How time flies when you’re having fun!

It’s hard to believe that I haven’t added anything to this blog since January (and it’s now May). We left the Isle of Man in early February with an uneventful trip back to France. As usual, at the security post for the ferry in Douglas, we paid our “bribe” of one packet of Jelly Babies! (We always travel with a full car and the price not to have to offload everything is a packet of Jelly Babies – though I’m sure they would make us unload if they thought there were any problems! We must have innocent faces!)

After crossing the channel, instead of heading back down to the Paris area, we diverted through to Lille in northern France because M-D’s nephew is a dentist who practises there and M-D is undergoing an implant procedure at the moment. Naturally, it gave us a chance to see Christine (M-D’s sister), so we passed a pleasant evening there before heading south.

In fact, we made a return trip to Lille a couple of weeks later (again, mainly for dental reasons) but whilst there were invited to an “Evening of Couscous” with some of Christine’s friends (who we also know). I’m not a great couscous fan normally, but this one was quite exceptional and, along with the wines and conversation, made for a pleasant evening.

April walkThings are quiet in France at this time of the year. Initially, the weather was unsettled but, by the beginning of April, the sun came out and we were able to get some walks in the forest. The Forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is a relic of a more ancient Forest which became a royal domain and hunting grounds of the Kings of France who resided at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Henry IV and Louis XIII of France often used the forest for fox hunting. It’s a forest of 35 km2 which lies in a meander of the River Seine and is composed of mainly oak and beech. It is now bordered by built up areas and divided by communication links but has the advantage of being just 300m from where we live! Within a couple of weeks, there will be little blue sky to see as the canopy fills in for the summer.

The cousins come to lunchA couple of weeks ago, Marie-Danielle’s cousin, Nadia, came to see us from Bordeaux for a couple of days. During that time, we served her and her husband, Michel, Leg of Lamb in Deep Rich Gravy and also Monkfish Medallions a l’Orange. On the third day, we invited Nadia’s mother (M-D’s aunt) to join us for lunch. She lives on the outskirts of Versailles, so it’s just a 20 minute drive each way to get her. Also, M-D’s cousin, Jean-Louis, and his partner, France, joined us for lunch, so we were a table of seven.

Jean-Louis attacks the gâteauAfter a long “appero” where everybody did a bit of catching up, we served Filet Mignon (Tenderloin-of-Pork) with Sage and Rosemary which seemed to disappear fairly quickly, so I guess everyone was happy with that. After some delightful French cheeses, Jean-Louis was voted the man to cut the cake which “Aunt Suzanne” had brought with her. A lovely raspberry gâteau with fresh cream… Mmmm!

So now we’re back to being just the two of us for a couple of weeks while we amalgamate all the stuff we’re taking back to the Island with us. Normally at this time of year we take the plane, but there is so much stuff that we need to load the car again! At least it means that, during the summer, M-D will be independent of me while we are on the island. My car is too big for her, so she’s not comfortable driving it, but her B Class Mercedes carries a lot of stuff and is easier for her to drive than my old “Elegance”.

Our summer is already fully booked! Just two days after arriving, my neice, Sally, and her lovely family are coming over. As soon as they leave, the Isle of Man TT races begin and we are doing “Homestay” like we did last September. Already, we are fully booked for the fortnight. After which, we get a whole two weeks to ourselves, then M-D’s former boss (when she worked in Belgium) is coming over, with his wife. After a few days sight-seeing on The Island, we are going to do a Scottish tour with them (and guess who’s driving!!!)

After they go back, we have just one week before Ian, my elder son, and his parner, Caroline, are coming to visit us… I’m looking forward to that one! But as soon as they leave, we have our two French granddaughters and a friend staying with us virtually for the whole month of August. And, as I type this, M-D is on the phone to someone who stayed with us for last year’s Isle of Man Festival of Motorcycling (used to be called the Manx Grand Prix) and who wants to “book us” again this year! And that would leave us just 4 days before we head back to France again in early September! Nothing like being retired, is there!

