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Archive for August, 2011

It’s hard to believe we’ve been back in Wellington for nearly 4 weeks. Mostly the weather has been dismal but yesterday when the sun came out I spent all day in the garden pruning and weeding. It took me right back to our recent sojourn in France where gardening is quite a different experience.

We always stay in the same area – in the countryside, roughly between the towns of Nontron and Brantome – and we usually rent a very rustic old farmhouse owned by friends who live in Paris for most of the year. This time we stayed with some other friends in their recently renovated farmhouse in the same hamlet.

Hamlet of Laumède, Dordogne

Built in 1867, their house has a courtyard surrounded by herbs, lavender and a few hardy roses. Gardening mostly involves dead-heading the flowers and weeding the cracks in the terrace but this year I also undertook the daily job of hand watering a sorry looking artichoke plant that was suffering from the drought. (I’m happy to say that by the time I left, the carefully nurtured plant had indeed born fruit).

Gardening at Laumède in the drought was easy, the artichoke was the only thing that showed signs of life. In Wellington it’s hard work because everything grows madly all year round and a good deal of it can only be accessed with crampons. The view is different too. At home, when I take a break from cutting back the jungle that covers my vertical slope, I look down on the Karori wildlife sanctuary with its colonial pumphouse. In France, we looked out over a sunny meadow with a neatly stacked woodpile and a couple of apple trees. It’s very rural. Not that long age we were sitting on the terrace enjoying an aperetif when a wild boar trotted across the lawn in front of us and disappeared into the trees that grow by the river.

A herd of cows in Dordogne

Boar and roe deer roam quite freely in this part of France and that’s why I like it. People who have moved here for the lifestyle say it’s one of the last untouched parts of Europe. That’s not entirely true but you do feel that little has changed. The old-timers farm in much the same way they always have. A herd of cows is more accurately described as a ‘group’ – never more than twenty and mostly lying down on the grass in a sociable circle. I realise this sort of farming is supported by subsidies but I like the way the farmers here keep a few rabbits and ducks and mix pasture with small crops of sunflowers, maize and wheat. Everyone who lives here has a potager and a few fruit trees from which they make confiture and eau de vie, and if they have walnuts they’ll be pressed to produce oil at one of the water mills that still offer the service.

My part of France, with canine friend Lola

It’s for all these reasons that I much prefer staying in la France profunde than in the cities or towns. And that, in a very round about way, brings me to the point of this blog post. I’ve written quite a lot about this area, particularly during the year we lived here as a family, and because I’ve given it such a good press people often ask me where they can stay if they happen to be passing through on a road trip. Most definitely look for a gite. The advantage of booking a self-catering holiday home is that you can go mad at the markets and cook the most wonderful food. There are lots on the internet – you can google a gite – but there’s nothing like a personal recommendation so I’m posting photos of two rural gites that are owned and run by good friends of ours in the Dordogne. Both are charmingly renovated farm buildings – very comfortable and beautifully situated – but best of all they are hosted by owners who are très sympathique, know their areas really well and speak fluent English.

The first is near the town of Ribérac, east of Périgeux.

Gite near RiberacLunch at Riberac gite

It’s owned by Ib and Marie, both Danish architects who lived here for several years with their children and now divide their time between France and Copenhagen. The gite is connected to their own home and has a gorgeous courtyard and a private terrace with a swimming pool. It sleeps 8-10. We’ve had some wonderful times here with Ib and Marie and shared some great conversations about the local architecture. A few weeks ago we joined them for a concert at a church in one of the local villages and then a very long lunch under the trees in their courtyard.

