Rip Off Costa Rica

Many and various are the rip offs in this country…mostly institutionalised and designed to rob the average citizen to the advantage of the government. Nothing new there….

However, there is another type of rip off which really annoys me…

Foreign goods from non Spanish language countries being sold in Costa Rica require an additional label which describes the contents and, of course, its dubious nutritional value.

Fine.

Heaven forfend that the native population should buy a food item in ignorance of its nature. Despite the fact that to import any foodstuff into Costa Rica requires bureaucracy beyond belief, it is still a good idea that the housewife knows what she is buying.

Not fine, however….

At the application of labels institution…wherever that is…and by whom or by what machine it is done, why is it that the additional label inevitably covers the instructions for use?

Not only that…but the label is particularly adhesive…..

You can try softening it in water…no chance.

Then you try to scrape it off using a knife or your nails…..delicate work and likely to take away the underlying label, the one with the with the instructions, at the same time.

Eventually you either give up altogether or, if of a persistent temperament, try to decipher as much as you can,and then either abandon all hope or open the jar anyway and make the best fist of it that you can.

We do not buy much by way of jars and cans, but Leo had spotted a jar of Jamaican curry mix which he fancied trying, so into the basket it went and, in due course, was exhumed from same to enliven some chicken which I planned to use for lunch.

Then followed the ritual of softening and scraping until I could just about work out that you did not use the whole jar, though quite how much remained concealed….that you browned the chicken and then added the sauce….and by the fact that that was the last line visible indicated to me that you added no water.

Chicken browned, about a third of the jar’s contents added, stirred, covered and, after a bit of thought, cooked on low heat.

On the table, rice served and finally the chcken curry….the sauce thick about the meat.

I thought it would enliven the chicken…..it certainly enlivened us!

Ye Gods and little fishes! It all but lifted Leo out of his wheelchair!

After a mad rush for dry bread to subdue the blaze and a mango to calm things down Leo said

‘I think we’ll look for a jar where the sticker covers the front label next time….We might not know what it is, but at least we will know how to cook it.’

The Curse of the Chayote.

Summer in the French countryside would be bedevilled by the problem of what to do with the courgettes. You would put in a couple of plants and the next thing you knew there would be a forest of little green devils just waiting for you to turn your back before ballooning into marrows. They must have been eavesdropping when God told Noah and his sons to bring forth abundantly in the earth and thought that the injunction applied to them as well.

From the bible of Elizabeth David I thought that you picked them when young and crisp…my French neighbours thought otherwise. When the lady who delivered the bread agreed to take some of my surplus she eyed the crop and said she would come back in a couple of days ‘when they were a proper size’. Indeed she did and was pleased with her haul, which she intended to bottle. I’d been in the sous sol of her house… the shelves were full of produce she had bottled and she had picked the courgettes when they were the height of her bottles. I would not have thought of that – or of bottling the beasts at all.

Costa Ricans hold a similar view on the size of what they call zucchini which explains the heaps of green and white striped containers of spongy flesh which you find on the stalls of the feria. But at least they don’t bottle the things…

Mark you, as far as I can see they don’t bottle anything. You can mark the increase in the number of foreign settlers in an area by the availability of Kilner jars in the shops.

The curse of the garden here is the chayote. The things pictured above.

Should you wish to plant them Danilo swears that you can tell male from female fruits by the number of shoots protruding from their fundaments. I have no idea if they are male, female or transgender but it seems to me that if you hurl one out into the shrubbery it takes root with alacrity, while its ability to camouflage itself when young means that you do not see it until it leaps into action and invades the washing line. Peg out your smalls in the morning and they will have been entwined in its loving embrace by late afternoon.

Currently they have invaded the walls of the swimming pool and are advancing along the balustrades of the balcony, cunningly taking advantage of the fact that I can reach only so far down from the balustrade and only so far up from the pool giving a margin of several feet for their activity. Danilo flatly refuses to uproot the parent plant on the grounds that he can use the fruits. My suggestion that he get in the pool to pick them was addressed with scorn.

A. He is shorter than me.

and

B. The water would come over his wellies.

I can conquer A by handing him the long handled fruit picker we use for the oranges but B is insuperable.

Why don’t I use the fruitpicker? You need space to manoevre the thing and I am clumsy.

Higher Authority has decided that he will have to take matters in hand. He will propel his wheelchair out onto the small balcony which hangs over the pool, and use the fruitpicker. The chayotes will fall into the water whence I shall retrieve them with a bucket.

But which wheelchair?

The ordinary one? No, the brakes aren’t too good and he might be catapulted over the rails into the pool while lunging with the fruitpicker.

The mobility scooter? No. That lives in the car ready for action on shopping trips.

So the heavy artillery it is…the big electric wheelchair in which he rumbles around house and garden like the Mekon in search of Dan Dare.

I can take or leave chayote….usually the latter…but when they appear in the kitchen – thank you Danilo for finding yet another plant – I feel obliged to use them. When young they have a crisp texture…rather like a half frozen apple but without the flavour….and that’s about it.

