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10 Nov 2013

Workers menus

When I first started coming to France often, in the early 1970s, finding so many good, cheap restaurants serving fresh, interesting food was a constant surprise. At that time, Britain was only just beginning to contemplate the idea of food as a pleasure, rather than a refuelling exercise. Elizabeth David's books had started a trend, but there was a long way to go. Apart from Chinese and Indian places, a few Italian restaurants and the Berni Inn steak houses, most towns had no restaurant at all, never mind one worth the name. 

There were the hotels catering for commercial travellers, and the places that catered for weddings etc, but the food was boring, overcooked, and unimaginative. A few pubs were moving on from the stale sandwiches and plastic pies, but then only into simple grills and fry ups. Having to move around the country for my work, I despaired of ever finding any reasonable place to eat with good food anywhere in the country. Even in London, there were not that many restaurants, other than in the very grand hotels like the Dorchester and the Ritz, way outside my income.

There was a feed back loop going on, of course. Because there was no British tradition of eating out regularly, there was no demand for restaurants. Because there were no restaurants, no one went out to eat. I remember at that time a German firm was looking at various places to set up a new, large factory, and Birmingham council was trying hard to attract them there, rather than somewhere in Italy or France. One of what the council saw as a strong attraction was the low wages that would have to be paid to get the right staff. The German management looked at the figures, and said 'But how can one of the workers afford to take his family out for dinner on Saturday night on those wages?' Birmingham said that no working people would do that, or want to, or expect to be able to. The Germans said that they did not want to be in the business of exploiting people, and that they wanted employees with more ambition and life, and set up their factory somewhere else. 

In the 70s, most British Francophiles knew about the Relais Routiers organisation. All the lorry drivers (routiers) used their guides to the best roadside restaurants catering for them, by having very large car/lorry parks, and providing very good lunches at reasonable prices. The idea that lorry drivers would expect to have a good quality, freshly prepared three or four course lunch every day was pretty extraordinary. That most of the meals cost very little in Brtisih terms, and usally included wine in the price, was a revelation. As was the fact that the drivers wanted to sit down at a table with others, and take two hours over their lunch. For us deprived Brits, particularly as for part of the 70s we were only allowed a very small amount of foreign currency each year (you collected it from a bank who recorded how much in your passport, and there were no credit cards), these relais were enough to justify a visit to France in themselves.

The Relais Routiers organisation is still going strong. The difference these days is that wine is not always included. The same tradition of good, fixed price, cheap meals of course is still important in France. Every where you go, there are bistros, cafés, auberges and restaurants with signs saying 'Menu Ouvrier' - workmens' menu - usually at around 8 to 12€ all in. Because of the catastrophic exchange rate, prices in France seem high to us, but are not in terms of French earnings. 8-12€ is in French terms really equivalent to about £5-6 - the same as a takeaway sandwich and coffee in London. But what you get is a choice of starter, such as a goat cheese salad, paté, hard boiled eggs with mayonnaise, or similar, or a buffet of all of them, followed by a choice of a steak, or pork chop, or beef stew or regional specialities, then two or three pieces of different cheese, then a dessert such as créme brulée, chocolate mousse or apple pie. Of course as much fresh bread as you want. In many places there are bottles of wine on the table, usually ordinaire, and you pay for (approximately) how much you drank: can be as much as 3€ for the whole bottle. Compare all this with a plateful of crap 'n' cholestorol for the same price in a greasy spoon truckstop in the UK.

Britain has improved beyond anything I could have contemplated thirty five years ago. There are many good, decent restaurants serving real food almost everywhere. Of course there are chains of rubbish places selling artifical pizzas, microwaved and boil in the bag ready meals, and other pretend food (tip: avoid places where you see a Brakes Bros or 3665 lorry making a delivery - they will be serving mass produced stuff in most cases). An aspect of this is that you can now eat as well in England as France, if you are careful, and at the same prices. That is a miracle.

