Sunday, 31 July 2011

Farmers Cause Traffic Chaos in Saône-et-Loire

We read in Friday’s paper that 60 tractors had travelled through Saône-et-Loire, grinding the traffic to a halt on Tuesday and Thursday this week. They were escorted by police motorbikes, intent on minimising the inconvenience to other road users, but with such a huge convoy travelling approximately 350 km over normal roads at little more than 30km/hr, the tailbacks were very long indeed, up to km in some places. Fortunately they didn't travel through Cormatin !

Nothing new I thought, obviously the farmers are on the warpath again against something or other, costs too high, income too low, subsidies disappearing, you name it they protest about it. Having lived in Kent for a number of years I got quite sick and tired of the amount of times my route to work (the M20) was used as a parking lot for lorries unable to get on the ferries due to yet another blockade or go-slow on the French side. What intrigued me though, as this is nothing special, why did the local newspaper dedicate a half page article to it?

Actually, this time it was something very special indeed. The terrible drought that has hit France and in particular this area and into l’Ain (the département to the south of us) has left milk producers and other cattle farmers with no feed at all for their animals. Many cows are being sent to slaughter early and even some milking cows are being destroyed as their owners cannot find feed any more. The cereal growing area of Seine-et-Marne 350 km to the north, heard the call for help and have offered their straw. So 60 farmers travelled for a day with empty trailers, spent a day loading at various farms and spent another day returning to their farms with hopefully enough straw to tide them over.

On the return route, as news spread of the convoy, the roads were lined in places with people who had come out specially to be witness to the event. It is not every day something like this happens.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Mystery of Taizé Candles

I mentioned in my blog about Easter in Taizé that my candle at Easter burned for longer than the expected 6.5 minutes, but as I do not wear a watch I had no idea how long it was, although my guess was over 10 minutes. I have been asking campers and giters alike ever since, to time their candles for me at the Saturday evening service. To be honest I do not think that they have taken their responsibilities seriously and have been coming back with stories such as “sorry I forgot to look at my watch” and “yes it did seem like a long time” etc etc, all very unscientific and very unsatisfactory. On talking to a set of campers on the subject this week, I discovered that they had taken an extra candle and it was in their tent (I won’t mention that it was Jeanine who did this). On realising the error in their ways at not timing their candles during the service, they gave me their spare candle and we timed it together and it was indeed longer than 6.5 minutes - in fact it burned for 11 minutes.

But that is not the whole story of course. I managed to find some old burnt Taizé candles, one from Before the change and one from After the change. The shorter of the two is from Before.

The length of the unburned candle was 20.5 cm. After burning, the remaining length of the Before candle was 9.5cm and of the After candle was 14cm. The weight of the unburned candle was 6g so the weight of wax burnt with the Before candles was 3.2 g and the After candles was 1.9 g. Using the burn times mentioned before (6.5 mins and 11 mins respectively) this gives burn rates of 0.49g/min and 0.17g/min. So the Before candles burned nearly 3 times faster than the After candles. All very interesting information but what does it all mean ?

From a candle making website I found these remarks:
Wax is the most important ingredient that makes a candle burn faster. Soft wax has a higher oil content and lower melt temperature; therefore, it burns faster. ….. But the wick thickness compared to the candle weight and thickness will also have a serious effect on burn time.
So from these comments one can deduce that the Before candles had much thicker wicks than the After candles and that the wax used now is a harder blend. Funnily enough, I remember having rather greasy hands after burning the Before candles, not so with the After candles, so the problem of the candle ends melting in people’s hands on hot summer evenings has also been eliminated in the change.

Ok that is burn time and greasy hands sorted out, but what about the fact that the candles go out automatically leaving an unburned end that cannot be re-lit? For the sake of safety the candles have been designed to self extinguish and this is very simple indeed to explain. Whilst there is something that goes through the candle right to the bottom to make it look as though the candle has a wick, the “wick” in the lower part of the candle is such that it will not burn - either a different non-flammable material or the wick is impregnated so that it can no longer absorb the liquid wax, I suspect the latter.

So there you have it - all you ever wanted to know about Taizé candles !

La Tuilerie Website for information on accommodation near Taizé

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Festival Guitares en Cormatinois

The Guitares en Cormatinois concert season has ended, all the planning and preparing of flyers and posters, delivering and posting them in strategic places has been done, collecting and putting out chairs, shifting grand pianos and manning the ticket sales is all over and we have our Saturday evenings back ! But we have really enjoyed the last few months of work and in particular the last month of concerts. The series used to be dedicated to bringing guitar music to “the people” but has now moved on to include a wider range of artists playing different instruments. Never-the-less there are always guitars somewhere in the series. This year three out of the five concerts were with guitar.

The first concert was with Alexander Baty who played the trumpet amazingly and at just 27 he has a very promising career ahead of him, he has already landed a job with the Amsterdam Concert Gebouw Orkest one of the top three orchestras in the world. His accompanist Véronique Goudia did a sterling job on the piano, but the acoustics of Cormatin Church let her down and so what should have been echoing sounds coming from the piano were rather tinny. Even so, the concert was excellent and very enjoyable.

