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Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sand, Surf and the Reluctant Holidaymaker

Was it an incident-free few days away? Well, nearly.

It usually takes months of gentle persuasion before my holiday-averse, grumpy husband finally caves in. He was quicker this time.

“Great, so we can go to Capbreton for a week?”

“Yes, yes, if only to stop you nagging about it.”

“Oh come on, you know you love it.”

“I really don’t.”

He does.

Capbreton, a quirky little seaside town on the south-west of France, is home to one of the best surfing areas in the world. The sandy beaches are endless, the dunes enormous, and when conditions are right, those cherished rollers are downright spectacular.  

We arrived bright and early with our two bouncy Australian Shepherd dogs, Aby and Max. Access to the apartment from the underground carpark is via a lift. It’s tiny but quite posh with one side made of glass.

Despite this being their second visit, Aby still hasn’t got the hang of the moving world business. Shocked by the disappearing trees, she scored an early own goal by trying to fit into Jack’s jean’s pocket, which was never going to happen. Max, on the other hand, seemed keen to test the glass to find out if he really can fly. Fortunately, the glass is made of tough stuff.

We reached the apartment more or less unscathed. It’s in a fantastic spot. Stuck right on the seafront, it has a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I quickly unpacked, grabbed the dogs and left Jack with a coffee to help settle his post-lift experience nerves.

We knew the weather would be mixed during the week, but it wasn’t too bad when we arrived. Seafaring folks would probably call it a fresh breeze, you know, the type that blows your socks off. It’s probably why we had the beach to ourselves.

The dogs, thrilled at the feel of sand beneath their paws, played tag before racing helter-skelter towards the sea. Reaching the edge, they stopped, uncertain. They hadn’t seen ocean spume before, and The Atlantic was belching up lots that day.

Poor Aby, having only just recovered from her lift shenanigans, wasn’t at all sure about froth flying off the breakers. Max, wondering whether they were snacks delivered from Neptune, tested a couple. Nah!

It was time to bring out the toys that make an Australian Shepherd’s happiness complete. Frisbees! Bounding around me, trying to work out which way I’d throw them next, frankly, it was anyone’s guess. It’s uncanny how these flying discs develop a mind of their own when cast from my hands, but they give the dogs a great workout.

A squall increased the wind to seafarers ‘fresh’. The inevitable sandblasting of my face probably did a marvellous exfoliation job, but it wasn’t doing anything for my Frisbee-throwing technique. We packed-up and fought our ways back to our apartment, where Jack had rallied.

“Come on, let’s go and have a coffee, I could do with a snack. Erm, and you might want to tidy yourself up before we go.”

I had a quick look in the mirror.

“Ooh, no wonder the janitor looked a bit unnerved when I said hello to him!”

I looked like a Halloween horror story. A couple of shiners, courtesy of my drizzled mascara, hair that had transformed into a wire wool ball, and my cheeks were covered in multi-coloured grains of sand. That’s beach life for you.

The weather is apt to change very quickly here. In passing, the squall had blown holes in the grey skies, and we strolled in puddles of bright sunshine to a café nearby. The coffee is excellent here as are the tiny Madeleine cakes served alongside. And it wasn’t just us who wanted a nibble.

A sparrow family appeared intent on helping with the excess crumbs on Jack’s saucer.

“Would you look at this lot,” he grumbled, “can I ever get a moment’s peace from animals?”

Jack (wannabe animal-hater) immediately donated half his to the delighted flock while continuing to moan about his tortured life with animals.

Our lazy days continued in a similar vein; dog walks followed by meals and extended coffee breaks, one of which featured a lady who stopped to admire Max.

“I must stroke your dog,” she gushed. “Bernese mountain dogs are so much nicer than Saint Bernard’s, and she is a lovely specimen.”

Now, while this was all very kind, as a passionate Aussie lover, I always feel obliged to enlighten others about the breed. The gender mix-up needed sorting out too. I was a sparrow’s toenail from putting her right when Jack interrupted (he’s heard me drone on about the breed values before).

“Do you always take your dog for walks in a pram, madame? ”

“Ah no, monsieur, but today he is tired.”

With that, she gave us a cheery wave and wheeled her pooch away.

