Monday, 1 February 2016

French delicacies

Christmas finally! What a long wait – and, sadly for my son, the wait will start all over again in a few hours. We’ve reached that point in the afternoon when, feeling rather like the stuffed turkey, we’ve all retreated to the various parts of the house to rest our inflated stomachs and have some time-out. My daughters are happily watching the first of the five seasons of ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ which came tucked in their Santa sacks. Their arrival today explains why the girls, through my husband’s ebay account, were never the lucky final bidders on all the auctions selling the series that they had repeatedly asked him to bid on. My son started building his Ninjago Lego temple and dragon at nine o’clock this morning and, apart from lunch and a short walk, he has not moved from his room all day, so intent is he on his construction. The adults are either sleeping, reading or sleeping while reading.

In fact, we didn’t even make it through lunch. We had to pause after main course leaving the wonderfully aged Vacherin des Bauges cheese course, the Christmas pudding made in Australia and flown over in my parents’ luggage and the beautifully crafted and decorated gingerbread house and papillottes that were to finish the meal. Little wonder given the amount that we had already eaten.

As an aperitif we served a Cremant from Bourgogne, which is what we used to call champagne but cannot officially anymore, as it is not produced in the Champagne region. To the sparkling wine, we added a liqueur with raspberry overtones, bought at the castle in Chambord in the Loire Valley. To be honest, when I bought it I had no idea if it tasted good or not but the bottle was exquisite and the description on the label sounded encouraging. If you did not know any different you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a perfume bottle. It has a beautiful shape and its cap is decorated in fake jewels, no doubt alluding to the castle’s royal past. The style of drink, wine with a fruit-based liqueur added, is called a ‘kir’ in French or a ‘kir royal’ if champagne replaces the wine.

To accompany the drink, my husband had made various delicately presented blinis and, on the recommendation of our French friends, had prepared the foie gras, a Christmas delicacy, on top of a slice of ginger cake, all topped with an onion jam. It was an unusual sweet and sour combination, which masked the taste of the foie gras. I couldn’t help thinking that if you were going to consume all the calories in the foie gras, it would be better to actually be able to taste them.

An unnecessary, but now compulsory, part of the meal followed – the snail test. Just before our first Christmas here, at the tiny market in Marceau, we came across a snail breeder selling his snails. They were presented in edible puff pastry cases and, as we were throwing ourselves resolutely into doing as much as possible in the French way, we had decided to include them on our Christmas menu. The green colour was a bit off-putting and the garlic butter that they swam in, powerful, but, encased as they were in pastry, they resembled just another innocuous hors d’oeuvre and slid down reasonably effortlessly.

The second year here, we bought snails in their shells, frozen and ready to heat in the oven. This time, naturally enough, the snail shells were inedible, so the still clearly identifiable, curled snail bodies needed to be hooked out of the shell with a small fork. They came out with a faintly audible sucking noise looking very green and smelling very strong. This presented too much of a challenge for my sister’s children, who were here visiting from Australia. As the hosts, we were obliged to lead by example and so I had to put on a brave face and resist the overwhelming spontaneous gagging reflex.

So why, you ask, did we force ourselves to go through that again this year if it was such a challenging experience? For one, they look perfectly edible, presented as they are in their frozen packets at the supermarket. You see only the shells and the top coating of herby looking butter and think that it really cannot be that bad. Secondly, and more importantly, we had guests again and they could not come to France without learning to say ‘merci’ instead of thank-you at the baker’s as they bought their morning croissant, and they could not leave without eating snails.

My father’s competitive spirit enabled him to pass his snail test with flying colours, outdoing the miserable failed attempts of his grandchildren the year before. His reward - the rest of the meal, where we had graciously omitted the frogs' legs, boudin and andouillette (more innards masquerading as sausages), in favour of prawns, pork and salmon.

