Tuesday, 28 December 2010

On Frozen Pond

We spent time in England over Christmas, visiting relatives and friends and generally having a good time. My sister put us up to start with, and over Christmas we had a delightful time staying with friends in Wimbledon.

Here are just a few pictures to capture some of what went down. We took Mum out to lunch at Titchfield Mill, an old Mill beside the river Meon. It used to be a farm shop of sorts and Mum remembers buying foodstuffs in bulk there before it was converted. It is now a modern pub with proper food and real beer. We got out after an excellent meal and a drink, for about 11 quid a head too, which I reckon is pretty good value these days.


The Meon looks like a scruffy little stream in the picture, but I have fond memories of it. It flows from the mill, on into Titchfield village, and then joins the Solent at Hill head. As a teenager I used to walk from home, join the river at the downstream edge of Titchfield and follow it down to the sea, and then walk back via Beach Road and Posbrook Lane into Titchfield and on home from there.

Farther upstream the river crosses what was one of my favourite biking routes, and it was my habit to stop and spend 15 minutes or so, staring into the stream. Faith to continue while nothing was happening was rewarded by sights of fish and bugs in the water, as the eyes became accustomed to what they were seeing.

The period over Christmas was spent in Wimbledon, and a walk on Boxing day in the icy conditions yielded an opportunity to climb what I was assured is "The Climbing Tree", and also to slide about on the frozen pond.

Here's a couple of extra images for free: an unusual Christmas Rose plant, being almost pure white; a present from the Mayor's wife, and my new great-niece Isobelle. What a cutie!

Sunday, 19 December 2010


It's that time of year again for making mince pies. Yum! And in keeping with the tradition of Jean-Claude the chef being interested in things British and Christmassy, I took some down for him to taste as well.

Good job I took a few, because when I got down to the restaurant there was Jean-Claude and Marie as expected, but also Mr Mottais the Mayor, Mr Housset the plumber (back to fix the boiler (again)), and the lady helping out Marie in the restaurant. Karine who runs the tourist office wasn't there, so there was a pie left for me to enjoy with coffee.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Internet's Children

Despite the fact that I'm comfortable with the internet, perhaps I am not a true child of the net, not having grown up with it.

I saw a poster advert a while back for Drumcat, a South Korean band of female drummers, playing in Mayenne. They looked like they might be entertaining so I got us two tickets and we went to see them. Great fun! You haven't heard the Rodrigo Concerto d'Aranjuez until you've heard their take on it, nor, if it comes to that, Beethoven's Ninth, both with the help of the electric violinist who seems to be included in the deal.

So having failed to take my camera to the concert, or make any other visual note of the event, I was looking for an internet link to attach to this blog post. There's quite a lot of information about them to be found: here, here and here, for example.

A true child of the web would have looked this up before buying the tickets. Not that I'm at all unhappy. They're great fun, recommended. Take ear defenders.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Fun with the Boiler

In general, I'm pleased with the decision to go for a wood-fired boiler to heat the gîte. I like the idea of its eco-friendliness, and I like the fact that the heat costs me about 4 (euro) cents per kilowatt-hour. On the other hand, it does need looking after to make sure that all is well: The quality of the after-sales service is an important consideration, and not one that was taken into account when making the purchase.

The boiler is made by Heizomat, a German manufacturer, 100Kwatts and, like many things German, built to last. However it was installed by Nideck Chauffage, a French outfit, who were the sole Heizomat distributors in France at that time. I had been unhappy with the after-sales service from Nideck, and I was recently delighted (and relieved) to discover that Heizomat are setting up a direct sales and support operation in France. I can now go the the manufacturer for any help I need, and this gives me considerable comfort. I do stress out when I imagine having guests in the gîte and no heating.

The concept of the boiler is basically quite simple. Wood chips are fed in one end, and as they enter, air is blown over them to get them burning quickly. The hot air and smoke exits at the other end of the boiler having passed over the water jacket. All this is regulated by a computer control system mounted on the wall. It's great when things are going well, but when the system is out of kilter, the effect can be dramatic. This happened the other day, and the boiler room filled with smoke. I was very glad the boiler was some way away from the house.

The problem was a simple one, resolved after a careful investigation and some calls to Heizomat France. I feel much better but I am keeping an eye on it.

Monday, 29 November 2010


Conspicuous by its absence in French supermarkets is self-raising flour. As a consequence, the Victoria Sponge Cake is also almost unknown here.

