Monthly Archives: August 2010

How I live now…

It’s amazing how different your life can be in only three years. Three years ago, this week would have meant a return to school and everything that went with it. My life is different in so many ways!

1. I have no longer ‘wet the bed’ – 9 o’clock is a good time to get up and the chicken ladies don’t mind too much. If Basil isn’t waking me up and the Moll is happy, then all is well. I guess it will be different when Jake’s school starts, but hey, I’m still not going to be in work by 7 o’clock every morning!

2. I no longer am suited-and-booted. You don’t need £200 Russell and Bromley mary-janes when you are on a small ‘fermette’. I could feed the chickens in them, but chicken shit can’t be good for patent leather. I don’t need a suit, either. Not only is it too hot for suits, but power dressing isn’t appreciated by the fu shnickens and the carrot patch. Hence, I don’t spend all weekend coveting Kurt Geiger and Gina, or hunting down bargain Planet suits. I’ve still got the suits in a cupboard though, so I can go and cry into them when it all goes wrong.

3. Benefit and Chanel make-up have gone out of the window. When you’re dripping with sweat, make-up tends to end up on your boobs, and it’s not such a good look. No point having varnished toe-nails – so the pedicures are no longer an essential requirement – because you’re insane to have toes on display outside, because of nettles, bird poo, fallen plums and the like. If you aren’t trying to wow 200 kids a day, you don’t need Yves St Laurent Touche Eclat.

4. No more simple sandwiches, cup a soups or canteen lunches. No more 10 minute lunches, because you’ve spent the first 10 minutes bollocking people for forgetting their homework. As a teacher, that’s always a conundrum. Do you collect it at the beginning and then risk being in a bad mood all lesson because 10 nitwits have letters from their mother, or do you collect it at the end having let them sweat it out and had a perfectly nice lesson with the 20 lovelies who’ve illustrated theirs and tied a ribbon through the pages to keep them together? I know which is my choice. However, then you spend the first ten minutes of lunch or break telling kids they’re irresponsible layabouts who’ll do nothing with their lives. Now, we have an episode of 24, sometimes some home-made poppy-seed bread rolls (which Jake loves!) and a plate of charcuterie or cheese with cornichons and salad. A full hour of bliss. Sometimes with wine! And… the good thing is, even when Jake’s at school, we’ll still be able to do this because they have super-lengthy dinnertimes!

5. No more guilty McDonald’s on the way home after a profoundly long day. Home-made stuff needs time. And, if you’re cooking for one, it’s not even worth it. I was a fan of the uber-luxury off-the-shelf Sainsbury’s pre-cooked meals. Now, I’d cry if I spent £15 (for 3) on tea. If I can’t do a three-course meal for under a tenner for three, including wine, then I’m failing in my fermette duties.

6. No more expensive (but lovely) gym memberships. Now, I don’t need to go to pound 10 shades of shit out of the punch bags, or spend an hour doing tai-chi or running on the machines because it’s too cold and wet outside. Now, a bit of digging, weeding or secateur work is more than adequate, with long blackberry picking walks in the evening sun.

7. No more Costa Coffee (though I miss those like you wouldn’t believe!) since the local coffee shops do ‘p’tit noir’, ‘grand noir’ or ‘café crème’ – and I’m much looking forward to my first large skinny latté – French coffee is far too functional.

8. No more trips to London on council or government coffers. No more getting up at the crack of dawn to catch the 6:47 from Piccadilly to Euston, getting a coffee and a paper on the platform and pretending to be business-like by working on my laptop all the way down. Laptops are for fun, these days!

9. No more Saturdays spent at the Trafford Centre looking at over-priced (but lovely) curtains and cushions in John Lewis or buying dresses from Karen Millen for Saturday night. Shopping is much less wasteful these days. I can’t remember the last time I bought something just because I wanted it, not because I needed it: books, cds, DVDs, make-up, clothes, shoes, artwork. Now it’s ‘buy because you need it, and think carefully about that!’

10. No more nights out at the Printworks or meals in Sapporo Teppenyaki, Tampopo or Pacific. Not only don’t I have anyone to take to such places, should they exist outside the big cities, but there doesn’t seem much point. I did go to the pizza place at Romefort with my dad last October. But it’s trestle tables, mismatched furniture, chipped formica, faded vinyl. But the food is good, and the company is too!

I guess a lot of these are shifts in materialism. From Margot to Barbara Good in one fell swoop!

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Culinary triumph

I’ve been able to do so much being out here. I’ve now got a kitchen that doesn’t have trike brake pads in it, or fishing tackle in cupboards or the fridge. Camping gear is now relegated to the batty grange. A cooker, a sink and I’m sorted.

