Sunday, August 29, 2010

One last little wafer, Sir ... ?

Not, perhaps, the prettiest feet on the block, but they're mine, I'm kind of attached to them and they're right where I want them: at the other end of the hammock from my nose. Of course, in a few months you'll be laughing like mad things as you barbecue on the beach and we shiver in the swirling snow: until then my feet are - metaphorically and surreptitiously - giving you the finger. Raising a digit, anyway. Whatever. Don't take it personally.

They are, however, completely functional as far as pedal extremities go, and just to prove it they took me on a little walk around Barberaz, one of the old suburbs of Chambéry (in fact, a town in its own right, really). There are lots of unexpected mansions lurking away in walled parks, odd little streets that are more staircases than anything else, and greenery everywhere. It's a pleasant stroll under the sun, especially if you've no place in particular in mind and just want an amble.

I'm pretty sure I mentioned that Margo, Malyon and Jeremy are off up at Pesselière at the moment, rusticating amongst the wheat fields and the sunflowers, and apparently gathering blackberries and plums. With luck I'll get to see some of the blackberries at least when they come back Thursday, but I'm not really too optimistic. So I'm rattling around the house like a pea in a rather large pod - or would be if it weren't for the fact that the dog is trying to keep me company.

Her idea of doing that is to come up at some inconvenient time - like when you're trying to have your first coffee of the morning and pretending that the world doesn't exist, or it's Saturday, or something - and try thrusting her damp black liver-shaped nose into crotch, armpit and then down the back of your neck. Accompanied by whuffly sound effects, this is not really my amongst my favourite ways to start the day.

Mind you, that particular list is pretty short, containing as it does only one entry. Which I've polished over the years, but it's no secret to say that it involves lying half-asleep in bed for at least half an hour before even contemplating getting out of it, followed by a leisurely breakfast of fruit, coffee, fruit juice, diverse patisseries, then a shower ... after all that it should be around lunch time.

Speaking of which ... Saturday again. Found some figs at the market, which is good if you happen to like figs. I can live with them.

Also, exceptionally, I made lunch for the monsters. Hamburgers, and if I may say so rather good ones at that. I would have taken a photo (yeah, they were that good) but in the 30 seconds between my setting them on the table and returning with the camera they'd disappeared, or at least were unrecognisable. Bloody adolescents, you'd think they could have the decency to wait just a minute ...

Around that time Lucas called out that there was an enormous fat pigeon in the garden, so all we adults eventually put down our glasses and came out to mock this overweight avian. My first guess was a partridge, but I know that they're only found in pear trees and Sophie has none of those: as it happens there was not one but four enormously fat hen pheasants going for a little walk through the bottom of her garden. Not something you see every day.

Whatever, I was not suitably equipped (not everyone wanders around with a rifle to hand, you know) so it was back to Plan B, or coquilles St-Jacques. Again. I swear, I shall have to get more imaginative.  Mind you, just gratinée like that, under the grill, bathed in white wine and cream - I could probably get people to pay for that. Could I patent it? ("A method and system for making people stuff their faces with shellfish and the generative organs thereof" - probably no sillier than some of the things that have in fact been granted.)

Tomorrow we're headed off up the valley to show Malyon off to Jacques, who has promised - in return - to make lunch. Judging from the last phone call this will probably involve amanite de césar, which is apparently a close relation of our old friend amanite phalloïde, but non-toxic. Or so we hope. He's been hunting the things for years now and is still alive, so I'm willing to assume that he knows what he's doing.

On the other hand, he does seem to have had a run of bad luck lately. Every time I've rung he's had some small accident or something, and I'm obliged to snicker quietly as his tale of woe unfolds. First time it was just some minor operation on his thumb to get the tendons running smoothly over the pulleys (or whatever) and that put him out of commission for a while, then got his little finger split open whilst putting up an awning, then he fell off a stool doing the vacuuming (yes, I know, the same question went through my mind too) and flattened his nose on the floor, then it was an infection in a tooth that the dentist didn't pick up that put him onto horse-doctor's doses of antibiotics, and when I rang to see about bringing Malyon over he dolefully announced that he was going in that very afternoon to get the root of the offending tooth removed. Still, I suppose there's not much else that can happen to him now, so he's good for another couple of years.

Back after that, and quite honestly I do not think I can eat another thing - not today, anyway, and quite possibly not tomorrow either. He'd gone all out, so we started off innocuously enough with a little terrine de lapin: fait maison, evidently. Good rustic stuff, can't go wrong with that, cornichons, some decent bread and - for me at least - some salted butter. Green salad on the side would be nice, too.

