Monday 31 January 2011

Boeuf Bourguignon

Yesterday I went down to our nearest town Preuilly sur Claise to see some friends of ours who were hosting a 'New' New Year's party in aid of  Australian flood relief. Susan and Simon are Australian and used to live in the Queensland area which has been so badly affected. Niall didn't come as he had a flu-y cold and was sneezing fit to shake our rafters.
January, Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, folio 2r

It was nice to meet people, some of whom I'd never met, but knew through their blogs. I didn't stay for lunch--the party was in the morning to co-incide with another being held in Australia-- I was making boeuf Bourguignon for dinner and although the preparation doesn't take a lot of time the cooking does.

We buy most of our pork and beef from a local farmer, Christophe who sells to the public as well as to trade. Just before Christmas we'd bought a 5kg caisson (box) of beef. We'd had 5 kg of pork from him in October which was excellent. The caisson is a mixed range of good cuts. The beef box contained: sausages, entrecotes, minute steaks, a larg-ish pot roast and stewing (Bourguignon) beef. So far we've had some of everything except the stewing beef and the pot roast; and it's been lovely.

So now it was the turn of the boeuf Bourguignon. During the week I'd received a parcel from my sister in law which included the dvd 'Julie & Julia' --brillaint timing on her part. It's a film which entwines two stories about cooking and food. Story one is about Julia Child, a culinary legend in the US whose book 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' is the cornerstone of French cooking in the US. Julie is 'a writer in the making' who decides to set herself the challenge of cooking all the recipes contained in Julia Child's book in a 1 year and to recount her progress via a blog. The dvd came with a 'freebie'; a little mini book containing 30 recipes from  'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'; it included Julia's recipe for boeuf Bourguignon.

When I was a child her book was gospel in my mother's kitchen , and my mother, who had lived and worked in Paris in the 1950's for a number of years, knew a thing or two herself about French cooking. I can also just about remember us watching the Julia Child's TV show in the late 1960's. These must have been re-runs as the original series was broadcast in 1963 and I couldn't have seen that.
Julia Child's cookbook

Anyway back to the boeuf Bourguignon. Mine is a simplified version when compared to hers; but I do agree with her that your meat has to be dry otherwise it won't brown properly and good browning does make a real difference. I'm notorious for not really weighing or measuring things in details so apologies for the lack of precise quantities but here's my version for 3 to 4 servings:

1 packet of lardons
cubed good quality stewing beef--probably about 450g; dried off (use old tea towel)
clove of garlic
2 large carrots finely chopped
1 onion chopped
2 shalottes chopped ( I don't like little silver onions so use shalottes ; but traditionally one uses silver onions)
bouquet garni
flour to coat the meat
between 300 and 500 ml of beef stock
about 3/4 bottle of red wine
sauteed mushrooms to add in at the end of you want

use a good cast iron casserole pan which you can put in the oven
pre-heat your oven to 175/180C

I gently fry off the lardons, crushed clove of garlic and onion and then remove them from the pan. In the lardon fat I then brown the beef.
Once the beef is well browned I add the lardons, garlic and onion back into the pan, add in a knob of butter and sprinkle the whole generously with flour. 
Stir it round to make sure everything is well coated and well absorbed--don't worry if it begins to cake to the bottom of your casserole.
It will 'dissolve'  when you add the liquids --which is what you do next.
Don't add it all in one go but put in about 1/2 the stock and stir well. Then add the other half of the stock. Give it another stir and add the red wine somewhere between 3/4 and a whole bottle. If you don't mind a slightly wetter stew add the whole bottle of wine.
Add in your carrots and shallots [silver onions]. 
Everything should be just covered by the liquid.
Add the bouquet garni and put in the oven for about 2 1/2 to 3 hrs.
Just before the time's up sautee off your mushrooms and then add them to the casserole.

