Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

How could they?  I mean, what ARE they playing at?  All last week, and most of this, the baker’s shop down the road has been closed.  Instead of rising at 2.00 a.m. to get busy making baguettes, flutes, ficelles, baguettes a l’ancienne, flutes tradition, pain noir, chocolatines, croissants and so on and so on, our bakers have chosen to lie in till – ooh, 7 o’clock perhaps – and then spend the day catching up with their families – the children are on half term.

It’s a family business, our baker’s shop.  M & Mme Fonquernie owned it, and now, although officially they’ve retired, they help out all the time .M. Fonquernie is the one who drives his little white van round the local villages which have no shops, selling bread. Their two sons have now taken over the day-to-day baking.  One is responsible for all those loaves, while the other specialises in patisserie.  Their wives divide the work of running the shop between them with Mme Fonquernie Senior’s help.

Mme. Fonquernie, Mater Familias

So our morning routine has been disrupted.  First thing each day, one of us usually walks down the road to get our favourite pain noir, hot and crisp still from the oven.  The other day, the baker forgot the salt.  The bread wasn’t half so nice, but I rather liked this very human error.  It proved that our loaves are still ‘artisanale’, rather than being churned out by some computer-assisted machine.  There’s usually someone in the shop to chat to, or to walk back along the street with, and so neither of us looks on getting the bread in as a chore.

We’re lucky, I suppose, that there are three bakers in town.  Last week, we went to the shops at Castellanes to the baker there.  No pain noir at this shop, so we chose their unbleached white.  The small one’s a slender baguette shape – an Ariegeoise – but buy the larger butch version, and you must ask for an Ariegeois.

But then what happened?  A notice appeared in the shop: from Sunday, they too would be closed for a holiday. So for a few days this week, we have to patronise shop number three. Everybody moans ‘C’est pain industriel ça’.  It’s true. It comes all the way from Lavelanet, from a bakery which has three shops.  That’s mass production, and it shows.  Roll on Thursday, when the Fonquernie family re-opens its shop doors

The Butchery Business

Once upon a time – though not very long ago, Laroque,  population more or less 2000, had dozens of shops. You could live your life here without ever needing to leave town, and many people did just that.

Now we have three butchers, three bakers, and three – no, not candlestick makers – hairdressers.  We have one épicerie left, 2 tabacs, a flower shop, and a new haberdashery store. There are six bars, restaurants and take-aways, and you can still buy paint, bikes, second-hand books, even a washing machine in town.  Greater mobility and the rise of the supermarket have put paid to the habits of the old days, and we’re lucky to have as many shops as this left.  But so many are no longer open for business, and our home is one of them.

From the early years of the 20th century until about 25 years ago, our house was Paul Vergé’s butcher’s shop, as well his family’s home – people here still refer to it as ‘l’ancienne boucherie’.  Passers by, workmen who come to the house, delivery staff  – all of whom remember coming to the shop as children, or working there as part time or weekend staff –  have told us tales about the old shop, and the house itself is giving up some of its secrets…….

The butchery business must have been back-breakingly hard.  After we’d moved in, we soon realised that carcasses were hauled up through the house to the top (or second) floor up a now filled-in shaft, where they hung from racks like clothes on an airer.  We wondered why broken bottles were suspended above these rails, upside down.  Answer: to prevent rats and mice running down onto the meat…

Anti-mice device

This floor of the house, without insulation, was bitingly cold in winter, but suffocatingly hot on summer days.  People have told us that their memories of the shop include seeing these same carcasses, after they’d been hauled down again from the attic, hanging outside the shop door, crawling with flies, just waiting for customers to come and buy…..

The attic also has an area that was used as a smoke room for smoking cuts of meat.  Hard to imagine that the pungent smells didn’t penetrate the rest of the house.

Our garage, next to what was originally the shop, has quite a few sturdy metal rings set into the walls.  Animals were tied to these, prior to being shot and butchered by Mr. Vergé himself.  Occasionally, a terrified beast would get away, and charge up the hill to Place de la Cabanette, where with any luck it would be rounded up by the sapeurs pompiers (fire and rescue service).  An early job, when we moved here, was to line and paint the garage ceiling – to eliminate all the blood stains from this domestic abattoir.

