Languishing Lettuces, Miserable Mâche And A Few Flax Facts

Problemo. My lettuces aren’t doing at all well. They got off to a cracking start in the seed tray. I enthusiastically put 30 out into a section of the raised beds, but all except 1 shrivelled up. I put some more out but am down to just 4. They seem to be holding their own for the time being.

Worried that our homemade compost in the raised beds, a potent mixture of llama, alpaca, chicken and guinea pig poop together with straw and the contents of the wormery, was too strong for immature root systems, I transplanted the next batch of seedlings into small pots of sterilised shop compost. But the minute I turned my back, they fell on their swords. I removed the first sad set of little corpses and tried again, but clearly these guys have a suicide pact going. They can’t wait to die.

I have a few seedlings left which I’ll leave where they are for now in the hope that I can solve this languishing lettuce problem.

As for the miserable mâche, those seeds have only just begun to germinate. They went in at the same time as the lettuces and generally mâche can’t wait to get going. The odd thing is that I know the seeds I began back in mild January got off their marks rapidly and were doing well before minus 20 hit and froze them all solid.

However, the radishes, cosmos, cucumbers and cornichons are thriving, the tomatoes have condescended to show a few shoots, and two pumpkins have burst into life. The potatoes are sprouting leaves so generally all is well in the polytunnel. We were puzzled by half a dozen mystery plants, all the same species, that appeared in the raised bed. Rors investigted and has discovered that they are baby honey (or possibly black) locusts trees, whose seeds I collected from nearby Benj’s hall of residence in Limoges.

I’ve planted a row of Manon potatoes (great for chips) this afternoon out in the potager, and also sown a square metre of flax. Why? Well, you can get a free packet of flax seeds from this site here in return for two stamps.  Mine duly arrived in the post, last year or possibly the year before, and at last I’ve got round to planting them, just to see what happens really. However, since 1 hectare of lin can produce 800 shirts, 1500  blouses, 500 skirts, 100 sheets, 100 table cloths or 100 curtains, then with one ten-thousandth of that (1 hectare = 10,000 square metres) I could conceivably make a handkerchief. (One hectare of flax can also be used to make 1000 car door panels, using the short fibres of the plant, and it would also produce 300 square metres of straw for animals. I’ll be getting a  few handfuls for the guinea pigs out of my little patch.)

Flax, which has been cultivated for 12,000 years, is grown in many countries, but 80% of the European total comes from France, predominantly the north. The regions of Picardie, Nord-Pas de Calais, Haute et Basse Normandie and the Ile de France provide the perfect growing conditions.

If only the same were true for lettuces in my polytunnel …

Made in France, Marshmallow Llamas – And Not Forgetting Dave

Our two watering cans are in a sorry state. To be fair they were never top quality and they are quite old now. And at least one of them has been run over by a tractor. But all the same, it’s selfish of them to fall apart.

We happened to be in Brico Boussac, Weldom as was, today and I spotted this wonderful looking arrosoir. There were some clones of our existing waterers, i.e. China’s best green plastic ones, although they had sneakily been labelled as arrosoirs Parisiens. They were about as Parisian as I am. Temptingly they were half the price, but I decided to give this new model a go.

And guess what? It’s made in France. Seriously. It’s a long time since I’ve bought any non-food item that hasn’t been shipped here all the way from the People’s Republic. I’m hoping it’s going to prove to be sturdy and long-lived.

Nowhere is China mentioned!

The design is good by the way. It waters gently and evenly. I’m impressed!

Marshmallow llamas next. Caiti rustled these up on Sunday when the rest of us were out with the cycle club. Aren’t they awesome? Now she has her sweet making thermometer, there’s no stopping her.

