Monday, 26 December 2011

A Christmas to Remember

Remembering childhood Christmases that followed the Polish tradition, Tod likes to see the decorations go up on Christmas Eve. This year, I persuaded him to let me put them up for the winter solstice. No holly yet (our bushes are still tiny) I find plenty of ivy to cut and dead branches of twisted willow that I spray gold and hang with small crimson baubles.

Bertie races across the fields around, nose to the ground, tail wagging frantically as he imagines small furry beasties beneath every clod of clay.  Periodically he checks in with me as I gather handfuls of honeysuckle, the last of the roses coming into bloom, branches of viburnum tinus with its bundles of tiny white and pink flowers and straight bright red stems of cornus.

I am spoilt on Christmas Eve as Tod prepares our special Polish supper: borscht, monkfish in a bouillabaisse that fills the kitchen with sweet oriental aromas, a fruit macedoine, with crème anglaise (custard to you and me) and stollen cake and panettone to finish.

While he cooks, I escape into town and hunt for images for the latest photographic competitions on The France Forum – people queuing for mussels in the market, piles of small, ripe tangerines, sun on the Garonne in full flood – all the images in my head far better than those I capture through the camera.

Christmas Day we spend with friends and relish the banter and companionship, the good food and the good wine. Perhaps a tad too much wine? Late in the evening, while I head down to the stream with Bertie, Tod ventures forth with Vita on a lead (she has hurt her back pad and cannot walk far). I return to find that, in the dark, torchless and following Vita, he’s tripped over the remnant of the tobacco barn wall that juts out into the lawn and is lying in agony on the sofa.

Dreading A&E on Christmas Day night and expecting to be hours, I fill a bag with water bottle, books to read and a box of biscuits. Tod slumped in misery in the passenger seat, shivering with the shock of the pain, wrapped in a blanket, I drive as fast as I dare the half hour to Marmande, to enter a crisp, white world of tranquillity, speed and supreme efficiency, coupled with a touch of Christmas celebration as those on duty wander round in red Santa hats. The X-ray shows a broken right collar bone, and he is strapped tightly into a Velcro sling and given a prescription for shed loads of pain killers and anti-inflammatories. We’re back home quicker than I could possibly imagine – the books and the biscuits not needed.

Boxing Day, and he’s dozing and watching daytime TV – from the raucous music and squeaky voices floating up to where I type this, I’m guessing a nostalgic American musical.

He was humming earlier. Whilst not the best of ways to end Christmas Day, I think he’ll live!

Thursday, 15 December 2011


Sometimes, just sometimes ...

While looking down at the soapy washing up water;
Or sniffling over a sliced onion on the pan-scorched chopping board;
Or waiting while the checkout girl and the customer in front chat as if they have all day ...

I wonder: "Is this it? 
I used to think there would be more."

But then ...

On a wet night, boots squelching through mud and long grass,
Throat-catching drift of wood smoke from a distant farm,
Dogs running at the edge of the torchlight, noses to the ground, tails high ...

I know that this is enough.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


We've been talking for ages about having a vegetable garden - but where?

The best place physically is probably on the bank at the edge of the field behind the shed with the corrugated iron roof that we bought from Serge.  It's roughly half way between the cottage and the house, so wherever we are living it's not too far to walk to get fresh veg.  It's a good sunny position too with no overhanging trees and reasonably close to the underground water tank down at the cottage.

But it's also a sandstone outcrop, the soil isn't good and the veg wouldn't thrive there.  So it would mean making raised beds of quite some height to give the plants a good root depth before they hit the sandstone.  And the beds would need filling with earth from elsewhere, which all begins to sound like hard work.  I don't do "hard work" if I can help it.

