Full of the joys of spring

I’ve gone a bit “hello trees, hello flowers” today…  Everything’s coming up roses – literally.  The garden’s starting to bloom, the field is full of flowers, the insects are buzzing, the frogs are flirting outrageously with each other…

In the spirit of properly getting back to nature (or, more accurately, getting into nature as 9 years of living in London hasn’t exactly qualified as a rural existence…), I even swotted up after my ramble and found out the names of (almost) everything (well, I asked Orlando, but he is the horticultural oracle).  So, my apologies to those of you who could identify these in the blink of an eye, but if you’re as mystified by these things as I was, I’ll name the flora and fauna, starting from the top left photo: Ragged Robbin; Buddha’s Hand (lemon tree); iris; orchid purpurea, ie lady orchid; rose de Docteur Jalmain; white wisteria; lizard; fumitory; clover; the view of Le Manoir de Raynaudes (with Camillière church in the background) from the top corner of the field; scabius; tongue orchid; rosa odorata; wild flower in the woods (but we don’t know it’s name); frog sunbathing on what he thinks is a lily pad in the pool; the chive flowers.

After all this being at one with the elements, I am steeling myself for a dip in the pool – if the frogs can stand the cold, then so can I.  And, as it’s my day off, I shall then go and warm up with a glass of Gaillac wine in a local bar, watching the sun go down and listening to the sound of crickets and amorous frogs…

The view from here

All in all, it’s not a bad life, really…  The sun’s out, the guests are happy (they gave up worrying about their waistlines a couple of days ago- it’s best just to go with it, really) and the food’s working out nicely.  Orlando and I did our weekly cookery demonstration this morning – we showed them how to make confit of guinea fowl leg (tonight’s main course with saffron risotto), introduced them to tonka beans, got geeky about a few handy kitchen gadgets, explained the bread-making process with mashes and sourdough starters – and let them try their hand at sugar-spinning (thus turning our kitchen into the inside of a candy-floss bowl).







I then returned to the pool for more scrubbing.  And fell in.  Classy.  Peter and Orlando thought this was brilliant and have asked for a repeat performance – but when they and the guests are there to watch me.  And probably half of Raynaudes…

Despite my afternoon soaking, Orlando put me in charge of dinner tonight.  The menu was:

Canapés: asparagus, black olive and tomato cake; fried quail’s eggs with cured ham on toast; Bloody Mary cherry tomatoes

Starter: pork, duck and prune terrine with mâche and watercress salad and watermelon marmelade

Main course: confit of guinea fowl leg with saffron risotto

Cheese, seeded crackers and quince paste

Pudding: tonka crème brûlée with walnut powder puff biscuit 

And…?  The kitchen’s still in one piece, the food looked and tasted how it was meant to and the guests all loved it – in fact, they’re currently working their way through the house’s homemade liquors.  Breakfast should be amusing tomorrow…

Here comes summer

Summer has arrived – and so has a colony of wasps.  Big mistake.  Big.  Huge.  Cue Peter pulling out the big guns and spraying the little sods into oblivion…

With no guests in the hotel or for dinner tonight, today has turned into a pre-season blitz of the garden, courtyard and pool.  While Peter was exterminating insects, Orlando has been digging in the herb garden and – as I write – is in the courtyard, pulling the pansies out of the wooden tubs to replace them with white geraniums.

And me?  After a few hours experimenting in the kitchen with new ideas for starters, I have become the Manoir’s pool girl.  The water is still on the chilly side (make that near-glacial), but I cannot wait to get in, so have been putting the little robot pool cleaner to work (is it me, or does it look like it was made by Fisher Price?) and scrubbing the bottom and sides of the pool.  Who knew that many bugs could fit in one swimming pool?  Anyway, the plan tomorrow is to actually get in there myself to access those hard-to-reach corners.  So, please think of me, freezing in my bikini and goggles, scrubbing brush in hand as I make my way around the pool, beautifying it in anticipation of your visits…

Cobbled streets and sticky beaks

The sunlight, rather than my alarm, woke me up this morning – bliss – on my first day off since arriving.  I ate breakfast and sat reading by the front of the house, looking at one of my favourite views, towards the Pyrenees.

I then went for a drive, taking the road out of Raynaudes (with a perfect view of the house as you leave, before you rise to a point overlooking the hamlet) and onto Cordes-sur-Ciel, a nearby bastide town with five layers of city walls, gradually added throughout the 13th century.  It’s a cliché, but it’s picture-perfect and charming.  The town is far too attractive not to be a tourist magnet, but it’s still a pleasure to visit at this time of year, before the high-season crowds descend.

