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A life dedicated to cheese. How to make organic Reblochon the hard way.

October 10, 2019
Cheesemakers holding a cheese in front of cowshed

Mathilde Duthier and Fabrice Ruphy

I gaze down out of the window at a woman hanging out washing in her garden. The look of incredulity on her face says it all as our coach turns the sharp bend of a narrow lane that winds up the verdant mountain slopes. She obviously doesn’t believe that we will make it up there and, as we switch in one direction then another round precarious junctions, I share her concerns. I have to trust our friendly driver Jean-Alix.  He is carrying on a conversation with our guide Francois Robin, expert cheesemonger, as he swings the steering wheel round with nonchalance. We find out later that Jean-Alix has won many awards for his off road skills – thankfully we didn’t need them here and, eventually, we step out of the bus into a yard.  This is Ferme des Pezières, a small farm perched at 1,300 metres above sea level in the Haute-Savoie region. We drink in stunning views over the valley and misty mountain peaks as we stretch our legs.

Alpine farmhouse in farm yard

Ferme des Pezieres

Ferme des Pezières

The small farmhouse and cowshed are picturesque, with sloping wooden roof and shutters, lace curtains at the window, ancient cow bells hanging from the beams; however, this is a working farm, and this visit will show just how hard that work is.

Clean, white muslin cloths hang neatly on some washing lines, a few straggly tomato plants bear the last fruit of the summer, a large blue tractor dominates the yard. Mathilde Duthier and Fabrice Ruphy, the couple who work the farm, come out to greet us along with their small daughter Ombeline who is sitting in her pushchair brought by Grand-mère.

The duo are young, Mathilde has a quiet, bashful manner, Fabrice is animated but serious as he leads us to the cowshed, both exude energy and enthusiasm. They need it. Making cheese this way takes hard physical work and very long hours.

The couple met while at agricultural college. Mathilde is from Indre-et-Loire, but Fabrice grew up nearby and it was always his plan to take over the farm from his Uncle. He spent all his holidays here as a child. It seems his Uncle retired early and quite suddenly in 2014; as the conversation is in French I don’t catch exactly why, but I get the impression that the strain of this life took its toll. His Uncle only sold the milk, but the couple converted the farm to 100% organic and started to make cheese. Fabrice felt strongly that being in such a beautiful area they should respect nature and not use chemicals. They are one of only two organic farms in the area.

cows going up into a field

Into the cowshed

The cows are lined up on each side of the small barn and look curiously at our little group. Then they all put their heads down to munch a little dried food in front of them. Fabrice warns us to stand well back as all 22 cows produce a stream of fresh cow pats – the usual reaction to eating their treat apparently.

Each cow has their name, with those of their parents, written on a piece of blackboard above their place in the milking parlour.  Artificial insemination means that they can choose bulls with a good temperament and ensure they only have female calves (for milk production). Here, as everywhere on the farm, there is a personal touch; one of the cows called Nutella is daughter of Danette (a French chocolate dessert). They’re milked twice a day, twelve hours apart, the first time at 5am so if their toddler doesn’t wake them the cows do, every day of the week.

If any of the cow’s udders are slightly infected they use a mixture of natural clay and tea tree oil (rather than the routine use of anti-biotics on non-organic farms). Milking over, the cows plod happily through a gate into fields, bells clanking, followed by Fabrice and the dog.

Cows allowed

Milk from just three breeds of cow are allowed to make cheese certified as Reblochon as all thrive in mountainous areas and cope with a range of temperatures and pasture.  Francois compares them to the big, fat cows down in Normandy who supply milk for butter, that need flat, lush pasture and wouldn’t survive up in the mountains. The approved breeds are thinner with longer legs so they can climb and forage. During our week in the Haute-Savoie he kept testing us on their characteristics so by the end of the trip I was a first-class cow spotter:

  • Abondance (literally meaning abundance due the quantity of milk) are mainly golden brown with pure white heads except for brown circles around their eyes which makes them look like they are wearing a mask.
  • Tarine (or Tarentaise) which are rust-coloured all over.
  • Montbéliarde have red and white coats, white heads with brown ears and strong legs and feet suited for mountain climbing.

A mixture of breeds are kept on Ferme des Pezières , mainly Abondance and Montbéliarde. Mathilde admits shyly that she keeps one Tarine to maintain tradition as it was the breed that the Uncle kept before. The farm’s cows are kept outside to graze on the mountain pasture from mid-April to mid-November, as soon as the snow melts (the PDO specifies a minimum of 5 months). Even during the winter months when they move indoors for protection from the cold and snow to eat hay produced on the farm, Fabrice says he lets them out into the fresh air every day while he cleans the barn.

Making Reblochon with Mathilde

We have to leave that beautiful fresh air as there is no time to lose. There are strict rules for making Reblochon and farmhouse-certified (Reblochon fermier) has to be made with raw milk directly from the cow while it is still warm. It has been transferred through a pipe directly from the milking area into the cheese room. Mathilde had already added natural rennet to the milk which is being kept at a steady temperature (no higher than 37 C) and she is watching to see when it reached exactly the right consistency. The live bacteria start to convert the sugars in the milk into lactic acid and help the formation of the curd.

Mathilde’s at home here in the cheese room. Her bashful manner disappears as she’s immersed in the craft of cheesemaking which she does twice a day. She narrates every step and answers questions while slowly and rhythmically cutting the curds by hand with a long metal tool strung with strands of fine wire. There’s a meditative quality to the process which I’ve witnessed with other cheesemakers I’ve visited. It’s an utter absorption, it sounds a bit far-fetched but the line between maker and cheese starts to blur, there’s an elemental connection with the metamorphosis of liquid, creamy milk into complex solids. Cutting the curds separates them from the whey (or water). The smaller the curd is cut, the more water is released and the drier the final cheese will be.

shaping the curds into the moulds by hand

Curds and whey

Mathilde judges that the curd might be ready due to its density and resistance. Then she plunges her arm into the vat and stirs it gently to get the right texture. Doing it by hand means she can sense exactly the right suppleness. Being this attuned to cheesemaking has been gained through experience. A neighbouring cheesemaker retired recently and said “I learned until my last day” so every day you learn something, says Mathilde.

She always follows the same procedure but the reaction of the milk changes every day due to the diet of the cows, the season, the weather, their natural hormones and even their temperament. 4 litres of milk will go to make one cheese, each weighing around 500g.

The next stage is to line little moulds with cheese cloth. Using the cloth in this traditional way assists even draining, a smooth shape and maintains the temperature of the cheese.  It’s another difference between Reblochon Savoie Fermier produced in a farmhouse rather than the standard which is made in a dairy and just uses plastic.

A lovely, warm, yeasty, citrus smell fills the cheese room as she scoops whey out of the vat and pours it over the moulds to warm them. The whey that flows through them is not discarded. In the past they made butter with it “but the machine broke” Mathilde says ruefully, so now they make a kind of local ricotta called Sérac.

moulding the reblochon

Into the moulds

Finally, the curds are liberated from the whey, poured from the bucket into the moulds by Mathilde. The heavy, repetitive work is shown by the smooth muscle of her arm. In contrast, the way she now moves the curds into the little moulds with her fingers, shaping and pressing them, almost stroking the creamy, soft, wobbly substance into mounds is extremely gentle.

