Monday, 23 June 2008

Lac de Mondély

So while spring decided to give itself a miss this year, summer has suddenly arrived with a vengeance. No messing about - at lunchtime last Wednesday, exactly as predicted nearly 2 weeks previously by Metéo France, the long-awaited sun came out and the temperature shot up to a much more Midi-like 32 degrees. In the shade. Now it's not a lot of fun doing hard graft in the garden when your body just wants to lie around with a book and a cold beer. So we didn't.

But what we did do (grammar?) was indulge for the first time this year in one of my all-time favourite things. We went lake swimming. I used to be a fully-fledged, paid-up member of the sea swimming fan club, preferably in the Aegean, but over the last couple of years I've become even more addicted to swimming in lakes. And I'm certainly living in the right place - France has hundreds of the things, Midi-Pyrénées has scores of them and Ariège has some real beauties, the best of which is less than half an hour from Grillou (beware - shameless marketing plug coming up).

Here it is:

... the Lac de Mondély. It's in the middle of unaffected nature, as the French like to say, and is a genuinely idyllic and unspoilt place, never over-run, often almost empty even in August. To get there, you drive from either La Bastide de Sérou or Le Mas d'Azil for several kilometres over single-track rutted roads, wondering whether you've got lost, whether your exhaust is going to fall off and what you'll do if you meet a car coming the other way. Then suddenly you're there, and no matter how many times you've been before there's always that same sharp intake of breath.

There's a sand beach, lots of private grassy banks plus trees for shade; if you're feeling energetic there's a lovely walk all the way around, about 8 kilometres; and there's a little summer buvette where you can sit with a cold beer. Oh, and did I mention the swimming? It's fantastic. I like to swim over to the other shore and watch the dragonflies; often there are great crested and little grebes as well, and swallows swooping down to catch insects. There are no windsurfers or sailors, nothing to disturb the peace. You can swim with your eyes closed, just feeling the sensations, without worrying about hitting anything. The water in summer is always warm - around 25 degrees yesterday, with warmer to come - and there are no cold eddies to shock you, no waves to batter you around and no currents to drag you miles offshore.

It's quite simply wonderful. Did I mention that?

Friday, 20 June 2008

Waiting for devis ...

When I started this blog I swore that I wouldn't go on and on about renovation (you know the kind of thing: endless posts devoted to the trials and tribulations of trying to get French plaster on the walls ...). And I won't, because (a) it's quite enough doing it, without having to write about it as well, and (b) let's face it, you really don't want to know the gory details of my struggles with the U bend, do you? Plus, I have to be honest here and admit that just at the moment, not a lot (er - that's as in Nothing) is actually happening on the renovation front.

It's all a bit embarrassing, really. I have two friends who moved into houses needing at least as much tlc (or more) around the same time as we moved to Grillou, and in both cases their renovations are nearly finished. Whereas I'm still waiting for devis. To be fair, it's largely my own fault; although I fondly believed that Grillou's new configuration would magically reveal itself within a couple of months, the reality is that it's taken nearly ten. Grillou is a complicated house, and it comes with a complicated history; all I'll say here (and I say it at the risk of being branded a New Age flaky by some readers) is that it's taken a good while to clear the energy in the house and grounds sufficiently to feel what's needed. Yes, I could have imposed my original ideas on it, but one thing I've learned from many years of living in old houses is that that simply doesn't work for me, and I only end up re-doing stuff. There's nothing for it; I just have to wait, until the house itself tells me what's right.

A month or so ago I woke up at 3am - something I never do - with a whole set of building plans in my head, and somehow I knew that this one was it. So the previous set (yes, there have been many!) of plans and specifications went in the bin, and another one is in the process of emerging. It's probably just as well that none of the artisans - apart that is from a plumber who had a phobia about drains, not perhaps the most useful attribute for the trade - has so far turned up to 'study the project' and give me a devis.

Waiting for devis (a peculiarly French thing: a very precise, and legally binding, quotation of both the exact work to be done, and a statement of the cost of doing it based on a best estimate of materials) feels a bit like waiting for Godot. And so although we've almost finished the 'relooking' (as they call it here) of our own half of the house, and are valiantly ploughing on painting the windows and shutters and tackling the garden and a thousand other jobs, I do have to confess to you, dear potential guests of the future, that your accommodation is still but a twinkle in an as-yet-unchosen artisan's eye.

Mind you, it's not all that different from north Norfolk. Shortly before we moved to France, a local builder turned up one Wednesday afternoon to look at a job we'd wanted doing. So far so normal. Except that we'd actually contacted him some two years earlier, and having neither seen nor heard from him during that time had found someone else to do the work. When I pointed this out to him, he looked at me in amazement and said "But Oi said Oi'd be round Wensdie, din't Oi?"

You couldn't make it up, could you?

