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Le Puy du Fou

Puy du Fou

It might seem a little strange that I’m doing a blog post on an tourist attraction that is in a completely different region to where I live, but the Puy du Fou in the Vendée is such a staggeringly impressive place that it is worth it. The theme park was created by Phillippe de Villiers (a proud Vendéen and now a politician) who wanted to tell the story of the Vendée during the French revolution through producing a “Cinéscénie”, which translates as a “moving stage”. He found the ruins of a castle near the village of Les Epesses and in 1978 the first cinéscénie was produced, with the help of 600 bénévoles (volunteers) who acted in the production. At first, the show wasn’t a big success, but then the national media expressed an interest and it became a big annual event each evening in the summer with the play performed over the lake with a massive firework display as a finale. I remember going to see it when I was a student working on a Vendéen campsite during the summer, and it was a spectacular experience even then. Philippe De Villiers then expanded the idea and created the Grand Parc, producing other shows telling the history of France, not just the Vendée. The Puy de Fou is now the most popular theme park in France and in 2012 won the accolade of best theme park in the world. It is open from April to October and professional actors are used – although for the evening show it is still the volunteers who perform. All profits from the parc are re-invested and every year a new show is added. You can now marvel at the spectacular chariot racing in the Roman arena, gasp at the Vikings dragonboat emerging from the lake and be transfixed but the impressive horseriding acrobacy in the Secret of the Lance and many other shows.

The Secret of the Lance (Joan of Arc)
The Secret of the Lance (Joan of Arc)
Puy de Fou Medieval Village
Puy de Fou Medieval Village
The Vikings are coming...
The Vikings are coming…
Viking Village
Viking Village
Chariot racing in the Roman arena
Chariot racing in the Roman arena
The Romans
The Romans

My favourite show is the Phantom Bird’s dance – you are seated in an outdoor arena of the original castle ruins, and a play is performed which culminates in hundreds of birds of prey swooping around in a co-ordinated ‘dance’ display which is breathtaking. It is the largest falconry display in Europe and you really feel part of it. Although not advised for anyone suffering ornithophobia!

The Phantom BIrd Dance
The Phantom Bird Dance
The Phantom disappears
The Phantom disappears

Every day the programme of shows change, and you need to plan your visit carefully to see all the shows that you want. Although there are thousands of visitors every day, the arenas have a very large capacity, so there is usually plenty of room without the infernal queuing which you have to do in most theme parks for the popular rides, but you should really arrive 30 mins in advance of the show time. There is always a warm up act to keep you amused before the show actually starts and you won’t bored! Another advantage of the park is that you can take your own picnic and have your lunch anywhere in the picturesque park as there are lots of picnic tables around. There is food available too, with lots of restaurants/sandwich bars – the food is around 30% more expensive than you would pay in shops, so not extortionate. There are lots of hotels, tents etc. if you want to stay overnight and have two days in the park instead of just one.Nearly all the shows are outside – so what if it rains? The shows go on of course – waterproofs are provided for guests. We did a day trip in May – we left home at 7.30am to get there for the opening time of 10am, we saw 5 shows, had time for a picnic lunch and left the park at around 6pm. I’d really recommend a trip for everyone staying here, even if the drive is slightly over 2 hours. In the summer you can attend the medieval banquet in the evening before watching the evening show with fireworks if you are ready for a really long day. One final point, if you don’t speak  French (the shows are, of course, in French),  don’t worry, you will understand the action just by watching. And the children will love them – mine did, the Vikings were a particular favourite.

Evening weekend show in July and August
Evening weekend show in July and August

 

Mère Poulard

Mere Poulard
Mère Poulard

The Mère Poulard is one of the most famous characters associated with Mont St Michel. Although today her name is synonomous with local regional food products (biscuits, salted butter toffees etc.) produced by the company Mère Poulard, the original ‘Mère Poulard’ was known for the fabulous omelettes that she cooked for visitors to her hotel on Mont St Michel.

