Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mainly food ... a morning at the market

Well, I finally made it down to the paddock on Sunday afternoon, ignoring the strict prohibitions on the use of noisy semi-agricultural implements (hey, if it's good enough for the bloody vignerons to wake us up at 6 on a weekday as their tractors scatter powdered sulphur - for mildew, you understand - all over the vines, why can't I wake them up from their post-prandial nap on a Sunday afternoon?), and to my surprise the lawnmower started up first pull, despite having spent its winter wrapped in a tarpaulin under the tilleul. We'll not speak of the damp red haze, which didn't last too long anyway, as I rather briefly woke up a couple of squirrels who'd decided to nest under it - that'll teach them to ignore warning signs. Learn to read, little woodland folk.

Only joking. That was last spring. This year they do actually seem to have learned that hibernating in a small, low room where the ceiling fan goes round at 2000 rpm is not really a good idea if you're planning on seeing a lot of summer. Anyway, after three hours down there I finally managed to bludgeon everything into submission: it really was getting rather long. From now on it's every bloody weekend, at least until the height of summer. And even then I bet the stuff'll sneakily grow on me every time my back is turned.

Whatever, we've had a week of wonderful weather - it's even almost warm outside at nights now - and I'm wondering when it'll all go titsup. Probably on Saturday, just after I leave for the market in a T-shirt, it'll turn to snow. Or something.

And I've finally bumped into a badger: much to our mutual surprise, no doubt. Headed down past the cemetery tonight for a last cigar, then back up again, and at the top, just as I got round the corner, there was this clicky scuffling noise and a spastic bag of furry shit on big hairy legs came hurtling around the corner headed straight at me. Luckily - or not - it saw me, and did this amazing (for such an ungainly creature) barrel roll/somersault, turned round the way it'd came and disappeared into the night. Never have a camera on you when you need one - not that it'd have done me much good.

Usual trip off to the market today, and as it was so fine I thought I might as well get some photos done - if only to be able to supply documentary evidence of the existence of these old hags with their evil killing machines. Don't let their looks fool you: under those white locks ticks the well-oiled brain of a sociopathic Moriarty, and the wizened, feeble fingers cleverly short-changing the stall-keeper are quite capable of pointing an Uzi and pulling the trigger. On the plus side, she doubtless quite likes cats. A white-haired Persian, probably.

I do not know who this man is, but you must admit he's a marvellous specimen. Note the flowing locks, the carelessly just-so knotted silk cravat, and the fine collection of chins. I'd personally put him down as one of the last of that sadly too-rare (and disappearing) species, the authentic French bon vivant. I didn't get a photo of him in flagrante delicto, as it were - I was getting enough odd looks as it was -  but I swear he was in fact caressing (there's no other word for it) some baby melons. Probably reminded him of something. (And no, they were not the green and warty kind. More soft, yielding and delicately perfumed - should you wish to know that.) He reminds me a bit of Peter Ustinov. On the other hand it does rather look as though he's about to be attacked by two little old ladies - rather like being worried by a dead sheep, as Denis Healey once said. (Mind you, old ladies at the market are bloody persistent worriers. Once they get their dentures in they don't let go, at least not until they've had the last triumphant, senile mumble.)

I never actually buy anything there - except once, many years ago, when I picked up a large amount of coquilles St-Jacques in the shell - but I'm always drawn to the fishmonger's. If only for the beautiful paella. Mind you, everyone else is drawn there too so getting this shot required heavy use of my elbows.

I did manage to pick up (not, fairly obviously, at the fishmonger's) some lovely asparagus. Not exactly the first of the season, but certainly the first lot I've seen that I could buy without taking out another mortgage. Lovely stiff slender glossy green shoots which are going to go down really well tonight, just boiled rapidly in a little water with a good 50gm of butter and a sugar cube and heaps of chives, with a bit of barbecued steak and maybe some sliced potatoes, cooked with olive oil and herbs en papillotte. on the grill. (Which reminds me I must go and soak the meat in a bit of Encona and some bourbon, thanks ever so for bringing it to mind.) Unfortunately Jeremy has decided he likes asparagus. Things used to be so much easier when he disliked everything except ham, pasta and chocolate-bombed breakfast cereals.

Of course, we're only an hour or so from Italy (in fact, the north of Italy used to be part of Savoie - or vice versa, depends who you're talking to) so it's not too surprising to find all the different types of pasta around. Bloody expensive mind you, and whilst I actually rather like stuff like ravioles de Royans (which are, from memory, stuffed with goat's cheese  and herbs) I'm not going to pay 14€ the kilo for them. But they do look nice.

