Sunday, October 19, 2014

Shut The Bloody Door ...

So first of all, prepare your salad. Get some of the tender leaves from the heart of a feuille de chêne or a rougette, tear them into bite-sized pieces (for I personally cannot abide, and it is considered the height of rudeness - if not actually a capital crime - over here in Ole Yurrup, to cut your salad on the plate, and I have seen people perform marvels of origami folding an entire lettuce leaf into a neatish package that will fit into their mouth) and put them on a plate.

On top of those, a handful of the very last of the small sweet tomatoes that you won't be seeing again for six months, cut into quarters, and you could usefully prepare a decent vinaigrette, with honey and cider vinegar. And as you have nothing else to do, go make some bastard béarnaise, with vast quantities of chopped chives, and fry a couple of slices of good not-watery bacon until crispy.

Whilst your halved muffin is toasting (I'm assuming I don't have to tell you in which direction you should halve a muffin, trying to fit it into the toaster if you get it wrong should be a giveaway) poach two eggs and, when done, assemble everything: the halved muffins go on the plate next to the salad (do remember to put the dressing on that) and then on each bit of bread you put a thick slice of foie gras, a bit of bacon, top that with a poached egg and pour béarnaise over the top.

Eggs Benedict, my way. A simple meal for one: goes down well with coleslaw too, but that requires rather more organisation than I'm capable of, not to mention some forward planning.

Nothing from Health & Safety this week - I guess no-one's living dangerously - just an informative and educational Household Hint from The Shamblings. It is short and simple - much like me, really - and just says "always close your office door".

You might recall that my (temporary) office is located on the ground floor of what we now call home, in what will at some point become the dining room, also that due to the hopefully imminent destruction of the first floor, my bathroom is on the second floor and I am kipping down on a mattress in the office. So far, so good.

However, I have a rubbish bin in my office, in which can be found the usual detritus of a middle-aged smoker: empty envelopes, cigar packets, and used tissues. There would be no point putting unused tissues in there, and it would be a waste of money. And effort. Be that as it may, for reasons as yet unclear and possibly destined never to be known, Shaun has A Thing about used tissues. So when I went out - for five minutes, no more, I swear - leaving the office/dining room door open, the carpet was covered with shredded paper and he was frothing at the mouth. Not a pretty sight, and I don't know about you but personally I don't appreciate picking up papier-maché with extra snot.

So, when out of the office, close the door. Rule number 1. Also, when in the office, close the door. A simple precaution which I neglected, the other night. There are few things, in my experience, more horrific than half-opening a bleary eye in the morning and finding your entire field of vision - such as it is - filled with a dog's nose and a broad slobbery pink tongue, which is headed for your mouth. And that's just Shaun. Indra has already curled up on my feet, which is probably why I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable.

And another hint: French "customer service" has not really improved - or what improvements there have been in the past thirty years are a case of lipstick onna pig. The other day, being at the market, I thought I'd get some bread from one of the best boulangeries in Carcassonne: at least, I assumed it was one of the best because every time I go past there are long lines of people snaking out the doors.

Their bread is indeed excellent, but the real reason that there are queues (and who but the French would queue so patiently?) is that it takes about ten minutes to serve one person with a single baguette. Nominally there are two people serving at the counter but one apparently has to do other things at the same time and so when one discovers that there are no more linseed and pumpkin loaves on display the baker stands there scratching his balls with a cigarette drooping out of his mouth as both of them go rushing off in search of the elusive loaf, which eventually turns up on a shelf behind the ovens.

Then someone else comes in to start their shift, which means a bise all round and an in-depth discussion of how the new baby's doing ... about that point I really did think of walking out and getting bread somewhere else, but I didn't want to be thought rude. And when I eventually got it, the ciabatta was really very good.

Oh noes! We has no Internet!
It doesn't take much to please me, so as you can imagine I was really happy the other day after heading off to Narbonne and picking up a radial saw. (You know, circular saw mounted on rails ...) Given the amount of parquet flottant and skirting-boards I am going to have to cut it's worth it just for the speed (no more bending down to pick up the circular saw, slicing, putting it back down ...) and let's not bother going into the fact that it does a very neat cut. Also, it is shiny. So NOT a gadget!

Can't help myself, like the traditional dog + vomit pair I keep going back to stuff.co.nz for "news". Wherein I note that the nice young Mr. Keys who looks after you would like to authorise previously unauthorised stuff (because of REASONS, goddammit, and it never happened anyway cross fingers and hope to die) and no-fly lists and things like that, so that you will be protected and up-to-date and some people won't be able to fly on aeroplanes (or whatever the new-fangled word is) because it's not good for them and also you will become a modern democracy to rival that of your neighbours because Australia's concern for its citizen's privacy is well-documented.

A very long time ago now, I went off one evening to the cinema (note to self: must explain that for the yoof) to see "Sleeping Dogs". Anyone remember that? A bit rough around the edges, but still an entertaining film. The plot was a bit far-fetched, I must admit: these days I don't think you actually need American military advisors or political consultants, you're grown up now and doing a pretty good job all by yourselves.

Sometimes people ask me why I don't go back to NooZild. Mostly, because I kind of like it here: partly, because I think I don't know you lot anymore, and I'm not entirely sure I really want to.

Still, I suppose that if you look at France from the outside it's no prettier, or maybe I'm just having a bad hair day. Sorry about that.

So I took the hairy retards off for their afternoon trot, up into the stands of scrubby pine in the garrigues, where the air is still hot (yes Virginia, it is still getting up to 25° in the afternoon over here) and heavy with bees, and no matter where you step it's going to be onto thyme so it also smells like essence de Provence. And as we were wandering through the knee-high grass looking for a water-hole that I was sure I'd seen around there a while back, we came across some mushrooms.

