16 September 2019

A TALE OF TWO TARTS.

In all the years we have been visiting or living in France (albeit part time) we have had very few bad experiences in our interaction with the French.  Of the less good experiences, although few, many have involved restaurant staff.

A week ago we went with friends to a nice restaurant in a village called Leigné-les-Bois.  We first spotted this restaurant when we were trying to find the cattery in the same village.  It was closed (not just for the day) at the time but a while ago we learned it had reopened.  So, when friends suggested we went for Sunday lunch we were very pleased and looking forward to it.

On walking in we had that feeling that this was going to be really good.  It was a cosy, old fashioned, traditional restaurant serving excellent food and we felt very comfortable.  The staff were professional and attentive and all was going well until the dessert course.

One of us had ordered a raspberry dessert and the other three of us mirabelle tart.  There seemed to be a longer than expected delay for the desserts to arrive (considering we had been one of the first tables to order) but eventually two appeared on our table.  A raspberry dessert and a slice of apple tart which was placed in front of me.  I immediately pointed out to the young waiter that this was not what I had ordered and he scurried back to the kitchen, looking flustered.

Madame came out and then the trouble started.  None of us really have the language skills to follow her rapid French well enough but the gist was that there was no mirabelle tart left.  It was apple tart or nothing.  Looking back I realise she didn't offer us any of the other dessert options either but we accepted the apple tart.  No apologies were offered except for a barely audible "désolé".

It was not good.  The pastry bottom was uncooked (raw) and it was no better than supermarket tart, certainly not worthy of the price of the menu.  On top of that, as we ate our apple tart, portions of mirabelle tart came out of the kitchen and were delivered to other tables - four of them, just enough for our table.  And to tables who had ordered their food after us.

As we paid the bill Madame did say "excusez nous pour les tartes" which I suppose counts as some kind of apology but that was all.

My assessment is that they mucked up the order and decided to give the mirabelle tarts to their French customers and palm the inferior apple tart off on the table of English.  I was tempted to point out that we were not tourists, we do live here and have a lot of friends that we will tell about this experience.  But I couldn't be bothered.  It wouldn't have made any difference as one thing I have learned is that in this situation apologies are hard come by and Madame was unlikely to care less what we told our friends.  She probably had enough regular French customers to make her living.

Although this was by no means the first time we had been treated indifferently in a French restaurant, it is fairly typical of the scenario.  Service is either gushingly attentive or irritatingly indifferent.  Mostly, as I said at the beginning it is very good.

22 August 2019

BROCANTE FINDS

 
It has been a good year so far for brocante and vide grenier purchases. 
In case I haven't mentioned it before, both are sales of old stuff, usually taking place in the streets of a village or on a playing field.  A brocante is a sale of bric-a-brac and is generally old stuff with a proportion of professional dealers of quality stuff.  "Vide grenier" means "empty the attic" and is often a sale of unwanted household stuff with fewer professional dealers.  At least, that would be my interpretation of the two terms based on what I see at these events.  Essentially they are both events where you can buy or sell your unwanted stuff.  If you're selling you can book a table or two for very little cost, turn up early morning, set up your table and wait for people to come along and buy.
If you're buying you can turn up at any time until late afternoon, wander round at leisure and haggle for the things you want.  Most of it isn't priced and will cost less the later in the day it is but you have to bear in mind that much of the good stuff is sold early in the day.  Most buyers will offer less than the asking price and get a bargain.  I'm inclined to think that if something is only 1 euro to start with, offering less is just a bit too cheeky!
 
The above is a flan tin that I bought in Ferrière-Larcon priced at 1 euro.  It is made by Tupperware, the plastic box people and its non-stick surface is in good condition.  Worth a punt for 1 euro I thought.
 
 
 It turned out to be a real bargain.
 

 
These two mirrors were 5 euros and 3 euros.
Having redecorated upstairs we needed new mirrors for the two bedrooms.  The top one has a shelf at the bottom for placing a hairbrush or other bits and bobs.  The bottom one has a green frame and fancy beading.  In both the glass is in good condition.
 
 
Having first removed the glass, I painted the one with the shelf a bright red to match some of the décor in the new small bedroom.  Within seconds of the paint having dried Daisy appeared from nowhere and sat inside it.  The same effect as leaving an empty cardboard box or basket lying around! 
 


