All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Eurovision it's not...

Something like this used to announce European the Eurovision Song Contest...nul points...before the bloated functionaries of the EU decided to pervert Beethoven's Ode to Joy to celebrate their ascension to the gravy train...
The reports of the last budget session made me wonder if the EU leaders were living in a land through the Looking Glass...cuts to the budget for cross national transport, development and broadband let the French keep their farm subsidies....and the EU bureaucrats their perks.

I would like to have the modern version of these camped on the lawns of the Berlimont building in Brussels...

 And then we'd see  a new blitzkreig!

Which is to say that I'm off to Europe for a few weeks...back to the old country...back to intermittent internet access..back to bureaucracy on the grand scale....back to mad taxes....gin eand ear trumpet work with mother...and some super meetings with fellow bloggers!

I  will try to keep up with your blogs but please forgive me if I cannot comment....

Wednesday 21 November 2012

How French.....

The cooker hood is to be installed before I leave.

It should have been installed much earlier in proceedings but we bought  it when last in San Jose ....and The Men forgot to bring it back here.

We collected it today after a shopping trip for taps (didn't have the model we wanted);
bread (had to go to three bakeries to get enough to last The Men in sandwiches while I am away)
and wine (swept the decks clear of a super Argentinian Torrontes at the Chinese end of line shop).

After lunch, the box was opened and tradition flouted by deciding to read the instructions.
The box was labelled in English, Spanish and French....thus between them there shouldn't have been a problem, so I was unprepared for the despairing howl of

It's all in sodding French!

By the time I reached the kitchen the other sections, Spanish and English, had been found and the tension was subsiding, only to mount again as they made the discovery that the unit was designed to fit into an over-the-hob unit.
Which had not been in our plans.

This not being the ideal moment to remind them that I had wanted a different model I retired to the balcony...the French instructions in hand.

They were in line with most instructions...
Do not put the plastic bag over your head while inhaling;
Use an electrical line tester rather than stuff your fingers into the hole where the switch had been;
But had an additional element.

No spare parts would be available for the units...well, you ask yourself, when are they ever! Blame accountants and just in time stock management.
Not for that reason, ma petite dame.
No spare parts would be available is, according to the French instructions, too dangerous for a non professional to fit them!

The underlying message being that what you need in your cooker hood's hour of trial is.....roll of drums......
The Artisan Francais!

I have referred to the brute before, the glaring presence of his work....visible pipes...white plastic strips covering his cables...for when, not if, there is a problem; his will  of the wisp tendencies where attention to your job is concerned; his total lack of flexibility...if  he is mixing cement he will continue to do so until ten minutes before lunch and chip out the wasted materials two hours later, depositing it neatly out of sight under a shrub.

I would rather stick my fingers into the hole where the switch had been while placing a plastic bag over my head and inhaling deeply than employ the artisan francais ever again.

An attempt to book a coach ticket had not left me too well disposed to France either.
The ins and outs of a bull's arse having been typed into the spaces provided, the site proceeded to payment.
Only it didn't. It produced a page telling me that my French bank....for my own security...wanted me to ring a French mobile telephone number. From Costa Rica.

Ah yes, I remember it well.
When they tell you something is for your own security it will either foul you up completely or, as in the case of the roadsigns telling you that...for your security...the road is under the surveillance of the gendarmerie, cost you money.

And then I read an article Guy had sent over on the plight of the artisan francais.

No, he has not been outsourced to India - they have enough troubles of their own
Nor has he been other artisan francais will take an axe to him.

He is suffering from a bad case of the coefficients.

Coefficients are the curse of France.
Their use in practice means that some clown will pull a number out of a kepi, multiply it by his mother in law's life expectancy and decide that the result is the amount of tax you have to pay.

And this is what has happened to the artisan francais.

He used to pay the taxe I did on our letting houses...the product of that tax went to the commune.
Then Sarkozy abolished it...only to replace  it with eight different taxes, none of which went to the commune. They went to the conglomerate of communes which was supposed to apply economies of scale to local administration.
Of course, nothing of the sort has happened. Each commune has someone someone looking to roads and pathways...and the conglomerate has its own team doing likewise....French local government operating, as it does, on the principle of 'let not poor Nelly (or Francine) starve'.
No chance while there are taxes to feed her.