Then suddenly it has transformed into something else. She lifts the cloth of one and balances a smooth, squat cylinder on her fingertips which she flips over and pops expertly back into the mould the other way up.

At this stage it’s called Tomme blanche de Savoie, like fresh cottage cheese. We taste some, it’s light, crumbly, very slightly dry and not at all acidic, with aromas of milk and yoghurt. She’ll keep one of them to eat with tonight’s supper alongside some potatoes, herbs, salad and some charcuterie – a traditional Alpine farmhouse meal.  It can also be  eaten with honey or jam.

From now on the Reblochon really start on the journey of developing their flavour. A green label, made of edible casine, with the Reblochon syndicate and the batch number for traceability, is placed on each cheese. Green shows it’s from the farmhouse (opposed to a red label from dairy-made); they are each put under a little weight to drain a bit more overnight.

Drying and ripening

In the morning these fledgling cheeses are put on wooden boards and sent to the drying room. This is a misnomer as the room is kept at the perfect humidity to preserve the natural bacteria in the air. The rounds start to turn a light orangey-yellow colour and are turned regularly so that they form an even shape. The cheeses tell her exactly when to do this “If you hear this sound, and the cheese sticks to the board you need to flip it” says Mathilde, hyper-attuned to each stage in their development.

After a week the cheeses are salted and washed then most are sent to a specialist Reblochon ripener or affineur for a minimum of 21 days. The small, squat rounds have already started to form the distinctive fine, white mould on their rinds and develop a nutty taste. Mathilde and Fabrice keep a few back to ripen themselves.

The secret of really good cheese? Mathilde says it’s all down to good milk. You can be the best cheesemaker in the world but you won’t get anywhere if your milk is not rich enough or deficient in something.  “For good milk you need good pasture and healthy, happy, unstressed cows”.

Reblochon then and now

Reblochon evolved from a time when, in the 18th century, farmers paid rent based on the amount of milk they produced. When their landlords were around they only partially milked the cows in front of them, doing a second milking or ‘reblocher’ once they’d left.

Before ski-ing became a thing, there was no food production in winter so the cheese was a lifeline. Like most of the farmers in the area, the couple do a bit of freelance work at the ski station in the winter to supplement their income. It sounds exhausting on top of all their other work which includes selling their cheeses direct to their customers at local markets. This is the way of life they have chosen, however, and they have no ambition to expand the farm but want to focus solely on the quality of the cheese made organically and as close to tradition as possible.

This is not left to chance as a committee from the Reblochon de Savoie PDO conduct regular tastings to ensure all producers meet the right size, acidity and taste. Any that don’t meet the mark consistently will be kicked out of the appellation – a commitment to quality that’s repeated across France, especially for cheese and wine.

The dedication by Fabrice and Mathilde is a step back in time to when every step behind cheesemaking was very hard won. When the round, smooth-rinded cheese was something to savour and would nourish the hardy mountain folk through their equally testing lives. An extreme contrast to tossing a plastic wrapped slice in the supermarket trolley today.

The taste of Reblochon fermier

Shadows are lengthening as the sun starts to sink behind the mountains when we troop back out into the yard. A small table is laid with a sliced cheese and some local wine.

What does it taste like? Francois picks up a slice and inhales. “It’s one of the closest things you have of hugging a cow”, he says, “the smell is so cow-y”. Realising this might not be a recommendation for everyone “… but a clean one” he adds. “It’s really, really creamy and subtle, the rind is just a little bit dry, and it’s way more balanced with less animal taste than you’d expect from smelling the rind. The salt rate is perfect, not too salty, it leaves a lot of room for the milkiness of the cheese.”

cows bells under the eaves of the farm house

Haute-Savoie comfort food – Tartiflette and La Péla

Reblochon is used for tartiflette, the traditional local dish so beloved of skiers to replenish the calories  burnt on the slopes. A comfort food that goes back centuries? In actual fact it was a marketing ploy invented in the 1980s to promote the cheese and named after the Tartifla potato from the region.

It was inspired by a satisfying recipe made up in the mountains to see the Savoyarde natives through the winter. La Péla is also made of potatoes and Reblochon, but cooked in the embers of the farmhouse fire or a communal bread oven to be shared. Péla is a pan with a long handle that looked like a spade (la pelle).  Elizabeth David also mentions a pelle rouge or salamandre which is round iron utensil with a long handle, heated in the fire then held over the top of a dish to brown it. Tartiflette, adapted to modern times, is cooked in an oven and has added white wine, a dollop of cream or creme fraiche and sometimes bacon.

Cheese at the heart of everything

Tasting the cheese, sipping wine and gazing out over the beautiful view it’s easy to be romantic but this is the result of utter dedication. If this week has taught me anything it’s that the French are absolutely obsessed with the traditions and quality of their cheese to a degree I never imagined, and the couple take it to another level.

Mathilde and Fabrice pose for our cameras, sitting next to each other, laughing like teenagers and holding their precious cheese like a baby. They’re united in following a simpler way of life, in tune with their surroundings, close to nature, with the reward of making most delicious Reblochon they possibly can.

Thanks very much to Dalia for the pics of me.

More information here from the Reblochon PDO

I visited Haute-Savoie and Ferme des Pezières as a guest of The French Dairy Board and Cheese of Europe.

pinterest images of the farm

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Honey, mustard prawns and spiced rice with loumi (dried limes)

June 28, 2019

skillet with rice and honey mustard prawns with ingredients coriander and loumi

I’ve lived in Dubai for nearly two decades and have welcomed countless visitors over the years. There’s a mind boggling choice of places to eat out but until recent years the only place to try local cuisine was at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding or in the home of an Emirati. Gladly, over recent years, a few restaurants have opened that serve recipes traditional to the Emirates. When on a Frying Pan Adventures food tour recently I sat by the creek and tucked into a communal dish of machboos at Al Fanar.  Fragrant rice is studded with whole spices and chilli, dried limes or loumi with other ingredients stirred through; this can be chicken, prawns or even potato and hard-boiled eggs.

This recipe claims machboos as a very distant relation. I’ve added a honey-mustard sauce that coats the prawns and can be made ahead of time. It’s very good-natured so perfect for feeding a crowd.

No surprise that finding good ingredients is key to this dish. Raw honey is a must for taste and health (of us and the bees). Buy from your local beekeeper or someone with a direct connection with them (Balqees in the UAE who have cooperatives of beekeeper).  I use Maille Dijon mustard for balance and silkiness so that it adds warmth and spice without overwhelming.  Although a big French brand, Maille has been making mustards and vinegar (which is the base of good mustard) in an artisanal way for 260 years – and continue to do so today.  They use high quality GMO-free mustard seeds from Burgundy in France and Canada with a focus on traceability.

