Wednesday 31 January 2018

Almost Famous

We wrote last year about the Assumption Day rally at Lésigny.

What we didn't mention at the time (because we didn't know if it would go anywhere) is that we were interviewed by M. Jean-Pierre Potier, the local correspondant for the magazine "la vie de l'Auto". It's a weekly magazine, reasonably priced, which reports on classic car events, auctions, car museums, and the current situation in the classic car world in France.

We weren't the only people in costume, but we were possibly the only people in costume who weren't wearing protection against the weather (hardy or foolhardy - that's a debate you can have in your own time). I would like to think that is why we were photo's and interviewed.

Did you spot us yet?

Tuesday 30 January 2018

Poisonous Pork

Carving ham in rue Daguerre, Paris.

Ever since the WHO officially declared that cured meats increased the risk of colon cancer, the French charcuterie industry has been in turmoil. Colon cancer is the most frequent cancer amongst non-smokers in France and the second biggest killer overall. Just 50g of cured meat consumed daily increases your chance of colon cancer by 18%, and French people really like charcuterie. There is a massive public health programme dedicated to early detection of the cancer, with free annual tests offered to anyone over 50. The problem is meats treated with potassium nitrate (saltpetre or E252) or sodium nitrite (E250). For decades the meat industry has been saying that these chemicals are necessary additions to protect the public from botulism. 

 Dry cured ham at a winter market.

This turns out to be a lie, and now everyone knows it's a lie. What they really do is speed up the curing process, ensure the meat retains an appetising pink colour, allow sloppy hygiene practice and cut production costs to increase profits. Modern French charcuterie is secretly optimised by chemicals, and an investigative journalist has spent the past five years working on blowing the whole story wide open.

Dry cured hams at Loches market.

Saltpetre made from wood ash was used on certain meats in medieval times. But the current problem started in Chicago in the early 20th century, where several entrepreneurs treated knackwursts and hams with modern refined nitrates which replaced the salt as a curing medium. Salt was relegated to the role of flavour. Their methods became globally ubiquitous because traditional charcuterie took longer to make. Nowadays, it's no good thinking that buying expensive charcuterie will save you -- nitrates and nitrites are everywhere. Not even organic or products with AOP certification are necessarily free from them.

Home cured bacon. You can see the brownish surface discolouration which is the telltale sign of a nitrate/nitrite free product.

There are two basic types of ham, dry cured and cooked. If you want to avoid nitrates and nitrites then dry cured ham is a good choice. Since 1993, the Parma ham producers have banned these chemicals, and their ham is widely available, often at an affordable price. A few other dry cured ham producers in Europe have followed suit. There has not been a single case of botulism in Parma ham since they went nitrate/nitrite free. On the other hand, if you want nitrate/nitrite free cooked ham, it is still difficult to find. A few artisanal producers make nitrate/nitrite free white ham, and the two biggest industrial producers, Herta and Fleury Michon, have recently introduced a nitrate free product. 

Home curing bacon --  one way of ensuring it is nitrate/nitrite free.

With rillettes, if you buy artisanal products they will be nitrate/nitrite free, but the discount supermarket lines will contain them.

A typical plate of charcuterie -- rillettes (pork paste), boudin noir (black pudding), andouillette (chitterlings) and rillons (slow cooked pork belly).

Nitrates/nitrites are not permitted in other types of food, eg smoked salmon is nitrate/nitrite free in Europe. 

A saucisson stand at Loches market.

Today there is no need to use nitrates/nitrites, and no possible justification given how carcinogenic they are known to be. Cochonneries or what?!

Saucisson at a winter market.

French manufacturers now face a real challenge, given that they've been caught out not upholding their gastronomic heritage. Do they have the will and the means to change their production so that their charcuterie is the real thing and their consumers not at risk from cancer? It's a case of the French agrifood business, with its 170 billion euro annual turnover, against the health of the population. The use of nitrates/nitrites is also pushing down the price the pig farmer gets. Many of the industrial manufacturers transforming the pork meat don't care about the quality of the raw meat, only the quantity and their margin. 

Choucroute garni cooking, with various cured sausages.

If the consumers can be mobilised to choose nitrate/nitrite free products the industry will change, but at present nitrate/nitrite free is the preserve of the foodie elite and the hippies. The big brands have taken the hint, but it is very much tokenism as yet.

Herta cooked ham, also known as white ham or Paris ham, made without nitrates/nitrites.

In the course of writing this post I went to my local Maison des Producteurs in Loches and bought various transformed meats (garlic sausage, boudin blanc, rillettes) and none listed nitrates/nitrites in their ingredients. Maison des Producteurs boutiques are co-operatives of local farmers and artisanal producers, selling locally produced fruit, vegetables, meat, quiches and pies, cheese and other dairy products (including icecream), flour, pasta, wine, beer, jam and other stuff I've no doubt forgotten. On the other hand, at the supermarket, the one packet of ham (white or dry cured) that I was able to buy without nitrates/nitrites came from the biggest of the French industrial charcuterie brands and trumpeted its nitrite free status in big letters on the front of packet. I was also able to buy lardons (bacon bits) that were nitrate/nitrite free, made by Madrange. They had used beetroot juice to ensure the desirable pink colour in the meat.

