Happy Christmas!

Goodbye rainy Rouen et bonjour les montagnes!



Snow, mulled wine, cheese fondue and a roaring log fire

– oh, and a little skiing thrown in!

Wishing you a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful and prosperous new year.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday.




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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Christmas Atelier de Patisserie -La Bûche de Noel.

For the recipe


One of the things I love best about our region of France is that the preparations for Christmas only begin in December. Suddenly, on the last days of November, ‘cherry pickers’ park up in highly inconvenient parts of the city in the middle of rush hour and the council start to put up christmas lights, causing the circulation to grind to a standstill. Somehow the excitement caused is more intense than the long drawn out decorations of the UK which seem to appear as soon as the British shops have cleared  the last of Halloween.

Today I was booked in for ‘La Bûche de Noel’ at the Atelier de Patisserie and savoured the new decorations as I made my way there.

Nov,dec 2012 002Under the shadow of the cathedral the Marché de Noel was just opening up,

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while the pretty side street that led to the atelier was charming with its simple lights and foliage.

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I was momentarily dazzled by the sweet stall

Nov,dec 2012 005and spent a few moments watching the young ‘Dragons Ice Hockey team on the christmas rink outside the Hôtel de Ville.

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But Arnaud’s atelier was calling, and within minutes I was equipped with Tablier (apron) and ready for the class to begin.

Today we were making the Bûche de Noel (traditional Christmas log) with a roulade of Biscuit Viennoise and Crème de Beurre.

As ever, Arnaud was a mine of information. What he doesn’t know about eggs isn’t worth knowing, but what is, is that egg yolks can be stored in a freezer for a month, and that freshly laid eggs do not whip well. Eggs should always be left for a few days before using for patisserie.   Aparently, although he didn’t know the science behind it, frozen egg whites or a egg white and 10% water mix whip more quickly than standard eggs.

All egged out, we turned to start making the Biscuit viennoise.

We weighed out our ‘Tant pour Tant’ (such for such, the french expression for replacing one ingredient for an equally acceptable alternative) with an equal mixture of ground almonds and icing sugar. Any powdered dried fruit would work, ground hazelnut for example. We added the egg yolks and full eggs and whipped until creamy and light. Arnaud had plans for strengthening our arm muscles, and got us to work with a hand whisk!

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Then we whipped the egg whites into peaks and added the sugar to form a thick meringue.

Nov,dec 2012 030With a soft folding action we incorporated the meringue into the TPT mixture.

Nov,dec 2012 032Once thoroughly incorporated we poured onto  a greaseproof paper on a long baking tray.
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And with a spatula laid it smooth taking care to use as few strokes as possible.

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Once complete we placed it in the oven and prepared to make the filling.

Arnaud educated us on the various types of meringue; French, Suisse and Italien. The French form of meringue already having been used to create the volume for the Biscuit Viennoise.

Meringue Italienne is an uncookable meringue, which does not dry and is always used for making patisserie creams. This is the type of meringue we now use for making the Crème à Beurre.

Arnaud amuses us by admitting that he likes his steak ‘bien cuite'(I have known customers thrown out of restaurants for asking for that)  as opposed to his wife who like’s hers bleu. Can we believe he is really a chef? To achieve this with perfect timing he shows us his thermometer.

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We place the water and sugar mixture on the hob and bring to 115°, at the same time whipping the egg whites into peaks.

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Arnaud shows us what happens to the sugar if the temparture rises to 120°. A brittle, unworkable sugar that would break our mixer!

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We carefully measure the sugar solution temperature and at exactly 115° pour it carefully down the side of the whipped egg bowl.

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We leave the mixer to beat to a smooth thick meringue, before adding the butter to make the crème à beurre.

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There are two ways to add the butter, one is to add the entire cold quantity of butter to the warm meringue mixture where the heat softens and helps it incorporate to a smooth cream.

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The second method is to make the butter into a beurre pommade. Keeping the butter at a constant temperature of 37° we continually beat the butter until the consistancy of a ‘face cream’.

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The end result is a thicker crème for the solid butter, and a lighter crème for the pommade.

We add the flavour, pistachio to one and chocolate to the other, ready to spread over our cooked golden Biscuit Viennoise.

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Our biscuit is golden and we divide in two to form two ‘Bûche’, one of which we spread thinly with pistachio crème, the other with chocolate.

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Before rolling the Biscuit Viennoise into a roulade, moistening where necessary with a sugar syrup.

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We spread the outside of the log with more crème chocolate and fork to give a ‘log’ texture.

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The final stage of the atelier is to experiment with ‘Meringue Suisse’.

The beauty of meringue suisse is that it is excellent for forming little decorations as it looses its shape much more slowly.

