What do we eat in February?!

I have just spent a good 30 minutes or so, writing a witty post. I then carefully saved it. I then, just as carefully deleted it.

Maybe I should blame the cat…

I can only promise you that the previous post was much better written than the following. How tragic that it is lost…

SO…

It is difficult enough to try to lose weight in France, with the delicious cheese, and patisserie, and charcuterie and bread. Temptation is at every turn, whatever season of the year it is. But I’m starting to believe that there is a secret Government conspiracy to make it particularly hard to stick to a diet in the early months of the year…

You have made a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight! Hah! I spit on your resolve! I will break you like a twig!!

First of all, in January, the French celebrate Epiphany with a Galette des Rois – or King Cake. I think these might take different forms in different regions, but here in 42, the most common is this:

It’s basically a puff pastry pie, with a filling of almond paste, which is delicious; it’s usually eaten with a glass (or two) of cider, at a family event, or a get together with friends or colleagues. The Galette should be divided such that each guest receives a slice, plus an extra, symbolic slice for any unexpected visitor, or poor person, that should pass by.

In each Galette a fève is hidden. This was originally a dried bean, but is now a porcelain or plastic figurine; in the past a King, but more and more they are of Disney characters, or Asterix, or other things. The person who discovers the fève in their serving is declared le roi (the king) or la reine (the queen) and gets to wear the golden paper couronne (crown) that is always provided with the cake. If it’s a mass produced Galette it will be in the box, if you buy it at the boulangerie, the crown will be handed over with your purchase.

To avoid accusations of “King fixing”, it is traditional during the slicing of the galette to have the youngest child at the gathering sit underneath the table to call out the name of the person to receive each slice – Le prochaine c’est pour Papi – so the server can’t be accused of playing favourites!

I remember my first experience of a Galette des Rois was with my first night school class, in about 2009: they fixed it so I received the fève, and I still have the little plastic King on my desk.

Here’s our collection of fèves – all rather high quality ceramic ones, except my King – a green chicken with gold stripes, a porcelein advertising plaque, a smart green boot (I’d like a pair of these in my size- though obviously not in ceramic!) and a curious black cube with A, Z and C on its sides. We keep these on the kitchen shelf.

We’ve not had fèves recently as it’s now possible to buy mini-Galettes, just enough for two people, which, although they are just as delicious, don’t come with the crown, or the fève.

So having recovered from eating puff pastry and frangipane, we move onto Candlemas, 2nd February, when it is traditional to eat pancakes, or crêpes.

The tradition of eating crêpes at Candlemas is attributed to Pope Gelasius the 1st, who had pancakes distributed to pilgrims as they arrived in Rome.

It is also said the tradition of eating crêpes started as it was a good way of using up the extra wheat before a new harvest. Symbolically, as a round crêpe looks like the sun, it was also a good reason to rejoice as the days started to get longer.

As well as eating pancakes or crêpes during Candlemas, all candles in the house are lit, and the feasting takes place by candlelight. Also on this day, the Nativity scenes are put away as it signals the end of the Christmas season. I’ve just noticed that the Christmas lights around the village have been taken down – I noticed them a couple of weeks ago, but now they’re gone, presumably for the same reason. Mind you, some communes keep the lights up all year round, but just don’t illuminate them until December!

But not only is one supposed to prepare your pancakes by candlelight, you also need to flip the crêpe in the air with your right hand, while holding a gold coin in your left hand, and ensuring that the crêpe lands properly back in the pan.  The symbolism attached to this way of flipping your crêpe dates back to the late fifth century and is linked to a fertility rite.

It is also said that the first crêpe made should be put into an armoire (wardrobe) to ensure your plentiful harvest later in the year. I don’t know how long said pancake shoud remain in the wardrobe, but I have to say that as my first pancake is usually a disaster a better place to put it would be in the bin!

So, if you have feasted on Galettes, and then pancakes, what’s next…?

Once Candlemas is over, in our region at least, the bugnes start arriving. Bugnes are rather delicious little doughtnutty things…

A French social media site tells us that bugnes are: Languette de pâte boursouflée par la friture et servie saupoudrée de sucre. On les appelle merveille ou oreillette selon les régions. – Mon grand-père faisait des corbeilles de bugnes au printemps. (Trans: strips of batter puffed up in hot oil, served with icing sugar on top. They are called fritters or little ears depending on the region. My granddad made baskets of bugnes in Spring)

I like my bugnes dipped in jam!

