Tuesday 29 June 2010

Pièce montée

I had never heard of a pièce montée before coming to France, but here it is quite traditional. It is a dessert, often served as part of a formal meal, usually one with a celebratory or religious function. Basically it's a big stack of profiteroles arranged into a cone, and decorated with sugar figures and shapes. When used, it takes the place of a fancy cake.

We catered a wedding party last weekend, and it featured a pièce montée. The meal started with champagne and nibbles, continued with a starter of seafood terrines, then on to a fish course (cod in papillotte), a steak main course, cheese, and the final pièce montée. A fantastic meal, it lasted from about 7:30 until 1:00 am, and everyone loved it. Very pleasing to cater at such a high level, and to everyone's satisfaction.

The tables all laid out with flowers, and the starter course ready to go.

The cheese course, and the pièce montée. You can't see it well in the photo but the sugar sculpture on top is a bride and groom figurine. The choux-pastry balls, (not very visible in the photo since they are mostly covered by the hearts and other decorations,) are stuck together with a sugar syrup/caramel glue, and you have to cut them apart with scissors.

Friday 25 June 2010

Electric roof

As in many western economies, electricity supply is of strategic importance to France, and the subject of government attention. The electricity network is getting overloaded, and the nuclear power stations are getting old. Since nuclear power accounts for around 85% of electricity generated in France, this is a problem.

So the government has put some incentives in place for people to install electric solar panels on their roofs. There are various incentives: a tax credit of up to 8,000 Euros against the expense for an individual domestic installation of less than 3Kw, a guarantee to buy the electricity generated at about 8 times the normal price, and recently, the government has removed the need for planning permission to install panels on the roof.

Locally installed solar electricity generators offer a double benefit: they reduce the total demand on the grid, and also reduce the losses incurred in distribution (currently around 50%) since the electricity generated is consumed locally.

The grange here has a huge roof, aligned at 210 degrees (West of South), with a pitch of 40 degrees. This is not ideal (ideal is due South with a pitch of 30 degrees) but anyway, I hate to see all that energy going to waste as the sun bakes the slates. I was at a car boot sale the other day, and a guy had a pitch there flogging electric solar panels, so I thought I'd take a look.

Bottom line is that an installation on the grange roof should generate nearly 10,000 Euros' worth of electricity per year, at a price (assuming I can claim back the VAT) of about 90,000 Euros. The payback period of ten years, allowing for a bit of slack and/or perhaps the cost of a loan, is right on the edge of what I might consider viable. I will do some more research before I decide to do anything drastic, I think.

And if you, dear reader, have anything to add to my thoughts, please feel free to let me know: your own experiences, those of friends and neighbours, rumours, stories, all would be welcome. Thank you in anticipation.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Rémy Barrier, Trumpet, 1956 - 2010

The Harmonie of St Suzanne has a tradition of taking an annual group photograph. Everyone gathers together with their instruments at a chosen location around the town, and the resulting photographs, one per year, are displayed on the wall of the dedicated practice room. I enjoy looking at the younger versions of the current players, and sometimes, I have to guess as to who they might be. It was from such a photograph that I learned that Rémy played trumpet.

When I joined, he was the President of the Harmonie. He would come to rehearsals, listen to our progress, make the official announcements, organise and administer our exchange visits, concerts, and other events in the background. Being new to France, and to the Harmonie, I didn't think twice about the band having a non-playing president.

But on the return after the first Christmas break, I thought Rémy looked a bit odd. I asked an English-speaking player colleague what had happened, had he had a stroke, perhaps? Discreet enquires revealed that he had a muscle-wasting disease. Oh. Oh dear.

Rémy continued to come to rehearsals, and be active in the band. He came with his wife on our twinning visit to Sulzheim, where a magical performance where everything went right moved him, and most everyone else, to tears. But after a while, he was unable to shake hands, as is customary, on greeting: he would push forward his right shoulder so you could reach for his hand hanging from his now useless arms. He resigned as President in due course, at an emotional farewell meeting.

I last saw him at a concert we gave some months ago, in a comfortable wheelchair. It had a special headrest so that his head, which he could no longer support, could be held so that he could look ahead. Tended by his wife Carmen, he enjoyed the music.

He died on Friday evening, and his funeral was today. There must have been 500 people in the majestic basilica at Evron. He was popular, respected and well-loved. We played for him, a selection of pieces including one of the ones we played at Sulzheim that so moved him: Cassiopea; also, "Ein Bisschen Spass, meaning A bit of Fun" that he had specifically asked for; and Simple Gifts, otherwise known as Lord of the Dance. "Dance, dance, wherever you may be....." yeah, Rémy go for it, move that body.

Little Aurélie the piccolo is pregnant with his first grandchild. He was delighted. Life goes on.

Monday 21 June 2010

Hardwood cuttings

I am a recent, but enthusiastic, convert to hardwood cuttings. When you prune your shrub at the end of the growing season you can take your prunings and put them on the compost heap, or, if you like, you can stick them in the ground. If you choose the latter, then as long as you take the precaution of sticking them in the right way up, they have a fighting chance of taking root over the following Winter and Spring, and you then have a new plant.

These baby rose plants are the result of exactly that. The blue ones on the left are climbers from my friend Leo who has them all over one side of his house. I have earmarked a space behind my shed for them. The white ones are from my own, sweetly-scented old-fashioned bush rose. I intend to plant these next to a sitting-out area I have in mind, so that as you sit and enjoy a cream tea or whatever, their scent will waft over you from time to time. The pink roses are similarly scented, and I will take cuttings of these this year, to plant alongside the white ones.