We had our boeuf Bourguignon with new potatoes and nice bottle of Touraine red --yum-- and watched the dvd in which boeuf Bourguignon certainly features! And today we had second helpings for lunch. Personally I think it probably tastes even better re-heated.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Cassini and our 'Lieu Dit'

ruin which is next to our chemin
We live just about 1.2 km outside of the village of Charnizay proper in what is called a 'lieu dit' (literally 'a place called') which is as small as you can get. Next up would be a 'hameau' and the next up from that a 'village'. The sun was out so we decided to have a nose around the ruins, being careful not to step on the daffodils which were beginning to show here and there.

house which has fireplace
Originally our lieu dit had a number of houses--all, except ours and the neighbours are now ruinous and almost completely reclaimed by the woods. As some buildings will have been barns or out buildings it is hard to say how many houses there were exactly; but we think there were at least another 2. One of the ruins has a bread oven (more modern brick-work than ours) so it could be part of a house; certainly the windows which still have some of their frames would suggest so. Another of the ruins still has its fireplace and also has the remains of window frames, in fact there's even some glass still hanging in there for grim death.

window frames still in evidence
We know from the maire that up until the 1960's all the houses were lived in. He remembers it as it was. Evidently there were a number of families and quite a few children. There is a communal well which we've mentioned previously and the houses are roughly scattered around it.

What we'd really like to know is how old the lieu dit, and specifically, our house is. We know we'll never get an exact date but a ball park idea would be nice. We thought we might be able to go a bit further back using old maps.

In the 18th century four generations of the Cassini family set out to map the country of France. They did so with great accuracy and throughness; taking full advantage of improvements in astronomy and used triangulation for accuracy. As they travelled around the country they often encountered deep suspicion and even hostility.

At the iGN website (use this link) there is a bit of general information on the Cassinis and you can click on Cassini maps link at the bottom of the page. This takes you to GeoPortal where you can type in your address. You are then presented with 3 maps each over laying the other. Top is the original Cassini, next is the iGN's (French equivalent of Ordinancy Survey) and third is an ariel photograph. You can vary the opacity of each so that they work as transparancies. What is so impressive is that the mid 18th century Cassini map is pretty much bang on when compared to the modern iGN map. The originals of these maps are in the Bibliotheque National in Paris.

Tinka 'exploring' the un-used well
To our delight our lieu dit was clearly marked so that takes back to around 1750; another 65 years earlier than the grafitti near the barn (see a previous post).

If you are interested Graham Robb's book "The discovery of France" is a good read and tells the story of early cartographers in France.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Burn's Night

a stabbed haggis;
Yesterday, 25 January was Robert Burns' birthday-- hence Burn's Night when Scots traditionally eat a haggis supper; haggis, tatties and neeps washed down with good quantities of malt whisky.

The haggis is brought to the table with great ceremony to the tune of bagpipes; and is then 'addressed' by a gentleman who reads Robbie Burns' poem 'To a Haggis' and finishes by stabbing it with a Skean Dhu (ceremonial dagger). If you want to find out more about the poems of Robbie Burns, or hear them read visit the BBC's website  
At a later point during the dinner it is traditional for a different gentleman to give an address 'to the lassies' (a speech to the ladies). There is no corresponding 'address to the laddies'.

For those of you who have no idea what haggis is; well it won't win any awards for the best looking dish but when done right it is a very tasty dish indeed. Traditionally, if you live in Edinburgh one of 'the' places to buy your haggis is from MacSween's butchers.

Haggis; photo from
What's in it? Scare stories abound of haggis and, yes originally it was a recipe which used up bits of the animal which would otherwise go to waste and so contained "pluck": lungs, liver and heart.  However, today a haggis is much more likely to contain lamb shoulder and kidneys and beef liver as well as the traditional oatmeal, herbs and spices. In the UK haggis is made with suet (hard beef fat) but due to BSE this is no longer allowed for export, so for the EU lamb fat is used instead. The bit that continues to make many people go "eeeeuuuuw" is that the whole is cooked in a sheep's stomach. A well cleaned out stomach I hasten to add. Premium sausages are cased in intestines and nobody goes "eeuuw" --well not too often--  about that. In the land of andouillettes (tripe sausage) and boudin noir et blanc I doubt haggis ingredients will raise much of an eyebrow.

When we first lived in the Netherlands internet shopping was still in it's infancy and getting hold of haggis for a Burns Night Supper was a challenge--we found one Scottish restaurant which made its own and sold to order. Now such things have become so easy. A quick internet search revealed serval options for getting haggis delivered. We are still finding our feet; but we'll see for next year....

Sunday 23 January 2011

Snow flurries & snowdrops

Yesterday we got on with some outdoors stuff.  We saw Eric out too, putting some fertilizer on his wheat; he farms the field on our north border. Our woodshed needed topping up. So while Niall got on with that I made a start on tackling the various bushes and small trees that had been left to run riot.

