‘School dinners, school dinners….

…Iron Beans, iron beans

Sloppy Semolina, sloppy semolina

I feel sick, get a bowl quick.’*

Do you remember this cheery ditty from your days eating school dinners?  Only if you’re British, I suppose.  And most right-thinking French men women and children would be quite prepared to believe that all English food is just like that.

Not the mayor of Villeneuve d’Olmes, where Découverte de Terres Lointaines has taken its Yorkshire exhibition this week.  Back at the planning stage, he’d told us about their school caterer, M. Feliu, who uses almost entirely organic or local ingredients, and who likes to introduce the children to the cooking of other countries every time the excuse arises.

We met M. Feliu at La Freychède.  We worked together to produce a menu (Cheap. Tempting to the young French palate. Three courses that work with the kitchen facilities to hand.  Conforming to nutritional standards).

This is what we came up with:

Crudités with beetroot chutney

Macaroni cheese with green salad

Blackberry and apple Betty with custard.

Yesterday was the day.  I turned up at 10.00 with my English friend and colleague Susie to find the work almost done.  All we had left was to churn out batons of carrot, black radish and cucumber for the first course, which was not, let’s face it, Awfully British.  But it had to fit in with other considerations as above.

11.00: The prepared and cooked food was heaved into insulated containers, and transported by van to one of the local schools.

11.30. Ditto with van number 2.  This batch was sent off to Villeneuve d’Olmes, with me following.

12.00. Children arrived at the canteen.  One of the helpers, Pascale, spoke good English.  ‘What’s your name?’ she’d say to each child in English.  When she had her reply, they could go in, and sit down at one of the circular tables, tinies in one room, and juniors in another.  I joined a table of lively 7 year olds.

One of the staff told me the rules that the children expect to follow:

  • Take turns to serve the dishes of food to everyone at table.
  • Wait till everyone’s served before beginning to eat.
  • Try everything.
  • You can have the portion size you choose.  Once it’s on your plate though, you have to eat it.

Everyone accepts this and we all sat together, eating and chatting.  The children chomped their way through all the crudités, they even enjoyed the chutney, whose sweet and sour taste is not an automatic choice round here.

Once cleared away, bread appeared on the table – this is France after all.

Two more children served the macaroni cheese and the salad.  Most of us came back for seconds.

We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ – in English – to a birthday girl.

I gave an impromptu talk on the food on offer.

The blackberry and apple Betty was served.  Yum! How could it fail?  Gently cooked fruit with a crunchy crust of soft breadcrumbs crisped in golden syrup and butter, with obligatory custard, of course.

Then the children cleared their tables, stacking dirty plates and glasses neatly for washing up, before going off to play.

I was so impressed.  The children here learn that the midday meal is so much more than a pit- stop.  The expectations, reinforced daily, are that this is a moment to spend with friends, a time to share, to think about the needs of others, and to appreciate the food on offer.  The occasion lasted well over an hour.

* To the tune of Frère Jacques

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England comes to Laroque d’Olmes

Yorkshire Dales: as interpreted by the children at the Centre de Loisirs, Laroque.

Yesterday afternoon was the best fun.  20 odd-children (that’s ‘about 20 children’, not ‘Twenty Odd Children’) here in Laroque spent the day in England, courtesy of  ‘Découverte Terres Lointaines’,  without setting foot outside town.

These children spend their Wednesdays, a no-school day, at the Centre de Loisirs.  Their parents are probably out at work, and here is somewhere they can spend the day having purposeful fun, without its costing their parents too much.

We turned up with bag full of groceries, and spent half the morning baking biscuits, basic English everyday crunchy biscuits.  It was great to see them, girls and boys alike carefully measuring out flour, sugar, butter and so on, stirring, mixing, watching a dough come together from these simple ingredients.

Let the baking begin.

A bag full of cutters and a rolling pin meant that they could transform the mixture into stars and circles, miniature gingerbread-style people, bells and flowers.

Upstairs, another group had been talking about the green moorlands of the Yorkshire Dales, then making a mural of a Daleside landscape, complete with Swaledale sheep, farm gates, and obligatory grey cloud (it’s England after all).

Lunch break.  Afterwards, the children came to see our long-prepared exhibition looking at North Yorkshire, which has so many features in common with the Ariège: mountains (OK, the best Yorkshire can manage is Whernside’s  736 metres.  Ariège’s Pic d’Estats is 3143m); textile and mining industries past their glory days; wide open spaces home only to sheep…. and so on.  They enjoyed an extract from Roald Dahl’s ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’, and then it was back to the Centre de Loisirs.  Where we produced a long skipping rope with the idea of teaching them a couple of English skipping games…

‘I like coffee, I like tea

I’d like, er, Nadine, to jump with me’.