Remembrance Day ceremony in a small village

In France, as in the UK, there are local commemorations of those killed in wars, in most villages. November 11 is an official public holiday. French administration is organised at its lowest level in communes, which can be as large as a major city, or as small as a village: the smallest near where I live has just 74 people., and ours now has about 260. Each commune has an elected mayor and council, a budget, and some significant powers. The mayor is the first port of call about any issue, from planning to roads to neighbour disputes.
Today, Sunday 10 November 2013, I went to the wreath laying ceremony in the commune in which I live. The actual ceremonies start with a mass in the church in the nearest small town, organised for all the small villages around. Although every village has a church, there are no longer priests. Even thirty years ago most of them would have had their own, powerful, curé, but as the old priests died they were not replaced. Now, there are some priests – mostly from Francophone Africa, interestingly - who serve half a dozen or more parishes, much as vicars in the UK, and hold masses, conduct funerals, christenings, marriage ceremonies, wherever and whenever they can. I did not attend the church ceremony.
From the church, the next step takes place at the war memorials in the individual villages. There is a guard of honour, made up from anciens combatants (former soldiers) from the commune, with flags of their regiments, or in one case, that of the group of former prisoners of war, who stand to attention facing the memorial.
These guards of honour also attend the funerals of former soldiers. When our friend Robert died in 2003, there were fourteen flags carried at his funeral, but each year there are fewer old soldiers left, and fewer of them who can hold up a heavy flag. There were six at a funeral of a neighbour that I attended a few months ago, and only two today at the commemoration. There is no one left from the first world war, and as we get to the 70th anniversary of D-day and the battle for Normandy, all those who fought then are in their eighties and nineties. Even those from the Algerian war are now pensioners. Soon, there will be no flags.
The mayor said that we are there to honour those who died, and read out the names of all those from the commune who were killed in 1914-18. As he said each name he paused, and everyone murmured 'Mort pour la France', died for France. There are 29 names, including four from one family. At the time the commune had a population of about 600, most of whom were agricultural workers, and many of those were exempt from the military because of the need to keep producing food, so the deaths were a high proportion of those who went to war. He read out four names from the second world war the same way. One former soldier laid a wreath at the foot of the memorial, the mayor asked for a minute's silence, and then it was over.
There were 21 people at the ceremony, mostly elderly, a few children. We then went to the mairie, the town hall, across the road from the memorial, for the traditional vin d'honneur , a glass of champagne. A few minutes later, the people from the ceremony in the next commune arrived to share the wine; next year we will go to their mairie.
Tonight, as every November 10, there is a communal meal in the Salle des Fêtes, used for all sorts of official events like voting, for celebrations and private functions. Most of them have stages at one end, and are used for theatrical and musical events as well. Ours is the former school, and large enough for about 120 people to sit down to eat. The meal will be an aperitif, probably a kir, an entree, a main course of grilled ham in a chive sauce, a wedge of camembert, and a dessert. It costs 13 euros, under £11. You have to take your own plate, cutlery and glass. There will be live music, and dancing until very late.
There is no tradition of wearing poppies in France. There is therefore no absurd pressure on everyone in the public eye to start pinning them on themselves from mid October. But the commemorations are sincere, and matter even to those who do not go. This was occupied France, and that time, and the subsequent battles and destruction of many towns and lives, is still felt.

3 Oct 2013

A thing that goes beep in the night

A couple of months ago we had finished dinner with some friends who had arrived for a visit, when we heard an electronic beep, which repeated regularly every five seconds or so. Not too loud, but insistent. After 10 minutes we started to think it must be some sort of electronic alarm, and that we should perhaps pay attention to it.
The beeps seemed to be coming from outside the house, but we could not pin point exactly where. We suggested to our friends that it might be some sort of warning alarm on their car, which they had only recently bought, and which was parked right beside the house on the drive. So we got them to go and check it, but couldn't find any cause. A few minutes later the beeping stopped, and we all relaxed.
Next night it started again. Perhaps it was somewhere inside the house? Someone said that smoke alarms beep when their batteries are running low, so we took the batteries out of all of them. Still the beeps. We switched off every electrical thing that was running, except the lights. Then we switched them off one by one. Still the beeps. Just as we were about the switch off the electricity at the mains, the beeps stopped.
The next night was silence. The following night it started again. Still impossible to pin point the source location, but there it was, beep....beep...beep... Walking around outside it appeared that the noise might just be coming from a loosely covered concrete box sunk in the ground below a tap beside the front door. When we bought the house, the previous owner had suddenly abandoned a very extensive renovation and extension of the house half way through, several years earlier. This box had pipes, and also a bunch of electrical wires which were apparently intended to supply power to a building replacing a barn down the garden, a shed/workshop, electrically powered gates and other lights. It looked as if the wires led under the garden, but they went through the wall into the house and then disappeared; we never found out where they went. But perhaps those wires were connected somewhere, and the beep was coming from that. Looking in the box showed nothing but concrete, gravel, pipes and earth.
The following morning we spoke to the electrician who had done the work for us on the house, and asked if he had any thoughts. He said 'it's a toad'.
Didn't believe him. Could not be a live thing,, it was electronic. He said it was, and that he had other clients with the same toad in their gardens. I bet him a bottle of decent wine it was not a toad.
The next night, the noise was back, and a bit louder. I looked in the concrete box again, and this time I saw it. A tiny toad, about an inch long, lurking behind a stone. It was raining, so I was not going to lie on the gravel and reach down to catch it. But the following night, the beep was back, but even louder. As I opened the door, there was the toad, on the bootscarper. I picked it up carefully, and put it in the hedge a hundred yards from the house. Two nights later it was back, and this time I put it in a hedge several hundred yards away. I gave the electrician a bottle of good claret.
A bit of subsequent research showed it was a midwife toad, a species where the male attaches the spawn to his legs and carries it around until the eggs are ready to hatch into tadpoles, when it finds some water and lets them loose. No, I had never heard of it either. It is fairly common in France, and since then I have heard them at other people's houses.
As a postscript, there is now another one – or perhaps the same one, not possible to tell – in residence in the rockery by our back door. We hear it most nights, but now we know what it is take no notice. You can find information about the toad here: and if you click on the video on the left half way down the page, you will be able to hear it. There is a lot of other background noise on the sound track, but the beeps start at about 25 seconds in.