Self-raising flour is ordinary flour with two added components: an acid and an alkali that when mixed together in the presence of water react to create bubbles of carbon dioxide. It is these bubbles that cause a sponge cake to rise and give it its light, spongy texture. If you want to make a sponge cake with plain flour you have to beat in the bubbles using a whisk, which is time-consuming and much less reliable.

Baking powder, which is a mixture of the acid and alkali ingredients, can be found hidden away in the "foreign" section of supermarket shelves. Otherwise you have to source your own baking soda and cream of tartar and mix them yourself.

The other day, Jean-Claude, the new chef down in the restaurant Le Canyon, was asking about English Christmas traditions, and we got on to the subject of English cake (cake Anglaise). It turned out that he was talking about sponge cake, and he asked how it was made, and for a recipe. What better way to deal with this than to conspire with the wife to create one, and go down with it one morning, hand over the recipe, and enjoy a social coffee and cake for elevenses?

Monday, 22 November 2010


A few weeks ago I was asked to sub for Caroline, a flutist, in the Harmonie at Evron, since she was unable to make it to the concerts at the end of term. This was great fun, even though it blew a hole in my diary for the three weeks that followed, and gave me a fair bit of extra work to do learning the pieces.

I do like the concept of the Harmonie as a local wind band. It gives adults of all levels a chance to play and to socialise and it results in free concerts for the townspeople to go to. And I can't believe how many there are: there is a Harmonie in Evron, St Suzanne, Sablé sur Sarthe, Meslay du Maine, St Denis D'Orques, and those are just the ones I know about. It's as if, when I lived in England, there was one in Staines, Egham, Hounslow, Feltham, Chertsey, Shepperton, being the towns and villages that surrounded me there.

It is also great for the youngsters learning an instrument. As soon as you get to a reasonable level of competence (equivalent to grade 5, say) on your instrument, you are expected to play in the Harmonie. For example, Solène, my flute teacher tells me she was in her local Harmonie from the age of 9. If you can't play all the notes, no problem, you are just expected to make whatever contribution you can. And you get experience in playing in a group, in watching a conductor, and performing in public. It's also a tradition for professional musicians who have "made it" to drop in on their old Harmonie pals and play along from time to time. Fabulous!

The bedrock of the Evron Harmonie is the teachers from the music school (that is now classed as a conservatoire, in fact). I think that the music teachers for accordion, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, percussion, oboe, sax and guitar were all playing. (I might have missed some) This makes for excellent overall musical quality and is a confidence-booster for the students: if you have the same part as your teacher, and you are doing something different, you know to stop, correct, and restart, while the teacher "holds the fort".

I used my new recorder to record the concert on the Saturday evening, and used the resulting files as a play-along to practice some more before the last concert on Sunday. Very practical, useful and confidence-building. I will use that technique again. I'll see if I can post some audio tracks here for your listening delight, but meanwhile here's a pic. (If you know how to post an MP3 file, please do tell)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The calendar

It was the journée calendrier for the Harmonie de St Suzanne on Saturday, whereby as a fund-raising activity, the members of the band go around the canton of St Suzanne offering commemorative calendars in exchange for donations. We don't actually sell the calendars of course; that would fall foul of all sorts of regulations. So we give them away, and, at the same time, remind people of the acceptable nature of donations.

It was chucking down with rain all morning. All day in fact, but we finished at 1:00 PM or thereabouts and retired to a big basement to enjoy a communal lunch, to get dry and warm again, and to count the profits.

Our team of three canvassed the estate near the town centre, and we disposed of 37 calendars at an average price of about 8 euros each. I am always surprised by the willingness of homeowners to let us into their houses. I would say that well over half of the people who opened their doors to us took a calendar, and of these all but a small handful invited us inside to complete the transaction. Perhaps it is a generational thing; the younger people on the team said that they never do it. I don't either.

In any case, if any reader would like to acquire one of these works of art, please get in touch via the email address on my profile page. A genuine bit of France to distinguish your home. Donations welcome, postage and packing extra, at cost. Thank you. Here is a copy of our picture as it appears on the calendar; beneath this are the actual calendar pages, and messages from our sponsors. And please do tell your friends!

Monday, 8 November 2010

A music party

Shortly after I first moved out here, I stumbled across a little musical instrument repair shop, called l'Atelier d'Orphée in the old town part of Le Mans. They have serviced my flute ever since. They sent me an invitation not long ago to come to a free afternoon of music, in celebration of their 20th birthday, and to be held at an old abbey to the East of the town. Sounds like an offer I can't refuse.

