Sing for your Supper

Every Wednesday evening I drive about 15 minutes from home and spend an enjoyable hour or so singing with a French choir. Being in an area popular with British ex-pats, about a quarter of us are English but essentially, French is the language we use.

Chorale Chantvallon
Chorale Chantvallon performing in Taizé Aizie (16) in 2009

As people arrive, one greets and is greeted by everyone either with a cheery “Bonjour. Ça va?” or a friendly “Salut!” and one or two bises (a light kiss on the cheek). This takes some time with an average of 25 or so people turning up to sing each week but it does make you feel part of the team and new arrivals are no exception.

An English visitor sat next to me earlier this year and commented on how friendly everyone was. “Of course”, I replied, “it’s a community choir so everyone knows each other very well,  they care about each other…. and we socialise a lot.” Apart from weekly practices, we give concerts around the region and venture further afield to other regions of France and even to the UK. Food and drink always play their part, whether it’s a picnic, a summer party, or a fundraiser, there’s a generosity and natural sense of fun and sharing surrounding food that makes it such an important part of our choir community.

Chantvallon Summer Picnic 2011
Chantvallon Summer Picnic 2011 at Balandière

After every practice we gather together to have a drink and something to eat before leaving for home. Taking it in turns to bring the food and drink ensures that  there’s something different every week. Some bring mainly sweet things – cakes (chocolate being the favourite), fruit tarts, biscuits, and so on. Others have a more savoury inclination and will bring home-made paté, cheeses, olives, quiche, pizza – all manner of things. One of our sopranos runs a business with her husband called ‘Fromacoeur‘ They manufacture tasty little Goat’s cheese bites which are sold across Europe, even in Marks & Spencers where you’ll find their delicious little stuffed peppers in the delicatessen range. Others might bring huge turines of paté maison (home-made paté), or the regional speciality known as chou farci (stuffed cabbage).

When the choir performs, one or two people always take it upon themselves to bring a large flask of coffee and some biscuits – always very gratefully received, especially when we’re singing in a cold, damp church. One of the tenor voices runs a drinks supply business and started a little tradition of bringing a bottle of pear liqueur to concerts. So if you attend one of our performances and wonder why we’re late arriving on stage – you know why!

Recipe – Raspberry & Almond Tart

This is a delicious tart that could be served up any time of year. It’s an idea that came to me when I was trying to think how I could use a bowlful of fresh raspberries and a packet of feuillettée (puff) pastry from the fridge. Although I always make my own shortcrust pastry, having puff pastry to hand means I can always put something together quickly. My favourites are a simple fruit topping on a base of crême fraiche and an egg whisked together with a little sugar and maybe some spice if it’s apple. Alternatively, I make savoury parcels for dinner with a piece of salmon and some spinach, or simply  vegetables in a creamy sauce.  Today, I thought about making a kind of Bakewell Tart using fresh fruit instead of jam but putting the fruit on the top. The result is a gloriously light and colourful dessert which can be served warm or cold and it really doesn’t need anything else other than a glass of chilled white wine.

raspberry and almond tart
Raspberry and Almond Tart

100g margarine

100g caster sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

100g ground almonds

fresh raspberries, (cherries or blackcurrants would do equally well)

some flaked almonds

icing sugar (optional)

Remove the pastry from the fridge and leave to one side to soften. Beat together the margarine and the sugar until light and fluffy then add the eggs a little at a time keeping back a small amount to brush onto the pastry. Gently fold in the ground almonds.

Unroll the pastry onto a large shallow flan tin with a loose bottom. Spread the almond mixture over the base but not going right to the edge. Put the fruit on top, more or less covering the surface and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Taking the edge of the pastry between your fingers, lightly roll it inwards over the edge of the almond mix and brush the folds with the remaining egg. Bake for 30-35mins at 180C until the filling is golden brown.  Sift icing sugar over the flan just before serving.

What’s round and juicy?