Related posts: slow worms, lizards   
Salamanders  and toads

30 Sep 2013

History and heavy metal in France

It seems to me to that wherever one goes in France, there are causes for astonishment. If it is not a sudden view of a huge chateau, still privately owned and not open to the public (almost everywhere), it is a village you have never heard of which is still entirely medieval (like Sainte Suzanne in Mayenne), or a tiny little place with a three times life size statue of a 17C man in a huge wig called Anne – the man, not the wig (Tourville-sur-Sienne, Manche). But there are other surprises as well.
If you keep off the autoroutes, and stick to the N and D roads, you will encounter places well worth a stop. We were returning north from a holiday in Provence, and stopped for lunch in a town called Clisson, in Loire Atlantique 44, 15km to the south east of Nantes. We chose it because we came to it en route, and it was lunch time. What we discovered was a splendid old town, beside the confluence of the Sevre Nantaise and Moine rivers. It has one of the best preserved 15C covered markets, where the woodwork causes keen carpenters to come over a bit faint and dizzy with admiration. It also has the remains of a very imposing castle, which is open to visit. The town was damaged in the 18C in the war of the Vendee, and has an interesting history.
The 15C market hall at Clisson
The castle ruins at Clisson

We went through Clisson again in June, and stopped for a coffee. As we entered, there were a number of signs saying roads were closed. There were also signs advertising a three day heavy metal rock festival in Clisson that weekend.

The festival is an annual event, and is called Hellfest. This year, the top of the bill bands were Kiss, ZZTop, Def Leppard and Whitesnake. There were nine stages, and about 100 bands in all, so serious stuff. There were a lot of hairy heavy metallers wandering around, many of them carrying tents and bags.
We sat outside a cafe looking into the market hall, and ordered our coffees. A group of half a dozen men walked towards the cafe. They all had long straggly hair, long straggly beards, torn jeans, dark t-shirts with band names, and a real swagger. I hoped they were not going to stop and sit at the other tables at the cafe. The last time I encountered heavy metals fans in the UK, there was a lot of swearing, abuse, and threats of violence.
But these were French heavy metal fans. As they got to the tables, they all said 'Bon jour, monsieur-dame' and sat down. They ordered, between them, two coffees, one beer, two of those horrid looking pink alcoholic drinks the French like, and one glass of rouge. They chatted away about bands, the festival, the weather, and their friends. When we left, they all said 'Au revoir, bon journee'.
Another cause for astonishment.

Update December 4, 2013:
The line up of artists for Hellfest 2014 was announced today.  Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith and Deep Purple are the main attractions (?), with 130 odd other bands, or 130 odd bands as the case may be. The dates for those interested are 20-22 June, tickets on sale but apparently going fast.

4 Sep 2013

La Rentrée – Back to School

In the second half of August, all the French supermarkets suddenly have vastly expanded stationery ranges, and are full of mothers and children clutching lists and walking up and down the aisles with anxious expressions. This is La Rentrée, the start of back to school in a couple of weeks.
The reason this is a huge issue is because French schoolchildren have to provide their own notebooks, pens and other materials. Central government issues a list specifying the minimum, of at least 25 things in varying quantities depending on the age of the students and each school adds its own requirements. The shops have huge huge banners on the subject of La Rentrée. Not just the supermarkets, but the sports goods chains. The thick weekly catalogues that the postman/woman put in our letter boxes every Monday are the same. Click here to see a weekly catalogue from LeClerc, the equivalent of Tesco. Many supermarkets have schemes for parents to send the lists provided by their children's schools, and then cost them and package them for collection.
This year the typical minimum cost of everything each child needs is about 135€, well over £100; there are grants for people on low incomes, but it is still a burden.
And on the subject of burdens, it is astonishing how much stuff French kids have to carry to and from school every day. Not just a simple satchel. Nor a lunchbox: all children must eat school meals and lunch boxes are not permitted. Materials, notebooks, text books, equipment and other things, adding up to a fair weight. Even five year olds in their first year have backpacks. Increasingly, children are using wheeled luggage bags. The fourth page of the LeClerc catalogue illustrates this. There is a campaign to try to reduce the amount of stuff kids have to carry, prompted by the number of children developing back problems.
It does seem to me a bit unfair to have children concentrating on the start of school weeks before they actually have to do it, and it is a cost for families. But maybe the system also teaches children to value and look after their school stuff.

6 Aug 2013

Swallowtail butterflies and a fennel bush

A few years ago, I bought a bronze fennel bush at a garden centre specialising in herbs, near Chesterfield in Derbyshire. We kept it in a pot on our roof terrace in London, where it quietly survived. We then then took it to Normandy when we moved here, put in in a proper garden, and it has thrived: this year it reached nearly two metres.
It is not the bulb fennel, sometimes called Florentine fennel, sold in supermarkets and elsewhere for use in salads and with fish. This one starts with intensely bushy stalks, thickly covered with fronds; bit like dill on steroids. Gradually the stalks get longer and the fronds more separated. Eventually, it produces a host of yellow flower heads, flat with a mass of tiny flowers, like all the umbelliferae plants. These flowers are covered with bees, hoverflies and other insects. Finally the flowers turn to seeds. I gather these and keep them for cooking. Their liquorice taste adds a deep flavour to stocks, soups and sauces, to some salads, and as a component of any spicy dish. I probably use them at least five times a week. In winter, the plant just dies back to the ground.
Each year, for a day or two, in late may or June, we have a swallowtail butterfly or two flying in the garden, and always ending up on the fennel. Then we have caterpillars, starting as small, dull things a centimetre or two long, but within days becoming three times the size, and turning black and green. They sit on a stalk and eat the fronds until all that is left is the stalk, and they move to another. They don't damage the plant; unlike some pest species, there are usually only up to a dozen. Three weeks later they have all gone, each turned into a chrysalis out of sight. 