Eric's field looking NW towards other side of valley
We don't want a manicured garden--it wouldn't suit; but we do want to try and keep things healthy and vigorous.

Layered in various fleeces and hats we got stuck in. 30 mins after we started we realised it was snowing-- those tiny flakes that look like minute styrofoam balls. Joy! It didn't last but the wind stayed pretty perishing, blasting in from the NE across the ridge. A far cry from having the sunroof open for a bit last Sunday! Thankfully the house gave some shelter as we were working on the south side.

We have various ramblers against the house and barn as well as dogrose bushes. I pruned them back hard, dealt with an over enthusiastic Clematis and made a start on the lilac bushes which have loads of suckers and quite a bit of deadwood to remove. Not sure what emerged from under the Clematis--I think it's a type of ornamental cherry.

first snowdrops
It will be exciting to see everything flower and find out exactly what we've got. On the list for next time is the fig and a cherry. The cherry has seen better days but we may be able to re-invogorate it now that the enormous hazel bushes were dug out last October. They were stealing all the light so things have gone weedy. Underfoot amongst last fall's leaves we spotted the first tiny primrose leaves and some snowdrops. The snowdrops led to some silly contortions round one of the lilac bushes as I tried very hard to avoid standing on them.
Naturally Katinka was dashing about 'helping'. Her newest party trick is to get under the blue tarp covering one of the woodpiles. It looks just like the tarp is having convulsions! 
Just before writing this a flock of green finches and one of chaffinches as well as a hawfinch swooped in. They obviously all appreciated the disturbance created yesterday and were rootling about eagerly turning over the leaves in search of food. And just to prove we didn't totally eradicate the hazel bushes and that we are moving --slowly-- towards Spring a pic of the hazelnut catkins.
catkins 23.01.2011

Friday 21 January 2011

Wood baskets

Since we've come here to live permanently we go on the odd jaunt to re-acquaint ourselves with places in the area we've visited  before-- we first started coming to this region in 1991--but haven't been to recently, or sometimes, eons ago.

On one of these last autumn--probably early October; we went back to Fontrevault. We'd been there quite a few times but the last visit had been long ago and it was interesting to see what had changed. More of that another time.

On leaving Fontrevault we ambled off to Azay le Rideau and over lunch there remembered that Villaines-les Rochers wasn't far away. We'd been talking about the installation of our woodburner and discussing how many 'stares' (1 stare = 1 cubic meter) of buches (logs) we were going to need. 

Villaines-les-Rochers is the center for 'vannerie' all things made out of willow; and we needed a log basket. They've been growing the willow for withies to make household wares in Villaines since the 7th century.

collection of willow work
Like many traditional crafts, vannerie was piece work and paid by the item. The craft was passed from father to son. This old black and white postcard on the left shows a great selection of vannerie. 

The craft fell into decline but in 1975 they formed the Societe Cooperative de Vannerie Villaines-les-Rochers which now trains people from all over France, offeres demonstrations of willow weaving and sells the handmade items.

quality label

In good French tradition the co-op is very proud of the quality of its merchandise and every object comes with a tag certifying that is genuine vannerie from Villaines-les-Rochers. All along the main street of Villaines there are street decorations attached to the sides of the houses in the shape of 2 dimensional baskets. Just like old fashioned shop signs promoting their wares.

We had a lovely root around the shop-- looking at the historical displays and comparing log baskets to log trugs before finally deciding on a log basket. It has seen good service with the snows and freezing weather in December. Last week it had a bit of time off as it was so mild but this week with the drop in temperatures it has been in very active service again.  
well used log basket


Tuesday 18 January 2011

small bits of history

As with many of the houses around here which are 'old' it is difficult to say how old our house really is. There has probably been a dwelling here for hundreds of years.