 
By contrast, this modern pie dish was bought from a charity shop in the UK.
It cost £3.  I Christened it by using it for a Sunday Dinner Pie.
 

I am always surprised at what you find for sale at French brocantes.  Amongst all the broken toys, unwanted clothes and useless ornaments there will be stuff that is really useful and probably not very old.  There will also be really old stuff that appeals to collectors.  You can get amazing bargains.  The equivalent in the UK would be the car boot sales, which we never go to.  I prefer to go to charity shops in the UK but there are very few of those in France, only Emmaus and the Red Cross that I have found. 
Brocantes (or vide greniers) are good entertainment.  A good place for people watching, bargain hunting, bumping into friends and getting a glass of rosé and a bite to eat if you're lucky (and can bear standing in the queue).  There is rarely (I could even say never) a charge for entrance and parking is usually on street or in field and also free.  A fun part of life in rural France.

9 August 2019

A LOCAL TART

 
This morning's trip to the supermarket in Loches introduced us to a new delight.
It's a sort of cheesecake made from goat's milk.
 
The Verneuil dairy is not far from us and produces milk, cheese, crème fraiche and, amongst other products I have not listed, this new gateau.  We often buy their dairy products so when the very pleasant young man was handing out slices of this to taste in the supermarket we couldn't resist.  Once tasted, we were hooked.  It was delicious!
 
I'm not huge cheesecake fan - all that fat and all those calories - but when the (quite nice looking) young man pointed out that the milk used has much less fat than cow's milk I thought - why not.  He suggests serving it with some coulis but I have a jar of caramel sauce that might be just right......calories - what calories ??  You can see their website here - turn the sound up!
 

We're off back to the UK this weekend, after a hectic time enjoying ourselves here.  Much writing up to do.....soon !!

16 July 2019

THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD (permission for a couple of rants, please)


The train was quiet on Saturday afternoon.
 
We are back chez nous after another brief spell in the UK.  The journeys lately have been much easier, traffic busy but behaving itself on the UK side, which is the part that is difficult to plan for.  We always leave home at least two hours earlier than the journey time to Folkestone should take in order to allow for hold ups on the UK motorways.  If there are no hold ups we arrive at the tunnel two hours early and recently we have been able to get straight on a train to France.  We have managed the whole journey easily in twelve hours door-to-door including a couple of breaks en route.
 
On our way to the south coast from home we usually listen to the radio, so that we can get the local traffic announcements that would alert us to hold ups ahead in each BBC area as we pass through.  Saturday lunchtime is fairly lean listening and last Saturday we found ourselves tuned in to BBC Question Time.  I hate that programme.  I usually end up shouting at the radio or stomping off to do some ironing and this edition was no exception.  (Except that I couldn't stomp off.)
 
We got up on Sunday morning to find that our farmer had left his company car in our back garden.

 
One of the panellists was one of our newly elected Brexit MEP's.  A female whose name I can't remember. No doubt one of those who turned their backs during the EU national anthem.  As it happens it was nothing to do with Brexit that made my blood boil (more about that later) but something she said about being a "millennial".
The topic was about the rise in the state pension age for women and she said that as a "millennial" she couldn't afford a pension or her own home.  The implication was that those of us who do have pensions and our own home have had it so easy and she actually said it was the "millennials" who would be paying for it.
 
Now hold on a minute!!!
Easy is not the way I would describe it!  
I would bet that she drinks her Costa coffee, whilst listening her Spotify playlist, on her mobile phone, before using her hub, to adjust her central heating, and set the washing machine, in time for her arrival home in her fairly new leased car, with a ready meal, to put in the microwave, or even an Italian take away, with a nice bottle of wine, to then catch up with a box set on Netflix.
The only way I could afford a mortgage in my twenties was because I made sacrifices.  If millennials were to give up all of the above luxuries and totally unnecessary expenses they could save up the deposit for a house and have a mortgage just like I did. 
Post war food rationing was still in place when I was born.  In my twenties I didn't eat out, own a car, or have central heating.  Phone calls were made by walking to the public phone box.  The weekly wash was done by hand in the bath and when I rented a spin drier from Radio Rentals to make the laundry dry quicker I thought myself very extravagant.  Entertainment was from a rented second hand TV.  A drink was a cup of instant coffee and in fact I remember standing in the supermarket choosing between soap powder and coffee because I couldn't afford both.  I could go on.  And on, and on.  Life was most definitely not easy.  I didn't have a decent standard of living until well into my thirties.  Even then I remember the panic when mortgage interest rates went from 5% to 15% virtually overnight.  Faced with having to find hundreds of extra pounds every month to pay the mortgage and keep my own home was not what I would call easy.
As for the "millennials" paying for our pensions, I can assure this woman that over my forty years plus of working flat out and paying tax and national insurance I have more than paid for every penny that the state will give me back in my measly state pension.
 
