At times I feel my 16 year old daughter is rather heavy hearted. Sure she has a loving family, a comfortable home and a great gang of friends but I think she gets worried by the bigger picture.
At school she is given a mountain of work but told that the job market will be hard to get on to, no matter how qualified she is.
At home we do our best to respect the environment around us, but can do nothing about Fukushima sending radio-active clouds our way or about the oceans being filled with rubbish.
You can see where I'm going here ..... economic recession, population explosion, I don't need to give you the details.
So what can we do to help our children be happy, optimistic and dynamic? What do you tell your children? The best I can come up with is to live in a loving and respectful manner, do your best, look for beauty and encourage hope. ..... I'm not sure that it's enough
We like to eat seasonal and regional food here. Grapes in the fall, asparagus in May, plums in October and French strawberries as from now!
Strawberries are a wonderful dessert fruit, most delicious of course when plucked from the garden, still warm in the sunshine, but we'll have to wait a few months for those. The first French strawberries to appear on fruit stands are large and firm and ideal for using in tarts.
Here is my favourite recipe: an almond rich pastry, amaretto flavoured creme patissiere, fresh strawberries and a light glaze. Serving this at dinner generally provokes a moment of silence, as guests take their first spoonful of the pastry/cream/fruit combination.
Because I don't like the creme patissiere too firm, this is not the best behaved tart to slice and serve. To avoid extra difficulty, I make the cream and the pastry ahead of time then assemble at the last minute.
The pastry is dead easy, just throw the following into our mixer and whizz until it has formed a round ball. Leave in the fridge for a short while, roll out to fit your tart mould, then back blind at 190 until golden brown.
6 oz or 1 1/2 cups of flour
1 oz or 1/4 cup of ground almonds
3 oz or 1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
3 egg yolks
3 oz or 1/.2 cup butter
To make the creme patissiere you will heat 1 litre of milk in a pan with a split vanilla pod. While it's heating mix in a bowl 6 egg yolks, 1/3 cup flour and 1/2 cup sugar. Pour the hot milk over the eggs and sugar mix then pour back into the pan and stir gently until the cream starts to thicken. Watch this carefully, it doesn't take long. Pour back into the bowl and leave to cool.
Once this is cool I beat up some fresh cream until fairly thick and mix the cream into the creme patissiere, along with a good tablespoonful of amaretto liqueur. Leave in the fridge until ready to assembly the tart.
You only need to make the glaze now. Simply cook a small handful of strawberries in a pan with orange juice and sugar to taste. When thoroughly cooked press through a sieve and mix in 1/2 teaspoon powdered gelatine.
To assemble your tart, remove the pastry case from the tart mould (this isn't obligatory but it looks so much prettier), cover the pastry base with the cream then carefully lay the strawberries all over in neat circles. If the strawberries are enormous you may want to cut them in half.
Pour the glaze over the strawberries and smile graciously as you bring the tart to the table amidst applause from a deliriously happy crowd!
And, if you enjoy this recipe and one day you're feeling saintlike, you might like to make up small individual tarts and .... prepare yourself for instant stardom!
My first experience of the French school system was, of course, when my babies started at nursery school. Inevitably I compared to the system I had known in the UK. Many things were different, some I liked , some not. This happens when you travel, you end up wanting the best of all worlds!!
A detail that I always found charming was on the list of items required by the child starting a new school year was a 'porte-serviette'. A napkin holder. At our local nursery and primary school, every child had to bring their own napkin for use at lunch time in the school canteen.
Each Monday morning, the child was sent off to school with a clean napkin (complete with sewn on name label) in their -also labelled - napkin bag. Each Friday afternoon, the napkin was returned home in the school bag to be laundered over the weekend. During the week the bags were kept in a basket in the classroom and distributed to each pupil after they washed their hands, on their way to lunch.
I soon discovered that there was a sort of pride and tenderness put into the confection of the napkin bags. They had to be pretty, easily identifiable, a little lunch-time reminder to our offspring that someone at home was thinking about them.
