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Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Return of Fat Dogs

It all started so confidently. Our decision to buy a property abroad seemed entirely straightforward. Lots of people do it, so what could possibly go wrong?

Jack, my husband, and I battled through a shortlist of European countries in our price and travel range. Then we remembered another facet – Jack’s temperament. Uh oh! None of us are perfect, and certainly not me. However, I am, on the whole, a deal more patient and far more tolerant than my husband. In fact, just about everyone is. He also has an extremely tedious sense of humour, particularly when it comes to dealing with other nationalities and their unique traits. This, combined with other, more balanced, reasons, ruled out three of the main contenders and we settled on France.

I produced a shortlist of properties to visit, which ended up being quite tricky because of the type we wanted to buy. But, by plugging away for ages, I got there in the end and planned our journey.

This presented another small challenge because I’m hopelessly devoted to our dogs. At the time we had Sam and Biff. Jack tries to create the impression of not sharing my devotion, grumping that he simply tolerates them. But I know differently. He’s the same about all animals, soft as butter and regularly caught with a sheepish expression in mid-cuddle with one of them. That said, when I shared my blindingly obvious logic that Sam and Biff should travel with us, he failed to see my point – initially. Nevertheless, after a slightly longer than usual filibuster, he came to his senses and all was agreed.

The eve of our departure finally came. Gosh, it still seems like yesterday. We had spent much of the day packing the car, unpacking the car, repacking and arguing about it. Bungee elastic cords became Jack’s friends as bags and slippery items were strapped securely, leaving a perfectly safe makeshift kennel for the dogs.

Many of you already know all this but, by way of a tiny outtake, I can tell you that during the night I barely slept a wink. And why? Because I was so excited. The other point I didn’t mention was Jack’s pre-departure-check discovery that one of our tyres was flat. Oh, and then there was Sam. Normally a dog with champion bowels, he chose that very morning to produce a gusty sample of visceral fluid. I suppose this could have been an omen of iffy things to come but, as I used my essential baby wipes to clear up the offending area, I didn’t give it a second thought. Jack thought differently, but Jack always does. After a delayed departure we set off in mizzling weather, which matched his mood to a tee.

It’s no secret that our early adventures didn’t go to plan. At all.  Who would have believed that a three week house-hunting trip could place us in such crazy situations, including at least one that was life threatening? Such a thing had never entered our minds. Nor did the prospect of meeting the many bizarre characters involved in our quest. Then there were the properties themselves – ranging from unacceptable, to appalling, and in one case, very scary indeed. Every day brought a new misadventure, one of which caused Jack to remark, “You could write a book about this.” So I did. There was such a lot to say.

I realise brevity is entirely alien to my writing and, let’s face it, descriptions are my friends. My aim is for you, as closely as possible, to live our experiences as we did, and to create accurate visions of each key scene and main character. 

Unsurprisingly, Fat Dogs and French Estates Part I quickly spilled over into Part II.

More disasters, ever-stranger people, mechanical mishaps and greater sinful canine shenanigans gave me oodles of material to share. Some of it was toe-curlingly awful to recount, but there was a very clear theme cementing itself on our hearts. Despite everything, we were falling ever more in love with France.

Book II came to an unexpected conclusion and Fat Dogs Part III brought with it a project we didn’t anticipate. Was it hard? At times it was dreadfully hard. It formed the third natural piece of our documentary jigsaw, one that many of you kindly asked for. And thank you so much for making this such a success.

But that was by no means the end of the story. Meanwhile, and entirely separate from the various challenges we were battling with, the animal-loving side of me created a further chapter in my life. As an addition to our two dogs, we’d acquired a cat – but more of that later. I began indulging in chats about our cuddly feline with my pal, Zoe Marr. Rather than gossiping idly about our respective moggies’ personalities and mishaps, we decided to channel our energies into helping cats in need. Of course, that didn’t stop the daily cat exchange, but that’s animal lovers for you.

Completely Cats was soon created. With it came the formation of a wonderful relationship with International Cat Care, a worthy charity whose missions on feline care and education are a perfect match for our aspirations.

We decided to publish a book of short stories about cats. This way we could raise direct funds for the charity and spread the word about its work. We appealed to cat-lovers to come forward with their tales, and they did so in droves. Our project very quickly became a perfect example of teamwork.

Our book, Completely Cats – Stories with Cattitude, could not have been created without their contributions, or the support from our Facebook and Twitter friends. Many, many of you have been part of this. You went the extra mile to help get our project going. You shouted about it on your own social media, encouraged us with your comments and alerted your friends.

And they weren’t hollow words.

The book was published on the 21st August and with your help it got off to a racing start with sales results speaking for themselves. It was immediately listed as cat category #1 Hot New Release, and in the same category shot to best seller #3 on behind James Bowen’s, A Street Cat Named Bob. (We can live with that!) Our first 5* review came in three days later. Howzat for an example of teamwork in action?

