Sunday, February 22, 2015

All Change

“Writer in France” was great, always thoroughly enjoyable to write. I loved doing it. But I’m no longer living in France full time, and while I still go back and stay in my little house in the hills, it is unlikely I will live in the Ariege again on a permanent basis.
Everything in the foothills of the Pyrenees was about the two of us.
@ Rennes le Chateau
Now there’s only me.
Life turned upside down for us in winter 2012 when Larry, hero of so many of my pieces for the blog, decided he needed to go back to Dublin.

He had been diagnosed with cancer – there was to be no happy ending. For eighteen months, I felt swamped, overwhelmed and completely exhausted.
Of course I would have preferred to stay in France, where we had an excellent medical system and the support of friends and neighbours. In Dublin, even though we had old friends who tried to help, the reality was that most of the care was down to me. What saved my sanity was where I found us a place to rent - Clontarf.

Larry died last year. It had been eighteen months of extreme emotional turmoil. After falling into something of a black space, I am beginning to see some light.  I’m re launching myself, making plans to travel, writing again, doing a little painting too, and starting a whole new blog to report on all this activity – it can be found at:


Friday, November 1, 2013

It's a Win Win Situation!

Jane Horne, photographer and painter, lives in the foothills of the Pyrenees, southern France. We walked those hills many times, while my friend, rarely without a camera, photographed the stunning scenery, people, animals, old barns, cloud formations. Her pictures are superb; she has won many prizes.

Jane Horne - Winning Photograph 2013 - Autrefois le Couserans
Now, my gifted and talented friend has carried off the Top Prize at one the greatest festivals in southern France. With this absolutely perfect photograph, capturing the spirit of bygone days, Jane has won First Prize in this prestigious contest, and has been named as the winning photographer at this year’s “Autrefois le Couserans".

Jane Horne - Winner
A three day celebration of life and work in olden times, the famous “Autrefois le Couserans” festival takes place in the town of St Girons each August and attracts thousands of visitors, with hundreds of photographic entries pouring in, all hoping to walk away with the top prize. So impressed were the judges with Jane's entries, they awarded her Third Prize too.  

Jane’s work covers a wide range of subjects. Ballet dancers, jazz club singers and sax players, glamorous party gatherings, Paris street musicians, local farmers, cheese makers, French market scenes, and her lovely dog Polo all feature in her work, which is vibrant with colour, movement and style, with flashes of humour and whimsy.

The works reflect her personality; apart from a wonderful eye for a picture and an enviable talent with brushes and paint, Jane Horne has a big generous heart, a truly merry nature and a joyful spontaneity; qualities that shine through in her art.

Well done my friend!

Check out these links to Jane Horne – Photographer & Artist   





Sunday, February 12, 2012

It seemed like SUCH a good idea at the time?

‘I’m Horny! Horny, Horny, Horny!’ blared from loudspeakers, the singer screaming the words over and over again. Our cruise ship was anchored off Santorini. Too far away to see the famous dazzling white buildings clustered along the top; they looked like a heavy fall of snow on a long, dark rock.
With the glorious, sparkling Aegean Sea, a cloudless sky and the heavy drowsy heat of a September afternoon, one might imagine pure peace, a glimpse of Paradise, perhaps? Not quite.
The words sounded comical, were singularly inappropriate, as groups of elderly, international passengers queued up to be taken across to the island. Where they would spend about ninety minutes in fierce heat, trying to see something of the place, before being ferried back to the ship. Most had done another whistle stop ‘island excursion’ at the crack of dawn. Now, it was Santorini’s turn. Our restful cruise had turned out to be choc-full of early mornings.
And it was all my fault...  A lot of travel info drops into my inbox and last year, about this time, in the depths of winter, I did something quite mad. On a freezing morning, I booked us on a Greek Cruise without having all the details. And did this ‘made in haste’ booking give us a memorable week? It certainly did.

