Monday, September 13, 2010

All Good Gifts Around Us......

As I think I’ve said before (ad infinitum probably) September and October are the best months to be here in the Haute Garonne. There are three main reasons: the tourists have gone home (sorry tourists... love to see you come, love to see you go), the weather is absolutely, gloriously warm and mellow and we are awash with nature’s bounty.

I’ve been on the receiving end of ‘all good gifts around us’ this week and while they may have been ‘sent from heaven above’ they have been delivered by my lovely friends and neighbours.

It’s amazing what a few straggly cabbage plants can bring forth. Capt. Sensible had some left over in the spring, and rather than throw them away he gave them to Serge, who keeps chickens and has a ‘potager’ close to our garden. Serge speaks no English, Capt Sensible speaks no French, but so far we have had in return, an abundance of ‘salade’, some melons, haricot vert and just this weekend enough tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and courgettes to make ratatouille for the entire village… or so it seemed.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of some delicious plums. The only problem was my small freezer was jam packed with a whole load of apricots which were going cheap on the market …9 kilo trays for €5. Well, that was too good for Capt Sensible to turn down, despite my weak protests that the freezer was full of home- grown raspberries.

If the plums can’t be frozen they can be turned into plum brandy…. you can see the way my mind works, can’t you?

I worked out that if I got going sharpish we could have some plum liqueur in time for Christmas.

I’d got the vital ingredients – plums (d’accord) sugar and brandy (purloined from Capt Sensible’s personal supply). Not his best French of course (I value my life) but the Terres Spanish stuff he has for ordinary consumption. I needed vodka - pas de problem and a container large enough to hold a couple of pounds of plums plus the sugar and alcohol. That was a bit of a problem, but then I remembered a rumtopf pot which I hadn’t used for years. I’d had a bit of a disaster on the only occasion I’d attempted preserve plums, apricots and peaches in the manner described in the recipe that came with it. The fruit went mouldy, the alcohol had secondary and ‘thirdary’ fermentation and the rumtopf became a breeding ground for botulism. It spent the next few years gathering dust as a kitchen ornament until, for some unexplained reason, I paid good money to transport it to France with all the other bits of junk that I foolishly thought might come in useful one day.

And so it has, but I don’t intend to leave the plums in any longer than necessary.

If you have an over-abundance of plums there’s just time to turn them into a Christmas liqueur. This recipe is very simple, and just the thing to warm you up after a chilly day in the mountains.

You’ll need a large macerating container with a lid ... a 1 litre kilner jar is ideal if you haven’t got a rumptopf crock,
and :
a kilo of plums
450 gms white sugar
500 ml. vodka
125 ml. brandy.

Wash, dry, halve and de-stone the plums. Place in the jar, layering with the sugar, then add the alcohol. Stir gently to mix the liquid and fruit, put on the lid and leave in a cool dark place for 2 months. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth into a large jug, cover and leave to settle in a cool place overnight and then strain again. Bottle and leave for another 4 weeks. The liqueur should be port wine coloured and crystal clear, if it’s not, leave another week or two.

On Friday when Serge’s wife Martine turned up with the peppers, aubergines etc. the timing couldn’t have been better, as I had a roast shoulder of lamb planned for the weekend. I love ratatouille with lamb, and Serge had come up with all the ingredients.

This is my haphazard recipe for ratatouille:

I cut the courgettes,peppers and aubergines in half, leaving the tomatoes whole, and pour over a little olive oil. This time I used lemon flavoured oil(just because I had some in the cupboard), but you could use chilli oil for a bit of spicy heat.

I put all the veg in a big roasting tin, throw on some unpeeled garlic cloves (I like lots, but it’s a personal choice) some sprigs of thyme, a few roughly torn basil leaves and roast for about 20 mins in a hot oven.

When the veggies are nicely brown and beginning to go soft I take them out of the oven, leave to cool, then cut the peppers, courgettes and aubergines into cubes(large or small as you like) and skin the tomatoes. I squidge the garlic, which should be soft and squidgeable, onto the peeled tomatoes and mash them up a bit with a little more oil. This is then poured over the cubed vegetable, given a quick stir and spooned into a serving dish. You can serve it straight away at room temperature as part of a vegetarian lunch or, as I do, leave overnight in the fridge and re-heat in the oven and serve with the lamb. I think roasting the vegetables first, and leaving overnight increases the flavour. And beats the tinned ‘rat’ into a cocked hat.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The World comes to Montrejeau

Every August our local market town sees an invasion. It has been going on for over 50 years, fortunately for the townspeople, the invaders are friendly. They arrive in coaches, rather than tanks, and they fill the streets with colour and a wide variety of languages.

It's the annual folklore festival of music and dance, and it happens in many a French town during the summer.


It began for Montrejeau in 1959, and many of the countries taking part came from parts of Europe that were still firmly behind the Iron Curtain. I suppose it was one way of getting out and seeing what was going on in the rest of Europe - cultural visits being allowed, but I wonder if all the dance groups went home with as many as they came with?

Today's dancers and musicians come from all over the world as well as Europe. Most of the African or Caribbean performers come from former French colonies, and they certainly give the town an exotic air for a day or two. South America gets in on the act too, I remember one year a large Puerto Rican group brought traffic to a standstill, and almost took the whole show over in their wild enthusiasm.

One year, to our amazement, we heard what sounded like a Scots pipe band coming into the square... and it was. They went down a storm. Last year there were some Morris Men from Plymouth complete with fool ... they were greeted with bewilderment. Pipes, the French can do, a lot of French departments have a history of bagpipes... in fact the Breton group that came a couple of years ago had 'baguettes' that were almost identical to the Scots variety. Not so sure about their understanding of men with flowers in their hats and bells on their legs, waving coloured ribbons in the air.

