Snow On Tuesday – It’s Cold In Creuse

I’m cancelling Cheese on Tuesday this week because of the snow. We’ve waited all winter for it, so now that it’s here, it’s time for a snowy blog. Boursin can wait yet another week!

Nessie surveys the scene

It’s not the snowiest it’s ever been here at Les Fragnes, but it’s pretty impressive. We were on vigilance orange (orange alert) for snow all of yesterday, but it didn’t start falling till we were walking back with Rors from Nouzerines around half past five last night. And it just kept going. Announcements were made online and on the radio in the evening that school transport was cancelled in Creuse for the 31st Jan so Ruadhri went to bed happy in knowing that he’d be skiving off next day.

Ruadhri in the snow

The animals have varying reactions. Nessie loves it. The young cats were wary at first and aren’t massively impressed but are taking it in their stride. Suddenly Wendy doesn’t look quite so white any more.

Wendy looks a bit grubby!

The camelids are being wimpy so far. They’ve been hanging around the stable and not venturing far. But that could have something to do with the new bale of hay we put out for them in there two days ago. Llamas and alpacas are equally greedy.

No one's going far

The chickens and turkeys don’t like snow. Limpy has found a cosy place to shelter.

Limpy Chick and Number 28

We had a walk round the big lake after we’d sorted out the livestock. The trees are beautiful down there.

And finally my attempt at an artistic shot!

Off to check out what the road is like next and then after dinner I think a bit of sledging is in order. Usually we sledge down the hill and out onto the frozen lake – great fun. However, the lake isn’t frozen yet so we need to remember to brake in time!

Stay safe and warm if you’re snowy too.

 

The Great Pig Experience

Today I have a guest post from Chris! He went on a pig-keeping course at the weekend and here’s what he has to say about it.

As visitors to our gite and fishing lakes will be aware, we are building up an old style farm with a selection of animals. OK, they didn’t have llamas on an old fashioned farm but that is another story). Currently we have llamas, alpacas, sheep, turkeys and  chickens and pets such as a dog, some cats and guinea pigs. Now we are planning to expand into old breed pigs. In preparation for this I attended a pig experience day held in Poitou-Charente by David  and Lorraine at Le Logis old breeds farm (www.lelogisfrance.com). Before this course I hadn’t been closer to a pig than the supermarket meat counter!

Berkshire pigs

It was an old fashioned drive across France. I say old fashioned because the centre of France has no east-west motorways, so it was a case of travelling from town to town like England in the 1960s. It took 3 ½ hours to drive 150Km west to Poitiers and then 30 minutes to drive the last 60km south on the motorway to arrive at the pretty Charentais farm. After coffee and introductions we went out to get hands-on experience, starting with feeding and maintenance. We tiptoed past one of the farrowing stalls where one of the sows had given birth to a litter the previous night. Lorraine explained how critical the first 24 hours were to the welfare of the new litter and Mum can be very touchy.

We first met the Berkshire pigs that Le Logis is becoming famous for and it was immediately obvious that these animals were a cut above any farm animals I’d met up to now.  The pig is rated the 4th most intelligent in the animal kingdom, only behind chimps, dolphins and elephants. The Berkshires trotted over to greet us, vocalizing amiably (it would be an understatement to just say grunting like in a childrens story). They tucked into their food and played around with the buckets afterwards. Lorraine explained that they loved to play with toys and that an overweight pig could be slimmed down with a toy that had some treats concealed within.

We topped up their shelters with straw and I was amazed at how clean and tidy they kept their sleeping quarters. I know some teenagers who could learn a thing or two from them (mentioning no names).

Gloucester Old Spots

Lorraine talked us through the various breeds that they have at the farm, not just Berkshires but Gloucester old spots and the rather fetching Oxford Sandy and Black, also known as the Plum Pudding pig!

All too soon it was time to drive back to Notaire’s but with plenty of time for planning where to raise the pigs; in the wooded section below the house lake where they could have a very naturalized life or should we use them to turn over the cereal field next to house where we could spend more time with them. Watch this space and I will keep you posted on our progress.

