Workaway experience in Tuscany, Italy

Highlights from Montefegatesi

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1. The Home-stay
Laura, Jimmy and little Isol and Esme live in a breathtakingly beautiful village perched high in the mountains of Bagni di Lucca, about 1 hours drive from Lucca in Tuscany. The village is called Montefegatesi and is about the most remote place we have ever stayed in. In the summer, it is said to be teeming with tourists, extended family of the locals and holiday house owners. But after the long, warm summer days have passed, the houses are emptied, the streets are bare and there is not a single sound to be heard. Not even a rooster heralding the day, or the sweet chirping of a bird. It was so quiet that some mornings we woke up and wondered whether the whole town had deserted us. It took a while to get used to, but in the end we loved the peace, the quiet and the myriad of thoughts that filled our heads instead of noise. We also got to spend a lot of time praying…the silence resonated in our very souls as did Psalm 46:10, ‘Be still and know that I am God”.
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View from our room, Montefegatesi
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Montefegatesi from far away
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The house, at the top of the mountain
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A walk along the mountain road
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Beautiful country side, Montefegatesi
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Sunset: View from our room
2. The Work
We worked on different projects on this workaway experience. Owen was mostly outside doing ‘manly, muscle-building, get-a-bit-of-elbow-grease-into-it, kinda stuff. He stripped the bark off about 50 felled tree trunks to build a retaining wall, levelled some ground to eventually dig a pool, cut fire wood, moved heavy pot plants, painted the inside of the workaway house and basically did any odd jobs around the house. Where Owen was positioned was on the side of a hill, he was near the top of the mountain, so he had wonderful panoramic views over the valley while he worked. I on the other hand, spent most of my working time in the family house, helping with house-work, sorting out and organising cupboards (which is actually really fun and satisfying) as well and doing some cooking and playing with Isol (5) and Esme (2). On my first day, I was asked to wash and chop a whole bunch of fresh veggies from the garden and to turn them into a soup. I was in heaven!
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Our host Laura and her daughter Esme
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Owen stripping logs for a retaining wall
3. The Food
Our accommodation and meals differed slightly in this home-stay, as we stayed in a separate house opposite Laura and Jimmy’s house. We had our own kitchen and they filled our fridge with food for us to cook with. We had lots of fun creating feasts with our workaway flat mate, Kate (from England) and our workaway neighbours, Anna (from Sweden) and Elena (from Spain). Most nights we would all cook a dish and share it together at either house. Kate was a wonderful vegetarian cook so I learnt some wonderful recipes from her and Elena showed me how to make an authentic Spanish Tortilla with potatoes and eggs. Anna utilised different skills by giving me a hair cut, for which I was in desperate need of! I was beginning to have an uncanny resemblance to the wild man from borneo!
We were lucky enough to get a pasta cooking course from Laura’s Mother-in-law Nonna and that evening, we were invited to their house for an authentic Italian feast where we ate the home-made fettuccine done in two sauces, mushroom and cheese and typical ragù style.
Owen was invited to go hunting with the local Italian men early one morning, but alas they didn’t shoot anything…otherwise we may have eaten wild boar or deer for dinner too!
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One of our many Italian feasts with the other workawayers
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Baked Gnocchi with Grilled Steak and Balsamic Roasted Onions
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Chargrilled Pepper and Mozzarella Salad with Pork Saltimbocca
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Minestrone Soup
4. Bagni di Lucca and Lucca
Montefegatesi is perched proudly upon a mountain and the only transport down is a bus that is driven by the means of a hairy goat, or a hitchhike ride with a local who drives like a blind, bearded and slightly batty hairy goat. Either way, you will stumble off the bus at Bagni di Lucca wondering whether it was worth risking you life for. Bagni di Lucca is a picturesque series of towns along a river about 30min from the beautiful walled city of Lucca. Lucca is a wondrous place, full of little streets that all lead into the piazza, the centre of town. There are authentic Trattorias serving freshly made gnocchi and pasta, quaint shops selling local pottery and art and bicycle rental shops on every corner. We hired a tandem bike and rode around the city wall which was lovely. Riding through the narrow, people filled streets was a challenge though, one Owen took on with his natural enthusiasm and desire to overcome every obstacle, be it large or small. We had a delicious homemade meal at Gigi’s Trattoria consisting of seafood gnocchi, pasta with ragù and rosemary and roasted garlic potatoes. The simple rich flavours mingled tantalisingly on our tastebuds.