It's nice to know that this wonderful cultural exchange is still going on after 50 years, and with no sign of the enthusiasm waning, certainly not on the part of the performers. On the last day they are here it's market day, and with summer tourists,plus 400 dancers, musicians and back-up teams (mostly still in national dress) the town is absolutely jammed packed. When it co-incides with a public holiday(The Feast of the Assumption)it's even worse. Thank goodness it's a good-will invasion.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Harvest Home

In the Christian church the first Sunday in August marks (or marked) the start of Lammas-tide (one never knows with modern liturgy these days- it could be totally obliterated from the list of Anglican festivals ) Anyway Lammas runs from now until Michaelmas(Sept 29th), in other words through the harvest season. It derides its name from the medieval English word ‘lam’ meaning bread, and traditionally a loaf was baked using grain from the first sheaves brought in from the field.

Living where we do the seasons are as marked as they were in medieval England, just that bit earlier. Our hay harvest is all but over. The hay has been cut, left to dry (unfortunately we’ve had the wettest July since we’ve lived in France ) and for the past three or four weeks we have become accustomed to the rattle of tractors and over-loaded trailers roaring up and down the road in a frantic attempt to get it all in and under cover. It would seem an awful lot of hard work – they’re still at it at 11 o’clock at night – but there are beef cattle to be fed all through the winter so hay is money. The more you can store the less you’ll have to fork out for commercial feed, and the better fed the cattle will be.

Being a secular country, whilst hiding under the pretence of being a Catholic country (or should that be the other way round? One never knows with the French) old religious ceremonies seem to have been forgotten, but from a non religious aspect the bucolic celebrations associated with the harvest and the land are still observed here.

From the middle of July the rural community is gearing up for old time markets and harvest fetes.

The Marche L’Ancienne in Montrejeau acts as a good advertising platform for the August harvest celebrations. Out come the ancient tractors that rarely see the light of day, puffing, coughing and burning a small hole in the ozone layer immediately over the town.

There are teams of oxen, shepherds on horseback with their dogs riding side saddle, decorated farm trailers and the ubiquitous majorettes, the tinys looking vaguely worried as they try to keep up with the ‘big girls’, and not drop their batons.

The old copper still, that to this day pitches up in the local villages to distil the fruit harvest into something very alcoholic and inflammable, is brought out and joins the parade. It’s the same-old, same-old every year and although there is a smattering of tourists in the main the crowd is the same. You know that by the leg-pulling, joking and laughing going on as the older generation recognise old friends and neighbours.

The first weekend in August (which coincides with Lammas Sunday) sees the first of two Fetes de Moissan held in Le Cuing and Lecussan. The old farm machinery that’s been in the barn all year is dusted down and brought out, the threshing machines are checked out and a huge meal consisting of multiple versions of chicken is served in vast airless marquees.

All the old skills are on display, oxen grinding grain on a giant millstone, hand reaping, and threshing.

The air is oppressively hot, and the smell of steam and oil mingles with the aroma of roast chicken.

The stubble scratches unprotected toes, and nothing runs to the published timetable …. but what the hell ? It’s fun, and like the Marche L’Ancienne it’s the same every year which is how our rural neighbours like it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Racing Bikes and Fireworks

July and August are the months when it all kicks off here. Well, ‘here’ is no different to the rest of the country. For 10 months of the year the Haute Garonne jogs along at a fairly even pace – a ‘vide grenier’ every other Sunday somewhere, a ‘fete locale’ a repas de chasseurs, a Feu de St Jean (which is a good excuse for a meal and a bonfire) – nothing exceptional. But in the next eight weeks the department will go stark raving mad.

The celebrations commence with the commemoration of the Revolution. July 14th used to be known as Bastille Day, but now it seems to be known by the more PC title of the Fête Nationale. All the blood letting which followed the storming of the Bastille has been diplomatically shelved in favour of a public holiday culminating in firework displays. Nowhere in France can compete with the Paris display – well the Eiffel Tower and the Champs de Mar are pretty impressive in daylight, but at night, with the sky exploding in a thousand stars, the city becomes magical.

The second best display must be the Feu d’Artifice mounted on the walls of La Cité in Carcassonne There the surrounding vineyards are illuminated by a cavalcade of fireworks which soar up from the city ramparts and roll down the rows of vines in an ever-expanding explosion of colour. The event draws in thousands who park up anywhere they can, unpack a picnic and sit it out till the night sky darkens and a lone rocket signals the start of the spectacle. The tourists prefer to cram into the old city to soak up the atmosphere, all they actually do is pay over the odds for a drink, and miss the best of the display because they can’t actually see it. But they’ll get plenty of ‘atmosphere’ – the smell of burgers and chips, pizzas and several thousand sweaty bodies struggling to navigate the crowded cobbled alleyways. Not to mention a crick in the neck, and temporary deafness when the fireworks go off from the city walls.

Old hands find a grassy knoll outside the city and bring their own food and wine. A few years ago the police had to close the Toulouse/Narbonne motorway due to the huge number of cars which had stopped on the hard shoulder to watch. Now it’s slightly more controlled, well, as far as the French ‘en fête’ can be controlled.

In the face of that sort of competition our nearest town had its firework celebrations the night before. On a suitably balmy evening after a very hot day, we joined friends at the lakeside restaurant, along with half the town, and several million flying things (ants, small flies? ) and watched the municipal fireworks, which like the Carcassonne ones are entirely free. The French government may have warned the nation that we must tighten our belts and not spend public money, but what the hell…. let’s all fiddle while Rome burns, except, being in France, we’ll replace the violin with fireworks.

In the week following the Fête Nationale the Tour de France descends on us for the Pyrenean stage of the endurance race. It usually passes within 10 miles of our village, and depending on the weather (it’s usually unbearably hot), how early they close the roads and if we have a ‘window’ in our non- existent social diary (life is one long party for retirees in rural France!) we sometimes endure a couple of hot sticky hours waiting for the pelaton to whiz past.

What am I complaining about? I’m not clad in sweaty lycra, bent over the handlebars of an instrument of torture otherwise known as a racing bike. I’ve yet to understand why they choose the hottest month of the year to stage the thing. I’m obviously missing the point, as I usually do where physical activity is concerned.

