Friday, 31 August 2012

August's chattering

July's last post left us in the rain and hey, guess what, hello to August...   in the rain.  This summer must have broken every wet summer record in the book!

Before we went away at the end of last month I had a list of garden chores as long as your arm.  This was already backed up because of the bad weather.  On into August and I still couldn't do do them when we got back to our Northern rain from our mini break in the much drier South.  

The  month started brilliantly with the arrival of my daughter and her partner.  They had stopped at the Lakes on the way down to celebrate her birthday and arrived in time to continue that with us. To use a very well worn phrase , where do the years go?  As a parent it I find it impossible to see through the welter of imprinted memories and take on my children as fully fledged adults.  My logic knows that they are, but every interaction immediately returns to me-mom and them-child.  I do my best to advance but fail miserably and sink into pride and worry and joy in equal measures as if they were six.

The weekend was filled with chatter and food and trips out for good ice cream.  Perfect.

Tuesday 7th and we were out with 'The Secret Seven' doing 'Seven go Town Halling'.  Just in case there is a massive government computer which filters all emails for suspected terrorist groups I should explain the seven are in no way secret.  It is just a group of Ken's 'diving' friends from years back who I glue together now and then as they have now become my chums too.

This time instead of just arranging a meal somewhere I thought we could go and get 'cultured' (a bit like germs?)  and I suggested that we did a tour of Manchester Town Hall.  The added lure was that it would still include a meal afterwards. It is hosted by Manchester Walks and is to be recommended.  The guide was good enough and the building itself well worth the effort.  If you live within hailing distance of Manchester click on the link to see what else they do.  Everything from walking tours to coach trips to canal trips.  Something for everyone?  We are doing Gorton Priory next month.

The meal was at Wings.  My criteria for deciding where to eat was somewhere with a range of choices for everyone and as close as possible to the Town Hall as it would almost certainly be raining.  It was the usual Chinese meal - not outstanding but it did the job.

The following week was given over to removing my raised veggie beds and putting a flower border back in the garden.  As with all things gardening you can go to the garden blog if you want the trials and tribulations of the remake.  

It was also the week which builds up to Ken's birthday and I always spend it thrashing around trying to decided what to buy him and what to do with him on the 'big' day.  Also, pretty much as usual, it ended up being a damp squib.  I had a two for one deal at a restaurant we hadn't tried, so that seemed like one problem solved.  They were closed on Tuesday!  Hey, ho we just had to go and do it on an 'ordinary' day.  Good job we did as it was a bit underwhelming. Pub/Italian food finishing with mom-goes-to-Iceland profiteroles.  Mmmm! as in mildly grumpy not as in yum.

Birthday lunch was moved to The Crimble.  A place that has always had a bit of a bob on itself and was good in its heyday (the last time I went there!).  Sadly time and I have moved on and it hasn't.  Ken was a happy enough birthday boy so I gritted my food critic teeth and he/we had a nice enough time.  His present is the real nightmare.  I am sure most women reading this have the same problem - the blokes they buy for ''don't want anything'', ''don't need anything'', ''don't bother I'm not bothered".....  sound familiar.  The truth is most of them really aren't bothered and I still don't know why I make such a big deal out of it. Why is it I can't get to the same place?

Just as we have done many times before we settled for the fall-back position of his deciding on a piece of electronic gizmo for the computer. Thrilling.  Marginally better than the touch-screen stylus for his phone for £1.99!!! that he really wanted.  Even more exciting we continued what is now turning into a family tradition - a tour of Staples.  

To explain...on my mother's eightieth birthday, we took her to visit my sister in Cheltenham.  We were staying at a hotel for a couple of nights and on the day of her birthday were driving mom to P's and we happened to pass Staples.  Ken wanted to nip in for something, so mom and I went with him and spent a jolly hour trawling what is in effect (for mom and I) a huge stationery store.  Being fans of pens and papers and things of that ilk, we were quite happy bunnies.  As we were leaving she was all smiley and saying how good that was and we laughed about knowing how to show her a good time and celebrate an eightieth in style.

A couple of days after Ken getting older we were off on our August jaunt - this time a nine-day trip to France with a friend.