Gite near LaumèdeGite near Laumede

Gite number two is a short bicycle ride from our ‘own’ hamlet at Laumède.  I used to cycle up to Gilles and Jean-Françoises’ home most afternoons for French lessons with the ever-so-patient Gilles. The couple have lived here for several years during which time they’ve restored their house and converted their barn into two four-person gites with a shared terrace. The property, which dates back to the 1500s, was a farmhouse when they bought it but it has also been used as a military post on account of its strategic position with views across the whole valley. Their home is House and Garden gorgeous with lovely little out-buildings including a porcherie and a tiny bakery with a bread oven where Jean-François (a fabulous cook) makes pizzas. The most recent addition to their ongoing rennovation, is a very glamorous swimming pool sited at the back of the house in front of a small forest where you’ll find chanterelles popping up in the autumn.

If anyone is interested in either of these gites, let me know and I’ll put you in touch. (And no, I’m not taking a commission!)

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Moore Wilson Ice Installation

The ice installation at Moore Wilson in Wellington is now nothing but a puddle of water, but it was great while it lasted.

Ian Hornblow and Paul Hoather, business partners at the White House restaurant, have been chipping away at it since Tuesday. It was their contribution to the Wellington on a Plate festival, supported by Moore Wilson who donated the produce that was part of the sculpture.

Ian Hornblow sculpts Wellington on a Plate

The blocks were made at an ice factory that does this sort of thing, although usually without the fish, flowers and vegetables that had to be suspended in the water as it was frozen. Apparently the oversized ice cubes are quite tricky  to make because the water has to be de-ionised (or is it de-oxygenated?) so the ice will set crystal clear.

Ice sculpting isn’t something I know much about so, on Ian’s suggestion, I googled it and turned up some amazing images. Wikipedia says the largest ever snow sculpture was made for the annual Harbin Ice Festival in China in 2007. It measured 250m long and 8.5m high and included a sculpture of the Niagara Falls.

Ian and Paul’s installation included a Wellington on a Plate logo complete with knife and fork, a rugby ball, a tropical fish (which was in melt-down by the time I made my second visit) and a muscly torso, which Ian assured me was Sonny Bill Williams. In the absence of the trademark tattoo I find this hard to believe, but maybe that was asking too much of Ian and his set of heavy duty Japanese ice chisels.

Sonny Bill Williams?

According to Wiki, ice sculptors these days often use lasers, which you’d imagine would be a lot easier for intricate work. Ian and Paul do it the traditional way with chisels that Paul brought back from Japan 20-years-ago when he was part of a team that won a gold in the novice section of an international competition.

Ian usually sculpts with wood. He says ice is easier, “softer and more forgiving”. You do have to work faster – it’s a race against time – but he says he likes the transient nature of the medium. “It’s here today gone tomorrow – like the ice cube in your gin and tonic.”

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Sunflowers in France

Driving through the back roads of Perigord Vert you notice three crops growing beween the dark green forest that gives the region its name: wheat, maize and sunflowers. The first two are fairly ho-hum – patches of beige and dull green – but the sunflowers cut a cheerful swathe of yellow across the landscape. That’s providing the sun’s out and all’s well with the world; on a bad day, when the rain clouds gather or the autumn chill sets in, the same field can be a real downer. It may seems foolish to attribute human emotions to plants but sunflowers are a special case, you could almost say they’re bi-polar.

In France they’re called ‘tournesol’ on account of the way the young flowers turn their faces towards the sun, tracking their god across the sky from east to west as the day progresses. The older plants tend to fix themselves eastwards. I’ve photographed entire fields of them, their heads like flat plates on slim stalks all focused in the same direction, on target like thousands of synchronised periscopes. When it rains their heavy heads droop downwards in a group sulk. And then, when the sun comes out they look up, ever so slowly, until the whole field is a cheerful canvas of van Gough yellow.

Early in the season they look shiny and new but as the days grow shorter their petals fray and they dry up, turning a dullish colour like yellow paint that’s been contaminated with a dirty brush. It’s the saddest sight to see sunflowers like this, all gone to seed, waiting for the harvester to come and lop off their heads. And it all happens so quickly. Over night the fields are all stubble and there are only photographs to remind you of the youthful glow that once filled the gap between beige and dull green.

