Poostal Service

Twice last year Chris, being just the wrong side of fifty, received very nice letters from the Association de Dépistage Organisé des Cancers en Creuse, at the orders of the Ministre de la Santé, inviting him to give himself up at the doctor’s so that fingers could be probed where no-one wants fingers probing to check on his colorectal health!

Needless to say, Chris didn’t feel terribly tempted by this and, although touched by the concern of the French government for the wellbeing of his intestinal tract, ignored the letters.

Well, the ADOCC are taking their duties very seriously. They’re not giving up. Chris obviously isn’t alone in his desire to have rubber gloves kept well away from the lower regions of his anatomy, so some dedicated individual has come up with the DIY colorectal kit. Its ultimate aim is to get three samples of you know what that can be sent by post for analysis to hopefully confirm the absence of blood. Here it is in all its glory.

Chris has to do three things.

1.       Fill in a questionnaire.

2.       Produce the samples and package and label them carefully – see the pictures below, I think they’ll give you an inkling about what’s involved.

3.       Put the samples in the franked envelope – see, they’re that concerned, they’re springing for the cost of the stamp!

He’s still not feeling terribly motivated about the whole thing. Maybe it’s worth holding off a bit longer to see what or possibly who gets sent round next to ensure that ADOCC can cross his rectum off its list. (Yes, I really should take it more seriously. They’ll be coming for me in a couple of years’ time!)

100 today!

Post no. 100 today so time for a party! It’s certainly time to celebrate as on Monday I got an award. Vanessa Couchman, the writer and blogger, awarded me a Stylish Blog Award. I was so chuffed! Now Vanessa’s blog is extremely stylish – she’s an elegant writer and talented photographer – do check out ‘A Writer’s Life in France’ at http://vanessafrance.wordpress.com/. So it’s very flattering indeed that she likes my blog.

When you win the Stylish Blogger Award, you’re allowed to pass the award on to fifteen blogs that you like. I shall be doing that over the next few weeks as this is going to take some serious thought. I’m a serial blog follower and have lots of favourites to sift through. However, I can dish two out straight away without a moment’s hesitation.

One goes to David Keep’s Angling Lines blog at http://www.anglinglines.com/blog/. Angling Lines is a fishing holiday company. The blog has news about the various Angling Lines venues in France, competitions, fishing tips, plenty of fishy information and tips (did you know the phases of the moon can affect carp fishing, for example?), videos and general discussions. If you like fishing, you’ll like this blog.

Next up, Gerry Patterson at http://gerrypatt.wordpress.com/. His blog is entitled Mr Patterson Goes to Languedoc and has the subtitle A man in tight shorts discovers le sud. How can you resist finding out more about that? The tight shorts are because Gerry is a keen amateur cyclist. I love his blog. I’m a cyclist too, but my own tight shorts don’t get anything like as much wear as his do as he racks up zillions of kilometres. He takes part for fun in cycling races that would kill most people. He’s tough. Smashing photos, interesting anecdotes and cycling info make this a top notch blog.

As well as passing on the award, winners are meant to reveal seven things about themselves that they haven’t already mentioned in their blog. So here goes:

1.       I swam competitively till I was 37 and broke my nose twice during races – OK, to be accurate at the end of them when I didn’t deploy the brakes properly and swam into the wall. You’d think I’d have learnt after the first time, but no. The incidents were separated by more than 20 years, that’s my excuse. So my nose is bit bumpy but at least I won both times!

2.       I’m a worrier but also an optimist – I think that’s allowed.

3.       I got engaged to Chris just six weeks after first meeting him, but since our silver wedding anniversary is coming up this year, it was a gamble that paid off. But kids, if you read this, I will totally freak out if you do the same thing. Be warned.

4.       I love rock music. I’m thinking of having my MP3 surgically attached to my ears. My current favourite groups are Argyle, three super and very talented lads from Poitiers (watch them, they’ll go far – website http://www.myspace.com/argyle4), Linkin Park and Train.

5.       I don’t suffer fools gladly – actually at all.

6.       I was born to knit. I’m planning a yarn bombing campaign for Boussac. Don’t tell anyone.

7.       I could live on muesli –and chocolate. Possibly just chocolate.

So now you know!