 

Rounding up an escapee

Snow White And The Seven Arts

A slightly snowy scene

OK, Snow White first. The first proper snow of this winter has started to fall. It’s rather slushy snow and I can’t see it hanging round long, but at least it’s snow. Rors is delighted, the youngest cats are puzzled, since it’s the first they’ve seen, and the chickens are decidedly unimpressed. They don’t like snow. I’m not fussed either way. So long as I can get a top-up food shop this afternoon and Chris can get back safely from his pig-keeping course tonight, then I don’t mind being snowed in for a while after that. We’ve come to expect that here in Creuse, at least for a week or so each year.

Now the Seven Arts. It’s the annual BD (comic book) festival at Angoulême this week. This is a massive event. Bandes dessinées (or bédés) are big business in France, bringing in around 350 million euros to publishers every year. (I’ve written a bit more about this on my Books Are Cool blog here.)

BDs are reckoned to be the neuvième art (ninth art). I’d heard cinema referred to as the septième art (seventh art) a few times but not been interested enough to find out more I’m ashamed to say. However, now that there’s a ninth one, it’s definitely time.

Poster for BD festival

Étienne Souriau, a French philosopher and aesthete who lived from 1892 to 1979, came up with the idea of the Seven Arts in 1969. He wrote about it in his famous book La Correspondance des arts, Eléments d’esthétique comparée. So what are they?

1. Sculpture and architecture

2. Drawing

3. Painting

4. Music

5. Dance and pantomime

6. Writing

7. Cinema.

Seven seemed to him quite enough at the time, and it’s as good a number as any. It’s popular for groups of things after all – the seven seas, seven colours of the rainbow, seven wonders of the world, seven days of the week, for example, not forgetting the seven odd socks in Ruadhri’s drawer. But we’re now up to eleven arts. Sauriou’s list has been augmented with:

8. Television (including radio and photography)

9. BDs

10. Bizarrely video games and model railways are lumped together, and

11. Multimedia.

To become an official member of the list, a particular art form has to stand the test of time and be popular with the public. However, I haven’t managed to find out who the bureaucrat officially charged with keeping the art list up to date is. There’s bound to be one somewhere.

It’s an interesting idea to classify the arts, and exemplifies the French need to categorise everything, but doesn’t seem to serve much practical purpose other than to give me something to blog about!

And a final non-related photo. Here’s Rors being given his yellow-white belt at judo last night after passing his grading.

 

 

 

Mystery Solved – Or Why Part Of My Fiat is Missing

You may recall that back in July last year I was totally, but delightedly, gobsmacked when my 10 year old, long suffering Fiat Stilo with its part-time electronic dashboard passed its Contrôle Technique. I think I may know why.

Now, you know how those 5 minute jobs never turn out to be 5 minute jobs? Today Chris wanted to charge up the Fiat’s battery. He’s heading off on a pig-keeping course tomorrow and will be away overnight and wanted to make sure my slightly unreliable car would be reliable enough to do the running around for a couple of days.

There used to be a handle there!

We went out to do the deed.

“Pop the hood,” says Chris.

So I felt for where I thought the handle was, but it wasn’t. Clearly I was having a premature senior moment, as they say. I got down on my knees outside on the gravel and hunted round the appropriate area of the car for the dratted thing.

By now, Chris was there, rolling his eyes and no doubt thinking unflattering thoughts about women in general and wives in particular.

But he couldn’t find it either. Anywhere. We looked at each other blankly. This was plain weird.

Since all else had failed, it was time to read the instructions. I got out the car manual. A very vague picture showed where the handle was meant to be. We finally hunted down the spot – and it was exactly where I’d first groped for the handle. There was now just a hole.