One of the new taxes is called the CFE....Cotisation Fonciere des Entreprises... and it is based on the rental value of the premises used by the artisan in pursuit of his business affairs.
Deft work with the kepi and calculator reckoned that, in our area, the base of imposition should be put at about 8%...multipled by the next number they just thought of...23.22%.

Then, so as not to exempt those who worked from a hutch in their garden, they imposed a minimum figure of 1,500 euros as a base on which to apply the 23.22 %
The lack of serious grumbles encouraged them to pick from the kepi again the next year.....and raise the base to 5,000 Euros.

The resulting furore on the receipt of tax demands forced the conglomerate to call a public meeting, where the president got off on the wrong foot by declaring that the packed hall showed the extent of interest in the subject ...growls from the floor....and that his staff's simulations showed no effect on the small business sector
He impressed even less when declaring that his staff thought that upping the minimum would only affect big businesses.
Even coefficients can't account for that hallucinatory judgement.

And what could he offer as a palliative?
He would ask the tax office not to apply penalties for late payment....

It was a noisy meeting.....unprintable language was employed....but no conclusions were reached.

I am just glad that I don't want any work done by a local artisan francais in the foreseeable future.
Those who survive this blow will be busy with the calculator, if not the kepi, sharing the burden of the new coefficients with their customers.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Unchain the Gorgonzola....

Costa Rica is not famed for the variety or quality of its cheese and a first glance at the vast slabs of white cheese on the stalls is not encouraging.
Vast slabs of smoked white cheese do not offer encouragement either, while the yellow slabs of what is fancifully called mozzarella would have a native of Naples turn her face to the wall.

There are attempts at hard cheese, by the near monopoly dairy companies Dos Pinos and Monteverde...but the resemblance to the names claimed on the packaging  is distant and the prices such  as to induce apoplexy.

The upmarket supermarkets have imported cheese on their shelves.....and are proud of their range of Gouda....but on the whole the picture is grim for cheeselovers.

I have found one man making super European style cheese in the hills round the Turrialba volcano....though the sulphur fumes from its increased activity make him doubt for how much longer his pastures will be fit for grazing.....but apart from that I now rely on buying full cream cheese in rounds from a lady at the Plaza Viquez market, draining it, then washing it in fortified wine or rum every day and keeping it in the 'fridge betweentimes, wrapped in cheesecloth.
Three months later I have something worth eating.

So, given the situation, the trip to France and the U.K. will be a chance to eat proper cheese again, and to buy to bring back.

I thought it was all so easy...

Goat cheese logs - the cheapo cheapo ones from Super U - which keep for ages until becoming deliquescent enough to eat, the skin peeling off naturally; 
Fournol in its round russet coat;
Maroilles, that deep red brick with a smell that would flype your socks;
St. Agur, the creamy blue so disdained by cheese snobs;
Buy whole or halves of each for the suitcase and I was away.

That was it...until you chimed in and now, even before I hit a cheese counter, the claims of Pont l'Eveque, Comte, Bleu de Sassenage, Bleu de Bresse, Bleu d'Auvergne, Cantal and St. Nectaire are before me...not to speak of my since thinking of Salers, Fleur d'Aunis and the Mizotte du Vendee, let alone contemplating buying Tomme de Laguiole to make aligot.

My area of France was not blessed as regards cheese....goat cheese aplenty from local suppliers, the discs of 'crotte de chevre,' if allowed to dry out, being dropped into eau de vie for a month or two and eaten as an aperitif, but no specialist cheese shop within easy reach and the supermarkets distinctly variable as, like the fish and charcuterie sectors, these were run on sub franchises...obliged to take and present the 'promotions' of the central supermarket supply chain, be it Leclerc, Super U or Champion, but for the rest being left to their own initiative.

So I could be happily buying a soft textured tomme de chevre for months, then on my next visit find that the only goat offering was a chalky white ball from the Netherlands. The franchise would have changed hands.
Not that the Dutch can't make good just never seems to make it to France...any more than do the  wonderfully aromatic Herve, the creamy Passendale and the sharp Brusselae Kaas from  Belgium.

