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The battle of the bulge

Here I am back in France this past fortnight and nine days of it have been on a ‘regime’.  A diet.  A detox actually.  And it paid dividends – I’m now a bit more than half a stone lighter and I have lost the inches in the right places.  By which I mean when it drops off your face after a certain age you just look older, more saggy and haggard and equally at my age one has a tendency to gaining round the middle.  A spare tyre that would not help in the event of a blowout in the little yellow car.  So I am a little more en ligne, a little trimmer and all the happier for it.  It’s a curious fact that you wear the over-weight on your mind at some level and the niggling anxiety wears you out.  So best to out it and get leaner and fitter again.


But the process got me to thinking – I cut out wheat and dairy and sugar and caffeine and had pills and gloop to swallow and on days 3 through 9 I had a light evening meal.  And I didn’t miss the caffeine, didn’t crave the sugar and since I don’t drink when I’m on my own the abstinence from alcohol was a doddle.  And the dairy was replaced with Almond milk which is surprisingly pleasant and the wheat well I just blotted out the landscape of boulangeries and pattiseries in my country of choice.  But what it really got me to thinking about is the French diet and the WAY the French eat.  Because its in the UK that I gain the weight.  Not here in the land of pastry and bread and cream and cheese and all things wicked.  I live in the goose fat region and though we use olive oil you won’t find an olive grove anywhere nearby and we eat meat and potatoes because it gets very very cold in winter.  And we cook with cheese.  And yet I have yet to see a single obese person.  Let’s take a closer look ….

Watching St Nectaires being made by our friend Christine in Cantal

Watching St Nectaires being made by our friend Christine in Cantal

The French are wonderfully reverent about food.  And about mealtimes and I believe that herein lies the difference.  Here we break the fast every day.  We wouldn’t dream of skipping le petit dejeuner.  But we also don’t snack.  Typically le dix heure is reserved for children to coincide with break time at school.  And whilst you might have a nibble at le gouter that too is not a daily habit but rather something you would do if you happen to have a visitor at that hour (4-5pm).


Homemade Custard Creams … thank you Nigella!

Here we have le dejeuner and we sit and we eat together ensemble.  If it is a weekend then we might join with friends and family but whatever the day we halt.  And we sit and eat.  When I’m on my own I shut down Mr Mac, clear the table, lay it and eat my lunch.  If its a restaurant typically we will partake of a ‘formule’ – we will choose whether to have a starter and a main or to go the full monty and have cheese and dessert too.  In the village here as is typical, l’Auberge caters for the workers be they bin men or the Maire himself with a set meal – soupe, entrée, plat, fromage, dessert, café.  Water included, wine (un verre, un quart, un demi or a bouteille depending how many of you there are) extra.  The basic cost is €13.50.  That translates as £10 or $15.25 at todays rate of exchange.  The soup will invariably be whatever vegetables are good that day though if a boiled fowl is on the menu it will be a chicken broth with whatever she has to hand added, the entree perhaps a plate of charcuterie, paté and cornichons with salad on the side, the plat probably a coq au vin or a boeuf Bourginon, the cheeses local, a choice of several different desserts – mousse au chocolat will always feature and there will be a clafoutis or a pie and iles flottant for sure.


His first tart … handmade by Two Brains

If you want wine, it will be good – the French will not tolerate something awful.  They simply would not drink it.  And mostly they drink red.  The coffee will be an expresso.  And there will be bread but woe betide you grab it before the meal comes – very very non-you.  The Bread is to eat WITH the meal.  And the cheese is not to take great slabs off – just a little morcel of each (or just the ones you like).  You see the WAY the French eat is different.

Later, you might take an apero.  Mostly here in my region that would be a glass of rosé or perhaps une biere or maybe an avèze our local eau de vie which can be taken neat or diluted with whatever you like or fortified with white wine if you are feeling in need of a kick.  Its bitter – made from the special yellow gentiane flowers unique to the Auvergne and reminds me of a neon yellow Campari.  I like it.  And the beer is unlikely to be a pint.  Let me tell you about what happened last February.

