Monday, July 25, 2011

The Next Big Thing

Apparently one third of all French people are overweight.
I read that in the newspaper recently, and my immediate reaction was to ask where all these people are when I am standing at the checkout in a clothes shop trying to look slim. 
A book  came out recently which reckoned to tell us all how to be as thin as a Frenchwoman. Well, there you are – I am as thin as a Frenchwoman already. So are you. She may not be the one you are looking at in the street, the one who, when she turns side on, vanishes; but she is the one you have a reasonable chance of resembling. 
The only way to be as thin as a thin Frenchwoman is to have her genetic make-up.  You may as well want to be as short as her, too – because French people in general are not as tall as the average English person; and nobody is as tall as the Dutch. Do the Dutch also want to be as thin as a Mademoiselle? 
Apart from the fact that being hooked on trying to be thin is pointless for most of us – look to your parents, and think about it – why should we want to look like someone who in all respects looks nothing like us? 
When we first came on holiday to France, playing tourist, we were amazed when, on entering some attraction like an Abbey or a museum, the hostess behind the till would, without us speaking a single syllable, promptly hand us the English guidebook.  We had not been in the habit of thinking of ourselves as typically anything, really.
So we asked the owner of our gîte what it was that made us so obviously English. The answer was simple: “You are tall, you have red hair, and you come from a country where the sun doesn’t shine.”
Red, in this context, means fair; and furthermore, she said, “You have freckles.” Well, there it was: the unavoidable Englishness of it all. The blue eyes are another giveaway.
Since those early days, my hair has given in to its platinum tendencies. Oh alright, I have gone silver, and I don’t use hair colour. The French find it fascinating. I turn heads in the street. Women of a certain age, all sporting this year’s mahogany, will actually stare at me. They think I am being either very bold, or stupid, but whatever the reason, they find a perfectly ordinary head of perfectly ordinary hair to be a thing of wonder and puzzlement.
So maybe the next book to come out, in French, will be “How to look like a Middle Aged English Woman – the Essential Guide.” Because, as much as we want to look like them, maybe they would like to look like us? They are already hooked on Marks and Sparks, and the modern version of Carnaby Street décor, complete with Union Jacks on their cushions and red phone boxes on the wallpaper. Why not long for silver hair and blue eyes whilst they are at it?
We are never satisfied, you see. We all want to look different, whilst being terrified of not looking the same as the next person. We just don’t want to look like us.
Well, I for one am going to stand tall (though not as tall as a Dutch woman) and hold my silver head up, and set a challenge: I am the Next Big Thing.
I wonder if I will catch on?


Thursday, July 21, 2011

In a Roundabout Way

July 14th is a national holiday commemorating the storming of the Bastille on that date in 1789. It was a political prison, and its fall marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
Last time we were in Paris, we went to find it. There is bound to be a monument, or a ruin, or something to mark its importance, we thought. 
Wrong. It’s a roundabout. And every minute of every day, Parisians storm it again, in their Renaults and Citroens. The idea seems to be that, if they throw themselves at it fast enough, centrifugal force will shoot them off down the right side street. If it seems like a good idea to go and stand in the middle of it, take my word for it – it isn’t. You won’t survive the attempt.
The roundabout is a fairly new concept over here. Whereas the British have had them for donkey’s years, and the Highway Code will tell you exactly how to approach one, and how to choose a lane, and when to signal, the French seem to have no idea how to handle them. 
Until recently, it was the rule that anyone joining any road from the right got right of way. So if you were on a major road and someone approached from a farm track, that rule applied, and you would screech to a halt, and do the gentlemanly thing. In fact there are villages in Brittany where the rule has not been changed, and there will be a notice to tell you of this as you enter. If you don’t see it, you may well wonder at the hostile reception, not to mention the death wish of local drivers leaping out in front of you.
Motorists over a certain age can cause no end of interesting moments as they pull across your front wing, with a determined set of the jaw, and a gesture implying that you are completely and unjustifiably in the wrong. When such a person approaches a roundabout, your immediate instinct is to floor it and get out of the way. The behaviour of the other drivers suddenly seems understandable: it’s simple self-preservation.
There is a big roundabout here which we have learned to avoid at busy times. This means taking a wide detour, but in the long run, it is the wiser course. Nobody has any lane control. They will either drive all the way round on the outside, or they will be on the inside and suddenly leap across in front of the outside laners to take the desired, but apparently totally unexpected, turn-off.
If you try to do things properly, you not only confuse the locals, who then drive in the middle of the two lanes in case you should be trying to overtake them, or you are too scared to ease out for your turning because there just isn’t room, and no-one will give way. You could be there for hours.
No wonder the Paris ring-road is notorious. It’s just a giant roundabout. And on that particular roulette table, all bets are off.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The great and the good

