Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Metro, boulot, dodo, boulot...

Health minister Xavier Bertrand has suggested introducing an official nap time into the workplace. Does anybody have an idea how this would function on a practical level? Would there be a company bedroom perhaps? Would everybody sleep together? How would you know when to wake up?

Anyway, what’s wrong with falling asleep at your desk like most people do?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

C'est si bonbon

The word for sweet in French is bonbon – that is, ‘good’ twice over. Originally, honey was the basic ingredient of the sweets, or ‘spices’, that became popular during the reigns of the French kings. Before the fifteenth century, sugar was a rare and expensive commodity in France and was considered as medicine – rather than as something to help the medicine go down - and sold by the ounce. Catherine de Medici changed all that when she married Henri II in the sixteenth century.
Catherine made several important contributions to French society including the introduction of forks, broccoli, ballet, the outbreak of the French wars of Religion and – most importantly – sweets. With the discovery of America and the creation of sugar plantations, sugar had become more widely available and could be used in sweet-making. One of the most famous confectioners of the time was the Italian, Jean Pastilla, from which we get the word pastille.

Sweets were reserved for royalty and the upper-classes. They were used to ‘pay’ judges for a favourable outcome to a lawsuit (‘Let me off, guv and I’ll slip you a pound of Liquorice Allsorts and a packet of wine gums’) and also to woo the ladies of the court. In the eighteenth century, it was fashionable for noblemen to carry drageoirs – small boxes of sweets they offered around, rather like cigarettes.

In 1806, that old spoilsport, Napoleon Bonaparte, declared the Continental Blockade, banning all trading with Great Britain, including that of sugar. This forced other European countries to find an alternative to sugar cane and they did, in the form of sugar beet which thrived in northern soil. The newly plentiful supply of sugar led to the industrialisation of sweet making and soon sweets were available to everybody. Today, the French eat about four kilos of sweets per person, per year.

Many towns in France have a speciality. Lyon, for example, is famous for its papillotes, traditionally eaten at Christmas and the New Year. These are chocolates or fruit jellies wrapped in colourful, fringed foil with a joke or a proverb inside the wrapper. Legend has it that in 1790, a certain Monsieur Papillot, a confectioner in Lyon, noticed that quantities of sweets were disappearing mysteriously from his shop. One day, he caught his shop assistant wrapping the sweets in love notes and sneaking them off to his girlfriend. Recognising a potential money-spinner when he saw one, he promptly sacked the love-struck assistant and began to make his own papillotes, slipping a humorous saying into each one.

Another sweet that began life as a mistake is the minty Bêtise de Cambrai. The story goes that about two hundred years ago, a young apprentice-confectioner got his sweets all wrong and was told that he was an idiot and that he’d done something stupid yet again. Bêtise means ‘a stupid thing’ but fortunately, these stupid things sold very well and now they are famous all over France.

Sugared almonds or dragées are traditionally offered at christenings and weddings. Dragées have been made in Verdun since the middle-ages when somebody had the idea of coating almonds with sugar – probably an apothecary, as these medieval pharmacists had already invented the sugar-coated pill. Dragées had been around even before then, however, and some claim the sweet was named after a Roman confectioner, Julius Dragatus, who inadvertently dropped some almonds into a vat of honey and liked the result. Others maintain that the ancestor of the sugared almond was an ancient sweet from Montpellier, called a diadragam. Whatever the origins, the dragées from Verdun are still considered to be the best.

Another type of dragée is the Anis de Flavigny, or sugar-coated aniseed. Once again, the origins of this sweet are obscure but they are still made in the old Abbey in the village of Flavigny in Burgundy, as they have been for centuries. During the French Revolution, the monks had to flee the abbey and the villagers took over production of the sweets. Eventually, the business fell into the hands of a single family and it has been this way ever since. Today, Anis de Flavigny sweets come in various flavours and are still packed in the pretty little oval boxes that were designed in the 1930s to fit into vending machines.

Another sweet that comes in a distinctive tin is the Cachou Lajaunie. These tiny, strong liquorice lozenges that freshen the breath and soothe the throat were developed by a chemist from Toulouse and today, the bright yellow round tin is sold in tobacconists’ shops everywhere.

The berlingot de Nantes is a small, boiled fruit sweet which perhaps takes its name from the traditional headgear – the bergot - worn by the local women in the nineteenth century when they sold their sweets in the streets of Nantes. This is disputed by the makers of the berlingot de Carpentras, who claim to have invented the sweet in the sixteenth century. They could both be wrong because it appears the berlingot was already being made by the Arabs in the middle-ages – but as they seem to enjoy the rivalry, nobody bothers to press the point.

Vichy mints are made from extracts of Vichy mineral water, mixed with sugar and peppermint. It is said that eating eight mints a day is equivalent to a course of treatment in a spa – and it’s certainly cheaper.

These represent a mere handful of the scrumptious sweets to be found in France – I haven’t mentioned the Bergamote de Nancy, Forestine de Bourges or the Réglisse d’Uzès. Then there are the Calisson d’Aix-en-Provence and the Nougat de Montélimar…tell you what, I’ll write a post about those next time: doing the research is such fun

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A flying visit

My sister got married in Eastbourne on Saturday and my three girls were bridesmaids. We flew to Gatwick on Friday afternoon and left on Sunday morning…back in time for the girls to do their homework, much to their chagrin

I usually travel by train. I like watching the scenery change from north to south or from east to west and I have time to adjust so that when I reach England, all of me is on Local Time.

