Thursday, 27 May 2010

Patriotism is…

Call me an old cynic, but I believe that patriotism is believing that my country is best because I was born there. I say this because, wherever I’ve travelled, everyone says “This is the best place to live; it’s got (weather/food/culture/freedom) etc., etc.” Now, with the world cup almost upon us, I see England flags sprouting all over the place and it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

I love England; I love its damp, cold weather that suddenly turns into bright Summer or breaks into storms. I love its people and the way we do things. I love the sense of fairness even though I bemoan the mob mentality and our venal newspapers (News! Hah!). But, growing up politically in the late 60s and 70s, I came to associate the flag of St George (who he?) and even the union flag with racism, white supremacism, English nationalism and all the things I hate. I see nationalism as the great blight of the 20th century and I’m not sure it’s going to be any better in the 21st. As far as I’m concerned, “the more we do together, the merrier we will be” (sic). I don’t know what it proves to drive around with tiny flags of St George fixed in your car windows – “…more patriotic than thou…”?

Anyway, to happier things; the Olive tree we thought we had killed by not keeping it wrapped up during the pretty hard Winter is springing buds! And there was me thinking it had gone to the great olive press in the sky. We’ve been giving it a bit of feed, though I wouldn’t normally do this with an olive. Hopefully it might get off to a start and build up its strength before I have to move it into the Summer House for the Winter.

The May blossom is now out on all the trees opposite and the scent is overwhelming.

Our black tulips are just about hanging on, but the Lilac is a picture and, for the first time, the Wistaria, Cinensis Alba, that we bought after seeing the one at Wisley, is in flower.

We’re still buying plants for our huge collection of pots. I went down and supported the Gardeners’ Association – “…the more we do together…” and bought enough to be going on with but haven’t had time to pot them yet.

Ought to have a bit more time now that the Lord Mayor’s year for the charity of which I’m vice-chair is coming to an end. It’s been hard work, but I think we’ve done well. Now we have to think of our ongoing fundraising without the help of the Lord Mayor’s Committee.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

... And when you come home

Of course, at this time of year, the garden is going mad. It seems that while we were away, the weather was fairly dry, so I'm glad I put all the new pots on the irrigation system. I even put a sprayer into the small plastic greenhouse we use as a temporary shelter for tender plants. It seems to work well and everything gets wet.

The Irrigation controller

Nice surprises are that the new clematis (Avalanche) that we thought would only have a small, bell-like flower, has blossomed into a real stunner. Next year, when it's grown a little, it should cover about half the trellis and set off the roses very well.

We also invested quite a lot in Tulips. We're both very fond of Tulips, though I favour the original, simple, elegant, closed cup types; Marea loves the more extravagant parrot types and the brasher colours.

The Texas Scarlet Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles Japonica) always produces the goods and, this year, is more laden with flowers than ever. It makes a good rear entrance to the garden.

And just under the Quince is our Lily-of-the-Valley. This took such a hammering a few years ago when we had the courtyard paved that it's good to see it recover so well. The scent as you enter the garden is wonderful. It is, of course, the base for Dior's 'Diorissimo' perfume. It always brings back memories of the days when Marea was a perfumery consultant and I was a display artist (window dresser) in all the best department stores in Leicester. I still only wear Dior cologne - 'Fahrenheit' in Winter and 'Eau Sauvage' in Summer.

May 1st is the Fête du Travail in France - see our attempts to buy a replacement tyre over the 1st May period here The other thing about 1st May is that everyone buys small pots of Lily-of-the-Valley to give to their mothers.

"May 1 is also La Fête du Muguet, and the tradition is to give the ones you love a little bouquet of lily-of-the-valley, for good luck and to celebrate the arrival of spring. Originally the idea was to take the kids into the forest and lose them pick your own muguet together."
Chocolate & Zucchini

The new Magnolia is looking good and will slightly obscure the square corner of the Summerhouse/studio when it grows a bit more.

I really love these 'black and white' tulips. They've really lasted well and look both elegant and slightly wild.

However, out in the fields it is the season to be... a dandelion.

I don't know why, but the village is overrun with pheasants this year; they keep coming into the garden and you can hear them in the fields all around.

And fledglings are everywhere - this one can't quite reach the water in the pond, so is pecking the splashed water off the rim.

As the weather warms up and the northerly winds change to south-westerlies, the air is filled with the heady scent of May blossom (Hawthorn) and, of course, with its pollen!

