Monday, 29 November 2010

Doing well with our language skills now!

Summer rolled in to Autumn and all too quickly Winter has arrived. We have not had any guests for a while and I have not felt that there has been much to tell. Sometimes with tweeting, blogging, updating the website and sorting out online advertisements working on the laptop can become a chore and the words just don't flow. Dark nights, cold mornings and huddling round my electric fire in an unheated office make it even harder and its enough to make even the most hardened expat want to think about hibernation!

Nick is continuing with the jobs around the property and is currently re laying the floor in the front office as the wooden one had rotted away. He managed to go to the local quarry and order in French a tonne of sand and 3 tonnes of balast that was delivered here today with no problems after I directed the delivery driver. Not just that, but spending time with the locals preparing foie gras, going to bingo and generally putting ourselves in more challenging situations really does help the language skills.

We have visitors from Spain next week for 3 nights in the B&B (my Spanish is non existent!) and off to Paris to work for two days and then at the end of the week I have a friend coming to stay for a few days, which I am really looking forward to, so busy busy busy again..... I have decided to organise a pre Christmas drinks evening for our new friends too so need to start thinking about food and conversation topics, better get the dictionary out!

Keep warm all, I am just putting another log on the fire.

Boy oh boy - we know how to live it up in Auvillar!

Yep, it might be winter in Tarn et Garonne, but things are still happening here! Guess what it we did in Auvillar on Friday night?.............. put it this way, we are definitely living in the fast lane (not!)

Hold on to your hats, are you sitting down, well eyes down! (Clue).

Yes, it was village bingo or lotto as they call it here and it is extremely popular in towns and villages over the winter months and it a great social event to get people together that would otherwise be hibernating in their houses with the shutters closed and a fire in the hearth!

It was all in aid of charity, my daughters' local school, and the venue was packed to the brim with parents, villagers, and children too. What did surprise me was that the children were involved in an event that started so late in the evening. Proceedings commenced at 9.00pm, in the UK if it was an event for the children it would have started at 6pm latest.

There were a few hiccups with the sound system but at 9.30pm the evening finally got underway. Prizes were donated by local businesses in Auvillar, Valence d'Agen and Bardigues and there were many on offer.

The first to shout with a full line won a bag full of goodies, then anyone with two lines also won a bag of goodies and finally those with a full house had an extra special prize of a leg or ham or 120€. Surprisingly, we actually won something too! With one line we won a bottle of local wine from the Thermes vinyard in Bardigues, a string of garlic, 800g of sausages from the local butcher and 8€ of bread and cakes from the bakery, fab!

By 12.30pm the children we getting beyond tired and I was loosing the will to live. Concentrating on the numbers that were easy at the beginning of the evening was now fast becoming a chore! When the last game was announced there was a small cheer that rumbled around the room and by 12.45 it was all over. We helped with the tidy up and put chairs and tables away and rolled into bed at 1.30am. Told in the fast lane here is exhausting!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Foie Gras - the traditional way!

After being invited by my friend to her parents farm this weekend to help with the duck, I thought I would give a resumé of my experience and share my new found knowledge on how to make "real" foie gras.

For those of you concerned about the well being of the animals, rest assured I saw no evidence of any battery farming, no unhappy looking animals and plenty of space for them to live and nest. However you must bear in mind that these animals are bred to eat, much like other livestock and are not pets. For those of you that are squeemish or vegetarians, you may prefer not to read on!

I have never been a person that enjoys killing anything (except rats or spiders!) and thought I would find the killing a bit too much to handle. However, I disconnected myself from the fact that this was a cute duck and treated it as a means to an end. The process of producing foie gras has been used for many years and only in recent years has commercial production on such a large scale meant that battery farming has hit the headlines. This foie gras was produced by the farmer for the sole use of his family and keep them in food over the winter months.

Anyway now I have got the politics out of the way, I will continue!

An early start in freezing weather was the order of the day for Friday morning. 8 barberry ducks were to meet their end and when I arrived at 8.30am proceedings were already under way. It was a real family affair with uncles, aunts, son in law's and grandsons and the all important expert farmers themselves were in attendance.

For the last 20 days the ducks have been fed solely on a diet of maize which gives the skin and the liver a yellow colour. Each duck was chosen at random and was killed expertly and quickly by André the farmer. Within 2 minutes the duck was dunked in a boiling vat of water and plucked. This process is done to blanch the skin and make it easy to remove the feathers. Timing is critical as too long in the water and the skin starts to cook, not long enough and the feathers don't come out easily. After plucking, the bald beast was whisked away for any small feathers to be removed and little ones to be blasted off by a blow torch.

It was then washed and weighed, the biggest bird of the day weighed in at just under 6kg.

