Facelift: February–June 2012 in Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version click on this link
E2E2012_issue_2-A.pdf (six A4 pages)
And some links giving more photos than are in the text:
A lot of crépi – day-by-day progress
Restaurant meal photos

A siege mentality sets in as the horizons shrink, with the hills blotted out by low rain clouds like a Japanese painting, and doorways and windows sealed off with sticky tape and polythene. No, we are not being immured due to a bubonic plague outbreak; at the moment we can still get out down the ramp and into the wet field, or out of the back barn door if we are prepared to squeeze round grubby scaffolding poles. The crépi men have arrived! So a good time to retreat to the attic and send an update on the past months here. 

Over the years we have been trying to turn parts of our fields into a peaceful garden and (more ambitiously) an arboretum, whilst the farmers continued to carve deep ruts across the middle of it all with increasingly heavy farm machinery rather than using the little tractors of twenty years ago. With the help of the area conciliator (a gentle legal functionary), a sensible solution has now been reached: to create a new track at each end of our fields to give access to their lower fields and to replace the one close to the house. We phoned de Freitas, who did all the earlier building work here. He was rumoured to be living sullenly in retirement, having argued with his sons, and even (gestures of hand to mouth) drinking heavily. His wife was a little guarded on the phone, but when he came round to see us, he was all smiles and affability and perfectly prepared to use his mechanical digger on a morning’s work for old clients. So his son ordered two 6 metre long pipes to create bridges over the ditch at the bottom of our fields and onto the bottom fields and he duly shifted earth to make a good slope and track to the “bridges”. At one point the digger fell silent and we could see de Freitas standing by the ditch looking gingerly at an object he’d unearthed.

Was this a WWI grenade?

Was this a WWI grenade?

Was the elongated rusty object a grenade from the first world war (after all, soldiers had died in these fields) or was it a bottle-shaped container or bit of agricultural machinery? We did the correct thing for suspect grenades and consulted the mayor, who, unruffled, took it away and wasn’t seen for a few days. No more was said, so we assume it just went in his dustbin!

Anyway (and this is increasingly a shaggy dog story to while away a damp day), we took the opportunity to consult de Freitas about two projects that had been on our mind for a while. Not surprisingly, he has a colleague who would happily tarmac our car parking areas and the narrow strip between the road and house (which got very muddy this winter), and another who renders the outsides of houses, old or new. It would seem that business cannot be discussed without the correct introductions. So one morning he brought over his friend and neighbour, M. Meltz, who could do the re-rendering (crépi) and introduced him. But it would have been impolite to get down to the nitty gritty so soon after introductions. So M. Meltz promised to ring and arrange an appointment to survey the house and discuss the project. That done, an estimate prepared and accepted, M. Meltz was prepared to start work in September, when the weather would be cooler, and expected work to take up to four weeks, depending on the weather.

After this rather leisurely start to the project, we were peacefully showering one morning at the end of May (admittedly at the rather late hour of 10 a.m.) when the doorbell rang. Expecting it to be a delivery (John is always ordering bits and pieces off the internet), I wrapped a towel round me and went down, to be greeted by a rather embarrassed M. Meltz wondering if they could do the crépi work in June rather than September. Had another contract been postponed, we wondered, or was it that the wet, cool forecast favoured June working? Five days later the scaffolding arrived, followed by two days of noisy pneumatic hammers as the old rendering was chipped off and the old stones revealed. 

John has always suspected that the old farmhouse, like most of the other old local buildings, would have originally had a front door onto the road, next to the big barn entrance.

Bricked up farmhouse door

Bricked up farmhouse door

And sure enough, a bricked up doorway was uncovered, next to the present downstairs bathroom window (where the shower now is). Interestingly the stones in that section are pinker, and it looks as if they formed the original building comprising barn and probably a front and back room with the traditional large Vosgian chimney in the middle (above and behind the farmhouse fridge). The stones on the upper storey are larger and more regular than the lower courses, so it may originally only have been a single storey building. Later a grander entrance and rooms were added to the east and a extra barn for animals and a hayloft to the west. We’d been told that our predecessor, M. Fresse had added the third barn for vehicles (and presumably the workshop for his electrical repair business). We of course have extended above his third barn and created a garage between that and his workshop. It has been fascinating to see the sequence in the stones, bricks and breeze blocks. I only wish we could keep the attractive stonework, despite all its blemishes, but the “mortar” holding the stones together is more like dried, crumbling mud at the barn end and definitely needs strengthening and weatherproofing with enduit, a mix of cement and chalk.

They have now applied the undercoat of enduit on the north wall along the road and the east wall by the later front door and are currently working on the south wall, with the west section (third barn, garage and workshop) still to be done. It is a three- (and sometimes four-) man job. The apprentice (who managed to injure his finger with the drill on the first day and needed a large white bandage) stands by the mixer feeding in the bags of powder and water, the foreman wields the nozzle of the long flexible tube, spraying the mix between and over the old stones to a rough finish, which clings remarkably well, and his number one smooths it expertly to a good finish. Everything not being sprayed is being covered in polythene sheeting and orange tape. It’s fascinating to watch, – we stood for ages on the first day, dripping in the rain, to gawk, before clambering back indoors for a coffee. Later (in fine weather) a colour coat will be applied. Over in Alsace you can see lurid raspberry, mauve, turquoise and lemon shades, but we’ve gone for a traditional peasant ochre with a mud grey strip at the bottom to deal with the mud of passing cars, tractors and milk lorries.

Speaking of milk lorries, during the conciliation process (above) we met a delightful old man who used to collect the milk from our little farm in the old days, along with that from the neighbouring farms. He would sell it on to thirty-seven small shops in St Dié, he said, and later to the laiterie until it closed. Now it is collected by a tanker, which has to slow down to get past our scaffolding at present.