I don't know the name of this particular shrub and, indeed, it belongs to our neighbours, but I love the way the flowers are held high off the branch almost like shiitake mushrooms.

Finally, among the herb post, the Angelica (Angelica Archangelica) is living up to the 'Arch' bit of its name and growing like a tree outside the kitchen door. It's very tempting to candy some of it, but it seems very labour intensive, boiling it in sugar syrup for hours, etc. Perhaps that's why it seems to have largely disappeared from the shops?

"From the 10th century on, Angelica was cultivated as a vegetable and medicinal plant,[2] and achieved great popularity in Scandinavia in the 12th century and is still used today, especially in Sami culture. A flute-like instrument with a clarinet-like sound can be made of its hollow stem, probably as a toy for children. Linnaeus reported that Sami peoples used it in reindeer milk, as it is often used as a flavoring agent.

In 1602, angelica was introduced in Niort, which had just been ravaged by the plague, and it has been popular there ever since. It is used to flavour liqueurs or aquavits (e.g. Chartreuse, Bénédictine, Vermouth and Dubonnet), omelettes and trout, and as jam. The long bright green stems are also candied and used as decoration

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A Week in the Aveyron

For those who are geographically challenged, particularly as regards the regions of France, the Aveyron is an area of France in the region Midi Pyrenees. It also includes Languedoc which explains the very inflected French that’s spoken there. (Languedoc – language of ‘oc’, the word for ‘yes’ in the Occitan language, as opposed to ‘oil’, later ‘oui’ in the North of France).

Monday 26 April:
7am start. A long and disrupted drive down to Dover. It’s a good job we allowed plenty of time (I’ve missed ferries before). We changed our clock and watches on the boat and arrived in Calais at about 3.15pm French time for the drive down through Paris to Chartres where we are spending the first night.

We got to the hotel at Le Coudray about 8.30pm having stopped at an ‘aire’ for croquet and quiche. Marea also had a tartelette multifruits. Why do we (in Britain) serve such filthy food in motorway services, on the boat, etc., when the French find it so easy to produce something simple and good?

Tuesday 27 April:
Breakfast in the hotel – the usual ham and cheese, rolls, croissants, plus very good coffee. We set off at about 9am for the long drive down to Tournemire. The weather was glorious, clear and warm. The péages might be expensive, but the driving is wonderful.

We stopped for coffee and then for lunch in the Auvergne, in sight of the volcanoes.

Stunning scenery high in the Massif Central.

Over the wonderful Viaduc de Millau, (this was taken later in the week - rather difficult to photograph when you're driving across it) through Sainte Affrique, Rocquefort and Tournemire about 3.45pm.

Cloudless skies, birds and butterflies.

The village and house are just as we remembered them. We did a quick shop in Sainte Affrique and then sat in the garden with a (very) cold glass of white wine – I left it in the freezer to get really cool and it was flecked with ice crystals inside – to the accompaniment of ‘La Vie en Rose’ played on a child’s music box.

Wednesday 28 April
We slept in until about 10am, tired after the long drive. Cloudless skies and the temperature is already 27C (just over 80F). With a bit of hindsight, we’ve decided that, on the way back, we should overnight again at Chartres (Le Coudray), have a look at the cathedral and the city, then move on to Arras, hoping to arrive early afternoon. This way, we would split the journey again and avoid the Paris rush hour.

We walked down the village, but of course the boulangerie is closed because it’s Wednesday. However, we found that the Mairie is presenting a concert in the Salle des Fêtes on Saturday evening – free, so we might go to that (if we ever find where the Salle des Fêtes is). We set off about midday to drive to Brousse le Chateau, listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Some way on, we found the ‘route barré’ so had to follow a diversion which took us through Saint Izaire and Broquiés.

Broquiés is a beautiful little town nestled in a fold of the hills and with an extensive cemetery above the town.

We drove across bowls of fertile farming land and, as a consequence, prosperous farms.

Eventually, having crossed the Dourdon, we headed up into the hills again and down across the Tarn, gradually winding into Brousse Le Chateau.

Turning into the village, one is astonished by the dominant ‘chateau’; in fact a castle which lines one wall of the gorge, frowning down on the domestic buildings lining the other side.

The buildings attached (almost supporting) the huge bulk of the chateau, combined with the Romaine footbridge, are like something out of Lord of the Rings.

In the village, we found a poterie where the lady potter made some wonderful ceramics, so we bought some! See

We spent about €80.

This is one of the older domestic buildings in Brousse. Not everything is well preserved.

