Ring Out Those Bells!

“Now is the Solstice of the year.
Winter is the glad song that you hear.”

As part of my extended birthday celebrations last weekend I had the pleasure of attending The Jethro Tull Christmas Concert in the wonderful Medieval Wells Cathedral.

Wells Cathedral: Photo Rodw


The was a bit of a pilgrimage for me as a long time Tull (and indeed other Prog Rock bands) fan, I had never seen one of their Christmas Concerts. Putting it simply, it was wonderful! To cap it all they performed their seasonal hit “Solstice Bells” and I was accompanied by my oldest mate known in this blog as Vifferman!

Incidentally, 100% of the ticket sales were donated to the upkeep of that wonderful ancient Cathedral.

Now it doesn’t take much to make me happy, which might seem a bit strange for a chap who owns two big Harley Davidson motorbikes, but it’s true. Today, for example, is one of those things that no-one can own, hold or claim; it’s the Winter Solstice and I’m a very happy Dookes as a result!

It’s probably fair to say that this has become my favourite day of the whole year!

In our Northern Hemisphere it is the shortest day, when the Sun barely shows itself above the horizon and then for the briefest possible time! Sunset today was just before 16:00hrs!

Stennes Sones Orkney


The Solstice marks the turn of the seasons when the days begin to grow longer and the warmth of Summer begins its long return journey.

It’s also the real beginning of Winter.

I written before how the relevance of this turning point has become stronger for me as I have grown older; I now understand the ancient people who venerated the turning seasons and the Celestial Calendar.

It appears that since the dawn of time our forbears have found reason to celebrate a festival of light in the depths of the darkest day of the year. So why not have a party to celebrate the ending of one celestial year and the beginning of a new one?

Sounds good to me, but then I am a Welsh Wizard/Dewin Cymreig and a Druid to boot!

Let’s not forget that many other cultures and religions around the world also celebrate festivals at this time of the year and have the rebirth of light firmly as their focus.
The Christian Church has celebrated the birthday of Jesus Christ, Christmas, on December 25th since the 4th Century when Pope Julius I chose the date in an effort to replace the Roman Feast of Saturnalia. In several languages, not just English, people have compared the rebirth of the sun to the birth of the son of God.

It’s also interesting to reflect that the origins of many “traditional” Western Christmas decorations such as the Yule Log, Tree and Wreath can trace back to pre-Christian times.

Familiar decorations of green, red and white cast back to the Wiccan traditions and the Druids. The old Pagan Mid-Winter Festival of Yule also included feasting and gift giving, doesn’t it all sound very familiar?!?!

When I was younger we always did the usual Christmas decoration stuff, including a highly non-authentic artificial tree! My late father did little to dress the tree, but had his own take on the whole decoration thing that he insisted on doing himself; every year he would garland the house with boughs of green holly and evergreen, it was only then that I truly used to feel that things were being done properly. I suspect that my Celtic blood has a lot to do with this and I still carry on that tradition today in Dookes H.Q., I adore the house smelling of pine and other evergreens! image

Many Pagan religions had a tradition where it was customary to place holly leaves and branches in and around dwellings during winter. It was believed that the good spirits who inhabited forests could come into their homes and use the holly as shelter against the cold; whilst at the same time malevolent forces and spells would be repelled.

Mrs Dookes enters into the spirit of the season with her splendid handmade evergreen wreaths. This reflects another Celtic tradition, the wreath’s circle has no beginning or end and the evergreen represents life in the depths of winter.

Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, The Solstice, Dongzhi, Yalda, Saturnalia, Malkh, any other festival that I may have missed, or just looking forward to having a restful holiday, have a truly wonderful time and maybe spare a thought, or penny, for those less fortunate.

Thanks for joining me for the ride this year, it’s been a ball and I hope you will saddle up with Harls, Hettie and I in 2020 for more two-wheeled adventure and opinion!

“Praise be to the distant sister sun,
joyful as the silver planets run.
Ring out, ring solstice bells.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

With grateful thanks to Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull for sharing the Solstice over many decades!