Saturday, 14 June 2008

On thirteen moons, and chutney

There's something distinctly wrong with the weather today. It hasn't rained.

Ariège, like much of south-western France, has had some pretty spectacular storms this week. The track leading to Grillou and our neighbours' house is all but washed away, the ground is un-standable-on, the electricity's been off more times than I've had hot dinners, the broad beans are horizontal, and the sheer force of the almost continuous rain has been so intense that it's even come through the roof more than once. In fact I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I discovered yesterday that a friend's house had been quite seriously flooded during Wednesday evening's epic performance. Now I'm just tired of it, and want the sun to come out. Someone told me that it's all because this year has 13 moons; I've just looked it up - 2008 does indeed have 13 new moons, but only 12 full moons. Does that make a difference, I wonder? My 'gardening by the moon' book (yes, I do, and yes, it does. Work, that is) tells me that the weather often changes around 3 days after either a full or a new moon, which means it could change around the solstice. Watch this space for more revelations from the cutting edge of science ...

Anyway, while chaos was reigning around me, I amused myself making some cherry chutney. No, I've never made it before, and no, I didn't use a recipe, but the wonderful thing about chutney is that you can wing it - unlike jam, which demands perfection and tends to throw its dummy on the floor at the slightest provocation. And very well it turned out, too. So here's (roughly) what I did:

Spiced cherry chutney

1 1/2 kilos of cherries, stoned and cut in half
2 large onions, chopped
1 tart apple
250g sultanas
200g raw cane sugar
150 ml red wine vinegar
150ml balsamic vinegar
2 sticks of cinnamon
4 peperoncini (small Italian dried red peppers)
1 1/2 teaspoons Szechuan pepper
1/2 teaspoon black cardamom seeds
6 whole cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 leaves fresh mint, chopped

Grind the whole spices (not the cinnamon) together with the salt. Then tip all the ingredients into a big pan - a jam pan is perfect - and bring the mixture up to the boil. Check the flavour - balance of sweet-sour-hot, balance of spices - and adjust to your taste. Then boil the mixture for an hour covered, plus another 45 minutes uncovered. It wants to have a good bit of vigour but not too much - neither gentle simmer nor raging torrent, but somewhere in between.

Towards the end of the cooking time, sterilise some jars by putting them in the oven at around 150 degrees C for 20 minutes. The chutney is ready when it's thick and glossy, with not too much liquid left - if it looks a bit thin, give it a bit more heat for a few minutes to reduce it. When it's stopped bubbling, spoon it into the hot jars. Put the jar lids into a bowl and cover them with boiling water to sterilise, dry them with a paper towel then screw them on. You'll have about 4 or 5 smallish jars.

The idea now is that you leave your chutney well alone for at least 3 months - purists would say 6 - to give it time to mature. But you won't.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Pass the snorkel ...

There are times when daily life at Grillou appears to verge on surreality (or is it insanity?). Today was one of them.

If you live in the south of France, you won't need me to tell you about the last month's weather. If you don't, let me just say one word: rain. No, there's been so much of it I've simply got to say it again: rain. I've been in India in the monsoon season, I've had holidays in Brittany, I've even lived in west Wales for heaven's sake, but the last month really takes the Petit Beurre. Grillou is on a hill, but our ground is like a sponge; the tomatoes and aubergines look at me accusingly every time I swim down to the 'hot' (ha!) potager; I've lost count of how many times I've run round like a mad thing unplugging the laptops and router and the electricity's gone off because of thunderstorms; and a couple of days ago we had the sad job of cutting off literally hundreds of buds from our beautiful rose bushes that had simply rotted in the rain.

But bizarrely, in the middle of all this, the cherries decided to ripen. A couple of days ago they were hard and white; this afternoon they were red, ripe and starting to go mouldy on the tree as we watched. Now I love cherries, and have always wanted a productive cherry tree. (I'll let you into a secret. When we first moved in, we thought the cherry trees were peach trees. So we were more than a little surprised when spring came, and little cherries started to appear!). There was only one thing for it - to get out there in amongst the stairrods and the thunder and the lightning, and pick 'em.

Now you'd think, wouldn't you, that if you'd had a brain haemorrhage less than a month ago the last thing you'd want to do at this moment would be to get up a ladder to pick cherries with the rain and the thunder and the lightning railing around you. Especially if you've got one lens of your glasses covered in black plastic because you're still suffering from post-traumatic vision syndrome and are seeing in double vision. But clearly I'm just a wimp, because ...

So far we've - okay, so I didn't really have a lot to do with it, but I was sanding shutters numbers 16 and 17 at the time if that's any excuse - picked about 10 kilos, and I'd guess there are another 5 or 6 still to pick, that's if the jays and the blackbirds don't get there first. That's one helluva clafoutis ...