As one will in such circumstances - if you're French, anyway - I phoned Jacques, my go-to guy on all matters mycological, and we spent a good ten minutes nattering as I described the beasts and he asked for further details ... yes I know, were I less of a Luddite I could probably have taken a grainy out-of-focus shot with my phone and sent it to him, and if Jacques had a phone with a screen he could have looked at it: don't go there.

"The cap" I said, "is kind of old bronze in colour, the stem is green-yellow, and the underside of the cap is spongy rather than having gills ..." So once I'd made it clear that the cap was in fact bombé like a normal mushroom Jacques confirmed my first thought: I was looking at cèpes. Not, I'm afraid, cèpes de Bordeaux which are a) delicious and b) bloody expensive (mind you, at only 20€/kg still cheaper than decent steak), but still one or other of the many varieties of boletus.

"People down your way" he said dismissively, being originally from Toulouse himself, "say that they're excellent. It's true that they're better than the alternatives ... " (although there I think he's being a bit harsh, for there are truffles to be found to the west, and excellent cèpes in the montagne Noire, off to the north). Even if the things are not a gustatorial delight they are at least comestible: maybe I shall go back without dogs but with a plastic bag and my Opinel and as Jacques suggested I shall cut into one, and smell it. And if it smells strongly of cèpe, I shall harvest it and its little friends and arrange a meeting for them, in a frying pan, with some bacon. I have been missing mushrooms.

(That did not happen. They smelled good, they felt good, but sad to say as I was slicing them for the pan I couldn't help but notice that various worms, maggots and godnose what else had used them for high-density housing. Also, probably covered in squirrel-piss. I'm all for extra protein, but you have to draw the line somewhere. And as far as I'm concerned, things that wiggle are way over the other side of it.)

Friday moaning I dragged myself out of bed, aided and abetted by Shaun (only went and forgot Rule n° 2, didn't I?), rapidly made myself at least presentable, if not exactly human, and headed off to Montpellier to pick Margo up from the airport. I can only assume that Air France are trying to redeem themselves for her flight actually arrived on time, which is more than you can say for me because of road works. Also, access to the dropoff/pickup area is NOT clearly indicated. Never mind, we made it back home to ecstatic dogs, and thanks to those of you who helped make her stay so enjoyable.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Facteur Factor ...

What is it with dogs and posties? Why is it that our two normally placid dogs (OK, I will admit that Shaun becomes hyper when he hears the squeak of the gate up the street opening, thinking that just maybe the rottweiler he'd like to become friends with will come out and ask to play, and Indra yips whenever she startles herself, like when she discovers that she has a tail which is apparently capable of autonomous motion, and both of them are right royal pains when it's windy because it goes up their bums and the air gets into their heads - their ears blow up like rubber gloves and stick out alarmingly) will start barking like mad things when the postie calls?

I means, accountants I could understand: it's fairly well-known that their genome is not entirely human - sometime back in the day they split off from our branch of the evolutionary tree - and so I guess they secrete hormones or something that dogs can smell (and a good thing too, or otherwise they'd be walking amongst us undetected), but a postman?

As far as I can tell they're every bit as human as you and I, apart perhaps from being rather fitter due to all that going around on pushbikes

So I was chatting with old Charles the other day - he who's sold a house and 8 hectares of vines to an English couple who want to live the Mayleish dream of owning a vineyard in the south of France (or who can't afford a place in Tuscany, I guess) - and even before we could get on to the vexèd subject of the weather he said gloomily that pretty soon Moux would have to put up signs around the village saying "Twinned with Gibraltar", such is the number of English ex-pats around here.

What with the lot that's already settled here (I guess we count, the French don't seem inclined to make a distinction), these would-be vignerons, another couple who've bought a place belonging to a mate of old Charles, just up behind the post office ... the place is getting overrun.

Leafing idly through the Health & Safety advisory pamphlets that, for some reason, litter the coffee tables here at The Shamblings, I came upon one that seemed particularly apposite at this time of year (at least, over here, where we live right-side up): n° 247, "Triage of grapes, the importance of". This is indeed important because when you are planning a flan aux raisins et crème frangipane, one of the last things you want to find in it is an Earwig Surprise. So just remember, when you're going through the vines appropriating some of the bunches that got missed during the harvest, don't pick the ones too low down unless you're an amateur of dog-slobber, and check the others for signs of life.

Whatever, cooking for one is a bitch. Re-reading My Paris Kitchen the other night (David Lebovitz, shameless plug for an excellent book) I was taken with an Urge for a salade lyonnaise, and so this morning at the market I took care to pick up some frisée (explaining to the stall-holder that there was just one of me and could I have but a few leaves rather than a kilo of salad) and of course I have potatoes and lardons and eggs and bread for croutons and garlic, and this evening I went into the kitchen to put it all together.

Fried the bacon and fished it out, added oil and slowly fried a clove of garlic in that until golden and then fried the bread cubes in the garlic-infused oil, made the dressing, steamed the potatoes, poached a couple of eggs ... now I remember why I always seem to roll away from the table after a lunch at Lyon. That, and belch garlic. And I still have a fair bit of a grape flan for dessert, waily waily. Just saying, I don't always seem to get a lot of sympathy.

Then I picked up a couple of round baby courgettes as well, thinking that they'd go down rather nicely stuffed with meat and stuff: of course it seemed evident that leftover boeuf bourguignon would be good for the stuffing, which meant heading off to les Halles to get the meat for that. As the guy behind the counter said, you just can't make it with a pitiful amount of meat so I didn't escape from there without 600gm of beef nestling in the basket - which at least means I'm assured of having some actual leftovers, which was more or less the point - and then I made the mistake of going past the pork butcher's.

He does a lovely shoulder roast, and although I was sorely tempted just to get him to cut off a 1" thick chop I finished by going for the roast - of course that was 1.2 kg, which is kind of a bit much for little me in one sitting ... Still, that's probably my protein needs satisfied for the week. And let it be admitted, cold roast pork does make wonderful sandwiches.

