Monday, July 30, 2007


coco beans.JPG

The mistral is up, blowing the pile of poo which will probably never be a terrace each and every which way.

I am close to tears thinking our terrace will not be built, ever. I am starting to phone Monsieur Reymond’s wife more often than I should and she is starting to feel less sorry for me. Tonight she passed me onto the man himself:

“Tomorrow I will come with another and we will have it all ‘propre’ by the evening”

We will, as usual, clear the space and wait for the phantom maçon not to come.

Meanwhile, we are having to take our wild pleasures not in planting pots of winter savoury and chervil on the new stone terrace wall as we had hoped, but inside, away from the vicious wind, in large bowls of pêches blanches, rose de provence apricots and reine claude plums (bought by me to inspire the muse who is starting to relax her grip as we wind down towards our holiday), and lunching on bowls of coco beans animated by market bought rather than terrace grown (humph) herbs with a wedge of goat’s cheese creaming them up….

On Thursday we leave for Skye. A week’s camping and walking in Glenbrittle followed by three days of fluffy towels and lobster and watching the seals from the windows of the infamous restaurant with rooms, The Three Chimneys. Though Julian loves a good hotel, for me the basic 'good hotel' is too much like touring so this is our solution: Total wild followed by total luxury. There will probably also be total midges and total rain but that’s what the gear’s all about.

fruit bowl.JPG

Thursday, July 26, 2007



A concert came and went.

As did a few guests....

french laundry

And a few Mondays.

Julian feels quite at home with the 'whenever whenever whenever' interpretation of 'sûr sûr sûr', as it how he would ideally like to live, whereas I have French insults - ranging from 'Putain!' through 'Honteux' right down to the very polite 'Pas du tout correcte' - coursing through my veins. I spend most of the day pulling my right forearm back from the telephone in order to stop myself spurting them at the errant builder.

Monsieur Reymond did 'sûrely' not show up on Monday-the-third. However, as I returned from swimming on Tuesday I saw a jcb, and a van with maçonnerie written on it and, well, blimey, I almost crashed the mini, I could hardly believe my eyes. He was actually there. He ploughed up the area in front of the house for 5 hours, and arranged to be there the next day at 14.00 to meet with the iron worker and continue the job...

...and we haven't seen him since. On Wedensday we leave for Skye for two weeks and hand the house over to friends. I hope it does not look like this.


Anyway the cats are having a blast rolling around in their new sandy playground.

For my part, since the terrace debacle, I have been having nightmares about turning up for tour buses and rehearsals minutes late.

Julian is a different animal. He does what he likes/what must be done when he is moved to do so. He can work harder than I've ever worked in my life in one day and yet, now the days are long, he is totally cool about watching the Tour de France with a few beers in the afternoons before he starts to paint dangerously near sundown. ('Afternoon telly and alcohol...aaargh! Armchair sport...eeek' says my internal task master) Within his rhythm there is a certain organic discipline (hello, a painting a day for how many days?), even if that discipline can be a little 'dernière minute'.

"Something inside you has to move before you move your arm which moves your bow" said my teacher wisely. It is a good lesson. I have learned it on the cello. I am still trying to learn it in life. However, I still believe there are certain things which move me first. For example, I do not wait for something inside me to move before I go swimming. I simply know that if I do not show up at 10 on the dot the pool will bulge with bombing boys and I won't exercise and I feel crap when I don't exercise and if I don't exercise for a day I probably won't for a month, then not for a year and then I will be fat and die prematurely. That's just how it is. So when, arriving plein de hangover grog, at the Piscine Municipale, I dive in to the pool and feel the cool water close around me like a mercury envelope; follow the contours of me like silken hands; flow around my movements like the tenderest lover.... only then do I know why I got in the car to get there.

And yet, though I know I get a lot done, I am missing out on something. I do not follow crazy impulses and take risks that lead to life changes without encouragement and prompting (luckily I am married to someone who encourages and prompts me). I follow and I commit to making what follows a thing of beauty. Sometimes I think I follow everything but my heart, though I can often find my heart along the way.

The social worker said that I am fixed because I come from a broken home and Julian is flexible because he came from a secure one. I am sure there is some truth in it.