Monday 29 January 2018

Monday is Queens Day: 16: Mary Queen of Scots

We all know the story of Mary, Queen of Scots - beheaded by her cousin (first cousin once removed, actually), most unfair Boo!!

Her early story is quite amazing - Queen of Scotland when she was six days old but lived in France from the age of 5, and married to the French Dauphin at age 15. For 18 months she was simultaneously Queen of Scotland and Queen Consort of France, all whilst laying claim to the throne of England.

And that was before her life started getting complicated and messy!

While she was Queen consort of France, France effectively ruled Scotland.  Furthermore, a secret clause in the marriage contract stated that if Mary and Francois II died without children the Scottish crown would pass to France. This caused trouble with the nobles in Scotland, and set Mary up for endless strife when she returned after Francois death.

It may be that she wasn't quite as power hungry as she at first appears, and that she was manipulated into her subsequant marriages (2 of them, both very messy) and ill advised power grabs by the men around her. Certainly the woman blamed for her head being cut off always claimed it was planned by her advisors and that it wasn't her own intention .

The Jardin du Luxembourg has statues of 20 French Queens and Illustrious women. The subjects were chosen by Louis-Philippe I in 1843. This statue was created by Jean-Louis Brian 1848. To see Mary looking complete you have to go here.

Eventually all 20 statues will be featured here.

Sunday 28 January 2018

The Sun Sound

Sun safety and the prevention of skin cancer is taken so seriously in Australia that it is the main focus of the Cancer Council, an independent advocacy, education, research and support organisation.

The Sun Sound was commissioned in 2009 and is used to remind people at the beach or the pool that they must reapply sunscreen regularly if they engaging in outdoor activities such as water sports.

Australian's are so conscious of the dangers of the sun that Vitamin D deficiency is common, with around 30% of the population affected. All you need to keep your Vitamin D dose up to recommended levels if you have pale skin is 20 minutes of sun per day (less in the middle of the day in summer) on the unprotected skin of your face and forearms. However, because of the heat and the risk of skin cancer, Australians tend to stay indoors or in the shade and habitually smear sunscreen on any exposed skin. It's a dilemma most people solve by taking an oral supplement, and the law now requires that oil based spreads are fortified with Vitamin D.

The consequences of Vitamin D deficiency are diseases of the bones such as rickets and osteoporosis, and it seems likely, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis and some cancers.

My own levels of Vitamin D are probably dismal, especially at the moment. Since we've been back I reckon we would be lucky to have had 10 hours of sunshine in 15 days. All over Europe there are record lows for January sunshine hours being recorded.

Fortunately, I love oily fish, which are an excellent dietary source of Vitamin D. We also eat other foods that will give you 10 - 20% of your daily requirements, such as raw milk, eggs and mushrooms.

Saturday 27 January 2018

An Afternoon in a Forbidden Place

It seems like ages, but in fact it was only 10 weeks ago that Susan and I left cold Preuilly sur Claise for summer in Australia. Before we got there, we had one more wintery obstacle to navigate.

Based on our previous experience with them I had booked tickets on Air China, leaving Paris at 19:30 on Friday and arriving in Sydney at 15:30 on Sunday. This gave us a full 14 or so hours for us to amuse ourselves in the Beijing area, so I emailed a couple of tour agencies. The most realistic response we received (and the only one that made it look like our email had been read) was from Catherine Lu Tours, so we decided to book the Beijing evening tour with an alteration or two.

We were met at the airport by Peter, a newly married Chinese guy with good English, and taken to our car and driver, waiting in the huge multistorey car park. From there we drove to the Forbidden City, which is enormous (it's OK, it won't be described in detail, you will soon see why). Peter was really patient at explaining what we were looking at and orientating us (as it were). It was cold, but quite sunny and the sky was clear, a real piece of luck.

The entry to the Forbidden City

Unfortunately, just after having our photo taken looking relaxed and happy Susan stopped to take some photos of her own, while Peter and I walked up the staircase ahead of her. We paused at the top so I could read the info panel, at which stage we assume Susan walked past, not seeing us. We waited, and waited, and waited, and then I waited while Peter went back to look for Susan, then Peter waited while I looked for Susan. Then I waited while Peter went off ahead to look for Susan. Then we waited together while an announcement was made over the PA system.

While Susan was taking this photo, I evaporated (apparently)

Meanwhile, Susan was looking for us, but we assume she had moved ahead three courtyards and come back two to look for us. We couldn't use our phones (Susan's phone wasn't working, I could only do emergency calls) and closing time was drawing in. By this time I was very tense (as was Susan, she tells me!) as it was over an hour since we had last seen each other.

Once the announcement about the site closing was made, Peter and I decided on a strategy. As there are only two exits from the Forbidden Palace, I went back to where we had entered, while Peter ran off to the other. In between the two he met Susan, and we were united!