Getting started with skipping.

They loved it.  Unfortunately they couldn’t skip at all and tripped and fell all over the place, and all the adults mourned that it was a lost art. As in England (Is that so?  Not sure.) children don’t skip any more.

Back into the kitchen, it was time to decorate those biscuits.  They tinted their bowls of icing in lurid shades, and made free with all the sugary decorations we provided.  ‘Glorious Technicolor’ doesn’t begin to do it justice.  Once decorated, they ate the lot, and we sent them off to their parents for the evening crammed full of enough e-numbers to see them through the week.  One lad, as he set off home, was heard to say ‘I’ve had a great day’.  So had we.

Glorious Technicolor biscuits.

Château de Fiches

This weekend, as any fule kno (thank you, Nigel Molesworth.  That’s quite enough from you) are the European Heritage Days, when hosts of historic buildings not normally much open to the public, throw open their doors to curious locals.

So when Léonce proposed going to Château de Fiches, we were keen.  If you come home the back way from Pamiers, past villages with evocative names such as Seigneurix (Surely Asterix and Obelix can’t be far away?) and Parent, you’ll pass its fairly undistinguished drive-way: we’ve passed it dozens of times before, and it’s always been shut.

This gives some idea of the charmingly domestic scale of the operation

Not today.  This weekend, the team were keen to show the place off.  If you want a château complete with crenellated façade and turrets, you’ve come to the wrong place. This 16th century building is strictly domestic, more farmhouse than stately home.  It was built originally for a Toulousain Parliamentarian, and later passed into the hands of a lawyer from Pamiers, Joseph Fauré, whose family own it still.  It has unexpected treasures, most of which I wasn’t allowed to photograph.

Back in the 19th century, someone in the family went plant collecting, some 1600 specimens.  Nobody knows whether it was the plants themselves that were collected whilst travelling, or simply the seeds which were then raised back here in France.  Dried, mounted, thrust in dense piles deep into a cabinet, they’re only recently being catalogued by an English couple, Mavis and John Midgley, excited to use their expertise in this way.

I can show you photos of the kitchen.  Enjoy the mechanical mayonnaise maker, the coffee grinder, the charming and enormous hearth.

Churn round your egg yolks, oil and so on in here, and apparently mayonnaise will emerge
Here’s the coffee grinder
And here’s the hearth

I can share pictures of the library.

The library

What you can’t see is the bestiary.  This is such a shame.  Painted in the 16th century, a series of charming and vibrantly coloured animals enliven the beams of a ceiling on the upper floor.  The artist is unknown to us, just as elephants, camels, monkeys, satyrs and so on were unknown to him.  He got his information third, fourth or fifth hand, and made an efficient if imaginative job of visually describing the 40 or so beasts he illustrates.  On safer ground with rabbits and peacocks, he painted every single beast, known and unknown, with vitality and verve.  Another equally interesting ceiling is currently being revealed.  Part of this are painted more in the manner of blue and white Delft ware.  If you’re round this way, they’re worth a look.

It’s only a shame that all the various treasures of the Heritage Weekend are usually available For One Weekend Only.  So much to see, so little time.

Spitalfields Life: and a recipe from Boundary Estate

Despite the fact I didn’t nominate it as a ‘Lovely Blog’ (perhaps because I feel the Gentle Author is a real professional, not someone who turns out posts only when time permits) Spitalfields Life is definitely a favourite.

Every morning without fail, his daily offering drops into my in-box, usually as I check my mail before breakfast.

And in it will be some tale of life in London’s East End.  The story perhaps of a neighbourhood shop, or a resident who arrived some years ago from a different continent, or another whose family has been deep-rooted in the area for endless generations…. anyone and everyone has a story to tell the Gentle Author.  The posts I look forward to most are those when he showcases the atmospheric photos taken in the 1960’s by John Claridge, of a way of life I remember well, but now seems so very distant.  Or those introducing newly- published work by the witty illustrator Paul Bommer.  The Gentle Author will show us 18th century trade cards, ancient  graffiti from the Tower of London, transsexuals from Bethnal Green – anything or anybody who takes his sympathetic yet enquiring fancy.

The other day he and photographer Sarah Ainslie went to the Boundary Women’s Group, and found a group of women of Asian heritage cooking lunch to share.  They shared their recipes too, and one in particular took my eye, contributed by Julie Begum.

Sardine curry

This is my favourite quick home cooking recipe after a long hard day’s work.

