Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The joys of airport parking in the south of France

An unlikely title I know.

A friend has just invited me to her flat-warming party in Edinburgh in January 2011. After a divorce and a few testing years, she's just started living with her much-loved new boyfriend in a wonderful new flat they've rented overlooking the Firth of Forth.

Hmm. Leave Provence, which is cold enough in January, for Scotland - which will be freezing? I weighed the pros and cons. I'd certainly like to celebrate with them. I'd quite like to visit Scotland again as I lived there for 20 mostly very happy years. On the other hand, travelling can be a pain. Airports, security, delays...

However, the pros beat the cons so I'll look for a flight to book today.

One of the things I won't have to worry about is airport parking. I'm based near Avignon and can fly from Avignon airport, Marseille or Nimes. Even Nice airport is fairly reachable when necessary, though it's a three hour drive.

In all the years I've flown back and forth from these 4 airports I've never had to worry about leaving the car at the airport (touch wood.)

Nimes and Avignon are tiny airports with very few flights per day. You can just breeze up and find a car parking space any time, which is great. At Nimes there's an underground storey and a 'first floor'. The top parking level is open and even when the 'basement' is pretty full, there's always plenty of space on the level above.

The carpark at Avignon airport, as at Nimes, is right outside the small airport building. I like both airports because they're so easily negotiated. You walk in half a minute from your car to check-in and you walk across the tarmac to your plane in half a minute too. So much nicer than the mammoth airports like JFK, Heathrow or Schipol in Amsterdam where you can walk for miles to get to your flight.

Parking charges are reasonable too. The last time I used Avignon it was, I think, around 4 euros a day. Nimes was the same. If you're picking someone up, you get 40 minutes free parking which is civilised, as it should be. And you don't have to pre-book a space, giving your life history, in order to park when you take a flight.

Marseille is a larger airport. Marseille is France's second city - after the beautiful capital, Paris, naturally - and serves destinations in Europe, north Africa and beyond. The parking is still very reasonable and, again, the numerous large car parks are in easy walking distance of check-in or Arrivals.

Last January I went to Amsterdam from Marseille. The return flight got in after midnight and I was horrified to find my car wouldn't start. It wasn't very cold but it was very dark and I was an hour away from home in an almost deserted airport carpark. (The car was a Peugeot. To be fair, it was the only time in four years I had a problem with it.) Having not the slightest idea what to do, and not even sure if my car lease deal had breakdown cover, I wondered over to the intercom at the pay station and pressed the button hopeful I'd be able to speak to a human. Yep. Even after midnight, someone was there on duty. (I love France.) I started to explain that my car wouldn't start and I'd have to call a breakdown service and asked if I'd have to pay if the car was stuck in the carpark all night and the next day?

"No problem" he said cheerily. In French, obviously. It just sounds like a flat battery. Happens all the time. I'll come out with the leads and I'll get the car going for you." (I love men.)

Two minutes later he raced up in his van, had a chit-chat, opened the bonnet, did something technical with leads and the battery, and the car started. I was so pleased I gave him a huge hug which I think startled him. He said re-starting cars with flat batteries was "all in the service." To me it was heroic, frankly.

He drove off back to the airport terminal and I went to the caisse to pay for my few days' parking.

Like Nimes, Avignon and Nice, Marseille airport's pretty reasonably-priced but I thought it was darned good, as I paid my euros, that - however they set the prices at Marseille - they build a basic breakdown service into the cost. Even at New Year, even in the cold, even after midnight.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Maison Bru - Sublime Restaurant in Eygalières, Provence

I've just got back from a so-good-it-was-practically-narcotic lunch at Maison Bru in Eygalières. The food was sublime.

Open since 2009, Maison Bru is related to Chez Bru in the centre of the village. When Chez Bru opened years ago there were dark mutterings in Eygalières about the swanky style, high prices and fact that it was owned and run by Belgians. (Is there any nation anywhere that likes its neighbours?)

It's true that the style of Chez Bru sat oddly at first with the laid-back atmosphere of the village. While everyone else was hanging out smoking and drinking cheap rosé in the Bar du Centre and Bar du Progrès, the Chez Bru waiters carried on as if they were serving at the George V in Paris, and the prices almost matched.

These days, of course, Eygalières is stuffed with bijou little businesses and galleries and Chez Bru is not at all out of place.

Ironic then that the owners, Wout and Suzy Bru, have turned Chez Bru into a brasserie and taken the serious talent for cuisine out of the centre to Maison Bru. The more ambitious Maison Bru is in a new building sitting in splendid isolation on the Route D'Orgon. It's large - sit inside or out - and has 9 guest rooms built around a nice swimming pool.

The Wouts obviously called in some "contemporary" designers to style Maison Bru. The place shrieks 'pricey'. The clean lines, muted tones and smooth surfaces create a pretty cool atmosphere. It's fairly luxurious.

