Monday, 31 December 2012

Last day of the year

In a little under 12 hours it will be 2013. It doesn't really feel like Hogmanay. The sun is out -a nice change - and although a bit breezy, it is mild.
View from my study today
The familiar view from my study is quite benign, green grass and bare trees in the sunshine. What it doesn't show is how squelchy the ground is underfoot. We've had so much rain that the drainage ditches around Charnizay have been working overtime and for quite some time many of the fields have had standing water in them.
You can just see the standing water in Eric's field
However, it is so mild in fact that the fuschias in the window box we planted up in late spring for Niall's study window are stubbonrly refusing to give up the fight and are still flowering! I took a photo of them this morning. If I had the fancy, I could almost sit outside with my coffee as long as i was tucked in a spot sheltered from the wind.
'never say die' fuschias!
This is our third Hogmanay here since we moved in August 2010 but it will be the first we actually spend in our own house.  2010/11 saw us in Edinburgh. We were supposed to visit family at Christmas but very bad weather meant we had to postpone and instead we saw in the New Year there. Last year we celebrated with French friends who had invited us for a traditional Réveillon dinner to see in the new year --we didn't get up from the table until 4am!

So this year will see us celebrating quietly chez nous, feet up in front of the logburner. Niall will raise a wee dram when the clock strikes; I'll have a glass of fizz.

Wishing you and yours a Happy Hogmanay, Réveillon or, as they say in The Netherlands, Een Goede Jaarwisseling!
'Christmas' cactus flowering on my study windowsill

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Festive food

We've just given ourselves a metaphorical pat on the back as we are not left with lots of left-over food. In fact, barring half a mince pie we have none.
mince pie
Christmas Eve we really enjoyed a seafood platter - we don't buy the ones you can pre-order, but create our own 'mix'. This is mainly because we are no great fans of bulots [whelks] or other sea-snail like beasties.

Our platter consisted of: cooked crab claws and lobster, tiger prawns and langoustines. The tiger prawns and langoustines needed to be cooked so we very gently poached them in some salted water. They cook very quickly and if you over do it they go rubbery. Overall it made for a nice combination of warm and chilled seafood. We ate it with alumettes [very thin french fries] and a sauce made from mayonaise, garlic, creme fraiche, lemon juice and tarragon.

Unsurprsingly we had a very attentive audience of cats who watched our every move. They were doomed to be disappointed and anyway they had their own 'treat' of luxury cat food - a fishy flavor of course!
On Christmas Day we cooked a duckling with spiced cherry sauce. The duck recipe was an adaptation from one found on the Oprah website. We liked the idea of the spices but felt the roasting time was too long. Also, it called for the duck to be roasted on a bed of vegetables which are later mashed and we didn't want to do that.
To prepare the duck you do the usual--wash it, pat it dry and then score the skin. After you've done that you rub in the spices and olive oil. The spice mix we used followed the Oprah recipe.

Spice mix:
6 star anise ground fine;
4 or 5 cloves also ground to powder
1 tsp of powderd cinnamon

The mix gave a really subtle flavour and the skin was nice and crispy.
In the Oprah recipe it says roast a 1.8 - 2kg [4 - 5lbs] duck for almost 4 1/2 hrs at 180C. We had a 1.6kg [3.5 lbs] caneton and decided to roast it as follows: 20 mins at 200C [conventional oven setting] and then at 180C for about 1.5 hrs. This more or less follows the roast times on the BBC Good Food website. Once roasted we let the bird rest for about 20 mins covered with foil.
Christmas dinner: roast duck with spiced cherries
The sauce for the duck was again adpated from the Oprah recipe:
250 ml of red wine
200ml of port
+/- 400g of defrosted & de-stoned cherries we'd frozen in the summer
2 star anise
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 soup spoon of sugar

The spices were wrapped in a little muslin sachet so they were easy to remove at the end. We let the cherries simmer until the liquid was so reduced it was a syrup -- about 40 mins on a very low heat.