On the 2nd July, Emmanuel Rossfelder (who is a yearly crowd-puller) was playing the Concerto d’Aranjuez with a group of 18 flutists. The open air venue of the ruin of St Hippolyte Deanery was a superb backdrop to the concert, but I must agree with Cees’ son when he heard what we were going to see when he said “does anyone need to listen to 18 flute players playing the Concerto d’Arajuez?” A number of the group had difficulty keeping pace with the music and hitting the high notes and this did not bring out the best in Rossfelder who somehow seemed to lose interest during the proceedings – a pity as he is really a superb player.

Adèle Bracco (vocals) and Thierry Moncheny (guitar) were supposed to also have had the open-air venue for their Brazilian Jazz concert but sadly, due to rain, they had to be moved to Bonnay church which had disastrous acoustics. No matter what they did during the sound check they could not get a clear sound beyond the third pillar and as volunteers we seat ourselves at the last minute and way back in the church. Whilst the music I could actually hear wasn’t exactly to my taste, I thought it was a good idea to include a guitar with a different music style to the purely classical that the festival tends towards.

The “local” venue for us was when Gérard Poulet (violin) and Dimitris Saroglou (piano) played Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms sonatas in Chazelle church. Although it is a somewhat scruffy looking church from the inside, the acoustics were sublime and the music was of a world-class standard. Normally towards the end of a concert I am fidgeting because of the ubiquitously un-comfy seats, but this concert kept me enthralled and I forget to even think about my numb bottom ! We were rewarded by two well received encores.

The last concert of the season was last night in Malay church. A lovely little Romanesque church a few minutes outside Cormatin. We have seen a number of concerts there, but we have always been early and sat on the plastic chairs placed at the front of the church or in the first row. Sitting at the back, the pews were absolutely “unsittable” and whilst the sound was still excellent, I had to move and walk around for a bit as the I started to get a serious pain in my back. In the end I found myself a cosy little spot behind a pillar and as I am too short to ever see the performers in a concert unless I am right at the front, it didn’t actually bother me at all not being able to see anything. What was amazing was that even though I was more than 20 meters away from the guitar player with at least two pillar between us, I could actually hear him breathing, so impressive are the acoustics in this venue. In any case Trio Alto (guitar, violin and cello) delighted the audience to an evening of soft classical music that I can only describe as light, romantic chamber-like music. The guitar was strung and played in such a way that it sounded very much like a harpsichord which beautifully accompanied this style of music. Once I had found my comfy spot, I could have listened to them all night.

All in all a good series, 3 out of 5 concerts were out of this world and even though I could have lived without the other two, the St-Hippolyte venue was worth it for the ambiance. Now all we have to do is start the planning and organising for next year !

Our accommodation near Cluny and Taizé: La Tuilerie Website

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Night Markets

Every year in Saint-Gengoux-le-National there are two night markets one is on a Friday in mid-July and the other on a Friday in mid-August. The whole of the mediaeval town is full of stalls run by local artists and artisans selling their wares. Other stalls have local produce or food you can eat as you wander round. You can also join in the communal meal that is organised, shoving up on to the benches to be squashed in with the rest of the population. The markets start at eight in the evening and go on officially until midnight, but in reality they go on until everyone leaves. They are well visited and the quality of the stalls is high, so I was excited to see that this year Cluny has taken up the idea and is running three night markets on Wednesdays mid-June, mid-July and mid-August.

The second Cluny market was yesterday, so we decided to go. They start at five o’clock, but we felt that seven o’clock would be early enough to attend. I don’t know whether it was the cool weather or whether this new type of market will take time to catch on with traders, but there were really not many stalls and the quality of the artisanal work (jewellery, pottery etc) was not of an exceptional quality. Amongst the stalls doing a good trade were some nuns from Rhône-Alpes where they were selling jams and hand cream although I missed the connection between the two. There was a lack of food stalls, in fact all that was on offer were small, thick “bio” pizzas which were certainly
lacking in the topping department so we declined the offer of buying one and sadly being away from the main town, the local restaurants and snack bars couldn’t join in the fun. The beer stall though had two or three interesting beers, so we sat down with a beer and listened to the entertainment, which at that moment consisted of two women doing a rather poor Brecht-style performance accompanied by a barrel organ.

The backdrop of the Flamboyant Gothic town hall on the one side and the view over the Abbey on the other gave a certain ambiance to the event, but the fact that it was not in the hub of the town took away a lot of atmosphere and for me the whole lacked the cosiness and interest of the narrow cobbled streets that you find in Saint-Gengoux which could have been easily created by a more central position in the town.