But actually none of that matters. The food was so good it wouldn't matter if it was served in a wooden shack.

Here's an idea of some of the dishes and flavours.

Among the amuse-bouches were tartare of tuna and a delicate roast beef that melted instantly.

One of the starters came with wasabe and basil ice cream. Sounds gimmicky and self-consciously fusion but it was gorgeous. Another featured foie gras with cardamom. Ditto and ditto. The flavours were just so well judged (and the temperature was exactly right.) The wasabe for example was understated in relation to the basil, which was good. But the cardamom was equally balanced with the foie gras. It was perfect.

There was a King crab dish with oysters and a truffle sauce that was out of this world. A friend had abalone with truffle that was gorgeous. Red mullet with tiny tomatoes, tiny transparent circles of pasta and a lightly-flavoured mustard sauce was gorgeous too. Pigeon was underdone just to perfection. The flavours and textures were just sublime. No other word for them.

We didn't - couldn't - eat desserts but were served a delicate strawberry soup/coulis and, later, warm madeleines and coffee with burnt almonds covered in dark chocloate. I've never got the French thing about madeleines, Proust notwithstanding. They always seem like a fuss about nothing - dry-ish, tasteless, uninteresting. These madeleines opened my eyes though. Warm, fragrant, moist in the centre - they were lovely.

It's always difficult to convey the quality of restaurant meals but if you go and eat there you'll find out for yourself how much skill and judgement there is in the kitchen at Maison Bru. It's hard to imagine anyone would be disappointed by food this good. There was nothing too rich, nothing too heavy.

The single thing across all the courses for three people that didn't work in my opinion was parmesan ice cream. Parmesan just doesn't work as an ice cream flavour however talented the chef...

There's no doubt though that this chef is highly talented.

Maison Bru is on and
Rooms cost between 150 euros and 380 euros apparently.

And no, I don't know the Bru family and the views here are strictly my own, freely offered.

A Taste of Provence

The Most Beautiful Villages of Provence

Living in Provence (Living In . . .)

PATRICIA WELLS AT HOME IN PROVENCE: Recipes Inspired By Her Farmhouse In France

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lost Sheep, Wild Boar and Dogs Passing Through

I woke up this morning with the cat not calling for breakfast.

Unusual because normally, unfortunately, he sits on the terrace outside my bedroom and miaows persistently from about 5.30am till I get up and feed him. He's a pretty Burmese-Siamese cross, not the straggly, pointy-faced look, but a more solid individual with lovely caramel-coloured fur and burnt-chocolate ears, face, legs and tail.

Coco arrived at the house three years ago, hungry and homeless, and took up permanent residence against my wishes. Now, of course, he's family.

Anyway, this morning I was vaguely surprised that, by 7am, he wasn't calling. He's not a cat to miss a meal.

I went into the kitchen and glanced out of the window at the terrace. There he was sitting in a pool of electric sunshine, slightly hunched, staring fixedly at something.

I craned my neck a bit and saw Gregory's sheep. Two of them, enormous animals, puffed up with huge coats of wool, both trying to get their tongues in the bowl of water left out for the red squirrels.

Their appearance explained Coco's sudden mutism. Last year I found him confronting a brebis one morning and spurred by my appearance he charged the poor animal, sending it running into the forest. I had never seen a Burmese cat, or any cat, charge a sheep before.

On that occasion my neighbour Gregory, glad to get a call that his lost sheep had turned up safe after a month AWOL, arrived quickly on his quadbike and shepherded the animal back to his land. He has geese, ducks, cats, dogs, kids, donkeys and a confused rooster which crows in the late afternoon. I wondered if the sheep had departed to get a bit of peace up in my neck of the woods.

Summer here always entails such visitors passing through. It's a pleasure to have the two pale elegant greyhounds who live near the canal suddenly whipping through the garden to dash into the house, do two laps round the séjour, zip off to the forest, hurtle back to the terrace, stop for a quick hello and then cannon off again onto the chemin de terre on their way to my neighbour Monsieur Moricone's olive grove. Before presumably rushing back home to eat and fall into a deep exhausted sleep.

My other neighbour's beautiful Alsatian, Ulyss, trots over here more often in summer too. Often he appears silently out of the dark at night, arriving at the table on the terrace as a bunch of us eat dinner. Attracted by the food and sound of our voices he bustles around saying hello to everyone, putting his huge head on our laps. Often when he appears he sends Coco thirty feet up a tree in two seconds flat. Cokes will stand up to other dogs, arch his back and growl, but ironically though Ulyss is the least likely to harm him - more likely to cuddle him to death - Ulyss is the one that puts the fear-of-dog into him.

A rust-coloured hunting dog arrives every so often too. Ears flopping all over the place he scoots up to the house looking rather dim. The hunting dogs round here all look rather dim actually. I'd be surprised if some of them could find a roast turkey on a dinner table.