Talking about it all later with my friend, she and I agreed that in advance of doing it we were wishing we hadn't bothered when we thought about a two day trawl from our homes 'up North' to the gite in the heart of France.  As it turned out it was just fine and the journeys down and back seemed to be entertaining enough in themselves for the hours to just fly by.

We had an early start (7.30 am) to allow us plenty of time for our drive to Portsmouth.  As it happened we only took a short break en route and our packed lunch got eaten on the terrace (well at a table on the terrace) of the Terminal Building in the port.  We had arrived in plenty of time and settled down for a nice relaxed meal in the sun.  Before we got to the cherries we had a moment's panic as we saw the queues of cars being moved from the car park to the going-through-the-customs waiting area.  We dashed off to rejoin our car and began the car ferry shuffle.  Our car was one which got stopped for a cursory customs check with my friend's small bag being taken for an X-Ray.  It was declared free from chest infections and broken limbs and we moved on to the boarding-the-ship waiting area.  It is worth noting here that we left Manchester in pouring rain and arrived in Portsmouth in baking sunshine.  How in heaven's name do you dress for this?  We simmered gently in the car, relieved only by a giant bag of assorted sweets.

We eventually took proper advantage of the sunshine and spent most of our time on the 'Normandie' on the deck.  It was a lovely, calm (nearly six hour) crossing and we had an excellent first French meal in the Cafeteria (!).  What a pleasant surprise.  Offloaded at great speed but then a long wait in a queue of cars to get through passport control.  Ten minutes drive to our functional overnight stay in an Etap  (part of the Ibis group) in Herouville.  I'd heartily recommend this group of Motels/Hotels.  They are very basic but very cheap and very well-maintained and clean!!!  Turned in for the night early(ish) ready for our trek through France the following day.

We had breakfast at the Etap, taking the only available seats in the corner of the conservatory.  They were available because already the sun was up and doing its thing through the two windows.  We were totally fried, having forgotten what sunshine was.  This was an early warning start on the 41 degree day which was to come.  Again, we decided not to break our journey down to Masbonneau by too many stops (which we originally thought we would do) and pretty much bombed down to the Chateauroux area where we used to have our farmhouse.  We stopped at our 'usual' (from those days) motorway services and had a  coffee.  Our lunch was at Auberge des 2 Cedres in Cormery.  To describe it as eclectic is an understatement.  The décor was underpinned by inherited wallpaper and furniture from grandma.  This was then overlaid with African and middle-eastern masks and all kinds of trinkets.  There were butterflies pinned on the lace curtains and all manner of pictures on the walls, culminating in a huge framed (15,000 piece) 'religious' jigsaw.  Just wonderful.  The owners were a joy and, it seems, as always in these places, the service and food were a delight.

On to revisit our (brief) home in France - Les Roches.  It looked terrific all tidied up and I was thrilled to see it had become the proper French family home for the young couple who bought it from us.  Their names were on the mail box (which we bought) and the swing had been retrieved out of the barn and put under the old pear tree.  I sneaked a few photos as a reminder.  Someone there is keeping up my good work.  I hacked back a monster of a wisteria and some neglected climbing roses - they are all lovingly pruned and tied in.  You might spot all the shutters are closed, this was because it was around forty degrees centigrade.

We arrived at our lovely gite some (long) time after 4 pm as arranged.  Ken and I then drove to the nearest Supermarket which might still be open at around 6.30 pm.  This was some twelve miles away so I was soon sharply reminded of the draw-backs to living in Les Roches.

Back to the gite and the first of our cold suppers (and breakfasts) all to be eaten outdoors in the balmy air.  It was accompanied by wine and a cake left for us by our kind hosts.  The huge pineapple upside down cake was to be hauled out on many more occasions.

I promise you our gite did not slope at this angle!  Strange photo.  Yes, all that property was ours.  In addition to the space, we had enough dishes, cutlery pots, pans, glasses et al to feed twenty people right down to eight of them being able to enjoy their lobster using their own set of picks.  Really, really good place and excellent owners.  They struck precisely the right balance between friendly and helpful without being intrusive in any way.  I just felt bad that we didn't do justice to the food processor and its twenty blades, the espresso machine or the six large frying pans.

