There’s so much going on right now I have no time to blog about it! What with the classic Easter cold, taking us all down one by one, and a visit from my parents I’m only just starting to catch up on all things computer-based. I’ve got a bunch of part-written or planned and not started blog posts so plenty to keep me busy when I do find the time to sit down and write/think for any amount of time. For now though, here’s a list of some of the things that I’ve been doing since I last posted:
Planting up more of the garden
Finessing the worm bin setup
Thinking of things to do with a gazillion fresh cherries!
Horse riding with DD
Settling DD into her first full days at the maternelle
Settling DS into the créche
Setting myself up as an auto-entrepreneur
Land and house viewings
That’s pretty much all the fun/interesting stuff, which doesn’t look like a lot but when crammed in amongst everything else it feels like a lifetime’s worth of achievements!
So, more blog posts to follow – but for now, bed. Zzzzzz.
Today we ventured out to visit a few local farms who were taking part in the De Ferme en Ferme open day. I’d seen posters around for a few weeks then, after reading a really nice blog post about last year’s programme, picked up a leaflet that me, James, and DD talked about to decide where to go. The promo leaflet and handout for kids can be downloaded from the Fermiers Audios website, here. DD was very specific about wanting to see pigs, cows, and horses, and we were keen to try out some local places where we might be able to buy good, local produce at sensible prices, reducing our overall reliance on the supermarkets or towns, as we seem to spend an awful lot of time driving too and from the shops. Having studied the map and the descriptions we settled on five places that fulfilled our wishlist while also providing a sensible itinerary, since we’d be carting two littlies around.
Ferme de Jaffus (#9) in Couiza
Gaec de Bergnes (#10) in Campagne-sur-Aude
Le Gaec du Méchant Pas (#11) also in Campagne-sur-Aude
Pépinière de la Roche Blanche (#2) in Puivert
Campserdou (#3) also in Puivert
The plan was three farms over by the D118, possibly having a burger at the beef farm (bio burgers for €6) or heading home for lunch, then the two close to Puivert in the afternoon. Manageable.
We set off. DD was excited about the pigs, cows, and horses. Oh, and ducks, chicks, and geese, apparently! A tall order. I was armed with the printed map, the address, and – having plugged the information into Google Maps for our first destination, was hoping the place would be well signed because I was pretty sure there wasn’t a beef farm where the map marker was. We got to the first set of traffic lights and there was the sign, so we turned to follow it and set off down the road. We drover further down the road. And further. No more signs. I was confused because Google (and the farm’s own website) showed the marker much closer to the village. We drove a little more then turned around, thinking we’d missed the turning and the sign. We decided that if we made it back to the main road before seeing another sign we would just skip it and carry onto the next one. We made it back to the lights, no more signs, so that was that. On we went to Campagne-sur-Aude. DS was pretty unhappy that the trip to a farm hadn’t materialised so it was a relief to pull up at our next stop: La Ferme du Méchant Pas
This farm had various poultry breeds on display, all of which looked rather uncomfortable in their tiny cages! There wasn’t much to see really so we followed the sign pointing us in the direction of goats, cows, ponies, and sheep. Also lacklustre, unfortunately. So one small pony and one cow later, we headed back to the car and onto our next stop, Gaec de Bergen’s, just a few minutes up the road and where our friends, Matt and An, were waiting, having decided to tag along.
Our next stop, the cattle farm, also turned out to be a little underwhelming, albeit in an absolutely stunning location, on a hill high above the village with awesome views. While we stood chatting and DD did some colouring, people came flocking in, most likely because a €6 burger was one of the cheaper lunches on offer (most places providing lunch were charging €15 and up for three or more courses). We had considered staying ourselves, but now we were in the company of two militant vegetarians and DS was starting to get into don’t-pick-me-up, don’t-put-me-down mode, so I was keen to get him in the car and back home so he could have a bit more freedom away from the general muck of the farm yard – not the nicest place for a crawling boy.