We are genuinely astonished and humbled by the kindness and support we’ve had, and will never be able to thank people enough. International Cat Care loves the book and is as thrilled by the response as we are. So, whatever else I might find myself involved with, I shall always continue to support and promote this cause. 
But, in the back of my mind, there’s always that feeling. It’s never far away. I’m dying to share that fourth Fat Dogs piece of the jigsaw with you.

Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV.

Of course Jack hates to admit that he’s become personally absorbed in the process but, every now and again, he’ll say something like, “Have you told them about xxx yet?” or, “Bloody hell, you’d better stick that incident in the next book. They’ll never believe it!” or, “And what about Bussiton? Have you written about him?” Well, actually, I haven’t. But I’m planning to.

You might naturally assume our project concluded with an idyllic retirement vision of beaches, deckchairs and fine French wines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those things continue to be the stuff of my poor, long-suffering husband’s dreams, but they’re unlikely to arrive anytime soon.

Now our Completely Cats project is padding around the Amazonian vapours, I’m going to quietly sneak off to begin my next episode of our adventures. Things happened that we never ever imagined. I mean, for goodness’ sake, who would have guessed that I would become a wannabe expert chainsaw operator, or a wild rabbit wrangler? Not me! Equally, I had never dreamed of taking national French exams – in French. (Mind you, that did turn out to be rather a nightmare.) And then the super Polish chaps we ended up working with. Smashers, every one, but – really?

In order to start gambolling quickly I won’t be able to bring you my usual yarn next month. Instead, I’m hoping to persuade one of my author pals to share one of their blogs. If they agree I guarantee it’ll be a great read.

Despite having to divert my efforts for a few weeks, I'll still be around, but I do need to focus for a bit. I sincerely hope Fat Dogs IV will justify the support you've already given me. Thank you so much for being part of our French adventures so far. They just wouldn’t be the same without you, and now you’re very much part of them. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Bee Trainee

Some years ago my husband, Jack, and I bought a domaine in France. It came with an assortment of unusual buildings, most of which we didn’t need, but we weren’t about to hire a ball and chain to demolish the ‘unnecessaries’. They included the shell of what must once have been a splendid 16th century courtyard.

Although much of the domaine history has sadly been lost in time, we know the courtyard is part of an old fortification, the remains of which lie under our lawn. I’m convinced it’s riddled with old coins, arrow heads and other thrilling treasures and, one day, I’ll get my trowel out and start exploring. But, right now, there’s more than enough to occupy our time.

We’re very rural here so I didn’t bat an eyelid when Jack recently announced, “The bees are back in the courtyard again.” This was nothing new, a band of stripy regulars pop in each year. Ages ago they’d established squatting rights in a miniscule space between the roof overhang and the apartment window below. I know, it sounds strange to have an apartment there, but there’s a history to it.

The previous owners built the apartment on one side of the old shell as a means of accommodating extra visitors. Being a person who prefers his own company where possible, this was one of the things that immediately attracted Jack during our first viewing. The potential to have house guests without them actually being in the house was manna from heaven for him.

As for our bees, by and large they mind their own business, as do the human visitors who occasionally stay in the apartment. The only problem arises when a team flyby occurs at the same time our pals open the window. Nobody likes a cloud of bees in their face. We have since taken the precaution of suggesting to our summer-visiting chums that they might want to check for signs of loud humming before embarking on a fresh air campaign.

A couple of days after Jack’s first observation, I sauntered into the courtyard to clean out the dovecote. Two steps in and I came to a jarring halt. Of course I expected to see our bees, but this was very different.

The sound was like walking into a motor-bike workshop with several two-stroke engines running. The original scouts had relocated, and there now seemed to be thousands in the air. Some were zooming around in circles whilst others were flying in above my head. Then I saw the main cluster. 

Masses of bees had set up a construction site in a corner of the courtyard, right next to the dovecote. This wasn’t just our usual mob, they’d brought family, friends, and enough energy to develop a colony. I decided to investigate further.

Previously our bees had never shown signs of aggressive behaviour. But I was heavily outnumbered so caution was required. I tentatively crept over to have a closer look.

To my amazement I realised how wrong Jack and I had been with our original bee ID. These were not masonry bees, as we’d previously thought. They were honey bees and I was looking at what seemed to be an extraordinary series of honeycombs absolutely covered in stripeys, diligently and rapidly extending the structure. Clearly, action was required.

I rushed back to the house to find Jack and Nathan, (our French forester colleague and all-round top bloke), sitting outside chatting.

“We’ve got a huge bees’ nest in the courtyard,” I squeaked.

They both looked rigidly unimpressed with my exclamation.

“Yes, there are one or two,” replied Nathan – master of understatements – courteously humouring me.

“No, really,” I persisted, “there are absolutely loads of them.”

Jack was looking decidedly sceptical, so I insisted they come and have a look. That did it.

“Bloody hell, where did that lot come from,” he said, with a sharp intake of breath. “We’ll have to remove them somehow.”

Nathan regarded the seething, buzzing mass, and reluctantly conceded there were a few more than normal. Being a lifelong local he assured us he knew just the man to sort it out.

Within seconds Monsieur Decaunes was on the other end of Nathan’s mobile phone. Nathan said he’d be happy to do the removal, but he couldn’t arrive until the following week. He added that monsieur had issued an instruction that, in the interim, the bees must not be upset in any way.