“I suppose it wouldn’t have fitted in her handbag,” he muttered at the departing stroller.

September is an ideal time of year to visit Capbreton. The summer season has finished, and the kids have gone back to school, so it’s much quieter. The restaurants are still open, though, which gives diners an almost endless choice.

Being a doggy place means that restaurant owners are very welcoming. Dog bars (bowls of water) are positioned strategically, and mutts are generally posted under tables or in handbags, out of other diners’ ways. It’s ideal for us.

We are seafood lovers. Oysters may be gloopy-looking to some, but they are a particular fave of ours, especially the Gillardeau variety offered here. Uber-healthy, they are consumed in vast quantities by customers.

Similar to this palate-teasing pair, all our meals turned out to be culinary triumphs. But it wasn’t just the food that turned heads.

For a couple of country bumpkins, Aby and Max are surprisingly well behaved when we eat out. Galloping 15-25 kilometres each day after disappearing Frisbees probably helps. They’ll lie under our table snoozing with half an eye open, ready to field a falling scrap. It’s a tidy arrangement. Mind you, this all changes when attention is shown, which I maintain it’s not their fault. Jack doesn’t agree.

We had settled down to another seafood bonanza. Table set nicely with drinks just delivered by the kind chap, who paused to tousle the dogs’ heads. An innocent error.

Aby and Max were thrilled. Our table erupted as they scrambled out to welcome their new best friend. This had predictable consequences. Jack had a tantrum as his beer followed the same route as the dogs, and I got tangled up in dog leads in my efforts to retrieve them.

Fortunately, the waiter was very understanding. He survived the canine welcome, gave them a log of bread each, and supplied us with new beers and napkins. Jack gave him a big tip at the end. We ate there several times.  

Later on, we decided to explore the old harbour to have a look at the food producers. Traditionally a whaling port, nowadays it is packed with battle-hardened trawlers.

On the dockside, fishmongers were preparing their catches for sale. I was captivated by one magnificent lady. Amazon-like, this seasoned fish-stacker effortlessly lobbed her catch around like feathers. I certainly wouldn’t have messed with her.

As the week wore on the weather changed. It was glorious now, but the swell was still high, which meant the old pier was too dangerous to use. How on earth the skippers of those small trawlers negotiated entry into the port beat us, those seas were huge.

We sat on a bench with a couple of ice creams, waiting for the next boat to negotiate entry. For some strange reason, an ebullient lady draped in a floaty kaftan (possible ex-surfer) eyeballed Jack and planted herself next to him. Apropos nothing at all, she launched into a discussion about the local birdlife, which was more of a speech, really.

Then, to his horror, she announced she wanted to show him something special. Before he could respond, she started rummaging around the folds of her frock and plucked an IPad from a voluminous pocket.

“Here, you must look at my darling,”

“Honestly, there’s no need.”

“I can see you will love him. Everyone does. This is Siberus, my pet wolf. He is famous.”

Yes, it really was a wolf, something to do with The Game of Thrones. I was riveted, but not Jack. He was distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve never seen a grown man consume an ice cream so quickly. Wallop! Down it went. We made all sorts of appreciative noises about her beloved and escaped.

Poor Jack. He was still looking a bit twitchy about the entire social encounter, so I left him in the apartment to recover and took the dogs for a ramble.

We headed to one of my favourite beaches. Backed by immense dunes, the shoreline seems endless. And it has a remarkable collection of features.

During World War II, the occupying Nazis built a series of blockhouses as defences against the Allied invasion. As it happens, the concrete structures were unused. Now they serve a happier purpose as home to curious crabs and other crustaceans, and easels for graffiti artists.

The dogs and I had a closer look. The art had changed from last year. The new messages about saving the planet were a brilliantly ironic twist. There’s no doubt, the French are passionate about protecting their environment.

The whitecaps on this beach were incredibly impressive. Rubber-clad surfers were strewn all over the place; riding the white horses, in them, or napping on the beach, spent after a watery pummelling.

A couple of pretty French girls wandered up, one clutching a surfboard that looked heavier than the pair of them. They asked if they could stroke the dogs. I nodded, knowing what would be going through Aby and Max’s minds. A cuddle? Rrrreesult!