I stew them in a pan with chicken, onions, garlic, potatoes, chinese cabbage and coriander – but all they add to it is bulk.

Likewise a stew with chicken, carrots and achiote – which you probably know as annatto, used for colouring cheese, but it has a distinct flavour. Again, the chayote was bulk, but took on an ominous neon colouring.

I did once try stuffing them….but for all the good that did I would have been better off stuffing them where the sun doesn’t shine. At least you can stuff a marrow.

Locals use them as part of a picadillo..a mishmash of veg served with the midday casado – the regulation plate of rice, beans, salad, picadillo and tortilla served with options from steak, pork chop, fish or beef stew as basics or ox tongue, tripe or chicken stew if the cook has ambitions. The chayote is boiled, then skinned and diced and mixed with sweet pepper and sweetcorn. Being boiled it loses its crisp texture, but the mix is pleasant.

I have mentioned the mobility scooter….

It has enabled Higher Authority to enjoy shopping again without the limitations of being pushed by someone…it gives him independence. He can belt round the alleys of the Mercado Central and navigate the Mercado Borbon, whacking his shopping in the basket or, as in the case of the fortnightly visit for dog food, making his orders then zooming on while Danilo takes the sacks back to the car.

He can also navigate my least favourite shop….the Chinese Hell.

It is a large chaotic Chinese owned supermarket between the Central and the Borbon, where stuff is certainly piled high but is not always cheap. Previous to the purchase of the scooter Danilo would push him to the entrance and leave him to it while coming with me to pick up the dog food. As the floors are cracked and uneven he would become stuck at which point staff and customers would extricate him. Friendships were formed. When the dog food had been put in the car Danilo would go in search of him while I would wait in the packing area, looking for them on the security camera screen by the tills. It is the sort of place where you are supposed to leave your bags at the entrance, but as my bag contains my money I am reluctant to do that.

If Danilo returned in search of a trolley, then Higher Authority had found a bargain…whether it was top grade rice at rock bottom prices, top grade coffee likewise, or less welcome items like sliced bread – ‘it will be fine for toast’ – one kilo of sour cream in a plastic bag – ‘we use a lot’ – or six pineapples – ‘come in handy for stir fries’.

But all this has changed. Once mounted on his scooter he leaves us for dead. On his first appearance at the Hell, the security guard slapped him on the back, allowing him to go through with his bag in the front basket, and he went round in a welter of handshakes and smiles, even when demolishing a display of sweets. When his basket was overflowing a member of staff attached the contents with sticky tape…a regular triumphal progress.

Unfortunately the Hell has taken thought as to its image…..

On his last visit I was presented with a clutch of cards featuring recipe suggestions which looked as if they were stock from an upmarket shop from the quality. He had seen them by the till. Free. They would ‘give me ideas’.

The vegetarian hamburger suggestion was promptly turned down.

‘There must be better than that…give them to me..’

Harumphs from the front seat of the car indicated that other suggestions were not meeting with approval and then

‘Look! This looks O.K. and we’ve got everything on the list…’

A card was handed back to me.

Chayote soup.

On return, into the Mekonmobile and onto the little balcony armed with the fruitpicker. Despite lunges worthy of a duellist the thing did not reach.

What was to be done?

‘Fetch a ladder. You can put it in the pool and reach from there.’

‘It will float away.’

Call Danilo to stand on the foot of it’

‘He can’t. The water will be over his wellies’.

Ever alert, Danilo arrived bearing chayote from the other plant. I must follow him and find where it is in order to destroy it.

I consulted the recipe. Peel and boil the chayote. Drain and put chayote in a blender with a bug bunch of coriander. Blend. Pour into saucepan, add salt and pepper, greek yogurt and some of the cooking liquor to let it down. Heat and serve.

Higher Authority decided we would have it for breakfast the next day…so in the early hours of the morning I made it. It had a texture that reminded me of okra…viscous…while all I could taste was coriander. Perhaps 6.00 am was not the ideal time to sample soup…still, we ate it.

By 8.00 am we wereboth rushing for the loo…damned good thing we have two of them otherwise things might have become desperate.

Finally, I have found a use for the chayote…..

Cooking with Soap

caravaggio-a-bacchanal-with-a-company-feasting-and-making-music

We did not go over the top for Christmas…moules mariniere for lunch was about the high spot, though haggis and black bun made their appearance for New Year.

Nor did we go to friends for New Year’s Eve..so missed out on the cauldron of boiling lard and the deep fried potatoes, plantains and crisp cubes of belly pork  which are dredged from its bubbling depths to be accompanied by salads and ice cold beer.

It was a real miss. I  love the huge gathering of family and waifs and strays like ourselves perched on chairs, benches, logs and upturned crates watching football on two huge screens while the radio blares from the house and kids and dogs run around until midnight when everyone sings the national anthem and the fireworks start up.

But there comes a time when we just can’t sit up any more, so we stayed at home with the dogs who have now decided that they don’t like fireworks since the new neighbours moved in and set them off under our noses.

