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A grand day out

Well, not grand, but at least it got us out of the house.

My mate K and I have been feeling antsy lately. Something to do with the long winter, I think, and being so shuttered up. Everyone's so sick of it now, the endless lugging-in of wood, refilling paraffin stoves, exchanging gas bottles, donning thermals first thing, not being able to go out for the fog or the cold or the snow. 

We're now into the first week of April and the frost is still thick on the ground every morning, with daytime temperatures around 9 degrees. So K and I decided to take a quick shopping trip to Mayenne. Nothing spectacular, you understand, just the sort of thing that normal people, who don't live in the arse-end of nowhere, probably do every day. But here in the boonies, where even posting a letter means a 5km round trip, a trip to the discount store means a 50km journey and some logistical planning, especially the soothing of husbands who might have to - horrors - get their own lunch.

K dropped her car at our house to save me going out of my way, and off we set into a glacially cold but beautifully sunny day. The return of the sun made us feel more optimistic as we headed first for lunch at a routiers restaurant (all-you-can-eat buffet) and then for Noz, where consumer goods go to die.

Noz, which I assume from the name is a Breton company (it means 'night'), is a chain of gigantic warehouses filled to the brim with crap. My DH can't stand the smell of plastic and despair and usually sits in the car playing Angry Birds, while K's husband runs out of patience in about five minutes and starts plucking her sleeve, so it was nice for both of us for once to womble about at our own pace, picking up tablemats, ceramic gew-gaws, hairbands, end-of-line yarn and God knows what else like blackbirds searching under leaves for a tasty morsel.

Admittedly, especially in mid-winter, the clientele are of the poorer sort - people who can't afford things at full price, so wander around looking for out-of-date chocolates for Christmas presents, etc, all of which is pretty depressing. But most people are like us, just out to see what bargains they can pick out of the assorted tat.

I was really in search of the herbal extracts I'd found last time, which in France still come in those glass vials that you break at either end and add to water. But sadly they were all sold out. I did, however, load up on chocolates and caramel-au-beurre-salé biscuits to take to my monthly book club meeting, incense sticks, whisper-thin Indian silk scarves like the kind we all wore in the 70s, and things for the kitchen such as ginger juice (invaluable, this), pickled root ginger, dandelion tea and masses of tins of sardines, as I'm now trying to eat two a week against osteoporosis. 

I'm not sure what K got, but it definitely included herb teas and a washing-up bowl, along with the Nidra hydrating bath stuff I'd recommended on Cosmetopica. Oh, and a ladybird house made of bamboo, because everyone needs one of those...

You never know what you'll find at Noz: garden furniture, coffee makers, mirrors, shoes, tee-shirts, rag rugs and children's toys. Last time I picked up tinned cherry apples, which the DH thought were disgusting and I ended up putting out for the birds to eat. But I do pretty well with scarves, and even sometimes with clothes - my favourite cotton hoodies with double-lined hoods are from Noz, along with the dress I wear to go swimming in summer - heavy cotton jersey with spandex. 

Just a simple change of scenery, rather than staring at four walls, was most welcome. Only slightly marred by a lorry flicking a pebble onto my windscreen on the way home, which entailed a quick trip to the garage for a resin fill (60-odd euros, which made the trip a tad expensive). Still, the repair is near-enough invisible and it gave K and I a chance to go and have a coffee in a local caff, surrounded by cooing black-collared doves, before finishing up with the supermarket shop and then home to our loving spouses.  

Oh well, back to work... 

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Back from the smoke

A recent trip to London had me reeling at the wealth, and wealth of choice, on show.

Just back from spending nearly a week in London - partly work (meeting an editor) and partly pleasure (meeting up with friends etc). But also, of course, it gave me the opportunity to do some shopping.