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Mobile Still

A couple of days ago we were visiting friends in a small hamlet a few kilometres away from our own and I saw what I imagined was a bit of old farm equipment parked up in their neighbour’s field. The people here never throw anything away; they all have massive barns crammed full of stuff, some of it really old and some of it still in working order. The French are famously reticent about inviting you into their homes but they love showing you around the interesting stuff they’ve stored away in their ‘grange’.

John Franklin in his barn with a lightning rod from a local chateau

Anyway, sometimes the really big stuff spills out into the surrounding fields and it’s not unusual to see antiquated tractors or a rusty old plough with grass growing through it. But this was different – a sort of machine on wheels with big copper vats, chimney pipes and a rickety roof. Our friend John knew all about it. He’s an Englishman whose own jam-packed barn has made him a hit with the local French community. A mechanic by trade he loves old equipment and he knew all about this piece. It turns out it’s a mobile still owned by his friend Michel. The pair of them are fixing it up in in readiness for the ‘eau de vie’ season that starts in October.

For hundreds of years the people here have fermented part of their fruit crop and had it distilled into a potent sprit to help keep them happy and warm over the very cold winters. Presumably that’s why they named it eau de vie – water of life. I’d been told the tradition was dying out and that people now carted their barrels of fermented fruit to permanent distilleries but Michel told me this was wrong; his is one of about 25 mobile stills that continue to rattle along the country roads of the Dordogne every autumn.

John and Michael adjusting the pipes

Certainly the business is much more regulated these days. Licences are issued for a lifetime and the authoriites ensure the machinery is shut down and sealed at the end of each season. When the licence expires the police punch a hole in the still, which renders is useless until the new licence holder fixes it up. Michel’s still has three hole marks, one for each of it’s three previous owners; he is the fourth and this season will be his second on the road. His previous still (without wheels) is now gathering dust in John’s barn.

The mobile stills can’t move very fast so each one covers quite a small area. Michel says he travels around the hamlets in his circuit, parks up and builds fires under the two big copper vats. Fruit that’s been fizzing in people’s barn for months is tipped into these and boiled up to produce a vapour that’s directed through coils of copper pipe. Eventually the pipes deliver a primary distillation which is then put into a second vat where the process is repeated. The final distillate is diluted to around 45% abv. Michel charges 3.50 euros a litre to produce the spirit, which his customers bottle themselves with equipment they all seem to have tucked away in their barns.

Dordogne Distiller, Michel Pellisier

Friends have given us bottles of their eau de vie as gifts. The first couple of sips are always a bit of a shock but then it gets smoother and it really is a nice way to finish a meal. It is usually made with apples, pears, peaches or plums but some people make cherry or strawberry eau-de vie. My favourite is plum, but to be honest I’ve always found the fruit is all in the aroma; the fire in the spirit makes them taste much the same.

I asked Michel which fruit he prefers and he told me he never drinks the stuff himself, he makes it for pleasure. It’s doesn’t earn him much money but for six weeks of the year he enjoys the conviviality of turning up in a hamlet and stoking up the copper while people roll out their barrels and hang around to watch and talk, in the same way they have for generations in the Périgord.

During the rest of the year he works in the town of Piegut where he continues another local tradition – he  makes false teeth. I’m not sure if I should believe this but apparently Piégut has the distinction of being the denture town of France in the same way that Nontron makes knives and Agen has prunes.

Unsurprisingly the denture tradition doesn’t get much attention in a region that has so much else to offer, but it’s a business that’s likely to outlive mobile distilling – if only because the authorities are no longer issuing lifetime licences. Michel says he is one of the three youngest mobile distillers in the départment so he may well be the last. When he passes on, his still will be punched with one final hole and I’m guessing it will come to rest in a Périgord barn – a dusty reminder of how people used to live in these parts.

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