‘So British’. A French view of life in England.

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.

Harvest Festival

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.

St. Michael’s Hospice shop, Ripon

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.

Closed at the moment

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.

A night-time window

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.

A Friesian: until recently, these were the cows I most frequently saw in England


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.

From the Pyrénées to the Pennines: Chapter 1

Today, three friends from Lavelanet are coming to stay in Ripon (with friends of ours: we can’t cram them into our tiny flat).  They’re members of Découverte Terres Lointaines coming to Discover Yorkshire in Six Days.  Over the next few months, you’ll find out why.

But Yorkshire in 6 days?  That’s quite a challenge isn’t it?  Especially as it would be good to show something of what the Ariège and Yorkshire have in common: dairy and sheep farming, a textile industry long past its glory days, mining and quarrying ditto, a religious past coloured by conflict…. If you were Tour Guide, what would YOU choose?

York: The Romans, the Vikings have all been here: a day won’t be long enough

The Dales?  Swaledale, Wharfedale, Nidderdale….etc.  Which is your favourite?


Howarth: A chance to see a bit of the wonderfully bleak landscape, and visit the home of the Brontë family.


Bradford: its textile industry brought the workers from Pakistan and India who are now such a significant part of the town’s population

Textile Machinery at Bradford Industrial Museum

Saltaire: a model village built by philanthropist Titus Salt in the 19thcentury as a decent place for workers to live.  Philanthropists like Salt built others in the UK – such as Port Sunlight on the Wirral and New Earswick  inYork.

Salt’s Mill, Saltaire

North York Moors:

Rosedale, North York Moors

we’ll see the views on our way to……………

Whitby: fishing port and holiday resort


Leeds: the city centre – a mix of Victorian civic pride and modern business district.

Many of the Victorian Arcades are now an up-market shopping destination

Harrogate Turkish Baths: time for us to relax and re-charge our batteries.

The Turkish Baths at Harrogate

Fountains Abbey: this Cistercian monastery is, like Saltaire, a World Heritage site.  And a beautiful and peaceful place.

Fountains Abbey

We’ll need to include a pub, fish and chips, preferably eaten on the seafront out of soggy paper.  Curry too.  But why is the totally inauthentic chicken tikka masala apparently now our national dish?

I’m so looking forward to being a tourist in my own birth county.  I hope our friends enjoy it too.

Bon viatge! Emily’s off to Barcelona….

When my generation graduated, back in the early 1970s, it never occurred to any of us that we wouldn’t get a half-way decent job in a field that interested us.  By 2010, it was a different story.  Emily’s first taste of work, post graduation, was as casual bar staff for a national pub chain.  Mind you, these posts now seem to be exclusively reserved for young graduates and the occasional favoured undergraduate.

Emily all checked in and ready to go at Leeds-Bradford airport
Emily all checked in and ready to go at Leeds-Bradford airport

After that, it was a bank: that was pretty soul-destroying too.  Because all the time, what she really wanted to do was train as a teacher. And these days, you need lots of voluntary experience before they’ll even consider you.  How do you get that alongside a day-job?

Then she had a lucky break.  She spotted an advert from CAPS, an organisation supplying English Language Assistants to schools in Barcelona.  She applied.  She was accepted.  And today – she went.  She’s flying over, and she and the other successful candidates will spend a day (and a night) together, being briefed, before going tomorrow to meet the families they’ll be staying with.  School on Monday.

She’s looking forward to meeting the people she’s staying with.  She’ll be trading spending time with her six year old boy twin nephews, for staying with another family with 6 year old twins – girls this time.  She’s wondering if the Spanish she’s managed to learn over the last few weeks will be any help at all – or whether only Catalan will do.  She’s looking forward to being in Spain, to finding out if teaching really is for her, but most of all to the Big Barcelona Adventure she’s already started writing about in her blog

And we’re looking forward to a few excuses to go and visit her there.

Sagrada Familia: bound to be on Emily's visiting list

A guide to tiling for the cack-handed

The floor tiling on the roof terrace.  It’s finished.  It’s usable.  It’s looking rather good: ready to be kitted out with garden furniture and a few well-chosen plants.  All that’s for sure.  The other thing that’s certain is that neither of us will willingly do floor tiling ever again.  Never.  And Vicki and Marc aren’t all that keen either.

After cleaning the surface carefully, there’s the tile cement to mix.  Even with a mixer attachment on the electric drill, this is punishing work.  Ask Malcolm.  In the manner of Goldilocks’ porridge, the mix must be not too thick, not too thin, but Just Right.

Job done

Then the laying of the tiles themselves. This involves long hours on creaking knees and dermatitis from the cement: gloves and tile laying don’t mix.  Is the tile level?  The spirit level says ‘no’.  Yank it up and start again. Keep it the right distance from its neighbours with spacers which somehow get clarted up with cement.  Work quickly! The sun is getting high in the sky, and soon we’ll have to knock off and erect complicated shelters so the cement doesn’t dry too quickly and crack.

Are the tiles clean of cement?  No?   Get it off quickly, before it sets and resists all attempts to shift it.  Stop!  Don’t press too hard – you’re de-stabilising the tiles!  Oh.  Too late.

Finished at last.  Now we can uncurl our protesting bodies, clean the tools, and knock off for a couple of days while the cement sets good and hard.

