It seems to have been a very long winter, not as harsh as in the UK, but long. We closed and went back to England to spend Christmas with family and friends for the first time in five years. Cousin Jane invited us to spend the night at The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where Mark is a ‘Captain of Invalids’. What a wonderful place. The dining hall is like walking into Hogwarts!! A must-visit if you are ever in London.
We, like the majority of Europe, have enjoyed some remarkable weather the last couple of months. Winter seemed to drag on forever but it seems now that spring got bypassed and we are straight into summer. Temperatures here in April have hit 30 degrees and I can’t recall the last rainfall. The vines are a month in advance and they have already nearly finished pruning the grape bearing shoots (le coup des courants). In 2006 I worked in the vines and didn’t start until the beginning of June. The river Saône is at normal August levels and if it falls much more it won’t be navigable for floating hotel cruisers or the large barges. I can’t remember the last time I was looking forward to a drop of rain!!
Enough of the weather! On a lighter note, we have lived and worked in France for seven years and yet the French language and the pronunciation of words continue to cause confusion and invariably much amusement for the locals at our expense.
One dark evening in March, Christophe, our local winemaker and hunter arrived, clad in chest-high waders and a sou’wester, dripping water, clutching two ducks that hadn’t been dead for very long. ‘Un petit cadeau’ he said (A little present). We duly offered him a glass or two of wine. As he was leaving I called after him. ‘Merci pour les canards’. ‘Ils ne sont pas les canards, ils sont les colverts’, came the reply. ‘Colverts ?’ Scrabbling for the dictionary, I translated. “En anglais, c’est ‘mallard’”. He looked puzzled. “Ils ne sont pas malade, ils sont mort!!!” (They’re not ill, they’re dead).
We have a friend who speaks very good French but is known for the occasional faux-pas. Once when somebody remarked on how well she was looking, the reply was…. “Yes, I’m sleeping much better now I’ve got a new sailor”………..having said ‘matelot’ instead of ‘matelas’ (mattress).
Then there are the more subtle pronunciations, the ‘ou’ as in ‘pool’ and the ‘u’ as in ‘pull’.
Our same friend announced to her dinner guests one night last summer that ‘she was a bit cold and was just popping indoors to get her chicken!!!! The difference being ‘poule’ (a chicken) and ‘pull’ (a sweater).
April saw Chardonnay being the No 1 destination in the area for THE WEDDING. We served a special menu and broadcast the event from 10 am (recording it at the same time for a re-run in the evening). The bar was decorated with union jack bunting, we flew a flag outside and even found a full-size poster of a telephone box to pin on the garage door!! Had a dozen in at lunchtime (no bank holiday here) and thirty six in the evening. The menu consisted of a glass of champagne or a Pimms (we just had to!!) followed by prawn cocktail, a sirloin steak with horseradish butter, new potatoes and asparagus, and for dessert Eton Mess. In the evening we replayed the entire lead-up to the ceremony with no sound until the Queen arrived at the Abbey and the fanfares were played. The entire restaurant was glued to the television and the majority of our guests were French. Considering they are a nation who executed their Royal Family in 1793 it is obvious that they miss the pomp and circumstance and pageantry of this sort of event. Various comments that night were ‘If our dwarf of a President marries Carla they’d have to pay people to watch’ and ‘It’s a good job that ceremonies like this are not an Olympic Sport. Nobody else need turn up as the UK would get gold every time – nobody but the British can put on an event like that – Bravo’.
We’ve extended our normal repertoire of themed evenings such as Burn’s Night and our summer barbecues to include in November and April a Curry Night. This proved such a success that the old recipe books came out to explore the feasibility of other ‘cuisine’. The French can get paella and couscous easily so Spain and Morocco were out. Chinese and Thai cooking is instant on-demand and my kitchen isn’t equipped to produce food like that in quantity. All our evenings are based around a running buffet so the food has to be something that can rest in a bain-marie without coming to harm (drying out or falling apart). Stir-fried food has to eaten immediately and beansprouts go soggy very quickly. That’s not taking into account that they almost impossible to find after the e-coli scare.