Driving back from Lyon having dropped Two Brains I hit a blizzard and then a concrete post.  I broke the steering arm on the driver side wheel and the car was rendered undriveable.  The Bean and I walked into the nearest town (Riom ès Montagnes) to await rescue.   We waited in a bar all alone with the delightful Patron and  his cat which amused The Bean for hours.  And we were there for hours.  It was a bad blizzard and nothing was moving so my rescue party of Raymond and Ernest were 4 hours in getting to me.  I drank coffee and spoke pigeon French to the delightful Monsieur also called Raymond.  He has the patience of a Saint and I now count him amongst my friends in Cantal.  After a while he suggested I might drink something stronger.  I think he was getting desperate.  Une petite pressione I ventured.  And it was petite.  He took his smallest wine glass and filled it with aplomb.  I sipped it gracefully.  This was not the place for a gutsy swig.  We returned, The Brains and I a few weeks later when he was back, with a box of Hawaiin biscuits to say thank you (I had not been in on my own in the meantime because it is honestly not the done thing here for a woman to venture into a bar on her own – beautifully old fashioned and long may it last).  The men at the bar were all drinking from similarly tiny glasses – beer or wine or Avèze all in what to my English eyes are positively tiny measures.

With the apero you will have some olives or nuts or maybe some crisps.  But it is not a contest to see who can eat the most, the fastest.  It is just that – a teeny little nibble.  An amuse bouche.  Later you will eat le diner.  This is the main meal of the day and will be eaten en famille.  It too will probably consist of several courses.  A starter, a main, the veg or salade served afterwards, the cheese and possibly but certainly not always a dessert.  During the week you are more likely to have fruit to finish.  Wine –  yes and coffee to aid digestion on occasions with an alcoholic  digestif.  I favour Armagnac.   Now lets just talk about wine for a moment.   In the UK and the USA my experience is that these days a normal glass of wine is 250cl with a small glass being 175cl.  Sometimes they are even bigger.  Guzzling is the way.  Here a normal glass holds a 125cl max and will only be filled a third for red wine and a little over half for white or rosé.  Emptying your glass means you have had enough.  And there is always, always water on the table.


A perfect lunch in Rocamadour, Lot

So that is how we do it here.  In the UK I skip breakfast, eat lunch which is generally bread and cheese and paté and I take big chunks, I snack on biscuits in the morning and the afternoon, I eat cake at teatime and snack again til supper which is probably the most balanced meal of the day except that I will typically have wine and it is in a huge glass which is filled.  My poor old blood sugar is a confused mess.  The other difference is that I walk less.  The culture here is very much geared to walking – I regularly meet very elderly people out walking.  They may not be going far but they are using their legs, bearing their own weight and taking fresh air.  In England, the England that I visit most which is Oxfordshire, I see this less.  Which is not to say that  people don’t because I know they do but just to say that it is perhaps something that should be encouraged from a very young age.  My daughters all walk fast and its because they had to keep up with me walking to and from Goring to get the shopping.  I take this opportunity to throw myself on their mercy and apologise … except I think grown as they are now they probably thank me for my lack of compassion at the time.


A little frog high up in the Cezallier whose legs are perfectly safe because we don’t eat these

I think the difference for me is in old habits verses new.  It is perfectly possible to be slim and trim in the UK and the USA and I have been.  But there are aspects of lifestyle here that would translate very nicely and enhance the average life.  Not eating on the hoof, only drinking alcohol with food and taking a little at a time (and we do have a couple of fantastic old soaks in the village incidentally who drink a little a lottle all day long), eating together and finally not your piling plate but taking a small helping and then if you really want it going back for more but stopping when you are full.  It’s all about keeping the blood sugar even.  That’s my own spin on The French Paradox for what its worth.  For me it’s worth being able to eat and NOT gain pounds and hopefully keep myself at low risk of heart attack which seems like a good deal all round.  Just as we are trying to educate our French friends that the British can cook too, so I think the British could learn a better way to eat.


Our first dinner on arrival – a box acts as a table as the furniture had not arrived … but French-style we still laid it properly to eat

PS:  The Bean is less than keen on any form of diet – here she is expressing her need (not want you understand, need) for cheese ….