We headed back, had a nice lunch, let the kiddies let off some steam (DD really enjoyed showing our friends her bed and all her toys) then it was time for the afternoon’s programme of visits. We started with the plant nursery (Pépinière de la Roche Blanche) with Camperdou, the lai cru farm, saved until last. This was the one we were most interested in as I quite fancy making some cheese once I find I have time!
The nursery site was pretty nice – another stunning location – and it was nice to walk around. They had lots of plants on sale – flowers and vegetables – all at good prices and, usefully, they supply salad and vegetables throughout late spring and summer: all I have to do is call in the morning then come and pick them up an hour or so later. Obviously I’m thinking trailer ride, yay!
We stayed there while the little ones did some exploring, then it was time for the final farm of the day.
After a short drive we arrived. I was quite underwhelmed at first – there really wasn’t anything to see except for a few cows munching away in the barn, a few calves in a small pen in the yard, and a gazebo, from which you could try or buy the farm’s produce: essentially, the lait cru, fromage blanc, or confiture du lait, which is already caramelised condensed milk.
We stood around chatting again and the next thing the farmer wandered by so we started chatting to him about how many cows and calves, how much milk they produce each day (25 litres!), how the milk is processed before it’s sold, and – the burning question for me and James – why it doesn’t separate like regular non-homogenised milk. To be honest, I’m still not sure we got to the bottom of the last question, but he assured us the production process is basically cow to bottle with no messing around. While were stood chatting DD started messing around with the feed, giving it to the greedy cows. She had a lovely time! After a few minutes she wanted to see the calves again so we’d wander over there, then she was back to feeding the cows.
Then it was getting late (DS was awake and trying to escape from the carrier) so we decided to head back, stopping on our way out to sample the produce. Boy, that confiture was awesome! It’s basically super-condensed milk, like the stuff you get when you heat condensed milk to make the caramel for a banoffee pie: one of my favourite puddings – yum! Of course, this doesn’t sit well with our sugar-free home, so DD was allowed to try some of their fromage blanc, which was also very good.
All in all it was a good day out. We now have confidence in at least two local producers we will definitely frequent in future and we came home with two very tired and hungry children as well as some some fromage blanc and milk fresh from the farm, the latter of which I hope to try and turn into mozzarella or ricotta cheese. Assuming next year’s event includes many of the same producers there are other 14 for us to discover and as our littlies will be older we can justify driving a bit further and hopefully they will both get a bit more out of it. A nice family day out all round!
It’s a long weekend here in France, as with much of Europe (I think), made longer for the us by the fact that DD came back from school on Friday with suspected conjunctivitis (joy of joys) so we’ve been busying ourselves in the garden. Today we worked on our new compositing solution, which I plan to blog about once we’ve finished setting it up, and also caught up with our lovely neighbours Patrick and Claudine, who took us around their veggie patch and orchard and gave us some of the many lettuces they’ve started in their cold frame, as they’re now ready to plant out and they have loads of them. These are the sucrine variety, or Little Gem en anglais, apparently native to this part of the world and a really good grower in this climate.
They have a wonderful garden which they work hard at maintaining. They know what they’re doing and have been giving us some good advice with our little patch, which is more than welcome. While we’ve gardened before and grown veg the climate is very different. They’re keen for us to succeed, which is lovely, and happy to also share their produce as well as their knowledge! Rhubarb is one of my favourite fruits (edible plants, actually) so when Claudine showed me their well-established patch I was more than happy to take up her offer of a large bunch to take home.
Claudine and I were also able to clear up the main difference between jam and compote, so now I know (it’s do with the amount of sugar used and the length of time you plan to store it.) Her recommendation for rhubarb was very definitely rhubarb tart.
Now to find some sugar-free rhubarb recipes, which will be new territory as my preferred dishes are usually fairly sugar-dense, like stewed rhubarb crumble and custard. Can I find a passable rhubarb tart recipe that will be up to Claudine’s standards, I wonder?
Before I write anything else I want to make one thing clear: I am by no means a clean freak. Friends will testify to this – a few, those with tendencies towards OCD on the cleaning front, sometimes found visiting our old house challenging; well, there was always something more interesting to do than cleaning! So while I can cope with a certain amount of mess and also stomach a certain amount of built up grime, I always tidy up and give the place a good clean at some point.
