30 Jul 2010

Gâteau à la Châtaigne

Approx 10 slices
Preparation: 5 mins
Cooking: 35 mins

The recipe for this incredibly easy-to-make flavoursome cake was given to my partner by Jean, our globe-trotting pâtissier. Beneath its golden armour, this sweet treat is a treasure trove of moistness and lightness!

Here cup measures keep the recipe foolproof (based on one cup measure = approx 200g or 1/4l), so put away those scales and measure converters. If you are unable to source Corsican chestnut flour (farine de châtaigne corse) either online, from a specialised delicatessen, or directly from a Corsican producer, replace with any other flavoured flour.
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1 cup fine Corsican chestnut flour
  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 1 cup semi-skimmed milk
  • 1 cup groundnut oil (or sunflower oil)
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 10g baking powder
  • butter to grease the tin
Preheat the oven (160°C).

Meanwhile place all the ingredients together in a bowl and blend thoroughly with a spoon. Pour the mix into a greased tin (for reference, I used a 28cm diametre tin) and then place in the middle shelf of the preheated oven.

Cook for 35 mins. The cake should rise, develop a dark golden colour thanks to its chestnut content, and present a slightly crackled look as per the picture. Yet when pricked with a knife, it should present a moist and crumbly texture. Do not be tempted to overcook the gâteau as it would get dry and this isn't the end result we are aiming for here.

Enjoy on its own, or serve with a fresh fruit salad. It will keep for a few days, but I'm confident it will be gone in seconds!

27 Jul 2010

Pluses & Minuses (Part 3)

Material Girl: Habits die hard and I would be in denial if I claimed I do not miss certain aspects of my life in Britain, including people and places. When you are confined to an island, reclused to a fairly remote village an hour's drive from the nearest town, shopping takes a totally different dimension.

My Summer favourites: Toni Pons sandals (Padua model)

When in Manchester, it was easy for me to take Selfridges, Kendals or John Lewis for granted when they were virtually on my doorstep and I was a frequent visitor. Now there are days when I'd happily part with my dearest belongings, just for an hour of full-on city life! And the little add-ons too, like a decent cappuccino, a top-notch beauty treatment, an interesting TV documentary or a good old night out, where you can wear your hair down and are spoilt for choice in terms of venues...

Also once upon a time going for a drive opened a window of opportunities, whereas where I live now, whether heading north or south there is only the one road. Talk about that claustrophobic feeling...

Family Guys: Bring two generations with strong personalities and diverging views together under one roof, with limited space and (what seems like) unlimited time, add a lovely albeit sometimes lively Jack Russell Terrier (Tickle!), spice the scene up with frequent changes of plans and unsettled financial situation for the new arrivals, and you get a picture of disjointed family harmony. Family support has become a double-edged sword and you believe that their interference impacts on your progress. Mind you, at least, in their own peculiar way, they are showing us some interest...

Prospects: We came here for a chance to change our lives for the better. I was keen to move away from office-based jobs and a stalled career, and start afresh as an entrepreneur. In the meantime we were keen to find jobs, any jobs really, to sort ourselves out. Maybe we were naive to believe this would be easy.

One of the specificities of the local job market is that it is geared towards seasonality to respond to the peaks and troughs of the tourist industry, making it versatile in a hire-and-fire sort of way, with wage expectations right down to the bare legalities of the job market (i.e. the minimum wage) and 4 months of working day in day out, without a single day off. France might be reputed for its labour ethics, the reality is it's the jungle out there!

Moreover the current economic climate is not favourable to would-be entrepreneurs in need of a cash injection, and business plans must come up with a well thought-out USP to buck the recessionary trend, beat competition, convince the grey suits at the Chamber of Commerce and attract lenders. On a par with Britain, the latter have become more reticent and cover themselves with more guarantees.

Business loans are not what they used to be in terms of attractivity, and they come with a string of conditions attached. For instance in France, if you wish to run your own agricultural concern, you need to attend agricultural college first in order to benefit from preferential loan rates. The process of setting up your own business also implies an off-putting amount of red tape, although a streamline version of self-employment was pioneered in France in recent years, with mitigated success: auto-entrepreneur.

Techno-Flops: Last but not least, another flipside to that Cut Off from the World feeling that badly affects communication in this part of the island is the inadequation between the supply and demand in terms of electricity and telecoms. This invariably translates into power cuts, down telephone lines and a chaotic/ inconsistent broadband internet service, all colluding against consumer expectations in terms of the bare foundations of a modern lifestyle. The violent winds that sweep the northern Cape also cause power cuts. To these inconveniences, add a non-existent or bare-minimum public transport service between the most remote villages, and the feeling of isolation quickly becomes exacerbated beyond reason.

The Low-down: Logic tells us to add up all the pluses together (4) and then all the minuses (8), and to deduct whether this relocation experience was at all worthwhile... Although the answer seems quite obvious at first glance, it is not that clear-cut at the same time because it involves a number of parametres like family ties and the fact we have already invested a fair amount of time, effort and cash in this adventure.

Although giving up now may appear like the obvious option we feel we have to give it another shot, maybe review some assumptions in the process, and read the small print on family relationships!

25 Jul 2010

Pluses & Minuses (Part 2)

Minuses now, we'll try to make them sound as painless as possible!

