England? France? A six months review.

Just down the road from our house in Laroque
Just down the road from our house in Laroque

We’ve been back in the UK from France six months now, so this seems a good moment to take stock.

Did we do the right thing in coming back to England to live?  Absolutely no question: we’re so happy to be here, and nearer to most of the family.  There are things we miss about our lives in France though: of course there are.  It was tough to leave friends behind, and we continue to miss them.  Still, three have visited already, and there are more scheduled to come and see us here.  And it’s sad no longer having the Pyrenees as the backdrop to our lives.  Though North Yorkshire’s scenery brings its own pleasures.

Still, it’s wonderful not to have to tussle with language on a day-to-day basis.  Our French was pretty good, but it was generally a bit of a challenge to talk in any kind of nuanced way about the  more serious things in life.  Now I feel I’ve freed up enough head-space to revise my very rusty Italian, and to learn enough Spanish to get by when we visit Emily in Spain.

Many of our regrets or rediscovered delights centre on food.  This summer, we’ve gorged ourselves on the soft fruits that the British Isles grow so well: particularly raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries.  Oh, they exist in southern France, but they’re wretched, puny little things, with no lively acidic tang like those of their British cousins.  In a straight choice between raspberries and peaches, raspberries win every time (though of course, it’s even better not to have to choose).

Blackberrying near Harewood.
Blackberrying near Harewood.

I miss, though, the choice we used to have in France of four or five different kinds of fresh, dewy whole lettuce available on market stalls every single week of the year.  It’s flat, cos or little gem here, or those depressing bags of washed mixed leaves, and I find myself longing for the choices I used to have of crunchy, curly, bitter, blanched or soft leaves in various shades of green or even red.  On the other hand, we do have tangy watercress here.  And crisp crunchy apples, and Bramley cooking apples…..

And whereas in France there were always French cheeses on offer, and jolly good too, that was all there was, apart from the odd bit of shrink-wrapped Cheddar or waxy Edam.  Here we can have English AND French (and Dutch and so on): decent French cheese too, unpasteurised, from small suppliers.

And what about eating out? Surely that’s better in France?  Those copious home-cooked midday ‘formules’ – often a starter, main course, pudding AND wine, preferably eaten in the open air shaded by some nearby plane trees bring back such happy memories.  But, but…. the menus were entirely predictable, and were dishes that had stood the test of time over the decades.  After a few years, we wouldn’t have objected to a few surprises.  Whereas back in Britain, most places seem to have upped their game considerably over the last few years.  Local restaurants, pubs and cafés offer interesting menus, often based on what’s available that day, at fair prices.  We’ve had some great meals since our return, and we’ve hardly started to get to know the area’s food map yet.  And for Malcolm, there’s the constant possibility of slipping into a tea room to assess the quality of their coffee and walnut cake.  This may be the main reason why he’s come back.

All the same, we can’t eat outside quite so often, particularly in the evening.  And our fellow walkers have yet to be convinced of the pleasures of the shared picnic with home-made cakes and a bottle of wine: we’re working on them.  Nor have we yet had a community meal, with long tables set out in the square as old friends and new share  fun together over a leisurely meal.

Like most people who return from France, we find the crowded motorways unpleasant.  But it is nice not to be followed at a distance of only a few inches by the cars behind us.

We’re struggling to shake off French bureaucracy too.  Tax offices and banks over there continue to ignore our letters pointing out we no longer live there, continue to demand paperwork they’ve already seen, continue to ignore requests.  And as we can no longer pop into the local office to sort things out, the problems just go on and on.

Something we’re enjoying here too is the possibility of being involved in volunteering.  It’s something that exists in France of course: Secours Populaire and similar organisations couldn’t function without local help.  But the French in general believe the state should provide, and the enriching possibilities for everyone concerned that volunteering in England can offer simply don’t exist.  We already help at a community bakery, but I’m currently mulling over whether I should find out more about the local sheltered gardening scheme for people with learning disabilities, or about working with groups of children at Ripon Museums, or simply go into the local Council for Voluntary Service and find out what other opportunities exist.

