Sunday, February 24, 2013

pots de crème

For any of you who have been to France, you know what it's like to walk down the supermarket aisles and stumble upon the yogurt and pudding sections. Yes, sometimes there are multiple aisles! For those who don't know what I'm talking about, take a look at this stack of individual yogurt packs.
They're not so big on the 500 ml or litre tubs of yogurt, but boy can you find a million and one individual yogurts. They come in plastic pots, glass pots (perfect for  a little posy vases) and ceramic pots. And yogurt is cheap. Yesterday we bought a 12-pack of plain yogurt for Jean-Marc for 1,35€. 

But then, just across from the yogurt is the pudding section! Have you ever seen so many individual portions of pudding?
Whether it's chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, caramel or coffee-flavoured puddings, French people's shopping trolleys are usually well-stocked with these desserts (much to my shock! Four dozen puddings for the week - really?). French Farmhouse co-owner Caitlin and I discovered the delights of these pots de crème back when we were renovating the house. We bought the coffee-flavoured ones in little glass pots (perfect for tealight candle holders afterwards) and we were hooked, but, ahem, you know, in a reasonable way. Once again, it's all still rather affordable: 4 pots for 1€.

Now that I live here I don't give in to these treats, mostly because I'm trying to avoid sugar and industrial food. But those little ceramic pots that I've collected over the years have come in handy because I have found some low sugar (or no sugar) alternative recipes. Here's one that I recently made that turned out more like a flan than a pudding, but good all the same!

coconut custard flan
- butter or coconut oil to grease the ramekins
- 3 eggs
- 1 can of coconut milk
- 2 T maple syrup
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup grated coconut (optional)

- preheat oven to 325F (or 170C)
- boil some water to use for the bain marie in the baking dish
- grease the ramekins (about 4-5 medium)
- mix all the ingredients and pour into ramekins
- top with larger shaved coconut, if you like
- put ramekins into a baking dish and pour the boiling water into the bottom, surrounding the ramekins up about halfway
- bake custard flans for about 20-25 minutes or until set (you can check with a knife to see if it comes out clean). If your ramekins are smaller or wider, they may be done sooner.
Here are some of mine that I baked in some of those ceramic pudding pots. You can also make a bit more with 5 eggs, 1.5 cans of coconut milk, 1/4 cup or less of maple syrup, 1 T of vanilla and more shaved coconut. That should be good for 7-8 servings. Miam!

Monday, January 14, 2013

it's official: I can stay!

This news dates back a week and a bit. At the beginning of this year, I received a letter inviting me to pick up my 10-year residency card at the prefecture in Auxerre. While I was still on holidays I decided to drive the 50 km into town to pick it up. The office hours are from 1:30-4:00 pm (so very practical!) and so I got there around 3:15, thinking that I had plenty of time. They told me that they were no longer giving out numbers because there were too many people. I wasn't the only one wanting a number, so I thought I'd bring out my inner French complainer and told them that I was just there to pick up a card (how long could it take?) and that I had driven 50 km just for this card - plus they were supposed to be open until 4pm... Luckily for me and the other two guys also hoping to get in line, a worker came back and said that the numbers could be given out again. I waited my turn, signed a form, handed over my fiscal stamps (162€) and I got this puppy which is good until October 2022.
Oh, and are you curious what fiscal stamps look like? Here they are!
The steps to finally getting this card started on August 6th of last year. I filled out a request for a new titre de séjour and had to address a letter to the prefecture stating that I wanted to apply for a 10-year card this time (I finally had the right to do so after three years of marriage). In October I received a letter, giving me a date and time in late November that Jean-Marc and I were to come to the prefecture together. I thought they may have wanted to interview us both to make sure we're really married, but all they needed the two of us for was to sign a paper saying that we live together. After that I had a private interview with a fellow, while Jean-Marc had to wait outside.

