Blèsoise – a demonym

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I think the only thing I don’t like about having bought a 16th century house in Blois is that I’m going to be Blèsoise. I’m a bit put off by all those slippery s-pronounced-z-sounds. When you come from Townsville, the most you can be is a Townsvillean or a Townsvillite. We have Sydneyites and Sydneysiders, Melbournites and Brisbanites. Dare I suggest Darwinians? Surely not! And I wouldn’t know what to call people from Perth (they live on the wrong side of the country anyway) or Adelaide (which isn’t much better).

Château de Blois

But in France, every town has its own adjective, called a gentilé (demonym or gentilic in English (bet you didn’t know that one) to describe its inhabitants and there are some real beauties. If you live in Saint Etienne you’re a Stéphanois, for example. It’s all a question of etymology and word origins of course. Somewhere along the way, the “ph” in the middle of Stephanos, the original Greek name, got slurred out and turned into a diphthong to give Estienne (after the “os” disappeared and an extra “e” was added at the beginning as well). The “s” was eventually lost altogether. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but the circumflex in French – that little “hat” ^ – often corresponds to an “s” that disappeared, e.g. château = castle, mât = mast, bête = beast, fête = beast, gîte = guest, hôte = host, moût = must, etc.

The people in Angoulême are called Angoumoisins – see that ê indicating a lost “s” again. If you come from Auberive-en-Royans, you’re an Albaripains.  The inhabitants of Béziers are Biterrois, Réginaburgiens live in Bourg-la-Reine, while Cadurciens come from Cahors. If you hail from Carquegou, you’re a Carquefolien.  Now I don’t know why Jarlandins come from Châteaux-Arnoux but there is surely a reason and I wouldn’t mind being a Bellifontaine (beautiful fountain) from Fontainebleau.

Maison de la Magie

I love the fact that the inhabitants of L’Isle Saint Jourdain are called Lillots and that Radounauds come from Oradour-sur-Glane.  Paimblotins live in Paimboeuf while Pont-à-Mousson has lots of Mussipontains, Pont-Saint-Esprit has Spiripontains and Pont-Sainte-Maxence has Maxipontains!  But it’s the Saints that take the cake each time: Saint-André-Les-Vergers = Dryats, Saint-Brieuc = Briochins (like baby brioches), Saint-Jean-de-la-Ruelle = Stéoruellan and  La Tour-du-Pin = Turripinois. And how about this one? If you come from Villefranche-sur-Saöne, then you are Caladois. I’m not going to pretend I understand that one.

However, the real surprise is Saint-Adresee on the coast of Normandy, whose inhabitants are called Dionysiens, just like 19 other towns in France, but all the others are variants of Saint-Denis, directly derived from Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest, very appropriate for a saint. It turns out that the town was originally called Saint-Denis-Chef-de-Caux. One day, a ship was caught in a fierce storm of the coast; the sailors all but abandoned ship to pray to Saint Denis, and the ship started to drift dangerously into shallow waters. The captain was furious and berated the crew, taking over the helm himself, and saying that only the only thing that could save them was their own astuteness. It woke them from their torpeur and they managed to steer the ship to safety.  So why Sainte-Adresse? Because “adresse” in French means cleverness or astuteness so the “astuteness” of the captain having proved to be more effective than Saint-Denis, the town was renamed Saint-Adresse.

So Blésoise it will be. For the moment, of course, I’m just a plain old Parisienne!

For more French demonyms, go to:

iPhone Crazy

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I love my iPhone. Sounds like some corny commercial doesn’t it? But I really do. I used to have an uncool Sony mobile with bluetooth and a cool Palm Pilot. That was before Black Cat dropped her phone in the Seine on the first day of her first real job when she went out onto the gang plank to make a private call. She could see the phone lying on the bottom of the river sinking further into the mud each day until it finally disappeared. But it was a good excuse to get an iPhone.

When she showed me what it could do, I couldn’t wait to have one of my own, particularly as my Palm was no longer performing very well. There was the added bonus that she would be able to explain it all to me. I reckon I’m pretty gadget-literate for my generation but the thought of learning how to work yet another one was a little overwhelming.

