Chemin E – P

So many pretty towns beginning with E: Espalion, Estaing, Espeyrac. We enjoyed them, and they are indeed listed as some of the loveliest towns in France, and I remember each according to their washing arrangements. In Espeyrac we asked two elderly ladies, who had a nice little dog and were doing a wordsearch / sudoku / IQ test on a bench, if we could use their washing line. We admired their dog and appealed to their female fellow feeling.

Seems a shame to waste the lovely sunshine was their take on it. This line was in full sun and on the main road, such as it was. Lucky locals got our smalls and bigs on show for pretty much a whole afternoon. And we got our washing properly dry, (And the sun kills bugs, my microbiologist companion assured me.)

Figeac – jolly nice small town. And we stayed at a Best Western overlooking the river. It was Sunday when we arrived and I’d broken my glasses. I was squinting through the heat haze and making complex plans to have some posted on. Everything was closed. There appeared to be nothing to eat, but we found a fast food outfit which sold spinach and goat’s cheese quiche. Yum. And the next day we found a lovely optician who mended my bins for free and before 9.20 am. We called him Gerard. He was my hero that day. And I told him so. It was all Helen could do to stop me kissing him.

Food. We talked about it pretty much all the time.
France – the most visited country in the whole world.

Gerard – my hero.
Gite d’etapes. Often twinned with a chambre d’hote. Think youth hostel bed fitted out with granny’s lamps and bedding. Ok if the company/food/weather is good. Tricky if too many factors fail to deliver.
Graffiti. There was loads in Spain of variable quality but much of it was encouraging. Buen Camino. Ultraeia. Don’t stop walking. You can do it Duffy Moon. Not much in France and I missed it.

H – Humble. Reverses, small aches and pains, keep you (me) humble.

I (still) loved the walking, the simplicity, only carrying what you need, lack of distraction and being in the moment.

John and Kevin: exceptional men both. Thank you xx

Laundry – totally preoccupying. Second only to showering ourselves and checking the beds were clean. In Cajerc we found a launderette – yippee – but were defeated by the signage. Two reasonably bright women with 70 years of independent laundry experience between them managed to make the machine go but could find no way of adding powder. Couldn’t find powder even.


N and O is for ‘normalement il y a un orage’… I had asked about the meteo – weather forecast – and this was the cafe owner’s reply. We were bewildered too. It wasn’t like we were in the tropics.

P is for Puy lentils. Dressed with oil, vinegar and onion were surprisingly good. And a welcome part of our five a day, which took some planning and finding. It made me appreciate the variety and plenty of my normal diet.

And it’s the contrast with our normal lives which speaks most when walking to Helen and me: having a week or two with few choices, no status, little chance of making this more comfortable with the outlay of a few euros. We appreciate our privilege, not because we are playing poor – we could pull out at any stage and did – but because for a few weeks we choose to simplify and see what really is necessary, and what we can do without.

Quite a lot.


Well, it’s over. All the thinking, planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, unwrapping, eating, more eating and drinking and clearing up. It’s all pretty much done with, and all our guests bar one, Bertie-blackcat, have left.

It went well. We were a large group on Christmas day, nine plus one baby, one toddler, two lively dogs and Bertie-blackcat, who held his ground despite terrier provocation.

What helped?

I created a Facebook group where I posted suggestions for a menu and a secret Santa. Instead of everyone buying for everyone and it being stressy and somewhat pointless we each contributed a short list of things we’d like and we all then received something we wanted. ūüôā In my case a hyacinth in a jar and a small John Lewis watering can.

It came down to asking for what you want: basic assertiveness. You have a right to ask for what you want and equally others have the right to refuse you.

I was lucky. I had a cooperative group who played by the rules, but the principle applies. People don’t know what you want unless you ask. Don’t assume they do.

I could have provided all the food and drink and negotiated presents between every member but I didn’t. We all contributed and felt like adults.

What else worked? Masses of cooking beforehand. Including this:


A Tunis cake, including chocolate ganache. Get me!

And this: – much easier and more tasty than normal mince pies.

And the slut jelly things which went down very well in shot glasses.

And finally this:

Yum. (I left out the chestnutty bit.)

So, a fair bit of self congratulation but I’ve still got a lot to learn. When I get old and start wearing purple and being much more difficult I am going to emulate William (18 months). If you offer him a biscuit he nods vigorously and says, “Two”. I plan to do that with gin.

If you give him something he doesn’t fancy or begin a song or a book he doesn’t want right now, he just comes out with it. “No”. With an o as in ‘orange’. Very clear.

If it’s food like a sandwich, he either palms it off or just takes it and drops it immediately. “No”

No games. No ambiguities and very funny for Granny. Not great for mum and dad who have got to establish routine and discipline.

This was still funny but probably because he was leaving in the next five minutes;


Where did those beans come from?

Dessert, pudding or just afters.

You know you’ve got a lot of time on your hands when you start doing online quizzes. I never fare very well in the “How many of these places have you been to/ films watched/ books read?” type quiz, but this one was made for me.