While here in France, we’ve (naturally) made a couple of little excursions across the road to our “local” (Happy Sushi) and in fact we plan going again this evening. I also confess to enjoying many of the splendid culinary delights that are on offer here, which we don’t find on The Island. Things like plump duck breasts (from the ducks that provide foie gras). It’s actually fun exploring the supermarket shelves. Did I really just say that?? – Sounds like it’s time to close this post!!

Plan Ahead…

I have always maintained that 90% of the success of a good meal is what goes on hours before it’s put on the table. I am not someone who stays in the kitchen while everybody else quaffs the champagne and scoffs the apperitifs! I like to grab my share while there’s still some left, and have a nice relaxed conversation with my guests. Sure, there are moments I have to pop into the kitchen to keep an eye on something, but I minimise it by preparing as much as possible beforehand.

You know that rectangular beast that stands in the corner of the worktop – it’s called a microwave – make use of it! It’s designed to make life easy, so take advantage. Let me give you an example… mashed potatoes. Make them well before your guests arrive and put them in the serving dish you are going to use. Cover with clingfilm and put them to one side. As you finish preparing the main course, ready to serve, just pop the dish in the microwave for two or three minutes and your mashed potatoes will be perfect and hot. You can do the same with almost any vegetable.

salade des gourmetsPreparation really is 90% of the job!  One of the recipies I love is Salade des Gourmets which is extremely simple, but has a lot of component parts like foie gras, smoked salmon, smoked ham, magret de canard, fresh scallops, fresh prawns. The scallops and prawns are served warm, but everything else is cold, so what I do is cut all the pieces of foie gras, smoked salmon, smoked ham and magret de canard and keep them in the fridge along with the vinaigrette for the salad leaves. Then, when it’s time to plate up, it takes me less than one minute per plate to arrange the leaves, and meats, during which time the scallops and prawns cook quickly and can be added to the plates. 5 minutes for six complex-looking starters is a walk in the park!

The trick is to consider what you are proposing to serve and prepare as much as possible well in advance. Also, you should try and find combinations that make life easier in the kitchen. One of the meals we enjoy includes sauté potatoes, but sauté potatoes must be cooked when needed, otherwise they go soft and soggy. Again, with a little forethought, you can partially cook them and then just throw them in a hot pan for a few minutes at the last moment so they are served nice and crisp.

Most gravies and sauces can be prepared well in advance and reheated just before serving. In fact, you can make gravy days ahead and simply freeze in a container, defrost on the day, then add the juices from your meat to it before serving. Some people parboil and freeze their potatoes to give them a headstart. Others like them cooked from fresh, but you can still get ahead by peeling and cutting them the night before. Keep them in a water-filled container with a generous splash of milk overnight to stop them browning. When you are ready to cook them, rinse first to remove the milk.

Plan ahead, prepare ahead, and your meals will be so much more relaxed and better organised.

Bruno gets his Andouillette

Walking the Dogs by Bruno CavellecOur friends Jill and Bruno are, like us, a French-British couple only the other way round – Jill is British and Bruno is French. They live close to us on the Isle of Man and Bruno is a talented painter. We have one of his prints at home in France – ‘Walking the Dogs’ – that I adore because it really captures the essence of Peel (or Sunset City as the locals like to call it). But not only is Bruno a talented guy, he’s also a very genuine guy – as are they both.

Now, living in another country is fine but can leave you with strange ‘holes’ in your way of living since you begin to miss some of the things you were brought up with. Marie-Danielle and I are lucky because we move between the two cultures twice a year so we can get a regular “fix” of the things we like. For me, it’s little things like Salad Cream, Scotch Eggs and Corned Beef that simply aren’t available in France (I take several bottles of Salad Cream back with me!). It’s not that I miss them terribly, it’s just that it would be nice to be able to treat myself once in a while.For M-D, she misses being able to buy confit and veal (yes, I know veal is available in mainland UK, but this the Isle of Man where, for reasons I have never been able to fathom, veal is not available. But, as I say, M-D and I can ‘catch up’ on a fairly regular basis.