Now I have a small grandson I probably should be out there with all the other grannies and granddads scooping up the rubbishy freebies that the ‘caravan’ throws out to the eager masses. I sometimes wonder if the crowds are there to watch the race, or collect free samples of coffee, coloured pencils, packs of kids card games and cheap hats that rain down from the vans, cars and lorries. The riders speed by in a matter of seconds so I guess the freebies are the major draw.

The last time I watched Le Tour one of the riders lost a water bottle and two blokes nearly fell into the Garonne to get it. It was probably for sale on Ebay by six o’clock that night…. ‘as used by Lance Armstrong’.

As well as the major events we’ve the usual crop of August music festivals, everything from organ recitals, to hot jazz. And in case thoughts are turning to Christmas, there’s the annual exhibition and sale of Provencal santons in Saint Bertrand de Comminges. What better time to choose your Christmas crib than August?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Look Out Carla's About!

Last Friday saw the 70th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s first speech via the BBC to the newly occupied French people urging Frenchmen to join him in resistance to Hitler and the Vichy government. It is quite ironic that very few French people actually heard the broadcast, and those that did, hadn’t a clue who he was. Indeed some cynics thought, with a name like de Gaulle, he was a pseudo Frenchman invented by the British government in an attempt to stir up French national fervour. As if we would! Well, not for nothing did the French refer to us as ‘perfidious Albion’.

Strangely, for no-one having heard him, and the BBC not having thought it important enough to save the original broadcast, every word of it can be recalled. So much so, the opening paragraph is engraved on the war memorial of our nearest market town. Oh well, it’s always said a prophet is never recognized in his own country!

Anyway the old boy got plenty of mileage last week. Nicolas arrived in London with medals to award to veterans now in their nineties (better late than never one might say) plenty of kepi-wearing military attachés, and of course Carla.

Oh dear, Mlle. Bruni should really come with a health warning – to other leader’s wives. They should be briefed on the multitude of tricks the French First Lady has up her model’s sleeve, and make sure they never stand next to her for a photo shoot.

Pity poor old Samantha Cameron. Being five months pregnant is tricky. The bump is too big not to be noticed and too small to be in the beautiful full bloom of late pregnancy. She’s sort of at that lumpy stage, and she hasn’t a clue what to do with her hands. There’s not enough there to rest her arms on top of the bump, so she clasps them underneath it, like she’s afraid it’s going to fall off. Someone give her a handbag, for heavens sake. But you have to have some sympathy for her Anyone who’s five months pregnant, and new to the job of consort to the Prime Minister, would rather die than be photographed beside someone as media-savvy as Carla Bruni.

World leader’s spouses must dread the words ‘The French President is making an official visit and he’s bringing his wife with him.’ Except Michelle Obama. As she’s about 8 feet tall, and built like an Olympic sprinter, she can well hold her own with Carla, as is proved in the photo taken on a visit to the White House; in fact Mrs. Obama makes Carla look quite washed out. Anyone but the American First Lady might as well abandon all hope of looking chic

I’ve noticed Carla is nowhere to be seen when hubby is meeting Angela Merkel …. is this a coincidence, or some smart maneuvering on the part of the German Chancellor? Maybe she arranges for her to be accidentally locked in the loo when the official photographer arrives. She’s no fool, is Angela. She’s also, bless her, incredibly dumpy so she knows the score.

Mrs. S was up to all her old tricks in London. She, like the late Princess of Wales, can hear the click of a camera shutter at 300 yards and that’s when ‘model’ mode kicks in, well old habits die hard. So there she was, tossing her mane and skittering about like the winner of the 2.30 at Epsom. The pout, the flick of the hair, the flutter of the eyelashes, I’d have loved to have seen her and Lady Diana sharing the same platform. Wonder who would have won? I think my money might have been on Lady Di. Prince Charles, minus Camilla (had she been forewarned?) seemed to be reduced to a pink-flushed jelly when faced with Carla’s performance, but the Boy David, to his credit, ignored La Bruni’s shenanigans, preferring to put an protective arm round Samantha, who looked as if she would rather have been having an enema in the delivery room than posing in the doorway of number 10.

What Madame de Gaulle would have made of it all I’ve no idea, but I’ll bet it had the old general spinning in his grave.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Lively, Lovely Weekend

Well it would seem we have survived yet another Pentecostal ‘Féte Locale’. Fortunately it only happens once a year, because it can amount to a good deal of sleep deprivation … if you happen to live in the centre of the village, as we do.

The féte, as in most French villages lasts over the weekend, and usually kicks off on Friday evening. For the past week lorries and big caravans have arrived, parked up on the salle de féte car park, and pitched camp. Like Boer ‘vortrekkers’ the caravans corral the dodgems, the floating ducks, the tombola, and the candy floss stall into a cosy circle. At the far end is the stage, from whence all the noise comes, with lights and amplifiers brooding silently over the fairground until the hour comes for it to spring into life. Round about 10.30 a deep, but persistent beat will erupt and it will continue until dawn breaks. We‘ve got used to it now, and thankfully, due to our thick walls and heavy shutters, when we go to bed we seem to be able to shut it out and get a reasonably good night’s sleep.

Friday and Saturday are given over to ‘les jeunes’. The proceedings kick off with a village ‘repas’ on Friday evening arranged by the salle de féte committee. The committee are all young people, which is in direct contrast to village committees in the UK, where the average age is about seventy. The food isn’t exactly ‘gourmet’ but the wine and digestifs flow, a good crowd turns up and before long someone will murder ‘La vie en Rose’, or ‘Mon Legionnaire’, before the oldies stagger home and les jeunes arrive for some unadulterated house music … or is it garage? Whatever it is it sure ain’t Piaf.

This year Saturday night was somewhat ‘livelier’ than normal. Around four in the morning some over-excited revellers decided to let off a barrage of thunder flashes. Not the great big ‘simulated- battleground- trainee- squaddies- for the use-of’ sort of thunder flashes, these were the domestic variety, but in the confined area of a narrow main street and village square they might just as well have . World War 3 (according to Steven Speilburg) was in imminent danger of breaking out, and even when the ammunition was exhausted the troops still had plenty of energy to return to the music, which after a brief breather, resumed with gusto.

