Getting Ready for Fishy Friday

Friday is 1st April, the day of the poisson d’avril (April fish) when Ruadhri and all his friends at school will be trying to sneakily stick fish on each other’s backs, without being detected.

I've sewn small squares of Velcro onto little fabric fish

So what’s the best way to make super-sticky poissons? Last year Ruadhri and I went for cardboard fish with small squares of Velcro stuck to them. These worked very well on jumpers and fluffy coats, but were no good on slippery coats. Hmm. In previous years I used a small circle of sellotape, but these weren’t very sticky by the time Rors got to school with them. Blutak? That would stay stickier than sellotape but like the Velcro would most likely slide off shiny clothes. How did kids do it pre Velcro and sellotape and blutak I wonder? Maybe a blob of flour-and-water glue?

I’ve just had a quick chat with Ruadhri and we’re going with Velcro again, only this year we’re using fabric fish. And here they are! We reckon that if they’re pretty, people won’t mind getting ‘fished’ so much perhaps!

Where did this tradition, the French equivalent of the British April Fool’s Day, come from? There are several versions. One is that it all began with a silly fish trick. Someone would be sent to the market to buy an out-of-season fish, which made them look really foolish. Even babies in food-focussed France know what food is in season when! Another idea is that the ‘poisson’ element is a corruption of ‘passion’ which is associated with Easter. But the most persuasive explanation goes back to the 16th century. The New Year used to begin at Easter, often around the beginning of April. However, in 1564 King Charles IX changed it to 1st January. But in some areas the tradition of giving New Year’s presents around 1st April lingered, and because it was only the ‘false’ New Year, they gave ‘false’ presents i.e. they played tricks instead! See my last year’s post for April sayings and Easter traditions.

It doesn’t really matter how it all began anyway. It’s a fun time for kids, especially as adults are meant to reward them with a chocolate fish for each fish that ends up on their backs! Ruadhri is planning a major fish-sticking campaign on us!

Caitlin tells me that they have ‘poissons d’avril’ for lunch at lycée on 1st April. These are puff pastry fish with chocolate inside them. I’ve been trying to find a recipe but the best I’ve found so far is for fishy biscuits. Ruadhri and I got busy.

Here is Ruadhri’s first batch of biscuits. We’ve already eaten them all! The recipe was 50g soft butter, 50g sugar, 100g flour, bantam egg. Mix together, knead and roll out and cut fishy shapes with a knife. Bake approx. 10 mins in hot oven.



And not to forget my knitting since it’s knitting blog week. The subject is what has happened to various projects we have created. Most are still fulfilling their original roles – my pile of winter knitting on the shelves in the hallway get plenty of use from November to March. A lovely jumper I made for Ruadhri, but which he finally outgrew, is now a shopping bag. A neat bit of recycling if I say so myself! I’ve also used the sleeves of another outgrown jumper as peg bags. I sewed them onto one of those little plastic hangers that come with packs of underwear. Not the prettiest I suppose, but very practical and eco-friendly. (Like me!)

Once a jumper, now a shopping bag!

Knit Girl

I’ve just found out that this week, 28th March to 3rd April, is Knitting and Crochet Blog Week. As a dedicated knitter, I’m ashamed that I missed its beginning.

The idea is that anyone interested will blog about a certain aspect of knitting or crocheting on each day. Today’s theme (Wednesday) is how you keep your collection of wool – yarn stash – tidy. The answer in my case – with difficulty! However, I have recently made a big effort to be tidier. This included my giant spaghetti ball of wool which was threatening to entangle the entire house. So, I sorted my yarns by colour into plastic bags and these went into a large washing basket. Wow. It works! I’ve stayed neat and tidy and can actually find that ball of wool when I need it.

Unknotted knitting wool

Here’s a rather nice knitting photo from a few years ago.

Knitting kitties

The four kittens are all grown up now, and only Treacle, the black and white one on my legs, has stayed with us. She’s also lost her enthusiasm for knitting, which is probably a good thing!

Just a couple more photos. This is one of my favourite projects and one I’m very proud of. The pattern came from Knitting Wildlife by Ruth Herring and Karen Manners, a rather old book now. But the patterns are still wonderful.


