Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Guest post: Plates, grain sacks and chalets - why I love vintage

Occasionally I come across a blog that I really love.  It might be a turn of phrase, a pretty photo or just a sense of being likeminded in life so when I bought some pretty vintage pocelain in France I wondered who else loved vintage china as much as me?  I've been reading a lovely blog written by Andrea Mynard called Shabby Chick so I called her and asked if she'd like to write guest post about why she loves vintage china. 

In my cupboard and stacked on my dresser are piles of old vintage china plates. Some are sprigged with roses, others are gold edged, a few are covered in daffodils and many are chipped. While some of my tea plates are pretty, others are better described as handsome and many when looked at objectively are decidedly dodgy. All are well-used, well-loved and when placed around the table in a mismatching jumble, very pleasing to the eye. Well, to my eye anyway.

Andrea Mynard writes a lovely blog called Shabby Chick 
I'm not in the least bit precious about any of my old plates. They're all there to be used and enjoyed, certainly not wrapped up and stashed away for 'special occasions' that never quite happen. Many of them were bought from a nearby barn sale when I was on my way to buy paper plates for my daughter's 4th birthday party.

Stumbling across lots of old china plates and saucers (perfect for children's snacks) for a few pence each, I realized they were cheaper than buying disposable plates and far more attractive to me and my daughter. A lot better for the environment in my view too to get more use out of something that may otherwise end up in a landfill.

I have to admit that when I was asked to write a guest post about vintage for Vanessa, I was keen to contribute to this very lovely blog but had a slight reservation that I was certainly no expert on vintage. Although I would love to be the sort of person who makes water bottle covers out of old flannel shirts or transforms vintage pillow cases into beautiful, life-affirming objects for the home, SouleMama  style, I have to admit to being distinctly more shabby than chic. I may manage to rustle up lavender heart bags from old sari material and love to knit welly socks from magic wool, but mostly when I attempt to sew I'm reminded of my attempts as a child to make dolls' clothes using cellotape and staples.

Finding vintage treasure in Bridport
Yet I look around me and realise that some of the most beautiful and useful things around me are vintage. I'm sitting on a cushion made from an old Hungarian grain sack. On top of a pew which we retrieved from my mother-in-laws' garage; it was oil-stained but sanded up beautifully and is far more solidly made and comfortable than anything we could've afforded new. Lots of children regularly squeeze up on the pew, which fits perfectly along the kitchen table that my partner made from reclaimed oak.

Facing the wood-burner in our kitchen, my daughter often likes to snuggle up on the sofa under a multi-coloured crochet blanket, made when I was a child by her great-grandmother out of leftover bits of wool. Outside, I regularly dig up potatoes with an old fork that once belonged to my Grandad. And of course on the shelves within easy reach of our battered old sofa, are some of my favourite vintage buys: books, including several lovely ladybird childrens' classics.

Bridport this summer
The ladybird books remind me of the fantastic vintage market in Bridport, where some of them were bought. We spent a lovely time in Bridport this summer, enjoying the fabulous Shabby Chic charms of the Bull hotel, where Parisian flea market finds mix wonderfully with contemporary local art While we also had so much rock-pooling, winkle collecting and crab eating fun at the seaside in Wales this year staying in our friend's 1960s beach chalet. In a wild spot, surrounded by tangles of honeysuckle, ferns and foxgloves and with a stream in the garden that trickles down to a glorious beach, the beach chalet is the same vintage as me. I won't say that due to the 1968 vintage, we're both showing a few signs of wear and tear. It would be unkind to the lovely holiday home. Which still has most of its original furnishings and was such a comfortable, fun place to stay in an idyllic spot.

All reminding me of that lovely satisfying mix of money-shaving thriftiness, nostalgia and fun to be enjoyed from having vintage finds in our lives. Perhaps most of all, the environmental reasons are why embracing vintage makes good sense to me. As I look around and realise how so many beautiful, well-made vintage items add loveliness to my life, I'm inspired to try harder. There is so much that is quick and disposable around us these days. Yet with a little more thought, turning discarded possessions into treasures seems to add so much more comfort and richness.  

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Warm words in a cold book

Ben Vear 
It’s amazing how time just disappears. In the end it’s all we have. Time. 

Between running classes, renovating this old house, writing blog posts, looking after three young and wonderfully demanding children, gardening, cleaning, walking the dogs, looking after the chickens, housework it is so hard to find a moment. I’ve really neglected my friends and it’s about all I can do to keep up with my own family.  I am, however, as happy as I’ve ever been.  The one thing I have made time for is ten minutes meditation a day.  It doesn’t sound like much, but I feel spiritually in touch with who I am, and some how this is a dynamo that really helps keep me going.

