Monday, 4 May 2015

The woodpile

The alarm went off and in my befuddled state I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was. Sunday, why the alarm? Then, the events of the day to come played out in my mind. I happily jumped out of bed. I had a woodpile to stack.

Last night in the pitch-black, bitingly-cold night our wood had finally arrived. I had rung the woodsman four times in the afternoon. Usually I am not that insistent but I really wanted our wood. And, I really wanted to prove that I could do it. Manage that is. But I was doubtful.

For a start he kept saying that he would come and then not be able to make it. He also insisted that the minimum delivery would have to be eight stères (8 cubic metres) whereas I only wanted five. He subsequently rang back to say that another gentleman from around the lake wanted just two so would I be happy with six? Well, five was what I asked for. If he really wanted to make an eight stères trip why could he not tell the other guy that he had to take a minimum of three? After all he bumped me up three why couldn’t he raise the other guy just one? Still it is better to have too much than too little. The first winter taught us that.

Knowing that he would find it difficult to find us in the dark I waited on the bridge ready to direct him. Standing in the circle of light disseminated by the old-fashioned lamppost breathing out warm vapours, with my hands in my pockets but slightly underdressed for the low temperature, I felt rather conspicuous, but serenely peaceful.  The cold makes things quiet and the quiet makes things peaceful. There was a reassuring glow of lights from inside the houses in our hamlet and shadowy movements behind curtains, which meant that there were people around. I felt safe even though I was on my own.

A minor traffic jam occurred when the woodsman arrived as he went past the bridge only to have to back his laden six-tonne truck and trailer up the winding ill-lit old road. He needed reassurance that he would fit down the little passage beside our house. No hesitation. I had had fuel tankers back down the road to deliver our fuel with easily centimetres to spare on each side.

He turned out to be a nice guy much younger and slighter than his gruff voice and less-than-methodical approach to organisation had led me to expect. He manoeuvred his truck into place and dumped the mound of wood expertly into our driveway. It was all over very quickly but as I was handing him his cheque he grinned at me and said “You were waiting for this wood, weren’t you?” “Yes, we were down to our last couple of logs,” I replied. “You were starting to doubt me, weren’t you?” “Uh huh,” I admitted smilingly. And a friendly conversation ensued. He had chosen to bring his truck over the mountains from Magland through Sallanches, past Megève, the turn-off to Les Saisies and down into Ugine before winding his way around the lake. He still had all of that to re-do, this time in the dark and it was already nearly 8pm. I didn’t really mind that he had quoted me two euros more per stères than his Internet site had advertised and that I hadn’t questioned him. I just hoped that if I was being a bit green, that his wood wouldn’t be.

It was too late to stack the wood without making an excessive amount of noise and doing a mediocre job in the dark. So, with a few happy glances at my jumbled pile I retired into the warmth of the house. I had done it. I had found wood when the common consensus was that there was no more to be had around the lake.

Thus it was that I jumped out of bed eager to attack the task this morning. The children, husband and I got the stacking done in a record time at the same time as receiving admiring comments from our passing-by neighbours, both for the size of our pile plus our application to task. It was the beginning of a top-notch day.

Saturday, 25 April 2015


We had never come across a truffle market (marché aux truffes) – until on holidays in Bourgogne (possibly more well known for its Burgundy wines).

For a start, I would have presumed that this sort of event would be by invitation only – after all, the reputation that truffles have in Australia is that you only ever eat them at exclusive restaurants, paying through the nose for them and then barely discerning them in your dish other than, well, through the nose.

But no – in Noyers-sur-Serein, where we were staying  - we saw the discreet little advertisements at the walled entrance to the town announcing that there would be pedestrian-only access on Sunday during the festival. We were curious and put it on our long list of things to do for the week which also included visiting caves with drawings from 35000 years ago, roman sites where Vercingetorix (Asterix readers you’ll recognise him) and Julius Caesar fought and unsurprisingly where Roman organisation won out over French passion, an abbey built in the 1100s by Saint Bernard and of course vineyards in their thousands.

Most markets start at the crack of dawn but curiously this one had a 10.00 am starting time listed. Punctuality has never been this family’s forte but, as we had other things to do in the day, we happened to be there on time and for the start of proceedings – luckily.