When we came to look around this place we’d spent 6 months in what was effectively a single room. Our new house is so much bigger and feels really spacious, and that’s what we saw when we came to look around: the space. Wow, we said, look at all this space! What we failed to notice was the grime. Oh my, I have (almost) never seen anything like it. The only thing that I think compares was a student house I stayed in during my first year at uni where the floor in the kitchen was so filthy we mopped a path through to the bathroom, so we could walk to and fro with bare feet after a shower. Really, it was bad. But now, as a more grown up version of my old student self and with a small baby crawling around on all fours, I am like a dirt hound. I can just see it, everywhere.
It’s not all the owner’s fault: she’d lived here for many years, and we all get a tolerance to our own filth as it builds up day by day. Plus she has horses and dogs and does building work, mostly barn renovations. That’s a lot of muck coming into the house everyday. Also, we wanted to move quickly, so on the day we arrived she was still moving her things out meaning she didn’t get chance to clean so we can’t say how much she’d have done given the chance. But it’s been almost four weeks now and we’re still cleaning! The floors downstairs were more like a stable than a house. There was a rug that stank of dog. There are three leather chairs, all covered in grime, one of which I’ve cleaned twice (as per instructions from the Internet) although it’s impossible to tell from looking at them which one it is. The dining table chair cushions had to be thrown out because the foam was degrading and there were mites crawling around in them! Ugh. But perhaps the grimmest of all is the kitchen.
Here’s why. Teeny tiny little tiles. Who in their right mind would decorate their kitchen worktop with these ridiculous tiles! They are almost impossible to clean. When we arrived they were covered in an oily residue, now removed thanks to a fair amount of scrubbing and steaming. The question though was how to actually clean the grout. We used bleach and alcohol (not together) but still it looked pretty grim, so today I tried this mixture of peroxide (eau oxyegene) and baking soda. It’s looking pretty good so far and the grime seems to be lifting judging by the fact that the paste coming off is now a rather ugly shade of grey.
It also seems to be fizzing up where it’s contact with the grout, which is why peroxide is good for grout: apparently, it gets into the little holes and actually cleans through it, rather than just cleaning the surface.
I didn’t bother with any particular quantities and just aimed for a paste that was thick enough to spread over the tiles. Now I’m having a coffee, writing this post while it sits there for a while. I think about 30 minutes should do it. Okay, maybe an hour. If this stuff works the bathroom is up next. Like the kitchen we’ve bleached it from top to bottom but still it looks grubby. Oh what fun we’re having. One of the reasons I’m looking forward to my parents visiting is so they can look after both littlies while I give more parts of this house a good scrub down!
With all this though it’s still a great house in a great spot with the added bonus of lovely neighbours. We’re so much happier here than at the last place. It’ll be tidied up eventually but with the two smalls to accommodate and time needed to work we can only do so much at a time. Yesterday the floors got another going over. They’re still not quite so clean that I’d be happy to eat my dinner off them but clean enough to reinstate the three-second-rule.
The first picture shows our respective His ‘n’ Hers setups: his is the green bottle, mine is the white. We both whittled sticks to use as “straws” to guide the sap from the cut in the tree and into the bottle.
On this second attempt we both collected about 200ml, which isn’t much (pro collectors will harvest litres from each tree) but that may be as much to do with the location of the trees as our methods: the landscape around is very dry and these particularly trees were on a steep slope quite a way from any water source.
This is how the cut James made looked the following day. We didn’t have any beech tar or equivalent so hope that the other internet sources who claim that the method of cutting a flap and then just pressing it back down afterwards doesn’t damage the tree are right! The ants were enjoying their bounty anyway.
And this is a gratuitous pic of James and DD on their way up the hill to find the bottles. There might only be two silver birch trees, but it is very beautiful here.
Since this walk we’re actively spotting birch trees whenever we’re out in the car. Today, on the way up to Belcaire, we spotted quite a few in the woods so we have until next year to get our walking legs on and find a good spot for the next year’s harvest.