Also, slow-roasting is wonderful. Bugger your paleo diet (which does not, incidentally, seem to have made any headway over here in Furrin Parts, in fact I can't find anyone who will even confess to having heard of it), what's wrong with a rolled shoulder of pork browned all over, slathered with white wine and then roasted under tinfoil for three hours on a bed of garlic? (A word of warning though: don't salt the meat. After all that time the juices are thick and concentrated and caramelized, and to my taste at least salt is superfluous.)

And taking advantage of the fact that the oven was on I quartered some of the garden tomatoes I also managed to acquire (sadly, I don't think there'll be more for a while, maybe I'll be lucky next weekend) and stuck them in to roast liberally coated with olive oil, pepper and basil (you know, I really love baking paper - cuts down on the cleaning-up something wonderful) and of course some spuds: but with an eye on my health I put those in to cook with duck fat, which is better for you.

This is a good thing, because for some strange reason my supply of duck fat seems to be inexhaustible. I have at least four jars of the stuff in the fridge, one of the unavoidable by-products of cooking duck breasts, and no matter how much I use they all seem to be full. Maybe I should just stop eating duck breast for a year, see whether that changes things.

In other news, I have been contacted by a nice man at the Union Bank of Nigeria to let me know that my pre-paid debit card, loaded up with USD 750,000, will be mine within 72 hours of sending them my personal details and a wire transfer for $140 to cover postage & packaging. And all this thanks to the fact that I apparently inherited the sum, fulfilled a contract, or won a lottery. Great stuff, maybe I should buy Nigerian lotto tickets more often.

I did think that the last sentence was a nice touch: "Please help us to serve you better". Not something you hear every day, and it fair warms the cockles of my miserable wizened heart.

Other than heading off to the market I managed to spend a large amount of the weekend in displacement activity, avoiding doing stuff that I really do have to do. So that rather than look into the slimy details of programming the flash memory of a Texas 470M, I took the bikes we'd borrowed when Alex and Bridget were here the other month back to Peter - at least he welcomed them like long-lost friends.

Then I managed to get myself distracted again, and shifted all the clothes out of our bedroom on the first floor into temporary accommodation elsewhere - wherever I could find room, basically - and then dismantled our bed (for the Nth time, I can't for the life of me remember exactly when we bought it but it's followed us about like a bad smell ever since) and took what I could of the bits up to the top floor, in a little alcove in what will eventually become my office, in the hope that this will encourage Cédric to come back and start demolishing everything on the first floor.

I know, I know, it's sympathetic magic but the good thing about it is that sometimes it works! God only knows how many lost Papuan tribes have built airports out of grass and sticks and have had a Cessna loaded with Coke come and land there (the statistics are sometimes contradictory, but the general consensus is that the answer is a number less than one) - come to that, how many IT startups have lost a small large fortune by having a business model of "build it, and they will come"?

Rather a lot, actually, which I think proves my point - whatever that was. Oh yeah, getting builders to come back. In this day and age, maybe a phone call would be more effective. Certainly worth a try, I guess. Can always put off sacrificing the goat until after. (Good news, I suppose, as far as the goat's concerned.)

Anyway, I seem to have exhausted my excuses for not doing something useful/profitable, so maybe I should go try to wrap my head around the TI libraries, in between loading up the dishwasher and building a release version of the latest PC software.

Oh hang on! Now I have no bed upstairs I shall have to sleep on the spare bed in my office, must go get that ready! Shiny! Sparkly!

On that note I shall leave you to your own devices. Mind how you go, now.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Learning To Fly (Aint Got Wings) ...

For those of you blissfully unaware of current events, it can now be revealed that Margo is winging her way across various oceans and the odd continent, destination NooZild for three weeks. Originally she'd planned on going with Malaysian Airlines but had second thoughts after the first little incident, so finally she settled on an Air France flight from Montpellier to Paris at some ungodly hour of the moaning, then from there to somewhere unpronounceable in China, and thence to Orcland.

The timing was kind of tight, as she only had four hours to get across Paris from Orly to Roissy, but it was doable if there were no hiccups ...

Of course it all went titsup, as while she was off swanning around in Alsace the Air France pilots decided to go on strike in order to a) protect their grossly inflated salaries and b) inconvenience as many people as possible, and when I checked on the website I discovered that they couldn't tell you whether or not you were going to be able to fly until 24 hours before the flight, which is kind of short if you have to make alternative arrangements. Given that Paris is not next-door.

Stupid EBK! That is yore dirtbox!
It could have been boiled down to a little statement along the lines of  "Thank you for trying to fly Air France. If you're planning on doing so, please don't count on it for the next few weeks. We appreciate your custom." So I booked her on the TGV from Montpellier direct to Roissy the night before, just in case ...

In the meantime I had to head back up to Chambéry so I dropped the retards off at Margo's friend Mimi at Canet and puttered off in little Suzy. (Mimi has a swimming pool outside, and the garden around it has all been gravelled. Thanks to Indra and her OCD, she is still finding gravel all through the house, sometimes in the most unexpected places.)

When Margo arrived back at the house she finally found an email from Air France (for the internet does not yet extend to the darkest reaches of Alsace) to say that her flight to Paris had indeed been cancelled (godnose what contortions we shall have to go through to get reimbursed for that) and so she was definitely going to have to take the train: of course that meant that I had to be back on the Wednesday, before 15h, to get her off to Narbonne in time to catch the TER that would (hopefully) get her through to Montpellier before her TGV left.

