Skip to content

Archive for

Nature never did betray the heart that loved her

DSCF1684

I’ve been niggled by a think for a while and the think that I’ve been thinking is  that I really should share more of the humungous archive of photos that I have accumulated since I arrived in France.  It’s the first time in my life I have had a reasonably decent camera and, as importantly, the first time I have had the time and place to spend on taking pictures.  I remain resolute in my belief that I am a leading myopic point and shoot photographer and I am happy that the approach does produce some nice pictures amongst the disasters.  Having reached the conclusion that I might do something worthwhile with some of this vast catalogue, it’s a simple question of finding the right mechanism.  After much navel gazing and machination with self I’ve decided on my own personal TWTWTW or TW3, (‘That Was The Week That Was’, that legendary satirical show that aired in the UK from 1962-1963 and in the US from 1964-1965 and spawned some of the greatest ever including David Frost and John Cleese).  Except my TW3 is ‘Those Were The Walks That Were’ – hardly praiseworthy semantics but enough to amuse my frou-frou brain.

 

My Two Brained husband calculated recently that I have walked more than 3,000 km in the Cantal since arriving in the Autumn of 2013.  This means that The Bean on her much shorter but markedly springier legs has also walked the same distance.  She is heartily impressed with herself.  With 340 PRs which stands for petits randonees – the network of waymarked paths in varying degrees of difficulty that you find throughout France to choose from, I don’t need nor want to go off-piste.  Sticking to the laid paths is no hardship at all.  Some are very well marked and easy to follow, some less so, some frankly, barely at all.  Which adds a frisson of farce to keep complacency at bay.

One of the very first walks I did and one that has become my standby, my head-clearer, my go-to when I arrive back from England ravaged from the 1100 km drive on my own with unhelpful small dog or a 9 hour round trip to drop The Brains for a flight from Lyon or yet still an 11 hour round trip to pick up a visa in Paris, circumnavigates le Lac de la Cregut.

It’s a 15 minute drive from my village give or take a bovine hold up or two and about 350 metres (1150 feet in old money) higher.  It’s a glacial lake  and forms part of the hydro-electric system for the Massif Central as, in fairness does most water  in our area.  The marked walk (named ‘L’histoire de l’eau’) is 6km and designated blue which means it is easy.  It has a  déniveler of about 150 metres (that’s the difference between the lowest and highest point on the walk  …. it’s quite a crude indicator without an OS map to show you the contours since it could be a single trudge uphill or several undulations – in this case it’s a single stretch that accounts for the majority of the relatively light lift).  The path has a series of educational panels along the way.  They tell you about the fish in the lake, the birds in the woods, the animals and the way the lake was formed.  There are four devoted to the birds of prey found in the vicinity – you turn big cubes to find the information about each one.  It’s aimed at children but I’m not too proud to learn and of course it’s in French so it helps with bits of language that one might not learn otherwise.  Like lombric which is another word for a vers de terre or earthworm.  I might never have learnt that word.  And it took me a while to remember it.  In the end I drove home muttering over and over to myself ‘Herbert Lom likes Bric-a-brac’ …. it worked and now lombric is in my venacular along with the very useful tattou (armadillo).  You never know when you might need such words and in what combination.

 

I have walked here in all seasons and most weathers – in the heat of summer when a little altitude is a relief and the harsh frozen winter when it takes on a Narnia like appeal for a girl who loves snow.  I’ve walked it with my husband often, two of our four daughters and a friend or two.  I’ve strolled it, struggled it, marched it, rambled it depending on my state of health, wellness and fitness at any given time.  I’ve shocked the cobwebs out of my musty mind and I’ve slain the anxiety that sometimes sets in when you spend too much of your life on your own.

 

Along the way are trees, of course – its a mixed disiduous and coniferous forest which forms part of the landscape of the lightly populated but widespread commune of Tremouille.  It straddles Cantal and Puy de Dome the next departement north in the Auvergne.  The trees are blanketed in mosses and laced with lichens and many sport Conks of differing flavours.  Fungi are positively frenzied whenever the weather is warm and damp, flowers abound in spring and summer and for a while we are graced with the lovely lillies that float like lanterns on the water.  There are deer and boar and smaller animals too, of course, and bugs and beasties and birds.  I don’t necessarily, in fact rarely ever see any of them. I just know they are there and I get a sense of great harmony with my earthly companions.  There is a pit along the way which we believe to be a wolf-trap having seen one identified as such before.  I remember the old fellow who told me there are wolves but if I see one to please not tell for fear of man going into panic overdrive and destroying them all over again.  The ultimate maligned of creatures wolves are.  I find it to be the  most peaceful of interludes walking under the changing canopy passing rushing water hurling itself over rocks and lacing and tracing to the lake’s edge.

