Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The robots are coming to the country!



Our annus horribilis is proceeding to its close, perhaps earlier than expected if the ancient Mayans did their maths right, but probably not without a nasty surprise or two. To start with, the 'fridge to the left of the Rayburn is making strange noises. The motor is now louder than my tinnitus. Then Fred Rouchier, the wonderful electrician delivered the new combined microwave/electric oven to replace the deceased one, along with an information bombshell. I am still in shock.

What follows is what Fred has learned and what he recounted to me.
Apparently:
if I connect my dishwasher to a telephone line........
.......(no, I did not know the dishwasher had a telephone jack).......
then, when the dishwasher auto detects a fault,
before its owner, my respected self, does.....
then it calls Bosch Central with its diagnosis...
then Bosch Central checks its stores and despatches the part to....
Fred Rouchier who will come to do the necessary repair …
probably way before I have stopped flapping around doing housewifely
maintenance such as deep cleaning of the filter, adding extra salt, de-gunging the water sprays - and grumbling at the machine.

Given that the machine is not used on a daily basis, Fred may even turn up before I am aware that the machine thinks it has a problem.

(If this same model were in Clea's super-modern-new house, little Round Red Vacu-Bot would be skimming around the floors, possibly humming to itself as it tidied. Then – when finished or in need of a recharge - it would take itself to its dock and re-connect. My house has too many corners and steps for it to function and I feel like saying 'nah, nah-er nerrer'.)

Now I look at the new combined microwave/electric oven with suspicion. It demands to know the weight of that which it has to defreeze. It can be programmed to do a three stage de-frosting all by itself. No doubt I can pre-programme it to cook lunch, all I would have to do is put the ingredients in its cavity. I don't know, I have not yet fully digested the book of instructions. But, as far as I can see, it does not have arms and legs to go fetch the food to be cooked.

I am not happy with these machines that are more intelligent than I am, that demand a great deal of brain power to operate. The new clothes washer does not ask me when I want its programme to start but when I want it to finish! This involves calculation: the length of time of the selected wash programme, run alongside the cheap time schedule of the EdF (steady at night, erratic during the day). Of course, the wash programmes are not in whole hours, but in half hours. The EdF works in whole hours. In short, if wanting to run the machine overnight on cheap time, I have to stay up until the right time to calculate the setting and start it. For, if I get it wrong, the wretched machine beeps its 'finished, come deal with me' noise way before I want to wake up.

I did mention to Fred that I strongly suspicioned that the clothes washer had taught the dishwasher to do this irritating beep. Masterfully, he de-beeped the dishwasher. But neither of us know how to de-beep the clothes washer. It will just have to do double duty as an alarm.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Return of the Venturers


On our way back to La Chaise, we decided to go off the motorway near Figueras (just a few kilometres on the Spanish side of the border) to look for a very famous vinyard in that region. Mistake, big mistake. Not only was the vinyard not where the wine merchant, and the baker's wife, said it would be, but there was not a vine in sight. There were lots of stony fields and a delightful, tumbling stream, probably full of trout, but nary a vine.

As a result we were over an hour late getting back home, breaking a fundamental rule for a serene old age: OLD PEOPLE SHOULD NOT DRIVE IN THE DARK.
Fortunately the Rayburn was lit and the house was relatively warm which helped de-stress us. But the external walls are about 60 cm thick, made of field stone and mortar, so there was a little chill inside. To counteract this we switched on a couple of oil filled electric radiators which had been working nights in our absence. The electricity switch promptly tripped.

La Chaise is not a machine for living in (pace Le Corbusier) it is a living shell with which (whom?) those on the inside develop a relationship of give and take. Mostly take on the part of the building and give on the part of its so-called owners. The incident brought to mind the dogs' attitude to our times away. They would have their own personal attendant, living in, who had little else to do but feed them, talk to them, walk them, watch television with them. All was snug and secure. They greeted us joyously every return – and promptly ran away the following morning. Both 'so there!' reactions, sulks really. Does a house have a soul? Do dogs?

Yet the house was garnished with plants. The plumbago had come into the dining room, the hibiscus took up most of the bedroom window. Fortunately for those who stagger to the bathroom in the dark of night (me) the hibiscus does not have thorns but its twigs do scratch. The lemon tree and all the geranium plants had come into the conservatory, leaving very little room for golf bags and certainly no room for people to sit. Fortunately we don't wish to sit there as it cannot be heated to people temperatures owing to the way the electricity is distributed round the house – which is what causes the main switch to trip.

Fortunately, there was very little by way of admin correspondence to deal with but vast numbers of the New York and London Reviews of Books to peruse. So quite cheerfully I got in touch with our solicitor to arrange a rental agreement for the lovely Audrey and Alexandre who will be the La Chaise gardiens in our absence when Clea and Jerome finally move into have their own house. And ran slap bang into the rules and regulations of the wretched inspection du travail once again. It would seem that consenting adults cannot make agreements between themselves, they have to follow the rules invented by local employer/union negotiations and enarch theories of human relations. As it is said in English: I was fit to be tied.

Then I read an opinion article in Liberation, France's wittiest leading left wing daily, by one Pierre-Yves Geoffard, professor of economics at the Paris School of Economics and visiting professor at other distinguished establishments. The theme of his article: L'etat n'est ni omniscient, ni omnipotent. Revolutionary thought. Perhaps there is hope for France yet.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Absence, Love, Real Life.


This last ten days I have taken leave of absence from La Chaise. Of course, as a control freak, I could not go without leaving many, many written instructions. I don't know why I bother to bother my little blonde head with these instructions. Arnold knows perfectly well what he has to do – he does what is necessary and is a better judge of that than I am..

And Michelle, my 'housekeeper' to borrow the American term, is only to glad to see us out of the house, so that she can really get on with what she likes doing. This is mostly polishing everything that stands still, windows, copper, silver, floors and airing everything else – beds, bed-linen, sofas, chairs, rubbish bins. Oh, and I must not forget the plants, she takes them over totally, pruned, watered, brought in if the cold, in her view, is too great.

