Angular is the title of The Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge this week. My picture was taken in Red Square, Moscow during the run up to the Victory Day Parade and I love the angles the scaffolding and the men’s bodies produce. It screams strength to me and that was the defining word of the moment for Russia and her leaders.
PS: It was Frank Sinatra who wisely advised ‘Cock your hat … angles are attitudes’
Oh heavens … the title of the Weekly Writing Challenge is ‘Pie’. Maybe I’ll give it a miss this week. But I started taking part in this for discipline. And that was only last week. I can’t opt out. I am made of a sterner crust than that.
Pie. I love pie actually – my preference is for a shortcrust top and bottom because it is the pastry as well as what it encases that I love. It’s also possible that I find it less risky. My dear French friend Isobelle pointed out recently I eat ‘comme un cochon’. She was not being unkind just referring to the random scattering of crumbs circling the space where my plate had been as she tidied her table. I can wear it and indeed I often do. I am messy and, flaky or puff, whether rough or not, is more likely to break free and land in my hair giving some comedy value but at odds with my quest for elegance and allure. Honestly, I wish the hairnet would have a fashion revival … my hair is a monstrous liability and seems fatally attracted to food. When making or baking I invariably cast at least one – my daughters long ago ceased to be alarmed and would point out to friends that it is simply a sign that mummy really did make it when a long black thread appeared in their soup or stew or indeed pie.
These days I am fond of Pi too. I am wed to my Two Brained love and he has taught me to be unafraid of mathematics and that it can be rather lovely and quite useful too. He has me convinced that there is a latent scientist lurking within … whether the world is ready for my ability to understand and explain theorem through domestic appliances is debatable, but I am pleased and I know my Nuclear Physicist late father is smiling down content that finally his daughter has been made to realise what he always asserted – that as far as maths and science go, she can if she will.
Living here in France has it’s challenges but food is almost never one of them. However, when we are invited for a meal, and as is customary, take a plate of something with us, or when we entertain at home, we use the opportunity to educate our Gaelic friends that not everything the British produce to eat is inedible. In fact the British are really rather brilliant at British cuisine. We have had a few successes but none so great as the pasty.
Invited to the home of local friends in the summer we decided to make pasties. Little tiny ones as nibbly bits rather than hobnailed booted mains. Some meat and some vegetarian since the hostess does not partake of the flesh of fish, fowl or furry creatures. Hold that thought. Working as a team, we produced the prettiest little pasties ever. I made the pastry and it was a triumph. The fillings – one of beef, potatoes carrots, turnip (which is treated much more much respectfully in France than the UK), and a little thyme and the other of potatoes, leeks, carrots and some red pepper for sweetness, seasoned with parsley so as not to overwhelm. They smelled divine and Two Brains (whose alternative career choice was to be a surgeon) made them so neatly into little crescents that they were almost too pretty to eat.
We arrived, we sat in the garden and the plate of fragrant pastries was duly put out as an appetizer. We explained the history – that these would normally have been made much larger and were the staple of Cornish tin miners often containing savoury meaty at one end and sweet probably appley at the other – the ultimate portable lunch. Slowly each of our friends lifted their morcel, eyed it with the suspicion that a cow in the field eyes a dog walking past and took the tiniest nibble. Then, satisfied that this was actually edible even by their own haute patisserie standards they bit a proper mouthfilling bite and munched away. ‘What is the pastry?’ Christiane next to me demanded to know – ‘it is delicious and so short, tell me – what is your secret?’ Puffed with pride I told her that it is simply wheat flour, ice cold water and duck fat. As the words left my lips and sailed across the table, the words ‘gras de canard’, I remembered the relevance of the warning ‘pride comes before a fall’. I looked across at our hostess, tucking into her third safe vegetarian pie and swallowed hard. Christiane gave me a conspiratorial wink, I reminded myself that our hostess has occassionally been known to sneak a little light charcuterie and I think I got away with it. But I will wear the guilt like a hair shirt for many moons to come.