Anticipation gave way to disappointment as we wandered around the very small market with empty trestle tables.  Wine, jewellery and local produce were on sale, truffle plants were for purchase (I had no idea that you could buy such a thing presuming that it was just a naturally occurring mushroom-like phenomena and that the critical component was your capacity to train your pig, or your dog, to find them) and there were some very expensive chocolates made with truffles available – but no truffles.

I consoled myself by buying a hand-made ring – pretty, sparkly pink glass - and taste testing the local Burgundy. The children went for the macaroons. So absorbed were we with the choice between peach, lemon, raspberry, vanilla and chocolate that we nearly missed the announcement that the count-down to the official truffle selling would begin at 10.30am. Like the Biblical wedding feast at Cana the empty trestles had magically become laden and as the lids were lifted on the black nuggets the air became thick with the earthy smell. Barricades, which had been erected around the stalls, were now 5 or 6 deep with people. I felt the nervous excitement within me building and watched and waited to see what would happen, as had become my standard practice in new situations.

Trois, deux, un, partez! - and the mostly middle-aged men and women surged through the gates and towards the 20 m long sales area. I watched aghast as 2 kgs of the black gold, at 350 euros (nearly AUS $500) per kg was ordered, paid for in cash, carefully placed in a paper bag and held up protectively by my nearest purchaser as he rescinded his spot in the queue. I was keen to give it a go but knew that I only had 25 euros in my pocket and wasn't at all sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself by ordering black gold that I couldn’t pay for. I chose a couple of kind-looking truffle sellers before stepping up and admitting to them that it was my first truffle market. With my hand hovering over their tray of nuggets, I was told that the small were just as good as the big and was invited to smell the truffles to see for myself. Of course, I could have done like I do with wine tasting and followed their advice and nodded knowingly but decided to just smile and place my chosen ones onto the scales. With the first weighed truffle registering 10 euros I knew that I could afford two. I was given a recipe sheet, instructions for storing the truffles,  an encouraging "bonne dégustation" and it was my turn to emerge triumphantly from the crowd with my paper bag aloft.

Thanks to my more-culinarily-competent-than-me husband we sat down to a dinner that night of duck with truffle sauce and baked endive purchased later in the day at the market in Chablis along with a glass of ... Chablis. Another ordinary day in France filled with yet more extraordinary sensations.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The village library

A ten-square metre room in the many-roomed, three-story building standing prominently on the main road through the village opens its shutters for four and a half hours per week. At the same time a large metal sign reading BIBLIOTHEQUE is placed outside on the window ledge to advertise the fact that therein lies the village library and that it is open for business.

In my busy pre-France life I had no time for reading – other that is, than work related articles and documents. I didn’t allow myself to read for pleasure. I used to tell myself that I had too many other important things to do and convinced myself that I was somehow letting myself, and my high standards down if I gave in and read something just for the sake of enjoying reading it.

When we moved to France this idea that had accompanied me for the previous 25 years was so engrained that, despite the fact that I now did have free time I still couldn’t ‘waste’ it on such a frivolous pursuit.

What prompted me first to seek out the local village library was the children, and admittedly it was more to get them French DVDs. They were doing fewer activities than they used to do in Australia but I had justified the passive DVD watching idea to myself on the premise that it would help them with their French language learning. So I looked around for a video store but they just didn’t seem to exist. The closest that I came across was an ATM-like ‘hole in the wall’ at the village supermarket that had literally just a handful of very outdated adult-oriented movies for loan. I then remembered that in Australia the libraries often had a collection of videos and DVDs for loan and presumed that the same would apply in France. Wrong!

I had been living in France for a month by then – I should have known that this would be another difference between the two countries. The first library that I tried, which was near our first house, looked promising from the outside. It was modern and quite large with two wings of books. By then I had become more used to the idea that public buildings could easily be mistaken for residential premises and hesitated only slightly as I pushed open the door to face two sweetly smiling ladies seated behind a long desk quietly controlling who was going in and out and with what in their bags. I explained that I was new to the area and they assured me that as long as I could prove my address with a ‘justificatif’ and then pay my money that I could start borrowing books straight away. Pay my money – weren’t libraries free in France like they were in Australia? I felt that I couldn’t back out and so did what was required. I moved auspiciously to the books section first and then stealthily attempted to hone in on my real target, the DVDs – but where were they?  and what a disappointment when I finally located the single half-empty shelf holding more out-dated adult-oriented movies. To save face with the eagle-eyed librarians I resorted to borrowing books for the children pretending that that had been my principal objective all along.