Yet although food did not figure greatly over the holiday period it is always there…the running sore of the household.

And why the running sore?

Because Higher Authority, now in a wheelchair and thus less able to get out and crack the whip over the whole finca, has taken over responsibility for the menus….

And when I say taken over, yes, it is a real coup d’etat.

My idea of cooking is to see what’s in the fridge and make something with it. When the fridge is empty I go shopping and buy what looks good on the day.

No more.

Shopping is now an entirely different exercise.

Organised. Disciplined. Controlled.

There is a list.

And that list is based on whatever food is being consumed in the foreign soap operas he watches on the computer when he can’t sleep.

We have gone through several phases…..

The Latin American one, while extremely trying on the nerves from the point of view of the soaps themselves which featured women screaming fit to bust, was fine on the food front. I enjoyed that phase.

Then came the Korean phase….a fridge full of kimchi and the dogs looking nervous…..

The Caribbean soap was cut short when he discovered that unripe ackee could poison you, which was a shame as our ackee bush was by then in full production.

ackee

The Scandinavian series gave rise to a vast purchase of varying fish to be pickled and smoked, all to be found to be unsatisfactory as not matching the dream. All I can say is that Costa Rica does not have herring or salmon of its own and its version of mackerel leaves a lot to be desired on the preserving front.

‘Marseilles’, featuring Depardieu, was all right on the cooking front…..

depardieu

As was a similar series about corruption in Rome….I have recipes from an Italian friend which it was a pleasure to try again. I could buy trout to make her recipe whereby it is floured, fried in olive oil and then marinaded in orange juice and vermouth. I even found vermouth. At a price.

Currently it is Israeli…..luckily yesterday’s special gave him indigestion all night so with a bit of luck he will look for something else. If not he is in grave danger of circumcision by  secateur.

Success! We now have a soap about life in an Argentinian prison. We still have screaming women (what are they doing there?), but here comes the locro and the chimichurri! I might even be able to smuggle in a salsa verde with the tomatillos I found when briefly let off the leash…I know it is Mexican, but it’s green and I might get away with it!

There is collateral damage too. When looking for recipes for the on screen food he is led into byways….which is how I ended up making a cake with a tin of fruit salad, flour and vast amounts of sugar.

It was so sweet your teeth would fall out just looking at it, its bottom was soggy, and it burnt itself onto my good cake tin. It is said to be Australian. If so, it accounts for the current state of Australian Test cricket….they must be force feeding it to the players.

Then we have flan.

oven-baked-leche-flan

I have various recipes…one for a flan in a pastry crust made light with whipped white of egg, the traditional ones…and now another has joined the repertoire.

It involves sweetened condensed milk, and vast amounts of cream. The recipe given cooks it at too high a heat, resulting in a lightly scrambled egg with caramel, and unfortunately it was greeted with delight, which has involved making another of the buggers, this time using yet another internet recipe for making your own condensed milk….

I cooked it on a lower heat and it is now in the fridge, awaiting the verdict of Higher Authority.

I was tempted to let today’s stew…a bastard version of moroccan cuisine trawled from the internet – fall into it, but I would only be faced with making my own condensed milk all over again…

Thank goodness  that the Belgians are visiting shortly! Back to proper food and no more cooking from soaps!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cold Turkey

Mother was a very good cook…in the English tradition.

Her roasts were superb….her Yorkshire puddings rose like fairy castles…..her suet dumplings were light as feathers….and, recognising the innate viciousness of cabbage, she boiled it to death, its spirit haunting the house for an hour before lunch.

She could – and did – make strudel pastry; pulling gently at the ball of dough until it covered the sheet laid out on the dining room table.

Her boiled and baked puddings – spotted dick, jam roly poly, Sussex pond pudding, black cap, Saxon pudding, Bakewell tart – were a sheer delight.

Her cakes equalled those of her mother…her pastry was a dream, from shortcrust, sugar crust, to choux and hot water paste….

And then she discovered convenience foods.

Paradise lost.

It all started with a frozen turkey.

Normally we had had a goose from the farm…but the farm had been sold and mother had been seduced by the promises of the Irish milkman – the curse of Cromwell upon him – that the frozen turkey which he would deliver would be a revelation.

It was.

He delivered it on Christmas Eve in the afternoon – his round, you understand, having taken longer to complete thanks to the kindness of customers wishing to share the Christmas spirit whose aroma was thick about him.
By my reckoning that turkey had been on his milk float for at least ten hours but it showed no sign of defrosting…. on pulling off its coverings it resembled the glass mountain of the fairy tales of Andrew Lang – not just in its glossy appearance, but in its size.

In that period beef brisket joints were referred to as ‘oven buster’ as they tended to break loose from their ties and resume their original shape when cooked.
This was an oven buster of a different kind.
It was massive.

Father was out.
Luckily, as he had been decidedly sceptical about the delights promised by the milkman.

Mother and I looked at each other, at the turkey and at the oven.

