The September Garden

As the days grow shorter and the nights turn cool there’s no mistaking that autumn is just around the corner. We’re saying goodbye to summer. She’s lingering on for as long as she can, indeed this last week was as hot as any days in mid July but all the tell tale signs are here. The trees are starting to think of their winter hibernation, leaves are just beginning their change in colour and the first few are falling gently around our feet. The air smells completely different, it’s too soon still for fires here and so there’s no lingering aroma of woodsmoke in the air, indeed there’s no particular thing to describe it, it’s just that unmistakeable scent of autumn.

September is a month of tranquility when the light softens and we appreciate our time in the warmth outdoors knowing that it’s slightly more precious. It’s been an interesting few months in our garden with both highs and lows and we’ve learnt a lot along the way. I love being able to wander across the lawn and cut bunches of fresh flowers, arranging them haphazardly in vases all around the house and so this year we started our cutting garden for the first time. A dedicated area of the vegetable garden where we sowed a mass of seeds and bulbs, nothing too complicated for the first year; clarkias and zinnias, cosmos and dahlias and malope trifida commonly known as annual mallow. The zinnias were an utter failure and the clarkias only faired slightly better. The mallow and cosmos have been fabulous and are still going strong and the dahlias are beautiful and I really wish I had planted more! I think next year I need to be a little more adventurous and I certainly plan to do a lot more homework in the coming weeks, I have a lot to learn!

The vegetable garden, perhaps one of my favourite places, got off to a flourishing start with a very warm early spring. But the carrots appeared to fail to germinate, I thought it was just too dry and so I resowed and again they were a failure, but this time I noticed that the tiniest of seedlings did appear but were immediately eaten. Only on the third attempt did things go a little more smoothly. The green beans suffered a similar plight, as soon as they appeared they were eaten by slugs and snails and in the end I sowed these in pots in our mini greenhouse where I could keep a very firm eye on them and then transplanted them when they were about six inches high and it worked, they’re still going strong!

Apparently it was the worst spring anyone can remember for gastropods, we were not the only ones to suffer, they caused endless problems for every gardener we know.

Our tomatoes by contrast flourished, or so we thought, by early June we already had a few starting to show the first hints of orange on their solid green flesh, things were looking great until disaster struck. Within a matter of days they were all suffering from blackened leaves and stems, it spread at remarkable speed and I immediately assumed it was blight. Jeff, our American friend and amazing gardening guru told me it wasn’t blight but a pathogen in the soil. Actually he gave me a wonderful long name which I have of course forgotten! It appeared there was little we could do but cut them down to the ground and hope they would regrow or pull them out altogether.

But stubborn as I am I didn’t want to give in quite yet. I was prepared to try anything to save them. Refusing to use any form of chemicals because our garden is completely organic I ended up making up my own concoction from an amalgamation of ideas I had read on the internet. I took a half litre empty spray bottle and added about half an inch of Organic Neem Oil. Then half an inch of all natural washing up liquid followed by a couple of tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda and finally I then filled the bottle all the way to the top with water. I shook it vigorously for several minutes to make sure everything was really well mixed and then I sprayed it all over any part of the plant that was affected and then I said a few silent prayers. This was not a cure but something that I hoped would stop the spread of the fungus. Within a week I was positive my prayers had been answered and within a couple I knew for sure. The plants were growing, I cut off any dead leaves and continued to feed and water them. We gorged on tomatoes all summer and now in September we are still harvesting a fairly decent crop on a daily basis.

Our aubergines and cucumbers have been a huge success with none of the problems suffered by half of our vegetables, they’re still going strong and we’re thoroughly enjoying them. The melons on the other hand were ok but not abundant despite the long hot summer.

Finally the carrots are big enough to start pulling up and eating, they are late because they got off to such a terrible and delayed start, but it’s been worth the wait. We’re still digging up potatoes and feasting on our autumn raspberries which are smaller than they were in the summer but just as sweet.

Elsewhere, as always we’re overrun with figs! Fresh figs for breakfast and lunch, figs wrapped in prosciutto and gently roasted, fig confiture, fig chutney, the list is endless!

The latest problem has been our olive trees which have suddenly been attacked by the dreaded olive fly. I have sprayed them with the same Neem Oil concoction and again I’m crossing my fingers, it appears to have worked but only time will tell.

However, there’s none of the urgency of spring in the garden, instead everything has taken on a slower feel. The chicks which hatched at the end of May are now nearly fully grown.

Late blooming roses and asters have now taken over a good chunk of the border. I know if I keep deadheading we’ll have things flowering for a few more weeks. The grass is still parched and dry.