Andouillette_AAAAA_cuiteBruno has the same “challenges” and one of the things he misses is that famously French sausage called andouillette. Andouillette is a coarse-grained sausage made with pork intestines (or chitterlings, as we know them in Britain) pepper, wine, onions, and seasonings. True andouillette is shaped like an oblong tube. If made with the small intestine, it is a plump sausage generally about 1″ (2.5cm) in diameter but often it is much larger and stronger in scent when the colon is used. The andouillette has a strong, distinctive odour related to its intestinal origins and component parts. In fact, it is this odour (and subsequent taste) that turns me off this “delicacy”. I have tried eating bits of them several times, but simply do not appreciate them as many in France do. We all have foods like that, which simply don’t “suit” us.

Although sometimes repellant to the uninitiated, the strong odour and taste of andouillette is prized by its devotees (like Bruno and M-D). Since true andouillette is rarely seen outside France (and certainly never on the Isle of Man!), we brought some back with us and decided to “treat” Bruno to an andouillette evening!

tapenadeWe didn’t do a starter course as such, we simply ‘extended the choices’ of the aperitif. In addition to the usual olives and nibbly biscuits, we provided some slightly more ‘substantial’ fare like quails eggs and toasts with homemade tapenade on them. This way of starting a meall allows friends to sit in comfortable chairs around a low table and chat whilst beginning the eating process.

pan seared tunaAnd so to the pièce de résistance, the main course! I believe I’ve mentioned before on this blog that Jill is not vegetarian, but she won’t eat anything that had four legs when it was alive. She’s fine with poultry and fish so I did Pan-Seared Tuna with Avocado, Soy, Ginger, and Lime for the two of us while Bruno and Marie-Danielle got stuck into their andouillettes. The tuna is easy to prepare and takes 2 minutes to cook. The andouillette is ready-made and cooks almost on its own in a pan for 10-12 minutes. A handful of oven chips, a dish of Dijon mustard and a side salad was all we needed to create a main course that pleased all its participants. It doesn’t have to be complex to be a winner! But have you ever seen a grown man cry!!! Bruno was in Bruno heaven and didn’t want to come back down to planet earth!

We finished off with one our favourites (also extremely simple), Orange Carpaccio with Gâteau Creusois. It was a pleasant evening spent with two good people. I suspect we may be hauling back more andouillettes next time we return from France.

We head back to France in less than two weeks, but we’re not done eating yet! Tomorrow, Steve and Jeanette (brother and sister-in-law) have invited us to a little restaurant perched on the cliffs just down the coast. The day after, Terry and Julie are hosting “the big six” (themselves, us and two other friends from over the road) to dinner at theirs. The following Saturday, Penny and Steve (who joined us on Christmas Eve) have invited us to eat at theirs. And a day or two later, the evening before we leave, we’ll be at Bruno and Jill’s, enjoying crêpes for La Fête de la Chandeleur. And then I go on a diet – that’s if France will let me!

Terry’s Secret Treat!

I noticed a while back that our neighbour on the Isle of Man, Terry, was due for a birthday on January 3rd. Being a sharp-eyed individual, I also spotted that the 3rd fell on a Saturday this year. What better excuse for a party!! So I quiety contacted Terry’s wife, Julie, and we arranged to hijack his evening with a meal at ours. We also invited Kate and Dominic who are close neighbours. This is the “team” that M-D and I refer to as “The Big Six”… Terry, Julie, Kate, Dominic, M-D and myself! In fact, Julie and Kate were friends when they were young then, just a few years ago, discovered that they were living on opposite sides of the same street! Small world.

Christmas WreathWhat we didn’t know when we planned to hijack Terry’s birthday was that it was Julie’s birthday on 31st December. And what they didn’t know (until M-D told them) was that it’s mine on 6th January. So you can imagine that the aperitif was more alcoholic than normal (and normal is pretty good!). We repeated a little fun presentation that we had done at Christmas by making a sausage wreath out of cocktail sausages and that buttery, flaky, Vienna-style pastry used to make croissants. The bow was a red pepper that underwent M-D’s surgical skills and the bowl in the middle held Dijon mustard for dipping. It seemed to be well appreciated since it disappeared at a rapid rate of knots (is that a nautical term?).

Millefeuille de PintadeOur starter for the meal was a combination of Millefeuille de Pintade au Foie de Canard and Roulades de Jambon au Foie de Canard en Gelée au Sauternes. We get these (as you can see from the links) from an excellent supplier called Godard in the Perigord region of France. Washed down with a glass of Château Haut-Theulet Monbazillac 2002 (the colour of golden straw), this was a perfect starter for a great meal.