In its present incarnation it is at least 200 yrs old. We know this as there is a bit of grafitti scraped into the soft tuffeau stone just by the barn door which says 1815.

grafitti near barn door
A typical 'Touraine Longere' it started out as a 1, possibly 2 room farmhouse with attached barn on one side and a breadoven in a niche on the other. The breadoven will have been open to the front but protected by walls on 2 sides.  Somewhere in recent past--say 70's the breadoven was enclosed, a doorway was made through the outside wall between the main room and the breadoven and an extension was added on the other side--where we now have our kitchen dining area. We can tell due to the varying thicknesses of the stone walls which are original and which are 'modern'. All of these changes have created a long rambling house.
In what is now our living room there's an 'evier' [stone sink] with a larder cupboard above it.  The sink has been blocked but you can still see the runnel in the outside wall where the water would have run out. No tap of course. Water would have come from the communal 'puits' [well] which the various houses in our hamlet shared--none of the houses have their own well. Though not in use there's water in it - we checked.
sink with larder cupboard above
stone sink


Other traces we've found are the carpenter's marks on some of the massive beams we have. We feel we're pretty lucky to get to live with these small signs of history.

carptenter's marks in lliving room

Sunday 16 January 2011

January lambs

It's been very mild but rainy and grey for quite some time, often 11 or 13C which is not what you associate with January.  Yesterday it started to get better with a bit of sun. Today it is full on sun and clear blue skies. A bit colder 9C but lovely.

On Friday on my way back from a meeting in Loches I noticed that there were a few very young lambs in a small paddock next to a farmhouse on the ridge as you start to come into Charnizay.  Today they were far more assured on their feet than Friday when they were still ever so slightly wobbly. We disturbed a kestrel who flew up from the paddock before we could get a snap

new lambs Jan 2011

We popped up to the Dolmen where there's a lovely view over the Aigronne Valley to the south where our house lies on the opposite ridge.

looking south to Charnizay across the Aigronne Valley

For the rest we didn't have much joy. A flock of lapwings disobligingly settled in a newly ploughed field and so camouflaged themselves perfectly. 

We then drove over to the 'Parc naturel regional de la Brenne', a fabulous nature area of shallow lakes--the first created in the Middle Ages as stewponds, or fishponds for rearing carp. Near 'l'etang du mere rouge' a small group of white egrets decided to hide behind a small hillock so no joy there either. Nor did we see any obliging waterfowl on another lake in the Brenne.

lake in the Parc naturel regional de la Brenne

To be honest it didn't matter, the weather was so un January-like it was a joy to be outside--we even had the sunroof of the car open for a bit as we drove to the Brenne.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Pilgrimage trails

Our church in Charnizay sports a couple of informative plaques to the left of the door. The older,  of marble, informs us in lovely gilt lettering, about Charles de Menou, Sieur de Charnizay who went to Acadie (French area of settlement in Canada in the 17th cent). Then there's a much more modern perspex plaque which gives information about St Martin of Tours and has a picture of the ceremonial banner dedicated to the saint which is housed in the church.

info on Le Chemin de l'Eveque de Tours
To the right of the doorway is a pewter coloured badge--very much in the style of medieval pilgrimage badges which were made of lead. It depicts a footprint overlaid with a bishop's mitre.

The plaque explains that Charnizay's church is on a way called 'Le Chemin de l'Eveque de Tours' (a 'randonee culturel' or cultural walking route) which runs from Poitiers to Tours. There are 3 of these ways set up by 'Centre Culturel Europeen St Martin de Tours' [great website in French; has good pdf file maps of the 3 different routes] as a way of promoting cultural tourism allowing walkers, tourists and pilgrims to (re)-discover the heritage of St Martin. Le Chemin de l'Eveque de Tours sets out a route which mirrors the journey St Martin took from Poitiers to Tours when he went to take up the bishopric. The next 'stop' after Charnizay is Betz-le-Chateau.

St Martin of Tours was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. The son of a Roman solider he lived from c.316 - 397, and was born in what is now Humgary. He is easily recognisible in art as he is most often depicted giving half his cloak to a poor begger. This event took place in Amiens and soon after he became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers and was baptised a Christian. He became a solitary monk at Liguge and here disciples joined him creating the first monastery in Gaul. In 372 he became Bishop of Tours. The story goes that he had refused the bishopric of Poitiers and was 'persuaded' by the acclamation of clergy and people to finally accept the bishopric at Tours.
St Martin
He became famous for his visitations of the outlying rural areas of Touraine converting them to christianity and for founding monasteries including the one at Marmoutier. During his 25yrs as a bishop he also gained a reputation for working wonders in healing lepers. He died at Candes and was buried in Tours on the 11th November--his feast day.