In our village, there is a church with an unusually pale spire.  It is a pretty stone building, hung with flowers, but otherwise fairly plain. Inside, however, there is a surprise.
The barrel vaulted ceiling was painted, in the 17th century, as sky with saints sitting all around. They would have been very familiar, as the artist took local people for his models.  The artwork is naïve in places, but it suits the country church and the people who frequented it. The child who found the sermon boring could have looked up to the sky to see his neighbour looking beatifically down at him. Whether or not his neighbour was of a saintly nature in life, the effect would have been comforting. Here, it would have said, you are among friends and equals.
In the Middle Ages, however, churches were built to impress. When anyone – rich or poor, educated or not – approached such a building, they were to be astonished by the grandeur, the architectural brilliance, and the colour of the edifice. Time has muted the effect: statues defaced, colours all but gone. Only the stone-workers’ genius still remains. 
In the past, those with the power and the money chose their own way of achieving immortality, and those with the hammers and chisels made their response inside, where grinning faces and depictions of lewd acts were often added to the tops of columns or to the choir stalls. A monk singing plainsong could well be propped up on something rather more profane.
At different times of year, the front of the church of Notre Dame in Poitiers is restored to its original colours by means of a projection. All the statues on the brilliantly white façade are picked out, as they were intended, in red, blue and gold. The whole thing is a picture book, where biblical scenes take place in recognisably local settings. 
We went there one Christmas. As the show began, a hush fell on the people gathering in the plaza. Lights slowly washed down, giving texture to the pineapple roofs, and picking out the mountings of the great doors. Stony faces took on colour under hair made young again; and as we watched, it began to snow, big lazy flakes drifting over the whole scene. It was completely magical, and it was not hard to imagine being a peasant newly come to town, encountering the wonder of the place. After a lifetime of country clay and red tiles, the sight must have been almost otherworldly. 
But it would have said, ‘Look at us – we have assured our place in heaven, and it’s not for the likes of you.’ In a time when colourful clothes belonged only to the elite, the whole thing would have shrieked exclusion. The drab and dirty pilgrim would have shuffled, head bowed, under the beady gazes of his betters; those rude and knowing carvings inside would at least have spoken of being on the same side.
So next time you wander inside, have a look round. The powerful dead shout their presence: but the ordinary people may still be there, too, smiling from the sky, or whispering and sniggering from the sidelines. It’s a comfortingly human thought.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Little Local Difficulty

Here are a few figures.
England has an area of approximately 130350 km2.
The UK has an area of approximately 244,750 km2.
France has an area of approximately 551,000 km2.
France is therefore 2.25 times bigger than the UK, and 4.25 times bigger than England.
England has a population of approximately 49 million, the UK 60 million, and France 59.5 million. 

The reason I give these figures is because I was watching one of those “Run away from the hurly burly of the cities and find your country idyll far from all the noise of the 21st century” programmes which we English like to watch – and to believe. So many of them feature people complaining, “Yes, it’s very pretty, but I can hear a road,” and that’s the deal-breaker.Well, that’s what happens when you have a lot of people all trying to buy property in the same small space: if someone else is there, you are going to have to learn to share.
In France, there is space. Unlike in the UK, however, rural property is still far cheaper than in the cities, because nobody wants to live out there. There’s no work, few facilities, and nothing to do. The reason why there are so many houses for sale in the country is that inheritance laws say that property must be passed on to the children of the family. But whereas Mum and Dad may have made a good enough (for them) living making cheese, or keeping sheep, or farming, their children want proper jobs with prospects and with less hard physical graft. So either they abandon the houses, or they sell them off. Frequently they are unmodernised, unsanitary, or just too isolated to be attractive. 

Sometimes they are used as holiday homes for les grandes vacances, and people will come down and camp for a month just to get away from their daily lives. In these circumstances, the shabby interior, the lack of plumbing, or the minimalist kitchen, is part of the adventure – up until the time when the children start to complain that actually it is cruel and unusual punishment, and they want to go and see – well, anything except Granny’s House yet again.
Sometimes, though, it really is a homecoming for the parents. Our neighbours, for instance, live and work in Paris. They were born in our village, and own a pair of cottages here. They come down every Easter and for a month in the summer, and they bring their younger children, who have over the years made friends nearby. There is family scattered about, too. 