We’ll keep our eye on this one though, as it does have potential to be an interesting and bustling market with the right setting and the right organisation.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

World Record Attempt

We have had a valiant attempt at the “most number of consecutive nights” camping award class 1. Thomas from Germany who originally booked for 14 nights extended his stay by a week and at 20 nights, when he could see that the award was within his reach, he called for reinforcements by getting his wife to join him for three nights, but his camping rhythm was broken and he was all out of stamina and so he and his wife left after his tent had been on the campsite for 24 nights, one night short of Marilou and Niek’s outstanding performance back in 2007. However Thomas did not realise that the fact that he had an overnight stay in Dijon on night 21, when he went to collect his wife from the bus station, he had in fact broken his consecutive stay, so his real score has to be registered at 20 nights, which drops him down to joint third place. However, this attempt shows that the record is beatable, but forward planning and stamina are needed. So come on all you world-record seekers, there is still time this season to win the award.

For more information on our campsite click here.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Crème Vichyssoise

I just love cold soups in the summer and ever since I first tasted Crème Vichyssoise at the tender age of 16, I fell in love with it. I can still remember the occasion, it was my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary and the four of us (Mum, Dad, my brother and me) went to a restaurant to celebrate. I ordered the soup and not knowing it was supposed to be cold, I was a little confused to say the least when it arrived in a cold bowl resting in a dish of ice, but just one sip and I was sold and have been ever since.

The soup comes from Vichy as the name suggests (not so far from here) and the story goes that in the 17th century Louis XIV was to be served a normal leak and potato soup but because of all the tasters and hangers-on that had to check out the safety of the food etc, by the time it reach the king himself, the soup had in fact gone cold. The king however, was delighted with this cold soup and so it has forever remained a chilled delicacy. How much more authentically French than that can you get?

Along with most really good stories this one appears to be a bit of a fabrication. Normally when these things come to light they are found to be some sort of marketing ploy, but this one is in fact an anti-marketing ploy. The soup was actually invented in 1917 in New York by Louis Diat the chef at the Ritz-Carlton - it was an instant success however, professional jealousy took hold of yet another Louis (Louis de Gouy) the chef from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He wanted to take the glory away from his great rival and so he invented the Louis XIV story and spread it far and wide, thus making this recipe forever French, but more importantly allowing him to also serve it in his restaurant !

Why not try it, here's my version of the recipe.

2 leeks, finely chopped, not too much of the dark green bits
2 shallots, finely chopped
a large knob of butter
4 large potatoes, peeled and chopped into smallish pieces, keep in a bowl of water until use
1 litre chicken stock
Crème fraiche or thick sour cream
Salt and pepper
Chopped chives as garnish

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pan and very gently stew the leeks and shallots until they are completely cooked. Keep the heat very low, the leeks and shallots must not brown at all.
Add the chicken stock and the drained potatoes and simmer for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are cooked right through.
Put the whole mixture into a blender or use a hand blender to blend the soup into a homogenous mix, it should be pretty thick, but a spoon should not stand up in it ! If it is too thick, add some stock, water or milk.
When the soup has cooled to about 40 degrees add two ladles of crème fraiche and stir it through until it is thoroughly mixed in, taste and add “slightly too much” salt and pepper.
Let the whole soup cool in the fridge for several hours then taste again. You will most probably have to add more salt and pepper as cold food needs more flavouring than warm food, so do not be surprised.

Serve in cold bowls with a sprinkling of chopped chives on top.

What could be better on a summer’s evening sitting in the garden eating an authentic French Crème Vichyssoise with a cold glass of the Chardonnay ?

Our gites are near Chardonnay and not too far from Vichy why not click here to see our website.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Prickly Pineapples

I have been trying to make myself a light shawl for summer evenings ever since last year. My ideal was to use pineapples (a special crochet stitch/pattern that looks like a pineapple or the “eye” on a peacock’s tail) to stretch along the length of a straight shawl, but could I find a pattern for pineapples in a straight line ? All the patterns I could find in books and on the net were all for pineapples in a circle. So I set about trying to draw out my own pattern and even to crochet small pieces to see if I could figure it out. I soon got bored. - so gone was the idea of my lovely shawl.

This spring we treated ourselves to a new sofa and I felt it looked rather plain so I decided to crochet a nice little antimacassar for the back and some arm covers, but what pattern
to use? I stumbled upon an archived version of a site called “Vintage Crochet” which had been taken down a few years ago and although the archive is not complete, many of the chair backs were still available and what did I find? A pattern for straight pineapples ! It looked so pretty as an antimacassar I decided to use that pattern and here are the results, now all I had to do was up the hook size and use wool instead of cotton thread and my long awaited shawl would materialise.

Well the pineapples are proving more tricky than I thought in wool, maybe it is because it is summer and I am not concentrating as much, but whatever it is, I seem to have to keep undoing and re-doing bits of this shawl and the other day I just put it away so that I could chill out for a bit. During my
cooling off period we had some Dutch guests in one of our gîtes and after chatting with them one day I discovered that she was very interested in patchwork, we chatted out this and that, about my crochet and she showed me pictures of her work (amazing I must say) and that was that. A couple of hours later, to my surprise she arrived at our table in the garden with a little pouch. She said she always brought something to keep her hands busy on holiday and this was for me ! It was exactly the right size for my crochet hooks, so I dashed upstairs, put my hooks in it and started back on my shawl. Do you know what? I haven’t made a mistake on this shawl since – thanks Gon for getting me going again !
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