The Heat is On: Corsican Summers are hot, really hot and may dampen many a spirit as a result, especially if you work in full sun in the great outdoors and/ or about to tackle a DIY/ building/ civil engineering task... Even a spot of gardening can turn into an uncomfortable chore. Yet not just workers, even holidaymakers, can find the whole experience a rather sweaty and energy-draining one!

Cut off from the World: A positive on the days you are feeling moody and Brontë-esque, a curse when you have your business hat on, and want to keep a finger on the pulse of the world. What would be a simple, no-second-thought task back in England can suddenly become more complicated here, like finding a British newspaper, sourcing a direct flight to a European destination, or even randomly going down the shops to buy a book of stamps...

Not in a New York State of Mind: It seems here that time is not constructively used, and in all due respect I don't think Corsicans invented timeliness. Respecting deadlines, being on time for meetings, or for a business to adhere to its own opening hours, are not perceived as priorities, in my experience. I have also noticed, especially in the Public sector, that decisions and responsibilities seem to be taken away from employees' hands, even the most basic ones, and you - the customer - end up being caught in an avoidable vortex of bureaucratic delays. But to be truthful this is more likely to be symptomatic of French civil service in general.

The Empire State Building by swamistream.com

Even when time is critical and/ or you are seeking a straightforward no-nonsense answer, Corsicans will play down any sense of urgency and still find the time to talk endlessly and aimlessly in an almost Comedia dell'Arte fashion (Well, Italy's just across the pond and on a clear day you can even wave at it!): raising the arms and the voice (even for confidences), grimacing, sighing, shrugging, grasping the air, winking, etc! The act of talking brings the whole body to life like an act of possession.

However, despite having all the time in the world, Corsicans are loyal to the bad driver reputation that plagues Southern Europe. They will tend to speed down roads, driving erratically and flirting with danger. As my partner sums it up, 'they are in a rush but not busy'.

If time is money, and western societies exort the importance of time management while complaining at the same time about being time-poor, then Corsica surely must be a prize contender for time-wasting contentment!

Royal Century typewriter, via Paris Hotel Boutique

Paperwork by the Spade: There is no beating about the bush with this one, and then again this is not an endemic issue, more a part of the French heritage. When I left France over 16 years ago, the country was already internationally famous for its red tape and convoluted bureaucracy. Since then, successive presidential cabinets have pledged to streamline procedures and simplify paperwork, by merging civil service departments, issuing new laws and cutting down on the number of civil servants. However it looks like we have now gone beyond inflexible regimented bureaucracy to reach the arcanes of absurdity.

Here in Bastia, despite sharing the same building and a common purpose, CAF (Caisse d'Assurances Familiales) and Assurance Maladie (two government bodies that make up the Department of Social Security) do not share or cross-reference information, and you - the customer - end up having to send to each duplicates of documents and letters, with more delays in the process.

Glamour magazine (UK), April 2010

You - the customer - are supposed to act as the liaising agent between the two government bodies, with no support, direction or follow-up from either of them. So far it has taken me more than four months to claim a Carte Vitale (Social Security card), despite erm being French in the first place (oh, but did I tell you that the central Social Security archives had already filed away my social security number like I was dead and buried?!).

Pôle Emploi is another aberration, still going through an identity crisis since ANPE (job centre) and ASSEDIC (unemployment benefits) merged their services nearly a year ago. Conflicts of interests and personal motives over the general good seem to have turned this 'supercentre' into some inadequate, out-of-step institution that drowns its customers into a sea of confusing procedures and time-wasting protocoles, rather than supporting them with a clear-headed no-nonsense back-to-work vision.

Somehow it seems to us that some posts in the above institutions and elsewhere can only justify their purpose and existence by requesting you to fill in yet another form, and provide yet another proof of identity, and submit yet another bit of paper that will, no doubt, lose its track some way down the system and for which you - the customer - will take the blame for! In these situations, it looks like the customer is never right! (to be continued)

23 Jul 2010

Pluses & Minuses (Part 1)

Now seems the right time for a little review, a little soul searching. Was moving back to the motherland a success, or at least a smooth process for me? And was relocating to Corsica the right choice? As for my partner, is his experience of the expat lifestyle a match to his initial idea(l)? Time then to pit pluses against minuses, and ditch out a few truths...

As we are an optimistic pair, we'll start with the pluses.

Sunny Delight: British Summers have a tendency to be unpredictable, with a cocktail of too much rain/ too many clouds and too little sunshine, although last Summer and the Summer before that weren't particularly disastrous (or maybe our expectations just got lower!). Here in Corsica, if there is one guarantee you are assured of, then hot Summer is it, with a reasonably mild Spring and Autumn as added bonuses. If you are a tan seeker and a bleached tress lover, then Corsica is your destination of choice. The fact it is an island also means that you are never far away from the coast, a beach, a cove, a harbour full of flash yachts, for that added holiday cliché. Sea temperatures are equally tempting (on average 23°C, almost like in your bathtub).

Location, Location, Location: 360° panoramic views over the bay and the mountain range are not a dream, they are a reality for the island's coastal towns and villages, unless of course you are renting a flat in downtown Bastia or Ajaccio where you face a no-win situation, as you are most likely to overlook a busy carriageway on one side and a depressing inner courtyard on the other, nose-to-nose with the opposite neighbour's kitchen balcony with all the fry-up and burnt-oil aromas drifting your way (could be worse, could be the toilets...).

The Great Escape: A bit of an exaggeration maybe as this is still Europe and this is only a small island, yet its diminutive size is deceptive as its mountainous topography means that road communication is not a straightforward affair (try the scenic albeit treacherous Western coast of the Cape as a taster), and the average journey will take longer than down the plains of northern France.

