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Saturday, 4 July 2020

Guest Blog - Kathryn Occhipinti

I have great pleasure in introducing you to my friend, Kathryn Occhipinti, an incredibly talented lady. Kathryn works as a doctor of radiology in Chicago. She is multilingual and has used her skills to write language books.

Kathryn's vision to develop an easy method to learn Italian was realised in the publication of Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases. With the help of Nada Sneige Fulihan, a French teacher in the US, she has used the same formula with French. Conversational French for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases was published last year - and I think it's a terrific guide. 

When Kathryn is not treating patients and writing books, she loves to cook. Today I have asked her to share a recipe I'm dying to try. Once you've read her account, I'm pretty sure you will too.

First, before all else, a huge “Mille mercis!” to Beth for letting me share her blogging space. We “met” through Twitter, where I discovered her “Fat Dogs and French Estates” series and quickly became a huge fan. As I’m sure the readers of this blog know, Beth’s wit and perspective, along with a touch of exaggeration, yields hilarious results. I laughed out loud while reading every chapter and can honestly say it was the most enjoyable book I have read in years.

With the above in mind, I was thrilled when Beth asked me to share a favorite French recipe for her blog. When my children were young, I decided I would do my best to be a good home cook. I had already learned classic Italian dishes from my mother. But, I turned to French methods to find out how to make “the best” omelette, roast chicken, beef stew, and vegetables (vegetables that my children would actually want to eat). To my surprise, I found that the “best” method was often not as time-consuming or difficult as I had imagined it would be.

Take a French classic, for instance, like Roast Duck a l’Orange. The name conjures up a stern male chef dressed in a perfectly starched, white uniform with a very tall chef’s hat standing in the middle of a gleaming kitchen and barking orders to his staff. A dish for special occasions to be enjoyed in a white-tablecloth restaurant.

Over the years, I have come across a simple method to make roast duck in a casserole pot, originally from Julia Child, I am not ashamed to admit. Cooking duck in a casserole, “à la poêle” stir-fried on the stove-top and then finished in the oven is a simple, classic method and has certainly been a mainstay for me for many years now. It can be served simply, with a gravy made from deglazing the pan with wine, and the addition of potatoes for the presentation.

For this past New Year’s Day family dinner, I browned my duck and tucked it into its pot, and while it was roasting (it really needs virtually no attention at all with this method, trust me), I decided to make a cherry sauce with the extra time on my hands. (I didn’t have any oranges on hand but I did have dried Montmorency cherries, and cherry sauce is a favorite.) The cherry sauce did take up some time and a bit of effort, but was well worth both in my opinion. A few boiled potatoes for garnish and “Viola!” we had a special New Year’s Day dinner that was “enjoyed by all.”

I have a short video clip that I took with my phone propped up by the stove and a time-lapse photography App. Not professionally done, of course, but it gives one the idea of how making the dish should go. I am delighted to be able share my recipe and short video today. For more of my practical French cooking, please visit me on Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french or on my Facebook page, Stella Lucente French.  Bon appétit!

Casserole Roasted Duck 
(Caneton Poêle)


Le Creuset Casserole Pot (Size: 7 ¼ lbs. or 6.7L) 
1 whole duckling, about 5-6 lbs.
4 Tb. Bacon Fat or 2 Tb. olive oil and 2 Tb. butter
Herbs: Tie together fresh parsley, sprigs of thyme, bay leaf
*Optional: Par-boiled turnips


Preheat oven 325° with shelf on the lower middle rack.

Prepare the Duck:

Prick the skin of the duck all over (so the fat will render more easily). Clip the wings and reserve tips.
Tie the legs together so they rest above the cavity with a bit of kitchen twine. (Truss the duck. If you need help with this, check out this simple video by
Jacques Pépin.)

Brown the Duck:

  • Melt the bacon fat or heat the olive oil/butter in the casserole pot.
  • Add the duck on its back. Then turn onto each side for a minute or two with two large spoons, until it has lightly browned on all sides.
  • Remove duck and pour out browning fat.
  • Sprinkle duck with salt and pepper and return to pot, breast side up.
  • Place the herbs tied in twine or in cheesecloth over the duck breast.
  • Reheat on stovetop briefly until duck is sizzling.