Get the best prawns you can – reduce the quantity if they are expensive rather than going for cheap, frozen ones which have a devastating impact on the environment and people. Dried limes can be found in most Middle Eastern shops – use the light ones (not the black ones) for this recipe.

 

 

Honey mustard prawns and spiced rice with loumi

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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A spiced rice with flavours from the Middle East and Europe. Put in the centre of the table when feeding a crowd or for a casual family supper.

Ingredients

  • 4 large or 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 4 tablespoons Maille Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 50g plus 1 large knob butter
  • 200 – 250g large prawns
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 red chilli, sliced finely
  • 50g butter
  • 1 large onion, sliced finely
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 2 green chillies*
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • 3 dried limes (loumi)*
  • 300g rice (filled to the 400ml level of a measuring jug)
  • 800ml vegetable stock or water
  • small bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Directions

  1. Cut large tomatoes into 8 segments or cherry tomatoes into halves, place on a baking sheet and roast in oven preheated to 180C for 15-20 minutes until very soft but not browned.
  2. Combine the honey and mustard together in a small bowl. Melt the knob of butter and saute the prawns in a deep frying pan until just cooked adding the sliced red chilli and 1 clove of crushed garlic just before the end. Stir in the honey-mustard mixture and take off the heat.
  3. Heat 50g butter in a large saucepan (a cast iron casserole is ideal). Add the onion and cook gently, stirring now and then, until it is soft and translucent. Stir in the other clove of garlic and cook until you smell the aroma. Add the turmeric, cumin and chilli powder and stir again. Put in the tomato puree and cook very gently for about 3 minutes before putting in the cardamom pods and green chillies. Poke a couple of holes in the limes with a skewer and put them in the pot.
  4. Stir the rice into the pan making sure it is coated in the spice mixture. Pour in the stock or water and bring to the boil then turn down the heat, put on a tight fitting lid and simmer on a very low heat for 15 minutes.
  5. When the rice is cooked and has absorbed all the water, stir in the roast tomatoes. Gently reheat the prawns in the sauce. With a slotted spoon transfer the prawns into the rice along with 2-3 tablespoons of sauce. Keep the rest of the sauce for people to add extra if they want to. Serve in the pan or tip it all into a large serving dish, sprinkle with fresh coriander and dig in.

*The green chillies are optional depending on how spicy you like your food. If you cannot find loumi (dried limes) add some long strips of lime zest (white pith removed) or a teaspoon of finely chopped preserved lemon. You’ll get the citrus notes but different flavours. For a big gathering you can easily double the recipe.

skillet with rice and honey mustard prawns with ingredients coriander and loumi

 

skillet with rice and honey mustard prawns with ingredients coriander and loumi

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This recipe was commissioned by Maille, and, as I have always used their mustard, this was a pleasure. I only write about things that I genuinely cook with or endorse.  All opinions my own.

Parsley, mustard and preserved lemon roast chicken

June 23, 2019

roast chicken with mustard and parsley on a board with red peppers

The scent of a roasting chicken drifting through the house brings back memories of Sunday lunches when, although it was probably tipping down outside, the aroma made the house so warm and cosy. We couldn’t wait to sit up at the table, the carving knife to slip through the golden, crispy skin, crunchy roast potatoes to crowd the green vegetables and parsnips on the plate, thick gravy to pour from a jug over the whole lot.

Chicken reserved for a special occasion is something that got lost with the rise of factory farming, and should be revived for many reasons.  I don’t cook it that often as it’s important for me that I buy the best bird I can for quality of life of the chicken, impact on the environment, our health (no hormones) and, of course, taste and texture. This means it is more expensive (as it should be – cheap meat is unsustainable) so it deserves to be cooked with loving care. Any leftovers will be made into a risotto the next day and I always make the carcass into stock so that nothing is wasted.

This way of stuffing is my favourite for roasting chicken. Crushing the aromatics into softening butter, wiggling my fingers to loosen the skin, reaching for a ball of the fragrant stuffing, feeding it into the gap, smoothing the little parcel so it spreads out over the breast, I find a weirdly relaxing task.

roast chicken with jar of Maille mustard

Bright, green, mildly bitter parsley; knobbly beads of mustard in a hint of mellow vinegar; sharp, candied citrus from preserved lemons and some fresh zest; pungent garlic; these flavours swirled into pale butter with some coarse sea salt and black pepper make a melting cloak over the proud bird . Other ways of roasting a chicken seem naked in comparison.

Wholegrain mustard gives a piquancy and texture that works so well – in fact a butter/mustard combination is a simpler yet delicious alternative. It’s all about balance and I use Maille wholegrain as the mustard seeds (non-GMO from Burgundy and Canada) are partially cut and suspended in white vinegar that’s not too acid. Vinegar is as important as the seeds in mustard-making and Antoine-Claude Maille started his business in 1747 as a specialist in vinegar, developing 100s of different flavours, and became renowned through the royal courts of Europe. In 1720 he invented one called the ‘vinegar of the 4 thieves’ which had antiseptic properties credited with helping people avoid The Plague. Maille still make a range of vinegars and I’ve used the Balsamic glaze when cooking a roast dinner drizzled over oven-baked carrots for a lovely sweet and sharp flavour.

As the oven is on, I cook potatoes cut into small cubes tossed in olive oil with a head of garlic roasted until crisp. Pop in some red peppers tucked into a baking tray for about 20 minutes.

Parsley, mustard and preserved lemon roast chicken

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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The fragrant centre of a roast dinner crammed with bright, fresh flavours.

Ingredients

100g unsalted butter

1-2 preserved lemons*, chopped finely

Half a bunch of flat-leaved parsley, leaves picked and coarsely chopped (1-2 tablespoons)

2 heaped tablespoons Maille wholegrain mustard

zest of 1 lemon, finely grated

1 clove of garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (optional)

1.8kg whole free range chicken

sea salt and black pepper

Directions

Put the butter into a bowl and it soften slightly if it’s straight out of the fridge. Add the chopped preserved lemon, chopped parsley, wholegrain mustard, lemon zest, garlic, a generous pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Mix together with a wooden spoon making sure it is well combined. Add a squeeze of lemon juice to loosen if you like.

Dry the chicken thoroughly with paper towels. You want the skin to be as dry as possible. At the cavity end, gently lift the edge of the skin on one side of the breast. Gradually slip your fingers further down underneath it until it loosens. Try to separate as far down as you can without the skin tearing. Repeat on the other side.

Push most of the flavoured butter between the skin and the breast. Do this by putting the butter in with your fingers then easing it down by smoothing the surface of the breast skin. Rub the remainder of the butter over the outside of the chicken. Put half a lemon into the cavity.

Place on a roasting tray and cook in an oven preheated to 190C (170C fan) for about 1 hour 20 minutes minutes. After 20 minutes, take the tray out of the oven (shutting the door quickly). Tip the roasting tray slightly and use a spoon to scoop up the melted butter and juices which have started to run down, and tip them over the breast and legs of the chicken. Return to the oven, repeating this regularly. If the skin does start to tear as the chicken cooks lay a small piece of foil over the top of that bit to stop the filling and flesh from drying out.

