Saturday, 23 May 2009

Home alone and in charge

Well, I must be getting things right as Peter and Orlando left me in charge of all things culinary - and the small matter of looking after the Manoir and our guests - for a few days while they went to the Jesmond Dene Food Festival, where Orlando was hosting a big dinner and doing a food demonstration for the guests...

Menus planned, crisis management in place and off they went... Luckily we have a new recruit: Debbie from California, who came here two years ago for her cousin's wedding, is taking a career break and has come here for three months over the summer to help out.  After the mother of all crash courses from Peter on running front of house, she threw herself into looking after the guests.  They didn't disappoint - taking the "smother them with kindness" approach, we steered our charges through their stay here and everyone came out smiling.  Well, Debbie and I emerged absolutely knackered, but in a good way...

And praise be to Saint Lawrence (patron saint of chefs) - everything turned out extraordinarily well.  We were actually getting a bit freaked out because, let's face it, despite constantly mumbling "I am not at home to Mr F*ck-up" under my breath, I was pretty nervous about maintaing Le Manoir's high standards...  But I turned out food that I was truly proud of, Debbie and I chatted the guests up a treat and I even managed to fit in a swim every afternoon (a sure-fire way to clear even the most befuddled brain and stretch the most knotted muscles...)
Here are photos of a few of the dishes (all starters and puddings as the main courses always seems to be on the plate and raring to go before I have a chance to point my camera at them): salad of cherries with Ecir en Aubrac cheese and hazelnuts; chocolate and cardamom torte; the blackurrant leaves I picked at 4pm to make the sorbet for that night, served with an almond tuile and rose and pansy syrups.

So, now Peter and Orlando are back, the place is still intact, the guests left happy and promising to return.  Final score?  Laura and Debbie: 1; Mr F*ck-up: nul points.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A taste of home and a bit of culture

Although life here is about as good as it gets, what I really miss are my friends and family, so I was seriously excited about the arrival of my great friend Gaby and her lovely mum - my first visitors since I arrived.  After all the photos and  weeks of hearing about where I'm living, what I'm cooking, who I'm working for (and, let's face it, the pool I'm scrubbing), it has been wonderful to actually have somewhere here so they can experience it for themself.  And I think Le Manoir did itself proud - I certainly hope so, especially as Gaby was hear to write an article about us for the Telegraph.  So, as well as feeding them to within an inch of their lives, we thought it was essential to fit in a bit of local culture, too...
First stop was Albi, to visit the huge, brick cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, as well as lunch at Epicurien, a wander around the old town (confusingly reburbished in the mid-80s) and a browse of the shops.

The next day we visited two of the prettiest local bastide towns: Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn and Najac, in the Aveyron.  Amazingly deserted, we had the place to ourselves, which made for an eerily quiet, but very peaceful stroll.

A visit to Le Manoir wouldn't be complete without a lounge by the pool - and then came the only miserable part of their stay: it was time for Gaby and Dixy to leave.  Rather appropriately, it didn't stop raining for 24 hours after they left...

Monday, 11 May 2009

Country tales

My day off ended in our local bastide town, Monestiès, built in Medieval times and complete with a castle, an old stone bridge over the River Cérou and the Saint Jacques chapel, which used to be a stop-off for pilgrims on the way to Compostela.  It's not exactly bustling on a Sunday evening, but I wandered into  the Auberge Occitane for an apératif and was greeted by its owner, Davide - a coffee balanced in one hand and his 6-month old baby daughter, Clara, on his hip.  One of the great things about living in the country is that the owners of the local restaurants and shops recognise and greet you - and seeing a new face provokes enough interest here that people make sure they get to know you if they didn't already.  After going for a stroll round the town, I bumped into our local shopkeeper, Bernard, who is president of the local football team, in the middle of celebrating a victorious final match of the season.  Reassuringly, 11 drunk, French football players really aren't that different from the ones back home...

The sun was setting as I drove past a local farm - it's nothing special to look at, but it has a great story...  Many years ago, the farmer's wife decided that she'd had enough of clearing up after her husband and three doltish sons, so shipped over a servant from the island of Réunion to do all the housework.  The young servant possessed a dangerous combination of beauty, grace and brains.  It took her under two years to pick out the most promising of the three brothers (not a great selection, admittedly, but she had to work with what was available) - and married him.  She then became the new chatelaine and they had a son, Francis, who now runs the farm with great success.  But as for her two brothers-in-law?  Well, our neighbour Mauricette (source of all the best local gossip) tells us they have never married or left the farm and still sleep in the barn with their 200 cattle...

Sunday, 10 May 2009

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...

Saturday, 2 May 2009

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 

Petits fours

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…