Monday, 30 April 2012

What do you miss?

This is a question that I have been asked by many people since I left the UK more than 20 years ago.

When I was in the Netherlands, Dutch colleagues and neighbours used to frequently ask what I missed. Was it general interest, something to say or their assumption that not everyone would love all things Dutch that made them ask? I don’t know, but my answer changed over the years. When I first arrived, I had a long list of things I couldn’t buy (or couldn’t find) in the Netherlands and 15 years later when I was about to leave the list had just three things on it, English sausages, marmite and hills. I never got used to Dutch sausages (far too much meat and taste), I could not buy marmite except in very expensive ex-pat shops and I always found the excessively flat and windswept landscape depressing.

Now of course I am in France and the question is still frequently asked. Interestingly I have never been asked by a French person, only by Dutch or English visitors to our campsite or in the gîtes or indeed by fellow ex-pats. I suppose the French could not imagine that there was anything in another country that could possibly be missed by anyone. However, I do still miss things, yes still those tasteless English sausages (no self respecting Frenchman would eat one) and marmite (which is so expensive you need to re-mortgage your house to buy it locally). But now I have added to my list, I have lots of Dutch things I miss, Indonesian spices, sambal (chilli paste), ketchap manis (sweet soya sauce) and the most divine food created by mankind: kroketten.

Kroketten are a deep fried meat snack resembling a potato croquette only twice as long and double the diameter, you eat them in soft white squishy bread rolls with lashings of mustard and each one contains more cholesterol than you should eat in a year. My mouth is watering just thinking about them. As soon as we get over the Dutch border for a short stay, we head for the nearest snack bar and we manage to sink out teeth into quite a few during the time we spend in the country.

After many, many, messy and unsuccessful attempts at making them, I have now managed to create a recipe that actually works and so we can have kroketten any time we like. My what-I-miss list now has one item less on it, just those tricky Indonesian specialities to go.

Last Friday we had to go to Mâcon and as we left a shopping mall car park we spotted a shop called Asia Shop, I did an emergency stop into a nearby parking space and we went in to look. They had been open less than a week and they had shelves full of sambal, Indian pastes, special dried fried onions that are a must for Indonesian chicken soup, not to mention spices galore and Indo Mie. Fridges full of beansprouts, tofu and other veg and freezers full of things like durian. We spent ages in the shop oohing and ahhing over the wonderful things they had on offer and left with a selection of goodies.

So my list is now getting even smaller, just down to sweet soy sauce, Marmite and of course we mustn't forget those tasteless English sausages.

Sunday, 22 April 2012


I love reading cookery books and recipes in general. I have a bookcase full of books and folders of clippings and I read them over and over again, getting ideas for food and spice combinations and different cooking techniques. I was reading one particular book this morning entitled “Aan Tafel” (“On the Table”) published by Croma, a brand of Dutch margarine. You see, I used to work for Unilever, a large multi-national company that makes food, detergents and personal hygiene products and every Christmas we received a hamper full of the company’s products, which always included a cookery book - using the company’s products of course.

This particular book is about Dutch cookery, it gives many tips about how to prepare traditional Dutch specialities like meat balls, spek lapjes (1 cm thick slices of streaky bacon), touwtjesvlees (literally translated as stringy meat, which is in fact, delicious tender slices of well brazed beef) and so the list goes on, good home cooking, nothing fancy, just tasty Dutch food, eaten by millions, every day.

So there I was, reading this book and I spotted a tip I had never noticed before, about high and low heat. Having worked in the food industry, for more years than I care to remember, I am very interested in food preparation and it is obvious that the intensity of the cooking process, affects the way the end product comes out. Let’s take touwtjesvlees as an example, you have to cook these pieces of meat very high at first to create a deep colour, then you cook them very low for hours, to make them tender. So I was naturally interested what this little snippet would be about. I suspected that it would be about the benefits or effects of using different levels of heat in the cooking process. But no, it was much, much more than I could have even dreamed of and I want to share it with you:

“Whether you cook with a gas, electric or ceramic hob or on an induction plate, the concept of high, medium and low heat is actually the same. High means the highest temperature, low means really low and medium is in-between.”

Stunned by that wonderful pearl of wisdom, I put the book back on the shelf, where it will remain for evermore.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Saturday Night in New York

Our season is now in full swing and Saturday night we were full - both gîtes occupied. We don’t usually organise anything for Saturday evenings, as we are rather limited by the arrival times of our guests, but we had all our fingers and toes crossed yesterday that our guests would arrive before 5 o’clock, because we wanted to go to New York for the evening. Our guests arrived at 3 o’clock, so we managed to get to the New York Metropolitan Opera House in time to see the evening’s performance of La Traviata.