This year This year (2013) there has been a second brood, with four more caterpillars on the bush in August.
All photographs ©ManchePaul

4 Aug 2013

Ecological beach cleaning

St Martin de Brehal is a seaside resort near Granville, in the Bay of Mont St Michel. It has a couple of miles of sandy beaches, a restaurant, a bar/brasserie, and a standard bar, plus a couple of shops selling beach stuff. At one end of the beach there are commercial mussel beds, which are visible at low tide.
St Martin de Brehal looking towards Granville, August 2013

Like most French beaches, local equivalents of bye laws forbid playing radios, and taking dogs on the beach from May to October. Unlike many British beaches, St Martin de Brehal has no litter problem. This is partly because in general the French take their rubbish away with them, and the French are very keen on keeping everything propre – clean and tidy.
Nonetheless, in high summer when there are a lot of people on the beach, some litter does appear. Some of it is odd bits of paper that blew away unnoticed, some is just odd items overlooked in the chaos of a family with a couple of young children trying to gather up all the clothes, toys, and other stuff they had to bring, and some of it is brought in from who knows where by the tide. The rubbish has always been collected at the end of the day, not a big job.
A week ago, when the temperature was over 30 degrees in the shade, and the summer season is well under way, I was sitting on the beach while my wife and a friend paddled in the sea, after a good dinner in the restaurant. Behind us, the few bits of rubbish left on the beach were being collected.
Each piece of litter was put in the appropriate dustbin on the donkeys' backs – the recycling rules are followed everywhere.

(There are other references to St Martin de Brehal, including pictures, on this blog: Here

28 Apr 2013

April 2013: spring may or may not be here

The winter of 2012-3 was of course pretty dreadful: continuously colder than usual, and very much wetter than average for Normandy. The snow in March was so bad that the Ouest France regional newspaper published a special supplement of facts and photos, with the cover an aerial picture of the closed A84 motorway with the roofs of abandoned cars poking through the snow.
It was beginning to look as if there would be no end. Until last week. Sunday was warm, almost hot, the next couple of days back to cool, then two more hot days. In those two days spring arrived. Primroses that had been lurking in the hedgerows stood up in everywhere, the winter skeletons that were blackthorn trees turned white with blossom, like candy floss, lawns grew two inches. A mistle thrush built a nest in the cherry tree 20 feet from our door, in a tree that had no leaves to hide it, but which was half obscured by cherry blossom the following day.
The delay in spring's arrival has compressed a month or six weeks growth into a week. The pasture beside our garden went from tired dull green to almost throbbing bright green in a day, and turned yellow with dandelions the next, and off white with dandelion seed head two days after that. The usual pattern of primroses, then violets as they fade, then early spotted orchids as they fade, has been overthrown, with all of the spring flowers in full display at the same time.
Pasture with dandelions

Primroses, violets and dandelions together

Early spotted orchid
The leaves, close to the ground
have the spots. 
An odd effect is that this year, the early spotted orchids are everywhere, not just in ones and twos, but dozens in a square metre and groups over a hundred metres of hedge. This is very pleasing, because over the last few years there have been fewer and fewer orchids appearing.
The quiet of the days has been replaced by the noise of tractors, as farmers, plough, chalk, harrow, muck spread and sow seeds to try to catch up after weeks of inactivity in the fields.
It was a bit strange. After that week the day time temperatures have been around 10-12, with as low as 0 at night with frost. It may be that the cold nights will affect this years crops, with the soil unexpectedly staying too cold for seeds to germinate. Last year, haricot beans were sown three times, before a crop could be harvested, and fruit trees produced very little. We had in total one cherry (a starling actually ate it) on two large, long established cherry trees, a handful of apples on a tree that the year before had branches breaking from the weight of the fruit, and a few pears. The same went for commercial growers: cider apple crops were terrible, for example.
This spring although there is blossom on some trees, there are few bees. Normally, the buzzing around a tree in flower can be heard from yards away. It does not augur well.

24 Feb 2013

Lac de la Dathée revisited

My post in January 2010 about the Lac de la Dathée has had a lot of visitors, so I thought I might add a bit to supplement it.There is a golf course on one side of the lake about which I can say nothing because I do not play golf, but I am told it has a good cafe so I might one day call in...There have been a lot of floods in this part of Normandy this winter. I live effectively in the valley of the River Sèe, which descends through the hills from Sourdeval, to join the sea at Avranches. Its last 15 miles or more via Brécey and Tirepied is a meander through a long established flood plain. Most winters there are several occasions where the entire valley turns into a lake 50 miles long by up to 500 yards across. The Lac de la Dathée also flooded again this year, with water flowing over the dam.However, when I went in Autumn, it was calm and very pleasant. Here are some pictures. It is well worth a visit.

