Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book review of Cycling, Wine, and Men by Nancy Brook

French Village Diaries book review Cycling Wine and Men by Nancy BrookMy review today is for Cycling, Wine, and Men: A Midlife Tour de France by Nancy Brook. The title of this book includes three things I love and it’s set in France so I just HAD to read it. 

By her early forties Nancy had already accomplished a lot, including picking herself up after her husband disappeared with money from their joint business, leaving her a single parent with debts and in trouble with the police. However in terms of a serious relationship and time for herself, things were lacking in her life. Putting her corporate life on hold for a much needed holiday we join Nancy as she makes the amazing journey across France from Bordeaux in the west to the Alps in the east, by bike.

Nancy and I are of a similar age and although I live in France and love cycling here the thought of undertaking a trek by bike from Bordeaux to the Alps is still quite daunting. Nancy sets out to accomplish it and on her first visit to France. She flew into Paris from the States with her luggage and bike (all packaged up), immediately found her way onto a train to Bordeaux and within a few days was cycling the vineyards with a group she only just met in a country she had only just arrived in – chapeau Nancy. I loved the day-by-day descriptions of the cycling route, she was honest, enthusiastic and her determination was quite something. France was somewhere Nancy had always wanted to visit and it was refreshing to experience her fresh-faced love for this beautiful country and to share in her enthusiasm for some of the very French scenes she saw on the way. It is true that we often tend to take for granted what is on our doorstep.

There is no doubting Nancy is a strong, independent woman, but she admits to being a romantic too and her need for the fairytale happily ever after is something she discusses in the book. For me, there was a bit too much musing on the various men and what went wrong, but as the title mentions men maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. What this book did give me was a kick up the backside - if you can do it Nancy, why the hell can’t I? However, I’m not sure camping is my idea of a good holiday and especially having cycled between 80 and 100kms each day. I do like my comforts.

If you are a cyclist or an armchair traveler you will love this journey across France that takes in vineyards, hilltop towns, markets, fetes, mountains and gorges all without the discomfort of riding a bike and sleeping in a tent.

Cycling, Wine, and Men: A Midlife Tour de France is available in paperback and ebook format and links to Amazon are below.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Accidents in the home

They say that most accidents happen in the home and that you should be aware of common dangers so they can be avoided. I wouldn’t say I was a particularly accident prone person, but yesterday I had a little mishap that resulted in a huge gash to my leg. But don’t panic Mum (if you are reading this) I survived, without medical intervention, to walk another day.

Yesterday was a busy one and as I munched my way through a hearty breakfast of shredded wheat, chopped apple and walnuts, I was busy planning what order to tackle the tasks on the to do list:

Ironing mountain – impossible to reach the summit in one day, but getting to the first viewing platform was my aim
Floor sweeping – to be tackled most days, but especially when the return of the husband is imminent
Pastry for a quiche
Dough for a homemade pizza night

However, before anything it was shower time. As Ade was due home running a brush through my hair and throwing on some clothes wasn’t acceptable. I was in full making an effort mode, hair washed and conditioned, legs shaved etc. and this is where it all went wrong. Somehow I managed to snag a nail while shaving my legs and no, I have no idea how. What I didn’t notice until it was too late was that the ripped nail had raised the blades on the razor so that when applied back to the leg – ouch! It is just as well the sight of blood doesn’t bother me, and although a broken nail, a huge plaster and half hairy legs wasn’t quite the look I was hoping for, I survived. Is this the most bizarre accident you have come across, or can you amuse me with something better?

The really cruel twist to all my efforts is that due to some rather horrid weather due to hit the north of France and south of UK tomorrow/Monday, I waved my man back off after morning coffee today – 18 hours home between jobs is not ideal, but we were both happier this way than him travelling during a storm with gale force winds. At least I have plenty of ironing to keep me busy, and lots of new books to read, including two exciting new pre-releases The People in the Photo and The Foundling Boy that arrived in the post today, thanks to the team at Gallic books.

French Village Diaries Autumn Clock Change
Clocks go back one hour
Don’t forget the clocks in our corner of Europe go back an hour tonight. In order to avoid me falling off a chair when trying to change the kitchen clock, Ade has already done it for me, and left me a helpful note to remind me that for today the clock is slow!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book review of Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah

French Village Diaries Book Review Memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah
Mastering the Art of French Eating
My latest book review is a real gem. Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris by Ann Mah was sent to me by the US publishers Penguin, to read and give a fair review.

