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.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Childhood Memories

The place I spent my childhood summers holds the most glorious, golden memories that cannot be improved by time, or by rose coloured spectacles. I can picture scenes of happy children playing in a world of colour as clearly as if it was yesterday. The experience is like stepping into a painting, a very special painting, of a Kilkenny garden.

Having lived now for over fifty years and therefore one of the older generation, I look back and remember with huge gratitude those who went before; who looked after us when we were children.

Childhood then was a time unencumbered by the constant call of technology; it was an era when a child’s life was full of invention, imagination, games. The days seemed full of excitement. Best of all, at least in our family, it was a time when the issues of the adult world had absolutely nothing to do with us.    

I was put on the train from Dublin to Kilkenny, (different days) to spend blissful, long, happy summer holidays and I could hardly wait for the train to pull into the station when I could join my cousins for weeks of freedom and adventures.

Our grandparents had a big, rambling, charming house that lent itself to children’s holiday visits. The land has not been in the family for many, many years and the lovely old house is long gone. It could not be described as a grand country manor; it was a spread out, higgledy-piggledy affair, full of nooks and crannies. There were dark staircases up to small landings, with doors leading into lots of rooms; some big, some tiny. The place seemed simply enormous to us children.

In a downstairs room a yellow bird sang in a pretty, cream coloured cage and like many homes at that time, on huge sideboards were various stuffed birds, resting on their perches under glass domes.

The really magic bit was at the back, where my grandmother had created an enchanted garden. This absolutely vast place – or so it was to us – was an adventure in itself; a child could almost get lost among the growth.

We children, way back then, were allowed such liberty, that some might have called us wild. There weren’t too many rules; our grandparents, aunts and uncles loved us, nurtured us and generally let us get on with enjoying our childhood.

Left to ourselves, we lived in a magical world full of escapades. We slid down haystacks or fished with a jar and a little net on a bamboo handle. Progressing to wild and sometimes dangerous games; we tested our vigour, faced our fears and discovered our strengths and weaknesses.

The absolutely forbidden practice of leaping from a wall onto the back of the old, patient horse, sliding off, crashing to the ground, then climbing up and doing it again, was one of our chief delights. Later, we proudly compared our bruises. It seems to me now that we laughed from morning to night.

There were long, idyllic days when we weren’t running wild in the surrounding countryside, when we spent time in our grandmother’s garden. Heavenly, drowsy days spent reading our books or talking to her, the only sound the drone of the bees, the chirping of song birds and all around, the scent of many marvellously coloured flowers.  Her garden was the stuff of - indeed may have been inspired by - this Mildred Anne Butler painting.
The Lilac Phlox, Kilmurry, by Mildred Anne Butler (part of the National Gallery of Ireland collection)

Here in the hills of Southern France, a postcard of this painting brings me back to those childhood summers. A wide, overgrown drive, with a brilliant splash of Lilac among the many shades of green and yellows. That open gate at the end, inviting us in to the painting. I like to think that perhaps behind the gate there is an old summer house, like the green and white one we used to play in…

All these years later, I appreciate how very lucky we children were and how much influence these people, especially my grandmother, had on me. Allowed to grow, but with firm boundaries set, we thrived and developed.

Blue Hall, Kilkenny Castle (a little bigger than my Grandparents place)
Our busy lives, so full of fun, adventure and invented games, were played out against a background of colour and heady scents. Days spent as children’s should be; innocence and adventure hand in hand, surrounded by nature.  Safe in that most precious world; childhood.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ivy Bonds...

The searing heat of august and some heavy rain produced a sudden burst of growth. I came back after only a week away to find the ivy had snaked in and around one of our tiny windows, making a lovely picture of this little statue.

It has been with me a long time, a present from my Godson one Christmas many, many years ago. I can still see his earnest little face as he told me ‘I bought it with my own money.’ Was that the year I gave him a Michael Jackson LP, and he said it was the best thing ever? Treasured memories.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Perfect Peace shattered by Drink & Dial

"How smoothly did your move to France go? What about logistics? How did you organise your furniture? What was the reality of those early, first weeks?"

On being asked some questions about how we made the move to our tiny village in France (over eight years ago), a story about the night we finally got our own bed delivered sprang to mind. It still makes me laugh.