A list of puddings / cakes follows. I did reeeally well. 33/40, though I have to admit most of them I ate while under 16 and at school. Happy memory. After a shaky start – I was not a great feeder pre teen – my appetite took off with the help of lunchtime netball and hockey practice at secondary school. I used to race in with my friend Susan and while I didn’t much like the first course, the meat often fatty and stringy, potatoes grey and lumpy, and the gravy was grim, I would demolish several servings of pudding. ( At that age only your mum makes decent gravy and her stew or roasties are unparalleled.) We once had sevenths of treacle pudding and custard. Plain greed but I worked it all off walking to and from school and lots of PE.

These days I rarely make puddings except when people come to dinner because I would just eat them. Mr Thompsononthehill doesn’t really do pud so it would fall to me to oblige. I could do this, though the seventh portion might defeat me. But in the interests of health and my waistline I refrain and we have yoghurt, fruit, and cake, sometimes. Very wholesome.

My repertoire is limited – there’s less margin for error with sweet stuff than savoury and a failure in the cake department is humiliating -so I’ve stuck to crumbles and sticky toffee pudding and artful constructions of shop bought meringue and cream and home grown soft fruit. But recently, down to the Bake Off effect, I have tried to extend my range. I made lemon and polenta cake and I’ve made passion fruit curd (pricey but delicious) ¬†and filled a Victoria sponge with it and mascarpone cheese. It turned something rather dull and vicarage tea party-ish into a proper dessert. Note the transformation of that part of the meal in to dessert. When we were at school we called the midday meal, dinner.

“Are you pack lunches or dinners?”

An early version of the sorting hat for creating  friendship. And after the first course there was afters. Of course. What else?

These days dinner is in the evening, and I am a lady who lunches. It may be a cheese and  onion pasty from Greggs, that was Monday Рnot much cheese, lots of potato and a thick slice of onion in the centre which kept me company all afternoon. Tuesday was pulled pork in a bap with bbq sauce and bacon and cheese on top (excessive I know but it was freezing out and I was in Margate and had been looking at a bewildering collection of objects at the Turner Contemporary. The cafe was the appropriately named Fat Pig.

Wednesday was a Twirl from the Co op. I can’t remember why but rest assured I made up for it later.

Thursday, some homemade spiced carrot and lentil soup. Yum. Very easy, very healthy, and cheap. Full marks Mrs T.

Anyhow back to dessert. Much as I love eating them, I don’t relish making them. And Christmas looms with visions of steaming puddings which the family don’t much like nor have room for after the turkey, so I asked my cooking guru friend Sue and she told me about this which is what she serves as an alternative:

Great name Nigella, but gelatin??

I have been under the impression for forty years that working with gelatine is like handling dynamite. Fraught with difficulty and danger. It may have been beginner’s luck but it worked and indeed was easy. The demystification of gelatine. ( How many more things have I not tried because I believed I couldn’t do them? Plenty of blog material there.)

I served this to bookgroup and they loved it. Admittedly I did feel extravagant pouring a whole bottle of Chardonnay in a pan and gave a thought to my grandparents who will be turning in their graves Рthey who never did more than sip a sweet sherry. So roll on Christmas catering, and many more gelatine based desserts. Panacotta maybe or that brain thing which looked so unappealing but might taste nice.Great British Bake Off 2013: best bits (© BBC)

Maybe not.

Last swim?

September 18th and we swam at lunchtime, and yes it was cold, look at those clouds. They swallowed up the sunshine as soon as we entered the water.Image Image You could paint this picture with just greys!

Is this the end of summer? My wellies are out. The heating is on. The winter duvet is on. I’ve made my first crumble: plum and apple with amaretti in the topping which kept it light. Baked Dorset apple cake, and got half a sack of potatoes in for the winter.

I’ve also made Hugh Fearnley’s mushroom risoniotto, very easy, comforting and not too creamy. While I was stirring the mix I watched Julie and Julia again and resolved again to cook more varied food. But in the winter I want stodge, some food ballast to take me through these next few months. Much as I love fruit and salads, it’s nursery food I crave in winter. And I stick to my old faves. Macaroni cheese, leeks and bacon appears often. Fish pie. Hefty soups with spicy beans and sausage. And I would love more puddings. With custard.

IMG_2901I bought this book for 20p at my local library and while I don’t think I suffer from full blown SAD, I want as many tools as possible to combat the almost inevitable loss of energy and motivation and joie de vivre I feel in the the darker seasons. I’ve not read it all but light boxes are recommended in the first chapter. Mmm, nah, not yet, for now I think go with the flow and follow nature’s direction. Sleep when it’s dark, accept the few extra pounds that accumulate, cook, read, meet friends and family and eat together. Make fires, walk a lot when it’s fine. Walk wrapped up warm when it’s not. Nothing radical.

I have learned to put a few events in place over the winter to prevent me becoming a hermit. Some trips to the cinema or theatre. A trip  to see Helen in Holland perhaps?