When the flight times were finally announced, I was thrilled to see 'departing Toulouse at 7.30pm'. Terrific! With a two hour flight to Athens, we would be dining, dancing and smashing plates on our first evening. The words ‘via Marseille’ suggested maybe dinner would be a bit later.
We left our hamlet in the hills at twelve mid-day and enjoyed a sumptuous lunch in the fabulous ‘8ᵉ Ciel’ restaurant in Toulouse Blagnac Airport, where even the café merits a photo.

It proved to be exactly the right thing to do, since the in flight food consisted of a small, freezing cold white bread roll spread with something unknown, but hideous. Between the Marseille stop, (endless, claustrophobic time spent sitting on the runway) then on to Athens, baggage collection, meeting the reps, being divided into groups, directed to various coaches, we reached our particular hotel at two-fifteen am. We were then, to our delight, told by a jolly man at reception that we would be called promptly at six to be taken to our ship. Crestfallen wouldn’t describe me. Robbed of my first evening, no dinner, no dancing, no wine; I was hungry and cramped from sitting. Larry, absolutely bootfaced, punched his pillows into shape muttering ‘blasted cruises.’

And that was just the beginning. Next morning, many red eyed, tired people boarded the splendid Louis Majesty, where our wonderful rep told us all about the shore excursions, mostly with dawn starts. While some eager soul asked a question of the rep, Larry quietly told me that he wasn’t getting off  'This Bloody Ship' until we docked back in Piraeus.
He was way out of his comfort zone, between the horrendously late, no dinner first night and little more than three hours sleep. Then we found lunch was a mid-day to two affair. Loathing the timing, the queuing up, the filling a plate while being jostled on all sides, (he claimed) he insisted that we eat in the quieter, formal (and more expensive) restaurant.
It was lovely; a sense of Poirot as we dressed up and sallied forth. This was the best part of the trip for Larry - gourmet food in civilised surroundings.

The fantastic crew of the Louis Majesty; they couldn’t have been kinder and I found lots to like about the trip; the islands, seeming to float in the glorious blue Aegean Sea, the heat, the amazing sunsets, a bit of shopping on board.  With five restaurants, many bars, shops, sundecks, cabaret, competitions, you could join in or not, as you please. Down a deck or two, one could sunbathe in perfect quiet, out of range of the speakers and the crazy music, more suited to wild ‘clubbing’ than a cruise.

On our last night, we settled in to enjoy more excellent food and wine in Le Bistro, followed by an essential early night as it had been announced (fresh horrors!) that we must leave the ship at seven in the morning for our hotel in Athens – this meant another six o’clock ‘wakey wakey’ call.
Halfway down a soothing bottle of wine and almost finished starters, in came a couple we had spoken to only briefly. The man, from another continent, on first seeing a woman dining alone, and then spotting us, began shouting to the astonished waiters 'Let’s set up a table for five over here’.  Speechless, both of us inwardly seething with rage, we watched as our table was joined to another. I’ve seldom had a more appalling evening.

Next morning, we were brought to the ritzy beach resort of Glyfada, where we spent three days in a splendid, stylish area, eating stunning seafood - sometimes served with Greek cheese - and drinking jugs of delicious local white wine. 
A direct flight back to Toulouse was a bonus end to the trip. But none of this was enough; Larry told me never, ever to book a cruise again, unless it contains one important word, Cunard.
So this year, while we are snowed in, I am limiting myself to shopping for make-up, books, & the odd foray into the famous sales - not to be missed. But I am browsing the Cunard site; I have always wanted to arrive in New York by liner...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mongolian Challenge - only 17 weeks!

. Land of blue skies, legends, folklore and emptiness; for most people with an interest in the horse, it has always been a mythological place.
From Genghis Khan and his mighty armies to the people of Mongolia today, those who ride the Steppes have always had, for me at any rate, a Mythical status.
Most nomadic families today still keep a herd of horses; a really good horse is considered one of a man’s most prized possessions. The horse remains the most common and reliable form or transport, able to go where roads do not exist, which is a large part of Mongolia. And there’s so much more. Imagine hunting with an Eagle, learning how to hunt, as a child, with your very own eagle; the child and the bird growing together.