Time Passing

“Time is but the space between our memories; as soon as we cease to perceive this space, time has disappeared.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

I rather like this quote

It’s a funny thing is time.

In some ways we view it as an abstract, then in other moments it’s the source of stress and pressure.

One thing is for certain, for all of us it is passing by and then one day, on a very personal level it runs out!

Time is the very embodiment of our being and the one central indelible cog of the universe, the fourth dimension.

Time is, as Albert Einstein observed, relative.

When we are young it seems to be infinite; a day, a week a summer holiday…all can seemingly last forever.

Then as we age, time takes on a different face, it becomes urgent; “Time Flies” is the saying and suddenly those same days and weeks are stolen from us like ice melting on a hot day.

We realise that time is indeed infinite, but our time is limited…

I recently enjoyed celebrating a pretty significant birthday.

Over two weekends, yes that’s right two, Mrs Dookes and I were hosted by a gin distillery, dined in one of the UK’s best restaurants, watched a Welsh Rugby International Game(yes we won!) and generally celebrated me getting older by greatly enjoying each other’s company!!!

All was, however, tinged with just a little sadness for loved ones who are no longer with us; their time having previously run out…In fact, whilst at the rugby match I pondered the friends I had attended that particular stadium with previously; one is dead, one paralysed from the neck down, one too ill to attend; I really did feel like the last man standing.

All is not doom and gloom though.

Life is Ok, good even, apart from the inevitable aches and pains from a lifetime of sporting and other activity!

I’m still here and just to celebrate I went out a bought myself a survivor’s present; I bought a watch, so I can keep an eye on all that precious time!

“If I could keep time in a bottle…”

Catch you soon,

Dookes

Houses of the Loire

I’m looking out of the window at the relentless rain. Sometimes our mild wet Atlantic climate gets me down, but then I allow my mind to wander back to better days.

Only a few weeks ago Mrs Dookes and I enjoyed a wonderful break in the Val de la Loire (The Loire Valley). Talk to many people about the Val de la Loire and often two themes spring to mind; wonderful Chateaux and delightful wines.

I’ll get back to the wines in another post, but for now I want to focus on the Chateaux.

The region of the Val de la Loire is located in the middle stretch of the river Loire in Central France and covers around 800 square kilometres. It is often referred to as the Garden of France due to the abundance of vineyards, orchards and fertile arable land.

The architectural heritage in the region is particularly notable, I wrote about the town of Richelieu in a previous post.

There are more than 300 châteaux, these range from simple fortified farmhouses of the 10th century to the splendour of the former country palaces of French Kings. Apparently there are a core of 42 chateaux that form a UNESCO World Heritage Site and these alone attract nearly three and a half million visitors a year!

Now regular blogonauts will probably recall that I don’t really do “visitors,” I like space and I like to be away from the crowds, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and go with the flow….like when Mrs Dookes says, “Let’s go visit a château or two.”

This was no random thing, Mrs D had carefully selected the targets, partly for their proximity and partly for their historical interest. I was happy if she was happy.

First up was Chateau du Rival near the tiny and almost inconsequential village of Lémeré not far South of Chinon.

Chateau du Rival


The castle dates from the early 1300, though over the centuries, as is often the case, it has been extended and modified.

The present owners purchased the property in the early 1990’s and have extensively renovated since. It must be a real labour of love as work on the scale that they have undertaken doesn’t come cheap!

I had mixed feelings about the place, the fabric of the buildings was fascinating, but …. and this is a big but, nearly the whole place had been turned into a cross between a somewhat bizarre art gallery and theme park. Many of the rooms had a weird mix of the sort of period interior décor that one would expect from a property of it’s history and avant garde artworks and piped music that frankly baffled me. At this point I need to confess that I don’t really understand art, I just like some nice pictures, but don’t ask me to explain them!

I thought the recreated medieval kitchen gardens within the Château walls, were fascinating, but the “Fairy Story” themed external gardens left me a tad underwhelmed; the planting could have been spectacular by itself, without the distraction of plastic objects and figures!