Friday, 6 June 2008

One of life's big questions

In amongst the big questions of life and death and What It All Means that are inevitably hovering around Grillou at the moment comes this one: why can't we grow decent radishes?

It's not for want of trying. We couldn't grow them in Cley either, but growing anything at all - let alone organically - was a challenge there; our vegetable garden was on a flea beetle ridden, exposed site where the winds came howling straight across from Siberia (you could actually watch the soil eroding, for heaven's sake) and the ol' boys kept Growmore in business. Here, in spite of the truly pitiable weather that is France's excuse for spring this year, we've had great broad beans, cavalo nero and lettuces already; the red onions, Chantenay carrots and French beans are looking good, and even the 'ratatouille' bed is making progress. But the radishes? Pathetic.

I made them a bed; improved the soil (a bit, but not too much, just as they're supposed to like); mixed the earth with sand to lighten it; watered them (in the days Before It Rained, that is); talked to them; sang to them; tucked them up at night; thinned them; sent them cards on their birthday ... and still the little b***ers come out the size of aniseed balls and about as tough. I mean, even the flea beetles aren't interested ... Meanwhile all the books and magazines and gardening forums and blogs and probably the entire world raves on about how easy radishes are to grow and how even babies can do it.

Ever felt inadequate?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

An uninteresting patient

So John came home on Friday, and some semblance of normal life is being resumed here at Grillou. The last couple of weeks have left their scars, though - and I don't mean the one in his brain.

Rewinding a week or so, it was slowly becoming clear to both of us that being a patient in a world-class (so I'm told) neurosurgery centre is not entirely a good thing if it turns out that you actually have no need for surgery. The boss doctor and his trail of young white-coated accolytes spent some ten days doing scan after scan to try and find whatever 'anomaly' in John's brain had caused his haemorrhage; meanwhile, his blood pressure hovered at a scarily high level. "Isn't it possible," I ventured to suggest to Le Professeur, "that the hypertension might actually be the cause of the bleed?". "Bof!" said Le Prof, before going on to tell me that the haemorrhage was in completely the wrong place for that to be the case.

Now maybe I'm cynical (moi?) but I can't help thinking that hypertension is probably - well, rather boring if you're a neurosurgeon. Neurosurgeons like opening up brains and performing complex manoeuvres inside them; they like working at the cutting (!) edge and saving lives against all the odds. It's glamorous, rather chic and right up there in the highest echelons of the profession. Hypertension, on the other hand, requires medical rather than surgical intervention -and we all know what surgeons think about medics. In a nutshell, John was stuck in the middle of a load of hospital politicking.

I remained unconvinced by Le Prof's scepticism, and we entered into what became une vraie bataille to get another diagnosis. John was feeling more and more unhappy and unsafe as he was fast losing confidence both in his doctors and in the nursing team, whose treatment at times bordered on maltreatment. Finally, halfway through last week, he spent 36 hours under the auspices of the cardiovascular unit, where we encountered - yes, a team of human beings. The difference was absolutely startling; suddenly, he was being seen as a person, not just a body part. His straight-talking cardiologist was somewhat taken aback to discover that nobody had so far done blood tests or even taken a history, and that John's blood pressure had been allowed to remain at its very high level for 10 days (and even more taken aback to find that several days' readings were absent from his dossier). She swung into action there and then, and finally things started to move.

After a battery of tests, John has in fact come out as an extraordinarily healthy person (the cardiologist nearly fell off her chair when she saw how low his cholesterol count was - but then this is south-west France, the spiritual home of duck and goose fat!) ... except for his errant hypertension, which so far as she is concerned was the undoubted cause of the bleed. There's no obvious cause, which means it's quite probably a simple quirk of genetics; hypertension of this kind has no symptoms, and is apparently known as the 'silent killer' for that reason. We're neither of us doctor types, so it simply hadn't ever been picked up (though we've since discovered that it was already 'in the family'). Anyway, after another 24 hours back in neurosurgery hell, John was discharged with nothing but bad grace, a pack of scan pictures and a prescription for a hefty cocktail of drugs for a quick-and-dirty reduction in his blood pressure.

The positives: most importantly, he survived, with, it seems, minimal damage. The odds on this were not what you'd call great. His French has improved, thanks to endless conversations with his room-mate, a patois-speaking farmer from St Gaudens (and it now has a bit of an Occitan twang!); he's been prise en charge by an excellent, honest and above all human team of medics that he trusts; his blood pressure has already started to drop ... and he's stopped snoring! I in my turn have learned that I can negotiate, advocate and do battle in my second language; I've found my way around a previously unfamiliar system; I've met some great people at the hospital, including the daughter and son-in-law of John's room-mate, who are professional foster parents and co-incidentally live in the next village to us; and I've had some ideas for a future project of my therapy association. The negatives: well, you've read about most of them. Time to move on.