And finally Dave, my rather old touring bike built for me by Dave Yates that I mentioned yesterday. I retrieved him from the spooky recesses of the barn. He hasn’t been ridden for several years now. Caiti rode him for a while but outgrew him when she outgrew me. Dave has a 16.5 inch frame, I seem to recall, which was my size. I’m only little! You wouldn’t think he was 25 years old. The paintwork has worn tremendously well. Quarter of an hour with a rag and some polish and the glint was back in his eye. He shone in the sunshine.I gave the chain some TLC too.

I need new tyres and replacement padded handlebar grips, then he’ll be ready to go. It’s about time Dave hit the road again. He’s a smashing bike. Chris and I think he cost around 400 GBP, which would be equivalent to around 1,000 quid today. Crikey! That was a lot for two newly-weds to cough up. He took all our savings at the time but we were young and irresponsible and preferred to have good bikes rather than any decent furniture to sit on! Definitely the right decision.


On The Road With ACSNEC – Nouzerines Cycling Club

ACSNEC assembly point

I’ve been cycling, well, forever, but today I went on my first ever club ride.

Chris and I both got emails from the indefatiguable Fatima, who keeps Nouzerines going, inviting us to come along for a ride on Sunday morning with ACSNEC. AC-what? The French love their acronyms with a passion, so whereas an expat might settle for Nouzerines Cycling Club, the organisers have come up with ACSNEC – Amicale Cycliste et Sportive Nord Est de la Creuse. We were to meet at 10 in the village square.

So this morning Rors, Chris and I set off. We were a tiny bit late, what with losing an hour and having to feed our three hungry anglers first, but we made it in time. We did our cheek-kissings, which can be a little bit awkward with bikes, but are an indispensable start to the morning ride. And then we were off. I’m not sure if a route was planned in advance. There seemed to be lively debates at each significant junction, but we didn’t mind. We were happy to follow along and enjoy being out on the bikes. Ruadhrì wasn’t at his best to start with, and there was grumbling going on, but he perked up eventually. We might have to look into a road bike for him. We VTT-ers (mountain bikers) were outnumbered. I think there were four of us. I should get Dave on the road again. Dave is my twenty-five year-old, hand-built touring bike. It was made to measure by Dave Yates at Steele’s cycle shop in Tyneside, back in our pre-kid days when we could buy ourselves nice things occasionally! I reluctantly abandoned Dave when we moved to Ireland since we had kids either on bike seats or on the trailer bike, and that extra weight plus Irish roads was too traumatic a combination for a thoroughbred machine like him. A tough mountain bike was the only option. So I got my Diamondback in 1995 and it’s been going strong ever since. But the roads here don’t demand a VTT, and we no longer have Rors attached, plus we don’t do a lot of offroad cycling (we end up with too many punctures from the brambles) so it’s time to go roadster again. It’ll be a culture shock to go back to drop handlebars and a gear changer on the crossbar!

The sun shone, car drivers respected our peloton, and we did about 20 km with plenty of small breaks to allow us to regroup and have a quick chat. It was very sociable and very enjoyable. There were three ladies – Fatima, myself and young Rachelle, and I think eight blokes ranging from 10-year-old Rors, the baby of the group today, to three teenagers, and up to the four seniors with a maximum age of mid 60s. We’d tried to get Caiti to come along too but she had only just surfaced and anyway, claimed she was sore from yesterday’s judo. I shall persuade her to join us in the future since we girls need more representatives in the club.

It was a great way to spend a Sunday morning. The rides take place each week so we’ll go along whenever we can. We usually cycle then anyway, but it was certainly fun to join the gang and it did make us push that bit harder at times. Anglo-Irish pride is at stake!


Alder Is Alive Again

The 2012 holiday season is underway. Our first anglers arrived today for a week’s fishing on Alder Lake. It’s good to get things going again, and also good that the non-income period is over! They are return clients. They were so taken by the cats on their last visit that they’ve brought some tins of cat food with them this time as a treat for our felines. That’s lovely!

The lake looks tremendous. All our hard work lopping off low branches and thinning out the alders when it was frozen was well worth it. Oh, but it was tough at the time!