18 Feb 2013

Fishing on foot in France

The French love of sea food is emphatically demonstrated by the popularity of la pêche à pied, literally fishing on foot, every time there is an exceptionally high and low tide. Thousands of people descend on beaches at low tide, armed with a variety of tools, and rake and dig and scratch to collect a bucketful of shellfish, shrimps, crabs and even proper fish.
These tides – les grandes marées – occur a varying number of times every year, depending on alignments of earth, moon and sun. There was one on February 11, which happened to be the first sunny day for weeks, and a Monday when many people are not working. And best of all, the low tide time was about 4.00 pm, so that it did not interrupt lunch.
The Bay of Mont St Michel in Normandy has the highest tides in the world – up to 15 metres difference between high and low. As a result, there are huge amounts of sand and rocks exposed along the miles of beautiful sandy beaches at the very low tides. St Martin de Bréhal, just north of Granville is typical. There are commercial farmed mussel beds apparent at normal low tides, but at les grandes marées the sea retreats far further out.
So, after lunch on Monday, hundreds of people went to the beach, men, women, families, old and young. By mid afternoon there were more people along the water's edge and in the shallows than on a hot summer weekend. The sound of the raking could be heard from hundreds of yards away.
People of all ages arriving at the beach, armed with special tools
 The Bay here has whelks – Granville is the biggest whelk producer in France – and scallops, both of which are quality controlled and protected. There are also clams, queen scallops, flatfish such as flounders, and round fish like sea bass (hard to catch without rod and line), but also crabs, lobsters, oysters and many other crustaceans, shellfish, and fish.
Wading, digging, scratching and raking for a host of  creatures
The la pêche à pied is a long established tradition, but now has to be controlled to protect resources (link in French). There are limits on how many of each species can be collected, and on the minimum sizes. One can buy plastic boards with holes labelled with the species: if an example goes through the relevant hole, it is too small and must be put back. The range of species, and the limits for each, at Granville are in this table (in French).
By full low tide, there are thousands of people on the edge or in the water mall along the coasts, as here at St Martin de Brehal, with Granville in the background 
This being France, where laws are obeyed and are enforced (or repealed after manifestations – protests, demonstrations and civil disobedience) the vast majority of people comply with the restrictions. However, some don't, and the police do carry out raids; the penalties for too much or too small include fines of up to 22,860€, about £20k . Last year at several beaches a couple of hundred police, customs and ministry officials descended and checked every basket and creel. A large number of people were charged, and had their catch confiscated.
Although the majority just get enough for a family meal or two, there are some who are effectively commercial, taking things to sell, and they are the real target of the rules.
If you ask anyone why they do it, there are three main explanations: for the fun of the outing, for the reward of the hunt, and for the freshness of the food. Quite right, too.
Three hours later, after everyone had gone home, the tide came back and all but the a ribbon of sand was under water.

10 Feb 2013

Wine and the French

Everyone knows that wine is very important to the French. Not only as a valuable industry in its production and sale worldwide, but in its consumption: the French drink 47 litres per year each on average, compared with 20 litres in the UK. Just how deeply embedded wine is in all aspects of life is shown in all sorts of ways that are surprising to people from other countries. A meal without wine in France is almost unthinkable, a social gathering without wine is not social, and a visit to a friend or acquaintance will always start with a glass or two wine.

My house insurance - a normal, everyday policy – includes under its list of things covered automatically votre vin (your wine) to a value of 1782 euros, because most people will have a stock of wine in their cellar or shed or a back room.

Every year in January the mayor of every commune holds a public meeting, to wish everyone a happy new year, and to report on what happened in the previous year. In our little commune of 260 people, over 80 turn up for the meeting, which takes place in the Salle des Fêtes, the meeting room used for everything from grand meals, private receptions, clubs and societies, arts and exercise. After his speech, champagne is served. Similarly, after the Remembrance Day ceremony, and any other public events, there is a vin d'amitié (wine of friendship) afterwards. The cost of these wines comes from the local funds, and the electorate consider it an essential use of taxpayer money. Any chance of the same thing happening in the UK?

The famous Relais Routiers – restaurants with enormous carparks for lorry drivers throughout France - provide three or four course fixed price lunches for around 8-12 euros. This usually includes a quarter of a litre of wine (or in Normandy cider as well). When I first started coming to France in the 1970s, at a time when British food was at its worst but Elizabeth David was having a big effect, the RR were a revelation. Interesting, varied high quality food, and nothing fried in grease. They are still enormously good value. In towns, where there is no space for lorry parks, many small cafe/bar/bistros/brasseries/restaurants offer a Menu Ouvrier (workman's meal), essentially the same concept of at least three courses, usually wine included, for the same sort of prices. Often the wine is in opened bottles on each table, and you help yourself to what you want.

Wine buying is an everyday process, for everybody. Supermarkets have extensive wine sections , often with wines at several hundred euros a bottle, as well as cheap everyday quaffing wines. In October, most supermarkets and wine merchants have Foires au Vins (wine fairs) where they have a huge range of wines in six or twelve bottle cartons at good prices. This is because the wine producers have to find room for the new wine from this year's grape harvest, so sell off existing stock that is left or reaching the point where it is about to pass its prime. Many excellent bargains to be had, but you have to go quickly because all the best wines and best deals sell out very rapidly: every French person knows a lot about wine.