The guy asked me about my education, work, associations I belong to (I had to scramble for that one!) and he duly noted down all the answers. I then was given a paper with two sections that I had to sign: one that said that I'm not currently living in polygamy and another saying that I will not live in polygamy in the future. He then told me I'd have a written test to see if I was integrating into French culture. Here's a sampling of the questions along with my answers.

1. name two specialties of French cuisine (mains dishes or desserts)
- boeuf bourguignon and crème brûlée (we do live in Burgundy, after all!)

2. name a French singer
- Johnny Hallyday (I stayed with a safe choice)

3. name a French athlete (help, I don't watch sports!)
- Zidane (he was the only one I could think of, and I'm not even sure he's 100% French!)

4. where is it illegal to drink? (I had to think about this one - it seems you can drink anywhere!)
- while driving

5. what's the speed limit on routes (I had to ask if it was outside city limits)
- 90 km/h

6. what's the river running through Auxerre (luckily Jean-Marc is interested in rivers!)
- l'Yonne

7. name a person who has influenced the history of France
- Napoleon (which one, Jean-Marc later asked! Erm... )

8. how is the president of the republic elected (huh? By election? No, that's too simple)
- the answer is 'suffrage universelle' but I wrote election/vote. I had honestly never heard that term before, or if I had at one point I never clued in!

9. do men and women have the same rights in France?
- yes! (although it's kind of hard to get your maiden name to stick)

I can't remember the other questions, but you get the picture. I figure I got 19/20, with my only slip being that election question. I'm just glad they didn't ask me the words to the Marseillaise! Although I think that might be coming next year when I ask for my French nationality and passport (something I'm planning on doing, just to make things less complicated and less expensive - but I'm still keepin my Canadian passport, don't worry).

I had better start studying!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

11 - 12 - 13

You knew there couldn't be just 10 things, right?

11. white tile
The French love themselves some white tile! Kitchen and bathroom, sure, I get it, but once you start taking it into the living room, dining room and the bedrooms, I start to get cold. I heard from my old ESL students that they thought it made for less dust and dirt, which is true if you sweep and mop your floor everyday, but who does that? What's wrong with a hardwood floor? At least it's warmer under foot! Or a good quality carpet? Sure the dirt may stick around a bit longer, but studies have shown that there are fewer dust particles floating around because they get "stuck" in the carpet. Plus it's cosy for the feet, so that seems like a win-win situation to me! Our old apartment in Savennières had off-white tile absolutely everywhere and we constantly had cold feet, even with multiple pairs of socks and slippers. In Vézelay, our house has vintage coloured concrete tiles (in a plaid pattern) on the main floor, but then we are lucky enough to have oak floors on the other levels.

12. speaking at the same time
French talk shows are funny. They prefer round-table discussions to one-on-one interviews (à la Letterman, Leno, Fallon etc.) so quite often they will have 5 to 10 invited guests at one time and then they like to talk at the same time. This way nobody can hear what anybody is saying and it gets very exciting. Oh yeah, and the audience is on camera all the time in the background behind the guests. There's this one late-night Saturday show (not SNL, unfortunately!) where there are around 7 - 10 invited guests and they all take turns sitting in the hot seat, where they may be ridiculed or told how stupid their book (CD, film, play, political career) was by the resident peanut gallery (two critics), while all the other guests watch in horror and/or participate in the lambasting of the guest. This is done in all seriousness. And - you guessed it - the show lasts 3 hours! This talking over one another is also noticeable in day-to-day life. Ok, I know that I have interrupted people in my time, but it comes nowhere close to the kind of interrupting I witness. I guess that's where I'm a little more anglo-saxon and they're a little more latin (at least this is what they claim!). The thing is, it really gets my heart pumping and I have to hang on tight to remain calm and not get caught up in the tornado. Even when I witness it on TV. How Canadian of me!