The alternative location is up by the house at the back, alongside what I laughingly call "the orchard"  - two elderly plum trees, a suspect mirabelle, a sour cherry and a doubtful perry pear tree. At the moment the possible veg garden is a lawn. The soil is good and it's sheltered from the north by the wood store and the east by the house.  But there's a large silk tree shading it and the old fosse septique tank is still underground in the middle.  Also, it's as far away as you can get from the cottage, so a trek for any friend staying there who thinks: "great I'll just go and pick a few French beans for lunch". And they probably wouldn't anyway,  because they would be entering what they would think of as "our" private space alongside the house.

On balance, the sandstone bank and raised beds is probably the better option.

Now is the time to be doing it - building the beds, filling them with soil and compost and deciding what goes where.  But I'm still dithering. Maybe because the last time I had a veg patch I was working full time and the gardening just became a burden every evening and weekend. And I gave up. It's that "gave-up-ness" I can still feel.

Then there's the reason why we're considering it ....  The media and the forums are full of anxiety about what is going to happen in the eurozone and what our world will be like in the future.  Doomsday scenarios are being written and there is talk of needing to be self-sufficient when the financial and economic world collapses around us.... that doesn't seem to be a joyous and uplifting reason to have a veg patch.

Better to focus on the delicious River Cottage veg dishes I've been cooking and think how much nicer they will be when I can just walk outside and pick my own basketful of organic vegetables fresh.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In Love

I'm in love with a new cookery book.

It's true I've had special ones in the past...

Robert Carrier, so sophisticated for show-off dinner parties when I first started living in London. Some recipes so well used that the pages have split apart.

A brief fling with the Galloping Gourmet, but that didn't last long. His recipes haven't stood the test of time.

A somewhat daunting all 1,235 wafer-thin pages of Constance Spry, a luxurious Christmas present from my parents, much thumbed for ideas over many years, but often put aside in despair for something simpler.

And now - it's all too easy to reach for the internet. Pumpkin soup? Cheesecake? Pear and almond tart? Stuffed courgettes? Just google it.

No, this time it's different.  A "hold in my hands, leave it on the kitchen table" recipe book I reach for, use and love every day.

I've always had a soft spot for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  I like the way his cookery programmes link us back to where our food comes from and help us understand what the implications are if we choose to eat meat and fish. He shows us by example what it means to honour the food that we eat.

This year he has excelled himself with his new TV series and book:  River Cottage veg every day.

As a would-be but lazy (and definitely not nut roast) vegetarian living with a carnivore who is prepared to humour me, I quickly run out of ideas for what to cook. So we ring the changes between vegetable curry, roast veg, an occasional vegetarian moussaka and (through summer) lots of salads and Italian antipasti.  After a while, it gets very boring.

And then Hugh's new book appeared like the cavalry over the horizon, every recipe a joy - bursting with interesting combinations of flavours and textures.  Even my carnivore is asking for more.

His salads are a revelation.  My current favourite? Warm salad of rocket, mushrooms and roasted squash.  Today my eye's been caught by carrot, orange and cashews (with a touch of cumin).  Looks delicious.

I can see that this love affair is going to be a long relationship.  And I'm sharing him. I've started buying copies for friends!

Must dash - got a salad to make.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The last but one ...

... of our butternut squashes that grew on the bank behind the cottage, chopped up with some carrot and thrown in a big saucepan with lots of chicken stock and simmered vigorously while a diced onion, garlic and ginger are sweated down in butter; all to be added to the pot, plus chilli and black pepper, medium curry and a bayleaf; then whisked creamy smooth and back in the pan on the heat for two large dollops of crème fraîche to be stirred in.

Soup just right for a misty, chilly November lunchtime, together with Tod's sour dough rye bread.

We're thinking about moving back down to the cosiness of the cottage.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

These Mellow Days

This time last year we had already fled down to the cottage in search of warmth and comfort.

This year, we are still in our draughty old house, relishing the mild November days, leaving the kitchen door on to the veranda open so that the dogs can wander in and out at will. We sit outside, tea mugs in hand,  faces turned to the sun. Too hot as I dig over a new bed where more roses will go, I strip off my sweater.  The tomatoes on the vines behind the pool house continue to ripen and each morning there is a fresh flood of bright blue morning glory on the pergola at the back of the cottage.

