Saturday 28 December 2013

Kitchen revamp - Still crazy?

We met our old plumber in the DIY shop today, which reminds me of a song.  The first thing he told us, with obvious enthusiasm, is that he will be retiring in a month, after all these years of work.  He suggested to his employer that he might like to go part-time, but apparently that's difficult, so he's looking at going independent (as an auto-entrepreneur, the nearest thing France has to self-employment).  He did really good work on our gîte installation so I told him that he should drop round with his business card if he takes the plunge.   He said that I didn't need to tell him that, since he knows where all the installations are....

For the new kitchen I chose to use high-density polythene water pipe, known as PER over here.  The pipes are cheaper than copper, but the fittings are more expensive.  You can use a variety of types of fittings, and I chose to use the ones our friendly plumber used in the gîte; ones that you fix using slip-rings.

To affix a slip-ring fitting, you first slide the ring onto the PER pipe, then stretch the diameter of the pipe so that you can slide the fitting into it, then use a special tool to force the slip-ring back over the pipe and onto the fitting.   You would not believe the number of times I forgot to slide the ring on first, only to discover that it will no longer go over the now-stretched pipe.  The only solution is to cut the pipe and start again.   I have not yet managed to get any of these fittings apart once put together, and they seem (touch wood) to be reliably watertight.

The blue box contains the kit of tools you need.The thing on the left with its handle in the air is the tool for stretching the pipe (you can see that it can cope with several different diameters of pipe).  The red thing is the pipe cutter and the rest of it is the tool and attachments for forcing the ring back onto the fitting.

This picture shows that part of the plumbing installation that will go under the kitchen sink.   It's reasonably compact and seems to be leak-proof.   For best rigidity you need copper, but I think PER will be fine for me.  (The blue pipe going off to the left is feeding water into the old kitchen for the time being.)

Thursday 26 December 2013


The law has recently been changed in France so that you don't need anyone's permission to put solar panels on your roof, and so, now that you don't need your plans to be approved, you can put them up exactly how you like.  This tasteful installation at Thoringé-en-Charnie, not far from us, graces the village centre, just opposite the church.

The little plaque by the door of the house announces that the occupier is an ébéniste; a worker in wood, that probably best translates as "cabinet-maker".  I wonder what his designs are like.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Kitchen revamp - 8

I'm a tad behind on reporting on kitchen progress, what with things like Christmas cropping up unexpectedly, and various end-of-term concerts involving the Harmonies and the music school.  So with apologies for being behind the times, here's the update on the next stage - the plasterboard wall.

The driver behind creating this wall is the need to create a small utility room next to the kitchen, achieved by walling off a small area.  So while I'm at it I might as well save some effort and use it to cover up the mess left by taking out the old bathroom, and its cupboard and tiles.   I decided to use a steel framework rather than wood, for no good reason other than that I've not done it before and it seems to be the way it's done these days.  So it's off to the DIY shop, buying the placo (plasterboard) and the steel rails (horizontal, attached to the floor and ceiling) and montants (vertical supports for the plasterboard, attached to the rails). Getting them home in the lorry was a new experience too, but I managed to keep the thing on the road, even though it didn't corner very well.

The steel frame parts attach to each other by means of a tool that cuts an oblong hole, bending the metal back to hold the parts together.  It doesn't need much force to get them to separate, but the plasterboard, once attached, gives the whole thing a surprising rigidity.  Although, I suppose, the wall hasn't not fallen down yet.   There was a deadline to the work too, since the plasterboard sheets had to be off the floor to make room for the kitchen units being delivered next week.   Here's the plasterboard waiting on the floor alongside the steel frame, and the first framework to hide the nasty remains of the old bathroom wall and tiles.  (The monstrosity covered in plastic is the new American-style fridge, waiting to fulfill its purpose in life)

After the support for the new outside wall, the framework for the wall to separate off the utility room can go up.  And once the frameworks are in place, the plasterboard can go up.   Here's the framework for the separating wall, and finally, the two walls with the plasterboard in place.  The end result feels solid and hides a multitude of sins.

The vertical edges of the plasterboard sheets are tapered, giving you some space to cover the join with paper to be held in place with filler.  (So it doesn't get visible cracks.)  So always ensure that any cut edges of plasterboard are at the ends of the wall and nowhere in between.  Oops.