“OK,” responded Jack, dryly. “I’ll speak to them very nicely and take them coffee and croissants each morning. What on earth does ‘not upset them’ mean?”

“Well, for one thing, darling, it means not trying to asphyxiate them with that dreadful powder you sprayed underneath the eaves last year.”

Harrumph! It was just to get them to move away. Obviously it didn’t work. Anyway, what about the poor doves? While we’re becoming best mates with the insects, they’re having to cope with the noise of a motocross event and the arrival of yet more flying invaders.”

“Jack, that’s nature! The doves’ instincts will cope with things for a few days.”

Nevertheless, just to be sure, we dutifully observed their behaviour from a discreet distance.

A constant stream of incomers and out-goers worked tirelessly. More and more arrived each day. We were fascinated by their activity, and their gradually developing honeycombs. The poor doves, less so. The flightpath to their home had become an air traffic controller’s nightmare. It now required highly skilled aeronautics to weave their way through the stream of workers, which they fortunately managed without ‘upsetting’ any of the newbies.

It was a boiling hot day when our bee man finally arrived. A very tall, slim man, Monsieur Decaunes, gradually unfolded himself from his car. He shook our hands and took gangling, heron-like strides towards the new squatters.

Oui, vous avez les abeilles,” he gravely announced, stating the blindingly obvious in that especially French understated way.

“It’s always best to get a professional in,” remarked Jack. “There I was thinking it might be a flock of small starlings.”

I ignored Jack’s unwelcome quip and beamed supportively at monsieur. He assured us that we mustn’t be concerned as he’d have everything under control very quickly. These were reassuring words from one worryingly covered in so many lumps, which I’d naturally assumed hadn’t been caused by a ghastly skin disease.

The game plan involved removing the bee-covered honeycombs, and placing them in a temporary hive. The whole lot would be transported back to his farm where they would be homed in permanent equivalents and live to pollinate the surrounding fields.

With the battle tactics agreed, monsieur disappeared into the back of his car to kit-up. First out was a wooden beehive. Then a white apiarist’s outfit made of extremely thick material and, finally, a strange metal can with a spout at one end and bellows at the other.
Fully clad, and looking as though all he needed was a skinny sword to complete the look, he paced over and scrutinised the colony. We all did.

Avez-vous une échelle s'il vous plaît?Despite his great height, even he wasn’t tall enough to access this lot.

A set of ladders were quickly produced while monsieur started a fire in his metal can. This seemed odd. I asked him what he was doing. He explained that it would create special smoke which would cause the bees to become sleepy and docile. Since it smelled suspiciously like marijuana I felt sure it would do the trick in seconds. However, closer inspection revealed the mixture to be a collection of substances more akin to wood chips.

Amid billowing smoke, monsieur ascended the steps and started puffing his bellows at the bees. To my untrained eye it seemed that his technique was having the opposite effect to the one desired. Bees started zooming around, bashing into his veil and sticking to his gloves. Meanwhile, Jack and Nathan were gamely hanging onto to the bottom of the ladder to stop it swaying.  Totally unprotected, they grimly swatted away the angry guards that zig-zagged around the courtyard and their heads. Things weren’t going awfully well at this point.

But, for monsieur, it was merely a temporary setback. Various sounds could be heard from inside his helmet, none of which were remotely intelligible. It turned out he was unhappy about the effectiveness of his smoke generator. He clambered down and disappeared back into his van for more chips.

Meanwhile, the bees were working themselves into a proper tizzy, and seemed to be preparing for a full-scale counter-attack. I felt certain that he should be doing something quickly before they opened fire.

However, monsieur was not to be panicked into unnecessary haste, at least not until his equipment was fully re-stoked. He finally nodded at his device and re-ascended the ladder. Rung by rung he poofed, billowed and puffed at flying buzzers, this time causing many of them to calm down – a bit. Back in position at the top of the ladder his head emerged through a cloud of smoke,

Maintenant j’ai besoin d’un couteau s'il vous plaît?”, he coughed.

This caught us all off-guard. We had no idea why he needed a knife – it wasn’t lunchtime. Fortunately, Nathan, a man who always has an interesting selection of weapons about his person, produced an extra-long sheath knife. This was handed to monsieur, who made its use obvious by carefully cutting off a slab of honeycomb. Gentle removal revealed several distinct slices, each seething with the little critters. I was absolutely fascinated.

Monsieur was now completely covered in bees. Despite being inside and outside his helmet, up his arms, and across much of his back, he stoically continued with only an occasional expression of disquiet. The first segment of honeycomb, together with its occupants, was finally placed in the temporary hive. One down, several more to go.

Slice by slice the extraordinary structures were removed. Each was a sumptuous colour of rich yellow. Perfect hexagons, some filled, others not, dripping sweet natural honey that glistened in the hot sun. I watched in wonder at this stunning work of nature.

