Thursday, 10 March 2016

Gardens and vegetable patches

In awe of the near self-sufficiency of my gorgeous elderly neighbours, I wrote this piece whilst still living in our beautiful little hamlet in France.

I was chatting outside with the owner. We bumped into each other often as our rented wooden cottage was in her garden, which meandered out of sight past our little place, her rudimentary one-string clothesline, her large and impressive vegetable patch, her hazelnut, pear and apple trees and her collection of flowers and herbs.

On this particular day, she was bringing me a selection of the day’s vegetable offerings in a wicker basket. A week into our adventure, I felt like we had plumped straight into my idealised fresh food French lifestyle. I knew by then that she had six children. In addition to a more formal evening dinner, each day she prepared a proper, sit-down meal for her offspring and any tag-alongs that came home from school at lunchtime. As such, the garden was not just an ambling delight for my children, keen to run and play hide-and–seek, it was her larder.

Food was the topic of our conversation. I tried hard to appear at least a little bit knowledgeable in our discussion, but eventually just came out with the truth – that my husband cooked far better than me. She reacted, as have all my other French girlfriends since, with surprise and envy. I still don’t get that. In a world so dominated by male French chefs, why do women here accept the role of chief chef so naturally? Perhaps worried by what she had heard, she invited my husband and I over for dinner.

After our three-course dinner in the formal dining room, we were invited back to the lounge, where we were offered an ‘infusion’ to assist with digestion. Called verveine (verbena), the leaves had been collected from one of the bushes outside, crushed and prepared with boiling water in a pot. It tasted like a refreshing mixture of camomile and mint. Clearly, my headiness upon departure had nothing to do with the non-caffeine-based drink, but I did feel simultaneously pepped up and relaxed. One week down and we had already received our first invitation out in the Haute Savoie. More importantly, we had made it through this first social function; eating and drinking all that had been put in front of us and managing to find enough things to talk about.

I had always admired vegetable-patch owners. Yet, in Australia, years before, when we had re-done our garden, we had prioritised play areas for the children and had included a trampoline, swing area and cubby house in our plans. Unintentionally, we had fallen into a design-factor trap, which meant that the look of our garden was what had influenced our decision-making. There had been no room for an untidy scar with a few straggly vegetables in it, which would definitely have been my first attempt at a vegie patch. I knew this, as the only time previously that I had managed to grow something successfully was on my single-girl apartment balcony in a terracotta pot. Then, despite myself, hundreds of the sweetest tiny cherry tomatoes had grown ... and kept on appearing. I retain the self-satisfied memory of that period, rushing home from work to see how many more I had produced, picking them and, without a trace of guilt, popping them like red lollies straight into my mouth.

Now, several years into our French adventure, we have moved houses three times and are still in rental accommodation. We are not at liberty to dig willy-nilly into our garden. We did put in a couple of tomato bushes and raspberry plants, which produced some edible fruit and we tried planting a few bulbs, too, but the squirrels had the last word there. On the other hand, the red geraniums in the pots on our balcony are flourishing and remind me of my childhood spent growing up in Adelaide, where the geraniums were considered pretty weeds at the base of the stobie poles on the footpaths.

The solution to not having our own garden could be to hire a plot in the communal one down by the tennis courts. At first, I presumed that it was someone’s private garden and marvelled at the regularity of the little squares, which contained stakes for supporting fast-growing plants, colourful flowers and rows of carefully planted vegetables. I want to be a part of that and know when and how to sow, weed, fertilise, trim, pick, rotate and eat what I grow.

I know how to eat. I’ve just got to learn the rest.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Plougoumelen and the groggy wake-up call

I hear the rooster crowing as I lean out through the double shutters of the first-floor window. It is grey and misty, but at roof-top level, I can make-out the church spire to my right, closely clustered roof-tops to the left and the semi-wild, walled garden below.

My son, barefoot and dressed in a hastily pulled on pair of shorts and pyjama top, runs through the damp  grass towards the swing. At regular, gentle intervals his feet appear before vanishing into the foliage.

What is the rooster playing at? It is nine o'clock in the morning, with dawn long gone. I push on the shutters to open them wider and crawl back into bed, accompanied by his continued, groggy calls for me to rise. The côt, côt of a chicken joins his long, single-noted last attempt. We all know that it has been a failed attempt.

From beneath my crumpled blue doona I survey the room. The wind, rustling the leaves on the tree, draws my attention back outside. I feel young again, energised by the thought that I could be facing the magical branches of THE Faraway Tree and long to be able to disappear into their embrace. The drone of a distant airplane makes me twitch, as submerged childhood memories resurface and I see myself standing waiting, in a deserted schoolyard, with night falling, for my father to draw himself away from his books, and remember that he is supposed to be picking me up.

The room is perfect. Not in the clean-lined, not-a-thing-out-of-place, bold new furniture way of trendy magazines. Perfect in the orderly jumble of lovingly collected furniture and home- and hand-painted artworks. Perched on top of a rough-at-the-edges armoire, a mermaid looks across at a decent-sized paper parasol, shielding a figure, humble in her papier mâché body and black straw hat. She is lying on her side, propped up on one elbow and completely absorbed in her book.

The floor is made of skinny slats of polished wood and there is enough space for two roof lamps to be hanging. Walking produces the occasional, unfamiliar, but not uncomfortable, creak. The double curtains covering the second, unopened window permit the introduction of a diffused light.

Dishes clink and I hear the repeated squeak of compressed springs.

There is a dishwasher to be un-packed and jumping on the trampoline will not stave off my son's hunger for long.

I swing my legs to the floor.

Poor rooster.

Valiant, but out-matched.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Kindle version of Catherine's book, But you are in France, Madame - now available

After a short stint as a Frenchman in my first print edition, Julius Caesar has regained his rightful nationality in the newly released Kindle version of my book !

Please check out the link below.

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…