Relationnel has a Blackberry which I personally find totally useless. He came home from work one day with this little black thing and told me the others called it a “baignoire”. Why on earth would anyone call a phone a “bathtub”? He thought it might be the shape. Then it suddenly dawned on me. What they were really saying was “baie noire”, the literal translation of Blackberry, which is actually “mûre”. It’s become a standard joke in our house!

But back to the iPhone. I went to the bookshop and bought myself “iPhone pour LES NULS” because it never hurts to be a dummy even though Leonardo scoffed at me. That way I didn’t have to rely on Black Cat totally, particularly as I only see her once or twice a week which is not very often when you get a new gadget. Once I got the hang of the Apps, there was no holding me back. Now I can look up the dictionary or check out something on google whenever I want. I can find out what the weather will be like next day or next week. I can do my banking and take the bus instead of the metro (like a real Parisian) because I don’t have to try and decipher that awful bus map.

I can play WordWarp in the metro or standing in a queue. I can look up the yellow pages and give people directions in the street (instead of sending them in the wrong direction the way I did one night when a lady was looking for the theatre – never ask a foreigner for directions!). I can look up words in foreign languages. I can find out where the traffic jams are and save someone’s life with my Red Cross App (haven’t tried this out for real yet). I can listen to meditation exercises when I can’t go to sleep. I can measure the length of a room (how come I didn’t think of that the other day when we were visiting our new house ?).

I can jot down ideas for my blog and identify unknown mushrooms in the forest (and not be poisoned). I can talk to Leonardo on skype. I can consult my Paris tourist guide or the TV programme (not that there’s ever anything on) and best of all, I can take photos ALL THE TIME. Then post them on Facebook!

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned actually talking to people on the phone. It does happen, occasionally, and that’s where having earphones is wonderful. I can talk to Black Cat while I’m making dinner or hanging out the washing or doing some other boring thing. I can consult my emails whenever and wherever I like. And I can flick the screen and make it all big enough to see. And do you know something really strange – it took me two years to realise than when I swap languages from French to English, the keyboard switches from azerty to qwerty!!!

So, tell me, why do you love your iPhone?

Black Cat

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“Black cat entre home. Y’a pas happy moi. Moi pleure. Black cat parti. Moi happy.”  A direct quote from Black Cat at the age of 2 ½ when a stray cat came into the house and upset her. And that is typical of the way she used to talk. Growing up in a family where Mum spoke English to her and her brother and to the occasional English-speaking friend but French to her father, she assumed everyone spoke both languages. So I guess she just took the first word that came into her mind or the easiest to pronounce.

I did wonder whether she would ever manage to speak normally. A few months later, when she started maternelle (the French state-run pre-school that begins at about the age of 3), the teachers had me a bit worried. “She’s obviously very clever and knows how to do a lot of things. It’s a pity we can’t understand what she’s saying though”, they told me. As well as mixing up the two languages, she had a few pronunciation problems such as “fwing” for “swing” and “wabbit” for “rabbit”. I had no trouble understanding her of course, but that’s often the case, isn’t it, even if there’s only one language involved.

By the time she was six, she had become much more comprehensible but had practically stopped speaking English even though she could understand everything I said. We went to Brittany on holidays and met an English family with a little girl the same age. They got on marvellously and her English seemed to reappear out of nowhere. When we left, however, I explained to her that if she continued to talk to me in French, she would forget how to speak in English and wouldn’t be able to talk to her little friend the next year. We struck a bargain. Whenever she spoke to me in French, I would pretend I didn’t understand; she would know that I really did understand, but she would then say it in English. It took about three months. Ever since, she has always spoken to me in English.

When she was born, I asked Leonardo, who was three, to speak to her in English, which he did until one day, about three years later, when we were staying in a camping ground. They were playing with some other children and he was obviously embarrassed about being different. He looked her straight in the eye and said, in French, “From now on, we’re always going to speak to each other in French”, and Leonardo being Leonardo, that was the end of that.