13. la gourmandise
At the end of a meal, when one has had quite enough, thank you, but then is offered a dessert or a little something extra, saying yes means giving into gourmandise. "Oui, mais ce serait par gourmandise" means "Yes, but it's because I'm up for some pleasure." There are no negative vibes to it, really, not like with caving or giving in (or gluttony, which is its cousin and its English literal translation). It's more of a gentle pleasure kind of vibe. The word can also be used to describe a treat such as candy, cake, pastries or other delicacies.

It's funny how we don't really have an English equivalent (except maybe 'treat') and how we're quick to denounce our indulgences. "Oh I really shouldn't! Well, maybe I'll give in to just a bite. You've twisted my arm." The French just go for it and assume it!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

top 10 things

Hello! I know it's been a while, sorry about that...

So to start off the new year, how about a top 10 list?
Top 10 Things French People Like

1. soft things
I have this idea that French people like to eat soft things. Bloody steak? So that they don't have to chew it as if it were a semelle (shoe sole). Green beans cooked to within an inch of their life? So that you don't have to chew them and thus you can avoid the squeaky crunchy aspect of green beans. Personally I love my beans to be squeaky! The same systematic overcooking goes for all vegetables, really, which must be served fondant (mushy).

2. set meal times
There are times you eat and times you don't eat. God forbid you want to eat lunch outside of the hours of 12pm - 2pm or supper before 8pm. Most restaurants just close up shop at 2pm and they don't care if you might bring in a little extra business. What restaurant owners don't understand, especially in a tourist town like Vézelay, is that holiday-makers are not on French meal times and that people from different countries eat at different times. Not only that, I am convinced that there are French people who would gladly eat outside the set hours. Gasp! If you stay open, they will come.

I personally see a huge window of opportunity in Vézelay for a cool little café/salon de thé that is open all day and serves up soup, quiche, salad, cakes, tarts, coffee and tea. Any investors out there? There are a million tourists who come through here every year, most of whom are unable to buy a little something to eat but would gladly do so given the chance.

3. paperwork
You've heard me go on about it before and nothing has really changed. It's always a paperwork issue, usually in triplicate, along with a proof of address, to be sent by registered mail.

I recently had to close down the farmhouse's no-contract internet service. I first had to bring the modem back to the shop - I only had to wait approximately one hour to be served! - and then I was handed a receipt which stated that the modem had been returned. I thought the guy would be able to cancel our service then and there (we can turn our phone # on and off online, after all!) but no, I had to write a cancellation letter and send it along with a photocopy of the receipt by registered mail to the headquarters. Then I got another internet bill. I had to call to see why they were still charging me, and after about 30 minutes on the phone with three different people they finally had it figured out. Luckily I had my registered letter receipt to be able to tell them when my letter had arrived at their headquarters!

Oh, and by the way, I'm still waiting for my diploma and degree equivalencies to come through. I sent them off in December 2010!

4. râler
Râler means to complain. You may have noticed that I have taken up this national state of being when I rant on about something (paperwork, for example!) but I do really try to not complain about stuff. The thing is, French people LOVE to complain - it's one of the things they do best. Even when there is nothing to complain about, they will find a reason to complain, even if it's just for the sake of complaining. It's dangerous, toxic and an unfortunate national illness (or sport, depending on your point of view).

5. things that are closed/enclosed
One of the first things you notice when you come to France is the number of shutters on the windows and that virtually all houses have some sort of enclosure, be it chain-link fences, concrete walls, dry stone walls or hedges. Must keep people out! Closing the shutters every night is a ritual and many people swear that they cannot sleep if the shutters are open. In the early evening closed shutters keeps prying eyes away from people's living and dining rooms, unlike in Holland, say, where everything is open all the time. Even inside the house, people like to live with all the doors closed all the time. This personally drives me nuts because it makes for a dark house - the light can't go from one room to another or the hallways - and the rooms end up being stuffy. And the WC can't air out!

