It remains to be seen if our constitutions will withstand the gruelling challenge of the festive season but if the first Christmas event we attended is anything to go by there is no way we will be able to maintain the pace set by our French neighbours.
We regularly attend cookery courses in a nearby village: really a social event where they chat about the food before they eat it, run by a larger-than-life ex-Parisian caterer. The village has 250 inhabitants, 25% of whom came to the Christmas cookery evening in the village hall. Most of the other participants are farmers and many of them not well off, but they do love their food and know how to have a good time! The following was provided for around £ 15 per head…..
The evening started with a greeting from the mayor and a welcoming drink of white wine and a homemade lemon juice preparation called marquisette. Once the kissing was done and we were all seated, the starters arrived: foire gras on figgie pain d’épice, snails in a garlic and bread sauce, Coquille Saint Jacque and smoked salmon with a soft cheese filling.
For our fish course we had lobster; there was a “trou du milieu” of prune and home-made ice-cream, generously laced with Armagnac provided by the mayor, while the main course was fillet of duck with a potato and aubergine gratin and a peppery lentil sauce. Following cheese (including the superb local Valençay goats’ cheese) with dressed salad, the desert was of profiteroles. Naturally there was wine throughout (dry white, red, sweet and sparkling rosé according to course) and at intervals some of the locals put on hilarious little plays for the entertainment of us all (and the humiliation of several).
After a late night and far too much to eat and drink, the contented crowd stumbled out of the hall and into each other’s houses to continue; we beat a hasty retreat while we could still stand! Some of the farmers were up early the next morning I gather, but we could not vouch for that as we ourselves could not get up until lunch time.
Back in the real world, our old log cabin office arrived on the back of a lorry from England and is now sitting in the front garden: 10 tons of wood in pieces under black plastic. We are discovering the joys of French planning law, especially strict in our case because our house is an important building in the town and is close to the church (this matters, I gather).
Fortunately I am handy with design software and computers generally. The plans required were not available from the cabin supplier so all had to be drawn from scratch and many details were estimated by looking at photographs of the office when it was in Codicote. The final bundle consisted of digital photographs from the air, neighbouring gardens and streets, location plans in 3 scales, cross-sectional drawings, ground plans, drawings from all four sides and before and after sketches, together with a ten page official document, a written summary and the OK from the mayor’s office. Now we wait to see if the building can be erected in the back garden and we are not holding our breath.
I understand even a tiny patio requires planning consent, building consent and a declaration of work to be undertaken and our neighbour, who had hoped to build a conservatory, gave up after seeing all the paperwork. France has a very large Civil Service to keep busy.
Another aspect of some trees becomes very noticeable at this time of the year. Mistletoe is far more plentiful in France than in England and in the countryside of the Indre can be seen in huge quantity on Willow, Poplar and Robinia, often seeming to take over the role of leaves and causing much damage to the trees. Orchards of Apple and Plum also suffer from this parasitic plant and while I still find it interesting, to the locals it is definitely a pest. If any independent garden centre wants a van-load for next Christmas I will see what I can do.
I have often said that the range of plants I would like to use in my planting schemes is difficult to buy over here. Gradually I am locating nurseries who may become suppliers and there are two noticeable features to what they sell. Pot sizes are generally much larger (2-3L in the UK, 5-7.5L over here) creating much strong but far more expensive plants. The range, while more limited, includes many plants which would be hard to find in the UK. An example is the Holly I first spotted in a local park: Ilex koehneana Castaneifolia has large, Chestnut-like leaves and is an attractive, berrying, evergreen shrub. We are currently researching nurseries to work with in France, the UK, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Italy.
We have had our first few requests for vouchers for garden design courses next year, two from France and one from the UK. The interest from the French is very pleasing, particularly as I had not been expecting it, but it puts pressure on me to make sure I can teach in the French language when the time comes. There were also enquiries for garden design as Christmas gifts, so in spite of all the economic doom and gloom it looks like we will be busy next year.
The front lawn has been destroyed by all the deliveries and materials stored on it and will be far worst by the time the building work has finished. The back garden will also need a new lawn but I have been dismayed to discover that turf is virtually unavailable to the French public. With a large area to cover, delivery from sports-turf growers in the north of France may make economic sense, but most people just sow grass seed. In my landscape work I have seeded lawns just twice and regretted it each time. We have even quoted for seeding but actually provided turf as the same price on one occasion, to ensure the client got a good quality lawn and I got a good night’s sleep, without the worry of whether the seed would germinate.
The big job for everyone this autumn and winter has been dealing with the trees they grow for shade in their gardens and in the street. These are pruned in what seems a brutal operation but which actually makes a lot of sense. In England we seem to plant trees, often in less than ideal positions and when they get out of hand cut them down and plant another. Here they are pruned every year to provide the required shade in the summer but to let the light past in the winter. The resulting trees form fascinating natural sculptures and can be of great age.