Annette Poulard (née Anne Boutiaut, she was nicknamed Annette and it stuck) was born in Nervers, Burgundy, in 1851. When she was older she took up employment as a chambermaid for a well known architect, Edouard Corroyer, whose speciality was ancient monuments. In 1872 Corroyer was asked by the French government to lead the restoration of the Mont St Michel Abbey. Annette went with him and his family and there met Victor Poulard, a baker on the Mont. They married in 1873 and opened a little hostel called the “hostellerie de la Tête d’Or”. It was a small establishment, and only welcomed a handful of visitors, including pilgrims, archaeologists, painters. It was a world apart from the crowds that visit Mont St Michel today. In those days, the dyke didn’t exist and Mont St Michel was frequently cut off from the mainland during high tides. Visitors would arrive at any time of day because of this, and were often famished when they finally reached the Mont.  Annette had the idea of serving her guests an omelette of her own invention whilst they waited for the main course to arrive.  The omelette of the Mère Poulard (as Annette became nicknamed) swiftly became famous amongst the visiting Parisians and the Poulards soon moved to a bigger hotel, where Annette continued to welcome the ever increasing number of guests to Mont St Michel. She was famous for her hospitality and mothered her guests as most parents do children.

Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel

 

“Have you had a good journey? Sit yourselves down quickly, you must be starving. Madame, give me your coat so I can dry it. Don’t worry, you will have it back and ironed for your visit to the Abbey. Take this scarf while you are waiting. Now, settle yourselves down and eat well. And when you’ve finished, we’ll show you the way to go…”

Streets of Mont St Michel
Streets of Mont St Michel

She employed very few staff, welcomed all visitors herself and if guests had to leave quickly she would tell them to pay next time they visited, and often accepted paintings instead of payment for her food. Eventually, some people took advantage of this and the hotel profits declined, but she didn’t care. “If I collected all the money owed to me, I’d have to employ a cashier, who I would have to pay, accommodate, and that wouldn’t have helped”. As long as she had enough money in the bank to get her through the winter she was happy.

Modern day pilgrims crossing the Bay
Modern day pilgrims crossing the Bay

 

The Poulards retired in 1920 and retired to a pretty little house on the top of Mont St Michel. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and Annette finally died in 1931.

I highly recommend that you don’t eat in the Mère Poulard establishment (or any other for that matter) on Mont St Michel as the food quality isn’t great and the prices generally exorbitant. However, the products in the Mère Poulard food range are delicious. The omelette has been overtaken by delicious butter biscuits and cakes, salted toffee caramels and other goodies. The Mère Poulard factory is situated only 10 mins drive from La Haute Mancelière and there is a factory shop, open 6 days a week, which sells the products all at very cheap prices (over a third lower than in the supermarkets). Ideal if you want to take back some presents or souvenirs to the UK.

 

Lost and found

Living on site means that you often have a lot of contact with guests – it is par for the course to be asked to book restaurants, horse riding, golf, or go with guests to the doctors, hospital, and on occasion, a police station to translate. Last week, however, I had an unusual request. An anxious guest knocked on the door,  quite upset, who said that his little girl had been playing with his wife’s wedding ring and it had fallen through the little gap between the floorboard and the wall (the walls are open stone wall and therefore unpointed). Would it be possible to look for it?
I called my man who can and we managed to take up the floorboard next to the wall. To our horror, there was a hole underneath between cavity wall and we thought the ring would never be found. We then decided to take up a little more floorboard and low and behold, the ring was there on a little ledge, together with a comb that was a previous victim of the gap and also fallen through it at sometime in the past. If the ring had fallen 5cm to the left and it would have disappeared, possibly forever. It was one of the best moments I’ve had since starting running the gîtes when I gave back the ring to the delighted and very relieved guests.

Postscript: The slight gap between the floorboard and wall has now been filled, to prevent any further occurrences of this nature happening!