And still they come to visit…

Friday, 15 January 2016

Between children

It was the same for my daughters growing up in Australia. They went through a period of questioning the existence of Father Christmas. My son came home a few weeks before Christmas and announced that only he and one other boy in his class believed in Le Père Noël. They had had a conversation about this amongst the students and he had felt strongly enough about his convictions to not be swayed by popular vote and had voiced his belief out loud.

He had found an IPhone application that asked a series of questions of children and on the basis of their answers put them onto Santa’s naughty or nice list. He came out with a B+, which placed him on the nice list, although the final application message was a warning to remain on his guard, as Santa’s elves would continue to check up on him. He was chuffed about this and got his older two sisters to do the same test to see if they would be lucky enough be put on the right list with him.

A week or so later he came home and said that he didn’t believe any more as he had been called a ‘baby’ for still believing. He looked crestfallen and unsure about whether he had made the right choice. After all, he had written a beautiful letter to Santa, had included pictures cut out of magazines, of the toys that he wanted, and had wrapped it all carefully in a special piece of fabric. Independently, he had found an envelope for his offering. The envelope had simply been addressed, on the back, in his childish handwriting to Le Père Noël. It broke my heart to think of him sadly having to turn the page into a logical rational world instead of being allowed to remain in his magical fantasy one.

Then again there were no age limits to children being hurtful to each other, unintentionally or deliberately. My middle daughter at high school had participated in an inter-school cross-country event and on this occasion had mixed with students from her school that she had not come across before. One of the girls after having chatted with my daughter for all of a minute said, ‘You look like Polly Pocket. I think I’ll call you Polly.’ This annoyed my daughter more than upsetting her but my older daughter who had been listening to this story being told in the car on the way home, and who was usually so quiet and so polite burst forth with, ‘You should have said to her, you look like a dog. I think I’ll call you dog.’ I laughed all the way home.

Of course, she never would have said such a thing and I would have been most upset if she had, but occasionally it did them good to get rid of some of the inevitable antagonism of the schoolyard by speaking about it. A program on French television called ‘Fais pas ci, fais pas ça,’ centered on the daily lives of a few families. In one episode, a family was attempting to work out a date for a birthday party for the teenage daughter. Unexpectedly, the birthday girl had flounced out of the room and it was left to her older sister to explain to the mother that the date that she had proposed coincided with the party of the most popular girl in the class. No one would choose to come to her sister’s party.

Later in the same show the sisters sat the mother down and went through with her the different categories of students at the school; the popular ones, the semi-popular ones (the dangerous ones) and the bozos (stupid, not popular). Once a bozo always a bozo, they went on to explain to her, and unfortunately that was where the younger daughter had placed herself. She was still to learn that some of the most interesting people fitted comfortably into that last category and usually the most intelligent were those that simply did not care about being there.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Bonne année

My daughter shared this with me after having received it from one of her Italian friends. Happy New Year!

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Places to call home

I was looking forward to our planned road trip; a mere 1400 km across the desolate, wind-swept, outback plains of Australia, dotted with the crumbling remains of dwellings long ago resigned to their slow, silent end; tin-roofed farm buildings, only fully alive when beating to the rhythm of the passing, oft-longed-for raindrops, and piles of rarely used or abandoned farm machinery - which, it was hard to tell.

We slowed occasionally to watch as the cows, straddling the main highway and unaware of their priority status, crossed in front of us to paddocks more desirable, unconcerned about timelines, variable property prices, drought-affected incomes or our need to 'just be there'.

Changing speed limits marked our entry and exit to the small, and getting smaller, towns; one of which I used to call home. It was hot, too...but that, opening the car door from our air-conditioned comfort and stepping into a veritable furnace, we expected.