What an evening we had planned? Here was something to celebrate. Almost the end of May; the last time we had slept in our bed was back in January. We had thought it would be a huge joke to pretend we were eighteen and use camp beds until our container arrived. But it wasn’t a joke at all. It was perfectly miserable. Due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control, our container was delayed for weeks.

So hideous had our ‘camping arrangements’ been that we ran out and bought a splendid sofa bed. Even so, when our container arrived, we just wanted to get into our wonderful, large, wooden framed bed with its super comfortable mattress and stay there.

After a heavenly meal and many, many glasses of wine, with not a care in the world we snuggled into the old familiar comfort, with full intentions of having a long lie in next morning. The utter tranquillity of the hills of southern France...

Ringing. Loud, bloody awful ringing.

Some loud bell thing was making a hideous sound. In the room with us. We jumped up, Larry shouting, both of us unused to the horrible sound.

It was definitely the phone, making an unbelievable din. It seemed unfair, cruel beyond belief to be awoken on such an important night, back in our beautiful, comfortable bed.

My mind spun with possibilites. Who could it be? What time was it? Middle of the night, early hours of the morning? How long had I been asleep; minutes or hours? How come anyone had our number?

The shrill sound could only mean a crisis; clearly someone must be dead.

My interest and concern as to whether my kith and kin lived or died may be interpreted by the following exchange.

‘You answer it; it won’t be for me...’ I said, pulling a pillow over my ears, which did nothing to dull the noise.

‘No! You get it; it will be one of your friends...’

Larry, furious at his sleep being interrupted, weirdly assumed that one of my cronies was ringing for a chat. I knew it had nothing to do with me and stuck to my guns.

‘I haven’t made any calls. No-one I know has this number. We've only just got the thing! I hardly know the number myself!’

A little change seemed to come over Larry and I noticed he was looking at the phone intently as if willing it to stop. It didn’t. Eventually my hero leaned out and gingerly picked it up.


‘Hi Larry!’ screamed a female voice, ear-splitting enough for me to hear.

The woman on the line had obviously downed a drink or ten before dialling. A very one-sided chat followed, Larry making faces, rolling eyes and jabbing a finger at his temple, (indicating a nutter?) as he muttered;

‘No, no. We are not eating out in restaurants permanently; just getting used to everything here…you know...’

Pause, more shrieking.

‘It’s very beautiful, yes. No, not at all like the Mediterranean. No yachts. What? Well, it’s about three hours drive to the sea. No, we don’t have a pool.’

The fiasco continued with Larry eventually trying to finish the chat by telling her how great she was to have called us, politely saying we were exhausted, in bed and it was three am. The voice on the other end just continued; she was at a party and well, you know...Larry was soooo missed.

More faces made at me, coupled with a little 'what can I do?' shrug.

I responded by making violent stabbing actions at him and at the phone.

After about twenty goodbyes had been said and the phone replaced, Larry began, with a certain attitude, to re-arrange his pillows, shake the duvet and with a massive yawn, prepared to lie down.

I began the enquiries.

‘How did she have our number?’

‘Well, um, I must have left a message, or something -’ was vaguely muttered before disappearing under the duvet with a sort of mad grin. I continued with my investigation.

‘When, exactly, did you leave a message?’

Painful groan in response. Eventually I dragged the answer out of him. It was simple. The day we got our phone installed, while I was once again out exploring the village, Larry had spent the afternoon happily downing Gins &Tonics, flicking through his phone book.

And leaving messages with our new number for friends, neighbours and ex-work colleagues, connecting us with some people I had hoped never, ever to come across again.

Marvellous early days memories - always much funnier looking back...

View from quirky village house - to the Pyrenees

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Irish Thatched Cottage for sale!

Ireland. I was born there and some special parts of it hold a place in my heart.
There is one large special county whose countryside consists of rolling hills, clear rivers, forests, mountains with magical names; the Knockmealdown, the Comeragh, the legendary Slievenamon and Mauherslieve and the Galtys.

We are in Tipperary, Ireland’s largest inland county, probably the lushest part of the island and the perfect place for thriving dairy farms. The famous black and white cattle can be seen all over the county in the rich pasture land, shelter provided by massive trees.

Ireland is a compact place, easily traversed in hours and County Tipperary is accessible by road, rail and is only a short drive from Shannon International Airport.