Waiting for the candlelit canoe display and fireworks at Descartes.
 
We kicked off our arrival chez nous, with my brother and his daughter for a holiday, with a bbq and an evening at the fireworks, it being the 14th July and a Big Night of celebration all over France.  Friends were invited to eat with us, along with their visitors, before we all went to Descartes to see the fireworks and, awkwardly, the conversation turned, almost without us realising it, to Brexit.
 
One of the things I hate most about what Brexit has done to the UK is that we are constantly treading on eggshells to avoid the subject in conversation.  The strength of feeling is such that what starts as an awkward discussion can turn to bitter resentment within a few sentences and things can be said that are hard to ignore or impossible to take back.  Especially when you assume that all gathered are of the same opinion but it turns out that they are not.
 
It all began when one of the visitors asked my niece what she would be doing now that she has her degree in biomedical science.  She would like to go on to more education and research but, sadly, much of the investment for research projects comes from the EU and much of it has already been put on hold if not cancelled.  Many of her friends are students in faculties where their future has already been compromised in just that way.
One of the visitors was baffled.  Surely the government, once we are no longer "giving massive sums of money to the EU" will "have to do something about it".  It was not something she had ever thought about before.
 
This led to a short verbal tussle that we managed to curtail before anyone said something untoward, the conversation moved on and the atmosphere relaxed.  The aftertaste lingered for a while as I pondered how entrenched people can be in their beliefs in spite of evidence to the opposite.  So many people seem to think that "no deal" means things stay the same as before and that it will all be alright in the end.  We are all doomed.
 
Don't start me on Boris Johnson!

9 July 2019

AS GOOD AS IT GETS continued.

 
We have recently had a "canicule" - a heatwave - in France.  Day after day the thermometer hovered between 37° and 38°C in the afternoons, which is pretty hot.  Fortunately the ground floor of the house largely remains a comfortable temperature due to the thick stone walls and blinds at the windows.
 
 
These old houses are not that easy to make completely comfortable.  When we have been away for a while in winter it can take several days for the house to warm up and let go of the chill, even with the heating chugging away in the background and the log burners going full blast.  It's difficult to imagine that now, in a heatwave, as we struggle to stay cool!
  
 

 
We're thrilled with the kitchen.  It works well when we're both in there cooking and feels light, airy and spacious, even when visitors are hovering and Hugo and Daisy are doing what they do best - getting in the way to attract attention.
 
The staircase was well worth the investment.  We were somewhat alarmed when our former neighbour, Mme André, told us that the last French owner died after falling down the rickety old staircase.  (Amazing that she knew that.)  The previous English owners had replaced it with an industrial style spiral staircase but we found that awkward, so commissioned a solid oak one.
 
 
The buanderie (utility room) has changed completely since we bought the house, there is now loads of extra storage and the loo is enclosed in an actual room rather than just open plan!  We also fitted a back door so that we could go straight out to the woodshed to fetch logs, or bring a muddy dog in, without having to go via the front door.
 
The buanderie stays quite cool even in hot weather.  This is because it has the thick walls and tiny windows.  Old photos of the house show that it was at one time used as a bedroom, which would have been very handy in summer.  The same set of photos also show that there used to be traditional wooden shutters at all the doors and windows but these were removed at some stage and replaced with full length double glazed glass doors and windows.  This is good from the point of view of letting in plenty of light - a real issue with houses of this kind.  Not so good in terms of keeping the house cool.
 

 
The main bedroom is what sold us the house.  We love its vast airy space and original oak beams.
 