But ours aren’t the only major works in the village. New houses continue to be built despite the recession (and lack of reliable water sources). The latest is Farmer Duhaut’s. Since his retirement from active farming (partly due to an accident or two with a bull) he no longer needs his barns and hangers, so most have been pulled down this winter and two new single buildings are spreading out. His mother, Giselle, still lives on the ground floor of the old farmhouse while he and his wife live above, but it sounds as if the stairs were getting a bit much. Work is still not complete on Ludo’s car-repair garage between his house and Granny and Grandpa Laine’s house, but there is no shortage of cars outside awaiting ordered spare parts. Apparently in spring he also had about fifty motor mowers awaiting parts. The Vozelles (the farm where the dogs, hens, geese, chicks and cats spread out over the road as their farmyard) have had the front of their house painted cream and grey. And the house on the road into the village which used to be a small metal factory and which Duhaut’s former farming partner, Olivier, turned into a family house, is now surrounded by a new wall and occupied by a man with a fish delivery business. According to the Vozelles that house was burgled in broad daylight one morning. I wonder if the thieves made off with the usual items or if it was a fish heist.

Mention of fish leads my thoughts to restaurants. Some of you have hinted that we spend most of our days in restaurants, but really, dining out remains an occasional treat for us (it’s just that we tend to harp on about it). We enjoyed seeing Raymond Blanc’s progress through France on TV, especially in Alsace, where he cooked in a restaurant in Riquewihr that we knew. We were rather sad when our favourite chef moved from the Blanche Neige (which is still empty up on its hillside) to a restaurant close to the Rhine, and even sadder when he later moved even further east across the Rhine into Germany. He and his wife now run the Heckenrose Hotel and its restaurant, close to Europa-Park (so rather a different family-based clientèle much of the time). However we made the long trek across the Rhine one Sunday lunchtime in April and had a wonderful five-course meal (no mid-week lunchtime opening as the Germans don’t have the two-hour lunch break so sacred to the French). We made a day of it, stopping at what we thought was just a wine fair en route, but which was an interesting (and unique?) combination of graphic illustrators/publishers and wine producers. And on the way back we took the car ferry across the Rhine. We had asked if their sous-chef was still with them; but, being a Ukrainian his temporary work permit meant he had to stay in France unless he wanted to restart the whole procedure again, so he was now at a restaurant in Ribeauvillé. So, of course, we had to try that too. I was expecting the Restaurant Parc Carola to be very elegant, but it turned out to look like an Edwardian tea house in the small park next to the Carola bottled water factory. But the food was quite enjoyable. The chef had previously had a Michelin star for many years at a restaurant in Colmar but was now starting out on her own. For elegant we had to wait for a trip to a somewhat larger park, the Jardin de l’Orangerie, in Strasbourg (close to the European Parliament) and the Michelin-starred le Buerehiesel restaurant. The son has simplified the restaurant (and reduced prices) since his father’s day, but if you want classic cooking and silent flunkeys attending to your every whim, this is still the place. There were busy tables outside, but we were ushered to an attractive first-floor room with huge glass windows reflecting the trees of the park.

A street of storks in Strasbourg

A street of storks in Strasbourg

We’d been dive-bombed by a stork on our way across the park, but it wasn’t till we were returning to the avenue where Bluto was parked that we noticed that every pollarded tree along the avenue had a stork family in comically detached splendour similar to the detached villas behind.

But the highlight was my birthday meal in a little restaurant on the Rue des Juifs just inside the old walls of Riquewihr. I had been thinking of going back to the Table du Gourmet where Raymond Blanc had cooked until John found the reviews for au Trotthus. This sounded like somewhere that would appeal to all six of us (Leila and a friend, Emma, were over with us for the week and Roger and Dorinda were staying in their Anould house). The Breton chef had worked for twenty years in Japan, Australia and the Caribbean, before deciding to poser ses marmites in Alsace, bringing with him the flavours of the world. Ignoring the chalked plateau gourmand menu of the day we tried different dishes from the more elaborate menus and were all full of praise. The perfect birthday meal! In fact it must be time for a return trip.

Leila planned a busy programme to show Emma the best of both sides of the Vosges, and for once the weather was good for most of her stay. We drove north on their first day to Lunéville for an upmarket vide grenier which included antiques stalls. We had a great time browsing, with everyone finding something of interest. Leila was the first to spot a low table with blue tiles which would look good in her little garden. Despite bargaining, it was a bit pricey. Later she found a slab of more attractive blue tiles (which would once have formed a base for a wood-burning stove) and she got both that and some attractive Moroccan-tiled shelves (for trailing pot plants) for a lower price. Meanwhile Emma rummaged and we haggled for an attractive tablecloth, John noticed an “Alice” (Wonderland and Looking Glass) in French, beautifully illustrated by Dušan Kállay from Bratislava, and I bought a paperback version of Ogden Nash poems produced for the American soldiers in the last war (and presumably left behind during the Liberation). We wandered down to the Lunéville château which is still partially shrouded in scaffolding, though it the fire-damaged section has been rebuilt, and back through the formal gardens, finishing our visit with sausage and chips at the flea market. We had equally enjoyable days in the Alsace villages of Kaysersberg and Riquewihr looking at all the local crafts like earthenware casseroles and embroidered linen and more exotic ones like “vegetable ivory” jewellery; we ate hearty Alsace food at the Auberge Saint Alexis up in the forest as well as more delicate food of au Trotthus. The girls spent a day at the concentration camp at le Struthof, and we had a local tour (the only damp, grey day of their stay) of the tiny Plainfaing antique shop (where Emma bought an enamel jug) and the Confiserie des hautes Vosges where pine, menthol and herbal flavoured boiled sweets are made; Lac de Longemer looked cold and uninviting so we moved on to one of the many linen shops around Gérardmer, lingering over pretty heart-embroidered window panels. After English Sunday lunch (French style) we drove them back to the airport, stopping at a last vide grenier. This was definitely less picturesque than Lunéville’s, but John found an old Photax bakelite camera at a sensible price, I got a new grey sun-hat, and the master stroke was spotting some wrought iron legs for the Leila’s tiled table-top. (We won’t have as much room in the car for wine on our next trip back to the UK!) As we were leaving, John fished an attractive ceramic plate out of a rubbish bin and it now hangs on a previously bare bit of garden wall.

