Friday, 4 February 2011

Signs of spring

On the table by the window stands an azure jug ,full of bright mimosa; it's perfume fills the room, with a heady scent even stronger than that of the lemon trees.
Mimosa...When I was a child, my mother often rented an old villa in Antibes; and the smell of Mimosa puts me back on the swing in that meadow of long ago; delighted by the luxury of warm sunshine; as if spring and winter had stolen the summer and dropped it in my lap as a present.
Here in the Vendée, the little town of Le Jard sur Mer, will soon have a flourishing Mimosa tree in almost every garden; but here in our meadow; I am expectant; longing to see the result of my Autumn plantings of spring bulbs.
'Let me know when you are taking the dog for a walk'I would say, having found out that an unruly puppy happened to think that I had been hiding these gobbleable surprises in a lovely game; just for him.
The siamese cats are mousing again, and even in the recent cold spell have been venturing out, sniffing the air, and trying out a pounce or two.
Now and again we hear the midnight pitter patter under the eaves, and our feline hunters are stretching their necks and widening their eyes; attempting to climb to the very top of bookcases and dressers; desperate to get upstairs into the studio; a territory which had become forbidden; as the male cat had decided to spray;hitting one of my canvasses, and narrowly missing the precious technology in the room below.
He will be less threatened now by Doggum;who woozy from anaesthetic, is sporting an enormous blue plastic collar, necessary protection from irritated canine claws and teeth, as he has been to have 'the snip'.
Aspects of Doggum's life were becoming too exciting; my socks and hands in woolen gloves; Master dressed in lumberjack clothes and boots ,arose passions; as did chasing the beautiful Beauceron bitch down the lane.
'Capri,c'est fini'(as the french pop song goes); there will be no unwanted puppies in this hamlet.
Occasionally, the male siamese has given the dog a serious telling off,staring at him with saphire blue rage as he mianders across the floor; stopping for a few seconds before returning to give Doggum another siamese earful, as if to say:
'And another thing; I'm older than you, so why don't you just damn well grow up!';but Doggum would persist; nosing the little cream female around the room in clumsy courtship; just like Bottom the weaver and Titania; whilst a furious chocolate point Auberon looked on in disdain.
As the dog recovers, he seems just as pushy;persistently attempting to climb on Master's knee; untill the 'enforcer' is called.
Yes, in cold weather; despite a roaring log fire;we have often been too close for comfort...
'Are all the members of the little playgroop getting on well together?'I woul ask; secretly longing for the days when the entire house is open; and the warm air is breathing in from the meadow.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Chicken Economics

Last week I bought a free range chicken from a local farm. I have always cooked for my family and am fairly knowledgeable about food.
in London we spent many hours discussing finances; and yet nourishing meals and good produce remained a priority.
Since moving to this rough old country farmhouse; we have spent our financial time more positively.
Writing things down aand holding frank discussions are most useful and friendly.
Everything from a coffee out together to the costly casration of the dog is noted and talked about as a team.In this way flaws in our budgeting become easier to see. One such flaw became apparent as we both became apoplectic over the chicken:
'How mucch?'
'Thirteen euros  forty three centimes'
Our old friend had called us out on a Saturday night to pay for the order. I had expected the bird to cost half that sum; and as we had been visiting the farm on teusday evenings to buy vegetables,eggs and bread, we had not expected to be called out twice in one week:
'They must be desperate!'
In the past we had bought produce from a friend's kitchen garden next to our house; and had enjoyed vegetables and fruit so abundant, so delicious, and so reasonably priced, that we had really been spoiled. Now his garden is overgrown; bought out by a land hungry neighbour; seeking to sell her house at pre recession prices.
Wishing to help the farmer's apprentices we had been paying over the odds for turnips, rutabagas and carrots; thus depriving ourselves of the pleasure of growing our own; even buying in a kilo of leeks when those in our veg patch were perfectly eatable.
I was soon experiencing the unforgetably horrible feeling of'having been had' when, one Christmas in the London suburbs; a free range bird had cost a hundred pounds.
Our calculations revealed that;since visiting the farm, not only had our monthly expenses increased, but commiting ourselves to them could cost us one thousand euros a year and now they were'organising' themselves; summoning us on fridays;asking us to place orders with cheques in advance.Who was benefitting from this relationship, was it us?
This 'bio' nourishment' could cost us the price of two new windows, or a visit to see our family.
This; plus the cost of castrating the puppy that the farmer had gifted us; was turning us into another of his cows, a 'cash' cow.On teusday evenings we would visit the bank and draw out cash.
Before then we had been able to spend weeks without drawing out any cash at all;enjoying country walks.
Our previous life in the british suburbs involved walks through the shopping mall before we could stroll along the Thames and into the park.
A quick tour of our local 'Superu' has revealed free range chickens at around five euros and the most costly guinea fowl at eleven.
The farm chicken itself was delicious; roasted with lemon,garlic, shallots and herbs and provided a rich stock; but this weekend we had roast chicken again; asmall bird costing four euros forty ; the stock was augmented by carrot and leeks; the meat was good; but tough.
I am not making much of an argument for biological farming; but were two retired teachers in a 'fowl' temper, yes, we were!
'We are not going to loose old friends over a chicken, are we?'
More trivial things have caused feuds in the countryside, including uncastrated dogs.
In my opinion; veg boxes are for altruistic townies; and free range chickens; a scrumptious treat.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Killers and kindnesses

