Saturday, 16 July 2011

Irrigation irregularities

This summer in South West France has been a dry one and the weather warmed up earlier than normal so arable and animal farmers as well as the fruit producers have all been suffering quite badly.

Having planted a number of fruit trees and made a vegetable garden (in retrospect if we had known how dry it was going to be we probably would not have bothered this year!), keeping everything watered was another large job on the ever increasing job list.

Fortunately, we were lucky enough to have bought a lovely property in Tarn et Garonne that had irrigation already installed in the lawn. We held off for as long as possible as we didn't want to waste water in any way, but when the lawn turned a nasty brown and the fruit trees started to wilt we knew it was time to take action.

All farmers here have access (for a small fee) to the water supply pumped from the river Garonne, and then pay on a meter each year for what they use. Our irrigation supply was also fed in the same way. The supply point was located across the road from the main house on the edge of the field and had to be accessed across a rather dodgy plank and a ditch, then you had to grapple with a large pipe and a wheel to connect to the supply, not something I enjoyed doing amongst the long grass, so not an easy process and not one to be undertaken in flipflops!

My husband Nick was dispatched with a spanner to turn on the supply and I stayed in the garden to shout back to him when the water came through. After much shouting and hollaring followed by short tempers and an amount of spanner throwing, we gave up. The water was only trickling through the pipe and was not enough to fill a watering can let alone irrigate the garden!

We put in a call to the Marie and a village official turned up a few days later to sort it all out . A new pipe cap was fitted, a new meter and a new valve. Great, we thought, we can now put the watering can away! .......NO

The water was still only just trickling out, we put in another call to the Marie and the official came back but explained that as far as he was concerned all was in order, and said the problem must be somewhere in our 5 acre garden. Great, needle and haystack sprung to mind!

I therefore took the bull by the horns and went to see he local farmer (where I had been fruit picking) and in my best fluttery eye look, asked if he could come to investigate the problem!

It worked! He arrived with a spanner and disappeared into the field with my husband. After a short while, success!

As it turned out, we had a dead snake in the pipe blocking the valve and as soon as that was removed, little jets of water started sprouting out of the ground all over the garden and I could almost hear the plants going aaaaahhhhhh!

The garden will now soon be nice and green again and my veggie patch will be brimming with produce!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Fruit, fruit and more fruit!

In amongst our guests arriving and leaving, I have been busy making jams, chutneys and fruit leather to enjoy through the winter.

I am currently innondated with reine claude green gages and merabelle red plums. I have made plum crumble, compote, jam, chutney and am considering plum leather. This is a fruit pulp that is smoothed on to a piece of greaseproof paper and dried in the sun. Once dry, it is then cut and rolled like a fruit winder and kept in an air tight jar until required. I have already made the apricot version and its yummy and a very healthy snack instead of chocolate!

The jam cupboard now is full of apricot, plum, damson, strawberry and cherry jam, tomato puree, plum and chili chutney and soon to be added is red onion chutney. More than enough to keep us and our guests supplied well into 2012!

First big change over day!

Well the season has now started for us in ernest. We had our first gite guests arrive last Saturday, family of 4 including a 3 month old baby a 2 year old plus an aupair.

As hoped the initial reaction was what I hoped for and they loved the gite and surroundings, which is a constant thrill to me. Everyone settled in well and all were soon in the holiday mood lounging by the pool.

The weather unfortunately, has not been the best, we have had a few days of sun and a few days of cloud, but still nice an warm. After advising on nice places to visit, booking restaurants and being a taxi service on occasions the week drew to a close. The family moved to our B&B for an extra night, they just couldn't bring themselves to leave! It was a squeeze with the au pair as well and we finally decided it would be more comfortable for the au pair to go in our spare room in the main house.

New guests arrived in the gite just 3 hours later. Fortunately, the cleaning had been done and beds made but I was in the middle of cleaning the BBQ and had to shake hands with mucky greasy fingers looking like something the cat dragged in, sooo didn't want to look like that!

Still, all the hard work is worth the initial ooohs and arrrhs, which is what it is all about - makeing sure that our guests are happy and pleased with their holiday accommodation.

Now the beds are stripped and everyone is settled and happy, I am off to start the washing and ironing.

Happy days indeed.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Harvesting fruit, wheat, barley and ceps!

Harvest is in full swing, there are dust clouds from fields in the valley and on the horizon, wasps a plenty amonst the fruit trees and Ceps (or Porchini mushrooms) if you know where to find them in abundance too.

