Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Cheese Tower

 In Cluny there is a tower called the Tour de Fromage, the Cheese Tower. A fascinating name for a brick structure. You have to pay to climb up the tower and see the marvellous view over the town, so imagine our excitement when the local paper announced free entry on Sunday 3rd October. We discussed when to go to avoid the crowds and decided that about eleven o’clock would be the best time. So there we were in front of the doors of the Tourist Information Office which give access to the tower and to our dismay the doors were locked. How is this possible? A big notice on the doors explained all “We are sorry that due to circumstance not of our making, an error appeared in the Journal de Saône et Loire [the aforementioned local paper]. The free visit to the Cheese Tower was on Saturday 3rd October not Sunday 3rd October as published, we apologise for any inconvenience”. Having been in Cluny on Saturday and not visited the Cheese Tower because it was free the next day I was rather fromaged off to say the least.

Never mind, there is always the chance to try out a different restaurant in Cluny, a bit early, but if we walk to the Bio-restaurant near the station that some friends had recommended, we will work up an appetite and be there at lunch time. Not our day, that was closed too. Ah well back to Casse Croute as per usual for the best chips in town.

Well the Cheese Tower now had to be visited as a matter of principle. So back we were in Cluny today our 2 Euros entrance fee in hand and we climbed the stairs and we climbed and we climbed it is a LONG way up. The view was worth the walk, the top of the tower gives a spectacular panoramic view over Cluny and the surrounding hills. A clever “gadget” (which they also have a couple of in the Abbey by the way) superimposes the ancient Abbey church on a live camera view of the market below. You really think that the abbey is there and wow did that building dominate the town!

After admiring the view for a bit we started down the stairs which are very steep indeed. Not something to be done by two people who have a fear of heights and won’t go above three rungs on a ladder. When we finally got to the bottom after having to stop a number of times to let the less wimpish to overtake us. Both of us arrived at the bottom with trembling hands and wobbly legs. Off to the kebab shop to recover.

PS. I don’t know why it is called the Cheese Tower, in all the excitement I forgot to ask.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Taizé Pottery

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The monks in Taizé accept no money, no donations, no inheritance absolutely nothing, not one penny, they earn their own way in life. This attitude is very different to other religious orders who rely on donations, great benefactors, some have land and therefore income or they just expect their parishioners to pay for their services.

I had never really though about it before, but take today’s ministers of all denominations, they have a salary from their church. They are paid to counsel the parishioners, to run the church and its services. The monks of Taizé are counsellors to the young who need help, they guide bible study sessions, they assist in study groups and they run the services three times a day, but they still expect no income from that side of their lives - they do other work for a living. They have a press where they publish books, cards, posters, they make lovely enamelled dove-shaped Taizé crosses as well as other pendants and they make pottery.

The pottery is stunning in its simplicity which give it a style and beauty all of its own. You can buy a whole dinner service or you can buy the pieces which are “stand-alone”. Most notably the candle holders and the oil lamps. It all sound a bit twee and amateurish, but the quality and style of the pieces are a match to and are, one could argue, better than many of the other artisans in the area. Their aim is to “produce objects for daily use with prices everyone can afford” a goal they certainly achieve. Most of their pieces are “stoneware” with some objects cast using a porcelain paste, the lamps are made this way.

Stoneware glazes are formed by the fusion of mixtures of various minerals at high temperatures. Some are coloured by adding pigments such as iron oxides that produce ivory, green, black and brown glazes, cobalt or copper for blue and violet, titanium for orange-yellow. The glazes sometimes include vegetable ash composed of the minerals the plants drew from the ground.

Frère Daniel started the pottery workshop in the early days of Taizé and together with Frère Lutz, the pottery production has flourished over the years. Most of the work is done in the winter months when there are few visitors and then the workshops become factory-like in their scale of production. In fact some of preparation and initial firing of the pottery is done in conjunction with neighbouring potters as the demand for the pottery becomes too great for the monks to keep up with. The shop in Taizé is bursting with pottery in the days leading up to Easter, but by October, it is looking distinctively empty.

Some of the monks work in the pottery workshops all year round and when full production is not going on, they have the time to be more creative in their output In particular, this autumn, Frère Daniel is exhibiting his more creative works called “Metamorphoses” in Paris at the Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes. Click here for details of the exhibition which runs until the end of October.