Clea and Jérôme deal with everything else, strange postal deliveries (usually JP's wine), hopeful money collectors for the local football team, the pompiers with their annual calendar of the local fire-brigade volunteers. They also deal with people who come to do things, such as M. Angibaud junior (!) who came to empty the main septic tank before the Christmas invasion. (One day I shall write a brief dissertation on septic tanks and the management thereof.)

A lot of this could be managed by telephone but it is a curious truth that people seldom telephone people who are not in the same country. In fact, in the Dordogne, very few artisans return telephone calls at all – M. Doly of chimney fame being the notable exception. The invention of mobile phones has made life a little easier for, without those, one was always telephoning at the beginning of meals – not good for the digestion of either party.

So the question is: will this absence make me fonder of La Chaise as the ancient proverb (which actually applies to people) likes to indicate? I don't know. Our return is always greeted by a pile of paperwork and old newspapers. The house will be warm, the bed and the fire made and the Rayburn lit. But there is still that slight sinking feeling of jobs left undone when one went away, jobs which get no easier for having been left to stew.

Comparisons are often apples versus oranges and, in the case of La Chaise v. Miramina (the flat in which we are staying now) this is particularly true. The houses at La Chaise are probably a couple of hundred years old; the flat block that houses Miramina dates back to the 60's. How can one contrast and compare views over a green valley with cliff-top views over a working fishing port? Or being woken up by the cry of sea-gulls as dawn breaks ('aaargh' or 'ow-ow-ow') with the screech of the white owl that tears through the night to let in the day?

But there is no doubt in my mind that a stay at Miramina in Sant Feliu de Guixols is a holiday. In other words, it is time off from real life. Real life happens at La Chaise.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Legal realities


Drama in Perigueux's courtroom! A woodland proprietor was claiming damages, with interest, from her neighbour who had carelessly allowed his bonfire to damage her trees. Claim: her financial loss was otherwise irreparable. (Yes, the price of wood has recently shot up.) Unfortunately her lawyer mumbled, so many details were lost to the entranced audience. Fortunately the defending lawyer had a strong sense of the dramatic, refuted all the claimants plaints. Not only was her claim untrue, the opposite was true – the 'accidental' burning of the 'rubbish' on the floor of her woodland had cleared and improved it. The judge hearing the case, a slight middle aged lady, consulted the advisors from the Ministry of Justice and, probably wisely, decided to withold her judgement till later.

Given that the lawyers were likely to cost the plaintiff and the defendant around 80-100 € an hour, one wondered why no court has been established on the basis of 'knock their silly heads together'. Bring on the Red Queen. This feeling was reinforced when a young man presented himself at the bar, determined to quarrel with the traffic police as to whether or not he had gone through a red light in the centre of Perigueux. The dispute centred round which red light was concerned, the police had one in view, he had another. The judge hummed a little and said she would deal with him later, too.

Then we came to the meat of the cases before her: cases brought by the département de l'inspection du travail. This was where we – officially Clea as the 'donneur d'ordre' for La Chaise – were involved. Most of the cases, including ours, were about the lack of 'correct' book-keeping. The early cases concerned restaurant owners with part-time employees, pregnant wives, new establishments the defence was generally boo-hoo-I-did-my-best. The judge fined them all.

And then came our turn. We, too, had transgressed the rules laid down, no daily attendance book, no regular monthly printed salary statements, just bank transfers. The charge was impeding inspectors from doing their work of inspecting the books. When I mentioned to Arnold that he had to note down every day his arrival and departure times, in an official book countersigned by his employer – aka Clea – he became unusually loquacious. Dutch can be a most descriptive language.

The visit of the inspectrice was rather a shock for us. We are used to dealing with the rigidities of the French administration which are usually skilfully managed by French bureaucrats so that it works. The inspectrice had no sense of proportion at all. I lost patience (I'm Dutch, too) and left her to the diplomatic tact of JP.

When called to the bar, a very innocent, very pregnant Clea explained that, as she had a full time job as well as the farm – which did not provide a decent income – her 'aged' parents did the paperwork. The judge asked how old were her parents. Mild panic as Clea turned towards to me to ask. The judge explained that the rules were for the benefit for both employer and employee and was Clea now en regle? Oh, yes! Fine 70€ each on two counts.

But we are in France. The judge pointed out that if the fines were paid promptly there would be a 20 per cent discount.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is there a Doctor in the Woods?



Arnold is no longer simply 'the wonderful Arnold' but 'the wonderful, eagle-eyed Arnold'. Amongst all the leafless trees around, he spotted an oak that was dead, dangerously dead. Of course, sod's law – la loi de l'emmerdement maximum' – dictated that this particular tree had grown on the bank of the Black Pond in the Woods, the roadside bank. The road is a departmental one with heavy, fast traffic at breakfast, lunch and dinner times.

The metre or so wide roadside bank of the Black Pond is mostly ditch with some poor clay either side and it drops steeply towards the water. It is not the most stable of banks. Oh, and there is sheep fencing in the middle, to keep the sheep in and mushroom thieves out.

The ditch is cleared twice yearly by the departement d'equipement's services. A tractor equipped with bucket for digging out the accumulated rubbish and armed with a brasher for cutting back scrub growth of all kinds, proceeds slowly along. It is shadowed by a largish truck with flashing lights announcing debroussaillage driven by a half asleep man in yellow visibility garments. It is the kind of combination one always meets just on a right hand bend....We remind ourselves we are deeply grateful for the work for, as far as we know, the Black Pond is mostly filled by rain from the road side ditches. (It might have a spring, we are not sure.)

Of course the dead tree is leaning slightly and, of course, it is our responsabilité civile to make sure it does not fall onto the road, or onto any cars using the road. So it has to be dealt with quite soon.

