Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The journey from there to here

I grew up in a small town in Canada. Actually, in a lot of small towns in Canada, as my dad was in the Canadian Air Force. The closest I ever got to a city was when my dad would take us on business trips with him to Winnipeg, once in a blue moon, and really, we only saw the outskirts from the back seat of my father's car. My whole world consisted of my family and a very select group of people.

I used to dream though, of travelling the world and of one day being successful at something. I loved to write. I had a passion for cooking. I had a great love for my family and friends. I never pursued a career as an adult, not unless you can consider a brief stint as the pastry chef in a hotel a career. Instead I chose to do what I loved most at that time and that was to bring up a family, as a wife and a mother. Those were wonderful years that all too soon passed.

So how does a small town girl from Canada find herself living in the rural countryside of England and working as a chef? I pinch myself every day, because, yes, it is a dream come true, and yes, it is quite far removed from anything that shy little girl, from way back when, could have ever imagined one day doing.

I believe I was born with my face in a pot and a wooden spoon in my hand, for I have loved recipes and cooking for as long as I can remember. My mother was not a cook who enjoyed having children in her kitchen, but I can remember spending long hours at my grandmother's elbow watching her roll out cookies or pat out biscuits. Sometimes she would let me play with the leftover dough and then bake my creations for me, all soot stained from my grubby little fingers, and then exclaim at how delicious they were when they were done. As a child, I spent many hours cooking in a make believe house in our back garden, which, in reality, was only an outline in the grass made of stones, but my oh my . . . what beautiful dishes I concocted out of bits of leaves, sticks, grass, flower buds and mud.

As a teen, my mother went out to work full time, and so the wooden spoon was passed down to me and I began to cook for my family. At first, my culinary adventures consisted only of heating up things my mother had already prepared ahead of time, but, with several terms of schoolroom home economics under my belt, I soon gained confidence and began to prepare and cook the family's meals all on my own, and I loved every minute of it.

Once I got married I really began to shine as a home cook. People always loved to come to my table and, to be perfectly honest, that is when I was happiest . . . when I was cooking a meal for those that I loved and cared about, their satisfied and smiling faces around my table the only reward I needed or desired.

I have had quite a few mentors and good friends through the years, and I learned something from each and every one of them. From my first mother in law, who was a farm wife, I learned the basics of good farm house cookery and how to please a family with little money, using wholesome, honest and pure ingredients. A Ukrainian friend, Esther, showed me how to make my own perogies. (I wish I had a dollar for everyone of those I have rolled out through the years!) Leona, Mabel, Jewel, Debbie . . . I was very lucky throughout my life to have good cooks as friends. Good friends who didn't mind sharing their experience and recipes with me. I picked up a little bit of knowledge from each and every one of them, and lots of good recipes too! Cooking for a growing family of five children and then teenagers gave me lots of practice and lots of guinea pigs to experiment on. They never went hungry and they were never bored with the meals I prepared, because I so loved to try new recipes and a variety of ingredients.

I divorced in the late 1990's and met my present husband on the internet. Yes, it does work out, and quite successfully at times. I had always wanted to come to England and he was not yet ready to retire, and so I ended up emmigrating over here instead of him going over there to Canada. I had not really been able to find a good job in Canada. At best, I was only ever able to gain employment working part time at a Tim Horton's coffee shop, flogging donuts and coffee. After having been a stay at home mom for 22 years, I really didn't have any useable skills, at least not that I recognized at that time at any rate!

Once I got over here and we settled in to married life, I began to explore the possiblities of training in something, so that, once my husband retired, I would be able to find a decent job to help support us. I had always loved cooking, and I was good at it, and so we decided that I should take a chef's course. At the time, we were living on a council estate near Chester in the North West of England. My husband had done Estate work throughout the years and, to be honest, we were both tired of living in an urban environment, and so, upon completion of my course, we started to look for employment in the country, with myself as a cook and him as a part time handyman. Basically he would be retired. (although he would laugh at that idea now, because he is busier retired than he ever was when he was working!)

We saw an ad in the "Lady" magazine in September of 2003, where a couple with a small family were looking for someone to cook for them. We came down for an interview and were employed within the week.

