Christmas – French School Style


I used to bemoan the fact that French schools didn’t put the same emphasis on art as English ones. In some ways I am right and others wrong. Art is a very small part of the school curriculum but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a means for artistic expression. There are some very talented artists beavering away all over France to bring art to school children.

I have to take my hat off to the extraordinary talent of Madame Corruble, an active parent at our kid’s school, St Dominique in Rouen. Last year my son in 3ième had the great fortune to study KT (religeous studies) under her and they spent the time making the most amazing Crèche de Noel as seen above. I never believed it could be improved upon. But this year they have done….

IMG_20121213_155022My mobile camera really doesn’t do it justice – but this is the creation of the historic buildings of the Vieux Marché. What you don’t see in this photo is how the students have coloured all the windows as stained glass. The effect is amazing.

IMG_20121213_155116In the centre, the oldest auberge in France, now in minature.

IMG_20121213_155103surrounded by its neighbours.

IMG_20121213_155050Not to be outdone, we parents decided to get creative and make ‘couronnes’ (crowns) of foliage for gates and doorways, to sell at the school Marché de Noel.

I had great satisfaction in making all the French mamans say ‘wreath’ – a tongue twisting impossibility for them to match my recent failure to pronounce ‘canalisation, a word that i’ve needed to use a lot thanks to the leak in my smelly toilet and my landlord’s misguidedly hopeful request that my assurer pays up!

Mais NON, monsieur!



Anyway – along with all the good humoured banter we managed to make a good dozen or so, all for sale at the Marché. I nearly managed to pinch my friend’s much coveted bit of ribbon for my wreath, but she caught me just as I was attempting to attach it!

At 3, we were invited into school to hear the 6ièmes singing a rendition of Spanish and English carols, and to eat all the lovely ‘gouters’ we parents spent half the night before baking. Of course nothing so simple as giving me some English recipes to bake, I was dealt a handful of Spanish delicacies, for which I was missing half the ingredients at approximately 8pm! Apparently most of the French mamans were in the same boat, as on the table for the sing-a-long were about ten versions of the same recipes, the more complex ones having been discarded.

We discovered where all the missing reindeer had gone!

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One little girl piped up “My mum made the christmas pudding because my dad doesn’t like English people”, and whilst the staff  busied themselves trying to restore what they imagined irrevocably damaged ango-french relations, I was laughing uproariously in the corner.

Carols over, we made our way to the Marché de Noel….

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…..where the children were blowing all our hard-earned pennies. Mine were delighted at the vast quantities of sweets on offer, but forgot the point was to buy ‘maman’ a christmas present. Sigh!

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Did you spot the lavender fish in the basket at the back? My youngest tells me he was all ready to buy one for me before the lure of the sweet table became too strong. He knew it was the kind of thing I liked, he said. But that could be because he saw me sewing them all over the last few weeks! december 2012 009

After school I am able to go and collect my christmas tree from the school garden, as the school buy in bulk and the proceeds go towards residential school trips for the kids who can’t normally afford to go.

If you spot a bedraggled woman (it’s raining ‘comme un chien’ today) dragging her tree through the centre of Rouen, that will be me!

And if you see three boys dragging bags of sweets, christmas hats and sparkly decorations, ring me quickly so that I get time to bar the door until the sugar ‘rush’ is over!

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La Fète du Ventre à Rouen – The Festival of the Stomach.

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My ‘husband à l’etranger’ flew into France yesterday, and what better way to re-immerse him into French culture and gastronomie than the Fète de Ventre. I love that the French can name a fète directly after ‘the stomach’.

After the rains of Nigeria, Normandie welcomed him back to a day of  leaden skies and endless drizzle . The damp weather didn’t hold back the crowds though, and by mid afternoon it was almost impossible to make our way through the street.

Of course one of the nicest aspects of such a fète are the ‘petits goûters’ (little tastes) on offer.

and the make-shift oyster bars were busy…

with a well placed beer bar next door!

But  there were far too many distractions to stop straight away to eat, though we did eat extremely well a bit later on!

