Twelve days into a month long job in the picturesque region of Ramatuelle (near St. Tropez) means it’s high time to let my friends and family know just exactly what it is I’m getting up to out here. To try and sum it all up in three words…it would have to be food, sun and mosquitoes.
For a bit of background, last year myself and a great friend who I met at Ashburton, Nell, signed ourselves up to all the temporary chef agencies out there, with the hopes of finding a position ANYwhere, be it at a shooting lodge up in Scotland, a Manor House in the English countryside, pretty much anything we could get. We actually offered ourselves up as ‘two for the price of one’, applying for single chef’s positions with the view of sharing the accommodation, and the wage.
We struck gold with a two week job in a beautiful villa in Ramatuelle, owned by a family from Notting Hill, who’ve had this place for fifteen years, spending practically every holiday here. It is a home away from home for them. Every year, the three children have their respective school and university friends over during a jam-packed few weeks, whilst the parents have their family friends to stay. That’s where we come in. To feed them!
This year, much to my (and the family’s) disappointment, Nell was busy working at a fine dining restaurant in Spain. Fortunately for me, my position as a sous/crew chef onboard a private motor yacht doesn’t start until September. So when I was asked back to cook for the whole month of August, it was an easy answer. Admittedly, I toyed with the idea of going alone. It would have been absolutely do-able, but the ‘down time’ would have probably been too isolating for a whole four weeks. (I mean, I love my kindle, but not that much). So this time, the family sorted out another Ashburton graduate to accompany me – a girl my age called Katie.
Now to our typical day, á la villa, from dawn ’til dusk.
The alarm goes off at 7am, time enough for a half hour swim in the pool before the family starts to get up. On a good morning I do 100 lengths (that’s happened about twice). Our humble abode is the little pool house, down at the bottom of the garden. It is snug (code for cramped), and we get all sorts of weird and wonderful wildlife finding their way inside. Crickets, lizards, spiders…you name it. My tolerance levels have had no choice but to increase.
The pool, in all its early morning glory.
At 8am we walk up to the main house. I pocket a few fresh figs on the way, as I bloody love them (and no one else seems to! Bizarre). One of us turns off the security system while the other opens the front door. A scary, deep, digital voice booms ‘Arretè!’ through the entire house, and we can enter without the Gendarme being called. First things first, we let Daisy out of her cage and let her have a roam outside. Daisy is a long haired sausage dog, who is thirteen years old and doesn’t seem to cope with the heat all that well. She’s very slow, and gets all doe eyed when we cook especially juicy, fatty pieces of meat. We’re under strict instruction not to feed her, and we totally don’t. Promise.
After opening all five thousand of the shutters, doors and windows, the one with the driving licence (me) hops into the Renault people carrier (nicknamed ‘The Beast’, by me) for a pain au chocolat & croissant run. Whilst the one left behind sets up for breakfast. This involves laying the table, putting out our lovingly homemade granola, with assorted jams, honey, coffee and tea. By the time I return, that’s all done, so we start chopping fresh fruit for the table. Most days it’s peaches, as we always seem to have a glut of them, but often it’s melon, pineapple or mango. Any figs I try to sneak into the medley end up in a sad, forgotten, soggy mush at the bottom of the bowl. We make eggs, bacon, tomato, mushrooms & toast to order, when any of the family or guests fancy a cooked breakfast. During all of this we find a quick moment to eat our own grub, which for me is the homemade granola with figs (obvs), apple compote (Katie calls it Pomme-pote) with Greek yog & milk. If there’s a stray pain au chocolat, which there funnily enough always is, that gets eaten too.
First things first, I drive ‘The Beast’ with my bin liners in da back.
After everyone is fed and watered, we sit down with the matriarch of the family and discuss the day’s menu. We mostly have free reign with lunch, with the general rule being a quiche or tart, a carb-based dish, with the usual suspects of heirloom tomatoes, green salad with Parmesan, sliced baguette, assorted hams and a cheese plate. We try all sorts on them, recently having a bash at a ricotta & sundried tomato shortcrust pastry tart, sweet potato & feta muffins, with a chicken Caesar salad. Homemade Caesar salad goes down ridiculously well with everyone for some reason, and is great for us, as it uses up roast chicken and day-old baguettes.
Our pick of the ‘scraps’.
But before we can embark on the lunch prep, we must write an epic shopping list and take a trip to the Spar, making sure to include the oh-so glamorous job of taking the bins out. Here in Ramatuelle, you have to drive your rubbish to a communal bin area, and fling it all in. This aspect of the job is on a par with the washing up, with regards to how much I enjoy doing it. The Spar is a ten minute drive away, during which I get overtaken by the odd Ferrari, Porsche, or any car that is too impatient to deal with my terribly slow gear changing (I unashamedly drive an automatic at home). We get all meats, cheeses, bread and store cupboard items at the Spar. There is a well stocked fruit & vegetable market over the road, but our employers prefer the top end quality of a green grocers a bit further away, called Laurent Primeur. Imagine a Wholefoods, complete with the synonymous price tag. Everything in there is immaculate, as if God himself has carved each aubergine from the original, perfect aubergine that once was. The sales assistants even carry your overpriced vegetables to your car. That’s why they are able to charge nine euros for a pomegranate.