The bees, relatively orderly now, clung to their segments. Like master gymnasts they hung on to one another in their efforts to retain contact, I couldn’t help but admire their tenacity. Monsieur explained that part of their drive was to protect their queen who was within. There is one queen to each hive, he said, which has been developed from larvae selected by worker bees and specially fed royal jelly in order to become sexually mature. No wonder she’s such a popular gal.

I watched as monsieur continued his painstaking labour in the boiling-hot, sun-trapped, corner of the courtyard. Despite his lanky awkwardness he handled each honeycomb with extreme dexterity. As each piece was delicately removed it revealed hordes more of these amazing creatures. I had no idea a hive was constructed in this way.

I tried estimating their numbers but very quickly ran out of zeros. I didn’t have a clue how many there might be. Monsieur explained that a healthy hive has between 20,000 and 60,000 bees, of which the female worker bees outnumber the male drones around 100 to 1. Whilst I was still trying to compute this enormous number of animals he chipped in that ours was a very healthy hive.

The last puff of smoke dispersed as the final segment was sawn off. A few tenacious workers remained in situ, but the vast majority of the colony was now buzzing sleepily in its temporary accommodation. Monsieur looked extremely sorrowful about the stragglers and expressed regret at leaving them behind. No apologies needed as far as we were concerned. Short of scooping them up and stuffing them in his pockets I couldn’t see how he could possibly transfer them from the top of the ladder to the hive below.

It had taken over two hours for monsieur to complete the job. The poor chap looked thrilled to bits with his new bees, but totally spent. He removed his protective gear. First the helmet, which revealed a beetroot-red face, pouring with sweat, plus a suspicious-looking new weal on his cheek. His fat gauntlets and heavy top gear came next and had to be peeled off, leaving his dripping T-shirt beneath. Finally, it was the not-at-all technical-looking wellies. As he pulled those off out came a few more bees which, shame though it was, presumably counted as collateral damage.

As he started stowing his kit, Jack, full of thanks, asked how much we owed him. Monsieur almost bashed his head on the door of his car in surprise and reappeared looking confused.

Mais non, monsieur, c'est moi qui vous remercie!

He didn’t want payment. Instead, he produced a very nice bottle of wine for Jack and, for me, a huge container of honey from his own apiary. I was thrilled.

Jack, on the other hand, was completely taken aback. The last time we’d had a swarm of bees removed – from our garden in England – it cost us something like £15.

But monsieur was insistent. Thanks to us he now had another colony of bees to add to his apiary and he hoped we would call him the next time this happened.

 “Oh, monsieur, thank you so much,” I cried, adding, “but I’m so sorry you had to work in such difficult conditions today. Does it always take so long to remove a hive?”

Monsieur looked at me, slightly crestfallen and, speaking partly in English, replied, “Normalement it is une heure. But that is when my father does it. In this case I hold the ladder. This is why the many bites I have. My father he has the hip prothèse three weeks before. So, you see, I am the bee trainee.”

Jack, mightily impressed with the man’s honesty, pressed a 20 euro note into monsieur’s palm urging him to have a few glasses of nice red wine that evening to help his father’s healing process.

Monsieur, totally abashed, was unable to defeat Jack’s offer and eventually re-folded himself into his loudly-humming car. As he waved goodbye we could see one or two escapees buzzing out of his window. His journey home was going to be sporty, to say the least.

“What a wonderful young man.” Jack said as we waved him off. “Perhaps next time we’ll see him with his father and, even possibly, with his own knife!”

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Firemen’s Roast Boar

This was definitely a first for us. An experience that, understandably, would not be favoured by some, but one that fully immersed us in a traditional French annual celebration.

For some reason which escapes me, we were invited to the local fire brigade’s annual pig roast.

The event was to be held in the grounds of our local village, a gorgeous, typically French setting. Ancient, wood-shuttered, stone homes line streets backing onto miles of orchards and meadows – it’s simply gorgeous. 

I ignored Jack, my husband’s, hermitic moans about being socialised to death, telling him he should be very grateful to have been asked. I didn’t concede that he had a point, it’s true we’ve been to numerous ‘dos’ recently. That’s simply a feature of living in a place with hot summers, and many outdoor gatherings.

Our community primarily comprises farming folk, who tend to shut up shop in the winter once the crops and main beast jobs have been dealt with. They’ll hunker down, stick to basic maintenance work only, and keep a low profile during the cold, wet months. Conversely, the arrival of spring stimulates a flurry of activity.

Shutters are thrown open to bring in fresh air and early warmth. The land is worked and animals prepared then, from May onwards, most every week there is a fête somewhere in the area. I absolutely love these outings and drag Jack out to as many as possible. A man who generally prefers his own company, this year he has been unusually amenable – but it seemed it was becoming rather a strain for the poor dear.

On the appointed day we duly turned up at 12.30pm, accompanied by my sister and nephew, to find the place already alive with fire fighters and their partners. Introductions had to wait in favour of our first priority, to admire the pig. As it turned out this wasn’t any ordinary pig. Typical of our hunting-mad part of rural France, the usual domestic pig had been rejected and replaced by a recently culled wild boar. And why not?

