FÊTE DES BATTAGES – “THRESHING FESTIVAL”

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After another scorching week of crop-scorching weather the heavens opened last night with a most breathtaking thunderstorm. At one stage our terrace turned into a river with water running in a torrent down it, Roddy was wondering whether to spey-cast across the stream for newts and frogs.

By 4am the thunder had ceased and poor Bentley finally stopped shivering with fear – at dawn the odd down-pour still persisted but the garden had hungrily soaked up every drop of water and sat there contentedly in the weak sunshine, glistening like a frog with a fat stomach. Everything looked that little bit greener finally after such a dry summer, and after a week of sand and sea, boating and swimming, it was time to spend some time locally again.

We searched for unused raincoats amongst the cobwebs in the boot-room, and headed off to the Fête des Battages in Trizay, not entirely knowing what to expect except that it was a threshing festival and a real old fashioned farmers market! By the time we arrived we didn’t need them anyway as the heavy black clouds had completely retreated and once again blue sky was visible. We hoped the ‘agriculteurs’ would be in good voice, despite the dreadful forecast for the maize harvest which apparently is going to be one of the worst on record here after the lack of water.

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On display at the fête was an old threshing-machine from the 1950’s and not long after we arrived they fired it up and demonstrated how it worked, much to our delight. An ancient granny of a tractor served as a power source, and a drive-belt snaked some 30 feet to the threshing machine, driving in turn a spiders-web of belts, pulleys and baffles – Heath Robinson would have been proud. How much incredible hard work the harvest used to be, and how much more dangerous. After the corn had been cut it was tied into bundles and then passed by hand into the threshing machine which sorted the grain from the stalks. The grain was gathered at one end in bags, the chaff gathered underneath, and the straw came out the other end were it would end up passing through an attached baling-machine. Hetty and Gigi were engrossed for a good half hour, and it seems the rest of the crowd were too. We had to drag the children away eventually.

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Modern day combine-harvesters (or simply ‘combines’) operate on the same principles and use the same components as the original threshing-machines built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but they also perform the reaping operation at the same time. The name ‘combine’ is simply derived from the fact that the three steps are combined in a single machine, something many people simply gloss over.

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Growing up on a farm, I remember harvest-time as one of the best parts of the summer. Our bales would come out in rows of three with another three on top. If the weather looked fine, my father would always leave them out for a couple of extra days for us, and we used to canter around the fields on our ponies jumping them; there was only one rule – if we knocked one over, we had to get off and pick it up. We take modern farming methods for granted, but in the 1900’s everyone saw so much change. My father grew up on his in family farm in Sussex, he was born in between the two world wars and he saw all of this great change, which included horses being replaced by tractors, and then the step up to modern-day farm equipment. I remember him upgrading our bright red Massey Ferguson ‘combine’ for one with an enclosed cab; aside from cutting out the dust the cab was also silenced and this in turn meant he could listen to the cricket whilst combining – a vital part of an English summer!

In fact, today somewhat resembled an English summer day; the temperature stayed in the low 20’s (mid 70’sF) and white clouds scattered like Sussex hens across an otherwise blue sky due to the cooling breeze. A British friend who stayed with us last month remarked that she never remembers bad weather in England as a child in the summer holidays; of course it rained, but I similarly don’t recall the rainy days either – just endless sun, picnics, riding ponies, harvest-time, playing tennis and of course cricket; there was surely never any rain?

Anyway, on that note I wish you all a very happy week ahead with plenty of sunshine hopefully for the last week of August.

A FOREIGNER IN FRANCE

 

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People who have never lived abroad are often curious as to why others do. And until one actually has done so oneself, it is hard to understand the subtle nuances that can make life in a foreign country so great. The obvious differences such as language, location, and weather, are easy to understand; but often is it the minutiae of everyday life that draws people back to a place they may have only visited once on holiday, or seen film of, or read an article about. Sometimes it is not just a case of having wanderlust or a querying mind, but also a case of loving the quirkiness and embracing the challenge of living somewhere different and out of your comfort zone.

France is a great country – it has so much to offer and so much in its character that to a person living in the modern era its history and culture have much more right to importance than many may think. Whether it’s scenery, art, architecture, weather, cuisine, history or sheer grandeur, there is something for everyone in France, and that is what makes it such a great place to live, whether you’re soaking in the sleek atmosphere of a Parisian quartier, or sipping pastis next to a field of provencal lavender under an azure blue sky.

