Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reporting from the Eastern Front (of England)

For the past two weeks I have been experiencing the full blast of UK pre Christmas blitz. For the first time in many years we are spending the month of December in England.
We had been warned to prepare for a culture shock, and boy, did we have one. From the moment we arrived at Gatwick, to find no trolleys and a ten mile hike to passport control, to the unmitigated horrors of the M25 at 11 pm. And can anyone tell me why as members of the EU we had to queue for so long to get into the country anyway? I thought being in that elite club brought privileges like speedy entry into fellow EU countries. Apparently not. And why are the passport checkers such a surly lot?
'This is my home country' I feel like saying.'I might have been away for a few years, but I have as much right as as anyone to come in. I promise I won't linger. I'll leave, thankfully, as soon as Christmas is over.'
But England still does have a few things to offer that France doesn't. Ignore the frantic shopping mania, the every man for himself obsession there is still a vestige of Christmas spirit lurking about, particularly in the more rural areas of the country.
Ever since the 1930s France has had a strict policy of non-intervention between church and state. In the multi-cultural world we inhabit today this is probably a sound decision, but it makes for a very quiet Christmas. No nativity plays in the schools, no village carol services.
In the primary school days of my own children there were times when I felt I couldn't face yet another rendition of the nativity story. With the village school striving for something a bit different I've sat through the most bizarre variations of the journey to Bethlehem, but somehow ever since we've lived in France I've had a yearning to see assorted children wearing dressing gowns and Mum's tea cloth on their heads intoning monotonously ...'Lo, we have seen the star in the East...etc.'
Our little French village is as quiet as the grave on Christmas Eve. No merry drinkers pile out of the bar and reel into the church to finish off a jolly evening singing Once in Royal David's City lustily (and incoherently). Everyone is merry-making behind the shutters with their families, settling down to a gargantuan supper which will stretch across many courses and several hours. Presents will be opened, toasts drunk and the next day...Christmas Day...will be like our Boxing Day. Very hung-over. And after that on the 26th it's straight back to work for a few days until the whole thing starts again for the Revellions de St Sylvestre (New Years Eve, to the non-French.)
So, on Frday we will gather in the local church for an evening of Christmas carols, there is a crib service on Christmas Eve that I might go to if I'm well ahead with the next day's catering,and on Christmas morning we will be going into full-on Olde- English-Charles Dickens-Yo-Ho-Ho Merry Yuletide.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Keep out the Cold with a Warming Stew.


I promised I'd write some more about our local speciality, the famous cassoulet. Much has been written about this rustic stew, and it has become something of a must- try on the tourist circuit. So, one witnesses the comical sight of coach-loads of heavily perspiring tourists packing out the restaurants of la Citié,the Unesco Heritage Site in Carcassonne, manfully ploughing their way through steaming plates of bean stew in the 30c heat of July. Because 'it's what you do when you take in the sites of Carcassonne'. You bring a copy of the DaVinci Code to study in an ostentatious manner as well.

Every European country has a winter stew written into its gastronomic history, if only to use up all those hearty winter vegetables in an effort to keep warm, from Lancashire hotpot to Tuscan white bean stew. And in the chill of a Southwest France winter, cassoulet was just as much of an alternative to central heating as all the rest. Basically it's a white bean stew, very much like the Tuscan one, with sausages,tomatoes, garlic and meat. It's in the choice of meat that the cassoulet displays its regional characteristics.
As I mentioned before, the town of Castelnaudery lays claim to producing 'le vrai' cassoulet. And a village just north of the town was famous for producing the traditional red clay pot that the stew should be served in. This is a deep bowl, with the sides narrowing towards the base. This gives plenty of space for the bread-crumb crust that some regions insist on for the finished dish.
Depending on where you eat your cassoulet will determine what meat is likely to be in it, but as a rough guide it's:
Castelnaudery : all pork...any cuts together with sausages and pork rind
Toulouse : pork, but confit duck or goose as well, and Toulouse sausage (naturellment)
Carcassonne : pork, and sausage with lamb, or if its's in the autumn, you may be lucky enough to find a piece or two of partridge
The Perigord : lamb, Toulouse sausage and cou farci d'oie...stuffed goose neck.

There are so many variations that really, anything goes as long as you stick to the main ingredients which must include dried haricot beans. They should be lingots produced around Tarbes but they are hideously expensive and probably not that easy to find in the UK.

There are three processes to the making of a cassoulet: the soaked beans are cooked separately, and the meats as well, then the whole thing is brought together with confit duck or goose for the final cooking....the duck/goose will have been previously cooked when it was confit'd so doesn't require the long cooking that the rest of the ingredients do ( I'm beginning to sound like Delia Smith)

This recipe will serve 8 -10 and just requires some crusty bread to accompany it. Nothing else, oh - apart from a few bottles of a gutsy red wine. It's a rib-sticking piece of gastronomy, so no other vegetables or side dishes are neeed. Some indigestion tablets might be a good idea for those with less than robust digestions.

For the bean part you will need:

1 kg dried white haricot beans.
a carrot, an onion and 2 cloves of garlic( well, as many as you like really...this is where I stop sounding like Delia.) These should be roughly chopped
Bouquet garni
350 gms (more or less) salt belly of pork
a ham bone...if you can scrounge one from your local deli, a Bayonne, or Serrano ham bone is ideal, but an ordinary one is OK.
salt (go easy on it as you've got salt in the pork, so taste as you go) and peppercorns
.

To cook:
Soak the beans in cold water overnight. Then drain, rinse, and place in a large saucepan with enough water to well cover, and bring to a fast boil. Cook for 10 mins. Then add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about 1 hour. Test the beans - they should be soft, but not mushy.

While the beans cook prepare the meat part of the dish.

For this you will need:

350 gms lean pork shoulder
700 grms good quality pork sausages, preferably Toulouse, but any sort with a high meat content
250 grms peeled tomatoes - I strongly recommend a large tin of Italian plum toms - it's easier and they have a richer taste, but let's not tell the French !
yet another carrot and onion and plenty of garlic
1 generous litre of meat or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste.


Cut the pork into chunks, and fry off gently (in duck fat if possible) with the chopped onion, sliced carrot and crushed garlic. Add the sausages ....if you're using the Toulouse variety you'll need to cut it up into chunks, if not you can leave the sausages whole.Then sauté everything off until is a nice gold colour. Add the hot stock and the tomatoes. Season well and cook at a gentle simmer for about an hour. All being well the beans and meat will be ready at the same time.

Whilst both are simmering away you can prepare the confit'd duck or goose.
For this you will need:

1 850 gm -1kg tin of confit de canard or d'ioe

Place the tin in a pan of hot water and warm up in a moderate oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully open the tin. A cloth over the tin at this point is a good idea, as there will be a lot of hot fat sloshing around.
Lift out the pieces of duck or goose and drain well. Tear the pieces into easily eaten chunks, being careful to remove any bones. Pour the liquid fat into a kilner type jar and refrigerate. Stored like this, the fat will solidify and keep for months. It makes the best-ever roast potatoes and is one of the few fats that are actually acceptable health-wise.

Now you're ready to assemble the cassoulet.
Drain off the beans, discarding the vegetables and herbs. Remove the rind from the salt pork (the French don't, so keep it on if you wish)and cut into chunks.
Take a very large casserole dish - terracotta if possible,for authenticity - and layer in the beans and the meats - the salt pork, the shoulder of pork, the sausages and the duck or goose meat - plus the vegetables from the pork and sausage stew, then top up with the cooking stock until everything is well covered. At this point you could refrigerate the dish until and hour before you need it. It will sit quite happily for a couple of days, thus saving a lot preparation time if you're entertaining on a tight time scale.

Just before placing in a moderate oven sprinkle a thick layer of fresh breadcrumbs over the top of the cassoulet and cook for an hour. As long as you check that it hasn't absorbed all the liquid it will sit quite contentedly in the oven for a lot longer while you chat with your guests. It's a perfect dish for solo entertaining as all the hard work can be done beforehand.

So, making sure you have all the required ingredients, or adapting the recipe to make use of what's available, just wait for the first sprinkling of snow and spend a cosy afternoon in the kitchen assembling your version of a French winter stew.

Monday, November 10, 2008

November- The Month for Remembering.