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Lucca
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Lucca: A walled city
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Beautiful Merry-go-round, Lucca
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Riding around Lucca with Anna and Elena
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The Piazza, Lucca
5. Road-trip through Tuscany
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We left Montefegatesi and travelled to Florence, the city of Art. Florence has a certain charm about it. Beautiful architecture around every corner, museums filled to the brim with historically significant paintings and sculptures, wizened accordion playing buskers on the cobbled streets…and something else. Something you can’t quite pin point. I love this city. We hired a car and spent four days travelling from Florence to Rome. We stayed the night in a monastery in Volterra, and spent the next day exploring the quaint (albeit rather touristy) towns of San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Siena. We stumbled upon some gorgeous airBNB accommodation north of Siena and decided to spent two nights there. The couple Valeria and Simone went above and beyond their roles as hosts to make us feel like friends rather then guests. They even took the time to teach us Tuscan cooking, and we enjoyed a three course meal with them on the first night…some of the best food we’ve had in Italy. We drove to Rome via Perugia for one reason alone. Not to see the sights or sounds of Perugia or to learn about the history of the place…but wholly to experience the euro chocolate festival….with half of Europe it seemed. It was chocolaty, rich, full of calories and potential dental cavities….but boy it was good. We drove to Rome with full confidence in google maps, only to be devastatingly let down. They say “All roads lead to Rome”…but they don’t say what to do once you get to Rome. Every street is one way disaster, the whole city is a maze. I can only say, the whole experience has strengthened our marriage more then we ever thought it could.
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Il Duomo il Firenze (Florence Cathedral)
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Florence in all it’s splendor
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David in all his splendor, Florence
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Charming busker, Florence
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Staying in a Monastery, Tuscany
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Our little hired Fiat 500, Tuscany
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Tuscany in it’s autumn hues
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A Tuscan farmhouse
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Typical Tuscan trees
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The town of towers, San Gimignano
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View of the Piazza from one of the towers, San Gimignano
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Ancient wall art, San Gimignano
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Euro chocolate festival, Perugia
6. Pasta cooking course with Nona
While in Montefegatesi, we were lucky enough to learn how to make pasta from a real life Italian Nonna. She couldn’t speak English, we couldn’t speak Italian….but somehow we understood eachother. In each region of Italy, pasta is made differently. Even local towns have specific ways of making pasta. This is how Nonna from Montefegatesi makes Tagliatelle. When cooked al dente and tossed in a tasty sauce….it’s just divine.
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Nonna’s retro pasta maker
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Pasta flour 00
Nonna’s Pasta Recipe
1kg Flour OO (Pasta flour)
5-6 eggs
Oil, good splash
Milk (approx. 1 cup)
Method:
1. Pour the flour onto a clean surface, make a well in the centre and crack in the eggs. Add a splash of oil and some milk.
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2. Using your fingers, start to mix the eggs and liquids starting from the inside and gradually incorporating more flour from the edges as you go. Add more more if it’s too dry, or more flour if it’s too wet.
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3. Knead the dough for 5-10minutes, or until it’s smooth and springs back when you press it.
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4. Fasten the pasta machine to the edge of a table or bench top, turn the dial to number 1 to start off with. Cut off pieces of pasta dough about 1 inch thick and put it through the pasta machine once only. Continue with the rest of the pasta dough, making sure the pasta sheets are well floured. They don’t need to be perfectly shaped, just make sure they are holding their shape and not tearing. Don’t pass the sheets of pasta through more then once or twice, as it makes it tough.
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5. Turn the dial to number 4 and pass through the sheets of pasta, cutting in half if too long.
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6. When all the sheets are done, pass through the tagliatelle or fettuccini setting on the pasta machine and place onto a floured tray. Leave to dry for a few hours, and cook in a boiling pot of salted water until al dente. Serve with the sauce of your choice.
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Serves 8
Buon Appetito!
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Tips for getting the best experience out of workaway.