These mellow November days are a gentle antidote to the fear and uncertainty around the world economic situation.  Long may they continue.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Wet Weekend

Not much going on.

Bertie has just been "done".  Hence the hood and the carefully arranged T-shirt.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A Harvest and a Château Garden

About ten days ago I helped with a harvest - of chasteberries, which grow on Vitex Agnus-Castus bushes.  We have one in the garden at the back of the cottage.  It has pretty blue flowers that in autumn give way to small, peppercorn sized berries used in herbal medicines.

The technique for harvesting is to have a large box or basket hung at waist height and to rub the flower heads between one's hands so that the berries fall off into the receptacle.  A group of us worked our way steadily bush by bush across the fields high above the Garonne valley, chatting in French and English in the mild October sunlight.

The berries are so small and light it takes many bushes to make up a single barrow load.  And the bushes (grown organically) are not uniformly productive.  Some are satisfyingly laden and the berries drop in a rattling cascade into the boxes. Others, frustratingly have no more than a few fruit that have to be laboriously picked off.

Among our number was a local gardener, who, to my delight, turned out to be the creator of a medieval garden that enchants us attached to a château in the centre of Gontaud.

Over months, walking Vita round the village, we had peered over the high garden walls and peeked through ajar gates to marvel at the transformation, with trees uprooted, arbours planted, parterres dug. Passionate about his creation, he took us down into the village and in the late afternoon sunlight after we had finished harvesting, we wandered along formal pathways, among the roses, vines, herbs and vegetables while he recounted what he had done.

A beautiful end to a satisfying day.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

It is clear that ...

... we are not going to have a croquet lawn any time soon.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

We Nearly Lost Him

We were warned. The previous family who tried to adopt Bertie kept him for two days.  They couldn't cope with his "escaping".

But we, of course, thought we knew better.  He loves the garden and he explores the edge of Serge's field, with no inclination to head for the middle, keeping close to us and the house, burying his nose into the long grass in the ditch, snuffling in search of small creatures.  So Tod said it was alright to leave him off the lead as we all went down to the cottage to close the shutters and keep in the warmth.

I watched the two of them disappear into the hot border, tails up, noses to the ground.  And I briefly turned my back.  The next I knew, Bertie was half way across Monsieur F's ploughed field with Vita in his wake. But that was fine. The set-aside strip beyond would keep him distracted, he'd lingered over the enticing smells there this morning. So I called him and quickened my pace as I set out to catch up with them.

By the time I got onto the beginning of the set-aside strip, Bertie was half way along it and now moving at a fast trot down to the stream.  I broke into a run, if nothing else I had to keep him in sight. Once at the stream he could cross and I would lose him.

Wriggling with excitement, he bounded into the long grass on the bank followed by Vita.  I shouted back to the cottage for Tod and kept running.  By the time I was at the stream they were disappearing round the curve that edges Philippe's field.  By now I was frantically calling both of them, conscious that yelling "Bertie come" meant nothing to him.  He was "Spok" at the rescue and heaven knows what other name a few days ago.  And with the echo across the valley, how would he know which way my voice was coming from?

I reached the ditch that runs into the stream on the far side of Philippe's field. Vita was coursing up and down the bank looking for him and I thought I heard him in the gloom of the trees on the other side.  I ran on, heading for a grass causeway that crosses the stream and up into the woods, trying to see him on the other bank.  By now the light was fading and I dreaded losing him in the dark.  And still no sign of Tod.

Then briefly, with the causeway in sight, he reappeared in the other side, tail up, hunting.  Vita saw him and dashed forwards and both of them were gone.  There were so many ways they could have taken, up through the woods, or across the fields, or back along the stream. My calling became more despairing and frantic.  I'd now lost both dogs.