What I had forgotten, and what struck me the most, was the straight lines. We had become used to the contours of our French mountains, cursed them occasionally as we struggled up and down them on our bikes or returning on foot from the village with our laden shopping baskets. But, happy to post photo after photo of soaring, beautiful peaks. Out here, it was achingly limitless, flat and open; nature and time disappearing into the horizon.
It was all coming back to me, how, divorced from the distractions of city living, I used to feel. If I was lucky, being there, in the Australian outback, brought with it a calmness, a sense of peace. But, that sentiment floated, as it always had, dangerously close to a darker push and pull - attraction and dissatisfaction. If I had had the choice would I have loved the land, happily lived the entwined lifestyle of land and farmer, oblivious to the bigger world out there?  Or, would I have known that, despite sincerely wishing that it was, that it would never have been enough?
I suspect that I know the answer. And, it probably has little to do with any one particular place. That push and pull has become more vigorous, determined to keep shaking me out of my now and onto my next destination.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Ready and waiting ... for winter

Disappointingly, we did not wake up to snow this morning. But, I think that we have ticked off the major items on our ‘preparations for winter’ list. The fuel for our heating system was delivered just after 8am as I was setting off to walk my youngest to school. I watched in admiration as the driver manoeuvred his truck across the bridge two doors up from the house, with inches to spare on each side and then ran up to greet him and introduce myself. I explained to him what the driver who came with last year’s delivery had done in order to get the truck to the house safely down the narrow, winding streets. He smiled kindly at me, nodded and said “Yes, that was what I was going to do.”

Chatting a few minutes later as the fuel was surging into the underground tank he revealed to me that he had been delivering in the Annecy area for 27 years and “knew most things.” He then pointed to the houses around us in our hamlet and explained where he had to park the truck in order to access each property. On one occasion, he told me, when our street was blocked he had even used a ladder to climb down into the river with his hose and up and across our garden to the manhole. I guess I hadn’t needed to worry about helping him with his directions. Nor the driver from last year who had responded with “I’ve got it covered” when I asked if he needed any help getting his truck out of the tiny street. Luckily, in hindsight, as I am still not sure what I could have done in practice to help avoid his several tonne fuel truck from being artistically wrapped around my low stone retaining wall.

Today’s driver was friendly and wore cool tartan-patterned gumboots, which I complimented him on. My words were so nonchalantly accepted that it felt like I was a player in his daily casual conversation routine. The boots may have been part of his seductive delivery method and they were clearly working their magic on me. I would have liked to have kept him chatting to discover a bit more about the things that he said that he knew.

Typically for me, when I looked at the bill after his departure I discovered that I had mis-heard the quoted price over the telephone. Instead of quatre-vingt-treize (93) centimes per litre it had cost me quatre-vingt-seize (96) centimes per litre, easily done over the phone but another one of the frustrating little examples of being let down linguistically by not being a native speaker.

So, now that we have had the wood and fuel delivered, snow tyres bought and put on, salt for the roads near the front door at the ready, spray and ice scrapers for the windscreen placed in the car along with a blanket, snow chains and snow shovel, winter clothing checked and ski school bookings made, we just need the winter. It is making me feel a bit like a wallflower at a school ball, all dressed up and ready with no one interested.

Have I gone a bit over-the-top with our preparations? Probably, but we were so under-prepared for our first winter here that I am scared into action each year now. Memories of sloshing through snow with my toes achingly cold in shoes that leaked, my under-dressed children with despairing looks in their eyes, skidding in the car down icy, un-salted roads and sitting freezing cold in the kitchen with no wood left and our heating fuel nearly all gone are hard to erase.

Now that I think about it we were also way to keen to try out all the different local Christmas markets. We had no idea that the huge banners and roadside signs on the main road from Annecy to home could lead us to small community halls set up with only a handful of cute stalls, which we conspicuously kept on appearing at.

But, how often is it the journey rather than the destination that provides the interest and the excitement in life? We look back on our mistakes with pride, content in the knowledge that despite all of the things that we did not get right last time around, we made it through. 

Still, please hurry up and snow so that I can feel better about being so prepared.