There are at least six boulagerie/patisseries in our local town (quite apart from the supermarkets). But only one - the artisan bakery - has really good cakes. And on Wednesdays they are shut.
So, when Yvette said let's have tea Wednesday afternoon and I foolishly said I'd bring the cake, that meant making it. As I rarely make cakes, I dithered all morning, wondering if it would be better to go and buy one and finally at the last minute, without much hope of success, flung together an almond and chocolate cake (no flour) that I'd spotted on Pomiane's blog ages ago. It was delicious! So we had seconds.
I wanted Yvette to keep the cake, but she insisted we took the rest home. And I didn't try too hard to dissuade her.
That evening, feeling peckish and knowing that eating dark chocolate that late was risky, I had my third slice of the day. In an email to a friend I said I would be zinging round the house at two in the morning - little did I know!
Tod had been to bridge and as he came back into the cottage we lingered on the doorstep. In the dark, immediately above our heads the cranes were flying over, heading south for the winter. Their cries were so close it felt as if they were skimming the tops of our trees. Which of course was more than Bertie could bear - cranes, in our garden! So he vanished into the night barking at the top of his voice.
Silence, with dogs, is usually an ominous sign. At eleven-thirty, afraid he'd got himself trapped somewhere, I went out with a torch and tramped the garden. And at twelve. And at twelve-thirty. And at one. And at one-thirty. By now I was pretty sure he'd gone AWOL - chasing the cranes in the dark maybe. Vita, ever helpful and only too keen to put him in his place, charged round the garden with me. It was about 2am I first heard him barking - the other side of our electronic fencing. He'd decided it was time to come home but couldn't cross the barrier. That meant Vita had to be lured back inside (to bounce all over Tod who was trying to sleep), so I could turn off the power to the fence and walk the boundary to find him. He came willingly enough to a piece of smoked sausage.
We finally all turned in some time after two-thirty. It was a good job I'd had that third slice of chocolate cake - kept my energy up nicely.
A PS: thank you for your comment Perpetua. You've reminded me that Pomiane felt he had to take his blog out of the public domain (which is a shame as it is an excellent blog) so I hope he won't mind my repeating his recipe here. The cake really is very splendid and as he says, very quick and easy.
Ingredients: 4 oz Butter, at room temperature; 3 oz Sugar; 4 oz Ground Almonds; 4 Eggs, separated; half a teaspoon of Almond Essence; 4 oz Dark Chocolate (Felchlin, by preference, but if not, something like Valhrona or better-quality Lindt) ; 1/4 cup of Slivered Almonds.
1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
2. Melt the Chocolate in a double boiler. Once it has melted, allow it to cool slightly, as you get on with the next stage in the recipe.
3. In the food processor, cream the Butter and Sugar together, then add the Egg Yolks, one by one, processing them into the creamed mixture after each one has been added.
4. Add the Ground Almonds, and process in, then add the melted Chocolate and the Almond Essence and again run the processor for ten seconds or so thoroughly to amalgamate everything. Scrape this mixture out of the food processor into a large bowl.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk the Egg Whites until quite stiff. Then take a quarter of this Egg-White mixture and stir it into the Chocolate mixture, to lighten it, before folding in the remainder of the beaten Egg White - much like making a chocolate mousse.
6. Grease a 20 cm spring-form cake tine and pour the cake mixture into it, levelling it off inside the tin. Sprinkle Slivered Almonds over the top.
7. Bake for fifteen minutes at 200 degrees C, then reduce the temperature to 180 degrees C for a further ten minutes. If the Almonds show any sign of getting too dark, then cover the cake loosely with a piece of foil. Check for done-ness with a skewer, and by pressing the surface of the cake (if the skewer comes out clean, and the surface springs back under the light touch of a finger, then it's done).
8. Run a knife round the cake inside the tin, but don't turn it out immediately - leave it to cool down in the tin for ten minutes or so, before removing the spring-form bit of the tin.
I used Carrefour dark cooking chocolate, because that's all I had and I thought the flavour was fine. No doubt with a better quality dark chocolate the flavour will be even more special. I heated the oven to 200C and then turned it straight down to as low as possible when I put the cake in. Even so, I did have to cover the cake part way through. French bottle gas ovens can be very fierce and slow to respond when the flame is turned down. Also next time I'll add Amaretto.