 

 

The very first time I walked it and several times after, I happened past a farm which I silently christened ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ and briskening my step, hoisted The Bean into my arms as we were pursued by a hunting dog, it’s deep bass hoot echoing behind us in that particular combination of folorn and forceful that is peculiar to these dogs.  On every mound and trailor and joining the hootathon with laudible vigour were other dogs.  A pack numbering a couple of score at a guess.  The farmer bellowed valiantly at his escapee to come back.  To no avail as it buttoned its ears soundly and carried decisively on.  It seemed an eternity before it eventually deigned to give up on us.  It was, therefore with deep joy that I discovered some months later that I had no need to pass Cold Comfort Farm at all – I had missed a mark and had been moaning  falsely about the length of time spent on the road since in truth you veer straight off the road almost as soon as you come on it, penetrating back into the woods above the farm.  The farm itself looks so much prettier viewed from aloft with its magnificent backdrop of les Monts du Cantal and les Monts du Cezallier beyond.  Turn 180 degrees, by the way,  and you get les Monts d’Or just in case two handsome ranges aren’t enough for your greedy self – I’m a self confessed glutton for mountains so the third is a welcome bonus.  After making this momentous discovery we had a couple unpeturbed walks before the darned dog spotted our game and hared across the road (it’s a very tiny one car a day kind of minor road so don’t panic on her behalf) to pursue us through the woods.  It’s a small price to pay.  We play the game whenever we do the walk.  She follows us, The Bean feigns alarm, I walk resolutely onwards ignoring her and when she gets to a particular tree she slings her undercarriage downwards, takes a long and purposeful pee and goes home.  The Bean nips back and over-pees the pee.  We are all happy.  It doesn’t take much.

 

 

PS:  For the avoidance of doubt and because the seeds of uncertaintly have been sewn in me by Two Brains when I read the ongoing to him – it’s the DOGS that pees at that particular tree.  Not me.  I save mine til I’m safely round the bend – which is my favoured default in life.

 The title is Wordsworth from ‘Tintern Abbey’.  I chose it for two reasons …. that Wordsworth was of the Lake District and this area resonates with us as strikingly similar to that beauteous region of England.  And the poem is written about a walk – with his sister at the magical ruins of Tintern.

I’m strong to the finish cos I eats me spinach

Actually this bad boy is more usually made with  Blette which is chard if you aren’t speaking French but if you can’t get that you can use Epinard which is Popeye’s best friend.  In my experience it works well with both.

It’s called Pounti and is one of the absolute signature dishes of l’Auvergne region and in particular le Cantal.  I give a recipe below.  This is not a food blog so it is just my own favourite method and not cleverly photographed. For me, food is for sharing with those I care about so the food posts on my blog are just that – food for you to sample if you care to share.  I was entirely put off by the description offered by a French friend who is a vegetarian which might explain her reluctance, when I first stumbled on it. However, I braved it in Salers a day or two before The Man with Two Brains morphed into The Husband with Two Brains and became rather wed to it before I was wed to him.  Salers is one of ‘les plus beaux villages de France’ and as such is very much on the tourist map.  It’s population is tiny (less than 350 permanent residents) but it positively teems in summer and the shops and eateries and drinkeries thrive.  From Toussaint to Paques (November 1st to Easter) it is pretty well closed except for the boulangerie, boucherie and a couple of braveheart businesses.  Medieval and with buildings, including the church, hewn from volcanic basalt it is certainly worth a visit but it is a fine example of a place that absolutely lights up in the sunshine and seems to don a rather gloomy shroud in less than clement weather.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This is not lightweight, fashionably clean-eating food.  This is hale and hearty prop-up-the-workers in the harsh elements food.  It’s a loaf and is generally served warm or cold.  If you have it in a  restaurant, it will be artfully cut or made as pert little individual cakes and served with a zingy salad often as a starter but also as a main at lunch.  It is hefty enough not to require any starch on the side.  At home, we served our first attempt two years ago cut into little squares as an appetiser with the appero at a lunch party.  Our friends eyed it will a little apprehension but didn’t spit it out and as far as I could see didn’t hide it in their hankies nor handbags either.  And we loved it and gave each other surrepticious self-contratulatory looks from across the room.  As one does.  The rest of that particular loaf (it was large and I have since invested in a smaller tin and halved the quantities for fear of onset Pounti-fatigue on day three) we sliced and took on a long and lovely hike the following day.  Treating it as the Cantal equivalent of a super-succulent meatloaf, I suppose though my English reference point would have to be Pork Pie.

