Asparagus, cheese and cold eggs: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, January – May 2024

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(six A4 pages)

There are links to photographs in the text and
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There are no asparagus fields around Entre-deux-Eaux. Our local fields are mainly used by cows, as pasture or for winter fodder, with occasional maize or winter wheat crops. But at this time of year, in April and May, villagers’ thoughts turn east to Alsace and its asparagus. Nearly every local restaurant, small or large, will offer asparagus as a starter and often also as part other courses as well, In the nearby small town of Provenchères-sur-Fave, the Mother’s Day (26 May here) special Sunday menu in a restaurant had asparagus as its starter. People also drive over the Vosges to buy asparagus directly from the growers. Earlier in May, a party of villagers from Entre-deux-Eaux oldies club went over the hills for an asparagus lunch and dance for 350 people, though one complained that she was still hungry when she got home.

Le 29 restaurant

During the long wet winter months, we have enjoyed going out for a restaurant lunch roughly once a week. It is always good to try new restaurants as well as old favourites, and if they are nearby in Saint Dié so much the better. At the end of April, when it was still miserable weather, we tried the recently opened Le 29 on the main street (no. 29) of Saint Dié. It was good to get off the cold, windy street into a small but busy little restaurant of eight tables, which looked larger with its murals of sunlit woods. There was a warm welcome from the bustling young madame, Marilyn, and through glass doors into the bright kitchen at the rear we could see chef Cedric and his assistant busy cooking and decorating dishes. Not surprisingly, one of their starters that week was listed as Les asperges blanches d’Alsace (ferme Clarisse, Sigolsheim), emulsion savoyarde et croustillant pancetta which also featured an egg cooked at a low temperature. Helen decided to sample the frogs’ legs, which she didn’t remember having tasted before, but John chose the asparagus and said the savoyarde emulsion, a cheesy sauce, added a good flavour to the asparagus.
In the past we had bought asparagus at Sigolsheim from Clarisse’s small hut-like shop up a narrow side street. Now there is a larger, up-market shop attached to a restaurant on the main road through Sigolsheim. Ghislaine (who visits us to practice her English) and her husband went for a meal there this year, but they were really disappointed, finding it very expensive for the asparagus soup and asparagus-and-ham main course. They were also annoyed that Clarisse’s strawberries were on the dessert menu but not available to eat, although there were plenty in the attached shop, but the restaurant staff refused to prepare them.

chutney de potiron, chèvre fumé, chèvre boursin, tomme fruitée

When we were at L’Imprimerie in the book village in April, they served their asparagus with a hollandaise sauce. The cheese course is, alas, rarely part of set menus in French restaurants these days. But with the Imprimerie’s curtailed menu (see below) we missed the previous leisurely succession of filling dishes, so when Damien wheeled up the optional cheese trolley, we decided to indulge. The smoked goats’ cheese was our favourite, with a good pumpkin chutney.
In January we had discovered their main chef, Morgan, had been head-hunted and had moved on to a larger, more prestigious restaurant in a spa hotel in the woods above lac de Longemer and taking two of the younger restaurant chefs as well. His co-owner chef, together with a new assistant chef and the grumpy waiter are carrying on at the Imprimerie, but have reduced the number of opening days and have been serving a less ambitious weekday set lunch to fewer tables.
Like true groupies we decided the following week to follow Morgan to his new restaurant, Les Jardins de Sophie, for lunch. It was delicious, and he’d obviously carried over his own style as two of the dishes were similar to those we’d eaten at his old restaurant! But the cheese selection was less interesting – and there was no pumpkin chutney to add flavour. At the end Morgan showed us his big new kitchen with great pride, as he now has fifteen staff working under him including a pastry chef.