Who, with imagination, would not jump at the chance to go there?  And if, in the process, we can help others, why hesitate?  Here’s my plan for June.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A French 'no fuss' Christmas...

Here in the Couseran hills, southern France, with the backdrop of the mighty snow capped Pyrenees, we just cannot seem to get around to exhausting ourselves, rushing around overdoing things for Christmas. In France, everyday is special, and we know that there will always be another lunch.
So, in about thirty minutes time, Larry & I will go over to Bayonne (the Atlantic Ocean side of the country) for the next three days, taking in the Bayonne/Castres rugby match tomorrow night. Back here to the hills late on Saturday, Christmas Eve, hopefully laden down with splendid goodies from the Basque country, including the world famous Bayonne Ham and maybe some cheeses.

We will collect our cooked Goose on Christmas morning from Chez Coutanceau, one of the excellent Traiteurs in our local town, St Girons. I will phone friends during the afternoon while drinking Champagne and in the late evening we will close all shutters and with a roaring fire going, eat said Goose.
Later, we will watch TV, eat pudding and drink delicious dessert wine. We will dine out next day in a local restaurant. France doesn’t celebrate the 26th, so it’s back to work…and I have three articles to get out before mid-January.
Happy Holidays!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Five Minute Walk in Paris

A little Paris window shopping.......

 Magical Childrens Clothes Shop...

Manoush You'll never leave!

Got the brooch and the leg warmers!

Jospeh's cool & clean 'aircraft' entrance

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Roquefort - King of Cheeses

In the brightly painted, flower bedecked streets of a small town in the department of Aveyron, southern France, the proud citizens go about their business.

The place looks just like thousands of other towns; a colourful, peaceful small French town, basking in mid-morning sunlight. Meanwhile, deep underground, in shadowy caves, where the sun's rays never reach, where the air is damp, mouldy and humid, a miracle is taking place.  In these naturally occurring caves, cool air blows through the cracks, the pits and corridors creating a perfect atmosphere. Far away from light, in a temperature of 10 degrees and with 95 percent humidity, alchemy is at work.

Caves of Gabriel Coulet - Roquefort
We are in Roquefort, where under the streets, one of the world’s favourite foods, the King of Cheeses, is slowly maturing. Nobody can really say when Roquefort cheese was first discovered, but everybody tells of the legend of the young shepherd boy, who, having spotted a beautiful girl in the distance, left his lunch of bread and cheese in a cave and went after her. On his return he found the bread too mouldy to eat, but the cheese, which had turned blue, was delicious. This story may have come from the days when Neolithic shepherds, four to six thousand years ago, drove their flocks from the plains of the Mediterranean coast to the rich upland meadows of this part of France.

When the Romans built their great highway, the Via
Domitia, linking the Pyrenees with Italy, the route passed not very far from Roquefort. The cheeses were sent over to the coast and then by sea to Rome, where wealthy aristocrats, who appreciated the special taste of Roquefort, paid high prices for it.
Before maturing, the Roquefort is salted and brushed, then holes are made over its entire surface. The moulding, turning and salting of the wheels is still carried out by hand. Each wheel is eventually hand-wrapped in foil by the cheese-makers and then aged in the caves. Between three and ten months later, the Roquefort is placed in its final packaging. 

The women who work with the cheese are still called Cabanieres - a name from the old days, when the cheese makers built little cabins beside the cellars to house them.

The entire process; from the raising of the sheep, the collection of the milk, the maturation, the cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese takes place in the commune, providing a living for about 10,000 people. The place is thriving and while admitting that it is not the easiest of lives, no-one I met in Roquefort wanted to change their way of life. It is, like so many things in France, a link to something older, a link to the earth, the 'terroir.'