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Our workaway friends at Montefegatesi: Kate, Elena and Anna (on left)

 
– Research a variety of hosts to compare the work and expectations rather then just picking the first one that pops up.
 
– READ REVIEWS! READ REVIEWS! READ REVIEWS! Reviews from the volunteer to the host and visa versa can show an accurate depiction of what the experience will be like. Read a few reviews for each workaway profile as some people are just disgruntled by life itself.
 
– Try and allow for flexibility. We booked all our farm-stays back to back so we weren’t able to extend our stay at the ones we really loved.
 
– There is NO age limit. In fact, our hosts said they preferred more mature workers (aged 22 upwards). As long as you are willing and reasonably fit, you are eligible.
 
– Some of our hosts said that they preferred single workers or couples as they seemed to work harder and more consistently. If you are two young girls in their teens (and happen to be a bit lazy) then you might have a hard time finding a placement. Make sure you write on your profile that you are willing to put some elbow grease in and you understand the importance of good work ethic etc.
 
– When choosing a workaway experience, look at what languages are spoken by the hosts. We deliberately chose hosts that spoke both their native tongue and English. On one of our workaway experiences however, we had some trouble communicating with the father as he only spoke his native language and so it was difficult for us to know what work he wanted us to do. If you are going to be in a foreign country for a while, it’s a good idea to learn the language before you go.
 
– Plan your workaway experience a few months in advance. Contact the host well before you get there to organise transportation (you need to organise and pay for this yourself, but they can help you with travel instructions. They’ll also let you know what you need to bring (for example: on a farm they might ask you to bring heavy duty working boots).
 
– Make sure you have the hosts phone number, email address, home address and a place and time for them to pick you up. This way, if something happens and they can’t pick you up, you can find your way there.
 
– Having a phone with call and internet facilities really helps in a foreign country. We left our Australian SIM card at home, and brought prepaid SIM cards in France and Italy. You can get them for MIN 1 month, and it doesn’t cost much (France we used the provider Orange and it cost 30euros for one month + 10 euros for SIM card. In Italy we used the provider Wind and it cost 9 euros for one month + 5 euros for 4MG data + 10 euros SIM card). I guarantee that it will be cheaper then data roaming internationally. 
 
– This may sound a teeny bit obvious, but when staying with your hosts, be respectful as you are in their house. It’s generally expected that you will help with cleaning up after dinner and keeping your room tidy, even when you’ve finished your 5 hours work. Just treat them how you would like to be treated.
 
– Take time when travelling between the workaway destinations. We stayed in some great and affordable accommodation with the organisation airBNB. AirBNB offers either a private room in someones house or the entire apartment of a house for a cheaper price then hotels and even hostels. For example, we stayed in the centre of Florence for a mere 50 euros a night with beautiful accommodation with an ensuite including breakfast. As with Workaway.info, read the reviews carefully before booking and book in advance as the host has 24 hours to accept or reject your booking. AirBNB has an app you can download to your iphone which is really handy.

 

Farm stay in Normandy, France

Highlights from ‘La Ferme’