wine cellar

Another restaurant which we tried for the first time, Le Bistro d’ Azerailles, was distinctly down market from Les Jardins de Sophie and served neither asparagus or cheese, but a varied hot and cold buffet. Arriving at 12.20, we walked into an unpromising, dingy fifties style bar in an old station hotel in the small town of Azerailles; there was only one diner or drinker, and no sign of staff. Eventually the chef came to the bar, smiled, and led us round the end of the bar, through a narrow room and into a busy, large restaurant, where he handed us over to Madame. We should probably have noticed and come in through the other door that opened directly into the restaurant! Before we were let loose on the buffet, we were asked if we’d like aperitifs – no thanks. Wine with the meal? Yes please! So chef led us proudly to their latest project – a well-lit wine cellar with tables and chairs and expensive bottles in racks on the walls. Realising our mistake, we said it was a really splendid display, but we only wanted a glass each, so were led back up to order from the bar. The starters were really good, so we went back for more. We realised we should have got there a bit earlier, to get the full selection of the mains, and we were lucky to get the last of the desserts. Other diners had left and the staff had disappeared when, after coffee, we were ready to pay. It’s somewhere we’d go back to, – but promptly at mid-day.
The Bistro d’ Azerailles’ vegetables of the day were peas and potatoes. John had been rather surprised when we were at the Amnesty Book Sale in Saint Dié in February and he picked up a book of the best recipes from season 4 of the French Masterchef TV series, to find it contained a technical tip for cooking vegetables a l’anglaise with photos of the four stages: boiling a lot of salted water, tipping in the vegetables, pricking them with the point of a knife to see if they are well cooked, lifting them out into ice-cold water. Is that considered by French Masterchef to be the height of English gastronomy? An indication that we have some interests above and beyond our stomachs and restaurants (though it might not otherwise be obvious from this newsletter), is that we also bought an Italian design book, some Michelin green guides to parts of France we haven’t yet visited, and Helen found a well illustrated 1932 children’s science fiction book.
The previous February weekend, Helen went with the Sainte Marguerite club on the annual theatre trip to the Alsace village which gives an amateur theatre production preceded by lunch. The lunch is always well organised, but this year there were negative comments that they’d cut down on wine and there was no cheese course. But the new play, La Candidate, a farce about a presidential election was as amusing as ever.
Later that week it was Helen’s turn to lead the Friday Remue Meninges, or brain exercise, group. This time she’d found a couple of good French sites to plunder. So the group started with arranging a seating plan for a family dinner party for 10, taking into account all the antipathies and requirements of participants, so a logic problem with only one solution possible. There’s always someone in the group who says they don’t know what to do, without having read the information and worked out the logic! Next there were three exercises of anagrams, the last being Tintin titles (given how big cartoon strip/graphic novels are here, it was surprising that not everyone had read Tintin to their children or grandchildren). Pandering to the popularity of the British Royal Family here, the next exercise involved applying the information given about the strict rules of succession, to find out who would have succeeded at particular dates had the queen died then (“I don’t know what I’ve got to do”, wailed the same person without reading the info). With a word-search for capital cities (French spelling) which absorbed everyone, the room went quiet for the first time as they really concentrated. Finally a crossword. After which someone boiled the kettle for hot drinks as the room is inadequately heated and Helen produced the cinnamon buns that John had made that morning, and everyone relaxed and gossiped.
In March and early April we enjoyed seeing family and friends around Easter time in Letchworth. So lots of cooking for John, egg hunts for children, and gardening and trips on the rare days when the weather was fine.
On our return to Entre-deux-Eaux, we faced the same problem of finding a time for gardening when it was not raining. Fortunately the day Dusty chose for rotavating our vegetable patch was sunny after a heavy overnight frost (and snow on the hills the previous day). Helen has been busy on other fine days slowly raking over the beds and sowing the usual carrots, parsnips, beetroot, lettuce and leeks outside. The broad beans, peas, courgettes, pumpkins and squash which were sown inside are now being planted out. Will they all be washed away by all the subsequent rain? In May Saint Dié had a Jardin dans ma ville event with plant stalls up both sides of the main street (which was closed to traffic). We walked round the stalls and selected a few herbs to replace those that do not seem to have survived the winter.
As for the cold eggs, many of you will have been following John’s videos of the kestrels nesting on our attic windowsill on the website 2024 – Kestrels in Entre-deux-Eaux, wincing at two females fighting (rather disturbing) in March and rejoicing at the laying of six eggs in April. You will have no doubt grieved when the male disappeared on 25 April, leaving the female without any food on her seventh day of brooding on the eggs. We assume the eggs would have got too cold to be viable after she was forced to leave them for long periods to hunt for food (and possibly her mate).