If you are looking to escape traffic and people though, steer clear of the RN193 and other main 'A' roads, and head inland for the road less travelled. Coastal paths like the Sentier des Douaniers which starts off the beach of Macinaggio will provide you with a bit of respite from civilisation, although it has now become a victim of its own success and is well frequented by groups of walkers/ trekkers!

If you live and work in Corsica, your commutes to work may stretch some mileage from your middle-of-nowhere village, yet you will not suffer the almighty road commutes from Hell that England has been made famous for (I had years of it!), stuck in miles of traffic jams, with easily 2-3 hours a day wasted. So, to our Corsican friends, let's put the RN193 commute back into perspective please!

A New Life: Moving from the big city to a small village was going to bring us closer to nature and satisfy my hobbies (landscape photography and botanics). This human dimension was also supposed to slow us down in a positive way, give us a new impetus, a fresh perspective, bring the family together, and give shape to ideas for our next stage in life, both professionally and personally. I had reached the point where the rat race had lost pretty much its meaning, and decided that city life was not necessarily what it was cracked up to be. I was ready for a change, and so was my partner.

There came an offer from my mum, suggesting that we join her and my dad in Corsica, so we took the chance. In a different life, I might have taken a longer leap and aimed for the shores of California or New Zealand, but my mum's offer had more grounding and presented a more controlled risk. (to be continued)

21 Jul 2010

Lettre à Ciaruccia (Part 2)

Way before funding a private pension became the norm, you were financing your own, but lost all your savings once the unscrupulous financiers from Marseille ran off with the coffers! This cruelly spelt a penniless retirement for you, but somehow you made do, thanks to your spirit of enterprise and support from your closed ones.

You amazingly were the last inhabitant in the hamlet. Only towards the end of your life, when approaching 80, did you relent to rent a room at a friend's house in the heart of the village in order to avoid being completely by yourself. Even then, you would walk the 3-mile return trip daily back to the hamlet to check your house was alright! I do not know anyone, young or old, who could claim your bravado, your courage and determination, with limited financial and emotional support and no modern means of communication.

Of all the difficulties that cluttered your life, the harshest of them all probably was when your much-loved nephews moved away, to the call of the bright lights: Augustin to Bastia, Ajaccio and then Calvi, while mémé (plus her husband and daughter) took the deep leap and moved hundreds of miles north, to St-Quentin. You knew deep down that they would never be able to sustain a living by staying in the region. Moving away was a necessity back then, unless maybe if you were a fisherman, a jack-of-all-trades builder, a doctor, a civil servant or a rich land-owner...

You passed away in 1962. By then, the world was already spinning into meltdown, mourning Monroe, orbiting towards the last frontier of space, splitting Berlin into two blocks, losing colonies and engaging deeper into the Vietnam war fiasco. The world was changing fast into something ever more alien to you and your contemporaries. The fabric of society, solidarity, agrarian Corsica (and the role of peasantry and land-ownership), were changing too into something you would have not recognised.

Although I have never met you, I miss you Ciaruccia and feel humbled by you. You were the salt of the earth that you cultivated all your life, a down-to-earth lady with infinite wisdom, courage and kindness, practical, hard-working, yet probably extremely lonely at times.

Despite all this you derived simple pleasures from everyday life, without being blasée or resentful. You saw goodness in everything and everyone. You were incredibly human, yet your self-inflicted working conditions were short of human.

It is a tragedy that our history books, press offices, libraries and collective psyche tend to only remember and praise kings, pharaohs, ministers, generals, celebrities and tycoons, when those who build the foundations of history and society are the little people like Ciaruccia, who busily glide in and out, in the background, out of sight, out of mind, weaving that incredible canvas that is indeed the fabric of our historic wealth and legacy.

20 Jul 2010

Lettre à Ciaruccia (Part 1)

Dear Claire, or shall I call you Ciara, even Ciaruccia (Lil' Claire) as you were affectionately known... A great-great-aunt I have never met, yet I think I have an idea of you almost to the point of claiming that I know you, thanks to other people's accounts of you, especially from mémé, my mum and the shrinking cluster of elderly family friends who are still alive to reminisce you.

I have come across the odd (rare) photo of you, a thin, petite energetic-looking woman with a scarf on her head who was anything but frail and fragile, for you accomplished so much in your humble lifetime, through hard labour and self-inflicted discipline. I have never met you, yet my eyes fill with tears at the thought of your fairly harsh existence with basic/ rudimentary comforts and no material luxuries. Yet what touches me most is that you never complained about it, you took it in your stride and carried on.

And stride is what you did! From the tortuous heights of the hamlet down to the sun-baked plains by the sea, miles of it in one day, every day, by foot or donkey-back! You tended to your vineyards (Malvoisie is the grape you produced), with no mechanical (tractor) aid in sight. You watched out for disease (mildew and phylloxera, the two main and incredibly feared culprits known to deplete a vineyard).

As if this was not enough, you made hay for your farm animals, checked the state of your boundary stone walls in passing, hacked back bramble and other keen weeds. You kept your fruit and vegetable garden in check, watered it, and your patience, faith and plant knowledge - passed down from generation to the next - helped crops to come to fruition and feed the household.

As way of council tax settlement, you volunteered to keep the road verges leading to your hamlet (a good kilometre of it) clear of rambling vegetation. It is said that you always carried a gardening tool with you, a knife, a clipper of sorts, with which you would cut anything that wasn't supposed to be at its place.