Travelling by plane is different. No sooner had we soared above the snow-capped Alps and crossed a sea of creamy cloud than we were descending towards England - and another planet…

I was still in Gallic mode and talking French to everyone I met until I got fed up of my daughter elbowing me in the ribs. Then I took a look around me. I hadn’t been here for six years and some things had changed, others hadn’t – but what struck me was how different we are. Of course, it has struck me before but I wonder if the cultural gap isn’t getting wider. Perhaps I’ve been away too long…or perhaps it’s because I was also seeing it from the viewpoint of three French teenagers - I don’t know. But this time I really did feel as if I were visiting a foreign country.

People seemed friendlier in England – strangers smiled and called me ‘love’ and ‘sweetheart’. In contrast, the dour but handsome Alain Delon look-alike customs officer in Grenoble, whilst explaining a particularly illogical piece of French legislation, fixed me with a stare that would have turned wine to vinegar at thirty paces. And anyway, if he had called me 'sweetheart', I might possibly have swooned…

According to my children, the English dressed badly and were moches. Don’t worry - this is a sweeping generalization made by teenage girls and aimed mainly at me. I didn’t notice many Alain Delon look-alikes though, I must say.

But I think it was the humour that affected me the most. Everybody made jokes – from the steward on the plane to the girl in the corner shop to the minister at the ceremony. The English love to laugh at themselves and the French take themselves so seriously that it’s – well – laughable.

Anyway, we’re back now. It was a beautiful wedding. However, I haven’t got a single photo to show you because some drunken reveller erased all the pictures from my camera.

Now, that is no joke…

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


photo from

The traditional - but unofficial - emblem of the French nation is the cockerel. In Latin, gallus means both 'cockerel' and 'Gaul' and symbolizes the fighting spirit of the nation (and is nothing to do with being chicken, whatever people say). It is also reminiscent of some of the more macho Gallic individuals who strut and flirt indiscriminately whenever a member of the female sex swans into view. The French phrase for this is faire le coq which means 'to act like a cockerel'.

The French are very fond of animals. They keep them as pets, they put them in zoos, they wear them as coats and, of course, they eat them. Well, we eat them too, don't we? Yet somehow, while many of us will quite happily chomp our way through pigs, cows and little bunny rabbits, we balk at the thought of roast horse with our Yorkshire pudding or donkey sausages on sticks. As for snails, these - along with frogs' legs - have come to represent typical French cuisine. While people generally only eat them on special occasions or in restaurants catering for foreign tourists, they still manage to chew through 45,000 tons of the beasts every year. Many of these are bred by héliciculteurs on snail farms and, if your idea of a fun afternoon is watching snails breed, you can book a guided tour. Some farms even offer picnic facilities - presumably on a pick-your-own basis. This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. I remember seeing an elderly couple early one morning scurrying about in the rain picking things off the pavement. I thought perhaps one of them had dropped their pills or their pension but on closer inspection, I realised they were picking up huge, slimy snails…for lunch. Fast food, if you like, in an oxymoron kind of way…

Frogs' legs are one of the specialities of the Rhône Alpes, as frogs are to be found in abundance in the nearby swamps of La Dombes where, paradoxically, they are allowed to hop to their heart's content because they are now a protected species and it is against the law to catch them. Indonesian frogs, on the other hand, have no such luck. To read about how they are caught and slaughtered for export would put you off ever nibbling on a batrachian's thighbone again - if indeed you were at all tempted in the first place. France imports thousands of tons of frogs' legs from Indonesia every year and they still call it a national dish.

Donkey saucisson is another speciality of this region and horsemeat can be found in most supermarkets - an idea which can be hard to swallow for those who consider these animals as pets, not main courses. It's like eating kitten casserole or puppy stew, for goodness sake. And foie gras is a bit more than a tasty meat spread - it is the fattened liver of some poor goose which has been force-fed by means of a funnel rammed down its neck. Phew. I'm so glad I'm a vegetarian…

Contrary to appearances, the French do not eat all their animals. They are very fond of dogs, especially Yorkshire terriers, which can often be seen trotting beside their mistresses wearing hand-knitted jackets and sporting velvet bows in their hair (the dogs, not the mistresses). Then there is the French poodle, which isn't really French at all but a European hunting dog that became a favourite at the court of Louis XIV. Dogs are allowed into shops and restaurants here - I have had the distasteful experience of someone's panting pooch slobbering over my shoes as I sat contemplating my omelette baveuse. Their owners also allow them to foul the pavement so that an outing to the shops can resemble a run down the Grand Slalom. The problem is so great that efforts have been made to educate owners into cleaning up after their dogs - including, in Lyon, a plastic poo campaign. In November 2003, 10,000 plastic dog poos were placed in strategic areas around Lyon, inscribed - on the underside - with the words "verbal warnings are not enough". The poos had all disappeared by the end of the day, so people presumably got the message…Here in Grenoble, on the other hand, the thoughtfully provided 'Dog Spaces' remain resolutely clean while the beautiful green grass that surrounds them has turned into a malodorous obstacle course. What the population needs is a few plastic poos, in my opinion…

On a wilder note, there are many zoos in France - Paris alone has three. The idea for zoos originated with the aristocracy in the sixteenth century - ménageries were a sign of wealth and power. François 1er, for example, slept with a lion at the end of his bed (probably because he didn't have a Tiger in his Tank) and exotic animals were often exchanged as diplomatic gifts. Two hundred years later, in the streets of eighteenth-century Paris, people could watch performing elephants or fighting polar bears and they could buy parrots or flying squirrels. The royal ménagerie at Versailles kept lions, cranes, an elephant, a rhinoceros and a zebra, which in 1760 became a major court attraction.

