Friday, 30 April 2010

TangoRojo Festival

TangoRojo Festival, London
If you 're lucky enough to live in London (or have easy access to it) over the next couple of weeks, I urge you check out the Tango Rojo Festival which runs from the 12th-15th May at various venues across town. Bianca and Sasha, who are leading our Argentine Tango here at the end of May, organise this event annually and by all accounts it's a MUST for anyone remotely interested in dance.

first coat of paint / l'Espace
Time rolls on however and we are getting very excited about the finishing touches going on in l'Espace (refurbishment of our barn) and the prospect of Roger McGough's first workshop here with us next month. With a spell of mid-summer weather a week or so ago and an almost full-house for his visit here, we thought the gods were finally beginning to smile on this part of France. Silly things! Just as we were about to start work on the terracing around the new barn, the heavens opened and the gods began to laugh at us. But hey! We're confident that most of the building work will be complete in time, though if it stays this cold we may have to relocate the "studio". On vera, as we say in France.

3-year old yellow banksia rose
The banksia rose at the front of the maison de maitre is currently in full flush despite the downpours, having almost trebled in size since last year - things just grow here - and its abundance of Spring-yellow blooms manage to cheer us. Meanwhile, our local village seems to be rousing from it's winter slumbers at last, with the mysterious appearance of a set of two old Renault vans and one Citroen van in various states of disrepair. Nobody seems to know who they belong to, but they certainly are pretty to look upon and seem to typify the sometimes inexplicable slow pace of life in this part of the Dordogne.

Old Renault and Citroen vans parked in village

Monday, 19 April 2010

Charles MCarry

I first heard of Charles McCarry from a BBC 4 radio programme about crime/thriller writers, and I just had to check him out as he sounded so interesting. Not that one should judge a book by a speaker’s voice but I was charmed.

Going straight to Amazon, though having sworn I would always use the library first, I bought Christopher's Ghosts and The Tears of Autumn. Call it instinct but I just felt that I would want to keep his books and I was right. They are both engaging mainly because they are set in different decades but with the same central character. Part of their charm is that they weren’t written chronologically and this makes them more interesting as it allows the author to add information rather than repeating it. Especially irritating to readers who have started with the author’s first novel and then have to read the same thing again and again. This way it is like a friendship learning new things all the time.

McCarry served in the United States Army where he was a correspondent for Stars and Stripes; he has been a small-town newspaperman, and was a speechwriter in the Eisenhower administration. From 1958 to 1967 he worked for the CIA, under deep cover in Europe, Asia, and Africa though his cover was not as a writer or journalist. He has been compared to Graham Green and John Le Carre and there are definite similarities - the intelligent, sensitive loner who nevertheless suffers from questions of conscience about the work he does. The main protagonists don't emerge unscathed from either their actions or those of others and their humanity is very strongly conveyed. The stories and situations seem plausible, fascinating and frightening. Writers who have been involved in intelligence work, and can actually write as well, somehow give a real feeling of authenticity to their stories.

I think it is a form of magic to be able to take one on a 'trip' - without a mushroom or hallucinogenic – transporting you to another dimension purely in your imagination.

I am hooked, line and sinker.

One of the perks of being part of Les Soeurs Anglaises, is that we get to develop relationships with seriously first class projects and businesses that have long been on our "favourites" list. Among these is Daunt Books: their original Edwardian bookshop with long oak galleries and graceful skylights is situated in Marylebone High Street, London but also have shops in Chelsea, Holland Park, Hampstead and Belsize Park and have recently set up their website where you can order various books arranged by country, offering maps and guides, along with the best history, biography and fiction. New titles, from poetry to non-fiction, are added every day and they have researched a bespoke list of titles for Les Soeurs Anglaises on which participants of our workshops can get a 10% reduction.

If screenwriting and films are more your kettle of fish, check out the Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise, London. They show an eclectic range of mainstream films and arthouse with new and old releases. The building still includes its original Edwardian features, it has been transformed into a perfectly delightful 77 seater cinema house combining the past and present with a club atmosphere.

Finally, the charming Polly Leonard, editor of Selvedge Magazine is to publish a story in May next issue an article about bookbinder extraordinaire, Rachel Hazell who will be leading a workshop for us in August. Selvedge and Les Soeurs Anglaises will be collaborating for this event and we feel fortunate to have the backing of such a prestigious and informative magazine.