The black woodpecker is busy at work with his beak in one of the old plane trees and the house martins are still circling overhead. No doubt beginning to think of their winter migration further south. We saw our first red squirrel here a few days ago and we’re about to start feeding the hedgehogs to give them a helping hand to prepare for their winter hibernation.

It’s a time to stand and listen. A time to appreciate the stillness of the garden as it slumbers lazily in the evening sun.

A Week of Ups and Downs

These last hot sunny days are ticking away, we’re almost on stolen time, snatching what we can whilst it’s available. Making the most of glorious weather and deliciously warm evenings, hours after dark where we can dine on the terrace with friends, kidding ourselves that it’s mid August and we have weeks of these lazy days ahead of us. And whilst it all sounds like a life of poetry it’s actually been a hectic week of events punctuated with enormous highs and lows.

It all kicked off with the excitement of the Tour de France, Stage 10 in the Charente Maritime. The first time ever that the Tour would take in two islands in the same stage. It started on the Île d’Oléron and finished on the Île de Ré. It is an event that not one of us had ever seen in real life and the fact that it was passing through the next door village was an opportunity not to be missed.

It meant a day off school for two of our girls, justified by the fact that we all felt they would learn far more from this experience than a day in the classroom. We needed to avoid crowds and we wanted a vantage point and so a plan was hatched. We would go by bike as all the roads were closed to cars from 9am onwards. In blisteringly hot sun we set off across the Marais. Backpacks bulging with a delicious picnic, our spirits were high as we peddled through the open marshland. After about 6km we took a detour through the woods and down some farm tracks, arriving at the road where the riders would pass by in a few hours time. There were already a handful of cars and tables set up in the shade, families eating lunch, playing pétanque on the dusty track under the trees, a scene so typically French. So relaxed, so unhurried and so utterly normal to be eating beside a main road with a proper table, chairs and tablecloth and glass of rosé to hand! We left our bikes against a tree, donned our masks, said ‘bonjour’ to everyone as we passed and walked a hundred yards down the road to a shady spot. We were totally alone and set up our own mini feast. Nowhere near as glamorous as that of our fellow French Tour followers! But to be fair we had bikes and they had cars!

We had a long wait but we were prepared, the first thing to pass about a hour and three quarters before the race itself is what is known as the ‘caravan’ a 30 minute long procession of cars and floats, all decorated in every guise possible. Music playing, each advertising some large national company; a supermarket, an organic shop, olive oil, insurance, anything and everything. They throw out tiny cheap freebies as they go past, keyrings, funky hats, laundry detergent, flags, bandanas, candy, mixed nuts, the list went on and the excitement mounted. It’s all part of the day and a really great fun part, especially when you’re there with teenage children and they are throwing themselves into the spirit of things with gusto.

This was followed by a lull of an hour or so before a couple of cars came past announcing that everyone must wear a mask and that the race was close. Then another car and some motorbikes and then they were upon us.

They came by so fast, in literally a few seconds they had gone and all we could see was a bunch of bright colours speeding towards the horizon. I was amazed at the speed, around 55kph. We were standing within a metre of the closest riders to our side of the road. The noise of the wheels as they turned at such speed, that’s all I could hear. Thirty seconds or so went by and then there was the second group, held up due to a crash a few kilometres previously. Another frenzied few seconds and they too rode off into the distance. Our Tour de France was over. But we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Slowly we gathered together all of our things, all of our free goodies and headed back across the Marais on our bikes. The keen wind in our faces making it slightly tough going and I was more than happy to stop for five minutes and take photos. Normally I pass through the Marais in a hurry from one place to another and it’s difficult to park on the side of the road so I made the most of being on two wheels and enjoyed every square inch of my surroundings.

The rest of the week passed by in a bit of a manic blur. Jack was leaving for university in Bordeaux on Friday and we had A LOT to organise. No matter how organised we thought we were there was still more to do. We had lists, shopping to be done, clothes needed, accessories for his studio apartment. And then there were the things to be sorted at home, boxed items we had stored for when the next one of our children headed off on their own. They all had to be found, cleaned, sorted. The list of jobs was endless.

In a normal world it wouldn’t have been so bad, it is after all less than a two hour drive south. We would see him every couple of weeks or so and if he was short on anything I could drive down, but the Covid world is an altogether different place. I truly am not sure when he will come home again, he’s now firmly ensconced in a “red” zone, Bordeaux featuring heavily on the list of cities with a major problem. New stricter measures are to be applied there on Monday so I have read. But he wanted to go, he was so excited. He even said to me, he would take a gap year and skip this year if it would make me happy, but how could I do that to him? Covid is something we all have to learn to live with.