Wednesday 18 December 2013


One gets accustomed to the differences between the French and British tax and legal systems, but sometimes the consequences of those differences can lead to outcomes that seem bizarre.

In the UK, you carry a personal responsibility to declare your income, and you are liable for tax and social security on it.  It is generally down to you, the individual, to be honest.  In France, the employer carries the responsibility, and is required to declare and make payments on your behalf.  These payments can be onerous, sometimes greater even than the base salary, and the crime of employée dissimulée  (hidden/clandestine employment) is on the books, with serious penalties, to dissuade people from dodging the system.

The term "employment" covers everything that you would expect, including what we would describe as self-employment, and for anything.  So if you're in France and your mower packs up and you pay me 20 quid for me to cut your lawn with my mower, you're breaking the law. (In the UK, the law would only be broken if I failed to declare the sum earned at the end of the tax year.)  It covers payment in kind too:  if instead of paying me twenty quid, you invite me to dinner, you're still guilty.  Taken to its logical conclusion, this law prohibits the normal intercourse between friends and neighbours.

This can have strange consequences for everyday life.  For example, I am a member of the Harmonie (wind band) at Sainte Suzanne, and the annual membership subscription is a token euro.  However, wives, husbands or partners of members are often invited to join in the functions, dinners, visits, etc.  So we pay 2 euros per year subscription so that if Anita helps out at any event, and gets a free drink or meal in return, the Harmonie can't be accused of the dreaded employée dissimulée, because she is a member too.

As another example, there was an altercation that hit the press a while back, between the powers that be and a Muslim woman. An investigation of her circumstances led to the discovery that her husband, although legally married only to the lady in question, had several other "wives" according to his religion.  One of the crimes he was then accused of was employée dissumulée, and I always wondered if this related to financial payments he made to his other partners, and whether the accusation would be of prostitution, house-cleaning, or perhaps restaurant services.   The implications for anyone having an extra-marital affair, which has been known to include French presidents, could be disastrous.

I was surprised to read an article in a paper today.  If I understand it correctly, a bar owner is being sued for employée dissimulée because it is the custom, at certain of his organised evening events, for clients to carry trays of used glasses back to the bar, thus being "employed" as waiters.  The criminal complaint having been found to have no merit, the suing party is now going for civil damages of several thousand euros.

Quite bemusing for those of us brought up to understand the word liberté as meaning something rather more... well, free.   I am also guessing that since tax and social security revenues are generally proportional to employment levels, someone, somewhere, is hurting for money.

Monday 9 December 2013

England visit

A quick trip to England, this weekend, flying visit for gift exchanges and spending some time with friends and family.  It might just be me, but got the impression that random strangers were more friendly than I am used to.  Camaradery in adversity?

My sister organised the first family dinner that I've been to for a while, her kids there, their respective partners, our Mum and her partner, we had four generations in all.  Nice to get everyone together in the same place, in Christmas or at least pre-Christmas spirit.

Thai meal with our London-based friends. I think I want to live for 3 or 4 months each year within walking distance of Wimbledon village so I can eat at the restaurants there.  Then the rest of the time I'd need to spend out here in the sticks to recover.  It's amazing how quickly an evening goes when you're with friends, talking about nothing in particular, downing some excellent wine as you go.   And their eldest is off to uni? How did that much time pass?

Shopping for the things you can't get in France is on the agenda of course.  Mostly spicy food, but I found that the DIY consumables are cheaper there - got some big tubes of glue that fit into those pump frames for 43p each in Tescos.  And high quality silicone sealant you can get over there for a fiver a pop, but you're lucky to see even average stuff here for much less than 10 euros.  Perhaps I need to shop around more.

There was a small display in Tesco's in aid of Diabetes UK.  They were trying to get people to pedal the exercise bikes far enough to send Santa up a mountain.  Or something.   A local bobby in full uniform was there, pedaling away doing his stuff.   I needed some exercise after all my recent foodie indulgences so I gave them 2 quid and did 200 calories in a bit over 20 minutes.  I don't know how far I went, but Santa got nearer to his mountain-top. It seemed odd to me that they were giving out mini sweet bars (Bounty, etc) in exchange for donations.   I wasn't sure that this was in line with the ethos of Diabetes UK, but, whatever, I took one of their mini minces pie afterwards and ate it with my Costa coffe.   I figured I'd earned it.

