappear; the cheery Spanish lady takes over. It’s an improvement of sorts. It feels like a meeting that’s convened because having such a meeting is the done thing. She informs us that on moving to a new country it’s useful to adapt to your new culture. I agree, to a point. However, in my opinion, this isn’t something you learn by being told.

In my opinion, it’s an uncomfortable process where your habits are wrung out of you. You cling to your old ways of doing things but are squeezed into something new. Round peg, square hole. Little by little you come to realize that there’s more than one possible way of living. Maybe you get there quicker intellectually, you know you have to adapt, but physically and emotionally, I think even the most seasoned traveller has norms they fight to cling to.

We were advised that sticking rigidly to dinner at 7pm would result in a very limited understanding of Spanish culture. And here I agree. Food is everything. If you are going out for dinner and you turn up at 7pm, you’re only going to find people eating in the most touristy locations. It was a message intended for those people who would later complain about Spanish food, but it missed the point. The same people will still complain.

To fit in with the Spaniards you need to show willingness to do things like them so that they understand you want to join in. But it would be silly to think that all Spanish people do things in an identical fashion, or that eating a meal at 7 o’clock in a restaurant with friends who were happy eating at such an hour would be a problem.

We eat breakfast at half eleven here, toasted baguette with tomato, olive oil and salt. This suits me because after three classes I’m hungry. I’m told it’s the traditional Spanish way of doing things, but not everyone eats breakfast. One teacher has tea and toast without tomato, I have a café americano and another teacher has a glass of orange juice.

What’s more, when I arrived home from work at one o’clock this afternoon, my Landlady was finishing her lunch. Lunch here is typically a three o’clock affair, but that’s not always convenient.

One Spanish lady I met, who had been a nurse in Manchester told me that eating at English hours had been the hardest thing about her placement to England. She explained to me that in her opinion, you have to listen to the needs and habits of your body at the same time as embracing a new culture. I think I agree. I’m easy going and have tried a variety of different food here in Spain. But I can’t deny I miss my mother’s cooking and Indian food. On a week night, if I’m heading to bed shortly after ten, I’m not interested in eating at nine. If I’m alone I eat when I’m hungry. The children at school inform me that in Spain you have five meals a day. When you want to eat, it’s probably time for one of them.

When I ask my classes how many of them would be willing to try a Yorkshire pudding or toad-in-the-hole I’m faced with only a few courageous hands. Fish and chips fares a little better. Not everyone is adventurous when it comes to eating. Food has a lot to do with nostalgia and comfort and a sense of home. Just because you’re living in a different culture doesn’t mean you don’t still have these same needs, albeit maybe they’re less strong.

I think that the advice to eat at nine, not seven is misguided. I think that time is not the important factor. And I think that the advice should be if you choose to live like a Spaniard, and it’s a choice, you need to surround yourself with Spanish people and invite them to share with you their culture so that you can learn. What’s more, when you decide that there’s something you don’t like, politely say no. You get to choose how you adapt, and when and what you eat.

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

By Posted on Location: 2min read
Sicilian lemon grove
Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.

“Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

By Posted on Location: 3min read
prickly pear
When I first saw one of these in a greengrocers, I had no idea what it was.

“When you pick a paw paw or prickly pear.

And you prick a raw paw, next time beware.

Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

Baloo, The Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book

Prickly Pears in Napoli

In a greengrocer’s, in the outskirts of Naples, DeepThought and I had a minor argument about an aubergine. Apparently, I shouldn’t have bought an aubergine; he didn’t like them. But how was I supposed to know when he was busy enjoying having the delights of a fig of India, known to me as a prickly pear, peeled and sliced for him by the smiling young Italian woman behind the counter.

A prickly pear: it’s a fleshy fruit, with largish seeds which like seeded grapes remind you that what you’re eating has a purpose other than tasting sweet. You can eat the seeds. They crunch. These cacti fruits grow prolifically in southern Italy. But don’t just yank one free with your bare hand. This isn’t a fruit that’s smooth like a sweet mandarin, it’s covered in tiny spikes.

We took a couple home with us. Alongside the aubergine. And inevitably, a couple of hours later, (after DeepThought had been surprised by liking aubergine), it was necessary to dig out a pair of tweezers.

prickly pear
If you take off one of the big paddles and plant it in a pot, it grows. And grows. And grows.

Prickly Pears through History

Reading through Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay I discovered that prickly pear plants are the homes of little white cochineal bugs which when crushed make a beautiful red dye. Lipstick red.

The journey of these plants from South America is a story of this dye. A plantation of prickly pears sprung up in Madras as part of a plot by the East India Trading Company to crack the Spanish monopoly and produce the dye themselves. The plants were brought from Kew Gardens and men began dreaming of the riches they would have if only they could get hold of the live bugs. The bugs though had other plans.

Prickly pear cacti were also taken to Australia with the intention to start up a cochineal industry there. Unfortunately, not only did all the bugs die, but the cacti went wild and have since become a prolific spiky weed.

prickly pear
Harvesting tools.