In common with many traditional farmers in Normandy, which of course has no wine production, a friend of ours buys his wine direct from a producer in Bordeaux. Once a year a tanker turns up, and runs a hose into one of his outbuildings where a couple of barrels are filled with the current year's wine. This is drawn off into bottles as needed, and is not at all bad.

Another local family has its next generation producing wine in the Loire region, and each year they come to the village and provide a buffet meal and wine for all comers, in that village's Salle des Fêtes, with of course dégustation (tasting) of the currently available wines. A lot of people turn up, and many order cases for delivery later. The wines are very palatable and good value.

To look at some more figures is informative. The British consumption of actual alcohol is virtually the same as France, 13.37 as opposed to 13.67; alcoholism rates are virtually identical. The key difference is that the French virtually always drink with food, even if it is just nibbles with a glass of white at 6.00pm with a friend, and drink small amounts each time, whereas the British seem to drink to for its own sake or simply to get drunk.

Another set of interesting numbers: the USA average wine consumption is only 7 litres per year, but they consume 216 litres of soft drinks like colas. This undoubtedly explains their social problems and the bad tempered aggressiveness that is so prevalent. It certainly can be no coincidence that their obesity rate is 30% compared with France at 9%.

10 Dec 2012

Abbaye Blanche, Mortain 900 years old

 This year is the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Abbaye Blanche in Le Neufbourg, Mortain. Unlike the Abbey at Lucerne d'Outremer, which I wrote about in this blog post, or the Abbey at Hambye, this is a relatively little known historic place. I only found it because I had a meeting at the nearby bar restaurant, and saw a sign pointing to it down a little road.

L'Abbaye Blanche, Le Neufbourg, Mortain
Mortain itself was once important, but is now known for two things: the cascades on the River Rance, and the virtually complete destruction of the town in 1944. Its history has effectively been overwritten. The Abbey survived the war, although the Battle of Mortain was a critical moment when the Counterattack by Germany was halted, mainly because it was beside a key US army control point. A mad US officer had demanded that 'Mortain be totally destroyed, so that nothing can live there', and that was very nearly achieved. You can find information from one of the US Army unit's records, including photos of the destruction, one of which includes the comment that 'now you know why some Frogs (French) hated us: we tore the Hell out of their cities'.  For a more unbiased and reliable description of this battle and the whole campaign, Antony Beevor's D-Day – The Battle for Normandy has the definitive information; this Washington Post review is helpful.
The seminary (not even all of it) at l'Abbaye Blanche, Mortain

Today, the Abbey is effectively abandoned. The huge seminary still stands, in good shape apart from a couple of broken windows, but has had no priests in training for over 30 years. It is a lovely building, but what purpose could be found for it today? It is just too big for any conceivable use, and in the wrong place for a massive hotel.

The cloisters
The abbey church is still used occasionally, like most churches these days, and is open, so one can just walk in and look around. The exterior has cloisters that are very similar to those of the Abbey of Mont St Michel, and may have been built by the same people. Because of the seminary having closed so recently, comparitively speaking, the outbuildings, kitchen gardens, pathways are still there, though decaying.

The church at l'Abbaye Blanche, Mortain

The interior of the church is elegant, clean, and very unfussy. Interestingly, there is a Green Man carved into a misericord under one of the choir stall seats, only the second  have seen in France.
A Green Man carved on a misericord

17 Nov 2012

Cycling in France

You will have read that Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France, and Olympic gold medal, was knocked off his bike and injured earlier this month (November 2012), while training. Of course, there is always the risk of a crash while on the road, and I cannot comment on the details of the incident. But what horrified me, and many others, is the level of absolute hatred directed at cyclists in some of the UK Twitter and other social communications. This was so awful that the Guardian ran a piece on it. Some of the comments that this article attracted continued this irrational and disgusting hatred.

What is wrong with so many British people?

Cycling in France has always been a respected and shared activity. Not just the professional sport, but ordinary people of all ages are enthusiastic and active cyclists. I have never encountered anyone disliking cyclists for cycling. All motorists in my experience slow down for bikes, give them time and space, and are aware of the risks to them.

It is clear that cycling is very important in France, and seen as such. There are over 2,500 cycling clubs, most of which have their own club uniforms, and local sponsors. Over 2.3 million bikes were sold last year. There are about 500 organised cycle races every year. There are about 60 velodromes. There are even 73,000 trips every day by Velib, the original in Paris of the BorisBikes in London. Driving around you will see bike riders every day, not just the smaller number using bikes as transport, but people in club colours, in ones, twos and groups, riding a hundred kilometres or more, for fun or for training for competitions.

2011 Tour de France racing through Brecey
In 2011, the Tour de France passed through Brécey, near where we live. People started forming crowds three or more hours before the race was due to pass. An hour before the caravan arrived – an hour of sponsors' and promoters' vehicles: specially adapted and transformed lorries and cars, with people throwing goodies like sweets, bags of croissants, flags and banners, whistles and toys, into the crowd. Five minutes before the race arrived, the sun disappeared and ferocious rain started. The bikes whizzed past in a couple of minutes, and it was all over; the rain then stopped.