There are some books that capture you from the minute you open them and this was one of those books. I always felt hungry when reading it, which as my reading time is usually late at night wasn’t good, but that is about the only downside I found with it. It has also given me itchy feet (again) for this lovely country we live in, but where to head first? Alsace for Choucroute, Brittany for Crêpes, Castelnaudary for Cassoulet, or Provence for Soupe au Pistou are just some of the choices Ann gives us, with each dish featuring in it’s own chapter.

The book is a good mix of exploring the food in regional France, giving some great information and history (but not overdoing it) and letting us into the highs and lows of her life as she tries to settle in Paris. It should have been a happy time with a three-year Parisian placement for her and her diplomat husband to look forward to, but within the first months he is sent to Baghdad, leaving her alone in Paris. Reading her story was addictive, not just as I was keen to learn more about some of France’s classic dishes and how they evolved, but also because I enjoyed following her personal journey of coping with her new life that was turning out to be a lonely experience. As a wife in a foreign country, away from family and friends, whose husband regularly travels for work, I can understand only too well, some of the things she was feeling. It would be true to say the food of France saved her and it's certainly helped me too.

Ann shares a lot in this book, her childhood, her life as a diplomat’s wife, her time alone in Paris and her knowledge about France and it’s lovely food. In the recipes her easy steps-to-success with some of France’s greatest regional dishes have given me the confidence to try them out myself – le vrai cassoulet here I come.

This book would make a great gift for the food loving Francophile in your life. Available in hardcover a link to is below.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

When Farming is in your Blood

There has been the unmistakable smell of the countryside oozing around the village today, so it was no surprise to see that the fields were alive and buzzing with tractors when Mini and I were out on our walk. Some were busy to-ing and fro-ing between their well rotted heaps of farmyard gold, filling their spreading trailers and setting off for the next field to be fed. Others were busy turning the soil, leaving behind a rich, dark, velvety soil that looked almost good enough to sleep in. 

French Village Diaries Farming Life

The narrow tracks we often have to ourselves were busy, almost congested, and we often had to tuck ourselves into the hedge to allow a tractor to pass. On one occasion I was surprised to see the driver was the young son from one of the farming families, being put to work during his school holidays.  He is not much older than Ed and was out alone in the fields, driving a huge tractor and looking to be enjoying every minute of it. A little different to Ed’s holiday, where lie-ins, music, bike riding, and a friend over are what he has been enjoying so far this week and even if I asked him to mow the lawn I doubt he’d know where to start. I guess this is the difference between the families who have worked the soil for generations and the newcomers like us. I love to feel the soil under my fingernails, something I am sure I inherited from my Granddad and eating from our land is an important part of our lifestyle, but it isn’t in Ed’s blood just yet. I doubt we will ever be a part of the land like these families who I’m sure have the soil of the village running through their veins but maybe I’ll suggest Ed and I do some soil bonding and weed the potager tomorrow.

French Village Diaries Farming Life
Freshly turned soil

Friday, October 18, 2013

Book review of Toute Allure by Karen Wheeler

French Village Diaries book review Toute Allure Karen Wheeler Poitou-Charentes
Toute Allure  by Karen Wheeler
I have had a booky kind of day with some happy hours spent rummaging through thousands of second hand books and adding to my France collection. It therefore seemed a good idea to add my latest book review, Toute Allure by local author Karen Wheeler.

Toute Allure: Falling in Love in Rural France is the second book about her life in Poitou-Charentes, France, a life that is very different from the glamour of the London fashion world she has left behind. You can read my review of her first book Tout Sweet here. We left Karen nicely settled into her new community having almost finished the renovations of her village house and we find her hoping to meet someone special to share her life with. She is finally over the Ex and there are a few friendly faces she has bumped into, so she is in an optimistic mood. Karen takes us into the somewhat bizarre world of the expat in France where stress levels rise at the local quiz night and tempers get frayed in the Entente Cordial line-dancing group (oh yes, London fashionista becomes French line dance addict). She certainly knows how to enjoy herself, but the funniest bits for me are the descriptions of the weird and wonderful members of the community that she now finds herself in. The quiet life she was expecting takes a bit of a detour with the arrival of the Portuguese builders into the house next door, who enjoy late night music and street barbecues, behaviour that doesn’t endear them to the neighbours. There is another side to Toute Allure, it is also the story of how two soul mates meet and eventually find a way to be together forever. This is a love story with a difference and was so readable it paralysed me for two days.