I asked how the surfing was going. The lass with the board replied in English.

“The waves, they are confusing, it is too hard.”


“Yes, they bump into each other, I cannot stay on my board. Today, it is my first go.”

Wow! Sure enough, the breakers looked horrifically chaotic. These conditions looked more suited to experts than novices.

“Have you tried the other beach? The surf might be easier there.”

“I will drown! These waves, they are three times bigger than me, I will definitely die.”

Her friend gave her a quick hug and suggested she have one final go on their beach.

“No, I am too tired now, I will probably die here too.”

That was that then. We all decided it was far better to enjoy the beach and play with dogs in the sun instead of facing imminent death. We took some pics and parted. A gorgeous pair of girls, who I sincerely hope didn’t bother with that surfboard again during their holiday.

Our final day was peerless. We made the most of it with another trek. Watching the surfers, it struck me that there’s an awful lot of bobbing around. Clearly, I have no real idea of what’s involved, but I presume they are waiting to ‘catch a big wave’, and it can be a long wait.

Every now and again, a gigantic barrel wave appeared way offshore. Cresting, growing, curling into a monstrous cask of immense force, it peaked before smashing back into the sea. Surfers appeared on top, sometimes through the middle, but more often than not in the folds of the wave. It was mesmerising. No wonder these courageous sportspeople need naps.

Our week came to an end too quickly. One last Frisbee session, one last shared portion of heavenly oysters and a head of hair that now resembled a cat’s hairball. It had been a fantastic few days. And did Jack enjoy it? Well, aside from one incident I'll tell you about in my newsletter, yes, of course, he did!  

Another perfect holiday

Saturday, 5 October 2019

I am honoured to be asked by Beth to write a guest blog. Why? Because I am Beth's biggest fan. In fact, since we met online, I often wonder if we are related because we have so much in common. Perhaps we were stolen by gypsies and separated at birth, destined to live parallel lives.

Years ago, both Beth and I left England's grey shores in search of a peaceful retirement in another part of Europe. While Beth and her husband, Jack, dreamed of a property in France, Joe and I hoped to find somewhere to live in southern Spain. 

After a hilarious house-hunting expedition, Beth and Jack ended up buying a gorgeous but dilapidated estate in France, surrounded by forests teeming with wild boar and deer. Meanwhile, Joe and I moved into a crumbling cottage in a tiny, remote Spanish mountain village. Crumbling is the correct term because we discovered our ancient house was constructed from mud and rocks, held together with a lick of lime whitewash. We knew the house needed work, but we didn't realize that it was in danger of falling to pieces. So, while Beth and Jack set to work fixing their estate and grappled with communication in French, we attempted to stop our cottage collapsing while murdering the Spanish language.

During the early days, our laundry was outside
A word about our husbands, and I'll whisper this. They are both unbelievably grumpy. Yes, they are so irritable, short-fused and impatient that, privately, we call them our bears. Happily, their exteriors hide soft, kind and generous natures allowing us to overlook their grouchiness. 

We also ignore their strict orders not to fill our lives with animals. Beth soon began raising pheasants, partridges and chickens. Meanwhile, Joe and I somehow became chicken farmers and owned probably the most dangerous cockerel in Spain. 

Cocky, the most dangerous cockerel in Spain, in mid-crow
Wildlife and feathered creatures, as charming as they are, weren't enough. Another similarity. Beth and I rescued orphaned kittens. Both bears were sucked into kitten-parenting duties and livestock care and despite initial loud protests, almost confessed to enjoying it.

Two of the kittens asleep on Joe's keyboard
Beth and I both maintain that much of the joy of moving abroad is living amongst the locals. Beth paints wonderful word pictures of their new French friends. Likewise, our village, though small, was bursting at the seams with colourful characters. Take Paco, next door, for instance, who kept us supplied with homemade wine and advice. 

"Pah! My wine is the best in Andalucia," he always shouted, slamming his fist on the table and splashing more wine into our glasses.

It probably was, but we lost the ability to think after a few refills. Meanwhile, his wife, Carmen, ensured our waistlines expanded with cakes and other Spanish deliciousness.

When the Ufarte family moved into the cottage next door, we were treated to nightly flamenco in the street, and Lola Ufarte's antics provided the village with more conversation starters than a soap opera.

