Wall to Wall Walnuts

Just some of the walnuts waiting to be processed

We are wading through walnuts here at the moment. There’s a bumper crop this year and Chris and I collecting vast quantities every morning during our cycle rides. So far we’ve brought back four full rucksackfuls of them, and not all the trees are ready yet. There are definitely different varieties out there, some earlier to ripen than others. I’m spending my evenings watching the Tour of Britain cycling on TV and cracking them open. It’s important to get the nuts out as soon as possible. We’re picking ours up off the ground so most of them are damp. Unless they dry out quickly, the shells start to go mouldy and this spreads to the nut inside and ruins it. And it’s good exercise. Creuse walnuts have very hard shells!

Walnuts are amazingly good for you.  They contain omega-3 (94.6% of your daily requirement is found in 25 g of walnuts, manganese, copper, potassium, calcium and tryptophan. They’re fairly calorific at 163 per 25g, but it’s healthy fat in them, the sort that lowers your harmful LDL cholesterol levels.  And as I said the other day, calories are our friends! They also contain antioxidants. They’re said to be good for bone health too.

All in all, something of a superfood.

I freeze my walnuts once shelled and they keep very well that way. I put a couple of handfuls them into a recycled plastic bag (I save the plastic envelopes papers and magazines come in through the post) and pop them in the freezer immediately. I throw them in pretty much everything I cook. I’m particularly partial to walnut flapjacks. I feel a recipe coming on!

The bitter skin on walnuts is full of goodness

Walnut Flapjacks

250 g rolled oats

100g golden syrup

100g butter

100g walnuts – halves or chopped, whichever you prefer.

OK, melt the butter and golden syrup. I find 30 seconds in the microwave does the trick. Mix in the oats and walnuts. Pack firmly into a round baking tin (roughly 20 cm diameter) and back on a medium hot oven for 20 minutes until golden brown on the top.

I’m trawling the net looking for other walnut recipes to ring the changes. I’ve found a nice one for walnut pie here which I shall try this week. Pear and walnut chutney  looks awesome. And this one  for leek and goat’s cheese tart in walnut pastry is an absolute must.

I must go and get busy with the nutcrackers again. We haven’t even started gathering apples and pears yet, and they’ll need processing for the freezer quickly before they spoil, so I really need to get these nuts out of the way!




Electric Bed and a Fridge – Student Rooms French Style

I’m not kidding. Benj has an electric bed in his room! His accommodation is awesome. My eldest son has landed on his feet following the fiasco of him not sending in a deposit to secure his first choice of slightly cheaper Uni residence. The luck of the Irish I guess.

The view from Benj's pad

We got to La Borie in Limoges just after ten and went down to book Benj in properly. He’d carefully (this time!) gone through all the paperwork and we had everything organised. He handed in a typically French meaty dossier that called for photos, insurance document, photocopy of passport, bank account details, proof of parents’ earnings, various cheques etc etc. In return he got his badge, an RFID device that lets him in through his own door, plus the residence door and the kitchen door. (Benj is next door to the kitchen which is a good and bad thing. Could be a bit noisy but it’s certainly convenient.)

Benj has ensuite loo and shower

He’s up on the third floor so once we’d found the right building, we hurried up to investigate. It’s like a ferry cabin but very new and shiny. This block has just been refurbished and it shows. It’s excellent. It’s small, as you’d expect for a student room, but ingeniously incorporates a toilet/shower room, fridge, wardrobe, desk, chair, electric bed and plenty of shelf space. The bed was parked about a foot below the ceiling and above the desk.

Bed coming down ...

After pressing all the wrong ones first, we finally found the switch which operated the bed. It slowly descended, coming to rest on some wooden supports at either side of the room. It was now roughly a foot above the level of the desk. Steps, which cunningly double as drawers, lead up to it. Now how’s that entire bed set-up for space saving!

Nearly there now!

At Stirling Uni, where I spent a year doing a postgrad degree in Publishing Studies, our bed arrangement wasn’t so crafty. It was tucked half under the bookshelves on one side of the narrow room. To use it, you had to move the chair from under the workbench/desk at the window end of the room so that you had enough space to pull the bed out a foot or so. It did perfectly, even if it meant you couldn’t swing a cat, but not quite such a neat arrangement as Benj’s electric powered rising and descending bed.

There's even a freezer compartment and ice-cube maker!

