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.

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