The Little French English Improvement Project

little french person trying to improve her english, little french english person trying to improve herself, french english person trying to improve a little bit… and blogging along the way. (Now in Deutschland)

Posts Tagged ‘winter’

Killing pigs and other stories

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on November 17, 2012

I live in the countryside. As does my grandfather. I tend to move around quite a lot, travelling to and from town, in and out of the country, using an armada of busses, trains, planes and cars. My grandad is not quite so mobile. So when I am around for a couple of day, I drive him around to visit his friends. Emile, Marius, Hélène, Dauphin… all the people who have known him since the good old days. I love it. I love meeting these people and listening to their stories, sitting in their dark kitchens with cast-iron wood-burning stoves, hand-painted tiles and various other compound adjectives.

These sparsely toothed men and women bring out cake and tiny glasses of red wine or sweet coffee and start lisping stories of days gone by. About being a mischief at catechism and locking up the altar boy in a wardrobe “accidentally”, while fathers were protesting against boring sermons by leaving church halfway through to have a canon of rouge at the bistrot. Striking, some things don’t change. Or a few years later as young adults, cycling 23 kilometres downhill on a summer night to go dancing in Issoire and then drinking too much and having to carry the bicycles back up the mountain, sometimes spending the night on a haystack. Have you ever tried drunk cycling? I have. Thankfully in well lit, reasonably flat streets. And even then I did not get very far before dismounting and pushing the bike in front of me like a walker.

The most interesting topic hat afternoon was certainly 90-year-old Marius’ recollection of the pig-killing season. You see, November was the time of year those things were done. Maybe because that’s when apples are ripe and apples and black pudding are a match made in heaven. The more rational explanation is probably that people would want to stock up the larder before winter. Marius was, and still is, an expert at pork slaughtering. Even non-farming families sometimes fattened a pig, so he showed them how to go about killing it when the time came, and how to make boudin and chops and hams and dried sausage… He also explained when the factory opened, how people started killing their swine only on saturdays so he sometimes would have to “do” three pigs in one day. We were treated to a few details about  blood and guts and unpleasantness, about the thickness of  the layer of fat on the back of certain pigs’ neck and about how everything was kept and used, except perhaps the tail. It may not be very P.C. but in spite of the goriness  and the acrid smell of burning hairs, I would still love to see it done; not because I like the idea of killing animals, but because I don’t think that sort of knowledge should just disappears when Marius dies.

The last story of the day was  that of a man loading a sow in the back of his van. He drove all the way to his house and never noticed that the door was open and the pig had walked of. He got back to his farm and his wife said… something. Marius unfortunately delivered the punchline in patois, the local dialect. My grandad found it hilarious.


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A rapidly evolving situation

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on February 3, 2012

Over the past few weeks I must have started writing half a dozen health-related blog entries. Typical subjects were:

Three days and a lot of medication later: massive improvement

  • having the sniffles
  • having the sniffles and a headadache
  • surviving a first day at work on throat lozenges
  • waking up buried under mounds of used up hankies
  • comparing tonsils with aggressive difformed little jellyfish recently discovered by R. Attenborough
  • unsympathetic doctors
  • the uselessness of homeopathic medication
  • oh, the homeopathic stuff does seem to be doing something…

And all of these just wove in and out of each other. Not enough time to finish one paragraph: whatever I had written five minutes earlier would no longer be relevant ages before I got that far. It was a rather busy week. And it all eventually culminated with me writhing on my bed at 5 in the morning covered in angry red blotches, trying not to scratch and just shaking incontrollably whilst waiting for the on-call doctor to get extra-medicine from his practice.

My very first allergy! How exciting! I would love to linger on and tell you all about it, about the inadequacy of of the the verb “to itch”, about tiredness and recurring eczema and nice mad doctors, fairytales, medical students, ointments creams tablets and drops… BUT I am now quite far behind in my revision “plan” and exams are looming ever nearer. So I’ll just leave you with this lovely picture from last week and a suggestion for low-budget horror film makers. You know, if you need a good zombie look.

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Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on January 16, 2012

Yes I will be talking about the weather.

We had the most amazing sunshine today, a proper crisp winter day that just felt lke a proper crisp winter morning, only played over three times in a row. The light held its slanty sharpness, the grass stayed white until evening come. It was sunny but I could not feel it, just see it ; the warmth of it was swept away by this tiny wind before it had time to settle on my cheeks. Nevertheless it was comforting standing there on a frozen puddle, loooking at the light through the branches, through my eyelashes, through my eyelids, and thinking how I could use all this in terms of blogging.