You had fun too, almost childlike with your adored nephews (mémé and her brother Augustin who virtually saw you as their second mum) and your only grand-niece, my mum. It seems that despite the harshness of your working conditions, out in the open, self-employed with no job security as such and with no guarantee of a decent wage, you nonetheless felt blessed by family life and the wider circle of village life (from church services to fêtes), although you never married or had children of your own, not necessarily your choice, as I've heard allegations that your brother Antoine (my great-grandad) discouraged any suitors from courting his only sister! Whether or not you would have had an easier life, should you have found a caring husband, we will never know... (to be continued)

19 Jul 2010

Smooth Lemon Sorbet

Approx 8 servings
Preparation: approx. 10 mins
Cooking: Bring to the boil + 5 mins
Cooling: 1 hr
Freezing: 4 hrs minimum

And now for an exquisite dichotomy: lemon and sorbet. Lemons are Winter fruit, while sorbets are traditionally associated with Summer. Here is my revisited adaptation of one of my mum's old 1970s 'Femme d'Aujourd'hui' magazine recipes, where I am more generous with lemons, discard sugar for icing sugar and omit the food colouring (big in the day!). The cream and icing sugar counteract the acidity of the lemons into a fondant and create a smooth emulsion that will smoothe out any childhood preconceptions about lemons and watery sorbets!

As always, I am spoilt for the quality ingredients. Left on the trees to reach maturity at their own pace, organic Corsican lemons are courtesy of Philippe, our old family friend. Besides I used filtered water for the sorbet (purists amongst you might even elicit mineral water).
  • 1/4 litre water
  • 400g icing sugar
  • 1/4 litre freshly squeezed lemon juice (corresponds to approx. 5 small lemons + 2 average-sized lemons)
  • 2 tablespoons whipped cream
Place a stainless steel sorbet/ ice cream mould in the freezer department. Pour the water and icing sugar in a pan and whisk together until the sugar has melted. Bring slowly to the boil, keeping an eye on the pan at all times, as the syrup must remain clear and not caramelise. From the first bubbles that rise to the surface, count 5-7 mins before taking the pan off the stove. A drop of syrup carefully placed on your finger with the tip of a fork must be sticky and well formed, and this will indicate the correct consistency.

Once the consitency reached, and the pan taken off the stove as a result of it, add the lemon juice. Quickly beat the cream with a fork before adding to the liquid. With an electric whisk, blitz the preparation to smoothe it; it will become very foamy (as per picture). Then leave to completely cool down (which could take at least a good hour), before pouring into the cold sorbet mould. Place in the freezer. The depth of the mould will dictate the speed at which the sorbet sets; the deeper the mould, the longer it will take. In my case, I used an 8.5 cm deep cubic mould.

Every couple of hours check the consistency and mash through with a fork to avoid the formation of crystals. Bear in mind that sorbet consistency is not as hard as ice cream. In my case, four-hour freezing time produced a soft consistency (especially once mashed through with the fork), perfect for scooping into cups.

However I chose to leave the sorbet overnight (i.e. for a total of 18 hours). In order to recreate the sorbet/ granité consistency, I scraped its surface repeatedly with a fork and scooped as such into cups. This is an elegant yet unassuming dessert, that needs no dressing, no presentations, no add-ons. It is thus best enjoyed au naturel. It provides a burst of freshness without the bitter after taste! Good clean fun indeed!

18 Jul 2010

Un Café à Bastia (Part 2)

My next secret address, L'Idéal is also at the back of the Société Générale bank, this time making your way down the Cours Pierangeli, and further down, heading for the Place du Marché, a little provincial gem of a square only a few yards away from the Vieux Port (the old fishing port). Straight in front of you, with the beautiful Saint-Jean-Baptiste church on your right, you will find the bar/ glacier, next to La Table du Marché restaurant.

Its discreet unassuming pale façade belies a tastefully decorated interior, small in size but incredibly charming. No doubt that the shaded terrace with its potted hydrangeas and quality wicker armchairs will equally tempt you, for an alfresco refreshment. But if you nip back indoors, you will probably get tempted by the marble cake and biscuits tastefully laid out in glass jars to accompany your café noisette (an espresso with a shot of foamy hot milk), reasonably priced at 1.2 Euros. Finding yourself in the town centre yet with this off-centre tranquility at the same time, you'll be able to take the town in, enjoy a breather and lose your thoughts into a daydream, while sipping a coffee... Which is what downtime should be all about.

If you don't want to miss any of the action, walk up towards the top of Rue César Campinchi, bearing left while heading towards the Palais de Justice (courts of justice). You will find Café Francesca: a haven of respite after all that shopping and strolling! Its contemporary design with soft clean lines, dominant cream tones softening the beautifully restored brick ceilings, and an inviting leather banquette, are bound to seduce you. Unless it is the inviting homemade mousses, creams and fruit desserts presented in glass verrines on show in the vitrine by the entrance!

For a break from the traditional, why not try one of the maison's herbal fruit teas? I recommend the Thé Bulgare (3 Euros), refreshing despite being served hot. Service is friendly and informal, and you will be tempted to linger and - who knows - by the light lunches (petite restauration) on offer, to be consumed either indoors or on the pavement terrace.