From the middle of October the supermarkets and flower shops have been filled with huge pots of chrysanthenums,and to a lesser extent scarlet cyclamen. These are in readiness for Toussaints,or the feast of All Saints on November 1st. Cemeteries all over France will be ablaze with gold, copper or deep maroon balls of tightly packed chrysanthenums. On the actual day of Toussaints masses for the dead are said; in the case of our village an 11 a.m mass was celebrated in the ancient chapel of St. Jean which adjoins the cemetery As is customary in France, the graveyard is several hundred meters outside the village itself. If cemeteries can be pleasant places, ours is. It has magnificent views - south to the mountains, north to the flatter, more arable land of the Gers, and in front, the peaceful valley of the Save. The family plots are quietly impressive, with their collections of memorium plaques..for an uncle, a god-parent, an old comrade. Reading the names it soon becomes apparent that there are four or five main famillies in the village whose roots go back generations, and their heirs are still running local life..as councillors, bar owners,local tradesmen. Modern life has made it's presence felt in France, as everywhere else, and new famillies move in, but it's reassuring to know that the old-established names are still here, contributing to village life.

November 11th sees the 'Armistice 1918' as it's called on my French calender.

This afternoon the young man who works for the mairie, and keeps the village looking nice, will put out the four small tricolour at each corner of the memorial opposite the post office. The four corners are marked by upright WW1 shells, now unarmed and painted black. As in the UK the monumant itself bears the names of the village men who died in both conflicts, and in the Algerian debacle as well.

Tommorrow, at 10.55 a small crowd of villagers will gather and the mayor will solemly read out each individual name, each one followed by a murmured 'Mort pour France' from the congregation. There will be a one minute silence, and then everyone will retire to the bar for an aperitif.

The French don't wear poppies as they do the UK, instead they opt for blue cornflowers. Unfortunately in this day and age the cornflower is now reduced to a paper sticker for coats and lapels. The British Legion still produce a 'proper' poppy, thank goodness.

Toussaints and Armistice Day provides the French with two more public holidays, but that will be their lot this year until Christmas Day.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Home-made Treat


Just in case I've stirred anyone's interest in marron glacé they are quite easy to make at home.I found this recipe in the Daily Telegraph. I wouldn't imagine they would keep very long, unlike the commercially produced ones but if anyone has a spare five minutes in between baking the mince pies and preparing the stuffing on Christmas Eve (I can hear the howls of anguish even now !) here's the recipe


You will need

150g (5oz) chestnuts
Half cup of caster sugar
Half cup fresh orange juice
113g (4oz) icing sugar, sifted
1 tbsp ground cinnamon (or more, to taste)

1. Peel chestnuts and steam for 7-8 minutes over a pan of simmering water.
2. Put the orange juice and caster sugar together in a pan. Bring to boiling point on the hob and reduce to a syrupy (like light caramel) consistency ( 3-4 minutes). Quickly tip the chestnuts in, stir very gently to coat them. Drain off the syrup, and spoon the chestnuts individually onto a wire rack to cool. Tip chestnuts into a bowl and coat lightly in icing sugar and cinnamon (to taste).
3. On greaseproof paper, dry chestnuts in the oven (40C) for 10 minutes. Garnish with orange peel.

recipe and photo curtesy of the Daily Telegraph.
-------------------------


Home-made marron glacé would make a lovely Christmas present for friends in these cash-strapped times. Arranged in a pretty box, with a bow, or hand crafted gift tag...one swanky-looking present for not much cost, just a bit of effort.

I don't know how good the chestnut harvest is going to be this year. We have masses of sweet chestnut trees all around us, but the real chestnut territory is in central France, and the Perigord in particular.

I do like them with Brussell sprouts, but I have to admit all that peeling ruins one's Christmas nails! So I'm ashamed to say I buy them ready-to-go. The tin ones are OK but I think the vacuum packs are better as the chestnuts are drier and seem to break up less easily.

Tinned chestnut purée is a great store cupboard stand-by. Whipped up with a little cream to 'slacken' the mixture,(adding caster sugar to taste if the purée is unsweetened) then tipped into bought meringue cases, and topped with a drizzle of melted chocolate to which a little rum has been added.... disgustingly delicious!

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Unbearable Enthusiasm of New Grannies.


Just in case any of you didn't know why I had a pile of baby clothes on the spare bed I shall inflict yet another baby photo on you.

Ain't 'e 'ansome? Two weeks-going-on-six-months. He'll be walking and talking at Christmas by this rate !

French Treats



The bed in our spare room is beginning to resemble the village epicerie.In anticipation of our trip back to the UK I'm starting a collection of French specialities to enliven our Christmas celebrations. I've even gone to the lengths of paying for hold luggage to transport them all. As Daughter-Turned-New-Mum said when I told her of yet another gourmet item I'd added to the list, 'Are you actually bringing any clothes?'

Eldest-and-Wisest-Daughter kicked off the campaign by reminding me that she was very partial to marrons glacés and would I be bringing any? As that was early October there were none in the shops then, but lo, like the Star in the East, they appeared in the supermarket last week. One box went in the shopping trolley along with a vacuum pack of smoked duck breast. Now I'm dithering as to whether I should buy another packet of smoked duck...how many will there be for Christmas lunch? I intend to prepare a 'Gascon' starter of paper-thin slices of duck and foie gras with caramelised apple or fresh figs if I can lay my hands on any fairly easily. I know foie gras is an emotive subject, but it is delicious, a statement which won't win me any brownie points with those who are dead against the production of it.

Proper Gascon salad should have gesiers in it as well, but they're an acquired taste, one which I haven't acquired but The Captain is very enamoured of them. Gesiers are basically gizzards which have been slow cooked (or confit-ed) in duck or goose fat. They're then sliced and together with the smoked duck scattered over a bed of mixed salad leaves. Sometimes lightly fried chicken livers are added as well.I try to avoid the genuine Salade de Gascogne when I see it on a menu.They are served at many of our village lunches (where there's no menu) and are very popular with everyone except me, who tries to flick the (to me) unappetising offal over to The Captains plate without anyone seeing. I can't imagine gizzard salad going down very well at our family lunch, and I may have to go easy on the foie gras so's not to offend any Christmas guests who might be a little more sensitive than my lot.

Confit of duck is always welcome in our family, so tins of that have already been sent back via friends. As the tins usually weigh around a kilo each I'm not dragging them back in a suitcase. Gascony and the Haute Garonne is the spiritual home of the duck and the goose so the shops are bursting with all things duck/goose orientated all year round, but its in November that it really comes into it's own, with supermarket offers on legs, breasts, livers, gizzards and even carcasses, to confit for the winter. Both daughters would like some jars of goose fat, but they'll have to wait until someone comes down with a car. I'm not paying for excess baggage just so they can have crispy roast potatoes, although spuds roasted in duck or goose fat are to die for!

If I had the weight to spare I'd rather take some tins of cassoulet. That's a real winter warmer and a signature dish of Southwest France. The inhabitants of Castelnaudery (between Toulouse and Carcassonne) lay claim to the vrai cassoulet. Anything else is a pale imitation, they say. There are many variations to the dish but the undeniable essential is dried haricot beans...purists would say they must be lingots and hail from Tarbes, but again there's argument about that. But then, the French love a good argument, especially if it concerns food.

Castelnaudery is a pleasant but unremarkable little town on the Canal de Midi notable for being the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion (a trivial piece of information, but one that might stand you in good stead at the next pub quiz night )as well as producing a stonking good cassoulet. Castlnaudery insist on having masses of pork in theirs...no duck, just big chunks of belly and /or loin, couennes (thin strips of pork rind)and sausage of course. No self -respecting cassoulet can be served without really thick porky sausage. In Toulouse they add some neck of lamb and a piece or two of duck confit, and the sausage has to be the Toulouse variety...packed with pure,lean pork and capable of withstanding several hours of cooking. Carcassonne prefers to use leg of lamb - just to get one up on Toulouse probably!
The recipe for cassoulet is not complicated, it's only a bean casserole after all, but the list of ingredients is endless so I'll devote a separate blog to that later.

But back to the spare bed. I'd like to take some glacé fruits, oh.... and I'll be taking some Agen prunes as a joke 'pressie' for a friend. If you need to eat prunes at least make the experience enjoyable by eating the king of dried plums from the Agen orchards. They're big, fat and totally scrumptious. To be consumed in moderation, as they say on bottles of wine...which no-one takes any notice of.