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1. The Farm stay
We were welcomed into Geoff and Linda’s home as if we were long lost family. They are a retired English couple who moved to France to renovate a derelict barn into a beautiful home with B&B accommodation. They have been working hard for the last 5 years and what a splendid job they have done! The front of the house is covered in ivy (or something similar) which is just turning from beautiful bright greens into audacious autumn oranges and reds. It reminds me somewhat of Madeleine’s home in Paris… “They lived in a house all covered in vines, twelve little girls in two straight lines”. Lin and Geoff are such wonderfully generous people and they let laughter and humour permeate their lives in such a strong way. They open their home and share their way of life with you. We feel so blessed to have shared a little bit of our lives with them. We were joined by a good friend also called Linda, affectionately known as Loopy, for 4 days. She is such a kindred spirit and kept us greatly amused with a plethora of stories that would have us on the edge of our seat in anticipation.
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Geoff, Linda, Loopy, Me (Laura) and Owen
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Our luxurious ‘Jane Austen’ style bedroom, which was B&B accommodation.
For more information on La Ferme accommodation please visit http://www.lafermebedandbreakfast.com/ or email Linda and Geoff at laferme.bb@gmail.com
2. The Work
The workaway deal is that you work approximately 5 hours a day and the rest of the time is yours. We imagined being up at the crack of dawn to start ploughing the fields and milking the cows etc, but quite the contrary, we slept in most mornings and didn’t start work till about midday. This suited us just fine! Work around the house included maintaining and weeding the Dahlia’s (60 varieties) and veggie patch, mowing the grass and using a ride on mower and an industrial whipper-snipper, cleaning the B&B accommodation, wood chipping an entire walnut tree that had fallen down in a storm and cutting up firewood with a chainsaw, sanding and lacquering an oak table, pulling vines off the exterior walls and using electric tools to clean the surface in preparation for rendering the tool shed, painting the oak beams on the outside of the tools shed, doing runs to the dechetterie (tip) and shovelling 8 year old horse poo for manure to go on the garden.
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Geoff teaching me how to use the strimmer (industrial sized whipper-snipper).
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Owen using power tools to clean the walls in preparation for rendering.
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Sanding back a beautiful oak table to laquer it and make it look all pretty!
3. Fred
Fred is an adorable Border Collie pup, only two years old and full of beans. He is incredibly intelligent, as Border Collies generally are, but has no sheep or cattle to muster….not even a single chicken to round up. So, he has developed an obsession for frisbees. From the moment he wakes up to when he crashes into a heap from sheer exhaustion at night, he wants to play frisbee. He prefers it over food. Over cuddles and chest rubs. He’s just batty about frisbees. He has a such gentle disposition and has a habit of curling up with you on the sofa at night for a snuggle, much like a pussy cat.
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Fred, puffed after too much frisbee fun!
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Fred and his bestfriend, the frisbee.
4. The Food
Our stay at La Ferme was not only a wonderful experience for learning new skills, but it was a gastronomical wonderland. Lin and Geoff are great cooks, both unique in their own way. After a days work, we would relax with a cool beverage in hand while our nostrils were filled with the delicious aromas mingling in the kitchen. I spent a good deal of time watching over Linda’s shoulder as she cooked, picking up all sorts of tips and wonderful recipes. They grow a lot of their own fruit and veggies too, and it was an absolute pleasure to walk out into the garden to harvest fresh crops to eat ‘tout-suite’. Everyone in France seems to be able to cook. We were invited out to dinner parties on two occasions, and each time we were fed an excellent 3 course meal with all the trimmings. Such outstanding hospitality one can never forget.
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Dinner party at Corrie and Bob’s house, the next door neighbours
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Wine in a wonky glass
5. Weekend away to Mont Saint-Michel and Brittany
We set off for a 3 day trip to explore the surrounding countryside on our days off. We popped in to see Mont Saint-Michel which was beautiful but the experience was somewhat spoilt by the bus loads of tourists that scrambled all over the island, eager to purchase every tacky souvenir and photograph themselves at every possible opportunity. We enjoyed learning about the historical significance of the Abbey as a fortress in the long and arduous history of battles between the French and English. Mont-Saint-Michel has never been held captive, as it is an island with a 360 degree view of the land and sea and due to the sheer rocks surrounding it, it had a natural advantage on the opposing Brits.
We stayed near a little seaside village called Cancale that boasted the freshest seafood around…and indeed it was. Just as we were sitting down to dinner, we saw a boat bringing in a fresh catch of mussels from ‘La Mer’. We spent a bit of time travelling through Brittany and through some quaint historical towns. Brittany is well known for its Creperies with savoury crepes known as Galettes. One of these washed down with an equally famous Pomme à Cidre (Apple Cidre) was just what one needed after a long day of travelling.
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Mont Saint-Michel, Northern France
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View of the surrounding landscape of Mont Saint-Michel
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The Abbey, Mont Saint-Michel
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Cancal, seaside village
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Dinan
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Roadside art, Dinan
6. Dahlias
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Just some of the varieties of Dahlias that Geoff grew
Geoff’s tips for growing Dahlias
1. Buy a few tubers (each tuber is like a group of bulbs) of the Dahlia varieties you like.
2. Get a tray with 4-5 inches of compost soil, put the whole tuber in it and give it a jiggle (don’t cover completely with soil). Keep well watered. Let them grow for a few weeks.
3. When the shoots get to 3-4 inches and cut them off, try and keep the tuber attached. If the tuber rips off, it’s still ok to plant. Look for a reddish base on the shoots. Keep the two main leaves and take off any extras.
4. Get a pot, and using a pencil to make a hole, pop in the shoot about halfway and push the soil around so its nice and snug (If you don’t use a pencil to make the hole, pushing the shoot in directly can damage the plant).
5. Within 3 weeks, it will have developed a root system. They can then be planted in the garden.
Time to plant: Spring time
In the winter months when it frosts, they will wilt over and the flowers will die. Cut the flower stems off at the base and dig up the tubers. Clean them thoroughly with a high pressure hose (to stop them rotting) and put into a box in a dark place for 3-4 months over winter until Spring time.
Tips:
– They need lots of water, keep them moist (although they can grow in most climates).
– Mix compost in with the soil when planting the tubers into the garden.
– Cut off the dead flower heads to allow the plant to put its nutrients into the new buds.
– Stake them as they grow so they stand up tall
– Plant in full sun
There are more then 700 types of Dahlias.
Each year, the tubers produce more shoots so there is no need to buy more plants. You can yield a huge amount of Dahlias after just one or two years.
We are now on our second workaway experience in the tiny village of Montefegastei, in the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany. We both got a quite a shock when we flew into Pisa. Neither of us speak Italian. We had just gotten into the rhythm of speaking French. We have 6 weeks in Italy, so I’m sure we will improve. We can already ask for food (a necessity!!) and ‘where is’, hello, goodbye, please etc. And I can confirm….whilst the French take the medal for the best bread, the Italians sure know how to make a mean coffee! And stay posted for some wonderful French and Italian recipes. I’m on a mission to find wonderful recipes to share!