The fridge is huge. I managed four years hanging my milk and other perishables out of the window. Benj won’t need to, and probably as well since he’s very high up! It’s a luxurious finish to a super room. He’s got a nice view out over the city of high rise flats, trees and hills. I bet it’s pretty at night. He’s not too close to the road, but it’s a city so there’s traffic noise. He’ll soon tune in. All we hear here are owls and cat fights at night (Voltaire keeps picking fights with our senior cats). It’s a real change of scene for Benj but one he’s been looking forward to for ages and which he’s thrilled with.

Steps-cum-drawers on the right

We all cried when we said goodbye. It’s a big upheaval. Benj is basically leaving home now. We’ll see him for hols, of course, but he’s really moved on from us. He’s well ready for it. My last view of him today was of him heading down towards the residences, striding out purposefully into his new life, unfettered (but still financed!) by his parents.


Ruadhri came along with us today and I’m glad he did. He had lots of tearful hugs with his big brother when it was time to go, which helped him adjust and realise fully what’s going on. He’s used to Benj being away Monday to Friday. He understands now that Benj won’t be home till Christmas this time. They’re big buddies, Benj and Rors, so it’s going to be tough to start with.

Now I feel tearful again! I miss my good-natured, kind, jokey son. He’s a wonderful human being. But it’s time for me to let go so the rest of the world can find out just how great he is.

Pass me a tissue please …

Pasta as Currency – Meet the Kipastalo

Here is our new unit of currency. The kilo of pasta which, for want of a better word, we’ll call the kipastalo.

Let me explain. Eldest son Benj is off to Uni and will be self-catering on a regular basis. His plan is to live on pasta since it’s one of the few things he can cook. We’ve offered to broaden his culinary repertoire many times and show him how to cook curries and cakes and pies, but he’s always declined, citing an undying love for pasta.

This kilo of pasta cost 89 cents at Super-U. I think it’s probably cheaper at Leclerc and Leader Price, but we’ll go with this value for the time being for our kipastalo. Benj is getting a grant to (in theory) live on. This would buy him 489 kilos of pasta per month, assuming this is all he buys. But of course it won’t be. He will have to sacrifice 241 bags of pasta to pay his monthly rent, 67 more than necessary since he could only get one of the more expensive student rooms. (See this post for the story of his accommodation crisis.) He’s 4 km away from campus (also due to this accommodation crisis). We can’t fit his bike in the car with all his other stuff so he’ll to manage a few weeks without it and either take the bus or walk. This will eat into his kipastalos, around 10 kilos or so a week I would think, either in the form of bus fares or en-route snacks. And Benj is a tea addict so he’ll be paying around 10 kipastalos a month for teabags, sugar and milk. We’ve suggested he gets one meal at the cantine on campus every day, a massive hit of around five kipastalos five times a week. Literally round the corner from campus is a Quick hamburger restaurant. A burger meal with trimmings would set him back ten kipastalos. Maybe he can treat himself every Saturday.

He’s been to two freshers’ week lectures and came out mentioning there were some nice looking girls. A girlfriend will probably cost 10 kipastalos a month in the form of extra shower gel and toothpaste consumed while preparing for dates, plus coffees and treats while out and about.

And there will be the running costs of toilet rolls, tissues, washing powder, washing up liquid etc etc, or at least I hope there will. I’ve kitted him out with several months’ worth (possibly the whole year) but we’ll ignore that for now and say it will cost Benj 5 kipastalos to keep his flat hygienic. Oh yes, and he’ll probably need some books, paper etc too, so that’s another 20 kipastalos gone per month. And I guess we should allow another 20 for sundries.

What does that leave us? I make it 33 kipastalos. Not even our Benj can eat 33 kilos of pasta a month, so it’s looking hopeful that he’ll survive studenthood and even have a little bit of money left at the end of it! Maybe.

We’ll all miss our Benj, of course we will, and Ruadhri more than most as the two boys are very close, despite their ten year age gap. Here’s a nice pic of the two of them I took today. But I know Benj will have a blast a Uni and make the most of the opportunity. And we’ll go and visit a few times each term, assuming he’ll let us!


And So The Meetings Begin …

There was a meeting at Ruadhri’s school Tuesday night so that we parents could get a look at the new teacher and hear what she plans to do to/with our kids this year. I’ve already had a minor skirmish with her over pochettes plastiques in the form of notes to each other in Ruadhri’s cahier de liaison. I said I wouldn’t buy any and she said well, in that case, we’d just have to put sheets of paper in Ruadhri’s folder as they are, and so there.  I guess I won that round.