There are plenty of arty-crafty boutiques, galleries and souvenir shops to lure in wealthy out-of-towners, but I was way more interested in the townhouses lining the steep, cobbled streets.  The temptation to stick my head right in through the open windows, have a good snoop and take a few photos was strong, but I resisted – the poor inhabitants probably get sick of visitors’ nosiness (and I’m doing my best to “go local” while I’m living here).  I made do with taking a few shots of the buildings’ exteriors and of the amazing, endless views of the countryside, stretching out in bright greens and yellows beneath the town.

This evening we were invited to dinner by some of our guests: a gregarious extended family that has rented all four of Le Manoir’s apartments every April since it opened.  The theme tonight was “Tacky 70s Buffet” (no hairstyles were harmed in the making of this meal) and included a pineapple studded with the obligatory cheese, pineapple and ham on sticks, pigs-in-a-blanket, prawn Marie Rose… the full works.  Absolutely brilliant.  It’s a common misconception that chefs won’t like the food you make for them…  Quite the opposite – we love it, especially if it involves a faithful send-up of Peter’s brilliant cheeseboard odysseys, as parodied by David (“le Cheese String has been a favourite of le French schoolchildren for over 100 years”…  “and here we have the original 2-D cheese: le Dairlylea slice”).  Fuelled by litres of Gaillac rosé, we followed the meal up with a few rounds of a game that involved holding a Euro between your butt-cheeks and dropping it into a pint glass, then the cereal box game.  Not sure if this is going to catch on in the smart circles of the Tarn, but maybe this is one bit of culture the English shouldn’t share.

Upmarket / downmarket

Friday in Carmaux is market day, to which local growers bring the freshest seasonal fruit and vegetables (including wild asparagus foraged from the hedgerows) and where regional traders sell tangy cheeses, spicy cured meats and fragrant spices.
What’s more, you can see some spectacularly tacky clothing.  You can forget Parisien chic – down here, the women like their coffee strong, their men silent, their hair garish and their clothes to be made of the most synthetic fibres known to mankind…  Any brides-to-be should book in a special appointment at “Au Royaume de la Mariée” for that inimitable “My Fair Lady” meets “Debbie Does Dallas” look.  And for “visionairy” hair fashion, look no further than “Styling – coiffeur visagiste”.  Quite terrifying.  I think I may forgo getting my hair cut while I’m here for fear of what might happen…  There’s also a “Monsieur Store”, but on further inspection, they don’t have men for sale – not to worry, however, as Orlando has already decided to marry me off to the butcher’s son…
Once beyond the bustle of the market, there are some lovely, quiet streets and squares, with the quintessential Hotel de Ville and church.  I found an elegant, pale pink townhouse with roses growing in front – but Orlando tells me that it’s to be demolished to make way for the extended DIY store.  It’s sad to think that progress could take away the most charming aspects of this market town, but the people round here certainly seems far from ready to abandon a way of life that has been enjoyed for generations, focusing on good food, farming and family.

The kitchen garden

As a non-gardener (you can’t imagine the shame I feel in writing those words – I’m an embarrassment to myself, not to mention my green-fingered family), I am lost in the midst of a horticultural conversation.  As my mother will tell anyone, a frequently uttered comment as a teenager was “bloody clematis” (or something along those lines) when she and my aunt were in raptures about the latest cutting or new discovery.  However, I must be growing up…  Although I wouldn’t be much use to any gardener yet, I am getting interested.  What does this have to do with me being the chef here at Le Manoir de Raynaudes?  Well, the hotel has an idyllic garden, not to mention the swimming pool – and, of particular interest to me, we use many of the garden’s herbs, vegetables and plants in our food, including 16 varieties of tomato, row upon row of salad leaves, lemons, beetroot, berries – as well as all the herbs you could wish for.  None of that supermarket, packeted rubbish here.  This is the mother ship of living larders.  Of course, to be a true local, I’m going to have to get my hands bloodied sooner or later – the birds and animals are starting to look at me suspiciously – they must know that I’m already wondering what herbs they’ll taste best with…

What on earth…?

After leaving office life and the world of PR at the start of 2008, I’ve left London for six months to be the chef at a boutique hotel in the tiny hamlet of Raynaudes, set in a beautiful and sleepy corner of southwest France. With the owners, Peter and Orlando, for company (plus a stream of loyal, enthusiastic guests, a healthy menagerie of friendly neighbours and their animals) and acres of wild, lovely countryside, it’s going to be an immersion into French cuisine and an escape from city life. I have amazing produce at my fingertips and a kitchen garden that is a chef’s paradise. It’s quite a steep learning curve, but I feel so lucky to be here that I have to pinch myself regularly…