"You're such a gossip!" Joe accused me when he caught me deep in conversation with old Marcia at the village shop when I was supposed to be collecting our mail. 

But I noticed he was just as fascinated as I was by whose husband or boyfriend Lola would lure away next. And he asked Marcia if the rumour was true about a millionaire moving into the village.

I could easily continue rambling on about our crazy life in Spain, but I don't want to outstay my welcome. However,  I can't leave before mentioning the two most obvious traits Beth and I share.

Dogs and writing.

I don't think I'd be happy without either, and neither would Beth. They are addictions we have no wish to cure. 

When my beautiful dog, Lola, (named after Lola Ufarte, of course) came into my life at a difficult time, she lifted my spirits and helped me cope. And the writing? Joe threatens to tie my hands behind my back to make me stop, but I'd just type with my nose. 

My Lola, named after Lola Ufarte
I can't believe I've just published the sixth book in the Old Fools series, and I know Beth isn't far behind. She's too modest to tell you herself, but Fat Dogs and French Estates, Part 5, is definitely on the way!

Thanks, Beth, and thank you, readers!

New York Times bestselling author

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Born to Live

Jack, my husband, and I, had one of our animal chats. They can be tricky. This one started way back in January.

“Jack, how about raising a small group of pheasants this year?”

“Are you mad? We’ve got far too much to do as it is.”

“Don’t worry, everything’s under control, but I’m concerned our forest group is dwindling.”

“Hang on a minute, I’m constantly being attacked by one of the swines, why do we need more?”

“Honestly, Jack, that’s just one. Anyway, it’s only because you keep invading his territory.”

“Charming! In that case, the sod can feed himself. Mind you, I suppose we do have too many males…”

“Oh, yes, absolutely. Loads of males. If we’re going to keep the population going, we definitely need more females.”

“Huh, and I suppose you’ll want me to use the incubating machines then? They’ll need renovating and recalibrating.”

“Of course. Thank goodness one of us is technically minded. That would be marvellous, thanks. I’ll start collecting eggs once they start laying.

Deal done.

Romance was in the air with the arrival of spring. Imbued with a sense of amour, our group of penned adult pheasants began courting. A production line of eggs soon followed, which I enthusiastically collected and handed over to Jack for incubating.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone by a bunch of hair-brained pheasants, a couple of our chooks became decidedly broody. This was frustrating. Refusing to budge off their eggs, I was attacked every time I tried to remove them, neatly reminding me that one should never mess with a broody hen. They’re fiendish. Ironically, help was at hand.

By this stage, our incubators were reaching capacity. I donned a gardening glove, sneakily slipped a handful of pheasant eggs under the girls while removing the clutch in situ. Voilà! Poached eggs on toast reappeared on the breakfast menu.

We were incubating a mix of Melanistic and Reeve’s pheasants. Melanistic cock birds are a dark teal with iridescent blue plumage and black-barred tails. The females have a lustrous, almost black plumage. For a species with strong nitwit tendencies, the Melanistic variety is reasonably calm. Big tick there, the downside is they have a tendency to wander. This is a worry with trigger-happy hunters patrolling our boundaries. In spite of this, we decided to breed a small number to help calm the nervy Reeve’s.

Reeve’s pheasants are forest dwellers so ideal for our setting. The adult males are unashamedly flamboyant with bandit face markings and extra-long, flashy tails. The females’ feathering is appropriately discreet. Soft, browny shades meld into a beautiful camo plumage. All absolutely gorgeous, visually, it’s their personalities that sometimes let them down.

These birds definitely need a diet of chill pills. They’re apt to be skittish when immature, and when they reach adulthood some of the males become so territorial they’ll attack humans – like Jack. And, to be fair, nobody likes an aerial attack from a furious, whirring demon with a two-metre tail and sharp spurs.

Right on time, eggs started moving and cracks appeared. It’s like watching a magic trick. Out popped chicks who immediately started waddling around: small, perfectly formed fluffy dumplings. Sadly, as is the way of things, it wasn’t all plain sailing, and some got stuck. Luckily for them we had Jack, the midwife, on hand.

