Tuesday, 30 December 2008

A Nearly White Christmas

What a difference a day makes, one day earlier and we would have had a white Christmas. It was still pretty nice to wake up to some snow on boxing day though, the grandchildren had a great time building a snowman and having a snowball fight with their parents.

We had already seen a bit of snow because we had gone to the Pyrenees for a little bit of skiing on Christmas eve and had a really nice day out at Bonascres above Ax les Thermes, despite the fact that all the websites I could find said it was closed when in fact all the slopes and lifts were open and they were enjoying a brilliant start to the season.

Christmas day saw the commencement of a typical English Christmas with the intention to cook a goose according to Jamie's instructions and a turkey cooked to Nigella's instructions, except all that soaking in the water with all sorts of herbs and things, couldn't be doing with all that.

Oh and we made up our own stuffing as well and it was all delicious, so who needs celebrity chefs anyway.

Fraser (son in law) and I did our own thing with the birds and the ladies sorted out all the veg. But the potatoes cooked in goose fat were out of this world, so that was a good tip and there was plenty available in no time at all once the goose hit the oven.

The stuffing was made with a pork mince base which was added to fried onions which were cooked until golden in olive oil. Once the mince was nicely fried and cooked through a sweet apple was diced and added for good measure, then a generous dash of Chardonnay and lashings of sage, thyme and rosemary were thrown in. It was all mixed with white bread broken into fine powdery crumbs, a few walnuts broken up into quite small pieces and a raw egg to hold it all together. We left it to cool then overnight for the next days cooking marathon.

Some of the stuffing was pushed into the bottom of the turkey (but not to fill it completely) and the rest was cooked in it's own dish so that the top was brown and crispy. Both versions were really good and this could well become our traditional family stuffing for the future (all because we forgot the celery we usually use for stuffing) and especially now that I have recorded it here for reference.

Talking of family stuffing, by the time we had finished eating we were well and truly stuffed and all that was left to do was sit in front of the TV having loaded the fire with logs and try and stay awake through the film I got for Christmas appropriately named 'Run Fat Boy Run' which I have to say was very funny, well the bits I saw of it, you know what I mean, a few ports a roaring fire and a full belly, not the best combo for alertness.

So having consumed about a weeks worth of food in one day we made plans for a skiing trip to Mont D'Olme and a day of fitness, but that's another story which, with luck, I can share with you soon.

Here is our family Christmas dinner, for anyone who is interested:
  • One goose cooked a la Fraser
  • One turkey cooked a la Brian
  • Roast potatoes cooked in goose fat
  • Parsnips cooked in goose fat and drizzled with honey
  • Carrots sweated in a pan with butter and garlic
  • Pigs in their jackets courtesy of the Naafi with English pork sausages and streaky bacon
  • Pork and apple stuffing
  • Sprouts steamed to soften (love em or hate em, I love em)

  • Christmas pudding and cream

The album from boxing day can be found at Boxing Day Photos

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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas Message & New family Members

Merry Christmas to one and all, family, friends and visitors to our gite in France, some of whom have become friends.

We have had a very eventful first year in France and in September we officially became French residents and I now pay my tax and national insurance to the French government Yay!! I'm so happy about that.

We had a very busy season in the gite with lots of people to stay right up until mid October and have already let 9 weeks for next season with high hopes that the rest of the weeks will go after Christmas which is the busy time for people looking for holidays.

Next year the rules change in France and there is going to be the introduction of a new working condition for entrepreneurs. What that actually means is that you will be able to register a business as a self employed person and only pay tax on your earnings, whereas at the moment you are supposed to register your business and pay tax on assumed earnings whether you actually earn any money or not - CRAZEEEEY .

Ang and I are really looking forward to the change because it will give us both the opportunity to start legitimate businesses. I am going to advertise as a web designer and Angela will look for work as a seamstress, something that she has great talent for. So watch this space.

On a personal level we have also had a very interesting year, Angela discovered around about September time that she has another elder sister, who is happily married and has been living in Bermuda for the last 20 years. They have just retired and are now looking into living in Australia or perhaps New Zealand where they have children and grandchildren, so it is a very exciting time for them and their family with new babies also due at any time now.

We were very lucky to all be able to meet up in the UK where we were all attending a family wedding and Angela got to meet her new sister and her husband before they disappeared off to Australia. It was a very successful meeting and we are very happy to welcome Janice and her family into our family and now hope to make up for lost time. It was definitely a shock to everyone to find there was a new sister and emotions ran very high initially but I think now everyone has met and the shock has subsided that this is a very positive event in all our lives.

So a special Merry Christmas and Happy new year to all our new family who are all going to be together in Australia.

We also had a new addition to the family in the form of little Scarlett who was born on the 27th May to her proud parents in Gloucester in the UK, a little Bobby Dazzler with a lovely disposition and a happy smile for everyone.

