Thursday, 31 December 2009

Cold steel and hot snails

Food is rarely far from the hearts, thoughts and dinner tables of the French and those ex-pats, like myself, who have chosen to make the culinary centre of the universe their home. During this season of festivities, the spotlight shines even more brightly on all things gastronomic with supermarkets, marche de noel and the humble kitchens of all and sundry, churning out amazing offerings: pate de foie gras; huitres by the bucket load; tantalising delicacies; wild boar; deer; duck and, surprisingly, kangaroo! The French have been unfairly criticised, I believe, for food which can seem too exclusive - not fare for the common man. Take tackling a snail for instance, a task that is not as easy as one would assume. Whilst dining with friends recently, Mark and I were warned of the dangers that could be faced when approaching 'les escargots'. If, we were cautioned, we didn't take sufficient care to warm our cold steel forks before plunging them into the hearts (do snails have hearts?) of our snails whilst they languished in their sizzling butter baths, the snail could very well explode, spraying us with molten garlic oil and scarring us for life!! Forewarned is fore armed or, as we say here 'un homme averti en vaut deux' (literally: one forwarned arm is worth two men). Anyway, to prove French food is quite inclusive, we found snails that would appeal to the most fussy of eaters - chocolate ones of course!!

Monday, 14 December 2009

see amid the winter snow

Yesterday was my favourite day of the year. I love most days, especially those that involve friends and presents, fireworks or dancing, but the day I get to decorate the Christmas tree is the one I most enjoy. This will be our first Christmas in France and, as we're still novices in the art of tracking down our own tree, we joined a group of friends, tooled up with saws and axes, and headed up a snowy, rutted track, determination written across our faces. Wrapped in scarves, boots and wooly hats (Mark had carefully selected his lumber jack shirt for the occassion), breath pluming in the chill air, we tramped into the woods in search of 'the one'. Our friends Lou and Billy, seasoned Christmas tree hunters, gave us an insider tip - find a really tall tree, fell it then cut off the top 6ft. Once we'd reached the location where past experience had taught our friends that the right calibre of trees were to be found, we spread out, each of us with a mental picture of our quarry in our mind. Our friend Sally struck lucky first - a 5 footer for the living room and a pot plant size specimen for her 2 year old grand daughter to decorate. Billy and Lou were next with a magnificent 20 foot tree that was brought to ground and trimmed to size before having it's lower boughs hewn off to decorate the mantel piece and hearth. Having watched our friends in action we felt it was time to strike. Mark had found a beautiful tree - branches evenly spaced and a sturdy trunk. With a little help it was only a matter of minutes before the tree had succumbed and was being dragged through the forest back to our car. How is it that Christmas trees, whether felled in a forest or picked out at the local supermarket, always seem twice as big when you try and force them into your living room? Just another life mystery I suspect. Mark draped the lights across the tree before letting me loose with the decorations. Harry cat helped selected the baubles whilst I scrutinised the tree for spare twigs to dangle them from. After only 3 hours we were finished and stepped back to admire our work. After a day of Christmas tree-centric activity, the stillness that surrounded us as we stood regarding our tree was pure peace on earth.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

What you see is what you get

I keep a vision board on my office wall directly in front of me. For those of you who may not know what one of these is, put simply it is a board where you stick pictures , articles, ‘things’ that depict the life you wish to lead. Viewing these images on a daily basis keeps them at the forefront of your mind acting as a constant focus tool. Works for me. One of my prize purchases on my recent trip to the UK was an advent calendar – not one of those cartoon (non-Christmassy) affairs with chocolate but a ‘proper’ Victorian scene with lots of glitter, snow topped fir trees and little openings that act as stained glass windows once you’ve removed the dated cover. This scene has taken pride of place over my vision board since the 1st and, to prove the power of ‘what you focus on is what you get’ I woke up yesterday to find we had had our first snow. This caught us all by surprise (showers were forecast) so I pulled on my wellies, wrapped my scarf round my neck and let the 7 year old in me run riot in the garden. There is something quite magical about snow. On the one hand it is exhilarating making faces glow and fingers tingle. The desire to play is strong – snow angels, building snow men, pulling on branches and then letting go to release great snow showers. And then, by contrast there is the silence- muffled, creaking steps, the clarity of sound subdued, light filtered through a blue haze. For a confirmed Summer girl, the occasional snow shower is still a delight.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Up, up and away