Unfortunately its very charm is also its downfall in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.  There is no ceiling so a good deal of heat comes in directly through the roof because the insulation is not very thick.  The reverse is true in winter.  Heating the room to a comfortable temperature is not easy and a lot of the heat is then lost through the roof.
 
In order to improve things we would either have to remove all the boarding on the inside of the roof tiles and cram in more insulating materials, or a better solution would be to take off the roof, add insulation and put the roof back.  Both of these options would be hugely disruptive and expensive so we make do.  For three quarters of the year it's fine.  In a heatwave we use fans and a portable air con unit so that we glow rather than swelter!
 
 
The curtains at this end of the room disguise/hide the open plan en suite bathroom.
 

 
Neither of us liked the open plan effect and we have pondered endlessly how we can make it into a proper separate bathroom without spending a small fortune.  The curtains were a temporary measure for when we loaned the room to guests last year, enabling them to use the bathroom with a degree of modesty.  Like so many temporary measures it has stayed and we quite like it.  Even so, one day we might bite the bullet and refit the whole bathroom, creating walls around it.
 
 
There is of course a separate bathroom on the landing, with a bath.  I was rather enamoured with the idea of the bath but in actual fact we have never used it.  The shower over it is used by guests so one day we may also bite this bullet and refit this room, taking out the bath and installing a bigger shower cubicle.
 
 

 
This is the view along the landing from each end of the house.  The second picture shows the new wall we have built on the right to divide the "room with no name" into two.  That's the project we have just completed, taking weeks of work.  We now have a new single bedroom and a good sized office space created from the other half of the room.
 
 
The new wall has a door leading into the new bedroom.  There is also a door into the original guest room where there was previously just an opening in the wall.  The space above the door is now also boxed in instead of open which gives the two rooms complete privacy.  It was a lot of work but is a major improvement, making the space much more practical from the point of view of visitors and also anyone who might in future want to buy the house.  It now has three proper bedrooms.
 
 
One of the jobs that took a lot of time was to replace the shelves over the walls in the two bedrooms.  The roof is perched on top of the walls and is panelled on the inside with plasterboard with insulation in between.  There is panelling covering the inside of the walls and where the top of the wall ends there is a shelf filling the gap between the two sets of plasterboard, creating a triangular shaped space as in the picture above.
Previously the shelves on top of the plasterboard were made from pieces of thin contiboard that didn't quite meet.  The gaps allowed drafts and critters to enter the house.  We were plagued by ants in this room as they crawled up the outside walls and into the room via the gaps.  In windy weather there was literally a howling draught through some of the gaps.
 

 
Removing the contiboard shelves revealed the top of the wall and millions of mice droppings.  A good clean up, the addition of more insulating material and new shelves made of wood with well sealed joints has brought an end to the draughts and the ants.  It's good to know that the mice and ants can no longer get into the house - well not here, anyway!  Living in the countryside has its challenges!
 
 
 
We're hoping that our next guests will enjoy having a proper bedroom each instead of having to go through one bedroom to get to the other.  The new single bedroom is small but has a lovely view through the window over the front garden.
 

 
The original guest room is spacious and has a large window overlooking the fields and woods at the side of the house.
 
So that's it.  As good as it gets.  Apart from the possible upgrade of the two bathrooms the work is finished.  It's taken us nearly five years to get to this point, bit by bit, and we're very pleased. 
There are always things to do to a house like this - it's probably over three hundred years old and has been altered over and over again.  There are clues all over the place hinting where bits were changed and the previous owners left us a folder of photos taken during the last renovation.  I would dearly love to be able to step back in time and see what was going on over the centuries.  I expect life was hard for all who lived here, people and animals, for most of the time the house has been in existence.
 
At last we feel we can just sit back, relax and enjoy living here.  It almost feels like the rest of our lives starts now.

6 June 2019

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

 
The upstairs work is finished.  You never really finish with a house like this as there is always something else to change or improve.  There are still things that we would like to do but we have run out of steam for the time being.  We have downed tools and decided enough is enough, for this year anyway.  Having spent two months working on the house we have called it a day and from now on we are just living our lives.  Getting on with the routine stuff, gardening, shopping, cooking and just enjoying being here.
 