That is it for my Christmas blog and message I hope that everyone who reads this has the opportunity for a nice Christmas and have no troubles in their lives that cannot be resolved.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Tis the season to be merry and to cut wood

Christmas is just around the corner and life in France is full of anticipation because a fair proportion of the family are heading our way to share the festivities. So it won't be long before the house is all messed up with stuff strewn everywhere and the kids running riot.

This is what my wife calls 7th heaven and she just can't wait. I enjoy it as well but I still like my quite moments, so my escape from the mayhem is to get out into the garden sort out a few bits and pieces cut a few logs up and stick them on the woodpile.

Funny thing is though I know as soon as I do that, all the grandchildren will decide to join in, they all love to get involved and if last year is anything to go by, it won't take long before we have to get a work party organized with wood being loaded into the wheelbarrow and transported to the wood store, truth is I actually really enjoy that.

There will of course have to be some stern health and safety warnings given out as this year I have had to invest in a new chain saw which, is a bit of a beast, having finally killed off my little 14" McCulloch through overwork logging large trees and lots of them.

So here's the story, I'll try not to bore you with it too much, we decided it was time to get sorted out with a saw that was capable of supporting the amount of work it would need to do for Life in the France Lane. After much research and seeking of opinion we knew exactly which model we wanted and set about finding the cheapest supplier.

Well the internet was out because there was no guarantee of delivery before Christmas and with half the family arriving for the Yule Tide celebrations we couldn't all be sitting around in the cold with no firewood, the name Ebeneezer Scrooge springs to mind.

So we short listed 3 local suppliers and set off to check them out, we had a great start Saturday afternoon and the first shop we went to was shut, well it is France.

Off we went to the 2nd one (Melix)and they were having some sort of promotion, the place was full of people all drinking wine and eating snacks and what were they all examining, you guessed it chainsaws.

Just our luck, the 2 French speaking salesmen were fully engaged with their audience and the little Brits (me and the wife, or should I say my wife and I) at the back were not getting a look in. We did manage to ascertain however that the chainsaw we wanted was on display at twice the price we wanted to pay, something in the order of 700 euros, ouch!!!

At this point we decided to retreat and head off to our 3rd venue, the local Bricomarche, however in my wisdom I decided that we would be better going to a much larger Bricomarche on the outskirts of Carcassonne which was only a 30 minute drive away and would in my opinion be bound to cost less. So off we went only to find when we got there that they didn't actually sell chainsaws, oh good, this left us little option but to turn around and go back to out local shop.

The maths isn't hard about an hour after the decision to save a bit of money we were back on the outskirts of Castelnaudary with no chainsaw and to put you in the picture,from when we 'popped' out to pick up a chainsaw about 2 1/2 hours had passed and we hadn't actually achieved anything. On a positive note however we did spot some Christmas trees for sale at a very reasonable price in the local garden center next to the Canal du Midi (world heritage site you know)and managed to squeeze one big enough to keep the wife happy into the car.

So now I am driving into the middle of Castelnaudary with a Christmas tree sticking in my left ear and the wife, who has now had to move into the back of the car having given up her seat to the Christmas tree giving me the wisdom of her advice in my right ear.

We finally got to our local Bricomarche only to find that the saws there were actually more expensive than the saws in the 2nd venue (Melix). So guess where we were going next, I think the French call it deja vu.

We got back to Melix about 2 hours after our original visit and the mayhem there had calmed a little, for our part we had down scaled our expectations and selected a model which was a little closer to our target price, now all we had to do was attract the attention of a salesman.

With best French at the ready we entered into negotiations and immediately went for a 100 euro reduction on the price based on a voucher we had found in the chainsaw brochure for the model we wanted. It was at this point that the salesman pointed at a sign above my head which showed that the price they were asking already included the 100 euros off, which I understood, but before I could reply I heard 'un moment' and the salesman disappeared.

He quickly re-appeared with a very nice lady who spoke perfect English, who actually turned out to be his wife and was in fact English but had lived in France for 22 years so was fluent in both languages (I am so jealous of that).

Anyway I am dragging this out a bit, but with a few well pointed questions it was quickly established just how many and what size trees I needed to cut and how woefully inadequate my choice of machine was.

Isn't it really bad when what someone is telling you is making complete sense and you know he is right but you really don't want to spend that much money.

I tried one more futile attempt to get the cheaper machine and mentioned that the expensive one was a little more than I wanted to spend, didn't get me anywhere, I think the response I got was something along the lines of 'then perhaps I should have bought a property with less trees which were smaller' and then I could have managed with a smaller saw, I sort of got his drift and had to finally concede.