Our connection to New York was via a live HD video link from the Met itself, beamed into the panoramic cinema screen at Chalon-sur-Saône. While we waited for the performance to begin, the screen showed images of the inside of the opera house, looking towards the stage as if we were in one of the circles, watching the people in the stalls finding their seats. What a magnificent place the opera house it is. Then - lights down - action.

As the orchestra struck up the overture, Violetta appeared in a red cocktail dress and sloped across the stage and I thought oh no a modern version and my heart sank. A combination of why can’t we just listen to the overture without this distraction and why can’t they stick to the “proper” version was going through my head. Having said that, I was very quickly immersed in Willy Decker’s version and I was most impressed with what he had actually done with it all. He managed to capture the essence of the story in a modern(ish) setting, leaving the décor very simple and introducing some spooky elements. He upgraded the doctor to a star position by doubling him as a sort of Grim Reaper figure who hovered around whenever Violetta had a downturn and, in all but the last scene, there was a huge clock ticking away the last hours of her life. Although I did find it odd that he totally downgraded all other parts to almost nothing.

Natalie Dessay (Violetta) had a rather shaky start in Act 1 vocally, but she regrouped in Acts 2 and 3 in which she did a superb job and Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as his father did a stunning job throughout. Although Violetta is supposed to be the star of the show, it was Alfredo all the way for me, he sang beautifully, he acted beautifully and I was totally convinced at all stages that he was Alfredo.

Then, after a wonderful evening in one of the world’s best opera houses, we just had to drive half an hour and we were home. This won’t be the last time we are going to New York for the evening.

Our gite Website

Monday, 9 April 2012

Easter Sunday

I vowed last year that I wouldn’t go to the Taizé Easter Sunday service. Not that it wasn’t a great service and to be honest the excitement when everyone chants out Easter greetings in their own language from around the church as the bells start to ring at the end of the service, is a most moving experience. What it was, was the crowds. Taizé is crowded throughout the summer starting from now, but it was so crowded last Easter, that, for the first time ever, I felt scared. The Red Cross had a heavy presence in the church, but by the time the service started, they could no longer move around, all the gangways were blocked, as well as the emergency exits and with everyone wafting candles, I just didn’t feel safe.

This year, we did go up to Taizé, but this time as tourists, to watch what goes on around and outside the church. Something you don’t see if you go to a service. We arrived “early” (9.30 for a 10.00 start) and the church was comfortably full when we walked in to look. As you can see from the photo above, there was little floor space, but it still felt safe. I moved from door to door to look inside, but when I got to the front of the church, I was
confronted by the door “guards”, who told me I couldn’t go in as it was full. They sent me and the others trying to get in, towards the back of the church, but by 09.40, all the doors had been closed and no one else could get in. This is the first time I have seen this, at last someone has come to their senses. It could have been the Red Cross who had laid down the law or some other health and safety body, but at last the church was not going to be dangerously overcrowded. But what do you do with the hundreds still outside?

The brothers had set up a large tent near the church - with icons and candles and screens, small benches and hymn sheets and candles, just like the church itself - for the overflow. Sadly the youngsters blocking the doors to the church, were not directing people to the tent until quite late on. It was left to people like me, to tell those wandering around looking lost, where to go. There were many young people who didn’t make their way to the tent, they probably felt they could squeeze in when the door guards went in to the service, but they were to be disappointed as the doors lock shut, only allowing people to exit not enter. There were also lots of locals who arrived too late to get in and they just turned around and went home, which was sad for them. There was probably only room for about 300 in the tent, which was not really enough for the number of people we saw walking around trying to get into the church, so maybe it was better that not everyone tried to get in.

By the time we left around the start of the service, the tent had filled up, but I do wonder what the atmosphere in there would be like, I also wondered how the Easter candle would enter the tent, but we didn’t stay to watch - maybe next year. The moral of the story is, if you want to get into the church and get anywhere near the front, nine thirty is already too late.

La Tuilerie Website

Friday, 6 April 2012

The World Is Full of Smelly Feet.

The name of a children’s hymn, with such delicious rhymes in it as “hold your nose and wash those toes” - all intended to engage children in the story and symbology of the Last Supper, where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus' intention was to show that neither he, nor anyone else, is above such lowly tasks and so the Christian church, around the world, conducts feet washing services on Maundy Thursday to remember. Taizé is no different and as it was Maundy Thursday, I decided to go to their version of that service last night.