By now you must be asking what about the usual DIY sagas without which no newsletter would be complete. John finally got round to converting a sofa he’d made in the early seventies into an armchair to match the one that he’d made at the same time. We’d bought some foam cushion pads back in Nottingham on our last visit and I made some covers for them. The first set were off-white covers, similar to the original ones. But, after Toby had pointed out a patterned fabric in the Conran exhibition at the Design Museum, which he remembered us having in his youth, I fished out the faded remains of the fabric from one of our many boxes, and had just enough good material to cover the foam for both chairs. So now they’re more practical, but still attractive, russet shades that match our current sofas. The day after Leila and Emma left, I boxed up some of our books and ornaments so we could move their shelves from the wall for the next projects, which were to be accomplished with the help of Alistair, whose annual working visit has become absolutely invaluable. Number one task was to put up the new roller shutters outside above the windows (we didn’t then know how soon M. Meltz’s gang would be taking them down again). Their second task was to create channels behind the plasterboard walls for the electrical wiring to the shutters and then drill through the walls to attach the wires. White plasterboard dust everywhere and much frustration, but eventually it was all done and the roller blinds (when not dismantled) glide smoothly up and down, operated by remote control from inside. Alistair and John also laid more drainage channels across the front of the house, so, when the sloping strip from the road to the house is tarmaced, the surface water will flow to the drains. Across the back of the house and under the drive they sunk another pipe for a trickle-watering system (to be finished later) for the vegetable garden and finished the concrete tiling on the slope and water tank next to the terrace. An instantly attractive effect was gained when Alistair laid a new stretch of curving brick path from the end of the terrace (which they paved last summer) to the previous path through the small flower garden. (Will next year’s projects include a link from the other end of the path to the foot of the ramp? Having got one incorrect batch, we must remember that the correct bricks are apparently called “zebras”) We were sad to wave Alistair off at the end of ten days of hard labour as we missed his cheerful presence, ingenious ideas, flamboyant fungi-related flea market purchases and hard work (not to mention those early mornings and evenings of model helicopter flying).

Treecreepers and trumpets

Treecreepers and trumpets

The local wild life will also miss Alistair. He was fascinated to observe treecreepers scuttling up and down the wall above the flowerbed and new path to a tiny hole and he would break off work at intervals to allow the treecreepers to approach their nest. Other birds will also miss the house walls for nesting as all the crevices are filled with enduit. The redstarts have been perching, puzzled on the scaffolding. We shan’t regret the wasps moving out of the crumbling mortar, and hope the new coating will defeat the tunnelling rodents. The very top of the walls under the eaves have not yet been completely sealed to prevent any further stone martens, though John’s initial chicken wire has so far done the trick. The local roe deer are picturesque, though one gave Leila quite a fright as it leapt across the road right in front of Snowy (car) as she was driving. Sadly we haven’t been able to prevent them from damaging the succulent young trees in the arboretum.

And while all this everyday trivia has been going on, there have also been the far more important elections here. Before the first round of presidential voting, the only election propaganda we received was from Marine Le Pen and its lucid, reasonable employment and welfare proposals might well have convinced many locals that this was no racist, far right agenda (though it did lack any indication of how it would all be funded). At the pensioners’ barbecue we went to last week, the main concern seemed to be the unmarried status of their new President’s first lady who wouldn’t be allowed to stay with the Queen, though François Hollande was otherwise seen as a Good Thing. In fact our fellow diners seemed far more interested in our Queen’s Jubilee celebrations than the republic’s elections. An impassioned appeal then arrived in our letter box to support our current UMP Deputé, Gérard Cherpion, in the elections for the National Assembly (in which we can’t vote, either); we were urged not to be seduced by an outsider, – a champagne socialist with no Vosgian heritage, Vosgian experience or concern for the Vosges (though the name of Jack Lang was not specifically mentioned, or his Ministerial experience – or the fact that he was in fact born in the department of the Vosges). The leaflet obviously worked as Jack Lang won only 49.1% of the vote.

So with France in the hands of Hollande, the Vosges continuing to be represented by Cherpion, and the outside of our house in the hands of the crépi men, we’ll sign off with the latest photo of a far more significant young man. (It seems a long time since we were over for his first birthday in March).  

Stella, Toby and Jacob 17 June 2012

Stella, Toby and Jacob 17 June 2012

A bientot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crémant, Crêpes and Camembert: January 2012 in Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version click on this link E2E2012_issue_1-A.pdf (four A4 pages)

We thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent in the UK over Christmas with friends and family, watching Jacob’s latest achievement (look at me standing up without holding on!) and catching up on news and exhibitions. And thanks to our main hosts, Jessica and Mark, where we prolonged our stay in order to see everyone! The feasting and festivities, whether traditional English, Indian or Tunisian were wonderful.