If you want to practice your French this site explains a little more, telling us that indeed bugnes are only from the Auvergne-Rhone Alpes area, and giving recipes too.

Bugnes are around until Shrove Tuesday, when, of course, all delicious things are given up for Lent. Or not, depending on one’s religious leanings…At least you can take 40 days before the chocolate feasting begins…as the flying bells drop chocolate into your garden.

What?

Flying Bells?! What about the Easter bunny?!

Well, Church bells are – or used to be – an intrinsic part of French life, but they are traditionally silenced on Maundy Thursday, then on Good Friday, no bells in France are rung in honour and remembrance of Jesus Christ being crucified.

It’s believed that the story of the flying bells was created as a fun way to explain the absence of bell ringing to young children. Parents tell children that the bells sprouted wings and flew to visit the Pope in Rome for a blessing. Once there, the Pope presents the bells with delicious chocolate bells and eggs. On Easter morning, the bells fly home to France. Then laden with chocolate, but needing to ring out for Easter Sunday, the bells drop the chocolate treats in the gardens all over France for children to find.

Bells? Bunnies? Who cares…it’s CHOCKLIT!!!!

PS The title of the post comes from today – I saw there were bugnes on sale at the Boulangerie as I bought bread, so I bought six for a treat. I came home with the bread and the bag of bugnes.

“Wotcha got there?” said MrFD as he spied the bag.

“What do we eat in February?” I replied

BUGNES!” we said, in unison.

A local chateau fort

A Chateau Fort is the French word for what we’d probably call a castle – not one of your poncy chateaux with fancy turrets and posh staircases like this one:

While we have a couple of those in the area, they’re not open to the public (unless you go Air bnb!) But we do have the ruins of a good old Chateau Fort – Le Chateau des Cornes d’Urfé

This was the “cradle” of the Urfé family, who ruled this corner of the Loire departement – but of course the departement didn’t exist then! Anne d’Urfé – a bloke – was one of the first Seigneurs, and his heart is interred in the little chapel here in St Just. Honoré d’Urfé wrote what is considered to be one of the first novels, a story called “Astrée”, after which our street is named. Later on, the family owned a more Chateau-y Chateau, Le Bastie d’Urfé, on the plain

but at the beginning the Chateau des Cornes d’Urfé was their home. It was remarkably well situated to view the Chateau in St Just itself, and that in Champoly, about 10 km away And – of course – it dominated the valley in the mountains, probably making it ideal to demand tolls from those passing, as well as keeping an eye on any aggressive movement of men from either of the neighbours!

I visited with my friend, Jane, while she was here.

This is the view from the tower, looking towards St Just. As you can see the chateau is now in ruins, and while volunteers come every summer to help to restore the building, they can only do so much. We were amused that the only nod to health and safety was a notice saying “Soyez Prudent” (Be careful) – climbing the steps inside the tower was not for the faint hearted: unlit, uneven, steep, low-ceilinged and no handrail of any description (until the final 10 steps when there was a rope to hang onto!) I’m sure in the UK it wouldn’t have been allowed!

After admiring the view we strolled around the bottom of the Chateau

 

We used to bring visitors here all the time, but I hadn’t been for ages. It was a pleasure to come back – especially on such a nice day. It wasn’t very clear however, but on a really clear day you can see Mont Blanc in one direction and Puy de Dome in the other.

Day 7: The Last Goodbye

We’d come to the last day of our holiday: Mr FD had wanted to hire an electric bike, but events had conspired against us, in that the local bike hire shop had hired all their bikes to a group, and the other one was slapbang in the middle of a town which was going to have market day today, making it too difficult to manouvre through narrow streets and park the car. As it was, he wasn’t feeling 100% again, so we thought it best to have a quiet day.

We called in at Ganges to buy a couple of bottles of wine as gifts for friends, and then had a simple lunch of quiche and salad back at the room. In the afternoon we read and I painted a bit. It’s a picture that needs more work doing on it sometime when I feel inspired.

I’d seen a sign for an Artisan of cashmere very close by, so I decided to call in – maybe buy a Christmas present for one of the mums, I thought. So I drove up, and parked at the foot of the drive. When I went in the shop, there was the Artisan plus two customers. They all stopped and looked at me. In silence.

“I’m – um – just here to – er – look” I said

“I have a rendezvous, madame”, said the man.

