Wednesday, April 30, 2008

fête du muguet

Tomorrow is a jour férié (public holiday) and it's traditionally when folk round here plant their potatoes. Any time before the 1st of May is risky because there's a likelihood of frost - although we've had snow in May in the village every year since we arrived and there's fresh snow on the mountains today down to 1400 metres (and settling in Méribel chez Miss Fit, I've just been informed).

It is also la fête du muguet, when lily of the valley is sold in the streets all over France, the tradition being to give the ones you love a little bouquet for good luck and to celebrate the arrival of spring.

I bought my seed potatoes today ready for planting tomorrow and this year I've gone for four different varieties: Rosabelle, BF 15, Mona Lisa and Bernadette. Last year I only planted a few rows of Rosabelle and because of blight and the wet weather I didn't get a very good crop, but cutting the foliage right down at least resulted in a couple of sacks that lasted until the new year.

There's a matinée lavage voiture (car wash morning) tomorrow being run by the youth committee at the salle des fêtes so I will get my car cleaned at last. I've been meaning to do it myself ever since I bought it - two years ago!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

excuses, excuses, excuses

I've heard some excuses from BB for not getting on with something or another in my time (in winter "it's too cold"; in summer "it's too hot"; after 10.30 am "it's nearly lunch-time so there's no point";) but I heard it all this morning when I asked him to move a very heavy box out of the house and he said he couldn't "because the sun was shining". Eh?

We went to a marche artisanal et vide grenier (crafts market and car boot sale) down at the lake in the afternoon and joined some friends for a drink after having a browse. As we stood at the outside bar watching a sheep dog rounding up some sheep, a guy came in carrying a box full of plastic plant pots and wearing an Edinburgh University scarf - my alma mater - which I thought was a bit of a coincidence - until I realised that Mini-B had been selling all our junk at the car boot sale. I was just waiting for someone to come in carrying the kitchen sink.

hell's teeth

Boxes of stuff that didn't go in the van during our spring clean the other day have been sitting in the kitchen so I decided to go through it all this afternoon to decide what was worth keeping. I came across my 1999 diary (when I was working as a solicitor) and was surprised to see so many dentist and hairdresser appointments. I can't remember the last time I went to either, but I do take care of my teeth. After the missing digits, the other thing you notice here is how bad everyone's teeth are. I don't think anyone goes to the dentist. I'm not surprised though, because BB went to the local dentist a while ago for a clean and polish and after 20 minutes she downed tools and said his allotted time was up. He left with only his top teeth polished and it took a further two sessions to complete the treatment. It's a good job he wasn't in for root canal work!

Later, Mini-B came round with a dozen fresh eggs from his hens and some wild mushrooms he'd collected so I made a mushroom omelette. Just as we sat down to eat, the mayor rang up looking for Mini-B to tell him that his cows were all over the road. This happens all the time but the new mayor is clamping down and has sent him a warning letter threatening court action unless he gets his electric fences in order. (The last mayor wasn't bothered - but he's related to Mini-B!) At the moment his fields are fenced in with thin pieces of wire that look like something his granny knitted. I've seen stronger spiders' webs and they probably carry more current.

At least if he goes to court he'll be well dressed.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

spring clean

We've been waiting for weeks for France Telecom to come and move the phone lines that pass over the roof of the mill and for the crane man to come and negotiate the sale of a crane - and they both arrived yesterday. BB can't take the old roof off before the lines are re-routed and we've decided to buy a crane to make his job a bit easier (the ridge height of the roof is 10.8 metres). We now have some nice new wooden telephone poles (which means that we can get rid of the concrete monstrosity that they've replaced) and we have a crane arriving in four weeks' time.

We spent all afternoon clearing out one room in the mill before demolition begins (the whole building is going to be demolished apart from the exterior stone walls) - plastic plant pots, broken crockery, bags of redundant work clothes, books, an old kitchen sink etc - most of which went straight into the van to be taken to the tip/charity shop today. BB then left to go to the écurie (where Mini-B milks his cows) for a pastis and when he came back, the van was empty, Mini-B having claimed all our junk.