Cook the Duck in the Oven:

  • Cover the casserole pot and cook the duck in the preheated oven until done. No need to baste!
  • Estimated cooking time 1 hour and 30-40 minutes. The duck will not brown further, but should maintain its shape nicely. Always test if the duck has cooked through by making a small incision between the thigh and body. Juices should be from light pink to clear yellow.
  • Remove duck from pot to deglaze pot.
  • Return duck to pot to keep warm in oven under low heat while finishing sauce.
To serve: remove trussing from duck and set on platter. Cover in a bit of sauce and top with cherries.

*Optional: Remove roasting fat after 60 minutes and add good French yellow turnips that have been peeled, diced, and par boiled in salted water for 5 minutes for a traditional French accompaniment. In this case, you will need to baste the turnips occasionally as they cook. 

Montmorency Cherry Sauce

*Note: You will need to prepare the duck stock and cherries before making the brown sauce base. Then, right after the duck has finished cooking, deglaze the casserole pot and finish the sauce.

Prepare the duck stock:

Put 2-3 Tb. of butter into a small pot and brown wingtips, neck and gizzards of duck, 1 small onion sliced, 1 carrot chopped. Add fresh parsley and thyme and a small piece of bay leaf and enough chicken stock to cover. Should reduce to 2 cups duck stock after 2 hours.

Prepare cherries:

For 7 oz. package. unsweetened, dried Montmorency Cherries: Partially reconstitute in water about 1 hour. For traditional sauce, use fresh or frozen cherries. Then add 1 Tb. lemon juice, 3 Tb. port wine, and 5 Tb. sugar and let soak for 30 minutes or more. (The entire package of cherries will provide extra cherries to pass around along with the gravy.)

How to Make the sauce

Prepare the brown sauce base:

Dissolve 2 Tb. arrowroot or cornstarch into 3 Tb. port and set aside. Put into a 4 cup saucepan: 3 Tb. sugar and ¼ cup red wine vinegar. Boil over moderately high heat until a brown syrup forms. Pour in ½ cup of duck stock and after it has dissolved, the remainder of the stock (2 cups total). Then add the starch/port mixture. Cook over medium heat until sauce is simmering and has thickened.

Deglaze the casserole pot and add to the sauce base:

When the duck has finished cooking, pour off as much fat from casserole pan as possible. Add ½ cup port and boil, scraping up any roasting juices and bits to deglaze until you have about ¼ cup. left. Add to the sauce base.

Add the cherries and finish the sauce:

Add the prepared cherries to the sauce and heat briefly. If using fresh cherries, heating too long will cause them to shrivel, but this is not a concern with dried cherries. Remove cherries and spread over the plated duck.

Finish sauce by boiling briefly to thicken. Add salt and pinch of pepper to taste. Off heat, add additional 2 Tb. of butter.

Pour a bit of the sauce over the duck and put the rest into a gravy bowl and serve along with the remaining cherries.

*Adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume One)” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, Updated edition, 1983.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

The Canal, the History and the Stinky Discovery

My sister, Di, had found a new favourite walk and she was dying to share it with me.

“D’you fancy going for a dog trek along the canal?”

“Absolutely, I’ll pick you and Sprite up later.”

Sprite, Di’s Jack Russell is best pals with our Aussies, Aby and Max. What he lacks in stature he certainly makes up for in personality, he’s a wonderful lad. Much to my sister’s disgust, it was my mutts who taught him the deafening pre-walk howl routine. He now embraces it every time he sets paw in a car.

Off we went, dogs bursting with excitement, crossing Le Pont de Coudol. Built in 1850, it is an elegant bridge spanning the River Garonne. If you know North Wales, it looks like a mini version of the Menai suspension bridge.

Careful driving is required here as it is ultra-slim. Passing another vehicle coming from the opposite direction is apt to be precarious. It’s one of those moments when, mid-pass, one takes an involuntary sharp intake of breath.

We made it unscathed and followed the road snaking alongside the Canal du Midi to our start point. The famed waterway is sandwiched here between asphalt and the River Garonne. The river, vast in comparison, flows lazily on the other side, on its way to meet the River Tarn where they converge at the ancient abbey town, Moissac.

Moissac is another favourite haunt of ours. Not least because of its charming cobbled streets, the arty shops and to die for cafés. The abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a splendid Romanesque door with a wow-factor all of its own. And the 11th-century cloister is famous for its 76 capitals with biblical carvings. It is a place worth visiting.