Coach loads of tourists from all over the world flock to Roquefort, swelling the town’s numbers, visiting the caves and taking away precious packages of one of the most wonderful cheese in the world.

The giant Société brand has the lion’s share of the market. The smaller producers I met, like La
Pastourelle and Gabriel Coulet are flourishing, supplying customers all over the world, including those of the legendary Dean and Deluca outlet in New York City. Gabriel Coulet, fifth-generation cheese makers in the heart of the town, produces a delicious creamy textured cheese which has won Gold medals at the Concours General Agricole of Paris for years.

The earth in this part of France is a startling shade of red. This, coupled with the many shades of green, the sky normally a vivid blue, the flocks of richly coloured sheep and the millions of poppies make the place look like a postcard.  But it’s all about the cheese. To taste a piece of Roquefort, standing above the caves where it has ripened, is an experience I will not forget. And later in the evening, to sit on a sun drenched balcony, at a gaily coloured tiled table enjoying a ‘tranche’ of the King of Cheeses, accompanied by the local Côtes de Millau white wine is...welcome to a sort of Paradise.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On taking a break from writing...

This old Spanish chest was perfectly fine. Lovely wood; it polished up well. I liked the way the drawers had been made just a bit more interesting, and the iron handles set it off. But oh dear it was dull. I meant to paint it red but somehow never got around to it. Then, up in Toulouse, I saw a chest of drawers made by Tom's Company.......Inspired, I came home and got out my paints and collections of brushes.  Sometimes we need to do something outside of our usual creative zone. I had slogged over four long articles and focusing on colours rather than words proved amazingly stimulating.

It took me quite a while to do it, because Tom's stuff is way outside of the safe furniture zone; there are no browns or beiges. In my view, my finished product was worth the attention to detail. Flushed with success at how the little chest had turned out, I sent a picture of my efforts to Tom's Company, explaining that since I didn't have a fistful of Euro in my back pocket on the day in Toulouse, I had a go at doing this one myself, but was saving the four figure sum needed to buy one of theirs. They responded!

Hi Jane,
Thanks for the picture :-)
Good job ….
Mit freundlichen Grüßen / best regards / meilleures salutations
Geraldine Schmidt
Tom´s Company GmbH & Co.KG
Kreisstrasse 14
D-66578 Schiffweiler OT Landsweiler, Germany

The words "Good Job" from Tom's Company are almost as welcome as an Editor saying yes to an article. On which note, I wonder if The Lady has made a decision yet...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Life without Foie Gras? Non!

Back in 2003, some friends on their way back to Ireland from Provence, detoured across to the Ariège Pyrenees to visit us. Here, they enjoyed some locally produced Foie Gras and bought some to take back with them. Their family and friends tasted it at the Christmas revels and voila, orders began to arrive.

It gets bigger each year and in October or early November, in our house in the Couseran Hills, I pack it up & drive north to the Bordeaux area with the order and pass it over to my friends as they head north to take the ferry Ireland for the winter.

Here is a product so luxurious, so deluxe, that people in other countries consider to be exotic, a fabulous, once a year treat. But in the Grand Sud, Foie Gras is everywhere, a perfectly ordinary food. It appears on all the great occasions of course, but equally it can and does make an appearance at an everyday lunch. As I became immersed in French life, shopped and cooked using local produce, I fell into the French way of thinking about Foie Gras. Like the mountains, it’s just there.

In most of the farmhouses Foie Gras is made much as apple compote is. Life without it would be unimaginable. Nationally, it is considered a very important product and like so many foodstuffs ­­­- the French take these things very seriously - it is protected by law. Legislation designated Foie Gras as part of the officially protected, cultural and gastronomic patrimony of the country. France produces 83% of the world's Foie Gras and apparently eats more than 90% of it.