And then there are the sangliers. I feel very protective towards these creatures although there's nothing I can do, of course, to shield them from the chasse. The hunters, when they arrive later this year, will greet me cheerily as they pass the house, guns casually slung over shoulders, and I'll greet them cheerily too. They're all guys from the village who generally spend hour upon hour staring into the trees and broussailles hoping to bag a hare. Their wives then make paté to go with a decent local red wine. But it's the possibility of shooting a wild boar which appeals most to the Provencal hunter, making my nerves and sensibilities shriek. How anyone could see these solid, tusked creatures, surprisingly light on their trotters, emerge from the forest onto open ground, taking a tour of leur coin, and then want to kill them is beyond me.

Which is hypocritical, I know, as I have from time to time eaten sanglier paté and sanglier saucisson. Although those animals are generally reared for the market, it doesn't make any difference really. Still, there is something wonderful about wild boar trotting about the forest and dusty paths.

I imagine Coco has come across these impressive animals at dusk or dawn, moving quietly through their terrain in the half-light. I saw how transfixed he was by Gregory's sheep and I know how he reacts to the dogs that wander over his territory. I wonder how he reacts when he sees a little troop of wild boar, trundling along the path or passing by the house. I bet they make his jaw drop like the sheep do. I bet he watches in wide-eyed silence.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Fondation Blachere at Apt and the Conservatoire des Ochres at Roussillon

I went to the Fondation Blachere this weekend while I was in Apt because a friend had told me it was an interesting place, showing African art and objets.

It's actually just outside Apt, in an unprepossessing zone industrielle, and when you get there you wonder if the most you can do there is buy taps or gravel.

But inside it's really quite interesting. Blachere is a guy who owns a French lighting business. For some reason that wasn't immediately clear to me he got interested in African art and started this small gallery-cum-shop&bookshop-cum-restaurant in Provence.

The gallery this month (May 2010) was showing lively and very colourful 'naive' works depicting the history of Africa in a darkened space. Slavery, cannibalism, mineral exploitation, independence, black beauty and black talent were all presented in an attractive exhibition. The bookshop was well stocked with books on contemporary African art, classic works of literature, folk tales and works on the troubled history and politics of the continent.

The restaurant is run by a lovely woman, whose name I have forgotten but who was charming and welcoming. The Fondation Blachere is an unexpected and interesting experience in the Luberon.

Leaving the place, I went home via Roussillon and stopped off at the Conservatoire des Ochres. Now, I confess I have never been enamoured of Roussillon because whenever I've passed the place it's been absolutely heaving with tourists to the point where you can't put a foot on the ground without stepping on someone's toes. But this time I stopped at the Conservatoire and was astonished to find it was peaceful and it was possible to wonder around the old ochre factory - still with its machinery in place - completely undisturbed.

What a wonderful place. There's a bookshop and exhibition on everything to do with colour and use of colour down the ages in Europe. But, more interesting, you can meander through the many rooms of the old factory or usine and see the work and the processes that were carried out in Roussillon for decades, using the ochres that were mined, separated from sand and turned into paints and dyes for domestic and industrial use.

The exhibition rooms are typical relaxed Provence - showcases and explanations that you can explore quietly, on your own - products you can pick up and touch, pots of colour and brushes you can work with and samples of paint you can take away with you.

The Conservatoire is dedicated to preserving the trade and skills of those who worked in the ochres and experts provide training courses in plastering, painting, decor and use of colour all year round. There are courses on materials that are ecologically sound as well as attractive and most courses seem to cost around 170 euros a day.

But even if you wouldn't take a course here in a month of blue moons, this is definitely a place worth visiting while you're on holiday - it's bursting with natural history, industrial history, art history and the history of Provence. And it's a reminder, in a hi-tech world, that we humans used to look at the natural world around us and make interesting and useful products from what we saw.

Provence Style: The Art of Home Decoration

The Magic of Provence: Pleasures of Southern France

Google Analytics and Those Who Drop In To Read This Blog

I looked rather idly at Google Analytics this evening, just wondering who - if anyone - drops in to look at this blog.

The results were rather startling.

Google informs me that most people who drop in are sitting at their laptops in Barcelona and London. Then then are curious people in French towns and cities - Marseille, Aix, Lyon and Paris mostly. And then there are people in Glasgow and Reno.

Glasgow and Reno???

Internet users are a curious bunch. The people in Barcelona spend an average of 13 minutes pottering about here, looking in and out of the posts. Glaswegians spend an average of a measly 16 seconds, so presumably they get here and think almost immediately "Oops, hit the wrong key there."

Weirdest of all, people in Reno spend an average of no seconds here. Zero. How can there even be a count of people who spend zero seconds here? Doesn't that group comprise more or less the whole world outside people in Barcelona, London and some French towns and cities? (And, almost, Glasgow?)

What is slightly spooky (OK, really not very spooky) is that I used to live, for years, in Glasgow. And once visited Reno for a work conference. How come the people who least drop in here are from towns I have some kind of connection with? Why are people from Vladivostock and Montreal not dropping in as little as Glaswegians and people from Reno, if you get what I mean?