Sunday was altogether quieter, with families pouring in from the surrounding villages around mid afternoon to sample the delights of the dodgems and the ‘barbe á pappa ‘ or granddad’s beard .. known to the rest of us as candy floss. Later in the afternoon the artillery arrived again and resumed their bombardment. Fortunately the bangs didn’t resonate quite as loudly in daylight. The music resumed but it ended earlier, about 2 am, perhaps the late night on the Saturday was catching up with them.

Today was essentially for the village. As is the custom with French fétes the celebrations start with a short service at the war memorial to honour the dead from the two World Wars. Shortly before 11 twenty or thirty villagers assemble at the church and walk the few metres to the memorial, lead by a side drummer and a bugler. The drummer adopts a funereal tone, reminiscent of the Revolution. I half expect to see a tumbrel, packed with condemned aristos, rumbling across the bridge en route to the guillotine. I think I’ve watched ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ too often, due to a schoolgirl crush on Dirk Bogarde, now totally demolished by reading John Coldstream’s 2004 biography on my teenage heartthrob.

The service is short; a bouquet is placed at the foot of the monument and the bugler launches into the ‘Marseillaise’. After this everyone retires to the bar for free drinks. An accordionist appears, the side drummer (suitably refreshed) shows off his supreme ability to perform single paradiddles and embarks on a musical duel with the accordionist. The battle seems to end in a draw.

Some considerable time later the bugler and the side drummer depart in their car. I wonder if they advertise themselves in the local free newspaper … ‘ Side drummer and bugler available for fétes locale, Bastille Day celebrations, VE day anniversaries and bah mitzvahs. Competitive rates’.

After this, the afternoon has been remarkably quiet. The boules tournament was well supported by players (all male) and spectators, and played under the shade of the trees, strangely boule is not a sport that’s played at any other time in the village; I think it needs a drowsy, hot afternoon and a plane tree-lined square, the sort you find in the south. It seems to go perfectly with pernod and water, and black olives.

We have had a perfect weekend, with the garden thermometer hitting the high 30’s, but it doesn’t always work out like that. The weather here can sometimes be as capricious as Britain just when you really want it to be nice. The week’s forecast looks gloomy, with rain and falling temperatures, but at least no-one rained on our féte.

There have been half-hearted attempts by the French government to abolish Whit Monday as a public holiday, due to the fact that some years (this one for example) the month of May sees 4 separate public holidays. Up to now it’s been blithely ignored, and judging by the fun everyone has had today, I can see little Sarky and his government in that tumbrel if they persist in enforcing it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Problems in Paradise.

For anyone living in France and relying on an income from the UK these have been hard times. Sterling has taken a real bashing over the past eighteen months and even though France has been relatively lucky in avoiding the worst effects of recession it has not been immune to inflation. Add these two facts together, and you have some pretty unhappy expats.

Judging by recent postings on expat forums it would seem that there is a steady stream of disillusioned Brits selling up and heading home. Every day, it seems there are small ads. offering left hand drive cars with low mileage, nearly-new white goods, and of course houses, some renovated, some in the process of.

There are as I see it three main reasons for abandoning the dream.
For the under-fifties who have relocated here and need to earn a living the sheer practicalities of the idea are a nightmare. One of the big dreams has been running a B&B (chambre d’hôte)or renovating tumble-down barns into gites, two enterprises that are reasonably easy to set up in Britain. Not so in France.

Many expats come with a trade - electricians, builders, and plumbers – again a pretty straight forward occupation to persue in the UK. But to start any sort of business in France is an obstacle course in which (especially if your French is a bit basic) the participants are blindfolded and handcuffed.

And it doesn’t matter how small your enterprise is going to be. I met a young couple last year who had jumped through every hoop the Chambre de Metiers could produce in an attempt to sell Asian food and spices on a few local markets. It was hardly on a global scale and after a few months of struggling they felt defeated and deflated. They were regretfully returning to the UK, but with the vow, like General Macarthur, to return, albeit when they were closer to retirement. The rules and regs. have been loosened a little in the last couple of years, with the creation of the Auto-entrepreneur scheme specifically for small, one- man businesses. But its still a little shop of horrors.Some returning expats can become a bit paranoid and actually believe that the French have it in for Brits wanting to earn a living in their country, but they forget that French entrepreneurs have to go through the same struggle.

The over-fifties may not have the this problem, as by and large they tend to be early-retired with a good pension pot, or investments, or older retirees with a state pension and perhaps a small private pension. But it’s this latter group that have been suffering from the strength of the euro, so this is one of the major reasons for returning to the UK.

Another common thread for the over-fifties is family ties, and in particular grandchildren.Even with technology such as Skype, and webcams, many retirees (I have to say it’s usually grandmas) genuinely miss seeing their grandchildren on a regular basis. Those cheap air-fares that convinced us that friends and relatives could pop over for long weekends don’t seem that cheap when you come to the ‘pay now’ bit the online booking form. How did a 99p one-way ticket suddenly turn into the £130 debited to your bank card for a return for two adults? With mortgages to pay, rising prices and limited holiday allowance, sons and daughters just can’t afford to hop over with the grandchildren more than once a year.

Well, you might say, what’s wrong with older grand-kids coming over for a few weeks in the summer holidays? Brilliant idea. The brutal truth is that the lovely old farmhouse you bought in the middle of no-where, which you fell in love with for its peace and tranquillity is ‘Boresville Central ’ for teenagers. Four weeks with Granny and Grandad down a country track miles away from the nearest town seems like a prison sentence.

So with regret many retirees put their idyllic hideaway on the market, and pack up their retirement dream along with their dogs, cats and memories and move back. Often they disguise their loneliness by convincing themselves that their grown up children need them for child care duties. This may seem a selfless act of parental loyalty, but I wonder how many sons and daughters may actually dread the idea of Mum and Dad moving back to a house down the road?