His reputation as a miracle worker and the fact that his close friend Serverus wrote a very popular Life ensured his popularity. The Life of St Martin of Tours was the medieval equivalent of a best seller and served as a model to others who wrote Lives of saints. In France there are over 4,000 parish churches dedicated to him.

There are good representations of the life of St Martin in the stained glass at the cathedrals of  Tours, Chartres, Beauvais and Bourges. The most complete cycle in stained glass in the UK is in St Martin's church, York; which we know well.

In the UK his feast day (although now synonomous with Remembrance Day) was the usual time for hiring servants and killing cattle for salting during winter. St Martin's Summer is a spell of fine weather which sometimes occurs round his feast.

Image of St Martin: patron saints index image gallery  

Sunday 9 January 2011

Bonne Annee Reception

Today the maire and local councillors held the annual New Year's reception. As we are new to the village we decided that it would be a good idea to attend.

The invite said 11:30. Niall likes to be on time; I am, shall we say, more 'fluid' about this thing called "time" ... Anyway as a compromise we agreed to be there at 11:30 and to sit in the car until there was a sign of life if we were early; as I was pretty certain that no one would arrive much before 11:45.  Well we were both right. There were people there on the dot of 11:30 but most ambled in around the 11:45 to 11:50 mark. Much too-ing and fro-ing of people wishing everyone Bonne Annee or meilleurs voeux (Happy New year or Best wishes) then took place and we said hello to some of the people we have got to know so far.

New Year's reception at the salle de fetes

Just after noon the mayor M. Villeret called for quiet and he and his local councillors stood at one end of the salle de fetes. First thing he did was call new inhabitants forward--so slightly surprised we found ourselves, along with a young french couple walking to the front. It felt just like being called to the front of the class :-). Anyway we were asked to briefly introduce ourselves--which we did and were given a warm welcome by M Villeret. He  then gave a short speech and invited us all to raise a glass.

After that we found ourselves clutching a glass of bubbly and chatting to various people keen to hear why we chose Charnizay and were we living here permanently etc etc. A little later there was a tap on my shoulder and a gentleman spoke to me (Antoinette) in Dutch. For the last 15 yrs or so, he and his wife, have lived much of the time in the village; but they still maintain a house in The Netherlands as well. So at one point we had a conversation which was running 3 ways: French, English and Dutch. Great fun but quite tiring after a while to keep switching between all 3. We definitely felt lunch had been well earned! 

It was a nice way to start 2011.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Salle de Spectacles

When we first arrived in Charnizay the secretary at the Marie gave us a pile of admin info including back copies of the council minutes. Reading through them we noticed that the establishment of a new venue to replace the current Salle de Fetes (village hall) was an important topic. For a village of some 500 inhabitants this is a major undertaking.

the [once fortified] farm showing last remnants of donjon tower
In October we went to an event--an evening of French comic chansons performed by a trio from Tours. They were young, energetic and very good. We didn't catch all of the jokes --everything went at machine gun speed-- but enough to have a laugh and enjoy the performance.  The place was full. Looking round it was easy to see why the Maire and council wanted to invest in a new, more modern venue. The Salle de fetes was pretty small, quite dark and dated, lacked facilities for the performers and had no performance area.

cover of this quarter's magazine

Earlier this week we received our invitation to the annual New Year reception hosted by the Maire, Claude Villeret and the council. It's on Sunday. The lady who brought it also gave us a copy of the village quarterly magazine 'Le P'tit Charnizeen'. On the front cover was the architect's impression of the new Salle de Spectacles and the announcement that there will be an info evening all about this project on the 19th. 

What the council have done is bought the old 'ferme' (farm)- the much altered remains of the original donjon chateau of Charnizay. This is to be converted into the new more multi purpose Salle de Spectacles. Looking at the architect's impression it seems they are going to renovate/rebuild the L shaped range of barns which lie to one side of the farmhouse proper. What is going to happen to that we don't, as yet know- apart from the fact that they have cut down the laurel hedge which screened it from the road and prevented me from taking a decent photograph until now. Perhaps we'll find out at tomorrow's reception or at the info evening on the 19th. 
To be continued..
range of barns as they are now

Thursday 6 January 2011

Looking Back

Yesterday was the 5th of January and we've been living in France for 5 months. As today is Epiphany we thought it might be fun to just look back over events since we came here 1st August 2010.