At midnight, when we'd just finished the wedding banquet and the dancing had only just started, it was a relief to realise that we would have an extra hour in bed to recover as this was the weekend the clocks went back.
We'd started at the bride's house just after lunch, to meet and greet and have our cars decorated. Bride and mother - both with waists about the size of Vivien Leigh's in Gone with the Wind - stunningly attired in chic Parisian outfits, graciously welcomed their guests. Then, in procession with much tooting of car horns, we made our way to the mayor's office and crammed into the small room to listen to a long list of laws being read out at great speed and not much ceremony about the responsibilities of marriage. This was then followed by an interminable photo session on the steps of the Mairie, coordinated by the bride's brother: "Bride, groom, bride's parents, groom's parents. Bride, groom, bride's immediate family. Bride, groom, groom's immediate family."
By this stage my camera had packed in and I teetered across the road in my extremely uncomfortable high heels (six years of living in sandals in summer and wellingtons in winter does nothing for feet and elegance) to the local tabac to refurbish the batteries, to find on my (slow) way back that I needed to break into a fast teeter as they were calling for "bride, groom, bride's parents, bride's friends".
The next stage was the church - a full sung Eucharist lasting an hour and a half. By this stage my feet were out of the high heeled shoes and resting on the cool stone flags. Unlike many English weddings where hymns are unconvincingly mumbled by a reluctant congregation, this service was led by a splendid cantor, sounding not unlike Joe Dassin, who imperiously waved his right arm in upward swooping movements at the moments when we were all to join in.
Somewhere about the exchange of rings the bride's brother started crying, closely followed by the bride and then the groom and several members of the congregation. There was a hasty searching for tissues that were hurriedly passed forward, the figure-hugging, tiny-waisted Parisian wedding dress not having any hiding places for such items and there not being any bridesmaid (as is typical in France) to do the necessary.
By the end of the service, all were beaming smiles and again there was much taking of photos on the steps of the church. We wondered as we stood outside whether to pop home for a sustaining cup of tea and biscuit as we knew we were still several hours away from food, but we could not face running the gauntlet of the dogs who would wish to show their gratitude at our return with large muddy paws all over our elegant attire. I deterred Tod from crossing the road to the bakers to buy a croissant as I felt his action would not go unnoticed by the bride's parents and he would be left with croissant crumbs over his beautiful new three-piece grey suit.
So we set off in convoy for the champagne reception. I worried about drinking on a (by this stage very) empty stomach - unnecessarily as it turned out. The nibbles were hot, tasty, lavish and very tempting. By the time we made our way into the hall for the banquet at 9pm I really wasn't hungry any more, which was a shame as the menu was foie gras terrine; followed by scallops and mussels in a wine and cheese sauce; followed by a HUGE plateful of pink lamb; followed by cheese; followed by profiteroles; all this accompanied by a different wine at each course.
Fortunately there were pauses between courses, the highlight of the entertainment being one of the uncles (who had played the solemn role of deacon in the service) somewhat surprisingly proving to have a repertoire of bawdy Pyrenean songs, which he sang lustily to the great embarrassment of his wife and the younger female relations and friends.
The microphone was offered to our table - perhaps we wanted to sing? We hastily shook our heads. So as a token to the English present the neighbouring table looked up "God Save the Queen" on their i-phones and sang it with great gusto.
By midnight as the DJ started up, we were already flagging. So we bounced around to a few sixties numbers for a few minutes and then slipped away. We're certain that most of our compatriots will have continued 'til dawn.
Bertie and Vita, convinced that we were never coming home, had gone hunting for food, raided the utility room, dragged the biscuit bin out from under the shelving, up-ended it over the floor and gorged themselves to a standstill. Bit like the wedding banquet really.
I'd planned to write a slightly melancholic post about the changing of the seasons and the arrival of autumn, but then, between cool days of rain, it suddenly was so hot and sunny again I had to come in from gardening for ice cream, so the post didn't seem appropriate.
And I'm not the only one who's not too sure what season it is right now. The mauve lilac up behind the house (on the bank that borders Monsieur F's now-ripe, bone-dry, rustling-in-the-wind maize) has decided to burst into bloom, to the delight of the local butterfly population.