Six hours to go until midnight when, by our calculations, the beast should enter the oven.
At all costs a meeting between father and the glass mountain was to be avoided.

We put the beast in the sink in the back kitchen and turned on the tap.
The water, while lapping the draining board, only came up to the turkey’s plimsoll line……this would never do.

The dog, arriving to investigate the turkey wrappings, gave us the inspiration.
Out in the shed we had the tin bath which we used for washing him…it was big enough to cover him once he had been wrestled to a sitting position, so it must be big enough for the turkey.

No sooner said than done.

Out to the shed, grab bath.
Drag bath into the back kitchen
Dog legs it to sanctuary under my bed.
Wash out bath with jugs of water and tip out into sink (turkey having been removed previously to glower from the groaning draining board.
Dump turkey in bath.
Fill bath with jugs of water.

Make cup of tea. Eye turkey.

By turning the thing every half hour we finally managed to extract the plastic bag containing the neck and giblets at a quarter to twelve: the oven was lit, goose pan found and the turkey dumped inside. It filled the oven completely, its parson’s nose touching the door.

Father returned in the early hours of Christmas Day having taken it upon himself to travel to the other side of London with friend to visit said friend’s cousins whom father had not met for years.
Doubtless drink had been taken at some point in his peregrinations.

We knew father had returned because – in an attempt not to raise the household – he entered via the door to the back kitchen and fell over the bath.

Somehow we escaped food poisoning that Christmas, and mother was on a roll.

Vesta dehydrated chow mien made its appearance.

Betty Crocker cake mixes leered from the cupboard.

And then she discovered frozen fish.

And tinned condensed soups.

And how to combine the two.

Supper time would be heralded by the a new aroma: that of a lump of indeterminate fish baked in the oven in a mix of milk and condensed mushroom soup.

Forget Proust and his blasted tisane de tilleul…..for years afterwards the whiff of cooked mushroom would bring back those days when food turned to ashes……

So when moving to France, shopping in the commercial sector of my local town – Chiottes la Gare – would often bring back those days….as there was a large factory on the edge of the sector turning fresh button mushrooms into canned sliced suede and on ‘cooking’ days the air was thick with the smell.

Mushrooms were relatively big business in the area, which was rich in the limestone caves ideal for the temperatures required in mushroom cultivation and the roads around were busy with lorries carrying mushrooms for processing and mushroom compost for improving the soil…..so much so in fact that the smell of mushrooms being cooked began to be identified with the town rather than with mother’s latter day cooking epiphany.

But alas….veni, vidi, vale….the mushroom factory is no more.

The parent company – Bonduelle – has shut it down leaving its one hundred and thirty eight employees out of work.

One hundred and thirty eight people – and the families who depend on their earnings – thrown on the heap.

A hard blow for a town which has just lost another major employer.

Jobs were initially offered at a plant in the neighbouring department – quite a commute, and no public transport, but people were willing to take it on. Anything is better than no job in modern day France because there aren’t any other jobs, search how you like.

But the jobs have not materialised, so the one hundred and thirty eight will have to fall back on the generous provision for those made unemployed.

Except it isn’t going to be generous.

The plant was owned by an agricultural co operative – France Champignon – before Bonduelle took a fifty three percent share in the co op and proudly placed a Bonduelle sign on the wall of the factory.

Now, the France Champignon sign is back because Bonduelle claims it is not responsible for the fate of France Champignon (despite its fifty three per cent holding).

What Bonduelle actually means that while compensation for sacked workers is generous in the industrial sector – Bonduelle – it is laughable in the agricultural sector – France Champignon.
Thus the changing of the sign.

A company which can swallow a fine of thirty million euros imposed by the European Union for rigging the mushroom market without blinking is content to fall back on a shabby device to cut compensation for employees sacked through no fault of their own and at the moment that is is refusing negotiations, its publicity air balloon sails over the factory: always a budget for publicity.

But where are the protests? Where the unions filling the streets with their members? Where are the politicians in their tricolour sashes, marching to support their townsmen and women?

Noticeably absent.

There is only a minor union presence in France Champignon/Bonduelle. The mighty CGT doesn’t deign to offer support, local politicians shrug their shoulders.
That’s just the way it is these days.

And the way it is these days goes some way to explaining why ordinary people turn their backs on the traditional power bases in France – venal unions who only represent eight per cent of French workers and couldn’t give two penn’orth of cold gin for the rest: equally venal politicians combining as many elected posts as possible to touch the allowances and pensions which go with them…..is it any wonder people listen to the message of the Front National?

As people in England listened to that of UKIP.

Both parties present themselves as alternatives to the current major parties while in fact they have the same structure, the same fault lines.

But when you feel that the life you knew is going down the drain you don’t look too closely to see whether your lifeline is fraying.

You grab and hope.

Making a Meal of Nostalgia

 gallo pinto cocina.ahorra.net
gallo pinto cocina.ahorra.net

We have just had our six monthly visit from a health worker from the local clinic.
He visits every house in his area by motorbike over the gravel roads, dossiers and equipment in the box on the back which he slings over his shoulder to bring into the house.