These days at the zoo, you get to queue for two-and-a-half hours to see three bored monkeys who won't eat your peanuts and a solitary, disgruntled springbok. All the other animals will be eating their lunch somewhere behind the scenes and won't be out until 10 minutes before closing time, at which point everyone has lost interest and gone looking for the nearest take-away. Which proves, doesn't it, that animals are not quite as bêtes as we take them for?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Green Fairy

If a French person mentions the Green Fairy, you can be sure they won’t be talking about hands that do dishes. La Fée Verte is the name given to absinthe, a strong, almost mythic alcoholic drink that has been banned in France since 1915.The elixir – the colour of which is due to the high concentration of chlorophyll - was also known as the Green Muse and, eventually, as the Green Peril.

Absinthe is made from a selection of plants, the most notorious of which is Artemisia absinthium or wormwood. Wormwood is a bitter herb, mentioned in the Bible and used for thousands of years as a remedy for stomach ailments. It grows in dry, mountainous areas, like Switzerland and this was where the first popular recipe for the drink was elaborated. The rights to commercialise absinthe were bought by a certain Monsieur Pernod (yes, that Pernod) in 1797 and he set up a distillery just over the border in France. His recipe used aniseed, fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, angelica, star anise, juniper, nutmeg and veronica. These were macerated together with wormwood and the mixture was distilled with alcohol to achieve a concentration of approximately seventy-five percent alcohol – which is about one hundred and thirty degrees proof…

At first, absinthe was used for medicinal purposes only – but we all know what that means. Soon, people were swigging it down with any old excuse and it began to be sold in shops and cafés, rather than at the chemist’s. Its reputation reached the capital where absinthe became the drink most closely associated with painters and poets, who claimed to find their inspiration in its emerald depths: they would sit around in cafés in the Latin Quarter and wax lyrical while getting rather squiffy. Drinking absinthe was an art in itself and the ritual was part of the pleasure. First, a little absinthe was poured into a glass; then a sugar lump was placed on to a special perforated spoon that lay across the top of the glass; finally, the absinthe had to be ‘surprised’ by a thin trickle of cold water that became a steady stream as it passed through the dissolving sugar. As the water ‘beat’ the absinthe, the mixture turned a pearly cream colour. It took practice to get it just right, but that was not a problem for the likes of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Van Gogh or Toulouse-Lautrec (who had a hollowed-out cane filled with absinthe) - they spent many a ‘green hour’ doing just that. Artists also immortalised the Green Fairy in their work: Degas painted L’Absinthe, Manet The Absinthe Drinker and Emile Zola wrote L’Assommoir and Nana, to name a few examples.

So why was it banned? Well, one reason was it was thought to make people mad. Wormwood oil contains a chemical called thujone, believed to be a neurotoxin. However, analysis of vintage absinthe reveals that the amount of thujone present was too small to do any harm. The most likely culprit was the bad quality drink touted by unscrupulous producers who were cashing in on the growing popularity of absinthe with the lower classes. The high concentration of alcohol was also a factor and alcoholism was becoming prevalent among the masses, although the scientists of the day termed it absinthism in an attempt to vilify the Green Peril. The wine industry wasn’t too happy either. Absinthe had become cheap and plentiful and was supplanting its own product, so it supported the ban wholeheartedly. The final straw, however, came with the famous Lanfrey murders. In 1905, a Swiss peasant called Jean Lanfrey murdered his pregnant wife and his two daughters and tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. He had drunk two glasses of absinthe before going to work and this detail was immediately seized upon by the public despite the fact that he had also drunk a crème de menthe, a cognac, seven glasses of wine at lunch, a cup of coffee laced with brandy, a litre of wine when he got home from work and then another brandy-laced coffee. Nope – it was definitely the absinthe that did it…Two years later in France, the newspaper Le Matin led an anti-absinthe movement and four hundred thousand people signed a petition that declared “everywhere the green water appears, crime and insanity soon follow”. A law was finally passed in 1915 banning the drink and has remained in force until this day.

As a substitute, pastis – from a word that means both ‘mixture’ and ‘confusion’ in occitan – was invented. Called familiarly le petit jaune , it contained less alcohol, more sugar and of course, no wormwood. In the 1930s, Paul Ricard created pastis de Marseille which combined aniseed, star anise and liquorice. As luck would have it, pastis was banned in 1940 – this time, it was blamed for sapping the strength of French soldiers who lost France the war as a consequence. It was reinstated in 1951 and – unless somebody suddenly decides it causes shingles or bird flu or something – pastis is here to stay.

Although the aniseed aperitif originated in the north, pastis has become a symbol of Provence in the south, along with cicadas and sunshine. Some say that pastis is the king of aperitifs but – as the saying goes – it is absinthe that makes the heart grow fonder…

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Six weird things about me

I’ve just been tagged by angela, whatever that means. As long as it doesn’t hurt, I don’t care…

So - Six weird things about me. It took me a while to narrow them down, but here goes:

1. When setting the alarm on my digital clock, if I set it to 7:01 by mistake, I have to go right round again so that it reads 7:00, otherwise I can't sleep.

2. I talk to my computer especially when it’s not doing what I want it to do. I also talk to my car in the same way.

3. Even though I wear contact lenses, I am always smiling and waving at people I don’t know and walking straight past those I do.