The begging Bean

He digs and he delves – you can see for yourselves

It’s been a while since I wrote anything more than a few lines to accompany a picture but – now there’s a thing … have I been away, or have I been home?  I think here is home so I must have been away but then again I was staying with my mother and spending Christmas with family so I must have been home because my definition of home was always where my family is.  And Two Brains made it by the skin of his teeth on Christmas Eve arriving 3 hours before we all sat down to Christmas Dinner which we do on Christmas Eve partly because we realised that one of our daughters was eating three Christmas dinners on Christmas Day and had to remain dry because she and her partner were driving to his mother, then his father and then me and then home (possibly to a turkey sandwich) and another has a fiance whose mother would fall on her own sword if her precious boy were not at her Christmas table (I say nothing) and partly because 25th December is Two Brains birthday.  So the simple solution is to follow the French lead and that is what we do leaving everyone, in theory, happy.    Anyway, enough familial bliss – I was in England.  Land of my birth.  And increasingly less familiar to me … I wonder if other ex-patriots experience this out of body-ness when visiting the old country, wherever that happens to be.


I lived for years close to various points on the Ridgeway and walked regularly on the section from Streatley-on-Thames to Uffington.  When my parents moved to the place my mother still lives, I walked sections of it each weekend with my father and our dogs.  I have walked it with children, with friends, with dogs.  It is a very familiar path.  Two Brains and I and two dogs, because The Bean’s best friend Brian who belongs to my eldest daughter was staying too, walked a bit each day.


Brian – a small dog with the sweetest heart


The Bean – a tiny dog with a big heart

We walked somewhere between 6 and 12 km each time (the distance being un aller-retour, a return, to allow for leaving the car).  I wanted to walk this path full of memories with my husband and it was happy – windy, rainy, bitterly cold, foggy, sunny we had all weathers which makes us both happy.  Two small dogs and then just one, after Brian returned home, snootling and rootling and sniffing the air and the ground which is generally what makes a dog happy.  We would return to my mothers house after an hour or three soaked and muddy some days but we had a very contented time.  Except ….

Somewhere between  Wantage, once called Wanating and birthplace of King Alfred (he of the frazzled cakes) and Sparsholt we spied something on the fence ahead.  Moles.  I am very wed to moles.  I grew up in the village in Berkshire in which Kenneth Grahame lived the last 8 years of his life and he died there in 1932.  He attended the same school as my father in Oxford.  I, like so many children, grew up knowing and loving the anthropamorphasised animals he created. ‘The Wind in The Willows’ was read to me when I couldn’t read, then read and read and read when I could, and then again read to my own.  And Mole was my particular favourite – so thrilled with the world outside his dark tunnels, his portly little velvety form was one I longed to hug. I do understand that many find moles a nuisance.  They dig and they create earthmounds with positively ruthless efficiency and ruin many a lawn (that overwhelming obsession of the English, let’s not forget) and they don’t give a damn about crops in a field.  So long as the earth is brim full of worms they are happy chappies and will keep diggering on.  Actually here in Cantal I am convinced the moles are genetically modified – or at the very least pumping steroids … their mounds are immense!  We have them all over the right side of the lawn though oddly never the left.  The Bean is very keen to find one and is often found standing four square with nose poking down a hole in the top of a mound where the mole has come up out of his laberynth of tunnels early in the morning or at dusk.