There is also the Tour de Normandie which is a similar race, but is accompanied by a randonnée cycliste, a non-competitive open to anyone ride through Normandy. Last year we encountered the randonnée unexpectedly. To get to our house one has to go along a number of roads which are basically one lane wide. We turned off a two lane road into a one lane, having seen quite a few bikes crossing ahead of us as we approached. Once we entered the narrow road it was obvious that we were on the route of the randonnée. This was because as far as we could see there was an endless series of cyclists approaching, individually or in groups filling the road.

There was no point in trying to proceed, so we just parked in a field gateway and waited for them all to pass. This took a couple of hours: there were about 3000 riders formally participating, but many others joined in for the fun of it. There was no racing, just an endless stream of bikes, ancient and modern, racing bikes, granny bikes, mountain bikes, vintage bikes. Riders of all ages, male, female and indifferent. And because this was France, every one of the riders said 'Bonjour' as they went past us.

Young riders waiting for the start
Teams from all over the region
Family affair
And they're off
Cycling is for everyone. We had a load of gravel delivered, and gave the driver a cup of coffee. He told us he cycled about 150km every weekend, but 250km the previous one for a club competition. He also said he was retiring in a couple of weeks. Then there is the annual fête at a little village called La Lande d'Airou (population 509) which includes cycle races that attract competitors from all over Normandy. There are races for all ages, from five year olds, under 10s, 11-15, and adults. It is all taken very seriously, with roads closed, cups and trophies for winners, and pretty good crowds of spectators. The four photos show a bit of what it was like.

Cycling is indeed part of the French identity. Their poor performance in the Olympics, and the failure to win the Tour de France for many years, is a huge embarrassment.

Back again

There has been a bit of a gap in posts to this blog. What happened is that my wife and I retired, and decided to live in our house in Normandy for a few months, renting out our flat in London, while we made decisions about the long term. In the event, the estate agent handling the rental found a cash buyer who made an offer we could not refuse. So we didn't. The only catch was that the sale had to be completed in three weeks, which meant disposing of almost all the furniture, sorting out documents and other bureaucracy, and moving to Normandy.

Which we did. However, we soon found that our house was great for holidays, but not really big enough for full time living, especially as we both had various little continuing obligations that really required a bit of desk and filing space. We started to look for a bigger house, and found the ideal one about 10 miles away. Needed completion of renovations, and other work.

So, we sold our London flat, moved from London to Normandy, bought a new house, sold the original house, and are now very, very content. But during that time, there seemed little opportunity to keep posting to this blog. There are plenty of other blogs about the issues and problems of moving to France, finding and doing up properties, and I did not have the enthusiasm or energy to add to that. Of course, there were other things I did and other things I wanted to talk about, but the blog just got neglected.

So why have I decided to start again? Firstly, I was greatly encouraged by the very interesting web site, Normandy Insite, reprinting a number of the earlier pieces here, and secondly, we are now pretty firmly established exclusively in Normandy, and I have time and energy to do so.

I will try to add what I hope are interesting and/or informative blogs regularly. Please add any comments you like.

17 Jul 2010

The issue of the bees

The concern at the loss of bees is becoming widely known. From press articles, and television coverage such as this there is a lot of interest. Unlike the 100 square kilometre monocultures of the USA, like for almonds, which require the transportation of bees all over the country for the flowering season, Normandy is mostly natural. There is not (yet) a disaster. But rears are growing, and explanations being sought.

This is partly because there is still an enormous number of cattle and other beasts which graze, and are fed on hay in winter, so that wild flowers are everywhere, and of course the apple and other fruit trees. In April, the apple tree over our terrace was in full flower, and a short spell of warmer weather meant we could have our lunch outside. The apple blossom was covered with bees, the noise of their buzzing constant. A bit like the World Cup vuvuzelas. As far as I could see the bees were mostly honey bees.

The bocage also - even though it is becoming less - is still a huge reservoir of trees, bushes and flowers. The local authorities in the country carry out 'fauchage' twice a year: a process of cutting the vegetation on the verges and the high bocage hedges. One man on a tractor with a sort of enormous beard trimmer attachment can do kilometres in a week. The result is that there is a continuing series of flowering plants: primroses, violets, orchids, cut down after going to seed, and then followed by foxgloves, scabious, knapweed, thistle etc. with ferns and grasses for seeds coming up in profusion. Recently, in many places they have delayed the first cut because the winter was so bad, and all the plants are late.

Bees, and all forms of wildlife thrive. No pesticides, no flailing to smash trees and shrubs, and respect for the cycle of the seasons.

Honey bees are not as common in general this year as the several varieties of bumble bees, but they usually appear in large numbers in late July and August. Apple trees are mostly laden with fruit, as are other fruit trees. All flowers are blooming and dying back very quickly, because they are very rapidly pollinated, which is a good sign in general, although indicative of a bad winter.

We have a path to out back door through a near jungle of herbs - mint, oregano, lemon balm, lavender, rosemary, tarragon, which will take over the path when they all flower in a couple of weeks. Apart from the wonderful scents when you walk along the path, brushing the plants, there are great clouds of bees and butterflies which rise up and settle back as you pass.