The younger male kestrel gives the female a mouse

However a younger male then started visiting the windowsill and bringing voles, mice and lizards for the female, and on 7 May the female laid the first of a second batch of eggs. By 15 May eleven eggs could be seen, with old and new all together. Unfortunately the sill overlooks the vegetable garden, and the female deserts the eleven eggs whenever one of us goes into the garden, as well as when cyclists and dog walkers pass. As the honeyberries in the fruit cage are now ripe and the strawberries soon will be, there will be additional disruptions for her from our gardening stints. But if all is well, perhaps some of the five new eggs should hatch around 9 June. In discussions with two in France and Czechia who have had kestrel nests for many years, this many eggs is unknown and difficult for the female to cover. After the additional seventh egg was laid in the second clutch, the opinion was there would only be another two at most. Perhaps this might become an entry in a record book? So watch the website!

L’ilot utopique de Raon l’Etape in 2010

At the beginning of May we went to an exhibition at the museum in Saint Dié on the striking architecture of L’ilot utopique de Raon l’Etape. A hotelier in Raon l’Etape had enterprisingly commissioned the building in 1966-7 of an annexe to his hotel on a little island in the river Meurthe, comprising motel rooms designed by Pascal Häusermann et Claude Häusermann-Costy. The nine concrete spheres could accommodate 24 guests in total. Apparently the large printing firm that Ghislaine’s husband worked for would accommodate business visitors there, as it was a bit different with its esprit soixante-huitard. It was called Motel l’Eau Vive, then later l’Utopie. It had various owners and was classed as a historic monument in 2014. We had been very taken with the unusual balloon shapes when we visited and had drinks there after a couple of young Swiss enthusiasts had taken it on. But it has been closed for some years. It is being renovated and is due to reopen as a hotel later this year. The exhibition had more information about other projects of the architects, including a video of the time-consuming construction and growth of a private home (no possibility of hanging paintings of constructing bookshelves on those curved igloo-like concrete walls!)
The local villages hold an annual art event in May, with exhibitions in different village halls. The first year we went, our American friend Nicola won a prize for her paintings, and we were proud to still see her name at the top of the list of winners (if mis-spelt). But alas the quality of paintings has deteriorated in recent years. However, the photographs exhibited at the former seminary in Saulcy were more interesting, and we were pleased to be invited to the vernissage, or drinks reception the evening before, as Paul, the recently arrived resident of E2E, was showing more of his photographs.
May is a month of public holidays here, a month of holes like cheeses, as Ghislaine observed during our linguistic exchanges. The month opens with Workers Day, the following week there is Victory Day and Ascension Day, and two weeks later Pentecost. So it was hardly surprising that none of Helen’s birthday cards were delivered until two days after the event (pathetic sniff). Nevertheless her birthday was a festive as well as obligingly sunny day as we drove over to Riquewihr, a small mediaeval walled town in Alsace which had not been destroyed in WWII as the road to it didn’t go any further. We had lunch just outside the walls at the foot of the vineyards, on the terrace of a restaurant with the unwieldy name of AOR La Table, le gout et nous. The amuse-bouche was, of course an asparagus soup, though this one was accompanied by lavash (a crisp, spicy Armenian bread). The fish course of bream was also accompanied by asparagus, but the star was the veal, sweetbread, risotto, with zucchini and apple wrapped in a green bean. What drew the attention of neighbouring tables, was our Moni-k-Bill dessert of a smoking chocolate cigar and mango cream, as we were the only table presented with it. In fact, it was less of a surprise to us as, on our previous visit, we had also had chef’s signature dish, which harks back to the Lewinsky/Clinton affair.

