December 25, 2009

A WHITE CHRISTMAS !!

Happy Christmas everyone


Gotta go out now and play snowballs.
It's a white Chritmas so let's make the most of it.


December 22, 2009

BOXING DAY SPECIAL

On Boxing Day 2007 we were surprised to find everything pretty much back to normal. In France, that is. In England we would have been into round two of the Christmas eating marathon, with visits to relatives and an attempt to wade through the mountain of food purchased for the two-day holiday.


In Le Grand-Pressigny all the shops seemed to be open as usual, as if nothing had happened. It just seemed to be a normal Wednesday. This was lucky for us. We had plenty to do and were keen to make a start. So we set off on one of many pilgrimages to Leroy Merlin at Tours. For those who don't know, Leroy Merlin is a cross between a DIY shop, builder's merchant and interior design shop all rolled into one. Like a mixture of B&Q, Wickes and John Lewis all under one roof. They sell everything for the home from cushions to drainpipes.


Lots of people had told us that French paint was rubbish. But I was getting really fed up with the colour of the doors and desperately wanted to paint some. They all seemed to have been painted in a thin, lifeless, matt brown or grey paint. They were horrible. On some the paint was wearing off to reveal bare and grubby wood underneath. There was nothing attractive or charming about the effect. It was just cheap and gruesome. In fact I got the impression the internal doors were probably secondhand when they were fitted, judging by their battle scars. They were all very dirty and scratched and looked as though they had only ever been painted once, long before they arrived in our house. The door you see here is to the bathroom - with clear glass panes in it ! This was fairly typical of the "make do and mend" approach to decor that we had seen so often when house-hunting in France. Why lash out on a proper door for the bathroom when a cheap secondhand one would do and modesty could be preserved by a piece of cheap cotton fabric hung inside the door ?

In Leroy Merlin we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of paint for sale. In fact the whole store was pretty amazing. We spent a small fortune on bits and pieces and I bought a tin of orange paint. I was desperate to cheer up at least one door. Painting it orange made me feel like a teenager again !



It had been many years since I had used runny gloss paint and I have to admit, the further down the door you look, the worse the finish. This could be because I started at the top in daylight and finished at the bottom after dinner in the evening when a couple of glasses of wine had been consumed !! Still, it was my door and I could paint it however I liked. Some of our visitors were not too impressed. Lucie's reaction was to say "what colour's going on there, then?" To which I answered "the colour that's on now - orange !"


Over the next couple of days we had eliminated a lot of the grotty brown paint by undercoating much of it in white. That was already a great improvement. I also got the kitchen walls painted in an off-white. This brightened the place up no end and covered up many of the DIY bodging scars that were everywhere.



By the end of the week we definitley felt we were making progress. But in reality we had hardly scratched the surface - literally !

December 21, 2009

SNOW !!

With all this talk of snow I thought you might like to see what we have here in our little corner of Derbyshire. The snow has fallen on and off for a few days, most of it yesterday, and we have about 3-4" (8-10 cm).



The view from the front of the house.

Very Christmassy, n'est-ce pas ?



The view from the back of the house. Notice the pheasant looking for seeds that might have fallen from our bird-feeders. Our highest pheasant count so far is 6 females and 2 males, including a melanistic pheasant. They presumably nest in the woods not far from our house but come to feed in our garden and drink in our pond.

December 20, 2009

THE SHORTEST DAY

21st December is the shortest day and aren't we glad about that. Although the worst of the weather is probably yet to come, at least the days are supposed to be getting longer. Officially anyway.
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This is a picture of my parents on their wedding day in April 1950. It should be subtitled "country girl marries handsome sailor".


My mother died on the shortest day in 2002, suddenly, unexpectedly and without warning. She suffered a type of aneurism that meant that within moments of feeling unwell she was gone. What a great way to die. It certainly threw us into a spin that year and Christmas was a bit strange to say the least.




The wierd thing is, she brought up the subject of her own funeral with my Dad less than 48 hours before her death. How could she have known ?


She was the youngest of 8 children including 4 half-brothers and sisters. She had a wicked sense of humour and was an expert at getting her own back. She definitely had the last laugh on all of us. She wanted her ashes to be scattered on Marazion beach in Cornwall, opposite St Michael's Mount. Naturally, she had her wish, bless her. We all miss her. After all, you only have one mum.
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December 11, 2009

CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

Back to the story again.


Pete and Cyn joined us for breakfast on Christmas Eve 2007. They had spent a very comfortable night in the hotel, much more comfortable than we could have offered them chez nous. On account of us having little furniture, no spare bed and the house only just beginning to warm up.





