Lower Normandy

Our rental was a barn, approached by a long gravel driveway; a tumbledown farmhouse to its right and rich, green pasture to its left. There was a small patch of woodland in the garden, a bit like a spinney, blossoming apple trees and a plastic swing strung up between two trunks. The fencing was simple post and rail, the kind used to keep cattle in place. I'd come out into the garden, early morning and hear the cows in the nearby fields, a soft cough or snort, the scuff of a hoof. The silence was deafening and dawn was on its way, but there were still thousands of stars and a white moon suspended just above the house. The dogs' noses were covered in dew, it showed on the tips of my shoes and our breath made thick silver clouds. We were standing by the wooden fence, looking out over the darkened countryside, over the crests of hills that had seen some of the bloodiest battles in French history. 

The pain, the mud, the landing beaches. Everyone knows Normandy, it has a special place in the heart of most Americans and the English. But we were in the department of the Orne, in peaceful springtime, a time of revival. Where French countryside is at its most bucolic, and the classically rolling fields were pockmarked with yellow dandelions that were the first to salute the re-emerging sun. There were leggy colts grazing and curious lambs peeping through fences, verdant green lettuce leaves at the market. We arrived on a balmy spring day, the French were clogging up the autoroutes near Rouen, headed to the coast at Le Havre, and we diverged on an almost empty stretch of road that took us into the green heartland where little had changed from the time the Allies had stormed through. We rented a barn conversion on an unnamed, unmarked lane and we wandered through still-life villages built around a single, stone church; market towns with old squares and boulangaries where the locals congregated. There were forested tracks with two options when our car met a tractor head-on: reverse a few miles or take a tumble down steep sides to join the cows grazing where a stream babbled through. I had been expecting a flat, undisrupted landscape, the kind of topography for digging trenches, but in Lower Normandy the terrain was satisfying hilly. Not so steep that we were always climbing, but enough that there were views stretching for miles,  a mélange of earth tones, browns interrupted by an unexpected shock of yellow from the mustard flowers, the verdure dotted with white; cattle, scattered around crumbling farmhouses; daisies on a suburban lawn.

This area of Normandy is a cow stronghold. Every part of France has its trucks - the grain haulage engines in the Loire, the old American-style timber trucks in forested Burgundy, and here, diary tankers. Even the smallest farms seemed to have a few girls, chewing the cud contentedly in fields far bigger than any British cow could've imagined. We were at the supermarché, looking for free range eggs, which we couldn't find, but figured in this region at least, the concept of caged birds didn't even exist. At the market there was local cauliflower bigger than footballs, grassy asparagus spears still wet from harvest, apples proudly marked as being Francaise. We weren't far from  Calvados country - there isn't much wine in this area, but rather the apple liquor and cidre normande. The trade-off was worth it for the miles of orchards and the break-away trees that watched over the winding roads like sentries. It was springtime and the blossom made that clear; the flowers bloomed in great clusters of pastel, swirled in the chilly breeze and settled  in a layer of childish bubblegum to downy white. The tiny, ancient Citroens that sped along the quiet stretches of tarmac had pooled petals under their windscreen wipers, the fallen flowers decorated the landscape like confetti at a wedding. A marriage between ground that had felt the footsteps of William the Conqueror's army, had given under the weight of tanks and a scene that could now be the poster child of mellow, provincial French living. 

It was simple, down to earth, and steady. Our Audi stuck out like a pretentious sore thumb among the rickety cars in any town we visited, farmhouses had been renovated just enough, tractors looked third generation but well loved. Any barn that had new double glazing was owned by a foreigner, but even those were enjoyably few. I was struck, initially, by the huge areas of pasture that were well fenced, with solid wooden rails, divided into neat squares. The houses that went with them were refurbished but in the old style, oozing class. Then I saw that each pasture had an outbuilding - a foaling booth, and to my horse-mad eyes, it all fit into place. Lower Normandy is home to the Haras du Pin, one of the national studs of France, where French racehorses are bred. The studs - haras - (or, according to my mum and sister "the harass") were the more prosperous farms and they too were dotted along country roads. We found one where the equine residents were close to the road and stopped to take photos, a group of four extremely elegant young horses, perhaps yearlings. Reserved but curious, polite at a distance, like the French farmers who'd give us a curt nod in their beat-up tractors. In the UK, Thoroughbreds this valuable would be under lock and key far from the road, but there was some sort of an understanding in France. A respect for each person's land, and a huge appreciation of the animals and plants that it nurtured.  Pruney and Suzi were petted; they could go everywhere, the French love their dogs. Our girls walked through the grounds of William the Conqueror's fort, I scrambled along the battlements where the archers would've hung out, church bells rang from a cathedral that lost its steeple to bombing, and a man disappeared into the tourist office with his Beagle puppy.