Had we stopped there, all would probably have been well. But next up, just because he happened to have the mushrooms and anyway he likes to spoil Malyon rotten (also has problems believing that she actually gets any decent food in Glasgow) was the terrine corézienne aux cepes, which involves nothing more complicated than a well-seasoned farce made from minced breast and belly pork with a good slosh of cognac: a layer of that in the dish, a thick layer of sliced fresh cepes, another layer of farce, more mushrooms ... I'm sure you get the idea. That then goes into a hot oven for about half an hour, then you turn it down low, stick a slice of pork caul over the top and let it cook for another two hours.

The pièce de résistance was, however, his famous vol-au-vent savoyard. This is no relation to the classic vol-au-vent, which is a puff-pastry shell stuffed with meat or sea-food in sauce and garnished more or less elaborately, depending on whom you're trying to impress. (Financière, for instance, gets garnished with - amongst other things - truffles and poached cocks' crests. It's a rare beast, these days.)

This involves browning some veal and bacon chunks in the bacon fat, then adding some thick stock and some morilles and whatever other mushrooms you happen to have lying around before covering and letting it simmer away for a couple of hours. While that's going on you fry some croutons (slices of baguette are fine) in butter: they go in - along with some veal quenelles (which is a kind of sausage made from very finely minced veal and beaten egg-white which is then poached) - about half an hour before you plan on eating. (Bury the quenelles in amongst the other meat, and spread the croutons on top so that they just start to soak up a bit of sauce.) And five minutes before serving, stir in 20cl or so of heavy cream. A word of warning: this is not a light meal.

I had foolishly taken the last of a peach and cream tart I'd made the previous night to satisfy Malyon's longings: I say "foolishly" because of course Jacques had made a tarte aux myrtilles just to finish us off. He works on the basis of 500gm of wild blueberries per tart, which get stirred into what he calls an "appareil": it's an odd usage which I've not come across before, and it means a very thick sweet crème anglaise. That all gets poured into an uncooked pastry shell and the whole lot goes into the oven to be baked, and then left to cool before eating.

You can probably see why traditional French Sunday lunches are lengthy affairs. Sophie and I are nowt but dilettantes compared to that.

Anyway, I think I just might go have a nap. Goodnight, all.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Never trust a bloody hammock ...

I really do hate summer. Not only is it too short, but it fills me with evil alien ideas, like getting up really early in the morning and wandering around just to look at things all dewy and with that marvellous early-morning late-summery light on them. See? If I'm not careful I'll wax poetic, and then I'll have to take extra medication. To get rid of the surplus wax, if nowt else.

Yeah, whatever. What I really wanted to do was to warn you about the perils of hammocks. They seem friendly enough, comfortable and welcoming, then one day, like a wild dog, they turn around and bite you in the arse. Quite literally, in my case. All I'd done, I swear, was go down to the garden - part of the ritual check, make sure no-one's stolen it or anything - and flop down with relief in the hammock on realising that it hadn't in fact disappeared: so one of the ropes broke. (No, I am so not overweight, don't try to pull that one on me.)

Result: a 1-meter horizontal pratfall directly on the coccyx. I suppose I should be grateful that not too many people around here understand English, because I spent most of the next five minutes hobbling around shouting words that begin with F and B at the top of my voice, then I did it again, with feeling. Once I could actually feel anything again, that is.

Another thing I should say was that perhaps I over-exaggerated  the death of French cuisine. The cheese-eating surrender-monkeys  can still make a pretty decent foie gras de canard aux lobes entières, and a little vin liquoureux (2004, from the Gers, as was indeed the foie gras) to go with it. So things are still working, somewhere. (You might want to make your own pain aux figues to go with the foie gras, should your local baker, by some oversight, not be in a position to supply it. Slightly sweet, the combination is, as they say, "une tuerie" - lit. "a massacre", "to die for")

Yeah, you guessed it: another lunch with Sophie. I really am extremely lucky in that Margo doesn't mind (too much, at least so long as she's fore-warned) my disappearing for four hours on a Saturday for a lazy lunch and a chat with my best friend. Aforesaid afternoons usually involving vast quantities of wine, although always in moderation. Of course. Because otherwise it wouldn't be good for us. And anyway, once we'd finished the white (it was only a half, as you can see) we went on to rosé which is, as I've explained before, positively beneficial due to the vitamins and things.

The night before, just to spite Malyon (who'd disappeared down to Grenoble to spend quality time with the sole friend that hasn't yet headed off to one of the four corners of the globe) I'd made a peach and cream tart (I've told you about that before, so I won't go into the sordid details again) and as Jeremy, too, had gone off there was quite a bit left over. It went down rather well after the foie gras; you could do worse than to try it. I agree it looks rather like a quiche that's past its best-by date, but don't let appearances deceive you: it really is rather delicious.