Managed that: sadly the TER ran late so she missed that TGV. By dint of pouting and jumping up and down on a small controlleur she persuaded them to let her on to the next TGV to Paris: that did not - of course - go through to Roissy but stopped at Gare de Lyon, which meant hopping on the RER to get out to Roissy. And when she got there it was around 23:30 so the meal she'd kind of hoped to get was down the tubes ... she spent a sleepless night in the uncomfortable seats in the departure lounge, but finally boarded and as I write I guess she's on her way to China.

Sadly the Brit Food Stop Shop (or whatever) at Narbonne is closing down: it's conveniently located just across from the gare and I went in to see if I couldn't get Margo a proper sticky bun or something for sustenance on the train but the shelves were almost bare and when I indignantly protested the Scots guy who, with his Swiss wife, owns and runs the place gave me the bad news. She's having both hips replaced, which means that she won't be able to work for about a year, and rather than his working 12 hours a day six days a week all that time they decided it was perhaps about time to retire and learn to play golf.

On the bright side what stock there was left was all at half price, so I picked up the last packets of suet and some emergency supplies of golden syrup and a few bags of demerara sugar and more malt vinegar and, because I could, some decent sherry. Also something I hadn't suspected even existed: freezer bags of mushy peas. (I'd always thought that to attain this nadir of gustatory delight required personal attention from an English cook to turn each individual pea into a revolting squishy green bag, but apparently - such is the pace of technological progress - the process is automated these days.) Neville's from Barnsley and has often sung their praises, so I picked up a couple of sacks for him.

In other news, by dint of careful application of all those bushcraft skills I learnt so long ago in Scouts, I hunted down and trapped a plumber in the wild. Yes, André finally turned up on Thursday and started hooking various bits and pieces of pipe and stuff up, and on Saturday I got a text to tell me that the wooden benchtop I'd ordered from Lapeyre had in fact arrived so I went off to Carcassonne and stuck that in the boot, headed home and lugged it up the stairs.

Somewhat to my surprise André was still there so I set that up on its trestles and he set about things with a will, and didn't leave until all was done. So now we have a hot-water cylinder connected to the central-heating boiler up there (the electric cylinder will be disappearing in a few short days), the heaters are connected (as are, no doubt, the hip-bone, the thigh-bone and godnose what else) and - very important - there is a shower, a handbasin and a toilet, all three functional.

To celebrate, I immediately went off and had two showers, just for the fun of it, not because I was particularly filthy.

These little things may not seem very important to you, but as on Thursday Cédric and his little helper come and start demolishing the bathroom on the first floor, and our bedroom, it means quite a bit to me. I'm no stranger to privation, and I can live under rough conditions, taking things as they come with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart, but I do insist on having a toilet, or a reasonable approximation thereof, and a shower handy. If not, I am not a happy camper.

But now, even if I have to sleep on the spare bed in my (temporary, for the past year) office downstairs until such time as Margo returns to paint the bedroom upstairs so that I may lay the flooring in there and we can move in (for I am not going to have time to do the painting myself, have to earn money somehow and I still have my bathroom up there to tile and floor in the near future), I do not care for I will still be able to rush upstairs and have a shower when I feel like it.

Haven't had much time for photos this month: sorry about that. Things will get better, I promise. But right now it's persisting down - not in the brochures - and I think maybe I'll go have another hot shower.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Purple-Rinsed Dinosaurs Roam The Earth ...

Return of the Technically Dead Dead
I know it's kind of masochistic and just a little bit perverted, not to go so far as to say actually disgusting, but given that "Dirty Politics" and various claims and counterclaims of wholesale surveillance in NooZild have managed to make it to the front pages even over here in Ole Yurrup, not to mention a sick secret fascination with Winston Peters, I try to keep up with your imminent erection by following stuff.co.nz.

Which is where I found this photo (original attribution retained, please note), which has to be one of the most frightening I've seen in a while. Who the hell was responsible for the lighting? Reminds me of something out of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, or maybe Bad Taste. The old bastard has obviously been cryogenically preserved and wheeled out of the crypt, you can even see the dry-ice smoke in the background. And I'm guessing they used plaster of Paris as a cheaper alternative to botox. Absolutely terrifying, do NOT let your children watch politics on TV.

Also, this: "According to psychiatrists specialising in sexsomnia, a condition that has not been widely researched yet, it is a sleeping disorder close to sleepwalking that includes sexual behaviour. Those affected by sexsomnia are completely unaware of their acts, specialists say. However, the affliction is very controversial among physicians and lawyers." If you ask me, it needs more study. And a semi-literate sub-editor, for it should read "has not yet been ..." Definitely more university grants. Mostly to statisticians, so that they can work out just how to do the double-blind trials. And I think that lawyers should be paid more.

Come to that, just how do you get to be a "specialist" in this? Do you get to make it up as you go along? Does having an erection at 5am count? Or having sleepy sex? An enquiring mind would like to know. Yeah, I know, they laughed at Freud too. Just saying, they're still laughing at Freud. (A barrel, in fact - of laughs, that is - every Friday on "Interpretation of Dreams" night down at Le Vieux Pissoir in Conilhac. You really don't want to know.)

And he's dead - Freud, that is - last time I checked down in the vaults. (Reminds me, I better go down there again and check that the real Winston is still in his drawer, if not there'll be hell to pay what with the accountants, and the family paying for maintenance and everything.) Which means that the last laugh is not his.

Whatever, at this time of year you're reminded that Moux, like Arbin, is basically a wine village. The tractors rattle incessantly through the streets towing their trailers heaped with grapes and when, as one must, you head off to the cave coopérative to pick up another twenty litres or so of wine (yes, I'm off to Chambéry again on Sunday, and Bryan put in an order) the air's heavy with the sticky, slightly foul smell of fermenting grapes. Could be worse.

Anyway, I need to go: got a long drive ahead of me tomorrow and as Margo's up in Alsace I have to drop our two retards off to be tutored for a couple of days: also, there's still some parquet flottant that isn't going to lay itself. Mind how you go, now.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dorian Gray's Shaving Mirror ...