We’ve come to know him well…a football fanatic, his first cry today after the regular greeting is

‘Italy! Uraguay! England!…..poor Costa Rica!’

Clearly the draw for the football World Cup could have been rather better arranged to his way of thinking!

It’s as much a social visit as a medical one….we discuss all manner of things including, of course, football, before we turn to the purpose of the visit.

How are we?

He checks my husband’s hospital appointments, asks about medication, if he has any problems….takes our blood pressures and asks if we are eating healthily.
Not just are we eating plenty of fruit and veg…but which and how much…and what else are we eating?

Which starts another chat about foreign food, its tastes and traditions.
How did we get a taste for Indian food? What do we think of Costa Rican food? What did we have for breakfast this morning?

He departs, the dust rising behind his motorbike as we see him off at the gate, and we go back to the house.

But what did we have for breakfast this morning?

My husband is breakfast chef in this establishment and split second timing is required of his commis (me).
Have I prepped the onions? The garlic?
Am I sure that there aren’t any tomatoes which need using more than those produced for inspection? Investigations are made followed by a triumphant return with one more with a soft spot…
Have I beaten the eggs with some black pepper and some of his potassium salt substitute?
Is the toast on? Does it need turning?

And what is the result of all this activity?

He has made us sick.

Or at least this is how the dish was christened by his sister as a child.

The onions are softened in olive oil, the quartered tomatoes follow on the top. When they are softened the crushed garlic is added and finally the beaten egg is turned into the pan and mixed in.
The result is piled on hot buttered toast….and despite the appearance which explains the nickname of the dish it is really very, very good.

I know what our health visitor had for breakfast too.

Gallo Pinto. Speckled Cockerel.

Based on rice and black beans, usually cooked off on the previous day, it sounds dull…but not at all!
The rice may have been cooked in plain water, but the black beans were cooked together with onions, garlic and coyote cilantro with its heavy persistent flavour.

To make breakfast his mother will have fried up chopped onion, garlic and sweet pepper and turned into the mix the rice and beans, finishing it with chopped cilantro (coriander).
It will have been topped with a fried egg, a fried plantain or natilla – sour cream – and is a great way to start the day.

When I was a child it was assumed that you could not hope to do a good day’s work, or do well at school, unless you had eaten a good breakfast and my mother would cook either bacon and eggs, or sausage, mushroom and tomato; boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, or poached eggs (plural you note) to be followed by toast and marmalade and to be finished half an hour before leaving the house in order to digest it.

It was a habit I stuck to…and blessed it when working where lunch meant ordering a sandwich in a brown paper bag from one of the nearby Italian sandwich bars accompanied by a cup of instant coffee.
It might have meant getting up earlier but thanks to that breakfast there was no need or desire to snack and enough energy to get home and cook an evening meal….the ranks of Spud-U-Like, KFC and the Star of India never tempted me on the way back from the station.

An introduction to France showed me the horrors of the Continental Breakfast.
Bread…a croissant…pain au chocolat…jam….chicory flavoured coffee -or, more likely, vice versa.
Ye gods and little fishes!
Battle of Agincourt explained.

Living in rural France later I was to discover that this was not the norm.
My elderly neighbours had soup for breakfast with the dry bread from yesterday soaked in it. Proper soup with veg from their own gardens with plenty of flavour and goodness.
Croissants…jam? Bof!
The coffee was the same though….

In Belgium I had their sort of breakfast…cold meats and cheeses…proper bread – even pistolei….and good coffee.
Battle of the Golden Spurs explained.

Even now. long retired, we cling to the solid breakfast routine.

Lunch is usually lighter. Danilo lunches with us on working days and is now well accustomed to the frequent arrival on the table of ‘worms’.
Chinese worms, Italian worms, worms worms.

Pasta, in all its shapes and forms.
Yesterday I made pasta shells with a sauce of broccoli, anchovy, sweet pepper and chilli….today it is linguine with spicy sausage in a sauce of tomato. onion, garlic, herbs and paprika.
Tomorrow it will be a stir fry with noodles.

In the evenings we generally have a plate of soup with bread and cheese. Easy to digest before bed and endlessly different with the range of veg available.

I have to admit to wondering how we ever managed to wade through all the courses we ate at lunch with French friends….only to start on the leftovers again in the evening….how it was that, had I taken a ‘selfie’ in those days, it would not have revealed something which would have had Captain Ahab sharpening his harpoon.

I couldn’t do it today, that’s for sure!

But I do have an atavistic longing for a good Scots breakfast…..

Not so much my grannie’s breakfast, copious and tasty as it was, but that of our holidays on the coast where we had access to that paradisiacal element – morning rolls.

Every summer the children of the extended family would be banded together somewhere on the west coast of Scotland; parents taking it in turns to act as warders. It gave both them and us a great deal of freedom.

While morning rolls were a staple…children sent to the bakery at an early hour…the other items of breakfast depended on the whims and tastes of the adults.