Poulet aux Champignon

French Inspired Chicken with Mushroom Sauce

This dish was created in the teeny-weeny kitchenette in the back of our campervan on the outskirts of a little medieval town in the Dordogne region in France. I had one little gas cooker, one pot and one frying pan and utensils of course…and that was it! It’s so lovely getting back to basics and cooking everything in one pan. I had been thinking about creating a mushroom sauce for a few days, and the ingredients had been swimming around in my head until they were solidified in my basket at the supermarket. It’s so simple, it seems almost silly…but I tell you, the flavours are wonderful and rich. If I can cook this outside in a campervan, you can cook it and cook it really well. I didn’t use any corn flour to thicken the sauce as I didn’t have any, but by reducing the wine and adding dijon mustard, it works as a wonderful emulsifier. When you eat this, pretend you are sitting in the French country side…sip some white wine thoughtfully, take a mouthful and thank the French for all they have done for the wonderful world of gastronomy.

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Ingredients:
2 chicken breast escalopes or 1 chicken breast sliced in half to make 2 thin pieces
200g button mushrooms, sliced
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 chicken stock cube (or to taste)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and Pepper

Method:
1. Season the chicken breast well with salt and pepper and cook in a frying pan in a little olive oil until golden on each side. (It doesn’t have to be cooked through as it will finish cooking in the mushroom sauce). Put aside.
2. In the same pan, add 1.5 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil on medium to high heat. Add half of the mushrooms and half of the garlic and thyme. Cook until golden on each side, transfer to a bowl and repeat with the rest of the mushrooms (Doing it in two batches ensures that the mushrooms are fried and browned rather then stewed).
3. Add the all mushrooms back into the pan and pour in the white wine. Reduce by half, then add the dijon mustard and chicken stock cube with a little splash of boiling water. Cook for a couple of minutes until the sauce thickens and the alcohol taste has cooked out of the sauce. Check the seasoning and add any salt or pepper if needed.
4. Add the chicken breast to the sauce, and simmer until cooked through. Sprinkle on some fresh thyme.
5. Serve each chicken breast on a bed of mashed potato, with mushrooms piled on top and a side of steamed vegetables.

Serves 2

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Button mushrooms and fresh thyme

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Chicken cooked a fragrant mushroom sauce

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Please ignore the tacky green camping plate…serve it on a beautiful, large white plate with fresh thyme for an aesthetically pleasing meal.

Bonappetite!

Mr McDonald’s remark: “A wonderfully French dinner. Serve with a fresh baguette to mop up all of the tasty juices and a bottle of 1664 French lager”.

