Saturday, May 21, 2016

Other beasts at Kerbiriou

This shrew showed itself the first day we arrived, running across the path. Later I saw it trotting sedately down the outside steps towards the door to our room.

 It climbed up the wall and pottered along the windowsill, then investigated the groove in the frame where the outside shutter ran,

and began to climb up it - apologies for the out of focus picture, but it was the only one I was able to take before it slipped down again, not being able to get much purchase on the pvc of the frame.

I thought it must be ill to be so slow moving and careless, but I mentioned it to Paul, our host, and he was quite familiar with it, and we saw it several times more, it seemed quite healthy, just tame. Elfie was curious but not especially obsessive or predatory about it. One afternoon, we were sitting with the room door open, and it came wandering down the steps and ran along the terrace. 'Don't go in the bedroom' I said to it, and it went into the bedroom.

Tom followed it in, and I heard various noises and things being moved. I continued to drink my wine, deciding this was a moment when I would abnegate responsibility for a mildly tricky situation, even though I didn't particularly want to find it on my pillow later or have to take its corpse out of Elfie's mouth in the middle of the night. After a few minutes Tom came out with his hand clenched as though holding something. 

'Have you got it?'
'I don't know yet.'

In fact he was holding his sleeve end close to his wrist; he carefully peeled off his jacket and turned the sleeve inside out, and the shrew tumbled harmlessly out and pottered off into the grass. It had made the tour of the room then gone into the bathroom, he had tried to catch it in a carrier bag but it had run up his sleeve instead.

When we were kids, we used to take our two cats on family caravan holidays. When we arrived they tended to disappear for a day and then find their way back, even on quite crowded sites, then keep to a very regular schedule of exploring and hunting all day and coming back at night. Once we had to move the 'van because there had been a flood in the site which was some kind of old quarry. Ginger came back at his allotted supper time and sat in the middle of a large puddle mewling pitifully, we were only a few dozen yards away and kept calling him, but he had programmed it into his brain that that was the spot to meet us, and we had to go over and fetch him so he could readjust his settings. They weren't great huntng cats normally, but in holiday mode they would bring back all kinds of small furred game for our inspection; once a vole caught in Herefordshire travelled many miles in the caravan unbeknownst to us and was released in mid-Wales, we wondered if it would encounter linguistic difficulties. Shrews were a favourite to be brought home to us, trembling and traumatised but still alive, since, it seems, they don't taste nice. Which may account for this one being unmolested by Kerbiriou's resident cat.

He's lived there all the time we've been going, six years now. I've photographed him before. Some kind of Russian blue type, friendly enough but always on his terms of course, and very confident and assertive. One night quite late, Elfie was having her last perambulation of the day and we encountered him sauntering very nonchalantly down the middle of the road. Before anyone knew what was happening they were nose to nose, and the cat was totally non-fazed, spending several moments eyeballing her coolly before going on his way without batting an eyelid. Elfie seemed simply astonished and non-plussed, though she did just mutter quick snap-snap with her jaws as he left. Cats are a problem area with her, she tends to freeze and stalk when she sees one, which is the worst reaction a dog can have to a cat, they say. More exposure to the Kerbiriou cat might sort her out a bit. Here he is as Lord of All He Surveys on the barn roof,

which is really very high:

Lastly, another formidable boss creature. The last house in the lane has this fellow as a lawn mower:

He's a Ouessant ram. Ouessant is Ushant in English, as in 'from Ushant to Scillies is thirty-five leagues'. For sheep enthusiasts, this is a most interesting breed, considered probably one of the most direct descendants of the earliest domesticated sheep breeds, kept pure and unmodified over millennia in such a westerly outpost. There are enthusiasts for keeping them and spinning their wool, but those who do so admit their fleeces to be often short, rough and brittle. I seem to remember hearing that some shipwrecked Spanish sheep introduced a better strain for wool, and that one of the clothes labels who make all the cliché stripey Breton sweaters and such like that Parisians and other tourists take home from their holidays had bought up all the viable wool from the island's flock, but I'm not sure if either of these things is true.

When I asked about this one, Paul answered ruefully that he was a very bad character indeed, and we should look out for him. But he was rather handsome, I thought.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Elfie at Kerbiriou

... where she had a really rather marvellous time, as did we. We took endless walks, around the Kernéléhen peninsular

on paths and lanes some of which I'd not discovered before,

and on the rough stony beaches, getting her first taste of the sea, I think,

which often made her rather thirsty:

She lounged in the garden when it was sunny, watched out for the local wildlife and helped Tom out with his sudoku,

and showed herself to be the Angel-Under-the-Table in every restaurant and bar we went to, lying down calmly inside or out, with the minimum of fidgeting or groaking.

