Happy Xmas

Happy Christmas from Lapland – Actually the Leclerc supermarket in Saumur!!

MERRY CHRISTMAS from Le Clos des Guyons in Le Puy Notre Dame!

Here is a toast to the end of a great year with all our guests, friends and family. We think of you at Christmas time with memories of friendship and happy times together!

Of course we are dashing around as usual with the preparations for the festivities and welcoming our new guest arrivals!  Brian is a big help doing the shopping for me as I keep finding that we are missing things for the gîtes and kitchen, etc., problem is he can’t seem to go just for the shopping as each time it necessitates a quick visit to a bar in order to refresh his ebbing stamina!! C’est la vie!!  He holds the world record for going up the road to buy a baguette.  The longest record that is –  just under 4 hours and the boulangerie is only about 1 minute away.

What always reminds us that yet another year has passed is the nativity scenes and the magic in the air which is only found at Christmas. It is in this lively Christmas atmosphere in which, whist walking in the streets of Saumur  and our local villages, that you will find the nativity represented in the various churches and squares.

Each French region has its own tradition, but where the differences are most evident are at the table. where the variety of recipes, from the starter to the dessert,underline the different tastes of the residents of different areas. Christmas is the moment when these culinary differences become more evident when, depending on whether you are sitting at a table in Saumur or in the Cote D’Azur or Corsica, it is very easy to see difference.  And, after eating so much, you have to sip a small glass of whatever local ‘Eau de Vie’ is “de rigueur”.

Christmas markets in France are legendary. Whether these take place in daytime or at night, they are magical and a wonderful experience. Our nearby towns of Doué la Fontaine, Montreuil Bellay and Saumur set up fabulous Christmas markets.  In the rose growing town of Doué la Fontaine it’s’ in the “Roman” arena, in Montreuil Bellay it’s around the Chateau and in Saumur it’s spread all over this historic river-side town. The biggest one, outside of Angers, is in Saumur when its main square becomes a village of decorated wooden chalets, selling all manner of arts and crafts, sweets and Christmas gourmet nibbles. You can do your Christmas gift shopping, buy spiced biscuits and warm your spirits with a glass of mulled wine. The atmosphere has to be experienced to be believed, it is Christmas personified.

The week before Christmas when I should have been concentrating on all things Christmas,, I chose to spend some leisure time having a pleaseant afternoon chatting to a nice group of ladies in Le Puy Notre Dame at a Christmas Fete!  It was a perfect antedote to all the rushing around I was doing and so, together with a  good friend and neighbour, we visited Le Fete Le Club de Peinture sur Porcelaine  in the Salle Saint Louis where there were tables of carefully placed hand painted porcelain items for sale.  I was surprised as  I had no idea there was such talent in the village!  These ladies are totally devoted to producing wonderful designs and, as a native of the Potteries in Staffordshire where family and friends worked for the great names like Wedgwood, Aynsley China, Royal Albert and Royal Doulton, I am always extremely passionate about the delicate hand painted designs. One of my favourite pieces of china is Old Country Roses by Royal Albert of which I have a collection. I took a few photographs of the exhibition and spent a very pleasant afternoon making some new friends. Needless to say we couldn’t resist buying something before we left either!

Although I had many interesting conversations about pottery, for the life of me I could not find the French to explain what a Sagger Makers Bottom Knocker was!  It actually did exist and was a very important and skilled occupation.  As the French say, “A cushion” for the first one to come up with the answer.

In all of this though, the real meaning of Christmas is the religious festival that celebrates the birth of Christ, and this is not lost in France. The wonderful creches, and the church masses are well attended, being obligatory for many families.

This year on Christmas Eve there is a service being held  in our Collegiale Church of Le Puy Notre Dame.  When the bells call out at 9pm the church will slowly fill with generations of families. Note, however, how well organised the timing is for, although called midnight mass, having it at 9pm allows everyone to return home for that sumptuous and elaborate French traditional Reveillon meal afterwards! In fact we have discovered that Doué la Fontaine has two “midnight” masses to cope with the demand!  An early mass at 1800 hrs and a later one at 2100.