There is also a small, but growing pile of baby clothes on the bed as well. What ever can they be for ?


photo of marrons by curtesy of : passamanrie/htlp.flickr.com

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Damp Weekend in the Haute Garonne



Well, the chocolate biscuits are still languishing in the hall. The rain, which is not a frequent visitor here, decided it would arrive last Tuesday and has stayed with us for seven whole days. This is what undoubtedly dampened the enthusiasm of our village 'trick or treaters'.

The Captain thought he heard a kerfuffle at the front door halfway through the evening, but on going to investigate found only a copy of the Watchtower lying on the doormat. No, I'm not making it up. Perhaps there is some simmering battle going on between Jehovah's Witnesses and small children representing the forces of evil. It seemed a strange night to be out evangelising. I shall be on my guard next year as to who will be knocking on the door to save or damn my soul. Whoo...scary !

The rain continued to drizzle down for the rest of the weekend, completely ruining the national holiday that comes with All Saints Day, or Toussaint as it's known in France. As it fell on a Saturday this year the country was in rather a state of confusion. Saturdays are one day of the week when shopkeepers can rely on some decent takings and to have to close up on that particular day can mean the difference between a weeks profit or loss for small business. Especially in the present economic climate. So, as so often in France, one didn't really know which shops were liable to be closed.

I would have liked to have been in Paris,rather than watching the mountains disappearing behind grey clouds this weekend. The 14th annual chocolate fair was being held there and it must have been heaven on earth. I'd have willingly swapped the drizzly Haute Garonne for a few hours of calorific hedonism. 400 exhibitors and 140 of the best chocolatiers showing off their craft. I ask you !

There was an enormous sculpture of the Eiffel Tower, and even a chocolate fashion show. ( Type in the URL below to see a short video, if you've the strength of will not to rush to the corner shop for a Mars Bar afterwards)
Apparently chocolate was introduced to France by Anne of Austria in 1615. In fact she only agreed to marry Louis XIII on the condition that she be allowed to bring her chocolate allowance with her. Perhaps chocolate allowances should be built into a pre.nup. contract. 'You can have custody of the dog - I keep the chocolate.'

I wonder if Heaven is entirely made of chocolate? It would certainly make dying a lot more attractive.As only Jehovah's Witnesses are to be admitted to the Heavenly Heights come the Day of Judgement perhaps I should sign up the next time they come to call, just to be on the safe side

www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france.3280095/Paris-chocolate-fair.html

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Horrors



It's getting to be that time of year again.
October 31st, All Hallows Eve when ghosts, ghouls and small children in fright masks stalk the streets.

The French throw themselves into it with gusto Considering their natural abhorrence of anything that might have blown in from the direction of the New World it's quite surprising. The gift shops are full of witches hats, Edward Scissor hands finger nails, and inflatable pumpkins. The fancy dress shops are doing a brisk trade as well. And come Friday evening the village trick or treaters will be out. Probably.In our village nothing follows a particular pattern.

The first year we arrived we were still in the process of unpacking when Halloween was unleashed on us.There was a timid knock on the door, and there stood one small boy with a sheet over his head emitting half-hearted wailing noises. I reacted splendidly, uttering multitudinous 'ooh-la-las' whilst racking my brains as to what to offer a pint-sized ghoul.

No sweets are consciously kept in our house,for reasons which will be revealed later, but I remembered that eldest and wisest daughter had driven down from the UK to help us move and had cleared out her drive-time sugar ration before the journey home. Somewhere in the wreckage of our move was a bag of jettisoned sweets.

When I eventually located them, during which time Captain Sensible was entertaining our young spectre on the doorstep, I discovered, in amongst the scruffy-looking sticks of chewing gum and half-empty boxes of Tic-Tacs, a five finger bar of KitKat.That would do splendidly.

Our little visitor looked suitably impressed and with many 'mercis' he scuttled off as fast as the sheet would allow.

'I bet that's the best treat he'll get all night' the Captain remarked. 'he's probably gone roaring off to tell all his friends to get off down to the new Anglaises. They're giving away English chocolate bars,'

Horrified, I realised I hadn't anything else to give anyone, apart from the manky looking Wrigleys and a few TicTacs. I spent the rest of the evening twitching like a startled rabbit every time I heard anyone walk past But all was well. Either our little ghost was Billy-no-mates' or what friends he had were too scared to knock on the door of Les Anglaises.

Next year I was better prepared. I bought a 'geant' sized bag of mixed chocolate bars.Individually wrapped I could dole them out to whoever came (as come they would) without fear of running out. After all we had been in residence for a year, people called out 'Bonjour. Ca va?' wherever we went, and unknown,unrecognisable hands waved from passing cars and vans.We were on the village calender.

I saw a large group from my kitchen window as they scampered down the back lane to my neighbours. I opened the bag of bars in eager anticipation and rehearsed my lines. The French equivalent of ...Goodness, what have we here? ...and other suitable expressions. I heard the click of Madame's gate and 'au'voirs' and 'bon nuits' being exchanged and then...silence. The 'Maison Anglais' was too terrifying a place on a night like this. We had been missed out. Quelle dommage!

So - I had a large bag of bite sized choccy bars to dispose of. What a problem. Now, put me in a room with Dawn French and a chocolate fountain and I promise you there will be blood on the carpet. I decided that if the bag was out of sight I would forget about them . Eventually. And anyway, I reasoned, they were probably quite revolting. I like the dark, sensuous, Belgian stuff...for grown-ups. Unfortunately a few weeks later I was struggling to complete an article on Antonio Gaudi and the Sagrada Famillia. It was destined to be like the building itself...unfinished. A deadline was approaching... desperate measures were called for. Like a chocolate rush.

The fact that the bars were bite sized may have been the problem. And the fact that one wasn't enough.I don't know how many I munched my way through before the article was completed, I just know I felt extremely queasy, spent the rest of the day haunted by Puritan guilt, and three years later I reckon I'm still wearing every last damned bar on my hips.

The next year a minuscule pumpkin and a equally tiny Spider Man materialised on the door step, and were suitably rewarded for outstanding bravery when confronted by foreigners. I bought a bag of Haribos on this occasion. I was pretty well guaranteed not to touch those should there be any left over.

So, recalling the indecision's of previous years I have bought a packet of individually wrapped 'Petit Sacripants' which is a very exotic title for what is basically a plain biscuit with a layer of sweetened cream,and a covering of milk chocolate on top of that. I notice that the calorie count is 519 per 100 grms, which I have worked out is 103.8 calories per sacripant. I shall bear that in mind, should they still be hovering about after the weekend.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On Being a First Time Granny


I've been a bit inactive with my blogging of late, but I have a really good excuse.

Last week, well Monday to be precise, my very first grandchild made his grand entrance into the world.

Was it because we knew he was on the way from last January, or was it because we knew from May onwards that the embryonic blob was actually a boy? Either way the waiting seemed endless, and as the expected date grew nearer my patience was on the point of running out. What it was like for his poor parents I can't imagine. Then of course he decided to keep us all waiting that little bit longer, although it was only a few days it seemed like a whole extra month to me. Then I had to wait to find out how much he weighed (always a vital piece of information for the waiting public), then I had to wait for the photos, but at least we have email these days.If I'd had to have waited for snail mail I'd have gone mad.

Now I can't wait to see him in real life, but it'll be another five weeks before that happens. By which time he will have 'fluffed-up' nicely, will have grown into his first-size baby-grows and will hopefully be adopting a sociable sleeping pattern. Visiting grannies expect no less.

I remember when his mother was born, an elderly friend took a look at her, agreed she was a lovely baby but remarked gloomily that he despaired for the world she had been born into. I find myself echoing his words, but I suppose that's something everyone has thought about a new life and the state of the world since time began.
Recessions, credit crunches,redundancies, repossessions - I'm quite sure my daughter will be worrying about just the same things in twenty or so years when she takes a first look at a new grandchild.

History has a strange habit of repeating itself, like an endless loop. The new baby's grandfather was born on the verge of the last big Wall Street crash in the late twenties of the last century, and he's survived a world war, a three day week, boom and bust... the full works !

So welcome to the world, with all it's faults, William .