Fortunately Arnold had pointed out the dead tree to me just as the gardener who had dealt with the dead elm and the dying willow was back to deal with the stumps. So JP and I, with M. Bernard went to look at the problem from the woodside where the Black Pond has a wide bank with a number of trees, created when it was last dredged. The dead tree is about sixteen or so metres high. In order to bring it down safely a large number of its branches will first have to be cut off. This means some agile person, plus chain saw, will have to shin up the tree. Then a rope will have to be attached to the tree and to a heavy tractor on the ground to make sure the tree falls in the right direction - not on the road.

M. Bernard started talking about light weight carp fishing boats, to get to the tree, then making the tree fall across the Black Pond and then pulling it onto the larger woodside bank with his Chrysler camping car. Only that bank is about three metres higher than the surrounding land. My eyes closed and I began to think, no, no and no. The last person to take a boat into the Black Pond was Harry when the intake valve of the irrigation system had got blocked (tadpoles). There is no jetty to reach the water in the Black Pond, the depth of the mud is horrendous. No, no and no. We need a tree doctor, not a gardener. It needs to be done on the roadside, with flashing red triangles and impressive trucks to guide its fall. The cost will be quite another matter.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

men problems



Since last week I have been brooding about Ahmed, the fork-tongued, pointy shoed, fast talking, self declared roofing expert. Or rather I have been
brooding over the almost impossible task of selecting excellent, reliable artisans.
One way is simply to pick up a card near whatever till you are at and ask the cashier (usually a girl) what is known about the artisan who is advertising his skills. I did this at the Mensignac baker's only a few days ago and was promptly warned off: he's a drunk, his wife's a cow, and he's lost his licence . A pretty comprehensive indictment which confirmed my telephone experience, always a semi-comatose woman answered the phone with the refrain he's out.

References from previous clients should be reliable but are not always so. Work styles and attitudes that suit one person may not suit another – we have had at least two experiences along these lines. On the other hand, M. Doly, he who is repairing Ahmed's omissions, was recommended to me by the local fire-brigade. I had telephoned to ask for help with a wasp's nest, a service it no longer offered. But M. Doly, a part-time fireman, had taken over. And every time I call him in a panic, either for myself or for the holiday makers, because there are hornets – Asian or local – he arrives within the day. Sometimes, much to the joy of visiting children, he puts on his full anti-hornet/wasp gear, helmet with all round shoulder length veil, elbow length gloves, trousers tucked into lace up boots. Very impressive, very effective.

On the whole we have been very lucky with the artisans we have employed. Some have been more skilled than others, some develop businesses that outgrow our relatively simple needs. Indeed, apart from Ahmed (my fault) only once in the thirty plus years we have been here, have we been truly taken for a ride.

It was in the very first few years and seemed so simple. JP had always wanted to plant trees of differing kinds at La Chaise. There are two very successful cedars, also two magnolias, some holm oaks and an entire pine plantation. He had plans for putting more walnut trees in the fields, for the existing trees were getting quite old.

Thinking back I cannot remember quite how the paysagiste who said he could undertake this job came into our orbit. But, like Ahmed, he was very plausible, talked knowledgeably of the different types of walnut – franquettes, parisiennes, – and was not dismayed when JP said he wanted the trees to be a double fin. That is, trees for wood as well as nuts, which implies a different way of pruning them.

The fields were selected, the emplacements for the young trees marked with a stick. The paysagiste suggested we employ a local entrepreneur with his own tractopelle (JCB). He said to give him a cheque for 3,000 francs, payee name unmarked, which he would take to his favourite plant nursery. Of course, we never saw him again, or our 3,000 francs, or the trees. And this is how we learned that cheques in France are sacrosanct, as good as money in hand. You cannot just stop a cheque because you are in a snit with the recipient. The upside of which is that one can accept cheques in all confidence – writing a cheque in France without the means to meet it is an offence which could deprive you of our checking account for several years. But it was an expensive lesson.

Monday, October 29, 2012

mothers and rain



What do rain and mothers have in common? Simple: whatever either does, someone, somewhere will say it is wrong.

A deluge came last week. It was mostly very welcome after the summer drought. But, of course, some of the rain got into the wrong places. Only a little tweak of the imagination and it is my fault.

Grass grew at the speed of day-light and fungi rose even faster during the night. The agarics were on steroids – caps of 8” across and more - much to the annoyance of the sheep, who seemed to enjoy kicking them over. Perhaps the wet, thin grass is not good for sheep digestions and so their temper. Especially since they had just got used to finding nice, dry chestnuts and acorns. Despite our many years of experience, we were dubious about eating the mega mushrooms as they no longer bore any relation to our habitual rosé des prés .

                                  Sheep one, mushrooms nil

One good result of the rain is that the last of the walnuts have fallen to the ground, ready for harvesting with the magic 'rugby ball' walnut sweeper. This is an amazing device, reportedly invented in California. It is made up of fine wires in the shape and size of a rugby ball, attached at either end to round discs. These are at the ends of a downturned V shaped shank which is fastened to a long handle. (Think of the old fashioned carpet sweeper.) This sweeper is rolled over the nuts which pop between the wires, then it is opened over a bucket by a cunningly placed hook on the bucket side. Now any elderly person can harvest fallen walnuts without bending down, which brings a whole additional harvest of nuts to market. Given that the size of walnut orchards is steadily shrinking, the price of walnuts consequently rising, this is a good thing. I claim credit for being one of the earliest to buy the walnut sweeper, even if not for me but for Arnold.

One bad result of the rain was a flood on the dining room floor in the Farmhouse. Heart in boots (actually boots on door-step so as not to dirty floor) I went upstairs to see where the problem lay. The wall behind the bath was sodden. Fortunately the new plaster board ceiling appeared dry. And then the probable cause occurred to me.
The wall at the back of the bath encases the tuyau d'evacuation des odeurs which is a much nicer way of saying 'stink pipe'. This is the pipe that carries the odours of fermentation from the septic tank, into the skies. (Theory, only occasionally fact.) It goes through a gulley in the roof. So it is highly probable that the seal round the pipe was destroyed by heavy rain.. Perhaps not properly sealed by Ahmed, he of the forked tongue and pointy shoes, self declared roofer, the last man up there.