If you have transport, don't mind the bill, want a bit of bikini action and fancy indulgence with a definite holiday vibe, then you can push the boat out big time and head for Lido de la Marana, Bastia's closest beach resort (please note you can't walk there from Bastia town centre).

A short drive away from the hectic and congested RN193 (South Bastia's 'A' road cutting through residential suburbs, superstores and shopping parks) is a stretch of paradise sandwiched between a long sandy beach and protected marshes, aka the Cordon Lagunaire (laguna strip), host to Lido de la Marana and its welcoming Bar de la Plage, where a standard espresso will set you back 1.50 Euros (against the usual 1.0 to 1.20 Euros), but considering the exclusive view and jet-set undertones, you will understand it is quite cheap after all.

Comfortably sat on the deck over the golden combed sandy beach, with the Bastia coastline unfolding in the distance, and the protected marsh behind you, you will be able to get even closer to beach action (where loungers and parasols are laid out for the bar patrons). But before you take your kit off and take a dip, why not have a bite to eat, and prolong that Laguna Beach moment a tad longer...

17 Jul 2010

Un Café à Bastia (Part 1)

Take a walk on the safe side of café culture in Bastia with I - your guide - and enjoy a moment's tranquility without compromising on style. To do so, let the town take you in its stride, preferably on a cool Spring or Autumn day (the best times of year to visit the Corsican town). Start off quite early in the day, or make a move later in the afternoon, in order to avoid rush-hour traffic. The town centre is compact enough for you to walk around without difficulty. However wear good shoes so as not to spoil the fun to be had (some of the streets are steep). Take a wander down the pavements, go on a mini-adventure, safe in the knowledge that you can't really get lost in Bastia!

The town itself is quite narrow in depth, roughly contained between the commercial/ ferry port, the train station/ Fango quarter (administrative area), the Palais de Justice/ Citadelle axis (old town) and the unmissable Place Saint-Nicolas (the main town square). The town centre (bar the old town itself) is organised almost as a grid system, a bit like a town from the New World. The two main shopping arteries, Boulevard Paoli and Rue César Campinchi run in parallel and their selection of mainstream shops, exclusive boutiques, enticing pâtisseries and quirky eateries should be enough to satisfy the label-obsessed, the price-conscious, the speciality seeker and the style hunter.

If we have to start somewhere, where better than from the epicentre of town, Place Saint-Nicolas? The wide spacious palm-tree-lined square overlooks the sea. Napoléon's pedestal proudly stands at the centre of the square, while behind him an example of remarkable 18th century architecture is spelt out on the frontons of a row of imposing apartment blocks. Sitting at a terrace, you will be able to embrace the continental pastime of café culture like a native. Just wear your shades, unfold your newspaper, light up a cigarette (if you may) and take in the atmosphere.

The countless cafés/ bars mean that you will be spoilt for choice, but if you really need my personal recommendation, then head for Café de la Paix: it has been there for as long as I remember. If indoors its rich 1970s wood panelling and brown leather décor has lost some of its panache and is crying for an uplift, the café is nevertheless - I believe - the place to be, at about 7:30am, in order to take the pulse of the town, as office workers and businessmen stop in for their daily Malongo café serré (Ristretto) and a croissant. The café crème is decent, the croissants are generous in size and will set you off 'till lunchtime, while the café's atmosphere will be upbeat enough to fill you with energy for the day.

For a more tranquil vibe and a more modern setting, away from the hub of the square, I recommend a choice of two cafés. Café Casale (named after the aviator, Jean Casale) on the street of the same name is a small quiet café tucked away at the back of the Société Générale bank (Rue Miot, visible from Place Saint-Nicolas).

Its décor, lay-out and drinks menu show that its owners pay attention to detail and the experience will be bound to appeal to style-aware urbanites. And for that little extra touch, tea and Illy coffee are served in good old-fashioned vintage crockery. You may prolong your experience with a spot of light lunch there. (to be continued)

16 Jul 2010

Priceless & Homemade

There are some things that money can't buy. For everything else, there's card, cash, gold bars, Travellers cheques, or bank of mum & dad... The things that money can't buy include those little treasures, allegedly insignificant family heirlooms at large that risk a death sentence with the passing of every generation, memory-ladden hand-me-downs that appear so trivial to those outside the family circle, objects devoid of a price tag, a clear/ obvious monetary value benchmarked against carats, gems, the fine antiques market, artistic worth, art movement, exclusivity etc.

At least two of the three objects I am about to describe here are commonly found in old Corsican homes, including mémé's house, and sadly likely to be overlooked by the younger generations. These artefacts are likely to fare poorly in terms of hard cash on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, nonetheless they are priceless to me, for they embody my family heritage (and that of hundreds of other local households) in its most simple aspect: the humble testimony of a pastoral tradition, of everyday life like it would have been, in its bare simplicity. These objects may 'only' appear to be a disparate collection of wooden bits that some consumerists couldn't wait to relegate to the dustbin (or in a last minute bout of empathy sell off at a jumble fair), but they are likely to 'talk' to sociologists and ethnologists. And for me, their 'talk' is (familiar) music to my ears.

U Spurtellu: a small yet sturdy, rounded and perfectly formed basket, handmade using either myrtus or chestnut wood twigs. My grandma's spurtellu is, I reckon, at least 150 years' old and not a single grey! This little unassuming basket had a clear purpose back in the day (and mostly until just before WWII): used by land-owners and peasants picking olives from their trees, as the first process towards the production of olive oil. The spurtellu was also used as a measure, enabling these local/ cottage industry olive oil producers to keep track of the quantity of olives they had picked. Ingenious and simple, all the same! More recently our spurtellu has been used to bring back fresh chicken eggs from a cousin's garden, or to pick peaches from the tree. It also had its hippie moment in the 1970s, holding an arrangement of dried wild flowers!