Friday, October 10, 2008

Food for Thought


Like thousands of others I'm following the fortunes of the 'Restaurant' wannabees. I watch the programme with a mixture of disbelief and embarrassment. Why, in God's name aren't they better prepared and better organised? And above all what on earth drives them to submit themselves to the scrutiny of several thousand viewers, their poor, starving customers, two of the most humourless adjudicators and the eagle eye of the great Raymond Blanc ? Are they mad?

It must be the lure of the prize, their own restaurant. The idea that they will be running their own restaurant is somewhat fanciful, as the prize winners will still be working for someone other than themselves ....Raymond himself. And sweet, kind, charmingly Gallic as he may seem, he'll be like every other successful entrepreneur when you actually work for him. A very, very hard taskmaster. How do the hopeful contestants think he got to be where he is today?

Observing the shenanigans of the contestants from a distance is quite enlightening. I've been away from the UK for so long, I've actually forgotten that a decent bottle of wine can cost twenty quid from an off-licence.And I've also forgotten that British restaurants 'turn tables'.

What a philistine habit that is. It's almost unheard of here, certainly in rural eating places. When we first came to France I would ring up to book a table, and then wonder why they didn't ask me what time I wanted it for. They weren't interested in my carefully rehearsed time-telling. If I wanted a table for lunch, well they opened at 12...why should I stipulate a time? No-one else would be taking our table...it was ours for as long as we wanted.

Being asked to vacate your table would be tantamount to committing catering hari-kari. No-one would ever patronise the place again. That's one of the joys of eating out in France. There's no whisking away of plates, or suggestions that you take coffee in 'the lounge'. Ninety-nine percent of restaurants don't possess a sitting area anyway. And that's something I really like. In the UK nothing would annoy me more than being 'stacked' in a restaurant bar for half an hour or so, while waiters try to chivvy on the diners occupying our booked table. Being shovelled into the same bar for coffee afterwards was even worse. In France meals are to be enjoyed, lingered over, chatted over...even at times argued over.

Whilst on this epicurean subject,I thought an A -Z to some of the more obscure items you might find on a French restaurant menu. might be useful.
So here's:



PART ONE - A to J

A
abats : offal

agrumes : citrus fruit

aïgo bouido : Provençal garlic soup served over pieces of bread

aigre : sour

aigre-doux : sweet-and-sour

à aigrir : soured - wine or milk

ail : garlic :

gousse d'ail = clove of garlic

ail semoule : garlic salt

aïoli : a Provencal garlic mayonaise sauce,

airelle : cranberry
alevin : white bait

amuse-gueule , amuse-bouche : cocktail snack


anchoyade : Provençal purée made with anchovy, garlic and olive oil



B
babeurre buttermilk :

barbouillade : stuffed eggplant or eggplant stew (Provençal)

bavette (steak) : minute steak; the top or skirt of beef


bécasse woodcock

becassine snipe

beignet : doughnut : (beignet, doughnut, fritter)

betterave : beetroot

blé : wheat (useful if anyone has a wheat allergy) :

- germe de blé = wheatgerm

blé noir : buckwheat

blette: Swiss chard

bouchonné : corked = wine that's gone off, with the taste of its cork

bourride : Provençal fish soup, prepared with tomatoes, garlic, onions, herbs and olive oil, and served with aïoli sauce.

brebis : ewe as in fromage de brebis

brouillade : a Provençal type of scrambled eggs

broyé : crushed

C

cabillaud fesh cod ..... salt cod : morue

cacahouète : peanut

calmar : squid

câpres : capers

capucine : nasturtium

cardoon: an edible thistle, related to the artichoke, with edible root and leafstalks which resemble overgrown celery.

carvi : caraway

cassis :blackcurrant

cassis, creme de : blackcurrant liqueur

chapelure : bread crumbs

chapon : crust rubbed with garlic

chapon : capon a young castrated and fattened chicken

chevreau de lait : milk goat (kid)

chicorée frisée : chicory lettuce

ciboule : spring onion

ciboulette : chives

citrouille : pumpkin

coco rose : small bean, white with pink veins

coing: quince

confit : preserved, confit de canard is duck joints cooked and preserved in its own fat

confit de [fruit] : candied, jellied or crystallized fruit.

confiture : jam

counne : rind, skin : example: "couenne de porc" is porc rind

courge : squash

crème chantilly : whipped cream

crème èpaisse : thick cream

crème fleurette : light cream : a low-fat cream used in cooking, in place of crème fraîche; also "crème liquide"

crème fraîche : cream, full-fat : used for making butter, sauces, etc.


cuire au four : bake in the oven


D

daube beef stew

dinde : turkey :

dindonneau: young turkey

dorade : sea-bream

doux mild or sweet



E


ecorce : rind

écrasé: crushed or flattened

écrevisse : crayfish, crawfish

en poudre : powder

encornet : squid

endive : chicory.

entrecôte (steak) : ribsteak

entremets : sweet desserts and sweet side dishes.
épicé : hot, spicy

épinard : spinach

à éplucher : to peel



F


farci : stuffed = légumes farcis

farine : flour :

farine de sarrasin :buckwheat flour

faux-filet (steak) : sirloin steak

fenouil : fennel

fève : broad bean

filet (steak) : tenderloin steak

filet mignon : small tender end of tenderloin of beef (or of veal or pork)

fondu : melted

fougasse : a type of flattened Provencal bread often stuffed with olives

four : oven

fourré : filled ,stuffed, creamed

fromage blanc : a soft white cheese like a thick yogurt

fromage de chèvre : goat cheese

fromage rapé : grated cheese


G


germe de blé : wheatgerm (Again useful for those with a wheat allergy)

gibier : game - pheasant, boar, etc.

gigot: : Leg of lamb or leg of mutton, or kid usually roasted


girofle clove : "clous de girofle" are whole cloves, and "girofle moulu" or "girofle en poudre" are powdered cloves. ).

gousse clove, pod : clove (of garlic); pod (of bean or pea)

goût taste : (arôme = aroma; goût = taste; parfum = flavor of ice cream;

à goûter : to taste

grenade : pomegranate

grondin : gurnard,

gros sel: rock, or coarse salt


H
haricot : bean

haricot blanc : white beans

haricot coco rose d'Eyragues : small white bean with pink veins

haricot rouge : kidney beans

haricot vert : green beans



Next Time : I to P


















Thursday, October 9, 2008

An Explosive Way to Celebrate a Birthday

It was my birthday on Tuesday. As one gets older birthdays tend to be less celebratory. And past a certain age one wishes one could ignore them altogether.

So there would be no popping of champagne corks, and in these belt-tightening times, dinner 'a deux' in a local restaurant wasn't even mooted. A trip to the shops would have to provide my birthday treat. I could hardly wait. A mooch around Aldi and then to Lidls on the way home. But first we would call in on the doctor for our drug fix(atenolol, not amphetamines I hasten to add) So I was in for an action-packed day.

It began well. We had our usual banter with the doctor, and asked him to sign our forms for our free flu jabs. He was in a chatty mood as we were the only ones in the surgery and I reflected again on how fortunate we are to be in the French health system. I was even more cheered when I went into the pharmacy in Lannemezan and the lady who was serving me wished me (in nervous English) an 'Appy Birthday.

At Aldi Captain Sensible reversed the car carefully to take advantage of some shade (it has been really warm these last few days). We had already been across the road at another cheapo supermarket and although we had a cool box he's paranoid about food going off if the boot gets warm.

So we did our shopping, went out to the car and I stood at the back, with the trolley, ready to load it all in the boot. The Captain decides it's going to be better to move the car a foot or so forward to make it easier for me to get to the tailgate. So far, so good.

So he gets half in the car...ie he gets his left cheek on the seat and as his right leg is still outside he attempts to engage the clutch with his left. Unfortunately he hits the accelerator instead and covers me, the shopping trolley, and the tree under which we're parked,with a layer of oily soot as he accidentally performs what is known in some circles as an 'Italian Service.' When I could eventually see, and had stopped coughing, I attempted to see the funny side of it. It was difficult. As is the way with some men, Captain Sensible thought it was hilarious.

As the groceries were also covered in fine soot I managed to get it all over my hands as I packed them away. I had bought some cheap perfume in Aldi, and like a child I couldn't wait to try it, so I'd just sprayed my neck liberally with it seconds before the volcano erupted. So my neck was wet, and acted like a soot magnet.