But the festivities were not over when we returned to Entre-deux-Eaux. In fact group celebrations seemed just to be starting! First came Friday evening’s Cérémonie des Voeux at which the Mayor of Entre-deux-Eaux welcomed villagers with a glass of crémant (Alsace sparkling wine) or kir and nibbles and gave a speech about the year’s events and issues – mainly sewage and com-coms, both of which are unresolved.

There are so many layers of bureaucracy, the French government is trying to rationalise one of them by merging communes into groupings with populations of no less than 5,000 and hopefully more than 12,000 inhabitants. There are currently about 36,000 communes in France, each with their own mayor and council (including six where there are no longer any inhabitants so the departmental prefect appoints a mayor!). In the Vosges department (population about 380,000) there are 515 communes giving an average population of about 420 if the 160,000 in Epinal, Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and Remiremont are excluded.

Most communes are now considered to be too small to be efficient: what is needed are communities of communes (com-coms). Our mayor and council have no wish to be allied with other communes and to pay for their grandiose projects and follies. Whilst many of the communes around us have already grouped together (and built new headquarters which look unused most of the time), ours has tarried. No-one want to be be married to big-spending Saint Dié, which also hasn’t found partners. Nor do we want to be part of a belt of commuter communes encircling Saint Dié. We only want to be with other little rural communes which are happy logging and selling wood to keep down local taxes and are prudent spenders. Eventually the council decided that maybe we could just about face joining with two or three rural communes in the Fave valley. But then came the latest pronouncement from on high: we should be submerged in a group of twenty-three communes around the river Fave. Horror and protest all round. The uncertainty continues. Meanwhile the issue of providing a modern sewerage system for both sides of the hill is also still unresolved. Septic Tanks Rule OK!

And it’s not just the secular organisation. The local churches are also having to look at new ways of working. When we first came to the village, the church had its own curé or parish priest and held the usual masses on Sundays and feast days. In recent years the paroisses (parishes) had to join together and share the curé of Saint Leonard, and Entre-deux-Eaux had fewer than six services a year in its own church. Since the retirement last year of the two curés in the region (who seem to have been brothers – real, blood ones), the ten parishes in the valley of the Meurthe have had work together as a community of parishes (are they therefore a com-par?) to examine what can be done by the laity. Interestingly, the grouping of parishes is quite different geographically from the proposed secular grouping, favouring the side of the River Meurthe rather than the River Fave which could be the two eaux between which our village lies (if eaux wasn’t a mis-hearing of hauts when the communes were documented after the revolution).

The next crémant occasion was the next day, Saturday, when the pensioners of Sainte Marguerite celebrated with galette des rois (the frangipane tart of the three kings), crémant, and dancing. The dancing was as skilful as ever, including the nostalgic twist, the music was loud, and everyone howled the chorus of what was obviously an old favourite, “Ali Baba”, and joined in the conga as it spiralled, split and reformed.

And almost before one could recover from the excitement, there was the Entre-deux-Eaux mayor’s lunch for the over 65s on the Sunday, which of course started with a glass of kir. This was John’s first experience, as an over 65, of the leisurely drinking and eating, punctuated again with dancing. He was fortunately seated next to the husband of the president of the oldies club, who took it upon himself to gently exercise John’s French, by speaking slowly and clearly. My neighbour, on the other hand, was very difficult to understand. The Vosgian accent can sound thick and slurred, but this was impenetrable. It was a relief when his cousin opposite explained that he was deaf from birth and an embarrassment to realize that he was saying he remembered meeting me in our early days here (when I hadn’t understood what he’d come to our house for – we’d been asking around about accommodation for my mother as we weren’t sure the decoration of the downstairs bedroom would be finished). However, by the time we’d worked our way through the courses (provided by a restaurant in Fraize) and their accompanying glasses of wine, and were on to the extremely strong home-brewed pear or blueberry liqueurs, nobody was too bothered. The accordionist was playing and people were dancing and we were idly wondering why the fireman’s wife had a black eye. We walked home that night, but were a bit worried that everyone else seemed to be driving.

Four days later it was the AGM of the oldies group, which turns out not to be called the Club des Anciens, as Madame Laine refers to it, but the more elegant sounding Association La Vie du Bon Coté. The business was quickly dealt with and next year’s subscriptions extracted. A few extra people then turned up (mainly husbands like John, who’d been invited to join in) and we settled down for the lunch which seems to be a popular follow-up to many a local AGM. The meal for sixty people had been cooked this time by the fireman’s wife (her eye was looking much better by now) with the aid of the fireman. As the meal neared its end, John was introduced to the fun of the cheese song (below); it’s about maggots breeding in a Camembert and during each chorus the men stand up and sit down (first lines), the women stand up and sit down (next lines), the men stand up and sit down (following lines) and the women ditto (last lines). Does this help digestion of the Camembert? Lunch over, the visiting husbands all slunk home, whilst the club members settled down to the usual cards, gossip, and, on our table, a couple of convivial games of scrabble with a new member. And just in case anyone was still hungry, January’s three birthdays were celebrated a little later with crémant and galettes des rois.

The AGM of the Philomatique was a much more serious and detailed affair, as befits a learned society dealing with all aspects of local and regional history. The president was at great pains to emphasise the value of the work done by the society and the respect it has beyond Saint Dié, whilst, sadly, it continues to be cold-shouldered within Saint Dié by the mayor and council. We saw a short presentation on endangered buildings and features in Saint Dié where restoration proposals are usually ignored. There was an interesting presentation on the work done by the Temps de Guerre section to have the Vosges recognised in the forthcoming national and international commemorations of the 1914-18 war, with 1916 being the particular year dedicated to the mountain warfare here. In October some of you walked along a short section of the German lines at the col de Hermanpaire with Helen; a plan to fund several similar guided footpaths round other sections of the Vosgian front is taking shape, and it is hoped that the whole network of sentiers de mémoire will obtain UNESCO world heritage site status. At the end of the AGM a recently-made film was shown about the events at a farm at Viombois on 4th September 1944 when fifty seven of the maquis, who had been waiting for a parachute drop by the English (which didn’t take place) were surrounded and killed in a battle lasting all day. It was based on the memories of survivors, one of whom was there to join in the discussions afterwards.