I place the large order for our friends with David Lemasson who, here in the department of Ariège Pyrénées, produces a superb range of hand-crafted, natural products, without conservatives or dyes. The Lemasson team produce a vast range of highest quality duck produce, including the luscious Foie Gras. Rich, buttery and delicate, packed with calories. A small piece is a feast. On a bed of salad leaves, with red winter berries, or in summer, tiny cherry tomatoes, it is pure indulgence.

This love of Foie Gras is not universal and several American states put pressure on people to stop eating it. Banned in 2006 by the city of Chicago, the product acquired a ritzy glamour, a new appeal. Demand became high with stories of people enjoying it in ‘Foie Gras speakeasies’. In May 2008 the City Council repealed the controversial ban; back it went on the menus and those who chose to eat it, did so.

Arguments continue with stories of birds in distress because of the practice of force feeding with breeders insisting that the birds simply get used to the process and are not in any great distress. People have been practising the ‘gavage’ as far back as 2500 BC, when the ancient Egyptians kept birds for food, deliberately fattening them by force feeding. Opinions may be divided elsewhere, but here, in the duck producing area of a country obsessed with quality food, where people have grown up with the stuff being made in their kitchens, the lobby against Foie Gras ‘n'existe pas’.

Many people in this area live largely from the produce of a smallholding and while they are kind and extremely generous, there is little sentimentality about rearing stock for eating. Memories are long and these people and their ancestors saw hard times during two world wars. The notion of not having Foie Gras because of discomfort to a duck or goose is an alien concept.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Meet Madame Morere

Our first house in France was in St Lizier, a tiny medieval village in the Ariège Pyrénées. On the first floor, the two rooms facing onto the street had floor to ceiling windows, heavy wooden shutters and small, wrought iron, mock balconies. Although the views of the Pyrénées (from the little room at the top) announced that the Spanish border was not far away, to me the little house had the look and feel of a small Paris apartment.

From the street of course it looked modest, as French village houses do. One of our earliest visitors, a very rich Irish person from a then very rich Ireland put it bluntly; “it looks poor". But then another Irish visitor, a wonderful woman, an artist with lots of imagination, thoughtfully said, "Well, well, who ever knows what splendours lie behind these old French front doors?"

As well as having beautiful windows, both rooms on our first floor had typical, sleek, French panelled doors. In one room was a fabulous black and white veined marble fireplace. This became our elegant dining room, with the walls and window frame painted entirely in white, a massive mirror hung over the mantelpiece and a splendid, multicoloured centre ceiling light fitting. A typically French, fussy piece; a large ornate thing that works so well and looks absolutely correct in French houses, but is ridiculous, over the top and out of place anywhere else. A table and chairs of rich, dark oak completed the room.

All I needed was a curtain for the long, elegant, Paris style window. But not just any curtain. Not for this window. We were, after all, living in a 'Plus Beau' village (one of the most beautiful villages in the country) and the room looked out onto the street. I had in my mind a vision of how the finished room should look. Masses of translucent, creamy white flowing fabric hanging from a black pole, just touching the floor and when hooked gracefully back to one side, creating a graceful, stylish look. My very own little bit of Parisian chic.

But I am useless, totally and utterly hopeless, at this kind of thing. I never finished the wretched sock we knitted in junior school back in the dark ages in Ireland and I loathed the stupid things those boring, time wasting classes suggested we make during early teens.

I wanted this curtain to be exactly right, not some makeshift, sad little job of mine. So, ready to murder the French language yet again - hardly anybody here speaks English - I crossed the little street, went up some flower bedecked steps and rang a highly polished brass bell.

Taking a big, big breath, I enlisted the help of Madame Morere, a lady who knows every single thing there is to know about the organisation, running and decoration of residences, whether apartments or houses, town or country. She lives in Paris for most of the time, coming to her house in St Lizier a few times each year.

