Quick Taste of Haute Touche

We are just back in from a fabulous day out – our first for a couple of years we think, seriously. Boy, do we need a holiday! Anyway, we went up to the parc animalier at Haute Touche in Indre. I’ll write about it properly tomorrow, but in the meantime here are a few teasers. Make sure you come back to my blog to find out …

… what this ostrich is doing …

… and what animal this is …

… andwhat Caiti and Rors are looking at …

… and where Rors got these antlers from.

So see you again very soon. And just to finish, my best photo of the day:

Debt Today and Yesterday

We have piles of old magazines here at Les Fragnes. And by old, I mean very old. Many are one hundred years old, some nearly one hundred and fifty. I have an ongoing dilemma of what to do with them. For now they can continue to gather dust and provide occasional inspiration for blog posts.

I accidentally knocked the November 1909 issue of Bonne Lectures off the pile upstairs just now, and so had quick glance through it when I picked it up. (I’ve looked at Bonnes Lectures before here. It’s noticeable that since April 1909  illustrations have been dropped. There’s only one in the whole journal which makes it look rather dull. It seems to be rather more serious too.) A quick paragraph about the national debt of European countries caught my eye. How do those figures compare with today’s, I wondered. So I’ve chosen a few of the countries to compare.


First up France. In 1909 the dette globale (national debt) was 30,350 million francs. For useful comparisons, I needed to convert that to euros with today’s purchasing power. My brain refused to co-operate at first as I attempted to work this out from assorted tables I came across online. http://www.histoire-genealogie.com/spip.php?article398 But then I found a formula saying that a franc in 1910 was worth €2.69 in 2006.  This is close enough for the purposes of my quick analysis. So, 1909’s debt equals €81,641,500,000. The population in 1909 was 39 million, so that gave a debt per capita of 780 fr, the equivalent today of 2,098 euros.

Now, INSEE, the statistical body in France, reckons that France’s national debt at the end of the first quarter in 2011 was 1 646,1 milliard (billion i.e. 1,000 million) euro. France’s population in 2009 was just under 63 million, giving a debt per capita of            €26,129. The national debt has increased twenty-fold, but per capita only twelve-fold because of the increased population.

Quick look at Great Britain. In 1909 it had debt of 19,530,000,000 francs for its population of 43 million. This equates to €52,535.7 million euro and a debt per capita of €1,221. Today the unadjusted measure of public sector net debt £2,252.9 billion i.e. €2,569.5 billion. The UK’s population is around 62,300,000 so this gives us €41,244 per head. Britain is in a lot worse financial state than France.

Let’s just throw Belgium very quickly into the equation as well. Belgium had 3.28 billion francs of debt for its 6.5 million inhabitants in 1909, equating to €1,345 per head. Today it’s €31,560 per head, 342 billion euros in total. Ouch.

I won’t go into the reasons for today’s debt levels. But Bonnes Lectures had no doubts at all as to what was causing it 102 years ago. It was because of the godless régime that was ruling and under which France was dying. There was more crime, more ignorance of religious truth, a deterioration in people’s souls, as well as this increasing level of debt which everyone was having to pay for in their taxes. A link between debt and society’s morals? Now that’s something to think about.




How NOT To Leave Your Drive and Survive Accommodation

Well, seen everthing now! This is how we found the fishing cabin this morning, after the group of lads that had rented it for a week left. When they arrived it was spotless. Clients are asked to leave the facilities as they found them.

Anyone out there in the hospitality trade will sympathise, I’m sure. It’s a bit of a dog’s life at times. But what can you do? We have to make a living somehow. However, you do expect to be treated with respect.

First up, the sink. I haven’t yet investigated closely enough to discover whether the goo has been predigested.

They couldn't even do their own washing up

Next, the oven.

Table and floor. We provide a broom.

Gas fridge:

Bin we provide to put glass bottles into for recycling:

They were provided with a water container. This is what they did to it. They also ripped the table cloth up.

I don’t think I need to say anything else, do I?