Riquewihr upper gate

Riquewihr courtyard

We had decided to stay overnight Sunday at the hotel next door to it, so we did no have to worry about our wine consumption, and it was pleasant strolling round the old streets of Riquewihr in the cool of the evening when the crowds of tourists had left. We had first visited Riquewihr in the ‘eighties on a winter evening with a spectacular sunset over the vineyards, and equally quiet streets, and we had fallen in love with it, so it was good to see it again restored to tranquillity at the end of the day. Next morning we went out to get coffee and croissants from a bakery. We sat on the rim of an old well eating them and watching a tanker emptying a street drain, deliveries to cellars and walkers setting out with haversacks and maps.

vineyard/roadside poppies

On the way home we stopped in the next village at a small wine producer to buy some bottles of the Gewurtztraminer wine that Helen had really liked at lunchtime. We were lucky in our timing, as the husband and wife were just pulling out on their gateway with a trailer of garden prunings for the tip, but stopped immediately they saw us and opened up. There can’t be much call for wine on a Monday morning. It feels a long time since we bought from a grower, and we reminisced about buying our first Gewurtz from another small producer on that first visit nearly forty years ago.

Enfin – Croisière Alsacienne – Rhine carp in a potato crust, with sorrel and wild garlic sauce

Two days later we rounded off Helen’s birthday with a splendid lunch at Enfin restaurant, again amid the vineyards of Alsace, but a bit further north in Barr. Their Hommage au Printemps sequence of small dishes featured plenty of herbs from the beds outside their windows and also fish from the river Rhine. After a succession of tasty herby mises en bouche, we had the inevitable but beautifully presented asparagus, both white and green with lovage, cream and asparagus ice-cream cornets. Perhaps the most memorable dish was the Rhine carp in a potato crust, with sorrel and wild garlic sauce. The dessert trolley at the end was heavily laden, and being Alsace there were lashings of cream on everything. But asparagus ice cream as a dessert must be an acquired taste.

We drove back along a steep, winding forest road rather than through the vineyards, enjoying the scenery.
But no, that was not in fact the last celebration, so hold on for a bit more food description! This week the monthly E2E club for the oldies (more properly called La vie du bon côté) toasted all the May birthdays in either crémant or cider. The onus of cake-making has been taken on by Stephane, the enterprising village caterer who makes very good cakes, so Helen joined other May birthdays villagers in blowing out candles on his creamy Paris-Brest (whose wheel shape is said to be a tribute to the Paris-Brest cycle race), luscious rhubarb tart or generous cream-and-raspberry sponge cake, as the card and game players sang Joyeux anniversaire.
On the walk home, Helen admired the colourful azaleas and peonies in the sheltered garden of the oldest village house, queried the presence of two gendarmes outside the unfinished, deserted house of our former builder, stopped to check if our neighbour still wants some felled tree branches from the bottom of our orchard, and finally caused the female kestrel to temporarily fly in alarm from her eggs. After the cakes, candles and champagne, everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux resumed.

Sunshine, amphitheatres and painted walls: three days in Lyon, January 2023

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
.pdf (four A4 pages)

There is a gallery of some photographs of Lyon
including a gallery of the frescoes we saw
There are also
clickable links in the text

Depressing leaden skies, muddy footpaths and puddles. The last of January’s festivities, galette des rois, champagne, dancing and lunch for the village elderly had taken place. Dull damp days lay ahead. We have never visited Lyon, so, on the spur of the moment, on Sunday, we researched hotels, packed clothes and set out to drive southwards through Monday’s snow showers for a change of scenery. We were also to benefit from a change of weather, for, although it remained cold, the sunshine was invigorating.

Lugdunum amphitheatre

We soon realised that our knees are not what they used to be. We had decided to work our way through Lyon’s history, and, of course, history starts with the Romans. One of the Roman sites in Lyon, Lugdunum, lies on the Fourvière hill above the Rhone and Saône. Fortunately the strike of some transport workers on that first full day, Tuesday, only slightly slowed our journey across town from our hotel by tram, metros and one of the two funiculars. We still take a childish pleasure in funicular rides. As we emerged from the tunnel, the expanse of the Roman theatre (the oldest in France) and adjacent odeon amazed us. Bright winter sunshine lit up the tiers of seats, and as we paused on our steep ascent of the amphitheatre and turned round, the concrete offices and apartments of modern Lyon basked in a soft lemon light below us. The brutalist concrete site museum buried in the hillside was as dramatic as the amphitheatre, and the finds of urns, sarcophagi, bronze inscriptions and mosaics were perfectly at home beneath the museum’s soaring concrete columns and arches.

