Get Plastered in France

I’ve been painting and cutting plasterboard on and off for the last week now as we work on some ceilings. In our various renovations we’ve used vast quantities of plasterboard, and we haven’t finished yet. So I decided it was time I did some research on it.

Plasterboard, plaque à plâtre here in France, and drywall in the USA, is made from a layer of gypsum paste sandwiched between two sheets of thin cardboard. The central layer is made from ground gypsum mixed with starch, paper pulp and thickeners. The whole lot is then cooked at 70 degrees Celsius. At this stage the sheets of plasterboard are up to 450 m long! They’re cut to size once they’ve cooled, a common size here being 120 by 250 cm.

Plasterboard became popular after the Second World War, although it had been around since 1916. To start with it was thought of as a cheap and inferior substitute for traditional plastering and wasn’t popular. But when the menfolk went off to fight there were labour shortages and plasterboard proved its value as a low cost and quick method of construction. It was positively patriotic to use it!

Plasterboard is fairly green. Recycled materials are used in the gypsum paste and the cardboard casing is up to 100% recycled newspapers. However, there are emissions when the product is made, although in the USA the first zero emission drywall has hit the market. There are recycling centres where you take all those leftover offcuts. Lafarge in France has such a centre at Carpentras. And of course gypsum is a finite resource. It is mined out of the ground. Once a quarry is exhausted, it is made safe, landscaped and replanted and made as pleasant as it can be. French manufacturers have undertaken to do what they can to minimise negative environmental effects.

We couldn’t manage without plasterboard. It’s allowed us to do our renovation work ourselves – the only way we could afford to do it. As well as being reasonably priced, it’s relatively easy to handle, can be cut to shape, paints up well and has fire-retardant qualities. A pretty useful material. However, I shall be quite happy not to see another sheet of it for a long, long time…


Moving to France as we did from mole-free Ireland, we were initially taken aback at the obvious national hatred of these little creatures that manifested itself in the large displays of mole eradication devices that we saw in every hardware shop. There were mole mashers, mole crushers, mole crunchers, mole blasters, mole manglers, mole gasses and mole marmalisers. All this because of a few tiny molehills – talk about over the top! We felt sorry for the persecuted moles.

Not any more. We now hate, loathe, detest and despise moles. We have 75 acres of land. You’d think we could co-exist peacefully. But no. Out of that 75 acres, just a few hundred square metres is taken up by lawn. Can the moles leave that alone? They can’t. In fact, they seem to home in on it on purpose. Their life’s goal is to dig it up.

So reluctantly we’ve resorted to traps and deterrents. Our homemade molescarers made with plastic bottles upside down on sticks may have scared a few worms off but that’s all. So we’ve become more sophisticated and invested in items from the hardware stores. But the moles are having the last laugh. While Chris has deafened himself several times with the mole blasters and come close to losing his fingers, we still don’t have a confirmed victim. Despairing of that device, and particularly of its costs, we’ve invested in a little humane tunnel trap. So far that’s caught a mouse. The mole cruncher hasn’t caught anything. Moley has been round it, over it, under it and even through it a few times, but on each occasion he jams it open with earth. He’s also removed the trigger that holds it open.

The cats have been more successful than we have. They’ve presented us with a couple of dead moles which bizarrely they refuse to eat. Normally our garden tigers eat everything.

Moles are fascinating creatures, with their star-shaped noses and velvety fur. They are smart little animals and incredibly quick. They can catch and eat a worm faster than the human eye can see. Their saliva contains a toxin so that they poison their invertebrate victims and store them in a specially constructed larder for later. And they give each worm a good squeeze before eating it to remove dirt and grit from its guts. They may live in the soil but they don’t want to eat it! Males are called boars, females are sows and a group of moles is known as a labour. That’s a very appropriate name.

What hope for our lawn? Well, we’ll carry on our ineffectual campaign against our underground enemy. It seems to give them a good laugh and I’m not that sorry that we can’t catch them! Maybe I should drop maps showing the route to Germany down their holes. Moles are a protected species there.

Shrove Tuesday – Mardi Gras

So it’s Fat Tuesday – that’s what Mardi Gras means. What a great name. Traditionally it marks the last day of the ‘carnaval’ period that began at Epiphany and which ends with Lent (Carême). Quite who would have been celebrating all that while I’m not sure. Certainly not the ordinary people who would have been battling with the hardships of winter. We’ve found this winter hard going with all our twenty-first century accoutrements – electricity, running water (most of the time), central heating to boost our reliance on our wood burning stove, supermarkets etc. It must have been really, really miserable in times gone by.

