Skip to content

A dessert from Brittany – how to make Far Breton

November 14, 2019

Far Breton with eggs sugar and tea

We weren’t at a small, artisan producer where I stuck my rubber-gloved hands into a huge wooden churn and helped to heave out a gleaming yellow mass. We weren’t at a fine French restaurant.

This was a pristine factory with immaculate steel, metal stairs, and quiet automation where we padded around cocooned in plastic coverings from head to toe. Yet it was here that I tasted a dessert that had me begging for the recipe long after returning to Dubai. Far Breton.

This whole tale starts with butter and a tour of Brittany and parts of Western France famed for its lush, green grass. This particular day started with a visit to Echiré where the eponymous butter has been made, at the same location, since 1894. It was very hands-on, as mentioned above, and we delved deep into the history and the process, watching ever stage of creating the creamy, salty butter that is savoured by good food lovers and top chefs. The Japanese are wild about it too.

By the time we got to La Toile a beurre restaurant in Ancenis we were ravenous. We ate well – meaty dorade fillets with citron confit, buttery mashed potato, farmhouse chicken infused with thyme, local strawberries in a nest of rhubarb and biscuit to name a few dishes – so sated and in post lunch stupor we reached the Paysan Breton butter-making facility.

Paysan Breton

Being led round the factory where one of the biggest brands of butter in France is made was quite a contrast to our earlier visit. However, Paysan Breton is a cooperative, co-owned by the farmers that supply the milk (which is all from grass-fed cows). The pats of butter are shaped to resemble handmade ones with curved edges and ridges that the wooden paddles would have made in the past.  There are five different types of butter in the range including one flavoured with salt that’s traditionally harvested by hand from the nearby marshes of Guerand, one with sea salt, and a demi-sel which is so important to this recipe. It’s this value put on ingredients and provenance that’s so impressive from a major manufacturer.

Returning to a conference room we were rather daunted to see another spread of food but it’s amazing how your appetite can be rekindled. We tasted and compared all the butters and then attacked the traditional butter-based dishes from the region.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating could have been coined for Far Breton.  Unassuming in looks with a dark brown sunken top, once cut into there was everything that appeals to a custard lover like me. A creaminess of eggs, milk and vanilla with deep, goey prunes lurking delectably at the bottom. The maker of this perfect pudding was a factory worker called Justin.  The memory of the Far Breton stayed with me, I needed to make it myself.

So one Friday morning, Tiffany (a fellow butter tourist) and I rolled up our sleeves to make the recipe, translated into English for us from Justin’s original.

tray with tea, sugar and far breton

Good ingredients make a difference

Far Breton, also known as Far aux pruneaux, is a very simple recipe but success depends on using the right ingredients:

  • Flour – plain, white flour, organic if possible.
  • Sugar – caster sugar (you could use the golden type).
  • Butter –   The last coating of melted butter poured over the top adds another layer of buttery flavour and leaves little crunches of salt so using demi-sel (slightly salted) is important. It needs to be a good quality butter like Paysan Breton (available in Carrefour in the UAE) as the Far Breton depends on it for its taste.  The irregular grains of salt add to the texture, but you don’t want it to be too salty so regular salted would be OTT.   Perhaps you could use unsalted butter and add a little sea salt of your own – from reading the packets I think it might be a 2% ratio – however I haven’t tested this method myself.
  • Eggs – free range, organic.
  • Milk – full fat, organic, local if possible. In UK I would use something like Jess’s Ladies (winner of the best producer in the Observer Food Monthly awards 2019). In the UAE, Organiliciouz local organic milk.
  • Vanilla – As always the quality of vanilla is really important especially in such a simple dessert as this where the eggs, butter, flour and sugar are a lake in which the prunes sink, like juicy pebbles, at the bottom. There is nowhere to hide. Use a teaspoon of vanilla extract (here’s how to make your own), or the seeds scraped from a vanilla pod or two (like we did) or a sachet of good quality vanilla sugar (which the original recipe calls for). DO NOT under any circumstances use vanilla flavouring or essence.