Prickly Pears in Sicily

In Sicily, in the middle of a grey siesta in a break from a storm, I went hunting my own prickly pears. Sicily is a good place for prickly pears, the Sicilian variety is apparently high in all sorts of wonderful vitamins. I didn’t have to hunt very far – I found pink pears on the driveway.

I took with me the prickly pear picker (I lack suitable claws) and a plant pot in which to place my pears. The trick is to place the cup around the pear and then twist. It’s easier said than done. My pears went rolling down the drive.

The next morning, I ate them for breakfast. They taste a bit like watermelon.

An English cook in Sicily (and the commotion this entailed)

Sicily Cooking
Ok, this is the neighbours outdoor over, not the actual one I cooked on.

The morning began when I asked where the coffee was – in the fridge duh – and Maria started making tea. That is tea with rosemary, red berries and orange peel.

Maria looked at me, “Candle?”

Being English wasn’t working.

Sicilian Cooking
Ingenious or crazy?

At eight in the morning with my coffee unmade I observed the commotion in silence. What does anyone want a candle for anyway? I figured it was the wrong word, and that the ideal word was lighter. We needed to light the gas to use the hob to heat the hot water for the coffee and this so called tea. Either way I couldn’t help.

It turned out, the candle was for the tea. A lighter was, as I presumed, also required, and found. The kettle boiled. Maria poured the hot water into the teapot and stood it above the tealight – to keep it warm. A jam jar lid went on top because the original lid is missing.

That was breakfast. We worked for a while, until lunch, which Maria forgot, half started and then abandoned with flamboyance. Moving faster than I’d ever seen her move before, Maria instructed me to tell Leonardo to stop working. We were late and… the children. Until this point there had been no prior mention of any children. Missing or otherwise.

I said, “Ok.”

Confused because my instructions had been given in Italian, I went to the workshop where Leonardo looked at me and had the same panic as Maria. He ran out of the house behind her. I’m not sure either of them were wearing shoes.

The children appeared sometime later trailing behind a joyful Maria and a singing Leonardo. We ate. Thankfully. Then Leonardo made them wooden toys out of the scraps of wood that remained from making the Christmas letters.

In a moment of chaos, mid-afternoon, when numerous neighbours appeared, the children disappeared again.

I discover, that due to Maria’s need to be productive, I’m cooking dinner. But I don’t know what dinner is, or when we’re having it. Nor do I know what I’m cooking. Lentils and carrots float around in a pot.

A debate, in Sicillian/Italian/French, followed about how one doesn’t need a fork for soup. With Leonardo shouting from the workshop that Maria had to ask me how to say spoon in Italian. All I could think of was the French, which I started shouting back. At least I now knew I was making soup.

To add to my difficulties, the stove required constant feeding with wood. But hey.

Furthermore, dinner required salt. It was my job to taste the food and add the correct amount of salt. I’m ungenerous with salt at the best of times. I save it for special occasions.

And the ‘sale’ jar was empty.

If it was just dinner, or just the salt, I might managed to remain restrained.

Just as we’re sitting down for dinner, there was a commotion about the ladle. I waved my hands in despair. Some shouting and laughter. Leonardo handed me the ladle and I repeated its name three times.

Everyone laughs because I’m saying the wrong thing again.

I lift my hands in a big Italian gesture.

Now I’ve raised my voice, it’s feeling more Yorkshire.

And I’m like, “What?”

Although tempted to swear, I don’t. This is just what it takes to adapt.

As we sit down for dinner, everyone seems more relaxed. I realise it’s me. And my English restraint is as hard on them as their Italian cresendo.

What’s the most challenging kitchen you’ve ever had to cook in?

[Read more about my adventures in Sicily.]

More little things I’ve learnt on this French farm

champignions (mushrooms)

Raspberries

Yesterday morning, we got took out our secateurs (delightfully un sécateur en français) and chopped down the raspberry canes. You do this to promote new growth in the new year. As I chopped, I ignorantly didn’t know you used the word ‘cane’ to describe the plant, but the Father kindly corrected me when I told him about my gardening exploits later in the evening.

We dug up the canes which had failed to produce fruit this year and weeded around those that had. Now, unless there is some great technique that I’m oblivious to, the work has taught me that I am considerably physically weaker than Grand-mère. That’s with the fork, shovel or pick axe.

Je bêche avec une bêche.

One particularly long and stringy weed seemed to have grown everywhere. It winds around the plants and suffocates them. I could pull it off in large handfuls but it would snap from the roots. If the roots remain it will grow again.  Once we’d removed as much as possible we threw wood chip down on the ground around the plants to protect them.

Mushrooms

We set out on an adventure into the forest for mushrooms. So far this year, the mushroom harvest has been rather pathetic. There has simply not been enough rain. Although it’s now October, it rarely rains. The fields still have huge cracks in them from where they were toasted by the summer sun.