We measure a two to one part mix of sugar and egg white. We whisk the mixture whilst heating it at a constant temperature of 50° until it begins to thicken, and then put into the Kitchen Aid to continue whisking until it forms a stiff meringue.

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We place several differently sized ‘douilles’ (nozzles) into several icing bags, twist the bag to form a ‘bouchon’ or cork in the nozzle, and fill the bags with meringue. Once ready we pull out the bouchon and push the meringue firmly into the nozzle.

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We take a baking tray with a greaseproof sheet and begin to form various shapes, mushrooms and snails  and old boots with which we will decorate our ‘bûche’.

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Having dried in the oven, the meringue decorations are ready to use.

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A final photo – well no, that’s for you to create!

As for our ‘Bûche de Noel’ –  its already been eaten!

A little early I know, but it was my birthday today! I think we can be forgiven! (Well we just couldn’t stop ourselves!)

As for you, the ‘Bûche de Noel’ freezes perfectly, so you have no excuses!

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For the recipe: Bûche de Noel

To read further blogs taking part in the Expat Blog Hop, click on the links.

 French Village Diaries

 Vive Trianon

 Melanged Magic

The Business of life

 Paris Cheapskate

 A Flamingo in Utrecht

Steve Bichard.com

Books are Cool

Life on La Lune


Victoria Corby

 Painting in Tuscany

Bordeaux Bumpkin

 Scribbler in Seville

 Perpignan Post

 Blog in France

 Leaving Cairo

 Piglet in Portugal

Andalucia explorer

 Box53b Naomi Hattaway

 Suzanna Williams

 Very Bored in Catalunya

 What’s an Alpaca

Steven C Sobotka

What about Your Saucepans

Chronicles of M

Beyond Manana in Spain

Jeno Marz


Callaloo Soup

Aussie in france

Didi Books English

Inauguration of the Crèche de Noel

Version Francais

This is the christmas term of our third year in France. Month on month our children have immersed themselves into the language and culture of our local french landscape and where their education is concerned I have no worries.

Ecole and College St Dominique has an extraordinary level of attention to detail, and  time-tested organisation which keeps the parents firmly in touch with their childrens’ progress and with the teaching and pastoral team. History starts at the ‘prehistory’ and works its way systematically towards the present day, mathematical challenge is rigorous and the methodical testing at each stage easily surpasses that of UK schools without the need to stop progress for revision in class time. Reassuringly, French pupils actually are taught grammar, a skill that has been sadly neglected in the standard English school. Parents are encouraged to participate within the school environment, anything from participating in ‘catéchèse’ (religeous studies), to reading out loud to children at lunch time in a wide variety of languages (from spanish to russian) or participating in various fétes over the length of the year.

If I had to highlight the one major difference between French and English school, it would be in the realm of creativity and sport. Whilst english schools have a burgeoning emphasis on art, technology and woodwork, on teamsports such as rugby, cricket and hockey; for France these play a significantly lesser roll. This is not to say that art and technology and sport do not play a role in french education, but that it is essential for french families to offer a supplement.

Being passionately absorbed in creative arts myself, the odd niggles of doubt as to whether my children were being “drawn out” where creativity and imagination were concerned were never far away. Imagine my delight therefore when my son in quatrième (age 13) began to talk about one of the parent’s mission to create an entirely new ‘vision’ when it came to this years “Crèche de Noel”

For those who have already visited my post A trip about Rouen they will be quick to note that the students of quatrième B, under the inspired eye of Madame Corruble have created a perfect model of the ‘Gros Horloge’ and it’s surrounding buildings with the archway of the clock tower representational of the lowly stable.

The model, entirely fabricated from modelling card, with multi-coloured tissue paper to form the stained glass windows is the scene for the clay figures crafted by some students from troisième.

On friday 25th November, the crèche was inaugurated by the local priest in the presence of friends, parents and pupils of St Do, and illuminated for the first time.

Congratulations to Madame Corruble and the élèves of 4ième B for their painstaking attention to detail and their celebration of the architecture of Rouen with this beautiful Crèche; I feel inspired for my own preparations for christmas and confident that whilst creative art is not high on any french school time-table – Here in Rouen, St Dominique can claim first prize for inspiration and creative vision.

Merry christmas!

You may also like to read this:

A trip about Rouen

10. Décembre – Noel en neige – Christmas in the snow

I have just begun to light the fire on a regular basis. We have a great hybrid open fire/woodburning stove with a nifty slide up front so that we can watch the flames dance throughout the evening and shut it up at night to slow burn throughout the night ready for stoking in the morning! It wasn’t until the middle of the month that we finally turned on the central heating. It is hugely satisfying to have lasted so long without it, and indeed to have enjoyed the left-over wood from the last tenant. At last, mid-december it was necessary to order more wood. We ordered three steres – the unit for a metre cubed of wood and had it delivered later that week by a local guy who was able to tell us where our wood had come from – many pieces being from the pollarding of the city centre trees. It was good to know the wood was from a sustainable source and not only that but it smelt delicious and burned well! We took to foraging in the forest across the road for kindling, piling it onto our trolley and stacking it daily into the basket next to the fire to dry.