Local Recipes

Quatre Quarts (La Haute Mancelière welcome cake)

Due to popular request (although it maybe that guests are just being polite!) here is the recipe to my cake that I leave as part of the welcome pack.
Literally translated as ‘four quarters’, this traditional Breton cake consists of 4 ingredients (eggs, sugar, flour and butter), all portions of the same weight.

Pre-heat the oven to 170°C
1. Weigh the eggs (I usually use 4 medium eggs, which together weigh 220g). The weigh out equal amounts of plain flour, castor sugar and butter.
2. Soften the butter, then mix together with the sugar.
3. Separate the eggs, add and mix in the yolks to the sugar and butter mix, put the whites in a separate bowl.
4. Gradually mix in the flour, plus a pinch of salt to the cake mixture.
5. Whisk the egg whites until solid. It is important that they are well whisked because they are the rising agent in the cakes – there is no baking powder in this recipe!
6. Gradually spoon and fold in the egg whites to the cake mixture. It must be done gently, and by hand (not in a mixer) to ensure that the cake rises.
7. I usually add choc chips to my cake at this point, but it is delicious without, or you can add apple slices as an alternative.
8. Butter a cake tin or mold, around 26cm diameter. Add the mix, then bake in the preheated oven at 170°C for around 45 minutes. To test if the cake is cooked, stick a knife in the centre and if it comes out clean, it is ready.
Bon appetit!

 

Moules à la crème

The local mussels  (moules de bouchot) from the Baie de Mont St Michel are wonderful – so good, in fact, that they have been awarded an Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). The mussel producers are hoping that this will prevent other mussels being misleadingly sold as ‘moules de bouchot de la baie de Mont st Michel’.

The term ‘moules de bouchot’ means that the mussels are grown on wooden stakes (’bouchots’) planted in the seabed. This keeps them safe from predators and also means that they are exposed to the marine air when the tide is out, which helps give them their distinctive flavour.

The moules season is from July – late November in this area, any you eat in local restaurants ouside of these months will not be the from the Baie of Mont St Michel.

For 4 people (allow 500g mussels per person).

Ingredients

2kg mussels
6 shallots
6 cloves of garlic
65g/2oz butter
20cl muscadet wine
25cl double cream
juice of one lemon
1 big saucepan/casserole pan with lid

1. Rince the mussels in cold water and remove the beards and barnacles on the shell if necessary. Discard mussels with broken shells and those which are open
2. Chop the shallots and garlic
3. Melt the butter in the pan and add the chopped shallots and garlic and sweat them for 5 minutes.
4. Add the mussels, wine and lemon juice, put the lid on the pan, turn up the heat and cook until the mussels are open, stirring occasionally. Be careful not to overcook the mussels or they will go very rubbery.
5. Drain off most of the juice, leaving about 1cm depth in the bottom of the pan.
6. Add the cream, stir, then serve with crusty bread or chips

Very Naughty Chocolate Cake

Not a local recipe as such, but soooo good, I have to put it on the blog! It is a recipe from my friend Jenny, who has some fabulous luxury holiday homes on the Ile de Ré and makes this cake as a welcome gift for her lucky guests.

200g (7oz) good quality dark chocolate, roughly chopped
125g (4.5oz) unsalted butter
170g (7oz) chocolate and hazelnut spread (Nutella)
5 medium eggs, separated
150g (5oz) brown sugar
200g packet ground almonds

Icing sugar

23cm (9in) cake tin

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (150°C fan oven), 325 F, gas 3 and grease and base line the cake tin with greaseproof paper. Melt the chocolate, butter and chocolate & hazelnut spread in a bowl set over a pan of hot water.

2. Use a blender to whisk the egg yolks and sugar together, then stir in the almonds. Transfer almond mixture to the chocolate mix and stir to combine. Whisk egg whites until firm peaks form. Mix one third of the whites into the chocolate to loosen the consistency, then carefully fold in the remaining whites.

3. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 55-ish minutes until lightly set, then allow to stand for 1 hour before serving.

Dust with icing sugar.

It freezes well too – so you don’t have to eat it all at once!