More trim removed - poor old car

The last time the bonnet had been seen open was when I’d collected the Fiat from the auto-contrôle centre. My car gets light usage so I hadn’t needed to go under the hood to top anything up since then. Now, the handle was there when the car went in for its test since we’d used it the day before. I’m guessing it wasn’t there when it came out. We suspect Monsieur was a bit heavy handed with my ageing car and pulled it off. I occasionally knock or pull things off the cars but I always own up, and I didn’t do it in this case. After 25 years of marriage I know how to get round Chris so he doesn’t stay mad for long! So I didn’t do it and neither of my two shiftless eldest kids have yet learnt to drive (short pause while I tear my hair out) so it wasn’t them. And I don’t think animals were involved.

It had to be Monsieur so it was presumably guilt that made him pass my car! I just wish he’d told us he’d had the mishap. We’d have understood that it was an accident. It would have meant that we could have got it fixed in a relaxed fashion and not in the rain. Gallic sigh.

Recharging at last

Anyway, we were stuck. We needed to open the bonnet but it looked like an impossible task. So we resorted to the Internet. Thanks to ShadyDude and a few other similarly named folks on some dodgy car-breaking-into websites, we got hints on what to do and finally got the bonnet open by alternative means. It involved Chris having to peel away yet more of the plastic trim inside my car (there’s not all that much left any more) and using pliers to move the mechanism that Heavy Handed CT guy had broken the handle off. But we did it, the battery is charged and my beloved little Stilo is back on the road.

I do like that car – it’s small, sleek, slightly scuffed and shabby since it’s seen better days and only prone to the occasional breakdown. It’s me in car form!

Favophilie – Fève Fever (Mad About Beans)

At last the unsold Galettes des Rois that filled the shops at the beginning of January for Twelfth Night celebrations have reached their sell-by dates and are being flogged off cheap. Time for the Dagg family to swoop! We love these frangipane pies, and I always do a homemade one for the day itself. The shop ones, retailing at around the €8 mark are definitely pricey. OK, they come with a cardboard crown and a fève (literally bean and this is what was used originally, but now they are actually a ceramic charm) in them, but that’s still over the top.

My fève collection

Not any more. They’re just a couple of euros now and definitely a bargain. I can add to my fève collection, and do a spot of low-key favophilie.

Favophilie (sometimes fabophilie) is the activity of collecting the fèves from Galettes des Rois. Seasoned favophiles are after rare ones, or are trying to build up whole series of special edition ones. Either way, they’re probably slightly sad people.

The tradition of a single fève in festive cakes began in the 13th century in France. Cakes containing two fèves appeared later, one was black and one was white signifying ‘king’ and ‘queen’ respectively. But come the Revolution there could be no more religious based fun, so Twelfth Night became the sans culottes (without trousers) festival, and the Galette des Rois became the Galette d’égalité, still with fèves. Even that gateau was banned on and off for a while. But the tradition persevered.

The current trend of porcelain fèves (with a brief eruption of plastic ones in the 1960s and 1970s) began in Germany in 1874. Porcelain swimmers were the first models. Twenty years later, fèves of all sorts were being produced. Different themes predominated at different times – santons (saints), doves, angels, professions and so on. These days cartoon and film characters tend to prevail, which is rather naff but clearly a good selling point. This year I’ve gained a Harry Potter bust and a truly awful mini-plaque of Titeuf, that strange cartoon guy with the yellow hair. My other less classy fèves include Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean momentoes.

I do have some nice ones including a sheep that Rors brought home from school on Tuesday. Clearly the caterer at his school is like me and buys in bargain food since the kids got a Galette des Rois for pudding out of the blue. Rors came up trumps when it was dished up and got the fève, so he also got the cardboard crown. He wore it for our 2.5 km walk home and I think he was disappointed that no-one else got to see him. We rarely come across anyone during our walks.

There are some lovely fèves out there – this is one set I saw on a website. It’s a collection of the 13 desserts served on Christmas Eve in Provence. You can get animals (I found a set of pandas and koalas aka world’s dopiest animals!), flowers, trees, Disney, Hello Kitty, symbols, letters, books, playing cards – the list is endless these days. Look up fève on eBay and see what comes up. A lot are claimed to be rare or ancien – although probably take that with a pinch of salt! But there are some cute and clever ones to be had.