I never got to see this part of the Forbidden City

As a place to get lost, Beijing can't be recommended, because of language and technology problems, and the sheer number of people. Quite how it happened we still can't work out, and I am peeved that we only got to see very little of an enormous site (and I saw considerably less than Susan, having not got much past the front door, while she made it all the way to the back door). Peter was really very helpful and worked really hard to get us back together. He covered an amazing amount of ground in looking for Susan, later claiming his smart watch had recorded 11,000 steps.

This event had lasting effects - I was so tense and had clenched my jaw so hard that it took almost a week before I could eat properly.

There are more photos of the Forbidden City here, and we will be writing more about our evening in China in the next couple of weeks.

Friday 26 January 2018

Australia Day 2018

On this day in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet to Australia and 1st Govenor of New South Wales, landed at Sydney Cove and decided that it was the place where his new convict colony should be established.

Sydney Cove from the Manly Ferry. This is where the
first permanent Eurpoean setlement of Australia started.
My, how you've grown....

It is an interesting date to chose as Australia's National Day, being neither the date of the arrival of the first fleet in Australia (18 January 1788) nor the day the first colony was proclaimed (7 February 1788). It has recently beome somewhat controversial, being marked by the rabid flag kissing right as a kind of "my country, right or wrong" booze up (and fight) day, and as "Invasion Day" by the descendents of the original Australians. You can read more about Australia Day here.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Things are Grave Part VIII -- Sartre and de Beauvoir

Arguably the most famous grave in Montparnasse cemetery is just inside the main entrance and contains the remains of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

These two form one of the most famous literary couples of all time. They met in 1929 as students, and their lives remained entwined although they never lived together. Intellectually they were equals, famously coming joint first in their exam to qualify as a high school teacher (de Beauvoir was the youngest person ever to pass). 

He wrote Les Mains Sales ('Dirty Hands'), about being a politically engaged intellectual. I had to study it in high school, in French, but needless to say I remember absolutely nothing about it. His work might not have engaged a 15 year old Australian, but an indication of how highly regarded and well known he was in his own lifetime is demonstrated by the fact that fifty thousand people joined his funeral procession.

Thanks to our friend Huub we own copies of de Beauvoir's novel Tous les hommes sont mortels ('All Men are Mortal') in both French and English, about a man who is immortal. I have read them both, and I swear she's invented complicated grammatical tenses in the original French. Some of her verb conjugations can't possibly be real, and certainly don't seem necessary.

Her book The Second Sex catapulted her into the world spotlight in 1949. The book remains a much admired feminist text. I would argue that ultimately Beauvoir has been more influential and achieved longer lasting aclaim than Satre. I wonder what she would have to say to Catherine Deneuve today and what her take on the whole #MeToo or #BalanceTonPorc campaign would be?* Not to mention the current and depressingly ongoing battle for equal pay.

*My take, for what it's worth, on Deneuve's letter is that it was unfortunately very badly written, in imprecise and ambiguous language, that has allowed it to be willfully misinterpreted. Also, some of the co-signatories haven't been very helpful, by themselves twisting the intentions of the letter into something quite unsavoury.

It is troubling how polarising the issue has become, with no nuance possible, no discussion of the difference between 'being assaulted' and 'being discomfitted' (I am not advocating that men should be allowed to freely do either to women, by the way, but would advocate that there must be some recognition of degree and a discussion around how it is judged.) The aim should be about preventing people being humiliated and about establishing nuturing support networks. It should be about recognising individuals, good or bad, not creating blind tribal loyalties. Men should be positively encouraged to control their impulses to dictate and predate. Television programmes should stop presenting sexual encounters between men and women as acts of violence and instead show us loving mutually respectful relationships. Images of women infantalised or victimised should neither be normalised nor fetishised.

There is no doubt that sex pests are a problem, especially for young women who lack self-confidence and life experience. What Deneuve was protesting was the way the #MeToo is going about highlighting the issue, essentially a wave of social media outrage. She clearly has no problem with the aim of the movement, which is to protect women from sexual harrassment. But hey, Deneuve, like me, is a white, middle class woman over fifty years of age. Our opinion isn't fashionable and our priveleges show. We are the standard bearers for Beauvoir and the war against machismo, gender inequality and religious misogyny but we distrust extremes. Many of us quite like our fathers, husbands and brothers.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

School Parking

Back in September we went to Paris and stayed in the Solar Hotel

Oppsite the hotel is an école maternelle, a nursery school for children aged from 3 to 6 years. We were impressed by the number of fathers who take their kids to school - about 50% of children were delivered by a man - and by how few (i.e virtually none) were delivered by car.

Children arrived walking holding a parent's (we assume) hand, on the back of a bicycle, or on scooters. We were rather taken by the parking provisions.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Clos aux Roses Restaurant, Chedigny

...oops -- forgot to photograph the hors d'oeuvres before it was too late...

The small village of Chédigny near Loches has a lot going for it. The whole place is designated a 'remarkable garden' and the streetscape brimming with roses and flowering perennials. Very conveniently it also has an excellent restaurant. We have been using it with clients and recommending it to friends for several years now.

Armelle and Julien.