We went to congratulate the chef, a man we knew from his day job. Monsieur Genna is usually the oil and gas delivery man, and also works part time as a fireman. Now, bearing in mind we were in the middle of a heat wave, it can’t have been an easy job for him that day. It was already around 37 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Farenheit), and there he was, fully clad in his fireman’s overalls and an incongruous hunter’s camouflage hat. The poor chap looked about as broiled as the beast.

Monsieur momentarily abandoned his basting to say hello. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the full-on cheek-to-cheeker kisses in favour of the forearm proffering. This is a courteous form of welcome, used when the person involved is grubby, sweaty or in some way unsavoury. In his case, monsieur was sweating profusely, nevertheless looking extremely proud of his creation.

We ignored the searing heat and cooed at the rather gruesome sight. The great creature was slowly rotating on a spit above a bed of fiery, red-hot embers. It could easily have been a medieval setting.

We left monsieur to his boar and joined the rest of the party, enjoying an aperitif in the shade of a grand old oak tree. Here we were met by the station commander, who made the introductions. This can take a while in France and I’m still foxed by the social etiquette as each occasion requires a slightly different mode of greeting. When faced with a complete (clean) stranger, my sister has decided the best way forward is to take assertive action and thrust out a hand. This is an excellent idea, but one that has its drawbacks when the recipient is moving in for a cheek-kiss. On more than one occasion I have witnessed a slight winding as her spade-like hand has caught the person squarely in the guts. It’s a tricky one.

We finally completed our formal ‘hellos’, aside from one old gentleman. It appeared he was a gate crasher since nobody seemed to know who he was, but it didn’t matter, supplies were plentiful so we just gave him a cheery wave.

Our small talk about the heatwave was interrupted by a loud cheer. I turned to follow the gaze of my nephew, whose eyes were the size of saucers. He was staring at a massive wall of fire.

We were looking at a skinny metal table heaped with straw, and the whole thing had just been set alight.

“Bloody hell, it’s a towering inferno. I wonder if they’re going to perform a practice drill?” murmured Jack, as we watched a group battle with the boisterous flames.

Bravo”, yelled one of the diners, “c’est les moules!

Monsieur Genna was once again in the thick of the catering, but now it was all to do with mussels. My poor nephew. Typical of many teenagers, his tastebuds are still at the cheeseburger stage, and have not yet become attuned to the delights of charred pieces of meat, let alone molluscs on fire. A youngster with apparently hollow legs, he looked on forlornly as the realisation dawned on him that this was lunch.

Diners gathered round to watch the spectacle, chattering happily as more straw was piled on and flames engulfed the table – this was flambé big-style.

Finally, we could see enough to spot an amorphous heap covered in wet newspapers. It was spitting and hissing in the heat. Wafts of garlicky fumes mixed with smoke drifted our way; the conflicting aromas were deliciously tantalising. 

The toot of a fireman’s whistle announced our first course was ready. We were good to go.

Soggy layers of Le Figaro newspaper were peeled back to reveal piles of juicy mussels, their shells newly opened by the steam. Plastic plates were thrust into our hands and ladles full of crustacea shovelled on our plates. This created an immediate overload causing a few skimmers to whiz off the edges, but luckily most survived.

As this was going on, Jack completely confused our nephew with a typically sardonic explanation about how the soggy newspapers cradling the steaming mussels were especially selected to comply with France’s rigorous interpretation of Brussels’ health and safety rules. I sighed as I listened to these sage pronouncements. The poor lad, I thought, eventually he’d cotton on to his uncle’s special form of humour.

The next arrival cheered my nephew up considerably. As we sat down to enjoy our starter, crates of beer were produced and bottles thumped on the trestle tables. These were accompanied by loaves of French bread, seemingly one each. It’s evidently hungry work being a fireman.

As I ate the succulent starter our station commander explained how their team was structured. Most of the local firemen are volunteers, who come from several walks of life. Farmers, of course, but also shop keepers, businessmen and a doctor, all ready to down-tools at a moment’s notice when an incident occurs.

The fire station is manned by a core group of full-timers, who alert each volunteer on duty via a pager system. He demonstrated by showing me his, which indicated they had already dealt with a fire earlier that day. Their station is linked to the main depot, which has a team on permanent standby to help if additional support is required. To me, the whole system seemed simple yet efficient. In a sparsely populated area like ours, it was good to know that help was always on-hand when needed.

During our discussion we’d managed to consume a vast number of mussels. Even my nephew sampled a couple, grudgingly conceding they weren’t as bad as ‘all that’. The empty shells were expertly scooped into dustbin liners as we witnessed the arrival of the main course.

Six men lugged the boar, still on its steel spit, over to the carving table. Judging by the colourful language that emanated from them, the spar was still extremely hot. It’s amazing the number of new words one learns in situations such as this. I went over to have a look.

Monsieur Genna was in control again. He said the boar had been cooking since 6 am that morning. It was now 3 pm, which explained two things. First, the reason why the poor man was beetroot red and dripping wet – he must have been absolutely boiling in that fireman’s kit. Second, it explained why the animal was now black and crispy. As he reached for his pliers to unpick a line of wire stitches he explained what was inside.