With the duck we had green beans, honey glazed parsnips with thyme and rosemary roast potatoes. To glaze the raw parsnips we simply tossed them in a mix of olive oil, runny honey [orange flower as that was what was to hand] and thyme. You just need to make sure they are well coated. As parsnips are already a sweetish vegetable it is up to your personal taste how much honey you want to use. We used a fairly high olive oil to honey ratio. The roast potatoes were parboiled for 5 mins then fluffed by tossing them in a sieve -- it roughens the surface so that they are crispy when cooked. We sprinked them in rosemary and coated them in melted duck fat before putting them in the roasting tin.

We used one roasting pan which had been divided into two using aluninum foil to make two 'trays' which fit into the pan. This way the parsnips and potatoes could roast together without mixing the flavors. They went into the oven on the lower shelf when the duck was turned down to 180C . When we took the duck out to rest we turned up the oven to 200C to allow the veg a final 'roast'.

As the food we cooked on Christmas Day provided 4 portions we had the same meal again for lunch on Boxing day and it was just as nice! And yes, the cats did get the odd tidbit of duck!


Monday, 24 December 2012

Christams Eve

The tree has been up a week, the cats have not attacked the baubles and the weather is singularly warm: 15C, but at least it has stopped raining and yesterday we even had sun!

Our tree this year
Tonight we'll be having a plateau of fruits de mer, as we did the first year we were here: crab claws, langoustines, lobster and large prawns. There's a nice Picpoul de pinet chilling in the fridge. This is a very dry white wine from the Montpellier area in the Languedoc. It will go well with the seafood.

Yesterday we gave the oven a clean, or rather set it on its self-cleaning mode and let it do its thing. We have never had a self-cleaning oven before and we were quite impressed with the result, especially as it saves an enromous amount of hassle. Apart from a few tiny areas by the door it was sparkling clean and all ready to go for Christmas Day cooking.
Favorite ornament: a glass dove
Tomorrow we'll be roasting a caneton [duckling] spiced with star anise, cinnamon, cloves, thyme and bay leaves. To go with this will be cherries in a wine/port sauce which is also flavored with the star anise, cinnamon and cloves. It's a recipe I found on the internet which sounded very nice and it will be interesting to see how it turns out:- we will let you know. We wanted to try something a little different from the usual caneton a l'orange, lovely though that is. Veg is kept simple, honey glazed roast parsnips, haricots verts and for Niall some roast potatoes. We'll have a Saumur-Champigny, Les Loups Noirs, from the Domaine Nerleux which we wrote about here to drink with the meal.

I've already baked a large mince pie, somehting I always do rather than make lots of little ones. It's nice to have a proper slice with some creme fraiche. I use an ancient 8" pie dish which is older than I am--my mother used to use it.

So we are pretty much prepped for Christmas.

Here's wishing you and yours wherever you are Happy Holidays!

Naturally Katinka has to have the last say.....
Setting up the tree last week

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Solstice & Sister ma

Yesterday was the winter solstice and there was also a bit of kerfuffle on the news about the day being the possible end of the world. It certainly was the end of a major cycle in the 5,125-year-old Mayan Long Count calendar known as the 13th Baktun. This event convinced some that it was the signal for the Apocalyse to begin.
setting solstice sun between St Flovier and St Senoch
We, on the other hand, being made of more phlegmatic stuff, went down to our local village cafe/bar, the Relais du Dolmen for lunch in the company of friends Simon and Susan and Tim and Pauline. We were there to 'road test' the €12.00 menu du jour. The cafe/bar recently came under new management, you can read about it here. The food was fine but we all felt that the lass who manages the Relais could do with an assistant as she was running things completely single-handed.

I'm sure you're wondering about 'Sister ma' part of the title. No, it is nothing to do with a nunnery! Those of you who read Simon & Susan's blog will know that they recently spent a month in Australia visiting family. They stopped over in China on their way back and very kindly brought us a seriously large pack of Chinese sweeties called 'Sister ma'.
Chinese candy
We tried them yesterday when we came back from our weekly food shop and they are extremely nice: very thin outer hard candy shell wrapped round a sort of nut brittle. Yummy! We love the product description and the bright orange packaging. Just the right warm sunshine-y color to brighten up yet another driech rainy day like the one we're having today.
candy description [click to enlage]
Yesterday, it mostly rained as well. We caught a very brief glimpse of the sun when it was setting and mist was beginning to curl over the fields, but that was our lot! We managed to get a few pictures on the phone camera before it disappeared. Sadly, the weather gods' dial seems to be fixed on 'soggy' for Christmas.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Souped up CV

Yesterday we were at the Super U in Loches doing our weekly shop and getting gas when this car drove up next to us at the pump. Now you see all kinds of cars here in rural France, from the expensive to the downright rickety held together more with scotch tape than anything else. The car below however, would standout wherever it went!