Steps up to old townFrom the museum we walked up towards the Basilica Notre-Dame-de-Fourvière, searching, in vain, for coffee. The glittering mosaics of the basilica and a metal tower (an imitation of the Eiffel Tower) were no compensation for the lack of refreshments, apart from a very expensive restaurant. To add insult to injury, the other funicular station was closed, we assumed as part of the strike. So we set out to walk down the hill to the old town and its cafés. Our ageing knees soon gave way on a long steep flight of steps. When we finally got to the bottom of the hill, we sank gratefully onto chairs in a coffee shop in one of the fine renaissance buildings on Rue de Boeuf. Later, on the metro, we heard an announcement that funicular F2 line was closed because of a “technical incident”. The next day we noticed that the central cable had been removed, which would account for the lack of service!

On the second day, Wednesday, we explored the mediaeval and renaissance streets of the silk merchants in the old town at the foot of the Fourvière hill, with their enticing narrow, covered passageways (traboules) and courtyards behind heavy doors. We wandered into the renaissance buildings and hillside gardens of the powerful Gadagni Florentine bankers. A restored clock, l’horloge aux guignols, had been re-installed there and we watched the two puppets striking the hour. We continued along the Rue Juiverie from which the Jews had been expelled in the fourteenth century to be succeeded by wealthy Italian merchants and bankers. And suddenly we were at the incongruous small St Paul railway station. The enticing aromas from the bakery opposite the station lured us in for large pastries (savoury and sweet) and glasses of milky coffee. We walked on, drawn into St Paul’s church by the sweet recorded music. In an alley, we were accosted by a smoking restaurant worker who insisted that we should cross the footbridge over the Saône to the Presqu’ile and see the famous Fresque des Lyonnais.

Bookshop fresco

Our first glimpse was of a charming bookshop painted on a ground floor wall, but rounding the corner of the building, seven stunning storeys of painted wall opened up showing over thirty famous Lyonnais characters, including the Emperor Claude, the cinematographers Auguste and Louis Lumière, author Antoine de Saint Exupery and his Petit Prince, and chef Paul Bocuse. We returned to the old town to see the gothic cathedral of St Jean. Our explorations ended in the huge Place Bellecour, with its big wheel and its stalwart naked stone warrior guarding the plaque to resistance members shot there in 1944 by the Gestapo (whose headquarters were close). From there we caught the metro and then tram back to our hotel.

Cité idéale

Our apartment hotel (Otelia Gestetud) was in a modern block on the T2 tram route; there were few shops or restaurants nearby, but a large number of funeral parlours which were handy for the two large cemeteries and crematorium de la Guillotière on either side of the railway line. This may sound a grim location, but we found the hotel well staffed and equipped, clean and comfortable, and with parking below. At the beginning of the twentieth century the cemeteries lay on the edge of the city, with fields and farmland beyond. A forward-looking mayor and a local architect, Tony Garnier, who had visions of the Cité idéale with its separate industrial, hospital and hygienic housing areas, planned a large housing estate here in what became known in 1917 (after America’s entry in the war) as the États-Unis district. We decided to spend our last morning looking at the flats which (like social housing schemes in the UK) were so innovative for their first residents in the thirties. They have since been renovated, and in the nineties striking paintings were added to their blank end walls.

Cité idéale abbatoir fresco

In addition to the Fresque des Lyonnais which we had seen the previous day, we had also enjoyed the three striking frescoes of the Tower of Babel just beyond out hotel, so on Thursday we walked from Babel down the Boulevard des États-Unis to the Shanghai frescoes and then on to the wall paintings of the Cité idéale. The five-storey apartment blocks looked spacious, with their large balconies and garden walkways. They were originally designed as two-storey buildings but the mayor insisted the design was changed to four storeys and then sometime later another storey was added. The paintings on their end walls showed Tony Garnier’s plans and illustrations of his ideal city, and ideal cities in Egypt, India, Mexico, Quebec, the USA and the Ivory Coast by other artists. At the end of the development was a small park with attractively engraved quotations about resistance and liberty. Then, unexpectedly, we were in a thronging covered market, bright with shiny peppers, tomatoes, and colourful headscarves.