Brousse, for all its isolation, is well worth seeking out.

On the way to Brousse, there are 3 tunnels (we missed them on the way there because of the route barré, but found them on the, rather shorter, way back). They’re between a quarter and half a kilometre long; rather like canal tunnels – the same cross-section, and just a bit frightening in case something comes the other way. The roads, however, like many in France, are almost empty, so the risk isn’t great.

Thursday 29 April
Didn’t get up especially early - great luxury – but decided to drive to Montpellier anyway. We didn’t try to go through Sainte Affrique and Millau because of the road works in St A, but followed the road right out of the village, up over the causse.

There are a couple of Knights Hospitaller monuments up on the Causse du Larzac – Le Viala du Pas de Jaux, where they are working on the Hospitallers’ refuge-granary and Sainte Eulalie de Cernon where there is a tower.

The views on the road once you leave the Aveyron and enter L’Herault, are absolutely spectacular. The autoroute to Montpellier is being rebuilt, so our sat nav got lost about two-thirds of the way and we weren’t sure of our way when we got into the city. However, we eventually found the parking at Comedie, just where we wanted to be. (The main entrance is in a very fast, curved tunnel under the centre and, if you miss the entrance, it’s a bit of a trek back.)

It exits into the main square and the Polygone shops.

There was a market where we bought asparagus and strawberries. Marea also bought a straw bag.

Marea looking laconic (?) ironic (?) French (?)

While we had lunch in the main square, we got into conversation with a French pharmacist who, after complementing me on my French pronunciation, asked to converse in English so he could practice. He was rather a conservative type, didn’t like Sarkozy at all and even spoke well of Margaret Thatcher! Still, not everyone can be sane!

Montpellier is every bit as wonderful as I remember it, though they are messing the roads about all over the city and we had difficulty finding the way out. Eventually, we found a Géant supermarket where we bought fuel and it exited direct onto the road to Millau.

According to the literature, the refuge-granary at Le Viala is the highest and most important refuge-granary tower on the Larzac (not sure how much competition there is).

Friday 30 April

We decided to go into Millau, have a look around and do a bit of shopping.


As we drove up to Rocquefort, I heard an odd noise and, as we pulled over into the tourist bureau car park to allow a car and lorry to pass, the lorry driver stopped as well and drew our attention to the rear wheel where we had a puncture. I wedged the front wheels against the kerb and got out the jack. As I wound it up, it slipped and I could neither wind it up nor down. I had to go into the bureau to borrow another jack (‘cric’) to lift the car off our own jack. The woman in the bureau was very helpful and loaned me her own jack. (She also gave me the word ‘cric’). I managed to change the wheel and returned the jack. On the way back to the car, we met three bikers from Uttoxeter who had come to see if the rumour of free cheese from the bureau was true. After a chat about the local attractions, we pointed them in the direction of Brousse le Chateau and went on our way. We then set about trying to replace the tyre – it proved impossible to repair because I had been forced to drive a short way on it. The difficulty was compounded by continental opening hours – we were just hitting the 12 noon closure. In the end, we decided to have lunch in Millau and wait for everything to open again.

I had moules mariniere, but I don’t think they agreed with me.

Having tried four suppliers unsuccessfully, we gave up and went to Géant to do a bit of food shopping, then back to Tournemire. The weather hadn’t been so hot and sunny today, but still not bad.

Saturday 1 May
Le Premier Mai: Fête du Travail. Being a bank holiday, it rained.

Rain: great for the snails

We knew everything was closed; even the Géant said ‘Fermeture Exceptionelle’. The boulangerie in the village was open for a short while in the morning, so I went down for croissants and a baguette. Got soaked on the way.

After breakfast, we settled down to read books and listen to music. Having done so much driving over the last few days, the rest was welcome, but the house wasn’t very warm. In the afternoon, I watched Toulouse beat Leinster (rugby) 26-16. Later we had ‘Ladies in Lavender’ on DVD and the French Cup Final on TV in the evening. It didn’t stop raining all day, but the ‘meteo’ promised better, so we thought we’d go off early to Sainte Affrique.

Sunday 2 May
We knew there was a market in Sainte Affrique on Sunday mornings, but we had no idea how big it was. The whole centre of the town was closed but, by circling round, we managed to park within about 100m.

