Big man go hunt – bring home meat!

Our friend, Adrian, knows the hunters in his village; so when, earlier this year, he asked if we’d like half a deer should one become available, we were delighted. Ade knows how to do all the necessary butchering and what can be more natural and organic than fresh, wild venison, especially when it comes neatly packed in plastic bags. Yes, I know, I’m still a towny and always will be.

Ade phoned on Monday morning to see if Kieran would be game for a “big adventure”; he was going to Ade’s to house-and-dog-and-hen-and-duck-and-goose sit for a few days anyway. The big adventure would be learning to butcher a deer, which would be delivered the following day, an hour after Adrian and Julie departed! Kieran looked a little uncertain, but Nick couldn’t have been more enthusiastic; so they left early on Tuesday morning, Nick armed with his “Larrouse”, the bible of all things obscure and culinary, and Kieran, still looking uncertain. Adrian drew and explained what was expected; not as much as you might think, as the animal had been gutted and skinned before it arrived, and then went on his holidays. The lads got home in the afternoon and filled the freezer with neatly packed polybags of venison and Kieran didn’t even look too traumatised!

But no photos today 😉


AGMs; but not as we know them!

Autumn seems to be the season for clubs and societies to hold their AGMs. I attended the one at the CLAN, where I teach English, a few weeks ago; it was preceded by a dinner, so didn’t get started till about 9pm. I installed myself near the back; I’d only gone to show willing and make up the numbers and didn’t read anything into the fact that I was the only English person there. I couldn’t hear/understand very clearly what was going on, but suddenly found myself the centre of attention, being made to stand up and having questions thrown at me from all sides about my class last year. Eventually I worked out that I was the English teachers’ representative (being the only one who’d turned up) and that I was expected to give an account of what I felt we’d achieved during the last school year and what changes were planned for the coming year. “Anglais” being at the start of the alphabet, it was the first subject on the agenda, so I didn’t have any clues from hearing what other teachers said; I stood there like some sort of stuffed lemon, my ability to understand or speak any comprehensible French rendered non-existent in my state of total panic! They must have wondered what use such a moron could possibly be teaching anyone anything!

Today was the turn of the cycling club; the meal in this case would come after the meeting, at a local restaurant and the club would foot half the bill. We arrived in plenty of time; when there are 50-odd attendees and everyone has to either shake hands with or kiss on both cheeks, everyone else, even the greetings take some time!

Having a lunch booked made the meeting run smoothly, with little of the time wasting that often seems to go on. We went through how many people, and who, had done which rides throughout the year, the financial statement and the president’s report. The club owns and runs, on a voluntary basis, the gite d’étape, where pilgrims on the route of St. Jacques de Compostelle can stay overnight; this brings in  funds which are used to subsidise holidays and meals. Also to provide Sunday’s after-the-ride aperitifs; a very civilised aspect of this club.

There was a report on the Wednesday afternoon rides, in which Nick featured; “This year Nick has joined us, distinguishing himself by riding a single speed bike. Perhaps his English origins make him want to emulate Bradley Wiggins.”

We went on the elect a new president, then got down to the serious business of aperitifs, before heading off to the restaurant for a meal that went on till 4o’clock this afternoon. Is it any wonder two thirds of the club turn out for the AGM; perhaps we Brits have a lot to learn!



Homework done; ready for the builder

It wasn’t till I started searching for photos of the demolition of the two reinforced concrete wine cuves in the grange, tonight, that I realised the job has taken over a year to complete.

When the builder quoted us €3 500 for their removal, we had little idea of the work involved. Now, twelve months on, we can thoroughly appreciate it.

The lads started with sledgehammers; they had no effect whatsoever. So they moved on to the angle grinder; it was more effective, causing lots of sparks and eventually making a hole. But the blade wore out long before the concrete and it became evident we’d need more serious kit for the task. We hired an industrial Stihl saw for a long weekend and, with the aid of the digger the two free walls of each cuve bit the dust; Nick was loathe to tackle the walls attached to the walls of the house by this stage, in case he knocked the whole place down! But Joel, the builder told him the method to use; cut the reinforced concrete into bite sized chunks and ease them off the house walls with a breaker (like they use to dig up the road). It’s been heavy work, requiring regular mugs of tea and mountains of cake and biscuits, but according to Nick, that kept me out of mischief!

So that’s what they’ve been doing for the last two weeks; they both have very sore arms and shoulders, but an immense sense of satisfaction and pride in a job well done. Joel’s due to start work here in the next few weeks, so things should really start to move then.

