Fizzy Drinks Tax – Fuzzy Logic More Like!

1st January every year sees new taxes appearing on the scene as the ever-ingenious politicians find new ways to wrangle money out of us. Amongst 2012’s offerings in France is the sugary drinks tax. A tax of €7.16 per hectolitre (= 100 litres) of such drinks, boissons sucrées, has been introduced. This will mean a 1-2 centime rise on the price of a can of drink. The proceeds are going to help fund l’assurance maladie (the public health insurance that the State provides).

Like the ban on tomato ketchup in schools, this is another tax that will Do Us Good and stop us becoming a nation of fatties, apparently. However, well known French economist Pierre Combris has pointed out the flaw in the government’s argument. Governments want to make money so they actually want us to carry on buying vast quantities of fizzy drinks since they’ll raise more tax that way. But if they achieve their avowed public health aim of putting us off these drinks of the devil, then they won’t raise very much revenue after all. Have they really thought this through? Coca-Cola has already protested by not investing 17 million euros in its Bouches-du-Rhône factory in France. That’s a big financial blow to the country.

And will the small price hike break the habits of a lifetime? Smokers and drinkers resiliently take the annual increase in the cost of their vices on the chin, and carry on consuming. Will sugary drinks drinkers be equally resolute, or will the tax burst their bubble? We’ll see.

This tax won’t have much effect in our household. I don’t buy a lot of fizzy drinks or premixed squash, just the occasional bottle of orangina or coke at party time or for a treat. So it won’t be making a huge hole in my purse. And food prices have been going up so quickly generally lately that I’m not sure heavy consumers of the boissons will even notice the rise anyway. We’ve all got used to paying a different price for the same food item every week.

And will France be full of slim people by the end of the year? Hmmm …



Pièces Jaunes 2012 – Put Your Loose Change to Work

January 4th saw the launch of this year’s Pièces Jaunes campaign, which will run until 11th February. The scheme is now in its 23rd year, having begun way back in 1990. So what is it? It’s a way of raising funds for the Fondation Hôpitaux de Paris-Hôpitaux de France. Children are issued with a cardboard tirelire (piggy bank) and asked to put all the pièces jaunes, loose change, that they come across into it. At the end of the period, they take the money box along to the nearest branch of La Poste and hand it over to an unfortunate employee there who will have to count it out, buttons, fluff and all.

It’s a winner though, and most years raises upwards of 3.5 million euros. The money is put to excellent use. Altogether, over the years 6,650 child and adolescent-centred projects in 615 hospitals in 443 towns have been funded by the cash raised this way, including providing equipment, doing up and redecorating numerous wards, playrooms and nurseries, and establishing daycare centres and also 50 maisons des adolescents – places where troubled teenagers can find a sympathetic ear.

The foundation’s president is Bernadette Chirac who has bravely been promoting the event on TV and radio these last few days. Inevitably she’s faced questioned on her husband’s activities (he was recently handed a 2 years suspended prison sentence for misdemeanors arising in the early 1990s when he was Maire of Paris, in case you hadn’t heard), but she’s managed to stay focused on promoting Pièces Jaunes. Good for her, it must have been tough.

There are two high-profile parrains (sponsors/promoters) – singer and comedienne Lorie and footballer Christian Karembeu. Their job is to help publicise the campaign and get the kids on board.

There’s a website here and it has some fun pages for kids here.

As we know, cigarette cartons have health warnings, but the Pièces Jaunes money box goes one better and carries a morality warning, informing its owner that they are not to ask for money on the street! However, I imagine every year some overenthusiastic youngsters are to be found brandishing them at strangers. What harm.

Préveranges, Cher – More Than Meets The Eye

The day before the kids went back to school, Black Monday as far as they were concerned, we went off to a spot of geocaching in Préveranges, a large village about 20 km away in the département of Cher. Chris, Rors and I went to the pumpkin fair there back at the end of October.

Anyway, we parked on the outskirts of the village and walked all the way through it. Préveranges is a very spread out settlement. I was surprised to discover that it has a population of only around 770. You’d think it was much larger to see the place. It’s well served with a dentist, pharmacie, assortment of bars, a general store, a couple of garages and a hotel. A joyful one at that.

And it once had a magnetiseur. We passed by the abandoned shopfront. Can you guess what a magnetiseur is? Not someone who makes magnets, but a healer. And to think there was one in this, old-fashioned part of the world. I’d have thought a healer was far too new-fangled and trendy an idea.

There were a lot of Christmas trees in the village – a veritable forest, festooning and often blocking the pavements. Each one was decorated with shiny metallic paper bows and tinsel. Someone had been to a lot of trouble to annoy pedestrians in such a festive manner.