In October 2015 I emailed Stéphane Tortissier, the owner, to book us in for lunch later in the month. I was very surprised to receive a reply from someone called Julien Pascal, who told me that he and his wife Armelle Krause were the new owners, and of course, we and our clients were very welcome to come for lunch. Luckily the new owners have continued in the vein of the previous and we still happily eat there.

The airy wisteria covered terrace just before service starts.

When I asked Julien recently if I could take some pictures and write about the restaurant on the blog his response was charming. He said, 'Just a minute. I will call Armelle. She must be in the photo. Without her this place would not exist.' When I suggested a photograph in the kitchen Armelle was not keen however. She frowned slightly and said it was too messy in there. I've encountered this reaction before. I think our readers would be interested in the working kitchen, but French people think food should be respected and not presented in a disordered cluttered way. I don't blame her for wanting to control the image of her restaurant that goes out. I would be exactly the same if it was my business, but I do think French and Anglo people notice different things and have a different tolerance level for randomness (for want of a better word).

Cannelloni of summer vegetables.

Julien, on the other hand is relaxed and casual without being offhand. He tells me he is from Bourges originally. His English is very good and he manages the front of house with efficiency and a smile. The dining room and terrace are laid out attractively, decorated in neutral colours, the crockery and glassware plain, the cutlery quietly stylish. The wine list is good, mostly local but with a few interesting outsiders.

Cod back in white butter sauce with polenta.

Armelle comes across as a truly vocational chef. She believes in as few food miles as possible and using ingredients seasonally. She likes to play around with the menu a bit, serving the same dish with tweaks and variations depending on what she has available. She's an advocate of simple foods and ingredients that aren't messed around with too much. Apparently she didn't leave school with a burning desire to become a chef though. That surprised me a bit. She strikes me as the sort of driven, rather introverted person who has always known what she wanted to do. She had always enjoyed cooking though and at some point she was accepted at Ferrandi, the French School of Culinary Arts in Paris. 

Blackcurrant and mint bombe Alaska.

Armelle trained and worked in Paris then worked down on the Riviera Mediterranean coast, then back in Paris, before the couple decided to move to the Loire Valley to fulfill their desire for a less pressured, more family oriented life. At first she worked in another chef's establishment, but their dream was to buy somewhere of their own. After searching for some months last year they were becoming despondent. They wanted a small restaurant in a building with character. Nothing that seemed right was available. Then one day they visited Chédigny. It was immediately obvious to them that this was the place they had been seeking.

The Clos aux Roses is not just a restaurant. It is also a small hotel or B&B with five bedrooms, there is a function room and bar, and it is the village post office.

Further reading: Les Nouvelles Gastronomiques de Touraine. The restaurant has just earned a listing in the Michelin guide BIB Gourmand.


The weather in Preuilly since we returned from Australia has been... .interesting. It has been very wet, quite windy, but by no means cold. Overnight lows have been around the 10°C mark - so mild that last night we didn't stoke the fire before bed. The salon was 19°C when we got up this morning, so the fire has been lit to maintain a pleasant environment, but we are amazed that in January we have been able to allow the fire to go out overnight - a first for us.

Monday 22 January 2018

Monday is Queens Day: 15 Jeanne d'Albret

Jeanne d'Albret was the niece of François I, the daughter of his sister Marguerite. She was raised in the austere chateau of Plessis-lèz-Tours and as a young woman spent much of her time at the heart of the French court with her uncle, as well as being Queen of the tiny Protestant stronghold of Navarre in her own right. Declaring definitively for the religious reformers in 1560, ultimately she led the Protestant cause in France, along with her son Henri (later to become King Henri IV of France).

Despite her loud and very public protests, at the age of 12 she was married to the Duke of Cleves (brother of Henry VIII's unloved bride Ann). Continuing to reject her husband she finally got an annullment based on the fact that the marriage had been forced. Technically, the church allowed girls to reject potential husbands, and in this case she had been physically carried, kicking and screaming, to the altar. Still, it indicates real force of character even at a young age that she continued to hold out against family pressure. 

Later she fell for the womanising Antoine de Bourbon and married him once her manipulating uncle François had died. However, the marriage, which lasted 14 years and produced five children, was rocky. They rarely saw eye to eye, partly because Antoine's was continually roving. She seems not to have got on with many of the women at court. She and Catherine de Medici clearly greatly disliked one another, and even her cousin Renée de France (Louis IX's younger daughter), who was a fellow Protestant, couldn't stand her. Jeanne came to be seen as a dangerous fanatic.

Nevertheless, in 1570 she decided to negotiate with the Catholics in an attempt at reconciliation. Her son Henri was to marry the Catholic Princess Marguerite, daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. Jeanne's sudden death in Paris not long before the wedding was later to contribute to Catherine's reputation as a poisoner.

The Jardin du Luxembourg has statues of 20 French Queens and Illustrious women. The subjects were chosen by Louis-Philippe I in 1843. This statue was created by Jean-Louis Brian 1848. To see Jeanne looking austere you have to go here.

Eventually all 20 statues will be featured here.