Tesco's car park used to be free for all comers, but too many people were using it to park all day for work, (surprise!!) so they restricted it to two hours, and only for customers.  I though two hours was a bit mean; we got out with three minutes to spare.  They give you all this stuff about having to pay 60 quid or so if you stay over the two-hour limit, but if they tried that on me they'd lose a lot more than 60 quid's worth of profit by the time I'd finished with them.

P.S. can you identify this house plant?  It was flowering in my Mum's conservatory.  I'm sure I've got a house-plant book somewhere that has a picture of this plant in it, but the house is upside-down at the moment and I can't find the book.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Kitchen revamp - 7

Well, the lights are up in the ceiling, and they seem to work.  I replaced the incandescent lights with LEDs and got a dimmer switch for them, that all seems to work.   You need a special type of dimmer for LEDs as opposed to incandescent lights, and the LEDs need to be of a type compatible with dimmers too.

The tiles are on the floor, I'm less happy about these.  Despite the use by the builder of self-leveling mortar, there was a slight but noticeable hollow in one part of the floor.  I compensated for this in the first line of tiles by putting extra cement under them, but it sagged a bit during the night.  Not a major problem, but the next row I put in next to them at the same height sagged also, so ended up slightly lower.  Not to be fooled twice, the row of tiles on the other side I raised up a little, but of course it didn't sag.  The grout hides a lot of the problem, but it's not as good as I would like.

Monday 2 December 2013

Madrid gardens

Our trip finished in Madrid so that Anita could attend the miniatures exhibition there, and while she was there I took the opportunity to visit the botanical gardens in the town centre.  They were started in 1781 by King Charles III who wanted a record of the plant species to be found in the Spanish colonies.  Stout fellow.

When I lived in Staines, I had an apple tree, Ballerina type, tall and slender.  You could judge the height of the paper boy each year by the height at which the remaining apples on the tree began.  So I was impressed that there were trees of edible fruits (persimmons and tangerines), with the fruit still on them, in a public park.  Mind you there was a 3 euro entrance fee, and a great big free park next door, so perhaps that keeps the riff-raff out.

Dahlias are an intensively cross-bred plant, yielding many different shapes and colours of flowers for the garden.  The park had an examples of the original Dahlia, much taller than the garden plant, but still with a simple beauty in the flowers.   And the tree was spotlit so I took a picture.

The trees were all in their autumn colours, and the day was clear, crisp and bright - you couldn't ask for better conditions for strolling around a park full of trees.  So I just strolled, enjoying the space, the relative quiet in the city centre, and took some photos.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Happy families

I saw this poster for a mobile phone service while I was in Madrid.  A Samsung Galaxy S4 for ten euros a month, with communications services thrown in.  Sounds good to me.  I have never seen anything as cheap as this in France.   In fact, it's a while since I read it, and I can't remember where, but I remember reading a claim that that France is the most profitable of the EU countries for mobile phone operators.

Now you don't pay roaming charges if you buy your phone in Hampshire, and 'roam' to Dorset.  So the Powers That Be in Europe, have decided that, since we're all one big happy family, you shouldn't have to pay international roaming charges to go from France to Spain, for example.  It will be interesting to see if this gets implemented in full, so that it really is just like going from Hampshire to Dorset - I imagine that the operators will do everything in their power to protect their margins.

But if it does come into play, I know where I'll be going for my phone if the offers in France aren't up to scratch.

Saturday 30 November 2013

Ribera del Duero

Ridera del Duero is a wine D.O. (denomination of origin) that is recent compared to Rioja, (perhaps 15 years old) and the wines thus classified come from a smaller area, around 11,000 hectares as opposed to Rioja's 55,000.   It lies to the south-west of La Rioja, and we visited it on the advice of our tour operator, who said that if we liked Rioja, we would like these wines too.  They were right.

We stayed in the Parador de Lerma, a converted palace, whose owner, a prominent Seigneur was apparently so corrupt that the government eventually decided that it could not avoid prosecuting him, and who escaped trial and probable hanging only by persuading the catholic church to make him a cardinal. Which probably accounts, in part, for the nice church, monastery and convent next door to it.  And which also just goes to prove that nothing changes.  The old building was taken over by the Spanish government and turned into a hotel, part of a state programme to preserve the nation's heritage.