We parked next to a lock gate and set off along the towpath lined with majestic plane trees. Not just lookers, they were planted so their roots could reinforce the banks, and their foliage affords welcome shade from the hot summer sun.

“I suppose you know what you’re walking on?” said Di, looking supremely self-satisfied.

“A path?”

“Ah hah! But this isn’t any old path. It’s been used by pilgrims for hundreds of years.”

“Really? Which ones?”

“This is a section of the catholic pilgrimage Route de Compostelle. It’s also known as the Camino Way. The destination is the legendary tomb of the apostle Saint James the Great. It’s in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there.”

“Wow, imagine that!”

“Yep, I knew you’d be impressed. There’s a network of routes in Europe leading to the shrine. For many people, they are considered a spiritual path or retreat for spiritual growth.”

I studied the path, which had assumed a new significance.

Dring dring!

I turned just in time to avoid being run down by an approaching cyclist. Max was keen to go for the ruby tackle, but I didn’t fancy his chances against those whirring spokes. I hung onto the dogs and stood back.

Bonjour et merci!” cried the pink Lycra-clad fellow as he zoomed past.

“Blimey, that was a close one!” I gasped.

“I forgot to mention that. The towpath can be very popular with cyclists too.”

With not another soul in sight, we continued our amble along this tranquil stretch of water. Just in case you’re not familiar with it, the Canal du Midi is a major link in the inland waterway system from the Atlantic Ocean Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea.

It was built in the 17th century at a time when France was the centre of civil engineering excellence. The canal at 241 km (150 miles) long was Europe’s first long-distance canal. It connects Toulouse, using water from an artificial reservoir built in the Black Mountains, with the Mediterranean at Sète via the Thau Lagoon.  

We watched beautiful barges putt-putting past on their way to Moissac.

“Now that’s a great idea for a holiday,” I said. “Just think how much fun the dogs would have lolloping on and off for a swim.”

“True. Well, it is the most popular canal in France for leisure boating. Not sure I’d fancy opening all those lock gates, though.”

“Good point. I wonder how many there are?”

“I’m so glad you asked!”

“You’re looking smug again.”

With a grin, Di produced a well-thumbed handbook.

“Ooh, you sneak, you’ve got a guidebook! No wonder you know so much. Go on, then, tell me.”

“Hang on. Ah, yes, it has 91 working locks, although there used to be more. Oh, and it’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

“Huh, we’re bristling with them here. I don’t know much about it, but I’m pretty sure there’s a canal tunnel somewhere. See if that’s mentioned.”

“One moment please,” she said, flicking through the pages. “It is! At the time, it was the world’s first. The Malpas tunnel was 165 metres (541 feet) long and 7.4 metres (24 feet) wide. And it was 5.85 metres (19 feet) above the water level.”

“Gosh. Uh oh, dog problem!”

Aby and Sprite, partners in crime when it comes to digging, had started excavating something that looked suspiciously like a ragondin (coypu) nest. Stopping a dedicated Australian Shepherd digger is hard, but have you ever tried to stop a Jack Russell doing anything it wants to do? It’s nigh on impossible!

Ragondin look a bit like beavers. Mature adults are a similar size to Sprite. They have enormous orange teeth which can be used to great effect when threatened. It’s something Sprite doesn’t seem to have realised yet. Rapid action was required.

I yelled at Aby while Di dashed over and grabbed an indignant Sprite. By this time he was halfway down the hole so took a bit of hauling. But we were a dog down.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “where’s Max?”

I gave him a call. Strangely, he appeared from under the bridge we had just passed. And he was looking incredibly proud. He trotted up to Di first.

“Oh my God, Beth, do something!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Max, he’s covered.”

“In what?”

“I don’t know, but it stinks.”

“Go on, Maxy, give Di a big kiss!”

“I’m warning you, Beth, this is toxic!”

“Okay, okay.”

She was right. Some dogs love rolling in carrion, others fox poo, but not Max. However, he had evidently found this substance irresistible. So much so, he had wallowed in it and savoured its dubious delights. We were on a public footpath. It could have been badger poop, it could have been a different type of deposit altogether. Neither of us could bear to think about that. The fact was, Max reeked.   