Ingredients –

500 g. sardines

2  tomatoes

1 onion

3  green chillies

1 teaspoon of red chilli powder

½  teaspoon of turmeric powder

1 teaspoon of coriander

1 piece of ginger

 8 cloves of garlic

1 dessert spoon of lemon juice

Salt as required.


  • Cut and clean the fresh sardines (score on both sides) or just open the tins (I prefer the ones in tomato sauce).
  • Heat oil in a pan.
  • Add sliced onion, green chilli, ginger, garlic and sauté well.
  • To this, add red chilli powder, turmeric powder, salt, lemon juice and tomato slices. Sauté well until tomatoes are done and add fish.
  • Add water as required and until fish are cooked.
  • Serve with fresh coriander and a slice of lemon with white basmati rice. Yum!’

Julie – I can confirm that it’s ‘yum’ indeed, and easy, and quick…and the kitchen doesn’t stink of sardines for hours afterwards, as can be the case with this otherwise wonderful fish.

Gone but not forgotten – our local charcuterie.

Today is the first day of the rest of Marcel and Mercedes Resseguier’s lives.  Today (barring the odd holiday) is the first Tuesday for 28 years on which they haven’t opened their charcuterie (like most small-town shops, they didn’t open on a Monday).  At 60, Marcel’s retiring.

Their shop is a bit of an institution hereabouts.  Go to an event where food is served and discover that the plates of cold meats, pâtés and cured sausage are from the Resseguiers’ shop, and you’ll be piling your plate high with all that’s on offer.  Go to buy some sausages for an easy lunch, and you’ll join a queue of customers chatting away animatedly as they patiently wait their turn.  What will we do without them? They’re not trying to sell it on – no point.

Once upon a time, theirs was a busy shopping street.  Nowadays, it’s (oops, was) the only shop left.  Still 2 butchers remain in town here however.  Nearby Lavelanet, a town that’s more than twice as big as ours has only one, Marrotte.

When he was 14 ½, Marcel went to Limoux, apprenticed to a butcher’s where he learnt all he needed to learn about the butchery business.  And then he came back to the Ariège to work at the above mentioned Marotte’s. This shop sells not only fresh meat, but charcuterie too: in other words fresh sausage, cured sausage, hams both dried and cooked, and pâtés: mainly, but not exclusively, pork products.  Working here, Marcel realised that, for him, charcuterie was a lot more interesting than presenting fresh meat for sale, and he profited from his time there to learn all he could.

A little later, after his short spell in a general stores with a meat-counter in nearby Villeneuve d’Olmes, the charcuterie here in Laroque came up for sale.  A certain Monsieur Vié owned it.  His son Michel is a pillar of our town, involved in everything from singing in the local choir to supporting our local town-twinning operation.  He didn’t want to go into his father’s business, but like so many people round and about, he’s learnt many of the skills, and will often knock up some cured sausages or a bowl or two of pâté for a family celebration.

Well, Marcel, with his father’s help, bought the shop, together with the good-will and customer-base that came with it. The rest is history.  The charcuterie is hard to find, being tucked away in a side-street where it’s almost impossible to park.  But that didn’t stop it being a shopping destination.  Once there, apart from all the expected meats and sausages, you could buy his tins of jarret de porc or jars of pâté de foie, as well as wine or bottled vegetables.  His was a depot de pain too.  So he’ll be missed, as will Mercedes, his wife, who served the customers and balanced the books.  Happy retirement, Marcel.  Enjoy your new career Mercedes (that’s another story) …. and see you on the next Sunday walk with Laroque’s walking group.

One Lovely Blog Award

Surprise!  Today I opened my in-box to discover I’ve been nominated, with several others, for The One Lovely Blog Award.  This is as flattering as it is interesting, because we’re 7 nominees in total, and we’re a mixed bag, including a female soldier serving in Afghanistan, several photographers, a woman sharing her grandmother’s fascinating diary entries from 100 years ago, a couple running  a Bed & Breakfast in the States, and a dog lover.

And this is surely what makes the world of blogging such an interesting one?  We who read a variety of blogs get views and insights into other worlds, other lives, other ways of thinking,  and forge cyber-relationships with people we’d never otherwise come into contact with.

The blogger who nominated me, who writes Thoughts from an American Woman, is very different indeed from me.  She calls herself as ‘an American housewife and Army mom’, and writes about her experience of being the mother of a serving soldier, and shares with her readers her curiosity, her busy life, her love of dogs, her poetry and her Christian faith.  Despite her active days, she finds time to follow very many blogs.  Thank you, Patty, for nominating me and for sending me frequent words of encouragement.