And then I got home and settled down to write, full of cold thoughts and frosty ideas (and it had nothing to do with a t-shirt wearing tiger) when our neighbour came knocking; her heating did not seem to be working, was ours? After we do all share one boiler. We went down to the cellar and sure enough: no huff, puff or other heating-related noise was to be heard. Only thing that was working: the wireless connection to the outside thermometre, indicating -1ºC (now -4). Handy.

Extra blankets anyone?

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More festive memories…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 27, 2010

Hey there, so this is part two of my Christmas reminiscences (part one can be found here).  I think last night I finished on six year old me walking into the sitting room in Greenbank Villas and discovering the piles and pyramids of boxes and packages, the promontories of gifts extending over the carpet and spilling out onto the leather sofa, colourful presents all around.

I’ll spare you the details of the actual opening of the presents, I’m sure you’ve spent Christmas with children before. You’ve all seen how kids throw themselves on the pressies or how they get handed a beautifully wrapped package, quickly rip away the paper and squeal with excitement, whilst all the time keeping an eye on the grown ups in charge of distributing, just in case another present might come their way. After that, we all got dressed and went to church. It was a special mass for children, and we were invited to bring one present along. Then for the homily, the priest invited all the children to the front of the church, around the altar and sat down among us to tell us about the Christmas story in words we would understand. It was always nice things he said Nothing, and I mean Nothing like this year’s sermon in Sauxillanges.(the priest basically enumerated everything that was wrong in the world: war, plagues, famine, financial crisis, unemployment, homeless people… have I forgotten anything? And then he ended with an unexpected “so let us be joyful”…). It was all about christmas joy, and  how wonderful family is, and all about giving and receiving… And we’d see all the neighbours and cousins with their gifts. And there was a massive tree in the church, and a giant crib in a corner. I miss it. I miss the wonder of it.

After mass and after we’d caught up with news of everyone on the parish and they had all wondered at how quickly we grew, we went back to Greenbank Villas to prepare the traditional Christmas “lunch” (Dad never thought it qualified as lunch, seeing as it never started before 3 or 4pm). Christmas dinner was one of those rare occasions when we ate on the nice plates, in the dining room where the piano was.  We always, always had ham and “24 vegetables”, yum. Of course there never actually were 24 varieties of veg, it was like Heinz’ 57 varieties, but there were plenty, and plenty more than I would ever eat (I mean, to this day I’m not so keen on sprouts).  So there was all the English food, all the stuffing, and roast parsnips, the very very green peas, and the bisto gravy, and jelly, and pudding and custard… Along the years, more and more french elements were added, like a platter of cheese, or french wines and champagne, and foie gras of course.

This probably would better illustrate yesterday's paragraph about christmas stockings but oh well...

Naturally, we children didn’t sit at the table through the long hours of christmas dinner. It lasted aaaaaaaaages and there were cousins to talk to and presents to be played with and chocolates to be eaten. After we’d had enough food, we’d ask “please may can I leave the table”, with our cute little french geordie accent and go and play in the sitting room, watch some Disney classic on tv and roll on the carpet until it was time to set the Christmas pudding alight. every year we watched it, and every year we tried a tiny amount of pud and decide we didn’t like it, before gorging on custard and biscuits and more chocolate. We’d pop champagne and pull crackers and somehow, whoever won, the children always ended up with all the little presents! And we’d bring a box of crackers back to France to impress our french friends.

And all that was only Christmas day. We’d always spend at least a week in England, and every day of that week held visits to cousins, shopping trips in Newcastle where they had all the lights and the beautiful window displays, rides on the metro, a quick trip to the beach, rented videos, carols singers knocking at the door. But once more I have great difficulty separating the general excitement of being on holiday in England with the family  from the Christmas cheer itself. I have so many memories, there are so many details…

After a while, we’d come back to France and have another Christmas over here. As we’d come back to the house, we’d find out that Santa had been here too and left us plenty of french titled gifts form our uncles and our french family, and there’ be a family meal here too, although maybe not as long and complicated. But it just meant Christmas got extended a little longer, and we got to eat a whole other range of festive food, like Bûche de Noël, and more foie gras, and chocolate and fruit paste papillotes, with bad jokes hidden in the wrapper.

So many memories, and, as you may have noticed: so much food! Our family traditions have changed over the years, but I will always remember the christmases in Greenbank Villas as the best and most magical ones ever! How do you like your festive season?

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What? Presents? What presents?