The T6 tram from the market passed the huge iron, glass and concrete abattoir created in 1914 by Tony Garnier. We had seen its airy interior depicted on one of the murals, with Lyon dignitaries and impeccably clean cattle (not a cow pat in sight). After falling into lengthy disuse, it was restored and is now used for concerts and sporting events. We also paused to look at frescoes commemorating the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, before catching a T1 tram across a curving bridge to the Musée des Confluences.

Musée des Confluences

Appropriately for a museum which included natural history exhibits like a mammoth skeleton and dinosaur eggs, the striking modern building looked from a certain angle like a crouching armour-plated prehistoric animal. We wandered through displays of juxtaposed artefacts from different times and places (bewildering for those of us who like our history to be chronological rather than thematic “magic” “eternities” or “societies: the human theatre”).

On the way back to our hotel, we looked at more of the frescoes on the other side of the Boulevard des Etats Unis and stopped at the tiny Musée urbain Tony Garnier which was now open, but our legs were by now too weary to linger too long over the fascinating twentieth century artefacts and film footage. We were glad to put our feet up in our hotel room before setting out for our last evening meal in Lyon.

Lyon is noted for its famous chefs and restaurants, but our trip was too last-minute to allow for booking any of them. Nevertheless, we enjoyed some varied meals. Many restaurants in France are closed on Monday so the choice was even more limited on our first evening. We walked into the Part-Dieu quarter north of our hotel, to the Asmara Eritrean restaurant, where we ate with our fingers, rolling assorted specialities in torn-off bits of injera (sour dough pancake).

Daniel & Denise bouchon

As all the trams were due to stop running at 20:30 on the second evening due to strikes, John bravely drove us to the old town through Lyon’s rush-hour busy streets. At one of the touristy bouchons (traditional Lyonnaise cuisine restaurants), Daniel et Denise, Helen was delighted to find old-fashioned red-and-cream checked tablecloths, and we ate traditional dishes like the pâté en croûte starter (which looks so like pork pie) and our main course of roast pork pluma and black sausage with roast potatoes and macaroni cheese, followed by apple Tarte Tatin or chocolate dessert. The following evening, groups of diners shivered outside the slightly more up-market Table 101 until Madame deigned to let us in. But the food was beautifully cooked and presented, so all was forgiven as we ate our way through a superior pâté en croûte or some dainty snail and sweetbread ravioli, followed by sturgeon or veal and then fancy desserts.

Poivron Bleu salade de pouple

The meals seemed to get better each evening, culminating at the Poivron Bleu. Helen thought this was going to be a posh place, but it turned out to be more of a convivial narrow passageway running back into the narrow kitchen, with two enthusiastic waiters and a chalkboard menu. Imagine the best prawn cocktail, substitute octopus, chick peas and lemon and curry gel for the prawns, and that was our salade de poulpe starter. The pork main course was delicious, and the desserts too. One of the waiters made a point of giving a long description of the making of the lemon cake dessert to everyone apart from us (why not us?) Was he also its proud creator? Chef rather than waiter?

It seemed a shame to leave on that sunny Friday morning. But we were given a reminder of places we had seen, as our satnav guided us along streets through the city centre which we had seen in the dark from trams and buses, then plunged us into a long tunnel (1.15 miles) all the way under the Roman remains on the Fourvière hill. The petrol station we were heading to closed as we got there (presumably for a petrol delivery), so we saw more of the far side of the hill before filling up elsewhere and joining the A6. As we drove northwards, the skies got greyer, and, would you believe it, the moment we passed sign announcing that we were back in our region, the Grand Est, the drizzle started.

However, the good news is that, during our absence, a young-looking (over a year old) male kestrel has returned to inspect their old quarters on the attic window sill. We have not previously seen one as early as January. So John is having to rush to reinstall their balcony extension and put the second camera in a better position. He thought he had a month or more ahead for renovation works!

Teddies, reindeer and Dougal: every day life in Entre-deux-Eaux, November – December 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no5.pdf (four A4 pages)
there are various links in the text

A festive first for Entre-deux-Eaux: the commune will be awarding a prize this Christmas for the best decorated property. As we drove through the village today (7th December) there were few signs of anyone having accepted the challenge, apart from the Salle Polyvalente and the village shop. It is possible that people are waiting until after the traditional visit of St Nicholas this evening in Saint Dié or tomorrow afternoon in E2E before turning to the more recent and tackier idea of Father Christmas, reindeer, tinsel and lights.