On Friday, when we were at Rouillac market, there was a stall with a huge vat of paella, which made Steve a bit giddy – so when I asked what he wanted for tea, paella was on the menu. I’ve got my own ideas about paella and risotto – I’m the risotto queen, it must be said.

So… here’s my ‘two thumbs up, ten out of ten’ paella recipe for two-three.

  • 3-4 chicken thighs – don’t worry about boning them
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • a pinch of saffron in a splash of milk
  • 1 onion
  • 1 tsp of turmeric – if you want it very yellow
  • 350 g risotto or paella rice
  • 100 ml white wine
  • olive oil
  • 500ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10 baby tomatoes
  • 200 g defrosted frozen seafood (or fresh!)
  • salt and pepper

Shallow fry the chicken thighs with the lemon wedges for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally and browning them off. Remove the chicken thighs from the pan and add the chopped onion, the turmeric, the tomatoes and the rosemary and thyme. Stir and brown the onion and soften the tomatoes. Add plenty of ground black pepper. Add the risotto rice, fry for a minute, stirring into all the juices, onion and tomato. Then add the white wine. Heat off the alcohol, stirring the rice. Add the salt at this time, too. Add the bay leaf, the milk with the saffron in it and stir up. Put the chicken thighs back in, then add enough stock to cover, with about a centimetre over.

Simmer for about 10 minutes, lid off. Keep adding more stock to keep it from sticking. Every time the stock has gone, add a couple of ladles’ full. You might not use all the stock. Keep this going for about 20 minutes, until the risotto rice has swollen and is no longer raw, but still has some bite to it. Then add the seafood. Stir in and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and the lemon wedges, and serve!

It was truly fantastic. I’m good!

I also found a recipe for hazelnut caramel ice cream although it requires dulce de lecce, which I have plenty of, back in England. Boo. Still, it got me thinking I could make some with condensed milk – though then I found this recipe at Chez Pim – my new favourite food blog! – for confiture de lait, which I know you can buy, but I fancy having a go at myself. Once I’ve got enough hazelnuts, this will be on the menu!

Tonight, it’s tarte aux pommes. It would be rude to be in France with our glorious apple tree and not make either this or tarte tatin.

Our hens have now laid three eggs. Each one is always a surprise. I need an apron with a big pocket for my garden wanderings. Hazelnuts, plums, walnuts, apples, eggs, potatoes, figs… there’s never a day when I come back empty-handed! I’m absolutely loving this abundance! I know it’s the season of plenty, but it’s fantastic!

The first egg… oh la la!

Well, when the men came back in last night from putting the ladies to bed, Jake brought an egg in with him! I was so surprised I nearly laid one myself. I wasn’t expecting one quite so soon! I thought it was a ‘shock’ egg, but we had another this morning, under a bush. They aren’t very good at laying them where they should. To be honest, the egg was so perfect and round I half thought one of the two men had put it there just to hear me squeal.

We also picked about a kilo and a half of blackberries, which, at Tesco prices, would be about £15.00 – not bad! There are plenty of places to walk around here, but my favourite circuit has to be up to La Rochette, across the ‘chausée submergée’ – where the river is in the winter, and down into Villemalet, then back across ‘coypu bridge’. I’d seen a lot of black beauties there the other day but they turned out to be small and disappointing. Great expectations, and all that…

les murs sauvages

My nana had sent me a recipe for a tomato tarte tatin, but I don’t know how it would work with the recipe – it was very watery – the tomatoes were more like a soup! I think you’d need very firm tomatoes for that. It was very nice, whilst sloppy and Steve discovered the delights of goats’ cheese last night. He was quite alarmed. I’d given him a goat’s cheese and tomato crostini ‘muse bouche with a balsamic vinegar and thyme dressing – he was impressed.

We also had another moth visitor, in the form of a beautiful green-and-gold moth…

Mothra

The Simpsons Ladies

We are now proud (if nervous) owners of four Warren hens, which apparently were bred for battery farming as they are ‘egg laying machines’ – Marge, Lisa, Patty and Selma. I asked Jake what we should call them, and even though, as you know, I was pressing for Maria Callas, Lady Di, Jackie O and Margot Fonteyn, Jake had already thought of some names. Bart was the first one. I explained, dutifully, that only girls lay eggs. Not quite time to go into my ‘all roosters are rapists’ speech, I feel.