Every time I visit France, I say the same thing. I need a French country house. This départment brought that thought more often than before. I could see myself with a barn here, somewhere on a crest where two hills met, among the dandelions and apple blossom and rugged farmers. Somewhere to go for simplicity and silence. If one day you find that I've disappeared from a desk job in a soulless European city, you'll find me somewhere like this. A countryside truce; a ceasefire from the constant scramble of powerful cars, traffic jams and filed nails. I'll be renovating a barn, a sourdough boule of pain intégrale in the oven, with swallows singing from the hedgerows, the dogs patrolling a rambling garden, and a couple of retired racehorses grazing green pasture. Enfin de la paix, for sure.

mocha-chip loaf

It was my dad's birthday last weekend. He wasn't with us to celebrate, in fact I've not seen him since he was here in December. That was for three days. He was supposed to arrive on his birthday and the next day we were all supposed to leave for France. But my dad had to stay in Mozambique for work, and we left for France without him. Which was hard. Harder for him than for us, in general, because he doesn't change so much, but we do, and he misses that.

It's been a long time since I called him daddy.  I actually don't remember the last time I did. I think sometimes he misses those days - when we were small enough to ride on his shoulders, when we'd grab his hand and pull him places, the days when he would pick us up and pretend to 'drop' us, catching us just before we hit the ground. It's an occupational hazard of being a long-distance dad who spends huge chunks of time away. What he doesn't realize is that he's more or less always 'there'. We talk about him all the time. He's taught us so much. I'm quite sure I am the only girl (or maybe the only person?) doing contract law who has any idea about anything to do with ships - I heard someone asking what the stern of a ship was. I remember last year in class no one knew what it meant for a ship to be 'berthed'. A charterparty? No chance. Grabs? Bulk? No way. Not terms that are plastered all over facebook, not a typical dad-daughter discussion . He's the person who's taught me about hydraulics ('to do with air and water'), that brown bread is always better than white, that cumin should always go with cheese. That the best part of Formula One is when they splash each other with champagne, the best way to take a penalty ('two steps back and one to the side'), that baby birds are always worth saving.

He probably thinks, and you probably think, those are just small things. And maybe they are, but they make a difference, in  a not-so-every-day way. There are people who teach you other things - too many people actually. There's my mum to teach me to read and write and study hard. My dogs, to teach patience, my sister, to laugh. Then there's the internet, instagram, friends, books, who tell you how to eat, what to wear, where to go, how to act. But there's only ever been one person who's told me to take care of my tools, when he's putting away the chainsaw or the hedge trimmer; and I must have the cleanest Vitamix around. One person who's taken a look at my tripod, found that yellow bauble that shows when things are level and said, suspiciously, 'do you know how to use this?'. One person who's helped me to repot my indoor plants, who taught me that every room needs some green. The one person who, when it's supposed to be summer but it's freezing cold and raining and you're wearing shorts and standing with your bike sheltering under a tree by a cemetery, would say 'it's a bit dead around here', totally nonchalantly. 

He doesn't consider himself the teaching sort of person - he tried to teach me to ski, but I ended up with an instructor. Showed us that sometimes you just have to admit defeat, and you'll be better for it. But Layla and I grew up with him more present, and from the small things he did, we learnt. A little bit of discipline, we take care of our equipment. Huge attention to detail, a total love for plants and the smallest animal. We walk past a house where their fence stops short of the hedges by about two meters. That would never have happened with dad, we say, because he'd have measured the fence, or else have gone back to the hardware store and picked up another panel. If you're doing a job, might as well do it right. Wherever we are Layla and I gravitate towards the water. A lake, a river, the sea, we'll be there, if there are boats involved, even better. That's because our dad is the boat person, he's shown us that the best things happen near the water and he's almost never been wrong. Our mum always finds it odd and says 'you take after your dad sometimes'. Maybe we do, and maybe that's a good thing.