Test that the chicken is cooked. Use a meat thermometer or insert the tip of a small sharp knife into the thickest part of the thigh, if the juices run clear it’s cooked. If not return to the oven for 10 minutes. The skin should be golden brown and crisp. Leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving.

*the preserved lemons we can buy here in the Middle East are quite small so use at least two, but if you make your own with the larger lemons then one is probably enough.

 

mustard and preserved lemon roast chicken in a roasting tray

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This recipe was commissioned by Maille, and, as I have always used their mustard, this was a pleasure. I only write about things that I genuinely cook with or endorse.  All opinions my own.  

Mustard and Cheddar macaroni cheese

June 16, 2019

I have a obsession passion for finding out about ingredients, how they’re made, where they come from, the story behind them. This time last year I went in search of everything about dates, this is part of a series on mustard.

I’m sure we all have our own version of this – and our own names too. I’m firmly in the ‘macaroni cheese’ camp and wince at ‘Mac n cheese’ (sounds like fast food) or macaroni and cheese (sounds inaccurate). I’m sure Americans wince at my title for one of their national dishes, but whatever you call it, the satisfying comforting nature is indisputable.

I cook this at least once a fortnight. The method is simple but many people seem to be scared of making homemade béchamel sauce – that’s a white sauce made with butter, flour and milk – and I’m not sure why. Risk of lumpiness or put off by the sound of it being too complicated or taking too long?

There are simple tips below to avoid or even rescue lumpiness. And I do believe that it is the ultimate quick to prepare comfort food. You can definitely get it on the table in less that half an hour.

You can play with the basic recipe by adding different cheeses, adding other ingredients from seafood to chillies, topping with breadcrumbs or nuts, and there are different methods to cooking it – some people choose to use the hob only dispensing with the oven or grill although you don’t get the lovely bubbling cheesy top this way.

This version has a touch of luxury with a few spoonfuls or cream (or local labneh) and a little grape juice (with or without alcohol) that goes beautifully with the Dijon mustard.

I cook from scratch so don’t have many bottles or jars in my cupboards, just the ones that count as simple ingredients. Maille is always in my fridge, both original and wholegrain, for the taste and the Dijon is a lovely silky texture. Plus, importantly, the mustard is made traditionally and the mustard seeds are GMO free.

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with a serving spoon

About Maille mustard

Maille was founded in 1747 by Antoine Claude Maille who originally made vinegars, which is one of the basics of good mustard;. I love imagining all the things that have been witnessed while the vinegars and mustards were being steeped and stirred – three monarchies, the French revolution, two empires, five republics, five European wars and two World wars. The initial success of the company was by becoming the official mustard and vinegar purveyor to Louis XV and then to many of the Royal Courts across Europe.

The products were always made in Dijon, Burgundy, although by the 1970s, mustard growing had almost died out. Maille formed cooperatives with farmers and this led to a resurgance in the region and they now buy the majority of the mustard grown there combined with GMO-free grains from Canada.

The piquant flavour and smooth texture is because they steep the whole mustard seeds with white vinegar and then cut them (rather than the usual method of crushing them).

Variations

I managed to persuade my friend’s daughter, who is an incredibly fussy-eater, to try some of this the other day (always easier when you’re not their Mother). I thought the intense cheesy, mustardy flavours might be too much for her but she took a bowlful home and polished it off.

I like petit-pois on the side. Some people stir them into the pasta and sauce before grilling or putting in the oven but I like the fresh greeness of just cooked frozen ones or, ideally, freshly podded ones (which I can eat raw). KP insists on sliced tomatoes on top which I can’t abide, so I just put them on half of it which keeps us both happy.

While the traditional pasta shape is the elbow macaroni which is quite small, I like a bigger tube so the sauce really coats every bit of it. This is usually what I fancy when out shopping, so could be penne, amori or elicoidali.

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with a serving spoon

Mustard Macaroni Cheese

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Rich with cheese, mustard and a touch of cream - a simple, comforting recipe that everyone loves.

Ingredients

250g macaroni or other tubular pasta

50g unsalted butter

50g plain white flour

720ml milk

150ml white grape juice or white wine

1 -2 tablespoons of Maille Dijon mustard

225g strong Cheddar cheese, grated

2 tablespoons of cream or labneh

Finely chopped chives (optional)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until it’s al dente (not too soft)
  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Remove from the heat and add the milk a little at a time, stirring vigorously with a whisk until it’s all combined. Do the same with the grape juice. Return to the heat and bring to the boil, stirring continuously until the sauce thickens.
  3. Lower the heat, season with black pepper and a little salt and stir in the mustard,  about 170g (3/4) of the cheese and the cream or labneh.
  4. Drain the pasta well and add to the sauce, mixing it in well with a large spoon. Taste and add more mustard if necessary. Tip or spoon the mixture into a large ovenproof dish.
  5. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and place under a pre-heated grill until it starts to bubble and the top is golden brown. Sprinkle with the chives if you want a touch of green and serve right away.

Notes: If you don’t want to use cream, or grape juice replace it with the same amount of milk. If you want to make this ahead of time, prepare it up until the end of stage 4 and put in the fridge if necessary. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake in the oven (200C 180C fan) for 25-30 minutes.

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with two jars of Maille mustard

Tips on making a smooth white sauce.

  1. To make the roux (butter and flour paste), add the flour as soon as the butter has melted and whisk to make a paste. Cook on a low heat for about a minute so you don’t get a floury taste.
  2. Don’t stop stirring, especially when it’s on the heat. I use a wire whisk throughout but you could use a wooden spoon too.
  3. At the beginning, add the liquid just a tablespoon at a time and stir like mad. It’s easier to get a thick sauce smooth than a thin one. At first it will look clumpy but keep stirring a splashing in little bits of milk at a time and whisking vigorously. It’s great to tone your upper arms muscles.
  4. When all the liquid has been added, bring to a simmer (while stirring) until it thickens to a silky, smooth sauce that can be used for so many classic recipes.
  5. If you do get distracted from your stirring and end up with some lumps, you can blitz with a blender. You can make the whole thing in a Vitamix (google for the recipe) but I think it lacks the texture of the pan-made one.

This recipe was commissioned by Maille, and, as I have always used their mustard, this was a pleasure. I only write about things that I genuinely cook with or endorse.  All opinions my own.  

