Thursday, 31 July 2008

Summer en Fête: Part Two

Tod has a bad back again and decided to retreat to bed for the day. So I had a decision to make: to go or not, to the opera highlights at Penne-d'Agenais on my own? I'm glad I went.

Mid-afternoon, when I got in the car after my lesson with Yvette, the thermometer said 41ºC and the oven-hot stickiness continued right through the evening. We all sat, wedged thigh to thigh, in a much-too-small-for-the-occasion barn, with the soloists and orchestra sweating gently only inches from the front row. Elegant French ladies in wafer-thin dresses wafted their programmes in an attempt to keep cool. But the discomfort and heat were forgotten in the joy of the singing.

Old favourites - Au Fond du Temple Saint from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers The Flower Duet, from Delibes' Lakme; Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot - were interspersed with (for me) the less well-known - Thomas's Hamlet, Bellini's Norma and Rossini's Moise.

During a night that resounded with bravos, the performances I will especially remember are the rich, soaring voice of the mezzo-soprano, Tatiana Varapai, singing Saint Saens' Dalilah; the tenor, Stephan David, and the baritone, Guilhem Souyri, singing the heart-aching duet from the Pearl Fishers and the delicate harmonies between sopranos Olivera Toalovic and Florence Gelas in the Flower Duet.

I regretted Tod was not there to share it and I know what I'll be looking out for next summer.
Bizet: O Fond du Temple Saint:
Delibes: Flower Duet:
L'Orchestre du Centre Philomonique:

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Summer en Fête

Remembering how last year we seemed to be a step behind everyone else as July and August got into full swing, this summer, we've been determined to "be there" when it happens.

Looking at the local tourist board calendars and talking with friends who tell us how good "such and such" was last year, the challenge is where to be when "it" happens. Should we go to see the Bratislav Chamber Orchestra? Or perhaps listen to motets by Mondonville (who he?). Maybe spend a night listening to opera highlights? That's quite apart from going to the all-day world plum kernel cracking competition (three age groups: under 11s, 11-16 and adults in the evening).

Nothing much starts before 9pm and even then, there may be speeches first, so stamina and a capacity to cope with late nights are key elements in the process of enjoyment. That, and a willingness to put up with appalling sound systems.

The place to be last weekend everyone assured us was Castelmoron for the seventh Folkloriades. Apparently last year was really good. In fact last year we met a troop of Chinese acrobats when out dog-walking, so we were intrigued to see what this year would offer.

The evening started with a Basque form of Morris dancing, but without the bells, bright colours or general gaiety. The most exciting moment was when one of the melancholic dancers fell off his stilts (not hurt I hasten to add). As Tod said, there are, after all, only so many things you can do on stilts.

We stayed for the sake of the following act, a troop from Peru. We both have been there and were nostalgic for the music. The average age of the dancers was about 10 and at least they had the bright colours and the gaiety. But then there's that feeling when there's only so long you can watch someone else's children doing something cute. And it's tough listening to El Cóndor Pasa being massacred. So at an appropriate moment we slipped away.

Not to be discouraged, this weekend we set forth with friends on Friday night to hear The Commitments in Agen in front of the Mairie: the stage set up in the open air, surrounded by the floodlit old municipal buildings and street cafés.

Yes, I know, The Commitments is an Alan Parker film. But apparently the band went "live". Only they didn't really, Andrew Strong, the raw, rough lead singer who made the band went solo and over the years they're down to only two from the film. But I bounced up and down and clapped enthusiastically to songs like Mustang Sally, Chain of Fools and Try a Little Tenderness and pretended I was part of the film and tried not to notice that Tod was sitting with his fingers in his ears (made the sound system marginally more bearable). Apparently last year's group, a Beatles tribute band, were fantastic.

Then last night - knowing what to expect - we sallied forth to our local commune for supper and cabaret. Whereas last year we'd been outsiders, this time we even recognised one or two faces: chatted to the Mayor and Mr Secretary - they know all about our plans for the house - and met some more English. Supper included large slabs of beef, with much gristle. Most of the English contingent left theirs; some of the French, made of tougher stuff, went back for seconds.

Still there was the cabaret to come: this year "1001 nights". It felt like it. There is after all only so many times one can watch the same four women twirling on the spot, with their arms in the air, waving bits of gauze. The highlight was when the Mayor was lured onto the dance floor, blushing gently and wiggling self-consciously while the lead dancer twined herself round him. After what felt like hours, we made our escape. Apparently last year's cabaret was fantastic.