Guilded double horse-head on the hood, cow horns on the roof, cream period jerry cans strapped to the sides, lovely teak woodwork and immaculate cream and chocolate paintwork. It even sported a matching chocolate-painted shovel strapped to the back of the cab!
We asked the gentleman if we could take a photo of his car. Sporting cowboy boots and a baseball cap with the Confederate flag on the front he was obviously a devotee of all things 'western'. He beamed and said sure before carrying on filling his tank. When he left he gave us a cheery wave and we were left contemplating the very grubby state of our car. He certainly put us in the shade!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Poitiers prepares for Christmas

Later than the UK or the US, but still well in advance of Christmas, the towns and villages in our area are ramping up for Christmas. The first sign is often the enormous displays of chocolate in the supermarkets. On entering you are often confronted with rank upon rank of snazzy boxes.

In our village the decorations were going up on Friday. These consist of frameworks of lights which are clamped to alternate lamposts. During the day they look hideous, but in the dark they are actually quite nice. In previous years lights have been strung along the doorway and facade of the church. So far these haven't gone up yet. We hope they do, because they make the church look very pretty after dark, framing the Renaissance features.
Poitiers' Hotel de Ville
In Poitiers, we saw they were setting up the Christmas Market on the Place du Maréchal Philippe Le Clerc. The facade of the Hotel de Ville, a very imposing typically French ediface, is now somewhat obscured by the most amazing Belle Epoque [1903] double tiered merry-go-round. We've always had a soft spot for these things. As children we both loved riding on them and the time spent - in Antoinette's case - selecting just the right horse took ages and was probably more than 1/2 the fun. Sadly we didn't see it in action!
Belle Epoque Carousel
In our house the Advent calendar, which we wrote about last year, is back on the dower chest. We've begun to assemble the odd Christmas decoration or two and made sure that Christmas cards for the US, which still go by snail mail, were sent out in time. This week we'll buy a tree.
Prepping a Christmas market stall--is it the wares or the man that caught her interest?
They say some distinctly cold weather is in the offing. Up 'til now it has, barring the odd frosty morning, been mild. In fact, the fuschia in the window box of Niall's study is still flowering! Admittedly it is south facing, but even so it feels a little 'odd' when it has been officially winter for a while.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Nothin' much changes....

They say that nothing much changes in French villages and often as you drive swiftly through you could be forgiven for thinking so. However, appearances can be deceptive.
Charnizay has undergone a few since we moved here in August 2010.
Former Post Office
First the Post Office moved from the front part of a house opposite the Mairie into the Mairie proper. The house it once occupied is now for sale and has yet to find a new owner.

Mairie cum Post Office
Then we were presented with the plans for our new Salle des Spectacles, to replace the old and dowdy Salle des Fetes; you can read about it here and here. This is still an ongoing project. Originally due to open in time for 'le Quatorze Juillet' last summer it will now be ready, we are told, by the Spring of 2013. Meantime the Salle des Fetes continues to host village events. We are told that the library will eventually move into the Salle des Fetes.

Salle des Spectacles: coming along nicely
Then in August the village café/restaurant Gargantua closed. The people who had taken a two year lease with a view to taking on the licence from the then owner perhaps found they had bitten off more than they could chew. In fairness they were up against some stiff competition. Just up the road in St Flovier, the Auberge de la Source offers super home-cooked food on their daily 'menu ouvrier' at €11.00 and the Gargantua's cooking could not match up. Trade was thin and they left. Happily the owner ceeded the licence to the village and the Mairie has supported a local village lass who has now taken on the management of the re-named Relais du Dolmen. It re-opened at the start of the month. We've popped in for a coffee and to buy newspapers several times and the place now has a much more welcoming feel. The Relais provided an excellent spread to go with the vin d'honneur at the recent Commémoration [Remembrance Day] so we are going have lunch there soon and see what it's like.
Relais du Dolmen
Then sadly, our little village shop closed. The husband of the lady who ran it is seriously ill and sadly things continue to go steadily downhill. They also run a small shop in Bossay sur Claise and for her to continue to come over to Charnizay and run our shop was too much. It closed on the 31st of October. She hasn't found a buyer so we're not sure what will happen in the future. There is talk of, in time, incorporating a slimmed down shop with the Relais du Dolmen. We'll see. At least we still have the butcher and the Relais functions as a depot du pain and sells newspapers... oh, and take-away pizza!