Important:  before you race off to gather the ingredients and put the oven on, please note you MUST use demi-sel butter*. The last coating of melted butter poured over the top leaves flavour and little crunches of salt.

tea, milk, butter, far breton

Far aux Breton

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Also known as Far aux Pruneaux, a traditional dessert from Brittany, France, made with simple ingredients. A celebration of delicious dairy produce


Ingredients

  • 4 eggs
  • 60g “demi-sel” butter (plus extra for greasing)
  • 260g plain flour
  • 240g caster sugar
  • Seeds scraped from 1 or 2 vanilla pods
  • 1 litre of full-cream milk
  • Dried prunes 250g – 500g according to taste (I used 300g)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Beat the eggs in a jug. Melt the butter, either in a pan on a very low heat or on a low setting in the microwave. Do not let it sizzle.
  3. Put the flour, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl (or the bowl of your food mixer). If making by hand, make a well in the middle, pour the eggs into it then start to gradually incorporate the flour into the eggs by bringing it in from the sides, a little at a time.  Alternatively do this in your food mixer on a slow speed.
  4. When your batter is smooth add 20g of the melted butter, then pour in the milk slowly while stirring with a whisk or wooden spoon. This can also be done on slow speed in the food mixer.
  5. Butter a baking dish generously, then pour in the batter. Place the prunes into the dish, spacing them evenly into the batter.
  6. Bake on a medium shelf for 50 minutes.
  7. Remove from the oven and brush the rest of the melted butter over the top of the Far aux Breton evenly. Spread right to the edges so that some butter can seep down the sides of the dish.
  8. Place the dish back in the oven for an additional 10 minutes.  Remove and leave to cool to room temperature before serving.

Best eaten the same day. It solidifies if kept in the fridge.

Far Breton

Pin it for later

This is just a small jigsaw piece in my journey in butter. Tell me if you’d like to know more. I didn’t know there was so much to learn about such a simple ingredient.

Favourite comfort food when nothing else will do? Some surprising answers revealed

October 28, 2019
marmite toast and tea ready for breakfast
a
You may be thinking shepherd’s pie with a fluffy, crunchy mash hat, a bowl of soothing dahl, a dish of slippery, spicy noodles, a full English roast. But we’re not talking about that kind of comfort food. I mean the thing you want when you’ve taken to your bed or crawled through the day feeling distinctly below average. You need to eat but you fancy nothing – except that one thing. It has no rhyme or reason. A deep craving that often makes no sense at all but it’s the only edible thing to tempt your palette. If you’re lucky it will be made for you and brought to you on a tray to eat in bed. We’re not talking high end cuisine here. It could be from a tin, a packet or a jar.
I pondered this question as I found myself in that situation, savouring each bite of Marmite toast. Brown toast, maybe sour dough if I’m lucky but anything will do. The butter has been hacked off the block so some of it has melted and some is floating like little yellow islands. The Marmite is glossy, dark and scraped on in exactly the right measure,  not too thick, not too thin. Crunchy, creamy, buttery, savoury, salty and restorative.
I asked a few people I like and admire to share this inner secret.  It’s interesting how many draw on childhood memories, reaching for an edible comfort blanket when life was simpler. I think it’s a confession of what we crave when we feel most vulnerable so I’m very grateful for their honesty. Here are their answers, in no particular order…
a

Leyla Kazim – The Cutlery Chronicles

Leyla Kazim of The Cutlery Chronicles a beautiful food and travel blog. Among her long list of accomplishments she’s been a judge for BBC Food & Farming Awards 2019 and a judge on Channel 4’s brand new TV series “Beat The Chef” She lives in London (when not discovering delicious things round the globe).

“My ‘go to’ comfort food is a Cypriot pasta dish, and probably in my top 3 noodle / pasta dishes ever. We in my family call it ‘Turkish macaroni’. It’s just five ingredients and is incredible.

