My daughter edits and runs a political website. She works very hard, literally seven days a week. Needing a break (since 2016, working in politics has been like a runaway train: Brexit, two elections, three prime ministers and two Labour leaders) she booked an airbnb in the Cotswolds. And invited me! Her old mum.
The hardest thing about lockdown is not travelling. I’ve assuaged much of my loneliness as a single empty nester by escaping. Now my wings have been clipped. I had to cancel a July trip to Finland to take part in a midnight Arctic swim – I guess I’ll do it next year. Thank god I managed to fulfil a life=long dream of visiting Japan in January before Covid hit home.
Travel addicts like me are having to wean ourselves off the drug. This is the moment for staycations, to learn and explore my own country. I know France better than I know the UK.
The Cotswolds, only a couple of hours drive from London, is almost a cliché of Englishness; tiny thatched cottages, stable doors, wild gardens, hedgerows, ‘honeystone’ dry stone walls, courtesy, good cheese and pubs. No wonder the elite, the Chipping Norton set, David Cameron and Alex James from Blur, possess country piles in the Cotswolds. It’s Hobbiton, Middle Earth. JRR Tolkien lived nearby, in Oxford.
The airbnb wasn’t cheap, £700 for five nights. The outside was charming, total #cottagecore. The inside was rather dark with a winding wooden staircase upstairs to two bedrooms. James, my daughter’s boyfriend, who is six foot tall, crouched the entire stay like a hunchback.
The kitchen was a source of frustration. One would think that airbnb owners don’t want you to cook: the induction hob hardly worked (I hate them anyway), the fridge froze our vegetables, there was no saucepan large enough for four people, the amount the cottage slept. The electric shower piddled a weak stream of luke-warm water and the beds were less than comfortable. I got the impression that this was a nice little earner and the overriding concern was making it easy to ‘turn it over’ clean for the next guests rather than our comfort.
It’s weird to pay so much for a place that is less comfortable than your own home.
But the air…so clean, vibrant and sweet. We walked the first evening to watch the sunset, through fields of calm sheep, trees rustling, individual leaves waving strangely as if saying ‘hello’. Hollyhocks in vivid pinks sprouting from nooks and crannies. It was trippy.
One day we whizzed past a blur of purple; only downwind I realised this was lavender. Something I’ve only seen in Provence. Cotswold Lavender farm, entrance £4 each, hundreds of tourists were posing for selfies amongst the plants, the serried rows of blue, pink and mauve lavender, the meadows of yellow rape. It was an instagram farm. Clever.
There is an internet list of ‘Prettiest villages in the Cotswolds‘. We managed to visit Bourton on the Water: small humped stone bridges over a river running through the centre. Speaking to a local, bare feet in the shallow stream, rebuilding the drystone banks, she told me ‘We don’t go out between 10am and 5pm, we leave that to the tourists’.
We spent an afternoon wandering through Chipping Campden: stable doors leading to cottage courtyards, secret gardens, a wooden-beamed village market place, lead-paned windows and stitched smock-topped thatch, everything painted in Farrow and Ball greens. I entered one open door, lured by designer interiors and antique furniture, I was quite far inside when a young girl popped out. ‘Is this a hotel or a bar?’ I asked. ‘No, it’s our house’ she replied mildly. I left quickly, apologising.
Thanks to a timely matinal Guardian piece on a 100 year old baker finally retiring from the village bakery, I drove to Guiting Power nearby, perhaps to buy the last loaf. But she’d left and the bakery is already sold to new people. A local told me that the centenarian baker was blind and would say to customers ‘Just pick out what you want’. I peered through a window to see a large coal-blackened bread oven where she would literally bake blind.
I cooked of course. I brought the contents of my London fridge and some local Cotswold cheese: single Gloucester, some smoked brie, a Stinking Bishop. On Saturday it rained and I couldn’t be bothered to cook. We played scrabble and ate bread and cheese and Rowntrees fruit gums.
I made a Romanian dish inspired by ‘Carpathia’ by Irina Georgescou, vegetarianising it. I also tackled polenta again. I do struggle with it. It is mostly a textural experience. I made the corn porridge with cream and porcini, fried aubergine slices and salad. My daughter hated it. I often prefer polenta the next day, when it has set into a cake. Slice it up and turn it into ‘chips’ with a dipping sauce. Recipes for these two dishes are below.
Baked polenta chips and cheesy dip
For the polenta
- 300 g polenta (I used good quality polenta not quick cook but you could use either)
- 600 ml water, or veg stock
- 1 tbsp salt, if not using veg stock
- knob large butter
- 50 g parmesan cheese (optional)
To make the polenta chips
- 100 g dry polenta
- sprig fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
For the blue cheese dip
- 100 g blue cheese
- 150 ml sour cream or Greek yoghurt
- 1/2 lemon, juice of
- 1 tsp sea salt
To make the polenta
- Using a large to medium sized saucepan, add the stock (or water and salt) and polenta to the pan and bring to the boil.
- Simmer, stirring constantly for around 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from the heat, beating in a large knob of butter. Add either parmesan cheese or pesto to flavour it. Eat hot.
To bake the polenta chips
- Leave the leftovers of the polenta to form a solid cake. Cut into slices, then chips.
- Prepare an oiled baking tray and preheat the oven to 180C.
- Sprinkle the dry polenta on to a plate and dip in each 'chip' coating each side.
- Place the polenta chips in a single layer in the baking tray.
- Sprinkle with the chopped rosemary.
- Bake for one hour. When cooked, remove and serve with the dip.
To make the blue cheese dip
- Crumble the blue cheese into the cream or yoghurt and blend.
- Add the salt and lemon juice.
Stuffed courgettes in broth
For the stuffed courgettes
- 4 courgettes, cut into 5cm chunks and hollowed out, reserve insides for stuffing
For the stuffing
- 300 g smoked quinoa (I used Hodmedods) or any quinoa
- 600 ml water
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 50 g butter
- 250 g button mushrooms, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 glass white wine (optional)
- 2 preserved lemons, pips removed, finely chopped
For the broth
- 1 tbsp tomato puree
- 6 cherry tomatoes, finely sliced
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 100 ml Greek yoghurt
- bunch fresh mint leaves to decorate
- Preheat the oven to 180C
For the stuffing
- Add the quinoa, water and salt to a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer until cooked and fluffy. The water should be absorbed (if not then drain).
- In a frying pan, heat the butter and oil and add the mushrooms and garlic and fry until light golden.
- Add the leftover courgette interiors, preserved lemon and white wine. Then stir in the cooked quinoa.
- Stuff the courgettes with the mixture, packing it in fairly tightly. Set aside.
For the broth
- In a medium saucepan, add all the ingredients and simmer.
- Pour the broth into a medium oven dish. Place the stuffed courgettes in the broth and cover the dish with foil. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until the courgettes are cooked but not mushy.
- Serve 3 pieces of courgette for each person with a generous ladle of broth.
- Add dollops of yoghurt and a few mint leaves.