Most people would have gone home at this point, but we still had another supermarket to blitz so if anyone saw a black and white minstrel shopping in the Lannemezan Lidls it was me.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Autunm Has Arrived


Well, autumn has arrived. I'm not that downhearted because this has to be the most spectacular time of the year here in the Haute Pyrenees. On a good year we can cock a snoot at New England, tho' we don't have coach loads of 'leaf-peepers' . We're pretty laid back about it here so it doesn't occur to us to advertise just how beautiful the countryside looks. I just wish the season would last longer. But, fingers crossed, we should enjoy the blaze of colour until the middle of November.
Depending on the dryness of the summer we have so many bramble hedges in the lanes around here that we can pick several kilos of wild blackberries to freeze for winter blackberry and apple puds. We've four fairly prolific apple trees in our garden, but we just lack the suet to make a really traditional steamed pudding. It's probably just as well, because steamed suet pudding has to be the most unhealthy dessert on the planet. But it is good !
Here's an article I wrote for ww.suite101.com last year.
There's some advice on harvesting your autumn bounty, together with a recipe for sloe gin and autumn fruit jellies.



The autumn hedgerows are full of wild fruits which can be made into jams, jellies and homemade wines to use during the winter.
Nature saves the best of her free gifts until the autumn, when the hedgerows become a treasure trove of edible goodies.
Walking in the countryside can be a pleasurable and rewarding experience in the autumn. After a warm summer the hedgerows are an abundant source of berries, many of which can be gathered to make jams, wines, jellies and liqueurs.
Before venturing out though, there are a few things to bear in mind.
Don’t pick anything from hedgerows at the side of busy roads. There are too many petrol and diesel fumes hanging about in the air which may settle on the fruit.
Make sure the trees or shrubs don’t obviously belong to anyone. Those juicy plums might be hanging temptingly over the public highway but if the tree or bush is on someone’s private property the fruit rightly belongs to them.
Take a longish walking stick with a curved handle, or something similar. Many of the best fruits are out of reach (the easily reached ones having been picked before you got there) so a stick comes in useful to pull the branches down.
Don’t damage the trees or bushes in your eagerness. They’ve probably been on the planet longer than you, so show them some respect.
Thick gloves are a useful addition to your equipment. Many hedgerows are full of thorny bushes.
Always check the lie of the land. In your enthusiasm for spotting a bush covered in fruit make sure there isn't a hidden ditch in your way before you launch yourself into the hedge. Getting a soaking can take the fun off the afternoon.
If your hunting takes you into a field, check for grazing cattle and remember to close all gates behind you …..and if you notice a bull in with a herd of cows, don’t go in the field at all.
Black berries and elderberries are the first fruits to ripen in the Northrn Hemisphere.

Autumn is the time to be watching the hedgerows for the arrival of the first sloes which, when soaked in gin for a few weeks, will provide a delicious Christmas liqueur.
Sloe gin is favourite winter warmer for colder climates
Its ruby-red colour and sweet flavour make it an ideal drink after a brisk walk in the depth of winter.
If you are not a gin lover it can be made with vodka, but gin imparts a richer flavour, and is undetectable in the finished product.
Sloes are the small purple-black fruit of the blackthorn. They are generally found in hedgerows from late August onwards, and can be a bit inaccessible as the bushes are thorny and the berries often high on the branch. A long walking stick with a curved handle is a useful aid to picking, and the resulting liqueur is well worth the effort.
Do not be tempted to pick the fruits too early as they will be bitter. September is a good time, although traditionally they are at their best after the first frost. In a mild winter this can mean leaving it too late for the finished product to be ready for Christmas drinking, so the ‘frosting’ can be faked by placing the picked fruit in the freezer for a day or two before preparing the liqueur. Some experienced sloe gin makers believe the freezing releases the juice and makes for an improved flavour
For 1 ltr. of sloe gin you will need:
· 450g sloes
· 225g castor sugar
· 1ltr. gin
Wash and dry the sloes and prick all over with a sharp needle. Place in a large screw top jar which will hold 1 ltr of liquid comfortably.
Add the castor sugar and top up with the gin. Seal tightly. Leave in a cool, dark environment for at least two months Try to give the jar a good shake every day if possible.
As with all homemade alcoholic drinks, the longer they’re left to soak the better the flavour will be.
At this point ideas differ. Some people prefer to leave the sloes in the gin; indeed many aficionados actually macerate the mixture in an empty gin bottle and serve the drink straight from there. Others strain the gin into bottles, or a decanter.
Whichever method you choose the dark ruby-red liqueur is an absolute winner on a chilly evening.
A dash of sloe gin in a glass of champagne also makes an elegant cocktail drink.
The sloes themselves are frequently thrown away, having served their purpose. But a delicious sweet can be made by coating the fruit in bitter chocolate.
Spread the used sloes in a single layer on a thick piece of absorbent kitchen paper. When they have dried dip each one in melted chocolate and place carefully on waxed paper to cool and become firm. Store in an air-tight container.
These rich chocolates are a perfect accompaniment to a glass of sloe gin, preferably enjoyed with good friends and a roaring log fire.
Traditionally elderberries have been used for country wine making, but together with sloes, crab apples, and rose hips they can also be used to make jellies.


A rule-of-thumb recipe for fruit jellies:
Clean the fruit thoroughly, checking for hidden insects
Whatever quantity of fruit you have, cover with water and bring to the boil.
Simmer until the fruit has softened.
Allow to cool and strain through a clean tea cloth or muslin jelly bag.
Measure cooled liquid and place in a thick bottomed saucepan.
Add 1 lb(500g) white sugar for each pint(550ml) of liquid.
Boil briskly until the setting point is reached
Skim off any scum that may have formed on the surface, allow to cool, then ladle into sterilised jars and seal tightly.
Rose hip jelly is delicious with pork or poultry as the flavour is similar to cranberries and the fruit is high in vitamin C. Rose hip syrup, a healthy drink for children, can be made by following the recipe for fruit jelly, but remove from the heat as soon as the liquid has achieved a syrupy appearance. Pour into sterilised bottles when the syrup has cooled and keep in the fridge.



This is just one of many recipes that can be made from hedgerow fruit.
The copyright of the article Mother Nature’s Autumn Bounty in Fall Recipes is owned by permission of the author.To republish Mother Nature’s Autumn Bounty in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

When the Rose-Tinted Glasses Fall Off

The other day I happened to come across a forum posting from an expat who was clearly having a bad day. The trouble was she had allowed a smallish matter to blow itself up into something that had completely sent her off on a rant. Against everything French.

The rose tinted glasses had well and truly come off, and de-railed her in the process.

I can understand how this could have come about. And it's not unusual. Especially in the present economic climate.

The pound sterling and the dollar are being squeezed to within an inch of their lives, belts are having to be tightened all round and M'sieu Sarkozy is not exactly making life easy for immigrants. And that is what we are, we Brits, Americans, Dutch, Germans Like it,or not.

So often we think the word applies just to Moroccans, or the Algerians we see on the markets selling cheap jewellery. But it's us too. So Sarko's ruling last year on health cover didn't go down well with those expats who had recently arrived, often with young families, to find they were not entitled to the same health cover as French nationals. Full private health cover came as a nasty shock to many, and that together with the general rises in the cost of living has brought on some severe cases of disillusionment.
When the dream looks like turning into a nightmare, something else coming along to hit them full in the face, or the wallet, is the very last straw.

For many women there's the added stress of being separated from their close family. Yes, you can explode, or whimper (depending on your personality) down the phone to mum, but it can never take the place of a good old-fashioned bawl on a sympathetic shoulder. And for men, in France there isn't the option of going down the pub for a pint and a moan to your mates. French bars may appear havens of warmth and friendliness ( an idea put about by the likes of Peter Mayle with a good dollop of literary license) but in actual fact your average Pierre propping up the bar with his pastis is not in the least interested in any one's marital or financial problems. Political discussion....ah that''s another matter. He'll talk politics all day.

Right now expat internet forums seem full of sob stories, but I wonder how many of them would resort to the cold anonymity of the web if they had a near neighbour who spoke the same language and who was probably in the same boat? Maybe someone should start up local support groups for those who think their dream has turned sour. I say 'think 'because I reckon if only some of these families who seem at the end of their tether could have a good old moan, over a glass or two of something, maybe they'd look at life in France in a more balanced way.

Yes, life here has got tougher over the past few months, but what are the alternatives? The grass isn't any greener anywhere else, especially right now.