Earlier this year Frère Lutz exhibited his pottery alongside the collages and aquarelles of Frère Stephen in Mâcon at the Galerie Mary-Ann. For more details of work in exhibitions check-out the Taizé website click here, they are usually announced on this page, but if nothing is there go to the books, CDs, DVDs.

But I like the simple stoneware dinner services, cups, bowls, plates and the lamps. For many people who stay in our gites, these are essential souvenirs to take home and something to use all year round. They make beautiful gifts for family and friends or in my case just as a treat for myself.

La Tuilerie Website

Monday, 12 October 2009

Aching Feet

In Cormatin we have a few big events in the year. “Guitares en Cormatinois” a series of concerts in the local churches generally around the theme of guitars, “Les Rendez-vous de Cormatin” a theatrical and musical events based in the Château, then we have the 14th July brocante and the bingo evening in the winter, but the biggest event of the year is the Randonnée de Cormatin which attracts a large number of people every year to follow the walks that have been laid out.

 Each one of these events has its own committee and sturdy group of followers that are needed to organise the event and make it a success. We volunteered to help out with the randonnée and were taken up on that challenge this weekend. So at seven thirty Saturday morning, before the sun was up, we were at St Roch hall, the gathering place for the organisers. Fresh brioche arrived from the baker and small strong coffees were served to fortify us for our task. There were five different walks, 7, 13, 20 & 30 km and each walk had its own colour. To complete the walk you follow the arrows on the ground and as long as you stay alert, you end up back where you started. Some randonnées are marked out better than others, on some we have been horribly lost, but the Cormatin walk is always done well. We had a big responsibility on our shoulders as we were split up into teams, armed with cans of different coloured spray paint and we were driven to our respective starting points. We had ten kilometres to mark-up with yellow and orange paint. So on this damp morning, there we were, spraying the roads of the villages around Cormatin with arrows to show the right way to go and crosses to show where not to go, all done for the walkers who might or might not turn up on what was predicted to be a very wet Sunday.

A lunch was prepared for the workers and was served at twelve in St Roch hall. Lunch is not a meal to be rushed, it is not just a sandwich and a beer, oh no, we are in France, this is a serious meal. We decided to leave the car at home and walk into Cormatin for the lunch, as we suspected that a few glasses of wine might be consumed. What a meal. The proceedings started with white wine aperitif and nibbles, lots of chat about the morning’s activities and what the weather for the rest of the weekend might be.  For starters, the mayor’s wife had made a delicious salad of chicory leaves with walnuts, ham and cheese cut up into small blocks all covered in a delicious vinaigrette sauce (maybe I’ll be able to get the recipe for the vinaigrette if it is not a family secret). When I saw that Cees was tempted into taking a second helping, I whispered that this was just the starter and not to take too much, he whispered back that I shouldn’t be silly as this was all we were getting. That’s men for you! His eyes popped out of his head when a huge casserole full of venison was placed on the table. The deer had been shot the previous weekend by none other than the mayor himself and donated generously to the randonnée workers for this lunch. It turns out later that the mayor doesn’t eat game, so he was grateful for some enthusiastic consumers. This casserole, not much more complicated than venison cooked for hours in red wine with some herbs, onion and garlic, was absolutely amazing, served very simply with boiled potatoes. Lunch them continued with cheese and finally pears poached in red wine with brioche. All of this liberally washed down with the local brew. The meal started at twelve o’clock and us ladies were finishing the washing-up at three while the men were finishing their coffees. Food is not something to be rushed, it is to be discussed and above all, enjoyed in the company of others. It is a time to swap gossip, get the latest news and to hear stories and what stories! As the wine flowed the stories got better, the ones about the mayor shooting an eighty four kilo wild boar and the funeral with the missing body will have to wait for another blog..

We got home at four o’clock, very merry and very full and just sat in the garden thinking we would never have to eat or drink again.

Sunday and we had to do the walk of course. The previous day’s kilometres had taken their toll on our untrained muscles, but never-the-less we had said we would do the twenty kilometres and so, to preserve our honour, we had to.  We arrived at the refreshments post at the half-way point and were greeted with baguettes and ham or sausage, cheese and chocolate and of course wine. That boosted our resolve and off we headed for the second half of the walk. We finally staggered back to St Roch at about two o’clock wishing we had trained better. We were then invited to join the rest of the workers for supper at seven that evening. I must admit I felt a bit guilty about saying yes after the wonderful lunch the previous day and the fact that we hadn’t helped out at all on the Sunday, but why not. The evening was a much simpler affair than Saturday’s lunch, bits of pizza from Pizz’a Marco round the corner, quiche from one of the boulangeries in the high street and left-over bread, ham, cheese and wine from the walk’s refreshment posts. There was lots of chat about the day’s events, despite the dreadful predictions, the weather had been kind, cool and cloudy in the morning and cool but sunny in the afternoon, that brought the locals out and just under 500 had participated in the various walks, all in all not bad. We chatted about the organisation and it looks like we might be on the hit-list for doing more work for the village events. A great way to meet people and get involved, and also a great way to enjoy French food at its best, in the convivial company of our neighbours.