Two Excellent WinesFor the main course, we repeated a dish that had served us well at Christmas – Beef Wellington. This time, there were no problems with timing as there were on Christmas Eve. I correctly guessed that our guests would be happy with meat that was less cooked than I had done at Christmas and “the beast” arrived on the table in good time and in good shape and was helped down with a glass or three of Château de Sarenceau Saint-Emilion 2000 which we served right through the rest of the meal. And then came the famous Trou Normand – sorbet with calvados poured over the top – to help our digestion (I think!).

After the cheeses, we served Gâteau Creusois with M-D’s hand made Chocolate Mousse which is actually very simple to make, but very tasty. And another pleasant evening ended with happy campers all round. Cooking is fun, but the joy it brings to others is even better!

Goodbye 2014 – Hello 2015

Robin and RebeccaI have a niece called Rebecca who, a year or so ago, went to live in New Zealand with her new partner, Robin. Since then, we’ve all got to “know” Robin via Facebook, but none of us had actually met him. Rebecca decided to rectify this gap in our knowledge and she and Robin came to the Isle of Man to spend Christmas and New Year with her parents (my brother and his wife, Steve and Jeanette). And so, on Christmas day, we at last met Robin and discovered for ourselves what a really nice guy he is.

During the conversation, Robin observed that, while New Zealand is famous for its lamb, it was very expensive over there because much of it was exported. So, since Rebecca had recified the gap in our knowledge, we thought we would rectify Robin’s lamb shortage and invite them for New Year’s Eve. Therefore, on December 31st, Robin, Rebecca, Steve and Jeanette arrived at ours and we enjoyed an evening of good conversation, good food and good company.

For part of the aperitif, we produced a plate of green-lipped New Zealand mussels with a garlic vinaigrette (similar to the Left-Over Mussels recipe only with king-size mussels!). It was an instant hit with our visitors because, while they can obviously get the green-lipped mussels, they’d never thought of adding a garlic vinaigrette and eating them cold!

Tuna-Stuffed EggAs a starter, we tried a little recipe of tuna-stuffed eggs which, I have to say, was rather uninspiring and it’s one we won’t be repeating.So, rushing past the bad news and onto the main course, we’d done one of our favourites, Lamb in Deep Rich Gravy which is so very simple and looks after itself in the oven. We’ve noticed that, despite buying the largest legs of lamb we can get without buying mutton, there is never anything left and, sure enough, New Year’s Eve was no exception! In addition to feeding the poor Kiwi Couple with lamb, it gave is a chance to show off the quality of our locally produced Manx Lamb which is an excellent product.

wine bottlesFor Christmas, Marie-Danielle had bought me a case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (both red and white) so, never being one to waste a good Christmas present, we enjoyed both the red and the white with this meal and it truly was a great Christmas gift (I even have a few bottles left!). Robin is a programmer and runs his own company, Aotea, in New Zealand. Partway through the meal he tried out a new App that he was working on which, when complete, will pick up the image of a wine label and return all the data on that wine. So we pulled a few bottles out and gave it a test run! It didn’t recognise the 1985 Chateau Balestard La Tonnelle (St Emilion) or the 1986 Chateau L’Eglise-Clinet (Pomerol) but I’m sure Robin will get it to function in due course.

Orange CarpaccioAfter a “Trou Normand” (calvados, served over sorbet) we moved on to the cheeseboard before actually celebrating the changing of the years and watching the London firworks on TV. After the last firwork had died out, we sat down to Orange Carpaccio with Gâteau Creusois which proved to be an excellent way to end a family New Year meal and welcome in another year of culinary delights!

New Year's Day SwimThe postscript to this pleasant evening was that, the following day, Robin and Rebecca braved the harsh Manx winter and took part in the New Year’s Day swim on Peel beach. Dressed as viking invaders, they did New Zealand proud! A couple of days later, they left the island and (going via England and Paris) they eventually found their way back to New Zealand with temperatures of 31ºC (91ºF)!