In preparation, I searched the Internet to see what a feet washing service was all about. In general a Bishop (or senior church official) washes the feet of twelve parishoners. I found useful tips on how to run a feet washing service: make sure you have the bowl of water and washing and drying cloths handy - makes sense; tell women not to wear stockings or tights - also logical, you don’t want a strip show. But then I came across one comment “For the people whose feet are being washed: Instruct them to come to the service with clean feet in clean footgear”. Excuse me? Are you saying to these people "the Bishop is going to wash your feet, but you can’t expect a man of his importance to be confronted by the reality of the task"? Well if the afore-mentioned bishop is not prepared to “hold his nose and wash those toes”, he shouldn’t engage in this sort of charade. But I digress.

Back to Taizé. I had expected Frère Alois (the main man) to be up at the altar and to see him wash the feet of 12 of the brothers. Well I was wrong. Firstly, Frère Alois may be the brother who assumes the tasks of co-ordination, of being the main focus to the outside world, but he is just one of them, the "primus inter pares" - a difficult concept for those of us who live in a hierarchical world. In any case, when it got to the feet washing part of the service, twelve brothers went up to collect their feet washing gear (Frère Alois among them) and they then split into four groups of three, one with a wash cloth, one with a bowl of water and one with a drying cloth and they then proceeded to wash the feet of the other brothers. Well, it wasn’t so much a washing, more a dab, dab, wipe, wipe. Maybe the brothers involved, either as washers or washees, felt a deep symbolism in the whole thing, but I hate to say it, it was rather lost on me. Maybe I was too concentrated on wanting to know if they had been told to wash their feet before-hand or not.

Having said that, going to a communion service on the evening that the Last Supper is celebrated, had a certain extra meaning that I hadn’t expected and certainly for those wanting to take part in the Easter services at Taizé, it is a much less overcrowded way to be involved than by going on Sunday.

Happy Easter everyone !

La Tuilerie Website

Monday, 2 April 2012

Party Time In Cormatin

After two weeks away, we waded though our mail and found a slip from Madame La Poste telling us to collect a letter from the post office. Visiting the Post Office in Cormatin is a traumatic experience. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to do this will back me up on this one. The person who runs the show is rude, offensive, speaks at 750 km per hour in a high squeaky voice, intimidates even the most weathered Post Office goer and the woman in grossly inefficient to boot. I have long given up using the Post Office in Cormatin and I go to either Saint Gengoux le National or Cluny instead. But of course, letters and parcels are left at the nearest Post Office and so needs must.

After breakfast on Friday, I plucked up the courage to go and what did I find when I got there? The Post Office was closed. On closer inspection it was in fact closed FOR EVER ! Oh joy, at last, the long promised Post Agency was to arrive to be manned (or womanned) by the super efficient and very, very nice Fréderique, who worked in the Town Hall when Virginie was ill. Yippee! The minor inconvenience of having to go to Saint Gengoux to get my letter or wait until Monday paled into insignificance in comparison to this news.

On Sunday there was big party in Cormatin. We were treated to the following meal:
Pastry puffs of chicken with a mustard à l’ancinene sauce, followed by coquilles Saint Jacques with shallot cream, apple sorbet covered in Calvados, veal steaks with walnut sauce along with bundles of bacon wrapped haricot-verts and duchess potatoes, we continued with a plate of three cheeses and a light cake with cassis flavoured mousse, topped off with coffee and liqueurs. The white wine was Clos de Montrachet from the Vignerons de Buxy and the red from Domaine de Thalie in Bray (just down the road) and dessert was served with crément de Bourgogne. Not to forget the delicious nibbles Bernard made for the aperitif which was white wine with red fruit juice.

OK so maybe I am fantasising that this meal was to celebrate the closure of the Post Office, it was in fact the Old People’s annual dinner to which Cees is invited, now that he is over a “certain age” and I can go too (as a paying guest) but it did seem to be a very happy coincidence.

Monday morning came and we just had to go to visit our new Post Agency. Even though they had spent all day Friday and Saturday making alterations to the inside of the building, we didn’t notice any difference when we went in. But the smile and welcome we received were really refreshing. On top of that, Fréderique did her utmost to help us and everyone else that we saw in there. Even though she couldn’t help everyone to their satisfaction (the main computer had locked out and she was waiting for a new code to get access) she did it all with charm and friendliness. What a breath of fresh air. This will certainly save me some petrol, because I will be doing all my transactions in Cormatin from now on.

La Tuilerie Website
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