The clocks go forward tonight which is disastrous. I was planning a tirade about it but I don’t have the energy now after a busy day, and it won’t do any good anyway. But I do wish the Minister of Clocks would just leave them alone. I can’t see the point of changing every six months. If he or she had to get our Caiti out of bed this coming Monday – the first one after Black Sunday when we lose an hour  – well, he or she would stop doing it at once. It isn’t pleasant! And the rest of us are all fairly crabby for a few days since we’re all tired too.

We have summer-like weather again, around 24 degrees or so. But still no lambs and still no swallows, to my surprise. I’ve heard that they’ve made it to southern France, but not Creuse yet. I wish they’d hurry up …

Finally a quick update from Benj, received literally this second, regarding his second place in UniLim’s got Talent (see yesterday’s blog). There were ten contestants and a crowd of 350. He hasn’t been offered a contract yet by a talent scout, but he’s optimistic!

Friday Night Ritual

I’m sat here in the Boussac Judo Club dojo (the old public showers) while Caiti hones her throwing-people-around skills. Rors is not here tonight. He’s been poorly today with a headache. I’ve just had a chat with another mum and she reckons it’s growing pains. Could well be as he’s definitely shot up lately. My days as second smallest in the family are numbered.

I have my computer on my knees and my MP3 plugged into my ears. I’m in a happy electronic place. In case it matters, I’m listening to Out Of Ashes by Dead By Sunrise, fronted by Chester Bennington of LinkinPark fame. I seem to have a bit of thing for lean, over-intense singers since I’m also a big fan of Pat Monahon from Train! I like all kinds of music and have generally gone more indie/punk over the years, but I still like heartbreaking ballads.

I should be writing my YA novel. I’ve hardly written a word this week. My usual writing slot is in the evenings, but I’ve been watching the news the last four nights as recent dreadful events in France have unfolded. The coverage has been thorough, well presented and not sensationalist. Two very  noteworthy things occurred. On Thursday night the head of the Muslim Mosque in Paris was sat next to the leader of the Jewish faith in France at the discussion table in the studio (at least I think that’s who he was, he was someone important in that religion) and they both pleaded for no repercussions or revenge attacks by anyone and talked of how they wished to exist peacefully side by side in this country. That sent a powerful message. But by far the most moving moment was when the father of Abel Chennouf, one of the murdered soldiers whose baby is due in two months’ time, sent his condolences to the mother of gunman Mohammed Mehar because she too had lost her son, his own son’s murderer. (Mehar was shot during the final moments of the siege when firing on the soldiers who’d come to arrest him.) Monsieur Chennouf is a noble man, and a far better person than I could ever be. I couldn’t have done that. If someone hurt any of my kids, I would never, ever forgive them or their families.

I’ve just read that Abel Chennouf’s fiancée Caroline is being allowed to marry him posthumously by special permission from the Président.

Onto lighter things to finish, and then I MUST be creative. Fridays are my guaranteed novel writing time usually. Benj entered a talent show which took place last night. It was ‘UniLim’s Got Talent’. (UniLim = Université du Limousin.) Benj did a stand up routine  – and came second! How cool is that. Now he did get some tips from a professional – from Simon Lipson, author, impressionist and comedian. We bumped into each other in cyberspace via his brilliant book Song in the Wrong Key which I reviewed, and we’ve stayed in touch. I asked Simon for a few hints and sent those along to Eldest Son, and he did brilliantly. He’s a bit miffed he didn’t win. For a laid back dude, he’s actually very ambitious. But maybe next time. Way to go, Benj. (That’s Benj looking pensive in the centre of the poster, in the dark blue teeshirt.)


A Seedy Way Of Life

I have developed a seed habit. Now that we have the polytunnel with its raised beds, at long last we have the space and a suitable environment to get plants started. Up to now we’d fill every windowsill or other exposed flat surface in the house with seedtrays and collections of yogurt pots to grow them in. Invariably at least one lot would get knocked down and there’d be potting compost over computers or printers or books, and another lot shoved in a corner would get forgotten about … but no more. I can plant seeds to my heart’s content now. And Ruadhri’s. He announced not long ago that he’s going to be a naturalist when he grows up. I think he’ll be tending towards the botanical end of that specialty as he really does enjoy growing plants.