Christmas on The Isle of Man

Having arrived back on The Isle of Man in mid December it was time to consider the Christmas festivities. Though we were on British territory, we opted to continue French tradition and hold a réveillon. A réveillon is a long dinner, and possibly a party, held on the evenings preceding Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. The name of the dinner is based on the word réveil (meaning “waking”), because participation involves staying awake until midnight and beyond. In the United States, the réveillon tradition is still observed in New Orleans due to the city’s strong French heritage, with a number of the city’s restaurants offering special réveillon menus on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eveve TableSo, a couple of days before, armed with a a lump of wood and some parcel tape, I prepared the dining table for seven. This took a modicum of engineering skill since we don’t have a large dining room and the table was designed to only seat six! However, it seemed to work OK, because on 24th Marie-Danielle prepared a beautiful table for us while I was locked away in the kitchen!

Our guests were Penny and Sarah who had met us in Paris at Le Procop, Penny’s husband Steve, and Jill and Bruno who are, like us, a French-British couple only the other way round (Bruno is French and Jill is British). We weren’t sure if Christmas Eve in PeelBruno was going to make it since he had been unwell for some days. However, he made a huge effort and spent the evening with a “cockerel hat” perched on his head (as opposed to Steve, who wore a “reindeer hat”) – yes, it was one of those nights! We are certainly blessed with some wonderful friends.

So, the menu!
First off, since it was Christmas, as part of the apperitifs, we constructed a “Christmas wreath” out of little cocktail sausages and that buttery, flaky, Vienna-style pastry used to make croissants. The bow itself was a red pepper that underwent M-D’s surgical skills and the bowl in the middle held Dijon mustard for dipping. Christmas WreathAlong with quails eggs, olives, “appericubes” (baby cheese cubes from France), cocktail biscuits and a couple of bottles of chilled Cremant d’Alsace, we passed a pleasant half-hour awaiting the main event. Or should I say that “they” passed a pleasant half-hour awaiting the main event, since I was locked away in the kitchen having all sorts of fun on my own!

As a starter, we had decided on Salade des Gourmets, that wonderful salad with lots of added extras like foie gras, smoked salmon, magret de canard, small cherry tomatoes, fresh scallops and prawns. It makes me salivate just thinking about it!

And then came the awkward bit!!!

Beef WellingtonWe decided to do a Beef Wellington which normally (for a decent size fillet of beef) takes about 35-40 minutes to cook. However, I knew that most of our guests would prefer their meat more cooked than M-D and I normally eat it, so I had to allow extra cooking time. To be sure, I used a cook’s thermometer and aimed to get to 60ºC (140ºF), where normally we go to about 54ºC (130ºF), I had estimated an additional 10 minutes but it took nearer 20 minutes extra. Normally that wouldn’t be too critical since everybody just chats and the time passes. However, Penny had committed to ringing the bells at the cathedral for the midnight service, so had to leave the house at about 11:40pm. Fortunately, we just scraped in and she was able to finish her plate of Beef Wellington, Champ and mixed vegetables before having to leave.

Jill, meanwhile, is not a meat eater (if the beast had more than 2 legs while it was alive) but she does enjoy Confit de Canard, so I made her a “Confit Parmentier” which is sort of French for shepherds pie using duck instead of lamb!! I simply heated and shredded a duck confit, placed it in a ramekin along with a little chicken stock then covered it with mashed potato (which I was making anyway for the champ!).

While Penny rang her bells (which we could hear since the cathedral is only a couple of hundred yards away) we all finished our main course and took a breather. Well, a sort of breather! In fact we had a “Trou Normand” (literally, a Norman hole) which, traditionally, is Eau-de-vie, especially calvados, served as a middle course in a large meal in the traditional belief it restores appetite. The first time I came across this was a hotel in Normandy where we styayed for a New Year once. In the middle of the meal, the waiter served us all an apple sorbet and then arrived with a teapot!! Tea it was not! Calvados it most certainly was. So, sure enough, we served a sorbet with calvados then sat with contented smiles on our faces waiting for Penny’s return.

Xmas CakeUpon Penny’s return, just before midnight, we all exchanged presents (I did warn you we were doing things French style!). After which, cheese was served, followed by M-D’s famous Chocolate and Walnut Gateau (dutifully decorated with Santa and a snowman!)