A Bad, Sad Bastille Day

I’m writing this at 3 am. Can’t sleep. Yesterday was a Bad Day. It started off OK in the morning. We went for a family bike ride. We headed into Tercillat, and then took a road we’d never been along before. Along it we came across the steepest hill we’ve met in France in five years … and this, at a place called St Paul.

From the front it looks like a church doesn’t it?

But from the side – barn. So what is it?

It’s both. It’s a barn, and it’s a chapel. Mass is held there every year on St Paul’s day (25th January). I got the information from this website.

Slightly further up the road is a tiny baroque chapel too.

We came across sunflowers. Some looked at us –

some turned their backs!

The rest of the morning was fine too. I had a chilly swim (it’s been a cool July on the whole), and everyone else pottered, and then we had dinner. So when did things go wrong?

The farmer turned up to harvest his crops in the big field. He brought a large entourage with him and one chum parked his car in our garden. Literally. This was ridiculous given that we have a large parking area in front of the houses which was empty apart from our two cars. Chris dealt with that, but our backs were up. Then came a procession of other cars for no clear purpose, hurtling down our drive way too fast. We’ll be putting in speed bumps asap. Axel, the farmer’s son, came to play with Ruadhri, but my youngest son decided to choose then to have a monster tantrum and be remarkably unpleasant. He can be a real handful at times. He ended up being sent to bed. That was exhausting and stressful, so much so that I even did some spring cleaning in the kitchen. I don’t usually voluntarily tidy up. I was clearly in a state.

But the worst was in the evening. The farmers had driven the combine and tractors up from the big field, past the houses and up to another field behind the top lake. But then an hour later they all rumbled back. Not expecting this I’d put the cats back outside. We’d had them indoors with us during the afternoon. Very sadly Mr Smith, the male white kitten out of the four strays Caiti found a month or so ago, was hit and killed. We don’t know exactly when, but we know by whom. One of our anglers had come up for a shower and saw him on the driveway, after the farmers had gone. The kids were distraught, as were Chris and I too. We’re not soppy about animals. You can’t be when you keep livestock.  But this was rotten and unnecessary. Mr Smith was a harmless, happy little animal who hadn’t deserved that.

The only reason the farmers drove their wretched machines back was to park them in the big field overnight, close to the houses for security. I mean, seriously, how likely is a combine to be stolen?

Anyway, we’ve had enough. It’s our farm, our land. The farmers don’t have to turn it into a motorway at harvest time and they can darned well respect our property and our animals. We won’t let Edouard grow any more cereals in that field. It was a favour, but not any more. We’re not having the combine close to the houses again. It can hardly get along the drive or round the corner between our house and the barn anyway.

Live and learn.

How appropriate that I’d taken this photo of one of the tractors before the incident occurred. See the name on the white label?

Goodbye Mr Smith.

Mr Smith with his brother and sisters sitting on Chris in happier times


Tour de France Publicity Caravan Trivia

Skoda sponsor the TdF and provide 300 vehicles for it each year

This year, 2011, the caravan, a 45-minute long procession, consists of :

  • 160 crazy vehicles
  • 600 people
  • 33 brand names
  • 16 million freebies
  • 12 gendarmes
  • 4 traffic regulator motorcyclists
  • 3 medical cars


A couple of other facts. Each advertiser invests between €200,000 to € 500,000. And 39% of spectators only come to see the caravan!


The idea of the publicity caravan began in 1930.  It was actually the idea of Paul Thévenin, publicity manager for Menier chocolate. He put his proposal to Henri Desgrange, tour organiser, who immediately say a good way of raising money for his sporting spectacle. In that first year, Menier gave out chocolate bars and half a million policeman’s hats printed with the company name. The Vache Qui Rit was another of the first advertisers who joined in.

At one time anything went. There used to be motorcycle acrobatics and accordionists on vehicle rooftops but such excesses have been curbed these days in the interests of health and safety! However, the vehicles pass by at speeds of up to 60 kmph and some of the stuff they throw out is fairly solid. We’ve come home with bruises on our shins before now as packs of cards or samples of sausage have thwacked into them. But no pain, no gain.