Two bowls of mustard macaroni cheese with a serving spoon

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Yoga retreat and hiking in Mansari, Himachal Pradesh

June 8, 2019

View from Naggar Castle over the Kullu-Manali valley

Warm air enveloped us we stepped out from the airport in Chandigarh, India. A total surprise as it was hotter than Dubai that we’d left a few hours ago. Entry at the e-visa desk had been a trial – by the time we had all battled with the haphazard fingerprint machine we were the last people to pick up our heavily laden backpacks from the baggage carousel. It was with relief and excitement that we settled into the Toyota Inovas (requested with seat belts). Herds of buffalo grazing on the grassy verge, green and yellow tuk-tuks rattling over the tarmac, horse-drawn carts laden with straw, sacred cows plodding nonchalantly through a cacophony of vehicles jostling for position as they circled roundabouts – my nose was pressed to the window to take in all in. I’ll admit that the novelty had worn a bit thin as we arrived at our destination, in the dark, nine and a half hours later.

Getting to Mansari

There is one road from Chandigarh to Manali which winds along the Beas river. Trucks laden with rocks (from the major road excavations further on) passed us by, one after another; all intricately painted, trailing beaded hangings, flags and other decorations, and all with ‘Blow Horn’ emblazoned on the back – which they did at volume.

We stopped for a simple but tasty lunch of dhal and bread at The Hill Top in Swarghat, at a road side soda drink stand with a magnificent view at sunset, and a ladies’ loo that was primitive in the extreme, but otherwise we let our skillful driver Himraj take the strain while we dozed or took in the many villages ranged along each side of the meandering, fume-belching highway.  The river was little more than a stream in places but as the snows melt and in heavy rainfall it can become a raging torrent with catastrophic effects.

A new and extraordinarily long tunnel carved out of towering sheer rock, and a road that was little more than a bumpy, dusty track on the edge of a ravine brought us to our final destination in the village of Mansari – the Manali Iyengar Yoga Retreat.

At daylight the view of the surrounding snow-capped Himalayan mountain ranges, bird song and barking dogs greeted us and all memories of the lengthy journey faded. We met Sonu who made tea and coffee with fresh milk from her family’s cow.

(Note: there’s a flight from Chandigarh to Kullu Manali airport – see below.)

 

view of the Beas river from the road to Manali

One of the views of the Beas river on the 9 hour road journey from Chandigargh to Manali

Discovering Iyengar yoga

Then it was time for yoga. The studio was welcoming with wood floors and wide windows but also a little terrifying, the walls draped with ropes secured by metal rings. Our teacher Rushad, a practitioner of Iyengar yoga for over twenty years, led us in a chant and a prayer to focus our minds before we started our first session which we mumbled along with. I stifled a fit of the giggles as one word sounded like ‘Choithrams’ (a Dubai supermarket). Booking as a group of seven friends meant that we had the place to ourselves; our own yoga experience ranged from doing a few sessions in preparation, to a couple of years (of Hatha yoga), and, with one exception, we were all in our 50s.

There were pictures of Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar on the wall – the founder of the modern style of yoga named after him which is said to have made the practice popular in India and beyond. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was a catalyst for his world-wide recognition and he went on to tutor many famous people and publish best-selling books on yoga. He developed a type of Hatha yoga focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids in achieving the correct postures which are held for long periods of time. His personal teaching style was said to be harsh and unforgiving at times. Our teacher Rushad, who trained under BKS Iyengar, told us the tale of someone who was forced to hold a pose until his hamstring snapped, “you have to do, what you have to do” he said – towards the end of our week of tuition thank goodness.

Over the next six days we did an hour and half of yoga before breakfast and an hour in the evening before supper. It pushed us all out of our comfort zones; we were encouraged to hold poses in exactly the right way, supported by ropes, straps and blocks, with every limb and muscle positioned in perfect alignment while we envisaged our breath in parts of the body; “breathe into your armpit chest, breathe out through your tail-bone”, “close your eyes and turn them to look at the back of your head”.

A particularly challenging movement for me was an inversion on the ropes which meant hanging upside down – an alternative to the traditional headstand. I trembled with fear and shed a few tears on the first day. By the end of the week I could do it confidently, without the padding of a blanket, and rather enjoyed relaxing with my head dangling down and my arms folded on the floor.

Rushad changed what we did every day, a mixture of physical practice and visualisation through guided meditation. He was direct and quite firm in his teaching but guided us taking into account our different physical challenges. On the last day he advised me on some really helpful positions to practice at home to improve my poor posture, stiff shoulders and demonstrated that I had a stiff hip which I was compensating for by doing a common Hatha asana in the wrong way. The different approach to breathing has also helped with my 50 years of bad posture caused by asthma. We could all see improvements to our flexibility and confidence by the end.

Rushad is usually based in Mumbai and travels especially for the yoga retreats. The rooms are light and airy with twin beds, clean bathrooms and hot showers. The wood burner was lit at night as the temperatures dropped. It felt like being welcomed into someone’s home and was very relaxed. It’s not as cut off from the outside world as you might think as a road runs past the garden wall so the beeping of horns, the barking of the many street dogs and the chatter of school children float in throughout the day (especially the dog chorus early morning) but it’s in the middle of a lovely little village which we enjoyed exploring over the six days we were there.

Local food in Mansari

Each morning after yoga, we took over the kitchen to make breakfast. Sonu helped chop ingredients, make toast and brew tea and coffee, while some of our group stirred up Parsi eggs (laid by local hens) and porridge on gas rings in the kitchen that overlooked the pretty garden.

Dhansak is a Parsi speciality and Rushad insisted that he cook it for us one lunchtime (assisted by Sonu). We hiked off to work up and appetite and returned to witness the final touches including the frying of chips which he deemed essential for eating with dhansak (no argument from me). We ate a type of red rice for every meal. Sonu brought a bag of dhansak masala for S to take home with her.

There are a few places to eat in Mansari ranging from a pani puri stall by the side of the road, smarter looking cafes to a kind of kitchen in a tent. Most places (in the whole of this region) seem to offer Maggi noodles (the power of big brands like Nestle reaching their tentacles far and wide). We had vegetable momos – Nepalese-style dumplings – from a little place in Haripur which were filled with cabbage. Tasty and cost about £2.60 to feed seven of us.

While our bodies are temples they still need gin and tonics. There’s an ‘English wine and beer’ shop in most villages and the nearest was a walk towards Naggar to the village of Haripur. Imported spirits and wine are very expensive (we should have raided the duty free shop on arrival in Chandigarh) so the local gin – complete with dire health warnings – was our choice of liquor. Tonics weren’t available but a local, lemon and lime soda called Limca mixed with soda water did the job.

There are a few chicken butchers in the village consisting of a cage of hens crammed into a small space and a man behind a counter wielding a large hatchet over a blood soaked board. I suppose the lack of refrigeration is because they are slaughtered to order. We didn’t test this out.

Bus trip to Manali

One day we boarded the bus that bumped over the winding roads and narrow bridges to Manali – the nearest large town. Shoe shine stands surrounded the bus station with men eager to transform your footwear – even trainers.  Manali a backpackers’ haven and we took refuge, from the rain and wind that whipped up, in Cafe 1947 serving excellent pizza which oozed cheese, cooked in a wood-fired oven. Their outside terrace overlooked the raging river below where people were dangling over it on dodgy-looking wires.