And what, you might ask, did we drink with this meal? Well, it may surprise you to know that we stayed with Bordeaux Origami from start right through till finish. It’s made by Famille Capdevielle and is 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc so is quite light for a red. For this reason it worked through all four courses. All said, a very pleasant evening with some valued friends. Now we have New Year’s Eve to look forward to!!

Pre-Christmas activities

We only stayed in France for three months before returning to the Isle of Man. It’s been fifty years since I spent Christmas on the island so it seemed like a good idea to repeat the exercise and see what I’d been missing!

Le ProcopeFirst of all, though, there was some other business to attend to! in early December we enjoyed a really pleasant evening with Penny and Sarah, friends from the Isle of Man who were visiting Paris. We ate at “Le Procope” in Paris. Founded in 1686 and now Paris’ oldest café, there’s a great atmosphere. The food is excellent and reasonably priced (for central Paris). I tried a Tête de Veau (veal’s head) which, for some reason, I’ve always avoided till now. Frankly, I shall carry on avoiding it! Penny, Marie-Danielle and SarahThere was nothing wrong with the food or the way it had been prepared it’s just that some foods suit us and some don’t. Tête de Veau turned out to just not be my thing. The other three hit luckier than me with dishes that suited them and that they enjoyed. But I had the pleasure of the company of three charming ladies, so I’m not complaining! The evening was fun and it was great to meet friends in a different environment.

Christmas in CleryAnd talking of Penny and Sarah, we will have pleasure of their company on December 24th for our Christmas celebration. But more of that when it happens because first we celebrated an early Christmas with M-D’s family near Orléans in north-central France. As our childrens’ families mature, we see less of them than before and, to me, this is quite right. They have built their own lives and we are now only a small part of it. So, since Muriel, Vincent and ‘the girls’ were heading to Corsica for Christmas, we spent an evening with them and had an early festive celebration.

And then came the time to head back to Britain. First, I had to pack the car! Normally, when we drive back from France, the enormous heap of stuff in the garage manages to fit into the limited space available for it in a B Class Mercedes. This time, however, The Tardis failed to expand through the super-galactic space–time continuum where matter becomes anti-matter and requires no extra space and, as a result, several dozen bottles of wine were left behind. However, I think we took the important stuff…
Chocolate Snails – CHECK
Various Liquours (a lot) – CHECK
Cheese Aperitif Cubes – CHECK
Armagnac – CHECK
Duck Breasts (several kilos) – CHECK
Bottles of Wine (enough to float a battleship) – CHECK
Foie Gras – CHECK
Other Alcoholic Stuff (a lot) – CHECK
Strange Frech Sausage Things – CHECK
Calvados – CHECK
Roll of Carpet – CHECK
More Wine – CHECK
Lovely Biscuity Things – CHECK
5 litre Boxes of Wine (enough to sink a submarine) – CHECK
Tasty Cakey Things – CHECK
3 litre Boxes of Wine (almost enough to sink a submarine) – CHECK
Chocolates (weighed by the metric tonne) – CHECK
A Bottle or Three of Wine – CHECK
Selection of excellent Pates and Stuff – CHECK
Some wine – CHECK
Passport, Tickets etc. – CHECK

Now, what did I forget?
A wife, did you say?
No – she was lying on her back in the garage seeing if she could dispose of the excess wine before we left. Apparently it’s an ancient French tradition, so I took her down a plate of snails at dinner time!

Our trip back wasn’t so good either! We left our home, west of Paris, in good heart and with a clear sky. The traffic was gentle and flowed at a steady 80 mph all the way to Calais (200 miles without even a queue of 2 cars). The pretty boat sailed the ocean blue, crossing to Dover in good time. Then it happened!

Landed at Dover at 13:30 – arrived in Crewe where my niece lives (300 miles later) at 19:45. That’s over 6 hours of nose-to-tail traffic jams, closed roads, roadworks, lousy weather and general British road congestion. And, of course, the boat to The Isle of Man was cancelled due to lack of interest and a little bit of rain and wind.

Why is driving in England getting worse and worse every time we pass through? Another few years and it’s going to just grind to a complete standstill.