So if there’s a display of plant seeds in a shop somewhere, that’s where I’ll be. Today we hit Bricomarché for yet more copper piping and a hedgetrimmer – the old one literally fell apart last autumn. Oh yes, and large sacks of tenor allegro for our disappointingly non-reproductive sheep (so far …), and maize and basse cour (farmyard) mix for the carp. Chris was looking for something or other useful and boring, so I sidled off to the seeds.There was a good selection. Three or four varieties of pumpkins, tomatoes, haricots, beetroot, peas, lettuces and so on, and twelve varieties of radish. I kid you not. There were a dozen different sorts. They take their radishes very seriously here in France. Rors has them at least once a week at school, usually with butter and salt. I haven’t quite got into that, but I like a radish in a sandwich with ham or cheese. It would be fun to try all twelve sorts, but since a single pack contains about a zillion radish seeds, it could take a while to work through all of them!

Here’s what I bought today, each pack costing about a euro, apart from the sweetcorn which was a whopping fiver. And none of these are things I’d have dreamt of trying to grow in Ireland, apart perhaps from courgettes. But not courgettes like these – they’re top left in the photo. I got them because they were so peculiar looking. It was only when I got home I noticed it said that they ‘taste like artichokes’. Now, this is stange. Why would I want courgettes that taste like artichokes? Wouldn’t I just rather buy artichokes? If I want to grow courgettes, then presumably that’s because I like courgettes with their courgetty taste? Never mind, they’ll be fun to try. Melons, celeriac and gherkins – not only would I not have grown them in Ireland, I don’t think we ever ate them there. They were too luxurious.

Seed packets vary enormously in helpfulness. Some have long descriptions of the plant in question and how you should grow it, what you can do with afterwards and how you can become a better gardener. They’re the exception though. The norm seems to be a series of unintelligible pictures like these ones that I think are telling you how to plant the seeds, but a lot of the time have angry red crosses over them i.e. telling you how not to do things. Totally puzzling!

So the polytunnel is filling up with plants in the beds and recycled seedtrays on the potting table. I’m also using a wobbly set of plastic storage drawers as incubators and they’re working very well. My intention is to knit some reusable, appropriately shaped vegetable row markers but by the time I sit down in the evenings these days, I’m too tired to pick up my needles. There’s a lot going on outside. I’m making do with scribbled on stickers for now, not as classy but practical.

Macarons, And Why You Might Cry!

You may cry when you read this post. Yesterday, 20th March, was le jour du macaron, when, in certain bakeries, you could get a FREE macaron in return for a donation to a charity supporting autism. I only found out about late in the evening, and was very depressed until I found out that there weren’t any participating boulangeries in Creuse. At all! That isn’t surprising. Creuse doesn’t join in with things a whole lot.

So, be prewarned for next year, and make sure you get your macaron. Make a note in your diary now.

What is it about these little cakes that makes people go weak at the knees for them. They’ve recently seen a huge explosion in popularity and they’re generally very expensive. There’s even a macaron stall at Boussac market now.  Those, I think, are €2 each and they’re tiny. They’ll only give you the strength to raise your llama poo shovelling shovel, certainly  not to use it. But why am I, like many people, so tempted by them?

Macarons, not to be confused with the equally delicious coconutty macaroons that I grew up with, or, as Wikipedia warns, with macaroni (unlikely, surely?) are meringue-based, melt-in-your-mouth affairs made from egg whites, two types of sugar, ground almonds and food colouring. There are two halves sandwiched together with buttercream or jam or chocolate ganache or something else nice and unhealthy. They range in flavours from the ordinary – strawberry, hazelnut, mint – to the downright weird – rose, or chestnut and green tea, or raspberry and wasabi! Ladurée in Paris is currently offering Tsumori Chisato macarons, flavoured by cherry flowers.