We finally settled on a Greek Night for May. It was a resounding success although a lot of work went into it as we can’t buy hummous, tzatsiki, souvlakia, kleftiko etc so it was all made from scratch. The star of the night was an octopus and macaroni stew, believe it or not. Tomatoes figured heavily in practically every recipe and I must have used ten kilos. We had forty six people that night and they were banned from smashing plates. Rebecca dug out a traditional greek style long flowing dress that went down very well as it was practically see-through and we’d ordered a CD of Greek Taverna music through Amazon.
In June we crossed the Atlantic and did a Tex-Mex night. That was equally well received although the French decided that my chilli con carne was a bit spicy for their taste. Our English guests were sprinkling extra chilli powder on theirs!!!! What with the ranch beans, ribs and steaks, refried beans and potato wedges, there were probably quite a few who had to tie down their duvets.
In July and August we always have a barbecue and this year was no exception except instead of normal two we did four, two being private parties, one here and one for a wedding to which we were invited. The first private one was for the ‘Comité des Fêtes’ of Prety, a village on the other side of the river about 4kms from Tournus. They were a party of 55 people most of whom had never been to a barbecue. The problem with the French and barbecues is that the French way of eating is always to have their salad first followed by a meat course, then cheese, then dessert. The idea of mixing salad and meat on the same plate is alien. In addition the notion of taking a few bits and coming round again for more took some convincing. However once they had got the idea they thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
The next barbecue was away from home! We were invited to a wedding in the next village and as the family had booked all our rooms for the weekend we closed on the Saturday after lunch. Nicolas and Nathalie had decided to do a barbecue for their guests in the evening and had asked some time before if we knew anybody who could help with the cooking and the drinks. Rebecca volunteered herself for the drinks and me for the cooking (sixty people). I immediately lent them our barbecue as their little one could manage ten people maximum! Nathalie had ordered all the meat so I had no idea what was in store for me. Nicolas’ idea was that people could queue up with the meat they had chosen and I would cook to order. ‘Do you want to be here until 3 in the morning?’ I asked. Enlisting some help I came back to Le Chardon to collect a long collapsible table and two ‘bain-maries’ to keep everything hot and started cooking. Then came the other problem. Nathalie had a load of pork steaks that had been marinating all day in a bucket! The marinade was lovely but contained 50% olive oil!! Then she had a load of big fat duck breasts with their skin on. The flames were, to say the least, spectacular and I got through two litres of water damping them down. Total cooking time was an hour and a half and everyone was able to eat at the same time.
The other invite we had was a fiftieth birthday. We went round after we finished in the evening and had to greet the thirty people already sat at the table. Now comes French etiquette!! We knew all of them so we would kiss them in greeting. The downside is that most of this lot were from Paris and expected four kisses (in Burgundy it’s two). It took twenty minutes to circumnavigate the table and we were gasping for a drink when we arrived!!
Mid-September and the evenings are drawing in. The vendange has finished three weeks in advance of last year and everyone is raving about the quality. The drought conditions in April to June did the vines no harm at all. They don’t need much water and their roots can go down ten feet to get what little they do need. The treatments against mildew and parasites were 50% less than normal so there are less chemicals (sulphates) in the grapes.
Sophie has passed into ‘premier’ at lycée and is studying for a Bac ‘L’, that is to say language and literature. She does French and English (language and literature), German,
Spanish, and History and Geography. She is keeping up her dancing twice a week and is still enjoying her life here. She hasn’t done English for two years but it will help considerably towards her ‘Bac’ and for the first time she has a teacher who has recognized the advantage of having a natural English speaker in the class and is taking advantage to the point where she has asked Sophie to stay behind after class to help her (the teacher) with her pronunciation. Her last English teacher left her at the back of the class as she didn’t want to be shown up for her lack of English and couldn’t wait to move her out to study Spanish.
We are now looking forward to our first break since February. We are off to the Canaries, Fuerteventura to be exact, for a week in November. Can’t wait!!!!!