Actually, I think I’m beginning to see how you can get drawn into favophilie …

 

Cheese on Tuesday – Petit Suisse

Yes, I know I keep saying I’m going to do Boursin next, but Rors came out with a joke the other day on seeing some Petit Suisses in the fridge. Here it is:

Comment fait-on les petits suisses ?

– Comme les petits français !

It doesn’t quite translate exactly since it’s playing on words and relies on the way the French refer to other nationalities. Rors was slightly embarrassed when I asked him to repeat it and said it was a bit rude. It’s not really!

How do you make a little Swiss (implying the cheese but meaning a person)? The same way you make a little French (person)!

So, it’s Petit Suisse cheese this week. Petit Suisse is in the family of soft cheeses. It’s fromage frais i.e. an unripe, non-salted creamy cheese. It’s made from cow’s milk and a generous dollop of cream is added during the process so it’s very high fat, up to 40%. But it’s delicious!

I dare say you’re familiar with this little cylindrical, white cheese, usually sold in 60g size, although sometimes twice that, in a plastic pot and perplexingly wrapped in paper. This strange practice dates back to when they were individually wrapped in a piece of waxed paper to hold them in shape and sold in lots of six in a small wooden box. They don’t really need the paper any more now they’re sold in pots, but it’s a tradition that’s hung on. The bits of paper can be a pain since the cheese tends to stick to them, and in our house the cats fish them out of the bin any time they manage to invade the kitchen, chew them up then spit them out on the floor. Yuk.

Petit Suisse aren’t Swiss – they originated in Normandy – but they were thought up by a Swiss person who worked at a dairy in Auvilliers. He suggested adding cream to the curd they used for cheese to make it richer, and so the whole thing began.But only because a chef’s assistant, Henri Gervais, took a shine to the product and begun to use it. He was the key to its success and built a business around it. The Gervais company sent their cheese to Paris by horse-drawn cart every day. Nowadays, Gervais Petit Suisses are still going  strong and are distributed worldwide by slightly more efficient but less environmentally friendly means! Gervais is part of the Bel group.

French people tend to deluge Petit Suisses in sugar to eat them, but I like them as they are. They’re said to be nice with a touch of salt of pepper or a sprinkle of herbs over too. Petit Suisse mixed with mustard makes a tasty coating to meat while it’s cooking and stops it drying out.

It’s very easy to make and easiest of all is if you can get unpasteurised milk. This isn’t a problem in France where you find it in vending machines. You leave a bowl of the raw milk out of the fridge overnight and it should have curdled i.e. set, by morning. Then wrap it in muslin and let it drain for a while so all the whey drips out. Unwrap the cheese, stir in a few spoonfuls of cream and enjoy. If you can only get pasteurised milk, then you need to add some buttermilk or a spoonful of yogurt or other fermented milk product to get the curdling process started. Apart from that, the method is the same. I haven’t made any yet, but now I’ve found these recipes, I shall be. I’m very partial to Petit Suisse.

Finally a question: in which book do you find a character names Petisuix? Answers please!

 

Pandas in France – Huang Huang and Yuang Zi at Zooparc Beauval

It’s the Chinese New Year today – Happy Year of the Dragon to everyone – so a very good time to talk about pandas, China’s most dramatic export.

France now has a pair of pandas at Beauval. We visited there last summer and at the time we commented on how OTT the Chinese section of the park seemed to be, with statues, pagodas, lanterns but very few animals. Little did we know Beauval was gearing up for pandas. Certainly there was no mention of them at the zoo. But then they don’t sell batteries so they’re fairly clueless. A bit of advance publicity sur place wouldn’t have come amiss.

Anyway, Huang Huang and Yuang Zi arrived on 15th January to great excitement. They were the first pandas to set paw in France for eleven years. They were transported by FedEx in a specially painted aeroplane, and then by road in specially painted vans with a police escort from the airport to Beauval. Yes, you read that right – police escort. Your guess is as good as mine as to why! Whether it was to keep the pandas in, or panda-nappers out, who knows. But it was successful and the pandas arrived safely and probably very puzzled at their new home. The public will be let loose on the pandas on 11th February. They need a few weeks to settle in.