I said I like all pies and I do. I like the birds too. The magpies of the rhyme, and I am deeply supersticious of them – I salute, I wave, I say good morning and I tell them where I am going. I draw the line at spitting but I think I have the bases covered. Particularly if I only see one. Before we moved here we were driving with the husband of the aforementioned pastry quizzer and with the most stilted French, I asked conversationally (he being an expert on the flora and fauna of the area) ‘So then, what will one call the bird of black and white feathers?’ ‘Le pee’ he replied. ‘Ah then, this will be parallel to my English – we speak the pie’ I confidently retorted. ‘Non. Le pee’ he insisted. My French was deplorable but he has absolutely no English …. the fact that the word is pronounced differently makes it a completely different word to him. For a moment I felt quite bi-lingual. Which I am not. But I’m certainly pie-lingual.
PS: It interests me that in a culture where food reigns supreme the French word for pastry is identical to that for pasta or any other dough. Pate. Not to be muddled with paté which would really make a mess of things. And further, if you were wondering why the title – it comes from an English nursery rhyme about Magpies and refers to the fact that according to myth the number of magpies you see are supposed to determine your luck for the day:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told
The Weekly Photo Challenge this week asks us for a picture that illustrates ‘Achievement’. Here is The Bean being hoist high after successfully conquering the col de Croix de St Robert. 1451 metres (that’s 4760 feet) on short legs is not to be sniffed at and besides its an opportunity to use a line from The Sound of Music – something which must never be missed.
The peak is in the Mont Dore Mountains of the Auvergne in the Massif Central in France.
Isn’t it funny how you come across things just at the right time. Or maybe it’s just that one can make things fit when one needs or wants to. Yesterday was 11th November. Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day if you are in the USA or Canada and I imagine territories which I am too uneducated to know about). It can have escaped no-one’s notice that this year marks centenary of the start of World War 1. La Grande Guerre. Yesterday, therefore the world stood and still silent to mark with gravity the huge death toll of the following four years. And much was written and much will be written. Rightly.
After 11:00 we set off to the village of Anglards de Salers south and a tiny bit east of home by about 45 kilometres. After a light picnic we toddled off on our walk and passed the little Chateau de Trémolière making a note to return and visit when it is open (outside of the big cities and the heavy hitting sites, many places of interest are closed from Toussaint to Easter in France). It houses a collection of Aubusson Tapestries, fabric and needlecrafts are passion of mine and besides it has the oddest tower I have ever seen. We also passed the 12th Century Eglise de Saint Thyrse which features on the list of Monuments Historique de France and made similar mental notes and then an ancient stone fountain which represented the only water in the village until 1904 when the two fountains in the middle of the square were built. The plaque on the now dried up ‘font’ declares that those Anglardiens who exodussed to Paris would recognise one another by statement that they had been ‘baptised in the stone fountain’. The connection to Paris is something I will write of another time … the historic links between the Auvergne in general and Cantal in particular to Paris are fascinating and unexpected.
As we walked the leaves danced in the wind. It was a classic Autumn day – north of nippy, the air clear as anyone’s bell and the views from the 800 or so metres up above the Vallée du Mars absolutely spectacular. In good spirits we came across a cross. A stone cross with the figure of Christ depicted, as is typical in the area, quite tiny with a disporportioned head and massively oversized hands. What stopped us in our tracks was the panneau next to it. According to legend (and legend, as my children were always reminded is a story so old that nobody can remember whether its true or not), there was a battle fought on this land between Attila The Hun and the Gallo-Roman forces led by Flavius Aetius (Roman) and Theodoric I (Gaul). This was in the 5th Century. Hundreds of years later at the turn of the 18th Century a group of men from the pays came across what they believed to be Attila’s encampment and a dispute broke out when they found a cross there. This stone cross. Presumably the argument arose as to who could rightfully lay claim to it. Good old compromise prevailed and agreement was reached that it would be placed between La Mars and L’Auze hence it has stood where we happened upon it for the last 300 years.
That’s the history or the legend but what stood out to me, was the body count in 451 AD. 120,000 men. In one battle. Of course I don’t have accurate figures for what the populations of France, Italy and Germany were at the time but I am pretty sure that they were a tiny fraction of the populations in the early 20th Century. Fifteen hundred years, ago all that loss of life. One hundred years ago all that loss of life. Present day all this loss of life. I am but a helpless little voice but maybe if all the helpless little voices gather together – maybe we could try to give to peace a chance and prove Plato, whose words I have annexed for my title, wrong.