Anyway, tonight I was hampered by a headache which has been hanging around for a couple of days – annoyingly I’m a headachey person – so I wasn’t 100% focussed on what she was saying. I think I got the gist, though. She’s quite a stickler for neatness and tidiness which isn’t good news for our Rors whose writing has always been dire. Its total ruin came when the previous teacher but one insisted the kids used a stylo plume (fountain pen) for writing with, but didn’t give them any guidance on how to hold the damn thing. I soon discovered Rors was holding his upside down and we’ve been battling ever since to sort his writing out. He won’t listen to me or Chris, of course, and still wouldn’t, even if we were the only other two people left alive with him. Hopefully this teacher will sort things out. Otherwise Rors will just have to become a doctor where his illegibility will be a big boon!

There was an absence of text books, which I didn’t pick up on at the time owing to feeling fragile. I asked Rors about them when I got back home, and he said cheerily that teacher couldn’t afford any.  Oh no. Another year of photocopies in blurry shades of grey. The school also can’t afford classroom assistants. Up to now there’d been two at St Marien. This year teacher will be relying on parental help so she can take the kids on outings. There are only a relative few of us who are home-based during the day, either through self-employment like Chris and I, or because of family commitments, and thus available to help corral kids safely into and out of coaches and various concerts, sporting competitions etc. But how can a school not afford books? Or staff? Those are kind of the key things, surely?

When I’m back with it properly, I’ll have to poke around and find out what’s really going on.

Giveaway news to finish with. Pat won the llama yarn goodie which I was offering to celebrate Wool Week. Sorry you couldn’t all win, but I’ll have more giveaways soon, so hopefully you’ll get something eventually. And you can all get a free copy of Oh Gran from Smashwords in any ebook format you want.

Off for another paracetamol and then I shall watch the windswept Tour of Britain.


Books and Cooking Cupcakes

First up, great excitement on the book front. Do please give Books Are Cool a quick look. You’ll see that I’ve published a free book on Smashwords, now that I’ve finally got to grips with the formatting required to upload your material to the Meatgrinder that converts it.  So grab yourself a copy of Oh Gran! in whatever ebook format you prefer.

Retrieving lost sheep keeps you fit, believe me!

On to non-booky but equally weighty matters. Recent guests at the gite left us a packet of Weight Watchers lemon cupcake mix. Yum! I decided to make that up today. I don’t buy diet products. None of us here at Les Fragnes need them. It’s amazing how chasing sheep, rounding up wandering poultry, chopping wood, gardening, maintaining lakes and  springcleaning the gite from top to bottom once a week on changeover day keeps you fit. Oh, not forgetting the daily cycle rides and increasingly chilly swims in the pool. We need our nosh in this house. Calories are our friends. Plus that slight extra layer of blubber, should there be one, helps keep the Creuse winter out.




But I thought I’d give these cupcakes a go. I opened the packet and discovered 12 of the tiniest cupcake cases I’d ever seen. They were petit fours cases. I looked at the box again. I’d missed the word ‘mini’ in relation to the cupcakes first time round. But mini? These were microscopic. I began to make up the cake mix as directed, adding 30 ml of water to the contents. This left me with a teeny tiny smear of cake batter in the bottom of the bowl. This wasn’t food for farmers, or anyone really, and it certainly wasn’t worth putting in the oven.

I stashed the micro-cupcake-cases into the drawer for a rainy day and improvised with the cake mix. I chucked in another 300 or so grams of flour and added a good slosh of milk, full fat of course. Then for good measure I opened the packet of icing mix that came in the kit, and which was substantially bigger than the cake mix packet, and threw that in too. I stirred it all for a while, poured it into a pie dish and cooked it until it was nice and golden.  Much better.

Now, this is something worth eating!

Mini cupcakes makeover!

Stop Press – New Cover Story

I was writing a blog about packing for going away to Uni, since that is what our Benj is busily not doing at the moment and he should be, but this arrived in the latest batch of email. Here is the superb cover artwork for Heads Above Water, my forthcoming travel narrative about moving to France and our first couple of years here. The website to go to with the ebook is under construction here so take a quick peek.

For those of you who’ve never met the Dagg family, you get a very good idea of what we look like from this picture. The extremely talented Roger Fereday who drew this wonderful illustration knows us very well and he’s captured us perfectly. I love how he’s added the two houses, the distinctive water tower that we see in the distance from our farm and the two special features about our lives in France, namely the carp and the token llama to represent our every-growing herd of assorted camelids. It couldn’t be more ‘us’.

Lots more news coming about Heads Above Water soon Very soon. But for now, simply enjoy this perfect cover.


Dog Butt Fruit

OK, what fruit is being described in this eighteenth-century snippet: “A fruit, vulgarly called an open arse; of which it is more truly than delicately said, that it is never ripe till it is as rotten as a turd, and then it is not worth a fart.”