So everyone is now back working on the house, as if to make up for lost time: I've tiled the shower in our bathroom (the one in my office can wait a bit) and the terracotta/raspberry crush lino that's going on the wall arrived today - anyway, we are having to seriously think about décor.

The tiles we chose were huge Italian ones, 30 x 60 in anthracite and pale gray - and may I just say that they're a bitch to work with? OK, we'd already bought the electric saw with a diamond blade to cut them as required (and that has been well amortised already): when it came to cutting out the holes for the taps and suchlike I had planned on using the old tungsten bit and handsaw I still have lying around but soon changed my mind when it became apparent that it would take me about three days doing it that way.

Cue a trip off to Lignières to pick up a hollow diamond-tipped 8mm bit for the big Bosch drill: it did the job. Tedious, but by some miracle I managed to avoid cracking the tile I was working on - always a good thing.

Another reason I hate tiling is that it requires some thought beforehand. One thing that you can be absolutely certain of is that the surfaces you're tiling will not be square, maybe not even flat: neither height nor width will be a multiple of the tile size. So if you start off as a novice is tempted to do, starting from the bottom inside angle and working out and up, you may be sure that you are going to have some very ugly, very fiddly cuts to do.

Also, I am paranoid, and measure things about three times before actually cutting anything on the principle that I may have got it wrong first time, or forgotten 4mm for the grouting, or things have just changed anyway because of quantum, and measurement collapsing the waveform.

Luckily for me, when we had the St-Pierre Shamblings done up Jean took me aside one day and explained how to do it correctly, which involves marking a cross at the centre of the surface to be tiled: that's where the first tile goes, and you work out from there. You will have a bit of waste: never mind, the end result will look a damn sight better.

Of course I still managed to get it wrong because we had Cédric build a seat in there - well, more a ledge really, somewhere to park the shampoo bottles and put your feet up when you're shaving your legs or whatever - and I failed to take that into account so there's a strip only a few cm deep at the back but what the hell.

So anyway, there's the shower in gray and black and the wall next to it, where the handbasin will go, sitting on its slab of wood on trestles, will be mainly red/orange, so we decided that for a mirror we would like a big old one, with an ornate gilt frame with naked ladies, bunches of grapes and cherubs everywhere if possible. Which means op-shops, and various brocantes.

Margo went off all on her lonesome and found one at Emmaus which was not exactly what we wanted, being mahogany and actually relatively restrained, but it was suitably huge, the silvering is going on the actual mirror so it definitely looks ancient, and on top of that it was cheap. So cheap in fact that she also bought an enormous pure wool rug for the dogs to sleep on.

We unloaded all that, brought it inside and settled down to more serious business like dining, and watching Dr Who, and then went to bed ... now it's a funny thing, but you'd think that they'd have little warning signs on articles such as these, along the lines of "May contain maggots".

At least, we strongly suspect that it was in fact the mirror that was harbouring the troop of the white wriggly buggers that we found all over the floor the next morning ...

I headed off to Carcassonne, leaving Margo to deal with the invasion, and after the market headed off to a big brocante of which I know, where I found not one but two mirrors that were just what we were looking for. The guy at the desk sucked his teeth, and opined that the shop was probably, in fact, open, and might actually remain that way until midday, although from the shrug he gave he didn't seem entirely certain about that - so I went back and found the car and navigated the one-way system through Carcassonne, went in, paid, and walked out with them.

In an excess of generosity he chucked in an old blanket (actually, as it turns out, a tablecloth complete with rude cherubs) free, gratis and also for nothing as a bit of padding in the boot, and I happily went back home. I suppose I could have bought a few other bits and pieces - just to encourage his unexpected enthusiasm - but quite honestly we don't actually need, nor do we have room for, a metre-high chicken in cast-iron, nor a marble statue of some Grecian bint discovering auto-eroticism. Nor, for that matter, a C19 bronze reproduction of The Emperor Trajan With Medusa And An Erection.

In other, unrelated, news I headed off on Sunday to see if I could find Bezier aerodrome International Airport, where I was supposed to be picking up my brother. I went prepared, with a large inflatable cushion, because I'm not sure that Ryanair actually bother touching down at such places, and I was half-expecting to see him hurtling from the cargo doors at 100m altitude ... as it turns out I need not have worried, the plane landed - maybe they needed more packets of overpriced peanuts to sell to the punters - and debarkment was sufficiently quick that I didn't even have to pay for the carpark.

Where, to tell the truth, I'd only gone because a short fat stuffy little man blew a whistle at me because I'd had the temerity to park on the place reserved for buses: this may be true but they could at least have had the decency to put up signs saying "Bus Only!" and in any case on a Sunday afternoon the things are pretty few and far between.

Just to complicate matters, later that night a nephew and his partner turned up a few days earlier than expected, fearing that their hire car was marked for instant depredation in Barcelona - who knows, they could well be right. So now the dogs must sleep outside, as the living-room floor has been commandeered as impromptu sleeping quarters, and EBK is pissed because there are New People with whom he will have to put up.

My brother left - I took care that we left the house heading for Narbonne with 20 minutes to spare, because I am wary of traffic in Narbonne, and then we left a second time, 20 minutes later and with no time to spare, because on arriving at Conilhac he remembered that he'd forgotten to pack the dead rat for his laptop. Luckily, although they had closed the TGV doors they were not actually in lock-down so he managed to hop aboard, about two minutes before the thing pulled out of the station.

A snail tree (immature)
It may not even have been the right train, I could care more.

Then we decided to take nephew and partner (N & P?) out to show them what a traditional French lunch is (although you no longer get a litre of really cheap rotgut plonk per person slapped on the table these days, I blame the government myself) and so we headed off to Le Cers at Conilhac. The midday menu goes for 11.50€, can't complain, we were out on the terrace under the sun and although I was wise enough just to go for a salad everyone else opted for the menu and none of them managed to finish it off. Kinda copious.

