In my early 20s I received a marriage proposal from a Bolivian general. I was on the shores of Lake Titicaca, at the festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria, which is famous throughout South America. The procession of hundreds of people wearing grotesque masks, whistling and whooping as they dance, is like nothing you have ever seen. Entranced, I climbed on a truck to get a better view and was busy taking photos when a man came up and called to me, "Tu fui robado." Not "I'm going to rob you," but "You have been robbed." I looked down into my shoulder bag. My passport was gone, all my money, everything … the bag was empty.
Sobbing hysterically, I was escorted to the general's tent, and a bevvy of military were dispatched to find the offender. The general offered me a glass of Krug Champagne and assured me not to worry, all would be found. After a few hours my passport and belongings — less US$100 and I wasn't about to complain about that — were returned.
By then a great deal of Champagne had been consumed and the general and I had danced a kind of a hip-hop in the town square. Things were getting very jolly.
"Deliciosa," I simpered politely, munching on some sweet, indecipherable joint of meat that was being passed around and slurping down more Krug. "Es muy deliciosa — algo regional?" I asked. ("Delicious — is it something regional?") His eyes lit up, "Aahh," he exclaimed, "Si, es muy especial. Cuyol." I gulped, faltering over the idea of eating a favourite pet.
And then out it came … I was a woman of great taste and great beauty, a woman who could bear his heir, he who would be the next Presidente. In the midst of this streaming torrent, he dropped to his knees and proposed, imploring that I accept him as my husband for evermore.
Now Krug is a drop that's hard to refuse, but the prospect of being married to a Bolivian general, especially one who considered firearms part of his wardrobe, was not something I felt my mother, nor the children I hoped I would one day bear, would be very happy about. Especially when they came to discover that Daddy's penchant for guinea pigs lay squarely on the plate.
In those parts of the world, one is not usually inclined to disagree with the military, and so with a racing heart, on the pretext of a bathroom visit, I grabbed my handbag with its restored contents, and climbed on to the toilet seat to remove the top louvre windows. Once out the window I made a run for a moving bus back to La Paz. In the morning I reset my compass for Brazil.
To mark Valentine's Day, this week I've put together a simple menu that you can cook for your loved one – no guinea pigs required.
French Chicken Breasts With Cherry Tomatoes
Ready in 30 mins
2 single chicken breasts, skin on
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
¾ cup chicken stock
1-1½ tsp white wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar
2 Tbsp soft herbs, such as parsley, chervil and tarragon, chopped
Preheat oven to 150C fanbake. Season chicken with salt and pepper on both sides and set aside. Heat 1 Tbsp butter in an ovenproof frying pan over a medium heat. When butter starts to turn brown add chicken, skin-side down, and cook for 4 minutes until golden brown. Turn to brown other side for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, stock and vinegar and bring to a simmer. Transfer to preheated oven and bake until juices run clear when chicken is pierced with a skewer in the thickest part (about 20-30 minutes, depending on size of chicken). Transfer chicken to two warm serving plates to rest. Taste cooking juices in frying pan and adjust seasonings. Mix in most of the herbs, reserving some for the garnish. Return pan to stovetop and simmer for 5 minutes, adding remaining butter at the end and whisking until glossy. Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with remaining herbs to serve.
Annabel says: This fabulous recipe from my new book, Essential, makes such an easy impressive no-fuss dinner for two. Browning the chicken breasts in a pan to add flavour and then finishing them off in a low-temperature oven ensures they stay tender and juicy. Partner with baby new potatoes and a mixed green salad.
Ready in 30 mins + cooling
Makes about 15
125g dark chocolate (at least 70 per cent cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
3 Tbsp butter, at room temperature
4 tsp orange liqueur or other liqueur (optional)
½ cup cocoa
Heat the cream in a medium pot until it is almost but not quite boiling. You'll know it's ready when bubbles start to form around the edge of the pot. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Stand for 2 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is fully melted into the cream. Whisk until smooth and glossy. When you start to stir it, you think it won't come together, but it will. Mix butter into warm chocolate mixture until evenly incorporated. Stir in liqueur, if using. Chill for 1 hour or until firm enough to mould. When chocolate mixture is firm, sift cocoa into a bowl. Use two teaspoons to scoop out balls of chocolate mixture. Roll each ball between your hands to get an even shape and then roll in cocoa to coat. If the mixture softens as you go, return to the fridge until it sets enough to be workable.
Annabel says: Make these as a special after-dinner treat for your Valentine – or enjoy the sensory experience of making them together. Any left-over truffles will keep for weeks in a cool spot.
Green Melon Fizz
Ready in 5 mins
2 Tbsp melon liqueur
2 strawberries (optional)
Sparkling wine, chilled
Pour 1 Tbsp of liqueur into each of 2 champagne flutes and top with chilled sparkling wine (it doesn't need to be an expensive champagne). Drop a strawberry into each glass, if desired, and serve immediately.
Annabel says: It's hard to go past bubbles if you're planning a romantic evening, and a dash of melon liqueur makes a special-occasion spritz. You can swap the liqueur out for another fruity flavour, such as orange liqueur, if you prefer.