DSCF3350

Here are The Brains and The Bean replete after their pounti picnic

Now before I begin, I must warn you that the ingredients list looks odd.  But hand on heart, it is really delicious.  Think of it as that marriage that you secretly sneered to self would never EVER work and yet as the 2 in 3 fall like  skittles by the wayside and prove the statisticians right, it glides effortlessly along with only the merest of bumps in it’s road and melds into the collective consciousness as a mysterious but undoubted triumph.

Ingredients:

  • 300g Chard (leaves only – use the stalks in a gratin or sautee) or spinach but in either case chopped fine
  • 1 large or 2 smaller onions chopped equally fine
  • A big bunch of parsley – about the size of a fat head of brocolli. This is much easier to find in France than elsewhere so feel free to play with other gentle flavoured herbs and use dried if you need to. Chop what you have fresh, you guessed it, fine
  • 300g Sausagemeat
  • 6 eggs given a light beating
  • 300g flour. Traditionally it would be buckwheat but white flour is generally better behaved
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder unless, of course your flour is self-raising though the comedy value of using both might be worth it for any idle onlookers
  • ½ litre milk – mine is semi-skimmed (2%) but feel free to use your favourite – it won’t make any difference to the result.  In fact some recipes call for a couple of dollops of creme-fraiche in addition to milk but I stop short of that addition
  • 300g stoned prunes (stones removed not drugged for the avoidance of doubt)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6
  • Grease and flour a 2lb loaf tin or terrine. And line it too if you think your container needs it – I’m all for safety first
  • If your prunes are the ready stoned, no soak variety you can now look self-righteous but if not, you need to stone them. My wandering mind now has visions of lining them up and hurling rocks at them. and set them to soak in warm water (or Armagnac if you feel extravagant)
  • Once you have finished all that chopping, its a question of mixing all the greens and onions in with the sausagemeat. Squidging with your hands is really the best way and oddly satisfying though I’m not certain I should be admitting to that.
  • Mix in the beaten egg and milk – alternating so it doesn’t get too slimey – this is another opportunity for some cheap comedy as getting it wrong can have the whole amorphous lump  skating like Bambi on ice out of the bowl on a skid of raw egg
  • Seive in the flour (and baking powder if using)
  • Season with salt and pepper and add dried herbs if needed to replace or bolster the fresh parsley
  • Turn half the mixture into the tin and cover with the pitted soaked prunes
  • Cover with the rest of the mix and place in the centre of the pre-heated oven.
  • Keep an eye on it – you may need to turn the oven back to 180C/350F/Gas 4 if it seems to be getting too brown too quickly
  • Bake for a 45 minutes and then test with a skewer.  If it comes out clean it’s done.  It will probably need an hour in all

 

If you halve the quantities, you will need a 1lb tin.  I know that sounds obvious and possibly even a trifle condescending but sometimes my meager brain needs a little nudging and though I am sure you are not so afflicted, I would not want to be responsible for any disaster.  The baking time will drop by a third.  If you choose to make individual loaves or little muffins, the baking time will drop to half.

PS:   I remember being desperately disappointed a few years ago when I read that the original Iron Rating made for Spinach by German scientist Emil Von Wolf in 1870  was mistaken.  His decimal point was misplaced leading to a caluculation ten times higher than it should have been.  The mistake was not discovered until the 1930s.  So although it is high in those essential folates, it is not actually any higher than any other green  vegetable.  Poor old Popeye – I wonder if it was the placebo effect.

Coup de Cœur – Part Four: Whistle While You Work

An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..  Part One is here, Part Two is here and Part Three is here   The events in this episode took place a little under three years ago.  How time flies when you’re having fun, n’est-ce pas?

As often happens once you have overcome the initial excitement of something or other and reality cloaks you in its slightly constricting mantle like a heavy woollen duffle coat a couple of sizes too small, or a pair of pinchy stiff leather shoes, you need to knock on the door of fortitude and ask for her help.

