Wednesday, June 30, 2010

French "Good Taste" exposed ...

Fancy this as wallpaper? Personally, I think I'd have had nightmares if I had to sleep with it when I was young, and these days I'd probably chuck up. But don't worry, I don't think anyone makes stuff like that anymore. The only reason that I got a look at it is that old Henri from across the road gave his house to  his daughter Nathalie and her husband Gerald (Tax Avoidance 101) and they are gutting the place to make it fit to live in. And a bloody good thing too, if you ask me.

The twenty-first of June today, the longest day of the year. Good old pagan summer solstice, wicker men and Britt Ekland prancing around starkers and all that. My theory is that it's because of the fact that it really is the longest day that it's so bloody cold and damp: you've got all that extra time to be miserable in. Supposed to clear up for the weekend though, which'd be rather nice because I really am looking forward to a barbecue.

Sunday we headed off to Frangy so that Margo and Karen could do a bit of work together: there's a big crafty expo in Milan in October, and Margo would like to be there. Provided it's not too expensive, of course. (By the time you add up the stand rental at some appalling number of euros per square metre, the minimum surface you can rent, the upfront payment just for having electricity, the joining fee and all the rest, you could easily be looking at 2000-3000€. And hotel bills and transport on top ...)

Anyway, took advantage of that to drop off the boat anchor for her to play with. I spent a bit of time the week before backing up all of Margo's stuff, nuking it from orbit and installing XP, getting all the service packs on and stuff like that, and I must admit I really was surprised at just how useful even an old Pentium can be, when it's unencumbered by years of cruft. Whatever, Karen's happy, it's hers, she doesn't have to share it, and it does what she wants. Which isn't too bad. On the other hand, when she has enough money to buy a real computer, I am not going to see the old Compaq coming back here. I don't care how tender-hearted she is, she can still take it to the tip.

Later ... well, for once the met office got it right and it has in fact fined up. Went outside a short while ago and found all the neighbourhood cats lined up on the road, each in their own little zone, with their mouths open staring at the sky; 'tis the season when baby birds learn to fly. Or not, in some cases, and around here you only get one chance.

Headed off to Geneva on Friday: I got a phone call out of the blue a week or so ago asking if I could give a quote for a display driver adaptation for Windows CE (or whatever Microsoft call it these days), which was fine, and then there was a loud thunk as a rather heftier request flopped into my inbox. This time, video, virtual keyboard, serial ports, SPI bus ... the funny thing is, I actually knew  - quite intimately - the product that was being replaced, as I was working on it when Gespac went titsup all those years ago. And the people on the other side of the conference table from me were ex-Gespac types.

So I went off and - despite ViaMichelin's best efforts - actually managed to find the place and meet up with Sandrine. So by the looks of it, that's about 20-25 days-worth of work over the summer, which is good. And the prospect of more to follow, which is even better. (I should perhaps explain that I must be one of the miniscule number of people that don't actually have a GPS - at least not one that works - so before I go anywhere I tend to get the driving directions on the Michelin website and print them out. Despite the fact that I have to put my glasses on to read them and then take them off again to carry on driving ... and despite the fact that they're sometimes not as clear as they could be. In fact I had to wing it as it turned out: much of Geneva and the surrounding built-up area is in fact countryside, so one minute you're driving along a four-lane road and then turning off onto a barely sealed track. Quite literally in this case: the chemin des Grossefouilles or somesuch, forbidden to non-agricultural vehicles and in any case it was blocked by roadworks at the far end. A pain. Never mind.)

Up at the crack of dawn on Saturday: not only did I have the usual shopping and going to the market to do, but I also had to head through to Aix to pick up Jeremy, whose stage has finished. Now he has all of three days college left before the summer holidays. Lucky bugger. Anyway, we managed to squeeze his gear into the car and headed back to Sophie's for a barbecue lunch. Fortunately I'd picked up a big chunk of beef basse-côte (which, as usual, I marinated in whisky and Encona) as well as the huge slice of rouelle de jambon, as the three adolescents seemed to have not eaten a thing for the past few days. So famished were they that they even ate some salad, which is pretty rare.

By the time we'd wrapped all that up it was getting pretty hot, so I headed home and checked that the hammock was still fit for purpose until it had cooled down sufficiently for me to contemplate mowing the paddock.

