This is how I built a shepherd’s hut from a kit. With deadpan commentary.
It’s that time of year again. End of the winter, end of looking after the chateau. Time to move on.
First stop is Spain to which me and Elizabeth are cycling to in a few weeks time. Me on my ultra modern road bike, Elizabeth on her 1970 Peugeot Randonneur. The bicycle equivalent of the Ford Econoline van used by travellers and musicians in the 1960/70s. Lots of bells, chrome fittings, lights and racks. Perfect for a cycling trip in France and 1000 times more stylish – and comfortable – than my 21st century posing pouch.
We are going to be following part of the Chemin de St. Jacques to sling shot us down to St Jean Pied de Port and then catapult us over the Pyrenees towards Pamplona. It’s actually something I’ve wanted to do since I was there a few summers ago on a camping holiday (Read Blogley post 139 if you can be arsed)
After that it’s back to Auty, then the long drive back to Double Brexit – sorry I mean the UK – to sort out a few bits and pieces. Like assassinate all the politicians and burn down the House of Commons. After I’ve done that it’s onward to Denmark via Essex (Also known as Stansted Airport).
Going to Copenhagen for three months feels almost exotic. Not in a Radox-blue tropical sea sense. Exotic in a Northern sense. Mysterious. Edgy. Cold. Vikings, longboats, herrings and plastic building bricks that get stuck in your foot.
I once saw a film when I was a kid in which a Viking chieftain is cremated on a longboat. The ship gently sailing out into the harbour fully ablaze until it caved in on itself and sank into the bay. A glorious send off. None of this black tie funeral parlour stuff full of straight faced vicars and washing line thin pallbearers receiving weak silent handshakes from relatives they’ve never met.
I remember the Viking funeral being spectacular, full of passion, death, honour and glory. Sending the warrior to a new life sitting at the high table next to Oden, a voyage over the waves, through the clouds and into eternity. Stark contrast to what happens to most of us: burnt in a cheap wooden box and then tossed into a rose bush or kept on the mantelpiece for the next 100 years like a ornament.
I said to my father after I’d watched the film that I wanted to be buried like a Viking. To which he replied while reading yet another dismal writeup of Leeds Utd’s latest demolition, ‘You’ll get buried like anyone else. In the ground. Here in Leeds. You’re not a Viking, Philip.’
‘Oh. Aren’t I?’ I replied and wandered off to research other burial practices from around the world. Parsi was my favourite: the corpse left on a high tower to be baked in the hot sun and then ripped to pieces by vultures.
(**Memo to my father: If I die in Copenhagen, I have the right to have a full Viking funeral. Longboat, flames, honour and glory – The Works.)
One Christmas I remember a quiz question from one of my sister’s board games. It asked, ‘Name three Danish brands?’
Most people would probably say what I said, ‘Lego and Carlsberg.’
I tried Danish pastries but that didn’t work. I could have said Bang & Olufsen (TVs), Netto (supermarket), Prince (fags), or Arla (cheese). Good to know now though.
I only other thing I know about Denmark is that it’s flat, which might be a welcome break after the ascent of the Pyrenees in a few weeks time. It’s also – or so I’m told – stylish. Which is where I may or may not fit in.
Style for me is drinking good coffee, not pretending it’s good just because it’s been squirted out of a ludicrously expensive Nespresso machine like a dribble of warm tar. Feeling good on the inside as opposed to obsessing about what I look like on the outside. It’s why I’ve been in the middle of rural France on and off for the past four years. I can dress in a hemp sack and there’s no one here to say, ‘What are you wearing a hemp sack for? You hippie!’
In Copenhagen I’ll probably have to say something like, ‘It’s not hemp, it’s brushed Japanese cotton. Seriously, you think I’d be wearing hemp. That was so last season!’
In a few weeks we’ll leave Chateau Dumas for good. It’s been a very pleasant year (2 x winters) and I’ve done lots of things. What, I’m not sure, but now it’s time to move on to Danish ‘Arla’ pastures new.
I’ll leave you with the last ever short video made here, featuring me trying to head a red football into the cold outdoor swimming pool accompanied by Beethoven. Au revoir and Bye!
More silly stories about my time in France can be found in A Man in France: Available in Books
I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.
I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 kms north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian ex-goalkeeper (and novelist) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read The Little Prince.