One of the many wonderful things about this place is the sky. When it is stormy the drama of the leaden sky and lightening against the silhouette of Mont St Cyr is pure spectacle. When it is clear, you can see forever. We have no street lights and no pollution and if the moon is less than half full the stars, planets and Milky Way come into their own. And last week, thanks to Roy one of our house guests, we were introduced to another nocturnal wonder – the international space station. Roy tracks this manned satelite (the size of a football pitch) that is clearly visible to the naked eye and thought that we may all enjoy sharing this wonder with him. What you have to do is follow this link enter the city nearest to where you are and then refer to a list telling you the time the station is due to appear and where in the sky to look. Simple. Last Thursday saw a crowd of us (word soon spreads here and space station spotting is something of an event) standing in the orchard, all eyes trained on 33 degrees to the north, north west. And lo, we saw a brilliant light moving steadily across the sky (no flashings) as we all stood slack jawed in awe. So, what else could we spot if we turned our attention skywards? Roy to the rescue once again but this time nearer to Earth. As I mentioned in an earlier blog Roy is a keen ornothologist and he has kindly provided a list of birds seen within a five mile radius of Les Cerisiers. So, in no particular order, I'd like to share Roys list with you (please bear in mind this is not a great time of year for birds so I think we've done pretty well with this lot): House Sparrow; Chaffinch; Robin; Jay; Crow; Jackdaw; Magpie; Kestrel; Buzzard; Coot; Mallard; Great Crested Grebe; Feral Pigeon; Little Egret; Blue Tit; Starling; Long Tailed Tit; Cormorant; Mute Swan; Heron; Black-headed Gull; Black bird; Missel thrush; Sparrowhawk; Black Redstart; Moorhen; Great White Egret; Goldfinch; Black Woodpecker; Marsh/Willow Tit; Wren; Great Tit. Unfortunately I don't have photos of either the ISS or any of the birds mentioned so I scrambled around for a bit thinking what photo would be appropriate to accompany todays offering. And then it dawned on me that we did have one more sky bound activity that I failed to mention thus far - archery. Mark is a keen archer and we offer archery lessons to our guests. So, please enjoy the picture of a bunch of happy holiday makers receiving archery instruction from mark in the November sunshine (Roy third from left in cap!-thanks).

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

We'll weather the weather whatever the weather

You can take the girl out of Britain but you can't take being British out of the girl and the weather remains an ongoing fascination. Like much of Europe it's been a bit blowy here over the past week or so and the winds have had quite an impact on both the scenery and cycle of life here. Having talked about my intention to sweep up the fallen leaves for a couple of weeks, I was thrilled to discover they had been lifted, whisked around and then deposited in neat little piles by the breezy gusts. I was even more impressed to discover that the size of each leaf pile was such that they fitted neatly into a bin liner - remarkable. We have a maple tree at the end of the garden (the most beautiful tree in the valley at this time of year to my mind) and I tirelessly watch it's fallen leaves frog hopping over each other as they chase around the lawn. What a show of colour and energy! The wind has shaken the remaining apples and quinces from our trees which were then washed by the rain before finding their way into a glut of pies and crumbles. The pods from the wisteria have shaken their black button seeds onto the ground (Warning: these closely resemble chocolate Minstrels and should not be eaten) some of which will find a suitable nook to start the process of becoming new plants. As the trees shake off their coats of leaves and prepare to face the winter months, previously shielded views open up around us, I can see the hedgerows dividing the fields, I see more cattle grazing, birds are more easy to spot (I have guests staying at the moment who are keen twitchers - I hope this is the right term, and they're preparing a list that I will share shortly) and sound travels unhindered. We hear our neighbours donkey, the cows calling to each other when the farmer deposits some hay or a salt block, the chug of tractors returning home at the end of the day and me letting Mark know that his tea is ready.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

