Friday, 9 November 2012

trees please

Since moving here we've talked of planting some new trees that we can watch grow and thrive and establish themselves as we (and our business) endeavour to do so alongside them. Yesterday we finally drove the kilometre down the road to visit Michel, a nurseryman who supplies trees to the foresters around these parts. We were spurred to action by a desire to take a painting (or rather a photo of said painting) to Michel. It turns out that a charming house painted by one of our recent guest artist once belonged to his parents so we were keen to show him the work. (The artist is Dorothea Schulz)

Forewarned of our visit Michel had gathered together a sample of the trees he grows (ever-greens) and talked as through the pros and cons of having Normans, Blues or several other varieties. I also got to ask a question that's been plaguing me for some time - why do we so often see upside down white plastic milk bottles tied to young fir trees? Answer - to scare away wild boar and deer who are fairly keen on nibbling at young trees. Now I know! Purchases made and picture handed over (he loved it) we rushed back to show are 6 trees (what is the name for a baby tree - seedling, sapling) their new home.

This morning was just so beautiful that I decided to start my day with a bit of a walk. As I strode along the lanes a phrase Michel had thrown out the day before began to play on my mind - one day you will have good Christmas trees. Have I mentioned before that Christmas trees (along with cat's tummies) are my favourite things? I tried to concentrate on the vivid blue sky, the view of my house through a gap in a hedge, young creamy cattle taking in the morning sun but, I am ashamed to say, my mind was on other things.

When I returned home I did something I vowed I would NEVER do - I let Christmas into November. I rummaged in the barn to find my decorations and then placed two of them on the smallest tree - just to see. I guess the message is that if the decorations are still bigger than the tree, you need to wait a while. The decorations are back in their box now but I shall be testing the theory that talking to plants helps them grow, watch this space.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Jour des conscrits 2012

One of the things I most enjoy here in Montmelard is the strong sense of belonging I have found. The feeling of being almost part of the landscape - our house built of local stone, with beams of locally felled trees, nestled in a valley where it has stood guardian for over 300 years. History has played itself out here, the lives and stories of the people who have grown up, raised families and seen out the later years here as well as the external forces that have moved through these hills - German soldiers and local resistance forces, people passing on the grande route across France in Victorian times and, now, people like me who come from further afield looking for something we have been unable to find elsewhere. This feeling of being both individual - through living a life that makes me feel more the person I am, whilst at the same time realising that I am a very small part of something much bigger and certainly more durable, was never stronger than on May 5th this year during my Jour de conscrit.

The history surrounding this special day dates back several centuries and, apparently, started in the Beaujolais region just south of here. To combat the stress of leaving home and family to go off and do national service (which could last anything up to 7 years), the young men would gather the night before departure to sing, eat, dance and make merry at a banquet in their honour, lasting the whole night long.

National service is no longer part of French life but having an excuse for a good knees up is. So, in these modern times, the stress of conscription has been replaced with the stress of facing another landmark birthday whilst the solution remains the same - dance, laugh, drink and spend time with friends and loved ones. This year, 2012 - the class of 2, sees those of us with a birth year ending with a 2 carrying on this tradition.

The day is not all hedonistic revelling though, in fact the first activity is the laying of a wreath at the war memorial to honour those from earlier 'class of 2' who gave their lives in times of conflict. These ties that bind stretch back into distant times and as I look around at the younger members of our class I am comforted knowing that they will be carried forward long after my time has run its course. The oldest class of 2 member is 90, the youngest barely three days old, all of us now linked by an invisible thread. My thread spins its way back to England and snares my school friend Brenda and her mum both of whom class of 2 members (though they have only recently become aware of this). As Bren has recently bought a house in the village she is entitled to participate in the proceedings.

From the moment we begin to decorate the trailers that will be transformed into chariots fit to bear royalty, til the moment we roll home from the festivities, the atmosphere is one of pure celebration. Celebration that we are alive and appreciating what life has to offer. After the laying of the wreath, our 'chief', Pauline, invites the villagers to a Vin d'honneur in the village square. Once the day's drinking is under way,  it is time for the parade along the street: confetti filled air, klaxon deafening even the already deaf, bawdy songs that the locals are born knowing and the rest of us mime along to - it is a riot. The tempo is slowed as we await photos but a joyous ''whoop', as we launch our hats into the cool May air for the final group photo, signals party mode to recommence.

7 courses later the meal comes to an end and the dancing takes centre stage. These people know how to party and young and old alike take to the dance floor. For those who prefer to remain at table, the opportunity to guess the weight of the sausage, provides alternative entertainment.