4. I’ve never eaten oysters and I’m not about to start now.

5. I like my food, my tea and my coffee to be lukewarm, not hot.

6. I rarely cross the road on a zebra crossing - even if it's there.

Am I supposed to tag somebody else now? (Hey, you - Mr Computer - I'm talking to you...)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Having it and eating it

Marcel Proust, author of Remembrance of things past, tells of how a piece of cake dipped in tea brought a host of childhood memories flooding back. The cake was called a madeleine and it is one of my children’s favourite goûters – as long as it is shop-bought and factory-baked, that is. Any attempt on my part to make madeleines at home is met with elaborate vomiting impressions and they invariably end up as sad crumbs at the bottom of a trifle. The madeleine is a speciality of Commercy in Lorraine. The story goes that the pastry cook of Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine in the 18th century, fell ill and the maid found herself having to do the baking. She made a cake in the shape of a seashell, flavoured with orange flower water and the Duke was so impressed, he named it madeleine after her.

During the Middle Ages, a pâtissier was simply someone who mixed flour and water together and used the ‘paste’ to make a variety of dishes, which included meat and fruit pies. The forerunner of French cakes first appeared in the thirteenth century, when oubloyers sold a sort of thin, honey-sweetened wafer called an oublie or more tellingly a casse-museau (jaw-breaker) during the main religious festivals. The oubloyers were so important, they had their own guild but it wasn’t until 1440 that the pastry makers had theirs. Eventually, they formed a single guild and sold their wares from baskets, walking through the towns where it was the custom for the inhabitants to call them into their homes and play dice for the cakes or pies. If a householder won the whole basket, the oubloyer had to sing a song to get his basket back…

Naturally, this sales technique caused problems and not only for the tone deaf. Thieves, only pretending to be bakers, would con their way into people’s homes and make off with the silver, so a decree was passed in 1722 prohibiting all ambulant pastry sellers. Anyway by then, the pâtissiers were in fashion at court, specialising in ornate confections shaped like castles, swans or snuffboxes and generally catering to the culinary whims of bored aristocrats.

During the Revolution, pastry cooks found themselves out of work as most of their patrons were getting their heads chopped off. With a new clientele and plenty of competition, they let their imaginations run riot and invented all sorts of delicious sweetmeats. Even the diplomat, Talleyrand, made a contribution. He asked his pastry cook to make his biscuits longer so that he could dip them in his Madeira, and thereby invented sponge fingers. As for poor old flaky Marie-Antoinette, she didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake” to the starving hordes of peasants demanding bread, but if she had, she would have meant brioche, a type of bread fortified with eggs and butter. In fact, her favourite cake was a kouglopf – a brioche with raisins which was popular in the court of Nancy. Legend has it that a certain Kugel, a baker from Ribeauvillé, had the three wise men to stay as they passed through Alsace on their way to Bethlehem. As a reward, they passed on the recipe for what became known as kouglopf. Given their surreal sense of direction, it’s a wonder the whole town didn’t just come down with food poisoning.

The eighteenth century saw the birth of the great Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste. He lent his name to a cake called a savarin, yet another type of brioche, soaked in rum. It was around this time that petits-fours became popular – their name means ‘small pieces of cake cooked in a cool oven’, so one can see why we haven’t bothered to translate the phrase. A few years later, Auguste Escoffier – who spent most of his career in England, perhaps out of compassion – invented the Peach Melba in homage to an opera singer he’d heard in Covent Garden. Today, Gaston Lenôtre is a pastry chef with celebrity status and cake shops all over the world. We have him to thank for the rich chocolaty opéra cake.

A recent survey revealed that fruit tarts are the favourite treat of the French, followed by éclairs and mille-feuilles. French men have the sweetest tooth – sixty-one percent eat cakes more than once a week compared to fifty-eight percent of women – and one of the regions where the most cakes are eaten is right here in the Rhône Alpes. Salons de thé are nice, civilised places to eat them while chatting to your genteel lady friends over a cup of Lapsong Souchong. Some profiteroles, perhaps – from a word meaning ‘satisfaction’ – and a small slice of tarte tatin? This famous upside-down apple tart was invented by accident in 1889, when one of the Tatin sisters distractedly poured the filling in her pie dish before the pastry but put it in the oven anyway, with delicious results. Maybe you would prefer a Paris-Brest, named after the famous bicycle race because of its wheel shape? Or a cannelé, named for the fluted mould it is baked in or perhaps a financier- a cake created in 1890 for those financiers who didn’t want to get their hands dirty…

As for me, I have my own "madeleine moment" – you might even call it a spiritual experience – whenever I eat a religeuse, so named because it looks like a nun in her habit. Made from two custard-filled cream puffs, decorated with whipped cream and drizzled with glacé icing, religeuses bring back memories of my first trip to France to stay with my pen friend, whose parents owned a pâtisserie. I just have to bite into the crisp, sweet pastry and feel the cold, thick vanilla custard ooze into my mouth and down my chin and I’m fifteen again…fat, spotty and one heck of a messy eater but - it’s bliss all the same.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Kippers and croissants

The news that France requested a merger with England* in the 1950s seems to come as a surprise to many but it shouldn’t. We go back a long way, ever since William the Conqueror came over and invaded us with Normans. Granted, the period that followed was a little confusing, with bits of France belonging to England and vice-versa…but in 1338, Edward III of England decided that he was going to be the next king of France and so started the hundred years’ war.