It’s been a busy two weeks. I was hoping to post sooner but, you might guess, when we moved we were without broadband. That looked to be a total catastrophe for a short while because the woman who owns the house had her knickers in a twist about who pays for it (we agreed she would but it turns out we are) so while we’re still trying to resolve the payment issue at least we’re connected again – and we’re now in a much bigger house with room for our boxes, our beds, etc. We have a bedroom again! There’s even a room for the cats. Okay, it would more formally be known as the “spare room” but that cats have taken it over and they’re happy with the arrangement.
Another milestone that passed was that DS was one! Yes, on Sunday he celebrated his first birthday. Okay, “celebrated” may be overstating it: we were still busy moving in, sorting out the Internet, and cleaning – which I’ll come to. Really we just sang happy birthday to him and unpacked about four boxes that contained all DD’s toys, which came from our old house in the UK. She has been without them for the last six months and very definitely has a mental inventory of every item that was packed away. She was delighted to be reunited with some of her old favourites. DS on the other hand now has more toys than he can imagine as we kept a good number of DD’s early toys, which are now just right for him. We are aware that some sort of party is needed, if only to enable him to feel complete when he’s older and contemplating therapy, so this coming weekend we’ll bake a cake and throw a very low-key birthday party for him, just the four of us and a couple of small things for him to unwrap. I can’t believe he’s one already. It’s gone so fast! As busy as we’ve been it’s been wonderful to spend the whole of his first year together, all thanks to losing my job, and I’m grateful now that I don’t have to rush back to work and can enjoy more of these early years with both of them.
Then there’s Brexit. I mean what the actual fuck happened on Wednesday!? I’m on a self-imposed news ban after spending a good few hours moping after reading the news that our unelected prime minister went and invoked Article 50. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her comments about how we should all unite as good as rubbed salt into the wound. No, Theresa, this does not happen in my name. One minute I has happily living my life and the next I was hit by the same feelings of sadness and grief that I experienced last year when the referendum results were announced. Why, oh why!?!
Living over here, as we are, one of the issues that bothers me a lot is freedom of movement and how that’s going to work when this is all done with and the sh1t is being scraped off what’s left of what was once a UK-shaped fan. How is that going to work exactly? If the UK gets all tough on immigration and stops pretty much everyone coming in, where are we brits going to be able to go? Post-Brexit we will have the freedom to move where? She’s forgetting that not everyone wants to spend the whole of their lives staring dismally into the grey waters of the Thames. The freedom to move to Scotland looks unlikely, if they casts us adrift too, so that leaves… Cornwall? Jersey? Unless there’s some plan afoot within commonwealth countries, but doesn’t that just put us back where we started? And are places like Australia and Canada, with fairly stringent immigration policies, going to just nod such a dramatic policy shift along because it’s the UK? I doubt it! And how does that help families? Forcing those who have had enough of Britain to move 5, 6, 7 hours and more further away when once – in those heady days when we were in the EU – could move just a short drive away? It’s insulting that anyone thinks any of this is a good idea.
Silver linings though: it was 24 degrees here today. In March. Yes, that’s pretty much as good as it gets in the UK in the height of summer. Did I mention it’s only March? Here’s a picture of some daisies to cheer us all up.
We’ve just returned from an exploratory trip (holiday, of sorts) from the Charente and Limousin areas where we discovered there were houses with the kinds of specs we were looking for for sale within our price range. Having stumbled upon a few potential properties a couple of weeks ago we decided it would be good to get out and also to make sure we weren’t missing out by restricting our search to the area local to our current home, so I booked some accommodation with AirBnb and arranged for a neighbour to cat sit, James informed DD’s school, and we were all ready for the off on Monday morning.