Just because I was there and because it jumped out at me as a familiar name I also borrowed a book – for me. It was a Tim Winton book in French. I haven’t looked back. I am once again hooked on reading.

We have changed villages and therefore libraries and this time I was a bit more prepared for the interaction that would take place when I first went for a visit– but not the size of the library or their methods. Don’t get me wrong – it is one of my fortnightly pleasures to go down to the library and have a short whispered exchange with one of the many older ladies who man the room. The borrowing system involves exchanging yellowing hand-written cards for book. There are no due dates – and the books seem to date from the period they were written about – a long time ago. There is a table for new releases and a box  - one - for children’s books but mostly I concentrate on the ‘B’s. By default the first author that I picked up had the surname Bourdin (genre: easy romance). I methodically returned to her shelf, read all of her books and only realised that I had come to the end of her offerings when the style of my newest loan was so vastly different (more difficult and somewhat educative) than what I had become accustomed to. I re-read the cover and realized that I was reading a Bourdon. I have since progressed to Bordes – and am loving reading once again.

Yesterday I had to return an overdue book as in principle you keep a book for two weeks. I presented my apologies and was told reassuringly not to worry as it was an old one – the word is ‘ancien’. I guess that it will always be ok then – as they are nearly all old.

Monday, 13 April 2015


Charles De Gaulle, French General and politician who led the Free French during the Second World War and was also the architect of the fifth republic and French President from 1959-1969 famously said “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays où il existe 258 variétés de fromage?” or “How can one lead a country where there are 258 varieties of cheese?” Surely he could have just said “How can one lead a country made up of Frenchmen?" But no, that would have been disrespectful of the personality differences, passion and that little ‘je ne sais quoi’ which mysteriously defines a typical Frenchman. How clever to make the Gallic chest swell with pride at his culinary achievement and his individualism. Yes, you can hear De Gaulle’s compatriots thinking, we do have a lot of cheeses, yes it is probable that we might be the world cheese masters, how clever are we? distracting them from the veiled message that they were just an unruly lot who were hard to control.

It works even to this day. If ever I feel a conversation flagging or progressing into dangerous territory, linguistic or otherwise, I casually throw in what I had for dinner, or lunch, or breakfast last week. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is about food we digress happily out of more-trying-vocabulary quarters and potentially disharmonious sentiments.

On holidays recently in Bourgogne we visited a market. A little market in an out-of-the-way village with a lovely castle, which is open for visits, a main street and not much else. But even small villages have the right to hold a market. It wasn’t busy, unlike the Saturday morning affairs in Annecy where the pleasure of strolling and becoming intimate with the stallholders is reduced to elbowing your way to the stall, queuing for long periods of time and then making your transaction as quickly as possible so as not to annoy those queuing behind you. In fact, quite the opposite, it was almost intimidatingly empty. It was the sort of place where you felt obliged to buy from every stallholder just to show no favouritism. After purchasing vegetables from two different sellers, fresh goats cheeses from the goats cheese lady, bread from the baker and regretfully nodding at the cheap and nasty toy seller we found ourselves in front of a second cheesemaker.

I explained to him that we were not from the region so asked whether he would be kind enough to recommend a couple of local cheeses. He pointed to a strong rind-washed, oozing Epoisses, a soft, slightly denser in the middle Chaource, and then presented the Délice de Bourgogne, otherwise known as the Crémeux. It has a fat content of 76% he added and I stopped in the middle of my “yes, we’ll have that one,” reply only to quickly regather my momentum and say ”yes, we’ll have a thin slice of that one please.” But, was it delicious? Worth every calorie and re-ordered as soon as we spotted some more at the next market.

Later that day the children were discussing cheese. My oldest daughter dared make the outlandish statement that she could name fifty French cheeses. I laughed and went to the computer as she was beginning her list and typed favourite Australian cheeses into my Internet search engine. It was time to laugh again when amongst the esoteric cheese conversations recorded, some jokester had written “I’m really enjoying Dick Smith’s Cheese Spread.” There is no doubt that Australia has cheese of quality but the comment did remind me that before arriving in France my children’s attempts to name cheeses would probably have stopped after three. Let me give it a go – Coon, Tasty and ‘green cheese’. The last was my oldest daughter’s favourite when she could barely walk. She would ask it of her granny when spending the night at her house. It didn’t refer to my mother’s Scottish background and her ‘waste not want not’ approach to food but rather the green wrapping of the aged cheddar that my mother preferred. My children also used to happily munch on individually wrapped cheese slices. I have never seen them in France, and don’t really want to. I can’t even imagine the look of stupefaction I would receive from my children’s friends if ever I did find them and served them up.