Of course they get the odd tourist passing through and so the chef speaks English - although oddly enough the waitress didn't - but this still brings me back to a pet peeve which is why, oh why, do people trust the translation of their menus to Google Translate? It's the easy option, I admit, but quite frankly when cuisses de grenouille flambées au cognac turns out as legs of frog (with outbreaks of cognac) I really have to wonder what the value-added proposition is here. Maybe I'm just being picky.

Seriously, how in hell does a flambé turn into an outbreak? Metaphorically, I suppose, if you're talking about genital herpes, that could happen ... I will not go there.

Anyway, I had to head off to Chambéry on Thursday - which goes some way to explaining the hiatus, sorry about that - and once I'd headed back down on Saturday and duly admired the 15km traffic jam in the north-bound direction at the péage at Montpellier Sud and arrived home, it became pretty obvious that work was going ahead and that Things Needed to be Done.

So Margo got into full-on Painting Mode (and let me just say that the little Bosch spray painter really is rather good, at least for putting on the undercoat) and I managed to finish the tiling in our bathroom, did the grouting (gods, I hate that!), stuck silicone around top and bottom, got the lino up on the wall, hung the mirror, cut out the sisal matting and got that down on the floor ... once André gets arse into gear and puts up the glass partition, hooks up the shower and (very important, that) installs the toilet, it will be usable.

Which would be rather convenient, given that they'd like to attack the first floor now - which will involve destroying the bathroom there - and now that they have their élan it would be a pity to slow things down, especially as we can begin to discern some progress. So even if the top floor is not, technically speaking, ready for habitation - missing a few of those optional extras like paint, and flooring - I guess we might just be moving up there next week.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

More Golden Weather ...

The weather may be is foul up in Savoie, to the point where friends up there are already thinking of turning on the central heating and in some cases have gotten to the point of lighting a fire in the evenings, but down in more southerly Furrin Parts we're still enjoying warm, sunny weather - fingers crossed, of course. Still, autumn's on its way: we can tell this from the road signs that have gone up around Conilhac warning passing drivers to be wary - "Attention! Vendanges!".

I hadn't realised just what a sweet tooth our dogs seem to have - it's bad enough their scarfing up road-kill figs from the tarmac, but going past the blackberries they hoover up as many as they can, tugging hard to get over to the masses of brambles, and should ever you go through the vines, with all those low-hanging bunches of grapes ripe and hot under the sun ... maybe it's time to make a grape flan. Nicking a few bunches from somewhat higher up, as a nod to hygiene. It has been brought to my attention that some people prefer their desserts without dog slobber.

From time to time I get email from the Chambre de Commerce back in Chambéry (they don't seem to have noticed that I've gone - fair enough, I never told them, but then I never told them I'd arrived either) which is usually harmless enough, like dead yeast in beer, and truth to tell I usually just delete them because they're almost always asking for money. For some reason I clicked on this one: just occasionally they like to go through the motions and show that they really are trying to help entrepreneurs, and here they were advertising a little morning session for start-ups.

I mean, I can see the point - in France entrepreneurs tend to be harried, furtive pallid people (comes of not seeing the sun enough) who slink around the edges of rooms hoping not to be noticed (for it is a shameful thing to be, and on top of it everyone else believes that you have illegally or immorally accumulated vast wealth to which you have no right, and they - especially the administration - will try to relieve you of it) and who knows: a morning with like-minded individuals, maybe a chance to do some networking, at the least get a decent coffee.

Unfortunately the programme reserves only about half an hour for this potentially useful activity, most of the morning being taken up by a presentation entitled "An entrepreneur is NOT a super-hero" (who'd have thought it?) by some guy who is noted as being "spécialiste de l'entrepreneuriat", and another by a fellow who is apparently a "specialist in Mindfulness" and also a business consultant in "accompaniment in change". Only after you've been overcome by the fumes from the joss-sticks and stunned by the whale-song do you get thirty minutes for "un slow meeting" (yeah, that is apparently French) with everyone else.

I mean, "entrepreneuriat"? What the hell is that? Come to that, how do you get to be a specialist in it? Go bankrupt several times, maybe.

Our estimable maire, M. Mazet, appears to have picked up an old copy of How To Win Friends And Influence People, but sadly his grasp of English is - shall we say, tenuous - and he has got it all arse-backwards. Mind you, that's a normal state of affairs for him. Whatever, we have been informed by a highly-placed mole (one of the Sources family) that he has asked the conseil municipal to authorise him to call in the gendarmerie to police the "situation de parking anarchique" in place St-Régis. Good luck to him with that one.

For godssake, either they ban parking in the square, they paint neat little parking lines, or people continue to park as they have since the invention of the mule ie where they can without bothering anyone else.

Coverage of NooZild politics is a bit spotty over here, but I have been able to discover that everyone's favourite right-wing sickness beneficiary and bloviator Fish Blubber is sad, for reasons which escape me but apparently involve a Minister of the Crown, a prostitute, and unmarked envelopes of cash completely unrelated to anything else, they just keep turning up. Just goes to show that you can make money from writing. (These people used email for "confidential" exchanges? Oh dearie me.)

Also, that nice Prime Minister of yours (I would say "ours", but I'm picky about what I walk in and in any case haven't been able to vote anywhere in the world for the past 20-something years) is not a happy person either, whereas that senile old git from Tauranga is extremely happy indeed because everyone's paying attention to him. For five minutes, at least. And Mr Cunlipps, of the Worker's Party, is happyish too because he has a chance to say "Hey, look at that! That totally wasn't our fault! Is that a unicorn?"