For a man who professes to dislike animals intensely, he does a remarkable job at saving so many. The chick unzipping kit was unfurled, on went two pairs of specs – one pair apparently wouldn’t do, and Jack successfully brought every stuck chick into the world.

The incubators were cleaned and put to bed, enabling Jack to return to his far more important work. Machine maintenance and associated oily tasks were on his to-do list. Meanwhile, we had a nursery full of baby birds. They’re mucky, they’re naughty, and they eat and poo copious amounts. It was my job to look after them.

Day by day, I watched as ping-pong ball-sized newborns developed tiny feathers. Aside from oversized feet, everything was still miniature at this stage, although their growth rate was incredible.

While this was going on, we had a happy event in the chicken run. Good as gold, our surrogate mums produced a mini clutch of baby pheasants. They may have been slightly mystified at their appearance, but that didn’t faze them. Instinct took over, and they protected their broods with typically fierce behaviour.

By early summer the chicks had transformed. Downy fluff had been replaced by starter feathers, and the Melanistics were looking like a congregation of vicars with their incongruous white collars. At this stage, it was still hard to tell the difference between males and females, although the bumptious behaviour of a handful suggested we certainly had a bunch of lads on our hands.  

The time had come for the youngsters to be moved from their cosy nursery to an enclosed rearing pen next to their parents. To do this, they had to be caught and popped into animal crates. Sounds ever so simple, doesn’t it? It was, in theory.

I have a serial fear of accidentally squashing the birds in mid grab, so ‘big-hands’ Jack was drafted in to do the job. A couple of issues to point out here.

The conditions for capturing a bird are cramped as one has to reach down and fish around inside the nursery for a suitable subject. There is even less room for the crate holder. Me. It was a boiling hot day. Jack has no patience at all.

“Hell’s teeth, what have you been feeding them on? Obviously the wrong stuff, this lot are crazy!”

Rhetorical question.

Arrgh! Hold that crate properly, would you? Nooo. Look! Now it’s out again.”

An anguished fumble ensued as we both tried to pin down escapee junior who was in the process of finding out what wings were for. This scenario was repeated several times.

Sometime later, all 54 were successfully boxed and ready to go. And us? We weren’t a pretty sight. I was liberally covered in droppings and I have no idea how that happened. Jack was leaking from several superficial wounds caused by multiple bashes against the nursery edges. As he mopped a bleeding elbow, out came another morose remark.

“I remember why I hate raising birds now.”

Despite their traumatic morning, our teenage flock seemed positively diverted by their new surroundings. And why not? Exciting green stalky stuff had to be examined. Unusual hard surfaces that sounded crunchy and moved weirdly when walked on. They were fun. Then there were horizontal poles. What on earth would they be for?  

With the forest on one side, parent bird pens adjacent, and hens nearby, the newcomers had lots of stuff going on. Their introduction to new things didn’t stop there. Evidently intrigued, Tripod, a three-legged wild boar we have nurtured since he was a nipper, ambled up to his side of the fence with his family to see what the tweeting hubbub was all about. Interesting for the younglings, but only for a moment. Very quickly they got bored with the smelly, grunting beasts and returned to foraging and flying practice.

Over the following weeks, my twice daily husbandry visits were made even more enjoyable by the happy arrival of a new batch of chicks from a Melanistic mum next door. I watched them thrive in the hot summer temperatures while I completed my tasks with the teenagers, who were about to learn a first valuable lesson in survival. And it came from an unexpected source.  

Every time a bird of prey flew overhead, one of the cockerels would crow to raise the alarm. The hens rushed to his side and took cover, but then something else happened. His cries instinctively caused the poults to stop in their tracks and pivot their heads skywards. I don’t know how they knew to do this, but Jack and I had seen it before and knew what we would do.

We were now in the middle of August and it was time to release our young charges to a one hectare (2.5 acres) open-top pen in the forest. Here, they would be safe from furred predators until they had improved their flying skills. They would continue to benefit from a sustained supply of feed and water and have ample roosting cover.  

A couple of days before the final transfer, much to their disgust, I caught up our guardian cockerel and his three girls. He’s massive, and they were all grumpy. It was a struggle. I drove them to the forest enclosure and gently deposited them in a smaller pen in the middle. What a transformation! If chickens could smile, they would have beamed. The moment they stepped out of the cages, they started happily clucking as they pecked at fresh grass and scratched for insects. Heaven.