As usual she was often admired; Yvette at Kerbiriou asked if we had gone to Callac to get her, which is where all the best épagneuls bretons* come from, it seems, there is even a museum about them there. 

We also very much enjoyed being in a place where people walk and socialise their dogs rather more than they do round here - although the day before we left I had met up with Iso and Princeling at the lake in Lamballe, which is quite a busy, sociable place of a Sunday afternoon; the lad, who is now eight, took her lead for long stretches and was very sensible, and it was almost like giving her total freedom, since he was happy to run back and forth and round trees and into long grass after her, which gave his mother and me the opportunity to natter while boy and dog entertained each other. But during our trip away I think we met more dogs and dog owners than in all the time we've had her, all of them friendly and responsible, whether on the long promenade walk at le Dourduff, or the cliff paths round the peninsular, or pavement walking in Morlaix, and it was rather fun. 

Then, when we got home, there was a parcel waiting for us. G and A (Sidney, Milly and Peggy's humans), who, we have decided, are now appointed her god-parents, had sent her the most beautiful, elegant and luxurious, hand-made, soft, rolled-leather collar** in a gorgeous shade of tangeriney orange, which tones even more fetchingly with her coat colour than turquoise complements it, and is generally a far classier piece of doggy apparel than her nylon webbing one. They also included two matching ID discs with our name and phone numbers, one of which is on the collar, the other on her harness.

So she is surely the most wondrously caparisoned dog in all of Brittany, and will be even more admired than ever. She certainly seemed to enjoy modelling.

*in fact them more I look at stuff about pure-bred Brittanies, even French ones, the more I'm inclined to think she's not completely typical, may even have a bit of border collie in the mix somewhere, which Emmy the vet was inclined to think possible too.

** from Dogs and Horses, no less! 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Blog, I have missed you

It's true, the blogging muscles have grown rather flabby. 

What has been happening? 

We had our sculpting friend Jantien to stay. Here she is sculpting, or her hands anyway:

She came initially because we have a covered space to work in, not very sheltered otherwise, but out of the rain. Then she had to stay in the blue room because her usual billet down the road with her mother-in-law was taken by someone else for a bit, then she kind of decided she might as well stay around as she rather liked it here and it would save upping sticks. We didn't mind a bit, she is the most sensible, sensitive and considerate lodger, helped by the fact she actually has something to be getting on with and so doesn't need entertaining, she frequently cooks us delicious vegetarian meals with her own ingredients and caters for herself in a very tidy and tactful way for much of the rest of the time  and she was always eager to stretch her legs at one end of the day or the other and accompany Elfie (with whom she was rather taken, naturally) and her attendant humans on long country walks. 

So I can't say she kept us busy with extra work at all, but having someone dynamic working away on site, and just being encouraged to chat and be a bit more outwardly energetic and sociable oneself, means the patterns change a bit, and one's mental space feels somewhat rearranged and fuller than usual. None of which is a bad thing, of course. 

Now though, having succeeded in stealing away so early that none of us heard the going of her, she is en route back to the Netherlands for a week or two, whence she'll be travelling to England for this exhibition, and we're all being rather quiet and lazy on this fête de travail.

But I think she'll be back later this month, which should please Elfie, who's been looking around for her rather today.  And perhaps it will be a little warmer by then. Elfie's blanket is finished, despite her attempts to commandeer it even before it was:

It's not really her colours, but never mind.

Thus unseasonable cold has made sculpting, gardening and dog walking sometimes something of a struggle, but I suppose the upside of that is a delayed spring; we are only just at the luminous, soft, multi-hued stage which would normally be giving way to a more uniform emerald by now, of which here are some photos from today's walk:

And an early peacock butterfly:

A cold, delayed spring an upside? Indeed, for truly in this life, anything that seems to hold back time is to be welcomed. Also spracht Pollyanna.

That will do for now, we're off to Kerbiriou for the first time this year, and for our first trip away with Elfie, in a week or two, but I'll try to be back here again before then, and to reacquaint myself with blogging friends in the meanwhile.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A bit of terroir

It's become quite apparent since we had Elfie that if you want to reach a whole new level of assimilation into life in Brittany, get yourself a Brittany spaniel.* Many older local friends glow with admiration at the sight of her, or love to hear about her, and tell me fond stories of all the dogs of her breed they have had or known, and complete strangers stop us to compliment her and talk at length in the same vein. I have the feeling we have adopted an emblem of regional pride as well as a dog. Not that this would have made any difference to our taking her of course, but I am rather enjoying basking in her reflected glory, and the increased contact and conversation I'm experiencing.