So much for the distant sound from my childhood of my father singing: "We'll gather lilacs in the spring again", as he accompanies himself on the upright piano in the lounge; a room only used for visitors or on special occasions such as Christmas.
I stand under the sweet smelling branches, struggling to capture clear images of the camera-shy peacock butterflies above my head as they flutter from bloom to bloom, gorging on this unexpected bounty.
I wonder whether we will be gathering this particular lilac again next spring?
Two others who dropped by whose names I don't know ...
One minute I was up the ladder. The next, flat on my back on the concrete terrace at the back of the cottage. There wasn't even time for my past life to flash before my eyes.
I lay there, wondering if any bits were broken, but all seemed to be in working order, though the pot which held the blueberry bush looked a little the worse for wear. I gingerly set off up the garden to the house, reassured Tod that I was ok - not that he'd realised anything was wrong - and he departed for his normal evening of bridge.
I'm not good up ladders. Much beyond the third step and I'm hyperventilating. So later that same night, when my right foot had swollen (I was not quite as ok as I first thought) and the nurse at A&E asked what height I'd fallen from: "Un? Deux? Trois? Quatre? Cinq?" and I replied: "Cinq ou peut-être six", I meant steps and he meant metres. He looked a little startled.
It was a busy night at A&E and not much sign of a doctor. I was relieved that the woman who came in with contractions was whisked away. Not sure any of us in reception would have been up to delivering a baby. By 2am I still hadn't been seen. So we came home, caught up on lost sleep and my foot has steadily mended ever since without medical intervention.
Friends suggest I should stop self-harming - what with the sun burn in early summer and now this.
I reckon it was hubris. Pride and falling and all that. I was busy; coping (I smugly thought) without asking Tod for help; rushing around getting the cottage ready, doing the garden, painting furniture; making the patio nice with curtains and shading. My second reaction lying there (after first wondering what I'd broken) was: "There's still so much to do".
And that's it. All this year there's been so much to do. In fact every year we've been here there's been so much to do. Friends tell us they love what we've done in the cottage and the house, what we're creating in the garden. Me, all I do is rush around, getting stressed, as I see more jobs to be done.
Maybe the Universe is trying to tell me something: "Slow down. Stop and look around. This is a beautiful place, to be loved and appreciated for what it already is. Pause. And take joy from what you have already achieved."
As friends from previous visits can testify, this is unheard of. Especially as the lawn needs mowing, kilometres of tatty edges need strimming and the gravel driveway needs a good, down on hands and knees weeding. But it is also pouring with rain. Has been most of the day.
Probably my fault.
Last year our friends stayed in June and spent most of the time inside playing card games and doing jigsaws because the weather was so lousy. So when we talked about this year's visit: "Come in September" I said "It's always lovely in September."
That, and the fact that I've made a shady outside pergola for them, complete with gently wafting curtains, where they can sit in comfort, sheltered from the blistering heat of the noon-day sun, enjoying a good wine and a tasty meal. The dripping curtains, sodden piles of leaves hiding in corners around the pot plants and puddles of water in the plastic seats of the chairs look decidedly uninviting, but there's little I can do about it at the moment as the rain has set in for the rest of the day.
Hence the sheet ironing. At least I can make the inside of the cottage as welcoming as possible.
They arrive late this evening. When did Flybe make that unhelpful commercial decision? They hasten to say that all they will want to do is sleep. "But you must have at least something for supper, you'll be hungry." I insist, at the time envisaging the table under the pergola laid with candles and an inviting warm quiche and salad to tempt them. I think it will have to be hot soup, in the kitchen.
The rain has eased a little. So back to the next set of pillow cases and duvet. This is quite a novel experience. Hope they are not too tired to notice.
PS. And what do those weasel words "minimum iron" mean? One either irons, or one doesn't. How does one iron "minimally"?
In the 1970's I lived in Brazil and I wrote home to my mother in the UK every week. Those letters became the story of my life there. In 2007 I moved to south west France. Not quite sure where "home" is, I have no family left in the UK. If I did, these words would be my letters home, capturing the first impressions of my life here, to share, enjoy and perhaps re-read in years to come.