Winter tv is often good but I have the attention span of a gnat, and come to things late. ¬†I watched Luther and loved it from behind the sofa cushions. I saw the first two episodes of Game of Thrones and although it was rather bloody and graphjc I really enjoyed it. There’s Strictly waiting in the wings of course. And this year I have got in to the Great British Bake Off, several years after everyone else. Another plan I have is to try some bread-making … watch this space. I may need blue contact lenses for the full effect. Photos to follow, depending on results.

But this evening the sun is shining. All good.  P1000244

One of the things we learned on the Camino was to ask for help when we needed it, so those of you who read this blog: how do you cope with the winter blues?

Suggestions please.

Mountains are not friendly

Today I am in Scotland in the village where John spent four happy weeks whilst I walked the Camino. We left home where temperatures were comfortably warm 23/24*C and drove to Gatwick airport Travelodge. There we had a surprisingly good curry served by smiling staff – not all Eastern European – who cheerfully processed the orders of crowds of excited holiday makers, bringing tray after tray of lamb shanks and cod and chips. No doubt the Peroni helped but we had a cheerful and hygienic experience. It was also ‘tasty food’. My culinary experiences now are measured by Helen’s criteria. “Let there be tasty food” and there was. So far so good. And the room was clean and the bed was big. Yes yes. And despite the ravening hordes the night was quiet. All good.

Next our British Airways flight to Glasgow: we unwittingly chose row 4. Excellent choice. Two wide seats and something for Flat Stanley inbetween. More decent food: a hot breakfast, a well seasoned omelette, bacon, sausage, tomato and mushrooms served in funny foil tray but all piping hot. Ours is not to reason how. Ours is just to get it down.

Because a Munro beckons. We are going to climb Beinn Ime and The Cobbler. Happy sunny climbs he performed with no difficulty in May. However today it’s 10* cooler up here than home. I’ve not been silly: I’ve come prepared with kwik drying trousers and all my Camino kit except Vaseline. And my MERINO BASE LAYER! I got one as soon as I came home having suffered from severe base layer envy in Spain. Got my poles and I am fit! So I set off with a will. But very soon the rain set in. Then the wind, almost gale force and able to gust me off my feet and into a peat bog. Not nice but the path was clear and we pressed on, determined not to let the elements prevail. My thoughts: this feels familiar, damp legs and reaching for my buff to wipe my nose. Head down pressing my glasses back onto my face, wondering if I might be better off without them, all damp and smeary. No I’m not.

Almost at the top and all hell breaks loose. “Have I developed tinnitus?” No it’s driving rain and sleet against my hood which is flapping like one of Scott’s tents. It then occurred to me that if we were separated by the dense cloud cover John is carrying the rucksack and has my lovely purple pilgrim jacket, my phone, the map ( much good it would do me) and all the provisions ( lots of chocolate). I then thought, Which part of this is fun?” None of it. And decided to turn back.

No Munro for me today, but a long slithery scramble back down the mountain John whooping away in front of me gleeful at the descent. Note to self, did I pack ibuprofen? Another note to self: so glad I didn’t get my facial thread veins done. It’s not yet winter but I feel like Greasy Joan red-faced and in need of a pot to keel – indoors.

Made it to the car, in that confused freezing cold and sweaty state that comes from exercise in inclement weather, we drove to our modest hotel where we drained the tank of every ml of hot water and made them put the heating on. Bed by 7.30 pm.

Just looked at the Folkestone forecast for the week. Wish I hadn’t.

More lovely things

So enjoying this summer. It’s a real one just like they used to be.¬†Image

I am loving:

Walking with old friends in the rolling Dorset countryside.

Many swims. This one began on the sand in Bournemouth. Classy.


Having picnics.

Eating sweets.

IMG_2828  These are totally yum.

Feeling grateful for being alive, for the time allotted me.

Helen has a friend who practises a form of gratitude journalling.She calls it ‘Today I celebrate’ and focusses her attention on the small things which make her life worthwhile. It may be the coffee which smells so good or a call from a friend. For another person it might be light on the water or birdsong or the fact that the kids slept in till 7am.

Practising an attitude of gratitude is useful.  Recording it is more so. Research has it that that mild to moderate depression can be alleviated by noticing and giving your attention to positive things.

At one point I did something called Happy Rambles, a cheesy name for a daily online  gratitude prompt. It saw me through the dark depths of last winter.  If you practise gratitude journalling and reread your entire record from time to time, it provides a map for the people, events and small mercies which nourish you, so, I suppose, continuing the map metaphor, you can return to and revisit those sources of nourishment. Worth a thought.

I’ve done well with my non-vow to swim. It’s been delightful and liberating. And I’ve noticed a number of lumpy middle aged women just like me doing the same, perhaps they were there all the time, perhaps I’ve started a trend ūüôā

Today it’s pouring hard as it hasn’t done since Noah, so I am topping up my blog. This nourishes me too in some way I can’t describe. And making cake, lemon polenta, very nourishing. And Thompsons junior are coming for the weekend – toad in the hole for tea: William’s toddler chuckle.