A harsh reality of life in rural France for many expats is loneliness. And that affects all ages. I met a charming girl a few weeks ago, who moved here about a year ago to live with her partner in the house he was renovating. The views from the garden were spectacular, a pretty little village was less than half a mile away – I would have died for the location- but they were selling the house, and everything in it, and moving back. Lack of a regular income was the main reason, but she seem to be quite relieved as she’d been so bored and lonely when her partner was out at work. He spoke good French - she didn’t - so she was completely isolated. There was no-one around that was vaguely her age even if she had been fluent in the language, and in rural areas friendships are hard to establish. In this France is no different to any British village, xenophobia flourishes in backwaters.

Sometimes we need a good listener, either to help solve a problem, or just to have a moan to, and being so many miles away from close family can turn minor niggle into a full blown crisis. Fortunately help is at hand. There’s an excellent English speaking organisation, run by volunteers who understand the problems of life in a different country and culture. It’s similar to the Samaritans in that there is a dedicated phone line with listeners on hand to do just that … listen. They are specially trained and entirely non-judgemental, so in fact for some it’s much better than talking a problem over with a friend. How many of our friends can really be relied upon not to criticise or offer well-meaning, but wrong advise?

Their website is (there's a link in the right hand column of this blog) and the phones are manned from 3pm to 11pm. And if you’ve time on your hands you can volunteer to train as a listener. If you don’t feel you could do that, there’s lots of other ways to help – from distributing publicity, to organising a fund raising event like a book sale or a coffee morning.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Au Revoir Cup Cakes, Bonjour Macarons

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of cup cakes. I guess I’m too old.

In my day cupcakes were known as fairy cakes, the staple of childhood birthday parties (together with those disgusting rice krispie/chocolate things). My dear old Mum, she of the culinary disasters, never really got the hang of cake decorating, and anything involving icing was sure to end in tears. So my birthday offerings were neither tasty nor artistic. From memory, the cake bit was dry and the topping was a drizzle of icing with a scattering of hundreds and thousands which had been applied before the icing had started to set, so consequently the hundreds and thousands either dissolved into a lurid splodge of purple, yellow, pink and blue, or they slid gently off the top of the cake and collected in a pool around the rim of the paper case. Needless to say, there were always dozens of them left over at the end of the party, even though Mum had shovelled as many as decently possible into goodie bags for the departing guests. I guess most of them finished up in the dustbin or on the bird table. There were quite a lot of bird mortalities in our street just after my birthday.

The modern day ones, on which small fortunes have been made, are almost as bad. Mum’s lack of decoration was distinctly minimalist compared to these overblown works of confectionary. I regard any highly decorated cake with suspicion as they rarely live up to their promise, and those who were falling over themselves to be seen as cupcake connoisseurs are now admitting that most of them were dry and flavourless, and horror of horrors – laden with empty calories. If you’re going to be reckless with the calories at least get some satisfaction from it, I say. I’d opt for some Belgian chocolate, a slice of ‘Death by Chocolate’ cake, or a ‘proper’ dry martini (as made by a barman in Zaragossa in Northern Spain, but that’s another story)

Now it’s macarons that are the latest trendy confection. Not macaroons, they’re those big, flat almondy things which come with their own rice paper liner. Macarons are much more subtle.

So if cupcakes are passé, here come the macarons, little jewel-like delights of pastel coloured meringue sandwiched together with a rich butter cream filling.

Macarons have been around for years in France, although the word is derived from the Italian word maccarone. It’s reputed that they were introduced to France by Catherine de Medici following her marriage to the French king, Henri II in 1553. Mind you, so much in France has been attributed to Catherine de Medici it’s probably yet another myth.

Unlike macaroons, the macaron is small, neat and incredibly difficult to make at home. The finished result must be uniform, as they are going to be sandwiched together, and have a smooth shallow-domed top ( no peaky bits) It all sounds too tricky, unless you’re really skilled in the art of meringue making.

The fillings are divine. Anything from the traditional chocolate, coffee and raspberry (appropriately coloured meringue to match he flavouring) to pistachio, chestnut, orange blossom, mango, bergamot – new flavours seem to be added every day.

If you’d like to know more, visit the website of one of the best macaron makers in France .. They have shops in Paris and many other French cities, as well as Dublin and London (Harrods). The website should really come with a warning: ‘Macarons can become addictive’.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is It Really Here?

I think it’s safe to say that Spring might have arrived at last. Of course that could be a bit premature; the last time I thought that winter had finally pushed off was about a month ago, when the temperature rose, the sun shone and on a day out, we actually managed to eat our sandwiches in a picnic area without coats.

February is usually a great month for Spring-like weather in the Haute Garonne. We’re blessed with short winters which, even though they might be cold, are at least bearable. The knowledge that by the middle of February we could be sitting out in the sun gives us something to look forward too.

When I say ‘sitting in the sun’ I don’t mean I’m stretched out on a sun lounger in shorts and a strappy top ( a sight which should not be inflicted on those of a delicate disposition), it’s more like light sweater and jeans and sitting in a south-facing position.

This is what rattles me about those grumbling crumblies in the UK who have an annual chip at expat OAP’s who receive the government winter fuel allowance. For a start not every retiree gets it … it’s only paid if you were already getting it before you left the UK; everyone in receipt of a retirement pension has paid in to the system over a period of at least forty years so it’s not a charitable freebie, and lastly (and hilariously) there is a certain section of UK pensioners who actually think that south of Calais the temperature never drops below 20c. I heard an old girl on the Jeremy Kyle show rabitting on about this very subject when I was in the UK last year. Bless her heart, she actually seem to think that we were all spending the money on cheap booze and fags. I suspect she regarded anyone who left Britain to retire to pastures new as traitors and as such certainly didn’t deserve government hand-outs.

Well I can tell her that we had it cold enough to freeze the thingies off a brass monkey this year, and every winter it’s cold enough for a 15 tog duvet, so there! 150€ worth of wood keeps one room warm for about three months, providing we don’t light the fire until 6’clock in the evening and additional heating by way of radiators probably puts the electricity bill up by 75% on the summer quarters.

Not that I’m grumbling – the winters here are dry, crisp and bright even on the worst days. My recollections of East Anglian winters are dominated by memories of days that never seemed to get light. And an awful lot of mud. The roads around my village are nearly always clean, dry and mudless, but then this is cattle country, devoid of sugar beet lorries en route to the processing plant.