With everything going to plan, it was the pheasants' turn. This can be a tricky process. The birds were now a few months old, healthy and very agile. They had to be netted and boxed. It was likely to be another test of Jack’s patience.

And it was.

It’s one of those times when I was mightly relieved we have no close neighbours. The sight and sounds of a swearing Jack sprinting around the pen with a net in hot pursuit of a panicking poult are not elegant.

I ignored the howls of, “This is a waste of time, they’re all bloody males. You do realise that, don’t you?”

They weren’t.

I also ignored the, “For crying out loud, do I have to do everything myself? I said, herd them towards me, not away!”

I was.

I nearly managed not to giggle when, breathless, he finally stopped and threw his net on the ground in a tantrum. It was a magnificent moment, one I so wish I’d caught on camera. Instead, I mildly suggested it might be my turn to net, and we eventually caught up the last of the feathery crew.

Several trips later all the crates were in the open-top pen. We opened the lids, left them to it and crossed our fingers. This is always a horribly tense time. All that work, those cute little fluff balls now beautiful young things. Our kids. Were they going to survive?

The following day I only saw a couple of pheasants. It’s a big area, so I expected that. I checked the feeders then opened the little pen door. Out came Monsieur le cockerel with his girls ready to examine his new territory.

Fast forward two weeks and, goodness, how things have altered. It’s impossible to count them, but it looks as though most of the pheasants have now made their home in the open-top pen. As always, they have gravitated to the fencing where they patrol and fly in and out as they wish. Better still, every time I have checked, the cockerel has been in the centre of his greater flock, and I know very well that if he sounds the alarm they will all run for cover.

Our pheasants were born to live. We’ve tried everything we can to make sure that happens with a continued supply of food, water and hope. If they successfully integrate with the existing small group, our job is done. Aside from the odd ambush (poor Jack), having these birds grace our forest is like living with birds of paradise. Fabulous.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Al Fresco in France

So what’s been occurring in our parts over the past few weeks? Lots, actually.

The forest is wide awake and bursting with vigour. Apples and grapes are taking form in the orchards and vineyards, and sunflowers are starting to beam in the meadows. Then there’s the wildlife. Young animals, born just this season are playing trampoline on freshly cut grass or tag among the trees. The summer is a blissful time of year for us humans too.

Villages and towns are in full flow with markets and fêtes a regular feature. Hustle, bustle, goods and produce along with alluring aromas wafting from street food are all incredibly enticing. As was the invitation we received from our English pals, Pat and David.

Pat is a super chef and really knows her onions when it comes to putting together a meal. She and David had invited us to supper, which we enthusiastically accepted. As usual, it was delicious, the crowning glory of which was Pat’s Vietnamese wrap canapés. Succulent bundles of heavenliness, they were flawlessly handcrafted using a variety of fillings that zinged off the palate and caused havoc with our taste buds. Such was the success of these little beauties we pleaded with Pat to hold a masterclass at a later date.

Word got round in the run-up to the evening. Numbers increased from a discrete three ladies to four couples. Except it didn’t quite turn out like that. Being a nuts and bolts sort of a chap, Jack, my husband, loftily refused to have anything to do with a cookery class. Then again, he was reluctant to pass up an opportunity to sample more of Pat’s cuisine. He was stymied. The magnanimous solution was that he’d crack on with his latest engine repair and join us later. I’ve seen Jack battling in the kitchen, it was a sensible decision.

On a sultry evening, I set off for their home. Hidden down a lane so secret it has grass growing down the middle, it nestles in a dip protected by woods and meadows. Dappled light filtered through the green canopy as I drove along. My destination was ahead in a clearing. Golden sunrays dazzled me as I drew up to their gorgeous farmhouse. (You can see what a jewel it is from this pic taken earlier in the year.)

French, British with the possible hint of Italian descent thrown in, our international crew turned up bearing homegrown produce and liquid gifts. True to their natures as consummate hosts, Pat and David welcomed us with warm hugs and glasses already filled with apéritifs.