The markets?
There was one good stall in the local town market whose Roquefort wasn't over salty and who sold a good ewe's milk tomme...d'Agour, if I remember rightly.....and whose Camembert was never ammoniac. But he was pricey.....and I only went to the market there for the stall selling small purple artichokes for deep frying.

Friends with a holiday house nearby used to go every week while they were in residence, going home laden with small rounds of Camembert to last them until the next trip.....returning once with proof positive that when the cheese man said his Camembert was made from unpasteurised milk...lait was.

Although having made his pile and retired, our friend used to like to give a hand in the family business and would cover for illnesses and holidays.
Working thus on the lorry reception area, he provided himself with a snack.
A bun with a whole small Camembert within.....not for him 'society sandwiches - six to a mouthful'.

He was enjoying his snack when a lorry arrived, so he put the bun on his desk to enjoy later and went to see to the reception procedures.
Returning some ten minutes' later, the bun and contents were where he had had left them, but his appetite had gone, for the bun lay open, two crescents marking his first bite, well into the cheese, where he now observed that maggots in quantity were disporting themselves.

So you will understand if I don't buy any Camembert.

In any case, I have to leave room for the Stilton....and the Wensleydale....and perhaps a proper Gorgonzola.



Wednesday 14 November 2012

My Postillion has been Struck by Lightning

It had been arranged that mother would come to visit us in December and January, with the maelstrom from Belgium coinciding with the middle part of the visit.
The kitchen would be ready, beds would manifest themselves, mosquito nets would be purchased....all would be in hand.

Then nemesis in suede shoes, my mother's doctor, intervened.
He did not like the look of her leg (I wonder how he managed to phrase that to escape without injury), he did not like the look of her blood pressure (which would not have been improved by the news on the state of the leg) and, in short, he did not think she could make a long haul flight without undue risk.

On telephoning the surgery on receipt of the news the receptionist said that Doctor could make time to speak to me 'in the circumstances'  and when she put me through he confirmed that he was worried...worried enough, as he said, to brave the wrath of the matriarch, whose lungs and verbal dexterity were, he considered, standing up well to the burden of ninety six years.

So, instead of flying out to escort mother to Costa Rica I am flying out to visit her by way of a trip to France to see to the admin of Wuthering Heights - are you sure you don't want a house in France? - to upbraid the Post Office for losing my mail, visit the taxman, and encourage the Banque Postale to sell shares I told them to sell some months back.
I'm lucky enough to be staying with friends and will try to catch up on people I didn't manage to see last time....if I have time in view of the shopping list which is gaining on me faster than the tides of Mont St. Michel.

 I have to bring back some decent claret from the cellar....that's O.K. as l shall be at the house in any case picking up the books on antique furniture to supply the carpenter with models for chairs for the house in San Jose.

I have to look for shoes and galoshes in size 47...a size unknown to Costa Rica.

I have to look for elasticated waist trousers in pure cotton...not too heavy.

I have to go the supermarket with the ethnic section to pick up Turkish pimiento paste, both sweet and hot.

Goat cheese logs, Fournol, Maroilles, St.Agur...harissa...and would it be easier to get kippers in France or in England...better ring our supplier out in the Vendee....and dried mushrooms....
Oh, and those packs of plastic corks and corkscrew...and is there any epine left in the cellar...?

All very well...but on my success or failure in finding this lot depends my next leg of the journey which will be determined by the weight of my luggage.

Under twenty kilos and I shall fly by Ryanair....but need to prebook.
Over twenty kilos and it's Eurolines where I can take two suitcases for the price of my ticket.

I refuse, ever again, to cross Paris with suitcases and a carry on the train is out.

With or without the trousers and shoes it looks like two suitcases and Eurolines....but then I still have to pay for an extra suitcase flying back.
I have what I think is called an open jaw ticket - all too redolent of the sharks running the airline which I arrive in Paris and leave from London...and if the problems obtaining confirmation of my booking are any harbinger of what will happen when booking an extra suitcase then I will need a week's notice to sort it out.

I found the flight combination on Iberia's website...which promptly went down at irregular intervals so  that booking a ticket was rather like a ladies' excuse me, which followers of Freud might like to know was first typed as a ladies' excise me.

Finally, my reservation was confirmed...but not the purchase.

I have been here before; when my French bank has the interests of my honour an airline ticket booking as it is rather more than I spend in the supermarket once a week.