Planche à Découper (chopping board): unfortunately I never asked my grandma for the Corsican translation of this mundane wooden kitchen utensil. This one however was clearly hand-crafted using local wood, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill smoothed-down version from the shops. Here you will notice the rusticity of the finished product, the pencil markings and the lack of symmetry of the curves. These imperfections make this unique piece even more endearing indeed! Despite not being a keen carnivore, I cannot help but wonder about all the beautifully fragranced tasty pieces of locally-produced meat that got carved on this block of wood by my ancestors, throughout the last century or so...

Cuillère Souvenir (souvenir spoon): an unassuming example of local decorative craft aimed at visitors and the very first tourists, and designed to be hanged on a wall. I am no antiques expert but would be tempted to date this piece back to the early 1900s. This one holds the particular merit of 'advertising' the village of Rogliano, indicating here some sort of exclusivity as it is quite difficult to find decorative artefacts with village names on. Finding vintage objects bearing town names like Bastia (see close-up of the trinket box, top), Calvi or Ajaccio is much more common. Sadly this little spoon has lost some of its curvature along the years, but in my eye it has retained all of its character and quirkiness. It used to belong to Claire, mémé's dearest auntie, and I would never dream of parting from it.

15 Jul 2010

A Cook in the Kitchen...

... and a maid in the parlour, that's my mum. She is extremely talented, holds the most challenging role at home, and - in the same breath - the least rewarding one. She is on call all day and gets no pay for it, never mind out-of-hours overtime. Her endless repetitive tasks conducted almost concurrently, daily and weekly household chores that seem to have only her name on, with her immediate circle not always giving her the appreciation she deserves. She is probably the most overlooked/ taken-for-granted individual in this very home, which is likely to make feminists out there cringe in horror. I think you'd get less for murder!

We are not just talking about the cooking, but also the laundry, ironing, cleaning, tidying, food shopping, bill paying, letter writing, nurturing, problem solving, life coaching and advising. She will also spend time in the garden, fix things around the home, deep-clean kitchen and bathroom, wax-polish furniture, keep abreast of current affairs and represent the family on various engagements. She will play the perfect hostess, entertaining friends and family with both conversation and meals devised by her from scratch. She looked after her mum - mémé - and her father-in-law in the last stages of their lives. She's opened her door to people in trouble, family, friends and even strangers. Years ago, she took time out to help with a local charity, visiting and providing moral support to socially- and economically-deprived families.

My mum will collect food recipes, cuttings, photos and articles about home design and house renovation (my mum should have been a library archivist!). She will furnish the home and clothe its inhabitants. She'll have an eye for detail and generally for anything that needs replacing, updating or buying in the first place. She takes it all in her stride, and carries on regardless despite fatigue, poor support and criticism from her closest ones (including from my dad). 'Why did you only buy one kilo of spuds?', 'Oh, I don't fancy a stew for lunch!', 'Could you not find me a better jumper than this one?'...

Yet she is so light-footed, discreet and modest, and she blends into her surroundings so well that a visitor would almost be forgiven for not noticing her. You would think that a magician conjures up order and spick and span around the home on her behalf while she just sits there with her Sudoku grids in front of an old re-run of Inspector Derrick... She could take time out and make time for herself but she doesn't. I think she would feel guilty about it. That's just the way my mum is. An old-fashioned self-abnegated, dedicated home-comes-first kinda mum. She is a rare treasure indeed and we are lucky to have her. She is a god-sent who holds the fabric of this household together, and we sure should show her more gratitude than we do.

Her qualities make up the CV for the perfect housewife; they lie in her resilience, patience, organisational skills, can-do attitude and creativity. She will easily spend three hours in the kitchen daily, just to cook, without batting an eyelid, without fuss. After all those years, she will still push her own limits by injecting some fun into her cooking, testing a new recipe, innovating with a culinary gadget, adding pzzazz to a dish... You have to salute her effort. In my eyes, she is part of an elite up there, she represents the crème de la crème of housewives. Meanwhile I'd love to hear from younger housewives who are a carbon copy of my mum, so that I can disprove my conclusion that my mum is indeed part of a dying breed of housewives.

My mum is not strictly speaking a child of the 1960s. She wasn't from the post-war baby-boom years, as she was born during the war, making her a child of the 50s, although she was in her twenties throughout the whole of the 60s. Her values were maybe more anchored in that 1950s mentality where homeliness, home order, home economics and tradition were more prevalent than in the liberal 60s.

Maybe also it was just my mum being my mum, strong views about the role of a wife and mother. Same with her female friends and age group contemporaries becoming adults in small working-class towns of Northern France (and elsewhere), who nurtured the same noble aspirations and ambitions around the home: to become a good wife, a good mum, a good hostess, to be proud of their home and family, to keep up with the Joneses in a healthy kind of motivational competition. No sloppiness, no laziness, no moaning. On top of it, these young ladies like my mum held jobs and some were embarking on careers. They would juggle it all, like my mum did, to a point.