I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: four copies in fact. I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (Montpezat being a village a few miles from here). He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman), ‘No, he’s the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’
He didn’t have anything in stock so I forgot about him until nearly a year later. Christmas Day 2016, Elizabeth gives me my last present of the day. It’s a book. Paperback.
‘Guess what it is?’ she asks. I roll off a few authors. ‘Camus, Hemingway, Auster, Ballard? ‘Nope,’ she replies. ‘Delillo, Steinbeck, Exupery?’ ‘Nope. Open it.’
I open it and The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant falls out of the wrapper and onto my lap like a giant block of Emmental. Tears well up and I say a big thank you! And so begins my interest in Guy de Maupassant.
Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.
This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his life.
After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882 and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.
One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.
His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.
Conversely his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.
I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.
There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage – yes overnight! – from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip – a trip I assume he made himself – but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:
All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.
His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.
Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found. Or download the complete short story collection for your Kindle, tablet or phone for free here – 800 pages of a late 19th century French writer. What else could you want for the spring?
Or you can read my own selection of short stories, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, here
I like maple syrup on my porridge. It’s sweet, nutritious and tastes great. It’s also expensive. So yesterday morning Elizabeth said to me, ‘Why don’t you tap the Walnut trees in the garden? There’s loads of them.’
‘Oh yeah,’ I said looking out over the walnut grove of the chateau we look after over the winter. It once produced nuts on a commercial basis, now it’s tired and overgrown. And while the trees still produce nuts, they’re only appreciated by the family of wild boar who have taken up residence there.
The truth is there’s an untapped reserve of walnut syrup on my doorstep. So I rushed out to tap it. The results were spectacular. Here’s how you do it.
1. Find a walnut tree – this is an English Walnut, but Black Walnut trees are equally good. The best time to tap them is now (February/March). Cold nights (preferably freezing) and warmer days. In the morning about 10 o’clock.
2. Drill a hole about a centimetre in diameter at hip height. PS. If you’re planning to use your walnut tree for making chairs and tables – don’t do this!
3. Push a metal spout like this into the hole.
4. I don’t have one like this – this is one from Canada (where else). So I used a piece of cut off hose and jammed it in.
5. It works fine (little bit of leakage down the tree). Now you need to set up a bowl underneath and wait.
6. When I first did this, I thought the sap would be already treacly and brown. But it actually looks like water, which you can drink and tastes really nice. This bowl took about three hours to fill, but it depends on the conditions.
7. The next step is to take it inside to boil down, or set it up on an open fire.
8. Let it boil away furiously. Open some windows as there’s loads of steam. Hence why it’s better outside!
9. Drink coffee while you wait. It takes about two hours for 5 litres of sap to boil down.
10. Boil until you get a brown syrupy liquid in the bottom. But don’t boil it down too much as it will cool down and solidify more. (And don’t forget about it either and burn it. Or your house down!). Then decant it into a bottle or jar. Et Voila! 100% pure English Walnut syrup grown in France.
11. The one above is a touch too syrupy for my liking. I made that yesterday. The one below I made today and is about right. A lovely rich colour.
OK, I know what you’re saying. ‘You don’t get a lot, do you?’ No you don’t. About 35mls of syrup from 5 litres of sap. But it’s great fun to make, especially with children, plus you’re connecting with nature from the inside out as it were. So how does it taste? Play video to find out!
12. Philip Ogley tasting his home-tapped Walnut syrup.
For more information on other trees that can be tapped, visit site: https://wildfoodism.com/2014/02/04/22-trees-that-can-be-tapped-for-sap-and-syrup/
Photograph of spout courtesy of http://homestead-honey.com/2014/03/10/beyond-maple-syrup-tapping-black-walnut-trees/
My hugely popular guide book to France has been called many things since I published it a year ago:
“The most misleading guidebook to France ever written”
“A treasure trove of inaccuracies”
“As informative as a piece of wood”
“As boring as Sartre”
“Blander than French coffee.”
“More self-congratulatory than a Michelin restaurant”
To celebrate these plaudits and the book’s anniversary, here’s another 99 reasons not to buy it. In case you’re tempted.
