Sunday, 19 August 2007

Pyrotechnic Panorama

Pyromelodique feu d'artifice.

It was our second year and woops, again the camera batteries ran out of energy. However, we captured an opening cinematographic scene of the castle in all it's pyro-melodique glory! It was exceptional, wondrous and spellbinding.
We found our place three hours before the skies were set aflame with fireworks. Others had already claimed their spot from early morning. On both sides of the river, on the narrow island, on the rues and chemins and on the bridge people brought their foldy-up chairs, picnic rugs and blankets to secure ground space. All was civilised and tranquil. One newspaper reported that there were 10,000 people in attendance. It was fascinating and we were entranced.
For thirty minutes we were to be enthralled. The entertainment was announced by a superb sound system which welcomed us to a cinema. The sound track had included movie themes from Charlie Chaplin , American Westerns, West Side Story, Star Wars and Edith Piaf "The Mome", to name just a few.

At 22h30 the bridge was plunged into momentary darkness where the absence of light and sound hushed those who had waited patiently. The curtain opened for the panoramic screen. The chateau was set ablaze in a fierce, red, fiery furnace. Skies were rent with explosions. Raptures of applause followed shrieks and cheers, all drowned by the warfare of modern explosives. The theatrical scene was set.
All ears focused on the tempered spoken voice of the narrator. We listened whilst the melodies of the music matched the rhythm of the rockets, against the backdrop of a clear summer night sky, above the outline of the historic chateau.
All eyes absorbed the moving image which alternated between light and dark filling retinas with a palette of pastels and a video of vibrancy, as the kaleidoscope of colour erupted and expired. At one time, high in the sky, Catherine wheels free-wheeled, crackled, corkscrewed and cascaded downwards to the castle walls and river. It was as if champagne fizzled and sparkled for the celebration.
We smelled the sulphur from the drifting, smoking cloud of cordite which had played it's part. It had added to the atmospheric ambiance of the drama.

Earlier we had been part of a different international stage. By the side of the river we sat down on a tartan rug with a bottle of Bordeaux rouge, an anchovy tart,a green salad and a Reine-Claude Plum Shortcake. At one point, "un homme" gaped towards our evening meal and expressed homage to our gateau! After all, he only had an almost bare baguette of a sandwich. We proudly explained the ingredients in our home made products. We may be English but we enjoy excellent French cuisine, made by ourselves.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The Woolly Jumper

THE WOOLLY JUMPER - a story from April

The sheep ear-marked number 5041 is continuing to escape from the flock of eight sheep and two lambs. It is either very clever or very stupid. It has "une habitude", that is, a habit! It has become an expert hurdler and learned to jump a fence into our meadow. The shepherds have now decided to prevent the flock entering our field through the open gateway because they say they do not know how it escapes into and out of our field. Once in our meadow, the woolly jumper saunters nonchalantly over to the growing mount of rocks and soil on which we have put our grass mowings. We hope this will become a rockery once the sheep do not graze near it. From this small colline the sheep leaps into mid-air with front legs forwards and back legs backwards as in the drawings of "counting sheep in dreams", into the next field where the flock once used to graze. It straightway crops the grass, for it's only intent as an eating machine is to eat! When it realises it is alone, he/she munches in the direction of the gate and with another leap across another barbed wire fence it is cheerful to be on the chemin/lane. Pleased with itself and tail wagging, number 5041 proceeds along the lane to the entrance of the field from whence he came. Friends and family regard it with great interest, bleating all the while but the silly singular sheep cannot fathom out how to rejoin the sheep plural. The rising slope at the gateway makes the fence appear higher than it's high-jump skills permit! We have rescued it more than five times. Ar first it was amusing BUT our sense of humour and shepherding days are numbered. We have tired of this game. Therefore, the lonely mouton awaits the real shepherds who are befuddled when they see him freed from the flock, yet again! This in itself is amusing to us because the French shepherds think it escaped under the gate. Now they have padlocked the gate, added more barbed wire and weighted it with rocks! We have tried to explain, within our language limitations, how the sheep achieves this feat of houdini, but we are still unsure if the two brotherly shepherds comprehend our franco-anglo language. Obviously it is not normal for a sheep to leap! A ewe should chew!

The real shepherds have certainly not understood or accepted our explanation as several days later they are installing electric fencing and repairing our fencing. Number 5041 has continued on a daily basis to ram the fence to greener pastures and every single morning appears outside our gate because it wants to enter the next field to be with it's chums!