Of course I can’t work at this pace indefinitely and so in July this year I was exhausted. I literally packed up this blog, suspended my twitter account, abandoned facebook and shut off any kind of technology.  We headed to the South West of France. For the first few days I was almost in a daze. It was almost like I was recovering from an illness.  We did nothing. I did have almost withdrawal symptoms from not using any kind of technology though. The feelings were oddly similar to when I stopped smoking many years ago.  After a week of fighting a nervous twitch without my phone in my hand I started to remember what life was like pre social media.  It helped that there was no signal in France.  It did however leave me with a pile of work to do when I got back.  I’ve been working my way through and saving the best bits until last.

A few days ago Matt Inward the art director at Absolute Press send me a lovely tweet which served to remind me I hadn’t had the time to properly read a book Ice cream and otherfrozen delights, written by a great friend and brilliant chap Ben Vear.  There is a lovely review here by Helen of Fuss free Flavours. So that evening I made sure I had a couple of hours clear. This was my treat, my moment to actually really read and digest this beautiful book of ice cream, and I had been looking forward to it all day.

Ben's grandfather first started making ice cream in the 1920's
With a large a glass of red wine I settled down in my most comfortable chair and turned each and every page. I caught myself smiling, as the flavour combinations are so perfectly balanced and delighted in some of the utterly delicious flavour combinations.  This is a serious ice cream book with truly stunning photography, but with a really fun side to it. My mind started to wander through my fridge and panty working out if I had all the ingredients to make the gingerbread recipe. I almost got up out of the chair to start making ice cream despite it being late.  The recipes are written and photographed in such a way that they actually make you want to start making them right away.  I stood up and then sat down again and reminded myself that I really should carry on and read all the recipes.

It really is a superb book. The combinations are all just delicious sounding. I loved the balsamic, blackberry and strawberry ice cream as well as the damson gin ice cream and I will definitely be making my favorite sweet in the whole world, baked Alaska later in the week. 

As it got towards midnight I flicked the last page, the acknowledgments.  Time for bed my husband announced. I was about to close the page when a word caught my attention; it was the last paragraph on the first page of acknowledgements. Matt had mentioned them in his tweet.  Divine chocolate.  Good on you Ben! I thought. I’m passionate about Fairtrade.  I’ll have to tweet Ben in the morning I thought. I carried on reading; after all it was just half a page more.  I couldn’t be more pleased that I did. The very last paragraph in this lovely book was written about me, and how my adventure inspired Ben to start writing.  It was an absolutely totally unexpected and utterly delightful surprise.

Damson gin ice cream looks like a prefect autumn evening dessert 
As I finished reading Ben’s lovely acknowledgment quite unexpectedly tears just rolled down my face. The sudden intensity of my emotion response took me by surprise.   They were tears of happiness and tears of grief all at once.  

When Mott Green died so unexpectedly in June I had been completely immersed in the material from such an amazing trip with one of the most inspiring people I had ever met. I'd been listening to recordings I made from the week for several hours, making notes and chuckling away in my office, reliving the celebration of bringing in the chocolate 5000 miles on the Tres Hombres. Less then an hour after I had been listening to those celebratory recordings that were made just two weeks previously I was told he had died. 

It was a real shock, and I found myself reluctant to venture out of my comfort zone since.  It's surprising what you learn about both yourself and others when you something tragic happens. I found myself shortly afterwards reassessing my relationships with people around me and I've busied myself more so than usual in my work and family, avoided socialising people over the past few months. 

Somehow as I read the Ben’s Ben had written about me they shined light on this subconscious barrier I had put up.  The truth is that to inspire people I mustn’t be afraid to give part of myself way. I need to be warm hearted to be me. It was a huge privilege to get to know Mott, and even though it feels vulnerable to write about real feelings for all the world to read, it is also a time to remember and celebrate knowing him.

I am reminded of the Buddhist saying. "thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened." 

Well done Ben on such a beautiful book.  Thank you for your kind words and I will be making ice cream for my loved ones from it for years to come.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The French Bakery

The Best Bread in France
It’s taken me several attempts to start to write.  I suppose having taken the whole summer off I feel almost rusty. My fingers feel slightly out of touch with the keyboard and as I am writing about both my summer in France and my childhood experiences in a French bakery.  For some reason I am feeling oddly vulnerable sharing both my holiday and my childhood helping in a bakery in France. It feels deeply personal to be writing about a place that is a large part of who I am.

I read Paul Hollywood’s vivid account of his very first memory baking bread in this week’s Telegraph.  I am sorry to say I have no such memory.  Bread is so much part of my childhood it is as though it was always there, so I am afraid there is no such first time account.

Boulangerie Janet in Nadaillac, France
When I was very young my mother used to make soda bread. It was damp, slightly green and smelt of of sour milk and soda.  I’m not sure I appreciated it very much.  I remember pleading with a boy at school to swap the chunky wholemeal soda bread and cheese lunch my mum had lovingly made for me for his flaccid limp white marmite ones. He was not persuaded.

