Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Breton cake to help us get back to reality

The last full week of the school holidays is almost done. I am starting to plan some little bits of me time for next week; we just have Monday to go and I know I'll be spending that day with a great friend so I am on the home run. Sorry if I am sounding a bit selfish; we have had some fantastic times in the last few weeks, but I have also had some real challenges with two small people who would really rather the other one wasn't there. Last year they were good friends at this point but this year our best days have definitely involved time apart. They even had a fight when one of them found a ladybird in the garden and the other one wanted one too. Anyway I am brewing a good list of solo projects for the near future:-
  • Buy a new raincoat.
  • Look into new warm winter coats.
  • Autumnal and wintry clothes in general (I am two sizes smaller than I was in February).
  • Investigate knee-high boots. Before I wasn't able to zip them up as my calves were a tad too hefty (what an undignified admission to make, doesn't that sound attractive?) but I have high hopes this year.
  • Creativity - get making some felt, and lots of it (of course).
  • Music: listen to lots. Buy some new things. Dance around the kitchen when nobody is around.
  • Clear out all unnecessary emails. Nobody needs 2911 items in their inbox. Maybe it will clear out my head too.
It has been a busy last week, trying to see everyone and do everything that we hadn't managed before. I had forgotten that ages ago we'd asked our friend the very cheap but erratic builder if he could dismantle the big pergola in our garden that has been collapsing under the weight of its own overgrown grapevine, and the brick barbecue and remodel the whole area a bit. So when he turned up out of the blue on Tuesday with someone who would be doing the work, it was a bit of a surprise. A cake would be needed. And I had just the recipe. For two years when we've been to Brittany, we have been beguiled but also baffled by the delicious "gateau breton", a beautifully sweet cross between a cake and a shortbread, with the distinctive taste of Breton salted butter. I've looked up recipes before - mainly in an attempt to find out if there were ground almonds in it as child number one is allergic to nuts. It turns out that it contains no nuts but sadly the most popular recipe online for it was Nigella's, which was very very wrong as she is adamant that you need unsalted butter for it (I am tempted to make an ill-judged strangling joke here but will refrain). This year I had a stroke of luck. When we go to France I always buy far more French magazines than necessary, in an attempt to feed the poor starved section of my brain that deals with, and longs for, foreign languages. I spend hours in magazine shops, much to the bemusement of the rest of the family. This time among other things I picked up one all about food in Brittany, and there inside was a whole section about the gateau breton and the first ever world gateau breton competition, held recently. And sure enough, there was the recipe from the  "free recipe" winner (there were two sections: one with a prescribed recipe and one for people who had their own tried and tested). So on Tuesday, with a house full of children and a hungry-looking workman in the garden, I gave thanks to Maryvonne Jaffrezic, the winner, and grabbed all the things I needed...

Gateau Breton

450g plain flour
380g salted butter at room temperature
25g sugar
125g light brown soft sugar
5 egg yolks, plus 1 more for glazing the top
1 capful of dark rum
A few drops of oil

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees or Gas Mark 6. Take a 24cm round cake tin and grease it. I lined mine with baking parchment too. Put the flour and sugar in a big bowl, make a well and put the egg yolks and rum in the hollow. Mix, then add the butter bit by bit. Work the dough with your hands for five minutes (I found this really messy as it tend to stick to your hands. Ignore the phone when it rings). Put the mixture into the prepared cake tin, spread it out and smooth it down well with a spatula as much as you can (this isn't easy as again the mixture just sticks to your spatula). Then mix up the last egg yolk with the oil in a cup, take a pastry brush and paint the egg mixture all over the surface (I found that this brushing helped to smooth out the last of the peaks left by the spatula). Finally we come to the decoration: this is easy if you've seen a gateau breton before but hard to explain if you haven't. Take a fork and draw straight lines on the top with it, around 2cm apart. Then do similar lines at an angle to the first lines, so that you have a diamond pattern on your cake. Some small fork marks around the edges (as if it were a pie), and you are done. Put it in the middle of the oven for 50 minutes, watching the colour: it needs to be darkish but if it's looking too brown, cover it with foil. The magazine is keen to mention how well this cake keeps: sailors would often take them away on long journeys. Ours is still doing well after 5 days but I don't think it will be around long enough for me to comment on the fortnight they mention in the magazine, and definitely not the fourteen months vintage that someone in there testified to having once tasted. But it is a rich and large cake - if unassuming in this age of cupcakes, icing and cake toppers - and if it were not for the nice man in the garden who expends enough calories digging and lifting to easily justify two slices of it every day he's been here, I dare say it would last a good 10 days. Sorry I forgot to take a photo of it whole, but there was an urgency about it...