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 14, 2010

And yet again a small bit of eternity seems to have happened since the last time I wrote. Where does all this time come from, where does it disappear off to, and will I ever learn? And it’s not that I haven’t spent enough time in front of the computer or that I didn’t have time to spare. I have been doing precious little these past few days apart from coughing, sleeping and studying (in decreasing order). That little niggle I had, tickling the back of my throat last week has turned out just about as bad as it could have. I went to a doctor’s on Tuesday, and since I had a cough, he gave me cough treatment. So far so good. But he didn’t know me and my history. So it just got worse and worse. I think I reached the lowest of the low on Friday. The plan had been to get a train at about 2:30pm, then someone would pick me up and drive me to our usual doctor so he could pump me up with medicine and make me get better. Which he did eventually. But Friday lunchtime as I sat on my backpack in the freezing, draughty railway station in Clermont-Ferrand, fighting to keep my lungs inside my chest, all trains canceled because of an unexplained, unannounced strike, I felt I would never get there. In the end, my lovely dad came all the way from home to pick me up. At least he had no difficulties in finding me despite the station being so crowded: not only could he hear me a mile off, but people were giving me a wide berth. And apparently they were right: Docteur Pascal told me later on I was highly contagious… I hope I haven’t contaminated too many people (apart from my cousin Celia in England apparently – though how my germs reached her from my library all the way to her bay window desk in the north of England, I haven’t the faintest idea.)

But let’s talk about something else. I have literally spent the last week and a half thinking, talking, worrying almost exclusively about this and I DON’T LIKE IT! I am getting better though, thanks to a lot of cortizone, so maybe it’s time I changed the subject and wrote about something else that I’ve had to postpone so far… like Christmas presents! As you may have read in my “Books” post, I already have a couple of ideas for my own presents list (Maybe someone will have noticed?). However, being a very naughty, self-centered selfish girl, I have not yet even started on buying presents for other people! Oooops… It’s all the weirder since normally, I love buying presents for my friends and family (maybe partly because it means I can afford it). Normally I start looking out for stuff around mid-October, and I go through a series of ideas for each and every single person on my list until I have settled on what I believe is the best possible pressie. Well this year I suppose I’ll just have to follow my first intuition. I already have a couple of ideas. Of course I won’t write them here though. It is highly unlikely that anyone concerned by this Christmas’ present-making will ever read my blog, but why take the chance?

So it would seem I am going to have to be organized and effective… *crestfallen sigh*… This is so not me. I love wandering more or less aimlessly about town before Christmas, searching for ideas and criticizing the festive/extravagant/rubbish festive window setups, all lit up and tinsel-strung. But I have to admit, what the weird contradictory little person in me loves most of all is walking around the cold darkening streets, just waiting for all the illuminations to light up. And just when your nose starts to feel like it’s  about to fall off, stepping into a clothes-store and getting hot air blasted into your face by the gigantic automatic blowers they sometimes have right behind the door. Or walking into a chocolaterie, knowing full well everything in there is far to expensive, but taking all the time in the world to browse and look at every single one of those amazing chocolate/orange/nut/gold/caramel/roast/melting/spectacular/crunchy/round/square/star-shaped/dark/white/milky/bitter/sweet pieces of edible wonder, and maybe buying just the one truffle for yourself. (But shhhhh… don’t tell anyone about it!)

I must write a post entirely about chocolate…

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Write a post about how much you like winter and catch a cold. Typical.

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 3, 2010

hopefully the cure to my cold...

Now, I have to admit. I got a little carried away on Tuesday. The first glimpse of snow always makes me go a wee bit mad. But I slipped on a patch of ice this morning on my way to Uni, fell on my backside and saw the light. What was I thinking? Winter is cold. Winter is wet. Winter is the time when every single person in the hemisphere gets a runny nose, accidents multiply, and the weather becomes so bad it precedes murders, wars and disasters on the evening news. And yet it’s sooooo pretty!

Actually I would probably still be enjoying it if it wasn’t for a bad cold and all the germs I have been carrying around since the weekend. I normally fly over the ice and skid around joyously. I love snowball fights and making snow-angels and snowmen. A couple of years ago I slid on a sledge and it was heaven. But it will probably be the death of me in the end. I am a natural-born germ catcher and I don’t tend to do things by half. When I get a cold, it usually degenerates to the point I end up feeding exclusively off cough medicine and breathing in puffs from various inhalers for weeks on end. I HATE it!