Anyway, enough of that, you didn’t come here to listen to me muttering away! We finally got back to the island a day late, unloaded the car and got ready for Christmas.

Back to The Rock and meeting up with old friends

Removing a false wallI headed back to the Isle of Man on my own towards the end of June because I had some work to do in our bedroom, so it was easier having the place to myself and not disrupting Marie-Danielle too. When we bought the house on the island, the builder who had renovated it had generally done a good job but, on a couple of things, he had taken shortcuts. One of these shortcuts was that there was water penetration on the top storey and damp was coming through the walls into our bedroom. The builder had tried to hide this by adding a couple of false stud walls with a 4″ (100mm) gap to the outside wall. Naturally, this was just a short-term cover-up and, In August last year (2013) we had scaffolding erected and roofers arrived to resolve the situation. So now it was time to rip out the false wall and let the original wall breathe.

Don't block the access!DIY tip #153
Before storing your furniture under the loft access while you do repair work to the bedroom, be sure to get the sander (stored in the attic) that you will need to finish the work !!!

A week of work and the place was as good as new (or better!). Then, when M-D arrived, she came with her sister, Christine, who lives in Lille in Northern France. Christine has been over to the island before and she enjoys it’s beauty and tranquility. So, while she was here, we invited our friends Bruno and Jill to join us for an evening meal. Bruno is also French and I think he enjoyed an opportunity to relax and hold a conversation in his native language.

When I travelled over, I had brought with me several duck breasts (Magre de Canard) which are taken from the ducks that are used to produce foie gras so are really plump and succulent. These seemed to be well appreciated so, a few weeks later, we asked two sets of our near neighbours over and repeated the excercise. Such was the success that Julie (our actual next-door neighbour) asked us to bring her back some Magre when we plan to return in December with the car.

Christine and M-D up in the hillsWhile Christine was over, we did a few walks and a bit of casual sightseeing. The location in the photo on the left is in the south of the island and, on that day, we could clearly see Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland from that spot. It makes you realise how central The Isle of Man is in the British Isles and Ireland.

We also visited a few of the local restaurants (as you do!). Christine loves the food at The Majestic Restaurant on Onchan Head, overlooking Douglas Bay and, indeed, it is an excellent Chinese restaurant. We also like The Boat Yard on the quayside in Peel, so naturally, we went there too! Oh, and let’s not forget The Swiss House at Glen Helen who do an awesome “surf and turf”!

Mireille Champseix-LeonardThen, in August, we housed a couple of French visitors for a week. Twice a year, the Isle of Man becomes home to bikers from all over the world. In June, they come for the Isle of Man TT and in August they come for the Isle of Man Festival of Motorcycling (used to be called The Manx Grand Prix). During thoise times, the population of the island doubles so, local people help out by offering rooms to bikers at a sensible price. It’s fun and it helps the island economy.

Serge LeonardWe got to meet and greet Mimie Champseix-Léonard and her husband, Serge. A real nice couple from Tarnac in the Limousin region of France. Though they seemed to enjoy exploring the various watering holes on the island, I think they were quite pleased when we asked them to have dinner with us on their final night before heading back to France!

So that’s another summer gone! I don’t know how we stand the pace, sometimes. Oh well, back to France and see what’s going on over there!

Poor Man’s Lobster

Archeres ApartmentsLast night we hosted a little dinner with some friends who have eaten with us before. It was actually a bit like an unofficial meeting of the conseil syndical de copropriété (the elected committee that help administer the day-to-day running of the apartment buildings). The conseil syndical ensures that lightbulbs are replaced, graffitti is painted over, cleaning is done properly, lifts work, doors and locks are maintained, and other stuff like that. They are elected each year at an AGM of all the owners and last night we had Yvon, Louis and M-D who are already on this committee, Pascale who is putting herself forward for election this year, Louis’ lovely wife, Monique, and of course, myself. So after a short spell on the balcony looking across the whole résidence (photo above), and then an aperitif in comfy chairs, we settled in for some serious eating!