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Love and the sea...

Home again. It has been a long, hard couple of days and this is one of the only downsides of going to our part of Brittany: leaving the house around 10.30, having to kill time until the night ferry from Roscoff (admittedly we have got this bit down to a child-friendly tee with a day trip to the local zoo followed, I'm ashamed to say, by dinner at the Buffalo Grill, a bizarre and very popular American country and western chain that is a curiosity of French culture), then a dreadful night's sleep in a cabin with two over-tired and yet over-excited children, wake up calls at around five in the morning then driving back to get home at the time most people are thinking about what to have for Sunday breakfast, and then having to kill another day without killing eachother. But it is worth it. That's how much I love it there.

On the drive home this morning it suddenly occurred to me that it was usually my time for a morning swim, well, usual for the last two weeks anyway. The thought of it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I will miss that so much. Imagine as a taster starting to walk down to the shore on a beach with only birds' footprints in the sand:-

Imagine then that off to the left the sun is shining and leaving blinding sparkles on a small stretch of the sea. A few weeks ago I was baffled about why for me putting beads on the right hand side of the sea in my pictures felt so wrong, and while I was away I realised that it is all based upon my first-thing-in-the-morning swim here and where the sun is at that point. Imagine too that the sea is usually calm and clear and you can see through the water around your feet and occasionally spot a shoal of tiny fish or a little crab scuttling. Imagine though that everything is a little bit fuzzy, just because you haven't bothered to put in your contact lenses yet. Imagine the cold around your legs, enough to make  you think of turning back, but not as bad as the ribbing you would get if you went back indoors still dry, or the shame of the thought of any strangers watching you give up. So imagine the final immersion, the gasp-inducing cold followed by a warm internal glow a couple of minutes later, all bleary-eyed sleepiness gone from your existence. A shower, a pain aux raisins and a coffee and all is good in the world.

Coming home today was also hard because I had to find about my two exhibitions. First the one in Nailsea: no sales but apparently some interest. So the Clevedon Art Club one was doubly tense and I felt a little emotional in my fatigue as I was driving there to pick up my pictures; should I give it all up if it hadn't gone well? I was wondering if any had sold but more pressingly had any of the four even been selected to be exhibited? What if nothing had even been on show? Well it turned out there was not a lot to be concerned about: all four had been in the show, and one had sold! And weirdly, aptly and tellingly the one of the beach where I was on holiday had sold:-


And that feels good. Odd that I had made it so many months before and yet had to wait until I was back on that beach for it to get sold. Great that I hadn't taken it with me to try and sell over there, which would never have been easy. And proof once again that love of something in a picture comes through and appeals to other people. Must do more sea pictures...