taking it easy

I thought one of the advantages of living in the French countryside would be the more relaxed pace of life here: waking up naturally when the daylight finally managed to penetrate the thickly lined bedroom curtains; leisurely breakfasts as we discussed plans for the day; a saunter across the court yard to the barn (the nerve centre of our operations); long, drawn out lunches; maybe a nap in the early afternoon... you get the picture. Whilst my cats have made a seamless transition to this way of living (as demonstrated by Harry in the accompanying photo), I find with so much going on there is little time for slumping on the sofa, coffe mug in hand. Here there seems to be at least one festival every week, sometimes two or more. Take this coming weekend - I am torn between celebrating chestnuts in Tramayes, leeks in St Christophe en Brionnais or pears in La Clayette. How do you even begin to choose between them? This got me thinking as to whether things like this exist in the UK and I just missed them (the result of tunnel vision) or whether I am truly living in a unique environment. I can remember my mother mentioning a festival to celebrate some fruit or vegetable in the UK (I thought it may have been beetroots as I grow a lot of these) but when I phoned she had no recollection. I searched on google but short of a garlic fair on the Isle of Wight, nothing. Are the Brits reluctant to celebrate the ordinary and the small wonders? Next June celebrated poet (at least we can celebrate our creative stars) Valeria Melchioretto will be running a workshop here 'Inspired by the senses' where reality will be addressed through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. I have no doubts that this corner of France will afford plenty of raw material for her and her writers.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Remember, remember the 5th of November...

Bonfire night has long been one of my favourite festivals. Fire, loud bangs, hotdogs, wonder - brill, bring it on. If I ever decided to become a criminal (which is unlikely) I just know I'd want to be an arsonist. I just adore the drama of it all. Well, November 5th is with us again and we gathered for a spot of gunpowder, treason and plot at my friend Sallys house. The term 'changeable' hardly did justice to the weather during the day - blue skies, thick fog, torrential rain, light showers and high winds. But us Brits are made of stern stuff so we stiffened our upper lips and determined to have a good time. After a bit of friendly deliberation ('it's you turn', ' no I did it last year', 'but you'll enjoy it') it was democratically decided that Mark would be in charge of standing in the drizzle to light the touch papers. As the Brits danced around writing their names with sparklers and a rain sodden Mark battled with soaked fuses that fizzled and sputtered, our French friends looked on bemused. We'd tried to explain the background to Bonfire Night to them last year chez nous but it all got a bit tense - 'so, you are burning ze naughty catholics?' Things could have been worse, Marks sister had provided some childrens clothing so we could make 'little guys'. If our neighbours weren't impressed by our burning of catholics, they would have been outraged by throwing effigies of toddlers onto the blaze. As it was, the event (both last night and last year) went off well - no injuries, lots of laughter and wooly hats soon dry from being draped over radiators. Mulled wine anyone?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


I love it when the postman arrives. I love to see my name connected with this address in black and white. I also love unwrapping packages and today two arrived for me. The first was a belated birthday present from my best friend Brenda - my birthday was back in August but the choice of gift more than made up for the tardiness: a hot toddy scented candle (this girl knows me well). The second was some promotional material from wonderful artist Nicola Slattery ( who will be running a course here next October. Her paintings are so dreamy and the colours a real treat. I lingered over the pictures and visualised her and her group being inspired here next autumn. It's not just the postman who brings gifts, nature provided for me as well today when I spotted some parasol mushrooms in the field behind the house. These are marvellous creations. They start life just as a folded umbrella with a little collar to keep them tight against the stalks. At some hidden signal, the collar drops down and the mushroom canopy opens up revealing a delicious creamy underside. I braved a field of cows (normally very friendly but currently nursing some new born calves) and a horse to reach my quarry and was rewarded with a sack of these giants of the European mushroom world. Next task - toss them in butter and then freeze them ready for risotto and soup in the months to come.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Sunshine on a rainy day

So, here we are just a week away from November, the evenings are drawing in and the leaves are starting to fall. We drained and covered the swimming pool last weekend and it seemed as good a time as any to put my summer clothes away and bring out the woolies. Needless to say, when I received my daily message from the Meteo (weather) office, the temperature for this week is predicted to rise to 20 if not more. Too busy (or lazy) to unpack my trunk, I sweltered during the car ride to La Clayette to do a spot of grocery shopping. The youths hanging outside the store grinned patronisingly at me, they dressed in skimpy T shirts and ripped denim, me swathed in Marks cable knit jumper, combat trousers and boots (at least I left my scarf in the car). I spent longer than usual in the frozen food aisle, ostensibly searching for something for supper but in reality trying to bring my body temperature down to under 50! As I drove home (windows open, cool air fan at maximum output) I realised that I didn't know the term for Murphy's Law. As soon as I reached home I skyped my french language guru and dear friend JP. The french language is wonderful and they have a term for everything so I wasn't surprised when a few minutes later the term 'la loi de l'emmerdement maximum' appeared on my screen accompanied by a warning that this was 'not polite'. More polite, I was told, would be "C'est bien ma chance!" said with a pfff, raising of the eyebrows and shaking of the right-fist (if you are right-handed). I thought I'd go and try out this new phrase in the barn where Billy and Mark are currently laying floorboards. The phrase seemed appropriate as (if you remember) we bought windows yesterday to keep out the wind and cold which were fitted first thing this morning. These have now been opened to full capacity to allow the warm air outside to circulate in the barn building. Stepping out from the barn into the late afternoon sunshine made me smile, what a truly magical place this is.