We had a good look around. There was a fair bit of tat, but some interesting specialist foods, including, on one stall ‘Vin des Philosophes’ and ‘Vin de Merde. Jean-Marc Speziale, who owns a small restaurant in Aniane near Montpellier, was so fed up with the bad press that wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon were getting that he decided to hit back. So he started making his own batch of wine, and labelled them Vin de Merde. Having sold the first 5,000 bottles at around €7 a bottle, he bought some more grapes, put up the price to about double what locals usually pay and sold out again. (Il n’ya rien a dire!) We didn’t buy any.

We bought a needle threader for Marea, whose poor eyes are giving out. Then we thought of a friend who would really find it useful and I went back and bought a couple more. On the way out, we stopped at a boulangerie artisanale and bought sausage rolls and pastries for lunch before driving over to Sylvanés to see the Abbaye.

As we arrived, mass was just ending, so we sat on benches under the trees and had our lunch. The sausage rolls were very good; real chunks of pork. After this, we went for a drive through the countryside; Le Viala du Pas de Jaux, Cornus, etc., before turning for home.

On the way back over the top of the causse, the fields were covered in tiny narcissi and the verges lined with wild iris, orchids and cowslips. Still no replacement tyre, so we had no spare.

In the afternoon, we watched Biarritz beat Munster in the H Cup rugby semi-final. The English referee really didn’t seem to like the Irish, even with Ronan O’Gara in charge. We then packed ready to set off the next day for Chartres. Marea was very worried that we haven’t booked a hotel but I was sure there wouldn’t be a problem getting a room. We hoped to find an aire with free wifi so we could book somewhere online. We settled down for the evening with books and our DVD of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’.

Monday 3 May
We cleaned up the house and left around 10am. I had hoped we would cross the Viaduc de Millau again, but we took a wrong turn and ended up driving down through the valley, not flying above it. On the way up, we stopped a couple of times, but the food in the aires wasn’t very good. We had hoped to get online so we could book a room, but the one place that advertised had no connection. However, when we turned up at the hotel at Le Coudray, there was no problem. I hadn’t thought there would be, but the place filled up during the afternoon and, by evening, was full. We ate at a RestauMarché, a chain that promises ‘cuisine traditionnelle’ and indeed, the food turned out to be very good (and very reasonable). I had magret de canard and Marea had Filet de Truite au sauce beurre citron. These were followed by a very good panna cotta and accompanied by a pichet of local wine.

The evening was cold and rainy; we hoped for better the next day.

P.S. Comfort Inns may not be 5-star, but the rooms are clean and comfortable.

Tuesday 4 May
We breakfasted and drove into Chartes – a very beautiful city but with all the narrow convoluted rues around the older parts. Eventually, we found our way around the routes barrées to a very tight parking space in a street behind the cathedral. Some tourists walking by (I had the impression they were Americans) said ‘No way’ because there was only a space of about a foot, but I made it and we set off through the cold wind and round into the cathedral.

Chartres Cathedral is famous for its stained glass windows and they are, indeed, stunning.

The early mediaeval cathedral was built to house the ‘Chemise de la Vierge’ (the Virgin Mary’s shift) which is a linen shift apparently dating from the first century AD but they are careful now to say ‘… as might have been worn by the Virgin Mary’.

The multi-lingual interpretation in the cathedral is very good and explains, among other things, that the extensive restoration that’s going on is to turn the cathedral back into a polychrome mediaeval cathedral, mostly by simply cleaning the surviving plasterwork, but where the plaster does not survive, they have replaced and painted it to match what they are finding in the original.

Around the central nave, there is a complex frieze of statues. It will be interesting to see whether these were originally painted.

Chartres from the cathedral

In the cathedral close

We left Chartres to its high winds and negotiated Paris with no holdups and no mistakes. We stopped for a sandwich just North of Paris and then made our way to Arras where they are excavating and relaying the cobbles of the Place des Heros.

Arras: place des Heros

However, we managed to park the car and made our way to the Hotel Diamant. We both thought we remembered eating dinner at tables outside the hotel but, apparently, we were wrong – it must have been the brasserie next door which is now an Irish bar (après nous le deluge).

Arras: the Mairie

Typical Arras cobbled Street

Arras was very cold, but we had a walk around and found an Italian restaurant for dinner – quite good, especially the house wine – a local rosé. Hotel Diamant seems to be a one man show, though he must have someone in to do the rooms. Anyway, he was there at reception, and in the evening, and again serving breakfast the next morning. The hotel had free wifi so we had a brief look at BBC News and checked out a couple of emails.

Next morning: Calais, Dover and Leicester!