Jake and Steve had cleaned out the hen house in preparation – whilst it might be a little aged, it’s very functional. It has lovely nesting boxes and a couple of ladders to help them get to their perches. Then we’d bought some bedding – flax seemed to be our choice, since it’s more absorbent than straw and I couldn’t find any ‘copeaux de bois’ (wood shavings) at such short notice, which apparently are the best bedding. We’d chosen food for layers and sorted out the fly situation with the hens’ own ‘catch’. Then it was off to Rouillac market. Yes, the market of golden cheese.

I walked past the cheese lady today with an air of severity and seriousness. I’m not the tourist who would be buying cheese for 20 euros (although I had to hide a dried saucisse in the fridge at L’Eclerc today. I need not to sample wares!) and headed for the chickens. I was beginning to wonder where the chickens were. We’d gone past stalls of knives (which, each time, I have to peel Jake and Steve away from…) and stalls of cheese, vegetables, garlic (there must be four garlic stalls, at the very least) and old french-lady-nighties (think winceyette and neck-high) as well as pinafores and slacks. Contrary to popular belief, fashion is not really a French or Italian thing, since a good 80% of the female population expand without reason after 30 (my uncle Paul calls them popcorn women – they are small and skinny until the heat warms them up and then they pop!) and the French ladies have a penchant for pop socks, slippers, winceyette nighties, overall aprons and nylon.

Anyway, past the final stalls of vegetables, there was a general squawking and squealing. There were a few rows of pretty caged birds (how sad!) to get you excited and make you think a little that there are no chickens to be bought, and then there are about 10 stalls of birds. They include all manner of sad-looking poultry – geese, ducks, goslings, ducklings and chickens. There are plenty of chickens for ‘chair’ (flesh) – and a lot of hen-pecked creatures missing feathers and looking a bit worse for wear.

We went to a quieter stall where the chickens looked a lot less sad, although very cramped, and I liberated our four ladies, if only for a short while, since they were then put into very small boxes which we carried back to the car.

Once back, we unpacked our presents. I should add at this point that I’d woken up at 5:30 and Jake at 6:30, which is as rare as hen’s teeth. Jake is lucky if he sees the morning-side of noon. Two of the girls went into the chicken house; the other two wandered about a bit. Molly had come in with us, and we’d managed to contain her a little – although she was excited enough to piddle, I could just tell – although when one flapped near her, she went bananas. After that, we left them to settle in.

Marge
Patty and Selma hiding under a bush
Lisa hiding in the hen house

La faune francaise

Despite the inaccurately-identified marmots (ragondins – coypu… not quite so sweet and infrequently spotted) we still have an awful lot of visitors you just don’t get 750 miles north and west… last night’s etranger was une grande grenouille (frog, to you and I) who had decided to take up squatting rights in a recyclable bin we yoinked from Bury council. He was huge – so much so that when Steve went to lift the bin up, he felt the extra weight. Maybe he was taking umbrage at our ‘crapaud dans le trou’ of the other night. Toad in the hole might seem barbaric to him. On the other hand, he might well have escaped from ‘La Grenouillère’ – which if I’m not wrong means ‘the froggery’ and is about 2 miles from our house. Having said that, Steve was most perturbed when he was here on his own in spring to hear the frogs of the Tardoire sitting at the bottom of the castle croaking to one another. Not quite the death of a naturalist. He wasn’t quite as frightened as the young Seamus Heaney by the ‘great slime kings’.

I think a bunch of frogs sitting at the bottom of  a fairy-tale castle is quite romantic. Maybe they are waiting for a princess to kiss them?

But M. Grenouille hasn’t been our only visitor de nuit. We have a nightly (free!) moth cinema. Some of those bad boys are huge! There was a beautiful black one with white markings, kind of like tiger-print. There are lots and lots of plain little ones. Some, unfortunately, are stuck to the ‘catch’ fly strips. I say ‘unfortunately’, but a big part of me thinks moths will get in my wardrobe and eat my clothes. I’m guessing it’s an Écaille Chinée – a marbled tortoiseshell Jersey tiger – but my botany skills leave a lot to be desired after the marmot incident. Many of the moths do amazing spiral dives and re-enact key battles from the Second World War. You could easily spend an entire night watching them (if you weren’t watching the last episodes of 24 Season 2 for the first time)

But the star of the show has to be ‘la chauve souris’ which is our resident bat. He brings his friends over at night to hunt around moth cinema. He lives in our petite grange and gets very annoyed when we disturb him. They fly really close to you when you’re out at night – quite spectacular!

Besides this we have any number of beetles, flies, mosquitoes and other insects. It’s all very Gerald Durrell!