These gooseberries have similarly been "cloned", as have the blackcurrants. Soon I'll have a fruit farm, if I'm not careful.

By the way, the comment about planting the cuttings the right way up wasn't entirely flippant. Once you have taken your prunings, cut the stems and cleaned off the dead leaves and side branches, you are faced with a pile of cylindrical twigs. If you haven't made note of which end is "up", you could be in trouble. My recommended solution is to cut one end diagonally and the other end square. Just remember which cut is which end :) (And remember, if you make two cuttings from one length of twig, and separate them with an appropriate cut, one of them will be wrong.) You are listening to the voice of experience.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Pink pinked Pinks

This Pink is out in bloom by my car park. I have never seen so many blooms on a single Pink before. I read somewhere that they are called Pinks not for their colour (although they are usually pink) but for their pinked edges, that look like they have been cut with pinking shears. The nearest definition that I could find online for "pink" that would correspond to this was "to cut with a perforated pattern".

The gaillardia are also out. The word comes from "vigorous", and is a reference to the sheer number of flowers they make. And in French, a gaillard is a strapping fellow.

And here's a pretty pink and white Poppy, for free. Don't ask me where the word "poppy" comes from, I have no idea :)

Saturday 12 June 2010

Rent or buy?

I remember that when I left school and spent a year working before going to uni, I decided to make an effort and build up my record collection. Every week, on Saturday mornings, I went down to Smiths in town, and bought myself an album. Sometimes I had a specific one in mind to buy; a recommendation from a friend perhaps, or a group I had heard on the radio and wanted to get to know more about. Occasionally an album of classical music.

This ended up being harder than it seemed, because records were often scratched, or sounded like someone had sprinkled sand on them. So often I was taking back one or two, occasionally three records, trying to get ones that played properly. And I was reluctant to buy classical music because the quiet passages were always crackly.

Once I had heard that CDs were on the way, I didn't buy any recorded music for about five years. I bought the very first CD player, a Sony CDP 101 when they were launched. It was great to play CDs and not worry about scratches, although the sound quality of the CDP 101 was a bit dodgy. It only had one DAC, and the two channels were therefore very slightly out of phase. So for example, a loud cymbal crash that was supposed to be in the middle of the sound field, would come first from the right-hand speaker and then centralise itself immediately after. Very odd. But anyway, I set out on a voyage of discovery of all kinds of music, pretty much safe in the knowledge that the CDs would play faultlessly.

I now have a big collection of CDs. All except my recent acquisitions are recorded in MP3 or FLAC format, and I listen to them on my now-improved stereo.

Last week I took out a sub to Spotify. For 5 euros a month, this gives me access to their enormous collection of classical, rock, pop and jazz music, without my needing to pay anything more (and without adverts). I have been able to explore the more recent output of artists I listened to ages ago, wondering what they have been up to. I have been able to listen to music from groups that I wouldn't normally bother with, and also some left-field but excellent songs about cricket.

What then of my collection? Are my CDs a "legacy" of old technology, that I should dispose of? And future purchases? Is there any point in buying CDs, new or used, now?

There are a few points of debate. The sound quality of Spotify is very good, but it's not up to that of a well-recorded CD. So for best sound quality, CDs remain better, and for ultimate quality, some vendors are now offering studio-quality masters, 24bit 96KHz or better, that you can download.

Secondly there is an emotional element. Having invested in a CD, I am more inclined to play it repeatedly until I really get to know it and decide if I love it or not. In fact I tend to find that the music I love the best is that which I found hardest to "get into". There is no such commitment in Spotify, and therefore I'm going to be inclined to browse over music that I would otherwise come to love.

Thirdly there is the tendency of people to like to own rather than rent. I own my CDs, but have nothing to show for my investment in Spotify. But if I can play everything I own on Spotify, what is the point of my collection, other than to demonstrate my manifest good taste in music to those of like mind?


Sunday 6 June 2010


We had a bunch of bikers to stay this weekend. Great fun. They were supposed to be on a big bike rally this weekend, but it was canceled, so they got their club together and came here instead.

First thing they did was jump straight in the pool, then an evening of socialising, drinking, and a barbecue as the sun went down. Nice bikes, too, made me quite nostalgic for my old Honda 400-4 that I rode everywhere before I had a car. I wasn't sorry to stop riding it, though, once I has passed my driving test. As I remember, the test was held on the only snow-free day in a two-week period, and I was fed up with sliding around on ice.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Adults' music evening

Evron School of Music is unusual in France in accepting adult students. It seems a shame to me that the enthusiastic involvement of adults in this aspect of the life of the school is missing in other music schools. As part of its celebration of its adult students, Evron school held it adult student music concert last night.

It was great fun. All levels of players were there, and as special dispensation, some children were even allowed to play alongside as part of a "families" slot. The teachers also gave a couple of performances, one a jazz band, and the other a rhythmic piece based on spoken words. It was good to see people just having fun doing what they're paid to do.

I played in two slots, first with my unusual trio (flute, sax and cello) a transcription of Albéniz' Tango, and secondly, alllll aloooone doing Telemann's second fantasia for solo flute in A minor. Both were pretty cool, although as ever, I'm sure I played better at home. I am enjoying the formal performance opportunities presented by the school, and they help enormously with nerves.

After the performance, a bring-and-share buffet, relax and natter for all the participants.

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