The productive medieval garden.


Probably the most notable thing that ever occurred at Chateau du Rival was that in 1429, during the Hundred Years War, it supplied Joan of Arc with horses.

In contrast Château d’Azay le Rideau was much more my thing.

Located bang in the middle of the town of the same name this delightful place is exactly what I feel a “proper” château should be! Built between 1518 and 1527 d’Azay le Rideau is considered one of the finest examples of early French renaissance architecture. The château is built on an island in the Indre river and surely must be one of the most picturesque in the whole of France.

Château d’Azay le Rideau

Internally the chateau still contains much of it’s historic décor and works of art, but for me the highlight was found in the attics, where the hand crafted wooden roof frame work was exposed for inspection.

Roof beam details, just awesome!

There were very informative interpretation panels explaining the techniques and detail of it’s construction. I spent ages in there, just marvelling at the skills needed to make something of not only brilliant functionality, but also to my eye, great beauty. I guess that sort of sums me up, show me a beautiful building and all I want to know about is how it was made and by who!

Life would be boring if we were all the same eh?

Catch you soon,

Dookes

The Cardinal’s Town

Mention the name “Cardinal Richelieu” to many people and probably they will immediately think of him as a villainous figure in André Dumas’ swashbuckling tales of the “Three Musketeers.” I have to admit that I was one of those folk too.

The reality is however somewhat different, so lets have a little history lesson:

He was born, Armand du Plessis in Paris in 1585, the fourth of five children. His father was a soldier and courtier to King Henry III of France who for Du Plessis’ assistance in the Wars of Religion granted the family the Bishopric of Luçon. This not only had religious significance, but also was an important source of income for the family, particularly as du Plessis senior also died in said war!

In an inspired move to protect the important income stream, young du Plessis’ mother decided that one of her sons had to become a priest and in a way Armand drew the short straw, however he embraced the academic side of his new life and enthusiastically threw himself into the role.

In 1607 du Plessis was consecrated Bishop of Luçon and set about implementing a program of church reform. His political career began when in 1614 he was asked by the clergymen of Poitou to be their representative in the Estates General, one of the advisory bodies to King Louis XIII’s of France; du Plessis began to get further noticed and soon entered the service of the King’s wife Anne of Austria.

Du Plessis then began a further upward progression.

The King nominated him as a Cardinal and in 1622 Pope Gregory XV duly approved the appointment. The new Cardinal became a prominent advisor to the King and was appointed to the Royal Council of Ministers in 1624, becoming effective Principal Minister in August of that year and the President of the Council in 1629 when he was also granted the Dukedom of Richelieu and adopted the title “Cardinal Richelieu.”

Richelieu is credited with establishing an authoritative monarchy and effectively dissolving the previous feudal control that had been enjoyed by regional nobility. He ordered all fortified castles, except those needed for national defence to be razed, as a result he became hated by many Princes, Dukes and lesser nobility by removing their strongholds that potentially could have been used against the King in times of rebellion. He did much to cement the basis of France as one cohesive and united nation, a country with with centralised power that was able to spread influence far beyond it’s own borders.

He is remembered for an authoritarian approach; he demonstrated early control of the press, built a network of internal spies and banned public assemblies for the discussion of political matters.

Is legacy was well summed up by Canadian historian John Ralston Paul who referred to Richelieu as “the father of the modern nation state, modern centralised power and modern secret service.” I like that!

So why did the Cardinal adopt the small village of Richelieu, in the South of the Val de Loire, as the seat of his Dukedom?

Well, the young du Plessis spent his youth there, it was, in fact, the village of his ancestors and now he was a Cardinal he could afford to buy the place, pretty cool for a lad that was effectively forced into the priesthood!

The Cardinal didn’t stop there, in fact he was only just getting going….

He engaged Paris architect Jacques Lemercier, who had worked for him on various project in the capital, and together they set about creating a new town from scratch.

One of the town’s gateways.

With the Kings permission they built a walled town on a grid pattern with an adjacent grand palace, the Château de Richelieu.