One of the festivities that we forgot to celebrate this year was Chandeleur, or Candlemas on February 2nd. That morning, on the car radio, I’d heard snatches of spoof interviews with prominent political figures, – a bellowing Jean-Marie Le Pen, a sexy-voiced Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a prissy-sounding François Hollande, – giving their recipes for crêpes (pancakes) to the giggling presenters. John stocked up on eggs. But by evening it had slipped from our minds (must be old age) and John made a large pizza. We’ll just have to be thoroughly English and have our crêpes on Shrove Tuesday instead of beignets (doughnuts).

Since then, temperatures have dropped here (we’ve had a week of temperatures down as low as -17ºC at night not rising above zero during the day), though, unlike parts of the UK, we have had only a sprinkling of snow. The wood stove has been lit all-day every day, and we’ve enjoyed its comfortable glow. Downstairs the water froze in the washing machine pump, for the first time, and trickles of water from the defrosting (deliberately, this time!) freezer have frozen on the tiled floor, making a treacherous surface. (But at least we had no need to find a temporary cold storage area for the freezer contents). Inside the farmhouse a layer of ice has formed in the hall in front of the front door, where the condensation on the glass has run down in the daytime sunshine and then frozen. And John has found it very cold out in his workshop, where he has been making a splendid low table for the television, and a nest of side tables. We’ve just ordered some roller shutters (electrically operated!), to replace the rotting wooden shutters, which should aid with insulation – winter warmth and summer shade. They’ll have to wait for warmer weather to be installed, though. In quieter moments we have been working our way steadily through books and DVDs acquired over Christmas (we’re in the midst of a Danish “Killing” spree at the moment, with the first series). During the cold spell there has also been the annual amateur theatre performance preceded by hearty meal at Saulxures, a pleasant walk on the wooded slopes at Taintrux, and an extremely disappointing meal at a Michelin-recommended restaurant in Turckheim. But now it feels time to sit back for a while and relish the rural tranquillity before our next trip to the UK.

A bientôt!
[wpcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””] La chanson du fromage
(sur l’air de Étoile des neiges)

Dans un coin perdu de fromage
Un tout petit asticot
Faisait de la barre fix’ en s’tordant les boyaux
Sur une vieille lame de couteau

REFRAIN
Étoile des crèmes
Mon beau camembert
C’est toi que j’aime
Comme dessert
Après le potage
Après les faillots
Roi des fromages
De tous les mets
T’es bien l’plus beau
[/wpcol_1half][wpcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]

Il se disait dans son langage
Il me faudrait un jumeau
Nous pourrions vivre dans le livarot
Près de la vieille lame de couteau

REFRAIN

Le ciel entendit sa prière
Et l’on put voir aussitôt
Sortir un à un et au triple galop
Toute une confrérie d’asticots

REFRAIN

Depuis ce jour dans l’fromage
Plusieurs centaines d’asticots
Font de la barre fixe en s’tordant les boyaux
Autour d’une vieille lame de couteau. [/wpcol_1half_end]

Festivities and feasting: December 2011 in Lorraine and Alsace (and highlights of July-December)

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2E2011_issue_2-Festivities and feasting.pdf (two A4 pages)

Once both the village volunteer firemen and our village postman had called with their Christmas Calendars, we knew that December was nearly here and it was time to get out the decorations. With the star lights illuminating the windows, Peruvian papier-mâché angels grouped round the crèche on the window sill, and candles, pine cones and silver balls decorating the low table, we were in the mood for the traditional festivities.

However, when Roger and Dorinda returned for a short stay in their résidence secondaire and we discussed one of our favourite Christmas Markets held in the illuminated barns of a small village, it was pouring with rain and Dorinda, having broken a toe, was fearful of crowds, so we didn’t go. Then, when Nicola, who used to live here, drove up from the south to visit friends and experience again the St Nicholas parade through Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, it was cold and wet again, so none of us went to watch the bands, floats and the good bishop disappearing in a cloud of fireworks though the cathedral portals.

We did, however, share Dorinda’s end of November birthday meal at one of her favourite restaurants in Rouffach who’d offered to throw in two bottles of champagne and a birthday cake; and very festive it was. It was a sunny day and we popped into Kaysersberg first for a little Christmas shopping amid its decorations, and afterwards (fuelled by champagne and good food) went into Colmar to look at the work of craftsmen who during Advent show their wares in the old Customs House, with Christmas market stalls outside. And on the day after the unvisited St Nicholas parade, we met up for Sunday lunch with Nicola, a friend of hers from the south, Roger and Dorinda at Nicola’s former favourite restaurant up in the hills at Labaroche (la Rochette, not our former favourite, the abandoned Blanche Neige, which appears unchanged inside except for the lack of tables and chairs and still has many road signs to it). Nicola’s restaurant had been completely revamped since we all last met there, and was very stylish, but the welcome was as warm as ever, and their speciality baeckeoffa d’escargots (a sizzling casserole of snails in a white sauce with vegetables) was still among the starters. Having followed it with a hearty Alsace venison and noodles main course we were oblivious to the low cloud enveloping the hills and the rain lashing against the windows, and we didn’t even feel a pang at missing the visit of St Nicholas to the children of Entre-deux-Eaux (in the past a rather noisy, undisciplined event). And as an evocation of the warmer south, Nicola gave us some lemons from her garden and some locally produced nougat.