Google may be missing a trick here with Analytics. I'm sure they could easily rig it to generate a digest of geographical data on what people around the world are looking at and buying. Wouldn't it be interesting to know that the biggest group of people looking at open-air-group-sex-porn in the whole wide world was in Seattle? That people in Reykjavik buy more philosophy books online than in any other city? That people in rainy Manchester look at tropical holiday websites more often and for longer than any other population? Or that people in Reno spend more time on gambling sites than on sites about living in France?

It could be a whole new reference resource.

Anyway, I noticed that there were also people dropping in here from lots of other countries, as far away as Australia, China and Japan. I do kind of wonder how they get here and what they're looking for since it's a tiny little corner of the web, just extolling the virtues of Provence.

Nevertheless everyone is welcome because Provence is such a heavenly part of this planet and everyone should experience its unique and blissful beauty at least once in their lifetime.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oysters, Ants, Pollen Clouds and Miniature Goats.

Along with hundreds of thousands of others, some neighbours here were stuck in Boston after the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano exploded into the skies, dusting European airspace with volcanic ash.

The day after French and other European and UK fights were grounded, I opened my door here in the forest to a haze of yellow dust. Just another natural phenomenon - the breeze blowing clouds of pollen from pine tree branches into the warm spring air. My blue car was yellow. My terrace was yellow. My Burmese/Siamese cat, Coco, was yellow. After a short walk in the garden my shoes and jeans were yellow. Last year there was a shower after the heaviest pollen clouds. Pollen lay everywhere like mustard for days.

It's also the time of year when ants get active. They come in three sizes: giant, middling and tiny. The big ones stay around dead trees in the forest. Don't know quite what the little ones get up to. It's the middle-sized ants, the carpenter ants, that are troublesome. They troop into the house, climbing the exterior wall and entering through any little opening and nest in the wooden beams. Bit by bit, they hollow out the beams, pushing wood dust out. They're eating my house. I like most creatures and generally go out of my way to avoid hurting them. But I have to make an exception with the ants. I buy that ant killer that says the ants find it irresistible and take it into the nest where they all have a good meal then die. It's utter rubbish. They make huge detours to avoid the stuff. I'm just 're-roofing' the frame over the terrace with mesh so I can plonk all the honeysuckle back over it and while I was up the ladder I saw legions of ants trundling over the frame, waving their antennae in greeting at one another, on their way to eat my beams. You can brush them off but they just start again at the bottom.

While I was up the ladder a neighbour arrived with his station wagon. "Viens voir" he said, calling me over.
In the back seat he had a miniature goat with miniature horns and a very sweet face.
"I know you like animals" he said. "So I thought I'd bring this one to show you. There were two, loose by the canal. The other one got away. I think they belong to Gregory, your neighbour."
No I said. Gregory has sheep and donkeys and geese and hens and cats and dogs and children. But no goats.

We looked at the goat in the back seat. He looked back at us. Since he wasn't the slightest bit scared I suddenly thought he must live at the pony school. The pony school along the track has a bunch of tiny ponies ridden by tiny riders, all little girls who love ponies. Every day they ride past the house on the track, led by an older girl or a big bloke on a more substantial horse. Maybe the school also kept goats. That would explain why the goat was used to humans.

My neighbour duly drove the goat to the pony school. No, not ours, they said. But we'll keep him till you find the owners.
Asking around, another neighbour, Daniel, did indeed know who owned the two goats. My neighbour called round and told the family 'I found one of your goats.'
They were delighted, a couple and a troop of young kids. (Not a pun.)
The goats were not tethered they explained. They just wander about all day and come home in the evening. This was the first time in six months that they'd wandered so far.
Everyone went to the school to collect the first goat.
The second arrived at my neighbour's house later that day, perhaps scenting that her partner had already turned himself in.
Goats and family were reunited.

Once that was all dealt with I turned my attention to the oyster shells. I'd invited friends to eat oysters at my place the previous night as the guy who sells oysters in the local market sells the world's best oysters. From Bouzigues, he's a young guy, clearly very proud of his work and the quality of his oysters. Last week I told him I'd found a small blue pearl in one of the oysters I'd bought from him and he explained that yes that can happen but it's rare. Also, because the oysters are young, the pearls are soft and not mature. That had been obvious as the outer layers crumbled easiy. Still, it was the first time I'd found a pearl in my dinner.
Anyhow, I had dozens of oyster shells. More than I'd paid for because oyster sellers work on the old 13 to a dozen principle. Looking at them, they were so beautiful I couldn't throw them away. Maybe they'd make good compost? Looking online it seemed that they do indeed make good compost. I was about to start hammering them to smithereens when my neighbour called round again. He'd done a deal with the woman at the pony school, exchanging our collective olive oil for her horse manure mixed with straw. Did I want to be included so I could have fertiliser for my olive trees? Yes please.
"However" I said proudly "I'm also making oyster shell compost".
He looked at me as if I was mad.
"It's full of calcium" I said. "Very good for the soil."
He threw his head back and laughed.
Yes it's full of calcium he replied. But not good for your soil. Look around - your soil is calcaire - it's made of calcium."
OK. I'll stick with the horse manure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wild Asparagus and Morille Mushrooms