 

Local Walks

We are lucky to have lots of footpaths and cycle tracks in the local area. The Mairie and tourist office produce very detailed maps of all the circuits, and for the most part they are very well signposted. We also have a disused railway line which runs from Antrain to Fougères (about 30kms in length), 800m from the house. It is very well maintained and ideal for cycling or walking, the other advantage is that it doesn’t get muddy in mid winter, like some of the footpaths, so it is ideal for walking with a buggy. It is possible to cycle to both St Brice en Coglès and Tremblay, our local villages, in around 20 mins. It is also brilliant for running – I run 5km every morning and it is a lot easier to run on than the local roads!

 

 

Ramaougerie de Pommé

Ramaougerie

Every year, there is a special fête that takes place at the end of November in several of the villages around here. The ‘fête de pommé‘ is the annual making of ‘pommé’, a kind of jam made from apples. The history of this goes back to the second world war. Butter was in short supply, so the local people pooled their apples and got together to make pommé, which was a cheap and easy alternative to having butter on bread. The product is now made and sold as a regional speciality, and it is local volunteers who get together every year to do produce it. The making of the pommé takes place over a weekend in Tremblay – and starts with hundreds of apples being peeled, cored and quartered at the local school. In order to make 100kg of Pommé, 250kg of apples are required, as well as a barrel of sweet cider. On the Friday night, in the back room of the village hall, two fires are lit and the cider is heated in two huge copper pots over a wood fire at midnight. This then simmers for 12 hours (the fire has to be fed by volunteers at this time). After this, the peeled apples are added for the next 19 hours, and the mixture has to be stirred constantly ‘ramaougerie’ to ensure that it doesn’t stick by the volunteers, who work through the night. The mixture is ready by 2am Sunday and then it is put into jars and sold later that day. Of course the volunteers are kept well fed and refreshed by crêpes and wine during the weekend. There are various events in the village hall – a children’s Breton dancing, a meal on the Saturday night and on Sunday a dance. It is probably one of the most important events of the year in Tremblay.

It’s gone quiet!

Well, today the last of the guests left – I think it is the first time that all the gites have been unoccupied together since March. The last lot of guests were all French – the Armistice bank holiday fell handily on a Tuesday this year, so quite a few people also take the Monday off (faire le pont – make a bridge) to extend the weekend and go away for a short break). Although there are a lot more bank hoidays (jour feriés) in France, they aren’t always beneficial – whenever they fall on a Saturday or Sunday, there is no day in lieu given. Some of them always fall on the same day too – for example May 1st and May 8th, victory day, which is also the same day as Christmas and New Year. So some years when they all fall on a Saturday or Sunday, you feel a bit robbed.

Anyway, apart from a few weekend/short break bookings, that is it until Christmas and New Year. I quite miss not having people around – apart from the inevitable knock on the door as soon as you get in the shower or put on a facepack, it is very nice having extra neighbours to chat to. But it will be nice to have Saturdays off again, no cleaning or waiting in all afternoon/evening for people to arrive. Today’s departures left me a couple of bottles of wine from their region, which was very kind, and of course the usual beautifully written and phrased comments in the guest book. The French language is wonderful and some sentiments just can’t be translated to give the same effect. One of my favourites:

“Charmant accueil à la délicatesse anglaise, rien ne manquait, nous sommes ravis. Mille mercis!”

“Charming welcome with Engish grace, nothing was missing, we are delighted. Thankyou a thousand times.”

It just doesn’t have the same ring to it – and the words ‘grace’ and ‘English’ are rarely found together!

Don’t get me wrong, I love all reviews (touch wood they have all been good) but the French do have a wonderful way with words.