We were setting out for Barr Christmas market, one of Helen’s favourites, over the hills in Alsace. The week has been sunny, cold and frosty until today when it changed to damp and low cloud. So, as we crossed the Col d’Urbeis, which we had once explored looking for traces of the old German First World War supply railways, there was no snow remaining. The forests below were still an attractive mix of dark conifers with the bare reddish branches of the deciduous trees and the ground cover of copper leaves. Further on we braked on a sharp, blind, bend to avoid the parked cars of people buying their Christmas trees from a popular plantation. And as we descended further to the Rhine plain the slopes were covered with the black pruned stumps of the vineyards. In Barr, the Saturday morning street market with its vegetable, cheese and charcuterie stalls was doing a brisker trade than the indoor Christmas markets.

mangy fox

mangy fox

And when we fancied a coffee and pushed our way through the red velvet curtains warding off draughts from the door of a crowded bar, the two older ladies serving wine, beer and coffee sounded harassed. The ambiance was traditional Alsatian with red-and-white tablecloths and dark beams. Close to our big table which we shared with some card players, stood a mangy stuffed fox holding a tray; but it had been pushed against the wall. and was not serving food to the noisy room beyond. Alas, the food and mulled wine stalls outside the Christmas market were not doing a similarly brisk trade; inside were craft stalls – ceramics, glass, fabric, wood tree decorations – and one had a not-very-festive placard announcing Liberté, Fraternité et choucroute (the local pickled cabbage served with with smoked pork).

Christmas bear

Christmas bear

As we drove back, the roadside outside Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines was adorned with teddy bears constructed from huge rolls of hay bales and all its shop windows were decorated with furry teddies of all sizes. Perhaps E2E should announce a bear theme for its decorations?

We had hoped to have lunch at the Frankenbourg restaurant after the market, but like several other restaurants this week, it was fully booked. Is this because of the festive pre-Christmas menus or because a lot of public service employees like civil servants, teachers and train drivers have had time for leisurely restaurant meals while on strike against Macron’s proposed pension reforms (I mean, who would actually choose to retire later than they used to because of well-meaning rationalisation attempts?)

During the gloom of November, we have been treating ourselves to lunch out once a week, thanks to a significant refund of our Contribution Sociale Généralisée (CSG) and Remboursement de la Dette Sociale (CRDS) payments. In 2015 the European Court had decided that those pensioners whose health service charges were paid for by another country did not have to pay the CSG and CRDS. France changed the law in 2016 to try to re-impose the charges by moving them to a different fund where the benefits were non-contributory. But a French court overturned that in 2018, so John put in a pre-emptive retrospective claim for the three years. The government appealed again but that was finally overturned in July 2019. But the system grinds slowly so it was November by the time we received the refunds, with their not inconsiderable interest.

tuna and beetroot strips with hibiscus

The weekly treats started a few days after our return from Letchworth on October 31st (no longer Brexit-at-all-costs day), with a dash to our favourite Restaurant l’Imprimerie in the book village before they closed for their major remodelling and installation of an open wood-fired grill. Chef’s inventiveness that day included the unforgettable combinations of tuna, beetroot and hibiscus in the shape of a crimson rose and of creamy scallops, sliced pig trotter and Jerusalem artichoke. The week after, we went back to In Extremis at the foot of the cathedral in Epinal.

The following week, after most of that week’s snow had melted, we drove over the hills to Kaysersberg, where the Restaurant l’Alchemille had really gone to town on their Christmas decorations, with a herd of life-sized reindeer, a boar, a grizzly bear, some unconvincing foxes and assorted owls and squirrels crowded round the Christmas trees in the small herb garden in front of the entrance. Entre-deux-Eaux take note!


a.k.a. Dougal

One of the desserts we immediately christened “Dougal” as the chocolate strands on the creamy roll looked remarkably like the Magic Roundabout character (although perhaps we should have called it “Pollux”, which was Dougal’s name in the original French Le Manège enchanté). And last week we finally returned to the Ducs de Lorraine in Epinal, for the first time since 2013, now that the rude, brusque Madame, who had separated from the older of the two chefs, and that chef had left. But alas, with aforesaid chef having set up elsewhere, the food was no longer as tasty or well-presented, the amazing dessert trolley much reduced, and the staff equally abrupt (it is hardly the customer’s fault if the waiter brings tea instead of coffee and if he fails to press the right buttons on their credit card machine). We look forward to the re-opening of the friendly l‘Imprimerie!