We still have 2 enormous ex-cold rooms just off the shop.  One of these is now a tool storage area, one a larder.  We haven’t parted yet with the big old scales which were part of everyday life in the shop.

Then: butcher’s shop. Now: games room

And then there’s the white-tiled shop, now a games room. The Vergés,in common with most shopkeepers, provided a few hard chairs for the comfort of those waiting or gossiping in the shop.  Mr. Vergé was convivial, a lady’s man who enjoyed chatting to his female customers.  Madame Vergé was busy in her little booth (remember those?) accepting payments and keeping the books.  Her responsibilities didn’t end there.  In the immense boiler in the kitchen, she made and canned patés of pork, duck and goose liver, rabbit, game; cassoulets; jarret de porc,  for sale in the shop, day after day after day.  We still have boxes of unused labels lurking in boxes in the workshop.

Mme. Vergé’s big old meat boiler: now defunct

Besides all this, they found time to look after the garden, 2 minutes walk from our house.  Just as they did, I grow vegetables: like them, I use the cherries, plums, apricots, figs, grapes from the trees there.  Unlike them, I can take my time to enjoy digging, planting, harvesting, bottling, preserving, cooking.  Frankly, I’m playing at it.  For them, the hard work of looking after a plot so much larger than a couple of allotments was something that had to be fitted in after they’d slaved away at the butchery business.  And they had a family….

Not working hard in the garden today……


There we all were, at Laroque Chorale last week, singing away, when our Director begged us to sing with ‘plus de feeling’.  I tried not to laugh, then realised everyone else was taking her words to heart, and agreeing a bit more ‘feeling’ wouldn’t come amiss.

It sometimes feels as if there really is no need to learn French – so many English words are an everyday part of life here now.

So let’s just imagine……what if, instead of being a retired Englishwoman of a certain age, I were instead a thrusting young 30-something French business woman?  What if, instead of being curled up with a gardening magazine, I preferred something more like ‘OK’, with stories of some C list celeb. – ‘un people’?  Perhaps my life might be more like this……

‘I always struggle to get up in the morning from the comfort of my kingsize. But it has to be done.  I dress quickly, pulling on my teeshirt, my shorts, and my pull, to take the 5 dogs out.  Didn’t you know I like dogs?  I’ve got a fox terrier, a labrador, a pointer, a setter, a york shire (sic) and a border colley (sic), all pedigree, of course.  We go jogging every day, with me plugged into my walkman.  At the week-end, when we have more time, I do a bit of cross country.

After a shower, there’s only time for a quick bite: toast, corn flakes, something like that.  Just occasionally, for a treat, I’ll have a cooked breakfast, like the English do.

Then I have to get to work. I’m a businesswoman, specialising in marketing, and first thing every morning, I have a briefing with the boss. We’re not doing so well in the recession, and we’re no longer a blue chip company.

I’ve got a very short deadline for an interesting new deal, but we’ve got awful IT problems.  E-mail, the internet, we can’t log in or download properly- you name it.  IT support’s always here trying to debug things.

We’ve just done a publicity drive via a mailing, but the feedback was awful, and my manager’s not pleased.  She’s the one stuck with the cash-flow problems. We all had a meeting, a real brainstorming session, and we’re working on a new business plan with a view to downsizing. I find it hard to offer leadership: I’ve no killer instinct.  Frankly, I think I’m a bit of a has-been…..

Towards 12.00, I really need to relax. So off to the gym for a spot of fitness training: stretching, and a bit of a work-out with a punching ball.

I’m starving after that.  I ring my manager to ask her to join me at a snack bar, but she’s a snob, and won’t come.  But I love fast foodHamburgers, hot dogs, nuggets – even a sandwich – bring them on!  And after that, an ice cream or a banana split, all washed down with a milk-shake.  No diet for me!

I hardly have time to get to the shopping centre.  But I prefer self service and luckily the shops here don’t shut at lunchtime – they do non-stop shopping.  Sometimes I go to the hard discount stores too, like Aldi, but not today.