The battle of the Somme?

They reckon it’s like trench warfare in the grange at the moment; and certainly, it’s very noisy and horribly muddy.

Nick and Kieran finished digging and levelling the floor last week and started, with renewed vigour, on removing the wine cuves. So for several hours a day they’ve been slicing through the reinforced concrete, cutting it into bite-sized chunks (about 12″ square), then prising the chunks off the wall with the breaker. Bear in mind that I can’t even lift either of these tools off the ground and you’ll have some idea of how strenuous the work is and why they need regular tea and cake breaks. The ground was dry last week, but the Stihl saw has to be water-fed to keep it from overheating; the result is a complete quagmire!

Yesterday the last of the first cuve came away, was loaded into the trailer and taken to the tip; time for a celebratory bottle of wine and a night off, watching a film.

Today they’ve made good progress on the second cuve, removing about a third of it before the Stihl saw developed mechanical problems; a clutch spring had broken. But the lads weren’t going to let that stand in their way; a trip to the Stihl shop (fortunately there’s one in Nogaro) produced 3 new springs, one to replace the broken one and the others because they’ll probably go soon too, then onward to the tip and home to mend the Stihl saw and continue working. Another couple of days and the job should be completed. I think they’ll have shoulders and arms like Sylvester Stallone by then!

And me? I’m kept busy making tea and cakes!


The architect’s plans for the exterior of our new house were done months ago, but for some reason, he didn’t do the insides. So for several weeks now, I’ve been playing at being an architect and, eventually, have finalised the designs for inside the house. We’ve changed our minds about various details numerous times, but I hope this is the final drawing. Joel, the builder, having given us some guidelines as to where we need ground floor walls/pillars, etc., is coming round to have a look at them this week, so I hope they’ll pass muster!

The lads have finished digging out the floor in the grange, which will be our house, to the depth of 50cm required for under-floor heating. The reinforced concrete, attached to three of the walls, which formed part of the wine cuves, has posed more of a problem; but they’ve developed a much faster technique, now, for its removal. They use a big Stihl saw to make vertical and horizontal cuts every foot or so, then the big breaker tool to chisel it off the walls in chunks, hopefully leaving the wall intact. At the end of a few hours of this, tied onto the scaffolding tower, and with a counter-weight, as the tools are so heavy, they’re exhausted. But they estimate it should “only” take about another week to complete the removal. No wonder Joel’s estimate for the removal was so expensive!

In the meantime, we do allow ourselves some time off occasionally, and while Nick was cycling this morning, I went out with the walking group. All the vineyards in the Madiran area are having an open weekend, so the walk was almost entirely through vineyards. It was cloudy, but warm enough and the colours in the vines and the surrounding countryside were breathtaking; I hope you’ll enjoy the photos.

The last ride of the summer

It’s mid-November and the weather this week has been incredible! Brilliant, blue skies and temps in the twenties!

While cycling with the club yesterday, Nick and our friend and fellow cyclist, Philippa, decided it was too good a chance to miss, so early this morning they headed off to the Pyrenees for what must, surely, be the last ride in the hills this year. The col they wanted to do was closed, due to ice on the road, but they were able to do a different one and had a fantastic day, though I gather the descent was pretty cool.

For my part, I had a wander round a local market, coming home with huge quantities of fruit and veg and some plants to brighten up winter windowsills, as well as an apricot tree and a walnut tree. It will be a few years before they fruit, but I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait.

Goose and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

It was time for Kieran to replace the chain on his motorbike and fit a chain oiler; a much more pleasant task now that we have a garage, complete with lighting and electric sockets. Hugo and Hermione take a keen interest in all things technical and were keen to supervise the work being undertaken, as you can see from the photos.

After last weekend, we seem to have acquired the status of being nearly French, in the stomach department, anyway. My friend and student of English, Maithée, asked in class today if we’d been ill as a result of the heavy eating and drinking session that was last weekend; when I replied that no, we were fine, she concluded that our stomachs, at least, are becoming thoroughly French! A good start 🙂

Eat, drink & be merry, for tomorrow we diet!

It started on Friday evening, with the AGM of the Caupenne fete committee. Nuts, crisps and drinks before the meeting, then an apero dinatoire (a sort of finger buffet) afterwards; toast and rillettes; quiche, pizza and cold roast pork; cheese and bread; then tiny, bite-sized eclairs, profiteroles, mille feuilles, fruit tarts….all washed down with red wine, coffee and, inevitably, armagnac. We didn’t get home till after midnight and I think Nick was still slightly in shock; he’d quietly mentioned the possibility of organising a VTT (mountain bike) ride as part of next year’s fete, to one or two people; it was announced as being part of next year’s festivities, so he’s committed to organising it now!