But Mardi Gras is an excuse for a knees-up with dressing up and tucking into nice rich food. There was a good reason for the latter in the past. The Church forbade people to eat rich food like eggs and cream during lent so they had to use these ingredients up before it started. Pancakes – crepes – we all know about, but bugnes are also very common. These are little fried doughnuts. There are regional variations on the precise ingredients that go into them. The French cookery website has 1276 different recipes for bugne batter! More than one way of making them.

Ruadhri has only been at school for one Mardi Gras (he’s been on winter holidays for the others). That year the children were asked to come along in their déguisements, so the tradition of wearing costumes for this day is still going strong, among children at least. Ruadhri went as an ankylosaur!

We’re hoping Mardi Gras will see the last of the cold weather. It hasn’t been above freezing for nearly a week now and we’ve had our deepest snow too. That’s the third time we’ve been snowed in this winter. The novelty’s wearing off!

Fête de la St Valentin

St Valentine’s Day has lots of associations with France. It’s thought that the idea of sending Valentine’s cards started with the Duke of Orleans in the fifteenth century. He was captured during the Battle of Agincourt and taken to the Tour of London. He sent love letters and poems to his young wife. But even before him, French lovers had started celebrating around the middle of February, the time when birds began to pair off and build their nests.

But didn’t the whole thing start off with St Valentine? Actually, there are at least three St Valentines. Pope Gelasius 1 made the day official in AD 496 to honour Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. They were both martyred horribly but not much more is known about them. A third Valentine crops up too, Valentine of Africa, referred to in various martyrologies (boy, those must be depressing to read). So there’s a lot of confusion as to who we should be commemorating on that day and what for. And an ancient Roman fertility ritual may have a bearing too. That happened on 15th February. It sounds rather fun. Priests sacrificed a goat (OK, it wasn’t fun for the goat), drank a lot of wine and removed at least half of their clothing and then ran though the streets holding bits of the poor goat’s skin. Young women were keen to be touched by this skin as it meant they’d be fertile and have easy labours. In a time before maternity hospitals, painkillers and antibiotics, you can see why they’d be prepared to be smacked with a bit of dead goat if that was the benefit.

However, we forget the martyrdoms and sacrifices and dwell on the fun stuff these days – the giving of flowers, presents and cards to our special someones. Valentines cards are called cartes d’amitiés here. The usual gifts to give on Valentine’s Day are flowers and chocolates, as in many other countries. Cadeaux personalisés ordered over the internet are becoming popular too. So although the whole thing began with a French connection, it isn’t anything particularly French about it any more. But that doesn’t make it any the less enjoyable. Happy St Valentine’s Day – Joyeuse Fête de la St Valentin.

Le Pub

Tuesdays is pub day. No, not the day we head off to our local for our drink , but the day the postman leaves a pile of advertising brochures – le pub – in the mailbox with our letters. We refer to it all as the weekly pictures of meat since invariably all the brochures from the supermarket chains have a good few pages devoted to – you guessed it – pictures of meat. I can’t see the point, I have to say. One bit of meat looks very much like another in my opinion. Are there really people who will see the photo of, for example, ‘viande bovine a bifteck’ (beef steak) or ‘porc: foie, coeur et rognon’ (pig’s liver, heart and kidney) and leap from their chair to rush to the shops to buy it, unable to face life without that for dinner?

Sometimes we get two lots of pub. I suspect we might be at the end of our ever-changing postie’s rounds, so if anything is left over, we get it. No problem, it all gets recycled chez nous. Either it’s used for starting the fire, although we find the coated, shiny paper that’s used in le pub isn’t brilliant. The rest goes to the nearest ‘local à papiers’ (paper recycling point), although at present we’re saving it up for our raised beds. Just as soon as Notaire’s house if fully finished, we’ll be taking to the garden to build these. Our veg get easily swamped by weeds, plus the soil needs some serious improvement, so we’ve decided raised beds are the answer. Le pub will form a thick layer over at the bottom of each bed to stop the weeds growing through. Aptly enough, a lot of manure (a good mixture of llama, alpaca, chicken and rabbit droppings and bedding) will go on top of the brochures. (Ironically, this week the Leclerc pub has ads for horse manure – fumier -in it!) We’ll mix soil in with that too and are confident our veg yields will double this year.

The hardware and garden stores are the next most persistent producers of pub, closely followed by clothes shop. Those brochures get more attention in this household than the supermarket ones. Being a so-called ‘hard discount’ family, we don’t buy top name products but live off supermarket own-brand produce. They don’t feature in le pub at all.