In fact, when a couple who had parked nearby at the supermarket and were admiring her through the car window, so I got her out to say hello and display her general wonderfulness, then the man opened his car door and she almost jumped in** and he chuckled that she was very welcome to come home with them, it made me think twice about making sure the car was securely locked when I parked outside the next supermarket; their appreciation, it seemed to me, was decidedly tinged with covetousness. They were quite rough-round-the-edges people, but clearly lovely; they couldn't believe she had been abandoned and in a refuge, had not long lost their last Brittany after keeping them, along with Labradors, for eighteen years, and weren't sure how long they could go on without another one. The woman praised us warmly for taking her, said that being such an intelligent dog she would know she had found a loving home with us, and that everything we gave she would give to us back again, we wouldn't regret it. However, not everyone who takes a fancy her might be so nice, and she is much too sweet and trusting not to let herself be led away.

Anyway, to celebrate our chienne de terroir, some cuisine de terroir, since she'll be keeping us at home rather more (though not entirely, we are quite hopeful of her adaptability, and her car habits and plans for appropriate equipment are coming on), and since all the walking is giving me a good appetite, one might as well make the most of some local food (apologies if this gets to sound a bit Peter Mayall...)


Côtelettes d'agneau pré-salé - salt marsh lamb chops

Just a few weeks ago, when Elfie was no more than a twinkle in our eyes, we went to the Mont St Michel area. I took lots of photos, as one always does there, and haven't got round to doing much with them, perhaps I will. Here is one from near the top though:

What you can see in the inland distance is salt marsh, pré-salé. That's where the sheep live, and one of the reasons I go there, frankly, is to eat them. We don't eat much red meat, and hardly ever lamb but this stuff is too good to resist, for me anyway. The hotel we stay at is in Pontorson, about five miles up the road from and with the nearest railway station to le Mont, but despite that the latter is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Pontorson is a rather scruffy, down-at-heel, undeveloped place, and the hotel is remarkably cheap, with rather good food, including the lamb. Breakfast is bread and jam, good coffee and lousy tea, and trying to save ourselves for our evening meal, we picnic on fruit and biscuits at lunchtime, once stopping out on the salt marsh to the east of the landmark, observing something of the life of the sheep.

They are very free range, grazing on sparse grass, herbs, samphire and the like, which gives the meat its excellent flavour. They grow slowly and don't have to travel far at the end of their lives. They help maintain the unique habitat and landscape, for other wildlife such as these shelduck.

As well as indulging while we were there, this time we looked into the butcher's on the high street in Pontorson, and bought some chops which I put in the freezer when we got home. The lamb's availability is confined to the very local area, I gather there's a butcher's in the indoor market at Rennes that sells it a couple of times a week, but that's the furthest afield you'll find it. Six chops, not large, cost €20, which is a lot, but I really feel this is the kind of meat we should be prepared to pay more for, less often, in terms of sustainability, animal welfare, and not least, taste.

When it comes to cooking it, you shouldn't really have to do much, since it's flavour and tenderness is such that, as Brillat-Savarin said, it should taste of itself, and not be buggered about with (Brillat-Savarin didn't say that last bit). That said, I rather feel grilled or roast lamb without garlic and rosemary isn't right, so I smushed up a bit of garlic, and laid a couple of sprigs of rosemary in the pan, and also rubbed a bit of lemon thyme over it, and some sea salt and black pepper, and splashed some rosé wine over it to moisten it... yes, OK, I did bugger about with it some. It tasted bloody amazing anyway.

I also think redcurrant jelly is something of a necessity with lamb, after the fact, not in the cooking. Mint sauce, however, is an abomination. The jar in the photo is labelled in French not because I am an insufferable Peter Mayall type who has to show how very assimilated I am, or some would-be cheffy type who thinks all food should be in French, but because I gave the rest of them to the ladies at Quessquitricote, who were very appreciative. In fact it's white currant jelly, I still don't really know what to do with all the white currants I grow, but at least I can make jelly and give it away.

Having gone relatively easy (by our standards) on the garlic in the cooking, I roasted a load more whole cloves with some sweet potato and pimento, and served them with these and some green pease pudding. I feel so sorry for people who can't eat garlic.

 There wasn't much left over.

Dogs mustn't have chop bones. Bugger it.