Huang Huang and Yuang Zi are here for 10 years at a cost of around €750,000. Beauval is remaining tightlipped about the exact sum. So expect a hike in the already fairly hefty entry charge. The money is apparently going towards protecting pandas in the wild in China. And heaven knows they need it since they are the world’s dopiest animals.

I saw Edward Heath’s pandas, Chia Chia and Ching Ching, at London Zoo in the 1970s. They just sat and ate bamboo, as you’d expect, and were generally the most boring animal in the zoo. I have been completely underwhelmed by pandas for a long time.

Whilst there is no doubt that they are very striking and harmless animals, let’s face it they’re hopeless. The female comes into heat for between 3 and 7 days once a year. So if either she or the male has a headache during that brief space of time, that’s it, the chance for making a baby panda has gone for another year. I saw a TV programme about pandas in an American zoo. The zookeepers were desperate for the pandas to breed and were monitoring Mrs Panda constantly for the telltale signs of her arousing herself from her usual semi-comatose, bamboo-munching state to being hormonal. The second they reckoned she was ready, they unleashed Mr Panda. He made a couple of extremely feeble attempts to mount her then gave up. Mrs P went all huffy and then the pair of them sat and sulked in opposite sides of the cage. (I hope this doesn’t remind you of anything!)

So the scientists swooped. They first knocked out Mr P and got busy with rubber gloves and syringes and extracted some semen, and then knocked out Mrs P and gave her AI. What a palaver. But it worked and a miniscule baby panda appeared 5 months later. It weighed 5 ounces. Baby pandas are 1/900th the size of their mama. I mean, come on. How pathetic is that! Human babies are around 1/15th to 1/20th of their mum’s size. Admittedly, delivering one of them hurts like blooming heck and traumatises you for life but it’s possible. Llama cria are roughly 1/8th to 1/10th of their mother’s weight, and you don’t hear them complaining. And what’s more, if a panda has  more than one cub, she has a breakdown. She is incapable of looking after two at the same time, so just leaves one to die. Pandas are severely survivally challenged. They really need to get their act together.

 

 

Blessing the Clocher at Nouzerines

Cool cartoon off the service sheet

This morning, Saturday, Chris and I went to a rather nice ceremony at St Clair’s in Nouzerines. It was a little service to bless the new clocher (bell tower). The weather was foul but at least it was dry inside the church, although it certainly wasn’t warmer than outside! We did wonder slightly why the powers that be had decided to celebrate in the middle of winter. The tower was actually finished last summer!

Père Arnaud Favard is the priest for this parish. He has a wonderful singing voice and is very strict about the musical standards of his flock. We always have to rehearse beforehand! He took us through the various chants and hymns and only when we were good enough, could we proceed to the ceremony proper. (He does the same thing every year at the St Francis Day animal ceremony.)

 

 

Stéphanie Josset, Président of Patrimoine Nouzerines, the fundraising body that has been the driving force behind the church renovations, opened the service and then there was one of the now perfect hymns and a prayer. Fellow English expat Christopher (not my Chris) played his piano accordion to liven things up. Then the priest gave a short sermon, explaining the different symbols that are usually to be found on top of every church’s bell tower in the form of the weather vane. There’s always a cock, as opposed to a pig, cow, sheep, llama etc, since this creature is the symbol of rejuvenation and new life. By crowing at dawn, the cock celebrates that night is over. Symbolically this represents him heralding the end of any period of physical or moral darkness. He always stands atop a globe to represent the world. Most church weather vanes also feaure a girouette – the wind indicator itself. Père Favard told us how important that was in the past, a real indication of what weather was heading our way. The Maire gave a short speech too.

One of the hymns had been about people coming to church from all four points of the horizon. These aren’t the points of the compass as you’d expect, but in fact east, west, up and down. Churches are on an east-west axis. The alter is at the eastern end so that the congregation sits and looks towards the rising daylight and life. In contrast the priest looks west, facing death. In Limousin statues of Christ always face west for this reason. The up and down represent heaven and hell. The weather vane draws eyes upwards towards heaven. He didn’t go into the hell thing in much detail!