There was always porage. Proper porage, cooked on the back of the stove overnight and eaten with salt, with milk, or with brown sugar and cream according to your age. Youngest sweetest.

Then you might have a Loch Fyne herring coated in oatmeal and fried, accompanied by potato scones…goodness only knows where those herring have disappeared to…..

Or if Uncle Andra was in charge it would be an Arbroath smokie. to be eaten cold.

Or Ayrshire bacon with a fried slice of cloutie dumpling alongside.

And king of kings, the slice of square sausage.

A damn sight more solid than the snows of yesteryear, but gone from me just as certainly.

A Winter’s Tale from Costa Rica

insidecostarica.com
insidecostarica.com
No Florizel or Perdita, no statues coming to life…just a quiet winter’s evening in the country.

It has been raining since mid afternoon….cloudbursts to start with, filling the streams with the roaring dangerous waters…then thunderstorms…and now steady rain which will end sometime after we have gone to bed.

The sheep don’t go out when it rains…..the cattle have come up to the corral to eat the cameroon – fodder grass – that Danilo has put through the cutter…the horses are with them.

In the house all is peaceful after the dramas of the morning when the PC wouldn’t work and we had to contact Hewlett Packard’s helpline in Mexico to go through the troubleshooting process and finally to relaunch the Windows programme.
I was helped by a delightful man who realised very rapidly that he didn’t have to go through the script – and who did the whole thing in English for which I was most grateful as I find computerese bad enough in my own language and impossible in anyone else’s.

Luzmilla has cleaned the house from top to bottom – dogs fleeing to the chicken houses and men making themselves scarce….
Danilo has gone home.

The last batch of the Christmas puddings are steaming…

The straight-from-the-cow milk, full of cream, has been scalded and is cooling before adding the yoghurt starter…

I made a pizza for supper…but the red wine we tried with it was a disaster. Tannic wasn’t the word for it….

We checked the front label. Three years old.
Then we checked the back label…..where the wine’s ‘sweet tannins’ were vaunted…’nuff said!

So tomorrow I’ll be making a stew….a recipe from one of Leo’s aunts.
We haven’t eaten this for a while…but a bottle of sweetly tannic wine makes a good excuse….

Caramelise sliced onions…set aside.
Brown beef. Return onions to the pan with garlic, thyme and bay leaves.
Cover the meat with a half and half mix of wine and beef stock.
Add juniper berries.
Dollop in equal amounts of jam and mustard.
Cook until beef is tender and thicken the sauce with cornflour.

To be served with ‘stumf’…
Onions caramelised, thinly sliced potato laid on the top…water to barely cover and cooked gently until the potatoes are cooked and the water has evaporated.
Mash.

It’s a potato dish Leo loves…you can substitute carrot or cabbage for the onion…and ideal for a rainy night with a hefty stew.

Shortly I must take the dogs out before bed….they would normally take themselves but we have recently been given a new addition – the Pernicious Poodle Puppy – who doesn’t yet know her way around and so needs to be accompanied…and then I’m off to bed myself.

But over a cup of mate tea I have time to realise how tranquil things are…how much I have unwound….and how, if I am ever to write the book about my life and times in France, I will have to gird up the loins and put time aside to do it.

I have had two attempts…one, to use old blog posts and the other to write from scratch.
Now Perpetua has suggested an essay format and that seems a good idea.

So today I looked out my notes…and tried to start up Scrivener. Of that, least said the better. Back to the notes.

But I would be grateful if anyone has any suggestions for a format….something which would confine my soapboxing to reasonable limits but which is not yet another of the ‘how I hung up my high heels and tamed the septic tank’ sagas.

I listened to a last song before venturing out into the rain…and blessed my good fortune that the winter here is mild.
No cold winter howling o’er moorland and mountain as in ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’.

Home from Home Abroad

trip 041Just over a month ago I was in Belgium as part of the whistle stop tour of lawyers’ offices in Europe

I like Belgium….but that could well be because that’s where my husband’s cousins live -the tribe with whom he spent his holidays as a child and the tribe which made me so welcome, even though said husband was languishing in faraway Costa Rica raking through the freezer for packs of the meals I had prepared before leaving.

They have to be the most hospitable people I know…and I know a fair few for whom their house is your house and their time at your disposal…with a wild sense of humour and the intention to make as much of life as possible. You cannot but be happy in their company.

I had some business to conduct in Tienen – lawyers and taxmen and land registry officials – and one of the young men took a day off work to escort me and help with the language for while I can understand a fair bit my spoken Flemish is limited to one word the meaning of which is apparently so appalling that I can never use it.
But business accomplished…joy was unconfined!

trip 050 Based with one family living just outside Brussels in a village set among fields and woodland, the house was so comfortable that it would have been no hardship to have stayed put…but staying put is not on the tribe’s agenda!

leuven town hall

We went to one of my favourite places…Leuven, capital of Flemish Brabant. You might be more familiar with it under its name in French – Louvain – but the duality of nomenclature is one of the things you have to get used to in Belgium, though it can come as a shock when driving when you are looking out for Mons and find it signed as Bergen!
Scene of wanton destruction in the Great War the buildings were rebuilt, but you don’t go there just for the monuments…tucked away from the centre is a well tended herb garden with the plants all named, and on the other side of town is the Groot Begijnhof, once home to the women of a lay order in the middle ages and now restored as part of the university and used for housing students and academics.
It seems quiet enough now in the daytime, the brick buildings and grassy squares set amidst the canals, but I can’t see students maintaining the tranquillity of the original occupants when dusk falls on Leuven.
Furthermore…there are cafes, music in the streets…and shopping!