They both went to French schools so didn’t learn English officially until they went to high school at the age of 11. Their English was always way ahead of the others but it didn’t necessarily get them good marks.  Both did German as their second foreign language, but it wasn’t their strongest subject either. I think they imagined that languages just came automatically and you didn’t have to actually learn them the way you did with maths and science.

It was not until Black Cat went to Australia on an exchange in her fourth year of uni that she started to sound a bit Australian. We like to call her accent “mid-ocean”.

Padlocks on the Pont des Arts in Paris

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The view from the Pont des Arts footbridge is one of best in Paris, according to Relationnel. Difficult to beat, I must admit. If you stand in the middle and look towards the Left Bank, you have the Institut de France containing the Académie Française with its famous dome in front of you. Behind you, on the Right Bank, is the Louvre. On your left, looking downstream, Ile de la Cité with Notre Dame and  Sainte Chapelle. On your right, the Eiffel Tower which shimmers and shines for 10 minutes every hour, at its best at midnight on 31st December where we join with what seems like half of Paris, champagne bottle and glasses in hand, to welcome in the New Year.

But what I like best are the cadenas. The railings on either side of the bridge are being gradually covered with padlocks of every shape and size. Although the collection was started a few years ago, most are recent. At the beginning of May last year, there were about 1,600, but only about forty of the most resistant were left on 16th May. No one knows who took them off. Neither the town hall nor the police knows anything about it. I didn’t count them but both sides of each railing are now covered in new padlocks!

There are big ones and little ones, old ones and new, square locks and round ones, key locks, combination locks and even bike locks. On some, the inscriptions are written with felt pens, others are beautifully engraved. The names come from everywhere – Ana  y Pablo , Lus & Carlos, Monset & Leila, Sacha et Serge, Ruth and Michael, Pedro & McJosé, Fio & Angel, Eliot and Madeleine, Princess Titti & Magic Benoo, Christ &  Natasha, poopy pants & becky,  J. Vilorio & L. Villaverde, the list goes on.  Some of the messages are mundane – a heart or “loves” between the names, “1 an de bonheur” (a year of happiness), “forever” or “Thirty years of wedded bliss”; some are inventive : “Mikaël & Vanessa : une évidence” (perfectly obvious); while others are hopeful of things to come: “Christina Joe Maybe One day cos”.

The  enormous “50 mm sécurité” and “Triangle 75 mm” padlocks left me somewhat bemused.  They hardly seem appropriate for a long-term relationship. There’s a little yellow star (on a bridge in Paris?), a bottle opener with “I love Paris”, lots of big red hearts and some smaller ones, a lovely embossed padlock that looks as though it came off a trunk, and one with 3 little coloured hearts glued on. Some are handpainted miniatures and I love the one with the two flags, one red and yellow and the other blue and white with a star on one side, even though I can’t identify the countries. There’s even a plaque with Mona Lisa on it. The most elaborate has three little buttons sewn on. Sometimes, there are two padlocks together, with a name on each. Very economical. Nothing like allowing for a change of partner!  

So where do they all come from? Some are obviously prepared in advance while others are more spontaneous. I noticed that some of the nearby bouquinistes are selling the plainer variety. The basement of the BHV department store on the corner of Place de l’Hôtel de Ville further along the right bank no doubt has quite a selection, but I don’t know where you get those heart-shaped ones. They seem made for meaure! Likes like a thriving business in any case.

Has anyone seen padlocks in other places on their travels?

For more information on the subject in French:

Trumpets of Death

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One of the things I like best about mushroom picking is that it’s like meditation. You’re so busy looking at the ground that your mind can wander wherever it likes. After saying a tearful goodbye to Leonardo at Gare du Nord on Sunday, we bought some sandwiches for lunch and drove north for about an hour to Senlis forest.