Desolé c'est fermé

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thankssgiving Day in the US so a lot of turkey, pumpkin pie as well as large quantities of cranberries will be consumed as families gather together from all quarters of the country to celebrate.

We took this photo of a well known lady on November 7th, the day the result of the US presidential elections. She stands proudly in the Place de la Liberté in Poitiers. She may not be as large as her better known sister but she has been gracing the Place since 1893.

We also thought you might enjoy a few more views of Poitiers taken yesterday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Bags & Beaujolais

On Thursday we went and did our weekly shop. We mostly shop at SuperU although an equal distance away there's a LeClerc and an Intermarché store. From time to time we also shop at these stores, but mostly the default choice is SuperU. On Thursdays those with loyalty cards for said supermarket get double points and as a Thursday often works for us this is a bonus. We aren't really into loyalty cards, but we do have one for this supermarket.
Free little and large shopping bags
Sometimes there's even a thank-you gift for loyal customers. Not too long ago we got a nest of very practical plastic storage boxes with vented lids so they can go straight from the freezer or fridge into the microwave -- handy!  This week we were rewarded with a, quite tasteful, bag for life -- again something useful. When we got home we found that there was a second 'baby' bag inside. To be honest, as we shop for two, these recent gifts have turned out to be more useful to us than many of the super-sized, buy-one-get-one-free offers so often seen in supermarkets in the Netherlands or UK.
a nice bottle of Beaujolais-Villages
Thursday was also Beaujolais Nouveau day. It's always the third Thursday in November. The quality can be pretty variable from year to year and often we don't bother. This year we thought 'why not?' and decided to give a bottle a try. Perhaps we were lucky, but our choice turned out to be very nice indeed! A votre santé!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Kitty play circuit

When we left Edinburgh recently Shona, Niall's sister, popped a cat toy into the car--when we say toy we really mean a large-ish box with a self-assemble sinuous race track.

The ideal
She'd bought it for her cats, but despite the manufacturer's enthousiastic illustrations, it was not a success. One of her cats hissed at it and fled; the other studiously ignored it. As it was sitting around gathering dust and taking up space she thought our cats might like it. We raised a questioning eyebrow but agreed to give it a test run.

Shadow fled the moment we started opening the box having concluded it would be more peaceful outside. Katinka ignored the assembly noises until the point where we put an orange ping-pong ball into the contraption. Said noise caused her to leap onto the kitchen table--where she is NOT allowed--all agog to investigate further. For ease her humans had assembled the track on the table intending to put it on the floor. Good intentions....

Oh look there's something moving!

The manfucaturers would have been proud!! Katinka was mesmerised and we deployed the camera ....

Goody! I can stick my paw into the opening!

Here it comes!!
Gotcha ... I think!!
Nope ... not quite

Take that!!

Sunday, 11 November 2012


Things are done slightly differently here to what we have been accustomed to previously. There is no 2 mins silence on the dot of 11 am. Rather, at 11 am people will begin to gather in front of the mairie and about 11:15 a wreath will be laid under the plaque commemorating the deportation of two Charnizeens during the Second World War. Then all those who have gathered walk down to the graveyard. Here at the war memorial the names of all those lost will be read out, wreaths will be laid and small candles lit. The children always play a part.
Despite its more relaxed, almost organic format it is just as moving as the more structured format we know from Remembrance Sundays in the UK.

People stop and spend a moment or two thinking of all those who lost their lives in these conflicts--each had a story, each had a life which touched others, each left a gaping hole in the family they left behind. Here in a village this is brought home rather forcefully as the majority of the names on the monument are the same as those who stand and remember them; descendants all.