This Easter, the weather has been unseasonably warm to say the least - instead of the average seasonal high of 16 degrees, London was nominally at 26 degrees but actually in parts far hotter, due to the belching air conditioning, hot-food vendors and the sheer press of people. I lived in London for nearly 20 years, but it was the most crowded I had ever seen it, and I formed some immediate impressions - that white Britons are very fat compared with the French (here I exempt the Asian, Far Eastern and Middle Eastern minorities, most of whom looked fabulous, especially the young Muslim girls in their fantastic sparkly hijab), that young British women don't half wear a shedload of makeup and that the majority of people remain strikingly badly dressed, given how much good stuff there is in the shops.

Some women, it's true, had opted for that most gorgeous of all city wear - the maxi dress, worn with bra showing, and pair of flat sandals. In this rig, you can safely float your way through the dirt, dust and diesel fumes, looking as cool as a cucumber. That's a look for younger (and preferably taller) women, of course, who don't mind revealing quite a lot of skin, but many of us older types seemed to favour the white cotton smock-front tunic - a cool option, though sadly teamed in many cases with all-too-random a pair of trousers underneath. A Parisienne would team such a blouse with slim beige capris and ballet flats, and look very cool in the process.

The sudden heatwave had clearly taken everyone by surprise and many of the younger women were still in sweater dresses and thick tights. I too was slightly stuck, having packed long-sleeve tees - and popped out of the hotel to the next-door charity shop and got myself a little linen shirt to wear over my thin chinos.

After lunch with my editor, I trawled most of Regent Street, and had a poke round Liberty's - a ghost of its former self and really most disappointing, especially for a sewist, as the former fabric floor is now only one small section selling nothing but lawn. Gone are the days of Nuno woven steel fabrics and Solbiati linens shot through with gold. Most of the fashion floors was also fairly blah, other than Crea Concepts - lovely thin knits in pastel colours - and Eskandar, where I would have bought everything on the rack, from the heavy slubby linen coats (£540) downwards.

After Liberty I had a look in Jaeger, but the clothes were way too formal for my life - there is a noticeable edge of 1980s formality creeping into fashion these days, along with the zinging colours of that era. Then I turned on my heel and headed for H&M to load up on basics.

Five years ago, when I was last in London, I bought half a dozen tees from here, and I'm still wearing them, so I braved the throng and ploughed into the shop, to find a great white voile shirt (£7), long-sleeve, v-neck, cotton-elasthane tees in black, white and black-and-white stripes (£6.99), and fabulous little cotton cardis (£9.99 - I bought a grey one, as the most useful colour).

That done, I headed for BHS to get bootcut jeggings - my go-to jean these days, teamed with a longer tee and a cotton cardi. These BHS jobs come in severals cuts, of which bootcut and flare are the most useful styles for an over-40s babe, and are made of good quality denim - an absolute bargain at £16.

This year, the firm has also focused on printed cotton jersey tops in a variety of shapes - get them while they're good, ladies, as these, I reckon, will be among the most useful items in a general wardrobe. I plumped for a taupe smock-front shirt with pink roses, which was pretty, a comfortable cut and - most importantly - needs no ironing.

Zara, which I had heard about but never seen, was interesting but too expensive for what it was, and after realising that my eyes were glazing over in John Lewis, I headed back to the hotel, quite shopped out but pleased with my purchases.

But how, I wonder, with so many good-quality basics in seemingly every shop, do so many women still look so crap in the street? There are masses of very good, plain vests, tees and jeans in basic colours, along with fitted white shirts, black pants, black stretch pencil skirts and mini trenches. But the women that I passed still manage to look mostly badly co-ordinated, shabby, and crumpled, with clashing prints and unflattering cuts.

It's most bizarre. Some of the problem, I think, MUST stem from there being simply too much choice - personally, I found it unhelpful.

Here in rural France, we're not exactly spoilt for choice, so many women shop from catalogues, which means you have to decide what it is you want. But in London, there is EVERYTHING at EVERY price, EVERYWHERE, and it is overwhelming. How is one supposed to come to a decision when faced with 40 different types of body lotion, or 100 different styles of black pants?

My guess is that what women actually do is continue to shop at just a few favorite and familiar outlets, and thereby limit their own choices that way, otherwise we would all wear out a hell of a lot of shoe leather.