Some things would have to give, but with my mum, she was the one who gave, she gave more of her time to her husband and children, to her home, to her cooking. It helped us (but probably not her) that she gave away her career for us, 18 years or so, so she could carry on slaving on the stove, up and down the utility room and around with the vac, while we'd grumble and criticise. I told you so: you would get less for murder!

14 Jul 2010

Two-Hour Twilight

One of the most striking of French 'oddities' encountered on French soil by the foreign visitor (or the native back home after years spent abroad!) will be the time and importance given to meal times, and especially the noon till two break, where everything comes to a standstill. I call this the two-hour twilight.

Bar the welfare depts that now tend to be open through lunch, local government institutions (town halls, municipal libraries, public baths, etc.), banks, post offices, civil service institutions (job centres, tax offices, préfecture, etc.), offices, surgeries, shop floors, shops and garages are all closed for the best part of two hours. Bakeries and grocery stores will tend to give a 30-minute window or so, enabling people straight out of the workplace to buy their baguette or last-minute essentials before heading home for lunch.

Yet, sign of the changing times (and a blessing for some customers), most branded chain stores and supermarkets will be open. And of course so will cafés and restaurants, only too pleased to capitalise on the opportunity to cater for the stranded workers on their daily two-hour lunch break but unable or unwilling to nip back home for a quick bite and a nap.

In some areas of town, this extended lunchtime break can spell tough luck for employees, especially if there is no canteen, the local amenities are closed, and you rely on public transport. What do you do with your time? Once again you cannot exactly run errands or catch up with personal paperwork, if this involves a trip to the local bank. You can always do some of it by phone, I suppose, that is if you are indulgent of call centres, and they are able to assist with your request.

Although I approve of the importance of proper breaks, especially from a worker's viewpoint, I am wondering whether it wouldn't be more beneficial for all parties concerned (workers, customers, the general public) and for business if, while retaining the format of the two-hour lunchtime break, the workplace actually remained open for business, but employees took their break in turn.

With this 'business as usual' formula, like we have in Britain, service is uninterrupted and everybody gets served. Company employees and customers alike can get things done at lunchtime, whether it be personal errands or business dealings. And the business benefits too.

But maybe where I am missing the point altogether is that the French two-hour lunch break is a sacrosanct tradition, and that it should be seen for what it means in the first place: purely dedicated to meal time, food and rest. My perception is probably altered by the fact that I have lived in England so long, I have become more pragmatic and rushed off my feet than my French counterparts!

12 Jul 2010

Hey Mr Baker!

A few weeks ago, just before Spring, my partner embarked on a bakery course at the local Centre de Formation d'Apprentis (trades college). Originally this was no concerted option, more a decision that had been thrown upon us, with the risk of luring us away from our focussed business ambitions. But with setting up a business not exactly the right time for us, we decided that this might be a useful diversion, a possible door-opener too. And this is how my partner became Mr Baker...

I personally harboured doubts about how beneficial a choice this would prove to him, expecting him to jack the whole thing in (although all along the temptation to do just that was at the back of his mind). Yet fairy(-cake!) godmothers bestowed him with blessings:
  • A friendly, approachable and passionate tutor, a former baker from Marseille who had the gift at communicating his knowledge and enthusiasm to his students;
  • My partner was part of a small group of friendly adults who too were trying to find their feet in a changing world and were retraining as a result; and finally,
  • When doing his on-the-job training he was lucky enough to find himself under the wing of not merely a baker but a highly experienced pâtissier with prestigious international credentials who had nurtured his skill in top London hotels, French embassies of the Middle East and high-end pâtisseries.
  • With the pâtissier my partner would not only learn a few tricks but also appreciate the reality of the world of pâtisserie, observe the processes in place, learn to be organised and methodical, go 'wow!' at the magic and unfold some of the little trade secrets that make those delicate pastries and gâteaux endearingly pretty. He would 'mettre la main à la pâte' (get involved) in the viennoiserie side of pâtisserie: croissants, almond croissants, pains aux raisins, pains au chocolat, pear/ apple tarts, mushroom tartlets, croquants (cantuccini biscuits, pictured below), canistrelli (Corsican biscuits), etc.

I am impressed and proud of him for, not only is he faced with the daily challenge of trying to communicate in a foreign tongue he had virtually no knowledge of six months ago, with minimum support, missing out on the subtleties, and battling with grammatical absurdities, he is training in a field of activity he had no prior knowledge of (or prior inclination for, in his own words). Before now, his closest exposure to baking had been by his making scones from scratch (of his own accord, this was), casually watching me bake the odd cake, or wandering down the bakery isle of a British supermarket, not exactly catalysts for a career in baking.

At the end of the day, if the 8-month bakery training, compounded by early rises, unfriendly hours and the repetitive bread-making action, doesn't necessarily convince my partner to embrace the career, or encourage him to follow this up with further training - this time in pâtisserie as the logical next step - it will at least have given him the basic rules of baking, and hopefully a taste for baking in our kitchen.

This will also have offered him a valuable insight into probably the most celebrated of French culinary traditions: the world of boulangerie - pâtisserie. And how best to understand the workings of a country than by getting an insight into what makes it tick, i.e. by getting under its skin, or - rather - under its pastry lining?

11 Jul 2010

Very Strawberry Sorbet

Approx 10 servings
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: bring to boil + 5 mins
Cooling: 1 hr
Freezing: 4 hrs minimum

With strawberry season in full swing, I wanted to pay tribute to its unadulterated taste and was of the opinion that only homemade sorbet would achieve this true simplicity of taste. I wasn't going to fall prey yet again to offerings from high-street glaciers (ice-cream parlours) that use fruit syrups, canned or frozen fruit as the basis to their pur fruit concoctions...