Which, incidentally, brings me to the subject of cooking for disappearing sons. This is something that becomes pretty common as they reach adolescence, especially in summer. Now I would like to point out that, at least in the cooking department, I tend to be fairly well organised. I know who's going to be where during the week, so how much meat I need to buy, and in the morning I go down and get whatever I've planned for dinner out of the freezer. Then I head off to the office with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart (well, maybe not), happy in the knowledge that all is well. Until the phone call at 16:00, announcing that Jeremy will not be eating at home that night. (Well, let's be fair. It's a phone call asking me if it's alright by me if he spends the night at a friend's, or whatever ... you want me to say "no" and stunt his emotional development, maybe turn him into a serial killer or an accountant?) Whatever, I start wearily planning Meals With Leftovers ... of course, the other side of the coin is getting a phone call at 16:00 checking to see if it's alright if so-and-so stays the night, and of course (s)he'll need feeding: cue a quick bit of research on how to stretch 450gm of meat to feed four. Or, at a pinch, five.

Getting back to lunch, the little lake has an island in it (I'm not sure that's really the word, you could probably wade out to it if you took the right route) covered with grass, patches of rushes and a few big trees. Someone's thoughtfully hooked a rope with an old tyre hung from it on one (but I suspect that's reserved for orangoutangs) and the others seem to be there just for climbing up and jumping off. And, no doubt, incidentally raising the blood pressure of any parents who happen to be watching ...

Thursday evening was a long one, we didn't plan it that way but we sat down to dinner on the balcony and somehow, just didn't get around to getting up. Apart from going to fetch another bottle of wine, because talking dries your throat. Yeah, we spent four or five hours swapping stupid stories of our mis-spent youth and the odd bit of family history that's still percolating around in my neurons with Malyon. Not something we get to do very often these days, and it was rather fun. (Less so the next day, mind you. Good thing I had some Doliprane up at the office.) Must make a note to self to do it with Jeremy before he leaves home.

The other thing you'll find at Lac St-André is, of course, a little bar-restaurant. These are often over-priced and particularly mediocre: this one is, apparently, just over-priced. Which I suppose is better than the other option. I have to admit that when they're offering a bit of Angus beef at 25€ and a bottle of vin de Savoie at 20€ it does make me gag a bit. (And yes, I know that the wine's where they make their margin, but I could buy the bloody bottle for 5€. That's something that's always stuck in my craw.)

Whatever, they do have a nice terrace, lovely parasols, and the coffee at least is good and you don't have to take out another mortgage just to buy a cup, so that's what we wound up doing.

Of course, it was at that time that Jeremy chose to call to see if I couldn't pick him up from Montmelian on the way home, so after organising that and heading off I got another call to say not to bother, he was going to take the train ... sometimes I wonder. Anyway, I'm off to bed. Goodnight, all. Mind how you go.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Still summer over here ...

Yeah, well we just got a message from Jean saying that she's canceled her trip on doctor's orders, which is a bit of a bugger as we were actually quite looking forward to seeing her and Janet. Still, looking on the bright side, I suppose it gets me a couple more days to get some work done, and godnose I'm going to need it. Time is apparently compressible, but trying to fit three months worth into only three weeks might be pushing it a bit far. Margo at least will still be heading up to Pesselière as there's someone she wants to see not too far away, and if Caroline is there Jeremy wants to head up with Amelia - honorary cousins all three of them, or so they've (apparently) decided.

I'd like to apologise for the photos, by the way. They're not particularly fresh, but I was going through the archives and thought you might like to see some from Burgundy, in 2008. And even if you don't, whose blog is it anyway? I think they're nice.

As I mentioned, Margo's off in the Tarn and Jeremy, as usual (because I'd got meat for two out of the freezer) decided to head off and spend the night with a friend at Montmélian. So I'm on my own, and after a sad solitary meal of muffins topped with scrambled eggs, salad and a bit of foie gras, I headed down to the garden to become one with the hammock, and try to get excited about getting this bloody STN screen driver for WinCE done. Not easy, especially at 10pm on a Friday night flopped in a hammock with a glass of red close to hand.

But I do have to ask myself why the hell it is that teenage boys, before buggering off to see their friends/annoy the parents of their friends/slouch around showing their underwear, cannot think to stick their dishes in the dishwasher rather than piling them in ungainly heaps in the sink? Or why, on a day when thunderstorms seem likely, they leave all the skylights wide open? I'm sure there's a reason, but it escapes me.