Sunday 21 January 2018

Little Penguins at Manly Wharf

One of the surprises of the Sydney harbour and seaside suburb of Manly is the presence of a colony of Little Penguin Eudyptula minor. The authorities are a bit cagey about how many birds there are exactly, and where you can find them. This is because they are greatly at risk by human disturbance.

Foxes are a threat to the penguins, as are domestic dogs.

The penguins spend much of their life out at sea, but they come in to Manly to breed in burrows between May and February. They use a number of islands in the harbour but also 60-70 pairs uses various secluded (and not so secluded) coves and are the last remaining breeding colony on the mainland in New South Wales.

Kids are encouraged to get involved with the penguin conservation project.

The penguins are diligently protected by volunteer guardians who watch over them as they scoot up under the wharf at Manly. Members of the public are welcome to watch from a suitable distance, and the volunteers enjoy passing on their knowledge and enthusiasm for the little creatures. Because of the penguins, dogs must be kept on leashes along the Manly foreshore. Plastics and fishing detritus are a problem too. The volunteers pick up rubbish on the beach, but Lucky is so called because he was rescued from entanglement in fishing net. The penguins can also swallow plastic flotsam, in the mistaken idea that it is prey.

Trust me, there is a penguin (possibly two) in this photo
 (on the left, under the wharf, near the bent metal bar).

Young male penguins return to the place they were born. The wharf in Manly Cove once had several pairs, but now only has Lucky, who was born there, and Bella, the mate he enticed there several years ago. This year they raised two chicks, so perhaps the colony will be augmented next year if they were male.

Manly Wharf.

Little Penguins are the smallest of the penguin species, found on the southern coast of Australia and New Zealand. They stand about a foot high, weigh about a kilo and a half and are slate grey on the back, white on the front.

At dusk the access to Manly Cove beach is closed so that the penguins who nest under the wharf can come in to shore undisturbed.

I can remember as a small child being taken to Australia's most famous Little Penguin colony, on Phillip Island, south of Melbourne, to see the penguins come in for the night. I also remember that visit because it's where I caught measles.

A display outside the now closed Manly aquarium.

Saturday 20 January 2018

The Idiot Wagon

First of all, an explanation. The term Idiot Wagon isn't pejorative, but a term of affection, rather like you would use when your dog does something silly...

The AMG A45 is a bit of a beast. Mercedes send their smallest 4 door hatchback (the A series) to the AMG factory, where the car is un-manufactured, the engine and gearbox rebuilt (each item done by one individual who signs his work), fitted with a mahoosive twin turbo, and just about everything else upgraded - suspension, interior, steering, wheels, brakes. Then, according to the options you choose, an aerodynamic pack is added, and all of a sudden you have a 4 door shopping trolley that will outrun most supercars.

The car my brother very generously lent us when we were in Australia:
A fully optioned AMG A45 4matic

I kid you not. The handbook (all 3 inches thick of it) states that using the 7 speed, dual clutch gearbox, no way - no way AT ALL - should you exceed 287km/h (178mph) in 6th gear. It has a 1991cc, dual turbocharged, 376hp engine, 4 wheel drive, and will reach 100km/h in 4.2 seconds.

This makes overtaking a real blast - literally. Injudicious application of the loud pedal, even in "ECO" mode, will take you past most trucks before you realise it, and even the shortest of overtaking lanes become practical. In sports mode it's even faster...

Apparently all those plastic aerodynamic bits aren't just for looks.
I never really drove fast enough to find out.

It climbs hills and goes around corners like a lunatic, meaning you have very little use for the super huge (and super efficient) brakes. In sports mode it cackles like a demented witch everytime you take your foot off the accelerator, and the seatbelts give you a hug when you put them on. The load space will take two large suitcases, and there is room for 3 in the back seat although anyone behind me would benefit from being either 1 metre tall or a dual amputee. The GPS more or less works, although it does sometimes take serious convincing about describing the route YOU want to take, and the sound system seems to be ok (not that I ever used it). Likewise the sunroof, which I opened once just so I could say I'd done it.

The headlights are amazing, although the auto-low beam function gets confused when confronted by reflective road signs, and the windscreen wipers just don't cope with the way it can rain in Australia. On the other hand, the climate control really did cope with Australian weather  - even when the outside temperatures were in the 40's (well over 100F) we were looking (and feeling) cool.

I particularly enjoyed the adaptive cruise control, which you can set just above the speed limit and forget, allowing the car to slow as the traffic in front of it slows, before automatically accelerating (usually like a maniac) when you pull out to overtake. There were stretches of over 100km where I didn't touch either pedal at all. I never tried the automatic reverse parallel parking (press the button and it reverses into the parking place with no driver input) because although it sounds like a good idea, I never needed it.

Yup - flappy paddle gearbox, and the bit of the speedo you use is all in the bottom left corner.

It does have issues. The suspension has virtually no travel (and with 19 inch rims the very wide but not very thick tyres aren't much use for absorbing bumps), and the racing Recarro seats aren't made for man sized people. It's also very low, which meant the proximity "watch out, we're going to crash" alarm went all hysterical when encountering speed bumps in station car parks. The lack of suspension travel might not be so much of an issue on the good roads around here, but on some of the windey roads I chose to take in Australia, road surface isn't really a thing.