We'll go down to the village for 11 am wearing our poppies and adding a little 'bleuet' [blue cornflower] sticker which is the French symbol. Poppies and cornflowers, both flowers of those fields in Flanders and symbols of so many lost in WWI and in all the wars that have followed.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The mother of all fan lights

While in the Derbyshire Dales we had a quick look round Buxton and Bakewell--yes that Bakewell, the home of the Bakewell tart or pudding; opinion on the correct name is divided. You can find a recipe for making it here.

Buxton is an old spa town with a lovely Regency era crescent which easily rivals those of Bath. After years of neglect it is now being restored. We didn't see much as there was still loads of building paraphernalia around and weren't able to take a nice photo.

Forgotten splendor
A little further on though there was an exclaimation of delight from Niall. We'd come across a restored remnant of a Victorian railway station! He is fond of all things to do with old [steam] trains and railways; indeed anything to do with steam. He can still wax lyrical about the Croften beam engines which he visited about 12 yrs ago. I declined that honour and sat happily reading The Guardian newspaper while he looked round. Evidently, according to him, I missed a real treat back then!

Information on the restoration of the fan light
Sadly the weather wasn't all that good, so our photographs don't really do it justice, but it is a most beautiful fan window. It has been carefully restored and stands as a testament to Victorian railway architecture. Just behind the window is the modern terminal station.
Buxton's modern day station behind the window

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sonic screwdrivers

There is an unspoken 'rule' concerning Edinburgh birthdays--some aspect of it has to hark back to childhood. In April when we were over and Niall's sister celebrated hers we had a "Gruffalo" cake.
Niall's bucolic birthday cake
Last week it was Niall's birthday and in addition to his 'normal' presents he was gifted with a Dr.Who sonic screwdriver and some excellent Muppet socks. For those of you not familiar with Dr.Who, this was an extremely well beloved children's sci-fi show on British TV's BBC1. It ran from the 1963 until 1989 and was a viewing highlight of many a child who grew up anytime between these dates.

The Muppet's Statler & Waldorf facing off!
After "resting" for 16 years it returned to the screen in 2005 and since then has again been hugely succesful. The Doctor is always armed with his 'sonic screwdriver' which assists him in getting out of all sorts of tight corners.

one sonic screwdriver
Getting the toy out of the packaging proved to be a major headache and required the combined afforts of 3 middle aged grown-ups who, had to either don glasses to read instructions or, remove them!
In vain we looked for assistance from the neighbouring children but there's never a clever 9 yr old around when you need one!

So there was nothing for it--we steeled ourselves for loading the three batteries, one of which promptly eeled out of fingers! Result: Two of three grown-ups were on their knees to search for the errant escapee while the third remarked cheerily that we'd better get used to it as one day we'd probably need these batteries for real --they were of the hearing-aid type!

When finally assembled the nifty toy beamed images of well known Dr Who baddies such as the Daleks. Had we still been living in Suffolk where we had reams of trick or treat visitors on Halloween it would have come in very handy!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Derbyshire Dales

Well, we're back after an excellent time in Edinburgh seeing friends and family. On the drive down to Portsmouth to catch the ferry we decided to stay overnight in the Peak distirct, an area we don't really know.
View over Chelmorton, Derbyshire Dales
We'd picked--at random after an internet search-- the Church Inn in Chelmorton, a small village outside Buxton. It was a horrible misty and murky day which made driving down from Edinburgh less than fun and we arrived in the dark. However, we found we'd struck lucky--the inn was friendly, did lovely home cooked food and gave us a very comfortable room for the night.
The inn, an excellent place to stay
Next moring the weather was still not great, being grey and overcast, but at least the misty murk had gone so we could take some photographs. The village still preserves its original medieval strip farming field pattern in its dry stone walls.
View of strip fields enclosed by dry stone wals
Chelmorton church from which the inn takes its name
Sadly the church had been rather comprehensively 'Victorianised' inside, but its location, tucked into the lee of a hill with a slightly overgrown graveyard was quite atmospheric.

you can click on the photos to enlarge them