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

The Big Snow: Chapter Two

Another day, another freeze.  The other evening, we were with some friends.  We watched the 10 o’clock news and saw satellite images of a totally white UK.  Then a friend in the Ariège told us that the snow’s reached there too – not sent from our end though, but driven northwards from Spain.  By lunchtime, the news on the French channel TF1 had made the snowy Ariège its special feature.

 We might as well stay here then.  The papers and radio repeat regular warnings of the ‘is your journey really necessary?’ variety, and they’re probably right.  With grit and salt in short supply, the roads aren’t getting any easier, and the temperatures are dropping.

 Here’s a miscellany of Harrogate photos: the town centre, chilly allotments, chillier birds, snowmen and similar, icicles….all a record of this extraordinary January

The Big Snow

‘Christmas shopping in the snow. A white Christmas. A whiter new year. Christmas in the Ariège? No, apparently not. It was mild and sunny there. Instead, this was Christmas and New Year UK style. The days in England were very odd for us. We’d wake up to glittering, powdery snow on the streets, and hungry birds scavenging for crumbs. We’d fail to drive the car up the road, because we live at the bottom of a hill, and the poor thing couldn’t get a grip: 4x4s, usually so derided in our urban setting, had the last laugh, because only they could go anywhere much.

From our window.....


Visits to friends were cancelled. Their visits to us were abandoned. All because of the snow. It wasn’t so very deep, admittedly, but in urban and suburban England, we’re just not geared up to dealing with it. No snow chains on the cars, not enough grit, not enough salt. And it’s not so surprising we were unprepared. Until last year’s freak snowstorms, many English children had only seen snow on skiing holidays or Christmas cards, so why would local authorities plan for anything worse than the occasional sleet shower?

So here are some pictures of life in cold and snowy Harrogate. Emily and I even made a mini snowman. He’s mini because making him was like trying to model something in very cold granulated sugar. The snow wouldn’t stick together. We had fun trying though, and though he was very small, he was a little monster’

All that was written before The Big Snow. The Big Snow suddenly descended here sometime after 4.00 a.m. on Tuesday 4th January, the day we were due to set off back for France. The Big Snow decided otherwise. Harrogate; like much of Northern England, was closed for business. No buses, no schools, few people at work …. but lots of snowmen suddenly populating the streets and gardens –even an authentic looking igloo in the next street along. It was fun at first, and lovely to look at. Then reality began to bite. Slogging to the distant shops through 8’’ of snow, with streets and roads ungritted isn’t much fun. Not everybody can work from home, and too many of those who couldn’t get to work, either had their wages docked, or had to take a day from their annual leave allowance. There’s still a bit of a holiday atmosphere, but the novelty’s worn off, especially as the Big Snow has become the Big Freeze and is going to continue, it seems.

Franklin Road, Harrogate

When will we be able to leave for France? Who knows. The South has taken over from the north as Snow Capital of the UK, and we’ve been very firmly advised against travelling (anyway, we still can’t drive the car up our hill). From what we can see, northern France is a winter wonderland as well – with added fog.

I’d like to add more photos – I will later.  But I’m working with a dongle, and if you’re geek enough to know what I’m talking about, you’ll know it’s not ideal

Another Day, another Festival

Foire au Gras!

Today has been really good fun.  Singing morning and afternoon with four other choirs in a Choral Festival – performing to each other and with each other.  And of course after a hard morning’s singing, there’s only one way to spend the hours between 12.00 and 2.00, especially when you have 200 people all gathered together intent on having fun.  A big community meal, which the town, appreciative of our singing, treated us all to.  

The accordian player at the feast

We were in Mazères, which is on the third day of its Foire au Gras, a celebration of the pleasures of those meats that are so appreciated down here – pork, goose and duck.  So forget the vegetarian option.  We ate garbure, a deeply meaty vegetable broth, followed by a richly pungent stew with every duck’s leg in the Ariège apparently popped into the pot, and the most delicious plain boiled potatoes I have ever eaten.  Perhaps because they weren’t really plain boiled, but cooked in a light flavoursome stock.  Kir and red wine a volonté.  And a great deal of singing and laughter as everyone gave their attention to the accordion player who seems to be at every event we’ve been to.  Men and women scuttled up and down the rows of diners, carrying scalding heavy pots, more bread, more wine. It was no surprise to anyone that we began our afternoon session at 3.00, rather than the scheduled 2.30.

Just a few of the diners

Somehow, however, we all heaved ourselves up from the tables and ambled back to the church, the scene of the concerts.  And there we stayed, singing or listening till 6.00 p.m.  Some hardy souls stayed on for yet more partying, sharing the ‘pot d’amitié’, but our little group called it a day, and came home, watching the last of the sunset over the Pyrenees as we drove back towards Laroque.