If it’s any help, the French call it cul du chien – dog’s butt.

Any the wiser? No? Well, it’s medlar fruit (nèfle). Here’s one we picked the other day, not knowing what it was. We picked three or four. We found them growing in a hedgerow along a lane during one of bike rides. After a quick bit of research on the Net I worked out that we had medlars.

Medlars are old-fashioned fruits, like quinces. (We picked some quinces, coings, up off the road too during the same bike ride.) They are strange looking things, although I can’t really see the dog butt likeness, and what’s stranger is that you can’t eat them until they’re actually rotting, or ‘bletting’. That’s not a massively appealing thought, but apparently you can also make medlars usable by freezing them for a few hours and then thawing them out. They’ll be all mushy without having rotted first. I prefer the sound of that.

I intend to make medlar jelly once we’ve picked some more. After freezing and thawing, I’ll cut them into chunks, simmer them for three hours just covered in water and then drain them through cheesecloth overnight. Mix in an equal quantity of sugar, and then simmer again until it gels. This is the same method that you can use for quince jelly. Medlar jelly is said to be delicious, very rich and aromatic. I can’t wait to try it. And I’ve also come across a recipe for roasting them with butter and cloves which is tempting too.

Medlar trees are slow growing and their wood is very fine grained and strong. Because of its hardness, it’s been used for making spears and windmill parts in the past! The Basque people traditionally made Makhilas from them. These are a combination of a walking stick and defensive weapon and they were engraved with special symbols while the wood was still growing.

Here’s the entire haul of our bike ride. It’s all I could fit into my bar bag. I don’t have a rack for panniers on my bike, and Chris is currently riding his old Bill Cuss racing bike since his mountain bike has finally given up the ghost after nearly 20 years hard riding. That bike is rackless as well, and neither of us thought to bring a rucksack for roadside goodies. That won’t happen again though. It’s the free hedgerow bounty  season so we’ll be taking full advantage. There’s an incredible amount of walnuts on the trees this year, and I’ve never seen so many apples and pears either. Several trees have lost branches due to the sheer weight of the fruit on them.  The early hot weather and dry summer seems to have suited them well, to my surprise. And also my delight!


Wool Week and Giveaway!

I’ve discovered rather late in the day that it’s wool week. It will end on 11th September, so I’m only getting in on the act with 48 hours to go. Prince Charles has been instrumental in getting Wool Week underway. He began a campaign for wool in January 2010, to help sheep farmers who, at the time, were making a loss on fleeces. It cost them more to shear their sheep than they could get from selling the wool, which was of course an utterly ridiculous state of affairs. The Prince’s campaign is about promoting British and Commonwealth wool, emphasising how much better this natural product is than artificial fibres. It’s a shame the rest of the Windsors aren’t also as active in helping various sectors of industry and the population.

Just by chance, though, despite not knowing it was the week to celebrate the stuff, I bought some beautiful wool in Limoges on Thursday. There happens to be a wool shop called Point Laine between Benj’s campus and the city centre. I popped in on Thursday. It’s not in the smartest part of town and it could do with a lick of paint on the outside, but inside it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of knitters’ delights. It’s run by a young fella who really knows his yarns. He was able to tell me all about his various sock yarns, which is what I’d specifically gone in after. However, he has a fantastic stock of all sorts of thicknesses and types of yarns that I’ve never seen before, so I can tell I’ll be calling in there every time I visit Benj! (But Pip, I’ll be back to buy more wool off you too, promise!)

There have been lots of Wool Week activities going on in the UK – markets, knit-ins and farm visits, for example. Some wool companies have been giving free patterns away. You can find out lots more by visiting this website. It’s not too late!

And to join in with celebrating Wool Week, I’m giving away one of these. It’s a handknitted (by me!) llama USB key cover in 100% llama yarn. I designed the pattern too. Leave a comment to this post with your email. Ruadhri will pull names from a hat for me at 9pm French time on Monday 12th and I’ll get in touch with the winner. How exciting – my first giveaway! Do take part.

Limoges Revisited

I was back in Limoges again on Thursday for the second of Benj’s freshers’ week lectures. As I mentioned here, these have started before the students can get into their accommodation, meaning a lot of parents are having to do a lot of running around. It only seemed like yesterday since I’d last been there – probably because it was! Anyway, I had my camera this time, slightly better weather and I was a bit less achey. (I’m fighting off some ghastly child-introduced virus, the sure sign that school has started again.) I also found a slightly quicker route into the city centre from the campus, and the car didn’t try to commit suicide on the drive up, so all in all, it was better trip all round.