Is le pub effective? It must be since it’s continually churned out. Or is it just the case that no supermarket dares make the unilateral decision to stop? Le pub is a huge industry. A lot of precious resources go into filling France’s mailboxes every Tuesday and then France’s bins every Wednesday, since the majority of it must get thrown away. This isn’t a nation of recyclers yet. However, look carefully and you’ll see the ecofolio logo on the back of a lot of the brochures. When organisations sign up for this, they commit to pay 37 euro per tonne of paper they produce to acknowledge their ‘responsabilité elargie de producteur’ i.e. a recognition of their wider environmental responsibilities. They must also provide facilities for recycling paper. There’s also the ‘imprimvert’ logo on some pub. This encourages greener printing practises and certain standards have to be met to be able to use the logo on a publication. Steps in the right direction at last, but not everyone’s taking them.

So even though for now le pub is going strong and getting greener, I hope it’s days are numbered.

Nodes and Nudes

Photo from

I’m going to be gardening by the moon this year. I have my trusty handbook by my side – ‘Mieux Jardiner avec la Lune’ – and I’m ready to get started. But will it really make any difference?

Gardening by the phases of the moon stretches back thousands of years. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote about it. Benjamin Franklin did it. Now it’s my turn to do both. The idea behind it is that when the moon is waxing, the water table rises so plants absorb nutrients more quickly. This is especially helpful to young plants. As the moon wanes, the water table drops so this is a better time for weeding and harvesting. You should prune then too as the cut shoots lose less moisture.

There’s a bit more to it than that – a few complications like the apogee (when the moon is its furthest away from earth), the perigee (when it’s at its closest) and the lunar nodes. These I’m still slightly confused by, but I believe they’re when the moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic i.e. the sun’s orbit. There are two each month, and they usually mean you can take some time off gardening. That’s the great thing about the lunar gardening system – there are certain times when it would be a complete waste of effort to do any gardening, so you put your feet up guilt-free.

It will be interesting to see if we get better harvests this year. Pumpkins, potatoes and courgettes are the only veg that really seem to thrive in our garden, but mainly because we surrounded them with plenty of llama manure. The soil is surprisingly poor, but only we think because of being over-farmed by our predecessor. We’ll give it plenty of TLC this year – i.e. Tons of Llama C**p – which should it do it no end of good.

Photo from

And a date for your diaries while on the theme of gardening. This year Naked Gardening Day is on Saturday 8th May. I’m very tempted but there will be both teenage children and gite clients around on that day so it might cause too much shock, upset and/or hilarity. Shame!

February sayings and traditions

Here are a few wise old sayings from the February 1932 edition of La Prosperite a la Campagne:

Chandeleur noire – hiver a fait son devoir.

Chandeleur trouble – l’hiver redouble.

Black Candlemas – winter has finished its work.

Unsettled Candlemas – winter will redouble its efforts.

(I guess that by ‘black’ candlemas it means cloudy and not snowy. Candlemas is 2 Feb.)

Here’s a similar old English rhyme:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.

If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o the winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o the winter’s gane at Yule.

Si janvier fait le février, février fait le janvier.

If January is like February, February will be like January.

Quand le soleil a la Chandeleur fait lanterne – quarante jours après il hiverne.

When the sun shines brightly like a lantern at Candlemas, forty days later it will be wintry.

Si l’eau court dans les ruisseaux a Ste Agatha, le lait coule dans la chaudiere.

If water is running in the streams on St Agatha’s Day (5 Feb), milk will flow in the boiling pan.

Gelée de Ste Honorine – rend la vallée chagrine.

Frost on Ste Honorine’s Day (27 Feb) briefs grief and worry to  the valley.

Photo from - public domain photos

Candlemas on 2 February traditionally marked the end of Christmas. It is the midway point between the winter solitice and the spring equinox. Candles were taken to Church to be blessed. They were incredibly important items in days gone by, not only because they were the main source of light but also because many people believed they had beneficial properties. In Ireland, to this day, candles are used to bless the throat to protect it against infections.

It’s traditional to have pancakes at Candlemas. Now that’s always good news in our household.

February 2nd is also groundhog day. In German tradition, it was the badger who predicted what the weather would do. If he stuck his nose out and found snow, he’d come out because he knew winter would soon be over. But if he saw sunshine, he’d go back down his burrow and go back to sleep because he knew more bad weather was coming. I hope our ragondins will go back down their burrows!

And it’s your last chance to take down the last Christmas decorations. If you missed the twelfth night deadline, this is the next one. Miss that and bad luck could be in store. You’ve been warned!