I’m not worried because it is another one flying the nest, he is number three to go and we have two more at home, I encourage them to spread their wings, I love watching them turn into incredible young adults and I’m so proud of them all. But this time I shed more than just a few tears, not because he was going off, but because with covid I am scared. I feel we are safe here in the country, in a small village, in a safe part of France with not a lot of socialising. But university life in a big city with an ever increasing number of infections is another matter. Still I’m proud of him and happy for him and I do know he will be careful.

So that has sort of been my week, up and down. There have been some other major developments which I cannot go into right now, some exciting and some exhaustingly difficult and stressful. I have certainly been pushed to the extreme the past few days.

And then last night I felt as if I had come up for air. After a day of cleaning and disinfecting to the highest levels possible new guests arrived in the cottage. I always enjoy welcoming people here, even with our new stringent methods it is still so much fun. I love picking fresh flowers from the garden to fill vases for them to enjoy.

We’ve always had such incredibly nice people staying, guests who have arrived as strangers and left as friends. Yesterday was no exception, another lovely couple. We stood and chatted (with our masks on of course) for half an hour in the late afternoon sun.

In the evening we had friends over for a bbq. I took a deep breath and remembered to enjoy all that life has to offer. We dined on the terrace, the night air as warm as could be. We drank local red wine, ate salad straight from the garden, we’re lucky and I needed to remind myself of that.

And in case you are wondering why I have written all of this today, it’s really quite simple. This blog and my facebook and instagram are always meant to be real. Just because we live in France and I write about all the positive things does not mean that life is a constant bed of sweet smelling roses and we just drift by on a perfect cloud. Life is good here but tough, super difficult a lot of the time, covid has hit us hard, there have been more disasters than I can mention. But and it’s a big but, there have been enormous highs, the bad making the good so much better and as I said making us realise how really lucky we are. I try to keep it real here. This road which passes through a neighbouring village is on my daily school run. How lucky am I to have such a gorgeous route to take each day?

And if you’ve made it this far with my ramblings can I just have a final word to remind you that this is the last day of our End of Summer Madness Sale. Click Here to go straight to the shop. There are huge savings of up to 70% and the discount is automatically applied at checkout. We’re making space for some super exicting new developments and new things to come in the shop. A n enormous thank you to you all for everyone who has already supported us and to anyone new. Thank you so so much xx

Labor Day Weekend Sale

Labor Day WEEKEND SALE

SALE

UP TO 50% OFF

DISCOUNT AUTOMATICALLY APPLIED AT CHECKOUT

WWW.OURFRENCHLIFESTYLE.COM

If you can’t get to France this Labor Day weekend, don’t worry, we can bring a little bit of France to you. We ship Worldwide via Priority, Tracked and Signed for mail. Every item is insured for international fast shipping. Click on the link above.

A HUGE Thank You from us all for supporting our small business during these difficult times, wherever you are have a great weekend xx

The Boulangerie And The Baguette

After a 2-year hiatus we finally have a boulangerie in the village again! The children can walk 120 metres down the road and come back with baguettescroissants or a hunk of gros pain!  Everything took a long time, the transformation of the interior of the old 18th century shop into a new, updated and enlarged bakery. But the important news is that the bread itself is excellent, and that’s something the whole village is happy about.

baguette is one of France’s most recognisable symbols of life, and as a former colonial power there are many other countries around the world that also live and breath by the baguette. It’s a symbol of appetite, hunger and food that’s existed since at least the 18th century, and Marie Antoinette famously lost her head at the complexities of its importance in daily life. And of course, like most ancient traditions, the simplest things are now getting complex, but having a boulangerie in one’s village that makes good bread is terribly important for anyone with French blood in their veins and a whole host of foreigners too.

The simplest baguette consists of just four ingredients – flour, water, yeast and salt – and although in every bakery in France there will be baguettes of this composition, there are now nearly always other varieties made with different flours and additional ingredients. There are different sizes such as batonsficelles and flutes, and then behind the glass panes or set aside in baskets will be specialities that look like ears of corn or plaits. ALL of them will taste divine, whether we’re using a piece to sop up some gravy, or dunking it in a tartin of hot chocolate for our breakfast. 