Despite the back garden still looking like a ruin (see my last post), I’ve been at my most ambitious to date with my veggie planting.  Thanks to the unseasonal warmth throughout April, all the plants and seeds are now in, with one or two spaces left for latecomers and irrestistible varieties of tomatoes I might spot at the market. Much to Roger’s despair, my method of choosing tomatoes is to just go on instinct, with one or two words of advice from the seller, and to get as many different types as possible. I never label them and never make a note of their names so it’s impossible to know which to buy again if one proves to be outsandingly successful. The truth is that in this part of France you can’t really get an unsuccessful tomato. A few years ago, we had a sort of mould which spread through the plants, causing them to yellow and wilt. I took off all the leaves in the hope that I could save the fruit but it was an untypical, lacklustre harvest.  This year, I’ve noticed a lot more ‘heritage’ tomatoes in the garden centres – lovely shapes and colours with old-fashioned names, but four times the price of common varieties like Pyros and the fleshy Coeur de Boeuf. Maybe I’ll find space for a little jewel of a pear-shaped yellow or one with an enticing tiger stripe…

Potimarron will store well for a couple of months in a cool place.

We love pumpkins and I find them exciting and rewarding to grow. We especially like the bright orange potimarron, whose hard flesh seems to melt into a soup made with nothing more than leeks sweetened in a little butter then simmered in a vegetable stock for about 20 minutes. Whizzed up into a thick orange cream, I add a swirl of crème frâiche and then all it needs is a hunk of fresh bread and butter. Its  bigger sibling, the  potiron, promises fine things but I find it too watery for a soup and therefore best roasted among some winter roots with garlic and rosemary. I’ve planted them both along with a newcomer called Musquée de Provence after inspiration by Nigel Slater in his book ‘Tender’ , and the ever-so-useful butternut squash.

Nearly a month ahead, the roses are already at their best. Each flower is appreciated during our daily tours of the garden, the most perfect bud commented upon and closely observed as if it were the first and only one we’ll see. Congratulating ourselves on how at least we did the right thing in one area, we’ll be equally regretful at not having done something differently elsewhere. A few short showers of heavy rain later, plants go into overdrive, putting on several inches in a matter of hours and producing buds and flowers overnight.  What an extraordinary time.

Anybody want some stone?

To the rear of our house is an enclosed area, bound on two sides by our house and a barn, the third by the remains of an old farmworkers cottage and the fourth by a wall bounding the lane. The whole area has always been a problem and I clearly remember Rog commenting on the potential disasters and drain on resources that it could entail while we were viewing the property. However, I had visions of a sunny enclosed courtyard with parking, summer kitchen and potager, a place to sit and enjoy the evening sun and hide ourselves away from the world. We bought the house.

The first catastrophe happened even before we’d exchanged final contracts. The gale that swept across western France during the winter of 1999 / 2000 took the barn roof with it. The notaire informed us that not only were we buying less property than we thought but the owners were uninsured. He deducted the cost of repairs from the money we handed over for the house. The builder in our absence, chose to skimp on the job creaming off as much profit as he could. A taste of how shabby some people can be.

The second thing wasn’t as catastrophic but the end wall of the barn had collapsed and we instructed another English builder to rebuild it leaving an entrance large enough for cars to get through as we had it in mind to make the barn into a garage. His workmanship was good but the gap too narrow.

The old cottages had long since collapsed since the previous owners robbed the roof timbers and tiles to restore the main house. Trees were growing through the rubble and it was too dangerous to go inside. It had to go so we hired a couple of guys with a digger and a lorry to clear it and take away the rubble. After a week we had to call a halt, the cost was spiralling and although the area had largely been cleared, there was still one section to do and the back wall was really too high to be left unsupported.

Then last autumn it rained. It rained hard and unusually long and everything was completely sodden. When the rain finally stopped, the skies cleared and the temperatures fell. We had hard frosts, and like everyone else in northern Europe we had snow. The snow stayed on the ground for a couple of weeks, freezing hard at night and leaving an inpenetrable layer of ice underneath. The stone walls around our rear courtyard are typical Charentais constructions of stone and earth. Built with great skill, they generally last for hundreds of years. But some of the stone is vulnerable. Through minute cracks or a slightly different composition they weather and split allowing the wet to get into the core of the wall. The earth becomes unstable and the whole lot slides to the ground.

The first collapse was on the boundary wall. Our neighbour came to the door one afternoon and led me into the lane to inspect the damage. The second collapse was more serious as a chunk of the high back wall crashed into our neighbours garden, suffocating a flower bed. We had no choice but to employ a mason to rebuild the wall and remove 1.5metres off the height. We could only afford to do the affected section so this summer we’ll have to continue and finish the rest. The mason warned us that it could go at any time. We believe him!

Meanwhile, the dream courtyard is still a long way off. We have plenty of manual labour ahead of us to stabilise the boundaries and tons of stone to remove. You’re never bored when you own a property like ours….never rich either!