The boulangerie is literally a two-minute walk away and we were there early to make sure they hadn't run out of croissants, as they sometimes do. After breakfast, Cyn being Cyn, having the benefit of daylight, she spent a happy hour touring the house (all four rooms!) and making suggestions on interior design and decoration. Two years later, it's amazing how many of them we have actually put in place. They then set off on their long trip to Perpignan and we carried on with our plans for our own Christmas.


We purchased a chicken for our Christmas dinner from the butcher in the village. Nick was dying to use the rotisserie in our new oven. Must be a man thing. Then we went further afield to stock up on other essential goodies (wine, cheese, smoked salmon, more draught excluders and paraffin). Christmas shopping now done, we would soon be beginning the DIY and decorating.




We had brought with us some flat-pack bedroom furniture as a temporary measure, thinking it would be fine for the guest bedroom once we had bought some proper furniture for our room. Nick spent a happy Christmas morning assembling it and we were very pleased with the result. The bedroom was beginning to look much more comfortable and cosy.



Our tradition is to have a light lunch on Christmas Day and our Christmas dinner in the evening. For lunch we had our usual scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and a glass of champagne. Except that this year we had Vouvray, of course. After lunch we always go for a walk so we wrapped up well and went out to do a bit of exploring around the village. It was bitterly cold.


We were fascinated by the building work happening around the château. There was a poster suggesting that the work would be finished and the château would be reopening in 2008.


It was too cold to stay out for long. It was one of those damp, dull winter days, with no breeze to shift the freezing mist and where the cold gets into your very bones. We didn't come across even one other person on our walk.
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However, the village shops had been open in the morning. Before lunch the butcher, baker, Spa shop, newsagent and florist were all open on Christmas morning, just as Barrie and Lucie had said they would. (We didn't really believe them but they were right.) The place had been buzzing. Now it was deserted. Only we Brits were daft enough to be taking exercise when everyone else was tucked up nice and warm in front of the fire. And TV, I suspect. We didn't have one.




We had a proper Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. Nick delighted in cooking the chicken on the rotisserie. We also had roast potatoes, sprouts, stuffing, bacon-wrapped chipolatas, real gravy and bread sauce. As an experiment we cooked the sprouts on top of the log burner - brought the pan of water to the boil on the cooker then just placed it on top of the stove where it continued to simmer beautifully. We did the same with the Christmas pudding. Not having the luxury of a microwave oven, it was on there for hours but it cooked perfectly. The little garden table was overflowing with all the food.

We exchanged little in the way of presents. After all, we were already enjoying the best Christmas present anyone could ever have - our own little house in France.


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At the time, I had no intention of starting a blog. I had no idea what a blog was. Hence the lack of photos of our Christmas dinner !!

December 8, 2009

A TALE OF TWO TATINS - part two

Once back in the UK , we decided to look for a skillet. There were plenty available on the internet but they were quite expensive. There were one or two a bit cheaper but in the past I have found that if something is significantly cheaper than what seems to be a regular price then it probably isn't any good.


In a local cookwear shop I found two sizes of something called a skillet but which actually looked like an ordinary frying pan. It said in the instructions that it was oven-proof to 200°C. Somehow I didn't fancy putting something with a long plastic-coated handle in the oven, regardless of what it said on the box.




Then, our old reliable friend, John Lewis came to the rescue. Nick found this tarte tatin dish for £12. It was like a slightly deeper than normal cake tin with a large lip to get hold of and it was quite heavy. It looked just perfect for the job. Obviously.

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I found a recipe in one of my favourite cookbooks, "The French Kitchen" by Joanne Harris.



The method in this recipe was to melt the butter and sugar in the pan (tatin dish) before the fruit is added.




Just like the previous attempt, after the suggested 15 minutes cooking time it didn't seem to have caramelised much so I gave it another 15 minutes.



Then I put the pastry on top. The recipe said to "tuck the edges in". I wasn't sure what that meant so it looked like this. BUT I forgot that a thick heavy pan keeps its heat much longer than a thin cake tin and managed to get a burn on my finger when doing the tucking in. I shall remember next time.


The frustrating thing about cooking a tatin is that you can only see how the bottom is cooking because the bottom is on the top. You have no idea what the top looks like by peering through the oven door because it is underneath. If you see what I mean.

I cooked it for the suggested 40 minutes, which seemed like an awfully long time for what is essentially fruit tart and where there is no way of telling whether it is done or burnt or what.



ET VOILÀ.