The parents are Breton in their hearts and minds. They were born here, they belong here. The children, when asked if they think of themselves as French or Breton, immediately say, French.
One of the older children, in his mid-20s, couldn’t repeat the name of a pub in the nearby town, as it was “how they speak down here”. 
Brittany has a proud – and very separate – history. It had more dukes per acre than the whole of England could manage at its busiest. It is littered with castles, and manors, and fortified farms. It was a different country, in all but name, for centuries, with its own languages, Gallic and Breton. Road signs give place names in French and Breton. There is even a man who translates Chinese literature into Breton. 

There is music, dance, folklore: there are more saints here than there are in Cornwall, and that is good going. There is wonderful coast, and a hugely varied landscape as you travel from west to east. But there is no work. If it isn’t farming related, or food production, there is really not much on offer. Cornwall has pretty much the same geology as Brittany – granite and slate. But there are no tin mines dotted over the land here, no stark abandoned chimneys left against the sky. 

There was linen and hemp production in the region, and the Nantes-Brest canal to ship all manner of things inland to avoid the predations of the British. Like the wool in the UK, though, it is a thing for museums and historical reconstructions.
A Breton is a Breton through and through until the day he dies: but his children have looked over the fence, and seen something bigger, something less particular. The world of over there seems so much more exciting than the little land of slate and stone, of dead dukes and forgotten valleys.  I wonder, though. Like Any High Street in the UK, is it better to be anonymous and like everything else, or to be different, and boldly so – to know where you stand in defence of what is yours, against the blurry sameness of what is theirs?
I know a man who was born in a mining town in Western Australia, which existed as long as the mine lasted, and was then dismantled and removed. The area has once again been totally subsumed by the desert. He can’t go home. It isn’t there. He has no roots, no family home to visit, no place in the country to go to for the holidays. It’s like climbing a ladder, and looking down to find that someone has taken all the lower rungs away. 

Will our neighbour’s children ever wish they hadn’t climbed so high, or are they made bold because they know where they don’t want to be? They still have the choice, to belong or not. My friend in Australia hasn’t. 
So whilst in England people long to escape from the cities into the green and pleasant land they believe is still there, the French are still heading in the opposite direction. It’s not a question of the grass being greener; more, “Who wants grass?” 

To which the answer may be, you will, when there isn’t enough left to go round. When it is impossible to go back, perhaps you try harder to look over your shoulder to see what was there. 
Until then, well - we’ll always have Paris.

© lms2011

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Question of Meat

A few weeks ago, we went into a supermarket in England. It was someting of a shock. So many people, so much stock, all in one rather crowded space. The sheer volume of meat, especially, on sale was astonishing.

Here, there are supermarkets and hypermarkets, but away from the Channel ports and major cities they are never crowded.

A French supermarket's fresh meat selection is small - it would fit into one of the many fridges in any given Tesco, for instance. There is never much of anything: and you would need a king's ransome to buy a leg of French-produced lamb at any time of year. We used to live in a sheep-rearing region, and I asked a butcher why it was that none of the local produce was on sale. He explained that it is all exported to the cities and to the rest of Europe, where it fetches a good price. So all you can get are the tiniest cutlets imaginable, and the occasional piece of meat for a special occasion.

Check out the freezers, though, and you will find legs of lamb from Chile and New Zealand and occasionally England, all at half the price of the home-grown stuff. It doesn't make sense that it can be flown halfway round the world and still be cheaper, but that is the case.

Beef comes in many forms, but a lot of it is inedible unless you own a slow cooker. They still eat the long-fibre cuts here: you can get them in any restaurant, often as the dish of the day, and you will have to concentrate on your chewing to manage it. On the other hand, there is not much wastage, and if in England the supermarkets bow to consumer pressure, and only stock the soft cuts, in France people eat what there is available.

Just don't buy the bargain packs of "bourgignon" meat unless you have a tried and tested method of tenderising it, up to and including driving over it in your car a few times. Cattle in particular are what they eat. In England, that's green grass, lush and tender. In large parts of France it is frequently sunburnt pasture, or dry winter feed.

We learned very quickly that to eat meat in France you must cook French. I bought a French Larousse cookbook, and I follow the instructions carefully. After all, it's their meat - they know best.

We once went to dinner with some neighbours. This was dicey: they had cats, lots of cats, which weren't house-trained. A friend who had eaten there said that when they sat down there was cat poo on the table, and when it was pointed out, their host picked up his dessert spoon, scooped up the offending matter, and tossed it into the sink. The host, I should add, was a doctor before he retired.

On the occasion of our dinner, we had sat through the starters, and then he produced, still in its wrapping paper, a piece of steak from the fridge. He opened it, put it into a frying pan on the stove, and just when the poor thing was about to complain that it was a bit hot in there, he whipped it out, and chopped off a piece for our other host, his nephew.