We did pretty well for a while, massacring the French at the famous Battle of Agincourt (1415), for example and also at lesser known battles such as the Battle of the Herrings (1429) where the French were repelled by a convoy of English fish, headed for the besieged Orleans (nothing new there - even today, English food defeats them). Unfortunately, Joan of Arc started hearing voices and spoilt it all. The English – led by Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury – were finally defeated at the battle of Castillon, near Bordeaux, in 1453. Sir John Talbot was killed and his body brought back to Shropshire where his heart lies beneath the porch of St Alkmund’s church in my home tome of Whitchurch. Since then, the English and French have maintained a love-hate relationship: the English are still convinced that France should belong to them and the French think England is a nation of kipper-guzzling hooligans…

So. As I said, we go back a long way. And if the merger had transpired, who knows? Perhaps the English would have discovered how to make coffee and the French might have learnt how to laugh at themselves…

* I know, I know - I should say Britain but it just doesn't roll off my tongue like England does... which is strange, given that I'm half-Irish and half-Welsh...

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Stinking Rose

Garlic is garlic by any other name, even when it’s called a rose. Nobody is quite sure why garlic is also known as ‘the stinking rose’ – especially as it is a member of the lily family. The ‘stinking’ part is obvious and perhaps a bulb of garlic does look like a white rose – from a distance, in a dimly lit room, after a few glasses of Côtes du Rhône. But the most likely explanation is the translation of the Greek ‘scorodon’ into ‘rose puante’ by a French doctor, Henri Leclerc, in a 1918 magazine article. It seems he was not a fan and indeed, since the dawn of time, garlic has been either feared or revered for its potent properties.

Early Greek military leaders gave garlic to their warriors going into battle, believing it would make them bold and fearless and thus ensure victory – although whether this was due to their newly-found courage or their raging halitosis is uncertain. The Romans fed garlic to their slaves and labourers to give them physical strength and planted fields of garlic in the countries they conquered, believing that its courage-giving properties would be transferred to the battlefield. Fortunately for them, garlic thrives almost everywhere.

Garlic – ail - has been cultivated in France since the time of the Ancient Gauls, whose recipe for a sauce called aillée – a mixture of ground garlic, almonds and breadcrumbs soaked in broth – is still used today. In the early Middle Ages, garlic was grown in the monastery gardens for medicinal purposes and Charlemagne was so convinced of its virtues that he had it planted in the Royal Gardens and ordered everyone to grow garlic in his own vegetable plot. Along with onions, leeks and most other vegetables, la rose puante had often been considered food for rough and ready peasants and unsuitable for more refined palates, but its curative powers had never been disputed. It was considered a remedy for everything from earache and arthritis to snake bite and tuberculosis. It was even used as protection against the plague and in 1762, so the story goes, four thieves from Marseilles drank a potion made from garlic, vinegar and herbs and set out to burgle abandoned houses without catching so much as a sneeze. It was just their luck that they were arrested and condemned to death. However, they did agree to divulge the recipe of their elixir in exchange for their lives - so whichever way you look at it, garlic was definitely a lifesaver.

For Napoleon, on the other hand, it proved to be his downfall. He became violently ill with stomach pains after the Battle of Dresden and was unable to join the General Vandamme at Kulm, where the French were subsequently defeated. Napoleon was convinced he’d been poisoned but the real culprit, according to the chancellor Pasquier, was the garlic in the stew he’d eaten the day before.

Even in modern times, garlic is appreciated for its antiseptic qualities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, children were sent to school wearing garlic necklaces to keep cold germs – and any potential friends – at bay. During the First World War, it was used to treat gangrene and septicaemia and recently, I was advised to apply a poultice of raw garlic to the corn on my little toe. In addition to the naturally pungent odour of my feet, this would have made life unbearable for my family, so I selflessly bought a packet of corn plasters instead.

Evidence suggests that garlic helps to control high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, improve circulation and cure impotence. Its reputation as an aphrodisiac, therefore, probably has some truth in it. The French king, Henri IV, used to eat a clove of raw garlic every morning for breakfast in order to satisfy his many female conquests. Henri had fourteen children so it must have worked, although one of his close (or at least standing at a reasonable distance) friends claimed that his breath could ‘fell an ox at twenty paces’.

Garlic is also purported to have magical powers and in the eighteenth century, country folk would hang braids of garlic over their doors to ward off evil spirits…and vampires. A recent theory suggests that ‘vampires’ were in fact rabies sufferers and their heightened sense of smell – which accounts for their fear of garlic – was simply a symptom of the disease, along with a dislike for bright light, insomnia and a desire to bite other people. Hmm. Sounds like someone I know…

Planted in early spring, garlic is harvested in summer when several villages – all of them claiming to be the garlic capital of France - hold a Fête de l’ail. There are competitions for the most artistic garlic arrangement, the tastiest garlic pie, the longest garlic braid…and a Beauty Pageant, the winner of which is awarded her own weight in garlic. And if you’re wondering what anyone would do with all that garlic, that’s not a problem. It can be dried, smoked (as in kippers, obviously), pickled or pureed. It can be made into soup or aïoli (a sort of garlic mayonnaise) or mixed with butter and spread on snails. It can even be turned into odourless pills for those who can’t bear the smell because whatever they say, chewing parsley doesn’t work – it just looks like your teeth have gone mouldy. And if you’re still not convinced, take heart because you’re in good company. Louis XV, Horace and Shakespeare were all passionate garlic haters and – apart from Louis who got his head chopped off – it never did them any harm, did it?