Saturday, 17 April 2010

Gastronomic Delights

The first of this year's artichokes
Back home and back to work. But what a wonderful Easter we had in San Sebastian! Just a four hour drive south for us, but a completely different world - one step over the border and Spain is about as different from France as Thailand is from Ireland. So now I am going to unapologetically talk about FOOD - a subject close to our hearts in case you didn't realise - as the north of Spain is quickly becoming the gastronomic centre of the universe, the ingenuity and intense flavours of their tapas (or pinxos as they are called in the north) being the magical foundation. The tastes are always fresh and exciting and the presentation precisely artistic. Even though the portions are small, you can go back and back again for more and, of course, you eat far too much. By French and English standards it's incredibly to boot, but who's complaining!

Salted Cod with pumpkin sauce and spring onions
And don't forget the closeness to the sea and thus the availability of fresh fish; ever-ripe fruit and vegetables (something we northern Europeans have forgotten existed) and the sharpness and clarity of the colours and, if it wasn't just a little too far away to visit, we would certainly make sure that every workshop we held here had a visit to L'Espagne on the itinerary. (Maybe if we made them a 7 or 8 days we could even squeeze the Guggenheim in......?)

Sardines for sale outside a grocery store in San Sebastian
On our last night in SS we tripped across an unassuming little tapas bar in the old quarter where they were serving 8 taster courses for 30€ a head. But it wasn't the cost that surprised us so much as the sheer mastery of contemporary fusion culinary skills at their best, plus the exquisite flavours and enthusiasm with which it was served. They recommended a cook book (written in English as well a Spanish and Basque thank goodness), and we are busy trying out recipes to discover which are the best to serve at the workshops. And if you like your wine, Mike had great fun interrogating the staff at most eating establishments to discover what they recommended in the way of new, exciting and delicious wines to go with the meals. Boy, does he have some surprises up his sleeve.

This happy and relaxed couple present the meals at their home, a wonderful, rambling manoir, with commanding views across fields and woodlands. They produce amazing four course menus and dietary requirements are happily accommodated. They are quite simply the best "restauranteurs" in the area that we have come across in a very long time. As a wine connoisseur, Mike will be working with Gareth in the near future to put together a special vintage wine menu, and we are certainly planning to take our workshop participants to eat at least one meal here during their workshop stay. They may not be French, but Gareth and Sue epitomise everything a good French restaurant used to offer.

Gareth has recently built a "smoke house" and his fabulous smoked salmon, butter, garlic etc. is now available from their website.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Creative Workshop Stimuli

One of the really great things about running creative workshops at our house here in France is that you get to meet incredibly creative people! And I'm not just talking about the workshop leaders, although that goes without saying. Some participants arrive already creatively charged, ready to take on a new challenge or improve an existing one, like Rebecka Ryberg Skott, whose extraordinary photographs never cease to amaze (and entertain) me;

and Jone Hallmark, whose creativity never ceases.

Others present themselves on arrival as inexperienced or dabblers in the arts and crafts, but quickly discover through the workshop leaders' encouragement and teaching, the artist within, and head home with unique and beautiful items that bring back to life their neglected or forgotten creative inner child.

This is also very much the case with the Argentine Tango workshop led by London's top teachers, Bianca and Sasha of Rojo y Negro.

Cries of "Oh, I can't dance", or "I have two left feet" can be heard in the nervous mutterings of participants new to this amazing dance (mostly from the men it has to be said), but within a couple of hours, Bianca has demonstrated the basics and the fun of learning something completely new has become both stimulating, gratifying and totally rivetting. Of course, after only one workshop you can't expect to be able to dance the Argentine Tango as well as, say Geraldine Rojas, but does it really matter? The enjoyment you get from simply being able to hold your own on the dance floor, in time with the music, is pretty hard to beat. And learning the moves amongst an enthusiastic group of like minded people is the nearest you're going to get to the insouciant pleasure of our childhoods.

Returning to inspirational arts and crafts, take a look at Cathy Cullis' work. I recently discovered her beautiful and unusual stitch work and photographs and am now an avid follower of her inspirational blog. This one reminded me of Claire Montgomerie's colours whose workshop kicks off our 2010 season in May.

And if you're into second hand clothes take a gander at Prance and Swagger, where you can see, and buy online, some pretty fabulous fifties frocks (one or two perfect for the Argentine Tango) amongst lots of other vintage goodies - especially interesting for those of you living in the States as the postage charges will obviously be much lower.