Back to work for more of the same, then home for a well-earned break.  A cup of tea, some cake, and half an hour with my book, the new science fiction, a best seller.

Then my mobile rings.  It’s Marianne! She’s got tickets for the new one man show this evening: she must have been making eyes at the man in the box office.  Me, I’d prefer a film, a thriller, or something with a happy end.  Or even a night club with a spot of dancing……  Still, a night out’s a night out.

Marianne’ll be looking gorgeous as usual, with her look designer.  I get out my vanity case, and put my make-up on, the blush, the eye liner, the lipstick. What to wear with my blue-jean? And I’m not even clean yet. Too much to think about! I can’t stay here to chat to you any longer.  Bye-bye

An Update: the Good and the Bad

The good and the bad.  Good news first.  The birds have discovered there’s more to be had here than yesterday’s bread.  At bird mealtimes, which are not quite the same as ours, though much more frequent, they’re here vying over the nuts, the seeds, the fat, the mealworms, though still the stale soaked bread is best of all.  It must be the fat I mix in with it.

There’s an addition they’ve not yet come to terms with.  Henri arrived the other day with a large bag filled with sheets of suety fat that he’d cadged from his butcher.   Slabs like these hang in his garden, and the birds have pecked away at them so much that they look like fine and delicate antique lace tablecloths swaying gently in the breeze.  Our birds are still sticking to what they know.  Though one or two have been eying up the new additions

The marmalade?  Well, last Friday I was in Lavelanet market with a big shopping bag so I could clear the stock of Seville oranges from the one trader who’d had then the week before.  ‘Oh, those’, he said.  ‘I couldn’t sell them, so I’m not getting any more’.  I’ve pleaded with him to bring me some, but I’m not too hopeful.  All I have is the little cache of marmalade we made last week.  Now that IS bad news.

PS.  More bad news.  I left my camera in England, so the only shots I can use here are those that friends let me use, my own recycled from last year, or royalty free photos on the net


This afternoon, my friend Léonce and I made marmalade.

When Malcolm and I were in England over Christmas and New Year, battling with the Infamous Snow, one of the big questions was – ‘Will we be able to get Seville oranges before we have to leave?’, because the French don’t usually sell them.

Well, I DID manage to buy them in the UK, and now we’re back……..they were in Lavelanet market last week at 2.50 euros a kilo. What are Seville oranges doing on Lavelanet market?  I’d love to know.  The French, when they make marmalade at all, tend to use ordinary oranges, and they don’t seem to have any particular tradition of using this wonderfully bitter fruit.

But my oranges travelled from Spain to Harrogate in England, and then all the way back to southern France where yesterday, we transformed them into bright jewelled pots of marmalade.

‘So’, said Léonce as she diligently chopped orange skin after orange skin into long strips, ‘we’re not going to soak the peel?  We’re using it as it is?’  Her only experiences with this fruit have involved long soakings and several changes of water to eliminate nearly all the bitterness.

Smelling the strong citrussy odours as the marmalade cooked convinced her.  She’s getting a different idea about the English and their cooking now. We sat down afterwards for a Nice Cup of Tea and a buttered slice of malt loaf (Soreen’s of course.  Why make the stuff when theirs is so good?) and she remembered how much she’s enjoyed making – and eating  – all our traditional English Christmas baking.

Our walking group’s come to look forward to some good old British baking treats too: gingernuts, melting moments, drenched lemon cake, flapjacks (although perhaps flapjacks aren’t British at all?  But we HAVE adopted them, and the French don’t have them).  And they all say, slightly surprised  ‘So you British CAN cook.  These are great!  Can I have the recipe?’

A Letter to Bill Bailey……

……only I don’t suppose I’ll actually send it

Dear Bill Bailey-

Now that you’ve followed Bill Oddie, and become known as a twitcher as well as a comedian, can you to be an Agony Uncle too? On the subject of birds?

Here in our back yard in Laroque, we’re doing our best to keep our local birds happy. The usual suspects visit us:  sparrows, blackbirds, various tits, robins, wagtails, redstarts: once, but only once, on 14th February last year, a whole flock of goldfinches descended and ate all we could offer.