Monsieur Reymond obviously came from a very very happy large clan.


PS. Someone was talking on the radio today about Shiva, and playing Indian devotional music. The interviewer asked:

'Do you really think that man will become a better man listening to this music?'

-to which the Indian composer replied:

'No, he is already better. He will just remember his heart. Sometimes we forget it'.

Bach does that for me, I thought.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

reine claude

The greengages sat very patiently before they were dropped into a fluffy caramel, sautéd with star anis and, once cooled, given a little bonnet of zesty lime cream.

It's all going so fast. Reine Claude plums are already here and we've hardly savoured the apricots enough. (Those pink sunset pouches of shockingly sweet moisture are already on their way out till next year.)

Letting go...

Letting go....

Changing the menu plan and thus, what was an apricot compôte last week must now, this week, be a Reine claude compôte, and naturally, what was a still life this afternoon is now a pudding.


Friday, July 20, 2007



“He’s impeccable!” said our accountant. I was admiring the work – or perhaps it was the chestnut coloured domes that constituted the upper arms - of her stone mason. “Not only an artisan, but an artist!”.

The next day I was on the telephone to Monsieur Reymond asking if he had any time this summer to build our terrace. I explained we had many visitors starting mid July and that it would be marvellous if the area in front of our house were not only not life threatening but perhaps even pretty.

A price was agreed and the ‘devis’ signed. My only suspicion was that our mason did actually seem to have the time on his hands when most waiting lists are a year long. “I’ll start on Monday. Eight o’clock!” he said. We couldn’t believe our luck.

Monday rolled around. I was up early to go for my interview with the social worker in Avignon. We had close friends from America coming to dinner and I planned to shop in the covered market afterwards. Julian was dying for a lie in but he rose almost eagerly, ready to discuss the new project.

“How did the interview go?” Julian asked when I called home from Avignon.
“How’s the terrace?” I responded.
“He never showed up”.
“You are kidding right?”
“No phone call?”
“No nothing.”

Nor did he show up the next day, or the next.

“That’s just the way it is here, darling. Please don’t hound him otherwise he really will think you are a pest and never come back, ever.”

I waited till Thursday, when I got hold of his wife.

“Ah yes we spoke about you last night at dinner…”
I should bloody well hope so, I thought. “When does your husband expect to start work? It’s just that, well maybe he could phone to let us know….?”
“I understand, yes, I do. It is not right that he did not contact you. I know that with all this rain he has been dealayed working on a roof but he will definitely’ – and here she used the ambiguous word ‘passer’ – “come on Monday. Eight o’clock”

Another Monday rolled around. It was not the ideal week for jcb’s and banging given that we had thirteen guests wanting profound repose from city life and school exams between Saturday and Saturday, but we thought that we’d better not tempt fate by refusing the offer. By eleven thirty there was still no sign. I took my half sisters and friends off to market to sniff lavender and buy various flavoured ‘saucisson’ and Julian stayed home hoping. Whilst I was at the market I couldn’t help admiring the village terraces, all ‘ombragées’ with bay laurel, wisteria and vines, and dream. On our return we saw Julian puffing as he moved the remainder of the wood pile and the tiles both clean and plaster-backed. He was tired yet triumphant. Things were finally moving.

“He was here. He’s coming back with a jcb…” Our guests and I planned on being out for the afternoon, and a hasty wine tasting was organised. When we got to Domaine des Gouberts, over sips of Cuvée Florence, Mireille Cartier and I discussed builders. I could hear bangs in the distance.

“It is probably your mason!” she said. “You know once someone came to do the chaudière. It took seven years. They are not tempted, even by money, to fulfil their engagements. They all have somewhere else to go. Once a guy arrived three days early to do his job! Can you imagine how that took us by surprise?” Our friend Hugo from Domaine de Mourchon also had stories to tell of folk – after all the contracts had been signed - just shrugging their shoulders and thinking they can’t be bothered for such a big job. Because they don’t have to. There is enough work.

“How many ways are there to be non-commital?” Julian asked when we returned fuzzy from Gigondas and Séguret tastings, and wind blown from the open top wheat-sweet ride.