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For us, here in the Charente Maritime, we revel in a pastoral countryside of rolling hills, salt marshes and some truly fascinating architecture, built when France was at the height of its maritime power.  In summer, the lie of the land is yellow and green, sunflowers and grapevines, studded with forests of rich oak and chestnut.  Rochefort, Royan and La Rochelle guard the coast, and Saintes crowns the inland countryside.  In between are the working towns and villages, where French life continues, much as it has done for centuries, with its idiosyncrasies and small rituals of heritage.

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Old-style France, the haven where most people who come to live here want to enjoy at its best, is full of matters and ideas you have to get used to.  The French like to communicate, sometimes with verbosity and volume.  So to start with the greeting game is something you have to learn to play quickly, and well.   A “bonjour” in any situation, whether entering a shop or a household, a school crowd or the queue in the post office, is an expected passage of rite.  Most French people will also say goodbye to all and sundry when leaving a situation too. Children you know will do the same, instantly breaking off what they are doing to come and dutifully greet you.  Manners are important to the French, drilled into them at an early age, and they are amused at the casual tourist who does not play the game.   This also extends to the ‘bisou’, the traditional peck (whether one, two, three or even four) on the cheek which is actually a very simple gesture of both affection and civility.  We currently live by the ‘two bisous’ rule, one on each cheek, delivered only once a day to someone when you first see them, and with an obligation to those you know perfunctorily.  Strangers get a handshake first time round – it is best for them to offer you a cheek the next time before disgracing yourself with eagerness because he is so good looking!

Part of France’s heritage are its markets, whether it’s a weekly produce affair in the village square, or a daily one in a larger town or city. French people live in rhythm with the seasons, and this is especially important when it comes to food. Vegetables and fruits are eaten at the appropriate time of year, and you should know your varieties of strawberries and make note of your beans. It is easy to step back 30 years in time at a market-stall and talk serious recipes with your fellow shoppers. Yes, there are huge super-markets in France, but the traditional way to buy food is not losing pace at all. Seafood, meat, plants and fruits, charcuterie and cheese – all can be bought at the street-market at the best possible prices.  Last week I counted the cheeses on my fromagier’s stall; there were nearly a 100 of them – in a small village. Neither WholeFoods nor Harrods would come close to the selection or the knowledge of my ‘cheeseman’.

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Another big difference one finds strange in France is the pharmacy – whereas in many countries it is usual to be able to stock a first aid kit at the modern supermarket, in France band-aids and antiseptic sprays are about the limit of the items available.  Pain relief, cough medicine, cold remedies – they must all be bought at a pharmacy, and what’s more they are behind the counter and only available on request!  However, they always carry a fabulous range of beauty products, slimming products, anti-cellulite creams and much sort after face creams – it is almost certain that the pharmacy will be able to make you presentable enough for the catwalk!  (Personally I think this is why husband’s on holiday are happy to wait while their wives spend ages in the pharmacy, they love ogling the huge adverts of girls massaging their slim brown thighs with creams that promise miracles, but that’s another story and I am getting side-tracked!).  In the autumn during mushroom season there is nearly always a board showing which mushroom is safe to eat and which is poisonous and if you are unsure you simply take the fungi of concern into the pharmacist who will confirm if indeed it is safe to eat.  So many of life’s problems can be solved in a small French Pharmacy!

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Other foibles one must get used to is the fact that at 12.00 midday, or perhaps 12.30pm, everything closes. The French do lunch. Whether you’re a factory worker, a gardener, a board director or the school mistress, everything stops for lunch.  And while there are indeed MacDonalds and filled baguettes to be found, probably 80% of France sits down to a proper lunch, complete with dessert and cheese.  The traditional menu de jour typically has three courses.  Even children at school get indoctrinated into this, and as I write this blog a small note beside my elbow informs me that today at our small village school of just 67 children, our two youngest will be eating cucumber salad, followed by fresh grilled fish from the Charente Maritime with organic rice and tomatoes, and then end their meal with a chocolate pannacotta, all served à la table and always with French bread. The menu for the month is sent home with each child and local produce is always listed as well as what is organic.  The French lifestyle of foodiness also crops up again at some stage in the afternoon, typically when the children get home from school, when goûter is served – cakes, biscuits,  sandwiches or fruit – something is always put in front of children at this time. It has got to the stage where our children’s friends even congregate in the kitchen like a flock of homing pigeons at the vague time when they know something is going to be dished up, and mutterings of “goûter ?” become very audible. It is expected, even if we are the ‘foreigners’.