My fault for not having it (or Ahmed) checked. There had always been a few patches of black mould on the plaster board when the rain had just come down gently. I had, apparently wrongly, always assumed it was due to careless use of the douche in the bath, or a poor seal between bath and wall, so that water would run down to the floor below. But this was the first time I had seen the bathroom wall absolutely drenched. Damp to that degree is not good for the bio-degradable walls of the standard Dordogne farmhouse. My bad. Waiting for M. Doly to come fix.

Monday, October 15, 2012

medieval musical hauntings


Integration is not all about accepting local hunting and eating habits. It can also mean involvement in local cultural happenings, however scary. The incomer will be secure in the knowledge that he or she will be seen to be part of the community, not least by the Maire,possibly the local MP. For me it might just upset other people's idea of me as an anti-social, tone-deaf, cook-only, bookworm.

It was in this brave spirit that I dragged my nearest, most musical, neighbour to a performance of medieval music in the medieval (translate: unheated) church of St Eutrope at St Aquilin, Sunday, October 14th. The title of the concert was 'Jaufre Rudel, la Croisade d'Amour' or 'Jeffrey Rudel, Love's Crusader.' The ensemble performing was called 'Tre Fontane'* .

The second reason for attending was the story of Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye, archetypal medieval troubadour (c. 1113 - 1170). We all know troubadours sang songs of 'courtly love' in which they adored unattainable ladies. The Prince of Blaye, with the help of the medieval equivalent of Facebook - men in tunics and tights on fast horses, carrying handwritten, wax sealed parchment reports - fell in love with the idea of the Countess of Tripoli, one Hodierne. He wrote many songs about far away love. Then he took the oath of fidelity and became a Crusader, embarking for the Holy Land.

Unfortunately, hygiene not being up to modern cruise-ship standards, he fell ill and was at death's door when when the ship docked at Antioch. The Countess, meanwhile, had heard of his devotion (see information transmission above) and made haste to the port. She took him in her arms, he regained consciousness long enough to look upon her face and die. She buried him with all honours and hied herself to a convent.

The third reason was a compelling curiosity about the musical instruments that would be played: (in French) nay, rebec, saz, luth, vielle à roue, bendir. It was not too difficult to work out of what a 'luth' and a 'rebec' might be – but a 'vielle à roue'? There were three male players, one a singer as well as an instrumentalist (nay, rebec, saz) and the songs in Occitan were interspersed with Andalusian/Arab instrumental ensemble pieces. The musicians, well into their second youth, produced a wonderful sound, high and clear, sometimes reminiscent of solo singers in church, not just because we were in a church. The instrumental pieces were haunting, sounds of far off, yet familiar lands.

The 'vielle à roue' was fascinating. It looked rather like a fat bellied violin laid across a player's knees. Aforesaid player then removed a couple of strings and replaced them with a single row of keys, above which there was a sounding board. The hand not on the handle was used to pluck the keys. I kept wondering what the handle actually did, whether medieval technology was up to shaping wood that accurately, how had the tunes been remembered before written musical notation was common.

The other instruments were less unusual, even to my philistine eyes. A 'saz' was just a lute (long handled lute or leather back turtle in Harrap's Anglo-French dictionary¹). The 'luth' was a standard lute and 'rebec' is rebec in English.
The 'bendir', looked rather like the tambourine musical inadequates are allowed to play in school orchestras, but without mini-cymbals. It was just, the dictionary loftily said, 'a percussion instrument'.

But, oh the disappointment with the English language! The wonderful vielle à roue' – caressed wood bellied violin shape with handle, strings, keys,the smoothest of sounding boards, creator of the most extra-ordinary sounds, romance personified in wood. The English call it a 'hurdy-gurdy.' I could cry.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

leaving problems behind




The first thing one does when preparing to leave Paradise (aka La Chaise) for a holiday is to make lists. Lists of things to be done before leaving, of things other people should do, lists of things to be packed, lists of things to be put away.

So, the Saturday before the Tuesday that we were scheduled to leave, I had made my list of things about which I should make lists . I went down to the gîtes to see if everything was in order for my Thursday guests. The dead freezer in the Farmhouse was duly labelled hors service, the live one in the Shepherd's Cottage was firmly labelled 'svp pas ouvrir, contient produits congèles'. Both houses were supplied with loo paper, washing up liquid, dishwasher tablets.

I had a quick look in the sheep shed which the Wonderful Arnold had practically finished cleaning. It smelt a lot less of sheep and looked sufficiently hygienic not to upset urban people. The hornets, wasps and birds were occupied with the fig tree which was in full production and I hoped I had remembered to suggest my guests would take careful advantage of its bounty.

Then I saw Madame Landraudie coming down the drive. She was carrying a black rubbish bag. As she came closer I noticed that the bag dripped. It dripped blood and my heart sank. Madame Laundraudie is the only lady member of our chasse of St Aquilin which has the right to hunt in our woods. In recompense, every year, we receive some game. Obviously she was coming to deliver the usual Percival tithe.

We exchanged polite enquiries about each other's healths, that of our respective husbands and, on my part, on the success or otherwise of the beginning of the chasse season. Apparently it was not too brilliant. The frantic wood cutting that had been going on all around us has disturbed the game. Possibly a little too much enthusiasm the previous season had also reduced numbers.

So she apologised for the size of the piece she offered me, a very young chevreuil. We hoped the season would improve. As my mind raced frantically to work out what I would do with this piece of meat, and no freezer capacity, we moved to discuss the nuisible situation. I raised the question of the foxes that the W'ful Arnold had seen gambolling with the lambs in the fields; foxes that would stop me from keeping ducks or chickens again.

The good news, for me but not the foxes, is that the specialist fox hunter has been contacted and he will come with his specialist pack of hounds that will raise the foxes. (English country people skip the next bit, please.) Hunters will be stationed in the woods and, if we would be so kind as to bring the sheep in for a day, in our fields as well. Then the hunters would shoot at the foxes. We shook hands and I took my prize to the kitchen.