That time of year again. I love collecting the slim, slightly bitter wild asparagus spears that grow in Provence. You soon develop an eye for them, spotting the tangle of spiky, bottle-green asparagus plant and then, off to one side, an elegant spear. Takes time to find and collect them though so no wonder they only turn up occasionally in the local market and cost quite a bit.

They're lovely with a dorade royale, lightly steamed and with an olive oil vinaigrette. Even nicer that the spears come from the foot of the olives trees from which the oil is made. Wild asparagus is lovely cooked and cut into omelette too. Or fine, young spears can be added to green salad or a salade nicoise.

Because we've had quite a bit of rain this year, everything's growing as if it's in the tropics. And that includes....morilles - morel mushrooms. A wonderful truffly mushroom that pops up in spring, morels have been few and far between in the last few years just where I live. Usually I find a dozen or so growing in the gravel round the lavender and roses. This year, out looking for asparagus, I suddenly noticed they were popping up all over the place!

Which causes great excitement. (When I spotted the first one, a woodpecker suddenly started drilling away at a tree in the garden which seemed a bit like a morel fanfare given the timing.) My instinct was to fall on the mushrooms straight away and carry them off to the kitchen. But as almost always, with almost everything in Provence, the first thing to do was to try and apply some experienced judgement. They had some more growing to do. So why not wait till tomorrow or the day after? Good thinking. Or was it? Once dusk fell, the four sangliers wild boar that live long the track would be out truffling about looking for food. The morilles would be hoovered up in a second once they were scented. So pick them now.
Or not?

I picked several and cooked them with slices of duck. Delicious. (First it was necessary to be certain they were morilles but they're quite hard to mistake. There is a variety which is highly toxic - if eaten raw - but I was cooking them anyway.)

Since then I've picked around 15 large morels which were luckily not found by the sangliers. A friend who is an expert in mycology, and so also knows his mushroom gathering, identification, cuisine and preservation, reminded me that the flavour of morilles is improved by drying them. Hang them up with their chapeaux down, he said, and use natural twine, not thread or plasticky string.
So I'm starting to collect a few more each day and hang them upside down from the ramp in the mezzanine.

I mustn't forget the less rare but equally desirable asperges sauvages though. Better go out now and find some.

Two books on Provencal homes:

Provencal Escapes: Inspirational Homes in Provence and the Cote D'azur

Provencal Inspiration: Living the French Country Spirit

Buying Houses, Selling Houses, Renovating Houses in Provence

A new neighbour of mine was widowed last year. She left the beautiful villa in Narbonne which she'd shared with her husband and moved to Isle-sur-Sorgue. There were too many memories in the Narbonne house. (Which she's selling - if you're interested in a large, perfect, move-in-condition villa with a great pool and oodles of space, just ask.)

The first thing she did here was order a new kitchen. Heaven knows why - the 'old' one looked perfectly new. But people like to make a home their own. A local company agreed a (high) price with her and duly sent lots of crates and a fitter along. The kitchen would take two days to fit. Er, not quite. The guy was meticulous when he worked but had various other claims on his time so that the two days slid into...12. Twelve days without one or other or several of the appliances and sometimes without water. Oh well, it got done.

My neighbour then decided to build a large wall round the property. To my mind this is a fairly frequently-seen anglo-saxon priority and privacy could often be protected more aesthetically with hedging or shrubs. But beauty's in the eye of the person holding the deeds to the house. She duly engaged a team to build a wall and agreed a (high) price. "How's the wall progressing?" I asked her after a while. "OK" she said slowly. "Though the builders don't always turn up when they say they will. They seem to have other claims on their time."

Next day they were happily back to work though. Part of the wall was to block out a neighbour's garden where a large stately white horse had got used to gazing into her garden, pensively chewing grass. He watched the builders mixing concrete with a certain amount of interest. But looked affronted as they plonked blocks one on top of the other, gradually phasing him out of view. Walled up in his own garden, poor thing. He was accompanied by a barky dog though, whose barks were not blocked out by the wall so I imagine he and the horse felt they'd had a partial victory.

New kitchen and large wall in progress, my neighbour then decided to replace all the house's (new) interior doors with (new) new doors. And the frames they hung in. I spoke with a local craftsman who does patines for doors - (what's the word in English? Finishes?) Could he supply doors and frames? No. Did he know anyone who could? Probably. What about price? He didn't know. Probably high? Probably.