There was flute jazz, a three-piece band (drums, trombone, tuba) made a great sound, a brass wind band and a Klezmer group. Pretty good for all in one afternoon, a fact that was not lost on the other invitees; there must have been 1,000 people there.. Plus, an exhibition of musical instruments presented by various manufacturers, and free crêpes. And all in a beautiful restored abbey. What's not to like?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Old year's resolution

I took a look at the pictures I have been taking recently and they look like I have been suffering from even more shaky hands than usual. I like digital cameras in part because their high sensitivity gives them greater immunity to shake. But these were uniformly worse than usual. Detective work revealed that I had somehow managed to set my camera to 640x480 resolution. Fortunately it hasn't been set like that for long.

So anyway here's a couple of pictures where I like what the light was doing, in the first one highlighting the trees across the valley and in the second one, lighting the way. Finally two views in the evening sun from my thotful spot on top of the cliffs.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The diner dansant

Every year about now the Harmonie of St Suzanne hosts a dinner-dance. The purpose is to raise funds for the band, but it's also a really good excuse for a night out with great food and music. Come with plenty of friends.

The evening starts with a short concert from the Harmonie, after which the meal is served, with an entr'acte featuring entertainment from the Banda'Suzanne. After the meal, the dance music this year was provided by a four-piece cover band. It's quite a big event; there were 650 diners, and we broke a record, serving them all the fish course in 20 minutes. Here's a few pics and a video to give you an idea.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Aliens killed my Dahlias

Look! Ruined! They waited for a clear night so they could see them from space, and used their dastardly ray guns to zap my plants! Zap! zap! zap! But I'll outfox them. I'll dig my plants up and put them in the shed where they can't see them! And I'll only bring them out when they've gotten bored with waiting, in a few months' time. Mwwwwaaaahahahahahaha!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Les Pipelettes

As you might be able to tell from the presence of a miniatures museum on the site, the wife is into miniatures.

There is, in Brittany, a group of friendly ladies who call themselves the "Les Pipelettes" (chatterboxes) who meet once in a while to talk and talk and also to make miniatures. They are careful not to call themselves a club, because if you have a club, you might be entitled to some state support (government money) but also there is a rule book two inches thick that tells you how you must manage your organisation. So they're just a group of friends who get together from time to time in each others' houses to have lunch and share their passion for miniatures. Not a club, oh no.

Anyway we went to one of their meetings in a little village near Rennes this weekend, and it was an opportunity for me to take a good walk in the countryside. Apart from enjoying the crisp Autumn air, I collected some acorns and chestnuts to plant, and discovered some interesting mushrooms. It's mushroom season, and people like to collect them to eat, engaging the services of an expert to weed out the deadly ones. As a kid, it was drummed into me never to eat mushrooms picked in the wild, an aversion that I have largely failed to shake. I did find some mushrooms in the garden last year that were clearly the same as the ones you get in the shops, and I ate them. The wife cooked them for me for breakfast, but refused to eat any herself.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Conkering hero

I have been occupied in planting or preserving trees during these last few days.

I had been looking for a while for some decorative trees to plant beside the road running past our house, and some ornamental pear trees were to be had cheaply in the local supermarket. So it's back to the shop with the Espace, and home with three of them. And a few hours planting them. Here's one. Good home offered to three partridges.

When I pass a chestnut, oak or conker tree I stop to pick up a few nuts/acorns/conkers with a view to planting them. It can't do any harm and they might just grow into proper trees. With a bit of luck I might even harvest some chestnuts in my lifetime. These conkers are my latest acquisition and will be planted this afternoon, in the field over the road.

I mowed that very same field earlier in the week, and found quite a few yearling walnut trees. They have managed to survive this Summer's drought, and I think I avoided mowing most of them, so hopefully they might stay alive and grow. I also found traces, I think of wild boar. (French for boar: sanglier) The grass was all scuffed up, and a track leads from the field, over the road, to a worn part of the bank the other side.

This hazelnut tree is a gift from Leo, who digs them up from his garden where they grow like weeds. I have a gap in a line of hazels that I planted, where one died, so this one has an immediate home. They attract red squirrels, an added bonus.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Sober butterflies

Last year, the Red Admirals got drunk on fermenting plums on the ground. This year either the plums fell early or the Admirals are late because the plums fell a few weeks ago and the butterflies have just arrived. They (and a tortoiseshell) are feeding on my Asters instead, which I am sure are probably equally nourishing, but perhaps less fun.

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