And then the snow began to fall! As we reached the penultimate week of term the roads iced over and our pathway became a death trap. I am used to the British system of gritting the roads. Here in France the system seems a little more haphazard. Our road was not gritted, despite being generally a well-used route into the city. The ploughs cleared one lane of the ring-road, and the route into the city centre and school appeared to be un-gritted! The French also have a dubious system of building basement garages on steep slopes below the bulk of the house and ours was no exception. Hence, on that first fall of snow, the whole exercise of getting the car out and making the school run was almost an impossible dream! Harry made the run, his car being further up the slope of the drive than mine, and I had only to hope that there was a brief thaw in order to pick them up again for lunch. The thaw came and at 4pm I once more set off to collect the children. Parking up, the half an hour wait was enough for the wind chill to refreeze the wet and slushy roads. Rouen is a city on a series of hills, essentially a series ravines carved out by the tributaries of the Seine. By 5pm havoc ensued, cars, including my own were simply not able to get out of parking spaces nor negotiate the tricky sloping bends and road junctions. Some cars were seen sliding sideways around cambered junctions, whilst others simply failed to stop at “Give Way” signs at a sloping junction, careering into passing cars on the main road!

Having resorted to ringing Harry at the office to help rescue the car from its icy position, we spent 10 minutes finally manoeuvring  it to the centre of the road. Being an automatic, and not  known for handling icy conditions well, it was agreed that we would have to reverse the length of this narrow one way street rather than negotiate the sharp inclined junction at the top. It was at this point that a black Renault pulled up behind us hooting loudly for us to pull over to let him pass. These are early days for my language skills, and the word “reverse” was not amongst them. The burly Frenchman was not going to give way to an obviously illiterate foreigner and eventually forced us back into the kerb, only – and to my delight- to be beaten back himself by the steep slippery inclined junction. We managed to achieve the centre of the road again and reverse our way back, barely containing our smiles as we watched him do likewise whilst all the time avoiding eye contact!

The snow lasted a month and is probably the longest duration of snow that I have encountered. The roads were generally cleared and  the children generally managed to get to school, but as the bad weather continued we wondered if we would be able to leave France for our brief trip back to the UK at Christmas.

One of the delights of the French build up to Christmas is the lack of decorations from October. Autumn remained autumn, and Christmas became Christmas mid-way through December. The department responsible for Christmas lights sent out its “technicians” during the rush hour to install the lights on the traffic lights at the main intersection, complete with “cherry-picker” to bring the traffic to a complete standstill and a multitude of mini Christmas trees were installed in various paved areas around the city garnished with a series of ostentatious fabric garlands and oversized bows in various shades of silver!

What a great Christmas – This has been the first Christmas without all the family, and as such I wasn’t sure how it would be. The snow gave on a magical quality, the tree stood in a corner looking fabulous after a few mishaps in buying the wrong sort of Christmas lights from the supermarket thanks to my missing vocabulary. Starting with a fish laden chowder, thanks to our excellent fish market, followed by a plump turkey, and finished with Christmas Pudding, thanks to our local Comptoire Irlandaise. I had every intention of making my own Christmas pudding, buying packs of sultanas and mixed peel, but I came unstuck on the suet. The French haven’t heard of suet which translates as Rognon de graisse du boeuf. Eventually I found a small butcher who knew what I wanted but only had Rognon de boeuf. I wasn’t convinced that it would work, and neither was he. So I thanked my luck when I walked into the Comptoire and discovered not only Christmas puddings, but also Golden Syrup, Marmite, and Rowntrees Jelly. Of course all were at fabulously expensive prices, and next time I shall get suet sent out from England, but we bought two puddings and two jars of mincemeat. Angus’s teacher cooked up one of the puddings for his class to try towards the end of term, which went down with mixed results, and I had a baking day and made loads of mince pies, which were taken into Harry’s work and the kids school as a little taste of England!

Peaceful and good-humoured, Christmas day continued with a fabulous snowy walk in the forest across the road, and finished with mulled wine in front of the fire and a fabulous new board game we’d bought the kids called Taxifoli – a race to drive clients round Paris with specific missions in mind – and all in French!

The weather cleared sufficiently for our brief spell in the UK. We opened up our house again, stoked up the fires and brewed up another vat of Mulled Wine for all our old friends. A fabulous round up to a busy four months in France!