And then she turned her attention to the lawn. Her gardener is pretty good at what he does but, like the kitchen fitter, he has various other interests and things to do with his time apart from prune trees and plant lavender bushes. So my neighbour decided she should at least buy a lawn mower - one she could use so she could mow the grass when the gardener's not available. Which meant a ride-on mower as she's quite small and the lawn is quite big. Looking at prices on line, she saw they were rather high in Provence so she's ordered a John Deere tractor-like lawn mower to be delivered from the UK.

Generally I must say I find prices in Provence wa-y lower than UK prices. For almost everything. (Except, curiously, knickers.) I have a feeling that delivering a tractor-style John Deere lawn mower from Britain may turn out to be quite a performance and possibly one of the most expensive home improvements my neighbour makes. But perhaps it'll arrive on time. We'll see.

For a useful Provence and French Riviera Guide see: Rick Steves' Provence and The French Riviera 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pruning the olive trees, 2010.

2009/2010 was a horrible winter here in Provence. Long, dull, exceptionally cold and rainy. The light, sunny days were very few and everyone seemed to be in low spirits.

It wasn't till the end of March that we started to see a bit more light and even then it was far from warm. We started to prune the oliviers round here on the 29th of March.

My neighbours were busy from morning till night with hundreds of mature olive trees that needed detailed attention.

My own oliviers are a mix of trees which emerged slowly from the ruins of trees killed by the long hard frost in 1956, and new young trees I planted in 2006. The younger and older trees need to be pruned differently. For the more established, taller trees I cut away suckers from aournd the roots to favour the three or four main charpentes and then used secateurs to remove branches growing into 'the middle' of each tree. Thinning and opening the olivier out in this way lets the sun in and olive trees love the sun. I also removed the few small branches with diseased leaves on them and little dry twigs that were dead.

For the younger, smaller trees, the first thing to do was to stand back and look at each one. Then you circle it; again, just looking. Once you've taken in the shape and balance of the tree you look into the middle and remove any superfluous charpentes, cutting at the centre where the branch begins. You should leave three or four charpentes. These will forever form the tree's basic framework. You then remove any branches which are trailing on or too near the ground and branches which cross others within the tree's centre.

Grass and weeds need to be cleared away from around the base of each olivier. The space cleared can be as wide or a little wider than a young tree. I'll put a mix of horse manure and straw down soon. This comes from a friend of a friend who keeps horses. It is entirely natural, without the weird industrial chemicals that go into commercial fertilisers. The horses graze on healthy, untreated grass in a rural area without crops nearby - no chemicals are sprayed around them. The animals aren't treated with anti-biotics. I don't treat the trees either so the olives and the eventual olive oil are pure and simple - non-traitéé.

The other task is to gather up all the pruned twigs and branches and burn them. That needs caution in this forested area. The pompiers quite rightly enforce the periods when you can't burn anything in the open.

And after that the trees need 40 litres of water each, twice monthly. That's usually provided by a mix of me dragging the extended hose up to the trees and the spectacular summer thunderstorms which often save me the hassle.

Using banks and banking in France (Can be a Hassle)

This account may just be personal experience but numbers of French and other friends recount similar experiences.

When I moved to France some years ago I chose my bank because it was housed in the prettiest building in town. How pleasant to go there once or twice a month. I don't suppose the other banks are much better in terms of service but they're in unattractive modern buildings.

The first thing I noticed is that when you ask the cash machine for a balance it prints out a ticket on which the most recent data is several days old. Not much use when you want to know if there are enough funds in the account to pay your mortgage and electricity bill tomorrow.

If you go into the bank to speak to a cashier, here's what happens. You do the usual thing of going through the two anti-bank raid doors, pressing the little buttons to get through each one. You stand in a long queue in front of a desk with three chairs for bank cashiers but only - ever - one cashier. Everyone in front of you pulls a huge dossier out of their bag when their turn comes to speak with the cashier and starts rifling through dozens of pages. You eye the clock and see it's nearly midday. Eventually you get to speak to the cashier and she advises you that, for a balance, you have to go to the cash machine.

In general, there doesn't seem to be anyone in the branch who can tell you much about activity on your account. The other day I asked if Peugeot have cancelled the direct debit I was paying for a car lease. The cashier said the system doesn't show her that. So what should I do? They have to cancel it apparently, not me. "Oh" she said breezily "wait till next month, then if they take money for a car you don't have any more, go and see them and ask them to cancel the debit." Er, OK. It could be more organised than that though couldn't it?

Putting money in the account can be as frustrating as finding out what's in there or finding out what's going out. My local branch doesn't have a cash 'depot' facility but a branch twelve kilometres away does. So I drive over there and pay cash in. You get fairly used to doing that and you get to trust the system. Wrongly. One Sunday evening I went to pay cash in to cover a direct debit on the Tuesday morning. The facility wasn't available. Depot just wasn't there as an option on the menu that day. The next day was Monday - the bank was closed, so the bill went unpaid and I got debited for the bank's work of not paying.