One evening one shepherd is looking quite mad, as whilst he repairs the fencing, the numbered one goes on walkabout, appearing in our garden as I had inadvertently left the gate open!! The farmer looks very frustrated as he comes to help me return the sheep into our meadow and so into his. The sheep gets a quick kick whilst receiving the sign of a slit neck!! Although I quipped that it would be fine as a leg of lamb for Easter Sunday lunch which is at the end of this week, there was a hint of remorse in me. I vow that I will not "tell" on it again and I will continue to secretly encourage it back unto the fold as often as I can because as a former vegetarian for 24 years I do not wish it to come to any harm!! The following morning I am seen to be outside first thing in the morning, coaxing the doomed one to re-enter the back field and encouraging it to leap the fence into our garden and then leap again to it's flock. I continue throughout the day to count the sheep .... 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 Ha, they are still all there!!!

A few days later, they are moved from the field adjoining our garden to the barn and field opposite our land. Behold, I see a new born lamb, and on day two, the shepherd proudly shows us the little creature. Woolly jumper has stopped her leaping and has become a contented mother. Would you believe it?

Nanny and company

In June we were extremely disturbed to hear a dreadful crying from an animal in the grange opposite our house. Normally, sheep shelter there and we assumed that a dreadful thing had happened to one of the flock. On trespassing, we discovered that a goat was tied on a short tether and was head-butting the corrugated walls, crying in despair at being a prisoner. This continued for some weeks, even when we expressed our concern to the owner. Evidently, the goat liked to "jump" fences to escape and the previous owner had donated it to our neighbours for "correction". Well, the poor animal was moved to a more distant grange but we could still hear it's mournful cry and wondered about it's welfare and mental well-being. There is no recourse to the RSPCA in rural France! However, with our limited French language skills, we suggested that maybe it could join the flock of sheep in the field alongside our garden, but be on a longer tether so that it could have some freedom. Within the week, there it was in the field with the flock of nine sheep, in complete freedom being no longer tethered, head-butting any sheep that inadvertently got too near!!

We became friends and I would call her to give her extra treats from lawn mowings, weedings or prunings. She loved to eat entire plums, crunching the stones in her teeth! We got a bit mad when we discovered her climbing on our wire fence and ruining it to reach the branches of the plum trees! But then by mid-July the flock changed fields and Nanny and company moved home. In the early morning rays of sunlight Nanny was seen to be practising her mountaineering talents on the dry stone walls.

One morning I took this photo from our bedroom window. It was just after the shepherdess had fed her flock with grain and Nanny had surprised her by jumping over the dry stone wall which separated the larger and the smaller flocks of sheep to eat the grain. The shepherdess was most displeased and shooed her back, where she remained tip-toeing on the rocks! The partridges were also enjoying the morning ambiance.

The Common Lizard

The Latin name is Lacerta Vivipara. It is also called the Viviparous Lizard because it bears young lizards in a membrane rather than lay eggs like most other reptiles. It is beautiful with black and brown spots on green skin with a yellow belly. It feeds on insects, spiders and grasshoppers. Evidently it likes heathlands, woodlands, cliffs, mountainsides, hedgerows and quarries. But it also likes our field! It is the biggest lizard we have espied on our land! Smaller ones have been eaten by our two cats! It is also lucky to be alive because two days ago our neighbour, the sheep owner, arrived to cut the long grass with his hay cutting machine on the back of a large tractor! Maybe the lizard raced to the nearest sanctuary. Today, our lizard was spotted at the bottom of the bonfire pile, basking in the sunshine. When I spread the lawn cuttings on the land it quickly darted to it's shelter. So, when it is time to ignite the bonfire we must check that our lizard and other small animals are not living beneath the waste matter.

In April we saw another on one of our walks. It was basking on the footpath but quickly disappeared into the hedge undergrowth.
In July we saw a black and yellow knobbly Fire Salamander on the footpath in the woods. It was one of the hottest days of the year, but in the damp, mossy woods where we walked to shelter from the heat, the mosquitoes ate us alive. The Salamander was fully grown as it was at least 20cm in length. I have read that they can live for up to 18 years. Unfortunately, it was one of those rare occasions when we did not have the camera with us!!