We went to our usual spot, which I won’t describe in detail because mushroom pickers never tell you exactly where they go. Who wants someone else getting there first ? We put on our walking boots and set off. There were a few toadstools along the way, which was promising. Would you believe there is no word for “toadstool” in French? They just talk about “champignons comestibles” and “non comestibles”.  You can either eat them or not. Toadstools are usually far more attractive than mushrooms. Beautiful purples and oranges, not to mention the amanita muscaris or fly agaric – you know, the famous red one with the white spots that’s always in cartoons. The edible ones, apart from the little amethyst deceiver (Laccaria amethystea), are usually various shades of white and brown and sometimes black.

Grisette (Amanita vaginata grisea)

We soon branched off the path, wading through masses of heather and brambles. Get those muscles working again. Relationnel spied an “amanita vaginata grisea” which I had no recollection of whatsoever.  I usually steer clear of amanites which all contain a poisonous substance that fortunately is destroyed by heat. So all you have to do is cook them! But Relationnel assured me the grisette was fine. So I memorised the little stripy bits on the edge of the cap so I wouldn’t mix it up with any others. That’s the advantage of being with someone who knows about mushrooms. There’s always some little detail that distinguishes each mushroom and stops you getting poisoned!

Pine bolete (Boletus pinophilus)

After lunch, with about twenty grisettes, a handful of quite large pine boletes (Boletus pinophilus) that we found hiding under fallen pine tree branches, and one tête de nègre (Boletus aureus), Relationnel suggested we go looking for trompettes de la mort (trumpets of death) called horns of plenty in English. The name in French is not as ominous as it sounds. It’s really because they’re black and found around All Souls’ Day on 1st November! He seemed to know where he was going although I didn’t remember finding them in that part of the forest. We arrived in a clearing and he said that was the place. Horns of plenty, along with chanterelles, are among the hardest mushrooms to find because they look like squiggles on the ground, peeking up from among the fallen leaves of oak trees.  We searched for a while but found nothing.

Horns of plenty half hidden by leaves

I decided I needed a rest and sat down on a tree stump while Relationnel went searching further. About 100 metres away, he called out, “Come and see”. By the time I got there, he couldn’t find them any more. Then we both saw them at the same time. The most wonderful thing about horns of plenty is that when you find one, there’s bound to be others. I put a plastic bag on the ground to protect my knees (I once spent two days in bed after bending over to gather chanterelles for an hour) and started picking. After ten minutes, we had filled our basket and I’d forgotten all about Leonardo going to Australia on a one-way ticket!

For more information on mushrooms, check out Recipes coming soon! Any suggestions welcome.

See more photos on my FaceBook page (click link on top right)

A basketful of horns of plenty


Wild Mushroom Picking in France

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When Relationnel first mentioned mushrooming, he said you had to get up at the crack of dawn or there wouldn’t be any left. As our only free day was Sunday, I decided to give it a miss. I am not an early bird. But a few years later, the Serbian man who runs the Pergola, a restaurant with a wonderful outdoor eating area along one of our favourite cycling paths, dished up freshly picked wild mushrooms. He told us he’d picked them in the country the afternoon before. Ah ha! Afternoon, not dawn, you will note. So I put mushroom picking on the next Sunday’s  agenda.


Relationnel checked out the lie of the land in a forest about an hour north of Paris. It seems mushrooms grow best on slopes with southern exposure.  He always knows things like that. The weather was fine, about 12 or 13°C and sunny. We waded through acres of knee-high ferns just turning brown at the approach of autumn without finding anything like a mushroom. I didn’t know I had all those thigh muscles before. Not that I really knew what I was looking for. I’ve learnt since that it takes about ten or fifteen minutes to get your “mushroom eyes” working. Edible mushrooms usually blend in remarkable well with the foliage around them. Each type of mushroom also has its own particular habitat so you have to learn to identify the different types of trees and shrubs.

We eventually came to a pinewood and Relationnel excitedly called me over to take a look.  Here was this cute little brown mushroom a couple of centimetres high with a darker cap and a thick stem. “Tête de nègre” (negro’s head) it’s called, would you believe it. He carefully cut it off at the bottom of the stem. You should avoid pulling mushrooms out by the roots if you want to find more in the same place the next year. And Relationnel has this amazing capacity to return to EXACTLY the same place, even a couple of years later. I’m more like Hansel and Gretel. I wouldn’t even be able to get out of the forest again on my own!