So to those who are really fed-up and contemplating a move back I'd say..."Hang on in there. Don't make any hasty decisions you might regret later."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

August is a Dangerous Month for the Liver







There just doesn't seem enough days in August to accommodate it all.



By 'all' I mean the fètes, 'animations' and foires that crop up in every village and town in France during August.



There just aren't enough weekends in the month to do them all, so it's a case of pick and choose.



The big one in our neck of the woods is the Folk Festival in Montrejeau.It's now in it's 49 th year which means it's been going since the days of the Cold War, which probably explains why it has been such a popular event with Eastern European countries.For decades the only way to get out of Eastern Bloc countries was to be part of a cultural visit. And folk music and dancing certainly fitted the bill. How many of the participants actually went home after such events is still a matter of conjecture!



We've also had the 'battages'...difficult to actually pin down with a title. They are a celebration of le moisson', or the harvest. Ancient tractors are greased and polished to within an inch of their lives, oxen are yoked to ploughs, steam engines puff away and burn yet another hole in the ozone layer ( bless them) and the Comminges Classsic Car Club chuff and putter up to the stubble field, all gleaming paintwork and shiny brass,and park up for the afternoon to await the admiration of we less fortunate souls who are stuck(through economic circumstances ) with a bog standard Peugeot 306, or similar. The French pronounce it as trois-cent-six and why not? They produced it. It's only us mono-lingual Brits who use the 'oh' instead of 100 ( three-oh-six etc..)
We have two annual battage within a 10 kilometre radius and both involve a very(and I do mean a very )large lunch which involves an inordinate amount of chicken, in various guises - starter ,soup, entree, main, you name it- the chuk is in there somewhere. All washed down with copious quantities of vin de pays of all colours, and a fire-water digestif. Well, chicken can be a bit on the dry side, so you need something to wash it down.And if you set three hours or four hours aside the alcohol consumption will have burnt off before one takes the road home, or so one imagines (erroneously!) I have formed instant and lasting friendships with my neighbours at battage lunches...the problem is I can't remember who they were with.
And there's always the entertainment to follow. This normally involves an accordionists, a comedian who goes down storm with everyone, and a singer who's songs are known and loved by the audience who join in with gusto.
It's at this point I feel like a rank outsider. As your average Frenchman(or woman would) in a Yorkshire social club on a Friday night.
















Friday, August 1, 2008

France en Vacance





So, July has come and gone and we're now entering the home straight of the long summer holidays. There are more camper vans on the roads than lorries, and in this part of the country they are fighting the combine harvesters for road-space. At the moment it's forty - thirty to the combines. Add on the tractors and trailers teetering dangerously along over loaded with straw bales, and the wannabee 'Tour de France' candidates wobbling from side to side as they push up the one- in -eight gradients and it's the Highway to Hell on some routes.
Ah! 'Le Tour'. It has a strange effect on the French. They are by nature in love with the velo. It seems to be inherent in the male of the species. An urge to purchase a multi-geared monster, a flash helmet and appallingly fluorescent Lycra and take to the open road. Every week-end they flash by my window in a streak of yellow, orange or lime green come rain. hail or heatwave. A pelaton of cyclists have a peculiar sound as they swoop past. It's an eerie hum of skinny wheels on tarmac, and perhaps the muted chatter of conversation. Quite weird, like a ghostly daylight apparition. In technicolour.
This year Le Tour made an overnight stop in Lannemezan. I like Lannamezan. It's got a good range of shops, some cut-price supermarkets, and a big Wednesday market, so it's my kind of town. Each year towns all over France vie with each other to 'win' an overnight stop on one of the stages. It's quite a coup, and a financial boost into the bargain.
Thank goodness Lannemezan has a good selection of bars. I guess they'd all have been full of journos, and assorted Tour followers. Not the cyclists though . They're all too exhausted to do anything other than lie on the physio's couch and then turn in for the night, ready for the next day's punishment.
The Tour organisers must have a soft spot for Lannemezan, because they stopped there a couple of years ago, so cycling and the accompanying tourism seems to have replaced the production of mutton for which the town was famous in the last century.
This year the tour organisers declared there would be zero-tolerance towards drugs and their words must have been heeded, as there were only four disqualifications, which may be four too many, but it's an improvement on previous years. Performance enhancing drugs have always bedevilled the tour, and it had become so blatant that there was a danger that France's most famous contribution to the sporting summer was beginning to loose some of it's public support.
But this year the crowds along the route were a thick as ever with old-hands arriving four or five hours before the start, and pitching camp in the best places for seeing their heroes. You can always see which roads the tour has used over the years, as the names of previous overnight leaders are stencil-sprayed onto the tarmac, and sometimes on the walls of tunnel and bridges. There they remain long after the 'name' itself has retired - a reminder of past glories.
There was a bit of a niggle in the press that the whole carnival of Le Tour was becoming too much of a strain on local services. Certainly, the roads do seemed to be closed off for an inordinately long time before the race actually starts, and the route uses up an awful lot of policemen who could be otherwise occupied with speed cameras, but I can't imagine there will be any change in the plans. It's a festive occasion and too much a part of summer to be cut back.

We've watched a couple of stages over the years. The first time we were inadvertent spectators as we unwittingly strayed onto the route and were informed the road we wanted to take had been closed and would remain so until the whole shooting match had gone through. So there we were, in this little village, squashed against the wall in the narrowest of streets in a midday temperature of 30c + for over two hours.
But we weren't without entertainment. Long before the peleton appears we have the spectacle of the caravan of sponsors and back-up cars . This is the warm-up act and goes on for ages, a endless procession of trucks, trailers and pretty girls throwing out freebies to an eager crowd who risk death by hurling themselves into the road to retrieve a free sachet of coffee, a cheap baseball cap you wouldn't be seen dead in,a ballpoint pen that lasts all of five minutes or a keyring. Being British I refrained from such displays of avarice and contented myself watching grown men race to beat their neighbour to a children's puzzle book. As for the cyclist themselves they were there and gone in a rush of air which actually created a sort of wind-tunnel in the narrow street, leaving me to wonder what all the fuss was about.
The next time we watched it we were better prepared, with bottles of water and a camera for a start. We positioned ourselves on a wide bridge over the Garonne, where the crowds were thin which meant we had a ringside view ( and some where to sit as an added bonus). I surmised from the lack of spectators we weren't in the most exciting place, but we were quite happy. It was a distinct improvement on the previous occasion.So we waited...and waited. The freebie part of the morning arrived and drove slowly through, throwing out the booty to eager arms. The police, stationed on the roundabout at the junction were well up on the give-aways...they could spot a mineral water promo- van before it even arrived on the bridge and would be prominently positioned in readiness for half a dozen bottles to be handed over. They didn't bother with the pens, they'd probably got a whole storeful back at the station.
After about an hour and a half the clatter of helicopter blades announced the arrival of the media pack sent a frisson of excitement through the crowd. The peleton were on their way, and could be spotted on the other side of the river, flashing silver, green, blue through the trees lining the road.
David Bailey(on less exciting days, The Significant Other) made final adjustments to his camera and leaned expectantly into the road. I was watching his maneuverings with mounting alarm. The lens cap was swinging from the camera, he was precariously balanced with one foot on the road, and one on the verge and I could just visualise the carnage if he got himself tangled up with the lead riders. A couple of years before a woman with an uncontrollable handbag had a close encounter with Lance Armstrong's handlebars and he finished up in the gutter with several other riders on top of him. And only the year before I had seen a hilarious video of a golden retriever wandering across the road straight into one of the cyclists who crashed to the ground with a front wheel bent beyond redemption. The dog continued his amble across the road as if nothing had happened.
My squeak of "For God's sake get back" was lost in the crescendo of excitement as the riders, preceded by police outriders, wheeled right to the bridge and powered down towards us - a tsunami of alloy,lycra, bronzed thighs, and grim expressions. They sped down to the roundabout, then off and up, to the Col Ares for another masochistic day in the mountains.
And that was it, until next year when the route would be slightly different but the spectacle unchanging.The crowds drifted away and began the long walk back to their cars, the police cleared the barriers away and opened up the road and the Significant Other took a quick look at his photos. He was well satisfied and I was relieved. Man and camera had come through unscathed.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Personal Battle with Francophobia

OK, so I'm biased. I'm a bit of a Francophile. For all her faults ,France is a bit like an elderly relative - prickly, impoverished( but in denial,) and definitely living in the past, but ancient aunts can be strangely lovable. And when some little ill-informed twit comes along and criticises her it really annoys me. If there's going to be any criticism I will be the one doing it.