Finally, a couple of quotes about knitting from the wonderful Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, who has made a career writing about knitting. Not many people manage that!

“Heirloom” is knitting code for ‘This pattern is so difficult that you would consider death a relief’. At Knit’s End:  Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much

Knitting is a boon for those of us who are easily bored.  I take my knitting everywhere to take the edge off of moments that would otherwise drive me stark raving mad.  At Knit’s End:  Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much

And the really final, anonymous one that is closest to my heart;

I’d rather be stitchin’
than in the kitchen!

La République Indépendante de Nouzerines ? Oh là là !

I was off to another meeting of an asso on Sunday afternoon. You may remember from my post about the AIPB that I was looking forward to getting more involved in the community, now that we have some time and a lot more energy to devote to matters outside our home and business. This time it was the Nouzerines Comité des Fêtes that was making plans for the year and in which I wanted to be involved.

A scene from last year's fete organised by the CDF

For a small community, around 250 residents, Nouzerines is an active little place. It has the hunters’ club, the elderly persons’ club, the rebuild-the-church club (Patrimoine Nouzerines) and the Comité des Fêtes (CDF). And each club organises several events every year. This being France, many of these are food-based! Patrimoine Nouzerines, new as it is, is starting to give the CDF a run for its money. This year it has already had a chicken dinner (which Chris and I were going to go to, but the night before, we found out Ruadhri hadn’t passed on our request for tickets to his friend at school to give to his mum!) and another foodie event, but I completely forget what. PN has concerts coming up, a curry night (Chris will be cooking that, together with another Chris) and at least one more gastronomical knees-up. The Comité des Fêtes has also already had one night of eating (choucroute, which just doesn’t appeal to me, I ‘m afraid) and is planning another one later in the year. A jazz night is coming up imminently. There’s to be a weekend exposition of the handiwork of local artisans and creative amateurs in May. (I might submit some of my better knitting, if my nerve holds.) June sees the Nouzerines Fête which is a day and a half of organised fun. The new thing this year is an international relay race for teams of five involving potatoes! More details when I have them! On July 9th the Tour de France hits town – OK, zooms through the village at high speed, but the festivities will go on all day. Someone at the meeting suggested that Nouzerines should declare itself to be an independent republic for the duration of the passage of the race through the village ie appoint its own leader (most likely the Maire), raise its own flag, refuse to pay taxes and, if it so wishes, declare war on neighbouring Bussière St Georges! All this sounded like a great idea to me, but there were a few frowns of disapproval, so whether or not the commune will rebel remains to be seen. (We wouldn’t be the first to want to set up our own nation state. See this website about how to  do it!)

Once law and order is restored, the CDF will be organising a trip in September to Vierzon and possibly Morocco. Why not be ambitious? I’m pretty sure something was lined up for November (I think my concentration wandered for a moment there) and there will be the annual Christmas Market in December, always a busy and festive event. I’ve volunteered to be a ‘membre actif’. Madame Présidente was looking for three new committee members, but I studied my shoes intently at the right moment and so avoided her catching my eye. I’m already on the school parents’ committee and AIPB’s Battle of the Bands committee, as well as being a proactive member of Patrimoine Nouzerines, and I think that is enough for the time being. French committee meetings tend to be long and I’m no night owl!

So, lots lined up for Nouzerines. But it’s the declaration independence which will be the most exciting! Hope they don’t send the troops in …



Books Are Cool is back

My Books Are Cool website is up and running again. So as a bit of a cheat, I’m asking you to take a look at that as today’s blog post! The site is brand new, so needs a bit of sorting out, but at least it’s operational. I’ll be using that site for all writing, publishing, book reviews and Kindle related news and posts.

Blog in France will continue on its daily posting basis, concentrating on life in France.

If all goes to plan, a craft and knitting site will appear, and I’m persuading Caiti, the Chef in Wellies, to get her cookery blog up underway. She’s such a good chef. There are quite a few teen cooks out there with excellent sites – she should join them.