Pere Arnaud helped by Lena

After more expert singing, we finished the ceremony outside with the physical blessing of the clocher. The rain briefly held off while the priest read out the benediction (see below) and we sang the refrain beautifully. Then he threw holy water towards the bell tower before rushing back into the church to start ringing the bells.

We’d said the Lord’s prayer along the way. For the first time I saw the words of it in French, but I stuck to saying the English version. It occurred to me that our heathen youngest son doesn’t know that cornerstone of the Christian faith in either language! I guess that’s a bit of a giveaway that we don’t go to church all that often. I remember how Benj blurted out loudly once, when we were at a service, I forget for what reason: “Gosh we’re in Church. Is it Christmas!” Don’t you just love kids!

 

Missing and Mistreated Hens

Limpy

We have a missing chicken situation tonight. When I went out to put the turkeys and hens to bed, I couldn’t find Limpy anywhere. Limpy is a Labelle chicken, and must be about three years old now. We bought her and five of her siblings for the freezer, but she was trodden on by a llama when she was quite young. She couldn’t walk at all for about a month, so every morning we carried her out to the garden and every evening we carried her back to a comfy nesting box in the hen stable. She became very tame because of that, and we grew fond of her, so she became a pet and escaped ending up as Dagg food.

She doesn’t wander far since, as you might have guessed, she’s got a bad limp. I’ve checked all her usual daytime haunts so the chances are that she’s settled down somewhere for the night. I was a bit late to see to them this evening and the weather’s bad, which often makes the chickens go to roost earlier than normal. It’s very gloomy in the barn so she might have been there somewhere and I just couldn’t see her. I hope she turns up tomorrow.

Our broody bantam had a whole stable to nest in

Chickens are very much in the news at the moment in France. Back in 1999, European legislation was put in place to ban battery hen farming by 2012. Why it should take 12 years to get round to supplying hens with slightly larger cages escapes me. With a bit of effort I’m sure farmers could have managed it within a year or so, and they certainly should have, morally. Politics obviously had a lot to do with it. Anyway, now chickens must have larger cages so that they have room to preen themselves and turn round. Until the present that hasn’t always been possible. It’s horrific, and is why I gave up buying battery eggs many years ago, long before we got chickens of our own.

There are in fact two types of hen accommodation that are allowed under the new legislation: 1. Enriched cages which give the chicken 750 square centimetres, and 2. non-cage systems with nests (1 per 7 chickens) and no more than 9 chickens per square metre. In addition, both types of housing must provide perches (15cm per hen), litter for them to peck and scratch at and access at all times to a feeding trough (12 cm per hen). These still aren’t overly generous allowances for them.

Here's Madge, a Limousin chicken

It seems so sad to me that battery chickens have been treated so abominably up to now – and still are. There is a high level of non-compliance. 1st January this year was the deadline, and European health minister John Dalli has said there’s going to be zero tolerance for farms that have flouted the law. Legal action will be taken within the next few days to stop hen farmers not meeting regulations from selling eggs to shops and supermarkets. This could mean a shortfall of 51 million eggs for Europe in the short term. Not here though. We always have fresh eggs to spare and there are still a load in the freezer.

Chickens are troopers. They’re stoic and adaptable and will put up with anything, and that’s why they’ve been so abused in the past. If they’d only stopped laying eggs in their rotten battery conditions then something would have been about it a long while ago. As it is, chickens just keep going. They’re born survivors. Long after humans have died out, there’ll still be chickens on the planet – mark my words!

 

Funny Animal Photos

The infection I’ve had for a few days has left me feeling like I’ve been hit by a train, so here a few fun animals photos for today. Back to proper blogging tomorrow, all being well!

Llamas love rolling
Cats like drinking
Dogs like sleeping upsidedown
Turkeys like pecking
Guinea-pigs like hiding from the rain
Cats like chicken
Rors likes being a moose!
Baby alpacas like sleeping
Chickens don't like snow!