We usually get back to casa del villa at 11.30am, to serve lunch at 1pm if the family are going on their boat in the afternoon, but 1.45pm if not. Once they’ve helped themselves to the spread, we then dig in before they come back for seconds. During the course of the morning, I tend to nibble on the odd apricot, peach, really any fruit that’s lying around and looks like no one will be brave enough to go for. In the oppressive heat, fruit tends to go off rather quickly, especially as the family like to have it all out, nicely displayed in bowls. More for me!
Whilst they’re eating, we do a big wash up and any prep for the rest of the day. When there are thirteen hungry teenagers swimming and roaming around being obscenely active all day, it pays to have something up your sleeve for the afternoon. Katie isn’t much of a baker, so I get to bake to my heart’s desire. Usually it’s something chocolatey – brownies, banana & Nutella brownies, macarons, all flavours of cookies. We often do a big batch and freeze cookie dough rolled into logs. At the moment we have milk chocolate chip, and oatmeal & cranberry on ‘standby’. There is a more health conscious family coming soon, so my notebook is filling up with raw ‘super’ seeded flapjacks, dairy free coconut & cashew slices, basically anything you can put a goji berry on and call healthy.
Banana & Nutella muffins.
At about 3pm, we halt proceedings and have our afternoon break. There used to be a chef and his wife who would confidently stroll to the pool and plonk themselves on a lounger, to while away their hours off. That’s not quite what we do. Usually we go back to our room, I have a lightning change into a bikini, grab my kindle and lay outside, for my daily vitamin D. That gets a bit much, so I roll over and fall asleep for a bit. Then I fetch Katie, we find some shade and do a spot of YouTube yoga. After showering, we lay on our beds and watch a bit of a film. By that time, it’s 7pm and time to go back up to the house.
My daily sunbathe. Usually flat on a towel, on the overgrown grass at the bottom of the garden. It’s so private, you may think you can do like the French and go topless, but in actual fact there is a hive of gardening activity, which I learnt the hard way. When the family are on their boat, we can go upstairs for a swim and a more comfortable perch on the loungers.
Canapés and drinks are at 8.30pm, with dinner served at 9.15pm. This is WAY too late for me (being someone who eats dinner at 6pm at home), so I have a small meal of whatever’s lying in the fridge before starting to cook again. Sometimes with a big glass of grenadine to give me an energy boost. Every night, they like a dip with crisps and crudités. We do various flavours of hummus, guacamole, baba ghanoush, tzatziki, that sort of thing. For the actual canapés, we can go to town. Favourites of theirs have been our mini dill scones with cream cheese & smoked salmon, goats cheese & caramelised onion puffs, and sundried tomato palmiers.
Melon wrapped in Parma ham.
Mini dill scones with cream cheese & smoked salmon.
For dinner, they like an informal setting. We lay the table with lots of candles, and put the food on the side, dished up in beautiful bowls and colourful serving platters that don’t match. Most days, our employer will say, ‘We fancy chicken,’ or ‘We fancy lamb,’ so it’s up to us to decide which way to cook it, and what to serve it with. There is a plethora of Middle Eastern books in the house, which we make really good use of. Persiana, Ottolenghi’s first book, Plenty, and Jerusalem are just a few. Other favourites are River Cafe, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Veg Every Day, Jamie Oliver’s first ever cookbook, and the Leith’s cooking bible. We take inspiration from all of those, but I’m just as likely to make something I’ve seen on a blogpost or Instagram page. Some unusual dishes have been real hits lately, one being a blood orange & radicchio salad with sumac & dill. We try not to repeat dishes, but if we find a real goodun, then it might appear twice. Ottolenghi has an amazing way of serving broccoli, that has made me not want to have it any other way, ever again. Par-boil the florets, drizzle with oil and season, before griddling them on a high heat to create char marks. Sauté slivered garlic and chilli in olive oil, then toss with the broccoli. Divine!
Griddled aubergine with saffron yoghurt.
After clearing dinner, we put on a pot of coffee and brew either mint or verveine herbal tea, from the garden (naturally). When it’s just casual, dessert can be a lime granita, berries & creme fraiche pavlovas, something light and simple. When there are guests, we can bring out more of the big guns with a rich chocolate torte, lemon tart, or cheesecake. Once dessert is cleared, we’re usually at about 11.30pm, and it’s high time for bed.
So that is my typical day from start to finish, or at least what it has been like for the past two weeks. We’ve cooked for a maximum of nine, which we can barely fit around the table as it is, and from Saturday onwards we will be cooking for thirteen. So that might well be a different kettle of fish, and may even call for a new blogpost. À bientot!