The recipe is generations old and originated in Armenia, where Monsieur Genna’s family came from. Wild boar was cooked every weekend and was a firm favourite with the local villagers. He learned the technique from his grandparents when they came to live in France.

Whilst the cooking time was lengthy, the preparation was simple. The boar had been stuffed with three kilos (over six pounds) of tomatoes, bay leaves (one bush, would be my estimation), onions (lots) and seasoning (loads). After the initial few hours gentle roasting the heat was increased. If I understood correctly, the skin was regularly basted with water, then butter. Some of the cuts would be fried-off, others eaten from the bone. He was confident the process would work its usual magic and produce a culinary triumph. One look at the charred mass and I wasn’t so sure.

Once again piffling issues such as safety and hygiene were cast to the winds as monsieur and his sous chefs got to work. Bloodied gauntlets were donned and, with cigarettes hanging out of mouths, they unpicked the steel stitches that contained the gubbins. With an expression of sincere regret monsieur explained that, shame though it was, the stuffing couldn’t be eaten. I think we were all relieved.

With our hearts in our mouths we lined up to receive our portion of meat.

Back at the table and huge tureens of herby, sautéed potatoes were passed around together with more French sticks javelined in our direction. Beakers of rosé were poured and we took our first tentative mouthfuls of the main course.

The meat was unbelievably tender.

Appreciative murmurs rang around the tables as we feasted on our simple fare – all washed down with the locally-produced wine. I looked around at the healthy, tanned faces of our fellow diners; all fire fighters and their families enjoying a perfect day. Living here didn’t get much better than this.

Once the last scraps of our main course were cleared away it was time for pud, and it quickly became evident this was going to be another ‘no frills’ affair. Two men appeared with cardboard boxes. Questions were demanded of us. Did we prefer chocolat, vanille ou fraise? Unsure what to expect, I chose fraise, strawberry. A grunt of approval followed by a short rummage in the box and out came a cornetto ice cream, which was slid across the table. It was the perfect end to an unexpectedly lovely meal.

With the dining over and Monsieur Genna beginning to return to his normal colour, we were treated to a short post-feast ritual, in honour of the beast. This was decidedly pagan in nature, and definitely inadvisable for the faint hearted. What remained of the boar’s head was triumphantly paraded around the group. This was gamely supported by the headman’s daughter, who acted as single tooth carrier, although I must say she didn’t look entirely thrilled by the occasion. Nevertheless, it gave us all the opportunity to mark a moment’s respect for the animal, which had enabled us to have a wonderful meal. It also allowed us to congratulate Monsieur Genna on his superbly executed recipe.

This could have been the end of our day, and really should have. Sadly for some, it wasn’t. The finale of the event turned out to be a needle tournament of Pétanque – it’s hugely popular here. Also known as Boules, it is a game where a small ball, the Jack, is thrown to the far end of a gravelly ‘court’. This becomes the target. Teams of two or three then throw their metal balls at the Jack. The closest wins. The game is very simple but, as I was about to demonstrate, the execution isn’t.

Just as we were preparing to watch politely for five minutes before leaving, the station commander insisted that we have a go.

Noooon, merci”, I gasped, having never hurled a Pétanque ball in my life.

Mais oui, vous devez!” he replied, insisting I have a go.

My sad fate was sealed, or rather that of my unfortunate playing partner.

I, along with my sister and nephew (both of whom put up a much better show), were pressed into service. I’ll spare you the agonisingly disastrous details of how I got on. Suffice to say, a metal Pétanque ball doesn’t react in at all the same way as a tennis ball.

After several failed rounds, one lost ball (I mean, has anyone ever managed to lose a ball in this game before?) and one suspected broken toe, I bowed out gracefully. The relief on my playing partner’s face was palpable.

And finally it was time to go. Aside from my playing partner, whom I dare say was delighted to see the back of me, all the other guests were kindness itself. We were the only Brits among the group, but that didn’t seem to matter a bit. It was another example of where we’d been welcomed as active members of our tiny, pastoral community, and we’d loved every minute of it. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Macarons and the French Fair

It was the Lavit fair, the first main social event of the year and I was ecstatic. Jack, my husband, less so. He claims to hate fairs.

“Oh, come on, Jack. You’ll be fine when you get there. There are always lots of interesting machines to poke around with, you’ll love it.”

“No, I won’t. It’ll be full of people who aren’t looking where they’re going, and you’ll spend one of half the day gossiping. The other half you’ll spend clucking over useless goods, wanting to buy things we already have, or don’t need.”

“I promise not to. But I do want to buy some plants.”

“My point exactly!”

“One can never have too many plants, Jack.”

I finally got him to agree by playing the ‘my knee is too crocked to carry heavy items’, trump card.

We took my sister, Di, along and arrived at around 10 am to find the three-tiered, bijou town already teeming with fun-lovers.

For no particular reason we started with the middle street, which had shrunk to a quarter of its normal width. Market traders lined either side, their stalls bursting with intriguing goods. Most had spilled onto the road forming highly effective booby traps. Those entangled were obliged to stop and examine the display, spurred on by the persuasive stallholders. It worked like a charm.