Whoops – what have I done?

post a dayI got up in a very good mood this morning (I won’t go into details) and, in a fit of joyous optimism, signed up for the WordPress ‘post a day’ challenge for 2011. Which means I have agreed to write a blog article every day for the rest of the year. Gulp. Actually, I was intending to do that anyway. Sort of. This is the carrot and stick I needed.

I’ve made rasher commitments. I’m married after all! And I have kids, not something you undertake lightly. Although if I’d known that at nineteen our eldest still wouldn’t have got round to learning to drive, or to finding out where the washing machine is or to working out how to open the dishwasher door to put things in it, possibly I’d have had second thoughts!

If you have a WordPress blog and feel tempted to dive right in, then check out http://dailypost.wordpress.com/. The whole idea is to encourage people to write and read blogs, which, as we know, is a great way to spend your time.

I just have to work out how to put the special logo up, which in itself will be good for me. I am woefully untechno, mainly because I have a hubby and daughter who are fluent in computer and can do all these sort of things in their sleep. So I’ve got lazy and leave them to do anything vaguely digitally demanding. Not any more. I must move into the 21st century, admittedly 11 years too late.

So any day you’re bored and have a few minutes to fill, remember to check on my blog for that day’s post. Because it will be there – I’m going to meet this challenge. Wish me luck!

Kindle thoughts

My Kindle is turning into a mixed blessing. It’s being slightly aggravating in that I have to reconnect to our Wifi nearly every time I use it, which isn’t supposed to happen. It may be a Friday afternoon Kindle and have to get sent back for a replacement at this rate. Do hope not. I’m also spending too much time reading when I should be writing – and washing up and cleaning out stables and gardening and feeding children … you get the idea. But I suppose that was kind of the point in getting it – to do more reading!

So quickly on to its redeeming features. With a Kindle, you can download samples of books you’re interested in. This is brilliant. (I’d best not mention that one of these is ‘Naked, Drunk and Writing’ in case you get the wrong idea of me sat at my computer.) I’ve bought a good few books from Amazon in the past, seduced by the title or the author’s track record or a handful of good reviews, but, when it’s arrived, found it to be frankly dreadful. The reviews must have been written by relations or morons, possibly both! (This has been the case with several of the ‘life in France’ books I’ve acquired lately as research for my own version. But more on them another time.) That won’t happen again now. You can base your decision on an actual excerpt. These are generally generous. The sample of ‘Vampire Knits’ I obtained has one of the knitting patterns in the sample, Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Cooking with Friends’ furnishes several soup recipes, and another books gives m e 5 out of its 101 tips on preventing headaches. Ruadhri learnt some cool new knock knock jokes with the sample of a book on that subject and I’ve got 5 chapters on getting organised. And in case you’re wondering, yes, you can even get samples of naughty books. I checked on your behalf!

Only one of the samples has so far led to a purchase (‘French Fried’ by Chris Dolley which nearly got me thrown out of the doctor’s waiting room the other night as I was laughing so much while I was reading it!). But I haven’t read most of the samples through properly yet. Plus, I mustn’t go too mad or Chris will confiscate my Kindle I expect. Prices range from free (out of copyright classics mainly), to a few dollars to the majority around 13 dollars or so. This is actually more than I was expecting, which also explains why I haven’t bought that many books yet. But weigh this against the price of the paper copy plus postage, and also bear in mind you get your book with 60 seconds of requesting it, not to mention the saving on trees. I’ve been waiting for a paper book from a warehouse for over a month now. So Kindle compares very favourably on that basis.

The Kindle doesn’t come with a carrying case and you need something. I’ve been using a padded envelope so far which is totally not cool and good for my image. I think I have a Peruvian shoulder bag in the box of unsold shop stock sitting in the loft (llama trekking customers are dreadfully reluctant to part with their money sadly), so that might do the trick. If not, I’ll have to splash out on a custom-made one from Amazon – plenty to choose from there.

Overall verdict? Very pleased on the whole. Just hope the Wifi problem sorts out.

Sex it up the French way on St Valentine’s Day!

Public domain photo by Petr Kratochvil

There are plenty of aphrodisiacs to be found lurking amongst food items that we consider to be typically French. Here are a few to try out on February 14th.