He turned it over and showed me the part under the cap which looks kind of spongey. That’s the way you identify boletus mushrooms. They’re called pores. The only variety I’d seen in Australia were agarics, which have gills under the cap.  You may have come across the boletus in your culinary travels. The best known specimen is  called porcini in Italy and cèpe in France. The wonderful thing about the boletus is that it’s never poisonous.  There are a couple of varieties that are bitter.  I’ll never forget the time we spent a whole afternoon collecting, then cooking, an amazing number of boletus with slightly pink pores, but had to throw the lot away after our first taste! Turns out they’re called bitter boletus. There are one or two others, easily recognisable, that will keep you up all night, but none are lethal.

Mushrooming is now one of my favourite activites, particularly in the autumn and right up until New Year (I once found chanterelles under the snow), but I’ve learnt to spot summer boletus, parasols and field mushrooms when we’re cycling in the summer. My biggest find was on cycle path along an old railway track. I found a boletus about 30 centimeters in diameter that I baked in the oven. Absolutely delicious! Anything we don’t eat, we freeze, so we can have them all year round.

Have you ever been mushroom picking?

Check out more on and watch out for the next post on Trumpets of Death.

Alsatian vin nouveau

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It’s vin nouveau time in Alsace, the white wine lovers’ mecca. We first tried it a few years ago. We were in Colmar and went into a bakery recommended in our guide book for its antique oven. They had a sign up for pain de vendange (grape-harvest bread) so we bought some of course. It turned out to be made of unbleached flour, walnuts, bacon pieces and raisins. Not bad. The lady in the bakery said we should have it with vin nouveau, the first wine of the season.

She sent us to a winery about ten minutes’ walk away – practically in the town centre! We followed the vigneronne into the cellar which was full of these huge oblong-shaped oak barrels called foudres. She turned on the tap and poured us a couple of small glasses. It was slightly sparkling, a little opaque, the colour of pale apple juice and slightly sweet. We were surprised to see her put the wine straight from the barrel into one of those large bottles you get mineral water in. She then pierced a hole in the lid so the gas could seep out because it was still fermenting. The price was an astonishing two euros a bottle.

We learnt later that you need a special licence to sell it and very few of the wineries bother. It’s always made from the pinot blanc grape, which is the first of the 8 Alsatian grape varieties to be ready for harvest.

Alsatian wine glasses

We took it home to drink with our pain de vendange in our new long-stemmed, green Alsatian wine glasses, sitting in front of the open-fire in our little Alsatian chalet. Jealous? We didn’t have too much wine though because it seems that large doses usually play havoc with your insides.

The wine and bread soon ran out of course so we had to replenish our stocks. We came across this deserted-looking winery on one side of the village square in Molsheim. There weren’t any signs saying vin nouveau but a man in overalls eventually appeared, looking a little worse for wear. He took our plastic bottle with a grunt and disappeared. This time we only paid €1.50 and there were no holes in the top. It seemed much thicker than the first time and we wondered whether it was the real thing. We couldn’t find any more pain de vendange so we decided to make do with pain de campagne and buy walnuts and raisins to go with it.

When we got home, we put the wine in a jug in the fridge. It was much more opaque than the first lot and sickly sweet. Jean Michel was convinced it was home-made apple-juice and that the man in the overalls was just getting his back on the American tourists because of my accent! So we put it back in the bottle and left it in a crate in the corner of the kitchen to take home to the kids.

A few days later, I went to get some potatoes out of the crate. My god, you should have seen the bottle – it was fat and roly-poly. I started to unscrew the lid very slowly and out came a great whiz of gas. It was now the same pale gold as the vin nouveau from Colmar with the same slightly opaque appearance. We must have been given much “newer” wine the second time. Putting it in the fridge had stopped the fermentation process but putting it back in the bottle in the heated kitchen had got it going again.

I hate to think what could have happened if we’d waited another day. A great explosion in the middle of the night with sticky liquid in every corner of the rented kitchen!