You finely grate halloumi and mix it with a ton of dried mint. You boil some pasta in chicken stock but don’t drain it, you want to keep it pretty wet. When the pasta is cooked, add the cheese and mint mix. Add inordinate amounts of lemon juice, fully combine and that’s it. A chicken-y, salty, lemony, carby hot plate of pure comfort. It is THE best.”
Find the recipe on Leyla’s blog).

 

a plate of halloumi pasta

Image by Leyla Kazim – Cutlery Chronicles

 


Diana Henry

Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer, journalist, broadcaster and the author of ten cookbooks. She grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London. I have a lot of cookbooks, including four of Diana’s which all have well splattered pages from use. My collection pales into insignificance compared to hers of over 4000 which line the walls of her house in multiple book cases.
a
“Cheese on toast is my thing (even toast with Dairylea cheese spread, shock horror). Also, fish fingers, baked beans and Heinz tomato soup. You seem to go back to the things you had as a child or teenager. If I make a proper meal for comfort it is generally shepherd’s pie or a baked potato with butter and yoghurt, grated cheddar and spring onions.
A cup of tea – quite sweet – also always soothes, as does a glass of milk.”
a
collection of Diana Henry cookbooks

My collection of Diana Henry cookbooks

Read more about a visit to Diana’s house and her book Salt Sugar Smoke about preserving including a recipe for purple pickled eggs.

Sara Tasker – Me and Orla

Sara Tasker is a photographer, writer and business coach offering advice for a huge community of online creatives. She’s an Instagram expert (which is a understatement) and, if you’ve been anywhere near the platform, you’ll know her as Me and Orla.  I joined Sara’s inaugural online ‘Instaretreat’ and have benefited from her wise words on an almost daily basis.  She lives in rural in Yorkshire in a house with a cosy (and Instagrammable – check her IGTV) kitchen.
a
“My absolute favourite comfort-in-a-bowl is hash browns and baked beans. Bonus points if there’s crispy bacon too, but I’m honestly happy either way.”
a
a bowl on hash browns and baked beans about to be eaten

Image by Sara Tasker – Me and Orla

 


Kellie Anderson – Food to Glow

Kellie Anderson is a health educator, food writer and recipe developer with a beautiful blog called Food to Glow. I’ve known her from the early days of our blogs and have no idea how she comes up with delicious healthy recipes consistently while also working as health educationist and nutrition adviser with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. She’s from Florida but met up for a cuppa the summer in Edinburgh, Scotland where she now lives.
a
“I would say toast too, from my homemade sourdough bread. But, upon reflection, I have a stash of grits – stoneground, dried white corn that’s a southern US staple – that I turn to for comfort. Fortunately I rarely need to dip into it – thank God, because I have to bring it over specially from the States so it is very precious. But when I do it works like a magic balm to soothe me. Grits, with a big knob of good salted butter and grinds of black pepper, remind of being at my grandmother’s kitchen table. The breakfast table would always be overflowing with fantastically fresh food from her huge garden, but there was always grits and fried eggs from the hens scratching around outside. Just typing this is making me hungry!”
a

Not grits but definitely comforting. Creamy roasted cauliflower soup recipe and image by Kellie – Food to Glow

 


Claire Robinson – Weekend Candy

Claire Robinson is the founder and editor of UK online travel magazine Weekend Candy. Claire’s mantra is “two days – make them count” – and she does. You can find a treasure of ideas for short trips in the UK on the site. Claire’s an award-winning writer, advertising creative and digital creative director.

She’s worked on many creative campaigns over the years for comfort food and drink brands (think Lurpak, Anchor Cream, Pukka Teas, Carte Noir and Philadelphia).