Mr Arroyo, son of the founder, runs the winery of ValSotillo, a small producer, but he tells us that he supplies Marks and Spencer with his wines.  So if any UK-based reader is reading this and either has experience of this wine, or fancies trying it and reporting back, I'd be interested for an independent view on price and quality.

Our last winery visit was to El Lagar de Isilla, who started off as a restaurant, and then developed into winemaking, I guess as a sort of "upstream integration".  They run a hotel and fine restaurant at the winery, and we had a kind of traditional local suckling lamb roast that has its own D.O.  I think perhaps they raise the lambs too.

The winery itself is an example of a modern conversion that I thought was a bit overdone.   Based on a theme of bottles and glass, the decor featured various sections of bottles incorporated into doors and windows, nice enough, but somehow "forced" for me.  Wines were fine, though.

And that took us to the end of our wine tour. The company that organised things for us, Vintage Spain did a splendid job and the two guides they supplied were friendly and knowledgeable. I wouldn't hesitate to use them again in similar circumstances. We went on to Madrid the next day, but for now, here's a couple of holiday pics of the village of Pañaranda where we stopped off for a quick look.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Laguardia, Day 2

It has to be said that late November is probably not the best time to be playing the tourist in Northern Spain. Although Laguardia rewards exploration, the rain and wind were a bit discouraging.  Nonetheless we got to see the charming dancing clock, and visit the tiny winemaking facilities of Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre in the town.

Laguardia is riddled with caves or cellars, that were originally used for defense and that are now mostly used for wine production.  Going into the warren of cellars was a bit like something out of Skyrim.  The Carlos San Pedro Perez de Viñaspre wines use the tunnels under the house for maturation, storage and some fermentation.  The small operation uses the oak barrels for longer than the big guys, testing the results from each barrel before blending them together for the final fermentation.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Laguardia, Day 1

For our visit to the Rioja region, we stayed in a hotel Hospederia de los Parajes in Laguardia, a little walled town perched high on an isolated hill.   Their cooking was superb; they are trying to promote gourmet touring in La Rioja, and if this place is anything to go by, they are on to a sure thing.

We visited four wineries during the stay, three on the first day, one on the second, varying in size from tiny to large.  The techniques used in the different wineries are similar, although the scale varies.  The grapes are mostly Tempranillo with some Grenache, and occasional other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon.   Stems are usually removed from the grapes first, but not always.  The grapes are not crushed, but the fermentation takes places within the berries.  The new wine is then drawn off and then the grapes are pressed several times to extract the last of the juice.   Opinions vary as to the quality of wine that comes from the pressings, but everyone agrees that you shouldn't crush the pips.   Maturation is in oak barrels, the duration determining the classification of the wine, moving from Crianza (the shortest period) through Reserva to Gran reserva (the longest).

The Muga winery is a medium-sized (about 400,000 bottles/year) and is unusual in that they make their own oak barrels.  This gives them improved quality control, and allows them to experiment with different combinations of French and American oak.  I didn't know that the insides of the barrels are "toasted" to change the flavour imparted to the wine, with increased levels of toasting producing correspondingly intense or "darker" flavours.  Their cooper has been working there since his teenage apprenticeship, and will doubtless stay until he retires.

The smaller winery Miguel Marino is run by the man himself, and he showed us around personally.  He used to work for a big wine company and is now realising his dream of producing his own wines.  He comes across as someone who would happily live in a tent and eat beans on toast for a year if he had to, to ensure the financial success of his enterprise.  It looks like the wine-making is taking over his living accommodation.   The whole business is a learning process for him, and he told us with some delight of his brush with death as he was nearly overcome by carbon monoxide/dioxide fumes given off by the fermentation process, one early morning.

The third winery was the Campillo winery owned by the Faustino family.  Huge wine producers, the winery is an example of the big architectural projects undertaken in the area.   The interior seems designed specifically to impress, with subdued lighting and grand architectural touches.  They can afford all this because their wines are popular, which is at least in part because their wines are good.  So who can begrudge them?

Monday 25 November 2013


We stopped off in Bilbao for a night; it made for a shorter drive and gave us an opportunity to visit the Guggenheim museum of modern art there.