I think what caused it this time was going holly-picking last weekend. I was wearing a woolly hat, a thick jumper with a high collar, a scarf, mittens, a coat, two pairs of socks and wellingtons (along with the usual assortment of ordinary clothes, underwear etc)…. Retrospectively I must have looked a bit like the michelin man; with all those layers it’s even a wonder I could lift my arms above my head to reach the branches. But still I got the sniffles. Had I known, I wouldn’t have bothered; it wasn’t even that cold. And since I’ve come back to Clermont, I’ve been trying to do some damage control. But it may have been too late. I’m on the threshold of descending through the seven circles of my usual hypochondriac hell. Even as I sit here wrapped up in a warm fleecy blanket in front of a chick flick drinking herbal tea laced with something called “fervex” (to take care of the runny nose and headache) I wonder about this itch at the back of my throat… Should I not resist the urge and cough? Or shall I give in to paranoia: will that one little cough be the camel back-breaking straw which will irritate my throat to the verge of bronchitis?

(Ironically as I am writing this Cameron Diaz is sprinting towards Jude Law across snow-covered fields with a very deep V-neck and a proportionately very small scarf. I hope she gets a cold) Anyway, a bit of honey in the already weird-tasting mixture should help with the tickly throat. After that, straight to bed. Night-o.

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♪♫♫♪♪Well the weather outside is frightful…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on November 30, 2010

Or so most people seem to think. This is where my weirdness shines through once more: I love snow! Is winter my favourite season? Hmmm, I don’t know for sure, but it is certainly a time when get to do a whole load of things I absolutely love! Going into the woods looking for the perfect christmas tree. Coming back home after a walk and warming your hands on a hot cup of tea (I even like that sensation when you suddenly recover a sense of touch and your skin burns  and itches). Snowball fights. Walking in the woods and shaking branches over people’s head to make them look like snowmen. Finding a patch of pure white snow and walk across it just for the sake of turning around to look at your footprints… And there are also so many indoorsy things to do as well: cooking and baking christmassy stuff that fill your house with the smell of spices and citrus fruits, decking the halls with boughs of holly (tralalalala lalalala)… And sitting snug and warm in an armchair sorting through the remaining Quality Street chocolates looking for something other than “strawberry cream”, and peeping through the curtains every now and then to say: oooooh what a dreadful weather!

But snow is really what turns it all into winter (and therefore pre-Christmas time). Everything that happens before the first snowflakes start falling is just preparation. Mise en place. Last weekend for example I made traditional mincemeat (for people who don’t know what it is, you’ll get an explanation further down), and stored it into jars. And I left it at that. But now… I feel like making a bit of pastry, bringing out my muffin tray and get cracking. And with that I’ll have a glass of mulled wine, please! The perfect winter snack: mince pies, a tangerine and mulled wine. Mmmmhh!

Over that same weekend I also went out into the woods to get some holly, ivy and fir branches to make the advents wreath. With the leftovers (and I had quite a lot of them) I also made a nice wreath to hang on the door of my flat. And at first I did wonder: “is this too early? Am I turning into one of those people who start decorating waaaay to early, so early it’s almost ridiculous?” But then today it snowed. And somehow it’s enough to justify Christmas decorations.

Soooo… Mincemeat and mince pies (Google kindly informs me they are known in America as mincemeat tarts..) I hadn’t planned on explaining them at first but it occurred that my french friends wouldn’t know what I was going on about, so a quick description is in order.  Basically mincemeat is a mixture of fruit(dried, candied and fresh), sugar, spices and BRANDY, and you use it as a filling to make mince pies. It is absolutely lush. I usually use Mrs Beeton’s traditional victorian recipe, with a couple of so-called improvements, which end up a bit like this:

200g chopped suet/ 150g raisins/ 200g sultanas/ 200g glacé cherries/ 200g crystallised ginger/ 200g chopped candied peel/ juice and rind of 1 orange and 2 lemons/ 200g apples, peeled and grated/ 250g soft brown sugar/ 250ml brandy, 1tsp each of dried ginger, cinnamon, mixed spice. (not fixed, you may add in or omit what you like)

Mix it all up in a bowl. Cover and leave for two days, stirring occasionally (this prevents it from fermenting later on), and then store in jars. If you want to be sure it’ll last, you can boil the jars afterwards to seal them.  Like most of Mrs Beeton’s recipes, this one could probably feed an entire victorian household (including the downstairs staff). But because it keeps so well (being only fruit, sugar and alcohol), you can keep it from one year to the next. Not that it happens on a regular basis though, I’ve never had difficulties using it all up. I love making traditional english Christmas recipes. And if ever another french person tells me this winter that it is oxymoronic to talk of english cuisine, I’ll just stuff a mince pie or tow into their mouths. It’ll have the double advantage of shutting them up, as well as proving them wrong and spreading the good word. Yay!

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