It was the forequarter of the chevreuil and I doubt if, alive, together with the other three quarters, it weighed as much as 30 kilos. I looked at it and copped out. No way could I joint, bone, roll this meat and not least because it had been very recently skinned and was still bloody. What to do?

So, on the way to Spain, car carefully we packed, we stopped at St Astier and I took the chevreuil to my butcher. I said 'please'. He said: vous inquietez pas, Madame, vous inquietez pas.' So, here I am in Spain, not worrying.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Of meat, frost and heat.





 The 'annee de poisse' continues: herewith the 'nth' part. Somehow the freezer compartment door of the fridge/freezer in the Farmhouse managed to get solidly frozen. Odd.

Only three weeks ago I had spent four hours at the Farmhouse kitchen table processing a partially butchered lamb carcass. Or to be more honest, I had been refining a butchered lamb carcass as I am getting very pernickety about my meat. This meant I was removing what I considered to be unnecessary fat, de-boning some cutlets to make lamb noisettes – no point in freezing bones after all. In fact, chops are a pain for domestic freezing as the bones tend to poke through the freezer bags.
Odd bits of meat were put through my cheap but effective Lidl mincer so that I would have lamb mince for winter moussaka.

Actually I do not like processing meat: I am perfectly capable of taking the necks plus heads off chickens and ducks, fishing out the liver and gizzards with my bare fingers but I would much rather not. I can joint a fowl, untie a 'roast' and remove the inedible (to me) bits, ditto with meat for blanquette de veau or just beef stew. I have a wonderful array of very sharp knives. But it puts one (me) off eating the result. Cook dines off the smell of that which s/he has cooked....

I have an obsession with what I call 'clean' meat which mostly means fatless meat cooked by someone else – mostly quality cooked ham, sometimes jambon cru if I can peel the fat off the rim. But especially viande des grisons, which is the Swiss name for bresaola, the Italian dried beef. Even then, I turn over every packet in the supermarket chill cabinet to look at the back and inspect for fat. If the packet is not see-through, the product is rejected. Obviously there are no cameras on the chill cabinets otherwise I would have been hauled away a long time ago.

(Actually I am even worse with smoked salmon, especially the farmed salmon -is there any other now?- which I regard with great suspicion and sometimes a mental tape measure to make sure the fish has not been force fed. The flesh between the fat lines has to be narrow and tight, rather like rings one sees in tree stumps.)

However, reverting to the processed lamb: the point of doing it in the Farmhouse was that I needed the freezer compartment because my freezer was full. I carefully packed up the processed, labelled meat, put it in the freezer compartment and closed (I thought) the door. I thought no more about it.

Until today, Sunday 30th Sept, because next Thursday I have guests coming to stay in the Farmhouse. So I went to check on its equipment. Apart from the fact that 9 of the 12 egg cups had disappeared, also two out of the three coffee filter jugs, and the vacuum cleaner bag was full, everything seemed fine. Until I tried to open the freezer door. Frozen solid. What to do?

What I did was to take down to the Farmhouse my kitchen step ladder, on top of which I put an upside down, large pan, on top of which I put a fan heater directed at the freezer door. Then I went to have a drink. About an hour later I was able to open the freezer door. The meat was still frozen, thank goodness. But the door was deformed and would not shut again, not even when I got all the ice out of the cabinet.

Now is this my fault? Same as the time I melted the back end of the vacuum cleaner when using its exhaust to rekindle the embers of a fire? Or was the door deformed when I put the meat in and I just did not notice? Fingers crossed that I can get a new door via another one of my heroes – Fred Rouchier of 'Electrochoc' my supplier of all domestic, electric appliances. Of course, as always amongst French artisans, it is his wife who does the research and admin, so hommage to her also.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beware the evil purple plant





Autumn officially arrived – in calendar terms – on September 22nd. In real life, that is country terms, it arrives when a basic rule of physics switches. We are all taught at some point in our school life that hot air rises and cold air falls, or vice versa. The turning point of the year is when one dominates the other.

So it was up till about the last weekend of August that we were conscious of hot air rising into the attic rooms, that we had to open the sky lights to let it rise higher, preferably creating a draught on the way. The ceiling fans were switched on way before bed-time. Then, suddenly, it was cold air coming down the stairs and the door to the attic had to be kept closed. Now fan heaters are briefly put on first thing in the morning in the downstairs rooms to compensate for the overnight cold.

beware! the evil crocus lurks....
The most attractive sign of the arrival of autumn is the sudden appearance of the autumn crocus. Given the appalling – and continuing - summer drought this year, I was not expecting it. I assumed the bulbs had dried out. But no, August 31st I got up, looked out of the kitchen window and there was the first, single, autumn crocus. It is a pretty, pale lilac leafless flower. In the spring, only its leaves come above ground, luxuriant, large and very, very green. Also, very, very poisonous.

In fact colchicum autumnale is a dangerous plant, full of unstable alkaloids that will poison humans or cattle if ingested in large quantities. In times of starvation cattle have been known to eat it with sometimes fatal results. People in hard times have tried to release the sugars from the bulbs. My mother tried this in the Forties but fortunately had the sense to boil only tulip bulbs which are slightly less poisonous. I believe she gave up sugar.

It seems to me odd that a plant should rely on folk memory, 'granny died from eating too much crocus leaf salad', for its survival. Less odd that humans should have this folk memory. This is the kind of knowledge that is discounted in times of near starvation, see about cows above. Does the crocus know that knowledge passes from human to human just as from sparrow to sparrow in the great milk bottle top story? Is a crocus conscious? Is it evil? We are getting dangerously near non-Darwinian theories of existence here.

Arthropods, humans easily concede, do have a consciousness but that is probably only because they move – bite, sting or generally make a nuisance of themselves. Many are so small as to be nearly invisible to the sleepy human eye. Or so it would seem.

Only one week away, in the Great Smoke, and, as soon as I get back, I am attacked. I don't know specifically what I did wrong, whether it was to pick flowers, tomatoes, or to get into bed without shaking the sheet first, but my left hand is covered in tiny, hard, red bites that itch like fury.