The whole lot was surrounded by a moat, that was not only decorative but served as an ingenious sewer system taking away the towns effluent.

Remains of the moat, still flowing.

I love that the thoughtful Cardinal had a slightly smaller Château built about three miles away for his mistress; nice one Armand!

Today the grand Château is long gone, but the small town, population 1800, remains and very interesting it is too. I love the place, but as a French friend of mine observed, it’s one of those places that you either love or can’t wait to get out of!

The main square, Place de Cardinal.

The other day Mrs Dookes and I had a very enjoyable couple of hours wandering through the town, visiting the market and discovering part of the grand château’s park.

Richelieu Park


If you are ever in the area it’s definitely worth dropping by, if only for a coffee and to wish the old Cardinal well!

Not looking bad for his age!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Cooking up Some Magic

This post is a bit of an experiment…my blog originally started to be all about my travels on a Harley Davidson; it’s sort of morphed into something more to that.

Following encouragement of various Blog friends I’m trying something a bit radical for me, Blog Cooking!

Lets see how it goes, but I warn you now if you don’t like pictures of meat cooking or even the thought of eating it…look away now!

Now where was I?

Time always seems to go so fast when I am in France, it’s probably because I enjoy myself so much here. There are moments however, when time seems to stand still and almost go backwards, regardless of where I am in the world.

Last Sunday was just one of those moments and it all revolved around a game of Rugby, or to be more precise, Rugby Union; the game played with 15 in each team.

The occasion? Wales were playing Australia in one of the group games of the World Cup.

Regular Blogonaughts may remember that I am a passionate supporter of my nation’s rugby team. I take every opportunity I can to go to home games in Cardiff and if not I watch televised games.

Just like on Sunday. I may be in France and the Welsh rugby team may be in Cardiff, but thankfully French television are providing excellent coverage of all the World Cup games. At 12:15 local time I settled in front of the screen to enjoy.

The first 40 minutes were thrilling, Wales played some excellent rugby and deservedly went into half time with a healthy 23-8 lead.

Then came the second half and time stood still. Australia edged back into the match and I began to get decidedly twitchy; at 26-25 I was more than worried! Then a wonderful penalty kick took Wales to 29-25 and solid work saw them over the line to a well earned win!

I was more than a little delighted!!!

Mrs Dookes is well used to seeing my emotional rollercoaster in action when it comes to my beloved Wales rugby team. She deserved a treat and so I headed off to the kitchen, time to cook!

After boeuf bourguignon one of my favourite French dishes is Magret de Canard, seared duck breast.

When I was younger, the only cooked duck I ever seemed to come across in the U.K. was a wretched thing called “Duck à la Orange.” It was generally half a rather thin and pathetic bird cooked to death and smothered with a sticky marmalade like incredibly sweet orange sauce. We didn’t know much better, but even then I thought that there had to be nicer ways of serving duck than this.

Then I discovered my old mate Floyd who introduced me to French cuisine, life and food was never going to be the same again.

So let’s start with basics, this is a dead easy dish to make. You can find all sorts of recipes for it, but take it from me, simple is best!

First up you’ll need the following:

Shallots, I like échalion, the long ones.
Garlic, get the plumpest freshest you can find, not the dried sad stuff in the supermarket, or better still grow your own!

The best garlic available!


Carrots.
A sprig of fresh Rosemary.
A couple of Bay leaves.
Red Wine, I used a Côtes du Marmandais, tasty but not overpowering.
Sea Salt and crushed black pepper.

Oh yes and a duck breast! – This is obviously important as it’s the whole point of the dish, don’t skimp get the best you can. Here in France you can get lovely plump ones, with a nice layer of fat under the skin, that are big enough to feed two, the one I used weighed 450grammes.

So lets go.

First up, skin and roughly chop the shallots and garlic, I give the garlic a bit of a bash just to lightly crush it and release all those lovely juices. Scrape the carrots and cut into batons about 5cm long.