“Right, Max, it’s no good. You’ll have to go into the water.”

Luckily, Max is a devoted water dog so getting him in wasn’t a problem. One belly flop later, and he was happily splashing around. The challenge was getting him out again. We had now reached a point in the canal where the sides were sheer.

There was nothing for it. We had to haul him out. And, of course, what was the very first thing he did? Joyously shake all over us.

“Argh! Beth, he’s shaking muck all over us!”

Poo! and he still smells. Sorry, take your mind off it by telling me more about the canal.”

“I doubt that’ll help, but alright,” she said, reaching for the guide. “Listen to this! The canal also had to pass a steep rocky slope at Pechlaurier. Pierre-Paul Riquet, the canal builder in charge, commissioned the use of gunpowder, which was possibly the first use of explosives for civil engineering. At one time 12,000 people were working under his command.”

“Wow, what a huge undertaking.”

“Yes, and it took its toll. Apparently, there were huge problems associated with building the canal. Despite these, Riquet pushed ahead with construction, though it affected his health. He died eight months before it was opened in May 1681.”

“After all that work, how awful!”

“I know. Oh my God, so is that pong coming from Max. See if you can get those bits of sludge out of his ruff.”

“You do realise what they probably are, don’t you?”


“In that case, you’ll understand why I’m not going to touch it!”

“Well, he is your dog. Huh! Anyway, following Riquet’s death, his sons, together with the French engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, continued work on improving the canal. By 1692 these improvements had been completed, and travellers from around the world came to examine the canal. Although it was successful financially, the canal never carried ships from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. So there you have it, a potted history of the Canal du Midi.”

Dring, dring!

Au revoir, monsieur!” we yodelled at our pink cyclist on his return journey.

“You’d make a great tour guide, Di. Aside from being run down by a cyclist and dealing with a stinky mutt, this has been terrific.”

“I’d rather deal with a cyclist than the shower you’re going to have to give Max when you get back. He still pongs! It is lovely, here though, isn’t it?”

As we rounded another bend, we paused to watch a canal user struggling with his manoeuvres.

“Absolutely. It looks as though someone else is having a great time too. I wonder how many bottles of wine they consumed over lunch?”

We left them chugging around in circles and turned for home. Our footfalls still soft on that well-worn path, new views of graceful boughs brushing the water and those magnificent lock gates. It had been a truly lovely walk, with one exception.

“Beth, open the car windows, please, I can’t stand that stink!”  

Friday, 1 May 2020

Ligament Lockdown

I can’t deny it. I am hopelessly devoted to Australian Shepherd dogs. Loyal, energetic, fun-loving and drop-dead gorgeous, I can’t imagine life without our two, Aby and Max. The pair of them share the same papa, but their personalities couldn’t be more different.

Max, the little bro by a handful of months, spent his puppyhood giving meaning to the term accident-prone. If there were a ditch nearby, he’d fall in it. Put him on a horizontal surface, and he’d fall off, and water? That’s another story altogether.

Max loves water. With a supreme absence of finesse, Max hurls himself with gay abandon at anything wet, regardless of obstructions, known, or otherwise. Puddles, lakes and plain old mud, he’s right in there.

This carefree attitude to life has inevitably got Max into lots of fixes. I can’t even remember the number of times I took him to be patched up at the vet during his first year.

Adult life hasn’t matured Max much, and you know what? Aside from the self-harming incidents, I’m glad. Oh, and he’s also a smiler, I love that cheesy grin.

What her brother lacks in subtlety, Aby makes up for in a multitude of ways. Fleet-footed, observant and a proper twinkle toes when it comes to water, Aby is elegant in posture and demeanour. She is sensitive, deadly earnest and always dying to please.

Aby is the pack pioneer. She is the one who runs ahead, making sure all’s well. Max, well, think Velcro, and that’s my boy. His preference is to stick close to me, just making sure I’m alright. It’s an endearing characteristic, which is apt to be forgotten in an instant.

The whiff of a wild boar, the velvet footfall of a deer, perhaps a bounding hare. These are among the temptations which cause Max to abandon his station. Never for long, though. One of the great things about a shepherding dog is that they always come back. I’m very grateful for this herding ism.

Lockdown has been punishing for so many folks, but we can’t complain. The privilege of owning a domaine here in France with a sizable lump of land has meant our walks are not compromised.