However, if you still want a copy, it’s your lucky month. Because during March, I’ve cut the price from an extortionate £1.99 ($2.99) to a bargain basement, cutthroat price of 99 pence or cents. Which means wherever you are (UK, Europe or the States) it’s the same price. Provided of course you buy the ebook (compatible with laptops, phones, tablets, Etch A Sketches, stone slates, or papyrus pith) and not the clunky paper version.
So for the price of a stale croissant, you can read this remarkable book for only 99 copper coins.
(It’s really quite good, despite what you read. Click the croissant below to buy.)
Every Sunday I cycle with the Caussade Cyclo Club. A smattering of hardened veterans, Lycra clad family guys, grizzled tradesmen, and me. The fresh faced Englishman from Auty who looks after a chateau there in winter. Who appears around November and then disappears again in May, and who only seems to cycle with the club in the ice, freezing fog and howling wind.
This Sunday was no exception as we headed out in storm force winds up to Caylus north of Caussade, then across to Espinas and down into St Antonin in the Aveyron gorge (where Charlotte Gray was filmed). Then we headed up the other side of the gorge on a well known local climb called Côte de Saint Antonin, which as it happens, formed part of Stage 6 in last year’s Tour de France.
Granted, it’s hardly Alpe D’huez, more a pinprick in comparison, but it’s quite a nice climb all the same: the wide road winding up the side of the gorge giving great views of the valley and town. (You can see the road in the photo below.)
I’ve done it a few times since I’ve been here and have always found it pretty tough, clocking up times of 15.24 and 14.23 respectively. Both of which are pretty poor.
However, this Sunday after I got back and downloaded my data from my GPS watch (whatever happened to old fashioned speedometers, eh?) I saw I’d done the climb in 11.50 and had risen up to 235th on the Strava leaderboard for the Cote de St. Antonin climb.
If you’re not familiar with how Strava works, think of it like this.
It’s school sportsday, the last day of term, your family are here and you’re approaching the finish line in the egg and spoon race. You’re in the lead. Everybody is cheering, even your grandfather who’s nearly dead, and then calamity! You trip and fall over, break your egg and watch Fatso McGeekan, your longtime nemesis, glide past you and take first place. Leaving you scrabbling around on the yolk splattered grass picking up broken eggshell along with your shattered dreams.
But now let’s imagine that wasn’t the end of it. That you had the chance to rerun the race again and again as many times as you liked in a sort of parallel universe to ensure you came first instead of Fatso McGeeken.
This is what Strava does (more or less).
Let’s take the Cote de Saint Antonin climb, for example. On Strava, this is a Segment. This means that every time a cyclist does this climb, their time is logged and their position ranked on a leaderboard alongside all the other riders who have done it in the past.
An individual can move up the leaderboard by improving their time. Therefore, if my imaginary egg and spoon race was a segment on Strava, which it could be in theory because anyone can set one up, I could rerun the race over and over again and beat my nemesis. (This is hypothetical of course: I’m actually 43 and not still at school.)
I understand that the whole point of races is that the winner is the winner on the day. However, what’s interesting is that after my cycle on Sunday while enjoying a homemade croissant courtesy of Elizabeth (they take three days to make she tells me) I saw on Strava that even though I’d done the Cote de St. Antonin in 11.50 minutes, the quickest time was actually a mind boggling 7.04. Wow! I thought. That’s quick. Very quick! Furthermore, scrolling down the page, I saw there were loads of good times. 7.10, 7.13, 7.15 and so on.
‘Holy Christ!’ I cried out, nearly choking on French pastry. ‘What the hell did these guys think they were doing, the Tour De France, or something?’
Turns out that’s exactly what they were doing, Stage Six to be precise, a Who’s Who of modern day cycling on the same Strava leaderboard as me. Even one of my favourites, Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour de France winner and double Giro D’italia winner, was there. Look!
And here’s me on the same leaderboard back in 235th place.
I then started thinking about my sportsday analogy. If I could beat Fatso McGeekan in an egg and spoon race, then by applying the same schoolboy logic I could beat 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. All I had to do was get a time better than his on the Cote de St. Antonin and I’d leapfrog him on the leaderboard.
Not waiting to see if my logic made any sense, I stuffed a few more croissants down my neck and headed back out on my bike to St. Antonin. You better watch your back Nibali, I’m right behind you…
For more anecdotes and undeniable logic read my book A Man in France. Available here