If that is what one (or several) small insects can inflict on a human being – thank heavens, or whoever, or whatever, that colchicum autumnale and its ilk, are firmly grounded.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chicken dreams


What does it mean to dream of chickens? Just ordinary chickens, say four hens and a cockerel. None of your ritually sacrificed black specimens. In my dream the hens were destined for egg-laying until too old when they became confit de poule. The cockerel, of course, in the fullness of time, would become coq au vin, and would probably need much marinading to make him tender.

My dream was quite complicated. The giver of the fowls (in my dream) visited me the following morning to check on his birds. He told me triumphantly – whilst I was still in bed and not quite compos mentis – that our protection schemes had got one of the marauders. And then he vanished. Characters can do this kind of thing in dreams. So my dreaming self got up and went to see what had happened. I thought to see an electrocuted fox lying in front of the hen-house, thought with some pleasure of displaying it for a while to dissuade others of its kind. Only I am (in my dream) not sure if that works.

For some reason or other the dream hen-house had its top cut off and the protective fencing around it halved in height. I gave the birds some water. Then I woke up. My only interpretation of this nonsense is that I am wishful of having hens, or ducks, again at La Chaise. But the time is not right. There are signs of foxes everywhere, nasty little sausage turds in the pathways between one woodland and another. And Arnold has seen them in with the flock very early in the mornings.

Popular opinion is that there are too many foxes currently. The post millenium damage to the woodlands around, the subsequent scrubby regrowth, has made far too many suitable vulpine breeding and hiding areas. But the limits of your average country man's tolerance have been over-stepped. The fox, or the vixen, has been taking the ducks and hens belonging to members of the local chasse. The hunting season has just started. Vengeance is mine, says the man in the fluorescent orange jacket, shot gun under arm. Quietly, unofficially vengeance will stalk the woods..

The first chickens I had at La Chaise were said to be 'Marans' which look like nothing so much as speckled, grey, knitted tea-cosies. Actually since their eggs never got darker than standard egg brown I expect they were a local cross breed because the real Marans hen lays eggs almost chocolate in colour. I was very proud of them, even forgave them for scratching up my attempts at a herb garden, because of their wonderful eggs. But they kept dying on me, by themselves without the aid of today's fox.

When the fourth one died, I panicked and called the vet and got roundly scolded for my pains. Country people don't call out vets to attend to chickens. When I insisted he examine the corpse, he insisted on borrowing my kitchen knife. He ripped the hen open, pulled out its guts and showed me the liver. 'You've been scandalously over-feeding the silly bird (he did not add 'you stupid woman')look at the size of that liver...it died of over-eating, chickens don't know when to stop'.

The problem for commercial breeders recently is not the fox, or even other predators, but the climate. Hens are not very good at heat. Like old people, they will not drink enough to keep themselves hydrated. A friend, a commercial breeder of hens for eating, lost eighty in last summer's heat wave due to dehydration. A serious commercial breeder in Brittanny lost thousands ...yes, there is something to said about mass breeding of animals – it produces cheap, tasteless protein for the poor.

Monday, September 3, 2012

fermentations



The hiccups will come early to the compost heap this autumn. Not only has it been fed those jams and chutneys rejected by my fit of store-room tidying last week, it has also just received my entire hoard of home made apéritifs. The list is as follows:

Liqueur de mure 1988 – one bottle
Crème de cassis 1989 – one bottle
Crème de cassis 1992 – two bottles
Crème de cassis 2001 – one bottle
Extrait de noyer 2002 – one 1.5 litre bottle
(this is extract of walnut leaves in pure eau de vie
for the prepartion of vin de noyer)
Vin de noix 2006 – one bottle
Sloe liqueur 2006 – one bottle
Crème de cassis 2007 – one bottle
Curaçao maison 2008 – two bottles

And that is the list of those bottles whose location was known to me. I may yet find others. To mitigate my sadness, I have recovered some antique bottles I used for these liqueurs.

Imagine all this alcohol – that is, sugar – poured on grass cuttings which were already liberally dowsed in jam last week – more sugar. All on top of vegetable peelings, some rejected commercial fruit. Add the continuing sunlight. The compost heap, more or less neatly confined to one corner of the vegetable garden, gets the morning sun. Of course it is all going to ferment. It may be my imagination but I can see it heaving, burping, gas bubbles going skywards. Fortunately it does not smell or it is far enough from the house for me not to notice.

The recipes for these alcohols were mostly found in my first edition (I think it is a first edition) of Prosper Montagne's Larousse Gastronomique, (1938) with foreword by Escoffier himself, a gift from a neighbour in our early days at La Chaise. You will find them under 'Liqueurs'. My second French cookery bible was 'La bonne cuisine du Perigord' by La Mazille (Flammarion 1919) which also has recipes for domestic liqueurs.

The reason for the predominace of crème de cassis is that for many years I had some very productive blackcurrant bushes – and there is a limit to the amount of
black currant jelly one family can consume, especially if its head only consumes marmalade. I thought it a fairly harmless cordial when a neighbour at Chantepoule offered some, in very small glasses, to my very small children. But its best known use is for the apéritif , 'kir', actually a means of making somewhat sour white wine drinkable.

The two elements all the apéritif recipes have in common (apart from sugar) is fruit, or fruit tree leaves, and eau de vie, usually plain distilled grape juice purchased from neighbouring farmers. Its alcoholic degree can be quite high – sometimes more than 60 proof..... Until quite recently, farmers had the right to distill their fruits for personal consumption without paying any form of duty. A travelling distillery used to do its rounds of local villages. But this right died with the that generation of farmers in their 80's or over. Now the fermenting fruit has to be taken to a fixed still and duty has to be paid.