So after that, whenever we bought some wine, we discreetly produced our water bottle and asked if we could have some vin nouveau. One vigneron got us to taste wine from 4 different vats, each harvested a couple of days apart. We thought we were really clever when we managed to rate them from youngest to oldest.

Have you ever tried vin nouveau? Beaujolais nouveau which is a red wine comes out on the third Thursday of November. I’ll give a full report!

Leaving the nest

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Leonardo is leaving the nest. Well, not really, because he’s been independant for the last 10 years, but he’s leaving France with a one-way ticket to Australia in two days’ time. What can I say? I did it myself in the other direction! I left Townsville, dry-eyed, brimming over with ill-concealed excitement, with absolutely no intention of going back. I was just a bit younger, that’s all. Twenty-two. Leonardo’s about to turn 30 and this was totally unexpected because he hasn’t been to Australia for 15 years. He simply announced one night in February, after our Wednesday family dinner, that while in the shower he had suddenly decided he would go and live in Australia. It took a few months to get a new citizenship certificate because the original one had disappeared. Then he bought his ticket. Every time it crossed my mind, I chased it away but when it finally sank in, I cried for a week. At the end I was absolutely exhausted! Not to mention the added wrinkles. Then Leonardo, who’s an IT expert, helped me set up this blog. Now I feel I can face the world again.

The interesting part is how people reacted during my tearful week. “You have to know how to let your kids go. It’s their life, not yours.” (Yeah, I’ve read Kahil Gibran too). “You’ll see. He’ll be back after a year”. (Oh yes? Is that what I did?). “Don’t worry, you’ve got Black Cat. (Yes, well, that’s debatable as well. Three months after I left home, my 19-year old brother packed his bags and went touring with his theatre troup.  It didn’t take long for the 16-year old to say “Well, I’m not staying around here by myself!”. My poor mother.)  “You know, today, there’s all sorts of technology. I have a friend who talks to her son in Mexico via the Internet.” (God, I was already skyping Black Cat when she went to Australia for a year as an exchange student 5 years ago. I had no problem about her leaving. I KNEW SHE WAS COMING BACK.) “It’ll give you an excuse to visit him in Australia.” (She doesn’t know you have to spend 20 hours in a plane to go to Australia? She doesn’t know the price of the fares?). “My children have moved out. You mustn’t hold your kids back.” (Who says I’m holding them back?) “So”, I asked, “and where are children living now?” “Oh, one of them has gone to Le Mans” (200 K away) “and the other one’s found a place down the street.” (And she thinks that’s the same as going to Australia? Gimme a break).

When I told my over-80 aunts in Australia, Globetrotter and Artist, how upset I was, Globetrotter, widowed mother of 5 offspring living in Darwin, Freemantle, Sydney and Melbourne (she lives in Armidale), said philosophically, “Well, that’s what happens you know. They all go their own way”, while Artist, mother of 3 sons who all live, as she does, in coastal New South Wales, replied “It must be terrible for you. I’m not surprised you’re crying.”

Maple Leaf and Kiwi, also expats with small children, totally understood my reaction. “I have a bad feeling I will be saying this in 15 years… I feel sad just thinking about it so I can imagine how you must feel.” “Like Maple Leaf, my heart goes out to you and I too wonder if I’ll be feeling the same thing in 15-20 years’ time.”

But the comment I liked best was Redfern’s. I posted on Facebook that Leonardo was leaving, adding “I can only wish him luck and hope he finds what he is looking for, even though my mother’s heart is heavy.” Redfern answered, “That’s just so sweet Fraussie, what a great Mum. When my brother first left Perth for Sydney my mother threatened to kill me if I ever dared mention leaving home!” Now that’s the sort of comment I like!


Beret and baguette

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It’s surprising how one’s tastes change over the years. When I first arrived in France, just out of uni, I fell immediately in love with baguette – the lovely white squidgy sort. I even remember the price at the time (1975!): 90 centimes. Francs, that is.  Today it’s 90 cents. Euros, this time. You know, I just put that into an inflation calculator on the web and it comes out at +347%. Kind of frightening, isn’t it?  Anyway, I soon learned there were different types of baguette, such as “moulé” and “non moulé“, depending on whether they cook it in a tin (moule) or not. I never liked the thing they call “un pain” which is a larger, shorter, often burnt and most unappetizing loaf that people seem to prefer when it’s stale. You can’t keep a baguette for more than a day, mind you, even for toasting. By next day, it’s rock hard or if you put it in a bread bin, it’s rubbery.