Catherine of Medici

But how French are macarons? They get their name from the Italian word maccarone, after all. Some sources say they were invented in a convent in Cormery, others that Catherine of Medici introduced them to France when she brought her Italian pastry chefs with her to this country when she married Henri II in 1533. Yet another version of events is that French monks invented them and based their shape on their navels. Hmm.

What we think of as macarons today are in fact Paris macarons which were invented in the early 1920s. There are other varieties to be found in France. Amiens’ macarons, for example, have fruit and honey in, and are quite chewy. And several more places claim to have the authentic ones, such as Le Dorat and Chartres. Montmorillon has a macaron museum, and Nancy had two nuns known as the ‘macaron sisters’.

Other countries have slightly different macarons too. Japan uses peanut flour in theirs, and in Korea, green tea powder is used. Switzerland has an ever airier version than France.

Once very high class and exclusive, macarons are food for everyman and woman now. McDonald’s and Starbucks offer their versions of them which, some experts say, aren’t actually that bad at all. Macarons are delightfully crunchy on the outside and soft and squooshy on the inside. That’s their trademark. Add a delicate flavour and a very sweet filling and they really are a treat.

Now that Caiti has her jam and sweetmaking thermometer, we’ll have a go at some. A lot of macaron recipes call for ingredients to be added at a certain temperature only, such as this one.

Scary stuff! I’ll let you know how we get on.

What’s the strangest and/or most delicious flavoured macarons you’ve ever eaten?



Vigipirate Écarlate – What Is It?

Following the recent fatal shootings of three parachutists, and three children and an adult outside a Jewish school, the Midi-Pyrénées area of France is on Vigipirate Écarlate – scarlet terrorist alert. Vigipirate stands for ‘Vigilance et Protection des Installations contre les Risques d’Attentats à l’Explosif’. Niveau Écarlate, scarlet level, is the highest level of such vigilance and it’s the first time it’s ever been enacted in France.

What it means in practice is that the police, both national and the gendarmes, and the military are being deployed to keep public areas safe. The intention is to prévenir le risque d’attentats majeurs (isolés ou simultanés) pouvant utiliser des modes opératoires différents au prix de mesures très contraignantes ­- to prevent the risk of major terrorist atrocities, either isolated or concurrent, by using different methods of operation to achieve restrictive measures, or words to that effect.

The vigipirate plan was introduced in 1978 by Giscard d’Estaing following terrorist attacks in Europe. (The Red Brigade was active in Italy and there had been an incident at Orly airport which ended in the deaths of three terrorists and one policemen, and three passengers were injured – amongst other horrific events.) It was first called into play in 1991, during the Gulf War, and has been updated quite regularly, the last time being in 2005. There are five levels, 0 to 4 or white to scarlet, via yellow, orange and red. White is the absence of any sort of threat, while scarlet reflects a definite threat which must be prevented.


A lot of people are talking about Vigipirate, and whether it will do any good or not. There’s a certain amount of disgust that one guy with a gun and a motorbike is holding the State – the fifth biggest military power country in the world – to ransom like this. There are also some murmurings that if this wasn’t election year, then perhaps less would be being done about these attacks. I’m not so sure about that. Sarkozy has been motivated to act because children were killed. He stated yesterday: ‘You cannot murder children like this on the territory of the Republic without being held to account.’ Damn right.

Some people are commenting that soldiers shouldn’t be used as extra police officers – that’s not what they’re meant to be. Others are saying that the increased use of CCTV would play a crucial role, and cite England as an example of where this is working well. It’s acknowledged that security cameras can’t stop a terrorist or criminal attack, but they sure as heck can help catch the culprits later, as in the Jamie Bulger and the July 2005 London underground bombings.