First up, here is one of the history lesson street name plaques I was telling you about yesterday.

On the subject of signs and names, I passed this fine, empty building on my walk today. It has the name ‘Ecole Normale d’Institutrices’ carved over the door. Literally this means ‘Normal Teacher School’. This got me wondering where the ‘abnormal’ version was?

Actually, the name just translates as ‘Teacher Training College’, as I’ve discovered since looking up about it online just now. Not quite so entertaining!

Into the city itself and I came across lots of timbered houses in the Motte area. They contrast strikingly with the modern architecture around them.

There are some very old, very narrow streets to be seen.

The old chapel of St Aurelien is dwarfed by the buildings around it. Isn’t it exquisite?

Very close by was the Place de la Barreyrrette – and the strange spelling is correct. This particular area of the old city is where the butchers were concentrated. The Place de la Barreyrrette is where the animals were assembled for slaughter, up until the municipal abattoir was built in 1832.

Next I passed a statue of St Martial …

… and then the Church of St Michel.

Here are his lions which stand outside the church. (They’re very nice, but not as nice as the lions at Toulx St Croix.)

Into Place de la Motte where the rather ugly Halles are. The original ones were burnt down in 1864, as you may remember from yesterday’s post. However, opposite them, it’s much more picturesque. There’s this wonderful trompe d’oeil. It’s known as the Fresque Cobaty, and it reflects elements of old and new Limoges.

This is Auguste Renoir and his model. I will have to check out the Limoges connection as the notice at the site was vague.

And lastly, before photo fatigue sets in, a photo of some famous Limoges enamel. There’ll be another blog soon about Limoges and its émailleurs – which doesn’t mean emailers, but enamellers.

But I must mention that I came home to find Wendy had spent the day sleeping in my handbag!




Great Fire of Limoges

I was in Limoges this morning. Benj had the first of his Freshers’ lectures which the University, UniLim as it calls itself, has thoughtfully started before the vast majority of the kids have access to their accommodation. Makes life a bit complicated. Anyway, we set off at 6.30 am this morning, ugh, and got there 2 hours later. We had an exciting journey down as the Renault’s windscreen wipers jammed while we were blasting along the busy A20 in the rain in the outside lane. It was pretty nerve wracking. If I were a cat, I’d be down to 8 lives I think! I got back into the inside lane and came off at the next junction, which fortunately wasn’t too far away. No sooner had I pulled into a layby than the wretched things started again. They’ve been fine ever since.

Victorien Sardou

Benj went off to his lectures so I walked into Limoges. It takes about half an hour on foot to get to the centre from Benj’s campus. I had a history  lesson on the way as the street signs tell you about the person that particular rue is named after. The French predominantly use famous persons or events as road names. So I walked along Rue Victorien Sardou (dramatist, academic 1831-1908), crossed, amongst others, rue Jeanne d’Arc (1412-31), went up Avenue François Perrin (teacher and Resistance martyr 1891-1942) and ended up in the Place de la Motte. There are interesting notices up at various places telling you about their history. At Place des Carmes you learned there had been a Carmelite monastery there. The Place de la Motte was the site of a medieval castle on a mott, and on 15 August 1864, the scene of the Great Fire of Limoges. It’s thought a firework let off at Champ de Juillet started the blaze. (August 15 is a public holiday in France, often celebrated with firework displays.) It quickly spread amongst the old timbered houses and destroyed 150 of them between the rue des Arènes (today’s rue Othon Péconnet where you’ll find Games Workshop – if you have teenage boys you’ll know how important that shop is!), the Place de la Motte, and the Place d’Aine. It also destroyed the original halles, market halls. The firemen did their best but couldn’t put the flames out with water, despite the nearest pump supplying them with 50 barrels of water, so had to resort to demolishing houses to make a fire break. The Emperor and Empress were very upset to hear about the disaster and sent the Préfet 15,000 francs to help towards costs. There don’t appear to have been any fatalities, amazingly but very fortunately.

Stupidly I left my camera at home so wasn’t able to take photos. My excuse is getting up too early. However, I’ll be back there tomorrow for Benj’s second morning of introductory talks, and I’ll be properly equipped this time. This south-western corner of Limoges is quite stunning, as you’ll soon see, with remarkable old buildings and tiny streets.

I imagine I’ll be seeing quite a lot of Limoges over the next three years while Benj is studying there. Caiti definitely will. She’s already planning on how to get there from her lycee Gueret to visit her brother and take in some city life. Not sure if Benj knows about her plans yet though …