People soon cottoned on to this nice idea of getting a free gift from someone passing by in a decorated vehicle, and more spectators come out to see the Tour de France. These days it’s an integral part of the Tour. It helps pass the long wait for the cyclists, and who doesn’t like getting something for nothing. I totted up the potential savings from coupons I got, and they come to €121,50 if I use them all. And that’s on top of all the hats, bags, keyrings, notebooks, food samples, newspapers, pens, bookmarks and silly stuff we got. Pas mal!

Giant biscuits!

Briquettes to Burn and Bastille Day Bunting

It’s summer, so time to be organising our winter fuel. We’ve started chopping and splitting logs again, and now Ruadhri is making his contribution. He’s in charge of producing paper briquettes. We continually accumulate scarily ridiculous amounts of paper – the dreaded ‘pub’ that comes every Tuesday, newspapers (but no News of the Worlds), magazines, sugar and flour bags, flyers and letters. I store this all now and we use it to make briquettes. Because they take so long to dry, briquette manufacture is a job for when the sun is hot and strong.




I bought the maker from my Blancheporte catalogue for €9.99. What you have to do is tear up paper into smallish pieces, damp them in a bucket or bowl and then fill the briquette mould with them.

There’s a separate metal squishing part that you put onto the mould above the paper. Then you push the handles down, and they’re designed to press against the squishing thing and push the water out.

We have to give Rors a hand with this as it takes a lot of force. These days we also sit a brieze block on top of the briquette maker for a while to expel even more water.

And voila, a briquette. I usually tie string around them as they can flake apart when they’re dry.

Now we leave them to dry and then store them in the woodshed until we need them. Each one takes roughly three newspapers so there’s a good, solid body of burnable fuel in there. They’re good at helping a fire to get going. It’s a very sensible way for us to recycle all our paper. The very shiny stuff doesn’t work well, so that goes to the local à papiers at Bussière St Georges.

Thursday 14th July is Bastille Day in France. It’s one of the few public holidays that is pretty much 100% i.e. everything shuts. Here is some festive guillotine bunting I knitted. Grisly but cool I think!

Here’s the pattern if you’d like to make your own. I’m a bit late posting it for you to make some for this year, but you can always keep it stored safely for next year.

Bastille Bunting

I used DK wook (worsted) and 4 mm needles, but anything will do! Cast on 2 sts. Row 1: k, k. Row 2: p, p. Row 3: incr, k. Row 4: p. Continue increasing in this way i.e. on just the one side, until you have 21 sts. But around the 10 st mark, using red wool introduce a random, blood spatter pattern on the blade side (the diagonal one) over the next 10 rows or so. When you have your 21 sts, work 14 rows. Next row, eyelet  row – **slip 1, k3, psso** rpt to end. Next row: **p2, yfd, p1*** rpt to end. Knit two further rows then cast off. Even though I blocked my guillotines, they kept curling a bit so I made reversed shaped ones and sewed them together in pairs, right sides out with a neat overstitch seam.  Knit as many as you can bear and hang them up on a string for a real French festive touch on Bastille Day!


Sea and Tulips in Creuse – Frédéric Fortanier’s Art at Prébenoît

Frédéric Fontanier with his amazing paintings

During my last visit to the Boussac Tourist Office, I picked up a flyer advertising an art expo at Prébenoit Abbey. It was intriguingly entitled ‘Mer et Tulipes’ (sea and tulips), but it was only a couple of days later that I looked at it properly. And suddenly the artist’s name leapt out at me – Frédéric Fortanier. We know Frédéric! He and his lovely family stayed at our gîte three times while they were renovating their new home at nearby La Cellette. And we’d seen him just a couple of days ago, and he was too modest to mention that his art was on display.

So, I leapt in the car, together with Caiti, and we drove off to Prébenoît Abbey. Now, this is an interesting place. Its name has come from Pré Béni – blessed field. It was established in the twelfth century, in the middle of a dense forest that was mentioned in various old charters. The monks who founded it, craved real hardship and poverty – a totally virtuous monastic life. They built the abbey and cultivated crops and vegetables in the surrounding land that they cleared. They fished in the stream and raised animals too. Jean de Brosse, who restored Boussac Castle, is buried there. The last monk died in the 1790s, and the local villagers used the stone from some of the buildings for their houses. However, in the late twentienth century, the decision was made to restore the place to its former glory, an ongoing operation. But the place has come to life again with exhibitions, such as Frédéric’s, guided visits and other events going on there.