The garden has suddenly put a spurt on, as we knew it would once the temperatures rose, The daffodils were open enough to provide me with a Mother’s Day bouquet ( I live with a cheap skate who prefers to grow me flowers rather than buy them, but it’s the thought that counts). The crocus are always a hardy bunch, they keep coming through whatever the weather, as do the primulas which have self-sown themselves from the communal open ground at the rear of the garden. The trees have developed a delicate green haze and even our gorgeous Aubrac cows are looking happy. Yes, I’m going to stick my neck out and say “ Printemps est arrive. ”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Keeping Out the Cold

I really shouldn't have mentioned the fact that the snow had gone, because last week it came back again. Not in great amounts, but enough to make everything look pretty, and to send the temperatures plunging. I think this has to be the coldest winter we have experienced since we have been here; either that or it's just that I'm nine years older, so perhaps I'm feeling the cold more than I used to. I remember a few years ago some brainless Government minister suggested old people who were suffering in cold, badly heated, even more badly insulated houses, should wear a woolly hat indoors to prevent heat escaping from their heads. Well, what a brilliant idea - thousands of OAPs wearing bobble hats whilst watching 'Corrie' wrapped in a blanket ,sipping a Cup-a-Soup. Is there any wonder we escaped to France?

I do get a bit annoyed when I hear of attempts to stop ex-pats, living within the EU, receiving the British Winter Fuel Payments. There seems to be a general misconception, mostly amongst non- expat pensioners that those of us who have chosen to retire abroad are all basking in 365 days of warm sunshine, stretched out in January on the beach or the patio quaffing treble G& T's. Well, I've got news for them - nowhere in Europe has the sort of climate where you can do that, even Spain can get pretty nippy on a winter's night. And when the temperature sinks to - 12c as it does here, a G&T is the last thing you want. A cup of hot chocolate is much more attractive.

The French departments who have the Pyrénean chain as their backdrop are well versed in cold- prevention. They have plenty of warm, comfort food to off-set the effects of winter. Home- made soups are cheap, uncomplicated and nourishing, and unless we're out in the morning, and I haven't got any in the fridge from a previous lunch, we have some variety of soup every day.

In SW France, roughly within the Haute Pyrénees/ Aquitaine/Landes triangle the cold- buster is garbure, a cross between a soup and a stew - a 'stoup'as an old friend used to call it.

Garbure is such a highly regarded speciality that there are garbure festivals devoted to the dish. Argelés Gazost, near Lourdes, and Anglet, on the Atlantic coast between Biarritz and Bayonne, both have colourful festivals with traditional songs, dances and of course plates of garbure.

  • If you aren't within striking distance of either of these towns you can always make it yourself, and the good part about it is that it can be served as a lunch time soup or a main evening meal, with chunks of crusty bread. Garbure contains white beans, root vegetables, cabbage and a changing variety of meats. These can be pork, Bayonne ham, (or any jambon de campagne) confit of duck, or chicken thighs. Like all good soups it’s very much a case of throwing in whatever meat is available. Whatever is added to the basic recipe, it must be thick enough to stand a spoon up in.

    I’m going to give you the Sunday-Best, High-Days-and-Holidays recipe so you can omit some of the meat if you wish, but keep a bacon flavour by still using some pieces of jambon de campagne or a ham bone. If all else fails, some bacon lardons will do …at a push!

    For a traditional Garbure to serve 6 you will need:

    1 large onion

    4 celery stalks

    1 large leek

    4 medium potatoes, peeled

    1 medium turnip or 2 good sized carrots, peeled

    4 or 5 cloves of garlic, crushed

    250 g white haricot beans (soaked overnight)

    150 g jambon de campagne (or the bone if you can scrounge one from your friendly neighbourhood deli)

    200 g salt pork belly

    2 confit de cuisses de canard (confit of duck legs)

    2 litres water

    bouquet garni and salt and pepper.

    Half a savoy type cabbage, finely shredded.

    A large saucepan with a lid

    Scrape some of the fat from the confit de canard ( if using) into the saucepan. Otherwise cover the bottom of the pan with a light vegetable oil. Heat gently.

    Roughly chop the first 5 ingredients and add to the saucepan. Sauté lightly adding the crushed garlic after a few moments. Then add the pork and ham (or the lardons) cut into smallish cubes. Don’t brown the vegetables off too much, they just want to soften and absorb the duck fat or oil. Add the drained and rinsed haricots, the water, bouquet garni and seasoning (go easy on the salt until the final tasting). Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for a couple of hours

    Test the beans are soft, then add the shredded cabbage and the duck legs, with most (but not all) of the fat removed. A little fat will improve the flavour and texture of the soup. Do not throw the rest of the duck fat away on pain of death! Scrape it into a bowl, and use for roast potatoes later. It makes ‘roasties’ to die for! It will keep in the fridge for several weeks

    Cook the soup for a further half hour.

    The traditional way of serving is to pour portions into a soup bowl lined with slices of day-old rustic bread, but this is not obligatory and can be messy! In more impoverished times the meat would have been removed and kept warm to be served as the main course with salad. Today the whole dish, which should by now be really rib-sticking, is usually eaten as a lunchtime treat on a chilly day with lots of freshly baked ‘pain de campagne.’ Another tradition was to pour half a glass of red wine into the last few spoonfuls of soup to ‘aid the digestion.Chacun à son goût! It's certainly á mon goût.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What's in a name ?


In case anyone should think I am permanently attached to a laptop (heaven forbid) my other overriding interest is food – in particular, the sourcing, preparation and consuming of it.

In the winter I dream of warming soups and stews; in the summer I plan meals grilled over a barbecue and served with adventurous salads. By adventurous salads, I mean something more than lettuce, tomato and cucumber, with side orders of radish and spring onions - my mother’s standard summer fare. My mum’s enterprising attempts at livening up the tea time salad might occasionally involve grating a carrot, or reincarnating the lunch time left over potatoes by covering them in a dollop of salad cream (mayonnaise was virtually unheard of). This was as adventurous as it got.