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The thing about these moles though, in case you thought that they were some sort of genetic mutation that dwells above ground, the thing is that they were dead.  Hanging on the fence, tied with yellow binding.  To say the sight was gruesome is an understatement.  It was a sharp and frosty morning and everything had that eery beauty that comes when the only movement is the twinkling of the ice particles in the hazy sun trying to break through a shroud of cloud.  The moles too were frozen, their little black coats glinting with freezing moisture.  Stiff.  Cold.  Dead.  Unfortunately our Opinel (the ubiquitous knife in a huge variety of sizes, ours with a 4″ blade, that no Frenchman would be without) was in the car about 2 miles back so we couldn’t follow our hearts and at least cut the little creatures down and lay them somewhere dignified.  Out of sight of, incidentally, the many walkers, riders and particularly families with children who frequent the path.  I was disgusted.  Choked.  Angry actually.  For heavens sakes what is the point?  And yes, I do know that in days of yore the mole catcher would hang the moles as proof to the landowner of what he had earned and to ensure that he didn’t try and bill for same mole twice.  But this is 2015 (I think it was January 2nd) and I do not believe for one moment that any landowner now uses such feudal methods in fact I’m not convinced that there even are travelling mole catchers these days.  No – this was just some foul blood lusting individual or group who thought it would be clever to hang their barbaric catch out for all to see.  Or perhaps they were crass enough to think that they would put other moles off digging there … not understanding that they are blind. Before you shout me down – I actually found a thread on the internet that had me quite helpless … a thread about this very practice in which one person states that it is to put other moles off and another points out that they are blind.  Person one says ‘what – every single mole?  I don’t think so’ and the other patiently points out that they live underground.  Person one says ‘why?’ patience says ‘Because. They. Are. MOLES!’  As I live and breath it is entirely unbelievable.


And now I am back home, because on reflection I know this is home and wherever my family are, they are always in my heart.  Here it is still hunting season – I have to be judicious when choosing my walks particularly at weekends because I don’t want to be shot.  And neither does The Bean.  The French have a reputation for shooting anything that moves but le chasse is strictly governed here.  And I live in an area far off the beaten track where undoubtedly folk could break the rules if they wanted to.  But they don’t.  The Ridgeway is a well walked path and I wish the Police success in catching the culprits of this heinous act if they so wish.  I know they try to stamp out illegal hare coursing but The Law says that you can only prosecute if you catch the perpetrators red handed.  Not for the first time in my life, I fear that The Law is an ass.


Presumably this was aimed at the moles ….

 PS:  The following day we walked from Sparsholt to Uffington.  The White Horse here is the oldest chalk horse carved into a hillside in Britain and there is Dragon Hill which, legend has it and I like to believe is actually the body of the dragon slain by George himself.  And there is Uffington Castle … an iron-age hillfort.  We walked around it and I was heartened to see that the moles had invaded and clearly conquered the castle.  Sweet victory to the little men in black velvet as they diggory diggory delvet according to Beatrix Potter in Apply Dapply’s nursery rhymes from whence the title comes.

I do like a little bit of butter for my bread

This week The Daily Post gave ‘Express Yourself’ as their theme.  So I rootled about in my virtual picture library throwing things hither and thither, toying with a fountain in the Peterhof Gardens and a lily floating gently on a lake near home and then I remembered these glorious girls.  Standing on their volcanic plateau gazing with the intent interest that surely only a cow could muster when presented with Two Brains, The Bean and I wandering below them, and for all the world looking as though they are about to start boogying round their handbags.  And the lady on the left, tail waving outrageously in the sunshine – she is surely expressing herself with the most riotous abandon, though doubtless a bovine expert might like to point out that the thing she is about to express is a bouse de vache (look it up – its far prettier in French).

PS:  The title comes from The Kings Breakfast by A A Milne in which the King expresses himself with clarity but finds himself unheard  ….

As blue as in my dreams

So says Red (no irony intended) right at the end of the most feelgood of stories ‘The Shawshank Redemption’.  Finally released after most of a lifetime in jail, he is sitting on a bus and hoping.  And what he is hoping for is serenity … that purest of dreams.  And searching through my pictures I came across this – the lake barely rippling and the castle  reflected in it and nature effortlessly playing her part in making the most serene of pictures so that I with my camera had no more endeavour than a twitch of my finger to capture the perfect picture.  For true serenity is a perfect sensation.  A perfection most of us seek and find to be frustratingly illusive.  Here’s my offering for the weekly photo challenge as a reminder that it can exist ….


Chateau du Val, Lanobre, Cantal March 2014


What good is the warmth of summer

Living where I do, the winters are measured on a scale of cold to bitterly cold but when the sun shines, no matter what the actual temperature I feel warmed.  This picture was taken on a cold day in early Spring when our breath froze as it hit the air, the trees were bare of leaves and the snow still iced the high peaks ahead of us.  And yet I feel its warmth and as John Steinbeck said ‘what good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness’.

So there you have it, my offering for The Weekly Photo Challenge entitled Warmth.