The Chorale at Laroque. We’re limbering up for a Christmas concert, and for one of the numbers, I’ve been put in charge of Pronunciation Studies.
‘Amezzing gress, ’ow sweet zuh soond….’. Every week, we practise sticking out tongues between our teeth in a thoroughly exaggerated way to get that dreaded ‘th’ sound out of our mouths, but it’s so hard for the French to remember, even harder to do….
I’m not mocking here: I’m all too well aware how difficult it is for us English to get certain sounds right as we mangle the French language in our turn.
How can it be that we’re all born with the same vocal equipment and ears, and yet only a few short years after we first learn to speak, seem unable either to hear or reproduce the sounds and inflections of any other language? The ‘r’ sound is often especially problematical.
We have a young English friend here. She’s eight, and has been here since she was three. To our ears, she’s utterly French as she chatters away to her friends, but apparently, if you listen carefully, she gives her origins away. It’s lucky that most of us, wherever we come from, find that our own language spoken in a less-than-perfect accent can sound both charming, and on occasion, even sexy.
We’ve just got back from our weekend on the other side of the Pyrénées, and I’ve decided to post these ‘postcards’ to show a few happy days in Sant Cugat del Vallès, the very attractive town where Emily is now working; the not-Hallowe’en-but- la Castañada festivities; and a relaxing weekend.
Eating and drinking were important. Straight away, as we drove across the mist and rain shrouded Pyrénées from France, there was a decision to be made. Lunch on this side of the border? You can’t get fed much later than 12.30 here. Or wait till Spain? Nothing there is open much before 2.00 p.m.
We arrived in Catalonia just in time for la Castañada. Instead of Hallowe’en, they commemorate All Souls’ Tide. Roasted chestnuts are sold wrapped in cones of newspaper with roasted sweet potatoes and peddled from impromptu stalls, or by excited groups of children. Panellets are mashed potato, sugar syrup and ground almonds – maybe cocoa or dried fruits too, rolled in pine nuts and briefly baked till the nuts turn golden. It sounds odd, but they’re delicious accompanied by a shot of strong black coffee.
Coffee shops, with tables outside so you can enjoy the late October heat seem to be in every street, and we adjusted our bodies to Spain’s very different rhythms. Food generally seems cheaper in Spain. A pleasant pause for breakfast, after taking the children to school, after shopping or work, or just because it’s a nice idea and the sun is shining is an affordable treat, and cafés don’t seem to struggle for custom. Nor do lunch-stops. As in France, the 3 course lunch with wine and coffee is on offer in most restaurants, but cheaper here. And it’s a leisurely affair. We found ourselves spending an hour or two every day that we were there over the lunch table, eating, talking and simply people-watching.
Shopping seems less anonymous too. Whether in St. Cugat, or city-centre Barcelona, greengrocers and grocers, wine merchants and bakers – especially bakers – all seemed to be doing brisk business. The out-of-town supermarkets are there alright, but so far, they don’t seem to have won.
So here are my postcards. Have a glance at them over a lazy cup of coffee.
Go to any veg. stall on a French market just now, and there’ll be at least one giant pumpkin. The stall holder will sell you a portion if you like, using a hefty cleaver to wrest a kilo or so of orange flesh from this magnificent vegetable. The market’s probably got at least one stall devoted to nothing but pumpkins: Turk’s head, musque de Provence, butternut, red kuri, rouge vif d’Etampes………
It’s not so very long ago in England that I’d be doing the rounds of all the supermarkets, the day after Hallowe’en, gathering up the last few Jack o’Lantern pumpkins at bargain-basement prices.
They’d been stocked for everyone to make their scarey Hallowe’en pumpkin faces with and that was all.
Hardly anybody used them to cook with (presumably not even the many Americans who live in Harrogate, with their apparent love of pumpkin pie), and Hallowe’en over, the unsold ones would be junked.
Here’s an easy and long-established soupy stew from round these parts (though I learned about it from Nigel Slater) to warm you up after a chilly day in the Great Winter Outdoors.
When we first tasted it, we thought it nice enough, not earth-shattering though. It’s grown on us, and now we think it’s comfort food par excellence: especially those pillows of bread, soaked in scalding hot flavoursome juices.
Toast thick slices of bread- preferably sourdough, and layer them up in a casserole or slow cooker with fried onions, garlic, marjoram, sliced skinned tomatoes, and thin slices of pumpkin. Top the dish up with seasoned water and olive oil and bake for an hour or two in a slow oven (or most of the day in a slow cooker). Take the lid off the dish for the last half hour or so and return to the oven with a crust of grated cheeses (parmesan is good to include in the mix, as it provides a welcome crispiness) for the last half hour or so. Or grill for a few minutes if you’ve been using a slow cooker.
I often stop outside the local primary schools in Lavelanet and Laroque as I pass by, to read the week’s menus posted on the notice board: I think I’d really like an invitation to eat there at midday. There’s always an entrée, a main dish, a pudding and cheese or fruit, and it often sounds quite appetising stuff: roast turkey with sauce forestière, chicken wings à la dijonnais, stuffed tomatoes, velouté de legumes…..
But today I was horrified. What am I to make of the British Day they’re planning one day next month?