Possibly something to do with turning 16, which he just has (and also 1m85 in his socks, which is pretty impressive from down where I am), but I rather doubt it. I comfort myself with the thought that at some time or another, statistically, he has to turn into a human being. I mean, it happened to all of us, didn't it? (Well, I know it happened to me, and I'm willing to give most of you the benefit of the doubt.) So the odds must be pretty good that the same thing will happen to him. Please dear god say yes.

As is my wont, it being a Saturday, I was roaming around the aisles in Carrefour doing the indispensable supermarket shopping (2-litre bottles of milk, for example, and if I want pork I'm not going to be able to get it from M. Bourraoui the halal butcher, am I?) and as I whipped past the ladies lingerie department (always slow down for that) I could not but notice the little sign indicating that here was where you would find "néo-jeanerie". Not only is it one of the more disgusting neologisms I've come across in some time, I've absolutely no idea what it could possibly mean. It involves "new", and "jeans", but apart from that I'm no wiser. If they're trying to say that you can buy new jeans here, that seems pretty much a no-brainer because very few people I know go to a supermarket to buy old or second-hand jeans. Could they perhaps be beyond jeans? (Whatever that would make them.) Or perhaps the advertising people just stuck one joss-stick too many up the left nostril, accidentally dislodging brain.

At long last, all the rain-clouds that've been poncing around in the evenings without ever doing anything (and, incidentally, making sure I didn't get to see the Perseid display - again) have got their act together and it's pissing the proverbial. For the past six hours or so. Which has reminded me that I really must change the front tyres on the Alfa: all the anti-skid-thingy warning lights came on solid as I started aquaplaning barrelling out of the autoroute péage. (Hint: from 0 to 140 kph in 7 seconds in a 147 is quite feasible, but do it on a dry road. Or wear brown trousers. Your choice.)

And I knew it was a good idea to put Mr. Brain in neutral for a bit, as I finally managed to get that bloody screen driver working. Yes, it did involve counting 2MHz clock pulses on the oscilloscope and working out that there were exactly 3/8ths of how many there should have been, then looking through the code to find a multiplication by 3/8 ... tedious, and would have been totally unnecessary had the documentation been correct. Or at least, internally self-consistent. Surprising though it may seem, sometimes technical documentation has to been read with creative interpretation. That's one problem out of the way, at any rate.

Snoring peacefully at my desk now, having spent some time getting another bootable Linux USB key ready for use and then using it, booting up a client's PC and resetting the account that I'd accidentally managed to lock by taking more than three tries to log on. (Silly buggers for using Swiss keyboards: of course the keys are all in the wrong places.) They could have just given me the administrator password, but apparently that's verboten - whereas using the handy little chntpw utility is not. Go figure.

Anyway, I suppose I'd better get a bit more work done: doubt I'll do much tomorrow as I have to head of to Geneva to pick up Mal. Bye!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bocuse is a B'stard ...

Been a bit of an hiatus here, hasn't there? I could put it down to that general summery feeling, when the sun goes down behind the Bauges and there's still that lovely golden light over the Chartreuse (yeah, where reclusive monks make a particularly vile liqueur that, personally, reminds me of liquid soap) until 9pm ... and on top of it, the Wifi doesn't actually extend down to the garden - it's 100m, for heaven's sake - and so I can't do anything productive in the hammock. It's not for want of wishing, promise - it's just the way things are.

Alternatively, I could say that I'm in over my ears in work and quite frankly, after a couple of all-nighters, all I want to do when I get home is slump (elegantly, of course) in front of the TV and purge my brain with "Burn Notice". Or "True Blood". Or "Lie to Me", whatever. A bit of light entertainment that lets me put Mr. Brain in neutral, and stop wondering why the hell it is that Platform Builder CE6 R3 will no longer do a debug build, or incorporate my changes from the main platform tree.

But these are problems you probably don't have, and aren't you the lucky ones then? Anyway, I owe you a bit of deathless prose - not to mention some photos to get you salivating in yer southern hemisphere winter - so here goes. (That, by the way, is an unborn zucchini. In case you hadn't noticed.)

Our neighbour, Stéphane (who is happily married to the half-English  Emily) got it into his head for some strange reason that he wouldn't be happy until he'd cooked a whole ham. Which involves braising the sucker, then finishing it off in the oven. This does result in a helluva lot of cooked pig, rather too much meat for them and their three kids (one of which isn't actually at the meat-eating stage anyway) so they invited all the neighbours around to help out.

Which, with the help of a number of bottles of wine, we quite happily did.

It was all rather nice, especially as it combined three of my all-time favourite things: eating, drinking, and lying out in the sun.