Ancient Cathedrale & Former Bishops Palace, St Lizier
An expert on French chic, she understood exactly what I had in mind, curtain wise, for my little house. She came over, looked at the room, and said yes, yes, but of course, that was just what was needed. Together we would see to it, and quickly. There seemed to be no problem. It appeared it could all be arranged and the curtain would be up in a trice. She knew the very place to go to arrange everything.

In double quick time I found myself sitting in Madame’s large comfortable car being briskly driven north to the town of St Goudens to her favourite fabric shop. She had taken the measurements of the window herself, using her very special old wooden ruler and had carefully written everything down in her notebook.

I quickly got the hang of things and was soon turning over massive bales of fabrics, thinking, and more importantly, talking Parisian drapes. I found exactly what I had in mind, a white gauzy, delicate fabric with a shimmering silver panel. Madame agreed it was a splendid choice and she confidently ordered the amount needed, assuring me that yes, there would be plenty of folds and that yes, the silver panel would be in just the right place.

I paid for the stuff and then, obviously losing the plot somewhat, I asked the sales lady approximately how long it would be before my wonderful white and silver curtain would be ready. Madame Morere looked at me as if I had taken complete leave of my senses and, using extremely rapid French, I got the gist of it as she told the sales lady that naturally she was the person who would be making up the curtain.

We shook hands all round, were wished Bon Apres Midi by the sales lady, left the shop delighted with life and went for a glass of wine at a small cafe next door, where we discussed house style. I sat back in the afternoon sun of southern France, stretched my arms and legs in the heat and smiled as I remembered the appalling, dire existence in this country that had been predicted for me by some Irish friends who seemed to know such a lot about French living. Life among all those frosty people with their endless rules, who would enjoy making everything so very difficult for me. Ah, yes.

Madame took the delicate material away and the work began. In a few days she called to say everything was now ready. She asked had we put the curtain pole up yet? Yes Madame, we had. Had we an iron? Yes Madame, we had. "I am on my way" replied the great lady.

Our elmwood staircase, as well as all the floors were wooden. Larry had done fantastic work bringing them back to their original splendour and they were quite beautiful, the different coloured grains of the ancient wood now visible after his endless cleaning, sanding and varnishing. Madame, a true respecter of peoples’ homes and the work they put into them, arrived with her ladder. Tied around each of the four steel ‘feet’ was a little white towelling shower glove.

Larry naturally tried to take the curtain from her, intending to go up the ladder and attach it to the hooks; they were quite high up. He received a very gentle movement indicating that he should step back. Up the steps of the ladder Madame flew and, having expertly attached the curtain to the hooks, hopped down and proceeded to arrange and re-arrange the fabric so that it fell absolutely correctly. Then she stood and looked at it for ages, head on one side, head on the other side, eventually deciding it did not quite touch the floor in the way she wanted it to. Up the ladder once again flew the sprightly ‘seventy-something’ year old, where she proceeded to re-do the whole process.

Madame then asked about the iron. The fabric was incredibly delicate. I would never have attempted ironing it. I thought it was fine and said so. I might as well not have spoken. She asked me to set up the ironing board and iron. But oh dear. She looked first at the board, the cover torn in a few places. She then picked up my rather basic iron, examined it, said “oh, non, non, non,” and asked me if I actually used this? “Well, yes,” I said, “I do,” adding “but in fact, I very rarely iron anything.”

Putting both her hands up, palms upwards, she gave a little sort of shiver and, shaking her head, hurried down the stairs and out the front door. She arrived back carrying her own board and a huge, almost industrial, impressive looking iron, both items naturally in perfect nick, and without a word, began the laborious and skilful task of working with that frighteningly delicate fabric. I left her to it.

"Voila, Jane!" she called out.

The splendid Madame Morere, with her vast expertise and that peculiar French attention to detail, had indeed brought, just as I had wanted, a true touch of Parisian chic to our delightful - if poor looking from the outside - village house.