I found some of these old napkin bags at a brocante this weekend, not really antique, but nicely vintage. You can find them in my shop, inexpensive little 'souvenirs de France'.
Now and again I daydream about moving west, deeper into Normandy. West is greener, west is emptier, west is packed full of properties to die for .... what stops me? well, deepest Normandy is also that much further from Paris, with fewer decent schools and even less happening... but it is very tempting.
Today I have been dreaming about this little bijoux, loads of land, tons of charm. Come along and dream with me.....
If I lived here, you could drive over to stay for the weekend. The wide gates would be open to welcome you, and since it will be such a balmy summer day, bedroom windows will be flung open too.
We'll walk around the outside of the house. I think you'll like the little œil de bœuf window hidden in the ivy climbing up the wall.
I'll serve you some tea here, before showing you the .....
outbuildings, that I haven't yet decided how to use .....
SIGH ! - that roof and those proportions are to die for!
We'll take a little tour inside and say how lovely the uneven,
mute-coloured stone flooring is , we'll admire the
volumes of the rooms and how much light comes into the high ceilinged
rooms, and we'll wonder why in heaven's name the French put their radiators
beneath their beautiful old windows.
(I'll make a note to call the plumber and get those moved!)
I'll explain that we shall be redecorating and buying more furniture
and you'll swoon over those herringbone floors!
and in the evening before supper, we'll walk around the grounds together and you'll help me plan out the new flower beds, potager and orchards that I'll be planting next fall.
Happy, happy dreams!
And for anyone who wants to do more than just dream, this 18th century little château is for sale at the moment. The asking price is about 1.3 million euros, but for that you get almost 6.000 sq ft living space, 12 hectares of land, marble fireplaces, herringbone wooden floors, a dozen bedrooms and almost as many bathrooms ad two stunning 17th and 18th century outbuildings, each about 1600 sq ft.
I only ask one small thing in exchange for having shown you this treasure, that when you buy it I get to visit and watch your work in progress!!
Yesterday evening I received a phone call that made my heart beat just a little faster. A lady had heard from a friend that an English woman (me!) might be interested in old house linen..... Would I mind stopping by to take a look?.... Would I mind ?!! Wild horses couldn't keep me away!
So this morning, after rather unceremoniously dumping the children outside their respective schools, "bye darling, have a good day", I put my foot down on the accelerator, and clutching the ladies instructions for finding the house, set off on my adventure.
It was a beautiful morning and a lovely drive, past sheep, well OK a sheep, through pretty sun-speckled woods until finally I found the address.
The lady was emptying the house ready for sale. She had no emotional attachment to the property and zero interest in the contents - just kept encouraging me to help myself!
Antique dealers had already been in for furniture and books, most of the rooms in the house were completely empty. Madame steered me into a small salon beside the kitchen, filled with boxes, crates and a few small tables and chairs.
To begin with I thought that all the boxes were full of linen, but in fact most of the stuff left was crockery and kitchen equipment, none of which I wanted.
The linen she had called me out for, was already neatly folded and appropriately piled up in two large laundry baskets. So I did my shopping and came away with the linen, some embroidery revues, the two beautiful old baskets and a sweet chair. The chair and the baskets are for me, but the linen will go into the shop.
I'm afraid I didn't take my camera inside, but here are the pictures of the booty I brought back with me.
don't you love the detail on the chair?
Most of the bed linen is cotton sheets, with various monograms and different sizes.
There are also a load of 'traversin' or bolster cases, like the embroidered one below. I had forgotten how elegant a bolster can be. I shall dig out my old bolsters and start using them again, especially in the guest cottage. They'll add a very French touch. Some of the bolster shams are plain, some finished with lace and ready to be tightened with a pretty ribbon at each end.
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Welcome to my French country home.
We love our old French house. It's a joy to entertain here, to fill the house with family and friends. Good food, beautiful countryside, bits and pieces found in local brocantes, children, dogs, horses, all this in a deep green valley in the heart of Normandy.
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