We bought funny, woollen hats for the whole gang (which we were very glad of later, up the mountain). We popped into from Himalayan Trails to meet Jogi and discuss our up and coming trek with him (more to follow on this).

There are quite a few shops selling outdoor gear and we invested in some back pack covers and rain proof ponchos as the heavens opened. We ran for the bus and squeezed onto it just before the doors closed. We were cheek by jowl with local villagers, while the bus conductor managed to negotiate his way through the centimetres between us, there were little shrines surrounded by flashing lights obscuring part of the windscreen (to bless and protect the driver), Indian music played at volume drowning the creaks and clatters as we bumped over the road. The conductor blew his whistle for the driver to stop or go and passengers had a couple of seconds to leap on or off before we accelerated again.

Exploring Naggar

On another day we took the bus in the other direction to Naggar which dropped us down on the main highway with a steep long, zig-zagging hill up to the main attractions. The sun was beating down so we hailed two tuk-tuks to take the strain.

Roerichs Memorial house

Roerich’s Memorial house

Roerich’s Estate

One ticket gained entry to the Roerich’s Estate including the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute and Roerichs’ Memorial House. If we thought a long drive in a comfortable car was a bit wearisome it was humbling to get an insight into what pioneering adventurers went through to explore remote areas of the world.

Russian-born Nicholas (Nikolai) and his wife Helena embarked on the five-year-long Roerich Asian Expedition took them through wild terrain including Punjab, Kashmir, the Altai Mountains, Mongolia, the Central Gobi with a detour through Siberia to Moscow. They were not able to send communications for a whole year and were attacked in Tibet then detained by the government for five months, camping out in sub-zero temperatures with very little food (five of the expedition died).

The couple and their sons appear not to have been motivated by personal glory but an urge to record, preserve and unite. “There is no future without past”. Nicolas was a talented painter (as was Helena) leaving a huge collection of works (some displayed on the Estate) which are now extremely valuable. His wealth of other achievements ranged from archaeology to philosophy and he was a notable figure of the day, connected to a wide range of influential people from Ghandi, to HG Wells, to Charlie Chaplin.

He left an amazing legacy – but even if this doesn’t interest you one jot, it was blissful to stroll around the elegant wooden buildings that summed up a certain age, sit on the upstairs balcony in the family home, imagining, as he would while taking a break from his prolific pursuits, looking out over the valley, while he sipped a pink gin or a stengah.

Naggar Castle

Naggar Castle is a bit of a strange place as it’s a tourist attraction plus a hotel. As ornate wood and stone building with a small temple, it’s worth visiting if only for the open courtyard and incredible views. We strolled around and drank in the rays from the lowering sun. Everything in India seems to be labelled and each room had a sign over the door, including ‘Economy room’ – sorting guests into a kind of caste system.

view of Manali valley

View of the Himalayas and Manali valley from Naggar castle

German Bakery

The German Bakery was recommended by Rushad and he roared up on his motorbike as we were about to go in. The tables are on a balcony so you can watch the world go by and we sat with cups of tea, baked cheesecake and biscuits doing just that. There are all sorts of different teas and we ordered three, but had to finish one first as they only had two teapots. The homemade biscuits were really good and I bought some of the peanut cookies to take on the trek.

Short hikes in and around Mansari and Haripur

In the afternoons we explored the surrounding countryside and villages on foot and by local bus. We hiked our way to a couple of local waterfalls and down by the river. They were led by N, “shall we go for a yomp?”, who went out for an early morning run each day and explored a new direction. The whole area was like stepping into the past, brightly painted buildings, overlapping rustic slate tiles on the roofs, dry stone walls, orchards, fields of grasses grown as cattle feed and rose bushes in bloom dotted about everywhere.

a small canal by a river

The path up to the waterfall

Waterfall walk – we took the main road out of Mansari towards Manali and followed the road round when it met pine forests. A little further along on the right there’s a large painted sign saying ‘waterfall’. We took the path upwards, past a carved, wooden temple, a little school, and alongside a concrete trench to channel water. We met an old lady, wearing a traditional woven kullu, bent double with a huge sack of straw on her back (a common sight in Mansari) and a seated woman who lived with her husband under a tarpaulin in the trees – both dressed in bright saris. Eventually we came to a place with dark rocks that reached upwards and a cascade of water splashed down in a white torrent to the river below. A little makeshift kitchen with plastic tables and chairs was perched by the waterfall (one actually set in the water) and we had a cup of chai while we watched tiny birds dart through the spray.

Waterfall walk 2 – we gathered beautiful pine cones while walking up the zig zag road that started by the side of the main petrol station in Manali. At the top there’s a flat sort of car park with a shelter and mural and the path leads from the back, past wooden houses and orchards where people (mainly women) were working. A couple of cafes are signposted (painted on boulders) but the Jungle Junction, by the side of a narrow, open bridge across the fast flowing river, was closed as out of season. A man herding a jittery cow appeared. My friend ran but instinctively dropped to the ground to stop being knocked off the edge into the raging water below. The herder – and my friend – thought this was hysterical.

It began to rain heavily so we sheltered under a tarpaulin by a narrower bit of the river, decorated with flowers, at the River Forest Cafe. Hot chai kept us going until there was a break in the rain. If we had walked on I think we would have reached another waterfall. After playing a jolly game called Head’s Up (which involved putting our mobiles on our foreheads), we went back the way we came.

Riverside walk – going in the direction of Haripur and taking the first right hand path led us down past a couple of government schools and the huge Jawahal Lal Nehru college that appeared deserted. A dog came out of the grounds and adopted us along the walk – this was a common occurrence. We took the path left; it’s fringed by trees to the right with a steep drop down to the river Beas with views across to the colourful buildings and green and red roofs on the opposite bank. (There’s a path that goes right in the circular walk back to the main road but it was blocked by a landslide.)

river at the bottom of valley

River Beas far below in the valley

traditional house

We looked across green fields and the distant snow-capped mountains to the left and met many women doing farm work or washing clothes in pumps with water from the Himalayas.  We stopped to joke with an old lady who was very happy to have her photo taken with us as long as her cow was in the picture. The friendliness of the villagers was a constant throughout our trip and while I took photos of them (with their permission) I spotted some with their phones surreptitiously capturing the odd sight of seven women in hiking gear (travelling without their husbands).

The path comes to an end and leads upwards, past some traditional wooden buildings. These usually have a cow or two underneath them, the living quarters above with the upper storey stacked with hay. We happened upon another ornately carved wooden temple (the Neelasuri Devi Temple) and eventually emerged back out onto the main road by the Haripur sub-post office. I nipped inside and met two men who were happy to chat and show me the stacks of paper, mail bags and wooden pigeon holes that harked back to a bygone age.