Pat being Pat, she had everything beautifully organised. Plates of ingredients filled with minuscule-sized delicacies had been snipped and piled in expectant heaps. Empty plates lay ready for each pupil along with several bowls of water. Might a ritual cleansing be required before we began? We would soon find out.

I should also mention that Pat’s career included working as a cookery teacher at one of the UK’s premier private schools. Her reputation as a highly-skilled cook and child nurturer are the stuff of legend.

We were directed to the terrace dining table, and our class began. Instructions were issued, and a short demonstration was given, which solved the bowls of water mystery. All we had to do was soak a rice paper disc for a short time, remove and then fill it with a mixture chosen from Pat’s pre-prepared goodies. Fold in the edges to make a parcel et Voilà! Simple.

We were off.

It quickly became apparent that while Pat is a stellar chef, her pupils had much to learn in the art of building a Vietnamese wrap. There’s definitely a knack to it. 

Have you ever worked with rice paper? It’s pesky stuff. Looking like an oversized contact lens, it is slippery and a tad slimy when wet. It’s also prone to splitting so must be handled with care.

My first mistake was quantity control. Agonising over choice, I stuffed loads in. Wrestling to get my clammy package closed, I quickly pinned the edges together and squished it, folds down, on my plate in the hope that it might glue together. It didn’t. I stared miserably as my podgy mass gradually unravelled, ending up in an amorphous splurge of assorted morsels.

“No, Beth, I’m afraid that won’t do,” observed Pat, “good try though. Have another go with fewer bits,” she added encouragingly.

Di, my sister, who had been chortling on the side-lines at my pathetic attempts, had the opposite problem. Sensibly economic, she had used just three julienne-cut carrot matchsticks plus a sliver of cucumber. That didn’t work either. It looked like a wacky-baccy cigarette which wasn’t worth the smoke.  

Meanwhile, another trainee was developing consistency problems. Something he’d done in the bowl was causing the rice paper rounds to lose their elasticity. Try as he might, and full marks, he was totally focused, the end results looked like flaccid opaque slugs.

Happily for Pat, in sharp contrast to us flounderers, one of the class quickly caught on. Fiendishly competitive, Jane transformed into a human production line, producing endless examples of what a Vietnamese wrap really should look like.

Mind you, nobody likes a teacher’s pet. As the rest of us blundered on with variously exploding, skinny or lax offerings, our labours were periodically punctuated with chirpy commentary.

“What do you think of this one, Pat? I think it’s my best yet.”

“Very good, Jane. Yes, that’s another excellent one.”

Had it burst? Was it too skinny? No, nope, it was a perfectly wrapped little parcel full of nicely-selected gubbins. Suppressing a tut, and making a mental note to ask Jane if she enjoyed wrapping Christmas presents, I returned to my greyish blob.

Defeat is not on the menu of our consummate chef. True to her teaching instincts, Pat refused to end our masterclass until we had all made at least one presentable canapé. Since most of us were best described as low-achievers, this took a while.

“Stop fishing around in the bowl, Pierre, it’s rice paper, not a goldfish. It’s gone soggy now, just take it out carefully. Never mind, I’m sure you’ll crack it before we run out of supplies.”

“Ah, now that’s a much better effort, Chloé, although you might want to re-think your choice of mixing wasabi with mint leaves. Aside from that, you’ve done a lovely job.”

As we beavered away, David, who was observing, recognised the signs of culinary strain. He came to our rescue with wine, surreptitiously filling glasses throughout the session. It did a champion job in keeping our spirits high, transforming frustrated groans into shrieks of laughter as we giggled at one anothers’ efforts.

By the time we’d finished, every trainee had specimens that passed muster. I was still struggling with my tendency to produce fat torpedoes and Di, spindles, but they were deemed acceptable. Jane, however, could have fed an army with her mountain of culinary beauties and accepted the constant teasing with good grace.

“Well done, everyone,” exclaimed Pat, “and now we’re going to enjoy the results.”

With uncanny timing, Jack turned up as Pat reappeared with platters laden with our best efforts. As we sat enjoying our al fresco tapas, I reflected on how priceless evenings like this were. And what is the secret to making a top Vietnamese wrap? Well, you’ll have to ask Pat, our cordon bleu chef, but here is the method along with some of our mixings, and they were seriously yummy!