6. long TV shows
If you don't have a TV this is not a problem, but if you should get sucked into a show, be prepared to go to bed late. First of all, things are on a different time schedule. The 6pm Evening News equivalent is on at 8pm here, so prime time shows don't usually start until about 9pm (or some weird time like 8:52pm - nothing starts on the hour here, except the News). Then the show goes on for three hours! We like watching shows like Top Chef and if we watch it live, we're not done until midnight. We have started to watch more things on demand so that we can control the time we go to bed. For American TV series, they like to have back-to-back episodes, meaning that if you want to follow the storyline, you need to stay up and watch them all - usually four in a row - and they're not available on demand. I suppose the simple solution is to not watch TV, which is something we are trying to do, but in the cold dark months of winter when there is nothing to do in the middle of nowhere, it is rather tempting.

7. long work days
The French have one of the shortest work weeks of anybody - just 35 hours! And yet, I feel like I'm at work for much longer than I ever was when I worked in Canada.  Why is that? Well, lunch, for starters. I'm officially allowed 2 hours for lunch, although I usually only take one hour or even less. That doesn't change the perceived number of hours that I am expected to be at work. We don't note down our hours at work (which bugs me) and all I know is that if I leave before 6pm it's looked down on. Same thing if I arrive after 9am. A lot of people who start at around 8:30 or 9am stay at work until about 7pm and don't usually get home until after 8pm. Don't forget that school kids also have long days, usually from 8:30 - 5pm. Little kids, even! Then they go to after school care until after 7pm when their parents pick them up. Gotta get them trained for the long work days ahead!

8. small coffees
Sometimes I'd like more than two sips of coffee. Enough said.

9. fiscal stamps
How do you pay for a parking fine, a speeding ticket, a new passport or a residency card? With fiscal stamps of course! You need to find a tabac that sells them and present them to the authority in question. Our closest tabac place that sells them is 15 km away, so it means 30 km roundtrip to pick these puppies up. I once asked why we couldn't just pay by cheque or bank card  - seems reasonable and simple to me - and the answer was "no, this is France." Fair enough.

10. the impossible
The preferred default answer to any request is "non, c'est impossible!" to which I have learned how to argue until the person sees that it is, in fact, possible. Yes, it's possible! I can hardly blame them. Things are so complicated here that it's just easier to say something is impossible rather than stir up the "complicated" pot. But sometimes that pot has to be stirred, no matter how uncomfortable and frustrating it is.

Alright, now that I've gotten that off my chest, perhaps I'll follow up with some personal news in a future post? 'Til then!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


When Jean-Marc and I are at home on the weekend, we usually try to get out for a hike on one of the many paths around our house. Sometimes we head out to another village by car and then explore the area using our hiking maps (cartes IGN). That way we get to discover all the local villages and keep track of the good hikes! I always take my phone with me so that I can take photos when the moment hits me (it's our only camera at the moment). Here are a few photos from this winter's hikes and village explorations.
A vintage house address in Semur en Auxois

A patchwork field

 A cafe wall in Saulieu

 I'm not sure what this is, but it was on a house wall in Nuars

 An abandoned boot

 Manhole cover

 An abandoned shop's door

 Graphic design graffiti

 Electricity cap in Semur en Auxois

 Old stone wall with succulents 

 An old ad on the side of a house in Vézelay

 An autumnal hike near Clamecy

 Do not enter

Thistles in Asquins, with the hill of Vézelay in the background

Sunday, May 20, 2012

meanwhile, back at the farmhouse...

Wowzers! It's been a very long time since my last post and I don't even know where the time has gone. Oh wait. I DO know where the time has gone! There was a choir tour at the beginning of April, followed by a number of days in a few installments of work at the farmhouse, interspersed with work-work, a conference in Paris and an operation at the hospital!

First off, the operation was nothing serious, so no need to worry.