Cheese makers offered specialty concoctions from several species of plant and animal. Some were soft and gooey, others were hard and flaky. Cheeses with bits in, others lined with veins of mould, plus there was another lot that smelled like stinky socks. These were in a class of their own.

Samples were proffered on the end of skinny forks as enticements to would-be buyers. ‘Goût!’ ‘Goût!’ the vendors cried joyously, wafting a cube of something pungent under our passing noses. With those banks of goodies it would have been easy to fill our paniers within the first 20 metres, but we resolutely resisted temptation and continued browsing.

We had obviously found the foodie section. There were stalls laden with bread, honey, olives, chillies and garlic. Imagine the deliciously conflicting pongs.

We passed a gentleman from Spain selling cooked meat from the leg of an indistinguishable creature. We had no idea what it was, but it was proving very popular. We watched for a moment as he slashed wafer thin slivers of meat off the limb with a sword Zorro would have been proud of. Tiny tasters were harpooned and the sword-tip poked in the general direction of onlookers. Piffling issues such as health and safety were of no consequence here.

Thus far, we had been keeping a relatively steady pace. Jack was coping well on the whole, and only moaned once when he received a glancing blow from an over-excited lady with a particularly long loaf under her arm. Swinging it around like the limb of a windmill was doing it no good at all as each collision caused more damage. It would be no more than a bread roll by the time she got home.

Then Di spotted the macarons. My sister loves macarons.

We ground to a halt. An agonising ten minutes passed as she, eyes as large as saucers, cooed and twittered over the multi-coloured display of chubby hamburger-shaped sweetmeats. I chided Jack for getting impatient. It was everyone’s day, I explained, I was certain she wouldn’t be much longer.

Sadly, Di found the creator of the little discs and delighted herself (and to an extent the chef) by trying to guess, in French, the flavours of each one. Might the pink ones be raspberry? The yellow ones orange? Surely the rich green ones would be kiwifruit? She was completely diverted by the mystery of it all. Jack quite clearly couldn’t care a jot and I was beginning to feel the same way.

There was a relatively iffy looking sweets and candies stall next door so I tried to distract her by pointing at a trunkful of liquorice allsorts. Sadly my wheeze failed. The mistress of indecision, she pooh-poohed my suggestions and agonised over which macaron she might buy. After the sixth change of mind, Jack cracked. He grabbed two at random, bought them and plonked them in Di’s hand.

“There,” he glared, “cadeau. Can we get on now please?”

We continued to the end of the middle street, fighting our ways through the ever-growing masses. Di was pouting a little and, still in denial about her apparent lack of alacrity, but this didn’t last long. She’s a cheery soul and there were plenty of display items to re-ignite her interest.

Then the theme changed. We had chanced upon the technical section.

Jack entered into a dreamlike state as we found an impressive display of what seemed like Lilliputian steamrollers and tractors. Despite being tiny, they were all in perfect working order. Oily cogs and springs gleamed in the hot sun, causing Jack to pause, and launch into a gleeful engineering lecture. Of greater interest to me, though, was the collection of industrial machines beyond.

19th century kilns, knife sharpeners, rope-makers and clog makers. Each was either being operated, or fiddled with, by an expert in costume.

“Would I like to have a go at making a clog?” asked a wizened old chap, as he thrashed around with a particularly mean-looking chisel.

“No, not for me thank you,” I replied, suddenly bashful. I’d much rather watch the master at work.

The next display was particularly curious. A trestle-table was covered with a variety of instruments, some of which dated back to the 15th century. Our job here was to guess the function of each. There was an ancient sextant, a candle holder and a thumb screw – that one was pretty obvious. The gentleman placed two pieces of formed iron in my hand.

Devinez ce qu'ils sont!” he demanded, asking me to try and guess what they were.

Di and I pored over the ancient devices and then it came to me. There was a click as I slid the slim piece into the larger housing. It was an extraordinarily shaped padlock. Suitably impressed by my response, our jolly gent waved us away, ready to wow the next visitors to his stand.

We had been at it for a while now and decided it was time to eat. Much to our chagrin, Jack steadfastly refused to sample any of the street food. There were woks galore, each one filled with something slightly different, each equally tasty-looking and all smelling divine.

 Pouf! None of that for us. Noooo, Jack had spotted a burger van half a kilometre away and frog-marched us briskly towards his goal. It’s just as well long-loaf lady wasn’t in the way; her bread would have been reduced to crumbs in our bow wave.

Sadly our timing was out. The last burger had just been sold, so we ended up with twice re-fried chips instead. It was one of those meals that kept on giving a long time later, but not quite in the intended way.

Replete with stodge, we temporarily parted company. Jack returned to the technical area, and Di and I headed off to find our promised cheap-as-chips plants. We were directed to the first tier for these and found ourselves surrounded by yet more gastronomes. Delicious smells pervaded our noses, taunting our taste buds, but it was too late – our tummies were full.