Then suddenly, in my despair, realising there was no point in going on calling him  (he couldn't and wouldn't understand)  I began to make puppy whimpering noises, hoping they were near enough to hear.  It worked like magic!  Vita raced towards me from out of the woods and as I made a fuss of her, there he was. I kept whimpering and he came up and sat at my feet.  With no lead, I swept him up and puffing and panting we all headed home.

Half way back we met an anxious Tod following our steps on the other side of the stream.  Vacuuming up cluster flies in the cottage he'd heard none of my frantic calls and only belatedly realised we were all missing.

As I carried Bertie in my arms he looked so pleased with himself.  He'd had a great adventure.

Friday, 14 October 2011

We have a new ...

... member of the family - Spok who from now onwards wants to be known as Bertie.

I saw a photo of him on Total France forum - just another of so many abandoned dogs in France - with his nose pressed against the wires of his cage and his bright intelligent eyes.

He came home with us today from Cahors canine rescue, grumbling gently from the back of the car because he was in a cage (just in case) and not on the back seat with Vita.

A feisty terrier with a good bit of wired haired fox and I'm not sure what else, he's completely unfazed by the classic Airedale approach to friendship which involves taking another dog's head in your mouth (which is why his fur is a bit damp in the fourth photo) along with a good bit of body barging.

I think Bertie is going to be top dog - he's already appropriated Vita's bed and she's let him. He's marched his way through all the flower beds in search of lizards, shrews and mice. He settled under the table for supper and has made himself thoroughly at home. 

He's sleeping at my feet as I type this.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

New Slimline Vita

Airedales are a deceptive shape.  Their supposedly "non-moulting" fur goes Rastafarian if left to grow too long and they finish up looking like a fat fluffy bear.  But underneath they are slim - which is why Airedales that have been in the water look awful - fat furry body on top of thin spindly wet legs.

But keeping their fur under control is challenging. There are whole websites and magazine articles dedicated to the art of keeping an Airedale looking beautiful.  Vita dislikes the noise of the expensive electric clippers that I bought when I realised that going for grooming was too much for Smudge. He didn't mind, he couldn't hear them, but Vita runs off, tail between legs, because the noise is associated with vets doing nasty things.  So I bought a Coat King which shifts great mounds of grey fluff from her coat. She gets bored and wanders off, or resents the tugs from the comb as I pull through her tangles, so we don't get very far.

Dog grooming parlours in town are designed for the small yappy things on strings that the French keep in their apartments and walk in the park.  Dogs the size of Vita are meant to be used for the hunt and chained up in a kennel during the week - no grooming for them. So the grooming tables are tiny and one is supposed to lift the dog onto them. Trying to lift an Airedale onto a high wobbly grooming table when she doesn't want to be there at all - legs flying all over the place - is an interesting experience.

So I'd given up on the idea of getting her groomed here in France and thought I'll just struggle on with the Coat King and maybe one day I might get her back to the UK to Liz who did such wonderful things for our other Airedales.

But then I was watching Little England a series of programmes on ITV about the "joys" of being English and living in the Dordogne and there she was - Julia, in Eymet, only half an hour away - with her Shampoochien dog parlour, grooming her Springers who obviously adore her.

So off we went and Vita's come back with a new slimline sleek look. Like our other Airedales after they've been clipped, she's been madly chasing round the house and garden like a six-month puppy, feeling the wind against her skin.  Her back is like black velvet.

She sat on the bed last night barking at the new, strange dog reflected in the glass of the French window.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Unusual Saturday Morning

In the early morning mist our valley is silent - no sound of hunters' guns or dogs.

On the drive into town there are few cars.

The market is half-empty.  Women stand around and chat in small groups.

The bars are packed.


France is playing England in the Rugby World Cup and winning!.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

At the tail end of this Indian summer ...