Thursday, January 11, 2007


A famous landmark in Grenoble is La Bastille ,a ruined 16th century fort perched on a cliff overlooking the town. It is a popular spot for healthy types who are able to walk one and a half thousand feet up a moderately steep incline without stopping every five minutes to double over and bray like a donkey. There are several other methods to reach the top. If you’re slightly eccentric, you can climb the four hundred or so stone steps; if you’re insane, you can climb the cliff face by the only urban via ferrata in France - a route with climbing aids such as wire ropes, rungs, pegs, ladders and bridges fixed into the rock, to make things easier (well, of course); and if you’re a couch potato, you can take the téléphérique, the first urban cable car to be inaugurated in France (in 1934) and otherwise known as les bulles (the bubbles). Five (yes, I know there are only four in the photos - perhaps one dropped off) round transparent ‘bubbles’, seating six persons, will take you to the top in six minutes and you won’t even get your hair messed up. Occasionally, the idea that you might at any moment plunge a thousand feet into the tumultuous river Isère below does cross your mind but you can always close your eyes if it bothers you…

Monday, January 08, 2007


"They say Christianity is in decay; but no religion that invented green Chartreuse can ever die”


Grenoble lies in a hollow encircled by three mountain ranges: the Belledonne, famous for its ski slopes; the Vercors, a stronghold for the Résistance during World War II - and the Chartreuse, home to the Carthusian monks and their famous green liqueur. Now, I'm not a great skier and I wasn't around during World War II but I do know a bit about the liqueur: it is a beautiful colour; it smells and tastes like a summer’s evening in an Alpine meadow and gives you a Day-Glo hangover that you’re not expecting because it is really strong.

The Order of the Grande Chartreuse was founded in 1084 by a German writer and academic, Bruno, who taught at the University of Rheims. Weary of the endless piles of marking, pointless administration and mind-numbingly boring staff meetings – or perhaps simply obeying a call from God – Bruno decided to become a monk. Together with six friends, he scoured France for a suitable isolated spot and happened on the Chartreuse Desert, an inhospitable snowbound place near Grenoble in the French Alps. The group built themselves seven simple wooden cells, a chapel and a dining hall and enjoyed a life of prayerful contemplation and light snacks, thus establishing the first Carthusian (Charterhouse) monastery. Today there are twenty-four of these communities around the world and their way of life has not changed for over nine hundred years.

In 1605, the monks at a Carthusian monastery outside Paris were given an ancient manuscript of unknown origin, entitled An Elixir of Long Life. At that time, few people knew how to use herbs and plants for medicinal purposes and the monks were only able to understand and use parts of the recipe. By 1737, the manuscript had found its way to the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble where the monastery’s apothecary managed to unravel the complex formula and create the Herbal Elixir de la Grande Chartreuse, from the maceration and distillation in alcohol of one hundred and thirty plants, flowers and various other bits of vegetation.

This new medicine was distributed locally, by mule, to Grenoble and the surrounding villages. It became surprisingly popular and the monks soon caught on to the old ‘for medicinal purposes’ routine and adapted the recipe to make a milder drink – that is to say, ninety-six rather than one hundred and twenty-four proof - which they called Chartreuse verte, Elixir de Santé.

During the French Revolution, members of all religious orders were driven out of the country. The Carthusian monks fled in 1793 and as a precaution, made a copy of their precious manuscript. One monk was allowed to stay in the monastery and he was given this copy to look after while the original was given to another monk. Unfortunately, the latter was arrested and thrown into prison in Bordeaux but was able to pass the manuscript to a mysterious hero who somehow smuggled it back to the Chartreuse, where he gave it to a monk who was in hiding near the monastery.

This monk didn’t have a clue what to do with the manuscript - and who could blame him? He had his own problems to deal with (imminent death by guillotine, hypothermia, starvation and so forth), and he promptly sold it to a local chemist, Monsieur Liotard - who didn’t have a clue either, so why he bought it in the first place is anybody’s guess.

In 1810, Napoleon ordered all secret recipes of medicines to be sent to the Ministry of the Interior, and a relieved Monsieur Liotard dutifully sent in his white elephant of a manuscript. Despite being experts in irrelevant waffle, nobody in the Ministry could decipher the thing either, but rather than admit that, they sent it back marked REFUSED. When Monsieur Liotard died, his heirs returned the manuscript to the monastery with, one imagines, a puzzled shrug.

The monks were thrown out of France once more in 1903 under a law that prohibited all religious orders. They were allowed back in 1932 when they began producing their liqueur again. In 1935, their distillery in Fourvoirie was destroyed by a landslide and a new one was built in Voiron, which is where Chartreuse is produced today. The blending of the plants, however, is done in the monastery by two monks – the only two people in the world to be in possession of the formula. Each monk knows half the recipe and because they don’t talk to anybody – not even to each other - it remains a secret. They are linked to the distillery by computer and are therefore able to oversee production while keeping their vows of solitude and silence and doing a bit of on-line shopping at the same time. Green and yellow Chartreuse – the yellow is sweeter and not as strong as the green – is matured in oaken casks in the longest liqueur cellar in the world.

The original elixir is still used for medicinal purposes today but frankly, you’d have to be pretty ill not to notice the taste. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to cure – although farmers here do swear by it for the treatment of flatulence in cows (note to tourists: do not be alarmed at the sight of staggering cows. They are not suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy – it’s Happy Hour on the Prairie). Green Chartreuse, however, is one of my favourite drinks; it is so sweet and fragrant that I hardly notice how potent it is - but the fact that Saint Bruno is traditionally depicted nursing a skull (even if it isn’t his own) should have alerted me. Hmmm. If you ask me, these monks have a lot to answer for…

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Let them eat more cake

Today is Epiphany and la fête des Rois - Feast day of the Three Kings, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspard. The fact that the Bible does not mention that they were kings (they were magi or wise men), or that there were three of them (three gifts are mentioned) or indeed that they had names, does not deter the French from celebrating with more food… in this case a galette or a gâteau des Rois. The galette is made from flaky pastry and frangipane while the gâteau – more traditional in the south of France - is a brioche topped with sugar and candied fruit.

