It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses we must plant more trees. – George Eliot
The magnolia tree is covered in blossoms the color of plum jam. Sprays of bright yellow daffodils astonish the eye, bursting forth from the wintry brown dirt of the garden, daffodils gathered in clumps where they wave gently on windy days or droop in the rain, bright yellow against a dreary gray backdrop. Green leaves dot the garden where freshly laid earth coddles and nurtures the plants newly tucked into the landscape. Birdhouses in rough wood, painted metal, gently curved tree bark are placed here and there, against one wall, nestled between the branches of a tree, perched on a stake standing slightly askew in the flower bed, waiting for new inhabitants. “It’s a bit early for the buds to be appearing on the trees, too early for the flowers to have arrived,” Jean-Pierre exclaims, rather worried that the mild winter weather has fooled Mother Nature and will only be burned once a great freeze, the sub-zero temperatures that all of Chinon and the Loire Valley have been waiting for since November, startles us all in the night.
But the garden promises surprises this year. We have been working like the dickens all winter long with a new gardener and my sister-in-law to create and recreate the beautiful haven that lines the terrace, frames the courtyard, welcomes guests for breakfast or offers a shaded resting place in the afternoon. We have been replacing unhealthy plants with new, adding and retwining rose bushes, planting aromatics, and unusual flowering bushes. We had already dug up and gotten rid of an old, overgrown loquat tree in the back corner of the courtyard that shaded two of the hotel rooms, leaving them dark and chilly even on bright summer afternoons, and dropped withered, overripe fruit on the stone in front of Room #20, leaving brown splotches on the creamy white. The new gardener, working alongside Jean-Pierre, reshaped the entire bed stretching from Room #20 to the Pavilion, framing the earth in an elegant white stone edging, lying a brick path to the compost shed, and planting newcomers which should bloom by spring. New garden furniture ordered, we have only to wait for the season to change.
It is still too chilly to sit outside on the terrace but the guests are still quite happy to gather round a crackling fire in the breakfast room, scooting their chairs as close as possible to the flames. Mornings are convivial affairs, jam jars passed back and forth from table to table, guest to guest, previously strangers but a common interest in the jams leads to conversation and friendship. Guests love discussing the jams, often sharing their own recipes, methods, and interesting flavor and fruit combinations, which I immediately jot down in a notebook. They are fascinated by the oddly flavored jams I make and place on the table and often prefer the unusual to the more common, which thrills me to no end. Low season offers me the time to get to know our guests, chatting over the breakfast table, and I have met so many interesting people and have maintained friendships with some of them.
And low season also offers me the chance to take care of other business.
I met one of our local truffiers, truffle gardner/producers, to organize a truffle hunt for a writing workshop I am organizing for the end of the year. I was handed an assignment for a national cooking magazine from a senior food editor with whom I have worked in the past, with a short turnaround time, and I spent 2 weeks researching, calculating, testing, and writing. And handed it in on time.
My agent has been negotiating a cookbook contract with a couple of publishers and so I have pushed ahead developing and testing recipes, making adjustments, corrections, and adding ideas onto headnotes when my wonderful group of testers tell me to. My desk – no, correction – my two desks are piled high with cookbooks, papers, notebooks, crumpled pages long-ago ripped unceremoniously out of cooking magazines and I have wedged my laptop in a narrow space in between the piles so I can type. I feel like a detective in a messy police station, order in the disorder, combing through evidence and files of crime history, searching for inspiration and answers. I just need the Fedora. (Maybe I’m watching too many of them while I bike)
And I have been cooking and baking. Nothing like a cookbook project to get one cooking, I say! Testing recipes and cooking dinner, making cakes once, twice, three times the charm.
The rain has started up again, that struggle between winter and springtime that always brings this shedding of tears, water rising in the Vienne River threatening to tip over the edge. We huddle around the fireplace, the radiators, warming our hands against the coffee urn or in the glow of the toaster. We have been struggling with heating glitches in the apartment due, no doubt, to the radiators being turned off and on, off and on, as the renovation of Room #12 comes to an end. Which we are so excited to open, ushering in high season at the hotel.
Testing recipes for a magazine piece has brought a ray of summer sunshine into my kitchen in a burst of garden vegetables and fresh fish. Cooking times tested, weights and quantities judged, I had an abundance of fava beans, ripe tomatoes, and beautiful red tuna on my hands. Small, compact heads of sucrine (sugar in French, Little Gem in England) lettuce was tumbling from my refrigerator I had so many of them and so I whisked up a mustardy vinaigrette and layered it all into salad for lunch.
- Sucrine lettuce
- Ripe tomatoes
- Fava beans, about ¼ pound (115 grams) per person in the pod
- Red onion
- 1 thick slice fresh tuna
- Olive oil
- Red wine vinegar
- Dijon-style mustard
- Salt and pepper
- Fresh garden herbs, basil or cilantro or flat-leaf parsley or chervil
- Wash and pat dry the tomatoes, 1 - 2 per person and slice into wedges. Place the tomato wedges around the outside of the serving platter.
- Slice a sucrine salad lengthwise down the center starting about half an inch inside the stem end, turn a quarter turn and slice down the center, giving you four equal wedges attached at the stem end. Turn sideways and slice into pieces, discarding the stem end. Pile the chopped sucrine in the center of the ring of tomatoes.
- Shell the beans. Drop the fava beans in salted boiling water for 1 minute, drain, run quickly under cold running water to stop the cooking and then slip the beans out of the outer skins. Discard the skins. Scatter the beans over the lettuce and tomatoes.
- Thinly slice the red tomato, as much or as little as you like depending on the number of servings and scatter over the salad.
- Pat the slab of tuna dry with paper towels. Heat a stovetop grill until very hot. Brush the tuna with olive oil and dust lightly with salt and pepper. Grill 3 minutes per side then remove to a cutting surface and slice into strips. Place on the salad.
- Whisk together 2 teaspoons mustard with 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar. Salt and pepper. Whisk in up to 5 tablespoons olive oil. Chop a small handful of your fresh herb of choice and whisk into the dressing. Drizzle over the salad.
- Pour everyone a glass of chilled white or rosé wine and pretend that it is summer.