A few weeks late I resumed paying depots to the account as depot had reappeared on the menu. Again, I paid money in to cover the mortgage and a bill. A message appeared on the screen saying in French: "Following an incident we couldn't count your money." Occasionally when that happens, the notes pop out of the machine, but this time they stayed in it. Then the screen reverted to the other options - 'obtain a balance' and so on. My euros had been swallowed up and I had no evidence I'd paid them in. I spoke to the surveillance camera for a moment. Waved my arms around a bit. Then went home.

The next day I went to see the manager of my own branch who didn't seem to know customers could make a depot at the other branch. He was fascinated by my account of losing my money. I asked him what would happen now? "Oh" he said breezily "someone will count the money and realise there's too much and we'll sort it out." Ahah. OK. Any idea who? Or when?
He sucked in his breath. Hard to say really.
Well, who collects the cash? How often?
Um, not bank staff. Some sub-contractors. About once a week, he thought.
What's to stop them putting my euros in their pocket?
He laughed. No, they wouldn't do that. No no.
He'd make enquiries and call me to let me know when the problem was rectified.

Well he never did. Ten days later I went back to the branch, passed through the anti-bank raid doors, stood in a long queue, watched as each customer hauled a huge dossier out of their bag when they reached the cashier, looked at the clock as it got near to midday, and finally reached the cashier. I explained the history of the problem. I'd lost hundreds of euros; I'd spoken to the bank manager. (I had a medium-sized dossier myself now.) And she said breezily "Oh, you need to go to the cash machine for a balance."
"But can't you look at the system and see what's happening on the account?"
Charming smile and a further calm encouragement to go to the cash machine.
"Go and have a look" she said. "I expect it'll be all right."

So I went to have a look and, this being France, it was.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Snow in March. In Provence.

Last week, at the start of March 2010, I lay out for a couple of hours on the bain de soleil warming myself for the first time after a long cold winter. Everyone round here agrees that France had its coldest winter for decades in 2009. Finally the sun seemed to be making a comeback.

Till the 7th of March. And then, wham, a thick rug of snow hit rapidly in the afternoon, turning my car into something that looked like an igloo and the logpile into a huge snow-hump. This was not the last gentle snow shower of the year - it was a serious, unwelcome return to winter.

I visited a friend in St Remy last week, who has hundreds of olive trees on her land right at the foot of the Alpilles. When I arrived I immediately noticed branches lying beside all the trees and wondered why she'd had them pruned at the start of March instead of later in the spring as usual. "They haven't been pruned" she said. "It's all snow damage." They had 40 centimetres of snow in and around Les Baux and St Remy not long before and the branches simply broke under the weight.

I went out this morning into ankle deep snow and looked at the land. Already the thaw had begun. Large chunks of snow were thudding to the ground from the roof and the pine trees. There were deer tracks in the snow bordering the forest. A guy from the village went by on his lovely black horse, bareback. The forest was silent apart from the occasional whooshing of snow falling. The small songbirds which have arrived in recent weeks are not singing, huddled presumably in snowy nests.

The snow's a bit of a pain for the flowers and buds that were coming out. It'll hang around for a day or two. But it's also beautiful and all the more so because it's relatively rare. I just hope it hasn't destroyed the first tender shoots of asperge sauvage which should be making their appearance any time soon.

Pruning and Training Systems for Modern Olive Growing

A Taste of Provence

Holiday Walks in Provence

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Must See Exhibition in Arles: "Cesar, Le Rhone Pour Memoire"

Even if you're nowhere near Arles - make a point of getting there to see this exceptional exhibition. It's on almost all year (till 19th September) and is fantastic.

A marble bust of Caesar, made in his lifetime, is the centrepiece of around 700 Roman artefacts objects pulled out of the Rhone (and the Mediterranean) by the lovely old city of Arles during 20 long years of underwater excavations. Imagine working in the murky waters of the Rhone, oxygen tanks and flippers on, spotting Roman remains in the weed and the gloom. Here a statue of Neptune, there a bust of Caesar.

That's what I call having a job...

During the long underwater dig, the archaeologists worked in some pretty testing conditions in the wide, fast-flowing river and the coastal waters of the Bouches-du-Rhone. The exhibition has several short films showing these expert divers at work as they find, clean, lift and record these priceless works. (Interested in archaeology?: The World Encyclopedia of Archaeology: The World's Most Significant Sites and Cultural Treasures )

It was in 2007, when the divers were getting ready to stop the excavations, that they spotted a number of stone fragments. They turned out to be a cache of Roman stones from friezes and mausoleums. As the find was examined, the dirty, stained marble bust of Caesar was identified and is without doubt the main treasure hauled out of the Rhone to date. (For more on Caesar,click here Caesar: Life of a Colossus .)

Identified, dated, cleaned and carefully restored by archaeological experts, the work is in amazingly good condition, with just a little cut on the nose.