The place has an ancient feel to it, full of monuments, and most of the landscape has remained unchanged for centuries.

It was in ‘County Tipp’ that Brian Boru was crowned King of Ireland at the internationally recognised Rock of Cashel in the early 11th Century.

Historic events continued when in Hayes Hotel in Thurles the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded in 1884.

Tipperary is a sports enthusiast’s paradise, boasting some of the best golf courses in the entire country. Its rivers are noted for brown trout, with one advertisement setting a gloriously magical scene:

“Imagine golden rays of sunshine reaching through a gentle mist, the dew still on the grass and trees and the fresh country air on your face. Mountains reach high up to the sky scored with gushing streams running to the meandering river as it winds its way though the valley past ancient monuments under the shade of the forest and onwards to the river Suir. Nothing beats early morning fishing in the River Aherlow, in such quiet and tranquil surroundings.” Quite a picture, and all true.

But if hunting is your interest, then Tipperary is where you need to be. It is serious hunting country with five packs of Foxhounds; the Golden Vale, Kilmoganny, North Tipperary, Ormond and the Tipperarys. If that isn’t enough, the world famous and spine tingling Scarteen Hunt covers parts the county as well as neighbouring county Limerick. There are also three Harrier hunts, plus the Ballydine Beagle pack.

Yes, this is Tipperary.

And here’s some good news; there is an absolute gem of a thatched cottage up for sale in the middle of it all. It's called a cottage, but with 3 good sized double bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs it's hardly tiny. Downstairs has a decent sized sitting room, a fully equipped kitchen and a sunroom, the latter providing enough space for some boots & tack, or fishing gear. The house is on about 3/4 of an acre with gardens and outdoor eating areas, lots of room for bar-b-q's and a real plus; a natural stream runs through the property.

It is a well placed house to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the countryside, or to immerse oneself fully in the considerable sporting life of county Tipperary.

In the region of €260,000
00 353 87 41 84 337

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Twitter Thing

This weekend I will have been tweeting for two months, and in only eight weeks my life has been completely revolutionised, online and off. Twitter hasn’t only changed the way I now spend my day; the connection with people who have similar interests has given me a different, fresh look at how I approach my work.

The information one can gather is staggering and the generosity of the people sharing it stunned me during my first days exploring how the world of Twitter worked.

This exploring (or initially a lack of it) produced a real howler during my very first weekend when, without understanding how it all worked, I rushed in and looked up people whose work I admired to see if they tweeted, and was thrilled to find that some of them did.

Not only did they tweet a lot, they gave a fascinating insight into their lives, because they didn’t limit tweets to life as a writer, or a successful agent, or a publisher. I loved hearing what someone might be cooking after a long day, or what the sunset was like in their part of the world. I longed to join in and let them know how my day was going too.

So, without wasting any time, going straight to the top, I flew a tweet off to mega agent Carole Blake, whose book, From Pitch to Publication, is a bible to everyone who wants to write and be published. My tweet was simple; follow me please? Ha! With great tact she responded, explaining that ‘Twitter doesn’t work like that, you have to be interesting first, I’m afraid.’

Far from crawling away with a big red face and forgetting about tweeting, I upped the anti and spent hours of each day during that first week in front of the screen, becoming more and more astonished at the many dynamic and talented people who found time to post such interesting things, sometimes sending information all day, while at a conference; gold nuggets of tweets.

Lest it seem like I spend all day still doing this, au contraire. Far from ‘twittering’ away my time, in my case Twitter had acted as a force for movement. It (or rather the dynamic people I follow) has positively kicked me into organising my days and my time in a far more productive way, especially where writing is concerned.

When I read tweets from other writers, especially women, with lives chock full of family life, often with young children, various other commitments, be it the organising of writing groups, contributing to radio shows or doing voluntary work and compared my life here in the hills of Southern France…enough said!

Since one link inevitably leads on to another, Twitter has re-kindled some interests that had been tossed aside, things I had imagined I didn’t have time for anymore. I’ve found fabulous Art sites, stunning vintage clothes & accessories, fabrics & furnishings; in a sense it shook me up to go back and do other creative things as well as writing. Why limit myself?

Most of all, I love the feeling of being part of a larger world, of being linked, however distantly, to so many people, all of whom have their individual & quirky way of looking at the world.