And then, of course, you get the little apiculteurs (for such is the word for these good people) selling honey. I don't often buy it there, because I know a couple of people who do their own and who will occasionally slip me a big pot for 6€ which is, as we say, imbattable - still, just once in a while I pick up a jar of bean honey (which is outrageously good) or pine honey, which may be an acquired taste. It's not exactly ouzo, but it does have a resiny finish - bit like boot polish, really.

 One of my favourites: a good stinky goat's cheese. These particular ones are semi-dry and the red stuff isn't mould: it's a mixture of crushed pepper, dried poivron and paprika that's been pressed on to the surface before the little buggers went off to a nice airy cellar for a couple of weeks.
 Don't know quite why this guy is looking so depressed - at least he has enough to drink. And it's beautiful weather. Many vignerons seem to be depressed, must be something in the water.

Anyway, I'm off to fire up the barbecue again. Bye!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

All I ever really wanted to be was an interior decorator ...

Yes, in case you're wondering the grim looking chap over there on the left, gloomily surveying the bathroom, is in fact me. Not, perhaps, the most flattering likeness, but what the hell. I'd planned on snapping Margo and Jeremy to complete the rogue's gallery, but she sticks her tongue out and he burrows into his nest in the Pile of quilt and sheets that he calls a bed, so that idea went down the tubes quite rapidly.

Headed off to Roanne, home of les frères Troisgros, on Friday to sit around in the unlikely event that I was needed for an upgrade of an old stock-control application I did yonks back (2001, to be precise, and been running like clockwork ever since): they finally decided to change the portable terminals they use and although in theory that should have caused no problems they were willing to pay me to be around just in case ... so I did, and of course, I did indeed turn out to be strictly decorative.

All that meant leaving here at some ungodly hour in the morning, under a bright blue sky: unfortunately, once through the Tunnel de Dullin on the way to Lyon we hit fog, which lasted all bloody day until we got back to Chambéry. Gray, chilly, dismal and totally boring. Still, at least we got back early enough for me to get the barbecue out of its hole and fire it up for the first time this year: only tandoori chicken I'm afraid, but it's a start.

The weekend was supposed to be bright and sunny (great! I thought - more barbecue) and as usual they got it wrong. I suppose there was actually sun, technically speaking, but it certainly wasn't that bright on Saturday: more fog, I'm afraid. And although it was sunny enough on Sunday there was a playful little northerly breeze straight from somewhere rather chilly, so that was fine until you stepped outside. No barbecue, and I didn't make it across the stream into the paddock to give the grass its first haircut of the season either. Never mind, perhaps next weekend I'll get Jeremy to do something about it.

Of course, Jeremy's now on holiday for two weeks so on Saturday, after braving the usual horrific traffic conditions on the autoroute (bloody holiday-makers) I went off and stocked up on meat for three for the next week's meals. Naturally, I'd totally forgotten that Margo's headed off to a salon in Beaujolais on Wednesday (so that's three meals where there's too much meat) and then Jerry mentioned on Sunday that he'd planned on heading off to stay in a chalet with some friends on Monday, and come back Thursday or something. Cue gnashing of teeth, and preparation of freezer bags ...

The big news from the bustling metropolis of Saint Pierre - or our little bit of it anyway, le Mas, is that they're planning on building a couple of apartment blocks in our street. All very tasteful - "Le Clos des Vignes" - and from the artist's impression on the website you could be forgiven for thinking that the street was a lot wider than in fact it is, and that on the western side it looks out over a grassy park rather than falling two or three metres to a scruffy paddock. The land's been bought - about 5000m² of what is currently an old walled orchard about 100m up the road from us - and the mairie has apparently given planning permission, so all we nimbys are getting together on Tuesday night to plot rebellion. Or, at the least, a stiffly-worded letter of complaint.

Not that we're against development per se, but a bit of consultation on a matter which does rather concern us would have been nice, and we're none of us entirely sure that the mairie has given due consideration to little points like access, and what's going to happen when there are another 40 or so cars barrelling up (and probably, in all illegality, down) our tiny road twice a day. S'bad enough with the two or three we get now, given that very few honour the 30kph limit - will no-one think of the children? On the bright side, I suppose it might oblige them to get around to replacing the rickety overhead phone lines (why didn't they put them underground a year or so back, when they laid the gas pipes? Buggered if I know) that are hung from nails on barns and any other bit of building that doesn't look likely to fall down in the next high wind ... it'd be an ill wind, as they say ... maybe we'll even get a traffic light (he said hopefully).