Aniseed (anise) has been used as an aphrodisiac since Roman times. Sucking the seeds was thought to increase desire, and there’s truth in this as they contain oestrogens. It also gives you sexy fresh breath! Pastis and Pernod contain aniseed so share a glass of this with your Romeo or Juliet on Valentine’s Day.

Almonds are one of the oldest known aphrodisiacs and fertility symbols. The scent of the nuts and the tree blossom is very sensual. The nuts themselves are a protein powerhouse containing vitamin E, copper, potassium, selenium, iron and phosphorus and will give you plenty of staying power. No wonder dragées (sweet coated almonds) are so closely associated with weddings in France! In fact, in the old days these sweets would be thrown at the ceremony. Since they were known as confetti in Italy, then that’s where the name for the coloured paper shapes we throw today has come from. I think I’d have rather had dragées thrown at mine! Verdun is especially famous for their production, and this industry dates back to the thirteenth century. So, either dish up some dragées on Valentine’s Day or other marzipan confections that every confiserie sells here in France.

The Aztecs were the first to see the connection between sexual desire and the cocoa bean. Emperor  Montezuma ate loads to fuel his love life! Scientists now know that chocolate contains tryptophan and phenylethylamine, both of which are chemicals involved in arousal and falling in love. However, many think the quantities are possibly too small to really have an effect. But chocolate is packed with energy which always comes in handy. So I would go with incorporating chocolate into St Valentine’s Day meal somewhere or other. A typical chocolate heavy French breakfast would be a good start – hot chocolate and pains au chocolat or one of the many types of chocolate enhanced breakfast cereals that are de rigueur over here! Chocolate mousse at lunch or dinner, and chocolate covered marzipan or almonds would be the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee, itself an aphrodisiac because of its stimulating properties.

Two other very French foods have love-enhancing qualities – mustard and truffles. Mustard is believed to stimulate the sexual glands. Monks weren’t allowed to have any in days gone by in case it set them on the path to ruin. And truffles? Pigs root them out because they give off scents similar to a porcine pheromone with a  musky smell. But the effect on humans isn’t so clear. The Romans certainly thought they were aphrodisiacs and so did Napoleon. Possibly he had too many! But if they were good enough for him, they why not give them a go, that is if you can afford it.

So a few suggestions of French foods to serve your loved on St Valentine’s Day to make it a bit more fun!

French or faux pas

Snowy gite

I’m a lake owner, gite runner and llama farmer. I throw sweetcorn into the lakes through holes in the ice during winter, scrub toilets in summer and shovel llama poo all year round. But I’m also an English graduate, an editor and a writer. I’m articulate, literate, coherent, circumlocutory – OK, verbose. I love being witty and playing with words. I have a vast vocabulary. In English, anyway. The weird thing about being an ex-pat is getting used to being a bumbling moron in the foreign tongue. You’re reduced to the language ability of a small child. There are loads of words you don’t know. So, for example, instead of saying to the mechanic at the garage, “My electronic dashboard has stopped working,” you have to go with: ‘It does not work, the big electric thing at the front of the car that tells you your speed and how much petrol you have and what time it is’. And if you could say simply “I need an application form for a student bus pass please” instead of “Please may I have the particular piece of paper where I need to write lots of information so that my eldest son who will be starting at lycée in September can have the special ticket that means he can travel cheaply on the weekly bus to Gueret,” well, life would be a doddle.

A recent example. I made a phone call to tell France Telecom that the telephone cable had come loose between some of the poles on our driveway. The great metal hook that was meant to hold it in place was swinging in the wind and threatening to clonk us on the head as we walked up and down our drive.

It was tricky. I finally got through to the right department after three or four tries over a month or two. Off I went.

“Our cable has fallen down.”

“You want to cancel your account?”

“No. Our cable has fallen down.”

Puzzled silence.

“The telephone cable has fallen off the posts. It is dangerous.”

“Ah. It is in the road?”

“No, but it is loose and might hit our car or on the head my children.”

“It has fallen off three posts and turned orange?”

“No, just one. And it is still black. Please come and mend it.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to cancel your account? Please?”