Before I knew it I had agreed to pay twice as much as I wanted to and the new saw appeared from the stock room ready to take to the check out, he did however give me a 100 euros off the asking price and we had really enjoyed our chat with his English speaking wife who could not have been more helpful plus we could at last go home. It had only been 4 hours ago that we had left the house in search of our best deal for the chainsaw, firm in our opinion we would not be swayed into paying more than we wanted to or buying a saw we weren't fully conversant with in terms of specification.

The good news is I used the new saw today and it started first time, it did not seize up and I cut a huge pile of wood as big as a house (alright I'm exaggerating) in about 1/2 and hour or so, I think I have to admit it was game set and match to our French salesman.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Renovating a room or two

It's a good job I'm not a juggler because if I was I would have been sacked by now, not been so good keeping all the balls in the air recently.

The juggling is renovating the house, internet marketing, doing the garden, cutting wood for the winter and various other tasks that I have going on.

In other words I keep doing a bit of everything and finishing nothing (or so it seems) and have to admit I am particularly drawn to sitting on the computer which always seems to take priority especially versus hard physical labour, don't understand why exactly, that's just the way it is.

Anyway I knew I had to start work on getting a new kitchen installed in our living area for when the gite is rented out and that the computer would have to take 2nd spot for a while.

That holiday season seems a bit away at the moment but time goes so fast that you can be sure it will be on us again and the kitchen won't be done if we don't get on with it, just like last summer where the only place we could wash up was in the cave (cellar) and that's a pretty long trek when you are carrying a big basket full of pots and crockery, just couldn't put the wife through that again so it has to be done.

Well this old house is made of stern stuff and I found that just getting the pipework through for the new sink involved drilling 3 holes through about 18" of solid concrete, not so bad for the 15mm (0.6") pipes but proved a bit of a battle for the 52mm (2") waste pipe. After spinning around on the end of the drill a few times and about 8 attempts over 5 hours I finally got my holes done, Yay!!!.

Anyway to cut a long story short, I managed to focus long enough to get all the pipework in place and connect up the sink which now sits proudly on it's unit waiting to be finished off, no change there then.

In order to finish locating the new kitchen units we needed to decide what to do with a doorway that had to be closed off and form part of the wall that sits behind the new units. After a brief discussion it was clear that the best way to do this would be to fill in the hole with block work and then plaster it.

Sounds easy enough and the first stage of doing the block work went relatively smoothly and yes I was pleased with my handiwork, how hard could plastering be???

I am not a builder so as I said I was quite chuffed with the block work and set about the task of plastering over the new blocks it must be said, on a bit of a high.

Not wanting to mess up I decided to plaster the bottom half of the doorway first to see how this French plaster was mixed and applied. The first batch went on like a dream, slapped it on smoothed it out and seemed to have plenty of time to get the finish right.

All the bad press I had heard about this plaster was dismissed, it's a doddle I thought, that was until I mixed the 2nd batch which set as I carried it up the steps to where I was working. So nothing for it, I went back down the steps and chiseled the now rock hard plaster out of my bucket with not a trowel full applied, cleaned everything up and mixed another batch.

Now bear in mind all I am doing is a 6'6" x 3' doorway 1/2 of which I completed on my first go, it should have been easy. Anyway the 3rd batch lasted about 2 minutes longer than the 2nd batch which was just long enough for me to get it on the wall but not to smooth it out, what a disaster.

It was at this point I enlisted the help of my wife, all instructions were read again, kitchen weighing scales and measuring jugs were brought into play to ensure the correct proportions were being mixed and according to the law I should have had 30 minutes to apply and smooth out the plaster. I am not sure how many batches we ended up mixing or how many bucket fulls
of the solid lumps that ensued I had to chisel out, but I do know that at the end of this exercise I was a broken man.

We are still attacking the plastered doorway on a daily basis filling, scraping and sanding to try and get a decent finish, well we were going to tile over that bit anyway, honest!!

So be warned you budding builders out there, French plaster sets like concrete in anything from 1 to 10 minutes and no amount of additional water or powder is going to stop it, unless you know better, in which case can you tell me please because I am desperate to figure out how a French plasterer can do a complete wall.

Well you can imagine the stress this little exercise caused me so when the wife said 'shall we go for a nice long walk instead of working today, it is Sunday after all', I jumped at it and off we set. It's amazing as you walk along through gorgeous countryside looking at what nature has to offer how things can be put in perspective and what seems a monumental problem pales into insignificance.

That's when I took the picture above and realized that this was god's handy work, that he had put those clouds in the sky and it was then I thought 'he didn't get those too smooth either, so what am I worried about'.

Hope you enjoyed this little story, I know I didn't and I am certainly not claiming to be an expert now, this is one skill set I am happy to leave to the professionals the next time a little bit of plastering needs to be done.

The following sign was spotted on a plumber's truck, I think it could be put on a builders truck as well.

On a Plumber's truck:
'We repair what your husband fixed.'

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