Once you’ve decided whether you want it to be “moulé” or not, you can choose how long it’s been in the oven: “bien cuit“, “cuit” or “pas trop cuit” according to how squidgy you want it. A lot of the bakeries confuse “bien cuit” with “burnt” and “pas trop cuit” with undercooked. You can actually have a baguette that is well cooked inside and normal colour on the outside. However, being an Anglosaxon, they won’t let me argue with them and I have often left the bakery at boiling point because they refused to give me what I wanted. My better half, Relationnel, prefers his “bien cuit” while I only like the “pas trop cuit” variety.

I did give vent to my anger once and couldn’t show my face in the bakery again, I was so embarrassed. There were a lot of people there too that day because we had been waiting for the next batch of bread to finish baking. It was a big pity because they used to sell my favourite baguette and after that, I always had to get Relationnel to buy it instead. I learnt to say “bien blanche” in other bakeries which seemed to help.

When my kids were small and I was going through my “bio” period, I started buying a multi-grain loaf from the health food shop and we kept baguette for a Sunday treat. Most of the time the “bio” loaf was the right colour but sometimes the baker would forget to take it out of the oven in time and it took on a darker burnt siena hue. I was always amazed that they would sell it anyway. The organic bakery eventually closed (maybe it got burnt down in the end!)  and I had to find a substitute.

Around that time, bakeries in general began making all sorts of different breads and you could get a decent loaf of multi-grain in most bakeries in Paris. But when we went away on holidays, we’d have to go for miles to find bread we liked. Alongside the squidgy baguette, you would now see the “baguette tradition“, made with unbleached flour and a lot more expensive than the normal baguette whose price is regulated. No doubt a subtle way of increasing prices … But we eventually moved over to the tradition which is really much tastier and never squidgy. But I’m not into squidgy any more.

Home-baked bread

After we moved from the suburbs into the centre of Paris, I had to look for another bakery. We tried “Chez Julien” and “Gosselin” on rue Saint Honoré, reputed to have supplied the presidential palace at one time. Julien doesn’t open on Sundays, which is a bit of a pain, because that’s our oyster day and you have to have good bread with oysters. Gosselin has inconsistent quality, in my opinion, and is always full of people. There was one vendor that would systematically give me the opposite of what I asked for. When I lived in the suburbs no one took me for a tourist but now that I live in the 1st arrondissement, I often get spoken to in pidgin English and given bad service. Even though my French is probably better than theirs most of the time!

I started to eat less and less bread, which probably wasn’t a bad thing, just keeping it for the oysters on Sunday. Then we spent Christmas in a gîte in Normandy and the lovely owners, who live nearby, offered to lend me their bread-making machine. Relationnel had refused all endeavours on my part to possess one on the pretext that it would take up too much room.  But Valérie kindly gave us flour and yeast as well and I made batch after batch. Everybody loved it, so when we got home I started checking out the consumer magazines to buy my own machine.

Valérie had said hers was a cheap one and had a few drawbacks so I finally settled on a more sophisticated Kenwood mainly because you could make smaller loaves. I was a bit worried about the long-term effects of all this delicious bread. The first batch was a diasaster. Completely flat. This went on for a while, gradual improvements alternating with total flops. One of the main reasons is that Kenwood is American and all the recipes are based on American flour which it turns out is not the same as the flour you buy in France.

Then one day, when we were coming home from holidays in the south, we stayed overnight in a chambre d’hôte in Georges Sand country. The hostess told us about a wonderful pumpkin fair next day in a place called Panzoult. I’ve never seen anything like it. The winning pumpkin, grown on a pallet so it could be taken to the fair, weighed 600 kilos. There were all sorts of pumpkins and squashes – even a butternut or two – and a local miller selling flour. I told him about my bread-baking problems and he sold me some multi-grain flour and dried yeast. Imagine my surprise when I saw the kangaroo on the packet! He said it was the best yeast in the world and that they imported it from Australia! Ah ha!