And so conversations ebb and flow between the surreal and the frustrating. And I have pretty good French. Face to face I don’t have too much trouble communicating. Body language and hand gestures are wonderful things. But the phone is dangerous. Conversations can easily veer into unknown territory and leave both parties wondering what the heck is going on. This can be handy at times, for example when cold callers are trying to sell you something unidentifiable and you’re in the middle of tea. These days we just reply chirpily along the lines of: “My uncle is a potato and I keep croissants under the bed. Now I must sing to my onions. Hello please,” and put the phone down. Works like a charm.

Here are a few of our worst faux pas – I think. Who knows what horrors we’ve come actually out with completely unawares as we merrily destroy the French language during conversations and leave a trail of puzzled people behind us.

To teacher: Ruadhri was absent from school because of an annoying pencil case. ( I used trousse = pencil case, instead of toux = cough)

Photo by Patrick Kelley

To butcher: Please may I have some bear meat for my dog. (Ours = bear, instead of os = bone)

To chemist: I need a box of flies because I have a cold.  (mouches = flies instead of mouchoirs = tissues)

To another teacher: Please excuse Caiti from sport today because she has tortoised her ankle.(tortue = tortoise instead of tordu = twisted)

To stranger in shop who asked where we came from: We used to dress ourselves in Ireland. (s’habiller = to dress instead of habiter = live)

To café owner: I think I left my purple ladder here yesterday. Did you find it? (échelle = ladder instead of écharpe = scarf)

To a neighbour: We have lots of animals on our farm – llamas, goats, rabbits, chickens, a dog and a prostitute. (I actually used the correct word for a female cat, namely chatte, but it is a term to avoid as it means a slut or a particular part of the female anatomy.)

I put the village idiot out of a job when we moved here but luckily the French tolerate us and haven’t had us committed to the nearest asylum. They really do appreciate it when you try to speak their complicated language. Quite often they’ll reply in their best school Anglais – admittedly only after you’ve tied yourself in knots and allowed them to feel quietly superior – but they do it.

So don’t be put off from giving your French a go when you come to France. You can’t do any worse than me!

A bunch of flours

My final bread related blog (I’ve looked at bread ovens and pumpkin bread in earlier posts). A quick look at flour this time.

It’s taken me quite a while, but I’ve finally found out what French flour is all about. Way back when in the UK I used three types – plain, self-raising and bread flour. All very clear and no complications. When we moved to Ireland in 1992 it was easy enough to make the transition to the same three  types, but now called cream, self-raising and strong. (Cream had me confused for a little while though.) That’s pretty much all there was, as well as wholemeal. Every passing year saw several new varieties of flour appearing. These days there’s an incredible choice.

Now, flours come in types over here. Each type has a number and the higher the number, the less refined the flour. Type 55 is the most common one you’ll find – this is pretty much plain or cream flour. You add your own raising agent to make it into self-raising. Type 45 is a finer flour recommended for cakes. Type 65 is good for bread. The coarsest wholemeal, hard to find in supermarkets, is type 150.

Flour is often marked as ‘fluide’ which means free-flowing, or ‘anti-gremaux’ which means no lumps. A few other useful words to know are ‘sazzarin’ – buckwheat; ‘orge’ – barley; ‘seigle’ – rye; complète – granary.

Supermarket flour is incredibly cheap, around 39 centimes for a kg. However, I’ve made the move to flours produced at local minoteries (flour mills). These are more expensive but consistently fabulous. Christophe Chaussé’s are my favourites at the moment, especially the amazing farine chataignes, figues et noisettes. Here’s a recipe for a gateau using this flour, but if you don’t have anything similar, plain flour will work fine. (It just won’t be quite as tasty!)

You will need:4 eggs, 200 g sugar, 175 g butter, 300 g farine, small cup of mik, dessertspoon of oil, 1 sachet of levure chimique (raising agent)

Separate the eggs and beat the egg yolks, sugar and melted butter together. Next add the flour, milk, oil and levure. Finally, stir in the beaten egg whites. Pour into a cake tin and cook for 40 minutes at 200 degrees C. Delicious!

Curling up with a good Kindle

I have my Kindle! Encouraged by the hi-tec members of the family i.e. all of them, I’ve treated myself to an Amazon Kindle. I’ve gone for the wifi only version at 139 dollars. It comes with a USB cable included and I also bought a France-friendly mains power cable for an extra 10 dollars. I ordered it on Friday and it came this morning – that’s from the USA to deepest, darkest rural france over a weekend. Truly impressive.