Monday, 26 October 2009

How green is my valley

Just incase you think I live a complete Utopian existance, I'll let you into a secret, I was up really early this morning to ensure I'd be at the DIY shop when the doors opened at 07.00 hours. As autumn draws in we've decided that windows, rather than holes, are required in the barn and we'd seen some lovely wooden, double glazed, two paned ones in the Brico Depot catalogue. As we left home our vision was somewhat impaired by the low cloud level - the hills looked as though they were wearing a fur lined trim (similar to the one my soon to be mother in law has on her new coat) to protect them from the chill morning air above. However, as we descended from our lofty location the sun was doing it's best to burn off the early morning mists and pockets of greenery began to emerge. I asked Mark whether he had ever watched 'Brigadoon' but he hadn't. If he had, he'd have known exactly where I was coming from. It's been a week since I last went to Macon and the changes in the landscape are startling. The Val Lamartinien has transformed with the introduction of browns from the ploughed fields and golds from the turning leaves slipping into the palette of colour from which this land is painted. But it was the greens that took my breath away. How many shades of green are there? With poets, creative writers and artists poised to descend on Les Cerisiers I got to thinking how they would paint or describe such a scene. I was completely lost for words and overwhelmed by the green before me. Green or more precisely descriptions of green is big business. as I perused the shelves of green paint in Brico I wondered whether there is a team of folk somewhere whose job it is to come up with new names for obscure shades: Peppermint Beach, Crushed Pine, Moorland Magic. If there is job out there for someone with a flare for making up names for new colours I think I'd like a go at it. Job offers to this site please.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Jammin in Burgundy

One of the things that's most surprised me and is a complete departure from my BB (Before Burgundy) self, is the overwhelming desire I now have to grow and make things. This week I've had my future inlaws staying and Barbara (future mother in law) and Adam (future son in law) have both expressed a desire to make jam. There is something amazingly satisfying about creating food from your own produce or items that you 'find' lying around the place. Despite the seemingly endless hours and effort that I put into cooking and shelling sweet chestnuts (DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU ARE FEELING FRAUGHT) I suspect that when I am tucking into chestnut stuffing on Christmas day, a certain smugness will overwhelme me. Anyway, I will devote todays blog to two of my favourite recipes 'Down the lane jam' and 'Quirky quince and orange marmalade'. Visitors to Les Cerisiers will be feasting on these during their stay.

Down the lane jam

Whatever you can find in the hedgerows down your lane


Find a child who is willing to help you gather hedgrow treasures and several large tupperware containers. I was lucky enough to have Adam staying here in August when we harvested several ton of blackberries and elder berries (which we froze), and again in October when we picked rose hips, hawes (frow the hawthorn bushes) sloes, rosehips, hazelnuts and crab apples.

Place all the hard fruits and nuts (chopped into small pieces) into a preserving pan with just enough water to cover the fruit. Simmer for approximately 15 minutes until the fruit is soft and the crab apples fluffy. Sieve the juice and pureed fruit then add the soft fruits and simmer for a further 15 minutes. Weigh this mixture and add the same weight in sugar. Heat over a low heat until the sugar has disolved then boil rapidly until setting point is reached (email for details). Pour into prepared jars and seal

Quirky Quince and orange marmalade (did you know that Quince is 'marmelo' in Portuguese and this is where the word marmelade originated? I didn't!)

2lb quince
3 oranges


Place the fruits in a casserole dish, cover with water til they float and then cook on a low heat for six hours (your kitchen will attain the scent of Heaven)

Strain the liquid then add the skin and cores from the quinces and the pith and innards from the oranges). Bring this mixture to the boil and reduce by 1/3.

Sieve the above

Add the chopped quince flesh and the sliced orange rind, weigh and add the same weight in sugar.

Bring to the boil and keep boiling until setting point is reached.