This was the moment to be gracious to Lady Tenacity.  We were SO thrilled with the news that the house was empty and once back in France hightailed it pell-mell down the road to Marcolès from our present home further north.  In fact our rented flat is in the far north-western corner of le Cantal and Marcolès is in the far south-western corner.  It’s a two hour drive each way but it’s a really lovely two hours passing glorious views of the Monts du Cantal and diving into deep tree lined gorges and delving through glacial hills. It never fails to delight us.  In the back of the car, making life less than comfortable for The Disgruntled Bean were the various accoutrements of operation clean-up.  We picked up more en-route and The Bean became ever more peeved.

Thus began the most relentless and mostly thankless of enterprises.   HB² took up a floor-board in the attic which is planted in our collective imagination as being a wonderful tranquil master bedroom and serene relaxing place when the house is eventually finished.  He discovered that our predecessor had used sawdust for insulation.  It doesn’t work.  That was abundantly clear.  The house was, is bitterly cold.  Of course the fact that the same  happy fellow had ripped several of the radiators off the wall in his spiteful retribution against those that dared to buy the house that he wanted to sell doesn’t help the refridgeration factor but the ingenious insulation wasn’t productive either.  And in places it had provided a gleeful nesting place for some or other rodent.  One that had made it’s hideaway complete with a variety of different flavours of nut.  Mercifully it was not in residence as we set about getting rid of the wood filings.  We took out something near to 30 bags from the attic. The black full sized dustbin lining bags not, for clarity, little carrier bags for shopping.  It was back-breaking and necessitated wearing a mask and goggles and the white hooded clean suits that a friend had donated to the cause.  I felt like a Ghost Buster but without the joy of a Marshmallow Man to distract me.  About half way through the exercise, husband returned to the US leaving me to continue the clean-up, now with a looming deadline brought on by a discovery to be shared in a later post.  It was winter, it was still a four hour round trip and my romantic little project began to pall noisily.

DSCF3266

As a bit of light relief from the attic, the husband had braved the cellar.  Despite the valiant efforts of the town ouvriers there was still ample room for improvement.  Another 20 or so bags of rubble and wood and general stuff from centuries of life came out.  But what was revealed was magical.  So magical that it is worthy of a post all of it’s own … and for that you will have to wait.

Meanwhile, Madame Balai (Mrs Mop) as I was rapidly re-branding myself was cleaning the whole place through.  The dirt of ages dissolved under my unrelenting mop and bucket and  whirling micro-cloths which I brandished with all the skill of a champion cheerleader.  The rather horrible floor on the ground floor looked marginally less horrible and the stairs and wood floors on the first floor began to look quite majestic.  I cleaned the curious loo which sits at the top of it’s own staircase complete with red carpet which I’m afraid we consigned to a black bag all of it’s own for percieved and probably, let’s face it given the abhorrent provinence of the previous occupants, solidly sensible reasons. Bizarrely it has a window to the rest of the house which begs many questions which I have not yet had the pluck to ponder.  I bravely tackled and proudly conquered the bathroom.  The loo in there is not fixed to the floor which gives an added frisson of excitement to those brave enough to use it and the bath is the very same bath that was given it’s own fanfare by the previous owner as being big enough for three, something I care not to dwell on having met him.  And I cleaned the shower on the first floor.  This was genuinely a labour of love.  The shower is a particularly odd feature of the house being on a podium in what has been the master bedroom.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for the facilities-in-a-bedroom approach favoured by many chic boutique hotels and will indeed have a tub and a pretty sink in the master bedroom of the finished house but this is simply incongruous standing with all its plumbing displayed to the world like a brazen flasher and has no virtue except for a dollop of comedy value.  However, whilst we go through the process of renovating and restoring and generally swishing and swooshing the house back to the triumph it deserves to be, a working shower is helpful.  I donned protective gloves, mask and goggles for the job because when I lifted the slats and revealed the tray it had clearly and absolutely NEVER been cleaned.  I removed the sludge and hairy deposits of the antecedent thoroughly and zealously dredged the drainhole and can categorically state that I have seldom, if ever, been so fully disgusted.  And I have lived a little.  Indeed, I may still need some sort of therapy to truly achieve catharsis.

Now you will gather, I hope, that my husband loves me.  And to show his love that very day, he announced that a refreshing shower, after all my hard, and victorious toil in conquering the swamp pit, was just the thing he needed.