"Do you want it more than that?" he asked.
Yes, we replied, we couldn't stand the plaintive mooing - a bit more would be lovely. So he turned the thing over, poked it, got it out again, and chopped a bit off for himself. "What, even more than that?" he asked, horrified. Yes, we said, not keen on mopping up the blood on the plate. So in disgust he put it back for another brief encounter with the heat. Then he refused to cook it any further, and cut us each a piece.

It was the best steak we had ever tasted.

Pork, as in England, is cheap and plentiful. There is no real bacon - not a method of curing that is used here: many an Englishman sidles back from a visit home with a packet of long back in his suitcase.

But if anyone ever asks us if we miss anything culinary about England, we both can only think of one thing: haggis. It is possible to buy tinned haggis here. Take my advice: don't.

As for poultry, it was the wish of Henry IV that all his people could have a poule-au-pot once a week. I've cooked this: I've cooked it for hours and hours, which is the only way to do it. A poule is an elderly bird which has been working out regularly all its life, and which benefits from a long hot soak in a vegetable liquor, whilst you go and do something else for the day. A bread oven would be ideal, after the bread was finished, and overnight even better.

One Christmas we ordered a brace of pheasants from the local butcher. In England this would set you back about a fiver. Well, it was a good thing I took my credit card: it was over 40 euros. If it hadn't been Christmas Eve I'd have walked out of the shop.  We never went back there after that. And in fact we recently found frozen pheasants on sale in our local supermarket, for the standard English price, which could be because they were imported from the UK.

I once considered writing a cookbook for the English in France, to include what to buy as well as how to cook it. As in most aspects of life here, it all goes so much better if you think, and do, as the locals do. Don't fight it: you won't win, and your dental health will suffer. Give in gracefully, and you could just eat someting surprisingly, simply, wonderful.

©lms 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

Country Pursuits

It's raining, so it must be the weekend in Brittany.
As it is summer, and half of France - les juiletists - take their holiday this month, HGVs are banned from the roads during the day at weekends. This keeps the way clear for the travelling public to get from, say, Paris to anywhere in the country without swearing at the lorry drivers and hurting their feelings. They curse and swear at everyone else, but fellow drivers in their packed-to-the-roof Renaults are fair game.

Even in the height of the season, though, an Englishman would be in seventh heaven to have to put up with what is seen here as heavy traffic. Only Paris can compete with the average English road on a normal day; and only the Nantes toll-point on the crossover weekend between les juiletists and les aoutians bears any resemblance to the Dartford Bridge on a slightly busy Friday at home-time.

Summer is when the country regions come alive for the outside world. In Brittany there are music gatherings: the largest is Les Charroux, which this year has Lou Reed, Pulp, the Kaiser Chiefs, and many more over 4 or 5 days. There is another at Lanfains, where for two days all manner of people will perform, including Alan Stivell - you have to get in touch with your inner 70s folk-rocker to remember him, perhaps, but there is also Dr Feelgood, and again, a cast of hundreds.

There are many other sorts of entertainment available. Last weekend there was a local country fair. This is rotated round various communes so that each year it is held on a different farm, and it is sponsored by a bank and some agricultural interests.  The day started at midday with a beef roast, for which there is a charge - after all, it costs a fair bit to feed up to 700 people. Then the fair itself got underway.

There were Breton horses being put through their paces: these are beautiful draw-horses, much smaller than the Suffolk Punch but along the same lines, and "showing"  involved running and walking alongside the horse over a short course. There were several foals, all caramel, with melted-butter manes, running freely alongside: where mum goes, the foal will follow, but if the foal doesn't go, neither will mum. You don't argue with hooves that big. There were also horse-drawn carriage rides, all round and across the show field, through and past people wandering about.

In one area was an exhibition, given by three lads aged from about twelve upwards, of motorbike skills. Several old cars and water tanks and concrete construction pipes had been laid out as a very challenging assault course, and the idea was to drive the bikes up over these obstacles, via  palettes tied on with rope, turning at the top by bouncing the bikes round, and then going over the next bit, all without putting one's feet onto the ground, or the roof of the car, or the top of the tank. The bikes had no seats fitted. I feel sure this sport should come with "Don't try this at home" written in large letters on a prominently displayed banner. I think we'll park off the road for a while.

Breton dancing is obligatory, with traditional music and costume, but never enough men, so that some poor lady has to step up and dance in trousers. And then there are the traditional sports. One in particular caught my eye: there was a pole, the diameter of a small tree trunk, about 3 metres or so in length with weights on the far end. The plan was to crouch, take hold of the near end, and lift it up to the vertical.  Should you fancy trying this, think long and hard: it is a recipe for all kinds of internal strain.