PS: When we got home and did a little intersleuthing on the net, we realised that this picture is not simply of a rock but of the ruins of a 5th Century fortress which stood on top and around it – you can see some of the stone-work in the foreground. Sometimes you have to look a little harder to see the fact that war has been all around us for all time.
In my quest for discipline and structure I have now decided to join the Weekly Writing Challenge. This week, by the skin of my teeth the subject is Irony.
Let me tell you about the duvet situation – We have one of those adaptable popper-together-clever duvets. It means we can sleep comfortably in all seasons. I bought it when I lived in a balistically cold farmhouse and winter set in. It is stuffed with Hungarian goose down which makes it light and pliable to snuggle into. When we moved here it was summer so we put the lightweight cover on our bed and the heavier one on the guest bed (it is the only duvet we possess and of course we intended to buy another but so far … well, so far, we haven’t). Now we are entering our second winter and winter is winter here in Le Cantal. Snow is guaranteed above 700 metres and we expect some by the end of this month. But guess what? The winter duvet remains on the guest bed (and we expect guests during the winter) and the summer one is on our bed meaning that my night attire is less allure and more velour. The siren Two Brains married only 16 months ago is a distant memory as I pore longingly over catalogues of thermal bedsocks.
The duvet dilemma got me to thinking about things that people will consider normal but which are infact ridiculously ironic. For instance that dinner service. The expensive one you lusted over – perhaps your friends and relatives gave you pieces as wedding presents or perhaps you treated yourself and knocked a hole in your bank balance which took a long time to mend just because you could and you wanted to. Either way, it sits in the cupboard to maybe come out for high days and holidays whilst you use the cheap stuff which you don’t like so well, doesn’t match and doesn’t send that little thrill through you when you look at it. Or your best shoes – the ones that you only wear for hatchings, matchings and despatchings and are scuff free as a result of never having been worn but for the same reason are acutely uncomfortable and when you do put them on you crave, after a while, the old pair that is falling apart but which actually fits your foot like a foot-glove.
Now, before you think I am insulting your intelligence, let me tell you that I have the most wonderful example of irony straight from house of Two Brains. Settled? Let me begin.
There is a special place in Hawaii where there are many observatories. It’s called Mauna Kea. It’s a volcano and it divides the ‘Big Island’ into sunny side and rainy side. The air is clear and bright and the stars, well the stars shine like you will probably never see them shine, even in a heavenly place like Cantal which is also clear and bright but just not so high and mighty. One of the observatories is the SMA (Submillimetre Array) and Two Brains is its Director. Some while ago the combined boffin power of the force that drives the SMA decided to invest in a new Receiver Set – one to be put in each antennae (there are 8).
These receivers would work at the shortest wavelengths. They were cruelly expensive, costing the sum total of all the other Receivers used in the Array combined. But cruel as the cost was, the atmosphere is crueller – it turns out that the shorter the wavelengths the more signals are absorbed except in a totally crystal clear atmosphere – and that, as Clever Hans would tell you is like finding a needle in a haystack – possible but not at all probable. They tried and tried and in the end, after much head scratching they decided to let go. So the most money was spent on the most useless equipment. And if that isn’t ironic I don’t know what is. But let’s face it – for us mere mortals who beat ourselves up about spending too much on a food mixer only to find that a hand whisk is just as functional and less time consuming to put together and wash, it’s a teeny bit heartening too.
PS: The title comes from my favourite movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ … “You want the moon, Mary – just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it” – amongst all the ironies in my life the real irony is that it is wonderful when I care to stop and look …
<a href="http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/oh-the-irony/">Oh, The Irony</a>
So said the glorious self-proclaimed ‘Superwoman’ who is Shirley Conran and I have to agree. However, it is also true that if I live to be twice the age I am now I will never tire of stuffing mushrooms.