The snag with buying eau de vie from a neighbour was that it seldom came in an identifiable bottle. The purchaser had to make a discreet mark on the container. Hence my scrawl, EV, across the corner of a Chardonnay label. Hence a helpful visitor's mistake in making 'kir' for everyone using this 'Chardonnay' and my own
crème de cassis. The rest I can leave to my dear reader's imagination.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

sticky joys



The last three days have been dominated by jam making, jam filing and jam throwing away. In short, I made 24 pots (assorted sizes) of plum jam, both red and yellow plums, and threw away 5 random pots of 'stuff' mostly without labels. These included a couple of 3 year old containers labelled 'hot tomato chutney', probably unsafe. Net gain to jam store: 19 pots. Total jam store, 115 pots that I could see, total pots likely to be consumed by JP = 10; he only eats marmalade.

There is something immensely satisfying about making jam, especially from your own fruit. It is not just that the result looks very pretty, or that it can be sold or exchanged or even eaten. It is the idea of conservation, of preservation for winter, of independence from those evil agro-industrial companies that produce 'jams' heavens only knows how and with what. My jams are at least equal balances of sugar and fruit with, if the fruit is low in pectin, the juice of a lemon (organic of course). Somehow the judgement required in assessing exactly the setting point (without thermometer) on a cold saucer seems a witch like skill. The whole is a blissfully sticky job, many tea-trays and tea cloths covered in jam spatter, then paraffin wax when it comes to sealing the pots.

Fruit processing can be a messy job but is much helped by a decent radio programme – France Inter or France Musique – and the occasional foray into tasting. Plums are amongst the easiest of fruits to prepare, just halve and pop into a pot with an equal quantity of sugar. I let them marinade overnight. The secret that recipes forget to mention is that the plums should be cooked soft before being brought to a setting boil otherwise you will just find yourself re-boiling the lot, having potted and then discovering it will not set.

The rejected preserves were mostly pesto – just basil with olive oil and pine nuts, no cheese as that goes sour – and apple mint jelly. Both suffered from the same defect. For some uknown reason basil and pine nuts absorb olive oil like sponges, so however little one puts in a pot, eventually the oil spills over. It smells fine, unlike when one puts pecorino in the mixture which goes sour very fast. The pots I rejected dated back two years. The basil was one solid lump, smelt all right but I was dubious. The jelly had gone from the mint, leaving a hard, unlovely lump.

In fact I have found a cheat's way of making pesto: first cook your pasta, troffiete or linguine or whatever, drain well and keep warmish. Then, in a large frying pan, put olive oil, ground pine or walnuts, finely shredded basil leaves. When these have melted, put in the pasta to warm up, lastly add grated pecorino.

I have totally given up on mint jelly as a larder stand-by. I just make sure there are a few pots of apple jelly, not too old, and mix in the chopped mint the day before. This may be difficult in 2012, so far all the apples have dried on the trees. My French friends are still dubious about mint jelly.

Apart from the plums, the fruit on the trees looks very sad. The peaches are few and small. The Comice pear tree has totally dried out, lost all its leaves though its branches are still supple. It might revive if we get this week's promised rain. The other pear trees bear their usual crop of black-spotted inedible fruit. There is only one pear tree whose fruit I appreciate. It has a hard, brown skin and needs long slow cooking with a few cloves stuck into the flesh. Then it becomes a tender pink. It is what I was served with roast pork in Holland – and that was a long time ago.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A week of heroes



My present number one hero is Didier Angibaud, the vidangeur, more familiarly known in English as the pig slurry man. This is the man who came at short notice to empty the leaking swimming pool and transfer the chlorinated water into the golf course reservoir which was desperately low.

The swimming pool was steadily leaking into the fields which, at nearly two euros the cubic metre, was unacceptable as an option for any length of time. Nor was the water doing any good to the fields. The grass grew high and rank. The sheep refused to, and were not allowed to, graze it. The pear tree may have benefitted but that is doubtful. Anyway, the water percolated into the septic tank inspection chamber and chased out a lot of flies. Not desirable around holiday homes. And we had probably lost 50 cubic metres already before deciding enough was enough.

Fortunately, having taken the executive decision to close the gîte pool we were able to offer our holiday makers the use of our own larger, heated pool with wave machine. Even more fortunately the temperatures have been so high we have not had to heat this pool but it has swarmed with a variety of small children.

Didier owns a couple of heavy tonnage tanker lorries more usually employed in emptying septic tanks and pig slurry tanks. The contents he can 'resell' as fertilizer, assuming the recipient fields are not too far away. When he comes to clear our four septic tanks the 'boues' are usually emptied into some discreet place in the woods. He was pleased by the neat solution of emptying the pool water into the Black Pond in the woods, mostly because he could do this from the roadside.




It took him about seven trips to empty the pool. Mathematical persons present reckoned he put 75 cubic metres into the Black Pond. Of course the water pouring down the side of the pond did soften the bank. As we were watching, a cherry sapling loosened its hold on the earth and slowly sank, upright, towards the bottom of the pond.  It is still standing there and will doubtless flourish. With any luck the chlorinated water will have killed off the pond weed but will not affect the insect pond life. Insects can go elsewhere – weeds are stuck.

Number two hero is the Wonderful Arnold who had been watering the greens using the horse tubs, filling each by hand, hauling them from green to green with the tractor, then watering each green by hand. This had to be done to keep the greens alive until the irrigation system could be cobbled back into use which also required more water in the reservoirs. And various, expensive, complicated taps and valves until the pump can be properly put back into working order this winter. The pump and I are not friends.


And my third hero is our pool man, M. J-F Bonnin who comes every fortnight during the summer season. He came one morning early, disrupting his schedule, with temperatures just about touching 30 C, to put the winter cover on the pool to secure it, just in case some adventurous children got into the pool garden, despite all my devices, and decided to walk across the pool. Nephew Freddie tried that once, on a simple pool cover. He did not get very far. Obviously M. Bonnin is looking forward to replacing the torn liner and doing all the associated works – but he is being very prosaic about it, not gloating at all.

So far, 2012 has seriously been an annee de poisse, an unlucky year – and we are still in August. If it does not rain soon, the natives will get restless: no rain in the last ten days of August, no champignons in the early days of September.  And this morning, August 20th, one of JP's ancestors (a Wedderburn) decided to fall off the wall, doing considerable damage to his plaster and gilt frame but non to the decanters on the table below. Presumably he was a wine buff.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

'Greece', Blues, Bugs




The delight of friends coming to stay is that one sees La Chaise through fresh eyes, especially if those friends' eyes have not visited for some time. All of a sudden one forgets leaking roofs, thistles, sulking pumps and the lack of follow through on the assumed sale of lambs. The beauty of the place returns.