We offer a great menu.  There are suet blocks, fat balls and feeders crammed variously with peanuts and all kinds of seeds.  I even bought – at great expense – dried mealworms endorsed by Bill Oddie. Last year, all our birds fluttered, perched, fought, queued, squabbled, scoffing everything (apart from the suet blocks) that we put out.  This year, they’re ignoring the whole lot, apart from the stale crumbs I chuck out after every meal.  Which seems a bit like choosing a bag of crisps instead of a decent meal.

What’s up?  There isn’t a cat within range, and the dog next door probably wouldn’t manage to catch a slug on the loose. Last year, disgusted that our birds ignored the suet blocks, I gave them all to a friend who lives out in the wilds of the Seronnais.  She reported that HER birds were fighting over these goodies within hours.

So perhaps I should give all the bird food to her.  But I don’t want to.  They’ll give in eventually.  Won’t they?  Any ideas?



Lexique pour mes lecteurs français:

Bill Bailey : Stand up comique anglais

Bill Oddie: comédien et ornithologue anglais

Twitcher : observateur d’oiseaux amateur

Agony Uncle : journaliste responsable du courrier du coeur

The Big Snow: History

If you turn on the radio these days, or look at the inside pages of the daily paper, you’re likely to find reminiscences of the big freezes of last century, 1947, 1960, 1963 and 1979.

Well, I don’t remember 1947. My mother had bitter memories of it, but I was rocking gently in a warm bath of amniotioc fluid, and didn’t have to worry about the cold.

In 1960, I was at girls’ grammar school, and becoming, with my class mates, a sulky teenager. My main memory is of long frozen January lunch hours in the school playground (unthinkable that we’d be allowed to remain inside in the warm). Considering ourselves too old to have fun chasing each other with snowballs, we stood around in morose groups, comparing our newly fashionable long johns with each other (they were long legged bloomers really, in garish colours. But they helped a bit).

By 1963, an even starker winter, we were sitting out mock O Levels. The school heating system broke down, and we sat several exams in our winter coats, and sometimes even our velour hats. We had to write with our woolly gloves on. No ‘manifs’, no walk outs, and no line of indignant parents outside the headmistress’ office complaining about Health and Safety. The stroppiest of us (and I wasn’t stroppy in those days) just got on with it as just one more thing to be endured in those gloomy January days. We must all have been raving bonkers.

Things were very different by 1979. Elinor was born in late ’78, and Thomas was just under 2 years old. We lived perched towards the top of one of Sheffield’s (allegedly) 7 hills (‘Same as Rome, see?’), and getting up and down that steep slope of ours with a pram was unthinkable. It WAS a steep slope. Occasionally, a hired coach would try to take a short cut down our road. It would find itself marooned at the bottom, the driver’s cab already on the level main road, while the back of the bus remained suspended on the 45 degree tarmac behind, to the unbridled delight of all of us who lived in the street: we’d all turn out to watch the fun.

So we stayed at home as the snow fell, and continued to fall. For 6 weeks. No shopping, no walks in the park or toddler groups or visits to friends (apart from the family next door, in exactly the same position as us). For someone like me, always looking for busy things to fill the day, it should have been utterly unthinkable. But it wasn’t. My memory of that time is of spending hour after hour, the three of us, cosily curled up on the sofa while I breastfed Elinor, reading one story after another to Thomas. Children’s picture books were just taking off in those days, and we had our supply of Picture Puffins… Farmer Fisher, Wonky Donkey, Bread & Jam for Frances, Maurice Sendak…. Whenever I remember that long and rather lazy winter, it’s always with simple pleasure.

This winter is a little more complicated. We’d like to be in France, but since we can’t be, we’d like to be seeing our friends. We can’t do that either. Either we can’t get up our hill, or they can’t get down theirs. Or their children’s school is closed. Or something. So instead we worry about feeding the birds: They’re pretty hungry, but it wouldn’t do to have them depend on a supply of food which may disappear at any moment. We compromise, and put scraps, but only scraps, scattering them in different places. And then we worry about weather forecasts. If it’s not snowing here, it is in the south of England. How’s northern France doing? And further south? It depends which forecast you listen to or read. What to do……? Watch this space