I love what I do and I love the people I work for. They are good, kind and decent people, and I really do feel like a part of the family. I get to live and work in a beautiful environment, using the finest ingredients and equipment. I get to stretch my skills often, especially when they entertain, and to try new things and develop new recipes, all at someone else's expense. Yes, I truly am blessed. I pinch myself every day.

There are quite extensive gardens and greenhouses where I work. They grow alot of their own flowers, having beautiful rose gardens and other cutting flower gardens. They grow fabulous vegetables and fruits, some of which you have already seen showcased here in my blog. Yesterday one of the gardeners brought me up two big baskets of beautiful tomatoes grown here in the greenhouses and right away they sang out tomato soup to me. It is not often, only but a few times a year, that you have access to lovely flavoured tomatoes worthy of making a delicious soup with. You just cannot beat a fresh tomato soup, made with homegrown tomatoes . . . tomatoes that haven't spent weeks in a refrigerator truck or been sprayed to keep them from ripening too quickly. These scarlet delights are the real deal . . .

*Fresh Tomato Soup*
Serves 4 to 6

This is a delicious soup that beautifully showcases the lovely fresh flavours of vine ripened tomatoes. Even if you don't grow your own tomatoes, this is the perfect time of year to go to the local farm markets and buy them. Quite often you can get huge quantities of rather battered, very ripe tomatoes quite cheaply and these will shine in this lovely recipe. Make lots of it to freeze and take out in the winter months . . . a little taste of late summer sunshine on those bleak, grey and cold days ahead.

200g onions, peeled and chopped
50g butter
900g tomatoes, halved if small, cut into quarters if larger
5 TBS dry sherry
1 TBs sugar
3 TBS torn fresh basil, plus some to serve
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
chicken stock (or vegetable stock) if needed
a little cream to serve

Place a large pot over medium-low heat and melt the butter. Add the onions and cook them very slowly, without browning, stirring them from time to time until they are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, sherry, sugar, basil and salt and pepper. Cook for about ten minutes, until the tomatoes are softened.

Remove from the heat and blitz with a stick blender, or put through a mouli. It will probably be fairly thick, but you can thin it with a bit of hot stock, if necessary.

Ladle out into hot soup bowls and drizzle a bit of cream over top. Scatter a bit more torn basil on top and serve with plenty of warm crusty bread.


  1. Yummy Marie!
    You are were so cute.

  2. Marie, this is a great post, full of warmth and heart.

    You've finally found your niche in the world; a kitchen with endless possiblities. You're not lucky - you deserve it!

  3. Wonderful post Marie. I often wondered how you came to live where you are and now I know. Thank you for a good read :)

  4. Marie what a lovely post to share with your readers! I love learning about how people grew up and what gave them the passion to serve others and love food.

    Your family is beautiful and you were an adorable little girl!

    The soup really looks like a winner!


    p.s. Did you get my email with my entry for "Show Us Your Sarnie"? I posted about it over on my blog www.mulliganstewme.com . Let me know if there were any problems with receiving it and I will resend it.

  5. I am utterly convinced, yours must be the happiest existence in the world.

  6. Mmmm, I've missed a few delicious posts! Having learned some from your other blog, it was good to fill in the missing gaps about you Marie. Thanks for sharing with us.

  7. Apologies - that was terrible English! Put it down to being tired...

  8. What a beautiful tribute to your family, friends and life. You are so lucky to be working with special people and in a job that the rest of us would long for. Here;s to many more happy hears at Oak Cottage!!

  9. Sorry about the typos Marie, it is late in the evening for me...

  10. OH I loved this one! It's great to know more about you! I too have to pinch myself sometimes to see if I am dreaming, because I am loving it here so much.

    Tomato Soup is one of my very favorite foods! I WILL make this one! And I can't wait!

  11. What a wonderful story! I just found your blog and I can't wait to return--cottage is one of my favorite words--so cozy!

  12. I love reading your stories, Marie. It's so interesting hearing how you came to be where you are today. And what fun that you have found a niche for your talents AND that you gather such enjoyment from your job. Probably lots of us Americans look with great envy of living in a cottage on an estate. Your house looks adorable too. I'm very glad to have found your blog a month of so ago.

  13. What a super story! I have just discovered your blog & will be back for more!


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