It was about a month ago when I took the dogs on one of our favourite treks. We were walking through the forest, heading towards a stream bordered by a big meadow. The dogs love to wallow and then dry off with a strenuous game of tag in the long grass afterwards.  

Aby was way ahead, as usual, bounding gracefully over fallen trees, deftly negotiating uneven ground. I soon lost sight of her. My attention was grabbed by the awful sounds of Max feasting on a pile of poo close-by. It’s an unsavoury and enduring habit.

I was halfway through my regular lecture when I spotted Aby threading through the trees in the distance. She was coming towards us but looked different. Something was wrong. Breaking onto open ground she stumbled, faltering badly. Suddenly it became clear. Aby was staggering on three legs, dragging her fourth behind.

Horrified, I called to slow her down, but she was trying her best, determined to reach us as quickly as possible. She stopped, sides heaving with effort, her offside rear leg tucked up. I checked for visible injuries, but there were no apparent swellings or thorns in her pads. I couldn’t find anything wrong.

Non-plussed, I wondered whether it had been a superficial knock. Aby tried to walk. There was no whine or yelp, but she immediately lifted the leg, which looked wobbly. It was evident she could not weight-bear.

We were a fair distance from home. There was no possibility I was going to risk further injury by attempting to walk back. Thank goodness for mobile phones. I called Jack, who came to our rescue in the truck.

Over the next few days, Aby rested. No gallops, no walks. Frustrating though it was for her, we were hoping she had twisted the knee, and it would repair itself. After ten days, there was a positive change.  

Aby walked without limping but still couldn’t run. Sadly, this was as good as it got. Every time she trotted, up came that leg. We had tried everything. Lockdown or not, I had to call the vet.

Like so many businesses around the world, lockdown has taken its toll on French veterinary practices. Our vets continue to dispense medications, but appointments are limited to serious or emergency cases only. It’s understandable, and it’s due to the present circumstances.

I called the clinic and was put on hold for ten minutes. When the veterinary nurse replied, I could hear at least three other phones ringing. I would soon find out why. I described Aby’s symptoms and was put on hold again while she spoke to the bone specialist. She came back on the phone.

Madame ‘aslam, you must bring Aby to see Docteur Puiffe on Friday. She will need X-rays, so do not feed her before the appointment.”

“Lovely, thank you very much.”

“When you come, do not get out of your car. You must call us to say you have arrived.”

“Oh, I see.”

“You must not park your car close to another client.”

“Okay, I understand.”

The day of our appointment was hot. The shade is scant at our vet, so I opened the car doors while we waited. Aby and I watched as two other cars drove up, everyone wearing masks and gloves, all parking a respectful distance away.

Veterinary nurses collected pets, leaving their owner behind. After examination, the vet returned with the family loved one. Dog leads passed via outstretched arms and cat boxes placed in a safe zone. Diagnoses were delivered and medicines dispensed along with the bill.

As money flew in the general direction of the vet, I saw several coins roll across the car park. These were awkward transactions; card payments were more manageable. A solitary credit card machine sat on a chair in the clinic doorway. After the number was punched in, the plastic keypad cover was immediately sprayed.

Out came the veterinary nurse again, this time with armfuls of tablets for owner number one. She pointed at me. It seemed we were next. Docteur Puiffe re-appeared with such a broad smile even his surgical mask couldn’t hide it. Our dogs love him.

Bonjour Madame ‘aslam, please walk Aby up and down so I can watch her gait.”

I did so. She tried to run.

“Ah, I see. Yes, she has a knee injury. Thank you. Leave her with us and come back in two hours.”

I returned early evening and paced up and down in the car park while I waited for the verdict. Docteur Puiffe brought Aby and bad news.

“I am afraid Aby has ruptured her posterior ligament. There is instability in her knee cap, which is dislocating, you may have heard a clicking sound?

“Yes, occasionally.”

“It is internal damage. I think she also has a tear to her anterior cruciate ligament.”

Shocked at the severity of the injuries, I listened as Docteur Puiffe explained the recommended prosthetic surgery. All conducted in French; he was very patient as I asked a multitude of questions to make sure I understood correctly. It was a big decision to take.