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Success in the sales

It's sales time again - here's how not to go mad in the rush

Today is the first full day of the sales and the shops are supposedly full of irresistible opportunities to snap up a bargain.

Except, they're not, this year. It's all turned pear-shaped for many retailers, with a combination of awful weather and a continuing recession keeping people at home until the last minute before Christmas, and many people also choosing to shop online instead. 

My sales shopping this year will be boring in the extreme - replacing the dishwasher that broke down three years ago and which we could never afford to repair. I've indulged myself with plenty of clothes anyway lately, buying up vintage coats as soon as the weather turned bitter, back in November. 

Nevertheless, if you're heading out to face the ravening hoards, consider these approaches to the sales. 

1 Stock up on basics: jeans, underwear, cashmere sweaters, white cotton or cream silk blouses, tights, black shoes for work, black stretch side-zip trousers. Boring maybe, but they'll give you tons of mileage.

2 Look for clothes that plug the holes in your wardrobe. We all have these: the right trouser, the right shoe, the blouse with the exact right neckline. Make a list of items that would make your current clothing more usable and flexible, and search for those. 

3 If you're after something specific, such as a party frock, head only for those shops that will offer you the best chance of getting what you want - don't get distracted by everything else in the mall. Take any accessories you'll be wearing with you, so you can see how the whole look goes together. 

4 Try going to shops you'd love to shop at but normally can't afford. When I lived in London, I'd hit South Molton Street and New Bond Street before everywhere else.  

5 Dress for success. Wear comfortable slip-off shoes that you can walk in for long periods but which don't hamper you when trying on trousers and skirts; a button-down or zip-off cardi or top so that you don't have to pull things over your head; black or nude tights and a black or nude sleeveless vest that keeps you pretty well covered in the changing room (or even outside it, if push comes to shove) and also creates a neat silhouette over which you can try blouses, sweaters etc.

6 Time your day. For tops, accessories, coats or jackets, you can afford to shop in the morning. If you're looking for bottom halves (skirts or trousers), or dresses with a waistband, shop in the afternoon after a good lunch. That way you will get a better fit, as you'll have a full stomach and will be retaining some fluid. Shoes and boots are best bought at the end of the day when you've had time to walk around and your feet have spread somewhat. Plan some comfort breaks - lunch, mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee, and if you can, take a small bottle of water and a snack in your bag so you don't slump from those dehydrated or low blood-sugar moments.

Lastly, set a budget. Whether it's £50 or £500, stick to it. Draw the cash out of the bank and take it with you in a secure bag. Leave your credit cards at home. We all know it's far too easy to get carried away otherwise.

 


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Budget cooking - the slow cooker

A slow cooker is a great way to produce delicious food as well as save money.

With belts tightening all over the place, one way to cut food prices while still eating well which I'd seriously recommend is a slow cooker.

A lot of people bought slow cookers back in the 1970s. They were usually brown ceramic, very heavy and difficult to clean, and many were only used a few times before they were put away in the garage. If you still have one of these, get it out - they're by far the best type and knock the modern competition into a cocked hat, IMHO. 

If, however, you have to settle for one of the modern ones, get one that will cook on as low a wattage as possible. The whole point of a slow cooker is that it should cook slowly - somewhere around 50w to 100w is ideal. Many of the more modern versions cook at 250w and if you get this, you're really just buying yourself an extra conventional oven. What you want is a cooker that does a good stew in something like 8 to 12 hours rather than 3 to 4, so you can leave it on while you're at work, or overnight. 

Why slow cook?

1. Because it's delicious. Slow-cooked food retains all of its flavour and texture compared with oven cooking or stovetop cooking.

2. Because it's very cheap, costing only the same as burning an incandescent lightbulb.

3. Because it's virtually idiot-proof. Pretty much anything you put in there comes out tasting good. 

4. Because it's no-maintenance. You can leave it alone while you're out or asleep, and food can't catch, burn, or overcook (all that happens if you go over the maximum time with a roast, for instance, is that the meat falls apart - it won't end up blackened to a crisp). 

