Every time we come back to England, I realise how much it is, quite simply, ‘home’. Our house is rented out, we have few personal effects here, but still I routinely and unconsciously speak of it as ‘home’, and Laroque as ‘back in France’. So you don’t have to be a genius to work out where my heart really is. My daughters, grown-up, mature, independent, make no secret of the fact that they’d prefer us to be around more. It’s difficult not to agree.
England itself works its way under my skin every time I return. We’re staying in a friend’s house on the Valley Gardens in Harrogate. Daily walks in the park, easy access to the Stray, and the busy neighbourhood shops of Cold Bath Road have put a much more positive spin on the town than when we lived in our house in the suburbs. Yesterday we spent walking near Grassington, along the River Wharfe, where baby ducklings and a heron held our delighted attention. But the landscape of windswept green hills, drystone walls, sheep with their lambs, and late in the afternoon, the bluebell woods, captivated us as only ‘God’s Own County’ can.
I’m happy in Laroque, very happy: and I don’t want to leave. Not yet.
Léonce and I have long wanted hens. But she’s beaten me to it. A friend of Henri’s keeps quite a brood: lately, one of the cocks has been having a go at a quiet little trio – a cock and his two hens. So Henri’s friend decided, sadly, that they’d be better off elsewhere.
We went for a tour of inspection last week. Léonce was charmed by their pretty colours and diminutive stature and promised to buy.
She’s got the hen house finished off, and now….because of what’s happening over in the UK this week, she’s named the new additions to her family. Let me introduce William, Kate…..and Queenie
I’m not a big fan of Prince Philip. But he was right on the money when he declared to Marc Levy, author of ‘«Elizabeth II, la dernière reine» that ‘You French are frankly funny. You adore the monarchies of the rest of us, but got rid of your own.’
William-and-Kate-mania can’t be escaped by simply fleeing across the channel this week
Last week for example I noticed a French magazine headline that suggested some 14 million French will be glued to their sets to watch That Wedding. The Prince and his bride-to-be have already had a big chunk of TV air time, and just look at this week’s schedules:
M6 kicks off on Thursday evening with a three and a half hour marathon, but Friday the 29th is the day those 14 million French take the phone of the hook, kick off their shoes and hole up on the sofa. Here’s their schedule:
TFI: 9.30 – 14.45
France 2: 9.15 – 13.45
M6: 9.00 – 17.35 ( that’s 5 programmes all about the couple, one after the other)
W9: 20.40 – 1.50.
Actually, I would have been quite interested to watch for a bit, to see how French and British coverages compare, but we’ve chosen that day to arrive in England, confident that the usually busy roads will be traffic-free. We’ll be glad too to escape the constant questions. Being British does not make us Royal Experts, but our neighbours are remarkably slow to catch on.
Last November, I joined L’Assocation Découverte Terres Lointaines, and wrote about it here. This month, I’m really involved, up to the neck, because next week, at the library in Lavelenet, we’re taking over, and bringing Algeria to town. More later, then. But for now, have a look at some of our more relaxing moments during our preparations.
On Friday afternoon, Nadia invited us round and got out a tantalising bundle of her traditional Algerian clothes, many dating from the time of her wedding, for us to try on ahead of next week. Here’s what some of us eventually chose, after we’d struggled in and out of dresses each prettier than the last, elaborately embroidered, beaded and sequinned. Just as well you can’t see us pirouetting around our workaday tee shirts and trousers discarded on the floor.
Before that, we’d been busy baking, selecting recipes to make for some of next week’s sessions. Here’s my favourite, Basbousa. Like most recipes from the area, quantities are expressed in volume rather than weight.
2 cups fine semolina
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
about 20 blanched split almonds
2 cups caster sugar
1 cup water
Tablespoon of orange flower water or the juice of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Grease a rectangular cake tin, about 8” x 12”.
Sieve together the semolina, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Stir in the eggs with a little semolina to prevent curdling. Mix in ½ cup of water. Stir the sifted semolina in and beat until you have a smooth batter. Pour into the prepared cake tin. Score diagonal lines across the top of the cake creating diamond shapes. Place an almond in each diamond. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the cake is firm and golden.
Meanwhile place the caster sugar in a small saucepan with 1 cup of water. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved then add the orange flower water or juice of the lemon and bring to the boil. Boil for about 10 minutes or until syrupy.
When the cake is removed from the oven, gently spoon the syrup over it. You may not need all the syrup: stop spooning when the cake has absorbed all it can. Allow to cool in the tin before turning out and serving sliced into diamonds.