We were invited to tea this evening up to the farm to enjoy the fruits of their harvest. There we ate some new things to us, including cucumber jam, which was surprisingly nice, haricots vert with boiled potato and pesto, taboulet, and BBQ ribs and the all important cep which had been sliced and cooked in salt, pepper and garlic. all finshed off with an apricot and raspberry klafouti and plenty of wine, yum.

The conversation was interesting and we learnt about the tradition behind eating cold soup and when the bowl was empty filling it with wine, after drinking the wine from the soup bowl then filling it with soup again before wiping it all clean with bread! Waste not want not!

Now feeling very full and ready for bed

Wine Festival in France

After a hectic few weeks dashing about between France and the UK for work, fruit picking cherries and apricots in France and running the house, we finally had time to participate in the wine festival "Fetes de Saint Noe" in Auvillar this year.

Being the second time we had witnessed the event, we knew what to expect, music, dancing, wine and more wine!

The festivities started on the Saturday morning with a procession of men and boys in traditional costume carrying trees cut from beside the river Garonne and after parading round the village after about an hour the largest tree was erected at one end of the village and all participants were offered wine and sugared brioche. We all then moved on into the centre of the village for a lunch organised by the Marie and the Tourist Office. After further festivities and plenty of drunken dancing, after dark all met outside the church and followed the priest in a candle lit procession to a shrine to bless the vine and the forth comming wine harvest. More dancing to live music til the early hours made it hard to get up to make the sunday morning mass (and we did not actually make it) Late morning children of the village visited every household and gave a small flower as a gift from the commune. After lunch everything kicked off again with another procession with shepherds on stilts, farmers in traditional costume, traditional dancing and an "Umpah" band. Make a note for your diaries next year as it will be in May and is always well attended.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Dog emergency!

Yesterday afternoon after having returned from yet another airport run and feeling rather tired, I decided to take 5 minutes out for myself and take the dogs for a wander around the garden. The weather was hot, with a few clouds looming in the distance and the wind was still, it was bliss. The dogs were racing around the garden chasing after sticks and were having a great time playing tug of war to see who was the strongest and take the prize. Obviously the Labrador, Bailey was the strongest but the Jack Russell Nemo, was clever enough to snatch it away when Baily's interest waned.

However, on throwing the stick for the umpteenth time, this time it didnt fall flat and stuck in the ground, Nemo was first to get to it, I heard a sharp yelp and rushed to find him covered in blood. Panic ensued and I immediately (in my white trousers!) rushed to open his mouth and find the cause of the problem. Fortunately nothing was left inside but a huge hole under his tongue. I found a hose pipe and preceeded to rinse his mouth thoroughly. Blood everywhere, I carried him into his bed where I left him to make some phone calls and get advice from a vet.

I need to point out at this stage that we have only been here a year and although my spoken French is much improved and my understanding of written French is quite good, I am still a bit scared of the phone, as local accents and speed of the language makes it difficult for me to understand everything.

However, I found a vet that spoke a combination of English and French and between us we established that if there was no evidence of the wood remaining in the wound, I was to keep him calm and give him some antibiotics (fortunately we already had some) and hopefully he would improve. The poor little thing was holding hid head low, dribbling and looking very sorry for himself.

I gave him his tablet, a good cuddle, washed him down and wrapped him in a blanket for the night. Fortunately, this morning he is much improved and although still looking dejected, I carried him out to go to the loo and he ate a biscuit and drank a little water.

Sticks are now banned in this house and even though the dogs love racing to get them, balls are the order of the day from now on, as I do not want a scare like that again! Oh............the drama's of daily life!

Friday, 27 May 2011

Feeling punch drunk

What is wrong with me today? not firing on all cylinders and normally I am a domestic goddess in the kitchen but I burnt the biscuits I was making for my daughters school event this evening and now in a desperate attempt to cook something new as the biscuits could not be saved, I cannot concentrate on the recipie for millionnaires shortbread and not only burnt the shortbread and the caramel to go on top but now I have tried to cut it, it has crumbled into millions of pieces! I think I will give up, sit down and have a drink........................perhaps thats whats wrong with me, I need a large glass of red!

I will just have to cover the burnt offerings in icing sugar, perhaps they will not notice!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Medieval Festival in Auvillar

Auvillar "d'un plus beaux village de France" in deepest South West France never ceases to amaze me with the events and activities going on. This sleepy little bastide village of around 1000 residents is perched on a hill over looking the River Garonne in the Midi Pyrenees and awakens from is temporary winter slumber in a blaze of glory around April each year.

Inhabitents swell in numbers for the summer and the village rises to the influx of tourists by putting on a show in every sense of the word. This year through the winter the narrow cobbled streets have been renewed, antique style street lamps been repainted and renovation work on some of the old buildings has started in ernest. The first big event of the year was at the end of April when for the first time the village hosted a medieval festival.