Then one person held the duck, breast upwards, and the other cut a slit from its bottom to the base of its neckneck with a very sharp knife. This is a delicate process as the liver is very close to the surface of the skin, about 3 inches from the anus and not protected by anything other than the skin. Open the slit in the skin and with two fingers, push up under the ribcage to dislodge the liver from the bone and sinews and then use a pair of sharp scissors to cut the bone down to the wishbone and the neck bone to split the carcase in two pieces on one side.

Open up the bird and gently dislodge the liver all the way around its edges making sure you don’t split the liver itself. The most important part of the whole process is to ensure that the waste tube from the liver that then passes out through the bird is cut cleanly and none of the green goo is absorbed in to the liver.

Once the liver is removed, it is washed and weighed then lightly salted and covered in white pepper and garlic powder. A small amount is added to the base of a jar and then the liver is placed in the jar and sealed. The jar is then sterilised/boiled for 30-40 minutes and left too cool. The fat that comes out of the liver in the cooking process sets in the jar around the liver and acts as a preservative. The bird is then tied back together and left for further preparation the following day.

When the bird is butchered the French way every part is used except for the intestine, the wind pipe and the testies!

The meat is removed from the carcase in one piece and is known as a monteau as it looks like a cloak. The thighs, breast, neck and wings were preserved in salt, the bones were cut in to bbq sized pieces and head and feet were used to boil with carrots and onions as a stock. The fat, (of which there was alot) skin and neck skin was cut into small pieces. The tongue was removed from the beak and all was cooked in a large vat until the liquid fat could be drained off cooled and stored for cooking use later. After draining the remaining skin and tongue meat it was fried until crispy and wrapped in muslin cloth to extract any oil, and then tossed in a mixture of garlic and salt. These crispy duck pieces are known as fritons, a bit like pork scratchings, and are eaten as nibbles with an aperitif.

After 4 hours everything was packed away and the whole process starts again in 15 days to finish the last batch of duck for the year.

If you have a go at foie gras yourself, let me know how successful it is. I am sure the farmer and his wife will be impressed if the wider world is aware of their methods and using them to produce their own French delicacy.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Trip to the Tax Office!!

After being here for nearly 8 months and working hard on the gite we thought it was time to get our tax affairs in order. A friend who lives near Tours came to visit for a few days, so I took the opportunity to go with her to the tax office at Moissac. I prepared lots of documents I thought necessary to take and we set off on the 20 minute drive.

The offices from the outside were attractive and the architecture appealing but inside the building was large, cold, uninviting and resembled a Victorian mental hospital. I didn't change my opinion after visiting the second floor. Walking from one dormitory room to the next whilst the occupants looked blankly from behind their desks when I asked about setting up an "auto entrepreneur business, I got the distinct impression that rather than dealing with our request it was easier to push us onto another department and we were then out of their hair!

Finally, on the third attempt we were directed to a slightly more appealing room where three middle aged women sat surrounded by pot plants each concentrating hard on piles of administrative papers to be filed and entered onto their computer screens. The heating was on and a bottles of water were dotted around the room, whether they were for the plants or the women I could not tell. After explaining the reason for our visit for the umpteenth time and actually getting somewhere we started the process of registering the gite business, however after 10 minutes it became clear that there was more to this than was indicated at the start of the conversation. The upshot of it was that in fact due to my other work commitments being self employed, but working on a contract for my previous company for one of their clients my situation was not a straight forward there is a surprise.......... not. Finally after an hour and a half we came to conclusion that we in fact needed to go to the USSAF administration centre in Montauban.

By the time we had made our way back to the car it was late and we took a chance that the French equivalent of the DVLA Office would still be open, as my first attempt to register the car with French number plates had gone the same way as my visit to the tax office. How stupid am I..........if course it was not open, it was Friday and 4pm. Note to self.......... ensure I don't attempt to go next time on either Friday afternoon, Saturday, Monday, during a two hour lunch break or after 4pm or a bank holiday or if it is raining or if the wind is blowing in a northerly direction!

Next instalment on my tax progress will follow shortly!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

At 45..... a touch of dementure!

What a nightmare! Having spent a busy week last week working and visiting friends and relatives, I left the UK on Saturday morning ready to return to our lovely home in France. I think the traffic and stress must have taken its toll on me!

My friend kindly took me to the airport for a lunchtime flight and after a quick cuppa I wandered through the security check area and on to the plane relaxed and chilled. For the first time in ages it was actually on time! After a pleasurable hour long chat with a nice Irish man I disembarked at Toulouse with everyone else to get my suitcase. That's when I realised .................I had left the keys for the van parked in the long term car park in a coat pocket at my sisters in the UK!

I mumbled a few expletives under my breath and tried to calmly ring my husband to organise him to bring the spare key in the other car to Toulouse.....................Oh dear, not a happy man, he did not have a spare key and the air was blue! After leaving the van at the airport we travelled home in silence and I organised a courier to get the keys to France as soon as possible.