A mobile bread oven,

and bubbling chouxcroute,

The watercress (cresson) is grown on a beautiful small-holding on the edge of the smallest river in France, right along-side the riverside path at Veules les Roses. A definite must on the ‘day-trip’ list in early summer. If you are really lucky, fresh watercress can be bought directly from the farmer tending his crop and picked from its watery meadow, ready to be made into fresh watercress soup for lunch.

But it was the chocolatier that led me astray,

and not just with his charm and good looks!

…where else would you find molten chocolate being expertly fabricated into truffles on a rainy street?

Or a whole pig wearing a bib?

Fresh vegetables,

and locally produced preserves.

‘Husband à l’etranger’ raved over the honey cake….

… and then continued on to sample the flaky pastry with goats cheese and apple.

Sadly there were no hot and oozing garlicy ‘escargots’, only ones to take away. And then we came upon the apple press..

and the finished product.

The smell of freshly baked bread coming from a second mobile bread oven drew us in.

And there, amongst all these french producers, the lone Englishman with a range of beers brewed near the Mont Saint Michel; a business started four years ago and successfully growing year on year. Because the truth of it is that as much as we adore the traditional French products and their local artisans, the French also love traditional English products, and what’s more unusual than traditional British Mobsby’s beer brewed locally in Normandy.

And after all that tasting and sampling, it was time to settle at a café for sunday lunch. It was, after all..

…The Fète of the Stomach!

Bon appetit!

Egg Hunt at Miromesnil and a Souris of Lamb.

What to do with a couple of adolescents on a  damp Easter sunday afternoon? Offer plentiful chocolate  with a ‘catch’ of course.

I had been promising myself a trip out to the Chateau de Miromesnil, near Dieppe since I first came to France. Its potager is legendary; and what better opportunity than an Easter egg hunt to make the visit accessible  and appealing to adults and adolescents alike!

It was disappointing  to wake up to a Normand mist this morning after a week of glorious sunshine.  It was the kind of mist that seeps into every corner and dampens every last bit of undergrowth, plant and flower, and yet sparkles on spiders webs without a drop of rain actually falling.

The Chateau of Miromesnil, near Tourville sur Arques is famous as the birthplace of Guy de Maupassant in 1850. I have just put down ‘Pierre et Jean’, his novel written in 1887, wonderful for his depiction of the values and hardships of society, and his colourful descriptions of  the towns and villages of Normandy in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The chateau was built in 1600 in the style of Louis XIII. The generosity of Armand Thomas Hue de Miromesnil, its owner during the 18th century, to the local population allowed the chateau to pass unscathed through the Revolution.

Plan in hand we headed off to decipher the first clue.

Enticed by the knowledge that 2kg of  cacao were used to create the prize draw chocolate egg, the adolescents of the party engaged internet access on their mobiles to determine the exact distance from the chapel to the chateau. ….400m.

The goats were protecting the pink eggs hidden in the undergrowth….and the next clue was hidden behind the woodpile.

The identity of the ‘recolte des tetes blanches en été’ (gathering of white heads in summer) gave us a few problems…. we narrowed it down to mushrooms. Another family asked us for the french translation for dandilion. (Aren’t dandilions yellow?) There was some foot shifting, no-one was quite sure whether to discuss the clues.  The prize egg was, after all, pretty enticing. We were inclined to give them the translation rather than share the mushroom theory.

Google translate and Wikipedia came in very handy in determining the vegetable under the plant genus ‘Alliacé’ ….. onion. We noticed another competitor reach for his mobile.

Over to the younger members of the family to count the  54 shutters on the rear face of the chateau which the butler had had to close daily. Though by the looks of the concentrated expressions, the adolescents were keen to check the numbers.

The spring garden was in full bloom.

and I caught my first glimpse of the potager…

and admired the view back to the park where we’d collected the moss, bark and feather.

We changed our mind about the mushrooms and decided on garlic, before impressing on the staff that we live just down the road and that collection of said egg would not be a problem…..