Whatever, right now Margo's disappeared to her thing at Morzine and although Jeremy's come home I've only seen him for the short time it took to eat dinner: catching up after computer-deprivation. There was a lovely miles-high thunderhead with lightning playing inside it quite spectacularly just a short while ago, as I caught up with the rosé on the terrace, but that's buggered off as well and so quite honestly I think I'll head off to bed. A bit before midnight, for once.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Memoirs of an Unhealthy Couch Potato ...

I may have been unfair: Jeremy did in fact turn up (well, asked to be picked up) last weekend. I'm not entirely certain exactly why: I had to drive through to Aix at 9:30 on the Friday night to collect him (ruining a good evening's drinking), left him in front of the TV watching the last few episodes of Doctor Who, and then he left Saturday mid-day. I suppose it's flattering in a way, but the point of coming home for an evening just to sleep at us kind of escapes me.

Well, I hope you're ready for this. Yes, I did indeed get off my still relatively trim arse (all that healthy living, don't you know - steady diet of red wine and all that) and go jogging: some of my thigh muscles (the ones that normally do nothing more assertive than wobble a bit as I sit down) are still protesting, silently but strongly. Margo had headed off to a salon in the Auvergne, Jeremy had gone back to the hotel in Aix, and Sophie was packing her bags for a class trip up to St. François Longchamps, which left me with a Sunday afternoon completely free.

I tried lying out in the hammock with a glass of wine, which was fine, but you can't keep it up all day - have to get up from time to time to get another bottle - I tried procrastinating on a project I need to deliver Real Soon Now, which made me feel better, but I can't do that all day either - and finally I decided that if I'm really going to do this jogging thing it might be a good idea to start.

So I climbed into my oldest and possibly most disgusting shorts (the ones that consist mostly of holes held together with duct tape, used when mowing the paddock), forced my feet into the old running shoes that accompanied me to Cameroon all those years ago, and drove down to the Isère. Where I reluctantly parked the car, found a nice shady track, and boldly headed off. I think I managed about twenty minutes (which probably translates to about 500m) before body spoke sternly to brain.

Still, it could have been worse, and I'd like to remind you that it's been 25 years or so since I last did something like that. And whilst I do go walking in the mountains and suchlike quite regularly, you're not using the same muscles. I should have recovered enough to have another bash next weekend: in company this time, with any luck. Because jogging on your own is bloody boring, unless you're an anal-compulsive who likes to count your pulse rate. Also, having a camera slung over your shoulder (in case you spot something interesting) is not necessarily a good idea, unless you like have your liver prodded heavily.

At least it was good weather for it - a bit overcast, not too hot or heavy - which is probably why I wasn't actually sweating like a pig (do pigs in fact sweat? Strange image, when you think about it) when I slipped gratefully back behind the wheel of the Alfa to head home.

Which is more than I can say for today. It's been gray, miserable and damp all week. Bye-bye, summer. See you next year. I hope.

The vinegar over there on the right is just to remind me of lunch. Not that I used it as such, 'cos it's not ripe yet - the little piments have only been soaking in it for a couple of weeks, need at least a month - but it involves vinegar. Apparently it was rather à la mode in Parisian bistrots a while back (about twenty years ago, to be honest) but that's not really a reason to dismiss it out of hand, and it found favour with our totally impartial tasting panel of two adolescents. (Well, out of four large chicken legs - that's four thighs, four drumsticks - there was exactly none left at lunch's end. And the frying pan was wiped clean. Sounds pretty much like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to me.)

Anyway, all you have to do is brown your chicken pieces (either cut up a whole chook if you feel like it, or, like me, just get some legs and cut them in two) for ten or fifteen minutes, then chuck out most of the butter and olive oil and rendered chicken fat in which they've been swimming and sweat some shallots and lots of sliced garlic. Then take that out of the pan, put the chicken back in and spoon the shallots and stuff over the top.

Incidentally, this is best done in a stainless-steel frying pan or an enamelled cocotte. Do not use a cast-iron pan or you'll regret it, and you just can't get the burnt-on crispy bits in a non-stick pan. Sad but true. Whatever, turn the heat up full, wait for a minute or so, then pour over a good 3/4 cup of decent red wine vinegar which will, if the pan is hot enough, start to sizzle and boil straight away. Let that reduce by half, then add the same quantity of tomato coulis and when that comes to the boil, turn the heat down low. Then cover the pan and leave it to fester by itself for half an hour or so, during which time you can start drinking. Or making a salad. Or both. (This is called multi-tasking, and apparently women have been doing it for years. To little apparent effect, I might add.)

