Monday, 30 January 2012

A little french socialising

I still don't have a network of friends and no close family here in France 16 months after I arrived here. But my work colleague Victoria and I work closely from time to time, helping each other out, sharing frustrations, laughing things off, taking an interest in each other's journey in life.

My studio is impossible to have guests in for a meal, a really decent French lunch party so I invited Victoria and her husband and her little daughter to have lunch with Jean-Claude and me at JC's place. Once again, it took hours of preparation, not including the hours of grocery shopping. Things are done just so. Lots of courses again. Lots of time spent chatting about food, wine, some politics, work, JC's past experiences. Everyone got on well and 3.5year-old Doris coped well. I tried hard to cope with the French conversations and participate.

So how does one entertain a very young girl as the hours tick by? I tried to explain things to her, ask questions on her behalf if she was too shy, and watch Ice Age in French with her cuddled up on my lap. It was while I was looking at Manny and Diego etc, feeling the warmth of a little body against mine that I thought back to the good times with my daughter when she was small enough to want cuddles while we watched TV or a VHS. Such a shame kids grow out of that- the best part of being a parent- the physical closeness and the love that transmits without words.

The other entertainment for Doris was her interest in taking photos. She had her own little camera but when she caught sight of my Nikon DSLR her's was no longer acceptable-a girl with good taste. Though she's only three she's smart so I knew she'd be careful with it. I made sure she had the strap around her neck and showed her how to look through the viewfinder and not at the screen. Some of her photos aren't worth showing you but the one of me and her parents is a Doris creation, taken, as you can imagine, by a very short person. She looked so incredibly cute and serious capturing anything that caught her interest.

With me and Doris in the living room it gave the others a chance to get acquainted and discuss whatever they wanted. The weather didn't allow us to don our gumboots and go for a walk around JC's property or the village so the hours passed in conversation instead. The French are amazing with their interest in long conversations so meals last hours longer than they would do in NZ. Even then we didn't get around to offering tea and coffee.

Once again we offered appetiser snacks, a first course and then, this time, a roast lamb but not done the traditional way in NZ. It was cooked in a thin liquid sauce. I roasted potatoes and carrots. This main course was followed by the obligatory cheese, salad, and bread and wine were always on hand. My dessert offering this time was Queen Pudding - an old seventeenth century English dish which JC really likes.I served it with a fresh fruit salad of blackberries, green grapes, blueberries, oranges, strawberries and cape gooseberries.

Queen Pudding has a base made from fluffy breadcrumbs, egg yolks, sugar and warm milk and lemon zest, cooked and then spread with jam and topped with a peaky meringue. My Gran taught me how to make it but it's only in the past few weeks that I've been making it for JC. You can find a recipe for it on the internet quite easily. Just make sure you've got the amounts of milk and breadcrumbs in the right proportions for each other or it won't set or it is too hard and dense.

It was lovely sharing time with them, reconnecting with Victoria's family. We'll catch up again in the summer. So my first attempt at a formal french 'lunch' party was a success that's to great company and all JC's help. My next 'first' will be to make my very first Pavlova to introduce JC to NZ's national dessert.

Monday, 23 January 2012

What grows on trees

Nope, it's not money. It's mistletoe.

Here in France where I live it's everywhere. For many months I didn't twig (pun) as to what that obviously epiphytic/parasitic plant was growing in the trees. Christmas confirmed it. It's definitely a parasitic mistletoe which enjoys sucking the life force from a great variety of trees.

If the tree is basically healthy the mistletoe doesn't kill it (that would be rather suicidal). There's quite a bit in JC's trees. At Christmas he was chopping dead or sick branches off his trees and then brought in a branch of mistletoe with it's strong root. The leaves are tough but soon dry out if it is separated from its host tree. We popped it in the Christmas Tree for fun though you could hardly see it-there were no white berries (too late in the season).

Over here it's called 'gui'. Seeing it in the trees and learning its French name immediately made the connection for me to the Asterix books. In those books there is the wizard (druid) Panoramix who climbs trees and uses his little sickle to cut bunches of gui to put in his cauldron to make the magic potion that makes Asterix and the rest of the village invincible. Somehow the real trees seem much higher than the trees Panoramix climbs in the books.