A pause for coffee in a busy street joined by friends who had visited us in Costa Rica…a son arrived…beer was called for….the whole group went to lunch in a pub where the beer arrives by way of a brass pipe from the brewery next door…we went shopping…the sales were on…the son carried the bags…
Oh yes, I like Leuven!

On to another son’s house for dinner…not only is he a chef, running his own place after working in a Michelin two star restaurant, but he is the same kind thoughtful person that he was as a boy when he used to come to stay with us in France.
Grey shrimp…the little ones that are a beast to peel…were served in abundance as he knew I loved them and could not get them at home… before he pulled out the culinary stops for the other courses.
Family, friends, a new boyfriend, we sat round the table in the garden while the collie looked for a free lap on which to cuddle up, the new boyfriend produced a guitar, and the story telling began…the stories everyone wants to hear again as much for the delivery as the content.
The chef told his story of making spaghetti bolognaise for the first time when he visited us as a teenager….his father told the story of how he first met his wife.
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It was a time when UFOs were very much in the news – cigar shapes here, saucers there – and as he drove her home after their first date he became aware of lights in the sky…moving lights. He looked at her, but she seemed oblivious and the lights went away….only to return.
They reached her parents’ house and he was invited to sit out in the garden for a beer. Again, the lights. The parents seemed oblivious.
He mentioned the lights, somewhat nervously.

Oh yes…they had the lights every night.

He drove away, severely puzzled and wondering whether his girlfiend and her parents had been subject to alien influence and it was still bothering him when he went in to work the next morning.
He mentioned it to a friend over coffee.
Where do they live?
He mentioned the name of the village.

Idiot! That’s not UFOs! It’s under the flightpath for planes landing at the airport….those were their landing lights!

The next day we wemt to a flea market in an out of the way town…well, out of the way to me, driving on quiet roads under an arch of trees, traditional farm houses back from the road among the fields.
Parking was a beast, but we were soon among the stalls and I could not believe how cheap it was after France…people actually seemed to want to sell things!
The cousin added to his classic camera collection, his wife found a cupboard to house it and I was tempted by…but did not buy…a super dinner service for a stupid price.
Transport again.
But I am sorely tempted to hire a van and do a round of Belgian flea markets and warehouses to furnish the house in Spain. At those prices – and for what was on offer – it would more than pay the transport and hire charges.
And it would be another excuse to be in Belgium!

As a Scot, it takes a great deal to make me admit that anything can equal a Scottish morning roll….but Belgian pistolei come as near as damn it. Crisp crust and a melting interior…what a way to start a sunday morning!

Then off for the day to Namen…or, as it is in the French speaking sector of Belgium, Namur…
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its citadel high on the bluff over the junction of the rivers Sambre and Meuse, its subterranean tunnels and casemates open to all now that war has ebbed away from it.

We dutifully puffed our way around it, enjoying the views, but spent most of the day in the town below…. restored after the damage suffered in the Second World War to today’s amalgam of architectural styles from the remains of the medieval town walls to nineteenth century public puildings. A pity the modern town hall is such a cheap and nasty blot on the landscape.

We walked, we took coffee; we walked, took lunch in an authentic Chinese resturant (San Jose China Town eat your heart out) and we walked again.
DSC_0105In a quiet street off the main drag we came across a church whose interior was like nothing I had seen before.
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St.Laud…a Jesuit church of the mid seventeenth century, particular features being the columns with rings – a feature of Spanish Netherlands church architecture according to the helpful volunteer on the spot – and the high relief carving of the sandstone ceiling.

We walked again…
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And on
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And everywhere we walked we came across superb backwaters….
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And shopfronts….
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Of which this took the cake in summing up my feelings…
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It will be fine tomorrow…..

Home…a barbeque with the family and friends topped by my favourite Belgian cheeses…Passchendaele, Brusselae Kaas and the wonderful ‘walks by itself’ Herve…and then it was up sticks and off to Brussels to catch the Euroline late night coach for London on my way to celebrate mother’s 97th birthday.

In a long and sometimes lonely trip to Europe that Belgian oasis of home from home abroad was more welcome than those kind friends will ever know.

Marmite!

greatbritishmag.co.uk

We were expecting friends for dinner…..the dining room table had been cleared of papers, tablets, bills and blood pressure monitors….the kitchen harboured plates, cutlery, glasses and serving dishes…the pud had been made, starters likewise, packets of mixed nuts and maize crisps were ready to have their foil seals violated by the knife…

And then came The Intervention.