“A toute à l’heure? A plus tard?” I ventured.

“A bloody jamais. He hasn’t shown up again. ‘Il va passer’ obviously meant simply that; that he will pass by.”

The week frittered on, jam packed with all the delicious things in which we never indulge on our own – boating in the calenques, eating fresh bread every day, afternoon screenings of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, all in delightful company. At one point we had eleven for dinner on what might one day be a terrace and, making sure no-one’s chair fell in the holes or toppled over from the uneven ground, we played the humming game whilst digesting pink beef, roasted provençal vegetables and new potato salad with chervil and chives, the cicadas providing a ‘scratch orchestra’ accompaniment. My heart was so swollen with love for and irritation from and need to take care of and pleasure in all these people that I hardly gave a thought to the terrace until some of them left on Thursday and I realised Monsieur Reymond had still not showed up.

Going slightly against my husband’s advice, I picked up the phone this morning. Luckily I got Madame R.

“I don’t want to be ‘bête’, and perhaps it is because I am English, but I don’t quite understand…”

An hour later, Mr R on the phone for the first time: “Excusez-moi. Lundi matin, sûr, sûr, sûr.”

‘Sûr, sûr, sûr?” I said, glad there was some humour in the air.

‘Sûr, sûr, sûr!”

Roll on Monday.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

a simple supper


I had met the couple in question at my father’s seventieth birthday
bash at Flowers East in London. Towards the end of our engaging conversation, mostly about opera, Penelope informed us that they were going to be ‘somewhere near Avignon’ in a couple of weeks. Naturally, I proposed that we get together for lunch, it being forty minutes drive from where we live.

When the email came nearer the time I discovered that our new friends were in fact going to be staying in the next village to us, at the Hostellerie de Crillon le Brave . Pausing before I replied and invited them to dinner, I looked down at my feet all dusted with hemp floor (this was BT - Before the Tiles), my hands rough from wire-wooling the gunk off home made paint, and at the cat prints and packing materials covering the un-waxed table.

‘Do come for …’ I hesitated again, clicked discard and started over. ‘Option 1 is that we all have dinner in the very chic restaurant of your hotel where the gorgeous terrasse has one of the most glorious views around and the food is good (last time I went a couple of years ago!).' Was I selling the preferred option too hard, I wondered. Then again, we always get that warm glow cooking for people. 'Option 2, because we are in plein travaux at the house, is that you join us at our unplastered home at the foot of the mont ventoux for a very simple supper and some good wine.’

They, as I suppose we all would do, opted for the simple supper. There then followed a short exchange about Wellington boots:

‘Simple supper at our boho gypsy camp it is, then. i so hope you will not be too put off by what will one day be a terrace but is currently a huge messy 'chantier' (will it ever end?!) Rx’

‘Then I hope you won't be offended if we don't wear our best shoes P Xx’

‘wear your wellies to get to the front door then wear whatever you feel
most comfortable in! Rx’

‘If you think I travel with my wellies, indeed have any...! Actually, I have
a pair of pink one made by HM Supplier of Wellingtons to the Queen, but I'm
too embarassed to wear them even in my own garden. P Xx’

And that (that she owned but dared not be seen in a pair of pink wellies), apart from us all loving Handel’s Theodora, was about all we knew of our guests.

The morning of the simple supper it was the market in Bedoin. We tend to avoid it during the summer as it is overrun with paella stands and people selling ceramic clacking cicadas. However, a quickish whip round (winding in between Dutch and Germans all agog with the smell of lavender) takes me to the stalls I know and like – primarily the fish and the goats cheese – and the ruddy boulangère, and then I move on to where the vegetables are really at – the ‘Marchés de Provence’. It always seems sad to me that in the sprawl of my local market I cannot find the fresh fruit and vegetables I want. There is a nice girl who sells the basics with the right glow about them (emerald green tops on aubergines and bulbous, crinkled old- variety tomatoes) and there is, on non market days, a sweet little ‘marché agricole’ in the evenings (but we are usually too well into our aperitif to get to it), and in winter, when the market is a quarter of the size and minus the rubbish, the real sellers seem to come out of hiding. I cannot help but remember that the bearded lady who sold goats’ cheese before - each one carefully decorated with a sprig of something from the pasture - and who looked like one of her herd was told she could no longer come to market to sell her wares because she did not have the right EEC regulation fridge. Anyway, like most places, you have to know where to go and, as Julian does after ten years’ living here, I follow his lead to our local town.