Today's' Sunday 'Wail' really got me going. " British motorists face £100 fine for failing to wear fluorescent vests when driving in France".

What? Of course you don't have to wear a flourescent vest while driving ! You put the bloody thing on if you breakdown, for God's sake!

It's at times like this I wonder why on earth I bother to read British newspapers online. And as for buying one at the grossly inflated price that they're on sale for in French newsagents - forget it. I can buy a bottle of wine for less than that and get a good deal more satisfaction from it.

So. back to the article. What a load of Europhobic, badly researched journalism!

This quite acceptable law came in on July 1st, having been enforced in Spain for 2 years already. It's now law to carry a fluorescent vest together with a red triangle (which has been a legal requirement since God-knows-how-long). It's been widely discussed on ex-pat forums, and advertised on French telly for months. And I'm quite sure it's all out there in the UK via the AA or travel insurance sites...so where's the problem ?

Fluorescent vests are as cheap as chips (unless you're going to get Stella McCartney or Donatella Versace to design one for you) Go down to Halfords, or even cheaper probably, a garage forecourt, invest a couple of quid in a polyurethane vest in day-glo yellow and if you do have a breakdown and you happen to be on the Autoroute de Sud in driving rain you stand a chance of being seen by that artic that is thundering along a couple of yards from the hard shoulder that you're parked on. The law only requires you to have one per vehicle at the moment (as far as I understand it - but the jury appears to be out on that bit.)

The best way to avoid being stopped by 'le flic' is to display the vest in a prominent position in the car... hanging it from the back of the driver's seat seems to be the most popular choice . After all that's where it needs to be if you do have an accident or a breakdown. Not in the boot where you may have to risk life and limb to access it. If the gendarmes can see it, they're less likely to pull you over. I mean...we all know what that means (in any country). Full check of all your documents and maybe a look in the boot, a keen look at the tyre treads, and and a good deal of teeth sucking before they eventually wave you off. So unless you actually enjoy a bit of a run-in with the traffic police. and find it adds to the holiday excitement, buy a vest, keep it in the car and above all ,drive as if every other driver is a lunatic. Remember, France holds the dubious honour of being rated as having the worst drivers in Europe.

As long as you bear that in mind that lovely, stubbornly cantankerous old auntie can still provide you with a great holiday.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Pets Gallery

Just Lazin' Around


Sheba & Friend



Well, in Sheba's opinion more like an alien invader. She reluctantly shares her bed with a feline refugee, one of 3 kittens we found abandoned in a cardboard box whilst out walking. They were 'adopted' on the understanding they lived in the barn and kept the mice at bay. Unfortunately they didn't keep their side of the bargain, wormed their way into the house and took over. Sheba was not amused.






Rooney the Loony






In his best 'pharaoh dog' pose he looks as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. It does, as has been proved when he nicks a packet from the work top.

The End of an Era







Adieu Sheba

For the first time for decades I have a hair, dust and pet-free house. Our lazy, dimwitted, eating-machine, other wise known to us all as Sheba, our ancient labrador has finally lost the battle with mortallity. Thus ended a long family history of labrador owning stretching back nearly 40 years.

I began to think she would out-live us all . She survived a change of country, three removals and three cats with her usual mixture of stoicism and resignation, and outlived her far more active brother.

One never knew exactly what was going on in her head, except that five o'clock in the evening was the highlight of her day. The hour at which the refrigerator door miraculously opened and her food bowl was transferred from floor to work-top. In the last few years she'd become very deaf and her eyesight was deteriorating but she never missed the sound of a tin opener attacking a tin of dogfood, or the the rattle of a dog lead which preceded an afternoon ramble.

She never was a happy car traveller. I can remember one nightmare journey when she was only a few months old. One of my daughters was desperate for us to bring Sheba when we picked her up from boarding school for half term. Her friends had all heard about Sheba-the-wonder-dog but apart from a photo which was displayed on her bedside locker no one had seen the actual animal. I should have been stronger. Instead I gave in, and lost count of the number of times we had to stop to clean out the car. Having disposed of her own body weight in waste matter on the outward journey, she whimpered piteously all the way home.Who had ever heard of a labrador that didn't like cars? With typically female perverseness, years later she calmly accompanied us to our new life in France, enduring a 700 mile journey crammed into the back of the car alongside all the extra junk we couldn't get into the removal van. And all accomplished without so much as a hiccup. There was a fair amount of flatulence around though!

She wasn't too keen on retrieving either. Throw her a stick and she might consent to run after it. Might even, on a good day, bring it halfway back, but after that it was : 'Oh, forget it ! Who wants to play that boring game anyway?' It has to be said, as a working dog she was a bit of a non-event.

But we miss her presence around the place, particularly when we come in after having gone shopping. She was always at the door, tail wagging, happy to see us back. We are giving ourselves a break from pets for a while. They are a comforting addition to the household, someone to enjoy a walk with, a ever -listening ear when you've had a bad day, but it has to be admitted they are a responsibility(or should be) and as such they are a tie. So regretfully we'll be dog-less for the immediate future, but it means we can take off on a whim without having to find holiday accommodation that accepts pets , and we can return to the UK without the hassle of pet passports, or forking out for boarding kennels.

Our links with labradors are still in place, however, as my aforementioned daughter has had her lab, Archie, for five years, and he has now been joined by a friend. Rooney(yes it is a 'chav' name but he was already saddled with it) was dumped outside a local vets with a front leg so badly mangled that it had to be amputated. A coursing dog with three legs is no use to anyone so poor old Rooney languished in a boarding kennels acting as an overspill for the RSPCA until the owner, who was a friend of my daughter's, recognised in her a sucker when it came to lame dogs(literally!) So Rooney landed on his three legs and is now housed in a new family, has a half share in a second hand settee and a brand new pal. And a beautiful dog he is too. Trouble is he knows it !

After such a bad start in life (he was probably less than a year old at the time) he is remarkably well behaved. Apart from his habit of self -service eating. Archie, like most labs. was an easy dog to train and despite having the legendary hoover-like appetite he has never pinched anything off work surfaces. Not so Rooney. With his long neck and body any edible article left on a kitchen worktop is almost certain to finish up in his stomach. Daughter came home from work the other day to find a box of eggs, un-opened, and miraculously un-broken nestling cosily in his bed. Maybe he had hopes of hatching them out.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Uncomfortable Truth, or Wartime Propaganda?

The Paris metro 1940 (photo Andre Zucca)

left :The Swastikas Fly in Paris.(photo Andre Zucca)


A new exhibition, running until the end of July, has created something of a stir in France, and let more than one uncomfortable skeleton out of the cupboard.

The German occupation of France is a period in the county's history that many, particularly the older generation, would rather forget, and this public airing of nearly 300 images of life in Paris under a Nazi regime has divided opinion in the city.