You might want to stir it from time to time and maybe add a bit of water if it looks like it's sticking a bit, but otherwise you've nowt to do but sprinkle a bit of parsley on top and serve it (about the same time as you finish the first bottle, which means it's time to open another).

Forgot to mention - being, as I was, on my own last Saturday, I invited myself around to Sue's for dinner. Which I did end up making, but that was my own fault. They have an enormous old building in the middle of Saint Pierre which is slowly getting titivated, and Serge has evidently been taking lessons from Gaudì. To good effect.

I was actually quite lucky, because she'd just come back from ten days walking on the Compostelle trail. (That's the pilgrimage trail of St Jacques de Compostelle, just to be clear.) Which is rather serious exercise, and puts my feeble efforts to shame. But not sufficiently so that I'm tempted to try it myself - for one thing, I'm damned if I know where I'd find ten consecutive free days. And apparently it rained, which is about par for the course. (Hands up if you really like walking with rain steadily dripping down the back of your neck. No? Thought not.)

Driven by some sort of masochistic auto-flagellative instinct, the French seem obsessed by the football matches that are apparently taking place. Not only do they feel driven to watch every humiliating match involving (even peripherally) the French team, but they seem to have this need to discuss every ghastly detail , blow by blow, the morning after. Sometimes I feel like a hopeless sex therapist in a Woody Allen movie, only with a worse love life.

Still, looking on the bright side, at the rate they're failing to win matches they'll soon be out and back here, and people will have to find something else to talk about. With luck it'll be a little more interesting - the President's haemorrhoids, perhaps. Whatever, I'm going to get dinner ready.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

So this is summer then ...

And I rather think I should be able to handle a wee bit more of it, thanks very much. Beautiful day today, spoilt only by the fact that I was up at the office, as all too often happens on a Friday, rather than lying in a hammock down in the garden like any right-minded person. Still, right now I'm out on the terrace having taken the dog for a trot, I've a glass of rosé to hand to help me admire the sun going down behind the Bauges and I'm contemplating fixing myself a Nepalese omelette for dinner before flopping down and watching  the first episode of the new season of "Burn Notice". So much to do, so little time ...

I installed Jeremy at the hotel in Aix last Sunday - just around the corner from the Casino, and a fairly posh place (as, let it be said, are most of the hotels there - "well-off" would be a mild term for most of the people who go there) it is too. Not that he'll see too much of that side of it, I think: for one thing he's supposed to be working 9 to 5 (which in practice, in a restaurant kitchen, means 9 to 9), and for another he's actually put up in one of the little studios they rent out weekly or monthly. Think shoebox, but smaller. You definitely wouldn't want to swing a cat in it, if you've any feelings at all for cats. But being a studio it does have its own little coin cuisine, which pleased him no end. In fact, it pleased him sufficiently, and such, I assume, is the busy social whirl in which he lives, that he's decided that he's not coming back home for the weekend - too many people to see. And we are not included in their number.

I hope you're sitting down or, if not, standing near something you can grab on to or which is not, at least, too uncomfortable to fall on, for I have to tell you that I'm going jogging again. After about a 25-year hiatus. Sophie mentioned the other day that it was far too long since she'd gone out on a run, and how did I feel about it? Like a fool I said something along the lines of "Why not?", so I'm now booked in for a half-hour jog before the apéro tomorrow lunch-time. Why do I do these things? And on top of it Karen's down from Mumblefuck tomorrow and Margo and I are supposed to be going round for drinkies in the evening: it's my turn to drive and I think my legs will be sufficiently wobbly from doing things I haven't called upon them to do for so many years so I personally won't be drinking that much. Which kind of obviates the point of the whole exercise, doesn't it?

You may have noticed that food (and, of course, drink, 'cos the two are indissociable) plays a large part in these scribblings. This is because food is probably the most important thing there is, even counting sex. I mean, even great sex is just that, great sex, but you're still hungry afterwards, and anyway great food is sublime. Come to that, when you're starving, so are crispy-fried earwigs - but I digress. And yes I know, you can combine the two, but I do not wish to get into that sort of discussion.