French Village Diaries book review Toute Allure Karen Wheeler Poitou-Charentes
Karen and Biff
Living in the same area Karen lives in, I love that some of the places and things she writes about are familiar sounding and since reading her first book I’ve often thought how nice it would be to meet her for a coffee or a glass of wine. Having now read this, it is Biff (the four legged love of her life) I want to meet! Sorry Karen, but you paint such a beautiful picture of him with your words I want to run and chase deer in the Poitou-Charentes hills with him and our dog Mini.

I can honestly say there was nothing I didn’t like about this book, except that it ended. I know a lot of you love memoirs on life in France so if you haven’t read it, it should be on your ‘to read’ list, especially if you are a dog lover as well. I'm now looking forward to reading Tout Soul, book three, before Karen finishes book four Sweet Encore: A Road Trip from Paris to Portugal which is due out next year.

Toute Allure: Falling in Love in Rural France , Tout Sweet: Hanging Up my High Heels for a New Life in France and Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France are all available in paperback and ebook formats, with links to below. Karen has also written a great book exploring the French way of eating for pleasure and to maintain a healthy weight, The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight . I have read this and can recommend it as I thought the advice was very sensible and easy to follow. There are also some great soup and cake recipes included. I will review it in more detail here soon. You can read more about Karen, her love of France and the Marie Antoinette diet in my France et Moi interview with her here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Farewell to the summer garden

The weather has turned and the season has changed, so we have taken the first steps towards putting the potager to bed for the winter. There are still the Brussels sprouts for Christmas, some lettuces, the Jerusalem artichokes and a few beetroots, but the tomatoes were struggling and so were the courgettes and squash. This is the earliest we have ever had to give up and just thinking that doesn’t do much to improve my mood on a dark, damp day. We have harvested all the green tomatoes, most of which were turned into tomato and apple chutney (there are still a few apples to harvest too) and the baby squash were roasted for a soup. I am hoping the larger squash will store for a little while longer, they do make a delicious soup but I like the idea of using them as a fresh vegetable for as long as possible. I am really pleased with my Longue de Nice squash and with three of them weighing a combined ten kilos of firm orange flesh (similar to a Butternut squash) I predict lots of curries this autumn.

French Village Diaries Potager France Longue de Nice squash food
Longue de Nice squash
As usual the weeds have taken over in the potager, possibly more so this year - an unfortunate side effect of too much time spent cycling and not enough time spent gardening. However it was such a fantastic summer I’m not really complaining. Getting the plot ready for next spring will be hard work and we really could do with some good old-fashioned muck to improve the soil. We both felt that although we have harvested quite a bit from the garden the yields could have been better. We have a compost heap that provides some goodness for the plot and all the plants from the potager we have pulled up have been added to it, with grass cuttings, leaves and kitchen scraps, but there is never enough. It is at this time of year that I think a piglet would be the perfect answer. Fenced into the potager he or she could spend the winter weeding, rotivating and adding muck with very little effort on my part. Just thinking about the size and quantity of courgettes next year that would go so well with a pork chop is making me hungry. Enough of my dreaming, I have a huge vase full of parsley from my neighbour that is destined to become the star ingredient in a batch of pesto that will also use up some of last year’s walnuts. It is just a shame it hasn't stopped raining for long enough to pick and dry many of this years walnuts – I am not a fan of cold, wet autumns. 

At least wet days mean reading days and this weekend, as well as celebrating Ed’s 13th birthday, I will be indulging in some book therapy at the Hope Association Book Sale – thousands of second hand books on sale all at 1euro with proceeds going to local animal charities. I will be there on Friday, so only two sleeps to go.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Book review of Tales From The Hilltop by Tony Lewis

French Village Diaries Book Review Tales From The Hilltop by Tony Lewis France Tarn Cycling Walking HolidaysTales from the Hilltop by Tony Lewis is a memoir set in France, but with a bit of a difference. It isn’t a ‘we followed our dream and moved to France’ memoir, neither is it a ‘we took off on a big cycling/walking adventure in France’ memoir. It is the account of Tony and his wife Ludmilla’s summer spent in Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn, where they worked very hard to ensure others had the walking/cycling holidays of their dreams. As a lover of all things French and especially cycling and walking in France this book called out to me as soon as I saw it and reading it didn’t disappoint.

During the holiday season Tony and Ludmilla did countless airport runs and drove hundreds of kilometres moving bags; they cleaned bikes, repaired bikes and always had a smile for the hoteliers and holidaymakers. They also had the odd disaster to deal with in their rented accommodation, regularly visited their elderly landlords in the local retirement home and became part of the local community. Over the summer they got to know the local area and Tony shares some of the history of the Tarn and it’s many bastide towns along with plenty of funny snippets of life behind the scenes in the holiday industry. I was fascinated by the insights into how these types of holidays work – you move from hotel to hotel by bike/on foot, following a given route and your bags magically find their way from one location to the next without you having to lift a finger. If I ever get to go a holiday like this I want Tony and Ludmilla to be my 'bag shufflers'.