Not a car for mature people, or those with dodgy hips or knees..

Would I want one to live with? Honestly, I don't know, although the fuel consumption was ok (we used 545litres of fuel for 6893km at 7.9l/100k ) I imagine the insurance would be more than two Traction Avants (insured as Taxis) and a 1.5l Ford hatchback all added together. I also thought it a bit loud even in ECO mode, although the soundtrack in sports mode - where you want it - was really antisocial and therefore a good thing. I love the reassuring squeeze the seatbelts give you when you do them up, the way it goes around corners, and the way it overtakes. But then there is the issue of cost - a Porsche would be cheaper.

The risk? The risk is that I might want one..

Just substitute the seats with a nice comfy sofa, and give the suspension some travel and I might consider it. Especially if every time I got out the car I had an idiot grin on my face...

Friday 19 January 2018

The Long and the Short of it

Something to brighten up a Northern Hemisphere January morning:

Surfers on Manly Beach.

Surf culture is alive and well in the Sydney suburb of Manly, which has an ocean beach and a harbour beach.

The two guys in the photo demonstrate the two different basic styles of surfboard. The one at the front is a shortboard, the one at the back a longboard. Modern surfboards are made from polystyrene foam coated in fibreglass. The longer or wider a board is the more stable and easy to control they are.

Shortboards are for showing off on, zippy and contrary so that the rider's skill can be highlighted with a technique known as 'shredding'. Longboards are easier to paddle and stand up on but don't get airborn and can't be twisted into the sort of extreme turns and displays that modern surfing competitions put on display. They are more for the old fashioned art of hanging five (walking up the length of the surfboard to hang your toes over the very front of your surfboard as it is lifted up and pushed forward by a wave).

These two surfers are wearing wetsuits, probably not so much because they found the water chilly but because they are protecting themselves from UV in the sun's rays. This is just one difference between visiting beaches in Australia and visiting beaches in northern Europe.

We spent eight weeks in Australia over the 2017/2018 southern summer and will be writing about it regularly

Thursday 18 January 2018

Things are Grave Part VII -- Susan Sontag

Not someone who entered my consciousness much, Susan Sontag was an American writer and activist. Except briefly in the late 1950s, she never lived in Paris, but her experience here as a student was apparently the most important period of her life. 

We visited Montparnasse cemetery in September and are posting about selected graves over a period of weeks.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Random Bits of News

We have some good news, and some bad news..........

First the less good news: We arrived back in France at 06.35 last Friday morning. On the plane I slept quite well, but appeared to have caught a cold. Saturday was spent being (I'm sorry, there isn't a politer word for this) very snotty. By Sunday it had migrated to my chest, and by Monday I was at the doctor's for an investigation. I have asthmatic bronchitis (as opposed to the usual slightly inconvenient form of asthma I am subject to day to day) so I am on a course on antibiotics, and three (count 'em) different types of corticosteroid. It is now uncomfortable rather than painful as long as I don't cough, but extremely painful (and distressing for Susan) when I do cough.

Boo to airlines making their planes so cold!

But now the good news: Yesterday I booked our train tickets to go to Paris for Retromobile. I was pleasantly surprised (actually no I wasn't, I was amazed) to discover that if you're lucky you can now get from Saint Pierre des Corps (4km from Tours) to Paris in less than an hour, for 10€ (yup - ten euros!) per person each way. This is because Ouigo now service our neck of the woods with their no frills trains.

>There are a couple of fairly easy to deal with conditions - you have to check in (on the platform) at least 30 minutes before your train, and your baggage allowance is a cabin bag and a handbag each. Additional luggage (up to 30kg per person) is 5€ per bag. You have to pay an additional 2€ if you want a seat with a power plug, and the trains arrive and depart from Paris Montparnasse Hall 3.

The previous cheapest TGV tickets to Paris were 17€, but usually more like 20€ or 25€ depending on time of day, so this is quite a win! There are supposedly 3 Ouigo services per day from Bordeaux to Tours, stopping at Angouleme, Poitiers, and Saint Pierre des Corps. All tickets are 10€pp until 18 July. There's more info here

Tuesday 16 January 2018

The Largest Medieval Fortress in Europe

As we were driving north through Brittany to Mont Saint Michel in July 2017 I noticed a sign advertising a historic attraction. 'If you haven't seen Fougères you haven't seen anything' it said. Then there was another sign which said 'Fougères, the largest medieval fortress in Europe'. 

Well, this was all news to us, so we thought we'd better stop. After a bit of going around in circles while our GPS didn't cope, we finally made it to the top of the hill which looks out over the 'largest, best preserved medieval fortress in Europe' and out over a valley and extensive farmland. There's no doubt it's impressive and very medieval. We reckon it might be worth a proper visit in the future. The town of Fougères is attractive and would make quite a good base for exploring the area, which has a lot more to offer than just the chateau.