“Don’t worry; take time to decide. Two days, two weeks, it will not make much difference to the joint, but if you leave it much longer, Aby risks damaging the knee further.”

It had been a surreal experience.

I returned home feeling wretched for our poor lass. She had never been ill, never had an injury before and then this. Had she crashed into a fallen tree trunk? Had a wild boar charged her? I had no idea what could have caused such a severe accident.  

Jack and I discussed the options, dithering, trying to make the right choice. They were limited. Do nothing and hope it might repair? If it didn’t, the joint would deteriorate and become arthritic. Or we could go ahead with major surgery, which may be life-altering for such an athletic dog.  

I chatted to doggy pals, and we listened to advice from others. It was always the same conclusion. There wasn’t a realistic option at all. Reluctantly, I called the vet to make the appointment. Still incredibly busy, they told me the first surgery opportunity was not for two weeks but would try to fit her in earlier. At 8 pm that evening my phone rang.

Madame ‘aslam, it is Celine from the vet. We know you are worried about Aby. We have managed to fit her in tomorrow morning. She will be the first patient.”

It’s just as well I wasn’t there. I might have hugged her.

Animal lovers who have been in a similar situation will know all about that agonising wait while their loved family member is undergoing treatment. I spent the whole day faffing around, worrity, trying to find useful things to do. A little early, because I couldn’t stand it any longer, I rushed back to the vet and hung around watching patients come and go.

The nurse came out with reassurances, pills, potions and strict instructions.

“Until we see her again, Aby is only allowed outside on the lead for wees and poos. Then she must rest. Do not allow the bandage to get wet. If there are any problems, let us know immediately. She comes back here to have her stitches out in 12 days when Docteur Puiffe will discuss her rehabilitation with you.”

“Okay, thank you.”

“And now I will get Aby.”

I was still trying to imagine how our agile lass was going to deal with the first period of confinement when the door opened. Out came a snoozy Aby and the biggest bandage in France.

Aby spotted me and towed the cooing nurse across the car park in a mixture of excited whines and confused yelps. Somehow forgetting our confinement protocol, the nurse and I gently gathered Aby up and put her in the car.

And so Aby’s ligament lockdown began.

The first couple of days were tricky. Max bounced around, wanting to play, not understanding why Aby was woozy. The cats took a different view. One look at that fat bandage caused all three of them to inflate in hairy horror. They decided we’d brought a UFO into the house and fled.

We have settled into a routine now. On good weather days, Aby lies outside in the shade where she can watch outdoor activities. Rainy days have posed challenges. I pop her microfleece on and use a plastic bin bag with clothes peg buttons to cover her dressing. It’s not a great look.

The practicalities were working reasonably well until Max decided Aby’s covered leg was a lamp post. Don’t ask me why I have no idea. It was another telling off for Max for an illegal pee, and a toothy apology in return. I bought a new stock of bin bags.

We’re now into week two. Aby is much stronger, perfected the hop, and coping brilliantly with her appendage. She may be miserable at not being allowed to go for walks but is typically grateful for the extra cuddles she gets for being such a brave girl.

Looking back on it now, I’ll admit it’s been a bit of a nightmare, and mostly for Aby. We don’t know whether she will ever regain full mobility, but we’ll do everything we can to ensure she does.

And we’re certainly not going to feel sorry for ourselves. How could we in the current climate? The fact is, countless others are struggling with problems far, far more severe than ours. One thing is clear, though, we couldn’t be more grateful to our vets. They are working incredibly long hours to care for our animals. To us, they are true superstars.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Le Lockdown

Lockdown. Surreal? Yes, but fast becoming a reality for us all.

I was down to our last four carrots, and they were wrinkly. I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to buy food. Leclerc in Calestra, our largest supermarket in the area, was my venue of choice. I should be able to buy all the supplies I needed.

In France, as with many other countries now, if we want to travel we need to take an authorisation form. The relevant ‘out reason’ box is ticked, the document dated, signed, and the time of departure logged.
Jack, my worrity husband, wrinkled his brow as I was leaving. He was convinced I had forgotten something.
“Completed form?”
“Jack, I don’t need Dutch courage. I’m just going to the supermarket.”
“For your hands!”
“Oh, right! Check, I have that sanitising gel stuff I use after cleaning up the animals.”
“Argh! I knew I’d forgotten something!”