La Tuilerie Website

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Local Crisis

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The N79 between Mâcon and Cluny is a good well maintained road that makes up part of one of the major east-west connections in France, the RCEA (La Route Centre Europe Atlantique). It was announced recently that this section of road is to be turned into a péage (toll road). This will be a blow to people round here who travel to Mâcon for their work, for shopping or like us for the numerous visits to some official office for the business or for the tax office.  The locals are up in arms as you could imagine, graffiti (a thing you rarely see around here) has started to appear on the bridges over the road, the first road-side signs have been put up and emails are flying around between interested parties.

We are on an emailing list for events in Cluny and this mailing list has been high-jacked by one of the groups campaigning against the road. We have received numerous boring mails about our liberties being infringed and our local taxes being diverted to the nation, all culminating in the feeling that the world will come to an end when the toll is imposed. Don’t get me wrong I don’t agree either, but maybe I am a bit more English about it, when a decision has been taken you have to comply, moan if you like but it won’t do any good, but the French have a glorious tradition of endless arguing, a lot of arm waving and going on strike. They do campaigns in style!

One of the campaigners has been digging in the historical archives and has come up with some fascinating information. In one particular document (« Paix et communautés autour de l’abbaye de Cluny, Xe - XVe siècle », Didier Méhu, Presses universitaires de Lyon, 2001) there is mention of a "route sans péage", a non-toll route. In the Middle ages, because the feudal lords had effectively been holding travellers to ransom by imposing large tolls on the roads passing through their land, the monks of Cluny became famous for managing to eliminate those tolls along the route from Paray-le-Monial and Nantua - exactly the same stretch of road that is being threatened once again.
 Our trusty campaigner ends his email with the comment “It is thus that the current debate has been preceded by a long battle, started in the XIIth century, to eliminate tolls on this road. This gives formidable historical legitimacy to those who try to preserve this asset against today's feudal lords: the sharks of capitalism…” With rhetoric like that we are bound to win!

click here to see the original article

Thursday, 1 October 2009

La Chasse

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La chasse (hunting) is an institution in France where the general public is a little closer to the food chain than in either England or The Netherlands.  Every red-blooded male is out with his gun on a Sunday killing anything that moves. Having said that, la chasse is far more regulated these days than it used to be. By the early 80s there were virtually no wild animals (including little birds) left in the whole country, only cities still had sparrows, everywhere else everything had been blown to pieces by the millions of guns in the possession of the French population. Many accidents occurred killing both other hunters but also unsuspecting walkers out for an Sunday afternoon stroll.

Now all hunts have to registered, supervised and all hunters within the hunting group must wear fluorescent jackets. Also to protect the wildlife, only certain animals can be shot and only at certain times of the year. The result, the forests are filling up with wildlife again and we can once again hear the sound of song birds.

Each animal has its own “chasse” dates from 20th September to 28th February for deer, 15th August to 28th February for wild boar, 20th September to 13th December for hare east of Saône, 11th October to 13th December for hare west of the Saône  and for pheasant and other game birds 20th September to 31st December, no hunting when there is snow and the local paper reminded hunters that racing pigeons are not wild animals and are protected by the law! However, the Chasse supplement of the local paper did not mention the dates for the most hunted animal in Burgundy. Fortunately during our picnic at Cluny’s Ouvrez les Portes a couple of weeks ago, we were given those dates as well. From the 1st of July until mid February you can hunt snails!

 On the 20th of September (coincidently my birthday), we had to sort out a chasse of our own. It was a drizzly day but worse than that, the toilet in one of the gites had given up the ghost, the chasse (flushing mechanism) needed replacing and with guests arriving that evening, time was of the essence. After lots of water on the floor, lots of cursing and two tons of silicon we had a leak free chasse, just in time for the new guests.

One toilet fixed only three more to go. The start of the chasse season has now taken on a whole new meaning.
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