We passed two looms set up on verandas where women were weaving the local Kullu shawls; made of fine wool, checked in black and pink with a red border. We saw them worn, with a belt to hold them in place by many older women. At the other end of the scale, teenage boys sported some extreme haircuts – shaved at the sides and extravagantly bouffant on top.

temple

Countryside walk – this path took us off the main thoroughfare to wind upwards past rustic small-holdings, orchards and along the little streams coming down from the mountain.  Walking along the main road until you get to Haripur you go downhill to reach a pretty little temple in pink and green before the bridge across the river. We retraced our steps opposite the Trout Farm, to a small path to the left leading upwards. It threads higher and higher past beautiful gardens and farms, streams and meadows and a couple of temples – the Madho Rai Krishna temple and the Lord Lakshmi Narayan Hindu Temple.

As always we got some interested gazes from the people working on the land and friendliness, smiles and return of our ‘namaste’. Stopping to catch breath due to the steep incline, we saw preparations for wedding celebrations – an area surrounded by looping swathes of pink and white silk. Further on there’s the government village primary school and we could hear the chatter of the children.

The path eventually meets the car park area mentioned in Waterfall Walk 2, and we walked back down the hill to the Mansari petrol station but you could take the right hand path and continue on up the river.

traditional building

Forest walk – When you get to Haripur, in the corner between the General Store and the Himachal Gramin Bank, there’s a path that leads downwards into the forest alongside a tributary of the River Beas. It seems to be a popular area for picnics and short walks. We spotted where the dirt track (suitable for vehicles) continued downhill and found the Tall Trees Resort at the bottom. Wooden buildings surround a really pretty garden with neat stone paths, ornamental bridges and flower beds, overlooking the Beas river down below. We could have been in Hampshire.  As we were between breakfast and lunch the menu was very inflexible (we wanted something small to go with our chai), so we settled for drinks and using their very clean loo.

Tall Trees looks like a lovely place to stay especially if you want to be in a very peaceful location off the beaten track – it’s really secluded and hard to reach by car. Looking at Google maps I think it might be possible to turn left along the river to the 15 mile bridge and loop back round on the other side of the tributary but haven’t tested this. We retraced our steps upwards, back to Haripur and Mansari.

Kullu-Manali Valley, Himachal Pradesh

This rural area was the perfect foil for the hectic city life of Dubai. The area is famed for its outdoor pursuits like mountain biking, paragliding, canoeing and hiking. It’s also famous for its weed which was growing wild by the side of the road and in the forests.

This was part one, the yoga bit, of our 12 day trip in Himachal Pradesh. Details of hiking the Hamta Circle to follow soon.

Some of the images are not great quality, taken with old Iphone in a state of disconnecting from the world 🙂

barbers shop

The barber’s in Haripur

Useful contacts and info – Mansari, Haripur and Manali

view of Beas river

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Do you know this region of India? Where else should we visit in Himachal Pradesh?  Is this your kind of holiday or is it too far away from things?

The best Bloody Mary (or Virgin Mary) mix

March 21, 2019

glasses of Bloody Mary and lots of tomatoes

As I’m settling into my seat on a flight and I spot the drinks trolley making its way up the aisle, the urge for a Bloody Mary takes over (and I’m not alone). They say that your taste buds are dampened through the pressurised cabin of a plane and you crave salty, spicy, full flavours. This classic cocktail certainly delivers that – but why do I have it so rarely when my feet are on the ground?

Before a friendly Boules tournament on the beach the other weekend, I stirred up a jugful as we gathered in my kitchen. As I’m never knowingly under-catered there was a lot of the mix left and I drank it ‘sans alcohol’ as a spicy, liquid appetiser through the week. What I’m saying is that this is delicious with or without vodka.

Making the mix in advance allows the flavours to blend and intensify. It cools down in the fridge so that you don’t need ice (I hate that wateriness as it melts) and all you have to do is pour into a glass and add a celery stick – plus a shot of vodka (or gin for a drink variously called a Red Snapper or a Happy Mary).

If you search for a Bloody Mary on Pinterest, the variations of garnish are completely over the top. It’s like mezze in a glass. I wouldn’t be averse to olives, crispy bacon, crudités, cherry tomatoes and gherkins on the side for grazing but who came up with the idea to perch them precariously on the drink? The danger of getting something down your front would completely outweigh any pleasure for me.

So this is a classic. Great before a leisurely Sunday lunch, a welcome to the weekend aperitivo or as a rousing pick you up if you’re feeling slightly jaded. When was the last time you had one?

Bloody Mary (or Virgin Mary)

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A classic cocktail that's like a savoury, spicy appetiser in a glass.

It’s quite a long list of ingredients so I’ve given alternatives but if you do use them all then no-one need add any extra seasoning or spices.

Ingredients

  • 2 litres of tomato juice (not from concentrate)*
  • 4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce*
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco*
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of tomato ketchup
  • 75ml of fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice*
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt*
  • 1 scant teaspoon of grated fresh horseradish or horseradish sauce*
  • 1 teaspoon of shallot, chopped
  • a generous grind of black pepper
  • 30ml dry or medium sherry*
  • celery sticks
  • Half a bottle of vodka (stored in freezer if you like)

Directions

  1. Pour 500ml tomato juice into a power blender (like a Vitamix).
  2. Add the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, tomato ketchup, lemon juice, orange juice, celery salt, horseradish, shallot, black pepper and sherry.
  3. Whizz until very smooth and pour into a large jug, add the rest of the tomato juice, stir well and refrigerate overnight. If you do this in an ordinary blender you might have to pour through a sieve before serving, just check that it’s really smooth.  Stir well just before you pour it.
  4. Measure out 30ml vodka into a glass, pour in the mixture, stir and garnish with a celery stick. Ice (and vodka) optional.

*Alternative ingredients: if using blended fresh tomatoes make sure you sieve them; there are vegan versions of Worcestershire sauce if you are avoiding anchovies but do not leave this out; Tabasco is traditional (and purists will say essential) but use the chilli sauce you have in the cupboard if necessary – sriracha could be good; you could leave out the orange juice but this adds to the mellow flavours; do not leave out the celery salt; horseradish gives a fiery heat but could be omitted; vermouth could be used instead of sherry.

glasses of Bloody Mary and lots of tomatoes

Seeing the world through an artist’s eyes

March 11, 2019

the book conscious creativity on a table with a cup of tea, biscuits and other bits and pieces

… about how Conscious Creativity by Philippa Stanton, and sources of inspiration, helped to change my view of everyday life.

I’m surprised at how small the book is as I rip open the padded envelope with excitement. This compact size is just right to fit in my hands, a joy to run my fingers over its soft cover and raise it to my face to breathe in the earthy, new paper and ink smell. I’ve been impatient for it to arrive as I’ve followed Philippa for some time (as 5ftinf on Instagram). Her generosity of spirit, the candid way she shares her creative process, and her perspective on viewing the ordinary has inspired me, and a whole community.