My daughter had to admit defeat after thirty-one cheeses. I was impressed. Sure we had been living in France for a couple of years but it only took a couple of months of French living before the children’s tastes and appreciation for food started changing. I vividly recall my daughter running back to me through yet another market, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me back to where she had come from. “You have to taste this cheese,” she said. She had, I did and a great slab was purchased. It was a Beaufort d’été, made from the summer milk of the cows in the pastures around Beaufort. To this day, despite all the competitors for her number one cheese ranking it has not been replaced.

I also smilingly reflect on the afternoon that I observed my three children from a discreet distance. They had a cheese platter in front of them. As they were making up their sandwiches for lunch they discussed the merits of each cheese. The taste and texture were seriously debated and small slices were shaved off to check and re-check on their taste preference. My son was equally as happy participating in the discussion and he had only just turned six. Is it any wonder that this country produces great food and great chefs?

Friday, 3 April 2015

Our return

Two years had passed since we were last in France. This time when we packed our bags in Australia we had a much clearer idea of what to expect when we touched down in Geneva airport, made our way through customs and were asked for the first time “Parlez-vous français?” by the unsmiling uniformed man behind the desk. Back then, eager to prove my linguistic competency I had lurched forward with an emphatic “oui” ready to put my skills to the test, in much the same way as I would have facing a University lecturer armed with my pre-prepared oral exam replies. This time of course it was over in seconds, “How long were we staying?” a quick glance at our passports and a polite “au revoir” and we were on our way. But I had changed too. There was no nervousness, no need to attempt extended conversation. It was all too simply like we were coming home. From the very first moment it was as if we had never left.

That feeling continued. We knew that we could be stopped at the Swiss-French border to produce our vignette, we knew that we did not have to stop if we were not stopped and we knew how to drive on the right-hand side of the road with decidedly fewer husband and wife moments than at our first attempt.

We drove straight to Talloires and I hopped out of the car to introduce myself to one of the three estate agents that I had not met in the from-over-the-seas purchasing of our long-desired French residence. It was the first time that we had seen the house, the final signing of the sale papers was scheduled for the following day and, despite a few puzzled ‘so, you bought your house over the Internet’ comments from our entourage I felt only excitement.

The house was in every way as charming as we had expected from the pictures and the reports that we had received. The signing of the papers, after a jet-lag-induced sleepless night, and in stark contrast to the preceding months of stress and struggle, was a fun formality and the opening of the front door with our own set of keys the happy realization of years of work. We were ready to begin the next phase of the adventure.

Of course we had forgotten the intricacies of living the French way. We had a whole house to set up and furnish, and needing to use most minutes of every day in the few weeks that we were there to do this, we tried to buy a couch between twelve and two. Non, non, non. Ah yes, it was lunch time. Time to eat, not shop. We tried to withdraw cash from the bank after midday. Non, non, non. Please come back tomorrow morning. I could order a withdrawal for the next day, euh correction, morning, but not actually do the withdrawal. And then there were the imposed weekly credit card limits and ATM maximum withdrawals despite the sum of money sitting in the account, which meant that we were effectively cash-strapped after day two and had to bide our time patiently until seven days after the beginning of our spending spree had elapsed before we could start up again.

But – it did not matter. I recommenced my morning ritual of opening the window shutters, which successfully slowed me down. No matter how urgently we were needing to rush it was impossible to not stop, look at the lake or the mountains, the stone walls of the houses around, the window lintels wide enough to sit in or the bubbles in the window panes, made when mercury was still used to fashion the flat glass surfaces, and feel the effects of time and people gone by.

Our eating habits, too, slowly metamorphosed back into the pattern that we had lived, loved and left. Cheese before dessert, and that after a slow aperitif and a hearty main course around 8pm, calls to our son to head out to do a quick boulangerie run, an obligatory café stop at our past village haunt and a long lunch at our new village café of the same name cemented our long-awaited return with a delightful twist. We were heading back...home.