It was a very interesting trip. Apart from the horrendous weather we found the property search pretty interesting. Yes, we could, if we wanted buy a property there that does, on paper at least, match our requirements. We saw two great properties: both stone buildings, small so easy to heat, with good roofs and land of between 2 and 3,000 m2. What’s not to like? Well, it would seem that a house in a place that you don’t want to live is not a house to buy. It was quite confusing really, to be in a house that ticked all our boxes and not be enthused about it but the reality was that the whole area was just too darned flat for us both. The countryside rolled endlessly in every direction. Yes, it was raining, which probably didn’t help, but it was more than that. The roads just went on and on. I realised that at no point had I had the urge to get on my bike and explore. The opposite was true in fact. The thought of going out on a ride there made my heart sink! Too many long, not quite flat, never-ending, to the horizon and back roads. No hills! No hills anywhere nearby either. It was my idea of countryside hell.
After three of the five days there we decided we’d seen everything we wanted to and set off early so we could spread the return journey over two days to make it easier for the littlies. I found a nice apartment in Cahors on AirBnb and was able to book just 24 hours before we wanted to arrive – and now we had something to look forward to again. Good. We took a slow drive down, stopping on the way to visit the mum of a friend (who has a house for sale that we wanted to check out), having a leisurely lunch with her before continuing on to the town, opting to wiggle along on back roads rather than aiming straight for the autoroute. It was lovely. We drove through the Dordogne, passing Sarlat and Domme, almost going past the door of a gite we once stayed at, and on through the Lot. It was interesting to observe how the landscape changes made us feel. I was pretty happy as soon as there were hills and wiggly roads again, preferring the more dramatic Dordogne to the Lot, where the hills started flattening out again.
After a relaxing couple of nights in Cahors we continued south, this time pitstopping at IKEA in Toulouse. Living the dream. There we were able to compare and contrast the food offerings (in the IKEA Toulouse vs IKEA Manchester/Ashton stakes, France wins hands down!) and pick up a “euro-dryer”, as the one with the gite is broken, and a step for DD so that she can use the “big toilet” on her own. She’s growing up so fast!
Finally, at about 4pm, we made it back to our “home” – feeling quite upbeat about everything. While we didn’t find a house we both felt it had been a worthwhile trip in that it had focussed our minds on what we do want. We realised we badly need to get out of this claustrophobic little hamlet and this stupidly small house so our immediate focus will be on finding somewhere to rent long term so we can get settled and start to work on our businesses. We also agreed that, when it comes to finding a permanent home, we need to be in the hills and close to the mountains. In terms of buy vs. build we have seen so much rubbish we are going to push on and build, but take our time to get our plans together and to find the right piece of land with good access, good aspect, etc. We needed to get away to get the headspace to make those decisions, as something about being in this small place makes it really hard to think straight.
So now we have a plan. It’s a far cry from Plan A (move to France and buy a house, blah, blah, blah) but it is nonetheless a plan and one that is based on reality given the confines of our budget and the general state of properties we can afford around here.
First things first though, escape from this crazy-making little hameau.
Something I hadn’t considered at all when moving was that there might be different attitudes to health outside of the UK. A different language and culture I expected, or course, but as far as health goes I’d generally heard that the French have an excellent (albeit not free) healthcare system and as such had no concerns. We’re all Europeans, right? A rude awakening came my way just last Saturday when one of the women I’ve become friends with took me aside after an event to let me know that her children had been in contact with some other local children (the cousins of several boys living in our hameau) who had rougeole (measles) and were contagious the last time they all played together. Whaaaaattt!!?!?
For one, this event was one where babies were present. There were one-month-old babies there and a heavily pregnant mum-to-be, due any day, all of whom have fragile immune systems. And, of course, my unvaccinated baby. How could anyone be so foolish? Once back home and having let the news sink in, James and I started on some internet research, trying to understand the situation in France so we could decide how best to protect our children. DD had been given the MMR vaccine in the UK at 12 months, as per the schedule there, and could have a second does at any time – recommended for more thorough protection. DS, only 9 months, would usually have three months to wait before being given his routine jabs but in cases where younger babies were known to have been in contact with infected children GPs in the UK offer the vaccine earlier to babies from 9-months-old onwards.