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thoughts from Loctudy

Life is good at the moment. We are eating the best food that I can think of, the weather is just perfect for messing about on the beach with a dip in the sea every few hours and we haven't had to think of organising outings yet other than for topping up our food levels. Just to give you a feel, this is the view from the house:-
Well that is at high tide; this is the view at low tide:-
We can see the Glenan islands on the horizon, and the sea is near enough when the tide is high for us to hear it in our beds. The dark rocks on the left are covered in two things: seaweed and further away mussels, hundreds and thousands of them, big and juicy and luscious. My six year old and I picked some yesterday and cooked them up. I was studiously ignoring the fact that nobody else was gathering them and also ignoring the old "R in the month" adage (it must be Arrrgust). At the back of my mind I had visions as I was cooking them in their garlic, butter and wine of having to get up in the night to a puke-covered child but all was good and they are some of the most delicious mussels we've ever eaten.
There is so much to be glad of here. It feels quite stupid to be writing about some supermarket-bought tomatoes but just look at these and then look me in the eye and tell me they don't excite you:-
I started off just using them in salads but then they came into their own with some dressing, a hint of garlic, some buffalo mozzarella (sorry it wasn't something French, some mild goat's cheese would have been great too) and some fresh basil torn up. And a crispy fresh baguette to mop up the juices.
Other things to be glad about:-
  • Swimming in the sea. At all times of the day. With children or without. With slightly bemused (and melodramatic about the cold) husband or not. Most of all first thing in the morning when it feels like I'm the only person for miles, really bracing cold water to wake me up, some energetic swimming then floating flat on my back absolutely still listening to the womblike watery noises in my ears and looking up at a deep blue sky with the occasional wispy cloud.
  • Langoustines. God they are good. To be able to go a mile down the road and buy them alive and fresh off the boats at 5.30 in the evening, then get home and cook them (2 minutes in a big pan of boiling water with a handful of salt, just cover with a lid really quickly so you don't have to see them waving for help) to eat with mayonnaise, a baguette and something cold and alcoholic from the fridge is just magnificent.
  • French markets. So much amazing produce, so little time. So many things to see. So many things to eat. I wish I could show you more photos but the internet connection is not up to it. 
  • Kouign Amann: the Breton speciality, a kind of cross between a cake, a doughy croissant and a toffee, who could imagine a better combination of butter, sugar and flour? I would be so fat if I lived here.
  • Spending most of the day in nothing but a swimming costume. It's kind of liberating. There is definitely something quite good about getting halfway through cooking your ratatouille (with ingredients all bought at Le Guilvinec market) and realising you are still wearing your swimwear.
More to come soon, but only if I can get our internet connection to behave better. Maybe there is a reason to go home.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Two exhibitions

So let me get my plugging over with first: ironically I will miss both as we will be in Brittany, but I have been delivering artworks to two places for exhibitions. So as well as having my deckchair design exhibited at Clevedon Pier until 20th August, there could be two more to visit if you are in the area. The first starts on Saturday and runs until 24th August at Clevedon School; it's Clevedon Art Club's Open Exhibition. There is (unfortunately!) a selection process by three judges so it is possible that nothing at all of mine might be on show, or at best four of my favourites could be out there and for sale. I'm hoping I'll hear from someone but otherwise I will have to wait until the day after it's finished to find out. Tense times, I will be gutted if nothing is selected. The other one is White Star Gallery's pop up gallery at the Tithe Barn in Nailsea on 24th August from 10 until 4; I will have 5 bits and pieces all waiting for new owners. Exciting stuff all round but a bit odd to be missing it all; it is a bit like handing over your children to someone whose babysitting skills are untested and then finding out the children have had star parts in the nativity while you've been away, and you never even saw a photo of it.

Busy times meanwhile. School holidays meander on and we are getting into our stride. I feel just slightly less bad-tempered and as long as I get no ambition to achieve anything more substantial than a home-cooked meal, a quick shopping trip (made possible with bribery) or a journey to deliver some pictures for an exhibition, all is on an even keel. I think we are all learning how to live with eachother with no respite. I had a rare moment of peace this morning. After watching a few of the BBC's German season programmes (I am now weirdly nostalgic for Germany, yes, Rick Stein, I too ate very very well there when I spent a summer working in a hotel on the Baltic coast many moons ago, although I also ate one of the worst things I've ever eaten, Birn Bohn und Speck, a local speciality of green beans, pears and streaky bacon all boiled up together until it was khaki, and after watching the car programme I feel slightly fonder of my new German car than I was before, and probably foolishly I don't think a family holiday in Germany would be that bad an idea) I had downloaded some Kraftwerk and today I thought I would listen to something while clearing away the breakfast things. Who could have imagined that after a good hour of very loud sibling rivalry, "Computer Love" would suddenly induce utter silence and an intense spell of flicking through books? I just had to put it on again to see if it would continue, and it did. It was as if a cool fresh breeze had gone through the house. So I just had to open my big mouth: "Do you like this music?" And the answer? "No it's weird".