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Coming home with the shopping raises another foible that some people find difficult to get used to – carrier bags. The French do not offer free carrier bags for the shopping – if you forget to take in your own bags or are on vacation you can buy a very sturdy large bag for 2 euros, they last for ever and are quite capable of swallowing half  a cart load of goodies.  Many a time I have tried to walk in a dignified fashion out of a shop, clutching pens, notebooks, magazines; or the bakery carrying baguettes and croissants trying hard not to drop anything, all because I forgot to take a bag with me.

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There are many other areas of difference between France and the rest of the world, but it would take a whole book to go through them all, so I hope you’re happy with a brief taste of some of the things we enjoy most, and find so refreshing, between our native country and the one we now call home. I think the reason you are reading this is because you know this anyway, and love France almost as much as we do.  Have a great week  x

TO MARKET, TO MARKET…

“To market, to market, to buy a fat pig, home again, home again, jiggety-jig” –  remember that old nursery rhyme?  It sprung to mind as the children and I headed off to a nearby farmers market last Sunday.  The girls were drawn like magnets to the baby chicks, the ducklings and rabbits; little did they know they were intended for the pot rather than as pets. I didn’t see any pigs for sale but I am sure, had I made enquiries, I could have bought one, but I really don’t want a pig! IMG_2556 This was a far cry from the usual weekly market where we buy our fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and cheese – the typical French market where the locals buy so much of their food every day.  No, this was, as the name suggests, a real ‘Farmers’ market, in every sense of the word. IMG_2573 The morning was neither sunny nor particularly warm but that had not deterred most of the locals who came from miles around.  A huge undercover area had been set up for lunch.  Two young lads were grilling vast slabs of meat on the barbecue and the tables were quickly filling up as lunchtime approached. IMG_2563 IMG_2562 We started at the plant stand where I bought lots of small geraniums for the garden before quickly moving on to local honey.  We were offered so many different varieties to taste – sunflower honey, wild-flower honey, honey of the forest; nothing is ever hurried, everything is considered and discussed before a decision is made and there is no pressure to buy which in a strange way makes me buy more!  Local organic strawberries were our next purchase, along with spring onions and asparagus; I was definitely getting hungry!  We passed on the cognac tasting (the girls are a little young!) but there were plenty of people sampling, drinking and buying; chatting and telling stories, it was all so convivial.IMG_2558 We had arranged to meet our good friends, Penny and Adrian, here at the market and they were quite adamant that we really needed a pair of ducks to add to our menagerie at home.  I couldn’t even imagine going home and telling Roddy that we had come back with two more feathered friends, but they just laughed and Adrian said he knew a good lawyer!  And so before I knew quite what was happening, two ducklings, not more than a few weeks old, were chosen and put into a cardboard box as a very belated house-warming present!

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Back home and the sun decided to make it’s first appearance of the day –  lunch on the terrace and a bottle of bubbly,  if we needed an excuse then it had to be celebrating that Roddy loved the ducklings and the divorce lawyer was not needed!  Adrian and Millie set about making a temporary outdoor run for our new acquisitions, complete with an old borrowed paddling-pool from our lovely neighbour.  The ducklings are still too young to roam free (which is the long term plan, of course) but for the time-being  I wouldn’t trust our dear nearly fully-grown kittens, Rory and Clara, until the birds are much bigger.  Surprisingly Clara, who is a real hunter, has no interest in them, but Rory is intrigued.  I don’t think he wants to hurt them, he just wants to play, but to him playing is all about teeth and claws; this is a great game with Bentley, but I’m not so sure it would be so good with two young ducklings, so we’re taking no chances.

So without further ado let me introduce you to the latest members of our family who Penny and Adrian baptized after themselves –  I give you Penny and Adrian!

p.s. do make sure you have your volume turned up, the sound of them drinking is adorable!

If I was to tell you that they are even worse for wasting time, would you believe me ?

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