Metz Cathedral-Chagall Creation window

Metz Cathedral
Chagall Creation window

However, we hoped to catch a bit of Christmas wonder in the cathedral, streets and Christmas markets in Metz this week. We’d never explored Metz apart from short stop on one of our journeys so we booked an overnight stay in the Hotel de la Cathédrale, which sounded traditional and comfortable and handy for the famous Chagall cathedral windows and the new Pompidou Centre there. However, yet again we had driving rain allied with an icy wind that wrenched umbrellas inside out. The cathedral was cold and its windows drab against the dull sky outside (including the Chagall Creation window which could have glowed golden) and the Christmas market stalls were distributed among windswept squares, and we got blown, heads down under umbrellas, past their gaudy, tacky wares.

Metz-St Maximin church
one of the Jean Cocteau windows

An unexpected delight in the back streets was the church of St Maximim (who was he?) with its strange windows by Cocteau, evoking lush jungles and totem poles rather than Bible stories. As we walked from there to the station, an apple-faced lady opened a gate through which I was peering, and offered to show us one of her favourite haunts, the quiet seminary garden, but John had beaten a hasty retreat even before she mentioned the stylish, panelled restaurant in the seminary. Outside the railway station (built in a German imperial style in 1905-8 when Metz was part of Germany) we were momentarily diverted from its baronial splendour by the colourful Christmas market in recreations of railway carriages. Inside, neo-Romanesque halls and corridors stretched in splendour into the distance. As for the station bookshop, vast as a Carnegie library with alluring local history displays … it was sumptuous (and very warm!), and I totally overlooked the stained glass window of Charlemagne enthroned in glory in the great hall not to mention Kaiser Wilhelm’s apartments and the platforms designed to receive troops on horseback. That night we dined not in the splendour of the Grand Seminaire but enjoyed the menu du pacha in an excellent little Lebanese restaurant tucked into a side street. The following morning was, if anything, even wetter and colder and we headed for the museums, and spent a wonderful morning in a maze of rooms celebrating the Gallo-Roman finds and mediaeval architectural splendours; the paintings were off-limits that day, but we had seen such riches already. We also decided to save the Pompidou Centre for another day – preferably when it had some interesting exhibitions, rather than a third of its galleries shut.

As for the intervening months since the previous newsletter, in July we spent an enjoyable week in Antibes with Toby, Stella and Jacob. (It was fun to watch Jacob examining the Picasso sculptures at the Château Grimaldi and revelling in the noise and sights of the food market and fountains, and we enjoyed the Chagall Museum in Nice). I spent August making a large marriage patchwork quilt, while John slaved away on the floor tiles and walls of the barn, which now gleam pale grey and white, so practical and elegant for storage, laundry and freezers (apart from the floor showing all muddy footprints). In September we enjoyed a week in the Lake District with all the family following the lovely wedding of John’s nephew Steven to Helen (another in the family now!). In October we had some pleasant weather for walks, as well as good meals during the week of John’s birthday. November seems to have disappeared in a haze of heavy colds, autumnal garden clearing, interesting books, TV crime series and some good football matches, the latter thanks to our newish French satellite box and motorised dish, which allows us to access satellites transmitting channels from Mali, the Gambia and Senegal which show various European paying channels for free.

Hope this has been a good year for you! Joyeux Noel!

Scanning the past – fifth update

I’ve continued scanning my slides over the summer but ran into problems with the Epson V700 slide carrier after I’d scanned 3-4000.

The carrier has little spring tabs which hold the mounted transparencies in place. Unfortunately they proved to be rather fragile, especially with slide mounts from the 1960s and 1970s which were a lot thicker than the slide mounts in later years. Slowly the tabs started to break and I finally had one or both sides of four of the twelve slide carrier holes damaged. They could still be used for old, heavy, rigid plastic slide mounts, but the thin paper and plastic mounts tended to be lifted on one side and the slides could move.

After much searching, I eventually found a supplier for replacement carrier who sold them at a reasonable price and could deliver to France (one well-known scanner supplier wanted 20€ for the carrier and the same again for delivery from Germany). As I still had an estimated 5000 or more slides to scan, I bought two carriers for 6€ each (and 15€ delivery; again from Germany) as I knew it was always possible I’d damage another carrier before I’d finished all my scanning.

The second barn renovation is finished

The work was finally finished in mid-October. We’ve had a good sort through all the stuff that used to be in it and done a lot of rationalisation. The freezers are now back, the washing machine and tumble drier which were sitting unconnected are now connected, and we’ve bought shelving to provide more sensible storage.

I’ve been photographing some of the progress and there are a series of panoramas here: https://www.blackmores-online.info/Second_barn/index.html The last panorama shows the second barn as it was on 13 November.

Hot and cold: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, January–June 2011

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2E2011_issue_1-Hot and cold.pdf (four A4 pages).
Clicking on a photo will take you to a larger image.

Jacob 13 Mar 2011

The most exciting event of 2011 for us took place in London rather than in Entre-deux-Eaux.
It was the birth on March 11th of Toby and Stella’s son Jacob Toby. He is, of course, absolutely gorgeous, and we enjoyed sharing his early days. We’re looking forward to meeting up with them at the end of July in Antibes and seeing all the changes. The rest of the year seems mundane in comparison, but here’s a summary:

The cold winter did not cause as many problems here as it did in the UK as people are prepared for it. John had bought winter tyres, which many people use here, – but he had the UK problems in mind. Madame Laine had to think quite hard about the weather when we returned in early January from Christmas and the New Year in the UK, but then recalled that there had been snow up to her knees over Christmas, which was a bit of a nuisance when going out to feed the hens. The roads had suffered in the cold weather, and on our return journey there were plenty of notices announcing “trous en formation”, which always (quite irrelevantly) conjure up images for me of the trous/holes lining up solemnly for a bit of formation dancing – or even a can-can. Unfortunately our fridge freezer had given up hope while we were away; with minimal heating left on, the room temperature went below the climate class rating, so we came back to the freezer contents in a sticky pool on the kitchen floor.