As I sit writing this 5 months later, my hat, resplendent with red ribbon, hangs on the wall behind me, a constant reminder of a wonderful day. I don't want to wish my life away but I can't wait to turn 60 and do it all again. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Catch up...and thanks

Last blog in April!! That's shocking but it also serves to illustrate a point - be careful what you wish for. Towards the end of February things were looking a little quiet around here and it was time to sit and have a think and a chat about what we wanted from the year ahead. Adventure, a bit of travel, something to really challenge the grey cells, a bit of truck driving (Mark, not me), guests to enjoy the place and participate in the courses we had lined up, to see more of our friends, the list went on.

Within 10 days all of the above started to roll in and we found ourselves juggling with ever increasing numbers of metaphorical balls. So, in brief, since April we have travelled widely (Spain, Kazakhstan, Poland, Switzerland, UK, Italy, Hungary, Germany and Belguim), have started a course of study, have spent precious time with friends old and new, have welcomed returning guests and those coming for the first time and driven trucks (Mark, not me). I shall blog separately about our last two events over the coming week and also let you know our exciting plans for 2013 but today is about thank yous. 

The first thank you goes to two wonderful people, Dan and Doris, who   came to Les Cerisiers to manage the place during the summer months. After a brief induction into chicken keeping, cat sitting, septic tank management and learning all the quirks of our 17th century farm house, Dan and Doris launched themselves into Montmelard life - and loved it. In fact, being sent weekly photos of D&D enjoying our home, friends, BBQ made us slightly anxious as to whether, when the time came, they would simply demand squatters rights. They have now moved on to Ireland but with the promise of a return visit next year.

Then there are thanks to Bren and her mum and to Mark's parents who all came and helped with food preparation (those of you who enjoyed the afternoon teas here have this bunch to thank for the goodies). Also to Di (above) who was here ensuring sanity (mine) and lending a hand in the kitchen, garden and wherever a cork needed pulling and to Roger (also above) for his fabulous, fun wine tasting events which we never tire of. And final thanks to B and D for too many things to list here.

So, thank you to the people above and to those of you who spent time here this year. Hope to see you all again soon.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Well Being, Well Intentioned, Well I never !!

Our creative year took off with a surge of energy as the wonderful and serene Alexia Fachon and the equally fabulous Murielle Naigeon brought their own style of vitality to Les Cerisiers last weekend. Our guests destressed through yoga in the barn, re-energised with a healthy, tasty eating programme and took the pure air on several local walks. Everyone left with a healthy glow both inside and out.

There are very few things that I find fault with here in this idyllic world, but I did get a little cross a few weeks back when the checkout girl in Carrefour forgot to ask for our fidelity card. I was quite put out when I was told there was nothing that could be done to rectify the loss of a quite considerable amount of points on a couple of hundred euros worth of shopping. I hastily filled in my complaints card and left it at the service counter never expecting to have a response. Within two days, however, the store manager rang to apologise and say there was a voucher waiting for us next time we shopped.

A week later and we were invited to participate in a customer round table focussing on till-(wo)manship. A basket full of pastries and another with strawberries as large as tennis balls awaited us and a dozen other 'table ronde' participants in the Carrefour conference room. Teas, coffees and juices were served and we were also treated to a large slab of their speciality cake Trianon. Yum. We discussed our favourite aisles (cheese, and cat food - for the variety) and those we were less impressed with (world food, kitchen ware) and had a thoroughly enjoyable time of it. As we left we were presented with a large bag of Carrefour groceries (see above) which has kept us going a week. Well done Carrefour - we think your intentions are admirable.
The chickens seem to have settled in nicely and are doing a fine job of keeping the weeds down and supplying us with nutrient rich manure. However, we have now been faced with broodiness from our girl Plum which seems to have upset the apple cart (or should that be egg box) somewhat. Not quite a Les Cerisiers record but we came home to a fairly large egg and a minute 'wind' egg yesterday. Isn't nature funny at times?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Making hay...

Sorry to be so terribly British but the weather really is the topic of the moment. Who can believe this on going heat wave (can you have an Indian Spring?) No central heating needed for several weeks and when I look back at the snow drops gathered just a few short weeks back, these forebearers of warmer weather and a life lived once more out of doors, seem oddly passé.

Today I've returned to my foraging habits (never say no to free food) and, having stumbled across an old recipe from Lady Ridley (not sure where I got this from but, I can assure you, it was not hand delivered) I decided to give it a go.