Six months in, we’ve spent more time with our families, re-established old friendships, begun to make new ones.  We’re happy in our new village home, and the slightly different centre-of-gravity we now have.  Poor Malcolm’s waiting longer than he would have had to in France for a minor but necessary operation, but despite that, life’s good.  We’re back in England to stay.

Near Malham Tarn.
Near Malham Tarn.


Marmalade factory

View from our bedroom window, today and every day this week
View from our bedroom window, today and every day this week

This is getting beyond a joke.  For a week now, with the exception of last Tuesday, it’s rained.  Sometimes it’s just drizzled.  Sometimes it’s rained good and proper.  Sometimes it’s poured.  Walks are cancelled, and the market’s a dismal affair with few stallholders and even fewer customers.

But I had to go yesterday, whatever the weather.  I’d been promised Seville oranges.  ‘Will you have any more next week?’ I asked anxiously.  ‘Oh yes, I’m bound to.’  ‘For we English types, I guess?’  ‘No.  Not at all.  I adore Sevilles.  I make tons of marmalade.  So do my neighbours.’

Well, that did surprise me.  Listen to this recipe from a French neighbour, a lovely woman whom I know to be a keen cook. (Sorry, Sharon, you’ve heard this tale.  Bear with me).

‘Take ordinary oranges.  Squeeze the juice, and then take the peel and boil it in plenty of water.  Throw away the water.  Repeat three times until you’ve got rid of the bitterness.  Chop the peel finely…..’  By then she’d lost me.  I didn’t really listen to the end of the recipe.  I felt that on the subject of good gutsy marmalade, this woman and I had nothing to say to one another.

Seville oranges waiting for the chop.
Seville oranges waiting for the chop.

Anyway, tired of downsizing for the time being, we’ve applied ourselves to the business of our marmalade factory.  We have our own needs to satisfy, and those of all our French friends, who profess themselves rather keen on our bright and bitter conserve.  This year, I’ve chosen Dan Leppard’s recipe.  I’ve got a variation on the go, as well as one version where I follow him to the letter.  Instead of using the whole peel in the finished product, I’m using only the thinly peeled zesty part, though of course all the pith will be boiled up with the pips before being discarded.

Chopped Seville oranges waiting for the pot.
Chopped Seville oranges waiting for the pot.

We’ve been scrubbing, squeezing and chopping half the morning, and now the two varieties are sitting waiting for tomorrow , when we can boil each of them to setting point, get out a crusty loaf, butter, and apply ourselves to the serious business of a taste-test.

Prunelles, gratte-culs et champignons…

…  which are, being translated, sloes, rosehips and mushrooms.  But it sounds rather more poetic in French, non?  Even if you take into account that ‘gratte-cul‘ translates as ‘scratch-bum‘, because as every naughty school child knows, rosehips seeds are distressingly itchy when shoved down against the skin.

Chapelle Saint Roch
Chapelle Saint Roch

Anyway, I went off by myself for a walk the other day, starting by the ancient and slightly isolated Chapelle Saint Roch.  There’s still a pilgrimage there every year, because he’s the patron saint of plague victims, and well, you never know, do you?

I’d got several ‘au cas ‘ bags, ‘just in case’ I found sloes, rosehips and mushrooms.  It wasn’t ‘just in case’ really though.  I know exactly where to look for the juiciest sloes, the thorniest rosehips, and even a decent clutch of field mushrooms.  Finding mushrooms before the French get to them counts as a real achievement for me.

It pays to have tough clothes when you hunt among the scratchy brambles for the sloes and hips nearby
It pays to have tough clothes when you hunt among the scratchy brambles for the sloes and hips nearby

Here are my sloes, destined not for sloe gin this year: we seem to have such a lot left from the last few years.  No, this year I’m making  a richly flavoured jelly with the fruit I picked that morning and a few windfalls.

Sloes waiting to be picked
Sloes waiting to be picked

And here are the rosehips.  It’s a syrup for those, I think.

Rosehips with thorns ready for the attack
Rosehips with thorns ready for the attack

But the mushrooms……  Someone got there before me.  And it wasn’t a Frenchman .  Grrr.

I didn't know slugs ate mushrooms
I didn’t know slugs ate mushrooms

Harvest home…..