“Can’t I just – um – look?”

“No madame. Au revoir madame.” Silence.

“Oh. Er – au revoir.”

And that was it.

So I went back home!

We’d already booked to go back to the restaurant at Saint Martial, Lou Regalouand thankfully Mr FD was feeling better so having packed ready for the morning (it took all of about 10 minutes) we set off for the restaurant.

This time we had the 27€ menu:

Starter: Aubergines en caviar, soupe glacée de tomates et panisses ( caviar of aubergines – basically a type of aubergine paté – with iced tomato soup and panisses. Which are untranslatable. We didn’t know what they were, (although they were yummy!) but I have subsequently discovered that panisses are a type of giant-chip-shaped chickpea purée, breadcrumbed and fried) I’ve always avoided cold soup, thinking that “cold” and “soup” are two words that shouldsn’t go together. This was much more enjoyable than I imagined.

Main course: Brochettes d’agneu de pays façon kofta, salade de pois chiches ( local lamb skewers, kofta style, with a chickpea salad) I forgot to take a photo! It was very good. Possibly not as good as the steak from Thursday, but still very enjoyable.

Dessert looked almost exactly the same as Thursday’s, differing only in that the centre was raspberry purée, and it was served with a raspberry coulis. This one was not as frozen as the one on Thursday, and I think suffered a little from that, but again, it was very good.

And home we rolled, for our last night in the room.

Here are a couple of views from the area around where we were staying:

This shows the main house. We were just down the path and turn left

Typical Cervenolles countryside

We set off the next day, bright and early, for home – it was a 4 hour drive – stopping only for a coffee at an Aire (rest stop) near this viaduct.

Can you guess who designed it?

We were home in time for a late lunch!

It was a truly delightful holiday. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it!

Day 6: A Happy Accident

We were coming to the end of our holiday – it was now Friday – but we had had a great time so far (mostly, give or take a few grumps!) Today we were going to see the Cirque du Navacelles. The what?! you may ask.

Well, remember in geography you learned about ox-bow-lakes? (Having discussed this with an English couple we met, we decided that ox-bow-lakes and the water cycle were the two things everybody remembers from their geography lessons! At least, everybody in the UK) The Cirque du Navacelles is like an Ox bow lake on steroids (without the lake.)

We parked the car near the Visitors’ Centre and strode off to the viewpoint. There were a few people there when we arrived, and they appeared to be having a guided tour, as one woman was explaining the geology of the area.

So we started listening, and when the group moved over to the model of the area, and the guide asked more questions, we joined in! We learned about the rock, and identified different varieties: chalk, limestone, granite, “others”. It was really interesting and fun.

Then, as the group set off we asked if we could join in. The guide said Yes, but it was 6.5 km of walking, and our feet might get a bit wet. Did we have other shoes? Oh, it’s OK, I said. And so we joined in! We paused, so the guide (whose name I didn’t get. Let’s call her Mireille) could point out a cave, somewhere on the cliff face to the left

This cave was used by Protestant worshippers, during the Religious Wars in France – they had to lower themselves on a rope, or follow a dangerous, tortuous path, to reach the place where they could worship in secret. It made me fleetingly wonder if I’d be willing to do that, if I had to…

We then all piled into cars to drive to where the walk “proper” began. This was a descent down to a group of mills, which had been in place for over 900 years. They were built at the point where the river burst out from its underground flow, so these mills harnessed the power behind the water.

It was a real clamber down, and I was grateful for the help of Fiona and Charles, a British couple from Yorkshire (Mr FD was behind us as he and a couple of others had been parking the cars) who helped me down the steepest parts. We paused beside the river to have lunch and then we continued. It was a fairly brisk pace, and I did struggle to keep up at times, but Mireille stopped regularly, to instruct us on different trees and leaf forms, so I had time for a breather.

Then we came to the edge of the river and everyone started changing their shoes.

“Do you not have other shoes?” Mireille demanded.

“No…” I then realised that I had probably misunderstood when she said our feet “might” get wet…!! Finally I waded through the river in my trainers, without socks, and Mr FD started off barefoot. As it was very pebbly, he gave in halfway across, and rather wobbly, he put on his trainers. Mireille was concerned we’d get blisters, if we continued the walk in wet trainers, but actually it was fine.