5. Because it enables you make full use of tough cuts of meat such as brisket or old-fashioned meats such as mutton. Meat near the bone is actually far more flavoursome than white meat such as chicken breast, but we have lost the art of cooking it.

6. Because it enables you to easily reduce your meat consumption without noticing it. 

General tips

Slow cooking results in highly flavoured food, where all the flavours intermingle, so it is one very useful way to reduce the amount of meat you use - you can really stretch recipes without compromising quality. My DH is a natural carnivore, for instance, but I am able to serve something like half or a quarter of the meat we used to consume by substituting with vegetables such as potatoes, chickpeas, kidney beans and root veg. These pick up the flavour of the meat and become truly delicious. 

Because slow cooking retains the texture of the food very well it is also now the main way I cook soft vegetables such as courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, squash and marrow. It is an excellent way to cook dishes such as stews, curries and chillis, and also works for soups, creme caramel and even producing stock. If you are interesting in making preserves, the first steps towards jam or chutney can be done overnight in a slow cooker without supervision, leaving you only with the bottling stage. And finally, you can even roast a chicken in one, while you're out at work with no danger of overcooking or causing a fire. 

I use my slow cooker about every other day and usually make enough for two meals. I have two types. One is a 20-year old Tower Compact Slo-Cooker, where the ceramic pot is integral to the machine and can't be taken out for washing. This makes it fiddly to clean, but the food it produces is absolutely superb because the lid is very heavy and no flavour evaporates. The other is a Morphy Richards metal one with a separate base and a glass lid. This allows you to use the top section on the stovetop, then transfer it to the base for slow-cooking. Although the flavour is not quite as good, it is much easier to use, so in practice I use it more often. 

How to cook

I usually slow cook overnight. For some reason, 15 minutes preparing a meal before bedtime seems to take less time than 15 minutes at any other time, so I generally prepare the food at the end of the evening. I cook overnight, switch the machine off in the morning and then the food's ready whenever we're hungry (I understand that some machines are programmable, so you can set them to auto switch off, which is probably a useful feature). 

Slow cooking does require a bit of practice, but there are some basic things to remember:

* No flavour evaporates, so go easy on the herbs and spices. 

* No water evaporates, so you don't need as much liquid as usual. 

* Dice vegetables into small pieces so that they cook all the way through.This takes a bit of getting used to and different veg behave in different ways. Turnip and potato need smaller dice than carrot or parsnip, for instance. If you're used to roasting veg, use this as a guideline.

* Meat cooks more quickly than veg, so you can use larger pieces, or place it on top of a base layer of veg (it cooks in the steam).

* Don't keep taking the top off to check progress. The whole point of slow cooking is to create a water seal around the lid, so don't keep breaking it. 

Getting started

If you buy a new slow cooker, it will come with a recipe book, but you can also find them at places like Amazon. To get you started, though, here is a recipe that I made a couple of nights ago. 

Chilli con (not much) carne

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

2 onions, thinly sliced

2 carrots, sliced

1 swede, diced

good thick slice of white cabbage, shredded thickly

200g of beef mince

4 tablespoons of cooked red kidney beans

olive oil

1tsp salt

1tsp pimienton (smoked red pepper powder)

sprinkle of cayenne pepper (according to taste)

red wine and water

METHOD

Brown and drain the mince.

Fry the onion in oil until it takes colour, adding the salt to bring out the juices.

Add the other ingredients (except spices) and stir until well mixed.

Add water or wine to about halfway up the dish.

Add the spices and give another stir.

Slowcook 8 to 12 hours on low. 

Serve warm, with crusty bread and a sprinkling of cheese

 

 


 

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Shopping? How does that go again?

The visit of a friend has made me realise that I no longer go shopping just for the fun of it

When you have visitors, it does throw your own life into perspective rather.