The photographer, Andre Zucca, was employed for propaganda purposes by the Third Reich, of that there is no doubt. He was commissioned to take pictures which showed how well the occupying forces were integrating into Parisian life, and he was certainly an accomplished professional with an eye for a good photo-opportunity. But the photographs that are on show have been obtained from family archives and in fact were never published. So the argument continues...are they posed, or did Paris, and France as a whole, buckle down to life with the enemy and appear to be socialising, shopping and generally behaving as normal while the rest of Europe, and the UK in particular were being rationed and bombed out of their homes?
The answer to this is very complex. In this part of France my neighbours seem reluctant to discuss what they did in the war. In fact I've only heard the war referred to twice. Once, when I offered my 'opposite' neighbour some artichokes (the Jerusalem variety) she shuddered and said - " Mais Non" very vociferously. Apparently they were dished up on a daily basis in the war. The second time was when another neighbour was telling me her aged mother was gravely ill in our village old people's home. "She is praying to die" I was informed gravely. When I muttered "Qu'elle dommage" for something to say she, she shook her head and said, "Oh Maman had such a hard life...a loveless marriage, the War ..." I wasn't too interested in the loveless marriage, I would have liked to have continued the conversation about the war, but somehow the subject was changed and I never got the opportunity again. As for maman, she recovered and three years on is about to celebrate her 98th birthday!
It's incredible that this important (to me) piece of recent history is either hidden under the bed or ignored. After all, the 2nd Panzer Division was stationed at Toulouse, not 70 miles away. And it was the der Fuhrer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen SS Das Reich that were hot-footing (or hot-crawling perhaps) up to Northern France in 1944 to reinforce thier comrades who were trying to repel the Allied Invasion. On the way up they passed Oradour sur Glane, and the rest is history.
The catastrophic fall out from the massacre of the citizens of Oradour has never been fully measured. The French themselves were in denial for many years after the war, mainly because of the ghastly realisation that the troops who actually carried out the massacre, under orders from the Das Reich command were in fact from Alsace. Officially the Alsace was German but before the First World War it had been French. As there was less than a quarter of a century between the two wars the soldiers were mostly, by birth French. The collective guilt was immense.
The story of Oradour is steeped in mystery, and contradiction. The site is now a national monument, with the village left exactly as it was when the soldiers withdrew to Limoges and continued their journey north. I have never been there, but we often passed the sign-post to the village on our journeys to and from the UK as it's on the most direct route from the southwest. I don't know if I want to visit it or not. I suppose I ought to, as I refer to this period of history quite a lot in the book I'm still working on so it would help in my writing, but I know it won't be a pleasant experience.
There is an excellent website complied by Michael Williams http://www.oradour.info/ which I have used extensively for research. Do take a look if you want to know more about the shocking happenings that day in June 1944. For me, his is the most definitive account I have read, and the website is very comprehensive. His gallery of 190 photographs are so compelling I have almost convinced myself it isn't necessary for me to actually go to Oradour in person. Yes, I know that's the coward's way out!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's Supposed to be Spring

I'm having a 'Victor Meldrew' moment...."I don't bee-leeve it!" Spring is supposed to be here, we're officially into summer time and the snow has come back on the mountains.
The violets are shivering on the roadside banks, the wild orchids are looking sad and soggy, and a glance towards the Pyrenees shows even the lower slopes sprinkled with snow. 'C'est bizarre!' as the French are wont to say.
You have to feel a smidgen of sympathy for the ski stations and the ski hire shops, the chalet owners and the bar keepers. Only a scraping of snow over Christmas, not much for half term. The stations officially closed on the 31st March and then hey presto! The biggest dump of snow all winter. Sod's Law I suppose.
Still, the weather forecast for the weekend looks a bit better, sunnier and up to 26c. Maybe it's time to dust of the barbecue and reach for the pernod. Or not...it could all go pear shaped again. So I'm not putting the thermal vests away yet.
Global warming....global freezing more like! Bah Humbug!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Another Bout of Procrastination

Gosh ! Is it really that long since I last posted ? I must be the worst blogger in the world.

So, what's my excuse ? Well I've been doing a lot of writing (honestly!) I've been putting quite a few articles on Constant Content just lately. I was spurred on by selling a few articles really quickly which gave me a real boost so I have been researching like mad, trying to come up with some 'hot'topics. Green issues are certainly hot right now, so I'm becoming very well informed on green travel, green babies, green fabrics. I was really surprised to find out that cotton production isn't as 'green' and ecological as one might think and can actually contribute to the global warming problem.

There's only one downside to writing for American sites and that's the state of the pound sterling and the dollar against the euro.

Oh, don't start me on that !! As soon as one or two ex-pat Brits are gathered together you can bet within three seconds the subject of UK pensions and the euro comes up. I even had two Brit Jehovah's Witnesses turn up on the door step last week, and what do you thing we talked about?....no, not the end of the world, or even blood transfusions....but , you've guessed it!! The falling value of the pound! Well, you have to admit you wouldn't get that in the UK.

It's certainly belt-tightening time at the moment, and we are working our way down the supermarket chains as I write. When we used to come here on holiday the highlight was shopping on the markets.. .well isn't that every one's raison d'etre for a holiday in France? But shopping at the Carrefour hypermarket just before the journey home came pretty far up the list of 'must-dos'.

When we came to live here...well it was a different matter. We weren't on holiday anymore. We were (ouch) on a tight budget. So our supermarket shopping was pitched with this in mind. We moved down the ladder...like going from Waitrose to Tescos, and shopped at Le Clerc...something I had turned my nose up at when we were 'en vacance'. That was fine for a while, then we had the change from francs to euros, and all those prophets of doom who had moaned on about prices going up were right it seems. I must confess I didn't notice it much at the time. I was just too grovellingly grateful to be free of having to translate " trois cent, quincante huit franc" as three hundred and fiftyeight francs, meaning £35.58 in familiar money. "Trente euro cinquante huit" is just so much easier when you're trying to write a cheque in a supermarket queue.

After a couple of years Le Clerc seemed a bit pricey so we transfered our loyalty to Atac, a sort of small Asda which has weekly offers and are very good for some surprising things. For example I bought a great computer screen there last autumn for 130 euros, so they are always worth a look- see when checking out prices.

Now we seem to have fetched up at Liddl and Aldi for our weekly shop. How much lower (price- wise) can we sink? Never mind, we console ourselves with the fact that we couldn't afford to live in the UK at all.

Which brings me back to all my hard work selling articles on the US market. What seems to be a 'nice little earner' in dollars looks decidedly pathetic by the time PayPal has paid it into my account. Thanks goodness we don't have to rely on it for a living.

So that's one reason I've been lax on postings. I've also been re-submitting a revised version of my opening chapters of 'New Wine ' on to the You Writeon' website, but the reviews have been so slow it's like watching paint dry!

But after a wet spring so far, summer must be just around the corner now so I may just be lured outside instead of sitting at the computer, but as far as this blog is concerned it's a case of ' can do better if she applies herself' as my old school reports always used to say, so will apply myself better in future.

Watch this space.....but not for too long!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Changing Face of France.

It's less than two months since the French nation stubbed out their cigarettes in accordance with the new laws on smoking in public. The last bastion of smoking freedom, the bar/tabac is now a smoke free zone. It's truly ironic , bizarre even, that you can buy your ciggies, a coffee or a cognac at any time of day, drink the coffee or the brandy(or as is usually the case with Frenchmen, both together) but if you want a smoke with it you'll have to head for the door. I never thought to see the day... the French obeying the law, and puffing away outside. Come the summer it's going to be difficult for us non-smokers to find a seat outside the café. All the tables will have been taken by the smokers. We will have to find seats inside...at least it will be a smoke-free zone. But will French bars and cafés ever be quite the same without that distinctive smell of stale Gauloise ?

Now it looks as if the French Government is hell-bent on attacking that other great French occupation... drinking. Petrol stations are to be forbidden to sell alcohol in their shops, or on the forecourts. Already there are rumblings of mutiny from wine producers who often have concessions from petrol stations to sell their locally produced wines. I can slightly see their point. Their sales come almost totally from travelling tourists, and they aren't offering wine tastings, they'll point the visitor in the direction of their 'caves de degustation' for a full blown tasting, and hopefully the sale of a few cases rather than a spur-of-the-moment bottle.

But the road accident fatalities speak for themselves. Last year road deaths in France accounted for 4,500 lives. Admittedly that figure is half of what it was in the year 2000, but most of that success can be attributed to a relentless campaign to improve driving standards ( amongst the worst in Europe) and the introduction of speed cameras. I can remember the mirth that surrounded the Chirac government's minister for transport when he urged the French to drive more like the British. We did think of having a rear window sticker in the car which read...'Drive like me....I'm a Brit,' but then we had an accident so we thought better of it.

Apparently it's the youth of France that are having the accidents. Elderly French drivers can merrily down a bottle of wine at lunch time and their driving isn't any worse than it was before lunch. (Did I mention France is bottom of the league when it comes to good driving ?) A recent report says that every day 2% of all drivers on French roads are over the recommended limit for alcohol ... yipes ! In actual fact I think in rural areas such as ours it's well over 2%. Kiss a Frenchman after lunch and alongside the overpowering smell of garlic there will nearly always be the underlying aroma of a glass or two of wine.

On the subject of grim percentages Prime Minister Fallon (he of the Welsh wife) has said that 46% of all road fatalities involving drivers under 24 are alcohol related. So a tightening of the alcohol laws are perhaps long overdue. The image of the Gauloise-smoking, lunch-time brandy imbiber should perhaps rightly be a thing of the past.

The dreaded words 'Health and Safety' seem to be making inroads into French life. Things may never be the same again !