There were however some mushrooms in the forest. When we returned to the farmhouse we lay our small collection on the kitchen table for inspection. Grand-mère found her champignion book to help us analyse what we’d found. Luckily it contained many pictures as well as French text to help us identify our mushrooms.

With a quick glance at the table Grand-mère knew we didn’t have the best autumn mushroom in the collection. She hopes it will turn up next week.

We did have one particularly worrying looking mushroom, the closest image we found to it in the book had a rating of two skull and cross bones. Luckily, we  also had some edible (comestible) mushrooms. However, the book described the taste of some as sour, and others as unpleasant. They smelt bad too.  Fortunately, the very smallest, with stalks like straw and tops not much bigger than the tip of my thumb, smelt sweet. Grand-mère declared them to be very good. We have three of these tiny mushrooms.

Cream

Sometime last week, I finally woke up early enough to catch Grand-mere skimming the cream. Grand-père laughed at me wanting to see something so simple, but he eventually admitted he hadn’t ever skimmed the milk. Getting up early was well worth it though. My imagination had failed to consider that there would be a crisp layer of fat, translucent and a little yellow in colour, laying on the top of the milk. For some reason I can’t explain, being surprised by the cream delighted me.

What’s surprised you this last week?

On French aristocratic seating arrangements

The French aristocratic seating procedure is something I find quite bewildering.

Inevitably I am the youngest adult, and of course neither a priest nor a member of the military. Therefore I often sit at the head of the table. From the middle of the table Grand-père and Grand-mère conduct the proceedings. To Grand-père’s right sits the highest ranking woman (after Grand-mère) and to his left the second highest ranking woman. When there are only three women for dinner this is me. If there are only two women then we sit at the kitchen table.

The highest ranking man (ignoring Grand-père) sits to Grand-mère’s right. To her left sits the second highest. The pattern continues until everyone has sat down, following rank order, alternating between man and woman.

Everyone but me has an innate understanding of this order. I just know I’m at the bottom.

Grand-père serves the woman to his right first, then the woman to his left. He serves me before passing the plate to Grand-mère but after all other women. I’m not allowed to eat until Grand-mère had begun. I’m given a piece of bread at the beginning of my meal to use at the end to mop up the sauce. Inevitably I eat it first and then spend a while wondering whom I can interrupt to ask for the bread basket. The seven year old informed me that you must never take two pieces of bread at a time. Even if they are very small pieces. It’s rude. Furthermore, I find I drink my wine too slowly in comparison to everyone else, this vexes Grand-père and his smooth, wine pouring routine and therefore disrupts his own meal.

Otherwise it’s seamless.

Grand-mère says that it’s not just her who can make cooking and serving roast dinner for twenty-five look effortless. Her mother, her mother in law, her sister-in-law, all these people know, or knew, how to really enjoy a grand family meal. What’s more, she’s an outstanding cook. The meat is from the field and the vegetables from the garden. I’m in awe.

In comparison, I can cook roast dinner. I could even cook roast dinner for twenty-five, or at least I could if I had somewhere to seat everyone. But mid-meal you’d be unable to engage me in a meaningful and considered conversation, I’d be worrying about the gravy. Afterwards I’d sneak out from the washing up for a nap. I’d look like a wreak.

So I think Grand-mère’s magical. Her secret weapon though, is that everyone around her knows exactly which way to pass what plate when.

That’s something to ponder.

A countryside breakfast: Mon petit déjeuner avec du lait

Milk from French dairy cows

I drank coffee with milk at breakfast.

Perhaps, this seems like a small and unimportant fact to you. But for me it was a big deal.

I’m lactose intolerant. This isn’t a disaster, but means that if I want to drink coffee with milk I need to first take a lactase tablet. Lactase is the enzyme which my body no longer naturally produces. On a typical morning, I drink my coffee black and eat my toast without butter. I save my lactase tablets for occasionally eating bread and cheese, which, as this is France, accompanies both lunch and supper, or for eating any other food involving milk, such as a creamy coffee éclair from the bakery. For me, drinking coffee with milk for breakfast is a special treat.

Just before dinner, the night before, we went to the dairy farm. I said ‘hello’ to the cows and ‘bonjour’ to the dairy farmer, a friendly young man with a dark green apron. It was milking hour so the farmer was already quite busy. He took our milk pails and tapped off the fresh milk which was coming straight from the cows.

I was as excited as the three year old grandson who saw a red tractor. He really likes tractors.

When we arrived home, Grand-mère poured the milk into a huge saucepan and slowly heated it to the point where it expands to fill the pan. Very nervously, I watched over it. My instruction to shout when something happened. Just as it hit boiling, Grand-mère switched off the heat, put on the lid, and left it overnight to cool – this was my brief lesson in pasteurisation. By morning, the cream had risen to the top, ready to be scooped off into a separate jug.

And so I chose to drink milk with my coffee for breakfast, and it was heavenly.