I was very pleased with it. Except that the apples shrunk quite a bit so I might use different apples, or more apples, or just bigger chunks next time. The recipe used eating apples but I might see what happens if I use our old favourite, the Bramley.


I was also rather chuffed with the glass cake plate. £2 from a local charity shop and just the right size !




As usual, I made some mince pies for my Dad from the pastry trimmings. The mincemeat was home-made too, although not by me.

December 6, 2009

A TALE OF TWO TATINS - part one

Just before we went to Le Grand-Pressigny for our holiday in October, there had been much blogging about tarte tatin. I was dying to have a go.




We have no internet access in France and I couldn't remember any detail from the blogs but we had three recipe books in the cottage. We seemed to have a bit of a problem with equipment. All three gave slightly different instructions but all required something called a skillet. This appeared to be some kind of frying pan but we didn't have one. And we couldn't find one for sale anywhere locally.




The recipe I decided to use said to arrange the apple pieces in the skillet and put sugar and knobs of butter on top, then cook to caramelise the apples. This wasn't quite how I remembered it from the blog. However, in order to do this we bought a fairly sturdy cake tin from the supermarket that looked as though it would stand up to heating on top of the stove.




I cooked it for the suggested time but it didn't look very caramelised to me so I cooked it for a bit longer. I used the electric plate on the hob, not one of the three gas rings, as it was possible to control the heat better for gentle cooking (or so I thought). The next step was to put the pastry on the top, prick it and bake in the oven. I bought ready-made pastry and a rolling pin. Then I discovered it was ready-rolled as well. Still, the rolling pin will no doubt come in handy another time !



When it came out of the oven it looked promising but I was really disappointed when I turned it out. Half of it was darkly caramelised exactly the way I don't like it. Luckily the other half was just perfect - due no doubt to the uneven cooking characteristics of the cheapest oven we could get when we equipped the kitchen two years ago.


In any case, Nick and Barrie, our dinner guest that evening, loved it. They ate the blackened bits and I ate the lighter bits. Those bits tasted lovely. What didn't get eaten was taken away by Barrie for later.

Not satisfied with my first attempt, I was determined to have another go...............

November 29, 2009

BACK TO THE STORY

Time to get back to the story.
The story so far :

By a happy set of coincidences we have found and bought a house in Le Grand-Pressigny. We got the keys on 9th November 2007 and have so far spent just one week there. Now we are back - for Christmas.

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A happy man with his new stove.

Before we left the village in November we had asked Pascal the plumber to fit a pôele - a wood-buring stove - in our big tuffeau fireplace. This was after the disastrous attempt we had had earlier in the week in trying to light a fire.
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We had heard nothing from Pascal or our friends Barrie and Lucie so when we arrived for Christmas at about lunchtime on Saturday 22nd December, we had no idea whether the pôele was fitted or not. To our absolute joy, not only was it fitted but also it had been lit !


Barrie had a key to the house to let Pascal in to do his stuff and, knowing we were arriving that afternoon, he and Lucie had been in to light the fire for us. They also left us some milk in the fridge and some bread on the side in the kitchen. How wonderful was that ?!


We switched on the electricity, turned on the gas and water, switched on all the electric heaters and fitted our newly purchased electric blanket to our bed. We also got the parafin heater going but we could tell it was going to take a long time for the place to warm up. However, it was a lovely sunny day and our little terrace, which faces south, is quite a suntrap. We put a couple of garden chairs outside and sat in the sunshine with a cup of tea. We were wearing several layers of clothes and woolly hats but it was absolute heaven. The view over the rooftops was just as interesting in December now that all the trees were bare, as it was when first saw it in August.

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The view from the garden is always intersting, whatever the weather.

We were expecting our friends Pete and Cyn to arrive later the next day. They were on their way to their house in Cassagne, near Perpignan for Christmas and we planned to cook dinner for them in the evening. They would have to spend the night in the hotel in the village because at that point we were unable to put them up ourselves. We had hardly any furniture, only a table, some garden chairs and our own bed. However, they were likely to be warmer there than at our house!


Pete and Cyn are a challenge to entertain as they are vegetarians. Needless to say, a visit to the butcher in the village was not necessary but we shopped as best we could and waited for them to arrive. Sadly they were badly delayed on the autoroute around Paris because of the Christmas holiday traffic and didn't arrive until well after dark. They were in their huge Toyota vehicle that they call Jasper, which was crammed full of furniture and stuff for their own house.

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We met them in the village square outside the hotel and walked up with them to our little cottage. Cyn was in raptures about how pretty the village was and I had to admit, it looked beautiful with the Christmas lights on and the church lit up. By then it was very cold and frosty and the glorious smell of woodsmoke was all around us.