Saturday was the open day at the wine cave and armagnac distillery in Nogaro; it’s a co-operative, taking the grapes from 65 local vignerons, making them into wine, then turning some of that wine into armagnac. It’s very different from the one we visited on Thursday; a far bigger, industrial process, with 3 large stills, producing 20 000 bottles of armagnac a day from mid-November to January. There was also a talk on the Bigorre black pig, which was once almost extinct, but is now raised in the Pyrenees for its delicious ham, and yes, there were samples to try as well as local cheeses to taste.

The cycle club had been asked to provide lunch, so after the Maire of Nogaro had pierced and tapped the inaugural barrel of wine, we all sat down to garbure (Pyreneen mountain soup), daube de boeuf ( a rich, red wine and beef casserole), apple tart, coffee and armagnac. It was amazing to sit outside to eat in mid-November and not even need a coat! We were lucky, though; the heavens opened later on in the afternoon.

From the distillery we headed to Adrian’s; his local farm was having their open day and we’d booked to go to the evening meal as they produce some of the best foie gras around. So, to the accompaniment of an excellent guitarist/singer, we sat down, once more, to fill our faces. This time it was fresh foie gras with a grape sauce, confit de canard and French beans, followed by pastis, a local speciality cake, served with crème anglaise, and, of course, wine, coffee and armagnac.

By the time I poured the fellas into the car to head back to Ade’s, we were all feeling suitably full and relaxed. Ade got a couple of guitars out and we sat around the kitchen table, playing all sorts of stuff, from folk to Floyd, into the early hours of this morning, while Kieran took himself off to bed and Nick tried, unsuccessfully, not to fall asleep in his chair.

All in all, a very enjoyable weekend. Carrot soup, anybody??

‘Tis the season to distill armagnac

One of the cycle club members, Nathalie, works in an armagnac distillery; they are distilling at the moment, a process which goes on for just a fortnight each year, when the wine has been made. Nathalie offered to give us a guided tour of her workplace, so Nick, myself and Maithée, another cyclist, set off today to ride to Barbotan where we were to meet Nathalie.

The shop was filled with an unimaginable number of different sizes and shapes of bottle and an equally mind-blowing number of trophies, gold medals, plaques, etc., prizes for the best armagnac, going back a lot of years. We looked at the wine making bits, with their huge stainless steel vats, the rooms full of barrels of armagnac, dating back decades, but for us, the highlight was seeing the old copper alambic, or still, on wheels since it dates back to times when it was pulled through the countryside, stopping at various locations so that the locals could bring their own, home made wine, to be distilled. This practice has all but died out now, as the government has tightened the laws dictating who can own and use a mobile alambic to the point where virtually no-one has the right any more. The still is wood fired and works 24 hours a day for two weeks each autumn, producing 5 barrels a day. The alcohol comes out at about 60º, a clear, extremely potent liquid, which takes colour from the wood of the barrel it’s stored in. I’m not quite sure how it gets down to the required 40º alcohol for selling; we didn’t ask about that.

We had a lovely ride to and from the distillery, through tiny lanes, bordered by trees and vineyards which are turning beautiful shades of red, brown and gold, on a day which was amazingly mild for November; and we even got home before dark, just!

On our return, I was very flattered to be asked by one of the other teachers at the CLAN, where I teach English, if I’d be prepared to take her class on Monday as she’s going to be  unavailable. It was only after I’d agreed that she dropped the bombshell that this is a French class! It’s a great compliment that she thinks I’m more than capable – I just hope I can live up to her expectations!

Sold – a heap of rusty metal!

When we took out the old woodburner, someone suggested that, as a classic, it would sell on “le bon coin”, an internet selling site. We were rather dubious; after all, our old stove had seen no TLC in a very long time, the top was rusty where the rain poured onto it, there was a huge hole in the middle of the grate and the ash tray was so skeletal as to be almost non-existent. However, le bon coin is free to use, we had nothing to lose, so I advertised it. We were all gobsmacked when, a couple of days later, a Parisian couple phoned to arrange to view it for their holiday home. Nick and Kieran hastily moved it indoors, out of the rain and cleaned it up as best they could. It was exactly what the Parisians were looking for and they were sure they could replace the worn-out parts; we were thrilled to have found someone so completely mad, but this morning we waved it goodbye and wished it bon chance in its new home.