Oddly enough, as a child I was frightened to the point of being phobic of fungus. It’s called Mycophobia in fact and happily I grew out of it (except for a disastrous relationship with a man called Mike but that really is another story). Who knows why I was so scared, but my evil older brother was quick to use toadstools to ward me off if he didn’t want to play with me. On one occasion, along with one of his best friends he trapped me in the narrow passage between our old wooden garage and the laurel hedge, dark and dank on one of those musty Autumn days, by luring me down to ‘see something amazing’. I was about 5 so imagined a lollypop tree at the very least. They blocked the entrance as I ventured in to find the wonders of which they spoke, so that there was no escape when I came across the giant clump of festering fungus in my path. I was found some time later, a gibbering, sobbing wreck by my father who presumably assumed I was playing quietly somewhere on my own. I don’t believe in Karma so do not connect in any way the fact that the friend was later the sole British survivor of the Estonia Ferry disaster, with the torturing of an innocent by fungus.
Today I can be found happily examining the huge variety of fungi that we find out walking, photographing them and poring over our books to find out if they are edible.
In August, walking high above the Vallee de la Santoire in the Cézallier paysage of Le Cantal, we found the most enormous mushroom. It looked like a pancake and was roughly the diametre of a big one. We photographed it. The following day, our young neighbour happened past with an armful of the same whoppers … I asked him if they were edible. Oh yes, he replied – they are Coulemelle and they taste really good – especially the young ones. His girlfriend (who hails from further south in Lozère) was later heard shouting down the phone to her mother ‘he’s brought me a load of enormous flat mushrooms …. what on earth do I do with them?’. Despite the fact that I prefer not to be branded a nosy neighbour I listened intently and made notes. On checking our book they get three chefs hats which is as good as it gets – the edible fungus equivalent of a big fat gold star.
Coulemelle (Latin name Macrolepiota procera) grow a long stem with a distinctive frill some way up. The young plant has a rounded cloche cap which eventually opens up into a large flat beret. They look very sturdy but in fact they are delicate and on picking will quickly start to wilt underneath. The gills (lamelles in French) are almost tissue soft.
When Two Brains arrived from the US for his present stay, we walked a walk I have not done for a year even though it is only a ten minute drive from home, on account of the fact that there is a kilometre stretch on the road and The Bean behaved deplorably the last time and had to be carried. Low and behold on our way we found a Coulemelle. Just one and quite old so we decided to make it into soup as instructed by those we had spoken too or evestropped on. You can also include them in a stew the same sources reveal. My first attempt at the said potage and I can report it was edible but the flavour so delicate as to be barely discernable and my choice of thyme to season overwhelmed the mushroom. Overnight, though it developed and the second bowl at lunchtime the following day was improved if not memorable. And we didn’t suffer any ill effects. Which was a big hurrah!
A week and several walks later we hit the mother-load. These little lovelies tend to grow on their own – or at least apart from one another, not in sociable clumps. We found a baby all by itself and then in a barbed wired field taunting us, an adolescent and a fully mature stonker. Two Brains hesitated but surcumbed to the look of longing on my face and braved the field like a commando seeking a hostage. The Bean watched anxiously but mercifully beloved master returned unharmed and triumphant.
The next day, a single speciment close to home and the cook-up was on. The baby made a lovely omelette – and the curious thing is that the taste is stronger than their older siblings. The big boys went into a soup thus:
- Remove stalks and discard (I expect they are perfectly edible but I didn’t)
- Cut the cap into thin spears
- Sweat a largish onion (and if you must a clove of garlic but personally I think that is too strong) in a small knob of butter or about a dessert spoon of olive oil
- Chuck in some parsely stalks, chopped
- When the vegetables are softened, add about a pint of milk and the same of water
- Simmer for 45 minutes adding a good tablespoon of chopped parsely half way though
- Blitz with a blender and stir in a good dessert spoon of cream or crème fraiche and eat with the smug look of someone who is eating something delicious that cost next to nothing
So there you have it – my first recipe for virtually free soup. We are no experts and as tempting as it is to go into a fungal frenzy we are taking one genus at a time and learning about it. And we have our gloriously irreverant pharmacist to assist where necessary because this is France and that is all part of the Chemist’s service.
PS: On the same walk we picked up a huge quantity of Chataignes (sweet chestnuts) of which more in a later post including some tasty recipes (assuming we survive the tasting) …
‘Minimalist’ is the title of the Weekly Photo Challenge. And for me it is a real challenge – an everyday challenge … I have a daily notion that I would like to lead an uncluttered life and yet even clearing my mind often seems to be an impossible hurdle.