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Pete looking very mellow in front of our log burning stove.

The little set of steps was used as a makeshift sidetable.


We had a great evening with them, all four of us squeezed around our little garden table on garden chairs in front of our new pôele. We had a veggie pasta dish followed by local goats cheese and a "tarte au mirabelles" from the boulangerie. And of course, lots of Vouvray and Loire valley wine. Looking back, it was very rough and ready, in rather scruffy and makeshift surroundings, but it was a landmark dinner party for us - the first of many in our little cottage - and we were pleased that it was Pete and Cyn who were there to share it with us. Their inspiration and encouragement had helped us enormously in getting to this point.

The fire and all the heaters had been going for a whole day so we were beginning to feel almost warm and possibly even Christmasy. The next day was Christmas Eve was and we were really looking forward to that.

November 25, 2009

ÇA MARCHE !

I have always thought that first impressions are immensely important. It can take an awful lot of hard work to undo a bad impression. The first few moments of anything are the critical ones. From the moment I stepped inside the museum building I was enthralled.
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First of all, we were greeted by a familiar and friendly face. The lady on the reception desk selling tickets and giving information had been our tour guide at the château at Azay le Ferron the previous summer. She was brilliant there. We were pleased to see her here.


Inside, the lighting is good and the colours are soft, making you feel you have entered somewhere special, to be enjoyed and savoured in a leisurely way. There are some display cases on the ground floor and having taken those in we descended the magnificent modern staircase to the lower ground floor. Here there are hundreds of objects on display and some innovative ways of dispensing information.




The whole atmosphere is serene and welcoming. The old features blend superbly well with the new. We struggled a bit with some of the exhibits as everything was in French. We don't have an issue with this ourselves, as we are steadily learning more of the language, but some people have apparently commented that the museum will not appeal to foreign visitors unless everything is at least translated into English as well. There will be some interesting debate on this, no doubt.


I must admit, I personally can't stay absorbed in pre-history for too long as it is not my favourite subject and I have never been one for reading every word in the display cases. Nevertheless I could appreciate what a brilliant job had been done. I was perfectly happy to drift from one display to another, just dipping in here and there to see what was on show.


The general ambience of the place is very comfortable. In one area there was a fascinating video playing, showing exactly how skilled people had to be to in order to make tools from the silex.





We then went back up the beautiful staircase to the upper floor and for me this is where the transformation happened. Here, the modern design of the building all makes sense.


This is a huge open space with exhibits in alcoves and corners here and there. Large windows give light to the space and access to views over the village and the land behind the château. The colours are cool and calm and entice you to linger longer to take it all in and celebrate the heritage of the village and its surroundings. The modern lines and shapes of the interior reflect rather than imitate the old part of the château.



A lovely old doorway leads into a beautifully decorated gallery with more displays which are arranged particularly well for children. In fact I felt that children were very well catered for in the whole place, without detracting from the quality of the experience for serious students, as can often happen.


The first floor is where we found the old pictures of the château and village. Also information about the gruesome discovery of the sarcophagi in the grounds and about various changes to the château and museum in recent years. Apparently a large part of the "donjon" fell down in 1988.


Our tour of the musem over, we descended the stairs back to the ground floor and stepped out into the sunshine. The grey clouds had gone and the late afternoon light was perfect for some more photos and for just leaning over the wall, taking in every detail of the view over the village rooftops.



One of them was ours. I was really proud to be able to say that. We left the château behind and spent the last evening of our holiday packing up and eating up for the journey home the next day. We're just counting the days until our next visit and looking forward to living "au pied de notre château" for a while again.

November 22, 2009

BACK TO THE CHÂTEAU

Having lived in the shadow of the château for almost two years, I was so excited that at last we would be able to see it properly. When we bought our little cottage in November 2007 it had already been closed for some time for building work and refurbishment. The old museum, which was the national centre for Prehistory, was being completely revamped. It was to be a top-notch museum that would potentially bring large numbers of academics and tourists to the village.



There had been several deadlines for the re-opening which came and went. Our neighbour, Mme André, was quite scathing about the modern design, the incompetence of the planners and the amount of money the whole thing was costing. The general feeling amongst the villagers seemed to range from indifference to disgust. If we asked people what they thought some would shrug and mutter something and others could be quite vocal in their disapproval. Very few seemed to like it or were excited about it.



Each time we came to stay in the village, something even more incongruous seemed to have been built onto it. I tried very hard to like it. Nick hated it. I was convinced of the quality of the materials and the design but felt I would eventually get used to it and maybe I would learn to love it because it was "ours".