I doubt anything'll come of it - come to that, it's not even sure that this particular project will go ahead, as the old saying about "build the bloody apartments and people will come and buy them, even if they are really crap quality and poorly situated" is no longer as true as it used to be. But if nowt else, it'll be a good excuse for a neighbourhood pissup and general carouse until midnight.

Well, Friday's rolled around, just like it usually does at this point in the week. As predicted, Gerhardt turned up to the meeting with a crate of his fancy German beers, and of course Rémi had vast quantities of wine to hand (if not exactly on tap), so the evening meandered on until late, with everyone talking over the top of everyone else. Still, some sort of manifesto apparently got put together, and maybe I'll wake up some day soon to discover that the street has thrown off the yoke of French subjugation (yes, there really are some diehard savoisiens who think like that) and declared itself independent.

Margo made off to the Beaujolais for her salon and has heroically survived this far despite not having me around to cook for her. The dog, as usual, is missing her like anything, and shows this by wandering around even more brainlessly than usual, hoping for cuddles. For some strange reason she seems to feel that getting under your feet makes her more attractive, completely ignoring all evidence to the contrary. On the other hand her sheer moronic persistence eventually wears me down and she gets her bloody cuddle anyway, so maybe she does know what she's doing.

Jerry's Great Outdoors Experience lasted, it seems, all of one night: after tramping for an hour or so through the fresh snow to find the chalet they were supposed to be staying in they ate their entire food supply in that one evening, and so left the next day. A decision which, although I'm sure was not made lightly, was probably facilitated by the discovery that there was no heating.

He's also supposed to be headed off some time these holidays, dressed in his best, to the Chateau des Allues to see if he can't get a job there over the summer. Personally I think he'd be better off going there in person and looking as personable as possible to present his case (bi-lingual, studying cookery and the hotel trade ...) directly, rather than phoning in advance and getting the brush-off. Whatever, he'll have to make some time in his busy sleeping schedule soonish.

But it won't be this weekend, as he's off tonight to spend time with a mate: this is going to leave me alone with the dog until Sunday, when Margo gets back. Wish I'd known that before I got a largeish hunk of pork shoulder out of the freezer last night ... whatever, I can handle leftovers.

And in more recent news, I went off to Beaujolais myself. Got an SMS from Sophie to say that she was off to St François, so we'd have to put off our moveable barbecue feast until next weekend, then Margo rang to say that she'd sold all her sewing tables, and could I please bring some more up? So, being the wonderful husband that I am, I said yes, and headed off north of Lyon at an unreasonable hour (to avoid the traffic jams - yes, there are still people on the roads) this morning with our Aussie friend Sue along for the ride. (Or, as she said, "to get out of the country". Meaning, Savoie)

Luckily Sue is more organised than I (what am I on about? Was it not I who packed my poor little Alfa with five sewing tables and appropriate inserts and stuff the night before?) and had packed a thermos of decent coffee and a couple of croissants for breakfast. (Unfortunately, the boulangerie/patisserie just across from her front door doesn't do croissants aux amandes, which is a shame. They're a really great way of using up yesterday's croissants - or even better, pains au chocolat - and it goes like this: mix vast quantities of powdered almonds, butter, sugar and a bit of orange essence together with an egg yolk to make a crème frangipane. Add chocolate chips, if you like; I for one won't blame you. Then slit your croissants open, slather the inside with the frangipane, and put them in the oven for ten minutes. Absolutely divine.)

Whatever, we barrelled off up the autoroute and once leaving it at Villefranche sur Saone  I would like to point out that at no point were we actually lost. At least, I knew exactly where we were - in the car, somewhere on a departementale, probably heading more or less in the direction we wanted. And it turned out to be the case, because after a few windy (and, let it be said, very pretty) bits of road, going through domaines and chateaux and things like that, we got do Graves sur Anse which was, oddly enough, where we wanted to be.

Lenore Crawford
So we pulled into the parking (as the French call it), unloaded Margo's merchandise, and had a rather belated breakfast (yeah, coffee and croissants) under a beautiful blue sky - really does make you feel that spring is coming. The we went off to look at the exhibition, where the first thing that took my eye was this.

Incidentally, it's easy enough to tell when you get into Beaujolais. Another name for the area is "Pierres Dorées", or literally "Golden Stones", and it's true that all the old houses are built in these beautiful golden honey-coloured stones. Doubtless cold and damp in winter, but lovely in spring and summer.

Jenny Bowker
Someone - an Australian, I think -  had gone in for portraiture, with rather good results. Well, I thought so, but then what would I know? It's not as though I'm going to pay money for it.