This treat is usually reserved for children (mince alors!), who invite their friends around to share it. According to custom, one child crouches under the table while the cake is being cut and calls out the name of the person to whom he wants the slice to be given. Because, you see, this is no ordinary cake. Somebody who obviously didn't like children came up with the idea of concealing a hard, dry bean (la fève) and a tiny porcelain figurine inside. The children who find these in their slices are crowned King and Queen for the day with the golden paper crown provided, which is meagre compensation if they've just broken their teeth on the china ornament or, worse, swallowed it...

You have been warned...

Friday, January 05, 2007

Je ne sais plus...

There is so much to see through my French Windows but today all I can see is him:

How does one fall out of love? Can anybody tell me? I have been trying my best for the past two years but I just can’t get the hang of it.

I’ve tried Regression (remember when he did this to you…?) but that only works if you have a really selective memory.

I’ve tried Visualisation (a couple of strategically-placed sharp objects and a heavy duty pinch clamp for example) but all I can see are his blue eyes crinkling up at the corners when he smiled.

I’ve tried Denial (you never really loved him) but then how come my heart is just a gob of raw mincemeat now?

I’ve tried Demonizing him – but he never was an angel and I fell in love with him anyway.

I’m doing my best to Detach but there’s this bit of me that is firmly stuck and I pull and I pull but it just won’t come away.

So – tell me…how does one fall out of love? It can’t be that difficult…after all, he managed to do it in no time at all…

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Je ne sais quoi

After twenty years of living in France, you'd think some of the Frenchwoman's chic and timeless beauty would have rubbed off on me. Not a bit of it. Even before I open my mouth, people exclaim: "Oh là là, you must be English!" I think it is something to do with my straight, mousy hair, which I have worn in the same thin bob since I was seven, or perhaps it is the way a simple silk scarf I have attempted to knot casually around my neck can make me look like a whiplash injury sufferer - or it may be the cellulite on my flabby knees. Whatever the reason, I don't seem to possess that 'je ne sais quoi' quite simply because I really don't know what it is.

French women have always been coquette. Even Joan of Arc treated her rough hands by rubbing them with honey - you'd think, what with hearing voices and leading an army and all that, she'd have other things to worry about than hand cream. Marie-Antoinette shampooed her blonde hair with a mixture of eggs, white wine vinegar and rum and the 18th century French courtesan, Madame Tallien, bathed in strawberry water to keep her skin soft.

Much as I would love to, I have never dared visit a salon de beauté. With names like Aphrodite, Venus and Hot Sauna Unisex Massage Parlour, I'm a little worried about what's on offer. The treatment they claim to provide involves acid, laser weapons and dastardly machines designed to pummel the cellulite out of you and it all sounds much too frightening to contemplate. Not surprisingly, many of the treatments were invented by the French: liposuction, endermology (where some sadistic person squeezes your spare tyre in a mangle-like apparatus) and mesotherapy (vitamin and drug injections destined to 'melt' your fat away) amongst others.

Even more drastic remedies are available, however. I live in the centre of town and when I first arrived, I was alarmed by the number of women I saw staggering around with bruised faces and black eyes. Had I unwittingly moved to a hotbed of vice and violence? Were the streets safe to walk at night? The answer was around the corner: no less than four cosmetic surgery clinics were squeezed between a supermarket and an estate agent's. Facelifts are also a French invention and there are some two thousand surgeons practising cosmetic surgery in France - although only about five hundred of these are actually qualified to do so. You can even get it on the Sécu if your nose/breasts/tummy are causing you enough psychological trauma. However, despite the ready availability of cosmetic surgery, France does not top the European League table in this area - the UK does and France comes a close second.

Does this mean we need plastic surgery more than the French? Of course not (I don't include myself in this statement: I actually need a complete face and body transplant but they haven't invented that yet…). I do think we spend less time on looking after our bodies. For example, four times as many French women use anti-ageing creams than women in the UK and the French are still the world's top users of beauty products and fragrances. A French woman will think nothing of spending thirty pounds on a tube of 'slimming' gel, which will give her thinner thighs and a flatter stomach within a fortnight. At least, that is the claim. There are clinical tests that purport to prove it and the leaflet that comes in the box has a lot of technical-looking diagrams showing you how it works. This gel makes your skin go either chilli-pepper hot or freezing cold and you use up a fair amount of calories just rubbing the stuff in. Oddly enough, the part of the leaflet that is written in English just says 'Skin smoothing cream' and doesn't even mention the fact that you can lose seven inches off your bottom by osmosis or whatever the phenomenon is called. Maybe it doesn't work on English skin. It definitely didn't work on mine…

If all else fails, or you're just too poor or cowardly to try, then tisanes or infusions are a safe bet. The French love these and no wonder: they can cure anything from insomnia to haemorrhoids. You just pour some boiling water on a few dead leaves, flowers and stalks etc. and let it stew for ten minutes - then you drink it. If you don't vomit it all up immediately afterwards, you should soon be feeling much better. You can buy these concoctions in chemists, health food shops or supermarkets and there is something for everybody. Try thistle and evening primrose infusion for beautiful skin; vine leaves and ginkgo biloba for slender legs; nettle and alfalfa for luxurious hair…and for weight loss, I can personally recommend senna pod and rhubarb. It certainly had me up and running beautifully…

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


My New Year’s resolutions are a bit late because I haven’t been able to keep the first one…and I did want to have ten but I’m just not that resolute.