He turned up this morning on his tractor (wearing my old Aquascutum mac!) to turn over my potager (kitchen garden) at the same time as a neighbour arrived to discuss a land swap. The current potager is on another piece of land we own about 200 metres away and the only way to get water up to it is by filling a 1000 litre plastic bidon (to which BB welded the rear axle of a car and a tow bar) from the river and towing it up there - which isn't ideal. We want to swap it for a neglected walled garden just opposite the house through which runs a stream. Our neighbour has agreed so now we have to formalise the deal with the notaire. The only disadvantage is that we'll lose our mature fruit trees from which we made our own cider and griottes - cherries preserved in sweetened gnole.

So, it's all happening.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I went to Méribel at the weekend to ski with my friend Miss Fit before everything shuts down for the season.

We worked together as saisonnières in Courchevel and shared a room, in the bowels of the chalet, without windows or ventilation. The combination of the tropical indoor temperature and leaky plumbing from the adjoining bathroom meant that plant life was actually growing in our bedroom carpet. It was like sleeping in a gigantic propagator inside a cupboard.

On my first day there, I woke up in the middle of the night needing a pee and spent 15 minutes skittering through the undergrowth in impenetrable darkness trying to find my way out, inducing such panic in me, that I insisted on leaving the door open and an outside light on thereafter. The last time I woke up in such dodgy surroundings was in Northern Australia in my cheap nylon one-man tent, after a big night out, when the midday temperature had soared to a whopping 45 degrees - boil-in-the-bag Baby Chou. I've never felt so rough!

The snow is still excellent at 3000 metres and with the slopes almost empty and a bit of blue sky, it was about as perfect a day as you can get.

Friday, April 18, 2008

wild horses

It took me a while to decide on appropriate footwear for my riding lesson today but in the end I opted for wellies - not only because they have the highest heel in my shoe collection - but they also have steel toecaps. Thinking ahead, I decided that the chances of M. Bois having an equestrian helmet that fitted me, or having any kind of helmet at all, were pretty slim, so I took along my motorcycle helmet.

When I arrived just after lunch, M. Bois was drinking la gnole - the local 80% hooch drunk at the end of a meal - and persuaded me to neck a couple, thereby immediately breaking rule #4. In light of what followed, however, it was probably a good thing that my senses (predominantly fear) were slightly dulled.

I needn't have deliberated over my choice of footwear either because when M. Bois brought the horse round, it was missing a vital piece of equipment - a saddle. No stirrups for my feet to slip through then. After donning my crash helmet and some jangly beads (I wouldn't want to be mistaken for a deer) I was given a leg up, which, believe me, was no easy feat considering M. Bois is five feet tall and the horse was about 100 hands.

Once up, I had difficulty getting comfortable because the beast was so huge that my legs practically stuck out at right angles to my body so all I had to hold on to were the 'reins' (substitute 'length of old rope'). When M. Bois suggested that I go for a little trot, it dawned on me that I was (a) not getting a professional lesson and (b) going to be riding alone. After a few tentative steps, M. Bois whacked the horse's ass so hard that it took off at a gallop. What a sight it must have been - me holding on for grim death in a full-faced helmet, Indian beads whipping around my neck as we traversed the open fields stirring up hornets' nests. It was absolutely terrifying.

So, to sum up, pretty much every golden rule of horse riding was broken in one sitting

Thursday, April 17, 2008

rhythm beads

I'm going for my first ever horse riding lesson tomorrow with M. Bois. He keeps more than a dozen horses on his 26-hectare property higher up, surrounded by woods and fields with a spectacular view of the mountains right up the valley. It's an amazing place.

We've been there for apéros a few times, thankfully in summer when we could sit outside. I wouldn't want to be couped up in his house for any length of time without wearing a surgical mask or a very high polo-neck. On the one occasion I ventured inside to use the loo it was like entering a cave. The kitchen/dining room had bare splintered floorboards covered with thin patches of linoleum and the walls were so caked in soot and grease that I started gagging. I decided I'd be safer going behind a bush outside rather than risk the horrors of his toilet. The downside of going in summer is that M. Bois wears micro shorts and no underpants - it's like car crash couture - you just can't help staring!