Love you dad xx

This is one of the first recipes I wrote with someone in mind. For my dad, who taught me the coffee-chocolate combination. It's a really simple recipe, just a dry mix, a wet mix, dump into the dry bowl, into the pan, a fresh loaf in about 45 minutes. This is a very low-key loaf,  it's more of a breakfast-y or snack-y every day type of cake, which are my favorites. There's not loads of chocolate so it's not super rich, the beautiful dark color is actually just from the espresso, nutty buckwheat flour and dark sugar. Together, they make this loaf look and taste quite special. A note on ingredients - I've made this without almond meal (brown rice flour instead) but I prefer the structure from the nuts. Hazelnut meal would be really nice too, so stick to something nut based if you can. I found that I had no chocolate at all, halfway through baking, but I had some chips lying around so I used those. If you have a chocolate bar, go that route, I always prefer the meltiness to the way that chips hold their shape. 

Here's to every day cake, and a not so every day dad of mine.

mocha - chip loaf

gluten + easily dairy free    //  makes one 9x5 inch loaf

1 cup (100g) almond meal
1/2 cup (50g) oat flour, gf if necessary
1/2 cup (65g) buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 heaped tablespoon espresso powder (or finely ground coffee)
1/4 cup (25g) coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup (120ml) plain yogurt of choice at room temp.
2 free range eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup (100g) dark muscavado sugar or coconut sugar*
50g chopped dark chocolate (70% is good) or chocolate chips

Oil & line a 9x5 inch loaf pan and preheat the oven to 180'C, 350'F.

In a large bowl, whisk to combine the flours, baking powder + soda, salt, cinnamon and espresso powder.

In a medium bowl, add the coconut oil, room temperature yogurt, eggs and vanilla and beat together. Add the sugar and beat again so the mix is smooth and dark.

Pour the wet mix into the dry mix and gently stir the batter with a flexible spatula. When it starts to come together, fold in the chocolate. The batter will be very thick.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 30-33 minutes. The top of the loaf will crack for sure, but I think that makes it look rustic :)

Let the cake cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then gently release onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

The loaf is quite moist initially but almond meal tends to dry out, so it's best finished in about 3 days. Otherwise, it holds up well frozen + defrosted. 


*Either type of sugar will work, I've made this loaf several times with both. Dark brown sugar would work too if that's what you have around, but keep the sugar as dark in color as possible.


lemon cloud pancakes

Prune was given a shelf life, but they weren't exactly sure what it would be. The words of the vet ran round and round my head like a batsman between the bases. Could be could be three weeks, could be three days, she might not make it at all. She had been quite happy, when I left her there, in the consultation room. Wagging her tail, tired and confused, why I was sitting on the cold tiled floor with her, with a lump in my throat and her collar in my hand. What do you say to your dog, who is more than just a dog when they've told you'll probably never see her again? What would you say to your best friend or your sister? I said nothing, but tickled her chin as I always do, she licked my face, and I left the vet. The walk out was as if I was on a mountainside road somewhere, my head all spacey, like there was no atmosphere and I was loosing my footing. Slipping, off the road, into an abyss. A dark, empty space, without her.

Drama of mountainside roads aside, that Thursday almost exactly six months ago was a nightmare. I woke up that night and thought, did I dream all this? Please tell me that Prune's asleep on her cushion. But of course she wasn't. There was only one set of tic-tac paws on wooden floors, rushing to greet me, but even to Suzi her solo footsteps sounded hollow, she kept stopping to check for Prune, her big sister, the one who incited all her craziness. We'd had a call late the night before that Prune had survived her operation. The tumour was out, the internal bleeding had stopped, she would have blood transfusions all night. As you probably know, she made it. It changed her, it changed us. If Prune isn't at my door in the morning wagging her tail and practically jumping up and down, I panic. Every time she's sleeping I stop and watch her ribs heaving up and down. I know it's crazy, but people have said that it was a miracle she survived at all. And now she's lasted 6 months! You go Prune. 

She's been in the best mood lately. All smiles. Whoever said dogs can't smile has never met Prune, because she knows how to grin. She'll lie there on her cushion in the mornings, her head propped up against the kitchen cabinet and her tail will thump, frenetically, so I'll tickle her chin, her back leg does this funny circular motion. A bit like she's playing the drums, pushing the pedal with her feet. She'll sigh a bit, snuffle a bit, snatch whatever food we've given Suzi, then leave the kitchen and plop herself down on the floor in the living room. Spirited is a good word for her. Independent. But less so than before. Before the op, she'd squirm and wriggle and wrench herself free when I tried to cuddle her but now she'll stay. Probably through gritted teeth, she lets me sit on the cushion, between her and Suzi. Pruney will heave a heavy sigh, but she likes it. Knowing that we're around.