Of course, we cannot possibly hope to read each and every tweet of those we are following. But, to dip in and out and to feel, as India Knight put it, like one is at a Cocktail Party, able to join in or stand back and observe as one pleases, is for me, one of the best additions and marvellous pleasures of life in the 21st century.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On not feeling Motherly.....

Painting by Brid Finnegan  - owned by Frances Brennan

At some point in my twenties I knew that I didn't want to have children. My then husband had made it abundantly clear that he hadn’t the slightest interest in the whole baby thing either, what with the three hourly feeds, constant nappy changing and later, the school run and the whole mind numbing (to us) life that lay ahead.

As to the actual birth; I always felt there was a conspiracy of silence to make it seem the occasion was a mystical experience, with hardly a wince of pain.

A friend, a mother of two, was honest enough to admit that both occasions were awful, perfectly hideous experiences. No romantic stories of being a real woman, husband at the bedside and heavenly feelings for each other. On both occasions it was searing pain and screaming from the word go.

Apart from the birth, I (and also my then husband) considered the next eighteen or twenty years of organising children, without help with the housework and childcare, would be enough to drive us completely nuts.

The endless washing and cleaning up, Sunday night checking school uniforms, constantly keeping them up to scratch. The homework, then later the nagging at teenagers to keep their clothes tidy, bedrooms tidy, kitchen tidy, bathrooms tidy, pick up towels, wash ring from around bath. And in the end, doing all the bloody work yourself.

Then there’s that huge shop each week for all those essentials and tall, gangly sixteen-year-old youths in school grey trousers standing beside the fridge, asking 'is there any food?’

I am extremely happy, enjoy and have enjoyed a terrific life without children, a life packed full of excitement and some mad adventures.  On hearing of this happiness, some people appear to lose their minds and immediately begin to impress on me how their lives would have been considerably less without their children.  How can they possibly know this? 

On and on they drone about their children, what they are doing, are going to do, what they have done, how their college is going, how their job or lack of it is going. Sometimes these people don’t turn out to be exactly model citizens, but instead give their parents pure hell, despite all their efforts. Often, I notice now, they still live at home as they sail into their thirties. How bizarre is that?

Worse; their offspring having reached middle age, some parents, only in their sixties, have a desperate need to become grandparents. Is this to fill in the rest of their lives? 

In spite of having a happy family life as a youngster, I felt that without help, the whole ‘mother of the family’ existence looked like a living hell to me. From what I’ve observed over the years I have no reason to change my mind.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I'll always have Paris...

Vivier, Vreeland...and Paradise
Why does The Little Black Book of Paris sit on my desk, as well as a small, handy version of Phaidon's The Fashion Book?

For the first time since coming to live in France eight years ago, I found the winter months here in the countryside to be very, very long.  Why should this be, when October is one of the most beautiful months of the year in this part of southern France, still warm, with the countryside, after the fierce heat of summer, a tranquil, fresher place to walk or cycle. The animals are still in the fields under brilliant blue skies in November and, even though temperatures are dropping by then, we enjoy superb crisp weather. The valleys and hills look glorious, as the forests put on their amazing golden display, before the trees finally shed the last of their leaves.

As the first snow begins to fall higher up, the views to the Pyrenees are spectacular. December is pleasant too, passing without much of the fuss experienced elsewhere; the pre-Christmas madness doesn’t happen here. It is a time for slowing down, doing less outside as the days shorten to the winter solstice.

There is a feeling of being in harmony with the earth. As opposed to the manic craziness of my old life in Ireland, Christmas day here just means a larger than usual family lunch. The 26th is not celebrated, so everyone is back to work.

January can be bleak and we sometimes get heavy snow in the hills, but, a few weeks on and bizarrely, in mid February we often have a week or two of high temperatures and blazing sunshine, when we find ourselves wearing light summer clothes and eating lunch on the balcony. Then, in comes March with its many weathers; the temperatures plummet and it’s entirely possible to be snowed in.

The snow ploughs can get up the track to our tiny hamlet, but as ever, the advice during heavy snowy weather is to venture out only if you absolutely must.

Outside tables and chairs are uncovered and smartened up in April, in anticipation of months of  Al Fresco dining. Hanging baskets, full of large green leaves go up. These will, in time, turn into a riot of fabulous red as the tumbling geraniums, named the King of the Balcony, burst into flower during May. 