... we set off optimistically for Arcachon and the sea in thick early morning mist. Even at lunchtime, as we wandered in search of a reasonably priced lunch menu, the day stayed stubbornly overcast and the beach towels and swimwear were left unwanted in the car parked in some remote side street.

But gradually, the clouds thinned and the sun broke through and in the early afternoon we strolled to the front and took it in turns to walk barefoot across the soft fine sand and dip our toes in the chilly water while the other kept Vita on the lead on the edge of the promenade.

No dogs allowed on this smart town beach.

She found an oyster shell to play with.  Next time we'll take her to Cap Feret and the crashing Atlantic rollers, where we can all enjoy sand and sea together.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The First of October ...

... and the temperature in the shade on the veranda is twenty-eight degrees Celsius (over eighty degrees Fahrenheit).

The pool looks inviting.

Yesterday evening we went to our favourite crêperie in Clairac for the last time this year. We sat in the courtyard in the candle light feeling the heat radiating from the high old stone walls and enjoying the banter among the owner's friends.  She closes every year on September 30th and opens on April 1st. She told us this was the first time in the sixteen years she's been there that her customers have been able to sit out in the warmth at the end of September.

We wished her Happy Christmas and told her we would be back next year.

Saturday, 24 September 2011


I have grown tomatoes before - though not very successfully - in pots. I think I just got bored with them.

So I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for when Eric and Phoebe offered us a few plants.  Two cherry, two "green" and one plum.

The border behind the pool house seemed like a good place - facing south, with a warm sheltering wall.  There were already a couple of hydrangeas in the border, but that didn't seem to be a problem as my recollection of growing tomatoes in the UK was that they didn't grow very big.  To begin with they didn't.  The weather was dry and hot and I fretted about their not getting enough water, so I rigged up hose pipes and tried to remember to water them most evenings.

Being behind the pool house, I can't see them from the house.  So although I know about pinching out the side shoots, I found it was easy to forget about them.  By the time I remembered and after several bouts of rain, I suddenly found that I had a tomato forest.  Not just side shoots, but side shoots of side shoots and all of them with flowers on, so it seemed a shame to pinch them out.

I am now buying canes by the dozen to support the heavy laden branches and I'm scouring the internet for recipes for tomato chutney and instructions on how to freeze them for winter. And somewhere behind the forest there are two hydrangea plants struggling to grow.

Mind you, it's so satisfying bringing in a bowlful of just-picked, I grew this myself, sun-filled fruit for supper.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Trip to Nîmes

We started well!  Vita had been sick over night (too many over-ripe figs?) and continued to throw up as we drove along the motorway heading for Toulouse.  As between "episodes" her tail was up and wagging, we decided to press on. After a couple of unscheduled stops she finally calmed down and curled up asleep and content on the back seat.

We've become real country bumpkins, used to our quiet lanes and empty villages. Our side of France, tourists have long gone, but in the hot, dry south of Provence the French, Americans, Italians, Germans, Scandinavians, English and Japanese are still in holiday mood and milling round the star attractions.

So we visited Aigues-Mortes, Arles, Avignon, Les Baux, the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard and Saintes Maries de La Mer in the Carmargue along with the world and his wife and his dog.  We ate exotic flavoured ice creams (lemon meringue pie the favourite), strolling with the throng window shopping, marvelling at the number of street cafes and restaurants (how could they all stay in business?) and trying to take in a bit of history and scenery along the way.  Next time we'll come "out of season" (if there is such a thing).

Our hotel, with its individual houses and three swimming pools nestling among oleander bushes, was our place of sanctuary and good food.

In the brisk wind, the swimming pools and the Med, were too cold to do more than dip toes into, despite the heat of the days.  We've become soft and spoilt with our own warm pool on "our" side of France.


Les Baux

Our Hotel outside Nîmes

Palace of the Popes - Avignon

Pont du Gard

Saintes Maires de La Mer

Street Scenes

Our hotel: L'Enclos des Lauriers Roses