If she could see the wild assortment of ingredients that are melanged into a salad now, she would declare that “folk are better fed than taught”. It was an expression she used liberally, and to this day I can’t work out the literal sense of it, except I think she would have applied the same comment to the avid consumerism that we see in the 21st century. She would have been very contemptuous of such culinary novelties as bean and pea sprouts (Brussels were the only sort she knew, and you didn’t serve them raw, they needed boiling for at least ¾ of an hour)) awabi radish (what was the matter with French Breakfast?) and olive oil ( well that came from Boots in a small bottle and you warmed it up and dripped it into your ears to soften the wax). Our French doctor nearly fell off his chair when I told him that one.

We Brits were quite accustomed to being the butt of our continental neighbours' jokes when it came to food, and I think it gave us an unwarranted sense of inferiority. We can cook just as well as the French, and our classic regional recipes are equally as good as theirs, in fact sometimes they can be better. Where we go wrong is in the name. We are just not inventive enough.

Take the potato. Being half Irish, I adore potatoes. Were the human race to be left with nothing else but potatoes to eat, it wouldn’t bother me a bit. That’s one reason I can’t be doing with low carb weight loss plans like the Hay Diet. I’m sure it’s great, and I know people who swear by it, but I can’t face eating protein without some form of carbohydrate; I love pasta, I like rice, but I worship at the altar of the humble spud. I have yet to find a French potato that comes anywhere near a British one for texture and flavour, but we’ll skate over that.

A natural companion to potato is cheese. Both the British and the French have cottoned on to this , so we both have perfected comforting, warming dishes using these two basic ingredients.

What do we call ours? Interestingly, cheese and potato pie. And the French version? Tartiflette.

The former is mashed potato and grated cheese, beaten together with butter and milk, spread in a pie dish, topped with more grated cheese and browned in the oven. The French variant uses sliced potato, a slug of white wine (comme d’habitude)and a topping of reblochon cheese. But it isn’t common old cheese and potato pie, it’s tartiflette.

It’s a name to conjure with. It elevates cheese and potato to realms far above their station. It’s a cheeky, pert little word …. it deserves to be up in lights - Mimi Tartiflette the Parisian burlesque dancer. Or in the pages of a crime novel – Alfonse Tartiflette, the unorthodox detective from the Quai D’Orsay.

You never see ‘Cheese and Potato Pie’ on a restaurant menu in the UK and yet ‘Tartiflette’ is all over the place in France. You can even buy it in tins, or frozen, in 4- portion bags, if it’s too much effort to peel all those potatoes.

Here in Southwest France we have another cheese and potato speciality that is almost sacramental. It has to be made with a certain type of cheese – laguiole -which is produced in the Aubrac region of the Midi Pyrenees.It involves creaming mashed potato and garlic over a low heat and beating the laguiole cheese into it. This cheese and potato puree has almost mystical qualities and is known as aligot (pronounced al-ee- go) It’s also ridiculously expensive to make because of the cheese that must (on pain of death) be used … emmenthal or simlar melting cheese is a complete anathema to purists - a cantal of a certain age may be acceptable in some regions, but the whole thing is fraught with argument, as is so much in France. Like tartiflette this traditional recipe has been brought into the supermarkets in easy- cook packets; ready to warm up in plastic sachets, or dehydrated (just add warm milk) Surely that’s cheesey Smash? No, it’s aligot.

I have a theory that if we renamed our simple dishes, gave them pretty, or exotic names instead of boring titles like fish pie, or bizarre names like toad in the hole, we might get a bit more international recognition.

Tartiflette is a great lunchtime dish on a chilly day, so here’s the recipe:

I should really say ‘Here is one of many recipes for tartiflette.

For six to eight people you will need:

About 750 gs of potatoes (peeled)
A large onion (chopped)
A 250 pkt lardoons
A glass of dry white wine
A round of reblochon cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

The ingredients are universally accepted as being correct. The method differs from cook to cook, so here’s how I do it.

Cook the potatoes whole, in lightly salted water, for about ten minutes. They should still be quite firm as they are going to be cooked again. Drain and when they are cool enough to handle, slice into not-too- thin slices.

Melt some butter into a frying pan, and fry the onion and potatoes together until lightly browned, add the lardons and enough wine to simmer the potatoes for a few minutes without boiling dry. Drink the rest of the wine… point in trying to put it back into the bottle. That's one of my rules of life.

Gently spoon the onion- potato- lardon- mixture into a large gratin dish. Cut the reblochon in half through the middle, and (this is where there is some dispute) either place the two halves of cheese rind side up or down on top of the potatoes.

Cover with some baking foil and cook in a hot oven (200c) for half an hour or so. It’s an easy-going dish, so timing isn’t crucial.

Next blog ..... France's deep and lasting relationship with cheese and potatoes.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Procrastination is the Thief of Time

Well the snow has gone, from the towns and villages at least, although there is still enough on the mountains to keep the skiers happy.

I’ve a touch of the January- post- Christmas blues. January has to be the worst month of the year, although when the sun does put in an appearance it’s got quite a lot of power in it. Unfortunately when you live in an old house, the walls are thick, which is fine for keeping the worst of the cold out, but it also means that sometimes it’s warmer in the garden than in the kitchen.

The kitchen is my writing/cooking/web-surfing sanctuary, consequently I spend many daylight hours wandering from computer to cooker, to coffee pot, but last week it was so cold in there (despite the radiator devouring electricity units at an alarming rate) that writing became a real chore. Cold rooms and writing seem to go together; the most successful writers have all shivered in bed sits, writing in a top coat and mittens. JK Rowling apparently wrote a lot of the first Harry Potter book sitting in a coffee shop because it saved on the fuel bills… she must have made a cup of coffee last an awfully long time. The delightful Marion Keynes writes on her laptop, snuggled up under the duvet. I’ve tried that and it’s almost impossible - the laptop keeps sliding all over the bed.