For our first day (and, in part to enjoy the car's air conditioning!) we decided to get the flavour of where we were by doing a circular tour of the area.  Our major ports of call were St Benoit-sur-Sault, Argenton and St Gaultier; not that this stopped us looking at virtually every village and church and petit château en route. 

We had lunch in Argenton sharing the peace and quiet of even the largest French town during Sunday lunchtime. Somewhere between 12 and 4 and everyone is eating.

This photo is where we ate, the Cafe de la Place.  This is the absolute hub of the city and there is usually traffic in all directions and crowded pavements.  It made me long for our old-fashioned Sundays back in the UK when the world had at least one calm day a week.

The approach to St Gaultier is pretty spectacular.  The church (built in 1050) and its surrounding school and other buildings are huge and immaculate and they cling to the hillside above the river, seeming to defy gravity.

The church is fairly simple but enormously soothing.  It is cool and dark and calm, with that familiar musty smell that always serves to remind me that my tiny point in time is so insignificant in the life of this building and, strangely, I find I am OK with that. Churches weave a magic for me and yet I don't have a religious bone in my body.

Monday was our trip to a glamorous building day and we headed out for  Chenonceau.  If you have the even the faintest interest in French History this is a place to go.  The story of Henry II and his mistress Diane de Poitiers and his wife, Catherine de Medici, is all very much intertwined with this place.  Indeed Catherine,  as Regency, ruled France from here after Henry's death.  It is the most wonderful Soap/saga and knocks Coronation Street into a cocked hat.  The link I have given you here doesn't tell you much of the story but it does have photos of the beautiful Chenonceau.

We also managed to do the trip on the river so we could really appreciate the château straddling the Cher.  You might also notice the blue sky?  Yet again, a baking hot day.  The week we were there did manage to cool a little day on day; by the time we left it had got down to about 34 degrees.

The next day we were ready for a contrasting château and we set off for Sarzay.  Yet another fascinating story of a different kind.  This time it is of someone buying a dilapidated castle and spending his (and his family's) life renovating it.  The article I have linked here is also amusing to read as it points up the incredible machinations and red tape of officialdom in France.

I loved Sarzay for a myriad of reasons, not least of which is the reminder of the tenacity of some humans to pursue their dreams. We were lucky to briefly meet the owner, Richard Hurbain.  EDF meter reader extraordinaire.

We sort of ate and drank our way around this day's tour beginning with an excellent lunch in the restaurant directly opposite the château; photo on the left. Aptly named Bar Restaurant du Château.

Just to give you an example of our culinary experience ... on that day... in that unprepossessing place....  we had an eleven euro table d’hôte lunch which consisted of four courses and a two glass pitcher of wine each.

I had hors d'oeuvres, followed by a good roast pork dinner, then a large cheeseboard selection.  I chose a Rhum baba for dessert.  Ken's choice instead of the cheese board was was fromage blanc (something like Greek style yoghurt but still retaining all the goodness of the milk - made by a different process to yoghurt).  The surprise was it came with four peeled cloves of garlic.

The picture on the right was our view from inside the restaurant.  All included in the price!

On the way home we stopped at the Hotel du Lac for some cool drinks - how resonating is that?  It overlooked the lake formed by the Barrage d'Éguzon.

The next day we decided to give up on châteaux and go and treat ourselves to one of the 'beautiful villages of France'.  Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an official designation for 157 villages in France in the hope of preserving them without turning them into tourist traps or museums.

Our choice was Gargilesse.

The village was indeed very pretty and had several interesting little shops.  It has always been, and remains, an artists' community - the pivotal one being Georges Sand.  The 11th century Romanesque church was unique to me.  It has wonderful 13th - 16th century frescoes in the crypt.  I have never been anywhere which has so many in one place and in such near perfect condition.  Quite remarkable, and like everything else on this trip, it was all totally accessible to you.  There are no ropes or barriers or people standing guard.  You are treated with respect and trusted to behave appropriately and, seemingly, people do.  What a joy.  I was also totally blown away by some musicians and a singer in the church.  She had the sort of sound which not only came from her but, somehow, the building itself as well; it was a truly incredibly moving moment hearing the melding of singer and stone.