The thing that really comes across is the love for the area they find themselves working in, and I know I’m not the only one who thought this. I have heard from other readers who have said how they now HAVE to visit the Tarn and the places Tony describes so well. We glanced in on this area in 2010 on one of our road trips in the Mini Cooper, but somehow managed to miss Cordes-sur-Ciel by about 50kms. Thanks to Tony this will be rectified on a future trip and we may also take our bikes with us. I should warn you that if you read this you too will want to see and experience the Tarn for yourself, but even if you can’t get there for a real holiday, this book will give you a mini-break to remember.

Available in ebook and paperback, links to below.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Autumn Apple Cake

Today I’d like to share with you the recipe for THE only cake that I used to make when we lived in UK - my pre-baking years. If I remember correctly this was my cake of choice because it is an easy method and the recipe only requires one egg, something I rarely had in my kitchen. Oh, how things have changed.

This year’s apple crop has been exceptional and having made plenty of chutney, my mincemeat for Christmas, my spicy apple cake and dried apples, I was looking for something different to do with them. This recipe seemed the obvious choice and it was just as delicious as I remember, plus the boys loved it. It may just be me, but I find the process of rubbing the flour and butter, plus the smell of baking to be quite comforting, especially this week, when there seems to be lots going on and my organisational skills are being stretched – if in doubt bake a cake!

Autumn Apple Cake
french village diaries autumn apple cake recipe
Autumn Apple Cake
(Please note this can be made at any time of year, but my baking tends to be seasonally affected by what is overproducing in the garden).

225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
115g cold butter, cubed
2 dessert apples
115g caster sugar
55g sultanas (or other dried fruit – I used cherries)
1 egg beaten
A little milk
1 tablespoon of Demerara sugar

Line a loaf tin or 20 cm round cake tin with greaseproof paper and pre-heat the oven to gas mark 4. Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl with the cold butter and rub together until mixture resembles bread-crumbs. Peal, core and finely dice the apples and add to the mixture with the sugar and dried fruit. Mix in the beaten egg to form a soft dough, I find I need to add a little milk at this stage, but you don’t want too wet a consistency. Press into the cake tin and sprinkle with the Demerara sugar. Bake until risen and golden brown, which takes about 30 minutes in my oven. This is the perfect cake for an afternoon sit down with a cup of tea.

Friday, October 4, 2013

French Onion Soup

What do wine and onions have in common?

Quite a bit actually - they are both produced in France, they both come in red, white and rosé varieties and they both have an Appellation d'Origine Controlée AOC (the certification to ensure a product comes from a specific region). Yes, you can buy a pink onion, the Onion de Roscoff and I am a little bit in love with it as it is a good size, has a lovely pink tinge and tastes fantastic.

french village diaries johnny onion AOC France Roscoff Brittany
The Pink Onion de Roscoff
Here is a little bit of history. Onions have been grown in the north of France in Finistère for over three hundred years it was this onion growing region that gave us the now iconic image of the Frenchman; on his bicycle, wearing a blue stripy top and with his strings of onions. In 1828 a young onion grower from Roscoff decided to travel to Great Britain to sell his onions and each year more and more producers followed him. Some on foot, some on bicycles, all with their plaited onion strings as this made them easier to store and to transport. These sellers became known by the British housewives as Johnny Onions. I found it quite amazing that local people in our area of western France were unaware of this tradition and couldn't understand why we thought of onions and bicycles as being typically French. It was another expat, who grew up in Wales and remembers the onion sellers knocking on the door, who explained it to our French friends. I must point out that she was not growing up in Wales in 1828 as this trade route continued for well over a hundred a years! 

french village diaries johnny onion AOC France Roscoff Brittany
A perfect hint of pink
Here is a traditional recipe for French Onion Soup.

500g onions, finely sliced
1 litre of (chicken) stock
1 tbsp of flour
50g butter or goose fat
Salt, Pepper and Garlic
100g grated cheese gruyère if possible
Slices of baguette

Cook the onions in the fat until lightly coloured. Add the flour, salt and pepper and stir over a low heat for two to three minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil and then keep at simmering point for about thirty minutes. While this is cooking make the croutons. Grill a slice of baguette per person, rub with the garlic clove and place in the soup bowls. When the soup is ready, pour over the croutons, top with cheese and grill for a few minutes. A delicious and comforting lunch or light supper on a cold and damp day.