Thus it was that I went with Caroline (and my stick) to 'Greece', the hilly part of our fields at the end of the property, an area officially known as 'Fontenelles' otherwise 'Little Springs'. The 'Little Springs' were turned into a large pond, with pump, in the hollow of the valley some 20 years ago in the course of which the caterpillar digger nearly drowned and had to be towed out by two tractors. (Another story, another time.) We called the hillside 'Greece' because of its rough grass, visible chalk stones, evil thistles, juniper bushes and rampant herb plants. It was also a hillside that ( before sheep ) showed a large variety of wild orchids when climatic conditions were propitious.

The herb plants, mostly wild majoram and ground creeping thyme ( serpolet), still flourish though the junipers are beginning to die. Caroline and I went down there because the herbs attract almost as many butterflies as the Buddleia by the kitchen door. The difference between the two is that the Buddleia predominantly attracts Fritillaries, the day-time flying Humming Bird and Hawk moths. 'Greece' has the Blues, the Adonis, the Common, probably the Short-Tailed and the Large, never mind the commoner butterflies, white or yellow. In fact, on a visit in 1990, Eric Rudge – who knows his butterflies – catalogued eight different types of Blue. Dave, from York (where are you Dave?) photographed one by means only known to him and other butterfly photography experts. 


We wandered up the hill-side to Green 5 from which we had a wonderful view back to the Farmhouse buildings. The Blues were busily everywhere, dipping on the ground spreading thyme, on the higher majoram flowers, ignoring the vetch and the clover. Around us the age old junipers were dying with a high rise form of thistle threatening to take its place. Possibly the carduus nutans, which is hairy,though the picture in my wild flower book shows something more like eryngium maritimum, which is a more naked plant, both described as rare-ish and the latter preferring sandy soil to the chalk which we have which suits the former. Whichever – it cannot be swiped dead by a walking stick.

Then Caroline pointed: amongst the Blues there was a totally black butterfly, only one, and sooty black. We hurried back to consult my butterfly bible and Caroline decided that what we had seen was a variation of the very common White Admiral – ab.obliterata, a White with all its white obliterated by black. We were very impressed with ourselves (and the Collins butterfly book*) so had a few more glasses of wine than normal, on holiday, that is.

It was only a day later, when Caroline and family had headed safely off towards the Channel coast, that I discovered I had come back with another, better known, insect from 'Greece'. A few aoutat - harvest mites in English or chiggers in American - had hitched a lift on my skin and were busy feasting on my blood. Ironic, given that I always warn our holiday tenants to wear shoes and socks when walking in the fields because of these beastly little mites which are the larvae of microscopic acariens. I was wearing espadrilles but a skirt and no socks, silly me. As a consequence I was itching for days until I realised what had bitten me. The little xxxxx always bite where clothes are tight, e.g. under bra,belt and knicker lines. At first, before one knows what they are, the horrid possibility of fleas occurs. The only remedy is a long, hot bath, an anti-histamine, and a glass of wine – this last for the morale.
Dear Caroline, if you read this, and you have suffered from bites – it was not the bedding, it was the bugs......


*Butterflies and Day flying Moths, of Britain and Europe, Collins 1989

Love flies




Last Thursday, August 9th, the day of Saint Amour, the ants of La Chaise had sex. It is an expression I dislike intensely. It puts love-making, or pro-creation, on the same level as the consumption of an ice-cream cone. In the case of these ants, lasius niger most likely, for one gender the act is death-dealing, for the other a sentence to a life-time of hard work. The males die, the queen females burrow nests and pro-create until the end of their life-time which can be as much as 15 years. Both lose the wings that so briefly take them into the warm air of a summer evening.

In French it is called 'la nuit des folles amours des fourmis' . Mating is such a boring, anglo-saxon word. I doubt whether 'having sex' can be translated into French, anymore than the idea of 'teetotal'. The ants' mad night of love lasts 24 hours, maximum 48, and hurts no human.

Unfortunately most urban human holiday makers, even French ones, are not too keen on flying ants, or any other insect, not too indulgent about their (invisible) sexual activity. In previous years we have noticed the ant phenomenon whilst having supper on our terrace. A few thousand or so ants get burnt by the supper table candles, then take their courtship dance elsewhere. This year, the ants decided that their Prom would be held on the field side corner of the Farmhouse pool where it is hit by the last of the evening light. The pool was already leaking salt water into the fields. We noticed nothing at the main house until there was a frantic call from the Farmhouse. 'You must do something'.

It was a most impressive sight, unless you normally live in the Versailles suburbs. Then it is alarming. The ants covered the tiled rim of the pool to about a metre either side, never mind those that were drowning in the water. Obviously one cannot count individual ants but I would guess they were in their many thousands, hundreds of thousands. By this time their mating ritual had been accomplished and most were wingless. With a brief prayer of excuses to the God of Ants, I took a bucket of pool water, a mop and swept them all into the grass. Then I used the pool skimmer to fish the rest from the water. I hope some of the queens survived. At least the holiday makers were happy, but only because they thought I had 'done something' though nothing actually useful. And the flies were watching us.

For a long time now I have noticed that there seems to be some relationship between ants at La Chaise and certain of the thistle plants in our fields. The ants make a nest under the roots of the thistles, so lifting the plant somewhat above ground level. As I swipe the flower head off the thistles with my stick, I wonder a little about this seemingly weird relationship.

Alright, I know the thistle is the national flower of Scotland but I do not know why. JP's family has adopted the thistle as the family insignia. Now I read that aphids are apparently particularly partial to thistles and ants are very fond of the sugars produced by these same. So the ants nurture both the plants and the insect. It means that ants are farmers really – like us, only smaller, more numerous, more serious.