I didn't realise how much ours had changed until the day I was alone with my houseguest S a couple of weeks ago. 

S was my bridesmaid when we got married, and she made our wedding rings (she's a fantastic jeweller), and while her DH was off with my DH, sketching gun emplacements on the Normandy beaches, as boys will do when left to their own devices, she and I had a girly day together. 

After lunch at a friend's restaurant (home-made pate, guineafowl in cider sauce and hand-made ice-cream...), she suddenly said: "Let's go shopping!"

And my mind went blank. 

Where on earth would one do that, I thought. 

The thing is, the DH and I live a bit in the arse-end of nowhere. Although not exactly desert like the Creuse, say, the Orne departement is very much what you'd call rural. Rural like Scotland or Wales, not rural like England. The nearest village is 2km away, the nearest shop 10km. If I wanted clothes, I'd have to go 23km and the choice even then wouldn't be wide. But 'shopping' as such, S made me realise, is simply something I don't do any more.

Partly it's because to do so would entail a trip to Rennes, 90km away, but it's also true that I can't remember the last time I went into a shop simply to look around. These days I only go into shops when I'm looking for something specific: a coat, a lightbulb, a new washing machine or whatever.

Since we downshifted to France, there just hasn't been the money to buy things we don't need, and I don't believe in tempting myself needlessly. Rule number one: don't look at adverts (my fingers is permanently hovering over the 'mute' button), rule number two - don't go into shops.

I took a very different approach when I lived in London. There, I routinely went into clothes and interiors shops that I couldn't afford, in order to get my eye in for what constitutes quality and to try out fashion trends, which I would then buy at a lower price point. But I guess I'm also more confident of my taste these days. I know what I like in both interiors and clothing, and I also know what's practical for my life. There is just no point in going into, for instance, the expensive boutique my sister, her friend and I visited last week in Fougeres. Not only do I not have 325 euros for a knitted top, even if I did I couldn't wear it to get the wood in or walk the dog. It was a beautiful thing, in multicoloured flame stitch, but in my life, it would be completely pointless. I'd rather buy a piece of raku or a painting.

In lieu of shopping, then, on this day S and I settled for a walk round the beautiful local plan d'eau with the dog, talking about the crappy state of English literature and stealing Joe Pye Weed seeds for my garden, and then a trip through the forest to the spa town of Bagnoles, where S bought half a ton of chocolate from Casati du Lac.

She also got a box of Lenoir macaroons, the best macaroons in the world. I never knew what all the fuss was about macaroons until I tasted these things, as what are customarily passed off as macaroons are really usually biscotti, all dry and crispy, whereas a real macaroon should cave in gently at the top, then give way to a soft, melting interior of almond paste (with no cream). We only eat them a couple of times a year, but oh what luxury - they are pure sin on a plate. Last year, when my sister visited, we had the pleasure of having them hot from the ovens at the Lenoir factory, which is just down the road from me, though most of the daily bake heads straight for the posh restaurants and gelatiers of Paris. 

Oh la. I see I still have the desire for some things. Maybe we'll buy a box for Christmas...

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Pigs on the table and pigs at the trough

The so-called 'recession' is really beginning to bite, and there's no clearer sign of it than my supermarket trolley

I did the second shop of the week yesterday, and frankly it was painful. Since we downshifted to France, money's always been tight - not allowing much leeway for clothes, or books or holidays etc, but at least we've always been able to eat well. Now, with work fast disappearing into the ether and the strong Euro making our UK earnings sink to a pittance, we're also being hit by the third whammy of food pricing.

Bra savvy part four - shopping checklist

What to look for next time you buy a bra - a quick guide

Fundamentally, there are only half a dozen criteria for finding a great, supportive bra. Take this list with you the next time you go shopping:

Thank God for La Redoute

La Redoute rides to the rescue once again...

Well, how nice to be flicking through the latest La Redoute catalogue and, suddenly becoming aware of how nice the spread was, and how attractive the model, to find it entitled: "J'ai 40 ans, et alors?" (I'm 40, so what?).