Birthday parties

My 7 year old daughter, Kristen, is off to yet another birthday party this afternoon. Children’s birthdays in France are not such big events as they are in the UK – well, at least here in the sticks, anyway. Instead of competing to ask the most number of other children possible, only a handful of friends are invited, usually about 8 maximum. Much easier to cope with (and cheaper!) for the parents. In many cases, it is just an opportunity for the kids to see each other and play together, party games are rarely organised. Food is usually just sweets, or sometimes crêpes. The first time I hosted my daughter’s party I made a real effort with sandwiches, sausage rolls and cakes (I wasn’t stupid enough to inflict jelly on them) but hardly anything except the sweets and crisps were touched. It was almost as though I was offering them poison – I’m still not sure whether the kids were really not hungry, or they’d been forbidden by their parents from trying food chez les Anglais (English food still has an ill deserved reputation in France for being terrible). At least the party games I organised went down well – pass the parcel, musical chairs and statues – the children loved them, so at least I did something right!
Last year the trend seemed to for be having the parties in Mcdo’s – which is a pain for me as it is always on a Saturday (changeover day) and Mcdos is in Fougères, about 25kms away. By the time I’d dropped Kristen off and come home, it was nearly time to go and pick her up again. And of course, I can guarantee that any guests arriving will do so when I’m on the drop off or pick up journey.
This year, however, most of the parties have been at the house again, which is easier, although it isn’t always to find the houses when they are out in the countryside (like ours!). And during the last couple of parties, the parents have organised little activities for the children to do too – decorating pencil cases, making halloween outfits, etc. Still no food though, except sweets, thank goodness my daughter doesn’t have any E allergies.

5th party – lots of wasted food!
6th Birthday party – no nice food, lesson learnt!

They think it grows on trees…

I get my annual delivery of firewood about now and of course once delivered, it has to be stacked (neatly of course, we have to keep up with the standard of the French neighbours) to dry out for use the following year. I usually get through about 5 or 6 cordes of wood (depending on how cold/long the winter is) and that is quite a lot of wood! A corde is roughly 1 x 3m3, but this varies according to the type of wood, where you live and often who is supplying it. The locals around here are quite obsessed with wood – it is still one one of the more economic ways of heating, but wood prices are now increasing along with all the other fossil fuels as more people are using it to heat their houses instead of fuel, gas or electricity. Trying to explain that to gite guests isn’t always easy as there are so many trees around here I think everyone assumes it is free. In fact I pay more for wood here than my father does in the UK, 160€ per corde this year, for mainly oak (la chêne) with a little beech (du hêtre).

Anyway, the delivery fortunately ‘coincided’ with the visit of OH, who is an expert wood stacker (over 6 years experience now), so as a tribute to him, here are some photos showing How to Stack a Woodpile Properly:

A good base structure is important
The first few layers…
Getting there
5 hours later…finished

Of course you also have to be careful of the snakes – there are vipers about and they often hide in the woodpile. I’m not sure if they are protected in France as they are in the UK, but my old neighbour shoots them if he sees them, regardless of any legal protection the snakes have. He took great pleasure in showing us one of the dead ones he shot earlier this year – the trick is if you see one, look again the next day in the same place, at the same time and it will be there, and a sitting target, so to speak. Apparently snakes are creatures of habit, very much like my neighbour.

Going

 

Going…
Gone!

A rather lovely day

Not just for the wonderful weather we enjoyed here yesterday – 25°c and very sunny . The oldest resident of the hamlet came home today for the first time in 2 months. Maria Garner is 82 and had a second stroke in August. Since then she has been in a nursing home since then having also fallen and broken her leg. La Mancelière has been her home for over 50 years, she gave birth to 5 children here and it was very emotional for her and her familu when she came back for the day. We were invited over for an apéro and lunch and it was such a pleasure seeing her again. She has had a pretty tough life, married to a Breton paysan who is still incredibly chauvanistic, but she has never complained. She used to go on a bike ride every afternoon before her first stroke 5 years ago, then afterwards when the weather was OK she would go out for a walk every afternoon and I often met her on the road during my daily dog walk. Everyone here hopes that she gets well enough to live the rest of her life in her own home, enjoying the wonderful view over the valley that she has from her house.

The oldest and youngest resident in the village