Cultural events have not loomed as large as gastronomic ones. In fact our last dose of culture was probably during our return journey from the UK. As we now often do, when driving back in winter, we stopped overnight in northern France before it got dark. We went into Cambrai for the first time and walked round the streets near the main square and its dominating Hotel de Ville, including the Tourist Office where we picked up some excellent leaflets. It was so cold, we didn’t linger too long, but drove a few miles further south to the accommodation John had booked. Our usual overnight stops are at a convenient Première Classe or Ibis hotel in an out-of-town commercial area, but John had found a farmhouse chambre d’hôte which had a spacious studio room with cooking facilities. It turned out to be a remote, imposing farmhouse with substantial outbuildings round a courtyard. It looked old, and our hostess told us it had once been a coaching stop as well as farm, but suffered significantly during the First World War and was rebuilt after. She showed us photos of her grandfather there as a child, and her grandmother working as a young woman in the fields, and she also pressed a bulging folder into our hands to read. It turned out that her English guests were usually there to see the war graves of their ancestors in one of the many Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. She and her husband have helped them and also collected their stories in the folder. So that provided interesting reading that evening in our studio in the outbuildings, along with the Tourist Office leaflets. The thought of a cold, 10km drive in a damp and pitch dark night back to Cambrai for a meal didn’t appeal once we were in our well-heated room so John reheated the vegetables-in-cheese sauce he’d made the night before as a possible standby.

After perusing the leaflets, we decided not to go back into Cambrai the next morning either. Fortified by Madame’s filling breakfast (which was much better than that provided by our usual cheap hotels), we drove cross-country to the departmental Matisse museum, which is based on a collection that Matisse had donated to his home town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. We suspected that we might not see all his paintings as a special exhibition was opening in a couple of days and the paintings were indeed still being moved or on the wall but shrouded; however it was still worthwhile.

Wilfred Owen’s grave

It is now housed in the former bishop’s palace, along with relevant donations by his publisher (Teriade) and the paintings of another local artist, Auguste Herbin (who we’d never heard of). After a coffee over the road (inevitably the Restaurant du musée Matisse), we drove on to the small village of Ors nearby, where Wilfred Owen is buried in a small military section of the communal cemetery. The revamped forester’s house from which he wrote his last letter home was not open till later in the afternoon, so we went directly to his grave. Apparently the French had not known until quite recently that he was famous as a poet back in the UK.

Helen resumed her various club activities, though they hardly count as cultural. The E2E oldies had their November games, cake and champagne session. Now that the original older members have become housebound or died there is less uninterrupted gossip, and the club is also popular with younger retired people from surrounding villages who enjoy playing cards and have started a craft table as well. It was then Helen’s turn to lead and provide refreshments for the brain exercise group, which she rather dreaded. But the unfamiliar Battleship grids and some Eysenk (remember him?) IQ questions (diagrammatic ones – missing numbers, next-in-sequence etc.) kept everyone fully occupied and John had kindly baked some parkin to revive everyone at the end. The following session, that week’s leader started with a dictation, using a poem with each line containing a second person singular imperative – not something John and I practice all these years since our school French lessons, but it was interesting that most of the group also struggled with the correct written French endings! Scrabble was positively relaxing by comparison.

It is just as well that we had not planned to drive to Letchworth this weekend, with long delays at Calais on this side due to customs staff being on strike as part of the pension protests and with the M25 on that side blocked by the crane accident. John is keeping the car topped up with petrol as there are shortages due to blockades by protesters of some western fuel depots and those might spread across the country. But we hope to travel over next weekend (14/15 December) without encountering too many obstacles and delays for Christmas and New Year. Who will be in charge of the UK by then?