We passed a garage that specialises in renovating classic vehicles, some of them clearly in need of a lot of attention!

Then we went by this intriguing wooden cross, which has hundreds of small wooden crosses nailed to it. I’m intrigued by this but haven’t yet been able to turn up any information about it.  Now, one of the pilgrim routes of St Jacques Compostella passes close by to Préveranges, maybe even through it, so perhaps this was a point on the way? This is only a suggestion – I have more research to do.

Passing by this pterosaur,

we came to another park. We’d left the car by one. It seems very greedy to have two parks in a village! They’re both big and very well maintained. Cher definitely has a lot more money than Creuse, where even a town the size of Boussac only has a couple of pocket handkerchiefs of greenery for kids to play in. We walked round the lake, then headed for home. Along the way Ruadhri found his first geocache, all on his own! Well done Rors. It was a good way to finish the holidays.



Cheese on Tuesday – Emmental

Since this is the land of cheese (around 429 varieties I believe), I thought it was time I started to pay attention to fromage. So for the next little while it’ll be ‘Cheese on Tuesday’ on my blog every week, looking at some of the more popular and/or unusual cheeses on offer.

But some groundwork to do first. Cheese comes in families in France, and there are anything between 3 and 8 of them, according to the source you look at. I’m going with the eight families, since we might as well do this properly!

1. Fresh cheeses – fromages frais

These are the white, rather runny cheeses with a high water content (up to 82%). They’re made without using rennet and aren’t aged at all. Familiar examples would be fromage blanc and Petit Suisse.

2. Soft cheeses with natural rind – Fromages à pâte molle et à croûte fleurie

Brie and camembert are examples of this family of soft cheese made from cow’s milk which has a distinctive floury rind. They’re aged for about a month.

3. Soft cheeses with washed rind – Fromages à pâte molle et à croûte lavée

These cow’s milk cheeses are literally washed during the aging process to stop surface moulds forming. They usually have bright rinds. Pont L’Évêque is such a cheese.

4. Pressed cheeses – Fromages à pâte pressée

Right, these cheeses are pressed while they age and this rids them of some of their moisture content. They’re also washed, brushed and turned to give them nice even rinds. Cantal is an example of this family of cheese.

5. Pressed and cooked cheeses – Fromages à pâte pressée et cuite

Emmental comes into this category. Cheeses in this group are heated before they’re pressed. They’re left to ripen for a long time.

6. Goat cheese – Fromages de chèvre

I don’t think this needs any more explanation! There are over 100 different types of French cheese made from goat’s milk.

7. Blue cheeses – Fromages à pâte persillées

These are the smelly cheeses (like the one I wrote about in this story) which are aged for a long time before they’re eaten. They have the distinctive blue veins running through them. Some are made from sheep’s milk, such as Roquefort. We visited that factory – I can still smell it! You either love this type of cheese or hate it.

8. Processed cheeses – Fromages à pâte fondue

These are made from a blend of cheeses and often have herbs and flavourings added. Delicious Boursin falls into this category.

So that’s a quick introduction to the main groups of fromage.

The Daggs' favourite cheese in bulk

This Tuesday’s cheese is Emmental, you know the one with holes in it. I usually buy this cheese pre-grated in 1 kg bags at the supermarket. We get through vast amounts of it. It’s one of the most popular and cheaper cheeses. It’s mainly produced in the east of France and the Emmental from certain areas (for example, france est central) has an IGP label (Indication Géographique Protégée – a quality mark). Not the sort that I buy though!

Almost half a million tonnes of Emmental are produced in Europe each year, and France makes approximately half of this, using 13.1% of all the milk produced in France. It takes 12 litres to make 1 kg of Emmental. It’s made in big  loaves of up to 80 kg, which is a lot of cheese.

So where do the holes come from? Carefully controlled mice? Nope. A bacteria is introduced which produces carbon dioxide while the cheese is aging and this is what gives rise to them. So now you know.

It’s reckoned that on average, French people eat about 3.3 kg of Emmental a year. Well, if that really is the case then a lot of people can’t be eating anything like that much since we Daggs are heavily skewing figure upwards. We really do eat an awful lot of it! I blame the adverts that used to run in Ireland, funded by the cheese marketing board. ‘With cheese, please!’ was the motto, and the ads encouraged you to add a thick crust of grated, sliced or melted cheese coated cheese to everything you consumed, from your breakfast muesli to your evening mug of hot chocolate. OK, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly! We’ve been totally brainwashed by them and have become cheese junkies as a result.

Now you know a bit more about Emmental. Do come back and discover another French cheese in next Tuesday’s blog.