The other thing that always catches my eye is the sumptuously-coloured fabric and embroidery threads. Don't know why, must be the magpie in me ...

I was actually extremely surprised (as was, let me say) Sue. Here you are, in some out-of-the-way little hole (and I'm being polite), stuck in a car park full of Swiss numberplates and ones from all over France (not to mention the odd Pom or two) and you have to wonder "how did they get to hear about this?". I suppose it's all Al Gore's intertubes thingy, that seems to be very popular these days, especially amongst the yoof.

Having sated ourselves with kulcha, and been presented to Margo's friends and extended family from the marvelous world of quilting (some of them were a bit apprehensive about her cooking dinner tonight, but I think I reassured them) we finally decided to leave, having waited sufficiently to be more or less certain that there'd be no more traffic jams.

Hitomi Hanaoka
We also had to make time to pick up some wine. I mean, how can you got to Beaujolais and not drink, preferably taking a few bottles back home? Luckily Sue is very understanding, so we went back and forth on teeny communales and all sorts until we got back to where we'd come from and found a vigneron that was open at midday. The 2005 stony vinyard was more than acceptable, so I grabbed a few bottles of that and took my chances on a bottle of the 98. Let you know how that turns out.

It would not be true to say that every cretin in France was on the roads that day as we headed back: I'm sure that some must have stayed at home. But just how difficult is it to put your autoroute ticket into one slot, and then your credit card into the other? And once you've worked that out, why stay there to change the kid's nappies? I mean, there are places for that. They're called "rest-rooms", and there's an abundance of them on the autoroute. You don't actually have to do it at the frikkin' péage, for gods sake.

So for the sake of my blood pressure we pulled off on the external ring-road around Lyon into Jonage-Meribel, which is actually an enormous park around one of the dead-end branches of the Rhône (or the Saône, who knows or cares). I can recommend it should ever you have the occasion to do the low-orbit tour of Lyon: Sue and I sat there peacefully munching whole-grain baguette with Italian ham and watching the swans come in to land (ungainly brutes, aren't they?) before playing "Sink The Duck (with Rocks)", which is a fun game if you happen to have a duck and some rocks.

Dianne Firth
Still, after all that, another question which weighs on my mind is why all these bloody Parisians go through the tunnels at 90 k. I mean, they are clearly signposted at 110, so why stick in the left-hand lane at 80? Yes, it's dark in there, for all I know there may be monsters, but get out of my bloody way. Parisians.

Hat: Elisabeth Michellod Dutheil

And I'll leave you with this hat ...

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tell that to the young folks today, they just won't believe you ...

I'm not quite sure why - probably because we were swapping stories about our mis-spent youth the other afternoon as we attacked the rosé in the watery sunlight of a typically grotty Easter day - but something brought to mind the glory days of the EDP department at the PNCC. I think it started when Karen brought out a tray of sausage rolls, one of those sort of iconic Kiwi finger foods which, in some Proustian fit, made me think of the trays of buttered sliced white bread, boiled saveloys and buckets of tomato-coloured gunk that awaited us every Friday evening in the upstairs lounge bar of the old Commercial Hotel just across from the PNCC building on the Square, where Maggie the barmaid presided with alarming efficiency and an uncanny ability to know who was going to be coming through the door next, and get their favourite tipple ready and waiting for them on the bar. Quite frankly, I think she'd have been mortally insulted if one of the regulars ever felt the need to actually ask for their drink.

Or it might have been when we were talking about how so many people seem to eat out rather than cook in (Sylvia was complaining about how it's impossible to find an apartment with a kitchen in New York, because no-one actually cooks) which brought back the memories of times with no kids and two disposable incomes, when The Stable and The Homestead were rather like second homes (only they had better furniture than us), and when we'd perfected the art of the four-hour Friday lunch. (We'd planned on starting a tradition, but unfortunately a mild word from the Town Clerk to the effect that he'd quite appreciate seeing some of the EDP staff in the office during working hours rather put a stop to that. A shame, as we were rather good at it, and the restaurants certainly appreciated our custom. To the point where we didn't even need to reserve a table, really. Ah well.)