Not so impressive was setting up. Chris had to reboot the machine to get it to connect with our wifi but he got there finally. However, I’ve been browsing the Kindle store and downloading samples of books that look interesting. I’ve bought my first book – French Fried by Chris Dolley, which I can’t wait to get stuck into. As research for writing my own account of life in France (well under way now), I’ve been reading as many travel-memoirs of expats in France as possible. Some are excellent, but a lot are dispappointing – more about those in later blogs. Anyway, this book is only availabe on Kindle, so it will be extra interesting to compare it with traditional tree-derivative books!

Self-publishing books for the Kindle is definitely on my mind. The copyright of some of my Mentor books has reverted to me so I may try one or two of those first to see how the whole thing works, then go with some new material. It’s very exciting and interesting.

Kindle - pic from amazon.com website

The Kindle is exactly the same size as your average paperback book, at least as far as height and width go. It’s less than a centimetre deep and weighs roughly 250 g (8.5 oz). It holds up to 3,500 books so it should keep even me going for quite a while. The page of writing is lovely and clear and you aren’t dazzled by a backlight as with most electronic gizmos. It uses a technology called E ink.

The photo here from the Amazon.com site shows you just what the device looks like. The keyboard is easy enough to use once you get the hang of the moving around keys (between Menu and Back). Kindle doesn’t have a touchscreen.

So, I’m in the twenty-first century with this very awesome, non-threatening piece of literary kit. (Usually I’m totally itimidated by gizmos – my phone and MP3 scare the life out of me, feeble arts graduate that I am!) Come and catch me up!

Oh for a four à pain

Public domain image from capiteauxl.free.fr

The pumpkin bread recipe I put up the other day has got me onto a bread theme.

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t regret that the farmer who rented Les Fragnes before us demolished the bread oven (four à pain) so that he could squeeze a couple of extra square metres of crops in. All we have left is the door in the chimney place. It was all the rage to destroy them in the 1960s, but these days, thank goodness, the emphasis is on preserving them rather than pulverising them. These ovens are such an integral part of a French rural house. Every fortnight they’d be fired up to make a batch of bread, that indispensible food item.

The actual shape of the bread oven depended on the skill and preference of the mason who built it. Usually they were arched. They were deep and lined with heat resistant bricks to keep the warmth in. Faggots of wood were put in to heat the oven. When the oven was hot enough, these were pulled out and the loaves of bread inserted on a long-handled wooden spade. The oven’s cast iron door ws shut and the bread was left to cook. The gentle heat gave them a golden crust.

It would be nice to rebuild our oven. Our Caiti, an enthusiastic pizza and bread baker, would love it. Hopefully we will one day, but it’s not top of the to-do list just at the moment. We need to reinsulate the house, sort out a septic tank related problem, finish painting the living room, build a porch at the back of the house, insulate the kitchen ceiling, and outside we need to get a new, sturdy polytunnel up, create a proper vegetable patch with raised beds and erect several kilometres of fencing for new llama fields …. You get the idea!

If you’re inspired by the idea of a homebuilt bread oven, here are two links you might like

http://www.heatkit.com/html/bakeoven.htm

http://www.jamieoliver.com/wood-fired-ovens/

Pumpkin Bread à la française

I have been tripping over the four pumpkins in our kitchen since mid-October! There were a lot more than 4 originally, but our pumpkin consumption seems to have mysteriously slowed down of late. So I’ve found a recipe for pain à la citrouille – French Pumpkin Bread – to get pumpkin back on the menu and from under my feet. It’s actually a soft, spongey cake and very tasty.

So, if you still have some pumpkins to process, or rather more pumpkin purée in your freezer than you’d like, give it a try.

Ingredients

500 g pumpkin purée

2 beaten eggs

100 g soft butter

200g sugar

250 g flour

1 sachet of levure chimique if you’re in France – UK, half a teaspoon of baking powder

Generous pinches of cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg

Preheat over to 180°C.

Mix the purée, eggs, butter and sugar together in one bowl. In another, combine the flour, raising agent and spices. Slowly beat the puree into the dry ingredients. Pour into a cake tin and cook for around 50 minutes until golden brown.