Back to Frédéric’s art. It’s wonderful. As you walk into the display room in the abbey, the pictures jump out at you from the walls. They’re vibrantly colourful and dramatic. I’d never have thought tulips could be so exciting! There were so many varied styles of painting too. Frédéric explained that he liked to try out different ideas and techniques. But there’s nearly always purple there somewhere. I remarked on this, because I love the colour purple, and it turns out Frédéric does too.

The largest painting was a triptych of the sea. This was both soothing and exciting to look at. Again, there were so many colours intermingled – black, shades of blue, aquamarine, white, greens, and of course, purple. This painting is heading to an exhibition in Florence soon. Frédéric has numerous other displays coming up in Holland, other parts of France, London and Italy. I’m not surprised. These are paintings by a very talented artist that are well worth seeing.

Frédéric is enthusiastic about his art, and you can see his enjoyment in the paintings. They are buoyant and optimistic, like the artist himself.



The exhibition continues from 14th to 17th July at the Abbey, from 15h to 19h. If you can possibly go, then do. He has a website here.  Treat  yourself and have a browse.


Tour de France Action in Creuse

We have had a brilliant morning watching the Tour de France.

We woke up to rain, which was a blow. We wanted the rain, we’ve been praying for it – but not today! However, it dried up shortly before we set off at just after 10 am to claim our spot for watching the spectacle, after a quick face painting session.

Caiti's loyalties are split 3 ways - Ireland, France and the UK

We had to get off our bikes at the junction of the D2 and D97. At first the gendarme there didn’t seem to want to let us get past at all, but we told him firmly we would walk our bikes along the road. He wasn’t happy but he let us past. As soon as we were out of sight, we hopped on again and zoomed down to a good viewing point.

First past was one of the official merchandise vans.

I invested €20 in one of the kits. I’ll be amazed if the Tour de France ever comes so close to us again, so it was a celebration. Here’s what I got …

… not forgetting the tee-shirt too!

Cars and motorbikes, mainly gendarmes who all looked rather smug, roared past at intervals. Then came the caravan. This is brilliant! Everyone shouts and cheers and waves, and then jumps nimbly out of the way as the freebies come flying.

Ruadhri was thrilled to see the Smurf lorry, dishing out Smurf sweets!

I think this Banette one was my favourite.

Banette threw out clicky-clacky things, which are awesome!

The caravan took about half an hour to go by, and then came the waiting time. However, it wasn’t boring. In just ten minutes, 80 cars and 3 motorbikes went by. What most of these vehicles are actually contributing to the Tour I have no idea. I think a lot of people in them are there on a corporate junket. But they’re jolly and wave as they go by, so it’s fun.

Five helicopters buzzed past, a sure sign the cyclists are close by, a wave of more gendarme motorcyclists smirked by, and then, about ten minutes ahead of schedule, the cyclists arrive. First came the breakaway group of nine riders.

A couple of minutes later the peloton zoomed by. I only managed to get one photo as they passed, it was that quick. I’ve got Geraint Thomas in this shot.

The last cyclist went by and then some more team cars and finally the broom wagon. And it was all over.

It’s a breathless spectacle, very exciting but over way too fast. However, we had a ball and came home with all our goodies, apart from the ones we’d eaten at the time (mini-sausages, savoury nibbles and madeleines, all delicious). Here’s about half our haul.

The only naff items were the portable ashtrays from Bic, but if we were smokers I’m sure we’d be very appreciative.

Caitlin is going to try and get a job with the caravan next year. It would be a great way to spend three weeks of her summer. I’ve suggested she becomes one of the mini-sausage-distributers. She could accidentally drop her sackful as she goes past us, because we’ll be there somewhere along the route I hope!