Turn the oven on and pre-heat to 100ºC

Heat some olive oil in a solid frying pan, rub salt and pepper into the duck breast and when the pan is good and hot, but not smoking, place the meat into it skin side down. Sear the meat until the skin is a lovely golden colour and the fat is starting to melt. About 3 minutes should do it, but if you don’t like it too bloody give it another minute then turn and cook the other side.

Looking good!

Remove the duck breast from the pan, wrap in foil and pop into the oven to rest.

Throw the shallots, garlic and carrots into the same pan and cook for about ten minutes until the shallots start to glaze and take on a light golden colour; don’t have the heat too high or you will burn the garlic and make it bitter.

Now for the fun! Pour in the wine, to start with I put in about 400ml and bring up the heat. You can flame off the excess alcohol, but with the cooking it will all just about disappear anyway. Add the rosemary and bay leaves then reduce for another ten minutes, stirring occasionally to stop it catching.

Once everything has nicely cooked down it’s time for a bit of French magic…

Almost all French home kitchen has a food mill, a mouli-purée, you can use a sieve if you don’t have one, but you now have to purée the lovely deep maroon contents of your pan.

The Magic Mouli

Put your prized purée in a fresh pan and return to a gentle heat. Season to your own taste, I like a lot of pepper. At the same time I added a couple of teaspoons of Confiture de Pruneaux d’Agen, which is a rather nice French plum jam, which is not too sweet and has a nice sharpness. If I was being more fussy I would have soaked some dried prunes in wine and used those, but sometimes life is too short!

Remove the duck breast from it’s resting place, put on a cutting board and admire.

….and admire.

Then cut it into diagonal slices, keeping a nice strip of skin and fat on each slice.

Divide up between you and your dining companion of choice, give the meat a nice dressing of the wonderful rich sauce. I served it with fresh green beans and my version of a croquette potato, again all very simple.

Push out the boat and accompany with a really nice, but not too heavy, red wine along with your very favourite dining companion, in my case Mrs D!

We had a bottle of Chateau de la Grille 2015, a Chinon wine from about ten miles away from where we are staying, lovely.

Well, there you are. That’s the first time I’ve ever shared one of my recipes on line and the first cooking blog post I also ever done….I hope you enjoyed it, I’ll get back to motorbikes soon.

Oh, look out, Wales play Fiji on the 9th October; Cymru am Byth!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

The Market

I love travelling by ship, no let me correct that… I love travelling. I don’t mind what form of transport it is, I was born a travelling man.

There is, however, just one problem with the overnight ferry from Plymouth to
Roscoff; it’s too quick. It always seems that by the time you get to sleep in your cabin, it’s time to get up and get up you will, to the early morning clarion call of traditional Breton music on the ship’s P.A. system! Now please don’t misunderstand me, I have the greatest respect for traditional music the world over, but to use it as a dawn chorus is almost a breach of basic human rights as viewed by the European Supreme Court!

Good Morning…at least it will be once the sun come up!


Anyway, we rolled off the ferry into a glorious September morning; at least it was going to be once the sun rose. I pointed the car South East and hit the road for breakfast with our friend Vivienne in Josselin, right in the heart of Brittany.

We pulled into the square facing the town hall and bagged the last parking space just before eight o’clock. Today is market day and the small town vibrantly comes alive as traders erect their stalls.

We hurried to Vivienne’s beautiful town house, just off the main street and delight at the table creaking with lovely things for breakfast. The smell of strong coffee hits me; my eyes are dry and gritty from the early morning drive, I need a shot of caffeine!

Vivienne fusses around the table, offering home made yogurt, and the Breton speciality, freshly cooked crêpes, thin pancakes that we are free to smother in honey or home made preserves. They always look deceptively nothing, yet satisfy even the keenest appetite.

“Pas de moto, aujourd’hui?” Vivienne teases. She knows that I am holiday with Mrs Dookes and motorbikes are not on the agenda! She is one of those special French ladies who even at just after eight in the morning looks a Million Euros, she must be well into her 50’s, but I’ve never had the nerve to enquire!

We laugh at my “Pas de Moto” situation and drink more coffee.