I read somewhere that the tradition of New Year's Resolutions was inherited from the ancient Babylonians, who believed that what a person did on the first day of the New Year would affect the entire year. Apparently, the most popular resolution at that time was to return borrowed farm equipment. And here’s me thinking they were a bunch of decadent whores…

With a suitable holier-than-thou expression:

I bring you my Resolutions:
  • I will not procrastinate
  • I will stop dieting (and before you keel over laughing, I've been dieting all my life so how come I'm now fatter than I've ever been, eh?)
  • I will learn to do housework
  • I will prepare my lessons more than fifteen minutes in advance (oops, better get cracking)
  • I will defrost the freezer
  • I will not involve kitchen knives, boiling oil (even if it's olive), nutcrackers and my absent husband in the same fantasy
  • I will return that Massey Ferguson combine harvester I've had in the garage for six months

There we go. Sorted.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Cheese junkies

Well…it’s official. France is a nation of junk food guzzlers and has been for hundreds of years – at least according to Ofcom in the UK (Office of Communications). They want to ban the television advertising of junk food at times when children might be watching. They mean well, bless ‘em…but by using the Food Standards Association’s tables listing fat and salt content, they come up with cheese as one of the chief culprits. What am I going to do now?

General de Gaulle famously said that nobody could govern a country that had two-hundred and fifty-eight different cheeses. Actually, there are about a thousand if you count the locally-made ones and it is one of my life’s ambitions to taste all of them. Here are just a few to whet your appetite – although they are merely the thin edge of the wedge...

Camembert is undoubtedly the most famous French cheese. The story goes that, in the eighteenth century, a dairymaid called Marie Harel helped hide a priest who was running from the terrors of the Revolution and to thank her, the priest gave her his secret recipe for cheese. Marie began to make the round creamy cheese we know today and when her grandson offered some to Napoleon III who was visiting the area, it really took off. In 1890, a certain Ridel invented a wooden box to facilitate transport and inadvertently created a new hobby: tyrosemiophilia. This may sound like a weird sexual fetish but it is simply the collecting of cheese labels and there is a national club to prove it. I don’t personally know any tyrosemiophiles but I am sure they are very nice people.

Somewhere on the desolate craggy rock-strewn plateaus known as les causses, in southern France, roquefort cheese was born. Legend has it that a young shepherd, bored and probably desperate, spotted a shepherdess in the distance. Leaving his lunch of bread and curd cheese in a cave and recklessly abandoning his flock, he chased after her. She must have played hard to get because he didn’t come back until two months later and feeling a bit peckish (and who wouldn’t be?) he went to find his lunch. The bread had gone mouldy and so had the cheese but he ate it anyway, because he was that sort of bloke. Surprisingly, it was delicious: the king of cheeses had made its debut. Charlemagne was a great fan of roquefort as was Rabelais and Voltaire. Casanova claimed it “restored love and brought to maturity a budding passion”, if you see what he means…

We have our own blue cheese here in the Vercors, known as Bleu de Vercors-Sassenage, made from cow’s milk. There is a festival dedicated to it every summer. Unfortunately, my children refuse to eat it ever since we stopped off at a local farm to buy a piece and were served by a disgruntled farmer who’d obviously been mending his tractor when we interrupted him. They wouldn’t touch it, even after I’d scraped off the axle grease.

The majority of goats’ milk cheese – of which there are over a hundred varieties - is found south of the Loire where the rugged landscape and the relative lack of vegetation makes it difficult to keep cows. Goats, of course, will climb anywhere and eat anything. One of the most famous goats’ cheeses is the Crottin de Chavignol. The word ‘crottin’ means horse dung but this has more to do with the shape and colour than the taste – although it does pong a bit. From Provence comes the Banon – a small, round cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and tied with raffia – and from the region Rhône-Alpes, the Picodon (meaning ‘small’). The cheeses come in various shapes with picturesque names such as palet (puck), pyramide, bûche (log) and bonde (plug) and they are all delicious.

Of course, if you like cheese, the Alps is the place to be. What can be better on a winter’s evening than a fondue savoyarde: melted cheese, wine, cognac and spices bubbling in a pot into which you dip pieces of bread? Or raclette – melted cheese poured on to potatoes and cold meats – or tartiflette, a dish of potatoes, smoked bacon, onions, cream and cheese? Of course, these meals are designed for hardy outdoor types who need that sort of sustenance after a day’s log-chopping or goat herding and not pasty lily-livered bookworms like me. No wonder I’ve put on weight.

I also like British cheese but the French think I’m joking when I admit this. For them, there is only one British cheese: a bright orange, tasteless piece of rubber called Chester. Most people don’t realise that Chester is a French cheese made in the Tarn and that no self-respecting British sandwich would give it the time of day. They prefer to see it as proof of the insipidity of our food. Perhaps this is a cunning strategy designed to safeguard their reputation but even if it is, it’s no big deal or - as the French say - “Il n’y a pas de quoi faire un fromage…”

So - how was it for you?

Er, yes, well...maybe they're not so different after all...Les Inconnus show us how it's done...Bonne Année!