We’ve had a crazy week of spring cleaning but the season’s first guests are safely settled into the gite and bivvied up around Alder Lake so let’s hope 2011 will be as busy and rewarding as last year was.

Back tomorrow with more French news.


Going Bananias!

Amongst our attic treasures (bonnets, newspapers, clothes, tools – and so much more) was this little Banania tin.

Banania began its life in 1914. Until 1918, it kept its ingredients secret, but in that year it became law for products to show their constituent parts. And so it was revealed that Banania contained ‘sweetened banana flour, soluble cocoa solids, vanilla sugar and vegetable cream’. The recipe hasn’t changed much over time. Today it has three types of cereal in it and honey. The different grains in it has meant that Banania can call itself a ‘petit déjeuner’ rather than just a chocolate drink.

As my old tin tells me, surprisingly in English as well as French, you mix your Banania with a little warm milk to start with, and then add hot milk to make a tasty drink. You must stir slowly for a better ‘aroma’! My tin dates from before 1930 since it’s blue. There have been many different styles over the years. These days the packets of recycled cardboard are usually yellow with a smiling African boy’s face. I have to say I think I prefer the old-fashioned version. It’s very smart. Clearly this tin was treasured and used to store other items after the Banania powder had all been used up. Maybe it was a very special treat? Or perhaps it was kept to remember a very special occasion? I wish I knew!

Banania today

Pierre-François Lardet was Banania’s inventor. He visited South America and came across an energising chocolatey drink called toholoatt which inspired him to come up with his banana-y version. During the First World War he shipped fourteen wagons of Banania for the soldiers. And during the Second World War, he managed to keep production going by relocating his factory in part of the ‘zone libre’, apparently near Limoges, not so far away. Some sources say it was close to Clermont-Ferrand. A bit of contradiction there. I must do some more research.

Banania was a sponsor of the Tour de France in 1938, and then from 1984 to 1986, it sponsored the yellow jersey. It showed its face again in 2003, but not since. It’s slowly losing its market footing. It’s been sold and resold a number of times and has been owned by Best Foods and Unilever, and now belongs to Nutrial. From being the leading chocolate drink in the 1970s, today it only has 8% of the market, compared with 31% for Nesquik and 27% for Poulain. Out of the three, I have to say Poulain is my favourite, but Banania is nice for a change. It has a definite biscuity taste because of its grains. I could do with the salt, which is why I prefer Poulain.

You should try it. And if you visit, you’ll find some lovely Banania recipes. The brownies look very tempting!

Beautiful bonnets – but what to do with them?

Amongst the many things we found in the attic here at Les Fragnes when we moved in were lots of baby clothes. In particular there were dozens of baby bonnets. I washed them all but for five years they’ve been languishing in a sack in the barn. They’re too lovely to leave hidden away for ever, but I’m not sure what to do with them. Here are a few being modelled by Ruadhri’s toys.

They are all hand sewn and exquisite. Most of them have little ties to pull to make sure the bonnet is a snug fit on baby’s head.

See the little adjustable ties at the back?
This one has three rows of adjustable ties at the top to keep baby's head extra cosy

There are some cosy winter ones, and thin linen ones, I imagine for summer.

Bonnests for all seasons

My idea is to use them to scent drawers and wardrobes by sewing them up (carefully through the holes in the lace so I won’t damage the material) with a bar of soap inside. Chris thinks it’s a shame, but I’d rather so something with them then let them lie around for another five years, forgotten about.

Any ideas?



When is custard not custard?

Ruadhrí’s favourite pudding in the whole world is crème anglaise. Before we came to France it was custard. But now he prefers the  French version. Where have I gone wrong?

Crème anglaise is the closest you’ll get to custard here in France. And when I say custard, I’m actually referring to Bird’s custard. The sort you make by mixing Bird’s custard powder with milk. I mean, there isn’t any other sort of custard is there!

It’s time to put these two contenders to the test.