In Carpentras I am immediately showered with a delicate aroma. I know it is an expensive one but cannot quite place it until later when I get to the till. Meanwhile, I choose four white peaches to be grilled with vanilla, and one extra for Julian to paint, and finally pluck up courage to ask for a lesson on choosing a melon. The server knows us well by now, and I have even shown her reproductions of Julian’s paintings on the Queen Mary II , all of which feature her produce, and so she obliges:

‘ You have to pick one which is in-between yellow and green’ she says ‘green is not ripe and yellow is too ripe. And, it has to be HEAVY.’ She skims the hundreds of globes before her with her gaze and in a second snatches one up, bouncing it like a rugby ball in the palm of her hand. ‘This one will be excellent. You will be very happy.’ Indeed, later, we are (and I have now chosen three excellent melons in a row). I gather four handfuls of slim fine beans, a lettuce, some chives and chervil, and go to pay. Sitting by the till is a basket of great knobbly black forms, which I know immediately to be producing the rather erotic smell that has been following me round the shop. There is a small sign pinned on the basket:

‘Truffes Blanches du Mont Ventoux. 98€ le kilo’.

Summer truffles! We know the black winter variety but have only ever had the white in Tuscany and thought it to be more perfumed. And here they are in our local greengrocers. I immediately buy the heaviest of them to share with our guests, already planning to open our best bottle of Cuvée Florence from Goubert to accompany it and knowing Julian will make his own fresh egg tagliatelle to honour it. Suddenly I am very excited about our simple supper.

The fish is stuffed with fennel picked from the byway, with the help of Oscar the cat whose pawprints are also wiped from the table, the pasta hung up to dry, the peaches grilled, and the cooks’ privelege glass of white poured. Our guests arrive in the pouring rain (Wellingtons would have been handy after all) with a bottle of champagne and a book about Lytton Strachey he has written, and we fall into the sort of easy conversation one never wants to end, mostly, as far as I can remember in the haze of it, about food.

‘We heard you were foodies so we have a summer truffle for you!’ I announce, or do I….?

When they leave, as modern hosts receiving mysterious visitors must often do, we google him. It turns out that the lovely chap who has been sitting at our table in our unplastered kitchen sharing our humble fare is Paul Levy, the food and wine writer; that he infact invented the word ‘foodie’ and that his trip here was to research this article . (Yes the bream he speaks of were grilled by Julian). We are both glad we didn’t know beforehand as we would probably have made some complicated dessert which we would have cocked up, or attempted and ruined some posh sauce. As it was we had a good simple supper, a lot of fun and some excellent wine. We also became addicted to summer truffles.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Caromb Fig


The man who painted the above fruit and I dined under the fig tree of the woman who painted the beauties below. The Caromb fig has made it into the e-world at last!

I always think of figs as symbolising the last of the heat; of late Indian summer breakfasts in the turning vines, and I panicked when I sat under the pendulous black baul-bauls of Mireille's tree because, as yet, our summer hasn't really begun. Then Mireille explained that fig trees have three harvests a year. It is apparently advisable, she said, not to eat those that grow first as they are just warming up the tree.

As we perched on her old stone bench to eat, Julian and I ached for a garden of our own; to be protected on all sides from the gaze of others, not to mention their laundry leaping in the mistral, by an old wall dripping in colourful creepers, the smell of roses fading with the light. Mireille paints everything that she has planted in her little oasis and, just like a cook who cooks with her own produce, her love for her subject shows.

I do not feel any desire to 'own' land, but I yearn to bring in a lettuce, put a rose in a vase, or chop a herb I have grown myself.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the man comes to start work on the terrace next week. Lord knows how he will transform the industrial junk yard in front of our house that is ridden with black bins and gunk from the back of two hundred 'tommette' tiles (six hundred still to go), a cement mixer (to mix hemp and lime), bricks, and several square meters' worth of terra cotta tiles into a mini walled haven for pots of little green things, but maybe one day we may even pick a caromb fig of our own for breakfast instead of stealing the neighbours'.