Road-tripping around South France…

Highlights

14 days road-tripping in the South of France

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1. Vieux Lyon and Moire
When travelling around Europe, sometimes big cities can seemingly merge with similarity. Similar apartment blocks with quaint shutters, a boulangerie on every corner, seedy French or Italian men loitering in smokey cafes. Not Lyon…well at least not Vieux Lyon. It is the essence of ‘old’ France with gorgeous cobbled streets and authentic cafes and bars serving food fit for Kings and Queens…because as you must know, Lyon is the gastronomical centre  of France….perhaps the world. It is a place where the image of horse drawn carriages and ladies dressed in lace and long swishy skirts is vivid in your mind…you can almost hear the sound of horses hooves clinking on the stone, echoing through the narrow streets. It is one of my favourite cities in Europe, and consequently has, in my opinion, the most beautiful Basilica (cathedral) in the world. It is situated  on the hill with the most spectacular view over Lyon. When the autumn leaves shine bright hues of red, orange and yellow…the view is simply breathtaking. We had a sublime dinner in Vieux Lyon on our first night consisting of and entrée of two salads, one with steamed potatoes and a creamy sauce of garlic and herbs, the other a Lyonnaise speciality with salade, lardons, croutons  et oeuf poché  ( lettuce, bacon, croutons and poached egg). The mains were barvette a l’échalotte (steak with shallots) and Le délice du Villon (sausage and mushrooms baked in a 4 cheese bechamel sauce). Simply delicious….the French certainly know how to cook! We enjoyed exploring the rest of the city, namely the Roman amphitheatre ruins and markets along the Saone river.
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View from Basilica, Lyon
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Basilica, Lyon
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View from our accommodation, Vieux Lyon
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Roman amphitheatre ruins, Lyon
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Vieux Lyon
Moiré is a little village proudly perched on a hill, about 40 min north west of Lyon. This lovely place is where I spent the better part of 8 months in 2009 working as an aupair.  I must say that being back there made me very nostalgic and brought back a myriad  of fond memories. The wonderful family I lived with had alas, moved on, but it was just great to wander through the streets, admire the panorama of vine yards and the cute clusters of villages nestled into the country side. After travelling quite extensively throughout Europe, I think Moiré, and the surrounding towns to be one of the most charming and breathtakingly beautiful places in the world. It was an absolute treat taking Owen back to my past..I think he loves it almost as much as I do now. I was fortunate enough to meet up with a dear friend Dawn, and her family and catch up on the last 4 years…such lovely and hospitable people.
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Moiré, where I lived in 2009
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Oignt, near Moire
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Wine grapes, Oingt
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Oingt village
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Le Bois d’Oingt
2. Campervan quirks
When we picked up the campervan, we were like school children riding on  bus for the first time. Owen played with all the buttons and I craned my neck out the window to look at everything as it flew by. One of my highlights with the van was the first of many, food shops. If you haven’t experienced a European super…and I mean SUPER market…then you have been missing out big time!
They certainly have their priorities right….at least 3-4 aisles dedicated to cheese, a plethora of fresh fruit and vegies not to mention every type of creature from the sea displayed tantalisingly on fresh ice, and look-a-like fishermen in thick aprons and gumboots serving customers with a cheery smile. Who in Australia would go to that much trouble? The last seafood deli experience I had in Sydney, the lady didn’t even eat fish!! Forget the exchange rate for a moment, and you’ll soon see, that food is much cheaper to buy in France. Or at least thats how I justified purchasing all the wonderful food we ate…
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3. Alp d’Heuz
Laura’s perspective:
The village is abuzz with cycling fanatics. Men proudly ponce around in their oh so tight cycling attire. Owen’s eyes are wide with boyish excitement. All those hours sitting watching the Tour de France have contributed to this moment of bliss. He looks up at the mountain with such admiration, as if it were an old friend. Scores of pelotons fly by, each man with the same look, the same boyish grin.
I’ve never understood this craze, although I fully support the idea of exercise in any measure. I felt fatigued just driving up the windy, steep as anything mountain road. I stopped a few times to wait for Owen to pass to make sure he was ok and took the liberty of taking some cracking shots of des alps and the town below. Each time Owen passed, he was as sweaty as a pig and puffing like a steam train BUT that ‘look’ never left his eyes. He was determined to press on, regardless of the great difficulty and steep terrain, he kept going. And for this I will always admire his strength and perseverance. I on the other hand I had quite a lot of fun chuffing up the alp in the campervan…this thing has a whole lot of get-up-and-go! Owen tells me the number of hair pin turns are 21 in total but it felt like much more.The sun is shining brightly and warming the cockles of me heart, the air is crisp and fresh, the view is spectacular and Owen just finished the ride and triumphantly held his bike in the air…Owen, King of Alpe d’Huez! What a wonderful achievement, what a wonderful day.
Owen’s perspective:
Bike, check… helmet, check… camera to record my crusade, check…. months of preparation and training… Oh well, I’ll do this one on sheer will power!
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The Alps