This image, taken on a deep winters day between Mauriac and Riom es Montagnes in Le Cantal of a tree naked and stark against it’s monochrome background was captured in full colour, not edited and yet has the purity of a black and white. Perhaps winter should be the season to rehearse my inner minimalist …
PS: The title is from Pablo Neruda (Poem XVII – I Do Not Love You)
Where is the line between stubborn and stupid? I’m not sure I know, in fact I think I have walked the thin line most of my life. Stay with me as I tell you a tale of malice in which our obstinance prevailed and we won, what for us, was a little victory.
We walk. We walk a lot. In all weathers and all over the place but we have one rule. We stick to the PRs – Petits Randonees which, all over France are the marked routes (almost but not always circular) which vary in distance typically from 5-30 km and in difficulty too. In Cantal we can buy books from the Tourist Office at the head of each paysage (there are 14) which describe the route, what to look out for and give a little map. I always carry the relevant one in case I am challenged. Incidentally there are also GRs in France – Grands Randonees which are, well – Grand, varying from 80-90 km upwards to many 100s. We will walk some of those across France and all of the 340 PRs in our departement. We love walking, you see – we see and feel the terrain so much better than from a car or a train.
Ten days ago we set out to do PR16 in Le Cézallier Cantalien. We chose the walk carefully it being only a handful of kilometres from the friends we were dining with that evening. The day was ludicrously fine – you could easily have pretended it was summer were it not for the tell-tale burnishing to the trees giving the game away that it was in fact the very end of October. We arrived at the start (and finish) point, parked in front of the ancien ‘Gare de Landeyrat et Marcenat’ now a velorail station of which more later, donned boots clipped The Bean onto her brand new hi-viz leash (it’s a cat lead but please don’t tell her) and set off in childishly high spirits. Not a half kilometre down the road having walked past a fine painted panel proudly demonstrating the good walks (including this one) that families could take from this place and spotting several buzzards and kites wheeling and dealing in the rudely blue sky above, we spotted the first way-mark. An altercation took place because it seemed it could not mean turn left since there was an electric fence blocking the path. We pressed on but, looking at the map, it was obvious that we should turn off and circle the village of Landeyrat which we were fast approaching on our race-fit legs (give me a little artistic licence, will you). Hey ho – clearly we had missed something but if we traversed the village we could pick up the path again the other side. I stopped to take some pictures of this typical small conurbation high up in a pays that depends entirely on agriculture for its living. Two Brains was looking at a fortified farmhouse as an elderly woman snapped at him ‘do you want something’. ‘I was just admiring the house’ he replied, typically mild and unflappable and we walked on. We nodded to a couple of other people and said ‘bonjour‘ to stoney faced responses. If you have ever watched ‘The League of Gentlemen’ you will get the picture … this was not a welcoming place which is unusual in Cantal – the people are well known for their lovely nature but I guess there is an exception to every rule. We strode on, found the path and followed it looking down a beautiful little valley to a copse of gilded trees in which we supposed we would find the ‘Chaos’ that was described in the book. Chaos in this context means a volcanic rock-slide and there are many across the area (it is, after all, entirely volcanic) but this one is singled out as special.
We walked on and came to a Stile waymarked yellow. Which is what we were following. The other thing to note about this stile was that it was electrically wired. As was the entire field. Our stubborn-meters clicked in simultaneously. Neither of us was giving up so we found the best way under and rolled. First Two Brains, then the dog lifted over, camera, bag, coat and then me rolling inelegantly under. We walked to the Chaos which was worth it – a fantastic spewing of gigantic basalt rocks and a great view of the Orgues above. We have driven past Les Roches de Landeyrat before many times but being on foot as ever, was better. Which was just as well because after that the walk descended rapidly from bad to appalling. Literally every stile had been electric wired and I think we spent as much time rolling as walking. Our senses of humour were fraying but the stubborn, pig-headed pair that we are would not, could not give up. At one point we were squeezed between two fences and had to walk through waist high nettles and undergrowth – I carried The Bean. She was on her glow-in-the-dark leash most of the time and that is absolutely reasonable. I have already said that Cezallier relies on agriculture. We were walking amongst cattle. You must respect. And we do. But, and here is the bite. The area also needs visitors – visitors who will buy coffee, lunch, dinner. Stay in the hotels and auberges. Many many people have been driven out of business here – the hospitalities industry struggles. It is hardly surprising when an objectionable farmer makes one feel about as welcome as a runny cow pat in your living room.