Best made plans…

Having spent the last 5 months updating our website, we’re now preparing to go to the Ski & Snowboard show in London this week to promote it. Despite all our efforts it seems that we are plagued by hitches that are completely beyond our control.

Firstly, we order some flashy new business cards and typically – they haven’t arrived on time.

Secondly, the whole of France decide to go on strike the day we plan to travel to the UK.

Trying not to get too upset about this because it’s frankly, not the end of the world if we don’t have a new business card (we can print a few off here), and not too much of a problem to go to the Show on Thursday instead. But, don’t you just get fed up with making the best of plans only to have it all thrown up in the air by something like a strike. Earlier this year, we had to make an unscheduled drive to St Malo ferry port so that my step-daughter and her boyfriend could get back to the UK having had their flight cancelled due to volcanic ash. Completely out of our control, fortunately not a huge problem either for us, or with their workplaces, but not as planned… This time last year, we decided to travel to the ski show by train. It turned out to be a strike day – not an irregular occurance – and our arrival at the Gare in Poitiers at dawn was unnecessarily early as it turned out our train had been cancelled and we had to wait nearly 2 hours for another.

I may be sounding a little selfish here, as I can understand that the strikers do have grievances and it is probably their plans being put at risk that make them so upset. And I suppose I am grateful that planes didn’t crash because they were flying through volcanic ash, but how will this end? At the moment, we can’t drive anywhere for fear that we won’t be able to get any more fuel – our  precious tankful will get us into the UK. Thousands of people are having their own well worked out plans tossed in the air as if they don’t matter.   How many more inconveniences will there be before  those on strike realise that their long retirements are a thing of the past and this third age of leisure has to be paid for.  Leave us innocents alone to get on with our lives, be grateful you have a living and that you will also have a retirement.

History Lives in the Buildings

We believe our house was built around 1850. Back then, rural France was much more densely populated. Balandière, had over 50 people living here within the memory of our oldest neighbours. It is now only 28 full time residents in 12 households. We had some cottages to the rear which were occupied by farm workers and pre-dates our house. Our neighbour Christine, can remember visiting her grandmother there, who apparently kept a moped in her living room!
Most people would have worked the land, and as we find out from photos and from clearing out cottages and outbuildings, it would have been a poor and hardworking life. However, Henry Marsac wasn’t an agricultural worker. He became a policeman and ultimately had a distinguished career.

Tucked behind our wonderful “marronnier” (Horse Chestnut) the house has had an interesting history. Fondly referred to as “la belle maison” by some locals, in its recent past, it had been divided in two by the Marsac brothers, Henry and Emile. Their names and other scribbles are etched into stone doorways and lintels around the property. Thanks to our neighbour John-Paul, who was born in the village, we have some wonderful photos of the Marsac family.

Marriage of Henry Marsac and Germaine, Balandière
Marriage of Henry Marsac and Germaine, Balandière. The wedding photo was taken in front of the barn.

The house underwent its most drastic transformation when the previous owners converted it back into a single family home. Unfortunately, circumstances changed for them and we turned up at just the right time to rescue it from its state of despair. Here is the house in an old picture showing a mysterious central chimney and no bathroom window. Most of the transformation was carried out by our predecessors, an English family, who brought the house back to life.

An old black & white photo of our house before it was converted back into a single family home
An old black & white photo of our house before it was converted back into a single family home

We have continued the restoration work, albeit slowly. The ivy has been replaced by a climbing rose and wysteria and the garden is no longer a jungle. However, It wasn’t until October 2005, that the facade finally had it’s facelift when the mason M. Moreau and his son arrived and worked solidly for one week and gave the house a new lease of life.

The house as it is in 2009.
The house, 2009.

A bit of background

We moved to France from Cornwall in the south-west of England at the end of 2002. I had left my career in environmental management and sustainable tourism a year prior to that and was already working with my husband, Roger Moss, who is a photographer and travel writer specialising in France and a musician. Since moving over we have been renovating our house and garden and continuing working to promote France to a worldwide Anglophile audience . We still love travelling in France to research features for magazines and recently completed a guide book to the Loire Valley for Footprint Travel Guides. We are passionate about mountains and ski and established www.mountainpassions.com on 2007 which covers ski and all aspects of mountain living and tourism.
This blog will consist of what we are doing at home and what we see on our travels, and generally enjoying our lives in France  – hope you enjoy sharing it with us.