With a busy day ahead, this morning I recommenced my Christmas preparations which started with a

The delights of a local boulongerie

The delights of a local boulongerie

trip to the Boulangerie, giving Brian a rest from his excursions!  Sylvie and Franck our boulangers work incredible hard and at no time more than now with an amazing choice of breads to accompany the different courses of food:- pain aux noix, pain aux citron, pain aux jambon, pain aux pomme, pain for the fois gras, pain for the fromage, pain vigneron with the red wine and walnuts and so on and so forth, but also there is the Buche du Noel (a Christmas log), both large and small, this being the popular patisserie equivalent to the English Christmas cake tradition. However, France being France, everything is laced with alcohol, from cointreau, calvados, whisky, to wine, and so on. This is not usually a problem – however, I have to tell you the Boulangerie was like a scene from a comedy sketch because on arrival the shop was full, but there was a very elderly couple at the counter choosing la Buche du Noel for the Reveillon meal tonight and outside the shop was a little white van parked with three large bored chien de chasse, (hunting dogs) inside.  The Monsieur was choosing the petite Buche de Noel for tonight and Sylvie was placing them carefully into the box but only for Madame to ask her husband why had he was choosing the ones with the alcohol as she wanted the ones without the alcohol! On hearing this Sylvie carefully took them back out of the box only for the Monsieur to say, “No no no no no ” (as they do over here, repeating the word NO like a stammer about six times over, as they do with OUI come to that), and so Sylvie tried to replace them back in the box only to find that there was now a full scale argument about whether they had the ones with or without the alcohol!   The husband, being determined to have his own way, made it worse by not being able to decide whether he wanted la Buche du Noel with Calvados or with Cointreau and so poor old Sylvie patiently stood there putting the Calvados ones in the box, then removing them and replacing them with the Cointreau and then, to stop the old lady having a heart attack, decided to remove them altogether only to start all over again.  Whilst this disupute was taking place every time the door to the shop opened for a new customer to enter, the dogs  behaved like rabid wolves and the van started shaking dramatically, probably because they had managed to find a way of relieving their boredom.  Myself and all the other customers in the shop were hysterical with laughter, with one lady with tears streaming down her face, having to hang onto the counter.  The owner of the dogs helped by periodically opening the door and bellowing “ARRET!!!”, at the three dogs, by now thoroughly enjoying themselves, and who promptly redoubled their efforts each time they were told to shut up.  At the same time the elderly couple were, “No, No No, No, Noing” and “Oui, Oui, Oui, Ouing”, for all they were worth.  And, through all this the only oasis of calmness was Sylvie.  I thought she should have been awarded a medal for her patience.  Anyway the end of the story was that Madame had five Buche du Noel without alcohol and her husband managed to get one with the Cointreau for himself despite his doctor had forbidden him to take alcohol. Personally, I would have thought that the amount of sugar and cream would have been a much bigger problem than a drop of Cointreau!!  Anyway I finally got back home and Brian asked if everything was OK.  “Fine”, I replied, “just another normal day in our village”.

This evening it’s time to let Christmas commence!!  We are ready!!  Our Christmas guests have arrived and have got themselves prepared for some pretty extensive apéritifs.  For the next couple of days, it’s noses to the grindstone for us, but, it’s still Christmas and that makes all the difference.

Tomorrow we will start to receive emails and telephone calls from our former guests to tell us what Loire wines they are enjoying over Christmas Lunch whilst at the same time reminiscing of a happy holiday spent in the vineyards of the Loire and Le Puy Notre Dame, tasting wines with Brian and relaxing at Le Clos des Guyons. We look forward to it!

So, here’s a grand toast to you all!

Santé et Bonne Noél a tous!

Sheila and Brian

Vacation lets in the Loire Valley