My drive to town might have struck strangers as being eerily quiet. Actually, it’s quite normal. We are rural here so road users, for the first few kilometres, are rare. Usually driving tractors or battered vans, those we do pass are often friends or neighbours.

I reached Leclerc in double-quick time. With very few reasons to smile at the moment, I perked up at the sight of the near-empty car park. I cruised into a spot right next to the front door. Donning my mask and gloves, I headed for the trollies.

Our store has thoughtfully upgraded its fleet of food carriers. Light to push, fabulous to manoeuvre, they are enormously capacious. This last feature is potentially handy, but not for shorties like me. In my attempts to fish out purchases from the bottomless depths, I have regularly come perilously close to joining them.

Unhooking a lofty charger, I wheeled up to the automatic front doors and waited patiently for something to happen. Nothing. Tutting, I gave one a gentle prod. Nada. Sighing, I eventually focused on the vast sign in front of my nose.

La porte est fermée. Utilisez l’autre entrée s’il vous plait.

Entry closed. Foiled! That would explain the cluster of cars at the other end of the car park. I scuttled down to join those who can be bothered read.

A shopper-calming system was in place, which was a good idea. One lane in and another out. It was a quiet day, and the security guard on duty looked bored, I’m sure there are times when his shepherding skills are needed.

Once inside, I felt an air of tranquillity. Things had changed. We now had strips of tape on the floor next to counters, check-outs and fresh food cabinets. All designed to encourage social distancing, all very helpful. My first port of call was the cheese section.

Forget toilet rolls; if there were a shortage of one product guaranteed to cause mass hysteria here, it would be cheese. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. I chatted to our lovely fromage lady who was stacking creamy beauties. Even a mask couldn’t shroud that everlasting smile of hers.

Next was fruit and veg – I needed lots. Evidently, others did too. Unlike the usual bunfight that takes place when a fresh batch of whatevers arrives, today was different. Shoppers stood back to allow the person in front to browse. No barging, no stretching, just an unspoken understanding that this was the way it had to be.

The problem is, we are a fairly kissy lot here in France. It’s a place where, at the very least, greetings involve a smacker on each cheek. It’s a hard habit to dispense with in the heat of buying. A particularly tactile pal spotted me from afar.
Bonjour, Beth!”  
Salut, Geneviève, ça va ?
Blocked by a bank of bananas, my friend waved an exasperated hand and continued in the opposite direction.

It’s true to say that some shelves were bare. Pasta was enduringly popular for hoarders as were many tinned goods. Happily, though, the French have not yet discovered the delights of Heinz baked beans. I squirrelled four tins into my trolley for Jack and headed over to the butcher.

I stood a metre from the counter and yelled my order through my mask which was a challenge for monsieur, but he listened carefully and replied.
“And your mushrooms, madame?”
“No, minced beef, please.”
“But what about your mushrooms?”
“Honestly, I don’t want any, thank you. Just the minced beef.”
“The mushrooms at your domaine, madame. Are they growing yet?”
“Oh! I’m so sorry. No, nothing at the moment, I’m afraid.”
“Ah, that’s life! Now about your mince. How much did you want, madame?”

Mushrooms are right up there with cheese in popularity, and our domaine has the dubious reputation for being the source of many such earthy wonders. How he recognised me under my mask, I couldn’t say. It probably has something to do with my awful French accent. It also shows how small the community is.

I lined up at the checkout. It was very different from the last time. When COVID19 was first announced it was mayhem.

Now, folks stood patiently, observing the taped distance instructions on the floors. There were positive changes for the cashiers too. They have each been given a mask and gloves, and their work areas are surrounded by Perspex screens. I wondered how they coped with the masks.
“Is it hard to wear all day?”
“A bit hot, madame, but we must all take care.”
I could see she was still smiling; her advice was absolutely right.

Back at the car, after loading my shopping, I cleaned my gloves with the sanitising gel, and then my key and the door handles. Do I sound obsessive? Possibly, but needs must.

As I reached home, I spotted something leaning against the gatepost. It was a crate of apples gifted by one of our kind neighbours. Which one? I’m not sure. It just goes to show that even during le lockdown, some things never change in our wonderful corner of France.

Please stay safe, stay well, and I sincerely hope you find lots of reasons to smile in spite of this horribly difficult situation.