To add to the myriad of confusion that can assail the unwary foreigner, since 1993 and Le Décret Pain (the Bread Decree), every boulangerie in France will make their pain maison a different way, since the decree states any pain maison must be “fully kneeded, shaped, and baked at their place of sale.” In addition, pain traditionnel français cannot be made from pre-made dough. So if you want the best bread in a boulangerie, the rule of thumb is to look for the ‘house’ baguette, which may come under such guises as a baguette tradition, or a baguette festive, the latter the name of our local home-baked loaf. Typically, these will be the most plentiful, piled high in obvious existence, and the one which most of the other clients will be choosing. It may arrive either wrapped in a small piece of thin paper, or it may be slid into a paper bag, complete with the logo of the mill that supplies the boulangerie with their flour. 

It is also important to watch out for what a baguette ordinaire is in the bakery, as this may be nothing more than a long thing made with very tasteless white flour, a loaf often purchased by the elderly who find it easier to chew. My advice is to choose something with tradition or campagne in the name, both will be much tastier than a baguette ordinaire and should arrive with a substantial crust and a bounce to the interior.

You’ll know if you have a good boulangerie in your village when a French person comes by to eat. They may only take one tiny piece of baguette but the flavour is vital and hopefully it will be eaten with a nod of approval.

Bread is a serious business in French households, and a hundred years ago it was such an important part of the French diet that the daily consumption was nearly 600grms per person, so many French people, especially the older members of a family, will be sticklers for a good baguette, and if your’s is not up to scratch the fact may well be brought to your attention!

One of my favourite games when we have friends visiting is to come home with a selection of baguettes from different bakeries, and then hold a tasting game. You’ll be amazed at the variety in flavours and textures, and you will end up with some bread that is very much more to your taste than the rest.

But the boulangerie has come a long way. All but the very smallest now sell a variety of patisserie. Those wonderful mouth watering deserts that are so hard to resist.

And of course croissants, pain au chocolat and delicious pastries. Along with savoury filled baguettes and pizza slices.

Many have gone one step further, like ours and added a small epicerie space selling all sorts of useful necessities; sugar, pasta, tea, coffee and of course local wine! In fact they’ve become the small corner shop. But they’re not just that, they are also a very social place, a meeting point for villagers to discuss the weather, the latest gossip, the football or rugby. Whatever needs to be mentioned will be discussed. It’s a fabulous place to just listen, you never know what snippet of information you might pick up!

On another note be warned – if you eat cheese with your fresh baguette, you may well find your French friends frowning in bewilderment, as they tend to eat their cheese as a standalone product, with a fork and knife!

I can’t finish this without a warning – beware of the trap that some bakers will set out for you too, making a baguette that thins out at each end into the most irresistible knob that can mysteriously snap off and find it’s way into an unwary mouth before home is reached. Should this unfortunate event befall you, just remember to brush off the shadows of flour from your clothing that can give away the careless gourmand !

One final word thank you so much to everyone who has supported our shop during these difficult times, we are so incredibly grateful, you have helped us so much. We have some new exciting developments coming this month but before then and to show our appreciation we created Our Summer Madness Sale, now running and ending on Monday the 7th. There is 25% off nearly everything in the shop and I’ve reduced prices as well. The discount is automatically applied at the checkout. And if you would like to purchase several items do send me an email, I can try and combine the shipping the best way possible and get you an even better price. Click here to go directly to the shop. Or visit our website www.ourfrenchlifestyle.com

A Love Affair With France ?

I wonder sometimes if the world’s love-affair with France will ever end. It’s been going on with the English since most of south-west France belonged to the Crown centuries ago, and will probably continue long after Covid has been and gone too. And yet, so many people ask us why it is – what it is about this enormously varied country that appeals so much to foreigners? Is it the food, the weather, the romance, the culture? I think it’s a mix of all of these things and more, with perhaps a little magic pixie dust thrown in, too.

For so many people, travelling to France is a voyage back in time, to a land that shows how so much history over so many centuries can be adapted to, so successfully. For while it is a modern, technological country, there are parts of France in the distant countryside where people still live by candlelight – not necessarily due to financial circumstances, but because that’s the way it is. This sort of idiosyncrasy can be found throughout France, from the tip of its gilded Eiffel Tower to the muddy shallows of the beauty of the Carmargue, it is part of the extraordinary diversity of this country that not only makes it so attractive, but also so real. Throw in an area big enough to hide 65 million people with ease, along with a tradition of wine and cheese-making that has outlived a thousand battlefields and a dozen conquering civilisations — all of whom have left their mark — and you have a destination that can tug at every heart-string inside a visitor. 