It was possible to stroll around the farm and examine the cattle and the poulty production. There was a display of farm machinery from horse-drawn ploughs to a brand new combine harvester, and numerous old tractors by Deutz and Semeca. The old 2CVs drew a lot of interest - they were originally designed to be able to be driven across a ploughed field, long before 4x4s were even thought of, not to mention suspension other than straps.

And the cost to go in was nothing - it was all free. 2000 people attended over the course of the afternoon, and only those who ate paid anything at all. It showcases farming life, which after all is what this region is about, and people meet and greet their neighbours there, and have a good time.
Simple pleasures, simply presented: a pretty good way to spend an afternoon, really - and not a traffic jam in sight.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Bread and Fire

If I say French bread, you immediately know exactly what I'm talking about. Long golden loaves standing on end in wicker baskets, great with cheese and pate on the first day, still tolerable if you sprinkle water on it and put it in the oven for 10 minutes the next. The day after that you could be done for going equipped with an offensive weapon.

Marie Antoinette just hadn't a clue. Bread is the staff of life. French children are given the hard ends to teethe on. You don't find kids in their pushchairs amusing themselves with a bag of sweets: they have a piece of bread, and they like it.

The potato is not natural to the French, even if they do grow them here. Rarely do you get boiled spuds with your meal - but even if you do, you will also get bread. And in Brittany, you get butter, too, which you don't in the Poitou. If there is sauce to be mopped up, what you want is bread, and plenty of it.

There are illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries showing bread raising in long cloth-lined baskets, exactly as it is done today.  Making bread was then subject to particular laws: after all, in towns where most of the buildings were of highly flammable construction, it made sense to ensure that the ovens were separate, and safe. There were the millers who ground the flour: the blatiers who made the flour for the boulangers, who in turn were responsible for kneading and raising the dough, and fourniers who cooked the bread. In 1305, there was a statute which said that the fourniers must cook bread seven days a week, 365 days a year, even when all other work was banned.

In the country things were different. Each family could make their own bread from their own flour, but had to bake it in the oven of the local lord - and no doubt pay for the privilege.

There are still laws about bread: we had a friend who used to rent a watermill, and made flour - good, wholegrain flour. They had an oven on the premises, and could make bread - but they were banned from selling it to the general public. Only a boulanger, or a recognised outlet should there be no boulanger in the village, can do that.

Just up the road from here, someone is renovating a bread oven. It is made of stone, and hemispherical, with a conical roof in clay, wood, and slate. You can see ruined ones attached to many of the old houses here. We had such an oven at the last house, and the interior was a dome lined with brick. The previous owners said they cooked pizzas in it for parties, but that seemed rather a lot of work for a small outcome.

Naturally we had to have a go.

Now, there is something about fire which attracts men (and some women). We told a friend our plans, and he was there, ready to set light, the next day. It was a bitterly cold morning in March, and it seemed like a good, warm thing to do. Faggots of kindling were put into the oven and ignited, and gently added to as time went on. Well, until the friend - Stoker, as he is now known - decided this was all a bit tame, and, true to his name, stoked things up. In the meantime, I was in the real kitchen, raising three kinds of dough.

The oven thermometer had gone critical out in the bread oven: it runs out at 350C. We had to wait for things to cool down. The bread oven room remained cold, though - the heat stayed in the oven, the smoke went up the chimney outside the oven door. Time passed. Bread cooks at pretty high temperatures: but if you put it just inside an oven which has already been off the scale, it burns in an instant. It went in, it turned black, it came out - all in the count of three.

I cut the top off, covered it with foil, and waited.

Eventually we managed three reasonable loaves: but the oven was still hot, and no country person would have wasted that heat. I put in three different casseroles, too, including a Guernsey bean pot, and we closed the door and went away.

In fact, I could have put a leg of lamb in there, and left it overnight, and it would have fallen off the bone by lunchtime. The oven was still at 150C next morning, with the iron door shut.

It seemed clear to me that, in a small village, everyone could have cooked a dish of some sort once the bread was finished, without adding a single piece of wood after the initial burn. We had food for a week. It was an excellent, economical way of cooking (once we had mastered the art of temperature control, or tied Stoker's hands behind his back, which would have done the job). One woman got to work her socks off (and I did raise the dough in the electric oven, as it was too cold to do it any other way), and two men played with fire for a good reason.

Give a man a fire, some fresh bread,  and the promise of dinner, and what more can he ask?