Now, apparently I need to share 7 things about myself:

  • I’m fine with spiders, and snakes, and mice, and bats, and birds, and creepy-crawlies.  But I don’t much care for the scrabbling and rustling noises that are beginning to emerge from behind our kitchen cupboards.
  • I sometimes fear my life is defined by my total inability to get a good night’s sleep.
  • I think I’ve got quite a mixed blood-line.  On my mother’s side, Suffolk and Yorkshire blood, with great grandparents called ‘Pickard’.  Originally from Picardy in France surely?  My father, long dead, took any stories of his Polish family to his grave.
  • For years I’ve been banging on about doing a long stretch of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella.  I even have half-baked plans half-talked about with several different friends.  Perhaps going public here will force me to do something about it at last.
  • I can’t begin the day without my fix of coffee. Please don’t expect me to.
  • I can’t end the day without reading myself to sleep.  I normally get an hour or more in during the night as well.  A good way to be fairly well-read.
  • The best stress-buster is to get in the kitchen and cook.  Then relax over the results with easy company and a glass of wine.

And then I need to tell you which blogs I would like to nominate.  Here they are, in alphabetical order.

As a Linguist:  An American teacher comments perceptively and engagingly on language in its many forms.

El Bueno El Malo Y El Feo: Exciting, atmospheric, often gritty photos, mainly taken whilst travelling round Spain.

Mama Clark’s Kitchen and Back Porch Emporium: Leann was our friend and neighbour when we all lived in Harrogate.  Once back in the States she began this blog.  Beautifully and atmospherically written

My Spanish Steps: One of my daughter’s blogs, highlighting things that interest her during her early months teaching in Spain.

Slow Living in the French Pyrenees: Kalba moved to France at much the same time as we did, and we met very early on, so I enjoy her take on France and the French.

The Nelson House Diaries: A bit incestuous this! Sharon is a Francophile and found Kalba’s and my blog – so we found hers.  Hers is the story, among other things, of the challenge of renovating her home to an exacting – and exciting – standard.

The View from the Potting Shed: Gilly gardens with great knowledge and enthusiasm here in the Ariege.  She’s not posted recently, so I hope this may encourage her to resume her useful and inspirational blog.

Welcome Visitor: Another incestuous one.  This American expat, living in Germany, discovered my blog – so I discovered his.  It is, as he says, about his life in Germany – and life in general.

So…. Just eight among thousands and thousands of blogs you could spend 200 hours a day reading.  And to Patty, and all the bloggers who give me such pleasure: thank you.

 The rules for One Lovely Blog are:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to them.
  2. Share 7 things about yourself.
  3. Nominate  other bloggers for this award.

In search of a druid – or a trout

Mont d’Olmes: local playground for skiers.  You wouldn’t travel any great distance to spend a holiday here, but for locals, it’s the ideal winter sports spot.  It’s a wonderful area for walkers too.  We’ve only just begun to discover the wealth of footpaths, mainly across truly ‘sauvage’ slopes, with views downwards to Montségur, Roquefixade, and northwards almost, it seems, as far as Toulouse.

It’s alright waxing lyrical though.  For many people living in the area many years past, and until the early years of the 20th century, these slopes were the places where they came for long hours each day, working both on the surface and by crawling through narrow airless tunnels, mining talc.

Talc?  Yes, that stuff you sprinkle on babies’ bottoms.  That stuff those Olympic gymnasts plunge their hands into before taking to an overhead bar.  That stuff that apparently still has many industrial uses, notably in the ceramics industry and for plastics paints and coatings.  This soft soapstone was found here on Mont d’Olmes and is still mined in nearby Luzenac.  Here though, all that is left are the gashes in the mountainside where the workings once were, and a few ancient trucks once used to transport the material down to civilisation.

Come and take the path we took last Sunday.  We walked in more or less a straight line, up and down hill after hill, as the path became increasingly rocky and impassable.  Our reward was the occasional handful of raspberries or bilberries, then a lunchtime picnic by l’étang des Druides.  No, sorry, l’étang des Truites.  Whatever.  Nobody seems to know which name is correct.  Some say the person making the first map of the area misheard and wrote ‘truite’ – trout – instead of ‘druide’.  We saw no trout.  We definitely saw no druids.  But we had a jolly nice picnic.  And I paddled.  And then ruined a perfectly good day, in which morning chill and mist had given over to hot sunshine, by falling flat against the rocky path, cutting open my face and chipping three teeth.  I hope the druids weren’t lining me up for some kind of sacrifice.

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