Le Rentree

We’ve still not had very much information about Jake’s return to school – La Rentrée – although I have a list of supplies for him… we’re off to Géant Casino later to find what we can for his school ‘fourniture’  – it’s a little old-fashioned – he needs an apron for stuff, and an old shirt for art – but it’s also surprisingly modern – he needs a mini-whiteboard and dry-wipe pens.

The mini-whiteboard has become an indispensable item in my classroom or teaching – being able to write it out having not committed it to paper is quite nice for lots of people – boys included – and it’s also great for ‘show-and-tell’ answers, so you can see what the entire class would answer and where you’ve got pupils who don’t understand. I think I might have to dig mine out for when I start with ‘LCF’ – I’m planning on a full-scale ‘EMMA-STYLE’ assault on teaching in La Rochefoucauld – and it will be brilliant!

Les chevaliers de feu

Last night, Jake and I went to see an ‘Equestre Spectacle’ – a horse show with a difference. It was up at Les Menardieres, which is a stables near us. Jake’s quite into horses, and I was as a teenager. In fact, the day my Mum told me she and my dad were splitting up, I wrote in my diary: “Mum and Dad are getting a divorce. I was on Tiger today.” I loved my riding lessons. We had a very relaxed teacher and we were always on a range of horses. My favourite was Kelly. He was a blue roan stallion, lots of character and very good looking, for a horse!

Anyway, we got there to a lot of pomp and ceremony – there was a lot of ‘Carmina Burana’-style music – and a very spirited grey stallion amidst lots of others. Jake was getting quite excited. There weren’t many people there – I’d say about a hundred, but it was fantastic.

At first, there was a bit of jousting, complete with costumes. There was a bit of axe-throwing and jousting and hitting each other off horses, and ended with a mock sword fight. At half time, there was the obligatory crepes and I seem to have upset a local by being boisterous. Apparently I ‘shoved’ my way to the bar. I didn’t. I explained I was from Manchester and that we’re a little more aggressive than the usual. And I was thirsty. I got several looks from the various men propping up the bar. I was obviously some sort of freak. However, I’m used to being stared at as if I’m mental.

After that, we had a little bit of magic, costumes, fire displays and flame throwing. It was very atmospheric, what with the chateau lit up in the background and the music and costumes, all in the pitch black in the middle of nowhere. Not only that, but on our way home, there were hundreds of paper lanterns floating through the sky. A very magical evening!!

Le crapaud dans le trou

One of the best things about being here and having a glut of fruit is the ability to cook properly – not in a kitchen where there are brake pads on the fridge!

My mum sent me a fantastic recipe for roasted plum sorbet which I loved but wasn’t to Monsieur Hynes’ taste. To be fair, we’ve got far too many plums. I know it’s been a plum-tastic year, but there are still four trees heavy with fruit. That’s an awful lot of plum jelly, plum jam, plum cobbler and so on, so I was grateful for the other recipes. Last night, Jake was in charge of tea. He made le crapaud dans le trou, otherwise known as toad-in-the-hole. He’s exceptionally good in the kitchen is Jake. He mixed the batter and we put it in the freezer for 10 minutes to rest it and cool it. I’m with the Japanese on battered things. Tempura batter is always used on the point of freezing. The colder it is going into the hot batter, the crisper it seems to be!

It will be nice, though, to go and get our eggs from the chicken house for the first time. Hopefully, we’ll have some by the end of the week! Steve’s cousin put up some photos of her trip to Wales and her husband and son had found a couple of eggs from their ‘neighbours’ – and I’m convinced Jake will be just as excited as Damon was to find his first egg!

Les marmottes

It’s been a day that improved with age – started off very dull: Steve continued his crepi-ing of the lean-to; I painted the door with my standard black hammerite. It was still a little dull by the time I decided to tackle the potato patch – but getting hotter. Jake came with me, since Steve had gone off to look at some creatures he’d seen on the dried up oued. According to Him, they were a little beaver-ish without a flat tail. Too stocky to be an otter. Too big to be a water rat. He said they had a beaver snout. In fact, he asked me if they were capybaras.

I’ve seen capybaras in the wild, in Brazil. They’re strange-looking things – all fluffy like a big guinea pig, but the size of a medium-sized dog. Not as weird as the tapir, but that’s another story all together. They go around in herds, not unlike cows, and it’s really weird to come across them and see them munching and grazing, just like a herd of cows, but small and furry and odd-looking. I saw them in the Pantanal, which is just about the most fabulous place most people have never heard of. It’s a water-logged plain the size of France that cuts across three countries. The most freaky thing there were the pink trees – not blossom, but leaves. I loved the Pantanal. We stayed on a ranch with ‘tame’ caiman, which the owner used to call every morning for feeding.