I am not always sure if the internet is a blessing or a curse.
I use it to check out stuff…but don’t have a lot of confidence in it…I use it for telephoning family and friends through Skype…and, of course use the e mail and blogging functions.

My husband uses it to encourage his enthusiasms.

We have undergone a number of these enthusiasms in our time, notably kitchen gadgets…but just lately watches which don’t work but which seem to cost a fortune if the customs catches them in transit have been in favour…taking over from bitter almond kernels, seeds from India which arrive in matchboxes and sprout into alarming monstrosities, and, of course, socks.

But, revenons a nos moutons….
I was just sorting out the veg and the main course when suddenly my big saucepan was confiscated.
He had found the lees of the banana wine which I had planned to dump on the compost heap and had…thanks to the internet…decided to make Marmite.

Previously we could buy Marmite at the Queen’s birthday party at the British Embassy…but the new very PC ambassador doesn’t want to continue the tradition….

So we are dependent on visitors for supplies. Unless we want to fly to Miami and I am blowed if, even for Marmite, I will enter the hell that is an American airport with its bullying staff and thieving baggage handlers….not to speak of paranoid immigration officers and customs officials intent on confiscating the ingredients of my picnic.
I have been sorely tempted to thrust a liquorice stick into an orange and mark it BOMB in felt tip pen….but they have no sense of humour and would inevitably take it amiss.

The Belgian visitors are exemplary…not only do we get Belgian smoked fish, the best chocolate in the world and cheese that would knock your socks off but they ransack the English Shop for Stilton, pork pies and, of course, Marmite.
But no Belgian visitors are due for another year and the supplies brought by our last visitor from London will run out before the next batch arrive from Europe.
Though I shall ask the visitor coming from South Africa if Marmite is available in Cape Town….

So, passing the number of jars in review, husband had grown alarmed and had consulted the internet.
Which had supplied the answer.
Yeast….the wine lees.
And my saucepan.

Chef assumes the controls.

An area of the work surface is cleared….carrots, onions and celery commandeered from my prep area, chopped and put on to boil….

I find a smaller saucepan, pick out more veg, and find a corner of the stove to blanch them….

Where’s the funnel? I want to pour off the bit of wine on the top.

Pause for rummagings in the cupboard under the sink as things best left undisturbed emerge blinking into the light.

Why do you keep the souffle dishes in here?

Further pause while souffle dishes are removed to the cupboard where I keep my dry goods.
I seize the moment to drain my veg and run the cold water over them.
Tap turned off.

Don’t get water in my yeast!

Veg rescued and removed to be tied up in chive ribbons before going into the fridge.
Wine poured off and drunk.

Why don’t you leave the wine on the lees longer…this is much better….
Smaller saucepan seized, put on the stove and the lees poured into it.

Just give it a stir from time to time…don’t want it sticking.

Technical details attended to he retires to the balcony.

I now have two saucepans in use and two gas rings. I have dinner to prepare. One involving a few pots and pans.
And I mustn’t forget to stir the lees which look a bit like the estuary of the Amazon on a windy day.
Or let the assorted veg boil dry….

The clock is ticking.

Chef returns.

Where’s the colander?

More rummaging in the cupboard under the sink.

Why do you keep this conical strainer in here?

Pause while the chinois is removed to the cupboard where I keep the spices.

The colander is placed over the saucepan containing the lees and the veg water poured into it.

I thought you didn’t want water in the yeast….

This is stock.

I rescue the pan, put the veg aside for the dogs, and put on water to skin my tomatoes.

All is returning to normal….tomatoes skinned, garlic cloves ready to go, chicken cut into portions, butter in the freezer for the sauce….

Table laid, I retire to the shower.

A head round the door.

Aren’t you stirring the yeast?

I reply that as the shower operates on water, not stock, I had thought it unwise to bring the saucepan in with me.

Do I have to do everything? Why is it that I’m the one who has to worry about when we run out of Marmite……

Chef retires to stir the yeast.

Cleaned up, dressed and aproned (I am a true muckworm when it comes to splashes and stains) I return to the kitchen.
Chef retires to the shower.

Progress is made. I am up with the clock.

Where are my socks?

I had, unforgivably, moved them to a drawer in the new wardrobe without leaving a trail of arrows pointing there from their previous abode.

The estuary of the Amazon now looks as if the tide is going out….

Duly socked…if only…Chef emerges.

Are you stirring it?

Our friends arrive….the mud of the Amazon is removed from the heat and an enjoyable evening begins.

It is while I am turning in circles wondering where my conical strainer had gone…ah yes, of course, in with the spices…. that I hear Chef informing our friends that he had spent the afternoon making Marmite.
Being Costa Rican, they are not familiar with this nectar of the gods so he comes in to take an opened jar and a couple of spoons to give samples.

As I whisk the butter into the strained sauce I hear the voice of Eduardo….

And you spent all afternoon making this?
Whatever for?