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Owen before he rode up Alp d’Huez
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He made it to the top! Alp d’Huez, France
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Lakes on top off Alp d’Huez, France
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Alp d’Huez
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The Alps
4. Top camping spots
Something that pleasantly surprised us was the vast array of free campsites in France, ranging from simple rest areas in car parks to sublime spots by rivers or on the edge of cliffs overlooking the sea. The app was called park4night and it was one of the most valuable downloads of the trip.
Here are some of our favourite campsites on the trip…
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Camping in The Alps
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Camping by the lake, near St Chamas, The Mediterranian Coast
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Camping on the Spanish Border, Bagyuls sur Mer
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We woke up to this view from our boot, Bagyuls sur Mer
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Bagyuls sur Mer
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Camping, Dordogne
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Medieval village, Dordogne
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Beynac castle, Dordogne
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Beynac castle, Dordogne
5. Cassis and the Mediterranean
Cassis is another of my favourite spots, and for good reason. I’ve been there three times now, and each time has been wonderful in a new way. Cassis is a little seaside village that until a few years ago, was completely unspoilt by hoards of eager, photo taking, cafe sitting, sandal clad tourists. We do not class ourselves as that ‘type’ of tourist…we try our hardest to blend in with the locals and certainly do not wear sandals. We stayed in the caravan park which was only really good for a hot shower and a loo. How fortunate we were to stumble into the town’s marvellous market day, where all the best saucisson (like mild salami), fromage (cheese) and only-picked-this-very-morning vegetables and fruits of the best quality were on display. We went a bit ballistic buying 10 euros worth of saucisson which turned out great as we got to share it with friends later on.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the surrounding areas and came back to Cassis for a lip-smacking dinner of mussels and local fish stew..
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Cassis
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Cassis
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Sete
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Fresh food markets in every town
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Near St Chamas
6. Food
This trip has been a whirlwind for our tastebuds. French food at its utmost simplicity is to die for. Simple things like melon with jambon cru (rockmelon and prosciutto)…the fragrance of the melon fills your nostrils with the sweet smell of summer. We often prepared lunches of bits and pieces, a bit of prosciutto or saucisson for saltiness, some mini pickles for acidity, some brie or smoked cheese for creaminess, sun dried tomato pesto and kalamata olives for an explosion of flavour, and of course….fresh baguette. French bread is something everyone has to experience. The best baguette is crunchy on the outside and fluffy yet slightly dense in the middle. It is so good, that it usually doesn’t make it halfway home as it is eaten on the way…without jams or spreads…just el’ natural. Such simplicity, such grace.
I also had great fun cooking on the little stove in the back of our camper. We got sick of eating out for every meal in Asia so it was such a relief to be able to cook again. Idea’s would formulate in my head, the ingredients finally selected at the supermarket  would be create these to the best of my ability, with the limited culinary resources I had a my disposable. I also bought a cookbook with all the French essentials…reading the ingredients in French was fine, it was the method that required google translator.
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Lunch most days
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Cooking in the back of the campervan
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Fragrant tomatoes
7. Visiting Friends
A road trip isn’t complete without dropping in on some old friends! Cait and Zippa are about as ‘old’ as they come, and it was a delight to share a few nights with them in Pau.  Their elegant flat is nestled at the top of a classic old french hotel not a few minutes walk from the centre of town, where the lady of the house was kind enough to show us a few of her favourite places.
If we had spent more time exploring the place, Pau could have been one of our favourite destinations  in France! But to be honest, that wasn’t the point of this stop. It was just lovely to relax in the one place for a while with top notch company without feeling to need to photojournalise our experience of the town. The point of this stop was to share some love and break some bread so to speak.
The highlights of Pau for me will be the wine shared with life long friends, deep conversations accompanied by cheese plates and Nutella smothered on baguette after baguette, delicious coffee sipped in a cosy kitchen, and oddly to feel completely at home in a foreign country. This is the greatest compliment I could give to our fantabulous hosts. It was the rest and recharge we were in need of after an extremely adventurous month of relentless travelling.
– Owen
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In Pau with our friends Caitlin and Afusipa
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Beauitful Pau
 We are now on a farmstay in Normandy for two weeks where we will be immersing ourselves into French and farm culture. We’ve been away for 4 weeks now, how fast time flies when you’re having fun!
Until next time, we say  au revoir!
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Panang Chicken Curry (PaNang)