Roulades de Jambon au Foie de Canard en Gelée au SauternesStarter was nice and simple – foie gras and roulades de Jambon au foie de canard en gelée au sauternes. And if you are wondering what that is, it’s foie gras rolled in ham which we get from Godard, France (they will mail all over the world). In fact, we were cheating a little because our foie gras was maybe not quite enough for six and the “roulades” augmented the plate and seemed like we were also offering more choice (no good getting old if you don’t get sneaky with it!)

monkfish medallions a l'orangeMain course was a repeat of something we have done before (for other people), monkfish medallions a l’orange (Monkfish in Orange Sauce). Monkfish is sometimes called “The Poor Man’s Lobster” since it has a nice firm flesh and is so very, very tasty. With it, we served Champ and Braised Fennel. And what a success it was… so much so that both Monique and Pascale asked for a copy of the recipe (a sure sign that something has been appreciated). And for Monique, it seems it was the first time she had even eaten fennel, so another first!

With the foie gras, we served a sauterne – a Barsac called Cyprès de Climens 2004 which, I confess, hit the spot rather nicely. With the fish, we served one of our “easy-going” favourites, Duc de Morny 2012 Picpoul de Pinet. Though, Yvon doesn’t drink white wine so we served him a rather succulent red wine called “Bordeaux Origami”. It’s one of the Grand Vin de Bordeaux from Famille Capdevielle and is almost totally unknown but (quite correctly) scores high in all the good wine guides. It’s a young wine (2011) but has a really deep, rich quality that you normally associate with older, more expensive wines.

raspberry and caramel crunch After a course of cheese and salad, for dessert, we served another of our old favourites, Raspberry and Caramel Crunch which never fails to please. In fact, Monique (who has a notoriously small appetite) was last seen scraping her dish and looking somewhat sad that there was none left!

I thought I had cooked enough of everything for more than six people, but very little remained at the end of the evening. So, a very pleasant “meeting” of the conseil syndical, full of good food and plenty of good humour. All meetings should be like that!… and guess who had left-over monkfish medallions for lunch today????

locks on the river SeineSo to walk it all off, M-D and I went for an afternoon ‘constitutional’ along the river Seine this afternoon. The massive locks there are for the big barges that use the river (some of them up to 100m long) for moving mostly sand and shingle. It’s fascinating watching them manoeuvre into the locks which have a height difference of about 4 metres at this point. Marie-DanielleWhile walking, I spotted a brightly-coloured wood nymph! (see left).

And then, this evening just to round it all off, we had a simple, but tasty Tarte flambée (also called Flammekueche) – an Alsatian dish composed of bread dough rolled out very thin, which is covered with fromage blanc or crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons. It is one of the most famous specialties of the region. So – a very pleasnt 24 hours!

How to Open Scallop Shells

scallops in their shellsOf course, your fishmonger will open your scallops for you. In fact, they mostly sell just the flesh. But there is seriously nothing better than a FRESH scallop, as we discovered the other day as we went to the market. Most people are simply afraid of what’s inside a scallop and are not sure what to keep and what to throw away, but it’s drop-dead simple, and here’s how you do it…

Hold the scallop shell flat in your left hand (assuming you are right-handed), with the curved side down and the flat side up. If you have a scallop with both halves curved, it’s normally white side down and dark side up! Keep the round edge facing you then insert the end of a round-tipped knife (or a small spoon) in the join to the right of the shell. Work the knife towards you then rotate it a little to open the two halves enough to allow you to wedge the fleshy part of your left thumb in the gap, and keep the shells apart.

Using the dull edge of the knife blade, scrape the inside of the top shell until you feel the two parts of the shells separate (you have simply cut or broken the muscle that was holding the shells together). Discard the top half of the shell then place your left thumb firmly on the scallop muscle. Still holding the knife in your right hand, insert the tip carefully beneath the grey-black mass (the viscera) that’s next to the round, white muscle. Hold the mass gently between the knife and your right thumb, lift it up, and pull it gently towards you. You will feel a layer of skin come cleanly off the scallop muscle, along with the “innards”.

scallop in its shellYou will now be left with just the edible muscle, though it may be a little gritty with sand, which you can easily rinse off under cold running water. Now you are free to eat them raw from the shell or create any one of a dozen delicious recipes like my favourite, A Trio of Scallops