Exhibition designer, Pierre Berthier, has produced a really spectacular display showing the process of discovery and recovery as well as the works themselves. The restoration work, and the task of confirming that the bust really is of Caesar were filmed so that visitors to the museum can see it being de-silted, cleaned, dated and then analysed to match its lines and proportions with an already-identified bust of Caesar kept in Italy.

The exhibition, seen along with the museum’s tremendous permanent collection, vividly shows how Rome’s wealth and power was felt in ancient Arles. Arles in antiquity was a crucial staging post in the movement of goods in the Roman empire. Its busy port saw cargo arriving from and setting off to points all over Europe, Africa and the Orient: The Roman Remains of Southern France: A Guide Book

The Rhone excavations came up with the remains of fifteen shipwrecks, including fine jewellery, hardy kitchen utensils, weighing scales, tools, iron and lead ingots, shoes, little toys and statuettes. Dozens of huge stone amphorae once contained wine, oil and fish sauce. Heavy stone sarcophagi were found along with a great statue of Neptune and a tethered male slave.

But the focal point is undoubtedly Caesar. Standing in a dimly-lit room, rescued from the dark currents, silt and weed of the river, it projects a spine-tingling sense of antiquity. His face is somehow very contemporary. Its features are strong and well-defined; the expression is grave.

Experts believe it was sculpted from life in 46BC, which means it reflects Caesar’s standing and power just two years before he was killed.

This wonderful exhibition runs until September 2010 and then the exhibits will become part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Luc Long, head of archaeological, subaquatic and deep sea research in France, is the exhibition's organiser. He says: "We made new and very beautiful discoveries in 2009 which leave us thinking that we haven’t come to the end of the reserves that this great natural museum - the Rhone river - still holds".

Which means we may get to see other exceptional exhibitions in this fine Provencal museum in the not-too-distant future.

Click here for details of opening hours and access to the Musee Departemental Arles Antique.

For more detail on Arles click here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And the winner, for the 5th year running, is - France

Here’s some unsurprising news. France has just been judged as the best country in the world in which to live, by website 'International Living'.

For the fifth year running, France topped the annual index of countries ranked by quality of life. The USA was ranked seventh. And poor old Britain, beleaguered by fear of terrorism, by crime, recession, binge drinking and ‘celebrities’, languishes down in 25th place. (Behind - ahem - Hungary, Uruguay, and Lithuania. And only slightly ahead of Slovenia, Argentina and Ecuador.)

The International Living (IL) Index ranks 194 countries for overall quality of life, using wide-ranging financial, social and other criteria. Security, income, spending power, political freedom, climate, leisure, culture, environment, healthcare and infrastructure are all taken into account.

The top ten countries for 2010 were:

France, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, Luxembourg, the USA, Belgium, Canada, Italy.

No wonder beautiful France was found to be the best country overall. The IL Index may measure objective criteria but there's an awful lot about France that’s easy to feel but a bit harder to define. The beauty of Paris all year round; the tranquility of the countryside; the olive groves and vineyards; markets brimming with locally-grown fruit and vegetables; the freshly-baked baguettes and pain de campagne handed to you by your charming local baker; the glittering stone fountains heavy with moss in medieval village squares.

And everywhere you feel the care, the tradition and the wisdom that’s put into daily life - raising a family, preparing a lunch, pruning an olive tree or organizing a strawberry festival in a tiny place such as my nearest village, Velleron. Click here for: The Most Beautiful Villages of Provence

The bureaucracy and taxes that make people groan in France are nothing really compared with the wonderful quality of life. Bureaucrats are often surprisingly helpful when you need advice. And the taxes fund the best national health care in the world.

What the French have above all is a huge understanding of the art de vivre. They created it after all. They're also thoughtful and intelligent caretakers of a fabulous country full of old stone houses shaded by beautiful platanes; ubiquitous canals and sparkling fountains that work in harmony with great rivers like the Rhone and Durance; pretty countryside tracks leading into forest and garrigue filled with mushrooms and herbs; outdoor markets providing olive oil, honey, almonds, goats cheese, wild boar sausages, figs, fennel, artichokes, purple garlic, endives, wine...

There are mountains, rolling countryside, forests, lakes, the wetlands of the Camargue, vineyards, olive groves, the long Atlantic coast, the glamour of the Cote d'Azur, medieval hilltop villages, beautiful market towns.

No wonder the French are, in the main, so cheerful and so charming.

For people thinking of moving to a new country, the IL Index provides a great snapshot of the quality of life you can expect to find around the world. If income is your thing and you don’t much care about political freedoms, you’ll find a place to suit you. (Try Bahrain or Saudi Arabia…) For political freedoms and hang the cost, try Tuvalu. But if you want to live in a country which has unrivalled natural beauty, a mostly wonderful built environment, a great philosophy based on democratic freedoms and the art de vivre, and the world’s best cuisine – it has to be France.