One of the many reasons for the delay in the re-opening was that during some of the excavation work, some ancient sarcophagi were discovered in the grounds. These had to be dealt with properly by the archeologists and the authorities and that took several months. Apparently the finished project has cost €8,000,000.
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Once I was through the magnificent old doors I was amazed by how beautiful the château was. I had previously only seen old postcards and photos but the reality was so much better than I had expected. Also, the view over the village was wonderful.



We had a lovely day for it, sunny skies and swirling clouds gave a vibrant quality to the colours and a dramatic backdrop to the buildings. I was glad we had missed the heat and the crowds of the opening day in September. Having the place almost to ourselves was just perfect.


We approached the new extension with a certain amount of trepidation. There's no denying it had been built to create an impression. Exactly what impression is very personal and subjective. I was so pleased with what I had seen so far that I couldn't wait to get inside and see what it was all about.

November 21, 2009

LET THEM EAT CAKE !

Every year at about this time we have a cake stall at work and sell home-made cakes for the BBC charity "Children in Need".

Raspberry and banana muffin.
I hadn't tried this recipe before.

Nick works for a large company in premises where there are upwards of 1,500 employees. For years I had been making a chocolate cake for him to take for the cake stall there and it would be sold for £1 a slice.

I'm sometimes a bit concerned about the possibility of wasting ingredients on a new recipe if the cake or buns don't turn out too well.

It was a very easy "all-in-one" chocolate cake recipe from my ancient Homepride Flourgraders recipe book. The book cost 13 shillings and sixpence. I know this because there are coupons in the back where you can send for more copies !

It's always a relief when they turn out just like the picture in the book.

The cake is pretty much idiotproof but always looks great and tastes scrummy. Getting it to work in one piece was the greater challenge as until last year Nick went on his motorcycle, virtually all year round.

One year he handed it over to the lady running the cake stall and someone immediately snaffled the whole cake for the princely sum of £20. Nick's colleagues were somewhat miffed so the next year I sent him with two.



This was another "first time bake"

Blueberry and lemon drizzle cake. It was lovely.

So we decided in our very small company of just five ladies that we ought to have a cake stall too. I don't know why we didn't think of it before. The first time we did it was in 2003 and we made £135. Gradually over the years word has got around and lots of the surrounding small businesses and residents look forward to our cakes arriving. We know this because they tell us so !



This one did not sell so fast. Coffee and walnut cake, cut into squares.

It was light and equally delicious with a crunchy, nutty topping but looked a bit uninteresting alongside some of my colleagues' more elaborately decorated chocolate cakes. I brought the last two bits home to enjoy later with my Dad.

I paid for them, of course.

Last year, when I walked into the office with my cakes I was already surrounded by a sea of cake and other goodies. I thought we'd be dead lucky to shift it all but we did and we made £575. So this year, that was our target to beat.



For the last four years I have made a Nigella Lawson Chocolate Guinness Cake.

It looks superb and tastes divine. The Guinness makes it very dark and not too sweet. The sharpness of the cream cheese topping goes well with it.

The recipe for the cake is here.

We were assisted this time by a couple of volunteers who offered to deliver stuff on foot to the local shops and offices for us AND they baked 50 butterfly buns to add to the stock as well. They did a great job. Our delivery couriers also take away a supply for their colleagues to enjoy.


Personally, I have always loved baking and eating home-made cakes since I was a little girl and would help my mother do the weekly bake on a Saturday afternoon. Her standard recipe book was the Bero Book and sometimes by Wednesday it would all be gone so she would bake some more.

After the first year I bought a cream cakestand in a sale, which sets off the cake perfectly.

By lunchtime there was only one slice left. I had that. I have never managed to get a piece before it all disappeared until now.

Nick is not fond of too much cake so I bake much less often these days. I therefore look forward to the opportuntity to have a proper baking session and try out new recipes once a year, all in a good cause. This year I also made some Christmas earrings to sell at work. You can see them here if you're interested.

Other things on sale were: sausage rolls, numerous fancy chocolate cakes, scones, date and walnut loaves, fruit cakes, coconut and cherry cake, carrot and orange cake, chocolate cheesecake brownies, toffee apple brownies, blackberry and apple crumble cake and of course the 50 butterfly cakes. Curiously, there were no mince pies, which is unusual.

Not all the money is in yet but so far it's looking like we've made well over £600.

UPDATE - On 4th December we banked £640. There's still some trickling in to start us off for next year, too.