We met up at Blogtacular but Claire lives in my home county of Gloucestershire in the UK.a

 
a
“My go-to comfort food is far from fancy but as close to healing magic as you can get: a good old-fashioned, please don’t judge me for it, crisp butty. Yup. Slice me some thick white tiger bread, cement it with real butter, layer with salt and vinegar crisps, and dollop with mayo. Voila! Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and all things in life feel delicious again.”
a
a
Claire from weekend candy on a boat

Claire on a Weekend Candy weekend. Perhaps the secret sandwich is in the canal boat?


Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures

My friends Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures were pioneers when they set up the first food tour company in Dubai. It was so unprecedented that the trade license bods were at a loss for a while. I’ve lost track of the amount of tours I’ve done with them – the original and best food tour company in Dubai. They live in an area of Dubai that’s chock a block with little restaurants of tempting food – and they all deliver within half an hour. Their extended family is nearby so if they are under the weather they all support each other. I say all this as it explains why they sent lists of comfort foods!

Arva

“1. Tomato soup, the super processed cup-a-soup kinds, with croutons, less water than the ratio recommended on the packet so it’s really thick (I love if some of the bits of soup powder remain clumpy cause it’s like a knob of concentrated flavour) – alongside 2 slices of well-browned toast with salted butter.
2. Grilled chicken wings with lemon and garlic. Dipped in hummus and Arabic style red shatta (chilli sauce), yes in both simultaneously.
3. Chicken Won Tons with soy sauce and chilli – the kind at Din Tai Fung.”

Farida

“My go to comfort foods when I am under the weather (or when I have the blues) are:
Home-made khichdi (the forefather of kedgree & perhaps even koshari!). Simple rice and lentils (moong, masoor or toor/tuvar) cooked with turmeric, a pinch of salt and softened to a slightly mushy consistency with desi ghee. Mum will sometimes temper this with cumin and onions for added flavor and aroma.
I usually like to pair that with Pepper Rasam (the forefather of Mulligatawny some would say) which is a soupy concoction that consists of tomatoes, ground whole black pepper corns, cumin, garlic (optional) and tamarind; tempered with ghee, red chillies, curry leaves and mustard seeds.
These have always served to rejuvenate my flagging spirits and bring back zen to my soul :)”
a
a

Samantha Wood – Foodiva

I met Sam just before she set up the first independent, impartial restaurant review site in the UAE, about 10 years ago.  With more restaurants per capita in Dubai than anywhere else in the world, intelligent and entertaining reviews are vital and it’s become a trusted, authoritative guide which has, deservedly, won many awards. You can also join her for high-end food tours. I asked where she got the recipe for her bowl of comfort (see end of quote). Due to KP’s distant Cypriot heritage, we make it at Christmas – find his family recipe here.
a
I grew up mostly in Cyprus (and the Caribbean), and the one dish that is etched in my memory from my childhood and that I still make to this day is avgolemono soup. A dish that takes a patient cook to concoct – all thanks to my Cypriot mother’s fair hand, as well as my grand-mother’s. Avgolemono literally translates to egg and lemon soup – however chicken and rice are also key ingredients. A chicken-infused rice broth was whisked with farm-fresh eggs and the juice of lemons from our neighbourhood orchard. Pure soul food – so comforting and therapeutic that I was always begging for seconds and could happily finish off the pot by myself.
I buy every new Greek or Cypriot cookbook that is released, so am always trying out new recipes! The latest one is from Georgina Hayden’s Taverna cookbook.”
a
avgolemono soup with ingredients eggs and lemons

Avgolemono soup – click for recipe

 

I hope you enjoyed these answers that are a small jigsaw puzzle piece in everyone’s lives formed by a myriad of things from upbringing, tradition, television advertising to what was available at the corner shop. I’m really very grateful to everyone who gave me their candid responses to share with you.
a
Here’s where to find everyone:
a
So will you share your ‘comfort food in the darkest hour’ with me?  Confess all – no judgement!

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

Pin for later

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
  • Print

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

Pin it for later

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
  • Print

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

Pin for later

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
  • Print

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

Pin for later

 

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

Pin for later

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?