In a new country one is sensitised to the new, to different ways of doing.  There was a first for me in the hotel: a sink designed not to have a plug.  So I shaved in running water, which worked well enough but seemed wasteful.   And the traffic light-controlled pedestrian crossings feature not only a red stationary man telling you not to cross, but the green one is cutely animated.  My mind idly drifted to considering that if it were realistic, he should start to run in the final seconds, and with a bit of luck, trip up at the end.  Delight!  7 seconds to go and he speeded up. Didn't fall over though.

The Guggenheim museum really is a stupendous building, it has to be visited for that alone.

The two exhibits that left the strongest impression were the smiling ladies of Alex Katz, and the steel shapes by Richard Serra.  Walking into the steel curves gave me a peculiar sensation of claustrophobia, as the curves close in above or beside, then open out again.  Although the work fits well into its place in the museum, I came away with the impression that it really needs to be outside in the open.

Alex Katz' ladies I could have spent much more time with.  The smiling head-and-shoulders, effected in bold colours against a dark background invite a consideration of what the artist has conveyed of the sitters' personalities, and what he has hidden, and how.

We are asked not to photograph the exhibits, nor touch them, fair enough.  But it then lends to little problems, at least for philistines like me: "Is that a bench we can sit on, or is it art?"  Or "Is that projector endlessly shuffling through its carousel of slides but projecting nothing on the wall broken, or is it art?"


It must be 30 years ago that we first tasted Rioja wine, on a windsurfing holiday on Lanzarote.  We made a note of the brands, Faustino IV and Faustino I, and discovered that we could find them in England at reasonable prices, so they became our favourite tipple.

 We had been wanting to visit the area where they are produced, and now that the Rioja wine-producing area is within a day's drive of our home, we have finally gotten around to visiting it.  We also stopped off in Bilbao on the way down to visit the Guggenheim museum, and went on to Madrid after, so that Anita could visit a miniatures show being held there.

I was surprised to find that a bottle of Faustino I would now cost me nearly 25 euros in a paper shop in Bilbao.   You don't find Spanish wines in French shops, so I have been out of touch with the prices, but in France, where 3-5 euros gets you a good everyday wine, and 5-10 gets you a wine to serve with dinner and friends, this seemed a bit steep to me.  Perhaps they have become fashionable.

It is seven years since we went to Bordeaux to explore, and I came away with the impression that the area is not rich.  I didn't get that impression with Rioja.   The towns look spruced up, and there are impressive architectural projects by the big wine-producers; wineries that you can visit, tour and have lunch in.  As our guide told us, wine tourism didn't exist in Rioja 15 years ago, but now it is a big business.  They are also expanding into gourmet restaurants, serving the best Spanish cuisine to go with their wines.  They are catching on.

La Rioja is a Region in Spain, deriving its name from a river, the Rio Oja.  The Rioja wine-producing area straddles this and the Basque country.  Distinctions are carefully drawn.   The wine itself is a D.O., that is Denomination de Origin, a trade mark if you like, that guarantees the provenance of the wine, and the minimum times the wine has to mature to be classed as Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.

November isn't the best time to visit; the weather was either rainy or cold, and windy, but this year, the vines, that had matured later than usual, still had their leaves and were painting the countryside in rust, gold and ochre.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Huge cock

We saw this enormous male chicken on a walk during our holiday in the Auvergne last year.  I'm a bit bored, and just feel like having a laugh at all the Google hits that land on this page.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Kitchen revamp - 6

The plasterboard ceiling is the next thing to go up.   Firstly, a series of parallel rails is installed, that the plasterboard will be screwed to.   The guy had a nifty little device, the orange framework thing on the right-hand side of the picture, to hold the plasterboard horizontally in place while he put the screws in.   I thought it would be an expensive bit of kit, but you can get them for less than 200 euros.  If I had known about them, I'd have had a go at putting it up myself.

With the ceiling up, I can mark up and drill the holes.   It took quite a while to get these right, and you can see one of my crossed-out mistakes in the picture.   But in the end I think they're OK.

Since it was the weekend, and the tile cement would be dry by the time the guy came on Monday to finish the ceiling, I thought I'd put down the first row of floor tiles.  Woooah!  Not level.  That's going to have to be fixed.

They fixed it with a layer of self-levelling mortar, something I didn't know about until now.  It's quite liquid and flows to a near-level surface without much intervention needed.  Takes a couple of days to set, though, so it was the last thing to be done after the ceiling was finished.

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