The fortress of Fougères defended the independent Duchy of Fougères for 500 years, from 1000 to 1500. It's in marcher country, that is to say, in a band of frontier territory that is along an oft disputed border, in this case with Normandy and Maine. Most of what you see today dates from the 12th, 13th and 15th centuries.

The complex has access to the River Nançon, which was used for both defensive and more domestic purposes. Ditches could be flooded at will to turn them into moats and from the 12th century there was four waterwheels powering flour mills. Even today, one of the wheels has been restored and generates electricity for the site. The vast lower court functioned as a space where daily life went on in times of peace, with workshops, gardens and warehouses. In times of war it served as a refuge for the local population and protected the well which was the only source of potable water. After providing centuries of vigilance and protection for the Dukes of Britanny, the chateau finally fell to the cannons of Charles VIII in 1488 (taking advantage of the death of François II, Duke of Britanny, leaving his 11 year old daughter Anne as his heir).

Apparently Lawrence of Arabia really rated the castle, saying 'this castle is really above and beyond everything that one can say...I'm not sure that Fougères is not the most beautiful of them all.' (Note that I couldn't find this quote in the original English so I've back translated it from the French text on the chateau brochure, so it could be slightly off, but you get the idea...)

Monday 15 January 2018

Monday is Queens Day: 14 Clémence Isaure

Clémence Isaure isn't a real person. She is a character associated with Toulouse, credited with founding a poetry competition known as Les Jeux Floraux (the Floral Games). The literary society that runs the Jeux Floraux was founded in 1326 and is undoubtedly the oldest literary society in existence in the western world. The competition is called Les Jeux Floraux in reference to ancient Roman poetry competitions dedicated to the goddess Flora.

In 1513 the original literary society split into two separate organisations. The modern Academie des Jeux floraux is the descendant of the group who invented an endowment to the city of Toulouse and the character of Clémence Isaure, claiming that a condition of the endowment was that a poetry competition be held annually. By this means the city of Toulouse found itself funding the annual event. The members of the society co-opted the tomb of a local aristocratic woman, turning her effigy into that of the fictitious Clémence Isaure by modifying the sculpture to include various floral emblems. Amazingly they got away with all of this and the Academie survives as a respectable literary society.

The Jardin du Luxembourg has statues of 20 French Queens and Illustrious women. The subjects were chosen by Louis-Philippe I in 1843. This statue was created by Antoine-Augustin Préault 1848. To see Clémence looking wistful you have to go here.

Eventually all 20 statues will be featured here.

Sunday 14 January 2018

The Wall of Thanks

We've just returned from 8 weeks in Australia, bronzed and with 4 kilos extra around the midriff. Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of friends and family we couched surfed our way up and down the Great Dividing Range from Toowoomba in south-east Queensland to Geelong in southern Victoria. This blog post is dedicated to thanking all those people who made our wonderful holiday possible, and contributed to our enjoyment of the time. At every place we stayed we laughed, we ate, we talked. We felt how lucky we were, and hope that our friends and family know how much we appreciated the time spent with us.

My sister Kathy, me, Dad, Mum.

The Dads: We stayed several times for a few days with Simon's Dad Ernie at Woy Woy on the New South Wales coast north of Sydney, where he lives in an independent living retirement complex and visiting Simon's Mum, who is now in a nearby Aged Care Facility. Ernie was very generous with money in the bank for Christmas and birthdays to help fund our trip.

My Dad lives in Pittsworth in the house where I spent my teenage years, near Toowoomba in south-east Queensland. We spent Christmas, my birthday and my mother's birthday here, spending the time with my sister, her husband, his mother and my mother, who lives in an Aged Care Facility just a few streets away, but is physically quite spry and she spent most of the day with us. My sister and I spent much of the time cooking, both for the groaning festive table, and to put in the freezer as ready meals for Dad to eat later.

Sue and Leon at a bakery-café in Kyneton.

Leon and Sue:  We first meet Leon and Sue in France, when they visit every couple of years. They are fellow bloggers and have recently moved to a lovely new home in Trentham, central Victoria. With them we experienced Trentham and districts thriving foodie culture. Sue is a very keen cook but broke two vertebrae in her spine during her last visit to France. Consequently she has been finding cooking difficult. Nevertheless she directed Leon to produce a superb smokey barbecued boned and marinated leg of lamb.

Ric and Sheila, in the woolshed (or is it a cinema?).

Ric and Sheila: Ric is my father's younger brother and he's married to Sheila. They live on a small but busy sheep farm overlooking Bass Strait, near Geelong in Victoria. Ric is a cinema buff and runs a private cinema in the woolshed. When shearing time comes around, movie posters are taken down and shearing rigs put up. Sheila cooked one of their lambs, invited my cousin Josh to dinner and we talked about sheep. Ric regaled me with tall tales and true of his childhood, my father and grandfather.

Simon with Rick and Helen at Candelo.

Rick and Helen: We've stayed with Rick and Helen before on a previous trip. They live at Pambula on the New South Wales coast and since we've last seen them have had some nasty health scares. Rick was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, which luckily has been successfully treated. Helen has developed the very rare Mammalian Meat Allergy, which is ongoing and impacting severely on her diet. Boy is she sick of chicken! They introduced us to the reinvented Tathra pub, which has been sensitively restored and does great food, and the general store in Candelo, which does a great veggie burger.