DSCF1443

I left him to it and took The Bean for a stroll round the village.  As I was walking back to the house I had a thought.  I ran it past The Brains on the way home a little later.  As casually as I could.  I just wondered.  Foolishly I was certain.  But I did wonder.  If he had remembered to close the shutters on the window whilst he was showering.  Since the shower is right in front of the window.  The relatively large and low window.  Of course he must have.  Mustn’t he?  No?  Well that was an eye-full for the town then and in particular the very elderly lady opposite  …. remember the house has absolutely no land to buffer it.  I’m frankly amazed that M. le Maire hasn’t had complaints.    Or maybe he is just too polite to mention it.  I cringe at the thought that maybe the town ladies might be anticipating regular matinee and evening performances.

I didn’t count the number of times I went down, with the increasingly testy Bean, to clean.  It was many severals.  And it was groundhoggishly tiresome in that everytime I got it looking spruce, I had to drag more bags of rubbish and rubble through the spick and spanness and my fragile effect was royally spoiled.  But all clouds are silver lined in world of me – you just have to keep those peepers peeled and embrace the good when it falls in your path as it invariably does.  One of the shiney pieces of silver in this story is the man at the déchetterie or waste disposal point if you will.  He has the most amazing view of the mountains from his little wooden hut and he takes his job very seriously.

Actually in my experience most of the people that work at such places, with or without breathtaking views are thoroughly nice – or at least they are in England and France.  I have always been treated kindly by them.  And this fella with his bella vista backdrop is no exception.  He helped us with bags and bags of wood dust and yet more of rubble and some of indescribable and unspeakable impurity and always (having asked where we were from on our first foray) said emphatically ‘vous êtes de Marcolès, non?‘ he being in St Mamet-la Salvatat, the next commune over.  It rather feels as though being from Marcolès in some way explains our undoubted lunacy.  I like him.  The Brains was less enthralled though when swinging a large and heavy bag of wood-dust into the vast metal skip, it split above his head and spewed shavings over him in a comedy moment of epic proportions.  Or at least my laughter was epic.  He remained stone-faced.   In fairness, I did not escape unscathed … as you can see from this fetching picture of me complete with dirty lines effecting comedy whiskers.

DSCF1984

When the walls were washed down, inevitably, given the age of the paint, much of it flaked off.  The Bean should be less cantankerous about the place if she takes the time to notice that one of the slivers that snowed down onto my lovingly tended (a thousand times so far) staircase is an exact silhouette of Her Beanship.

PS:  Of course the title is Snow White who righteously contended that if you whistle while you work the task will be easier, speedier and far more pleasant.  It may be relevant that I can’t actually whistle ….

I will sit on this style and continue to smile

I live in an area where the standard quip is that we have three cows to every human.  Most recognisable and the symbol of the Cantal are the Salers with their Harley Davidson horns and rich reddish brown coats.  In fact the original Salers were black and you do occasionally see a raven coated throwback still.  They are prized and revered and considered to be lucky.  And indeed they are fortunate since you won’t find them going to slaughter in a hurry.

But this beauty is actually a Ferrondaise.  There used to be far more of them but for reasons that they have so far failed to divulge to me (remember I speak like a Spanish cow not a French one) they dwindled.  Now the great and good of the Auvergne are encouraging farmers to restock them.  In our village we have an enchanting  farmer who sings lilting songs to his Ferrondaise as he walks them between fields.   The fact that he is missing several teeth does not make him self-conscious and he is happy to stop and pass the lisping time of day and share pearls of wisdom as his cattle casually amble up the main highway through the village. For my part, I don’t sing well though it doesn’t stop me from chirping, warbling and in particularly uninhibited moments positively yodelling which perhaps accounts for the look of disgust in this disgruntled beauty’s rolling eyes as we stopped to snap her.  I offer her to you in response to the Daily Press prompt Eye Spy.  Here are all the other fine offerings laid out for you to enjoy

DSCF4730

PS: The title is Edward Lear.  My mother-in-law lived in his house in Seymour St. London W1 for several years and he became ever more a part of the family tapestry as a result.  His whimsy nonsense, delight in bending and stretching words to his pleasure and seemingly simple illustrations never fail to cheer me.  This one goes thus:

There was an Old Man who said, ‘How
Shall I flee from that horrible cow?
I will sit on this stile,
And continue to smile,
Which may soften the heart of that cow.’

I did not sit on a style, nor did I try to soften her heart – I think she was a lost cause that afternoon though I don’t for a moment think she is horrible.  But then I am not an Old Man ….

Vendre dit vendredi: Part Two – Chasing down a daydream

I used to joke that I had kissed a lot of frogs before I found my Prince. The same principle seems to apply to our search for a maison principale in France.

Read more