Lady Ridley's Nettle Soup
1 lb potatoes
½ lb young nettles
2 oz butter
1½ pts chicken or vegetable stock
sea salt & black pepper
4 tablespoons sour cream


Cook the peeled, chopped potatoes for 10 mins in salted water. Drain.
Wash & chop coarsely the nettles (Only pick the new, young tops,using gloves!)
Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the nettles and stew gently for a few minutes. Add the potatoes and heated stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until tender.
When all is soft, cool slightly & purée in a blender, adding seasoning and the sour cream.

One tip I will add, when harvesting from lanes and gardens, if the ingredients smell like cat pee - theres a reason for this...

This good weather has also brought the walkers out en mass. Every village has a walk or two that is particular to their commune and Sunday mornings are now happily spent deciding which one to go on. The Marche de perce neige (snow drop walk) is our villages' walk and kicks off the season the first sunday in March. Last year I only managed three walks so I'm aiming to beat that record. So far Mireille (lovely neighbour) and I have walked 10k around Montmelard and Trambly (more like trembly by time se got back) and tomorrow we're heading over to one of the well known wine villages here abouts- Viré. As the walks are usually themed, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that a glass or two of their finest will pass my lips at some point. The 'snacks' are always a high point as illustrated. 

OK, soups all finished and I've got a couple of willing friends (guinea pigs) to give it a go. Thumbs up for the soup and the home mage rolls - and another lunch out doors.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Welcome to the Party Village

The first big social event of 2012 here in Montmelard is now behind us and what an event it was. The Poule au Riz evening (pronounced pooloree) - chicken and rice to you and me, was a huge success and shall no doubt be talked about for generations to come. I am all the more chuffed that it was such a triumph as it was the first Soirée that I had been involved in. The aim of the evening was to raise funds to buy hats for the class of 2 (see previous blogs) Jour des Conscrits as well as to provide some light relief from the cold days of winter. So, having spent the day setting up trestle tables, laying place settings for 160 people, slicing tomatos for the same number and generally lending a hand, 7pm found me sitting down to an early supper with my co-organisers - the lull before the storm.
Someone raised a valuable point - we needed to make sure that all attendees produced their tickets on arrival. We didn't want any opportunists, who just happened to be cruising by, gate crashing our evening and having a supper for free. I thought this was a joke until I saw the solemn faces nodding agreement. 'Is this likely to happen?' I asked pointing out that we were a small community in the middle of nowhere and the temperature was hovering around the -8 mark. 'We are on a hill and for miles around you can see the lights and hear the music.' Montmelard would become a beacon for any good time folk from Charolles to Macon.

The maximum number of entrants for the village hall is around 140, 120 to be on the safe side so it was no surprise that we had managed to sell 160 eat in tickets and 40 odd take aways. 4 of us serving wenches were to feed the hoards as another team dished up in the kitchen, a couple sold bottles of wine and the rest manned the bar. I can't remember the last time I worked so hard or removed my cardigan in January. Shimmying between the close aisles of happy eaters I kept my smile but lost the contents of my tray twice into the same young mans lap. He was a forgiving type and said there were no hard feelings. The atmosphere was certainly one of Bon Hommie and my designated table guests were happy to help with gathering up the debris and ensuring that I had a slurp or two of wine to keep my strength up.

As before, I encountered a number of people who were born, raised and are happy to see out their days in Montmelard among their friends and loved ones who have similarly spent their lives in this beautiful region. There is a strange (to me who has always been something of a nomad) sense of peace and belonging here and as I took to the dance floor, inbetween serving cheese and tarte au pommes, I felt strongly that I was exactly where I should be.
You've got to love a place where the bar prices show wine and beer as 1 euro a glass and Coca Cola at 1.50 euro, doing our bit for stamping out artificial additives. My turn as bar maid came exactly two minutes before we ran out of beer (2.30am). After auctioning off the final bottle, the beer drinkers effortlessly made the transition to wine.
It was lovely to see the coming together of all ages and both sexes on the dance floor. Young and old alike jived to 60s beats, trotted round to folk songs and then bounced about to modern pop. One dance struck me as the French equivalent of Oranges and Lemons, it involved having a partner, holding hands and promenading under the arches made by other dancers. The only difference in the French version was that as you made the rounds you were frequently tickled and had your bottom smacked!!

At 04.20hrs I knew it was time to go home - I needed to be back at 9am to clear up and I would have to grab some sleep, feed Eddie cat and my chickens plus tidy the house (Mark had been away) before then. As I left the party was going strong but the sounds were soon muffled by the snow that had begun to fall silently outside.