And the kissing tradition? Wikipedia says, "When Christianity became widespread in Europe after the 3rd century AD, the religious or mystical respect for the mistletoe plant was integrated to an extent into the new religion. In some way that is not presently understood, this may have led to the widespread custom of kissing under the mistletoe plant during the Christmas season. The earliest documented case of kissing under the mistletoe dates from 16th century England, a custom that was apparently very popular at that time."

There is no scientific proof it kills cancer or has any other important health properties.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A French Dinner Party

This was not the first dinner party I've attended in France and it's not the last but it sure was LONNNGG!

We invited JC's neighbours over for a meal (a rather tardy reciprocity). They left the kids back home so it was just the adults; food, wine, conversation. Lots of all the afore-mentioned. Oh yes, lots, this is, after all, France.

It took Jean-Claude and me half a day to prepare everything: the food, the drinks, the table setting, setting the fire for a lovely ambiance. We started with appetisers in the living room. These little delights are delicate, tiny and often bought from a shop. A popular chain of shops for frozen goodies is Picard. You just have to read the instructions on the back of the boxes to make sure you allow the right number of hours to defrost them.

One enjoys them with a flute of champagne and a lively sharing of stories. It's still difficult for me to contribute al lot to discussions but Bruno and Helene made an effort to mostly speak slower. They hadn't seen me for six months and thought I'd made enormous progress with my French. Perhaps but I'm not very objective. It always seems so difficult and exhuasting, especially as the hours go by but Bruno and helen and JC are always interesting to listen to.

I don't eat Fois gras (Ive tried it a number of times) so I had a cheesey ham pastry instead. Yummy. Any left-over fois gras goes to the dog. At present she has to take some medicines so JC wraps the pills in fois gras to disguise them - only in France!

And now on to the main course. This was one of JC's specialities. It's a rolled peice of Pork with cheese and bacon and tied up. he cooks it in a sauce containing raisins that have been soaked in Calvados (a high-alcohol liquor made from apples, orginating from Normandy) some orange juice and mysterious other things. It's spo yummy. I'm a great fan of sauces.

It was served with a puree of celery-no not the branced tyoe. There are two forms of celery in France, the usual one with long stems and another which looks like an ugly, oversized turnip. It's the later that JC uses. He puts the finished puree in little cocottes for a nice presentation. As you can imagine, I was getting rather full by now.

Plunging on into the menu, we moved on to the cheese board and a tossed salad, bread throughout everything, hours went by. We were still eating and drinking at 1.30am. Red wine, white wine, water. No-one sculled their wine. In fact I have never seen any silly drinking behaviour at any of the dinner parties I've attended. The emphasis is not on getting 'silly' or drunk. It's always on the food and company.

Helen had made the dessert. During January it's traditional to serve une Gallette des Rois. It's pastry-like with marzipan in the middle. Hidden somewhere inside is a little 'token'. Who will get it in their piece of Galette? Just so there's no cheating, the person who cuts the cake then turns around with their back to the other guests. One of the guests serves each guest a peice after the person who cut it calls out a guest's name. It's a bit like a double-blind medical trial.

The token was visible in one of the pieces though. Traditionally the person who gets it then announces who their King or Queen will be. A bit of fun. However, time ticked relentlessly, as it does, and I just had to go to bed at 4.00am and leave the others to it.

We're hosting a lunch party next. Oh my waistline!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

How farms have changed

I was born into an urban environment at Christchurch in 1955. When I was three and a half my parents moved to the outskirts of Bishopdale, which eventually became known as Casebrook. At that stage it was a new subdivision of what had been dairy farms, practically rural. Distant members of the family lived in, what seemed to me, far-flung suburbs of Christchurch and my grandfather and uncle had spent some time working as farm hands for money early in their lives (cutting cocksfoot and bailing hay)so there was a smattering of things rural in my early years. I had a basic appreciation of farming and the equipment because you didn't need to travel far to see them in action in those days.

Chartres has a museum of farm equipment. It is a fairly recent building (1990)on a site that was used to repair old steam locomotives and is dedicated to sciences and techniques of agriculture.

There's an important collection of old machines and tools which date from 1800 - 1950 and it holds small exhibitions as well as displays such as environmental issues and how to feed the world's burgeoning population.

COMPA, as the museum/centre is known, conserves, teaches and highlights issues, in particular the relationship between urban and rural environments.