 This is traditionally a mild curry that is creamy and delicious. If you like your curry with more heat, add more chillies.
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Chicken Panang Curry (PaNang)
Curry Paste:
8 large dried red chillies, soaked and chopped
2 teaspoons coriander seed, roasted
4 shallots, chopped
8 cloves garlic, chopped
4 thumb sized pieces of fresh turmeric
4 thumb sized pieces of galangal (or ginger)
2 teaspoon kaffir lime leaves  (fresh if possible)
2 pieces of lemongrass
2 pieces of gingseng
1 cup roasted peanuts (add at the end)
Method:
1. Place all dry spices into a mortar and grind them until they turn into powder form.
2. Add chilli and pound until it becomes a paste.
3. Finally, add the remaining ingredients including the peanuts and pound until the texture is smooth.
Panang Curry Ingredients:
500g chicken breast, sliced
2 cups coconut milk
2 tablespoons Panang curry paste
2 teaspoons palm sugar
4 teaspoon fish sauce
2 kaffir lime leaves, sliced finely
1 large red chilli, thinly sliced
Method:
1. Boil 2 tablespoons coconut milk in a wok over low heat until oil appears on the surface.
2. Add curry paste and stir until incorporated, then add the chicken and cook until it turns white. Add remaining coconut milk and bring to the boil.
3. Add palm sugar and fish sauce (add more to taste if needed) and leave it to boil until it thickens.
4. Remove from heat. Add kaffir lime leaves and red chillies on top and serve with boiled rice.
Serves 4-6
TIPS:
1. Don’t buy coconut milk as they dilute it too much making it weak. Buy coconut cream and dilute it by half. Eg. If the recipe calls for 1 cup coconut milk use 1/2 cup of coconut cream and 1/2 cup water.
2. Dried chillies are more mild and fresh chillies have more heat. Green curry uses fresh green chillies making it quite ferocious, where as Red curry and Panang use dried red chillies making it a more palatable dish.
3. Use good quality ingredients and reputable Asian brands.
4. When making the curry pastes, you can cheat by using a food processor or bar mixer. While this may reduce the time and effort of making the paste, it will also reduce the flavour as it’s important to crush the ingredients in a mortar and pestle.
5. Panang is just Red curry with added peanuts.
6. When reducing the sauce, it’s important not to stir or agitate the liquid. Just leave it to reduce and it will thicken nicely.
7. Start the curry off with a low to medium heat so as not to burn the spices. Once all the ingredients are in, you can turn up the heat to reduce the water content and thicken the sauce.
8. You can make a large quantity of curry paste and freeze it in little bags or in icecube trays for up to 3 months.
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Beautiful fresh ingredients
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Curry Pastes: Green, Panang and Red
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Rice sold at the local market

Meang Kum- Traditional Thai Snack

We had the privilage of attending an all day cooking course in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. For both Owen and I, this was one of the highlights of our Asia trip. We had a fantastic cooking guide named Mr A who measured our sexiness by the heat of the chilllies in our dish. Owen was by far the ‘sexiest’ in our group as he loves everything hot and spicy. We got to choose 6 dishes each, and we cooked them at our own stations. Thai cooking is surprisingly easy and straight foward. Everything is cooked at a high heat and really quickly to keep everything fresh. Here are some of our favourite recipes.

 

Meang Kum

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A traditional Thai ‘welcome to my home’ snack…
 
Ingredients:
Roasted peanuts
Toasted coconut
Ginger, diced
Shallots, chopped finely
Chilli, chopped finely
Lime, sliced
Betel leaves (You can substitute lettuce or spinach leaves)
Sweet syrup (Agave, honey or maple syrup)
 
How to eat:
1. Fold the betel leaf in half lengthways, then fold it in half the other way. Place your finger inside and gently move around to form a cup
2. Put a little of each ingredient into the betel leaf cup, top with sweet syrup and pop the whole thing in your mouth.
3. Chew slowly and thoughtfully, feeling all the flavours mingle and tingle in your mouth.
 

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