Prune went for another scan in mid February where the vet gave her the more or less all clear. For now. We'll never know how far out of the woods we have come. A bit like living in the shadow of that mountain, with the high roads where you can't breathe, where there are gaps between the rocks that are dark and empty. But for now she's here and we hold on to that. She's still smiling every morning, still stealing all the food she can find, still digging holes and eating mud in the garden. She's still here and she's still our girl. For now, at least, the mountains just hover on the horizon.

Pruney loves pancakes. So does Suzi, actually, and my dad. We're the pancake squad over here. These pancakes are super fluffy, hence the name cloud pancakes. They are so light, airy and delicate, with a bright lemony tang. Spring pancakes, for the awkward time when citrus is still lingering but the cherry tree is starting to blossom (!!)
They do involve a whipped egg white situation which makes them a bit more effort than other pancakes, but it's totally worth it. They freeze well, too, so you could double the recipe really easily and freeze some.
Hug your pups when you can. They make our lives much richer than they'd ever think.
Hope you have a great weekend, maybe with pancakes xx

Lemon cloud pancakes

makes 5-6 pancakes  // gluten free + easily dairy free

1/4 cup (25g) oat flour
1/4 cup (30g) brown rice flour
1 tablespoon coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 tablespoon coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup natural yogurt (goat, regular, coconut all work)
juice + zest of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 free range egg, seperated

yogurt and honey,  for serving (if you like)

Combine the flours, sugar, baking powder + soda and salt in a large bowl.

In another bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk together the yogurt, oil, lemon juice and zest, and vanilla. If your coconut oil seizes up (from the cold other ingredients), very gently heat the mix and it will loosen up again. Beat in the egg yolk.

In the clean bowl of a stand mixer, or in a very clean glass/metal bowl, beat the egg white till stiff peaks form. 

Add the yogurt & egg yolk mix to the flour and gently combine with a flexible spatula. Very gently add the egg white, and stir to just combine - there can still be streaks of egg white, you don't want to deflate their poofiness.

Let the batter rest for 5 minutes. You can heat up your pan in this time.

After 5 minutes, ladle about 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of batter into the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes, till bubbles form on the surface of the pancake. Flip it gently and cook for about a minute more. I use an electric stove and most people don't, but you've made pancakes before.

Repeat with the remaining batter. If you're serving the pancakes straight away, you can keep them warm in a low oven, on a baking tray. Otherwise, let them cool completely, wrap in parchment paper and freeze.

I like them with a dollop of yogurt mixed with honey, but maple syrup, nut butter etc would also be great. Just a suggestion :)

Everybody's number one

what's for breakfast?

rhubarb & hazelnut crumble

I've seen this illustration, just the black outline of a circle in blank space. Inside the circle, the words 'comfort zone' are scrawled, and in the white space around it, 'everything interesting'. Not much at first, but pretty powerful. If someone asked you to fill in that circle, what would it look like? A comfort zone is such a personal thing. Mine would be full of quirks. I'm happy enough to go on long haul trips on my own, juggling tight connections, weird foreign airports. It doesn't scare me, but I've had friends that would talk for days about upcoming trips, who have to psyche themselves up to take flights or to go abroad at all. Last year, we did an overland trip in my dad's pick up from Beira (on the coast in Mozambique) to a very remote safari lodge, deep in the heart of the Zimbabwe bush. Like, nbd. I read an email from my dad the other day, and relayed it to my sister. "dad said he might be driving to Harare tomorrow". "Oh, ok. That's a fun trip" she said to me. Like driving to an obscure city in Zimbabwe and negotiating an African border control was nothing much, just something you decide to do from one day to the next. Casual, we said it like we'd say to each other "mum's thinking of going to town tomorrow to return those shoes". Town here is a 25 minute drive. We could say both, in the same breath.

Which may make it look like it would be impossible for me to leave my comfort zone. Which isn't true. I've had my license now for about 6 months and my palms still sweat when I have to drive to a place I haven't been, especially if it's in the city. Since I was young, I would toy with making a phone call for about 10 minutes before I actually dialled the damn number, just because I hate talking on the phone. One of those strange things that makes me nervous. And ringing doorbells. My sister and I would have a great debate before we went to call on a friend in our neighborhood, because knocking on doors required leaving the comfort zone. But life was more interesting when our friend played too, so we'd brave the sweaty palms and walk up that garden path. 