Like I said, I'm not entirely sure that the whole story gets correctly reported over here in Ole Yurrup and in any case my grasp on reality can be tenuous at the best of times, so do feel free to correct me if I've got anything dramatically - or libellously - wrong.

Be that as it may, with our usual selfless dedication to duty (also, there was no food in the house and I couldn't be arsed cooking what there was) we forced ourselves off the other night to l'Auberge Coté Jardin, just up the road in Conilhac, as part of our continuing mission to discover just where around these here parts you may, and should not, eat. (Re-reading it, that was perhaps not entirely clear. I am not trying to say that you should not eat at places where you may eat, nor the inverse: just that there are some places where you may eat, with a more than reasonable chance of satisfaction, and others where you should not eat, unless your tastes happen to run that way.)

The Samsung software is crap but provided I don't try to edit things with any luck words don't disappear into thin air, so whilst around us happy German bikers were taking photos of their meals I was writing up my tasting notes. Not that I have anything against taking photos of my food, just that I won't use a phone to do it because the quality is always invariably crap (it's not the number of pixels, it's the bloody optics for god's sake) and hauling out an SLR at the table is kind of obtrusive. Also, the strap always seems to land in the sauce.

Anyway, for those of you that may make your way over here and get bored with my cooking, Coté Jardin is but a five-minute drive from here and the ambiance is, let's face it, rather nice. Even if the armchairs are designed more for slumping in than eating. So after a quick discussion as to whether or not there was room we were parked at a table overlooking the terrace and menus were dished out and we ordered, and a helpful young woman brought us a little amuse-geuele, in the form of some rillettes de sardine.

Nicely arranged in an oval in a pristine dish with a sprig of chives, but let's face it, they're sardines mashed with butter and could have done with a bit of lemon juice, in my opinion. Also, a bit of decent bread to smear them on would not have gone amiss.

Margo just wanted the main course (and, of course, dessert): I am made of sterner stuff and so, dear readers, just for you I went for the menu. Which, as I didn't want slugs that evening, started out with a tarte fine aux sots les laissent, which turned out to be a chicken pizza with lettuce on top. Don't get me wrong here, let me deconstruct. The sots les laissent (lit. "idiots leave them") refer to those delectable little nuggets that everyone fights over on the roast, on the backbone just at the thigh joint - you don't fight over those? Hell, around here wars have been started for less.

In any case, I have no problems whatsoever with a crispy pastry base, nor with tomatoes reduced with a hint of balsamic vinegar to a chunky state, and even less with pan-fried nuggets. But like that, in a thick wodge - and with artistically torn roquette on top ... could've been great, was bleah. Sorry, no other word for it. And a royal pain in the arse to eat, politely. On the other hand, the extremely healthy ('cos of being full of seeds, and stuff) bread rolls on the side, fresh out of the oven, were excellent.

Once that had gone down we went on to more serious stuff, and I have to say that the dos de cabillaud with reduced fish stock and a sauce involving aubergines and cream, smoky-sweet, was excellent. But calling it "en croute" was, in my opinion, going a bit far: generally speaking that should be crispy, not a soggy mass of fine breadcrumbs and butter. Just saying.

A mi-cuit au chocolat for me and a deconstructed lemon-meringue tart (that's what it said on the menu, don't blame me) for madame rounded off the evening pleasantly enough, and we rolled out into the evening only 75€ lighter in the pocket, including a very generous glass of excellent wine. (At least we're in the right place for that.)

General conclusion? Not bad, but should be better. The chef is young - well, in his thirties, which counts as "young" for me these days - and I'd have liked to have been excited, or inspired, or challenged, or something. As it is, you're probably better off going to le Comte Roger at Carcassonne or (only they're not open in the evening) the resto routier just down the road, for good simple food and a half-litre of wine per person for 11€. Your choice.

And just to end the week in la joie et la bonne humeur, as they say, old Hélène invited us to her annual al fresco dinner, on a little piece of land she owns close to Ferrals. A couple of hectares on the slopes of a colline, planted with olives and cypresses under the pinède at the summit, facing due west out over the valley, and the warm golden light as the sun goes down is just magnificent. We ate - and drank - abundantly, and I could quite happily have gone to sleep there with the smell of herbs in the dry air, but I do like my bed.

The very next day - not too early, luckily - Charles turned up on the doorstep. Having also been on the receiving end of a missive from M. le maire, on the occasion of that little impromptu street party that occasioned such distress, he has taken to us as kindred spirits and oppressed underdogs, and as he just happened to have the boot of his car full of bio muscat grapes (for he, like so many around here, is a vigneron - and if you're looking to buy an 8 ha vineyard and a house in the village, I can give you his phone number) he thought we might like some. Definitely be a grape flan for dessert sometime soon.

Whatever, I'd better go and start tiling a shower. A messy business, I find - perhaps because I'm particularly maladroit when it comes to sticking the cement on the wall - but it needs doing if we're to move up there.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Nun's Tale ...

So I was sitting happily at my old desk up in Chambéry playing Freecell trying to work out why my RS-485 ports should not be working, when who should tap at the door but the weedy red-headed delivery guy? We greeted one another as long-lost friends, he offered me a coffee from the least disgusting of the vending machines, and talk turned - as it will and in fact invariably does - to cooking.

Somehow, it turned from the delights of cassoulet onto la cuisine moleculaire, and once we'd decided that a) you can't find a decent restaurant around Chambéry and b) all those with pretensions are, at best, merely competent, he went on to regale me with the tale of how once he went off to a restaurant managed by a friend of a friend up in the mountains above Grenoble for a twelve-course meal.

He was positively salivating as he described the sensation of eating the little billes of crystallised foie gras surrounding a heart of liquid foie gras - the crunch of biting down onto the hard shell and then the explosion of taste on the tongue - but he was only warming up for the trou normand, a variety of different lemon-flavoured mousses, essences and gels that came to the table set out as a platter of drug paraphernalia.