As you may have guessed, we spent Easter day at Mumblefuck with Karen, her mother Sylvia,  her partner Philippe and our peripatetic emigré friend (and now naturalised Frog-person) Brian Lovell. We did, I feel, do full justice to two 2kg legs of lamb, a pavlova and a mille-feuille aux trois fromages - not to mention the five bottles of wine. But three of those were rosé, and so don't really count. (Actually, I was quite pleased with the mille-feuille. I had some batusson, some phyllo, and Karen  - like any self-respecting Italian - had some mozzarella and some parmesan hanging around, so I just stacked some sheets of buttered phyllo up with paprika and gros sel and herbes de Provence sprinkled on them, cut it into three and baked it until crisp, then spread batusson mixed with fried poivrons on one, put the second on top and put mozzarella slices all over that, then put the third on and sprinkled that liberally with parmesan before putting it back in the oven again for ten minutes. Simple and easy, and quite delicious too. At least, that was the general consensus.)

Today, contrary to all the laws of nature, it turned out beautifully fine and sunny, despite the dire warnings of the weather office. I really do not know why I bother listening to them anymore. Everybody's out and about enjoying the warmth, and Stéphane has got all enthusiastic and dragged the rotary hoe out of hibernation.

Saturday I'd planned on a quick run in and out of Chambéry, but around 8am I got a timid SMS from Sophie saying that she was too knackered to go help a friend shift flats, and was I still tempted by an after-market apéro? Silly question, so I dressed up in waistcoat, bow tie and frock coat so as to frighten the little old ladies at the market and wound up making eggs Benedict for lunch, which we washed down with a decent bottle of white. (Eggs Benedict are good. Poached eggs on toasted muffins and crispy bacon, the lot topped off with sauce Béarnaise. The hardest part is poaching the eggs, given that no-one seems to have an egg-poacher these days. Whatever, really delicious brunch with a good salad and some goat's cheese and granary bread to follow.) Unfortunately, her two share the same attitude to food as Jeremy - someone obviously put it there to be eaten, and it would be ungrateful not to do so - and so instead of chocolat noir aux baies roses with our coffee we had to make do with a couple of biscuits. Bloody kids. Anyway, we wound up chatting away as usual - well, maybe a bit more than usual, it's coming up for two years since she and Renaud split, and she's feeling a bit down - until it was time for her to play taxi, and for me to head home and do manly things.

Which turned out to be a little less pleasant, as I finally got around to cleaning the chimney. Took the pipes down from the stove and cleaned them out, and then I had the bad idea of actually looking up the chimney to see how filthy that was. Now the thing about this place is that the wood-burner is on the ground floor, and when the original building got swallowed by the "new" part back in the '40s they put in a lovely marble fireplace on the first floor, with a proper brick chimney about 80cm wide and 40cm deep going up. And rather than put themselves to any bother, they just pierced a 15cm diameter hole in the kitchen ceiling and stuck a pipe through it from the grate of the fireplace, and hooked the wood-burner up to that. Which means that properly cleaning the chimney entails taking down the pipes and cleaning those, and then going up to the first floor and trying to get the crap out of the chimney proper. Not all that easy a job, as most chimney-brushes are not made for that size of chimney - at least not these days. I suppose we could have sent Jeremy climbing up the inside - that'd have brought most of the crap down - but I think it's illegal nowadays. 

So I found myself on hands and knees in front of the grate, poking this silly little brush up into the vasty spaces above and trying to shake it around so as to get it into the corners and things. Because, let's face it, there was an awful lot of gunk up in there. Filled a 50l rubbish bag with the stuff, and that's not counting what came down in the kitchen. And of course, as I'd started off with the firm intention of just doing the pipes I hadn't bothered to put gloves on; by the time I'd finished not only was I black with soot, bits of crispy burnt tar, and stuff that looked for all the world as though someone had stuffed the chimney full of old newspapers  and pigeon feathers and set fire to them, but my arms were raw from scraping up against the filthy bricks of the chimney. Some things you really shouldn't start.

 Anyway, as you can see the flowers are out:  forsythia (I'm told), daffodils and the well-known cognassier de Japon (aka the Japanese quince, I think) and what with the blue sky, bright sun and temperatures hovering up there near the 20s for once it actually felt as though Spring wasn't too far away. I certainly hope not - we could do with it. I'm bored witless with winter.

Sad to say, but out of all the responses to last time's quiz no-one actually came out and defended any of the places on my list. (Apart from Gisborne, which did get noted as having good wine.) Still, at least no-one got me started on Taihape, which is probably for the best. Although Brian did have some rather unkind words for Invercargill, but I prefer to lump that in with the rest of everything south of Cook Strait, and forget about it.

Oh, I almost forgot - the Beeb has started the latest series of Doctor Who! This may not excite you, but it does us - just goes to show how sad our lives are, I suppose. First episode looked good, and they're promising Daleks and Cybermen and just about everybody! Goody!