Punting on the Pantanal

It was the most peaceful place ever; I really cried when I left. I think I’d had such a relaxing time there and the people on the fazenda where we stayed were wonderful.

Anyway, suffice to say, the creatures in the oued are not capybaras. Or Tapir. Not unless someone is doing a little ‘Lost’-style experiment.

Following our picking of potato ‘treasures’, Jake and I had gone on a bike ride to locate these strange animals. Jake is very good at spotting things. We’d cycled for a little bit and then left the bikes.

“Can we leave the bikes here?” he asked.

Well, we were in a dried up river bed, unfrequented. Fairly safe. Not that you can do that in England, packed as it is.

Then we set off on foot. Jake was a little ahead of me, having gone on to look a little further.

“Emma!” he shouted. “Come on!”

I’ve fallen for his tricks before, but this time he really did look excited. I hurried up and as I rounded the corner, they were swimming across a puddle, running up the banks into their burrows and dived into subterranean holes. There were about twelve, all in a row. They sat in their burrows, looking out at us, noses twitching, grunting quietly.

When I was on my way back, I happened upon our neighbour (again… how he has the cheek to call us ‘Les Anglaises qui promenadent’ I don’t know… he’s always walking his own dogs) and two other fellows who were walking along. I said that we’d seen the animals, and asked if they were otters. “No,” I was told. They aren’t otters. They are ‘rongeurs.’

I did my usual thing of repeating it three or four times to get it right. “Rongeurs” – and came home to Google it. At first, I thought ‘rangers’, or even ‘rangeurs’, but you quickly realise you have to substitute other vowels if the word doesn’t appear. I did this once with the ‘ancerre’ that I thought we had – which is a closed-in fire place. Turns out it wasn’t such an oddity. It was an ‘insert’. As in ‘inserted’ into a fireplace.

It didn’t take a long time to realise ‘rongeurs’ just means ‘rodents’. Not a very helpful sub-classification. Darwin wouldn’t have been happy with that. I’m guessing the neighbours weren’t too well up on it. Still, when I was looking at ‘rongeur’, Jake leaned over my shoulder and said ‘that’s it!’ when we saw a picture of a ‘marmotte’ – which I promptly translated to ‘marmot’ – still none the wiser. Turns out it’s a cousin of the prairie dog and the groundhog (which I also didn’t realise was a rodent!) I’m still waiting for further confirmation – marmots seem to live a whole load higher up or in Eastern Europe, but even so – that seemed to be the closest we’d come to determining precisely what they are.

Reasons today was shite

1. I couldn’t find my medication. Boo.

2. The dog threw up on my pillow. Apparently this is my own fault for letting her eat grass. Like you can ‘stop’ the Moll eating what she wants.

3. The cat cried ALL night long. And he pissed in a corner, even though I put his litter tray in the corner.

4. The cat then pissed in the corner when the door was open and he could have gone out

5. The cat wouldn’t eat his food

6. I went to the vet to buy de-flea treatment and it cost A LOT of money. I know it’s got tick and mosquito and other stuff in it, but still…

7. In the vet’s, a little dog had been sick and then was lying in it and its owner was not doing anything

8. There were two sad limpy dogs

9. It wasn’t like Regan’s Vets at all, who are all lovely and wonderful. It was a free-for-all and all the dogs looked very unhappy

10. There was a huge queue at the petrol station, which gives me some karmic comeuppance for causing a huge queue last week

11. My engine management light has come on AGAIN

12. Our water heater has stopped working

Booooooooooooo.

But, some good news.

1. I found my pills

2. Stephen cleaned up the cat pee

3. I made a fantastic apple and blackberry crumble last night made with home-grown produce, and it was brilliant.

The Tardoire riverbed near us is completely dried up, from, as I can see, at least Agris through to St Ciers. We can walk from the submerged road up the riverbed, where we found a very weird mushroom:

Huge mushroomy thing

There’s also a dead thing that may or may not be a pine marten/stone marten kind of a thing, lots of limestone, with which we did our limestone experiment, and lots and lots of blackberries, elderberries and sloes

My father smells of elderberries

I manage to meet the same elderly village gentleman every night. It’s quite odd. He said he calls us ‘The English who walk the dog’ which I assumed was because it is peculiar for the French to walk a dog of Molly’s size – since they’re usually guard dogs. But then the next night, he was walking two dogs himself. He said one of them, Roxanne, was left by English people who didn’t have the right paper work, and we had a chat about blackberries and the grottes in the area. I like this man. He’s very chatty and doesn’t care about my half-half English/French.