Thursday, 27 March 2008

Internet Again

After 3 days without any Internet connection and another 4 days before that with a connection that only just worked I am able to log onto the world again. I really missed my morning peruse of the BBC news site and the blog community I read (only 23 blog entries left to read now).

So I hung around the whole day – the weather was lousy too -, and the engineer ‘phoned three quarters of an hour into the hour slot I’d been given. It took him less than 2 minutes to check the line and then announce that the line was fine and that he would have to send someone round on Monday morning to check out the line to the house. So I resigned myself to another 3 days without Internet connection. Complaining just doesn’t work here, if you threaten to take your business elsewhere they just say “fine”, and you find that the service is just the same where ever you go, so the best thing is to just accept. Then less than 20 minutes later the connection starts working again – so I am a happy bunny tonight all be it with a lot of posts to load.

As I was in the house I decided on another baking morning. This time I made some burger buns. The only ones you can get here are slightly sweet and so full of air, they collapse and you don’t feel you’ve eaten anything which tempts me at least to having seconds; not a good idea if you are trying to lose weight as I invariably am.

Tomorrow I’m off to get new front tyres for the car, not an extraordinary thing but one that fills me with trepidation. Nothing to do with getting the tyres but due to Chestnut. He’s decided that the grass is greener, or in the case of the alpaca paddock actually present, on the other side of the fence and that if he tries hard he can just get his head through the wire mesh. The problem is of course he can’t get it back. If I get to him quickly I can usually fold his ears down and push him back through, but if I don’t spot him for a while he lies down. Then it’s difficult to get him to move his neck back far enough to push his head back through.

When he copied Ashan on this trick the other day, and of course Ashan being smaller doesn’t get stuck, I raced out in the rain with the lawnmower and managed to cut most of the long grass along side the fence. Unfortunately it was just too long and wet to cut it right down so I had to use a high cut, but as soon as the grass dries out I will cut it as low as possible.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Global Warming

Dodging the rain showers, I went out to feed the alpacas this afternoon and saw that the lily of the valley had opened. So much for being the flower for May and this on the day that another large part of the Antarctic ice sheet broke away. I would give more details but I am limited to what I was able to glean from the French news broadcasts, as my Internet has not miraculously returned.

Last year I started logging the rainfall here and I have just completed the first full year, so starting April I will be able to compare the current year with last. Everyone here has told me that last year was not a ‘normal’ year though. I think we are all going to have to redefine what we think of as normal. It is an interesting and slightly worrying thought that if the climate is shifting, large areas of crops will be growing in places that will not be able to sustain them, either through lack of water, flood, insufficient heat or excess heat. The possibility of food shortages then arises especially as the development of bio fuels is gobbling up increasing amounts of the staple crops.

It is very easy to envisage the scenario of Soylent Green, especially with the domination of one or two agro companies supplying the seeds for cereals, maize, rice etc.

I think the depressing weather has definitely dragged me down today.

On a much brighter note, a friend, P, I met a few weeks ago returned from the UK and on her return she brought a goody bag for Ann and one for me. It was such a sweet thing to do, she had included Hot Cross Buns – something I had really missed and will be baking myself now I have the oven-, a Sunday newspaper and for me, a copy of Smallholder magazine. I read most of the smallholding magazines when I was in the UK but hadn’t read one now for 15 months. I read it from cover to cover; just about every article had some relevance to me here and I could understand every word too :-D

As working outside was not really practical I decided to try making bread. I’ve been using the bread maker since getting here; the bread is OK but the top of the loaf usually collapses and the bread maker paddle invariably get stuck inside the loaf and always leave a hole. I’d read somewhere about using the bread maker just to mix and do the first rise and then doing the final bake in an oven, so that was what I did.

Is it worth doing the first bit in the bread maker? I’m not totally convinced, it does mean that the work surfaces stay clean and you have one and a half hours you can do something else while it get through the first rise. On the down side I found it quite time consuming getting all the dough out of the bread maker to knock back and reshape. The loaves however look good even though I don’t have any loaf tins and the taste and texture are much better than the bread maker equivalent. As you may have guessed I’m really enjoying having a full sized cooker again.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Taxing Time

Tuesday turned out to be quite a tiring day for two reasons.

Firstly because after my Internet connection finally died at about 3pm yesterday I summoned up my best French and called the euphemistically called Help Line. As I knew would happen, explaining the problem didn’t help, I had to go through their checklist including switching off and then back on the modem and swapping the ADSL line filters. The latter meant disconnecting the telephone line, which in turn disconnected the call to the help centre. By the time I got through again it was of course someone else and my dossier was ‘locked’ and he couldn’t do any further checks. All this palaver goes on at my expense, as it is a pay per min help line. The second guy’s conclusion was that it wasn’t my computer – well I did tell him that – so I would need to have one of their line experts call me; first appointment being Thursday afternoon. So I have a few days without my link to the outside world and oh my goodness do I miss the easy access to news, other blogs and comments and to my friends and family. Yes I know I still have the telephone (so that’s an improvement over the last telephone/Internet problems) but it’s not the same.