Why didn't you contact me, then?

We don't do that.

However, when I was in Costa Rica someone totally unknown to me to was able to buy one thousand Euros' worth of musical equipment in St. Jean de Luz on my account without any worries about my security at all.
It took me six months to get the money back and no explanation has been forthcoming to this day...

After a delay of over twelve hours I grew restive...and was lucky enough to be able to count on a good friend in France to pretend to be me when ringing the Banque Postale to see if they had authorised payment.
Telephoning from Costa Rica I find their choice of music not up to the cost of the call.

No, nothing from Iberia.

The local Iberia office not responding to calls I eventually found a well hidden reservations number on the website. Learning how to pronounce the Spanish alphabet paid off as I recited my reservation reference.

Tranquillo, Senora...we haven't processed it yet.....wait until the afternoon....
At least it wasn't the manana of the manana.....

Thanks to my friend alerting la Banque Postale, the payment went through....but the thought of paying for an extra suitcase gives me the willies already.
Oh for the days of clerks who could answer you there and then with the aid of a telephone.

Were I to fly into Stanstead I could catch up with our hardy Harley Davidson septuagenarians...if it's Eurolines I shall miss them and stay in Kensal Rise instead, whose gentrification I lay firmly at the door of the pet shop and the inflatable doggy sex toy in their window.
Where canine sex toys lead the organic butcher is not far behind, nor the soi disant yummy mummies occupying the coffee shop which used to be a quite decent caff.

Mother has a programme outlined..her unexpected Christmas shopping.... visits to the theatre....restaurants...

But in view of what we had first arranged, it is as if her postillion had been struck by lighting.


Wednesday 7 November 2012

The Importance of the Pork Chop in Societal Change

I used to do my basic shopping in Sainsbury's in the 1970s...that era when the sight of a woman staggering out of the store under a load of loo rolls would have you dashing inside before they all disappeared from the shelves, only to return weeks later at double the price.

Bread and sugar were also susceptible to this 'now you see it now you don't' process, but as I had once lost a tooth in a slice of what was laughingly titled 'Mothers' Pride' and didn't have a sweet tooth among those remaining to me these shortages did not affect me to the same degree of urgency.
Even in that era, 'The News of The World' was only fit for bum fodder but having as a child experienced an aunt's economy measures  I preferred the stuff on rolls to the stuff cut into squares.

And let no one mention Bronco.

Not having had savings at that time I look back on it fondly as a time when inflation made my mortgage repayments look silly.
Any spare money not applied to the purchase of loo rolls was applied to paying off the mortgage in double quick time, which, years later, leaves me without a credit rating as I have never borrowed money since and banks now regard me as an client not susceptible to being fleeced and thus unwelcome.

When not employing jumble sale elbows in stacking my trolley with loo rolls against stiff opposition I would take a cast round the store.....picking up the basics, the own brands and looking at some of the novelties in the freezer cabinets before heading off to the cold meat counter to buy German breakfast sausage...liver with attitude.
Queueing as bacon was sliced...none of your packets then...I would be standing by the butchery counter, which did have items packed ready for sale, where something in particular always intrigued me.

Pork chops.

They were always packed in twos and one was always larger than the other.

It so intrigued me that eventually I asked the woman slicing breakfast sausage (without cleaning the blade after slicing bacon) why  these chops were always of differing sizes.

It's for families. The big chop is for the husband and the smaller one for the wife.

What about the kids?

They eat fish fingers.

Thus the typical English family in the opinion of the decision makers at Sainsburys.

Moving to France many years later, a supermarket was an easy way to skirt any language problems...a 'Bonjour' to the cashier and that was it.
Some of the Britpack have managed to spend more than ten years in France using this tactic.....

Supermarkets were pretty primitive in that period - some of them more like souks - and freezer cabinets were only just being introduced to the ones in my area, but, just as with Sainsburys, while cold meats were being cut to order, butcher meat and poultry was already being packed ready for sale.

Not for France a mere pair of pork chops...they came in packs of five, the top two loin chops neatly masking the three shoulder chops beneath.
Chicken breast fillets likewise.

Nor was this the whim of a sole supermarket butcher.
From Intermarche to Super U, from Auchan to Atac, from Champion to Carrefour and even Leclerc....five pork chops was the norm.