The dull January days outside passed quickly indoors thanks to a Christmas present of a huge jigsaw puzzle, John’s ongoing project of scanning all his negatives and transparencies, and Helen’s attendance at AGMs, which can include protracted lunches (the oldies of E2E) or interesting old films (the local history group). We had toyed with the idea of travelling to Tunisia where Jessica’s sister and brother-in-law were over-wintering on their sailing boat (another retirement lifestyle). But as we listened to January news bulletins, February seemed a very bad time to visit (though Jessica and Mark had a good time there in March, when things were settling down).

However, February was put to good use when John finally cleared his wardrobe of old shirts which I dismembered and turned into a patchwork quilt for Jacob with other bits of hoarded fabric. There was an amusing trip to the amateur theatre group over the mountains in Saulxures. After a large lunch, the audience, drinks in hand, settled back from the long tables to watch a play about a local council election. If that sounds boring, the plot was sheer French farce, – with one of the mayoral candidates desperate to maintain his respectable reputation after having sex in a ‘plane toilet with his long-lost brother (who had undergone a sex change operation). The audience found it hilarious, though my A-level French didn’t quite cover all the vocabulary! February was also notable for a trip to the Auberge de la Ferme Hueb restaurant, one of our favourites. The night before had been a special St Valentine’s meal, and I think we were the beneficiaries of their left-overs. The meringue swans were exquisite. The muscat aperitif was so good that we drove home via the producer in the small village of Hunawihr. On learning that we lived over in the Vosges department, he regaled us with Alsatian jokes about Vosgiens, and their poorer climate, such as, “Why do Vosgiens have big ears?” “I don’t know, why do Vosgiens have big ears?” “Because when they are small, their parents lift them up by their ears to show them how much nicer it is over here on the other side of the mountains in Alsace.” Maybe he was bored and we were his only clients that day. Out in the yard a mobile bottling machine was clanking away, – presumably rented for a day or two. We tasted a few more wines (he was anxious that we should try his medal-winning crémant) and departed with boxes of his pinot gris and gewurtztraminer as well as muscat.

We also had a trip in early March to a Colmar restaurant, L’Atelier du Peintre, which is fast joining our list of favourites. It was harder to book than previously, as it had just been awarded a Michelin star, and everyone wanted to be there. The two portly men at the neighbouring table, who were working their way through some expensive-looking wines, sounded as if they had been local politicians. I ironically asked Madame if Gordon Ramsay had congratulated them on their star, having once featured them on his Kitchen Nightmares when they were running a restaurant in Inverness; Loïc and Caroline had been plucked from the south of France by a Scottish tycoon to create a restaurant capable of getting a Michelin star. Ramsay hadn’t.

Any trip to the UK, even one for the birth of a grandson, involves stocking up with wine from France for family and friends and then, on the return trip, with a weird assortment of goods that are cheaper or easier to purchase in the UK. This time, on our return, the back of the car contained an upright Dyson vacuum cleaner (the French don’t seem to do upright ones), garden netting (woven for a very reasonable price in an industrial estate in Huddersfield very close to where distant ancestors had once owned weaving mills), pesticides, fertilizer, seeds (all very expensive in France), second-hand books, and a wedding hat (no, not for the royal event). It was beautifully sunny as we crossed France and the white blossom of blackthorns and damsons was splashed across the fields south of the champagne slopes. Back home we found fritillaries in flower under the plum tree and the peonies bursting out of their winter wrappings.

April was notable for the glorious sunshine, so it was tempting to start sowing seeds a bit earlier than usual, whilst John got busy constructing a large (12m x 4m) walk-in fruit cage from posts, wire and the above netting. As so often here, even visitors got involved in a bit of gardening. Jessica brought various plants from their Putney garden when they stayed at the end of April, and Mark christened us Natasha (Jessica in her scarlet patterned headscarf wheel-barrowing compost) and Vanessa (Helen in her floppy straw-like hat bending over weeds and seeds). While they were here we also got in some good walking on the mountain ridge (spectacular views down into Alsace without our ears being stretched), a trip to see le Corbusier’s lovely church at Ronchamp, a birthday lunch in Saulxures, a rhododendron garden, and the royal wedding (on TV). The French, despite their vehement denials, remain strangely interested in other countries’ royals. Throughout April we had been asked jokingly if we had been invited to the wedding. At Ronchamp the baker had treated us to a half hour discourse about Le Corbusier, the royal wedding, strikes and the superiority of the republic over the monarchy. At a book-sale, the secretary of the local history group and her assistant had a long discussion with me about the wedding outfits and the hats, – “such a disgrace, that princess Beatrice and that Eugenie. How could the couturier have permitted it?” Even the mayor of Entre-deux-Eaux had joked, as he led a walk along local footpaths, about whether we’d be attending the wedding!