(I should add our neighbour hates figs and has given us an open invitation).


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

smelling the flowers


The concert in Emmanuel was a birthday present for Emmanuel’s wife, Claude, and the quartetting gals of April were once more gathered together. Two, unable to speak from weariness, emerged from the TGV from Aix where they had finished rehearsing at one that morning. No amount of news or cherries from the Ventoux could revive them and the only remaining hope was Haydn. I had learned my lesson and we piled silk concert clothes and eighteenth century instruments in amongst the week’s dozen wine bottles comfortably, if a little shrouded in the dust of three years’ organic renovation, into the Renault we now call ‘The Tank’.

Arriving at the Chateau we were greeted by Emmanuel and Claude and their six immaculate children, their tanned skin, long legs, snub noses, perfect bobs and rounded collars straight out of a Louis Malle film. We were served coffee and chocolate covered figs in their living room, and as I admired the perfect tommettes and the grey green waxy doors, we discussed the weather. A place for us to play had been marked out with sunflowers under the plane tree, and a hundred seats fanned out from the semicircle of our chairs. However, the drops of rain that were beginning to fall were bulbous with wet promise. We agreed to wait till the last moment before we decided to take the whole event into the cuverie.

We got out our instruments and, surrounded by socks drying on little round sock dryers, papers, and plates of the first figs that make up the charming details of a Provençal family dining room, we started to rehearse. My friend and colleague Berenice had been staying with us for a few days and, returning from a day in the lavender fields and a good long girlie lunch, we had had a tough rehearsal à deux the night before. We had conflicting ideas about tempo and character - she thinking that the former produced the latter whilst I was convinced that the latter gave birth to the former. I had felt pushed by the breathless insistence of her tapping foot and she held back by my lingering to smell the flowers. Luckily we care for and respect each-other enough to know that, though we had a concert the next day, we could not hurry a natural process; that the truth was probably somewhere in the middle and that, though our process had been aborted, we had a job to do. We had hugged and opened a good bottle of Viognier to go with the sea-bass. As soon as we started playing à quatre I felt my rib-cage expand, my shoulders drop and the music cradle me, soothing my insecurities.

At the appointed hour we took our cases down to the tree and looked up at the pregnant grey of the sky. We unpacked but the first drop fell on my Benjamin banks cello (circa 1776) within a few seconds and we hurried into the long dark cuverie where we snuggled up against bottles of Vacqueyras and Côtes du Rhone.

Thirty or so children were all I could see so, having read Steven Isserlis’ delightful chapter for kids on Haydn that morning in the vines with my coffee, I decided to share a few facts before we played:

“Haydn was a rather ugly man. He had very short legs and a very large nose in which there was a polyp which disfigured it even further” I started, having learned the word for polyp from my colleagues. “ However, it seems that everyone adored him, especially children. And, so enamoured of them was he that as an old man he would ask them to come and play around him when he worked.” Here I hoped that the current hysteria over paedophilia would not put a shadow over my story in this hyper-catholic audience. “He had a wife whom he called the intolerable beast, who used his manuscripts for papers with which to curl her hair” Faire des Anglaises’ was my given translation on that one. Finally, I wound up the speech (without any grammatical faults, my colleague assured me afterwards) I don’t know how, and found myself sitting in a string quartet ready to start the sublime cello solo of opus 20 in C major, with everyone waiting for my upbeat. I was, having not experienced stage fright for years, shaking like a leaf. Somehow the transition between words (head) and music (heart, spirit, body) had totally freaked me out and it took me six of the remaining eight movements to recover. It did not help that behind columns of wine bottles, three older boys were mocking our movements in exactly the way boys of the same age used to mock me at primary school and, despite the avid attention of the little ones at our feet, the middle age group were torn between listening and being cool. I hoped there was someone back there who was enjoying it. For my part I felt disembodied.

Later, the Sicilian house-keeper whose son had been killed in a car accident eight years earlier said she had seen angels.