The brochure says there's a 20min audiovisual presentation but there was no sign of iton the cold and quiet day we visited. Some of the info displays were a bit tired or damaged which didn't give a good impression.

However, the collection of old tractors, ploughs and threshing machines is quite good. Most of them are French, most from the Beauce region (the main grain producing area in France, where Jean-Claude lives). There was a massive American tractor (Waterloo Boy 1916) and a Canadian one (Sawyer Massey 1910). I looked for brand names that might be familiar to me. Massey featured, not Massey-Fergusson, there were Renaults of course. I couldn't identify anything like the traction engines I had seen in my childhood but the farms of France are quite different to those in NZ; the sizes, development, history, suppliers.

There was a very interesting example of a mobile hut that used to be used by shepherds. This little cabin hardly big enough for a man to lie down in supplied shelter for the shepherd out in the fields. They lived in them-not very salubriously. Homes on wheels, the shepherds could move them as the flocks of sheep moved; the equivalent, I suppose, of a cowboy camping out with his herd of cattle.

There was also an example of a butter churn; same sort of tool my grandmother knew how to use in her youth, along with ploughs for different areas and crops and tasks, seed-sowers and threshers. There was a nice scale model of a steam engine/tractor which is similar to a working model JC has at his house.

Some models of typical French farm layouts of a century gone by were very interesting to me, entirely different architecture and arrangement to those of NZ. Rather romantic, some produced both animals and grains but the emphasis here was cereal crops. These models showed great details but taking photos was rather difficult because of reflections on the glass.

This museum near the centre of Chartres is worth a stop off if you are into tractors or the weather isn't pleasant.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Christmas again in France

Christmas and New Year 2011/2012 have been very different to my experiences of the previous festive season.

This time Christmas Day was spent with Jean-Claude, his daughter Valerie and his grandson Alexandre. Christmas Eve had been just the two of us with pressie opening close to midnight. Valerie and her son arrived back from visiting other family and we enjoyed a meal together with pressies for Alexandre. They all ended up having the same theme - Cars (the movie). He's only four years old so it's all rather fun for him. He and I got on really well-I have better access to the big kid in me these days. Maybe it's because now I'm not responsible for someone else's life. The pressure's off in that regard though looking out for myself here rather makes up for it. Well, it's different.

So we made up spontaneous games in the kitchen, he tried to explain the rules of a card game (I have no idea what he was talking about). Valerie thoughtfully didn't light up her cigarettes until she was well clear of the living part of the house so this year I did not suffer ill-health from passive smoking. No hospital visits, no loss of money paying for medical care, staying away from sick people, no snow, just a very quiet Christmas.

I debated with myself whether I would use these days of holidays to work on my book but I decided to use the time rather to do very little writing, little housework, more cooking, sharing DVDs with JC, going to Chartres to watch movies, getting up later and certainly to do exercises for strength and suppleness. The later is working but I'm eating a wee bit more, of course, and so putting on some weight which is so hard now to budge. Once I get back home I'll be eating less.

One thing I particularly wanted to do this year was to see the famous Christmas lights of Paris, especially the Champs Elysee. I didn't see them last year because I was in Brittany and then bedridden. JC and I braved the cold and rain to walk along the famous avenue that culminates with the Arc de Triomphe.

What a disappointment! Sure, the weather was horrid for being outdoors at night but it seems Paris had decided to be frugal this time. The magical fairy lights in the trees along the avenue had been replaced by ugly HOOPS.

To me it looked like a commercial shopping centre; not historic, special, romantic at all. Ow wow, after a bit the hoops changed from blue to red. It didn't improve things much. Quite a few tourists were in town. We ate dinner at a pizzaria on the Champs Elysee after joining a long queue to get into the establishment. They had the 'production line' down to a fine art.

Many buildings weren't lit. We didn't go as far as the Seine so maybe we missed some luminary treasures. New Year's Eve has a fireworks display from the top of the Eiffel Tower but there tends to be thousands of people, pickpockets, young guys looking for fights, drinking too much as they do everywhere so we went to the movies in Chartres instead that night.

All in all, quieter, healthier, relaxing and convivial. Maybe my batteries will be recharged for the plunge into work next week.

Photos show a well-decorated house in a village  (Eure et Loir), aspects of the Champs Elysee at Christmas, a quiet family Christmas 2011.