Immediate success. Every loaf was perfect.Then the flour ran out. I rang the bakery but it isn’t open on weekends and it’s a bit far to go during the week. I know a 3-hour drive isn’t much for Australians but you have to remember that the traffic in and out of Paris can turn an ostensibly short trip into a nightmare. So I kept trying out other types of flour and cut down drastically on my bread intake.

Another trip away – you may have guessed by now that we go away a lot – took us to a chambre d’hôte in Briare near the famous canal bridge built by Eiffel, but that’s another story. At breakfast, I congratulated the hostess on the lovely bread. Home-made. And would you believe where she goes to buy her flour? No, not Panzoult. But to the supermarket next to our gîte in Normandy when she goes to visit her family. She says she makes perfect bread every time.

I looked up the supermarket chain on the web and discovered that all their stores are in the west of France, the closest being an hour and a half away so I emailed them to see whether the flour mill might be closer. No such luck so we went to the closest one on the list. It was in a very dicey, most unlikely looking housing estate, but they had the flour. I bought up as much as I could considering the sell-by date.

Ever since, I have been making perfect bread twice a week. Relationnel still prefers “baguette tradition” with his oysters on Sunday but he buys it himself at the market and I no longer have to put up with people not giving me what I want!

From tropical Queensland to Parisian winter

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I hate it when the leaves fall off the trees and the temperatures go down and the days grow shorter. I’m not made for the Parisian winter. I was born and bred in the tropics.

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to having to wear shoes every day for months on end instead of going barefoot. And I can remember knitting and wearing my first pair of gloves when I was at uni in North Queensland. It certainly wasn’t cold enough for the thick pullover I knitted to go with them. Or even for the gloves for that matter. It’s so funny when I go back there during the winter and everybody complains that it’s “freezing”. But it’s really only because they leave the windows open all the time, even when it’s 10°C outside. Not that it oftens gets that cold. So I suggest, “how about you close the windows?” “Close the windows? We’ll suffocate! You have to have fresh air mate!” You can’t close a lot of the windows anyway. Most of them seem to be stuck open.

Now, that’s not what happens in Paris, I can tell you. I have to make this big effort during winter to open the windows for a quarter of an hour every day to let the fresh air in. But to do so, you have to turn the heating off because otherwise the thermostat goes crazy trying to increase the temperature to make up for the genuinely freezing air that pours in. If I forget to do it after I first get up, I have to find a strategic moment during the day when I don’t mind being cold for an hour afterwards. That is one of the reasons why I don’t like winter.

The next one is having to get up when it’s still pitch black outside. It means having the light on half the day because not only does it get light late, forcing you to stay in bed in the morning, but it gets dark again by 5 o’clock. You read about these people who get depressed if you don’t have enough light. Well, I think I’m one of them. I don’t ever remember getting up in the dark at home in Townsville and I certainly didn’t come home from school in the dark. I used to feel so sorry for my kids when they were at school here.

But the worst is having to get dressed and undressed every time you set foot outside. You have to put on  your socks and boots and a jumper or a jacket, then a coat and a scarf and a hat and your rabbit-lined gloves because they’re the only ones that stop your fingers going numb with the cold. I was so pleased when I found my first pair. They are soft and silky and WARM.  Of course, there is no way you can keep them for more than a couple of winters. One inevitably escapes when you’re on the metro or in a restaurant or even sometimes in the street because you can’t use an iPhone with gloves on. Well, I can’t anyway. And then the only shops that sell them in Paris must have millionnaires for customers. But I finally found an Italian website that keeps me stocked.

I have Australian friends that actually LIKE coming here in the winter. They say it’s “welcome relief from the heat”. I do not understand them.

It’s amazing how you can’t even remember what being hot is like in the dead of winter.

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from the Tropics to the City of Light