So why, with all these excellent things to recommend it, in a place with such fantastic scenery that people swoon when I tell them where I live, did I find the last six months went at a crawl? The reason is Paris. Yes, Paris, or rather, a serious lack of it.

Much as I adore living in Ariège Pyrénées, my heart and soul are so attached to that city that not seeing it regularly has an effect on me. My ideal life would be to have an apartment in Paris and our house here, and divide my time between the two. For most of my adult life, I have visited Paris several times each year. When I lived in Ireland I went regularly, getting to know it really well, discovering many of its secrets. Now, living in the same country, I seem to see my favourite city less and less. In the past year, I have only seen the City of Light once, and then just for forty-eight hours. It wasn’t enough.

Thank heavens I'm going back next month.  I know now and I have to admit, that as lovely as everything is here in the Grand Sud, and as much as I adore Toulouse, the rose city, I long to be in Paris and want, indeed I will say need, to spend more time there, especially during those winter months.

In the meantime, my well thumbed, little black book of Paris sits on my desk, with its companion, The Fashion Book for easy reference… as I work on a master plan to find myself an apartment in the fabulous Seventh Arronddissement. And aptly, to get there, at least seven figures are needed.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Banqueting in Bristol...

Everything that can be said and written has already been said and written about the Heineken Cup Final in CardiffSo, what better than a celebration of the food in the city we based ourselves in for the long weekend – Bristol.

On Friday, the second day of a four day trip that would take in the final in Cardiff - we lunched at the splendid Lock Fyne restaurant. Located towards the old area of the city, away from the glass and steel of the renovated harbourside area, this stunning eatery offers a haven of tranquillity in an old, sunlit, converted granary. The smiling staff are welcoming, wonderfully attentive, the food is exquisite and the bill doesn’t shock. Here, I found the perfect lunch for the day in question; a salad of exquisite lightness, bursting with flavour but full of vitamins and general goodness. The ambiance of the place and the delicious seafood on couscous salad made for a fantastically uplifting lunch. A lovely touch for me was that it was possible to have a glass of Prosecco as an aperitif.

And believe me, I truly needed those bubbles that lunchtime, because how I managed to eat at all after Thursday night, is beyond me. The night before, our first evening in the city, we had found the restaurant of restaurants, the stunning Chinese Cathay Rendevous. This place (including the building) is so magnificent, the food superb and the portions so generous that I would go back to Bristol now just to eat there again.

It was so fabulous that despite wanting to try all sorts of restaurants, we found ourselves walking towards it once again on Friday night. We had another amazing dining experience, with the top man remarking to me, ‘ah, you are not ordering the same as you did last night…’  (How did he remember what I had eaten the night before?)

Over the two nights I tucked into Prawn toasts, Satay Chicken, King Prawns with peppers, Scallops, green vegetables, ginger, spring onions, and all kinds of spices; I could not get enough of magnificent flavours. So many incredible, mouth watering tastes, washed down by lots and lots of Pinot Grigio; this restaurant is a marvellous place.

We had arranged to meet some friends who had travelled over from Dublin for the big match. I wanted to drag them back to the Cathay Rendevous once we got back to Bristol, but to my horror one of the party could not eat Chinese food; it appeared the spices caused some unpleasant reaction. Lucky me then, having eaten there twice already.

In the event, the match proved such a fantastic and uplifting occasion that it really mattered not a jot where we ended up. We eventually ate a splendid late dinner in the ambience of The River Grille at the Bristol Hotel, where we had based ourselves for four nights. The night took on a certain madness that carried on into the early hours; I was so thankful to only have to step into the lift and whizz up to our luxury room.

Sunday then, and with heads buzzing from the night before, a restorative lunch beckoned once again. This time we got a table in the Firehouse – a place I had tried to get six of us into for the night before but it had been fully booked, and now I know why. Once again we tucked into great food, including an enormous, ‘mop up the alcohol’ pizza for me with Larry promptly ordering and raving over the day’s special, a simply massive plate of roast pork, complete with crackling. We ran into a French rugby team also enjoying the food... 

The last meal of the Heineken Cup weekend on Sunday night, and while I did really want to go back to the Cathay Rendevous again, because of living in a part of France where spices and oriental cooking is not the norm, we opted for different Asian flavours and went to the elegant looking Thai Edge.