For many people, the lure of France lies in the old ancient villages and towns that are scattered across the breadth of a land that has endured almost every historical passage of time known to man. From its palaeolithic past to the Second World War, there are signs and clues to its past everywhere — castles, towers, walled cities, grand chateaux, glorious palaces of sandstone and clustered houses perched along the gorges and cliffs of its limestone regions. And having lived here so long, I secretly think that France is the beating heart of Europe’s past, and the scars it loves to share are part of the enduring character of the country that makes us all love it so much. 

So if we can admire the magnificence of Versailles and still love the charm of the ancient traditional fishing carrelets of the Charente Maritime, what else quickens our pulse? Away from the six great cities of France, the countryside stretches out for 600 miles in each direction, with every region having a distinct geography, culture and history. The Calvados-distilling farmers of Normandy are a world away from the lithe sun-tanned fishermen of the Mediterranean, and here where we are in the Charente Maritime the people are a mix of genes, ranging from the salt-producers of the Marais, to the oystermen of the shallow muddy offshore flats.

As everywhere in this country, each region has its own culture, culinary adventures, and wine and beer. Here for example alongside wine we also have Cognac and Pinneau, the two liquid tastes of the west, and moules éclade, a dish of fresh mussels cooked with burning pine needles. That’s before we get to the oysters, in the ‘City of Oysters’, Marennes.

Where we live just above the marsh, amongst the ancient houses that line streets laced with hollyhocks and valerian, all roads lead to a church, often a building started sometime in the 11th or 12th century, and then sometimes embellished with a spire at a later, more financially capable date. These stolid buildings are large stoned, squat and weather-beaten, and curiously ethereal in their monotone standing. 

This close to the coast, the farmers’ fields are not yet the agricultural monotone swathes that cover much of France’s western interior. Hedgerows and stone walls still exist, a reason why we have good populations of insects, birds and small mammals compared to our neighbours further east. A half dozen pilgrimage routes snake through the region, and down in the marsh itself it is rumoured that there are small stone jetties and iron rings still lying deep amongst the copses of blackthorn and bramble. A mile from where I sit writing this, a stunning small church lies in the cradle of the land below the escarpment. Once upon a time, the salt barges could tie up a couple of pew lengths from the western door, their crews a congregation from a time when the breeze would carry the Atlantic scum-deep into the salt ponds at high tide, and the precious savoury cargo would leave on the broad flat-bottomed boats, destined for the big cities and markets of France. 

So, a brief tour through a dozen photos hardly illustrates why we love France, but we do. As do so many. There is Paris, the city of love, the alpine meadows of the Savoie, the Normandy coastline with its fearful toll of victory, the deep river valleys of the Dordogne, and the sandy scratchy south coast where the wind blows tightly off the Mediterranean — every region and department is a flavour of this wonderful country, where life always mingles with past and where the people work to live, so the weekends can be a long lunch table of memories. For one thing is sure, no war, or battle, or sound of armies on the march has ever dulled a Frenchman’s appetite for la vie en rose .

Finding Something Special in Normandy

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A picture tells a thousand words. I could stare at this for hours there is something so peaceful about the old stone and water. This past week I have been in Normandy, in many ways very different to our part of France, but in others just the same. Read more

Inside A French Country Cottage

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I think we probably all have general ideas of what the interior of any dwelling will look like based on the exterior. We imagine inside a chateau to be one thing and inside a country cottage to be another. But things aren’t always quite so black and white and a few surprises are a treat.  Today I want to take you inside what would appear to be a classic low slung French cottage. I can imagine you’re already thinking, greys and neutrals and very little colour, right? Well come and have a look around with me, you might be in for a bit of a surprise! Read more

Summers In France

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Summer this close to the coast is a time to chase the shade. The gentle warmth of May and June has transcended into a season of heat, when days are warm at each end but a glare to bare eyes at midday, burning unwary shoulders. Time passes slowly as insects drone among thirsty plants, and any traces of life are a shuffle of noise behind shutters ajar to block the sun. Lunches last a long time… Read more

Five Go To The Market

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Sundays are slow here. In a super fast paced world, being able to walk to our Sunday morning village market is a real treat. And when our teenage children also appreciate how special this is I just know something is right. Read more

The Brunch Bunch

img_2416Brunch is just as popular in France as it is throughout the rest of the world. For me it is one of those fabulous meals associated with the weekend and free time. A simple mention of the word and I am dreaming of hot languid summer days and holidays. Staycations work just fine right now! It’s a meal that evokes contentment and friends and family. Brunch for me is always informal and relaxed. It is also always in my mind very much a warm weather affair on the terrace under the shade of the linden trees. A time when the internet and phones are forgotten. It’s a time of simplicity in pretty surroundings. Read more