Somehow we failed to take a photo of Bruce and Annette, 
so here's one of them from their visit to us last year.

Bruce and Annette: Bruce is one of Simon's school friends, and he and Annette live in Canberra. He's a chef and they were busy preparing for the Christmas meal they and a team of volunteers produce every year for homeless, lonely and disadvantaged people. I hope Annette remembered not to put red onion in the bean salad! (There was considerable hilarious discussion about the niceties of where red onion was appropriate and where it was not. As a chef with bi-polar, Bruce has very definite opinions about this.) Annette's parents were Italian and so she made us gnocchi (nearly as good as Nonna's!) and we enjoyed family made salamis.

Nina and Matt.

Matt, Nina and Samara: Matt was the guitarist in the band that Simon played in when we lived near Toowoomba. Nina is his lovely wife, who was heavily pregnant when we visited. She looked like a super model smuggling a basket ball, and a couple of days before we left Australia she gave birth to Sienna, who looks adorable in the photos. Samara is Nina's mum and lives in their granny flat. Nina's family come from Croatia, but they are Serbian and Bosnian. When the war broke out Nina was 12, and her father very sensibly decided to bring the family to Australia, where they have made a good life for themselves. Samara orchestrated a feast, with barbecued meat, potatoes dauphinoise style and salads.

Geoff and Christine: We first met Geoff and Christine in France too. They came here on holiday, and to do a bit of house hunting. They live in the New South Wales Northern Rivers town of Lismore, surrounded by rainforest. Christine is an artist specialising in landscapes of the coastal heathlands. They invited us to stay after a series of the most remarkable coincidences, involving them meeting our friend Melvyn, who lives near us in France, in a café in Goulbourn in New South Wales. At the time, they didn't even realise we were in Australia too.

Rosie and Jon.

Jon and Rosie: Jon is Simon's brother and Rosie his wife. They live in Canberra, where their large house is open to people coming and going all the time. They are the most remarkably easy going and hospitable people. They were also generous with money in the bank for Christmas, and most importantly of all, the loan of a high powered sports car in which we did about 7000 happy kilometres. We also got to use their appartment in Manly, the beachside suburb of Sydney, enjoy sailing on their boat and use their snorkelling gear. Of all the people we owe a big thanks, Jon and Rosie deserve the biggest.

Elizabeth and Vic: Elizabeth is Simon's sister and Vic is her husband. They live at Ettalong Beach, north of Sydney, and enjoy the beach lifestyle to the full. They have a granny flat which made staying with them easy and comfortable. We enjoyed walks on the beach, sailing and Elizabeth's home made sourdough, salads and kraut. Vic is in the throes of writing a book and Elizabeth dashes about like a mad thing in a female friendship group who make art and swim.

Other people featured prominently in our days in Australia too.

Liselle, who fed us crepes for breakfast and pasta for dinner; Erica, who walked us up hill and down dale; Helen, Denise, Kathy G, and Merryl, who I went to school with; Trish and Bruce, who have 'retired' since last time I saw them, the Mums, who we visited at their nursing homes and took out for day trips; Kathy and John, my sister and her husband who we walked and talked with; Hugo and Penny, who Simon went to school with and who fed us delicious salads; Sue and Don, Simon's first wife and her husband; Kat and Felicity, Simon's daughter and granddaughter; Jack, Tom and Jess, Simon's nephews and niece; Josh, Claire and Georgia, my cousin, his wife and their daughter; Poss and Brian, my father's sister and her husband; Sally, Emily and Ella, my cousin and her daughters; Mark, another of my cousins; Trev and Noel, Simon's school friends.

Then there is our housesitter, the diminutive Dotty. She was an absolute trooper and despite her struggles with our wood stove we came home to a house that was cleaner and neater than when we left. She has moved a couple of doors up the street and is now dogsitting for one of our neighbours. We came home to the stove lit and warming the house and box of organic vegetables on the kitchen bench.

Finally, last but not least, I would like to thank Simon for his meticulous planning of our trip. I contributed virtually nothing, being too busy and stressed with Brexit issues. Happily I more or less ignored these whilst away, apart from a brief spell in early December to make sure my local contacts were aware of important discussions in the European Parliament about citizens rights. Simon's planning included not just our itinerary, but our budget, and we are proud to see that our holiday budget account has $20 left in it. Simon also did all of the driving, which although we had a wonderful car, it did have racing seats that were not really designed for someone of his size, and driving it through the mountains, on the highways and through downpours for 7000km over 8 weeks was not nothing.

For  me it was a wonderful exercise in friendship and networking. At first I was uncomfortable about how generous people were to us and felt I was putting people out by lobbing up on their doorstep. But by the end I realised that all these warm and caring people enjoyed having us come to stay as much as we enjoyed their visits to us in France. Making up the spare bed and getting a load of delicious food in because people are coming to stay is a joy and to be treasured. (Now I just have to convince myself that cleaning the bathroom is also a joy if it means it will be nice for guests...).