Chicken with Roscoff pink onions and pommeau de Bretagne (or Normandie)

Long time readers here will know about the Roscoff pink onions. Or you can type it into the dinky little search widget top right, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I don't have any photos to illustrate this one but here's a drawing.

I did it the other day, I've not drawn anything for ages, but set myself half an hour before Elfie's late afternoon walk (that being quite long enough to sit in front of a cut onion), got out the pastel paper and pastel pencils, no rubber, to see what happened; my hand is not in, but it was nice to do it. The appetite and motivation for certain things I had set aside seem to be returning a little, tentatively.

Roscoff pinks are known for their keeping quality, which is how the onion sellers were able to store, carry and sell them abroad, so there are still some about, including a couple from my own last year's crop. For this recipe, take a fair number of them and slice them as you like (I like top to bottom for most things), caramelise them for as long as you've time, and deglaze them with pommeau. Pommeau is the cider producing regions' (Brittany, Normandy) version of pineau de Charentes, that is, an aperitif made from the must, the fruit juice base, grape or apple, of wine or cider, mixed with the eau de vie distilled from the same production, cognac or Calvados or its equivalent. The fruit juice sweetens and lightens the spirit, the spirit stops the fruit juice fermenting. Both drinks are quite sweet, and about 16%. I guess you could just use some sweet apple juice (or what in the US is called cider, as opposed to hard cider) and some other alcohol, applejack if you've got it, or whatever.

Roscoff pinks are not unlike shallots in flavour, so perhaps banana shallots would substitute.

Put the onions into a slow cooker (or heavy pan in a low oven), slosh in a bit more pommeau and some chicken stock, which I do make myself, properly, but I am also a shameless user of chicken stock cubes, which I also add some of, then sauté a chopped up chicken breast or two , or any other chicken meat you like in the oniony pan; I am a leg woman myself and Tom is a breast man (I'm talking about chicken here, for shame!), and thus between the two of us we do the Jack Spratt thing, but you can't buy boned leg meat here so if I'm feeling lazy it has to be breast. I think I meant to chop up and sauté an apple and add that too but I forgot.

Leave it to cook and go out for the afternoon, perhaps peel some spuds for mash, which goes well. I think I was going to walk refuge dogs, a volunteer activity I started before we got Elfie, while we were still purportedly at the stage of thinking of getting another dog in a year or so, as a kind of preparation. However, now I'm sort of committed to it, and after an afternoon of having my arms nearly pulled out of their sockets by Tifou, Idyll, India, Olga or whichever old lag I've been walking (most French dogs have daft names, Elfie was a lucky exception, and many of these dogs are unlikely to see a life beyond the refuge, which isn't necessarily so bad for them) I am most appreciative of coming back to a hearty, tasty meal and to luxuriating on the sofa with our, clever, affectionate,(mostly) gentle medium-sized darling; even if I never dare let her off the lead, at least she doesn't pull me all over the countryside like a plough horse.

Terroir is one of those pretentious, snobby kind of words/ideas about food, like fusion, which is its antithesis. Yet there's something about putting things together from the same corner of the earth that often does work; sweet potatoes, pimentos, garlic, redcurrant and split peas with the lamb is clearly more like fusion, and they work too, but the simple combination of the pommeau and the pink onions really is spot on, you don't even specially need the chicken.


Finally, if that all seems a bit heavy on the meat and rich stuff, here's a bit of foraging fusion.

Bean tops, sorrel and noodles

In the last couple of years, a number of the fields hereabouts have been planted with legumes - field beans, peas, vetches etc - as cover crops. They get ploughed in at some point and things like maize planted on top. This year, the ones with field beans - rather like small broad (fava) beans, and not bad eating, have been left fallow for the moment and begun to sprout from the old crop. Here's Elfie in such a field, with a view of Plémy in the background, looking every inch an emblem of rural Brittany, despite (or perhaps because of***) the rather orthopaedic looking harness:

I'll wait on this nice slack lead for as long as you say, but if you think I'm going to pay you any other attention just because you're pointing that thing at me you can think again****.
Broad bean tops are good eating as greens, if you can get to them before the blackfly, so I wondered if these would be. I picked a good bag full, along with some sorrel, and washed it in the salad spinner. 

I have a great appetite for the first wild and foraged greens at this time of year, one which Tom doesn't share. They seem very cleansing and refreshing. I heard somewhere that women's biology really does need and want vegetable matter rather more than men's, and we certainly seem to be more easily constipated. I'm not entirely convinced they aren't just mostly babies who never learned to like their greens, though. (She says, while Tom's cooking mushroom, pea and cashew curry.)