I'm feeling a bit apprehensive about the lesson so I've just gone on a horsey website to gen up a bit and find out what I can do to minimise the risk of ending up in a wheelchair. It recommends as follows:

Rule #1 - inexperienced riders should get lessons from a professional
Rule #2 - always wear a properly fitted equestrian helmet
Rule #3 - wear a boot with a good heel to keep your foot from slipping through the stirrups
Rule #4 - stay alert
Rule #5 - never ride alone
Rule #6 - never leave the trail; holes, unsafe surfaces and hornets' nests may exist in open fields.

It also recommends, when riding during the hunting season, to make lots of noise and use 'rhythm beads' ("choose from a delightful variety of bead types, including semi-precious stones, and match the bead colours to the owner's and horse's personalities and the unique bond they share") on your horse to let hunters know that you're not a deer.

I wonder if M. Bois will invite me to look at his rhythm beads

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Mini-B's écurie cat has just had a little ginger tom and I’m trying to persuade BB that we should take it. We already have three - but in my opinion, you can never be too rich or too thin or have too many cats.

We got our three from Lulu, the owner of a restaurant in the next village, not long after we arrived here and were struggling to get to grips with the lingo. One evening we went to Lulu's for a drink and when we went to settle the bill at the end of the night, he asked us if we wanted a chaton. Thinking this was a local digestive, we accepted another drink and then left.

The following morning Lulu arrived on his moped in his chef's whites, balancing a cardboard box on his lap which he handed to me. Inside was a tiny white and grey kitten - a chaton! Before I could explain that there had been a misunderstanding, he was off on his moped again, checked trousers flapping in the breeze.

That's how we ended up with Loti.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

dandelion salad

The belot lunch took place this weekend. During the winter BB and his cronies play a card game called belot (a bit like poker) with the losers paying a cent per point lost into a lunch fund until there's enough to go for a slap-up meal.

On Sunday a dozen of us went down to the ferme d'ambrune et polalye - the duck farm here in the village. Monsieur used to have a restaurant in Haute Savoie and now opens his dining-room three times a week to the public sur command. Everything from the meat to the fruit and veg and the bread is reared/grown/made on the farm. We started with a vegetable broth followed by rillettes of duck with dandelion salad (dandelion leaves are perfect for salad at this time of year when they're young and tender, but you have to be quick here as the meadows are usually full of people foraging for the young greens). Then there was a first class confit de canard with polente, finishing with cheese then a light, fluffy raspberry mousse. Formidable!

Afterwards, we sat on the terrace in the sun facing the snowy mountains drinking coffee and genepi.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

burning bushes

I've just returned from a few days in England and I'm glad to be back in the wide open spaces of the mountains. I always feel a bit claustrophobic when I go back to the UK now.

Last night we went to les failles - the "lighting of the fires" at the salle des fêtes. This is a local tradition which takes place every year around this time after everyone has finished pruning their trees. All the branches are piled up into giant stacks outside the village hall and set on fire. As with any organised social event here, a bar was set up outside in the field where they were serving vin chaud from a dustbin boiling away over a gas ring, accompanied by bugnes - a fritter made with strips of thin dough, like a crispy doughnut.

Although a Mardi Gras classic originating in Lyon, bugnes are served in this region all year round whenever a few guests are expected. Mini-B's Mum makes her bugne dough by hand mixing 1kg of flour and a sachet of dried yeast with 5 eggs, 5 tablespoons of warm vegetable oil and a few drops of vanilla essence.

The dough is then rolled out to no more than 1/8 inch thick and cut into rectangles about 1 inch wide by 4 inches long, making a 2-inch slit down the centre of each rectangle to make a hole. You then slip one of the ends of the rectangle through the slit and pull it back, to give a kind of knot effect. Shallow fry the shapes in hot vegetable oil for 1 minute either side then sprinkle with icing sugar.

Quite often they're served at the end of a meal with champagne.