‘Were we really there two hours’, said the adolescents ‘ we thought it was only one!’

The beauty of a good day out is to arrive home damp but rosy cheeked to find dinner ready and waiting. What better than slow roast ‘Souris d’Agneau’, with tomato and avocado salsa, couscous and mint yoghurt, and a generous glass of wine.

As for pudding, we’re waiting for the phone to ring…

Happy Easter!

Mi-Carême – and the lead-up to Easter.

One of the aspects of scolarising our children in a Catholic school in France is that we get to know the liturgical calendar pretty well. Its not all confessions and penances though! Yesterday was Mi-Carême, translated as mid Lent, and whilst our family have not managed to give up chocolate, wine or cheese, or anything else fervently valued by the French, we couldn’t fail to fall into the party spirit of the Mi-Carême.

Mi-Carême conveniently falls just after the ‘Vacances de Hiver’ otherwise known as the February half term in the UK. After the two weeks of skiing enjoyed by a large majority; one might almost think that skiing was compulsory judging by the number of tanned faces arriving back in school this week; everyone gets down to a frenzy of costume making. Fancy dress is not restricted to the children, all the staff and surveillants (student playground supervisors), and even the Directrices (headmistresses) enter into the spirit with fabulous disguises.

I was awoken by a Viking swathing through my bedroom pillaging for breakfast. When I finally made it to the table I was surprised to find a diminutive popstar complete with green wig, and a lone musketeer. When Alice in Wonderland arrived at the table I thought it was probably all a bad dream, and was just about to go back to bed, when the rabbit took out it’s pocket watch and announced it was time for school.

And so we departed, opening the door to a sparking morning with clear deep blue skies and the highest temperature according to the Meteo for this year.

Rumour has it that the Directrice has Carambar sweets attached all over her costume. Unsurprisingly she is very popular! But i’m not sure the pink capped ‘surveillants’ have much affect on crowd control!

Crepes are a firm part of the tradition for Mi-Carême. I heard that the Musketeer ate seven.

What a great spirit – and all in all a lovely day.

Fête-ing french-style

time for cake

May and June have been months full of pleasure. The children have racked up vast numbers of invitations, and given out their own; whilst as the summer term draws to a close, the school Kermesse is imminent.

I don’t think a weekend or wednesday has passed without a party, and I have been so genuinely pleased by the parties on offer. Somewhere along the line, children’s parties have been elevated into high cost/high glitz extravaganza’s with an ever exhorbitant menu, entertainment and the requisite party bags. Parents, having forked out for excesses of presents face ruin having paid the bill for the party. The french, fortunately have a different view!

Our first invitation of the year came from a boy living in the countryside on the outskirts of Rouen. Fortunate to have a large garden, the invitees were turfed out into the fresh-air, to roam and run wild in the undergrowth, kick about a football with their friends,  with the primary source of long-suffering entertainment being the birthday-boy’s dad; whilst his mother brought a large home-made cake out onto the garden table and some big jugs of drinks to refresh them when they started to flag. There was no “end-time” for the party, and as the parents started to return to collect their, by now, filthy children, chairs were drawn up and a glasses of wine handed out. I got up to leave once I started receiving texts from the mother, whose child I was bringing home, questioning whether I was lost. Inevitably, that evening my children slept well.

Since then, the parties have followed a recurring theme – less is more. One mother took 15 boys to the nearby forest and let them loose. Dens made of sticks and branches were constructed, the boys got covered in debris in the process, and stopped play for a seriously large slice of cake, and returned home an hour after they were expected!

My son decided he wanted nothing better than to share his party with his best friend and their closest friends. His mother had the garden, and I made the cake. We hid “sweetie parcels” in the trees for a treasure hunt – and at the end the water pistols (with a seriously large trajectory) came into action. Another set of tired, dirty but happy boys!

Its really refreshing to fight the flow of excess, with good old “back to basics” hospitality. Is it the same France over, I don’t know but I certainly hope so.

two boys, two cakes - one great age!

This weekend we have the Kermesse – but thats another story!

sweetie carrots