First up, let’s look at the ingredients. In a carton of crème anglaise you’ll find : lait partiellement écremé (partially skimmed milk), sucre (sugar), jaune d’oeuf sucré (sweetened egg yolk), amidon modifié de maïs (modified corn starch), épaississants – gomme xanthane, carraghénanes (thickeners – xanthum gum, carrageen), arômes (flavourings), colorant bêta-carotène (colouring – beta carotene). Traces de gluten et de fruits à coque (traces of gluten and nuts). Bird’s custard powder contains cornflour, salt, annatto (colour) and flavourings.

Right. Now, custard dates from the Middle Ages. It’s traditionally a mixture of milk, cream, sugar and egg yolks. The eggs are what in fact make it proper custard. So on that score crème anglaise is more like real custard than Bird’s. However, the term is used these days to describe many starch-thickened puds. Bird’s custard is egg free because Alfred Bird, who created it in 1837, was married to a lady who was allergic to eggs. Since she couldn’t eat the traditionally-made custard, her kind husband came up with this familiar household product and made his fortune. Today, nearly half of all custard sold in the UK is Bird’s, and 99% of people have heard of Bird’s. That’s probably more than have heard of the Prime Minister.

Both crème anglaise and custard have colouring in them. Bird’s uses annatto, which is a natural food colour. It comes from the achiote tree, found in tropical South America – and its taste is described as slightly peppery with hint of nutmeg. It is food additive E160b. It’s noteworthy that annatto is the only natural food colouring believed to cause as many allergic-type reactions as artificial food colouring. So maybe the beta-carotene in crème anglaise is the better option. But it’s not as yellow!

Here's my custard in the front - a good jugful

As for the flavourings, both products are suitably vague. Here’s a website that gives a list of what counts as arômes in puddings and pastries in France. As for what Bird’s might be, perhaps vanilla and almond?

The crème anglaise carton announces proudly that it contains 10 servings. But it’s only 500 ml. It cannot be serious!!!! No way is 50 ml, 2 dessertspoonfuls, a proper serving. Here’s that in Ruadhri’s bowl. Ridiculous! Everyone knows custard comes by the bowlful.

50 mls - that's not a helping!

Now this is a proper helping.

Everyone also knows that if you hold a spoonful of custard up in the air, the custard should only slide off very slowly, if, ideally, at all. Custard needs to be thick. Crème anglaise is WAY too runny!

Custard in the foreground, the French interloper in the background!

But each to his or her own. Rors the turncoat has sided with crème anglaise, but the rest of us are sticking with custard. For ever.

A few Bird’s custard facts to finish.

  • The Bird’s custard factory was in Birmingham, and later moved to Banbury, where sadly it blew up in a dust explosion in 1981.
  • Bird’s custard was supplied to WW1 soldiers.
  • Bird’s was one of the first companies to use colourful advertising and promotion items.


Punctures, pot pourri and planning pig-out breakfasts!

Our puncture saga continues. I had another flat tyre yesterday. Chris got the tyre irons out again and got busy and found the culprit that he’d missed last time. A tiny thorn. But … that’s all it takes.

So he put a patch on, put everything back together, pumped up the tyre and boom! It exploded.

What's left of the inner tube

If you’ve never heard it, when an inner tube blows up, it’s loud! Certainly makes you jump. Chris once left his bike in the hot sun after pumping up the tyres a bit too enthusiastically. That made an incredible bang when it blew up. I jumped out of my skin and was a nervous wreck for days afterwards! So I’m still without my mountain bike until I get to Leclerc in Gueret for some more inner tubes. Luckily I have the indestructible, clanky-geared purple bike as a standby so I can keep cycling.

I’ve been craftily creative – at last. A little bit anyway. I rustled up some very quick and simple pot pourri sachets to go into the chest of drawers and cupboards in the gite.

I noticed the other day that they had that old wood smell about them. Not unpleasant, but I thought that a spot of pot pourri would be lift it. I originally intended to put dried lavender in my sachets. I have quite a large bag of it. Somewhere. Could I find it today? Sadly no – this is why I need to get more organised! I’ve used pot pourri instead, but having bought some nice bars of budget chevrefeuille (honeysuckle) Marseilles soap this morning, I’m hatching an idea involving them and some of the dozens of linen baby bonnets we inherited here at Les Fragnes. I desperately want to do something with all the old clothes we found. They’re sitting in sacks in the barn at the moment, which they don’t deserve. I have used some of the embroidered bibs I found. They had been nibbled by rats or mice and spoiled but I was able to salvage some of the material. I used it to make keyrings and fridge magnets, which I’ve very pleased with.