Of course it all started way before that. We'd been coming to France on holiday almost every summer and if not for our summer holiday then for a short break in the spring or autumn. In short we always kept coming back here; one way or another, and most often to the Touraine/Loire region.

In 1995 we'd tried, together with family, to buy a small house near Amboise; but the sale fell through. One day, we promised ourselves...

May: roses at the corner of the barn
 Fast forward to March 2010 when we came over to look at houses in the Loches area. Various things had happened which meant we were in a position to finally seriously consider moving permanently to France. We'd spent 3 months researching properties on the internet and now had an intensive week looking at a series of houses. We were lucky--we found that one of the properties we'd identified as a 'potential' on the internet measured up in real life and offered almost all of what we were looking for. Our compromise was that it was a little further away from Loches than we'd hoped. Naturally there were some works to do....

 April saw us put in an offer which was accepted and dashing back over to sign the 'compromis de vente'. The vendors were a lovely French couple who insisted that we stay in the house in May when we came for a week 's break. So we were able to 'road test' the house before the final exchange of contracts and do a bit of intensive sight seeing in the immediate area. It was great! It also helped us crystallise what exactly we wanted to renovate before we moved in and what could wait until later.

digging out drive
demolishing old bathroom for kitchen diner

June and July saw works at the house. We needed a drive--there was just a grass track. No problem for a second home which is what it had been used as, but not good for living in a house permanently. We needed a kitchen & diner and wanted an en-suite bathroom upstairs. The wooden beams had been sprayed for woodworm and other beasties 4 yrs ago but we decided as it is such a smelly job to have it redone before we and the cat moved in. Treatment is usually valid for 10 yrs. The fireplace needed sandblasting as it was covered in while emulsion paint and there was some structural work to be done to the bread oven wall; oh and we needed a door out of the kitchen/diner. Then there were some electrics and extra plumbing ''bits''. In short quite a few things, but no central heating, attic conversion or roof renovations/insulation, as these had all been relatively recently done. 
house on 1st August
1 August saw us arrive with our cat, Shadow, two folding chairs, bedding, a couple of mugs and pans for a 2 week camp out before our furniture from the UK arrived. The vendors had kindly agreed to leave a bed! So there we were in an empty house. Armed with lots of whitewash we painted everything downstairs and generally got the house ready for the arrival of our stuff. Inbetween we also dashed back to the UK to sign the final exchange on the sale of our house there.

new kitchen/diner
Mid August: On the 1 day it really, really rained in August our things arrived....  The removal men had to wait until about 5:30pm before it slackened off enough for them to unload. It was 10:30pm when the last boxes were carried in, 64 cubic meters in all. They worked like Trojans and were absolutely fantastic. Not a break, chip, or mishap. Even our house plants, including 2 orchids came through it all fine [orchids are tougher than you think].

September:  We had trees felled, overgrown hazel bushes grubbed up and hired an industrial strength wood chipper to deal with all the ''stuff'' generated by chopping down the trees. We learnt how to use a chainsaw. We ordered a woodburner and made lots of trips to Tours for admin and other things. We bought a ride on lawnmower and little trailer and learnt to use those. 2 1/2 acres is a lot when you've been mostly used to small gardens in the Netherlands for years. We found out that our fosse etanche would only last us about 4 weeks before it needed emptying.... so....we became very careful with water usage.

October: Katinka the kitten arrived. We got the car through all of the hoops required and had it registered on French plates. We started up the process to get a fosse septique system installed. Our woodburner arrived. We ordered 4 fruit trees for planting in November.

November: We started blogging :-). We planted our fruit trees. End of the month saw work start on the installation of fosse septique system. The snow came......

December arrived: very cold, snowy. We went to our 1st Christmas market.  The work on the fosse was finished. We could now use the bath!! We stacked 6 cubic of wood to see us through the rest of the winter. 
Over the months we've throughly enjoyed the wildlife we see from time to time round the house. We celebrated out first Christmas in Charnizay and reflected that we've met some lovely new friends and found a warm welcome. 

Yes there were things in France over the past 5 months which made us grit our teeth--no doubt there will be others in the future. But so it was in The Netherlands and in the UK. Everywhere has its own quirks.

Having just come back from visiting family for New Year in Edinburgh we are comfortable calling this 'home' and are looking forward to what 2011 brings.