Betteraves* et raisins
Petits pois à l’anglaise
Apart from the crumble, the latest must-eat pudding in France, it all looks pretty dire. What exactly is this beetroot dish they’re starting with? Google doesn’t have a clue. No wonder the French think we English don’t have any good food.
Robert Louis Stevenson knew a thing or two about travelling slowly – and hopefully – what with hiking round the Cevennes with only a donkey for company.
But yesterday, arriving back in Laroque rather quickly having left Bolton only a few hours before, I felt he’d got it right. Our usual way of travelling between England and France is by car. We can’t claim it’s particularly slow, not with maximum speeds of 130 k.p.h on motorways. But it does take the best part of 3 days to do the pretty-much-exactly 1000 miles between Laroque and Ripon, and that’s fine.
We detour to take in delightful towns like Cahors or Vendôme, and make sure we have time to explore a little. Early morning starts may find us startling deer in the still misty fields, while at lunchtime we’ll be on the look out for a ‘menu ouvrier’, or a rural picnic spot to have a lengthy break. We’ll enjoy a night at a chambre d’hôtes, and usually have an interesting time chatting to the owners or a fellow guest. Breakfast with home made jams and maybe breads and cakes comes as standard. A trip on a channel ferry. A night in London with son-and daughter-in-law. And finally, back up north.
And all this time, we’ll be adjusting between a life in France and a life in England: watching the scenery gradually flatten as we drive north, then begin to undulate again as it passes through Normandy and the Pas de Calais, linking with the similarly gently rolling hills of Kent.
This trip to England though was by plane each way. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper too.
But the whole business of packing luggage into the required dimensions, checking the weight, hunting for a clear plastic bag for those creams and liquids: then at the airport emptying pockets, removing shoes, belts, is just a bit stressful.
And somehow it addles my brain. Three hours ago I was in a traffic jam on the outskirts of industrial Liverpool, and now we’re driving through vineyards in the Aude? The clothes which worked in the morning don’t do in the afternoon, and I’m having trouble adjusting the language coming out of my mouth. I’m all discombobulated.
Well, our French friends have been and gone. It was a busy week full of discovery for us all. Despite the almost unrelievedly awful weather, Yorkshire’s sights, both rural and urban, gave a good account of themselves. But here are one or two of the more unexpected discoveries our friends made.
Harvest Festival. Saturday evening found us in church for a very special concert by the St. Paulinus Singers, a Ripon Chamber choir. As we entered, our friends were struck by the celebratory pile of pumpkins, cabbages, carrots and Autumn fruits assembled for harvest-time celebrations in church. They’d never heard of such a thing. Oh, and the concert began dead on time too. Another first for them.
Charity shops. The French have little other than away-from-town-centre large warehouses given over to the sale of donated goods and run by Emmaus. The often carefully dressed shops we’re so accustomed to on the British high street are unknown to them.
Closed for business: open for business. As we know, shops here tend to be open through the day. But what a surprise for our French friends to see them closing for the day at 5.30 p.m. rather than around 7.00 p.m! To find supermarkets open in some cases 24/7 was even more astonishing.
Houses without shutters. Evenings walking round town fascinated them. Instead of shutters there were curtains, which might or might not be drawn. How exciting to have glimpses of another set of lives! This is denied to them in France as shutters are usually firmly closed there as night falls.
Buttered bread. As born-and-bred Ariègeoises, our guests were unused to the idea of having butter AND cheese or ham or whatever on their bread. They rather felt it was gilding the lily. But they weren’t keen on the fact that bread is not produced routinely at the average British dinner table. It’s odd, we too have come to expect bread as part of a meal in France, but never in the UK
Milky coffee and tea. The default position for both in France is black (strong coffee, weak tea)
At the butcher’s. Of course our guests wanted to cook a slap-up meal for us. We all struggled a bit with this one, as French and English butchers cut their beasts up in different ways. As a recently-lapsed vegetarian, I’m re-learning slowly all I ever thought I knew, and starting at page 1 in French butcher’s shops.
I like BookCrossing. I love the idea of ‘releasing books into the wild’ for some lucky reader to find, and I love finding books in the same way. It brings me face to face with choices I wouldn’t normally consider when I’m browsing the shelves of my local bookshop, library or charity shop. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at releasing books. If I leave one in a café, an anxious waitress will scurry after me waving my latest offering. Leave them on a park bench, and the heavens open. And so on.
But I do have 3 outlets. The first was McQueen’s coffee shop in Knaresborough. For the first and only time in my history of BookCrossing, I heard from someone who’d found and enjoyed a book I’d left. She was writing to me from France. Result.
The next place is Le Rendezvous in Léran, a village near our house in Laroque. The bar is not an official BookCrossing site, but owners Marek and Shirley encourage people to browse the shelves of the overflowing bookcase and choose a book or two, leave a book or two. It’s a great resource of both English and French reading matter.
My third place is new to me. It’s in the adjacent block of flats to ours in Ripon. Calling on a friend there, I discovered a bookcase in the entrance hall to the block. Unofficial BookCrossing again: the great idea of one of my friend’s neighbours. I met her at his party on Friday and she told me her ideas of encouraging neighbours to share books has become popular, with paperbacks changing on an almost daily basis.
So now I’m deep in a gritty ‘policier’, set in Portsmouth, a town I thought until this weekend that I knew quite well. I’d never heard of Graham Hurley, or of ‘Angels passing’. Glad I have now.