When my parents bought a house in the Dordogne I was just nine. It was late spring and I remember looking in delight at the yellow cowslips peeking out from the verges as we drove into the village.  We didn’t go the house as we first arrived weary and hungry after a fourteen hour drive.  We went to the hotel, where Jeano, the Frenchest of Frenchmen and his family welcomed us. The restaurant was full of locals eating delicious smelling food, drinking Pernod and red wine.  The potage, the juice from the steaks and the cheese were scooped up with crusty white sourdough bread from baskets piled high on the tables. The bread smelt slightly of woodsmoke.  I remember eating the bread thinking that the soft white interior was the best bread I'd ever had.   My brother and I fed carrots to the rabbits in cages, little realising their final destany

It got dark quickly and a slim dark boy called Bertrand showed me the tree in the square. He chatted to me in the most beautiful language.  I hadn't a clue what he was saying but we stood under a huge oak tree outside the church, which is sadly no longer there, but I was captivated by all things french from that moment to this day. 

Une Courant. 
It didn’t take long for the local children to find my brother and I and after just two or three holidays we were given the run of the village with the other children. It was the most perfect childhood. There were people everywhere. Farmers drove their tractors through the narrow streets, women tended their vegetable gardens, chickens scratched about unconcerned by the dogs, who barked at strangers and chased cats.  Morris our neighbour would wander past twice a day with his four cows and the three village shops stocked a range of never seen before sweets such a carembars, but the best bit for me was the bakery. 

I soon made friends with Noel, who has four strapping boys.  Perhaps because she had no daughter, or perhaps because I was so interested in everything she did in her kitchen she spent hours teaching me to speak French. I affectionately call her my French mum and her youngest son Eric I call my cousin. I love her wry humour, patience and affection.  (We've been scouting around al the brocontes together buying French treasure, visiting the market at Terrasson an generally laughing, gossiping and eating - it's been so good to catch up. )

The bakery is known to be 150 years old but it probably older
Bu the time I was twelve I spoke better French then my parents and would find myself translating for them. Even now I count myself incredibly lucky to have such amazing parents and smile as I remember creeping past their bedroom in the early hours, out into the night to the bakery. 

I used to think that it was the smell of the sourdough bread that woke me up, but having been woken up almost every night this summer I now know it was not the smell of baking bread that woke me at all.. it was the smell of the wood smoke as the oven was lit. The wisps of smoke wind out of the chimney over the roof tops, curl under the shutters of my bedroom whispering an invitation into my dreams and promising fresh baked bread in the morning.

Thinking back now I would have been about eleven when I first woke up and decided to crept out of bed and down to the bakery.  The baker was happy to let me help and I spent every summer until he left when I was about fifteen.

I swept the floor, brushed the croissants with egg and milk and brushed the hot loaves off as they came out of the oven, and as I got older helped knead and shape the bread. The smell was heavenly and the warmth of the bakery was enough to make me brave walking down the black unlit alleyway to get there.  The church clock would chime, just as it does now, and I’d while away from 3am until the morning when the sun would come up and I was allowed to serve the villagers their bread.

The same recipe has been used since the 1950's as Laurent passed his recipe on to Herve in 1988 
This summer Herve, who bought the bakery in 1988, welcomed me back.  The bakery shut for a year or so and the original owner trained him in his way of making bread. By the time I was in my late teens all the children I’d grown up with in the village would go night clubbing together and on the way home we’d stop and buy warm bread from Herve. We’d all sit drinking coffee and smoking our cigarettes, still slightly drunk, whilst eating warm buttery croissants and fresh crusty bread until the sun came up and then we'd all sleep until after lunch.

Thirty years on I relived waking to the smell of wood smoke.  I crept out of the house in the early hours, only this time it was my children I was trying not to wake. The same irrational fear sat in the pit of my stomach, even though cows a long gone, as I walked along the black alleyway again, and the same feeling of absolute joy was there as I walked under the orange street lights and into the warmth of the bakery. 

The alley way isn't scary during the day .. but when it's dark, trust me,  it's spooky. 
This summer my own children found me in the bakery first thing in the morning. I have no doubt that they saw glimpses of the eleven year old me, eyes shining, covered in flour and chatting to the locals as I once did. I seemed to connect with them as they fell in love with my village. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy as I have this summer.

Herve still uses the same sourdough recipe for his bread and bakes it in the same oven that has been used since 1950. He's an amazing baker.  Nowadays most of the business is hotels and restaurants, although some of the older residents still buy their bread early in the morning.  The hotel is now the distribution point for the bread and Herve delivers bread all over the area as he bakes over 200 large loaves a night.

I can’t thank Herve enough for having me back, sharing his sourdough method, recipe, techniques and advice.  Of course I have brought back the “chef,” starter so I’m now baking my bread with my French starter from the bakery. I will spend rest of the year making sourdough and telling my students about the bakery and return to the village again next year for the summer .. and treasure the time I spent there.

Isobel helping Jordan brush the flour off the hot loaves.  She wants to be a baker too she told me. x