This whole restaurant is a delight for the senses. The calm ladies who look after you are beautiful, serene and dressed in purple and gold, setting the tone for everything to follow. The menu is enormous, so extensive that you really need lots of time to read it. I ordered a Bellini, which came adorned with a delicate orchid, and began to study the list.

The food is described as being ‘a complete Thai culinary experience’ and I cannot think of a better description for everything we ate that evening. I had never some across Gaeng Pa Gai (Jungle Curry) before; the description said Chicken cooked in chilli paste with fresh young green peppercorns, aubergines, bamboo shoots, snake beans and holy basil. It had a three red chilli rating and it deserved every one of them; this dish was simply glorious, the flavours utterly perfect.

Home a few days and withdrawal symptoms set in. I needed more Asian food and headed up to Toulouse, to the excellent Hyper Asia store where I stocked up, even finding the holy basil. I’ve tried to re-create some of the dishes and they were fine. That’s it though, just fine. Deep down I know that no matter how much I try, I will never be able to capture that special magic of those Bristol restaurants.

We ate in the locality of the Bristol Hotel and were only there for a few days; when the Heineken Cup is next in Cardiff I’ll make Bristol a week’s holiday…and spend more time in the wonderful St Nicholas Market, a real find.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

House & Home (Ireland) May 2011

French women are known to have a certain style. The whole French way of life has an illusion of being wonderfully finished; from the tiniest gateau in a box tied up with pretty coloured ribbons, the magnificent chandeliers and sumptuous table settings of a Chateau, the produce display at the weekly market or a classic Chanel black quilted handbag, it’s there, that indefinable a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about things, that defines all aspects of French living.

Add the style and flair of an Irish woman, who with her impeccable taste and high standards transformed an old Provencal village dwelling into a little nugget of luxury.

Rosemary Roberts is a hands-on perfectionist who embraces old and new, then adds her own personal style and her stamp of high quality and in Provence, where she spends part of each year, she has, in the village of Aups, nestled among the olives trees and the lavender fields of the Var, created a superb, sophisticated, comfortable house. Small it may be, but the place is top notch French living.
As I round the bend and the vine covered terrace comes into view, I marvel again at what happens when style, exquisite taste and rigorous standards meets old-fashioned French craftsmanship.

Under the vine leaves is an enchanting outdoor eating area. Alfresco dining, the large table is always smartly dressed, even for breakfast. Stylish doors lead into the living space, elegant but with an immensely cosy feeling.

It’s a comfort zone with a big squashy sofa to sink into; a place to read, watch TV or listen to music. The beautifully lit, tiled kitchen area is within a hand’s reach and with background colours muted, provides a great backdrop for paintings, plus of course, the essential Nespresso coffee maker.

On the other side of the room, where the dazzling light of Provence pours in – shaded by antique lace on the windows – stands a magnificent specimen of that classic French item, a massive wooden Armoire. It is chock full of magnificent glassware and tableware and holds a vast selection of wine.

Rosemary’s furniture ‘finds’ and her expertise at turning them into treasures is obvious, especially upstairs in the master bedroom. She has restored the antique chests of drawers entirely by hand and has had authentic period chairs re-covered in specially sourced fabric appropriate to their age. She then had the audacity to mix in sleek modern lamps, window shutters and ironwork painted gleaming white and added dazzling white blinds.

This feeling of cool, even in the scorching heat of a Provence summer is unexpected, wonderful.
Downstairs, guests are pampered in their own small suite. The huge, comfortable, well dressed bed is flanked by tables with books and flowers. Lighting is soft and soothing and here again there is that glorious, almost daring mix of old and new styles, textures and colours.

Everything blends perfectly, and while it may effortless it has all been carefully planned, down to the tiniest detail, by an expert. The placement of every item has been carried out with precision, from the exact positioning of the smallest lamp to the coloured buttons on scatter cushions, the sumptuous tie backs on curtains.

Rosemary, possessing that superb combination of a keen eye, a real love of luxury and a fastidious attention to detail, never ventures into the world the French call ‘ordinaire’. This marks the distinction, the clear difference between someone who simply lives in a comfortable space and someone who takes that space and transforms it into a haven of beauty, elegance and style. Her cool, glamorous, comfortable surroundings seduce us, makes the visitor want to stay; one longs to go back there again and again.