Isn't the embroidery beautiful! I wonder who did it.

The meal planning hasn’t been going that well. The drawing up the meals schedule is fine – but not the sticking to it. Too many unexpected things got in the way last week. So I’m going to concentrate on breakfasts only for the rest of this week. Now that we’re cycling to school, we have an extra twenty minutes in the morning before we need to leave, which gives time to cook something. Since I need comfort food at the moment, breakfasts are going to be special the rest of this week.

Wednesday: Welsh pancakes. My kids LOVE these. They’re basically a fried scone. I serve them yogurt and they don’t last long. I don’t bother sieving my flour and use granulated sugar. And definitely a free-range egg.

Thursday: eggy bread. I have a lot of bread to use up, and even more eggs. I have nine hens and at least seven of them are laying every day (not necessarily the same seven), so the egg pile is getting big. I’m giving them away left, right and centre, but still have loads left. So for good eggy bread,beat 3 eggs into a wide, flattish bowl. Add a little milk, salt and pepper. Then dip slices of slightly stale bread into the mix. Prod it around with a fork so the egg soaks in well. Turn the slice over and soak the other side. Now fry in a hot pan for a minute or so until the bread goes golden brown. My kids like it with ketchup but I prefer mine plain. Or with lardons (diced pieces of bacon – you don’t get bacon rashers over here). This recipe is very like French pain perdu which I’ll return to in my blog very soon.

This is just a few days' worth of eggs!

Friday: pumpkin and blackberry muffins, since I have way loads of frozen pumpkin puree and blackberries in the freezer that need using up. I like this recipe but will be using my own puree rather than canned pumpkin, and blackberries rather than blueberries. We’ll be having these with fromage blanc to add a French, low-fat touch.

I’m looking forward to the next three breakfasts!

Cycling season

At last we’re back on our bikes. It’s finally warmed up enough, and Chris has mended all the punctures. We had a real epidemic of them. We did a lot of offroad cycling in the autumn and think we must have picked up bramble thorns from the green lanes we rode along.

Left to right, Rors, Benj and me

Anyway, we’re back in the saddle and it’s great. Walking Ruadhri to and from school every day (10kms a day) was taking nearly 2 hours out of the day. Cycling’s much quicker. Chris and I generally go for a spin for about an hour in the mornings after dropping Ruadhri off (to keep fit), but do a direct there and back in the evening which takes about 20 minutes. And cycling is just nicer!

Benj gets his shapely legs from both parents!

You’ll have noticed from the photos that only Rors wears a helmet. I hate them and hardly ever wear mine, stupid I know, but we all have our faults. The French government is considering making the wearing of helmets and fluorescent jackets compulsory, which would be a good idea. I’ll toe the line then, no problem.

The big cycling news is that the Tour de France will be coming incredibly close to us this year. It’s going along the D2 from Aigurande to Maison Rouge, where it turns right to take the D917 to Boussac. We are just 1 km from the D2! We’re delighted. We are massively keen cyclists and huge fans of the Tour de France, so it’s a real treat for us. If you’ve never experienced it, and you have the chance to witness the Tour for yourself, go for it. It’s exciting and a really French experience. And you’ll come away loaded down with freebies as a bonus.

We have some wonderful sports papers from the 1930s, Match, with fabulous photos of the Tour de France in the old days, when it featured national teams and riders had to mend their own punctures and do other repairs themselves. Here are a few to enjoy.

See the spare tyre around the cyclist's neck?
Repairs en route during the Tour de France

Finally, you might like to glance back to Ruadhri’s bicycle fancy dress competition last year where the llama bike made its famous appearance!

Are the French fat or not?