Anyway, it was off to the market as usual yesterday, and as you can see the apricots are out, bless their little orange-speckled hearts. As indeed are the nectarines and the peaches, and the lovely bright yellow courgettes, and the tomatoes, and the poivrons ... not to mention the melons.

Which brings me, admittedly indirectly, to a topic dear to my heart, and about which I can get quite excited if you let me; namely, just how badly frog-persons eat as a rule, and how expensively. I don't know whether it's the stress of modern life or what, but the humble art of domestic cookery has pretty much disappeared in the average French household.

Watch someone shopping at Carrefour on a Saturday, and what goes into the trolley will be frozen or chilled pizza, a bag or two of frozen legumes poelés, some nicely packaged individual servings of grenadins de veau sauce forestière with a picture of a smiling Paul Bocuse on the box (he can afford to smile, can't he? Smug bastard.), more frozen stuff, maybe some canned ravioli (beurk!), and even the salads come ready-torn, under nitrogen in handy little plastic sachets.

Which I personally find rather depressing, because for half the money you could get the fresh ingredients and knock up something actually worth eating: OK, I admit that you'd miss out on getting Bocuse's signature, but I could live with that. And when I think that last night, having come across a 400gm packet of frozen scallops (with coral, yay!) at €5.50 at one of the discount supermarkets, it took me about 15 minutes to put together a salad and some coquilles St-Jacques, sauce à la crême et au vin blanc for the two of us (Jeremy being away at Amelia's birthday, just as well really as he cordially detests scallops), it really does make me wonder.

Mind you, I could be getting a bit too worked up. There are always lots of people at the market, and they have to do something with all those fresh vegetables and fruit. So the situation can't be totally desperate. But they do tend to be older people (myself excepted, of course) so I suppose I'll just have to hope that the cooking thing has just skipped a generation, and that in five or ten years people will be using their ovens again for something more creative than reheating frozen fish fillets in sauce.
In totally unrelated news, Margo's headed off today for a week to see a friend, work on a magazine article and go to a salon, so she went off to the supermarket to get a couple of bottles to take with her, as one does . She swears they were just lying peacefully next to one another on the back seat of her car, and that the two just kissed (as it were) when she took the roundabout: whether or not you believe that, the upshot was still an exploded bottle of rosé all over the back seat, which smelt like a brewery - not the best should you be stopped by the gendarmerie. So she spent the afternoon steam-cleaning and vacuuming the car, which had not been in her plans for the day.

Nor was it in mine, as it happens: after the market I picked up Sophie and we headed off to lac de St-André for a picnic. The lake's not all that much to write home about, but it is quite a pleasant spot with some nice shaded areas and a couple of major advantages: it's close by, and it's not crowded.

I have to admit that I'd feared the worst when we arrived, seeing all the cars and campervans lined up in the car park, but I needn't have worried: either they were autonomous robotic Terminator-style meat-sack killers, or the actual inhabitants had all caught typhoid or something, because the beach was, by French standards at least, empty.
Basically our closest neighbours, 50m away and happily downwind, were a trio of apparently neanderthal Dutch-persons trying to light a barbecue using only damp grass and duck poo. It can - apparently - be done, but it takes rather a long time, and in my opinion isn't really worth it. But I must say I admired their perseverance, and by the time we left they had managed to blacken five or six sausages, which just goes to show. (Just what it goes to show I'm not entirely sure - perhaps that some people actually like charred "meat" with a hint of anatidine excrement.)

I had no plans of proving my manly skills by incinerating meat, and had come prepared with a chilled bottle of rosé, some bread, a salad which just needed tossing, and a bit of saumon en croute (that's salmon fillets with sour cream and herbs in puff pastry, to you). And there's always a corkscrew and a blanket in the boot of the car, which, along with the picnic hamper we got years back as a present for subscribing to some magazine or another, pretty much takes care of everything.
So we lay out in the sun and ate and drank and talked, and for reasons which escape me the conversation turned to food, with Sophie reminiscing about the tarte à la crême that her grandmother made and which neither she nor her mother have been able to duplicate, and the traditional four-hour Sunday lunch (vegetables as a separate course, please note), and me about the good old Kiwi roast leg of lamb with potatoes, parsnips and godnose what else - all of which probably led me to my diatribe on the death of French cooking.

Whatever, that's summer so far for us. Jeremy turns 16 in a week (where did the time go?) and shortly after that I have to pick up Malyon from Geneva, and then it's off to Pesselière for a few days to see Jean. Then, all too soon, people start coming back from their holidays, school starts, and it's back to the daily grind with another ten months to get through until next summer. Such a depressing thought, I think I'll go lie down in the hammock until it passes.