Obligatory Breath Test Kit for all French Motorists

I don’t often go political, but today I feel the need. I’ve found out that from spring 2012 (forgive the  slightly vague date but there’s nothing more definite available yet) all motorists will be having to put something else in the car to join the gilet rétro-réfléchissant (reflective jacket) and the triangle de pré-signalisation (warning triangle), which are already there, on top of the carte grise (car registration document), insurance documents and ready-to-fill-in accident report. They will have to make room for an éthylotest – breath test kit. Yes, I was fairly incredulous too. If you don’t have one, you face a fine of anything between €11 and €17, according to which report you read. These little kits cost around €1. Ok, it’s not a vast expense, but it’s the principle of the thing. I use the car to go grocery shopping, to deliver and collect my daughter to and from the lycée bus and to go to committee meetings. None of these are occasions that involve alcohol, although I imagine food shopping would be more fun after a glass of wine. But the powers that be suspect me of hitting the bottle at every opportunity before sliding behind the steering wheel, and dictate I need this totally unnecessary piece of kit. I would no sooner drink and drive than I would sell the kids into slavery, however tempted by the latter I may be occasionally.

However, before I get carried away let’s look at this matter objectively.

Let’s look at the pro side first. Alcohol is the major killer on the roads, responsible for a third of all road deaths. Quite rightly the government wants to reduce this number of unnecessary deaths. The recent unpopular increase in the number of speed cameras has reduced the average speed of traffic by 10 kmh, and brought down the rate of fatalities arising from speeding. Could this new move have  a similarly positive outcome?

Now the anti side. The people who will buy the kit and actually use it are the people who are already sensible about drink driving and respect the law. Road safety organisations are saying this, not just me. So it’s unlikely to do any good in practice. Using the example of X, a drinking driver who lives near here and who has written off 2 cars during the 5 years we’ve known him, and whom we have pulled out of a ditch – he may possibly buy the éthylotest to avoid a fine, but the likelihood of him self-testing after a few drinks and nobly deciding to walk home as a result are zilch. Zero. Non-existent. How many people would? Maybe in towns where there is public transport, but not in the bus-free zone that constitutes the majority of rural France.

It’s clearly a compromise reached by some bureaucrats. It’s not going to work. The only effective way to stamp down on drunk driving is through policing. Put gendarmes out there to catch the culprits. We literally go for months on end without seeing a single cop. They need to be out there in all areas swooping on drunk drivers with the zero tolerance for them that I and the majority of responsible people have.

Right, time to put the soapbox away! Thanks for listening.


A Crafty New Year with Serviettage

First of all, Happy New Year.

I love crafts so I’m always excited to try something new in the make and do line. For my latest venture I’ve gone French and seen what I can create with paper napkins (serviettes). This craft, not surprisingly, is known as serviettage.

Now, French people love their napkins. No matter how small, every little general store will have some pretty ones tucked away somewhere. Back in Ireland you could only ever get plain ones, and often they were only rolled out on special occasions. But all year round in France you can find a huge variety of fancy napkins. And the reason is mainly because of their role in brico (make and do), and not because les français are particularly messy eaters.

Skilful serviettagistes can create fantastic, delicate examples of découpage (cutting out) using napkins. See the examples on this website for example.

But anyone can have a go at being creative with 3-ply paper products. I was inspired by these napkin-adorned Christmas decorations that I picked up at Nouzerines Marché de Noël in 2010. (As you see, it’s take me a little while to work my way round to actually wielding glue and paper.)

So, let’s get started. You need napkins, obviously, and also a PVA type glue, paintbrush and something to decorate. I’ve gone with large tin cans which will become plant holders. However, large shells, small glass jars, wooden bangles, notebooks – you can choose pretty much anything and everything to decorate.

Here’s the glue I’m using, although I’m not convinced it’s the optimum stuff. I’m mixing it with an equal amount of water. (Do you get the pun in the name? Quelyd = Quelle idée (what a great idea!) pronunciation wise.) It’s not often you come across witty glue!

I scrubbed and dried my tins out and then cut up the serviettes into small, unevenly shaped pieces. I sloshed a good coating of my glue mix over a small area of the tin, laid on a piece of napkin and then coated that with more glue mix.

And so on and so forth, until the whole tin was covered. Ideally it will have a shiny veneer when the glue dries, but it has to be said my first effort didn’t, which is why I think I may have the incorrect colle (glue). However, it looks very pretty and will brighten up the house in a suitably French way.

It’s a quick and easy craft, and a relatively low budget one, that you really can’t go wrong with. I found it very relaxing and it gave me a real sense of achievement when I’d finished, even though my efforts were on the humble side.

I thoroughly recommend it.

My current project drying

This site gives you the complete know-how in French. English ones here.