This week, we will set out with renewed optimism to listen to opera highlights and next weekend is definitely where "it" will happen - street theatre in Miramont.


El Cóndor Pasa as it should sound:

From the original filmThe Commitments: Try a little tenderness Mustang Sally

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Claude Rains Reine Claude

We have a Reine Claude plum in the garden, which I muddle with the film actor and tend to call Claude Rains.

She, Queen Claude, is a greengage; apparently so-called in England because the French name was lost in transit and it was the Gage family who imported her.

Mind you, she (the French version) tastes much juicier and sweeter than the small, hard, very green greengages I remember from English childhood.

I've been clearing the long grass from round her feet and pruning out the dead, lichen covered twisted twiggy bits. The dead bits are deceptive and it's all too easy to find I've cut off a bit that has leaves as well.

She has much less fruit than last year. We hardly noticed her in the early days of unpacking. By the time we did, most of her fruit had rotted or fallen off and many of her leaves were brown and diseased.

This winter, she's had a good dose of wood ash and whether that or the wet Spring, she has rewarded us with lush, healthy foliage and fat juicy fruit.

Her branches come right to the ground and as I prune, hidden under her green canopy, I can hear Serge baling the straw from his harvested winter wheat. His tractor chugs along with a red box behind that gathers up the straw. Every so often the chugging and whirring increases as a door at the back of the box spews out a circular bale and then clangs shut.

The last few days have been like living in a vacuum cleaner, with the deep sucking roar from the combine harvesters working the fields around us far into the night.

Once the baling's done, life will be quieter.

Reine Claude
Claude Rains

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Last Rays

The water cannon in the maize field behind us catches the last rays of the dying sun.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Twenty-nine in the Shade

Smudge likes his routine: a walk in the morning about nine-ish and another in the evening around six-ish.

With summer now going full pelt, the evening walk can be a challenge. Surrounded by worked farmland, our walks involve a drive first to more dog-friendly territory. We park the car for walking (the merc, not the batmobile, which sits in the wood shed) under over-hanging trees to keep the heat off. Even so, by six pm on a sunny day, the thermometer in the car reads 29ºC and we set out with air conditioning full on and all windows open to get a through draught.

On these hot evenings our routine changes as we look for places with shade. There's a small park on the way into town, which is carved from an old country estate. Great plane trees shield the parking area and at lunchtime people sit on benches and eat their sandwiches in the relative cool. In the evenings young men park their cars with open doors side by side and share gossip, music and beers.

Across the grass, giant cedars with low sweeping branches and blue-green cones offer inviting shade. Smudge prefers the rubbish bins.

In one corner of the park there is a chapel with boarded up windows and door. In Spring it is surrounded by pink cyclamen and if you look carefully you can see tiny violets.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Before the Party

We've been here a year.

Tomorrow (Sunday) we are having a party to celebrate and today I'm in the kitchen, preparing the buffet:

- beef (to be roasted and served cold) from the butchers between the dog parlour and our second favourite bread shop. We discussed how much I needed and how many people were coming and how I would cook the meat. He sent me away while he cut and prepared the joint. It's probably too big, but I didn't have the courage to query it.

- thick, succulent salmon pieces from the fish counter at Leclerc that I will poach in a "court bouillon". When I asked for 3 kilos in my best French, the plump lady behind the counter looked startled. I think she was wondering whether this English woman knew what she was asking for. She disappeared into the back and returned with a new ice-packed box from which she carefully made her choice.

- tomatoes roasted in lashings of olive oil, garlic and basil. Great fat beef tomatoes that are a meal in themselves.

- twice cooked goats cheese soufflés (thanks Delia) that can be cooked the day before and then reheated.

- summer fruit terrine (Delia again!) strawberries, raspberries, red currants and cherries glistening in a wine jelly.

- two of Tod's best in the world cheesecakes are already in the fridge in the garage with the salad stuff that will be prepared first thing tomorrow.

Mid morning, I sat at the kitchen table, with a mug of tea and looked through the window past the grape vine with its bunches of green grapes that we are proudly watching grow, to the freshly cut lawn and the fields beyond and I remembered the me of a year ago, tired, stressed, busy unpacking box after box, wondering just what we had done.

And I sent a silent message to the me back then: "it's all going to be alright - very alright"

Delia Smith's Summer Collection