Raucous music started up behind us. We turned to be faced by a group of travelling ghouls and witches. I have no idea what their purpose or story was, but they cackled their way through an eerie tune in great humour.

It was early afternoon now and progress was somewhat slow for several reasons. Meeting people we knew meant lots of kisses and a friendly chat. There were emergency halts as someone in front decided to browse, or was apprehended by a taunting ghoul. It was all part of our French fair.

We finally made it to the plant area. Ironically, gorgeous though they may have been, they weren’t what we were after at all. But it was difficult to be disappointed that day, and especially in view of our next discovery.

We found a fritter man. He was creating bite-sized flatties with secret ingredients which smelled stupendous. Full or not, these were not to be resisted. We followed our noses, made a couple of speed-buys, and devoured what can only be described as taste-sensations. Quite honestly, I haven’t much idea what was in them, but they were heaven.

We tracked back to all-things-diesel and, after a bit of ferreting around, found Jack in the beer tent.

He was in shock.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, concerned as to why he should be rabidly swatting himself.

“Look!” he hissed, pointing at the tent canvass.

“Have you been stung by something?”

No! Look at that bloke. He’s just lashed me with his hair. Bloody hell, I could have suffocated with that lot all over me. Urgh!

It was then that I understood the reason for Jack’s latest attack of xenophobia. A young man had rearranged his magnificent mane of extra-long dreadlocks as he had passed by, momentarily cloaking Jack in the process.

“Oh that. Wow, how impressive. Never mind, darling, you look fine.”

Fortunately, we were saved from any further anguished moans by the sounds of baying dogs. I knew there was a hunting hound display somewhere, and I can’t think why it took me so long to drag us all there. We shooed Jack out of the beer tent and headed to the bottom tier and animal magic.

There were 20 or so picket fence enclosures, each containing a small group of hunting hounds. Griffon bleu Gascognes, beagles, teckels, bernois, you name them they were there. Some were lapping up the attention, others looking hot and bothered in the afternoon sun – all being watched over by a stern-looking huntsman.

It’s fair to say I probably took longer than my allocated browse-time with these dogs, but you know how it is. I could easily have taken one or two of those smilers home with us.

Di skilfully diverted me to a line of what looked like pit-ponies. Not quite Shetlands, the rotund little guys were saddled and ready to provide rides. Jack has never been desperately interested in equine pursuits. His one and only ride confirmed his distaste for any form of transport that lacks adequate brakes or steering and, even worse, makes decisions independently of the driver. This finished off any minute interest he might have had in horse riding. However, in this case, the ponies looked a much more reliable form transport than the aged Thomas the Tank Engine that had been coughing and spluttering its passengers through the streets all day. But Jack would have none of it. He’d become absorbed by what was going on at the other end of the leafy tier. 

A police dog display of all things.

We joined the throng lining a rope enclosure. A naive young man, quite possibly recently plucked from the bar, had been pressed into service. His job was to play the villain with what looked like a strap-on child’s mattress attached to his leg. I suspect he may have thought it was a great way of impressing his girlfriend, but one look at the slavering beast on the end of a flimsy rope changed all that in an instant.

A whistle blew and we all watched, agog, as the dog plunged towards the villain, dragging his handler behind. My goodness these dogs are powerful! The animal connected with such ferocity it was all the poor lad could do to remain standing. Fortunately he was unscathed, but it took quite some time to unlatch the attacker from his leg. Jack, who had perked up considerably, decided it was excellent entertainment, and fully in line with the French interpretation of Brussels’ public liability laws.

More uncertain volunteers were cajoled into service by drunken mates, with similar results. Then the dog was changed for an arm attacking specialist. This one was even more fearsome. At first, the handler couldn’t even part it from its toy – an incongruous blue teddy. Even more unnerving was the piece of protective material handed to the quivering volunteer. It resembled a fat oven glove. We all feared the worst as the whistle sounded. I expect the atmosphere at Roman gladiatorial encounters may have been similar.

Something in the dog’s brain exploded at the sound of the shrill peep. Dropping its toughened rubber teddy, it hurled itself in the general direction of the perp. Luckily, sense prevailed. At the last moment the lad stuck out his padded arm as the dog leapt at him. What a great connection! A brief tussle ensued as the handler tried to disconnect the dog from the material, but it wasn’t having any of it. With a panic-stricken expression, the youth de-velcroed himself and tottered out of the arena. He was physically unscathed, but unlikely to volunteer again any time soon.

We decided we’d probably seen enough. So far there had been no blood lost, but since we were moving up the body, there could be no further guarantees if a head specialist was produced.

We threaded our way through the crowds, along the typically-French leafy avenue budding in anticipation of a hot summer to come. The appearance of Disney’s Minnie Mouse and Popeye gave proceedings an international feel, as did the steel drum band that chimed its way past us – we could almost have been in the Caribbean.

Our trip to the fair was over. We said our goodbyes to a musical clown and headed back to the car. Ironically we had no plants, which made Jack happy. Di still clutched her two macarons, which made her happy and I’d spent lots of time fussing over dogs, which made them (and me) happy. All-in-all it had been another lovely day in our corner of France.