Oddly enough I mentioned this to Jeremy the next day, when he consented to have lunch with me, and he told me that he knew of the place: in fact, one of his friends from lycèe had worked there. Maybe I should try to get the name.

Our friend Mad Karen and her present husband Philippe have abandoned Mumblefuck and gone to live in a convent in Seyssel. I hasten to point out that the convent in question is not a going concern, for it would be unusual to have such a place accept Philippe even as a novice (or Mad Karen, come to that): rather, due to an absence of nuns it became surplus to the requirements of the Church, and they bought it. At long last, after a long and tortuous series of meetings and dealings with sordid bottom-feeding bankers, with the details of which I shall not bore you.

Seyssel is actually quite a nice little town on the old road through to Bellegarde and Nantua (you will recall that sauce Nantua, or any garnish with it in the name, refers to the fresh-water crayfish that have since disappeared, victims of over-fishing and pollution) built on both banks of the Rhône. As that used to be the frontier between France and Savoie, it thus has the particularity that the eastern part of the town is in Haute-Savoie, and the western part in the Ain (which is properly French, although the local accent is particularly impenetrable no matter what side of the river you find yourself on).

Anyway, the river runs through it and at one point back in the 1600s the Bernardine Order bought - or were given - some rich guy's place, latched onto most of the surrounding block of houses, and set up a convent. Which, due as I said to a lack of nuns, not to mention the Revolution, fell into desuetude ... whatever, Mad Karen and Philippe bought it.

Not the whole thing of course, that would have been prohibitively expensive, but they are now the proud owners of about 1000 m² on four levels, plus dépendances and maybe 800 m² of garden in the interior courtyard.

The courtyard had of course been left to its own devices over many years but after a bit of dedicated hacking and selective napalming you can see that the wood cyclamens are still there under the trees. I guess the main problem now is going to be getting rid of a couple of cubic metres of wood, given that there's no easy access, and certainly no way to get a rubbish skip in there: maybe they'll just have to befriend someone with a wood-chipper.

Preferably one that doesn't mind a bit of extra splatter when (sh)he's operating the machine, for Floyd The Psychopathic Terrier is unfortunately indiscriminate concerning the placement of bodily wastes. "I wouldn't step there ... " said Karen as I made my way about the cloisters, "oh, too late. Never mind, it'll probably wash out."

Rather to my surprise there's actually about 250 m² inside that are in fact habitable, even if the prior owner's taste in bathroom tiles was more than questionable. And the kitchen definitely needs a bit of work - like plumbing, for one thing - but it has a beautiful wooden floor. Although I can see it going down like a lead balloon with Health & Safety, maybe she should not look at doing table d'hôte.

Have I ever mentioned, by the way, that she's Italian? God, do they eat. When I turned up, about two, no way was I going to be allowed to escape without having a wodge of frittata, bread and cheese at the very least, and of course that needed to be washed down with wine.

Then there were mutual friends turning up for dinner, so around 6 I was banished to the kitchen to start a brace of chickens off slow-roasting (incidentally, one of the better ways of cooking the beast) with cherry tomatoes ... a good thing that Joc and Hervé brought dessert.

So their house is a big project - rather too much for us I'm afraid - but should ever it get finished it will be quite wonderful. And we will know people who actually live in a chateau, of sorts. Should ever they run short of cash I suppose they could always hock off a couple of the marvelous stone fireplaces, godnose they've enough to spare.

I headed back down home on Sunday with an unfortunately smug smile on my face once I'd got past Valence, which came from admiring the three blocked northward lanes for about 100 km. Then I got onto the A9 just before Orange, and my heart was still light for all was going swimmingly ... until I got to Montpellier.

Rather usefully, in these here parts the big overhead signs show an estimated trip time to the next few destinations, and as I got closer to the péage after Montpellier-Ouest I couldn't help but notice that they were advertising 2h30 to get to Narbonne: this is not good. Throwing caution to the winds and demonstrating, once again, the inevitable and tragic triumph of hope over experience, I got off whilst there was still time and headed onto the départementales towards Pézenas and Beziers - reasoning that it could hardly be worse.

Of course I was wrong. It's about 65 km to Beziers, all on narrow roads where there's sod-all chance of overtaking - of course man + dog had all had the same brilliant idea as I, and on top of it I had the good luck to wind up behind a white van man who hadn't read the manual, for his feeling seemed to be that 60 kph had been good enough for Jesus (I'm not sure in which of the Apocrypha this obscure factoid is mentioned, but what the hell), and it was certainly good enough for him.

I toyed with the idea of forcing him off onto the shoulder and eating his liver raw, but it came to me that if I did so I would be held up for another fifteen minutes and that sometimes one just has to ignore the siren call of instant gratification, and luckily a passing lane appeared at that point ... then I arrived at Montagnac. I guess that the traversée of the place is only about 2 km, but the mayor has apparently put his idiot nephew in charge of running the traffic lights - of which there are three, don't ask me why, I didn't do it - and it seems to be done with bits of string and, when all else fails, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

It only took about half an hour to get through there, and then I got to Pézenas which was mildly better, and a bit after that I ran out of road signs and everything conspired to push me onto the A75, which was at least heading roughly in the way I wanted to go ... and that was fine, and I got back onto the A9 which was all clear (probably because everyone had, like me, got off and were still desperately roaming the countryside, lost and destined to be eaten by the autochthones) and at Narbonne I got onto the A61 knowing full well that Lézignan is the first exit ...

My last chance to get off having disappeared, of course I came across another of those handy overhead signs that was advertising a ralentissement and about two hours to get to Carcassonne: one of those days when you really shouldn't have bothered getting out of bed.

I finally made it home by 21:00, only seven hours after I'd set out: still, the dogs were glad to see me.