As always, I asked Madeleine.
Not that she bought meat or poultry in supermarkets: she had her own basse cour for ducks and chickens and a butcher well under the thumb, but in my early years in France she was one of the people I could turn to for information and advice.
She died years ago now, but I can still see her, looking up from her newspaper as I arrived at the back door and hear her deep voice exclaiming

Pardi! You'll never guess what's happened!

Without her, without Alice and Edith and Monsieur Untel, my life in France would have been much the poorer - and much less informed!

She, of course, had the answer.

Which was that the tax efficient French family is that which has two parents and three kids.
Thus the packs of five.
French children, it appears, do not eat fish fingers.

Originating in policies meant to increase the birth rate after the disasters of the First World War - women are still being awarded medals for having eight kids, would you believe - general tax revenues support the families which reflect the norm of producing one extra child per generation, while generous exemptions exclude the majority of such families from the privilege of paying for the services they consume.

A whole tranche of potential taxpayers escape the net.

I talked about it years later with my neighbours' daughter in law, a nurse.
She and her husband had two gorgeous little girls...but no third child.
So did this mean that the advantage of the third child was illusory?

No. Her husband's family were farmers and their tax regime already exempted them from a great deal of tax, so why go through another birth for an additional child they did not want.
A lot of her friends had had the third child under pressure from their get the tax relief.
The farm had spared her that choice.

I have never objected to paying tax for education or for health services...vital supports for a civilised society.... but to incentivise people to produce more children than may necessarily be wanted in a world where it is finally being recognised that resources are scarce makes no sense at all.

When last shopping for my mother....though not in Sainsburys...I noticed that pork chops came as singletons...or as two of equal size....or as big packs destined for the freezer.
The British system of family support knows no norms.....


Thursday 1 November 2012

Stepping into the Same River Twice

Before Oddbins and Majestic Wine there was Peter Dominic wine merchants, offering a range from the petillant Portugese favoured by students to stuff that was distinctly a grade above.
I don't know whether I was lucky or whether they had enthusiasts as managers in all their shops, but I learnt a great deal from these gentlemen....the best lesson being to trust your own judgement.

Father had a fondness for Nuits St. George which he bought through The Wine Society and had a nasty shock when he bought a bottle was coarse and heavy, the colour staining the glass.

Yes, said the Peter Dominic manager when I told him. No surprise at all. They're cutting it with the Red Infuriator...stuff from Algeria.

They're all at it.... coarse stuff from the Languedoc to stretch the Rhones, better stuff from the Rhone bolstering the Bordeaux.
Never trust a label. Trust your own judgement. If you think it's is.

As I was to learn when moving to France years later, nothing much had changed, nor has it to this day, but at that point it hadn't crossed my mind to move to France, nor had it crossed the mind of a devotee of Chambery vermouth and Pouilly Fume that I would like a dessert wine when the manager of the branch I then frequented produced a bottle from the fridge.

Go'll be surprised.

I was... it made me think of honey and orange, it sent wonderful smells up my nose and it was anything but heavy. I hadn't tasted anything like it.

Moulin Touchais. Coteaux du Layon. Twenty years old.

I bought what they had until the branch closed and my Moulin Touchais was no more.

And then one day I moved to France.
I looked in various areas: Brittany, the Limousin, the Charente and, not finding what I wanted, moved on to the Loire Valley.
In hindsight it is clear that the other areas did not come up to the mark because my unconscious mark was the Loire Valley itself!

I saw all sorts, then found an estate agent whose method was to allow you to look through files of houses printed in black on coarse yellow paper, pick what you wanted and then send you off with keys...where they existed....and general directions, broad finger on the map...we are here and the enemy is there.
Just the style I loved. Thanks to him I was off the beaten track, getting to grips with what was behind the tourist facade.
I was frequently lost and on one occasion pulled up on a hillside..... a stumpy stone building on the hill above, vines below and a river running at the bottom....the River Layon, upon whose Coteaux I was sitting.

Though I did not buy a house in the Layon area, I used to frequent it....buying wine, visiting friends....and grew to love its quiet beauty.
Near the source was an artifical lake where the surrounding, undrained fields were a paradise of snakeshead fritillaries in the spring and I used to take a detour at that season in order to enjoy them on my way to visit friends at Passavant sur Layon, where the successor to Foulques Nerra's castle dominated the river crossing....the only modern day marauders the holidaymakers eager to buy their wine from a chateau!