An old rerun of a war film is on the tele;script by William Faulkner; and I am reminded of all the killers hereabouts and even of those in the room.
Sitting quietly;I see Doggum's paw reach out and sensitively touch the little cat's own paw;both animals in repose in front of the fire...
I watched each clawed little 'finger' extend and just softly pat her. It was almost like watching an alien being; intimate and unexpected.The little cat responded; gently patting and then, stretching luxuriously.She is not often so kindly; and will often test her reflexes by sharply scratching his snout from a safe chair; having seduced him by stepping delicately around his big body and tickling him with her tail...
When the siamese cats first arrived; they settled in easily; despite sharing a home with an unruly puppy.
Soon the female revealed herself to be a redoubtable huntress,whom;in one night alone; tucked five mice into the edges of the carpet in the loft; rolling the edges as she went along. I watched her as she taught her larger half brother all she knew.
It wasn't long before they were happily catching and torturing any small mammal they could find; out all night long in an orgy of killing; so much so that the female became ill; having swallowed a small toad;'full of toxins' a friend said. She was feverish and sick for days; looking so anorexic that we thought we should loose her.
We nursed her back to robust and glossy health; and I truly believe she recognised this, and was grateful.
Soon; the hunting season had begun; and the cats were forbidden to go out; looking as they did from afar like rabbit and hare as they ran across the vineyard; the male often racing a hare for pleasure.
One day, Doggum got in to the neighbour's field; chasing renegade goats who had appeared in the lane; staking us out; like inquisitive delinquents.
Before I knew what had happened; Ernest,the donkey had Doggum trapped againsty the fence and was giving him a solid kicking; the poor dog was crying out and whimpering in pain...
I absolutely had to get in to that field and wasted time trying to move the old rusty gate; whilst shouting at Ernest to desist; which he did, a knowing glint in his eye.
Meanwhile the goats; a solitary sheep and then Ernest had legged it to the other side of the valley; and I had fallen over.
By this time; Doggum was near me; his trauma all forgotten;happily eating donkey poo and then getting it in to his mind to follow his'new friends' over the valley.
Eventually he came to my whistle and the promise of a non existant dog biscuit.
Collecting dog kibble in'Decathelon'; one comes across hunters; adolescent boys and older men; a fiery light in thier eyes as they shop for gadgets;day glo vests for fiesty little terriers & hunting horns.
Such bucolic rotund gentlemen are to be seen standing stock still in woodland on misty mornings; as we walk our puppy;who; full of the joys of his young life; flushes pheasants out in vertical take off.
One such pheasant had been strolling past our house for days; eventually being dispatched, ar close range, by a solitary hunter with a very expensive gun and several elgant pedigree hounds. Another man; so excited with blood lust offered us a rabbit'for the pot'with it's side so blown &away that there was no prosoect of roast saddle or civet.
 We are so happy that the occasional red deer who stray in to the meadow have never been seen or discussed.
Our puppy arrived in july; having been born on the first of may'La fête du travail'.
We had been visiting him as a furry little pancake;full of hopefull licks. He had been presented to us as a Labrador,Border Collie cross; but it soon became evident that his father must have been a wandering Alsatian; and Doggum is still growing.A cup of tea in the sunshine can be accompanied by two heavy paws on my shoulder and a pair of jaws playfully held around my arm;I have to wrestle him to the ground before I can enjoy a slice of cake;and then;  my tea is cold.
He is lovable; and I realised; one summer walk last year; that I had been smiling and laughing for most of the way; quite a change for a re(tired) art teacher from London.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


A beautiful walk with the dog at dusk; the spinneys lit with fire against a gunmetal and blue sky;but Vendéen winters can be harsh.Beautiful mornings from autumn to spring, a frost carpet stretching for miles across open fields giving way to a softer microclimate in woodland.We have snow sometimes; but heavy rain and high drying winds are no strangers.
We arrived here last year just as Hurricane Xynthia struck;we were soon stocking up on wood and candles; gateful indeed that our cooking was done by gas bottle.
Wood is the obsession; buying in; felling trees,cutting logs;creating and gathering kindling for we are not yet fully heated or insulated.We supplement our stock with parafin and gas heaters.
A recent mild spell afforded me a visit to England to meet our first grandchild; another little force of nature; but my husband kept up production whilst I was away and will continue to do so untill spring.
Twenty years ago our garden was a barren field with a line of fruit trees and a small quince tree by the house. These days the garden is an abundant meadow; with shade provided by clusterd of 'blow in ' oak saplings and small trees.
This year the vast quince provided thirty jars of quince jelly; my husband using his strength to extract the richly pectined jiuce through the muslin.Believe it or not;apart from gifts to friends; it has all been eaten; as an accompaniement to fromage frais; or as an adjunct to apple crumble.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

french home

We bought our small Vendéen farmhouse twentytwo years ago when the youngest of our four children was eight.We had alllready been holidaying in france for some years and had made friends after a disastrous gîte rental had put us back out on hot roads; with crying children in an overloaded  small car.Soon, in desperation, we were following the 'Camping à la ferme'and'Chambre d'hôte' signs of our friends and were soon ensconced in a pretty small'bocage' gîte attached to the main farm.
When our week's rental ran out; it was suggested that we move to another gîte in another farm a few kilometers away. This little home contained an old upright piano;and our bed on a platform under the eaves afforde a view of small birds hopping about on a meagre tree.
After the hurly burly of London teaching, we were in heaven; our boys playing'Prince' at family meals and sleeping with puppies in the straw of the barn;whilst our daughter mucked about on the out of tune piano.
We returned in future summers; and the house where we now live became available.we could just about manage the small mortgage settling on a price; the equivalent of 20.000 pounds.
It was avery unprepossessing little dwelling; boasting a cement floor and a kitsch bar in the main room; but it did solve our problem of 'What do we do with the kids in the holidays?'

Monday, 17 January 2011

Brighton Perspective On Vendee Countryside

In Brighton city I look forward to gazing out to the sea and beyond to windswept frosty early morning walks in the Vendee