Locals, people from neighbouring villages and towns, tourists and pilgrims walking the Saint Jacques de compostelle all gathered to witness the all day spectacle.

Knights on horses, medieval ceremonies including a wedding outside the church, jousting, sword fighting, fire eating and open air plays as well as a medieval supper occupied everyone for the day which again was blessed by fantastic weather. Even the children were catered for with rides on the jousting horses, play sword fights and a set of stocks took centre stage for a while when parents (who didn't need much ecouraging) put their kids in them for the customary photographs.

The next festival (St Noe) is 18th and 19th June where the village celebrates the vine and blesses the forth comming wine harvest in a traditional way. As always its is an excuse for a good old knees up with of course plenty of wine!! Make a date in your diary and check our availability.

Saturday, 30 April 2011


Living here in France there are a number of wild animals here that we just don't see in the UK. Birds such as hoopoe, hawks and cranes and mamals such as wild boar and coypu as well as many reptiles and lizards. We have seen a lot of them in the garden and most are welcome!

However, recently we have found that the lake is being trashed by an animal and all of the plant life is systematically being eaten which in turn will cause a problem for the fish.

Therefore, I took it upon myself to speak to one of the local farmers to try and find out what was causing the problem. I was told a ragondin (coypu) was likely to be the issue and that he would come and set a humane trap to see what we could catch.

He arrived with a rather large cage of about 1m in length and baited it with apple and maize. After a few days we noticed the trap had gone off and the bait gone, on looking inside we discovered we had caught a moorhen! We let the poor stressed duck go and reset the trap once more.

After two further days, bingo we had our beast! yep a ragondin. We all went to take a closer look at the animal and found that it was much larger than we had expected. It was the size of a very large cat or small round dog. It had the most hiddious teeth, webbed back feet and a rat like tail. In addition (probably due to it being stressed) it made a horrible hissing noise followed by a deep growl! We promptly called the farmer who came to take it away and now the vegitation around the lake is growing back and happy fish once more.

I have not asked the fate of the beast, but like to think the farmer released it back into the River Garonne a few miles away!

Wild Orchids

Being a country girl at heart and loving all things associated with it, I have been amazed this spring with the variety of wild flowers we have growing here in France.

When we first moved into our old house in Newbury Berkshire over 16 years ago we had a number of wild orchids growig in the garden but unfortunately over the years they disappeared, which was sad.

Here however, we are blessed with not one variety, but I have seen three this year and all totally different. In the UK I am sure our garden would be designated a SSSI (site of special scientific interest).

I have checked the web and we have the following

Bee-orchid. Ophrys-apifera. Ophrys-abeille
Green winged orchid. Anacamptis morio. Orchis bouffon
Lady orchid. Orchis purpurea. Orchis pourpré

How exciting, I am on the look out for other varieties now!

Update May 11. Two new varities found today, images uploaded but am yet to find out what they are! can anyone help?

18th Birthday, no not mine, but I wish!

My lovely daughter turned 18 recently and as she doesn't live with us here in France but with my sister in the UK, I wanted to do something special for her.

It took months of planning and organisation. I emailed/called family and friends and it was like a military operation to get everyone here without Megan finding out.

On a number of occasions information slipped out in conversation and we were convinced that she had some idea of what was planned, but after questioning coyly, it seemed not. However, Nick, my husband had been on Facebook a few weeks before and had sent a message to my niece saying that he was looking forward to seeing her in March, but instead of private messaging her had posted it on her wall! Needless to say I went mad and told him to stay off Facebook until he knew what he was doing, he would blow the whole thing out of the water if he wasn't careful! Suitably chastised, he dutifully did as he was asked and got on with other things!

The weekend soon arrived and airport runs were in full swing by the time Megan and my dad had boarded their plane from Gatwick to Toulouse.

I had catered for the masses in advance and had made lasagne, chicken curry and beef stew so I could enjoy the weekend too instead of being locked away in the kitchen!

At 8pm I set off to collect the guest of honour and my dad from the airport while everyone else blew up balloons and hid away in the games room to keep the surprise going for as long as possible.

However, unbeknown to me, I was to be the one to let the cat out of the bag and I was gutted when I found out! The night before everyone arrived I had posted something as a direct message on twitter to a friend but had sent it as a reply instead and Megan had seen that I was expecting 17 for the weekend! She had subsequently spent the next 24 hours trying to work out who would be at her "Surprise" do. When I arrived at the airport she was playing the game well!

An hour later when we pulled in the drive the surprise was well and truly out in the open! Nevertheless, everyone was thrilled and cheered happy birthday when she walked into the darkened room!