Also once you get mass-market sugary ice-creams, tasteless watery sorbets and fluorescent slush puppies out of your system, you are bound to yearn for the back-to-basics homemade frozen desserts, the ones that combine only 3 ingredients like this one here, and where fresh fruit operates its magic of taste and form, with no room for colourings, preservatives, flavour enhancers and general kidding around...

For the sugar syrup, I used 'crystal' sugar, a white caster sugar used for jam making which, through its pectin content, will prevent the formation of crystals in sorbets and ice-creams.
  • 300ml water
  • 500g granulated sugar or icing sugar
  • 750g strawberries
Place a stainless steel sorbet/ ice cream mould in the freezer department. Start off by making a clear sugar syrup. Pour the water and sugar in a pan and whisk together until the sugar has melted. Bring slowly to the boil, keeping an eye on the pan at all times, as the syrup must remain clear and not caramelise. From the first bubbles that rise to the surface, count 5 mins before taking the pan off the stove.

A drop of syrup carefully placed on your finger with the tip of a fork must be sticky and well formed, and this will indicate the correct consistency. Also the surface of the syrup will show a very slight mottled effect (as if a very thin sheet of cellophane has been deposited onto the surface).

Once the syrup consistency reached, take the pan off the stove and let the syrup cool down thoroughly. Meanwhile wash and hull the strawberries, put them in a blender and blitz until they have completely liquefied. Filter the strawberry juice through a thin sieve to rid off grains and bits. Discard the grains and bits.

Add the smooth juice to the cooled syrup and mix together before pouring into the cold sorbet mould. Place in the freezer. The depth of the mould will dictate the speed at which the sorbet sets; the deeper the mould, the longer it will take.

From the moment the sorbet has just about set, start mashing through it with a fork every 2-4 hours or so to maintain a soft consistency, bearing in mind that sorbet is not as hard as ice cream.

Once you are ready to consume your sorbet, mash it through again, and roughly fashion scoops between two forks before placing into serving cups. Serve as it is. The unadulterated taste of strawberry will talk for itself and spellbound you and your guests!

2 Jul 2010

An Attention to Detail (Part 2)

Attention to detail in rusticity is exemplified by mémé's house. Spread over three floors, it demonstrates church and castle engineering transposed to the private humble home, with a medieval vault structure supporting the whole weight of the house and deployed over a steep public path, using noble materials like oak and chestnut beams and stonemasonry. A challenge back in the day, and still a challenge today as no concrete casts, supporting steel frames or breeze blocks are used! This will baffle many a savvy modern architect, no doubt!

As if this was not enough, mémé's house also boasted until 50 years ago a fully-functioning built-in bread oven (alleged to be as ancient as the multi-century-old house) and tiled terracotta surround. Furthermore the property is flanked by its own private stone pavement. It also has a granary and an attic, a dispenza (larder), three fireplaces (the one in the kitchen was used to smoke pork meat into ham), a separate kitchen building linked to the main house itself via a puntu (bridge), two panoramic terraces, two functional cellars (one for wood storage and one for wine-making, complete with stone basin and oak barrels), a chicken pen, a pigsty consisting of a stone shelter built underneath the public path and an open-sky pig yard, a small terraced garden, and three olive trees immediately below the communal path. Thick stone walls and solid wooden floors are defacto, while chestnut windows and French windows are fitted with their own inside shutters, to keep the house safe and cool.

This is a perfect example of a self-contained property, an average peasant/ farmer family dwelling that over the decades/ centuries got improved upon, updated and enlarged to cope with the changing times. For instance, in line with a design trend of the time, one of the downstairs rooms has a beautiful ornate plaster ceilling that was stencilled in 1907 to commemorate my great-grandparents wedding, and has not been touched up since although it is now - sadly - severely damaged. The house was electrified in the 1950s by a family member on holiday from his high-ranking post in Marseille docks: he did a very neat spot-on job, that would shame our so-called electricians out there!

A cosmetic detail: my mum's D.O.B. immortalised on the façade by my grandad

For this is what I have noticed: back in the day, masons, builders, carpenters, roofers, skilled/ unskilled tradesmen and even amateurs/ rookies seemed to make a point at producing quality work, not any of this sub-standard lark that we have come to expect or get accustomed to nowadays, with shortcuts aplenty, poor materials, cheap imitations, and loads of cladding, panelling, plaster-boarding, lashes of paint or glue, staple-gun action and falseties to hide a multitude of sins in minimum time and effort... That attention to detail and pride in a job well done are an aberration for some! The building trade shouldn't be that charade, the lottery it has turned out to be, as - using Forrest Gump's famous words - 'you never know what you gonna get!'

I have been appalled at the extremely poor quality of work and motivation levels of those (albeit self-employed) tradesmen I have personally dealt with. A case of bad attitude, poor habits, lazy quick-fix methods and often not an ounce of common sense! While I'm at it, I would be extremely tempted to publicise the rogue Stockport plumber who carried out a wretched job at installing a new kitchen sink in my home six months ago and charged me over the odds for the extremely disappointing results that awaited me as soon as I opened the under-sink cupboard...

I have countless examples of the sort, and so have my acquaintances... With such low standards today, no wonder you eagerly look back in anger and turn to the past to discover skills, talent and ingeniosity that are so missing right now!