But where to start in France? We are here on our EHIC cards and haven’t signed up to the Carte Vitale or any private medical insurance yet since until we’ve bought somewhere this whole trip may turn out to be temporary. Luckily, I remembered a conversation I’d had with someone we considered renting a house from. We’d had a nice chat on the phone and I remembered her mentioning the English-speaking doctor in Esperaza. I found the lady’s e-mail so sent her a quick message. She replied quickly with the details we needed, then it was easy enough to find the doctor’s address. James and I would be there with bells on first thing on Monday morning.
Of course, this being France there was no way to find out what time the doctor was open so we just had to turn up and see. We were met by a receptionist who was very friendly and helpful, taking us into an office and quickly booking us an appointment with the doctor, who would be in tomorrow morning. Job done. The next day we went along and explained the situation, taking along DS’s red book so we could refer to the British schedule. The doctor was very sympathetic but explained it would be best to wait two weeks to give the virus chance to come out in case he had already caught it because, if that were the case, giving a vaccine would be pointless. Hmmmm, not ideal (what if he hadn’t caught it but picked it up from someone else in the hameau during the next two weeks?) but that timing would fit with the French schedule, as they usually give the MMR at 10 months. Okay, well that would have to be okay. We handed over our EHIC cards and were given a facture (invoice) for 26 euros – the cost of a consultation – and a prescription for us to take to the chemist (and pay for) along with some really helpful advice on how to treat the symptoms of measles (primarily, high fever) if either DS or DD became ill with it. It wasn’t quite the outcome we were hoping for but we respected the doctor’s advice and that was all we could do.
A week on, the children we were originally told about still haven’t shown any symptoms. That’s 17 days after contact with the symptomatic children but we’re still on lockdown here – at least until I return from the UK in a few weeks; if anything causes me to have to cancel that trip I fear the consequences! – so why all the fuss?
I’d say that for most Brits it’s just not something we come into contact with any more, depending on the circles you move amongst, and most of the people are know are on the side of modern medicine when it comes to vaccination. Measles has all but been wiped out in countries where vaccination is the norm and, from a quick read of the data, outbreaks tend to occur within closed communities or as a result of an unvaccinated person travelling to another country where vaccination is not the norm. So why is it here in France? Well, it would seem that there are certain areas of France where the residents are particularly sceptical of vaccination to the point that even those attending the public schools will often only give the mandatory list vaccines. Since MMR is on the optional list, parents often opt not to have it administered; consequently, there are areas of France (just as in other countries) where anti-vac attitudes prevail. And it turns out we’re in one of those areas. Oh joy.
What has had me hopping madly about over this though is that I genuinely had no idea that we were living amidst this kind of mindset. The friend in question (who I know is into homeopathy) seemed to be fairly pleased at the prospect of her two children contracting measles. It beggars belief really that anyone could justify such an attitude given all we know now about immunisation and the dangers of this particular illness. The big issue for me is herd immunity: it’s fine for someone to make a decision about their own child informed by their own beliefs, that’s parenting, right? Who am I to tell you your way is wrong and mine is right? But decisions about health are bigger than that, in my mind. What about people who can’t be immunised? One of the kids in this village has a health issue that doctors are currently trying to get to the bottom of. What if he caught measles and it didn’t turn out so well for him? I’ve had a good rant and rave about this offline and really could fly into one here, so I’ll rein myself in and keep a lid on it. By coincidence, at this exact time an article on this very subject was bumped on one of the parenting groups I belong to, so I’ll share it here along with a bunch of other interesting links.
It’s raining here today. Back home in Manchester this would in no way be news but here a day of more or rain is a big deal: no-one has the faintest idea how to manage the piles of washing or, more accurately, drying that builds up and people go little bit stir crazy with being stuck in the house for more than a couple of hours. After Manchester though, I like a day or two of rain. It settles everything and everyone down, cools and soothes, not to mention washing away the copious amounts of dog crap that litter the pavements around here (free range dogs are something I may never come to terms with.)
So what to do on a rainy old day? Well, it was a rough night when I was kept awake by a combination of a teething baby and a full moon lighting up the room via the skylight so my day, so far, looks like this. I apologise for the state of the slippers. They’ll be washed when the sun comes out again!