When we arrived back at the cars, Mr FD, Fiona and Charles and I decided to pause for a beer and an ice cream in a delightfully eccentric little bar. It was good to sit and rehydrate – but I felt inordinately proud of myself! I hadn’t fallen/slipped/given up! Huzzah for me!

We dropped Fiona and Charles at their car and then we paused briefly to pick up something for our dinner. We had salad, a ready meal of Parmentier de Canard, and a lemon cheesecake. Again, sitting outside, enjoying the peace and quiet of our little place!

 

Away with the Cyclos – Day 3

Actually, today was a day  away but NOT with the Cyclos… It was forecast to be hotter than yesterday, so, although the plan was that those who wished to could visit a market in the morning, lunch at the holiday village, then a visit to a gardens and a boat ride on the river, before setting off for home, Mr FD wanted to visit the gardens in the morning – cooler – and then head for home. Although I’d like to have visited the market I could see his logic, so we decided to cut loose and go to the gardens by ourselves. I’m glad we did. It was cooler, but also, as the visit was only by guided tour, and we were on the first tour at 10.00, with only two other people, our visit was much calmer, and cooler, than it would have been with twenty nine other people at 3.00 in the afternoon!…

The gardens were called Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire (the Gardens of the Imagination) and they were really lovely. Our guide was informative, but not intrusive, allowing us to ask questions and to discover the gardens ourselves.

 

It was lovely and there were lots of different areas to see. The rose garden was a little past its best, because of the heat, but the fountain garden was a delight to walk through in the sunshine.

and there were banks of flowers to pose against

As we left the garden, the 11.30 tour was starting – about twenty people, with children and pushchairs, all chattering, laughing and making a lot of noise: we were glad we’d taken the early tour, which gave us the silence to enjoy the sound of the water (as you can see there was lots of it) and the birdsong.

We left Terrasson to head in the direction of home, thinking we’d easily find a restaurant for lunch. Hah! No such luck! We did finally (at 1.30) find a roadside auberge, which looked rather unprepossessing. More in hope than expectation, we asked if they could serve us, and without batting an eyelid, the waitress led us to a table. There I chose a local paté (which was a bit too “agricultural” for my taste, but was edible with lots of chutney!) followed by a lovely piece of beef with bearnaise sauce. I chose cheese as dessert, as I still had wine to finish up, and Mr FD had ice cream (I think) allowing me a spoonful in return for the blue cheese on my plate.

We then took the road for home – I fell asleep to the dulcet tones of Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo’s film reveiw programme, which Mr FD had downloaded, and woke up as we left the motorway 10 minutes from home! That wine had a lot to answer for!!

We got back by 17.00 – which was probably when the rest of the group would have been just thinking about starting off. With work the next day, we were glad that we’d taken the choice we had. The cats were happy to see us too.

Away with the Cyclos – Day 2

Today dawned clear and bright – not! As the holiday village was on the top of a hill, the views should have been magnificent. Instead all we could see was cloud. Although the set off date for the Cyclos was 8.00 there was much hanging about and discussing whether it was safe to cycle. As visibility was about 300 m Mr FD was sure it was, but others (including our dear, but extremely cautious, friend Louis) weren’t so sure. Mr FD got more and more frustrated as they vasillated between going and not going, but finally they left.

The non-cyclists were tasked with carrying the picnic, and meeting the cyclists in Uzerche, a pretty town. So we set off to wend our way there, stopping in picturesque villages on the way. First stop, Saint Robert:

It was a charming village, but sadly, so many of the shops were boarded up or “A vendre” (for sale). With the place still wrapped in cloud, what few sounds there were were muted and almost ghostly. We spoke to an old guy who bemoaned the fact that the young people had moved out to go to the big cities, while the older folk were slowly dying away.

There were a few cats to be seen, including this one

who appeared to be directing us to the Boulangerie where there was a very old bread oven, still being used to bake the bread

  

Old bread oven, & bread baked in said oven

 

We then meandered on our way to Ségur-le-Chateau, one of Les Plus Belles Villages de France – villages designated as being particularly attractive.

Set on the banks of the river it was indeed very lovely, so we wandered around, admiring the views, and the old stone houses.

   

After this we drove onto Pompadour, where there was a chateau to be admired, from the outside…

…before we headed on to the designated meeting place – which was at the highest point in Uzerche – fine for us in cars, buit a bit unfair on the cyclists!

 

But they all made it! (Some people were on electric bikes, so it was easier for them!)