We received them Wednesday morning and went off to the airport that afternoon. It was pouring with rain and after paying a large amount for an extra weeks parking, we made our way to the car park. Typically, no umbrella in the car and the van was parked at the furthest point from the entrance!

After a lecture by hubbie on how to start it (as he kindly informed me that the battery was playing up) I dashed trough the rain and puddles and jumped in before being drowned by a passing vehicle. Off I went to the barrier to pay and immediately smelt something "not right" from under the bonnet.

At the barrier I had to get out of the van as it is right hand drive. I need not have worried about being splashed by one vehicle, as within seconds I was soaked through by many and my feet were squelching in my socks and shoes. Unfortunately the ticket was wet too and wouldn't scan so I moved to a second barrier and asked for assistance as I couldn't get it to lift. After a two minute discussion with the security guard I returned to the van. OMG, lots of white smoke was rising from under the bonnet. I turned off the ignition immediately, that was it...... dead. I rang Nick to come from the other car to help explaining what had happened, guess was all my fault!!

We pushed the van through the barrier to the side of road and left it to find the French equivalent of Halfords to look for a tow pole. An hour later we started the 50 minute journey home in the dark and rain.

Oh, I forgot to mention it was Armistice Day and a bank holiday in France so the roads were heaving with people getting away for a short break. The journey started well and even though we were causing long traffic queues we made it through Toulouse and out towards Beaumont de Lomagne in an hour and a half. Then............. the van lost all power, so I was towing a vehicle in the dark with no lights, no brakes, no wipers and no heater around hairpin bends and in pouring rain. I was scared and starting to get tired. Abigail had been told to say nothing and play on her DS in the back of my car so I could concentrate!

On looking in the rear view mirror coming down a steep hill, I lost sight of Nick and heard a loud bang from behind....... I stopped quickly expecting the worst, fortunately he was still there but a bit shaken. The van had bent the tow pole, bent the towing eye and broken the numberplate, but fortunately that was all. At that point we both decided enough was enough and abandoned the van until the morning. We arrived home shattered at 9.30pm after the epic 3.5 hour trip and went straight to bed.

Yesterday we went back to collect it and bring it the last few miles home, which was a breeze in the daylight and no rain!

So, the moral of the story is........ don't be an airhead, check you have your car keys in your bag or pocket before going any trip. After over 100€ and a van repair to sort, I have learnt the hard way!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Beautiful Blighty!

After spending the last weeks fretting about money and where we were going to find the money to continue with the renovation of Le Farat, I decided drastic action was needed and organised a trip back to the UK to work, do some important networking to help promote Le Farat and meet up with friends and relatives of course.
I arrived back in the UK late Sunday night after another super efficient flight by squeezyjet (not)and my dad collected my daughter (as she had been with us for school half term) and I from the airport. I felt guilty that he had had to sit and wait in MacDonalds car park for over 2 hours in the dark and rain for our delayed flight to arrive, but we finally flopped into bed weary at 1.45am (or 2.45am for my body clock!)

On waking up Monday morning and taking a look outside the window made me realise that the Autumn in the UK was nicer than I remembered. The trees are probably about 1 week ahead of the ones in France and have turned a much deeper shade of Orange. I think it is because there is a lack of Beech and Maple trees where we are in France and they produce such vibrant colours it is hard to ignore them.

Having said all that and loving the countryside in my old home area, I immediately felt a yearning to get back to France. The traffic on the way to work yesterday was a nightmare and everything is just so much busier and stressful. Equally scruffier than I remember too. First impressions for visitors arriving at Gatwick airport is not good. The Olympics here in 2012 will create a lasting impression on the world for how old, outdated and rubbish the infrastructure for roads, rail and air all are. I predict a disaster!

Anyway, I arrived early (very unlike me!) for my meeting with work colleagues and spent a day in a sales meeting, training on new software and collecting a new laptop. For those of you that don't know, I work on a contract basis for Zebra Technologies who are the leading manufacturer of barcode label ,and card printers, and I am fortunate enough to be working part time remotely from my little office in deepest France account managing their vast list of UK resellers.

After work a team meal had been organised together with one of our distribution customers at a local Indian restaurant for a group of 21. For some reason my body cannot do Indian food, and despite taking the mild option and eating copious amounts of Naan and poppadoms with mango chutney, I still had to visit the loo more often than normal! Therefore at 10.30pm, and fading fast I bid my farewells and took to the road for the 45 minutes journey back to my sisters. Result, the motorway was almost empty, and made me feel like I was back home in France, apart from the regular speed cameras and roadworks everywhere.

Need get out and about promoting our holiday home today. Sometimes a bit of leg work and networking works wonders, and we need to try everything.
Just had an email from my hubby in France to say we have had a three night booking for the B&B in December. Result things are looking up!