It’s a sad and bad time for France at the moment. But despite differences of opinion over what the government is doing, it’s true to say that everyone is praying that this murderer is caught as soon as possible. He’s a psychopath who will carry on killing until he’s stopped.


School Shooting Shocks France

So, despite being asked not to by the FCPE, we sent Ruadhri to school this morning. And he’ll be coming back home tonight, thank heavens, unlike the three children shot outside the Jewish school in Toulouse today. The father of two of the children was also killed. France is still reeling after the shooting of three soldiers last week in Montauban and Toulouse, in two separate incidents. They were killed by the same person, a man on a black scooter, and it appears he’s struck again today. The young soldiers’ deaths were tragic enough, but the shooting of three children goes even further.

What exactly has it achieved? What cause has it furthered? All it has done as far as I can see is pointlessly cut four lives short, tragically short in the case of the children who were 4, 6 and 10, and shocked and disgusted the entire country. Probably most of the world. Only the very sickest members of society could fail to be upset by the murder of a child.

There will be a day of mourning, the President has announced, and tomorrow, Tuesday, all schools will observe a minute’s silence. This is a chilling echo of what has just happened in Belgium following the dreadful coach accident which killed 22 youngsters and 6 adults only last week.

I can only hope with all my might that the police catch this murderer before he strikes again, and also that somehow the families of the victims can find the strength to cope with their unimaginably horrific ordeal. I’m sure that everyone’s hearts goes out to them.


School Tomorrow?

Tomorrow, Monday 19th March, I’m not supposed to send my kids to school. The FCPE (Fédération des Conseils de Parents d’Elèves) nationwide is asking parents to keep their children home in protest against proposed teacher cuts.

What to do? Ruadhri is all for staying home, but with him it’s any excuse not to go to school! He enjoys it OK, but wouldn’t bother going out of choice. It’s true to say that he doesn’t seem to have the most inspiring teacher this year, and he’ll be much happier at Collège in September when he’ll be doing more than copying French off the board or labouring through excruciating ‘magic maths’ sheets.

Caiti doesn’t want to miss school, not so close to her Bac. She’s finally honed down her Uni choices to Bordeaux, Angers, Paris and Limoges, in that order. We only got to see one of those at a JPO, but Limoges she knows from visiting Benj there. Since Limoges is our région’s university, Caiti is guaranteed a place there so long as she gets her Bac, which won’t be an issue. They have to take her whether they want to or not. However, I’m sure she’ll be offered a place by her first choice. She’s not taking any chances though, and is working extremely hard – or at least harder than she was!

And I don’t want either of them to miss their schooling. They’ve missed a few days because of bad weather and teacher strikes, on top of a few days’ illness each, and that’s enough. Besides, I don’t approve of going on strike, although I respect that people have the legal right to do so. What the FCPE is proposing is essentially a strike – a teacher’s strike in reverse. The end result is the same in that the children aren’t receiving a day’s education that they should be getting. I’m against teacher cuts as much as the next person, but I don’t think this is the right way to go about them. Putting forward reasoned arguments, backed up by facts and figures, would be a more constructive and co-operative way of facing the issue. The FCPE is also calling for manifs – manifestations – on Saturday outside the académie (education office) in each département, most of which will be preceded by an opération escargot (go slow i.e. traffic is held up by marchers or a co-ordinated group of motor vehicles driving very slowly). How effective these will be I’m not sure since I’m fairly certain bureaucrats don’t work on Saturdays, so there’ll be no one in the various education offices to witness the protests, and most likely the only people out on the roads will be the ones going to do the protesting!

So, it will be école as usual on Monday for the Dagg kids. They’ve had a good weekend to recharge their batteries. We had our frog spotting walk on Saturday evening, on top of a day of bonfires, and today Rors came on our favourite mill walk with me while Caiti went shooting with her Dad. Ruadhri also helped declog the lake grills from the millions of catkins that are currently falling off the trees into the water and washing up there, together with frogs and toads!