Fields near Villelongue.  A grey summer's morning.
Fields near Villelongue. A grey summer’s morning.

….. next month.

We were walking in the Aude today, and with every step we took, we realised that harvest season is well on its way.
Sorghum grains for animal feed swelled in fields where last year sunflowers had grown.  A few seeds had escaped the Autumn harvest, and so this year a few cheeky sunflowers raised their heads above the more lowly winter feed.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Grapes cluster  on the vine. They’ve grown almost as much as they intend, but they still have work to do.  Most are still a bright acidic green.  A few are starting to blush a bruised pink.  Some have even achieved a classic purple: but they’re not ripe yet.  We know.  We tried one or two.
And those fields of sunflowers,  Apart from one field’s worth, they no longer look like those cheerful images you see on postcards from our region.  Their bright sunny faces no longer track the movement of the sun as it travels across the sky.  Instead, they’ve developed a hang-dog look as the weight of their maturing seeds pulls their heads earthwards.
Then there were almonds.  We found a few had fallen already, so made a handful of creamy nuts into a small 11 o’clock treat.  Walnuts are a different matter. They’re still heavily enclosed in their thick green fleshy coats.  It’ll be a few weeks before this protection dries and splits to reveal the ripened nuts within.
Apples?  Yes, a few, but they’re still green, with white flesh that browns as soon as it’s bitten into.  Blackberries?  Hardly any have turned black.  They’re still very small and green, or rather small and pink.  We’ll have to wait.
So far then, only the hay bales sit plumply at the edges of the fields, ready for winter. The other crops soak up the remaining summer sunshine, fatten, ripen, and wait for the moment when they too will be gathered in.
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d'Aude
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d’Aude

Cherries gone wrong.

It was my twin grandsons’ birthdays yesterday.  One way for us to celebrate it here is to gather in the very last of the cherry harvest.  In this topsy-turvy year, 14th June marked our first, not our last chance for us to harvest this year’s crop, helping friends in a village just down the road.

Oh, they looked good, those cherries!  The tree was weighed down with luscious ruby fruits.  Max got out a ladder for us to reach the ones way up towards the top, but even before we got to work, we could see that all was not as it seemed.  Many cherries – most cherries – were turning brown and nasty or had already grow a furry coat, even before they’d fully ripened.  As we harvested, we discarded more than we dropped into our buckets.  After we’d done all we could, we only had two small buckets’ worth.

Then we went through our haul again: quality control.  Our two buckets-worth became one.  Christine complained that she couldn’t foresee getting more than a single clafoutis out of this lot.  Normally she makes cherry jam, cherry liqueur, bottled cherries, cherry clafoutis and cherry pies till she’s sick of the sight of them.  And what was worse, those cherries didn’t even taste of much.  Engorged with water, the flavour was diluted and thin somehow.

They gave the lot to us.

This morning, I got our cherries out of the fridge to pick them over before tackling that clafoutis.  Overnight, almost half of them had gone bad.  Saint Nigel, my unfailing kitchen guide, suggested an improvement on the traditional clafoutis recipe, and I followed it.  The recipe was not a success.  The batter was solid and heavy, and complemented by wishy-washy flavourless cherries, it was not a pudding to write home about.

By the way, do you know the French for ‘it’s nothing to write home about‘?  It’s ‘Il ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard‘.  It doesn’t break the three feet of a duck.  In other words, it’s nothing extraordinary, as a three-legged duck would certainly be.

The Orange Man

Winter has arrived.  How do I know?  Although the nights are cold, the afternoons are still for going walking or tidying up the garden wearing a tee-shirt, beneath a duck-egg blue sky. So until the other day, I thought we were clinging on to autumn.

But on Thursday, the Orange Man arrived.  This is exciting enough news for it to be worth phoning a friend.  Every year, once winter kicks in and the orange harvest is well under way in southern Spain, a huge container lorry arrives in Lavelanet. It parks up at a disused petrol station on the main road into town and becomes an impromptu shop.