Anyway, one of Marie's staples when we're all together at Pesselière in summer is the tomato flan: pastry shell, sliced tomatoes and maybe some grated cheese on top, in the oven and there you have it. I came across a variant the other day in David Lebovitz's excellent blog (yes, there's a link over there on the right somewhere) which I thought looked rather more than appetising, so I thought I'd try it with Sophie. I was right to do so. It's basically the same thing, but first of all you spread some mustard out on the pastry base (I use whole-grain, what the Frogs call moutarde à l'ancienne, but whatever takes your fancy is fine) and let it dry for a bit before spreading out yer tomato slices over the top.

Unless you're using something like the big beefsteak tomatoes (which do look pretty but have sod-all taste, in my opinion) I would recommend squeezing out some of the juice and seeds, or it will be very watery. Anyway, having done that and sprinkled some fresh thyme and a good grinding of pepper over it all, it would be a good idea to put a few (many) slices of fresh goat's cheese on top and then - the stroke of genius - drizzling honey over the lot before baking in a really hot oven for about 20 minutes. Wait for next summer and give it a try - it's good hot or cold, good rustic barbecue/picnic fare.

And of course, when it's served with pan-fried trout, I'm personally very close to a state of bliss. Which is probably illegal in most parts of the USA, but I don't care.

Just in case you're wondering, we did not in fact go jogging after all. It was too damn hot at midday, and Sophie had been told by the quack that her blood pressure was a bit high and he wanted to do some tests and so what with one thing and another we decided to put the idea on hold and just have the usual rosé. Until next weekend or something, and then perhaps earlier in the day. Unless of course we drive off to Montmelian and commit the act on the shady paths along the banks of the Isère, but I must confess that that sounds a bit like cheating to me. Whatever, I've had a temporary reprieve, for which I'm grateful.

And I'm also quite glad that I did not confess to Sophie, as we chatted idly away over coffee (wine is not the only thing we drink, you know) about this, that, and the other, that I'd got a speeding ticket in the mail the previous day. My first ever in France, in 23 years (I'm not going to count the NZ ones, seem to pick one up every time we go over. Can't think why.) I just opened the envelope and looked rapidly at it, saw it was for the nationale, direction Aix-Grenoble, and glumly assumed it was when I was coming back from dropping Jerry off. Still, being done for 91 kph in a 90k zone seemed a bit stiff, and when I took a closer look this afternoon  I noticed that the vehicle cited was not an Alfa Romeo, but a Suzuki. So Margo can add another ticket to her list. (Mind you, I still feel that being done for just 1 km over the limit is unsporting.) But you can see why 'fessing up would have been a waste of time.

Not that there haven't been occasions when I really should have got a speeding ticket. There was the time when Jerry and I took the Alfa up to 220k on the autoroute, just to see what it was like (yes I know, but it was a fine sunny day and the road was, except for us, totally empty), and the time coming back from Pesselière when I actually got flashed doing 120 in a 90k zone (road works, don't you know?) but never in fact got a ticket ... life can be so unjust sometimes.

And yes, we did make it off to see Karen. Margo had spent all day up in the Bauges for the AGM of Oxalis, the cooperative to which she belongs (yeah, I know, who in their right minds would name a co-op after a noxious weed?) and came down around 18:00, and when I'd come home and unloaded the shopping (mostly wine, I must confess) we headed back into Chambéry and met up with Karen, Sylvie and Brian at le Refuge, Karen's favourite bar, behind the hôtel de ville. (I think it's her favourite because they serve nibbles with the wine, and they don't mind having loud English-speaking persons around. Possibly we bring in more custom than we frighten away.)

And after that the idea was to head off to a little African restaurant that's just opened up on one of the little streets around the market. Unfortunately, Saturday was le marché des continents in the jardin du Verney - have it every year - and as the whole point of that is to have little stalls selling food, drink and interesting articles from faraway places the little African restaurant was there instead.  A bit of a bugger, so we wandered vaguely elsewhere and wound up having Chinese instead. Been a long time since I actually went out to a restaurant other than for work, and I have to admit it was quite pleasant. Didn't hurt that the owners knew Sylvie really well and treated us like family, nor that the food was in fact rather good.

Anyway, the Merkins have started airing some good TV series again ("True Blood" should start up again!), so I'm off to vegetate in front of "Lie To Me" and maybe "The Good Guys". Which are both trivial, but fun, which is what I look for in TV. Don't want my brain extended, want it tranquilised. Goodnight, all.