The church clock strikes and V looks up with surprise, time has moved fast.
“Alors, le marché! Allez vite ou le meilleur sera parti!” – “The market! Go quickly or the best will be gone!”

We laugh, but she is right the early bird not only catches the worm, but in France also the best produce from the market stalls.

Mrs Dookes and I take our leave and step out once again into the fresh autumn air. The market is only just getting going and many stalls are still in the build-up phase, but already the smell of cooking chicken and bacon fills the ancient streets.

There is a fish stall selling the catch from just two boats out of L’Orient, the trestle table creaking with prawns and mussels. Another catches my eye with fresh oysters, graded by size and quality; Mrs Dookes heads me off, there’ll be no oysters for me today, I ate a bad one some years back and I’m now permanently prohibited from eating them again…such a shame, I love them so much!!!

A simple trestle table holds, for me, the highlight of the market, local salad vegetables; frisée lettuce, calabrese, globe artichokes and carrots all still vibrantly fresh from the field. I can’t resist and head over.

Mrs Dookes appears with a tresse of smoked garlic, ail fumé, plus assorted onions and shallots. Now I’m off to grab some local saucisson sèche, dry sausage, we are going to eat well tonight!

It’s hard work this market shopping, time to stop, take a breather and relax in true French style; a beer for me and a Kir for Mrs D, we are, after all on holiday!

I sit at our street café table and take in the atmosphere; I love this way of life and this country.

Vive la France, vive la marché!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Rest, Preparation and Cooking

I feel that my recent posts have been more than a little spasmodic and a bit disjointed. My posts of my latest trip sort of ended mid travels and I haven’t got going since…there is a reason for this and as I assured folks previously, it isn’t because I fell of a motorbike!

Harls on the coast in Brittany, near the end of our trip to the Pyrenees in June.


No, it’s much more mundane, yet even more stressful, we have been moving house!

The legal process was well underway when I went off on my travels, but I hope that you’ll understand, my mind was a time caught up in the whole nonsense that moving house entails.

Now, some three months later, the dust is finally settling and life is returning to a degree of normality. I still can’t find things in the kitchen and my new workshop resembles a cross between a rummage sale and a direct hit from a medium sized bomb, other than that, life is normal!

It must be, Mrs Dookes is now mentioning the “D” word, “Decorating” and I can foresee what the coming autumn months will entail!

So why the move from our lovely 300 year old house with two acres of garden to something more modern and compact? I think I just answered the question.

300 year old historic buildings are great, but they also take up a great deal of time (and money) to maintain and two acres of garden of which a lot was wooded are, I find as I advance in years, bloody hard work too! So we’ve downsized a little bit and yes, apart from the imminent decorating; removing a fireplace, installing a new wood burning stove, installing a new kitchen, building bedroom wardrobes, re-roofing a garage, repairing a log cabin and finally sorting my workshop…we should be able to take things a bit easier!

To prepare for the imminent onslaught of such delights, Mrs Dookes and I have slipped away to France for a couple of week’s relaxation and self-indulgence of a gastronomic nature.

No two-wheeled vehicles are involved this time, I get away with a lot as it is, no need to push the envelope too much!

Mrs D has found a lovely and well equipped gîte for us in the middle of a forest in the Touraine National Park. It’s about as far away from civilisation as you can get, our only neighbours are the wild animals and trees.

Over the coming days we don’t intend to do much; other than to watch the Rugby World Cup, which started well for Wales today, cook, walk and relax….I may also do the odd blog post!

Cooking wise, I delight in preparing traditional French dishes in France, using fresh local ingredients. It’s one of my great passions and something that I caught from my late lamented mate Floyd. His mantra of avoiding the complex over-thought stuff and sticking to traditional recipes and methods has stood me well over the years. My two favourite cookery books are one of Floyd’s own and a very well thumbed French one, both of which I have with me and if you’ll excuse me I’m now off to the kitchen!

Boeuf Bourguignon with a damn fine St Emilion!


Catch you soon.

Dookes