It takes me back to when an aspect of my creative self was first ignited by a very special person.  I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was stuck on a compound, unable to drive myself, reliant on others to do anything, hemmed in by restrictions of the county I lived in and the Mum of two toddlers.  My life was limited and claustrophobic. Looking back I was probably a bit depressed. When the prospect of an art class was mooted, I jumped at the chance. Before we ever picked up a pencil or paintbrush, Susan Elliot, an artist and art history teacher from the US, urged us to change our view of the world and to see it “through an artist’s eyes”. Over the next couple of years, these classes (and then an ‘artists’ support group) were a beacon in my life.  I realised that I’d always been observant, but she helped find a way to express shapes, texture, space and sound to the page, paper or canvas. To be alert to possibilities in every light and shadow. Her voice and words of wisdom often sounds in my head when I’m picking up a paintbrush even though I haven’t seen her for over two decades.

a cup of tea, biscuits and other bits and pieces

Had to add the cuppa as #adoremycupoftea

Philippa’s book reminded me of how powerful that mindset is for creativity and to shift my view once more. Conscious Creativity is about how to experience your surroundings. In the introduction she says she has written the book as a sort of guide or springboard towards developing your own creativity in a very conscious way, a way of utilising all your senses and everything around you.

The chapters take you on a journey of self-knowledge, to discover new ways of working that are a conduit to your own expression of creativity.  This is not prescriptive. It contains no right way or wrong way or instructions how to paint, draw or photograph. It does, however, cover boredom, time and the effects of comparison. There are chapters on colour, texture, atmosphere, light and shadow – each contains practical exercises to heighten your way of noticing, interacting and absorbing all these things. For instance, it might be counting how many things you see of the same colour while waiting for bus, or giving your brain a break from ‘doing’ by washing up in a certain way in order for ideas and experiences to be mentally digested and connected. If this all sounds a bit ‘woo’ (as my daughter said when it was on my Christmas wishlist), this book is very practical.

Throughout the pages, Philippa’s own works provide examples of how she is affected by and expresses daily practices (e.g. abstract, matching, symmetry and pattern spotting).  Her photographs are vivid and joyful, but with a calmness and ‘rightness’, transforming the everyday into something enriching. I’m reminded of David Hockney’s drawing of an ashtray, complete with squashed cigarette ends and smoking detritus – it’s an illustration I’m always drawn to (as a staunch anti-smoker). Philippa takes you by the hand down a winding path with may end in a series of iPhone pictures stored in a folder for your eyes only, or a vast canvas in a gallery. She opens the door through the analysis of the way she looked at things as a child and as she grew up, her own creative processes (encompassing many forms of expression from theatre to painting), over several decades.

For results you need intention, “Like any other discipline across the board, creativity is something that needs to be practiced and exercised: the more you engage with the practice, the more you will get from it, and you will learn to trust your own way of doing things and your own way of seeing the world.” is Philippa’s advice.

Putting it into practice

How has this affected my own way of looking, connecting and creating? I’ve been documenting things I notice on my daily dog walk for several years in a more haphazard way, and more recently I’ve become more intentional, partly influenced by the things Philippa has shared on Instagram about the way she does things.

This book has helped me to dig a lot deeper and to question why I’m drawn to certain things.  I’ve discovered that there are ways of connecting with the world that I didn’t think were possible, or definitely not possible for me.

Every morning through the week, I emerge out onto the street, dog lead and iPhone in hand. I don’t consciously think about what I’m going to look at or record. Some days I think that I’m not in the mood, but then something will change. I’ll notice the texture of peeling paint on a wall, the shade of blue of the sky, the rust on a metal pipe, the shadows cast by a palm tree, and then I know the tone and direction that I feel like exploring.

I have a podcast in my ears but my headphones are not noise cancelling so sounds of birds, the wind in the trees, the spray of a sprinkler, all provide a backdrop. Switching my brain into something else seems to free up my eyes to just see without judgement or reason. It’s pure observation that I get lost in.

Getting home and sorting these images into collages and order starts my day with a creative purpose before I have to deal with emails and the like. I try to stay away from social and other distractions from when I wake up until I’ve finished this whole process. Often this book is the first thing I reach for, when I’m drinking my cup of tea in bed; it sets me on an alternative path of creating and expression rather than responding or being influenced by others in a certain niche. Sometimes it will be other books (such as the Hockney one shown here), or just making a conscious effort to look out of the window and follow the birds hopping around the balcony, the palm leaves nodding in the breeze, or the hazy glow of dawn.

a book of David Hockney art surrounded by leaves and other bits and pieces

Synaesthesia

The biggest revelation for me is about synaesthesia. I thought that you were either born with it or not and that it meant that saw colours for each word when you were reading, which I greatly envied as it sounds magical. It turns out to be much more; synaesthesia is something that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses. “I am convinced we all have a share of synaesthesia, but that some people have an ability to access it more readily than others” writes Philippa.

Scent and touch play a big part in how I interact with the world. A few years ago, due to a sudden deluge of rain, my sister, the girls and I ended up in a tent with a palm reader. She said that I was drawn to texture. As we left the tent my sister said “how did she know that the first thing you do when you enter a room is to run your fingers over something?” I was unaware that I did this. Could I be unaware of other things? Being more attune and open to this merging of senses has untapped new discoveries.

While lying on my yoga mat at the end of a class in savasana and trying to relax every part of my body , I began to visualise myself from the toes upwards. One day, as I did this, a colour associated itself with each part I was thinking of. So my toes were blue for instance, my ankles fushcia pink, my calves lime green etc. It came very naturally and I was in no doubt about each colour. Now, as it helps me to switch off from my other thoughts, I repeat this visualisation at the end of every practice. Some colours are consistent but others change. After a period of stillness, it’s as though a creative switch flicks on in my brain and I have the best ideas for photography, a concept or the outline of some writing at the end of my class. I’ve noticed that breathing in a scent evokes different reactions too including thinking of a texture.

During an interview with artist and musician Goldie, he was asked what it was like to live in New York. He described it in terms of sound and smell rather than sight and called this a synesthesic way.  I’ve caught a glimpse into how thrilling and life-enhancing it can be, especially in the new dimensions it brings to connecting with the world.

a book open to a quote by confucias, shells, a star fish, a mont blanc pen

Everyday creativity

The images in this post are made using things I picked up from the street on a single morning’s dog walk (apart from the piece of wood from an old dhow (traditional boat) which I dragged home a while ago, and the tangerine from my fruit bowl). The collages were made on the same day too.  I find it interesting that, even though I wasn’t thinking about it, brown and faded orange are the dominant colours.

I’ve used found items in these images today to tie into the book cover, but this process is not about copying – the cup of tea and digestive biscuits are a nod to my own obsessions –  it’s a springboard to my own discoveries. So now, like Susan’s voice, Philippa’s words are often in my head when I’m going about my everyday life. They are way-markers on a continuous creative journey and, like coming across a sign-post when a little bit lost on a hike, bring me confidence, energy and excitement for the way forward.

A quote on the first page:

‘Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.’

Confucius

the book conscious creativity on a table with and other bits and pieces

More info:

A bit more about the book and how to order it here.

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On a separate topic, story highlights about reducing plastic waste (which I also wrote about here).

I bought this book myself and receive no incentives to review it or share details.

So tell me, does any of this strike a chord? I’d love to hear about your creative journey.