Secondly, Ann and I spent the afternoon at the tax office trying to find out what I actually needed to file. It seems that as I’m officially registered as an agriculturice I have a different tax regime. We managed to file one form but in doing so we got given another form and told to fill that one in, take it to another office and ask for yet another form. As far as we could tell, none of theses form were what you and I would recognise as an income related tax form. The form we submitted was the statement of what I had been paid for the sunflower seeds by the cooperative. I was assured that that was all I really needed to submit and my tax would be worked out on that. I’ve been here long enough to be sceptical about anything in the French bureaucratic domain being that simple. We set off for the second office, took out ticket and waited. After quite a wait without the call number changing, we realised that we were next so just went in and waved our ticket – yes we were next. The form we had been sent to get doesn’t come out until the April or May and I was told to come back in June, just to make sure, and collect it then. The form we had been given to hand in, I started to fill in and then pointed out that it appeared to run from the 1st January 2007 and I had only bought my house at the end of February. Well that was it, I couldn’t submit the form. So it appears I submit 2007’s data along with 2008’s data next year.

I am now confused over things I didn’t even know existed before I went to the tax office but hopefully I should be able to prove that I have been there and trying to pay my taxes if I should pay them this year.

If I though that not having to do my tax return meant I could take it easy I was wrong as an centimetre thick envelope was delivered this week with my DPU PAC. This is the declaration for, I believe, the Common Agricultural Policy (reverse the letters and you get the French version – a rule of thumb that usually works), my land usage payments so I will be working through those. This is what I sent to Agen to do last year on the last day for submission (15th May). A total panic for me with lovely people who took me from office to office and stamped everything with the 15th May so that even though I had to take it away and collect other information it would still be counted as submitted on the 15th.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Tartiflette Time

Back at the beginning of the month I asked a question about using up stored potatoes that were beginning to sprout and mentioned Tartiflette. Well today (Easter Monday) was Tartiflette day. The late post is due to no Internet connection until now (27th). The Internet limped through to 3pm and then gave up the ghost completely.

I’m not too good with recipes and tend to make it up as I go along. If I had worked out the recipe for this one it would have started with ‘take one 5 litre bucket of potatoes’. So basically it is to taste and quantities to fill the baking dish.

First up are the potatoes. These are more or less the last of my ‘Charlotte’ potatoes I grew last year. Why did I grow them? They were all that was left when I went to the shop and the poor things were almost wizened to nothing before I got them into the soil. I was amazed that I got anything from them, but I did, and they have stored well, hold together nicely and taste good when cooked.

So first up, peel and cook potatoes until they are just cooked but not falling apart.

While they are cooking – I had to do mine in two batches as my large pan was being used for something else, I prepared the lardons from the bacon I’d home cured. I cut the bacon into small pieces for two main reasons, firstly to allow the fat to be released and secondly because even though I reduced the curing time I still find the bacon rather salty. This doesn’t matter too much when mixed into the potatoes.

Once the potatoes are done, drain them and then cook the lardons slowly until they have released their fat and are just crisping. Peel and slice the onions thinly and if liked, chop up some garlic.

Then add the sliced onions and garlic if used and gently cook until soft.

While the onions are cooking, slice half the potatoes and place them in a greased baking dish.

Once the onions are well softened, layer half the onion and lardon mixture over the potatoes and pour over some cream. I used UHT cream from my store cupboard this time but I quite often use crème fraiche as I usually have that in the fridge.

Slice the remaining potatoes and place on top, followed by the remaining onion and lardon mix. Then dot the surface with the cheese. The best description of the Tartiflette cheese is a cross between Brie and Camembert. It’s not particularly strong so I quite often add a layer of Emmental too, I’m far too miserly to use any of my more tasty (and more expensive) cheese, usually aged Comté. Then bake until it’s hot through and the cheese has melted and started to brown.

It’s peasant food but it is wonderful on cold evenings along with a glass of red wine.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Easter Sunday

Today has been a really pleasant day doing nothing. Regis and Ann invited me to Regis’s parents house for Easter lunch so after a leisurely meal I returned home replete but really tired. Regis’s parents don’t speak English so I had to really concentrate on understanding and participating in the conversation. Shattered I may be but I’m also really pleased with just how much I did understand, I know I would not have understood anywhere near the amount I did had it been this time last year. There is no way I can rest on my laurels though as I was really frustrated by what I couldn’t say when I wanted to join in to the conversation, so that’s my goal for this year, to be able to speak as well as understand conversational French.

Over the holiday period, my Internet connection has degraded dramatically, If I can get connected it is at half the speed or less than I normally get and by the evening the connection fails altogether. I don’t think this is a fault with the line this time as my telephone line is fine so I guess that Orange are working on the servers yet again. I do wish they would warn users but the worst thing is I expect the outcome will be very similar to the ‘upgrades’ to Microsoft’s operating system.. A whole new lot of functionality that you don’t really need or want, that harbours more bugs and slows the system down. Now all I have to do is wait until I get connected again and then it may let me post this. If last night is anything to go by, I won’t get a line again until the morning.