When I tested the recipe at home, I had no orange flower water, so used lemon juice. Nadia said it wasn’t traditional…..but she liked it anyway. It’s sweet, simple, and keeps well. Worth having in the cake tin.
In the UK, Richard Mabey’s the original, and still the best known proponent of foraging for good things to eat in the countryside. Here in our patch of France, it’s Stéphane Martineau, and we spent yesterday afternoon with him, strolling down the lanes near Roquefort les Cascades, nibbling at petals, leaves and roots.
It was a free afternoon organised by Alptis, who provide us with the health insurance we need to complement the state-provided health service, and we enrolled as soon as the invitation came through the post.
Stéphane encouraged us to look carefully at each plant, at how it’s structured, what it feels like, what the crushed leaves smell like. That afternoon, we found leaves that reminded us of mushroom, garlic, mint, cloves….
We began to understand how welcome the new spring growth must have been to villagers over the centuries. After months and months of bland beans and turnips, the tasty bitterness of black bindweed, eaten raw or lightly cooked like asparagus must have been a real treat. Its other name is l’asperge aux femmes battues – battered wives’ asparagus, because it’s also good at relieving bruising and swelling.
At this time of year, before many of the plants have flowered, and growth is young and fresh, there are so many tasty additions to the salad bowl. Garlic mustard has both leaves and flowers to offer. Hedge woundwort has nettle like leaves and a slight mushroomy odour. Primula gives a pleasantly bitter taste so use it sparingly, and creeping Charlie makes a lively addition to a salad, or an unusual addition to soup or lasagne.
Nettles are of course the kings of country flowers, packed with vitamins, minerals and even proteins. They can be eaten raw (with a thick and tasty dressing) lightly cooked, or included in sauces and stews and baking. Fermented, they make an all-round fertiliser, and gardeners dig them into the ground too, to enrich the soil.
We found plants to cure warts, substitutes for aspirin and for the cloves that we’re supposed to tuck next to a throbbing tooth. We even learnt that horsetail, just as it first thrusts above the ground, makes a good mineral-tasting asparagus substitute. Failing that, once it’s matured, a big bunch tied together is a good pan scourer.
Just one plant was completely new to me: purple toothwort. It’s a mauve parasitic plant, looking rather like a small clutch of rhodedendrons in bud, and modestly hidden under grasses at the foot of trees.
I’ve got pages of notes about plants I plan to look out for and try: using only a few specimens from each patch, of course, and just taking a few of the very youngest leaves, as instructed.
Just before we all headed off home, we shared a foraged snack which Stéphane had prepared earlier. Nettle blinis, Douglas fir cordial, various jams and jellies. Good stuff, this food for free.
It was about 10 days ago. When I left the house bright and early for the bread, there he was. A slim, handsome, very black cat. I came back. He was still there, cowering under a drain cover whenever anybody passed.
He soon became the talk of the street, because as the hours and then the days passed, there he still was, nervous and uncertain, hungry too. The drain cover had become his home. He seemed to crave human company, and to fear it too. Gradually the story emerged. Some new people on the street had turned him out. They didn’t want him back.
We’re away too much to take him in ourselves, though his good looks and charming character made him a tempting proposition. I advertised him instead on the local English-speaking internet network.…and got a reply, from a couple we slightly know who were still in Britain and not back in the area till next week. And because they know they need to go back to the UK in the autumn, if they took him, they would need his rabies jab done now, so he could have his pet passport in time.
Their neighbours rallied round. Today they came and collected him. They’ll take him to the vet and foster him for a week. I’m miffed to report that having been so nervy and reluctant with me all these days, he went straight to them, straight to their cat basket, and uncomplainingly into their car. The day we tried to foster him till his new owners returned to France, he struggled straight out of the house and over the garden fence.
His new name is, it seems, Rocquie. He’s from Laroque you see.
This evening, when I popped out for something, there was another unknown black cat, a female this time, sitting eating the food that friendly neighbours have been leaving for ‘our’ cat. What next I wonder?
All over Europe it seems, people are shedding their woolly pullies and revelling in the balmy air, as plants unfurl new leaves and flowers, and animals mate and give birth.
This was the lac de Montbel at the very end of last week.We enjoyed the views. The cows enjoyed the views.Though this mother preferred to keep her calf safe at her side.Dozens of lizards sunbathed on the newly warmed rocks. Here’s one.And here’s some sloe blossom. I’ll be back in the Autumn for the mouth-puckeringly sour fruits to make sloe gin or vodka.There’s only one problem. The warm weather has brought out all the biting insects. They soon found me.