The majority of the last two months has been spent on or at the farmhouse. I didn't have any official holidays to take, but between the bank holidays and my time off in lieu of overtime, I was able to squeak in three visits to the farmhouse to get it in shape for the season. Jean-Marc was able to stay longer than me and was there for two extended trips. Why all this time and work? I was hoping you would ask.

the terrace

Caitlin and I had put together a terrace back in 2004, with a mortared stone frame and gravel in the middle. It was the best low-cost option we could come up with at the time, but after a year, the weeds started growing in the gravel and it became a headache for us to maintain. Every year when we arrived, we would easily spend a few days just cleaning up the terrace, never mind keeping it clean throughout the summer! So this was THE year of the terrace.

Jean-Marc started by taking out all the gravel. Having been a part of the team that put the gravel there in the first place, I know that this was no small feat. I did help, but I was also busy with other projects as you will see later.
He then started leveling the ground to get it ready for the stones that we bought. In the meantime, there was a situation happening in the corner that needed attention. By the stairs we had some out of control mint overtaking the terrace and it needed to be contained, so Jean-Marc built a dry stone retaining wall (well, from the outside it looks like it's dry, but he mortared the back of it to give it strength). The mint was taken out and replanted later.
Of course the plan was to lay a stone terrace, so we had to find stones. I looked on the internet on a French version of craigslist (le bon coin) and low and behold, a guy just 7 kms away was selling some lauze. It was originally on someone's roof and then he has used it on his terrace and driveway, but it was too slippery for his daughter's wheelchair, so he dug it up and it was still good enough to use again. So we loaded 18 square metres of the stuff into his tractor, loaded the stone from the tractor into our borrowed truck, and then unloaded it into a pile where it sat waiting to be used. The stones were fairly big and heavy, so our arms and hands got a good workout! We ended up hiring a local stone mason for two days to help us get started and then Jean-Marc finished laying the stone (without doing the joints). It looked like this.
As luck would have it, just as we were ready to start doing the joints, there was the year's biggest storm in our area, with winds of up to 160 km/hour, meaning that the spaces between the stone were filled with dirt, leaves, seeds, flowers and gravel and not at all ready to be filled with mortar! We had to wait a few days and then use brushes and a vacuum cleaner to clean out the spaces. Once it was clean again, we were able to start mortaring the joints. We worked on this together and it was hard work kneeling on the stone. Our hands and knees were aching!

While all this was going on, I was also working on...

the table

With a new terrace we needed a new table! Actually, the one we had put together in 2004 was falling apart, so it was a real necessity. A few weeks before heading to the farmhouse, we had gone for a hike near our house and we came across a nice homemade table that seemed easy enough to put together. We returned, measuring tape in hand, and I took all the dimensions as well as a number of photos to figure out how it was all put together. When we arrived at the farmhouse, I asked my neighbour, William, what kind of wood to use for the table and he said "Douglas Fir" (or doo-glass in French!)- something that he had a whole stack of and was willing to let me use. He helped cut the planks to the right length for the table top and then I planed them so they would be the same thickness.
table top

table legs
I put it all together and then put the legs on once the terrace was done. And voilà!
ta da!
A new table and terrace - not bad, but there was more...

the shutters

We had a couple of pairs of shutters that were falling apart and all the rest were looking rather shabby. Even though they had been painted in 2005, the sun, wind and rain made them look like it had been thirty years since the last paint job. So I MADE two pairs of shutters (I was planning on getting them made but then got talked into making them by William). I also painted all the shutters, new and old.
one pair that I made
I made the upper left pair and painted all the rest
looking down the path
When we bought the house, the shutters were this colour with the white zeds, and although it's big pain to paint in two colours, we have found it to be a good way to identify the house for our renters, considering that there are no street names and numbers in our village. The paint really made the shutters 'pop' and made the ones that are not exactly falling apart - but not far off - seem in better shape. When I finished the shutters, I had some extra planks of wood left over, and then I looked at this area of our garden.

the flower box

The flower box that we had planted a couple of years ago was completely rotten and falling apart, so I put together a new one with the shutter leftovers, stained it and put some extra plants in it. Now it looks like this.
Ok, so it's still on top of a septic tank and there are pipes and whatnot around it, but I think with time, and a few more pots and planters, it will become a poetic spot!