Pour into prepared jars and seal

Both these recipes will provide you with marvelous preserves. I have had to pay out for a couple of bags of sugar and now have a number of jars of mouth watering treats. Ah Bliss!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Finding your way in Burgundy

Today, driving back from the supermarket got me thinking about the way we navigate through different parts of the world. Having lived in the UK for most of my life I have grown accostomed to navigation that follows a pattern along the lines of 'keep going til you see the Red Lion on your left, take the next right, at the BP station hang another right then left at the White Hart'. Without pubs and petrol stations we'd be quite lost. When I moved to Dubai there was a distinct lack of pubs but an abundance of mosques and hotels: 'You need to go past the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, left at the white mosque, you'll pass the Crowne Plaza, the Hilton and the Radisson before turning left at the blue mosque'. Here in rural Burgundy, our riches are many but these do not extend to multiple hotels, mosques, pubs or petrol stations. Here, instead, we choose to pepper our descriptive prose with stone crosses and gates. So, for those of you travelling in this direction, 'once you've passed the lumber yard keep going til you see the stone cross on your left, take the next right and my house is the one with the big green gates after the house with the chicken wire entrance'.

Going back to my drive to the supermarket - when I left home I could bearly see the afore mentioned green gates. We're pretty high up here at 560 metres and sometimes we wake to find ourselves in the clouds (some would say my head never leaves them). Today was such a day. As we took the road to the shops we have to climb and found ourselves, as in an aircraft, through the clouds with glorious blue skies overhead. As we looked back to where our house should be we saw it had been swaddled in cotton wool. The photo will give you some idea of the scene. The cloud has since burned off and we're enjoying a marvellous afternoon here.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Housework and bunnies in Burgundy

I never thought I'd hear myself say this (let alone write it) but housework can be fun. The key elements are as follows: Find some music that makes you want to dance (Paul Simons Gracelands, which I haven't listened to in 20 years, seems to do the trick), turn the volume up, find someone who makes you smile and then dance around whatever space you have available (the living room in the house was my room of preference). Once you stop dancing the world seems an even more marvellous place and, like Snow White with all her little helpers, you can continue with the housework whistling (or in my case la la-ing) as you go. Thinking about Snow White and the forest animals that helped her makes me think that this could be a good time to introduce Jeff. Most of the locals round here keep a number of hatches with rabbits as part of their food staple. One of these rabbits managed to re-enact the great escape and turned up in our garden one July evening. Almost three months later, Jeff has become a firm favourite amongst guests and friends alike. He loves the company of anyone who'll pass the time of day with him and comes to see the guests off as they leave. This morning I found him conducting an inventory on the breeze blocks and wood we'd had delivered this week (the former for the barn renovation and the latter for fuel). Apparently everything was accounted for. He has been a great help to Mark and Billy offering free advice on the best way to put up beams, positioning of scaffolding and when to have tea breaks. Jeff has become the natural choice for client relations manager and has accepted the role with immediate effect.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Love these days

I really don't know what time of day I love the most. The mornings are crisp and clear and the light has a quality about it that really is hard to put into words (just wait until I've attended a couple of the creative writing events!). By lunch time the early mists have burned off and everything is tinged with a golden light that raises the spirits. Birds sit on telegraph wires and soak up the sun as do Harry and Eddie my two cats who have a special talent for finding the sunniest spots. As the evenings draw in, wood spoke plumes wend their way skywards as people return home and light their fires. There is a faint scent of woodsmoke throughout the valley and as I look up the first star appears. The sunsets this time of year are dramatic. I was reminded (loosely) of a description I read of a sunset recently which went something like: A smear of deep red oil paint across a blackened canvas. See what you think.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The first Burgundy Blog!

Today marks the day I join the 21st century, I am now a blogger! The reason I decided to bite the bullet and start this was to capture for myself, my friends and for posterity my journey. Once upon a time there was a girl (sorry, still can't always see myself as a woman) and a dream. the dream was to live in Burgundy in a beautiful house in a beautiful location and run an activity centre surrounded by enthusiastic and happy people. Well, the house and location chose me in 2007 and the rest of it is beginning to take shape now. As I type this my wonderful boyfriend Mark and friend Billy are out in the barn laying floors in what will one day become the activity centre. Already the place is taking shape, the huge windows have been unboarded letting light flood the space. The stone walls are revealing their beauty and the timber beams...oh, magnifique!! I have to keep pinching myself to make sure that this is all real. Life is good.