Not only do my fingers freeze up, so does my brain. I can’t concentrate on serious writing. In an effort to make it look as if I was actually working last week, I decided to spend the time by doing some earnest Googling in the name of research. I’d got several writing requests sitting in my inbox which were going to require some dedicated exploration, and web page clicking wasn’t going to be as bone -chilling as having to relentlessly type on a cold keyboard.

As those of you who try to earn a crust by writing will know, anything that distracts us from actually having to sit down and face a blank Word document is a gift from God. Search engines are both a blessing and a curse, and I really ought to have a parental block installed on my laptop to prevent me accessing internet auction sites, and other people’s blogs.

I decided to have a browse around the camera category of Ebay. I have talked myself into the notion that I really need a camera of my very own, rather than having to struggle with the all- singing- all dancing one belonging to Captain Sensible. There are times when even he can’t make it behave, so what chance have I got?

Anyway I had a lovely afternoon surfing comparison sites, reading camera reviews, most of which went right over my head, and the next afternoon deciding which one I was going to bid on, and the next afternoon clicking back and forth to the Ebay site, to make sure I hadn’t been outbid.

So I actually wasted three afternoons, bought myself a camera, and discovered nothing about black truffles which had been the point of all that Googling.

I’m going to google ‘Perigord Truffles’ when I finish this blog. That will be a disaster, because the devilish Google will lead me off down the path of foodie sites, French truffle producers sites, and any blogs that happen to have the words Perigord truffles buried in their pages.

I’m putting some of Captain S’s photos on this page, just to cheer everyone up and prove that his bells- and-whistles camera can be persuaded to take good pictures when it’s in the mood. We had an autumn break in Pau last year. Pau is a lovely city right on the edge of the Pyrenees. It’s only 50 miles from us- we get less adventurous as we get older! Lots of people only know Pau as a destination on the Ryanair website, which is a shame as it’s well worth a visit, with great views, an elegant castle and some smart shops.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snowed In

Well, at last we have snow. You have no idea the guilt that is experienced down here when we see weather forecasts and news reports from the UK showing snowdrifts and chaos.

Ours arrived on Thursday, we were expecting family but we got snow instead. Gatwick wasn't going anywhere so all the food I had in the fridge is either in the freezer or us.

The village has been a fairy-tale for three days, but somehow snow is wasted on the over- thirties. It looks lovely (from the window), especially this afternoon as the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but I'm so pleased the road is thawing, and the pavements almost clear. The up-side is that all the runs on the ski stations must be open by now, and that's got to be good for the tourist trade.

The forecast is for warmer weather on the way, so I guess by next weekend our snow will be nothing more than a memory and some photos. Which is fine by me. It's not an age thing - I was a complete wimp when I was kid. I hated going to school in the snow. The boys would have always made the most deadly slide in the playground (rivalling the Cresta Run)and it always seemed to be across the school entrance, so impossible to avoid; I hated being hit by snowballs and I hated wet gloves so much I never made any ammunition to fire back. I was terrified of slipping over on the ice on the way home in case someone saw me and laughed ... all in all I was a proper party pooper in the snow.

The saving grace was frozen milk. Free school milk (pre Thatcher) was delivered in crates containing glass bottles of,I guess, a quarter of a pint, with a cardboard top which you normally pierced with your thumb to enable you to stick a straw into the bottle. In a hard winter the cream which rose to the top conveniently froze and often half-pushed the top off ...dead hygienic! To us simple, post-war kids it was just like ice cream(Mr Whippy had yet to arrive). Of course, conversely the milk in summer was either warm, or in a very hot summer,going off. There is an upside and a downside to everything in life.

Strangely I don't ever recall the school closing during a particularly hard spell. I'm sure if it had I would have remembered it. It would have been the answer to a prayer for a snowaphobic like me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A British Invasion

When it comes to gastronomy, we Brits have done ourselves down for generations. We seem to have been quite happy to smile wryly and admit to boiling vegetables to death and making lumpy gravy.

On the other hand, the French have shouted their culinary prowess from the rooftops. Well, in the rarefied atmosphere of Michelin- starred kitchens, that is. Privately, some French food-watchers have been having doubts about France’s hallowed position as the gastronomic leaders of the world.

Tradition is all in France, and when French chefs are invited to share their culinary secrets to the outside world via the tv, to those of us raised on the antipodean madness of the Galloping Gourmet, the dearly missed and totally unpredictable Keith Floyd, or the globe-trotting Rick Stein, French cookery programmes are… well, boring.

The biggest French tv channel, TF1, has realised this, and it’s bought the rights to the Beebs 20 year- old ‘MasterChef.’ And they’re not slotting it into the whiling-away- an- afternoon OAP schedules, it’s going out on prime time. TF1 have, with typical Gallic modesty, described it as the most important amateur cookery competition in France and they’re backing up their claim with a cool €100,00 for the winner.

TF1 aren’t the first French channel to recognise the pulling-power of cookery as popular entertainment. Channel 4’s Come Dine with Me ( or Un Diner Presque Parfait) - which has to be the biggest exercise in culinary one-up-manship even seen on tv - has been a huge success for the French channel M6 - attracting two million viewers for each programme. Believe me, for French tv this is mega audience numbers.

Previously, French cookery programmes, such as Bon Appétit Bien Sûr, have been deadly serious - a cross between Phillip Harben and Fanny Craddock. Fanny would have gone down well with the French, dressed as for a night at the opera, and with just the right amount of contemptuous froideur to traumatise amateur cooks for life.

Now, even a would-be Jamie Oliver has burst onto the French culinary stage. Cyril Lignac presents a show called ‘Oui Chef’, which is loosely modelled on ‘Jamie’s Kitchen’ and the cutely named ‘Vive la Cantine’ which somehow sounds much sexier than ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’.

Francois Simon, restaurant crtic for the iconic Le Figaro has to admit that British cookery progammes are tapping into the need for the French, particularly the younger amateur cooks, to try something more cosmopitan, adventurous and above all simple.

French food, thanks to Britain’s proliference of inovative cooks is being de-mystified.

M. Simon has reservations about one of our chefs going down that well in France, however. Gordon Ramsey, for some reason, would be unlikely to have a fan base in France. I wonder why?