By now the weather had cleared, and it was getting quite warm. We were glad of the shade of the trees in the garden where we could have lunch. Odette &Louis had arranged with the Mairie to have the school opened so we could use their toilet facilities as well. Which we were grateful for! We had our picnics and spent a bit of time relaxing, which included having a coffee in a café that had agreed to recharge the batteries for those people who had electric bikes.

There was then much faffing as group photographs were taken, which annoyed Mr FD greatly. Once he starts cycling he wants to carry on, and while stopping for lunch was acceptable, enforced hanging around while we waited for this person to arrive, or that person to stop tinkering with his/her bike, was not.

Mr FD in a sulk (not really. Just a bit fed up)

They finally set off again, so we moved on to our afternoon port-of-call, which was the Chateau de HautefortThis link gives you much more information than I could, about the place (& better photos!)

 

   

We visited the interior first, and then the “French garden” – with its manicured and trimmed box hedges, and very orgaznised planting.

We didn’t have time to go to the “English garden”, which is much more landscaping, in the Capability Brown style.

We got back to the holiday village about 5.30, where I found Mr FD stretched out, wearing not a huge amount, drinking copious amounts of tea, exhausted after the second part of the ride in what had become hotter-than-one-would-wish-for-when-cycling conditions. We went to Yves and Brigitte’s chalet to have an apero to celebrate the birth of their first grandchild, and then wended our way up to the dining room for dinner.

This was a salad with gésiers – pleasant enough, but a bit small on portions – followed by cuisses de canard (duck legs) and green beans. There was also pasta. There was cheese and salad, and then a tiny portion of a walnutty kind of pastry with crème anglaise (thin custard) Another organisational meeting then off to bed!

Away with the Cyclos Day 1

A couple of weekends ago Mr FD and I went away with the Cyclos de St Just (the local Cycle Club, of which Mr FD is the treasurer). We stayed in a VVF Holiday Village in Ayen, not far from Brive, in the SW of France. The Holiday Village is a little dated now, but each couple had a chalet each – there was even a bedroom for the bike! – and the food was good school dinner / canteen standard.

We arrived at lunchtime on Friday, and had our picnic in the dining room of the village. We had all brought our own picnics, but after we’d eaten, Yves produced a huge box of cherries from his garden, Marie-Claude had made an enormous box of  bugnesand someone else had made a nutty-crunchy-biscuity thing, all of which were passed around the table for us all to eat. The plan was for the cyclists to ride on Friday afternoon, but it was pouring with rain, so we decided to go to Lascaux 4.

If you don’t know much about the history of Lascaux, this site tells the story of the discovery of the caves, and what happened afterwards.

It was amazing! Although it’s not the “real” Lascaux caves, it is as near as dammit. Everything was really well laid out, and the guide was knowledgable. We had visited way-back-when, about twenty five years ago, but now the Visitors’ Centre has been expanded. It’s fascinating, with lots of interactive displays that even I, a complete techno-idiot, could manage!

While you can’t take photos in the caves, you can take photos in the exhibition hall.

 

I particularly liked the “fat ponies” as I called them. The markings on this one remind me of the markings on Przewalski ponies, the prehistoric breed of pony that can still be found on the Causses of France and in Mongolia too.

This poor pony appears to be falling to his death. It is a remarkable painting, as it is painted “around the curve” of the rock, so the painter couldn’t see the whole picture as he/she was painting it.

Here are some more paintings of bulls and cattle.

I really enjoyed my visit, and found the exhibition to be really well put together. It wasn’t cheap, but you could easily spend a good half day there. We didn’t see all the exhibitions. If you are in the area I’d definitely recommend it – but remember, you need to book your place on the tour! There’s no “free” visits, they’re all guided tours.

Mr FD fully focussed on his interactive tablet

When we left, it had stopped raining, and the sun was starting to come out, which gave me the chance to take a couple of pictures of the outside of the Visitors’ Centre

     

We got back quite late, so dinner took until about 9.30 to eat. We started with a rather thin, watery soup and then had magret de canard with peaches, together with sautéed potatoes. There was cheese and salad, and then a rather miserly slice of raspberry bavaroise. For Louis, one of the cyclists who usually has 3 or 4 desserts, this was a bit of a disaster!

A short organisational meeting over coffee in the bar, and we felt it was time for bed. Cycling tomorrow! (for Mr FD…)

You can have the next installment soon…What did we do on Saturday?!