The man with the lorry, the Orange Man,  speaks only Spanish, and sells only oranges.  Not singly or by the half-dozen, but in large 10 kilo boxes.  10 kilos, 10 euros.  What a bargain.  These oranges, though sometimes a little knobbly and in irregular sizes, are the juiciest and tastiest you’ll ever eat, and it’s no wonder that whenever you pass, you’ll see someone pulling up their car and opening the boot for a case or two.  Our Spanish friend won’t have to stay long.  In a few days the entire container-load will be sold, he’ll return to Spain …. only to return when he’s loaded up again.

When he departs for the last time at the end of the season, we’ll know for sure that spring has arrived.

PS.  Very topically, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall takes oranges as his subject in today’s cookery column in the Guardian

Apricot jam

There’s been discontent in the house.  No jam to go with the  fresh bread and coffee at breakfast time.  At this time of year, you can’t expect either the hedgerows or the market place to produce any suitable ingredients, so what to do?  Then I remembered my mother’s solution to winter jam crises, and a good one too.  Dried apricot jam.

I remember that she used to use those dark, rich yet slightly tart and chewy fruits that needed long soaking and cooking to soften them, though I always used to prefer to eat them as they were.  Jam recipes recommend them still, but just you try buying them, even on Lavalanet market.  It’s all the plump pale soft style these days.  I was afraid these would deliver a slightly wishy-washy and anaemic jam so I added a few spices to the mix.  And here’s what I made:

Breakfast sorted.

Dried apricot jam

  • 500g dried apricots
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Seeds from 3 cardamom pods
  • A chunk of peeled fresh ginger
  • 500g caster sugar
  • A large lemon

Place apricots in a large bowl, cover with a litre of water and soak overnight.

Use a potato peeler to peel the zest thinly from the lemon: chop the zest into fine pieces.

Roughly chop the apricots, put them and the soaking liquid in a large pan with spices, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add sugar and the juice from the lemon, and return mixture to a slow boil until jam setting point is reached (105 degrees C).  Remove the ginger chunk (I ate it).  Pour jam into about 3 sterilised jars.

Here we go round the blackberry bush…

I’m so chuffed to be in England for the blackberry season.  Ariègeois blackberries baked in the hot sun are sweet, characterless and make a rather dull jam.  But then who goes to southern France to go blackberrying?

So yesterday I went out, meandered down a few nearby lanes, and came back with a bowl filled with large glossy, juicy, sweet and yet tart berries, a stained T shirt and fingers stuffed with tiny spines and tingling from nettle stings.  I was very happy.

I set my berries to simmer down with the early apples from Jonet and Richard’s tree, and then…. only then, remembered I had neither a  jelly bag nor a cache of jam jars ready waiting for the next stage.  Oddly, I do have a preserving pan.

So it’s been the moment for a little ingenuity.  An old clean T shirt ripped up made a jelly bag, and this morning we’ve been piling our toast with a week’s ration of marmalade, decanting apricot jam into a bowl, and scraping clean an almost-finished jar of honey.  So far so good.  But what happens when I need to make the next lot?

The tale of the cherries and the peach

While we were in England in May, Léonce wrote and said the local cherry harvest had been and gone.  The fruit, thanks to the early heat wave, was wizened, dry, and had peaked far too early.  We wrung our hands in displeasure at having missed the offerings from the two mighty cherry trees in our garden, and tried to forget about it.

On Tuesday, when we got back to Laroque, I went to the garden.  And there were our trees, branches grazing the ground with the weight of their fruit.  I started to pick.  Five minutes later, it was raining.  Stair rods.  I scuttled home with some treasured cherries.

Wednesday morning dawned clear after a rainy night, and straight after breakfast we were up at the garden with buckets, eager to pick all that lovely fruit.  Almost every single cherry had turned mouldy overnight.  We managed to pick a few, half a bucketful.  But back at home, they didn’t stand up to close inspection and we had to discard almost all of them.  So that was that.

Now for the good news.  In early spring, we bought a peach tree.  We planted it. It prospered.  It flowered.  To give it the best start in life, so the tree would give its energy to putting down roots rather than nourishing its fruits, we removed every single blossom.  Or so we thought.

When we went out to see our little tree on our return, this is what we found.

We ought to pick it and throw it away I suppose, but we haven’t the heart.  Come and visit us in August, and you might get a bite of our very first home-grown peach