The castle in Gargilesse - yes, it is impossible to avoid châteaux - doesn't have much château remaining but what it has is beautifully preserved; again, by a private owner.  She has renovated it to use as a small art gallery.  A gem of a place with a wonderful space behind it overlooking the river.

This isn't the entire gallery (!) just me in a corner of the garden waiting for the two intrepid explorers to return from whatever intrepid explorers do.  Thanks to my chum for the photo.

Sadly our last day arrived and we trotted off to Argenton for a repeat visit when it was open!  Mostly we were straining at the leash to get our hands on a French market and this was the only one we could find listed for miles around.  Woops... we wandered around forlornly and eventually ended up in the tourist office who told me there hadn't been a market day in Argenton for years - out of date information courtesy of the world wide web.  Nothing new there, then. 

We consoled ourselves with a good lunch in a shaded patio at the back of the creperie. (sorry, can't find the circumflex on my machine)  One of my companions took it literally - guess who - and went for a killer crepe. (that 'e' looks positively naked without it's hat).

The ladies were consoled by a bit of shopping - chocolates and a handbag being my choices.

As it was officially our last evening of our holiday in Masbonneau we thought we ought to scrub up and go out for dinner at night like fully fledged 'growed-ups'.  Huge searching and head scratching ensued as we were in the heart of nowhere land and didn't want to travel miles for a meal.  Finally we settled on Le Petit Roy in the hills of Menoux just outside Argenton.

I had the best quail ever - no, really, I did.  Everyone's meal was lovely and it was a nice enough setting as we were able to sit outside on the patio at the back of the restaurant and gather up the last of our French evenings in the garden.  Good food in a good setting, yet again.

Well stoked from a week of French eating we waddled back to the UK.  The reverse two day trip was pretty uneventful.  This time on our first day up through France we stopped off in Chatillon for a look round the town and a coffee at the back of Le César Brasserie.  Sadly the wonderful Chocolaterie/Patisserie and a few other shops have closed since we lived there but the town is just as nice.

We lunched at a different and poor quality  motorway services and hurried on up to Caen/Ouisterham/Herouville for our Etap overnighter.  We arrived in good time for a walk on a blustery Ouisterham beach where we experienced our first few drops of rain for a week.  

Dinner was in an incredible restaurant.  It was utterly Barbie meets Elton John.  Imagine pink and silvery grey and anywhere it could be done the the silver/grey was velvet and/or sequins, right down to the velvet covered menus.  Add dresses and bows to the chairs  and then throw in some beach themed objects such as bits of driftwood also tied to the chairs and the window blinds.  Please trust me on this, my description is a very calm understatement of the surroundings.  Neverthless it was an odd delight and the food, as ever, was great. 

Nighty, night in our motel, with an early (no breakfast) start in the morning.  I had a full English on board  the Mont St Michel while my two companions did their usual continental minimalist thing.

The crossing was a bit choppy and there were a lot of very poorly travellers - not us.  My bacon and eggs and I remained firm friends.

Our first English food was Marks and Spencer sandwiches (or, in my case a crayfish salad) on the motorway on the way home.  I couldn't face the though of motorway food after a week in France.

Guess what...  we met the rain north of the Midlands.  We were back!

A couple of days later, on the 27th, we had a meal and movies with our mates and it was like we had never been away!.  We saw 'The Bourne Legacy', which a critic described as being an 'over a two hour chase with no plot or characterisation'.  That just about covers it for me.

Tai Chi on Thursday and then Friday the 31st wandered in.  This last day of August was spent moving me back from my garden work room which we created back in April to my office/spare bedroom in the house.  This saga is in the Bentleys blog (or will be soon) if you are curious as to why.

All my Clavering chattering is done.  There is a  Masbonneau  photo album for a flavour of our trip but it is really hard to choose a couple of dozen photos from about 200 so I am not sure it is a very rich view of our time there.  The flowers are separated out into another album for the benefit of my ramblings in my garden blog - in the new few days.  This is the first of a lot of writing catch-ups I want to do.