These were all the major jobs that we did, but we also planted a lot of new plants (including a clematis and a honeysuckle), cleaned up the garden, cleaned up the house, made and repaired window screens to keep the flies out, attended to plumbing emergencies, upgraded our electricity so that we can make tea and toast at the same time (crazy, I know!) and put our electricity counter on a peak/low hours deal, so that we can have cheaper electricity at night for things like the hot water heater.

I don't have any fabulous "after" pictures because the weather was awful and I ended up leaving before Jean-Marc, so I never saw the final-final results myself. Hopefully I'll get to take some more photos this summer.

All in all, it was a tiring and exhausting few weeks. Most of our work days were 12 - 14 hours long and very physical. We barely had enough time to cook proper meals for ourselves and we even resorted to eating tinned food but were lucky enough to have William bring us extra hot meals from time to time. There were many moments when the stress of getting everything done on time was overwhelming and there were other moments when I thought it was never going to come together. The weather wasn't very cooperative, but we managed (!) and we are extremely pleased and proud of the results. Hopefully we will get a chance to go the the farmhouse this summer when it's not rented out, so that we can take advantage of our new terrace and table. I'd love to be able to go there, relax and do nothing (although I know that there is window putty, wood oil and plaster waiting for me with my name on it).

Both of us tackled the unknown and we have come away with a thrilling sense of accomplishment as a result of figuring out how to do something and seeing the results. Of course, it helps when there is a neighbour who knows how to do everything and can give advice when needed!
the path to the garden cabin that Jean-Marc made from locally found (i.e. free!) stones

Sunday, March 18, 2012

if you don't know me by now

How long have I been speaking French? At least 23 years, with another 10 years of French at school before that. How is it that I never learned these words? I know that there are 25000 words that are shared between English and French, with the exact same meaning and usually almost the same spelling, and yet...

You try to figure these out!
1. économe
2. police (from an earlier post)
3. enceinte (not the pregnant kind)
4. pleine
5. interrupteur
6. mail
7. émail
8. puériculture

Some of you may know these words already, but here are their meanings.

1. économe
An economist, perhaps? Nope, it's a vegetable peeler!

2. police
The people who stop the bad guys? Nope, it's a font/typeface (I had mentioned this in an earlier post, so you might have remembered!).

3. enceinte
Pregnant? Well, yes, as an adjective, but as a noun it means speaker (as in, what you plug your stereo into).

4. pleine
Feminine version of full? Well, yes to that as well, but it can also mean pregnant (mostly used for animals and considered a vulgar term). "Faire le plein" is a fill-up at a gas station.

5. interrupteur
That annoying person who interrupts you all the time? Nope, it's a light switch. You know, you interrupt the electricity with it (or is it the light you interrupt?).

6. mail (or mél)
The obvious postal variety? Nope, it's an email.

7. émail
Well, it can't mean email (although it's starting to - spelled without the accent). It means enamel. This whole email business kind of thew the French for a loop because the word 'email' was everywhere, but it meant something different in French, and so they tried courriel, mél, mail and are coming around to email.

8. puériculture
Is it the official word for fish farming? Nope, it's childcare. Seriously? Seriously! Seems kind of scientific and technical to me.

There are numerous examples of words that take a little getting used to in French, especially when coming at the language from English. I would say that I'm fluent, but there are still words that completely stump me. I have noticed that when I'm tired my ability to speak French coherently diminishes, which I find extremely frustrating. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to express myself 100% and not have to struggle with getting my thoughts across. Some things really are lost in translation. The worst thing? My English is getting rusty!