I had made a cake and the celebrations kicked off in a big way with plenty of alcohol in the equation! At the end of the weekend all departed happy and we were left sad and lonely without our daughter :(

Life is tuff being a parent!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Strawberry Picking

I can feel a writing spree coming on! I have been so busy recently, I have not had the time or the inclination to write a blog but today I feel invigorated and ready to start again!

We have been here a year now and so much has changed in our lives. When we arrived last April we did not have a clue what lay ahead, but a year on we have made lots of friends, have integrated well and have found enough work (so far) to keep the wolf from the door for the time being!

In addition to my internet account management for Zebra (barcode printer manufacturer) I am working up at the local farm picking strawberries whilst waiting for bookings to pick up and have never worked so physically hard. My knees ache, my back is killing me and after the first few hours instead of bending to pick the fruit, I end up kneeling on the floor of the poly tunnel in straw and squashed strawberries, feeling like a cripple, what a sad case I am! However, it is doing wonders for weight loss and the breakfast is fab. I am sure after strawberries there will be other fruit to harvest too, I think cherries are next and although I appreciate the work, I am starting to feel my age!

With the days work, mowing and cooking a meal finished with, I collapse on the sofa in agony which is where I stay until bedtime. After a large Armagnac (or two) to numb the pain I almost crawl up the stairs to bed! But am I happy?........................YES most deffinitely.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Day 4 - Windsor Castle

By now all of us were feeling a bit tired of sightseeing but knowing it was our last day we wanted to make the effort just once more to visit Windsor Castle.

A short drive and easy car parking close to the centre of Windsor made the journey more pleasant. The weather was on the change and although we had sunshine, there were noticably more clouds and rain was in the air.

Windsor in all its splendour however, did not fail to impress, even me as a native Britain! We collected our now customary multilingual hand sets and proceeded through strict security into the grounds of the castle. After making our way following the guided tour points, we entered the castle to first see Queen Mary's Dolls House that was not created to play with but to show royalty what was possible to make on such a small scale. There was a working hoover that was only 3 inches in size and all the furniture was an exact replica of the full sized versions made by renowned craftsmen of the time, orignal miniature paintings and fine china tea sets with places just measuring 1 inch in diameter (1.5cm approx) adorned the miniture rooms.

After walking round the dolls house twice we then moved onto the impressive state rooms with swords, suits of armour, paintings and sumptiously dressed rooms in bright colours and gold leaf. After spending 2 hours in the castle we moved on to St Georges Chapel, where a number of important royal figures are buried including the Queen Mother. The chapel itself was designed and built by the brother of the person who built Bath cathedral, just in case you are interested!

After a sandwich, we left Windsor, returning home via Reading to collect some liquorice (I have a terrible passion for a certain type of liquorice that you cannot buy in France, so as I had a suitcase allowance this time I decided to stock up!) Then on to Basingstoke to sort some car stuff and then back to Newbury to meet a number of girlfriends and their children for tea at Pizza Hut, which by the way, was enjoyable but chaos with 8 adults and 12 children, the noise was deffening!

Tesco, the large supermarket chain in the UK was frequented on our visit a number of times and the final task before returning to France was to get all our purchases in the suitcase without being over the weight limit............believe me the liquorice was coming with us whatever!!

Home on the Thursday morning in the rain was time to reflect on what we had achieved in such a short space of time and to plan a girly weekend away without kids for the next trip!

Day trip to London

Day three, a super speedy visit to London was spent taking in as many sights as time and children would allow. We took the 10am train into Paddington buying a one day travel card which includes the tube and bus (once in London and also gets you into some of the main attractions for half price) our first stop was Parliament Square.

As we emerged from the Tube into bright sunlight again, we were greeted by big ben striking midday. The golden paintwork gleamed in the sunshine and we just had to take the opportunity for a photo session! We then walked along the side of the houses of parliament and back past Westminster Abbey, although the queue to get in and the price was prohibitive. As we had already seen a number of cathedrals, we decided to give it a miss, however William and Kate had been there the night before us to choose the music for their wedding! Walking on to Victoria we then joined Buckingham Palace Road and the Royal Mews where the Royal Golden Carriage is kept and the cavelry horses, then it was on to Buckingham Palace itself. After watching the guards for a few minutes we walked through St James Park and into Trafalgar Square.

We stopped for another photo opportunity with the lions guarding the base of Nelsons Column and took the tube (mainly to rest our feet and keep the kids happy) to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. After yet more photos we made our way back to Paddington, where Nathalie wanted a photo of the large rail station before we got onto the train!

Phew, exhausted.