Downstream was  Clere sur Layon, nestling in the valley among its vines, its roads made perilous by the lorries running to and fro the vast quarries behind the village, the drivers on piece work and stopping for nobody.

Downstream again to Nueil sur Layon....for the annual horse racing up at the Chateau de Grise before it was sold to the Japanese who stripped it of all its staircases, fireplaces and ornamental detail and sold it on again to be a hotel. The project failed...and such was the low price put upon it by Credit Agricole that I thought of trying to raise the money.....but of course, Credit Agricole had a purchaser all ready...a local bigwig given a present on a plate.
It was in Nueil that I first heard of the festival of Quasimodo.....wondering what on earth this could be - and how it would be celebrated - I was half reassured, half disappointed to learn that it was the first Sunday after Easter, when the introit to the mass of the day began 'Quasi modo....'

Racing was popular...downstream again, on the way to Les Verchers sur Layon was the Chateau d'Echeuilly who also had an annual race day, but that too finished before I had been there long.
I had friends in Les Verchers, whose church spire marked for me the transition from the tiled roofs of the south to the slates of the north, one of whom used to lament that she would have been living in a chateau if her uncle hadn't blown his money in Paris on what was discreetly referred to as paying Mistinguette 'to sit in his car'.

Above Les Verchers the bluff rose steeply, barring the way to the Loire via Doue la Fontaine and the Layon took a right angled turn under the steep hillside, cattle grazing the fields alongside as the road followed it toward Concourson sur Layon, a quiet, nondescript village -claim to fame a site for camping cars. But there's a lot more to Concourson than a pumping station for caravan loos.
The building above is similar to the one where I once again stepped into the same river....and it is a limestone furnace, for here the quiet Layon was once a hive of industry, running through an area of coal seams.
Shallow pits were dug...some of the airshafts are still visible...and local men would make a contract with the landowner to dig until the seam was exhausted and then return the land to its previous state.
The coal was used to heat the local limestone to reduce it to lime which in its turn went to the building trade...and on the fields.

France being France, in the mid eighteenth century the royal government decided that while individuals might own what was on the surface, what was under it belonged to the state, who could thus issue licences for its exploitation....and, despite revolts and resistance, managed to impose this new scheme on the Layon coalfields. The new wealth generated can be evidenced by the Chateau des Mines, still,  I believe in the hands of descendants of the mine owners.
Transport was always a problem, and in the later years of the eighteenth century the Layon was canalised, from Concourson down to its confluence with the Loire at Chalonnes, involving as many as twenty four locks, the project being under the protection of the brother of Louis XVI...known as Monsieur, the customary way to refer to a king's next youngest brother...and thus known as the Canal de Monsieur.
Monsieur was to become Louis XVIII at the restoration of the monarchy after the fall of Napoleon, but his canal fell victim to neglect and destruction in the wars of the Vendee and was not, itself restored.
There is another link to that period in that one of the administrators of the mines based round St. Georges was the Comte de las Cases who as a boy acccompanied his father to St. Helena with Napoleon....and who went to great lengths to try to challenge Sir Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's gaoler, to a duel after the death of the Emperor.

No sign now of the locks as the Layon runs south of Martigne Briand, the chimneys of its chateau visible for miles around

And heads north through the vineyards to the pretty villages of Thouarce and Rablay d'Anjou, the latter a haunt of artists, on its way to St. Aubin de Luigne and Chaudefonds sur Layon, the heart of coal production, with seams running out under the Loire at Montjean and Chalonnes, where the Layon slides into the turbulent waters of the Loire.
But with all this talk of water....where is the wine? The Coteaux du Layon? The wine which tempted you into reading this post?
It is all around you as you travel downstream....from Passavant to Chalonnes you are on a river of wine: the dessert wines of the Coteaux du Layon; dry Anjou Blanc from the same grape, the Chenin, as the dessert wines; Anjou Rouge from, predominantly, the Cabernet Franc and with a bit of luck the pale wine from the Grolleau Gris.
A river into which you can, indeed, step twice.