This was the point in the walk where we nearly failed. The next stile was behind a secondary electrified fence. This meant that we had to roll under one, stand up in a space that was about 18 inches wide and walk to the style and climb it without touching the fence. We managed it. We are extremely bloody minded. We did this to a background of shotgun fire. We assume that the target was not us since neither of us was hit. Only three more electric fences to go and we were back.
Normally, on my own I expect to walk the walks in less time than the estimate given by the Tourist Board. Normally with Two Brains and our attendant chatter we take the guestimate given. This time it took 3 and half hours against their estimate of 2 and a quarter (and we have shaved 20 minutes off at the start by not rolling under that first electric fence and taking the proper route). A family with children could not have walked the walk. I could not have done the walk on my own with dog, neither could Two Brains. The farmer in question is in my opinion odious. We have since reported him. He will be visited by the Gendarmerie because what he has done is illegal. He should, in my opinion, be made to pay back the Tourist Board all the money they have expended in putting up stiles, their lovely information points, the time they have taken to make this walk what should be a great taste of the paysage de Cézallier.
But do the walk we did. I shan’t do it again. I’m stubborn but perhaps I’m not stupid after all. The gun-shots were off-putting the fences just plain unkind. We did however, as we arrived back at the velorail station having walked the last of the walk up the railway tracks like a pair of bedraggled gold prospectors, do the victory dance and have a group hug. Well you would, wouldn’t you?
The story of Landeyrat (or Launderamat as we hilariously Christened it in our efforts to keep up our spirits on the walk) does not end there. The following Friday (Halloween as it happened) we met our great friends to give the children a birthday treat – two of them have birthdays in Late October and November and we wanted to do an outing rather than just buy them more toys. We booked tickets for the velorail and arrived at 10:00 to take our carriages for an hour and a half spin down the tracks. 6 kilometres there and back and the last but one day of the season. The sun duly shone and we took our instructions (I got told off by the lady for not concentrating on her words) and set off down the tracks. Velorails are my new favourite mode of transport. Big enough for four, two pedalling and two passengers you potter down the track to a given point where you turn your car on a simple devise that lifts and spins with the aid of ones bodyweight ready to go back the other way. Ours was the shortest option – the youngest child being just 4 years old, this was plenty and took us to a lovely cascade near Allanche which we had been to before. We sat in the sun, took pictures, ate biscuits from Hawaii and variously sketched or stared into the crystal waters for tiny fishes. Tranquility itself and blissful this place figures in Le Hobbit: Le retour de roi de Cantal which is the sequel to ‘Lord of the Rings – made in Cantal’ two brilliant spoofs made by a young Cantalien and funded by the Tourist Board.
Raymond who is a Special Commendant in the Gendarmerie (in other words he is not a full time Gendarme but rather like a high ranking Special Policeman in the UK) told us that the reason for the sign saying ‘no swimming’ hanging above the very shallow water (no more than a foot deep) is that a Dutch youth jumped off the top of the waterfall and broke both legs and his pelvis. His parents sued because there was no signage. So this lovely place has to have a ridiculously obvious sign to warn others against being imbecillic. The judge, incidentally told them to get lost and ruled against any compensation. We passed a lovely interlude and then velorailed back to the station – harder this way … it was uphill. I would highly recommend a velorail outing – you can do much longer ones and it is great fun. However, it turns out that with monotonous regularity there are incidents. People managing to pull the cars off the tracks, turning it over when they are turning it around, throwing rocks at cattle, getting their fingers or toes caught. This was why the lady had told me off – they need to be sure that people have heard all the instructions. As an advice, I would suggest that they make a cartoon crib sheet and give it to every hirer before they set out. It would be a real shame if something happened to close them down. There seems no end to peoples stupidity. Me – I’m happy to be just stubborn and I am glad that I didn’t just give up on Landeyrat Laundermat because our morning on the velorail was the greatest fun – it would have been stupid not to!
PS: Before it all, I had photographed a name that made me smile on a pair of great oak barn doors in the village … Diabolo – perhaps I should have taken the hint!