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Changing the Face of Our Cottage

The Changing Face of Our Cottage

One Spring morning the digger came and ploughed up the lawn, removing the topsoil and stones to the bottom of the garden. We were left to tidy up the carnage by hand. Days later, after a delivery of white gravel to prevent the yellow clay sticking to our shoes, the bobcat dug out the foundation channels and spread the gravel. Friends came to put concrete in the channels and lay the floor scree. After moving many rocks and stones by hand and with the wheelbarrow, Captain Sensible was ready to build his first ever dwarf stone walls using shuttering. Combining ancient and modern techniques, he has replicated the 200 year old walls of the house. The next stage will be another first - to work with old oak to create a modern winter garden room and summer terrace. Isn't he remarkable?
Is it a lucky day?
We have four leaf clover plants at the bottom of the garden and some have five leaves.

Friday, 3 August 2007

A Menu for our French Neighbours

who expressed raptures about each course.
We have much to learn from their instilled wisdom and knowledge of French cuisine and wine.

We served a simple summer evening meal:
Entrée - French beans from our garden - haricots blancs - cooked in a butter and lemon sauce. We made a pile of beans, added a cherry tomato and a scattering of chopped parsley for colour. Vin de Bourgogne Les Jardins de l'Evêchê Chardonnay
Main course - Salmon Tagliatelle presented on an oval Moroccan platter and served with a rosé wine -Château Sissan - 2006 Bordeaux Clairet
Cheese course - Valençay goat cheese and Brie served with a green salad with dressing
Dessert course - Compôte of Mirabelle Plums

Salmon Tagliatelle for 4 persons

800g poached salmon tail
olive oil flavoured with grated lemon zest and juice of one lemon
450g fresh egg tagliatelle
several stalks of fresh basil with the stalks removed
2 small white onions, 2 long shallots, 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons créme fraiche

Prepare the ingredients:
1. Remove the skin from the salmon and cube the flesh. Set to one side.
2. Chop finely the onions, shallots and garlic.
3. Finely shred the basil.
4. Lightly sauté onions, shallots and garlic in olive oil and lemon juice, then add the salmon pieces, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes or so on a high gas flame, shaking the pan and tossing the fish to cook all over. Leave in the covered pan until you are ready to re-heat when you cook the tagliatelle.
5. Heat a pan of boiling, salted water and cook the tagliatelle for 3 minutes. Drain the pasta well.
6.Serve the pasta on a large, pre-warmed dish. Make a well for the salmon mixture. By now you have re-heated it for another few minutes, added the créme fraiche to make a creamy sauce and thrown in the shredded basil. Serve immediately onto a large warm dish with more shredded basil scattered over the whole. Remember to warm the individual plates.
7.Provide serving cutlery so that everyone can spoon out their pasta and salmon sauce according to taste.
8.Use a spoon and fork to wind the tagliatelle before eating!

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Making the most of Mirabelles

Last year our mirabelle plums were golden yellow but this year they have progressed to ruby red. The beautiful jewelled fruits hung amidst the branches like baubles on Christmas trees. Reflecting the light they shone invitingly. I was sad to have picked them because the leafy branches would only be green and brown until next Summertime.

Stone us and eat us, the plum fruits sighed.

So we did.

Measure 150 g butter, 75 g sugar, and 225 g plain flour into a bowl and with your fingers mix lightly together until it is a crumbly mixture. Continue using your fingers and press the mixture into a 20cm diameter glass flan dish. Break an egg into a cup and whisk with a fork and pour over the shortcake. Bake in oven 190°C for about 5 minutes. Take out and arrange the pre-stoned mirabelle plums on the top leaving no gaps. Scatter with a very light sprinkling of caster sugar, and for the courageous a small smidgeon pinch of dried lavender flowers. Bake in the centre of an oven for about 30 minutes, however, depending on the fruit it may take longer. You can serve it warm or cold as it is, or with a dollop of crème fraîche, yoghurt or cream. As a variation use fresh stoned apricot fruits.

Compôte des Mirabelles

1 kg fruit, 200-225 g sugar, 300 ml red wine,
a sprig of fresh rosemary, one or two cinnamon sticks depending on size
or a teaspoon of ground cinnamon powder
plus 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Wash and stone the fruits. In a saucepan bring all to the boil and then simmer gently until well cooked and reduced. Using a slotted spoon or sieve remove the fruit from the juice and reduce the juice further until it is syrupy. Cool and chill. In a small pretty glass half-fill with fruit, then a layer of crème fraîche, more fruit and a top layer of crème fraîche. Sprinkle with a few edible dried lavender flowers for decoration.
The juice and fruits can be kept in the refrigerator in a clean sealed jar or plastic container for up to two weeks.