Time for another Kindle-related blog, I think. I Kindle every day. (Well, if Argos can be a verb, so can Kindle.) I’ve been downloading zillions of samples, and made a couple of purchases as a result. I made another accidental one, but managed to cancel that one in time. It’s rather easy – accidentally on purpose perhaps?! – to send the ‘buy’ command rather than the ‘download’ sample command.

Here are three food-related books with very ambitious claims that I’ve had a look at on my Kindle:

The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook by Mireille Guiliano

The French Don’t Diet Plan by Dr Will Clower

How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food by Chef Alain Braux

I don’t have a weight problem and my cholesterol is fine, but I still felt I should check these assertions out. Could they be true?

First up, the declaration that ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’. Actually, they do. Mireille Guiliano wrote her book in 2004, when generally people were a bit slimmer, but these days the French are fattening up at a frightening rate. Over a quarter of French women are now considered overweight, with 15.1% clinically obese. French men are worse – 38.5% are overweight, and 13.9% are obese. But why has this once famously slim nation put on weight? Well, French people are exercising less, eating more fast-food, and landing more service jobs where they sit at a desk rather than work in a factory or wrestle llamas for a living. Overall, 6.5 million French, 14.5% of the population, are now obese. And as in many countries, the rate is higher among poorer people. There are regional differences too: there are more fatties in the north of France with its heavy, rich food, and in the east, dangerously open to German influences with its meat-rich diet.

So the book is starting from a dubious standpoint. But the author is a likeable person. She admits at the beginning that her favourite pastimes are ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’, and clearly comes from a food-obsessed family. She gives the usual advice – avoid snack food, eat a good breakfast, etc etc. But I lost interest in the book in the section on breakfast. The author went on for way too long about MBC – Magical Breakfast Cream, that is really a sort of homemade muesli. Her Tante Berthe invented it, and there is an awful lot about TB before we actually get to how to make MBC. A bit too family-based for me. And, not surprisingly, since Mme Guiliano sells the stuff, there’s a section in the book on why a little champagne is good for you too!

As for ‘The French Don’t Diet’ idea, for ages people thought the French could eat what they wanted – mainly fatty foods such as croissants, paté and crème brulée – but get away with it. And so long as they did so in moderation, well, they did. But these days, it seems, portions are getting bigger, and more snacking goes on. And the French are getting fatter as a result. But Clower happily ignores this and instead concentrates on ten steps, following French practices, to end up eating more healthily. These include avoiding ‘faux’ foods, i.e. processed foods with hidden fat and calories in them, spending more time enjoying your meal, and returning to the family table. It’s a little ironic that he’s recommending the very things the French are not doing so much any more. Clower also comes up with a claim that the French don’t take supplements. Hmm. These give every indication of being big business in every pharmacy and supermarket, where there are shelves and shelves of them. However, there’s plenty of interesting ideas in the book, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them all.

Finally Chef Braux on lowering cholesterol. He’s a Frenchman who trained as a chef in France but then went over the pond where he has had several businesses. His first solo venture in the States, Amandine French bakery and café sadly flopped. As he says wryly: alas, a good chef does not necessarily make a good businessman. He has since moved in a nutritherapist direction, and it’s these principles underlying this book. Nutritherapists work with food, and food only, to help their clients improve their health. Braux believes that most modern degenerative diseases are a result of bad basic nutrition. And he’s probably right. So his book is a practical guide – a nutrition/cookbook hybrid. And he knows what he’s talking about. He lowered his own cholesterol by 35 points in the space of a year.

There are a lot of similarities with the other two books in the form of the apparent fundamental underlying paradox that French cooking is actually healthy, and there are tips on avoiding junk food and taking more time over meals. His recipes are based on healthy food preparation methods such as blanching, poaching and stir frying. No deep frying here. Or microwaving. Microwave ovens shouldn’t be allowed, says Braux!

All three books have slightly eccentric viewpoints but give an interesting take on French cuisine, and the idea of healthy eating is one it’s foolish to ignore. Plenty of food for thought in each one. (And check out my earlier blog post on David Lebovitz’ cookery book.)

(The books are available in non-Kindle format too. But go on, treat yourself to a Kindle. You’ll love it!)