The walk up that garden path was a curve ball to my quiet days of  childhood summer vacation. They shook me up, just enough. As a whole, I think we're creatures of habit, and when we stray from our habits, we leave what's comfortable. If I have a one or two hour class in the middle of the day, I'm lost when I come home because I don't know where I stand along my own self-created one way street. Sure, I'm happy enough to drive through African bush that may or may not be hiding rebels who sporadically make trouble, but I needed a real kick to get there. Not particularly because I was scared of what was to come, but just because I didn't want to leave the cushy little zone of what's every day and known to me. You know when it's really cold out and you sink into a deep arm chair and even though you know you really badly need something, you don't want to leave? It's like that. There are better, more interesting things elsewhere, but dragging yourself towards them can be really tough. Some people are more motivated to step out than others - adventure can be like a magnet for some, who can't resist it's pull. No matter how in debt, how ill, how dangerous it is, an addict can always find the dealer. You become addicted to stepping over the border, into the that blank space, the unknown, and some people go seek it. 

Is there a skill in choosing when to step over the border? Are the drugs worth the pain? Who draws the line between courage and plain stupidity? Hard for me to answer, because I'm not the world's greatest risk taker. I calculate, take them when I know I have to, it's something that I've learnt. Risk is a way of life. I like to languish in the comfort zone as much as I can, like sitting in a sunny spot by the window. It's a good place to think and to get things done. But it's undoubtedly boring. You don't learn enough when you're there, you'll never see enough, you'll just go numb. My sister and I, when we were kids, would slowly grow bored with our games for two people, and pull the courage from somewhere to walk up to our friend's house to call on her. A myriad of new games for the three of us. Outside the comfort zone are the things that force you out of a rut and make you cherish the every day, the routine, even more. The blank space is risky, less comfortable, a place to be on edge. Astronauts rip through the atmosphere on the way to the stars, fighter jet pilots break the sound barrier as they go into battle. If you're looking for something more, whether you want more or need more,  I've never found it in the comfort zone. You can paddle with the fish forever, in a pond where every corner is familiar, or you can swim into the sea to play with the sharks.

"These shallow waters never met what I needed
I'm letting go, a deeper dive"
Alan Walker, Faded

So now as usual I'm going to awkwardly shift gears (that's one of my strengths) to talk about the merits of rhubarb. I've been looking high and low for rhubarb since the season for the early 'forced' crop started... then my sister hunted this bunch down for me, so shout out to her for that. Anyways, various family members like rhubarb for its tartness in sweet things, so I made a super simple crumble, using apples to balance out the bite from the rhubarb. It's actually pretty healthy for desert, so you could have it for breakfast if that's your thing. If you do want it to be more desert-y, you could serve it with some ice cream, or yogurt otherwise. I used hazelnuts here because I thought the colour and richness would be nice, but feel free to use another nut that you have chilling in a jar somewhere. It has been weirdly warm here for the past few days, so spring really made its mark, and the rhubarb is proof that. Hoping that it makes an appearance wherever you are - spring, and the rhubarb.
A lovely end to your week. Hugs xx

Rhubarb & hazelnut crumble

Serves 8-10 // gluten + dairy free

1 bunch of rhubarb (400-500g) (around 1 pound)
2-3 medium apples (450g-ish) (around 1 pound)
seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean
1 tablespoon natural orange juice, or fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons (45ml) pure maple syrup

// for the crumble

3/4 cup (75g) rolled oats, certfied gf if you need
3/4 cup (75g) oat flour (same)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (70g) chopped hazelnuts
1/4 cup (60ml) pure maple syrup
1/4 cup (25g) extra virgin coconut oil, melted 

Preheat the oven to 180'c / 350'f. Oil a 9inch square pan, or something with similar real estate.

Slice the rhubarb into even chunks; core the apple and chop it too, you can leave the skin. Add the fruit to the dish, scrape in the vanilla bean, drizzle over the oj & maple syrup, then toss everything gently to combine.

In a small bowl, toss the flour, oats and chopped hazelnuts together with the salt. Drizzle the coconut oil and maple syrup over, then using your fingers or a fork, crumble the liquids and flour together so that clumps start to form. Continue mixing with a fork till the mixture is crumbly, with a few chunks.

Drop the crumble into the pan, over the fruit in an even layer. Bake for around 30 minutes, till the fruits are super soft & bubbling, and the crumble layer is crisp and lightly brown.

The crumble will keep 5 days in the fridge, and I've heard they freeze and defrost well, so I'll be trying that for sure.

more fruity desserts