 
Spending so much time working on indoors means that the outdoors is not quite as summer ready as we would have liked by now.  Nick has managed to do some crisis gardening while I have been restoring the inside to normality, tidying, cleaning, putting away and finding a permanent home for the stuff in boxes that landed in our bedroom to make way for the work at the other end of the house.
 

 
We have not yet made full use of our picnic shelter.  All we have done is a quick tidy up so that we could have a few meals outside in the fine weather.  A little more time spent will restore it to its full glory, always ready for a relaxing meal - lunch, dinner or a cup of tea with a slice of cake.
 

 
While I have been busy sprucing up the inside Nick has been wrestling our garden furniture out of the barn and cleaning it up for summer use.  Washing bird poo off the chairs, dusting off the cobwebs and oiling the wood.  There is somewhere to sit in shade or in the sunshine all around the house whatever the time of day, according to the weather. 
 
 
The crop around the house is coming on and the views are stunning.  If you don't mind a few pylons of course.
 

 
 
So this is as good as it gets.  The house is more or less as we want it.  We have ironed out its wrinkles and changed things to our taste.  It has taken us over four years but we can now begin the rest of our lives and just enjoy living here instead of doing it up.  The garden is full of roses, which is how we like it. 
 
More later.

8 May 2019

WINE TASTING AND BRIC A BRAC


Last month, while busy with the alterations to the bedrooms, we took the weekends off.  There are plenty of things going on at the weekends to keep us entertained.  One of which, at this time of year, is that many of the region's wine makers have their "portes ouvertes", open days which include wine tastings and which are usually free.

 
This one was at Domaine de la Bonnelière which is in a village called Varrains near Saumur.  They make a wine called Saumur-Champigny and we first tasted it at the wine fair in Le Petit-Pressigny last summer.  That in itself was a day to remember and we like the wine so much that we went in search of the winery to buy some more.  Sadly I hear rumour that the wine fair is not being held this year, I hope that it's not true.
 
 
This events are one of the things I absolutely love most about France.  You pay nothing for admission or parking, you get to taste lovely wines for free and get to buy them at discount prices.  In the UK we would have parted with twenty quid for parking and admission before we got to see or buy anything. 
Sometimes there is a small charge for a tasting glass which you can either keep or return for a refund on leaving.  In this case they were free and you just handed them in as you left.  No doubt a few did not make it back to the owners but all the people that left at the same time as us left them on the welcome desk on their way out. 
 
 
We took our friend Lisa with us.  It was a beautiful cool but sunny day and the event was very much a family affair with entertainment for children as well as adults.  There were food stalls where you could buy local delicacies or a snack and the caves were open to visit freely.
 

 
It was a really relaxed, non stuffy, unpretentious event.  There were certainly plenty of friendly staff on hand to give advice, provide tastings of anything you liked and sell the wine.  Whilst there were obviously plenty of serious, well heeled customers around, the rest of us, the enthusiasts, were made very welcome. 
 

 
Saumur-Champigny is a wine that we had forgotten about until last summer.  We used to drink it often when we spent holidays in and around Chinon but in recent years we have bought more wine from the vineyards that are more east and north of us.  Now that we have rediscovered it, it has become one of our favourites again and this winemaker makes some really delicious wines.  You can read all about them here.
 

 
The next day, a Sunday, we went to a nearby Brocante.  I'm never sure what the difference is between a Brocante and a Vide-Grenier but whichever this was, at Azay-le-Ferron, it was, as always, a good one.  It's the right kind of size, not too huge but big enough to make it worth going, and the streets are closed to traffic so that there's no dodging of cars between the stalls.
There was the usual selection of toys, clothes and household stuff, much of which you can't imagine why anyone would have bought it in the first place.  I did find some bargains though - a glass cake stand, some small dessert dishes and a ceramic soufflé dish which is an ideal size to use as an outdoor water bowl for Hugo.  Total spent so far - five euros.
 
 
I also bought this three strand necklace.  It's made of beautiful glass beads and is perfect for taking apart to remodel into something different.  Just as I took its picture, Daisy jumped up onto the worktop to remind me that it was Dreamy Time.  To us it's Apéro Time when we sit outdoors in the evening sunshine to enjoy a drink.  Hugo and Daisy join us for a game of ball (him) and a few Dreamies from the tin (her).  It's a routine that we are only able to ignore at our peril!