We are doing our best to help the bees, growing trees, bushes, plants with flowers throughout the summer, and for the solitary speciies placing bamboos and other open tubes around the garden for overwintering and spring nesting. No pesticides, herbicides, or paranoid weed free cultivation. We have hedges on all four sides of our garden (1700m2), with hazel, beech, oak, medlar, blackthorn, hawthorn and holly. We have two big patches of garden that are not mowed, just left to nature, and they are full of flowers at the moment. In winter, we can often see goldfinches hanging off the knapweed seed heads from our bedroom. We also have three fields, which are used for grazing by a neighbour, with a family of cattle there for two or three weeks, then moved elsewhere, to return in a couple of months when the grass has regrown.

Virtually a paradise, which will end if the bees go.

Another Fete

We are well into the season of village fêtes, vide greniers and celebrations. See previous post for more information. Bastille Day, 14 July, sees festivals and events everywhere. We went to one, and as always, encountered a few pretty unexpected incidents which we would never see in the UK.

Usually, the fêtes include a communal meal, most often served in a canteen style - line up with a tray and pass along the servers to get a starter, main course, piece of cheese, and a dessert. You then find a place on any of the long trestle tables under very large marquees; it rains sometime in Normandy. There will be a 'bar' where you can get bottles of wine at three or four euros, mineral water, and of course cider. There are variations, some feature mussels and frites as the main course, some grilled meat, some start with a rough - in the sense of not smooth, not low quality - pâté, occasionally served in very large terrines on each table to help yourself.

The fête we went to was called a 'mechoui' which strictly speaking is a word for a whole roast sheep, but locally is often used for a feast which may or may not include lamb. Here it did. There was a small vide grenier  which was literally stuff from attics, and a bouncy castle.

The village has a population of just over 600; there were 731 lunch tickets sold. When we arrived, there was a huge modern marquee set up. No guy ropes and tatty canvas, this was a light weight state of the art metal frame with canvas stretched over it. It has a proper wooden floor. There were two rows of tables, each table seating 20 people. This was the first time we have found proper plates and cutlery - usually it is all disposable stuff. Though at one you were supposed to take your own couvert (plates, cutlery etc) which we had not realised. Fortunately near enough to the home of one of our party to drive back and get enough for all of us from her house. Like all French people she had enough stuff to cater for twenty or thirty at a meal at home. Here there were glasses made of glass, and paper napkins of superior quality, and all the places were laid out before anyone got there. Top stuff all round.

And the food was served to the tables, starting with a rosé wine based aperitif. The first course was one of those sort of fish terrines on a bed of macedoine veg, and mayonnaise. Taken out of a refrigerated lorry at the last minute, and brought round to the tables. This was followed by huge platters of barbecued sausages, traditional herb and spicy merguez together, with really excellent frites. Next were grilled lamb chops, followed by slices of roast leg of lamb and more frites. The lamb was probably the best, most tender, lamb I can remember. We had earlier seen the meat being grilled behind the marquee. a dozen or so big square barbecues for the sausages, and two huge rotisseries for the lamb, each with I think eight spits, each of which had seven or eight whole lamb legs over fires of large logs. They were hand cranked, basted with home made basters made from long poles with a metal cup or bowl attached to the end, and a large tray under the meat to catch all the juices. The meat was also basted with a broom made of bunches of beech leaves tied to a pole.

After that, a little portion of camembert followed by an ice cream (industrial, but French catering quality). Not bad for 15€ each. There were 61 volunteers setting up, cooking, serving and washing up afterwards.

The after lunch had finished (about 4.30) entertainment was the donkey races. These donkeys are not the tiny things at English seaside resorts, or wavering under huge loads or very fat men in the Middle East, but Normandie donkeys, of which there are two races: the âne Cotentin, from the Cotentin peninsula (you probably guessed that) which is pale with a dark cross of St André on its back, and the âne Normande which is browner. Both are threatened species and you can - apparently - receive a subsidy for keeping them. These donkeys were ridden for four laps round a little oval hippodrome type circuit, with volunteers riding them. These jockeys were adults who had clearly enjoyed their lunch, and had taken some wine with it. The donkeys were like donkeys always are, reluctant to co-operate very much. The result was that half the riders or more fell off, and by the last lap the donkeys slowed down, sometimes turning round and going the wrong way. The fallen riders seemed not to get trampled, even when they fell near the beginning when the donkeys were trotting along at a reaonable pace. There were no helmets, no saddles or reins, no liability disclaimers to be signed, no elfin safety of any sort. No one was hurt, and everyone laughed.

A couple of other things were going on, including a raffle where everyone got a prize (otherwise it was gambling and required a licence), and something described as a lapinodrome. This was a low wooden circle with numbered holes cut in it. Inside the circle were some rabbits  (lapins), and the public bought tickets with the same numbers. The winner was the one who held the ticket with the number of the hole through which the first rabbit emerged. Similar games in the UK. The difference here was that the winner kept the rabbit. The event continued until all the rabbits had been won. They were not taken home as pets. Many country people keep rabbits as a food supply. They know how to deal with a live rabbit.

The other similar thing was fishing for ducks. One sees this at many events, lots of little yellow toy ducks with loops attached being caught by very young children with sticks with little hooks. At this feast, the sticks had three inch rings on the end, and the ducks were live. What they call cannettes, young ducks. And, as you might now guess, if you got a ring over the neck of a duck, you won the duck. One boy of about ten announced that he had just got his third duck, and ran off with it to put it in his parents' car. There was no likelihood that the duck would do any damage. Or indeed, anything by then.