Noooooo.  Unexpected rain threatens. Quick!  Improvise plastic sheeting, lengths of wood to prevent water getting under those tiles……

But now, 48 hours later, we’re ready to do the grouting.  Same story.  Grout mix is difficult to get Just Right, and it goes off in about 2 hours.  Get the team going – one to force grout between the tiles, the other to clear, clean and check there are no air bubbles, troughs, mounds…..

By now, we feel as if we’ve been on a long pilgrimage on our knees in the manner of a medieval penitent, weary, sore and with aching and crippled backs as well.

Anyway, it’s done.  Are we suffused with a satisfied glow of pleasure at a job well done?  No, we’re simply relieved.  Next time we come across a floor tiling job chez nous, we might just have to settle for lino.

The view as we take morning coffee on the smart new terrace.

The Little HelpX Book of Recipes

Marc and Vicki commandeer the kitchen

Our wonderful HelpXers, Vicki and Marc, enjoyed spending time in the kitchen. They cooked and cooked and made memorable meals: here are just three.

Vicki was keen to introduce us to this Chinese dish.  It’s fun to eat: use lettuce ‘wrapping’ to make your own pork parcels up, then garnish them with what you fancy from the bits and bobs on the side.

Sang choy bow

1 tbsp sunflower oil

Large piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 red chillies , deseeded and finely sliced

500g minced pork

85 g light brown sugar

2 tbsp fish sauce

Juice from 1 lime

2  finely shredded lime leaves

Mix of lettuce leaves

Large handful mint and coriander leaves, very roughly chopped

handful toasted peanuts , roughly chopped

2 shallots finely sliced into rings shallots

1 lime, cut into wedges

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Fry the ginger, garlic and chillies for 1 min. Add the mince, then cook on a high heat until golden brown, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as you go. Sprinkle over the brown sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and shredded lime leaves, then cook everything down until sticky.

Tip the mince into a serving bowl, then serve with a bowl of lettuce leaves for wrapping the mince in; the herbs, shallots and peanuts for scattering over; and the lime wedges for squeezing.

Sang choy bow: a little lettuce parcel just waiting to be eaten

On their last evening, the night of the ‘Asian tapas-Smörgåsbord’ , Marc introduced us to the Vietnamese answer to crudités, Gado gado.  I wasn’t watching while he was cooking, and I forgot to get his recipe from him, so … Marc, if you’re reading … is this version OK?

Gado gado consists of a plate of various raw or lightly cooked vegetables to dunk into a peanut  sauce.  Marc served raw cabbage and cucumber, lightly steamed potato slices and french beans, and quartered hard-boiled eggs.

Peanut Dipping Sauce (Sambal Kacang)
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 fresh green chili chopped, (use 1/2 for milder sauce, or leave it out)


200 g  roughly crushed peanuts

1 teaspoon brown sugar

2 tablespoon lime juice

450ml hot water

Place the garlic cloves, green chili and salt in a mortar and pestle and pound into a paste.

In a small bowl, add the garlic paste, crushed peanuts, sugar and lime juice. Pour in hot water a little at a time, while whisking the peanut butter. Stop pouring the hot water when the peanut butter forms a smooth, dippable sauce. You may not need to use all of the hot water.

Taste the peanut sauce and adjust salt, sugar and lime juice if needed. Serve with your selection of vegetable crudités

Gado gado

Vicki found this recipe in my copy of Dennis Cotter’ s ‘Paradiso Seasons’, a wonderful vegetarian cookbook.  If you explore the web, you’ll find he’s tweaked this recipe several times.  The original is pretty damn’ good.

Chocolate-olive oil mousse

 150g. good dark chocolate

140 ml. olive oil

4 eggs separated

125 g. golden caster sugar

(1 tbspn. Cointreau or other orange liqueur)

Pinch salt

In a bowl over a pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate and slowly stir in the olive oil.  Beat the egg yolks with half the sugar until pale and fluffy.  Stir in the chocolate oil mix (and Cointreau if used).  Whisk the eggs with a pinch of salt until stiff, then continue whisking while adding the remaining sugar gradually in small batches.  Fold the egg white mixture and put the mousse into the fridge to chill for at least four hours.  It has a strong structure, and will easily keep overnight (but not if you taste it first…….)

It scarcely mattered that this chocolate mousse wasn't prettily presented: it disappeared rather quickly

The stars from HelpX

Despondent about your DIY? Ground down by your garden?  Then HelpX can help!

Its website says it’s ‘volunteer work in exchange for free accommodation and food on farms, backpacker hostels, lodges, horse stables and even sailing boats’.  Or even places like ours, apparently.

For the past 10 days, we’ve been sharing our home with HelpX-ers Vicki – Australian – and her English husband Marc.  It was a success from the very moment they landed outside our house with their laden motorbikes, fresh from working in Carcassonne and northern Italy.

Since they arrived they’ve rolled up their sleeves and cheerfully tiled and grouted most of our very awkward roof terrace, painted a stairwell, wrestled with brambles and ivy on the garden, solved computer problems…. and commandeered the kitchen.

Vicki and Marc travel the world, and many of their memories seem to be food related.  So they’ve cooked southern Asian dishes like sang choy bow & gado gado and Vicki’s wonderfully decadent and not-at-all Asian chocolate mousse: recipes to follow in a later blog.  The other evening – their final night – was the occasion for an ‘Asian tapas-Smörgåsbord’ of a dozen dishes masterminded by Marc.

Our memories of the week are of a happy, optimistic, funny and considerate couple who’ve worked hard and enthusiastically on our behalf, and whose company has been nothing but a pleasure.  We miss them.