Tour de France Build-Up

There’s a great atmosphere in Nouzerines and Boussac. People are definitely excited about the Tour de France passing through tomorrow. I was in the Tourist Office in Boussac very briefly this morning, and Pascale took two calls about it while I was there, and she wasn’t officially open yet! There were piles of crowd barriers around the place, waiting to be put up and lots of signs about traffic and parking restrictions.

This afternoon we’ve just been for a ride around Nouzerines to see how preparations are coming on. First up, there’s a nice big banner about our church restoration at the crossroads.

Outside the Auberge is a rather fancy yellow Tour de France flag.

There are crowd barriers by the church, which someone has decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper flowers.

Up at the junction on the D2, all the road signs have been raised up (and in Nouzerines too – something to do with preventing them causing crashes perhaps?) and a Sylvain Chavanel fan has added his name to the bicycle hanging from the wooden sign.

Further along the D2 towards Tercillat is this smashing hay-bale, cycling shirt and bicycle structure. Isn’t it cool?

We’re looking forward to tomorrow. We’ve picked our spot along the D2 and eyed up a few TDF official bright green arrows that won’t be missed after the race is over. Caiti is making signs to wave and planning a face-painting design to do on us all.

Vive le Tour de France!

A Raw Milk Distributor That Doesn’t Go Moo

Caiti and I went to do the food shopping – groan – at Super-U at La Châtre today.

“Oh cool,” says Caiti as we drive into the car park. “There’s one of those unpasteurised milk machines.”

Photo from the Berry Echo - the machine at Super-U

I am clearly way out of touch. I had no idea these things existed. Anyway, we got our trolley and went over for a look. Sure enough, it was a vending machine for raw milk. It all seemed to be incredibly complicated to start with. It looked like we would have to buy a minimum of some sort of key and 8 litres of milk for 10 euro. That seemed a tad over the top, unless we wanted to go into cheese production. Then Caiti worked out that you could buy an empty plastic bottle for 20 cents, and she found the part where the milk is actually dispensed. It wasn’t clear how much it was or exactly how it worked, so we poked around for a few more minutes and then went off to fill the trolley with food that will be gone within days/hours/minutes depending on how hungry the teens are. Super-U is being reorganised or refurbished or possibly even completely rebuilt at the moment. Chunks of the shop are sectioned off and there’s a real din of drills and bangs and crashes. It’s quite noticeable that when shops do this running conversion work, a lot of the cheaper lines disappear off the shelves since space is at a premium. The expensive stuff stays out though!

I decided to use up my 5 years’ worth of accumulated loyalty points to get a free gift. Caiti and I decided on a wicked looking hand blender with an assortment of attachments. Think of all the pumpkin soup I’ll be able to make with it! (Family joke that needs explaining – the kids would frankly rather starve than eat their dad’s pumpkin soup, which both he and I are addicted to. Pumpkins rock!) Sadly it’s not in stock so I’ll collect it next time we hit the shop.

Caiti cadged 20 cents off me while I was unloading the car to go and play with the raw milk machine. Now, this particular one has been in place since November 2010. It was put there by two farming brothers, Jérome and Charlie Chaumette, who live close by at Sazeray. However, the driving force was Corinne Bouriaud, the manager of Super-U. She’d come across such a machine elsewhere (there are around one hundred of them so far in France) and she thought it would be a good additional service for her shop to offer. So she advertised and the Chaumette brothers saw a golden opportunity. They invested in the special distributeur (vending machine). Every morning they put 150 litres of fresh milk into the machine, where it’s kept refrigerated. (There are extremely tight hygiene regulations that they have to meet.) Lait cru (unpasteurised milk) is 46% fat, but you wouldn’t think so to taste it. It’s light and refreshing, and definitely different from treated milk. With a bit of help from a passing lady, Caiti had worked out how everything worked and had half a litre of raw milk in a bottle by the time I joined her.

It’s a win-win situation all round. The farmers get paid a sensible amount for their milk, customers get top quality milk the old-fashioned way in a place that’s easy to access, and Super-U attracts some more customers through its doors.

I’m glad Caiti came with me today. I made a fascinating discovery. I must stop walking around with my eyes shut.