The mayor’s walk was as a result of one of the January AGMs, that of the Entre-deux-Eaux oldies. Before lunch various radical proposals had been made including adding walking to the more sedentary monthly activities of cards, gossip, cakes and crémant (a proposed trip round a brewery in Alsace had also gained vociferous support from the men). The mayor’s walk was idiosyncratic, with throw-away comments about residents past and present. He inspected the dustbins of some German week-enders – “he’s an advocate, but thinks he can do what he likes over the border. But all I have to do is threaten to call the gendarmes (not that they’d come) – that always stops a German.” As we climbed up to an isolated farm two km from the village shop and café, – “the old man was a drunkard; he walked down every night to the bar, and faced an uphill struggle back!” Outside a picturesquely ramshackle farm, – “no running water – see the hose pipe coming down from the spring in the fields, across the road and into the house – no legal sewerage and that muck heap’s now illegal under EU regulations.” EU rulings lead to great expense for the commune too; a whole area round the pipes leading from a spring to one of the village reservoirs has had to be cleared of forest and fenced off to prevent contamination by deer and other animals. Then he led us past a World War I defensive bunker (the Germans had occupied the village below for a while) to a house buried in the forest, so we could see the finest stone carving in the commune (ironically it is now occupied by Germans). In the middle of the forest peace, a fellow-walker’s mobile phone rang. “Reception is usually impossibly in the forest. Have you been contacted about the new mast? Someone near you is organising a protest. I don’t understand them. People here want all the modern technology like mobile phones, but not the consequences.” Later we heard that the protesters had organised a meeting and succeeded in convincing the mayor not to allow a mast.

April was also when the flea markets started. We still go as an enjoyable Sunday outing but buy fewer things these days (we have enough already). However, occasionally we can’t resist. At the St Remy Foire au Lard, which has a lot of stalls selling chunks of smoked pork, we spotted (in a separate section from the lard) a pile of Art Nouveau magazines in English. They were issues of Studio from 1902-1905 with fascinating illustrations of houses and paintings; even the advertisements were beautifully lettered and designed. You wouldn’t have thought there was a big potential readership at a Foire au Lard, and indeed the price was reasonable. We bought the whole pile. The bare walls of our small flower garden have long been in need of some ornamentation. Old farm implements or wrought iron deer are the usual local wall decorations. However in another small village fair, John spotted a box of corroded brass instruments, – fragments of trumpets and trombones which looked as if they had festered in a damp outbuilding after the members of some long ago village band had died. A musical garden will be a bit different. At the same village we also saw rusted weapons of the WWI found with a metal detector (presumably illegally) in the hills above. At the Entre-deux-Eaux flea market I bought some plants, including geraniums. And at nearby Corcieux, Alistair spotted a replacement blade for a nine-inch angle grinder which he was sure John would need.

Alistair came over in May (it is becoming an annual event) to help John with various large projects. He laid paving slabs over the whole area that they’d cemented last year (panorama of the completed new terrace). The slabs proved difficult to cut and Alistair finally persuaded John to invest in a nine-inch angle grinder. So the cheap (but brand new) replacement spare blade was a good purchase! One day the ready-mix cement lorry blocked the road outside our house (we had warned the neighbours the night before) and as the wet mix was hosed into the barn, Alistair and John spread and levelled nearly eight tonnes of it until we had a smooth new floor. They also created ramps and steps down to the terrace and garden. That was an impressive day’s labour. John is currently re-wiring the barn, tiling the floor and putting plasterboard on the old stone walls. In the end the barn that used to have the cattle stalls (and still has a water trough) should make a more elegant entrance area for the “West Wing”. It should also be a lot safer with a level floor, without cracks and without gulleys for swilling out the stalls and pens. In some ways it’s sad to change things, and it doesn’t comply with energy-inefficient heritage conservation ideas, but will be more practical (as local farmers always were).

After the hot dry days of April and May people here, as in England, were fearing for farms and gardens. But June is making up for it with its heavy showers and thunder storms. Our underground water tanks have filled again. But the gardeners’ good news was bad news for all the barbecues, Bastille Day fireworks, St Jean bonfires, school fêtes and open air craft fairs traditionally held before the long school holidays start on 1st July. Men with marquees have been kept busy. On Sunday it was the Fête du Pain with a barbecue at the farm museum at Sainte Marguerite. Everyone arrived in anoraks and warm pullovers, to find the sturdy trio of old fashioned marquees well tethered (after one had landed in a neighbouring garden in a previous year). At the back of the old farm the lamb gigot was being grilled over a barbecue whilst in the tents the mayor of Entre-deux-Eaux was presiding over the bar and a young accordionist was playing as the aperitifs and then the home made foie gras paté were served. Later Mme Presidente and a group of friends brought out some old musical instruments and played before we were served cherry clafoutis cooked in a wood burning oven. Later, in the tombola, the agreeable Dutch couple at our table won a miniature sledge wine bottle holder carved by an old man at the next table. And the rain miraculously held off between 11 and a couple of minutes after we got home. We were equally fortunate with the Sainte Marguerite pensioners’ barbecue by the pond of Monsieur Nicolas. The men had put up the more lightweight and modern marquees that morning and were barbecuing the pork slices and sausages, whilst the women served the sangria, the salads and the desserts. For some reason the usual accordionist was not there, but that didn’t stop the dancing to taped music and the very jolly conga I got swept up into. We beat a strategic retreat as the skies darkened and were home just before the rain heavy rain started.

And to end where we started, – with a baby, this time a furry one. From our window we have in the past seen deer, buzzards and a stray stork. A few days ago we saw two shapes in the field, the usual cat hunting and something with longer ears, – a cat-sized hare.

Leveret - 10 June 2011

A bit later, as John was walking to the back door to his workshop the hare shot out of the flowerbed. As John was showing me its footprints, he spotted its baby, eyes wide open, fearless and adorable. Sadly, shortly after he took its picture it must have been removed to a place which felt safer and we haven’t seen parent or baby since.

Au revoir!