Soak some chow mein noodles. I've nothing against ramen, and eat them sometimes, but chow mein soaked for a bit longer is just as simple and really has a bit more texture and integrity. Sauté a shallot or two, in a wok or just a saucepan, then add some soy of some kind, I used a sachet or two of Japanese left over from sushi.

Then, and this is the important bit, throw all the raw greens and noodles in together, and stir it up. Serve, sprinkled with some of those crispy onion bits, my current favourite savoury topping.

An experiment, but really a very successful one. The bean tops stayed very chunky and substantial, unlike a lot of leafy greens which seem to dissolve and nearly disappear when heated, but they lost that rather nasty bitter, raw bean, leguminous taste. The wild sorrel melted, but the acidity of it offset the other ingredients very nicely. I must make it again before they plough the field up.


* or rather épagneul breton. According to those in the know,  épagneul derived from an old French word for a net, the original manner of bird hunting with such dogs, and 'spaniel' is a mistranslation, since that word originated in the fact that English spaniels were supposed to come from Spain, or something like that.

** an absent minded reflex common in dogs; an article I was reading the other day recommended if you are faced with a runaway dog, your own or someone else's, especially in dangerous traffic, a good ploy is to open your car door and they dog will often jump in without thinking about it.

*** Breton back or hip problems are well known, openly attributed to consanguinity.

**** I still wouldn't let her off. This field is full of skylarks, as well as partridges and pheasants which have survived the hunting season and gone on to breed another day, so that gives me another excuse for curbing her freedoms: even if I could get her back, there's no reason that all the spring wildlife should be rampaged all over. Also fox poo and other temptations.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Second Sunday of Elfie

I'm afraid if I'm to blog at all at the moment it will inevitably feature a great deal of Elfie, since she remains very much the focus of things.

She's very observant of anything I do and very reactive, and tends to change position or move towards me whenever I point the camera at her, so it's something of a challenge to take her photo.

She has a new collar (and matching lead) all of her own, rather than darling Molly's hand-me-downs.

It's really more turquoise than it looks here; nevertheless, I would have preferred a deeper, more 'teal' shade, to go with her Rita Hayworth colouring, but I dare say with a bit of rolling in fox/squirrel/magpie poo it will darken up nicely. 

In fact she hasn't caused us too much worry at all in the last week; a very long dead shrew found in amongst some leaf litter was given up to me almost graciously. Somewhat to our relief she proves not to be a water dog, seeming to quite dislike approaching streams and rivers and is even a neat and sparing drinker. Though we've not tried leaving her completely alone for more than a very short period, and then remaining in the house ourselves, she is being quite brave about my going out without her - only springing onto the table in a panic and giving the nearest we've heard to a bark from her when my departure unfortunately coincided with the dustbin lorry going past, presumably thinking they'd taken me away with the rubbish.  The following day, when I was going out to walk other rescue dogs, I bribed her with a stuffed Kong and she wasn't bad at all, going out later with Tom quite happily. They are rather falling in love,

though I still seem to be the focus of need for her. He has been feeding her almost exclusively to offset this, so as it edges towards dinner time, and he's still upstairs painting, she is hedging her bets:

We've not let her off the lead outside at all yet, but I feel trust and confidence is building, that she's more focussed on and connected to me/us when we go out, seems to check back a lot and leave quite seemingly interesting smells and things to catch up before being called or getting to the point of tension on the extending lead, and will stay and submit to training sessions even in quite distracting surroundings. Car travel is a little easier, but we're going to meet Emmy the vet for the first time next week, to get some advice about travelling crates etc. She continues to be charmingly friendly and polite to all other humans and dogs she meets, and is generally winning hearts all round.

Well, she is rather gorgeous, we think.

We have managed to do a few other things than obsess about our dog. The partially anatomically intact fowl was taken out of the freezer and is now a plate of neat chicken meat in the fridge, the gall bladder (which was still attached to the liver) remained unperforated, as did the sack of stones and vegetable matter inside the gizzard (I did that bit, so proud!), and guess who got the liver, heart and gizzard, nicely cooked in bacon fat?

Though I trimmed off the sot-l'y-laisse and set them aside for myself.

And I thought I'd unravel a jumper I knitted a couple of years ago from some not very special yarn with a bit of wool in it, always too lumpy and heavy though I rather liked the grey and red.

Now I have many nice little cakes of recouped yarn, and am knitting them into, guess what?

A blanket for Elfie!